Ballooning bickery

Family Values (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

January 28 – February 25

Forget never working with children or animals, as the old show business adage goes; the unpredictability of balloons, can be potentially equally treacherous, we realise as Peter Kowitz’s Roger prepares for a forthcoming party. In David Williamson’s 2020 play “Family Values”, the retired judge is turning 70 and all he wants for his birthday is some no-fuss quality family time. As his now-adult children arrive to share in celebration at the spacious privileged Ascot home (set design by Renee Mulder) of Roger and wife Sue (Andrea Moor), sometimes with guests of their own, it is pretty quickly clear that things are not going to go smoothly.

Lisa (a passionate Helen Cassidy) is the first to cyclone in with a mission to save detention centre escapee Saba (Sepi Burgiani) who is now a fugitive from Border Protection following her medevac from Nauru, demanding the keys to the family holiday house to allow her go into hiding. The unknowing divorced Michael (deliciously portrayed by Leon Cain), meanwhile, is preaching of the born-again virtues of following God’s Hillsong plan. And youngest daughter Emily (Amy Ingram) has found new love with Noeline (Jodie Le Vesconte), a Border Force boat commander, on which Emily herself serves. Cleary, this is a family of distinct characters and points of views aka all the ingredients for a classic Williamson work where the dramatic tension is driven by oppositional world views.  

It begins with bickering as Roger’s children fall back into the mocking dynamics from their youth, however, as festering family grievances are aired things escalate. And then there is question of what to do about the Saba situation, with the stakes obviously heightened by the differing ideological positions of the siblings. The play’s ensemble of characters is accurately portrayed in each instance, albeit more in detail than depth. Of particular note, Jodie Le Vesconte leans into the role of overbearing, controlling Noeline, while still allowing us to see some soft moments beyond her bluntness. And while, in her Queensland Theatre debut Sepi Burgiani gives us comparatively much quieter moments, her impassionate delivery ensures that Saba’s moving words are accepted with compassion by the audience.

In the capable hands of Kowitz and Moor, there is an immediate rhythm to the husband and wife banter between the conservative Roger and more progressive Sue before arrival of the others. The is an easy repartee between the children also as long-held resentments over Lego and alike sit alongside bigger philosophical issues, with each character’s perception ringing true to their respective realities. As conversations become more heated, they authentically overlap each other and jigsaw together with impressive precision, and the reactions of other characters are such that there is always somewhere to look.

Renee Mulder’s costume design tells us much about the diverse characters and parts they play in the social dynamic, also working well with the words of Australia’s most commercially successful playwright (of more than 50 works) to bring the play’s exploration of divisive social issues to life. Similarly, Benjamin Brockman (lighting) and Tony Brumpton’s (sound) design, creates a naturalistic canvas upon which Williamson’s trademark examination of what causes conflict can be built.

Thematically, “Family Values” covers a lot (so not all in great depth) in its inclusion of plot lines around asylum seekers (inspired by the family of Tamil asylum seekers from Biloela and research into the situation on Nauru), the growing influence of evangelism, the impact of the Murdoch press, Islamaphobia and same-sex marriage. And in subscription to Williamson’s belief that humans are anything but perfect, everyone is given equal voice and an opportunity to have us at least appreciate, if not understand their perspective. From within the seriousness of its themes and the essential angriness of the work, however, there are also lots of audience-pleasing one-liner type laughs as lens is put back on ourselves on journey to the somewhat fantastical conclusion.

“Family Values” is typical Williamson, easy to watch and enjoy in its domestic squabble shatter of society’s middle class veneer. Director Lee Lewis (who presented the work’s premiere as Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company in 2020) incisively takes its audience on a well-paced 90 minutes (without internal) to a satisfying conclusion, and while it might be akin to watching your worst family Christmas lunch play out in front of you, at least there’s an abundance of talent to keep things entertaining…. and, of course, the balloons.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Over and over 100 out

With Covid still causing disruptions, I was surprised to ultimately make it along to over 100 shows again this year. Here are my highlights from the 2022 Brisbane theatre year.

1. The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

The Queensland premiere production of Larry Kramer’s largely autobiographical “The Normal Heart” was absolutely absorbing and inspirational in its unflinching look at the horrific time in our history that was the start of the AIDS epidemic.

2. A Girls Guide to World War (Musical Theatre Australia)

Inspirational, also, was Musical Theatre Australia’s tell of the true story of some amazing women forgotten by our history. The February show, which was my favourite then for most of the year, was richly rewarding in both its entertainment and education about the courageous and compassionate real life humanitarian adventurers at the core of its story.

3. Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall)

My 2022 Brisbane Festival highlight, the grand Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall co-production was an exquisite world-class design-led theatre experience, as much a celebration of the craft of storytelling as a retell of one of the Western canon’s oldest narratives

4. The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s bright revival of Wesley Enoch and John Rodgers’ joyful musical was a historical work of a particular time, but also a story of love, hope, heartbreak and the shared humanity of these emotions, easy to watch and love.

5. 42nd Street (Queensland Conservatorium)

There was much to also love about Queensland Conservatorium’s massive musical production of “42nd Street” as its assured performances, quality orchestrations and show-stopping ensemble production numbers captured the spirit of the show’s era and also the grand musical genre.

6. Oliver! (Savoyards)

Savoyards excellent musical revival was full of highlights and everything needed to entertain its audience around the troublesome aspects of “Oliver!” to a resonance of resilience and hope.

7. The Last Five Years (La Boite Theatre Company) 

La Boite’s two-hander share (in two different directions) of the ill-fated five-year relationship of aspiring artists was certainly clever in its alternate musical narration, however, was also slick in its use of space and tight in its telling thanks to the moving performances of its charismatic performers and musical stylings of its varied, bitter-sweet score.

8. Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

The Disney spectacle that came to life on the Lyric Theatre stage was a celebration of imagination, and, thus, an unforgettable production that could easily be seen again and again, making for a “Mary Poppins” anew for the whole modern family.

9. Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner (La Boite Theatre, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Green Door Theatre)

Just before the floods came, there was this fierce and furious coproduction, sharp in its satire of cancel culture and appropriation in a viral world, but also wickedly humorous.

10. First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The hard-hitting storytelling of Queensland Theatre’s landmark blockbuster season closer was elevated by an epic soundscape and dynamic lighting to take us into a world not previously seen on stage…. the last days of Australian troop involvement in Afghanistan.

And of particular note….

Best Drama – The Normal Heart (Ad Astra)

Also the most moving and thought provoking production of 2022, Ad Astra’s “The Normal Heart” allowed us to bear witness to each stage of the play’s centrepiece romance as it played out in unfiltered vulnerability, raw anger, complex beauty and undeniable love, against the backdrop of a community living in fear of AIDS.

Best Comedy – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

The one act “Hidden in this Picture” (from the pen of Emmy Award-winning playwright Aaron Sorkin), which appeared as part of Villanova Players’ intermezzo series, was full of over and over again laugh-out-loud moments emerging from the increasing hyperbole in share of what was essentially a duologue inset with simple interjections.  

Best Cabaret – Women in Voice

The 2022 outing of this Brisbane institution was the best yet in its curated program of different musical styles from its empowered female performers.

Best Dramatic Performance – Vivien Whittle – Gaslight (Growl Theatre)

Whittle was simply wonderful as the vulnerable, tormented and humiliated Bella, whether bustling about in fleeting, naive belief that all is well or blubbering in flustered confusion after being raged at by her psychologically-torturous husband Jack.

Best Comic Performance – Troy Bullock – Hidden in this Picture (Villanova Players)

Meanwhile, Bella’s gaslighting husband Troy Bullock gave the funniest performance as a first-time director Robert, intent on obtaining an Oscar-winning shot in for his movie’s final scene, until three cows make appearance along with the hundreds of extras.

Best Musical Performance – Priyah Shah – Oliver! (Savoyards)

Shah’s show of strength but also vulnerability ensured that her Nancy was not just a kindly, but a complex character and her strong vocals left the “Oliver!” audience equally impressed in rollicking tavern sing-a-long and torch song numbers alike.

Best duo – Marcus Corowa and Irena Lysiuk – The Sunshine Club (Queensland Theatre)

The chemistry between Corowa and Lysiuk was not only evident in their protagonists’ duets, but warmed the audience into investment into the blossom of their childhood friendship in to more after his post-WW2 return to Brisbane.  

Honourable mention to Christopher Morphett-Wheatley and Darcy Rhodes – Into The Woods (Beenleigh Theatre Group)

Morphett-Wheatley and Rhodes were audience favourites as they dynamically pranced about in pantomime-esque play off each other’s bravado energy as two-dimensional princes attempting to one-up each other in argument.

Best EnsembleHeathers: The Musical (Millennial Productions) 

Millennial Productions’ debut musical was a highly professional independent production, in part due to its strong performances, with nobody holding back even in edgier scenes. There were no vocal weak links as each performer was given an opportunity to shine and there was a clear level of focus in all performances, resulting in no missed beats within the show’s tight rhythm. 

Best Independent Production – Boy, Lost (Belloo Creative)

The years-in-the-making tell of the true story of one family’s loss and redemption was also an ensemble production with its actors playing multiple characters (including themselves at moments), jumping in and out of different roles with simple prop or costume enhancements, yet, as an audience, we always knew what was happening as we moved through its tightly-woven emotional journey.

Most fun – All Fired Up (Box Jelly Theatre Company)

The show so nice, I ended up seeing it twice to contemplate if a trip to the ‘80’s and a chat with your 15-year-old self really can solve a mid-life crisis? With a live band perfectly capturing the nostalgic energy of the era it was all incredibly feel good, fun and funny.

Best Staging – Holding Achilles (Dead Puppet Society and Legs On The Wall) 

The mythical magic of “Holding Achilles” may have been multi-layered, but this was built upon a performance space reminiscent of classical Greek amphitheatres with staging exposed to the audience, in contrast to the modern technology used to sometimes literally soar the story along with aerial artistry.

Best Sound and Lighting Design – First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

The sound and lighting design elements of “First Casualty” were likely worth the price of admission alone. Paul Jackson’s lighting design transformed the space and its surfaces to tell the show’s many multifaceted narratives, while sound design by Brady Watkins and THE SWEATS added to the onstage action, whether dynamic or subtle in tone.

Best Choreography – Mary Poppins (Disney and Cameron Mackintosh)

Matthew Bourne’s and Stephen Mear’s “Mary Poppins” choreography (recreated for the Australian production by Richard Jones) filled the Lyric Theatre stage with a burst of moving bodies, brooms and brushes in spectacular, precise, fast-paced numbers like ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ and ‘Step in Time’.

Fuel for thought

Fuel (Shock Therapy Productions)

Queensland Theatre, Diane Cilento Studio

November 25 – December 3

Shock Therapy Productions’ newest work, the cleverly named “Fuel” explores some big themes in its consideration of the psychology of toxic relationships and coercive control, yet it manages to do so effectively in just a 50-minute running time, such is the craftedness of its writing by company founders Hayden Jones and Sam Foster.

The play begins with smart and kind 16-year-old Ivy (Sarah McLeod) telling us of her dreams of playing for the Firebirds and maybe even the Diamonds one day. Netball occupies a lot of her time, but she is still able to be always together with 18-year-old Seb (Zachary Boulton), her first real boyfriend of a couple months. As Seb arrives, it is clear that they are crazy about each other. However, what begins as bright young love before long deteriorates into obsession, control, need and destruction, as we witness their relationship unfold over a 12-month period.

There is nothing superfluous as things move quickly towards the first concerning tone change in Seb’s texts (projected onto screen for us to share in the full interaction). Nathan Sibthorpe’s AV design and videography play a key part in the show’s messaging, for as well as orienting us as to live action settings of the school canteen, Tuesday night hangouts in the Bunnings carpark, and alike, it also allows for news report footage that runs in parallel. In unfortunately all too recognisable scenes, even in parody, we see media coverage of the fall of rugby superstar Dallas Bronson (Sam Foster), sidelined due to alleged accusations of domestic violence against his alleged victim former spouse. As the reported national toll of deaths due to domestic violence climbs, we see the changes in Ivy in response to months of Seb’s pressure and paranoia, with Guy Webster’s dynamic sound design taking us into settings and transitioning us between live action and video scenes.

‘It’s easy to lose yourself in a new relationship,’ her friend Chase, warns Ivy, in clear foreshadowing of how things are to follow as, consumed by their relationship, Ivy loses touch with everything that was once important in her life. There are clichés too in Ivy’s words of reassurance to her d mother and likely also herself, but clichés are clichés because they are true and herein lies the potent power of the story’s messaging.

Its exploration of coercive control may be confronting to some, however, the show’s powerful messaging is tempered by some moments of humour too thanks to the efforts of its two actors who play over 20 characters as the story unfolds. Both McLeod and Boulton give rigorous performances. McLeod in particular credibly plays a 16-year-old so that we become fully invested in Ivy’s story, appreciating her confusion, self-doubt and despair and sitting with her in moments of trauma after what she has ‘made’ him do.

Boulton moves from his primary role as muscle car mad Seb to all kinds of secondary roles in support of the storytelling. Obvious physicalities work well with changed voice tones, inflections and even accents to help us follow who is who in Ivy’s world. Chasehas hands raised in hold of a not-there backpack and Ivy’s mother always hands on her hips when in concerned conversation with her about if Seb is indeed just a good guy trying to figure some things out, but even so transitions between roles become more awkward where there are multiple characters in conversation with each other within single scenes.

“FUEL” combines physical theatre, political satire and cinematic AV to create a powerful piece of contemporary theatre. It is a taut, at tines tense, work but it does what it needs to in sharing such an important reminder of the shocking statistics of domestic violence, all the forms that such abuse can take and the wide variety of groups who can be affected. The play, which has been touring for a year, is clearly written for young people in a way that doesn’t talk down to them or impose a moral message, but rather provokes conversation that continues beyond its final deserving applause and also, importantly offers hope. And for that, it should certainly be commended.

Photos c/o – Cinnamon Smith

Troop triumph

First Casualty (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

November 12 – December 10

The stakes are high from the outset of Queensland Theatre’s blockbuster season closer “First Casualty”. This is not just because of the play’s grounding in reality as the debut work from serving soldier and veteran of Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Johnston CSC, but also because of its initial action which sees Sapper “Thommo” Ken (Reagan Mannix) faced with disarming an improvised explosive device.

The majority of the play’s action takes place over a couple of days in 2011, at the remote Combat Outpost Mirage in Afghanistan’s Uruzgan province. The tiny fortification is manned by four Australian soldiers Captain Trent Kelly (Mitchell Bourke), Corporal Nick “Woodsy” Woods (Will Bartolo); battle-hardened tour veteran Sergeant Jack Hunter (Steven Rooke) and the jovial Thommo, who has recently joined the group following the airlift of their previous injured sapper to Germany. The mountainous station is base for the group as they mentor a platoon from the Afghan National Army (ANA) in preparation for transition as part of Australia’s eventual withdrawal from the region, prepare to open a local school, deal with Taliban insurgents, negotiate with powerful local warlord Malim Khan (Amer Thabet) and navigate the everyday issues that come with living so far away from home.

Clearly there is a lot going on in Johnston’s acclaimed work, which was written to help bridge the cultural divide between military and civilian life. A crafted script reveals character and titbits of backstories without becoming too bogged down in this when there are more serious thematic focuses upon which to concentrate. Even so, under Leigh Lewis triumphant direction there are some quite Shakespearen moments of high drama. Indeed, there is a real grittiness to the intensity of the story aside from the ‘strategic realities’ shared by Brigadier Michaela Cain (an assured Christen O’Leary) en route to Afghanistan from Dubai, accompanied by members of the press corps (Kevin Spink and Adam Kay). Though these scenes take us out of the at-its-core soldier action, the information they provide in outline of the conflict and juxtaposition between its government PR and on-the-ground realities are pivotal in supporting audience understanding, engagement and appreciation.

Dialogue rings true throughout, not just in militaristic terms but also in mate-to-mate touch on emotional truths, as well as the grubby humour and immature banter between the soldiers, which provides levity ahead of the show’s later sombre scenes. It also allows for powerful illustration of the lads’ ability to move from frivolity to focus in an instant as gunfire and explosions occur. The contrast between soldier and government perceptions around the legacy of what is being left behind cresendos in an early Act Two razzle dazzle fully fledged musical number satire of the pomp and ceremony of public servant politics, tap dancing and all, when the Brigadier arrives via helicopter (in a fantastic sequenced dress uniform) to affirm that all is well, in the hearts and minds back home at least.

All members of the large cast also bring authenticity to their performances, revealing the strength and also vulnerabilities of their characters. Because of this, we believe that Bourke’s likeable Captain Kelly believes in the reconstruction efforts and understand that Rooke’s Sergeant Hunter’s distrust of the Afghan allies comes from the much-deeper accumulation of his past experiences as a seasoned military man.

In his Queensland Theatre debut, Reza Momenzada has the difficult job of playing interpreter Ali, caught between two groups, but also two worlds. He makes the complex character endearing in his collation of an Aussie vernacular list and negotiation for ration pack items, but also brings us back to the essential tension of his between-worlds role through viscerally physical reactions to moments of challenge. The only thing that takes us out of the show’s otherwise absorbing moments is the recognisable voicing by Christy O’Leary of Trent’s emotionally isolated wife Lucy, who appears in phone conversations with him in anticipation of his upcoming return home.

As impressive as performances are, however, the real star of “First Casualty” is Renee Mulder’s unique and incredible design, which is perhaps the best that Queensland Theatre has seen. The strikingly minimalist set conveys a sense of danger and allows for an action-packed story, despite there appearing to be little room to move on and around the stage set of multi-level boxes, and credit must go to Movement and Fight Director Nigel Poulton for his guide of performers through the space with an authentic sense of danger.

Scenes shift fluidly as Johnston guides the audience through the different abstracted spaces of his story, which are represented as a landscape of fractured memories of his own experiences. A series of screens line the walls, allowing for share of background images, media reports, calls from home and translated text (the play features Dari and Pashto languages, including consultancy by Arwin Arwin and Reza Momenzada and Masood Ehsan), with Craig Wilkinson’s video design easily taking us into the mountains and also beautiful valleys of the Afghanistan setting, where village goats roam around the place.

An epic soundscape and dynamic lighting are also integral players in the resound of the storytelling, taking us into the layered heart of a pre-interval burning bombed marketplace, for example. Paul Jackson’s lighting design transforms the space and its surfaces to tell the show’s many multifaced narratives, taking us from the intensity of Act One’s fiery finish to a palette shaded in shadowy blue. Sound design by Brady Watkins and THE SWEATS adds to the onstage action, from the birdsongs and alike of the natural surrounds of a scene, to the escalating sounds of warfare and a focussed heartbeat to hold the tension of a climatic confrontation between Trent and Mlim Khan, and again, is maybe the best even seen heard in a Queensland Theatre show, dynamic and also subtle as required, but always an integral component of the show’s storytelling success.

There is a reality also to the costume design of military uniforms, actions and alike. Ahead of the official start of rehearsals, the core cast went out on a three-day bootcamp with Australian veterans (including the playwright, and Matt Cardinaels CSM as a contributing artist as Military Consultant), which included weapons and other skills training to prepare them to accurately portray ADF soldiers on the stage, which they do.  

“First Casualty” is landmark world premiere production, quite unlike anything typically seen on stage.  This hard-hitting tale, may be an imagined account informed by authentic experience, but its impact is very real as it urges its audience to consider humans more than headlines. Provocative even in its title’s allusion to the adage that the first casualty when war comes is truth, it is still respectful of soldiers whose stories are at its core. The show does not necessarily answer questions, but it also does not preach as to a stance, rather allowing audience members to come to their own conclusions.

There are no new themes to “First Casualty”, or subject matter even, but in Queensland Theatre’s hands, its consideration or war and the human spirit is handled in a way that is unique in the honesty at the heart of its attempt to humanises the people behind the politics of war and offer insight into the soldier’s voice and experience, beyond the so-often pitied popular view.  As its playwright Christopher Johnston has himself has noted …”Afghanistan has become so contentious, and our conduct there so controversial, so political. I thought it was important to put a human face on the conflict, to tell the story of our soldiers in their own language; to honour them and their families; to understand the impact of our longest war.” And for that, theatregoers can certainly be thankful.

Photos – c/o Brett Boardman

Moor makeover

Othello (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 10 – October 1

“Othello” has long been one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays given its question of beliefs around race and gender as part of its poignant commentary on the universality of the human condition. But with its challenges comes great potential, and it is a potential well and truly realised in Queensland Theatre’s outstanding production of the classic as part of the 2022 Brisbane Festival program. The company’s first production of the tragedy (which premiered in Cairns in 2021 after the COVID- cancellation of its intended 2020 Brisbane season) is an electric adaption that approaches the Shakespearean story from a uniquely-Queensland perspective, as Jimi Bani and Jason Klarwein inject some Australian and Torres Strait Islander culture in a powerful tri-lingual (Kala Lagaw Ya, Yumpla Tok and English) tapestry together of the two great storytelling traditions of Shakespeare and Wagadagam.

The complex work follows Othello (Jimi Bani), a Moorish army general who controversially marries Desdemona (Emily Burton), the white daughter of the Senator Brabantio (in this case a wealthy cane farmer played by Eugene Gilfedder) and how his mind is poisoned to the green-eye monster of jealousy over a fictitious affair between his wife and squadron leader Cassio (Benjin Maza), suggested by his manipulative and vengeful ensign Iago (Andrew Buchanan), who is angered by the fact that Othello has promoted Cassio before him. Rather than Renaissance Venice and Cyprus, this “Othello” is set between 1942 Cairns and the Torres Strait Islands in tribute to the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion and the 800 Torres Strait Islander men (including Jimi Bani’s great grandfather, the late Ephraim Bani Snr, and his grandfather, the late Solomon Gela) volunteered to protect the northern tip of Australia during World War II.

The assured storytelling that ensures from this pioneering approach makes the play accessible to all audience members, with Klarwein’s detailed direction positioning the audience to be immediately engaged in its narrative. The classic tale of jealousy, betrayal and revenge is an ultimately brutal story including blatant racism and scenes of domestic violence, yet Klarwein finds comedy in aspects of its telling, particularly in its early scenes as actor gestures and reactions not only bring Shakespeare’s words to life, but enrich them with emphasis of intended and incidental meanings. Iago’s use of mocking language when meeting his wife and Desdemona’s confidant Emelia (Sarah Ogden), not only tells us much their relationship from a gender politics perspective, but gives the audience some easy humour to which it can respond.

While some of the play’s beautiful, eloquent language is given over to levity, such as Othello’s declaration that he will not be destroyed by jealousy “for she had eyes and chose me”, there are still a number of lovely moments in this retelling, thanks to the play’s creatives. Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri’s costume design establishes Desdemona’s purity and innocence and Brady Watkin’s composition and sound design works with Richard Roberts’ set design to create some stunning imagery, such as when the sheer white curtains of the initially humble staging are moved aside to reveal a pool of water that becomes an integral part of scenes such as Othello’s physical response to Iago’s vivid descriptions of Desdemona’s alleged sexual infidelity. Ben Hughes’ lighting design, meanwhile, notably darkens things into the petty villain Iago’s soliloquy revelation of motiveless malignancy, drawing the audience into the character’s outline of his intention to be evened with the allegedly lusty Othello, ‘wife for wife’.  

Buchanan is brilliant as the Machiavellian Iago who drives the plot of the play. He not only regales in conveyance of the villain’s duplicitous nature, but he illustrates the intriguing character’s essential chameleon-ness as he adapts his manner and style of speaking to suit the differing circumstances of audience and purpose, using language to both manipulate others and disguise his true intentions while planting the seeds that grow into Othello’s paranoia. Whether bitterly brooding the emotionally-charged idea that Othello hath leaped into his seat bed and seduced Emilia abroad, alleging loyalty to Othello in assurance of his honesty and reluctance to implicate Desdemona and Cassio, or feigning friendship in counsel to Cassio to seek Desdemona’s help in getting reinstated after dismissal for fighting when drunk on duty, he is marvellous in show of Iago’s multi-faceted manipulations.

Bani, meanwhile, appropriately conveys Othello’s central humanity, which is essential to the play. The titular tragic hero is a meaty physical and emotional role and he fills it with both initial, purposeful authority and the passion of love’s hyperbolic extremes. He easily takes us on journey from powerful and respected Captain of the Torres Strait Light Infantry Battalion through the torment of ‘knowing’ (rather than not) of Desdemona’s disloyalty to dignified but vulnerable comprehension of what he has done. His ‘put out the light’ soliloquy rationalisation of trying to save other men from Desdemona’s supposed infidelity is delivered to an absolutely silent, captivated audience and his final plea to ‘speak of me as… one who loved not wisely but too well,’ is a commanding elevation of one of the play’s most poignant moments.

Buchanan and Bani are as supported by a strong cast of players. Burton is the best she’s ever been as Desdemona. Not only is she passionate in the character’s love for Othello, which assures but also unnerves her husband in water of the seeds of his suspicion, but she strikes the delicate balance required to make the character dutiful, but also of some strength. Ogden is also praiseworthy as her worldlier friend and confidante, Emilia. Together, the duo credibly portrays a genuine friendship with their conversation in Desdemona’s preparation for bed highlighting their shared qualities more than their differences. And Maza’s Cassio is an audience favourite thanks to his cheeky more than courtly demeanour, especially in drunken assurance that he can stand and speak well enough.

Masterful handling of the story’s tragic twists and turns make experience of this “Othello” seem like less that its 2 hours 40-minute running time (including interval). Its weave together of Kala Lagaw Ya (one of the language of the Torres Strait), Youmpla Tok (Torres Strait Creole) and Shakespearean English is seamless. Meaning is never lost in transitions as each language is used to distinct effect, for example when flirty exchanges occur between Cassio and Bianca (Tia-Shonte Southwood) to both add some tonal levity and setup the scenario of Desdemona’s symbolic love token appearing in Cassio’s hands as the ocular proof evidence (in this case a gift from elders to Othello’s mother) of her supposed betrayal.

While its still-startling conclusion has been changed slightly, this “Othello” shows how many of the story’s themes around gender, difference, jealousy, ambition and love are still relevant today. And the reactions of those audience members new to the story serve as testament to the power of its retelling. It may have taken 52 years for the tale of Shakespeare’s Moor to make its way to the Queensland Theatre stage, but with a resounding opening night standing ovation through four curtain calls, it is clear that it has definitely been worth the wait.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman

Sometimes sensitivity

The Almighty Sometimes (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

13 August — 3 September

18-year-old Anna (Melissa Kahraman) has been on medication for so long she can’t remember who she is without it. Whereas once, as a little girl, she was a prodigious writing talent, able to fill hundreds of notebooks with imaginative stories, now, her creativity appears lost to years of pills and prescriptions, provoking her to ponder if her talent was because of the medication or in spite of it. If she wanted to, she could just not take the pills anymore… and discover who she really is.

Anna’s consideration of this, along with the possibilities of having a boyfriend, going to university and alike, are at odds with her mother Renée’s (Rachel Gordon) determination to continue to keep her safe according to her definition. This is what makes Australian playwright Kendall Feaver’s multi-award-winning “The Almighty Sometimes” a family drama… but also much more.

Its appeal also comes from the everydayness within its complex issues of mental illness and consent. It begins with the mundane late-night post-party eats of Anna and Oliver (Wil Bartolo), who has just walked her home. Immediately, their humour engages the audience, without us even realising what characterises its back and forth. Anna is confident and funny against Oliver’s awkward interaction. On ‘the pills’ for seven years now, she has been stable for a long time so is, she thinks, now able to cope with change and deal with stress. But it is also time for her to transition to an adult psychiatrist, so there is a lot going on.

The unfolding story, however, is about identity more than mental illness though as Anna’s diagnosis is never specified. While initially the deliberately elusive mentions of ‘the illness’ and ‘disorder’ are frustrating, before long the need for labels no longer matter as we are enticed into Anna’s story through Feaver’s beautiful writing and the performers’ impeccable interpretations.

The domestic drama is made all the more compelling through the evenly matched performances of Kahraman and Gordon as its mother and daughter protagonists. In her Queensland Theatre debut, Kahraman gives an epic, roller-coaster performance of Anna, authentically transitioning between determination to be independent in desire for agency over her own mind, body and life, and vulnerability at not wanting to be alone in her journey. It’s a powerful commitment of mind, body and soul to present Anna is all of her intelligent, quick-witted wonder and a physical performance, from the full-body dry-heave-of-horror teenage response to a parent’s attempt to instigate awkward conversations, to the emerging extreme behaviour brought about by her disturbing mood swings, confrontingly exposed in a dinner scene in which she makes horrible, hurtful attacks on those closest to her.

As Anna’s long-suffering mother, Gordon, similarly, has a number of big moments in the story, which allow for her to share the raw emotions at the core of Renee’s experience, whether they be of anger, sadness, frustration or fatigue in response to no longer being consulted in conversations about her now-adult daughter’s care. Indeed, she crafts a performance that is heartfelt in its presentation of a mother trying to find balance between desire to care and control.

Bartolo is also impressive in his support. While Oliver’s awkwardness gives us much of Act One’s comic relief, Bartolo layers this with an essential vulnerability, such as when he tries to explain why he doesn’t want Anna coming to his place, giving us a different representation of someone who has been taking care of someone else for their entire life. And his scenes with Gordon, as Renee, are some of the show’s standouts, whether they come by way of an awkward middle-of-the-night kitchen encounter and enquiry as to how things are going with Anna, to, after things worsen, talking about how things have changed.

While Oliver thinks Anna is pretty great… until she isn’t, her composed psychiatrist Vivienne (Luisa Prosser) is prepared to call her out where necessary, knowing her history and little details of her life. And Prosser’s stoicism serves as a valuable contrast to the havoc happening around Anna’s relationships.

After a turbulent trip into interval as Anna’s heat and anger energise into turmoil, Act Two takes us towards an ultimately poignant and emotional conclusion. While a couple of later scenes labour their point a little long, overall the show’s 2 hour 25 minute duration (including interval) flies by in audience engagement.

Simone Romaniuk’s design is appropriately simple to give the cast’s compelling performances a palette against which to shine. Ben Hughes’ lighting design is also aptly full of extremes. Music (including fleeting Fleetwood Mac strains) punctuates revelations to transition us between scenes and emotes events. From the euphoria of Anna and Oliver’s early days together (because when Anna is happy, everything is joyful) to the soundscape of hauntingly oppressive ticking clock sounds that accompany the heaviness of Anna’s despair, Mike Willmett’s composition and sound design, breathes life into every aspect of the story. And, after the lightness and brightness of the first act, even costuming drains the colour from Anna’s life as she retreats more into herself and her re-emerging illness.

Feaver’s debut work is a provocative play, complex but assured, and cleverly crafted in its transitions, through extracts from Anna’s distressing creative writing, and with metaphor of falling interweaved throughout. And Daniel Evans’ direction is appropriately sensitive, so as to have audience members continually shifting in their sympathies.

“The Almighty Sometimes” will break your heart and then warm it back together in the most rewarding of ways, and certainly should not be missed. This compassionate, empathetic telling of what is essentially a family drama about unconditional love in the most difficult of circumstances is powerfully gripping, in its title too, once its relevance is revealed. With such heavy themes, there is of course a darkness within its telling, but also a lot of joy and lightness, such are its ongoing surprises.

Photos c/o – Brett Boardman