Elephant absurdity

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The Turquoise Elephant (Queensland Theatre)

June 23

Queensland Theatre’s Play Club continues to find ways to connect with its audiences through the emerging form of online presentations, for the foreseeable future, of great Australian plays. Most recent of these intimate renditions to inspire collective imaginations is the live play reading of “The Turquoise Elephant” by Stephen Carleton over Zoom webinar.

The work’s description of a “shockingly black, black, black political farce” that is “urgent, contemporary and perilously close to being real” is on-point. The colourful story is set in an Australia of the near future, but it could be any first world country such is the universality of it now-more-than-ever important themes. Melbourne has flooded, temperatures are regularly around 50 degrees, more animals are extinct, the last ever snow is melting. The typhooned world is at a tipping point, meaning that environment resettlement refugees and natural disaster tourists have become the norm.

The world into which we are dropped, however, is that of a wealthy Sydney socialite and Macquarie family matriarch Augusta (Andrea Moor) who heads up a conservative movement which denies the human impact of climate change, but who has a climate change refugee, Visi (Nicole Hopkins) as her new maid. While Melbourne is being evacuated and citizens of other cities are in mass panic, Augusta’s place is a formidable fortress of sanctuary that the billionairess shares with her niece Basra (Violette Ayad, in a Queensland Theatre debut), a wannabe aspirational blogger advocate for sustainable change. Enter Augusta’s sister, Aunt Olympia (Barb Lowing)…. and what an entrance it is, despite its occurrence off screen.

While The Cultural Front for the Environment is protesting government action, with undercover operatives ready to resort to attempted murder, there is a proposal to move the country inland and to higher ground. The sisters’ interests are piqued when charming American corporate-type Jeff Cleveland (Thomas Larkin) smooths in with memorable display of mutual affection with Olympia, before offering a ticket out through his Brave New World ‘New Eden’ plan to rebuild humanity from the ground up. Given how disease is wiping out some cities, the timing is particular urgent and so a philosophical conflict ensues. The battle back and forth between Augusta and Basra over climate change is one of self-proclaimed pragmatist vs idealistic moralist and it soon becomes clear that not only is natural selection is to be determined by wealth, but the end of days represents to barrier to making money.

Flamboyant Olympia is a gloriously hedonistic character of operatic excess, enthusiastic for the apocalypse, as long as she can be a voyeur to the world’s environmental collapse. And, uninhibited by the play reading format, Lowing vividly inhabits her flibbertigibbety in every gesture, movement, facial expression and reaction. The sisters are both outrageous characters, obviously fun to play and seeing Moor and Lowing together for the first time ‘on stage’ is certainly worth the wait. One sister doesn’t hear unwanted things, while the other doesn’t see them. Together they are a real treat, bringing to life the playwright’s clever, perfectly-pitched dialogue. There is clear wit to its detail, replicated, in this instance, in costumes and simple props that add immeasurably to the unique, pseudo-stage experience.

Across 11 fast-paced scenes, the changes of which are signalled by Brian Lucas as a masked figure, the story is an absurdist sprint in a “Rhinoceros” sort of way. The elephant of its title ‘appears’ early but resonates throughout as a metaphor of what is happening in the dying world’s room right now. In fact, the titular elephant, is the most vital character, requiring only audience imagination and personal directorial choice in its realisation.

“You’re all crazy!” Visi screams at point and indeed this is true, but what would be the fun otherwise? And Daniel Evans’s direction both maintains the required momentum and balances the ridiculous absurdity and intelligent sublimity of the work’s wild script and wonderful characters, making for a thoroughly entertaining work that we will hopefully see realised on stage proper again sooner rather than later.

Although it was written in 2016, “The Turquoise Elephant” is particularly pertinent at this point in time. It is clearly stuffed with social commentary about global capitalism and climate change denialism, and coincidental current political references that show how we really all should be crying like the elephant.

Life’s legacy live

The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (Queensland Theatre)

June 2

If you are missing live theatre productions since the advent of social restrictions, then it is time to join the club… Queensland Theatre’s Play Club to be precise, which in its most recent event featured a live reading of “The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table”, Wesley Enoch’s universal love story about the destructive and restorative relationships between generations.

In the 1870s a girl is born under a tree — her birth tree — chosen to give her strength and wisdom. When the tree is cut down she follows it into the white man’s world, working as a cook for the big house on the island. Her tree has become a miracle kitchen table, one she will pass down through successive generations as a legacy — a way of carving out her family stories. Now, generations later, a young man and his mother fight for ownership of the table and audiences get to hear all about it in a lived streamed play reading of a domestic drama spanning four generations of a Stradbroke Island family’s history.

The titular table serves as a solid motif throughout the work, as a symbol of sharing but also separation. And the play is crafted to be equal parts beautifully-moving and wickedly-funny as it unravels what is essentially a universal story about the relationships between generations, at times heartbreaking in its emotions. The three-hander is full of flashbacks and stories of the past, and even without staging in support, the story sits easily between eras, thanks to the skill of its performers under direction of Isaac Drandic.

Despite not being buoyed along by audience reactions, the actors all play off each other expertly, capturing the moments of their relationships despite their few rehearsal opportunities. Their pacing also reflects their characters; in her share of extended family stories, Roxanne McDonald’s god-fearing Faith is considered in juxtaposition to her energetic but also damaged daughter Annie, (the spirited singer who has been estranged for many years) but is also fiery in confrontation of her daughter’s parenting. McDonald captures the essence of grandmotherly care and concern, but even in memory all is not necessarily as it seems as daughter Annie’s stories embellish their way around the underlying secrets that create the story’s tension. Indeed, there is more than one side to a story and as we work through the layered tale. Even with just her words, Ursula Yovich gives a charismatic performance, complete with precise comic timing in banter with her bureaucrat son Nathan, (an assured and versatile Guy Simon), the last in the family’s line. Her pitch-perfect delivery procures comic potential from every line, especially in her frank discussion and questioning of her son’s sex life.

Abandoned by his mother Annie and raised by his grandmother, Nathan left the island for university and a government career, until his grandmother’s funeral brings him back to country and family for the first time in years, evoking themes akin to those of Enoch’s “The Seven Stages of Grieving”. Whereas Annie just wants her son to talk to her, he just wants the table and won’t stop asking about it. Cue the conflict and insult trades of the ‘I brought you into the world and I can take you out’ type, but also realisation, for audience members, of the similarity of their stories and reasons for turning away from their island home.

“The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table” is entertaining but also thought-proving theatre and, even in this format, it is easy to see why the play won the 2005 Patrick White Playwrights Award. The fact that its powerful storytelling transcends so easily into the virtual realm is testament to the universality of its themes of legacy, lineage and life’s memories and also serves a topical reminder of the inter-generational legacy of past traumas.

 

2020 aplenty

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While I am well into planning what West End shows to see in 2020, I know that Brisbane theatre has plenty of its own highlights coming. This is what I am most looking forward to seeing (so far) in the year to come:

1. Be More Chill (Phoenix Ensemble)

I just missed seeing the sci-fi teen musical on Broadway, so until the Phoenix Ensemble’s late 2020 production will have to live in anticipation of the Evan Hansen heir with last year’s elaborate Tony Awards homage to the show’s Michael in the Bathroom solo.

2. 25th Annual Spelling Bee (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

I love this musical comedy and its oddball characters … fearless spellers at a fictional spelling bee who love scary words. It is a peppy frolic of colour, music and fun that I am sure Brisbane Arts Theatre will bring to vibrant life come late 2020.

3. Hello Dolly! (Queensland Musical Theatre)

There has been a great display of on-stage talent in recent Queensland Musical Theatre shows and I am yet to see the enduring musical theatre hit and appreciate how it has earned its exclamation point.

4. Emerald City (Queensland Theatre)

Nobody does drama better than Australia’s own David Williamson and given that the Melbourne Theatre Company co-pro revival of his 1987 classic opens in early February, we don’t have long to wait to consider the worth of sacrifice for success and fame.

5. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

… the theatre coup of the year, to which anyone what has read the smash-hit, triumphant Australian novel, loosely based on Brisbane author Trent Dalton’s own childhood, will attest. #theraversareright

Deck the stalls

79939213_10158199950018866_7036287020859129856_n.jpgThe festive season always means a theatre pause and reflection as to the year’s greatest applause. A Broadway break enabled experience of my new favourite thing in Dear Evan Hansen, which is now up there with Rent as my musical mecca, along with other 2019 faves Hamilton and Mean Girls. Closer to home, however, amongst the usual 100+ shows seen, there are a number of memorable mentions.

Most Entertaining

  • The Gospel According to Paul in which Jonathan Biggins brilliantly portrays the love-him-or-hate-him Paul Keating.
  • 100 Years of the History of Dance (as Told by One Man in 60 Minutes with an Energetic Group Finale), another solo show, this time from Australian director, choreographer and performer Joseph Simons.

Best musical:

  • Sweet Charity – the perfect start of year show from Understudy Productions, the little Brisbane theatre company that has very quickly become a very big deal.
  • the ridiculously funny Young Frankenstein, Phoenix Ensemble’s stage version of Mel Brooks’ 1974 horror-movie spoof and parody of both the musical genre and vaudevillian traditions.
  • The Book of Mormon– the ridiculously still so-wrong-it’s-right musical is still the funniest thing around, even in repeat experience.

Best musical performance:

  • Naomi Price as the titular Charity Hope Valentine in Sweet Charity, a role that appears as if written for her.

Best dance

Best cabaret

Best independent theatre

  • Ghosts – The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial play was innovative in its layers of scathing social commentary.

Best comic performance

Best dramatic performance:

  • Patrick Shearer for his powerful and precise performance as the bohemian artist son Oswald in Ghosts.

Most moving

  • Love Letters – the heart-warming story of two people who share a lifetime of experiences through the medium of handwritten letters, presented at Brisbane Arts Theatre by real-life married couple Ray and Melissa Swenson.

Best AV

  • Project Design Justin Harrison’s dynamic projection designs represented a key component of Kill Climate Deniers’ vibrant realisation.

Best new work

  • The relatable guilty pleasure of FANGIRLS – like a witty young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with important messages.

Favourite festival show

Notable mention to:

  • Rocket Boy Ensemble’s Reagan Kelly for its killer opening monologue chronicle of night out in the valley
  • Melbourne’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for its incredible stagecraft of illusions and magic beyond just that of the expelliarmus sort.

Antigone afresh

Antigone (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

October 26 – November 16

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Sophocles’ Angione is more than two million years old, yet as a story with conflict at its heart, it is still relevant today as Queensland Theatre’s epic season finale, “Antigone”, written by Merlynn Tong, illustrates. While there is a clear 2019 resonance to Antigone’s (Jessica Tovey) passionate activist rebellion and rejection of authority, however, the Greek tragedy is presented not so much as her story as much as that of the new leader of Thebes, Creon (Christen O’Leary). Indeed, while young Antigone is a fierce and powerful female who stands up for her values despite powerful criticism, hers is not the main conflict of this play as her power struggle with Creon morphs into one between Creon and her son Haemon (Kevin Spink), who is engaged to Antigone.

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Having Creon played by a woman breathes new life into the text. Not only is the character transformed from a weary man suffering the burdens of rule to an alert and assertive political powerhouse, but it means that the play is no longer just about a woman challenging the patriarchy. Tong has written an adaptation for modern times in many ways, not just through its feminist representations. “Antigone” leads us to consideration of the parity of sorrow as only those whose lives are given in service of the ruler are worthy of mourning; because Eteocles died that way in a civil war, he is afforded a state funeral and a public display of grief, whereas because his brother Polyneices was killed fighting on the other side in recent hostilities, his body has been left to rot and his soul forbidden to be put to rest. By order of Creon, anyone who honours Polyneices with burial does so on pain of death.

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The grieving, heartbroken Antigone, sister to the dead men (sons of Oedipus and Jocasta) and niece to Creon, is determined to do right by both of her brothers and so the epic argument rages on in realisation of the prophet Tiresias’ (Penny Everingham) foreboding forecast. And as Antigone challenges Thebe’s leader for the right to bury and mourn her dead brother with dignity, the great city of Thebes, as well as a family looks set to be torn apart.

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Rather than a Greek chorus, at the play’s opening, we were presented with one of many operatic musical moments from Shubshri Kandiah (as Antigone’s radiant sister Ismene), which elevates the tragedy’s emotion. Despite a lengthy opening song and monologue from Creon, the show is pretty tight, thanks to the excellence of its cast, as compelling performances cut through the sometimes lengthy monologues to engage the audience.

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Tovey’s Antigone is strong and purposeful… a determined young woman who believes nothing is more important than the debt owed to family and the dead. Spink is also impressive as her ill-fated fiancé Haemon. It is O’Leary, however, who delivers the show’s standout performance. Her scenes of eloquent political oration are riveting in their authenticity down to the nuance of gesture as she channels the confidence, passion and voice modulation of the most purposeful of political speakers. Rather than just conveying stubborn calculation, she infuses the character with a vulnerability the elicits our empathy.

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Staging is deceptively simple but effective, as Queensland Theatre continues to show audiences new ways in which the Bille Brown Theatre space can be used. Ben Hughes’s rich lighting design befits the story’s big theme and Tony Brumpton’s sound design assists in amplifying the drama. And costumes are creatively detailed, but, like other creative aspects, allow performances rooms to resonate at the forefront of the production’s impression.

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“Antigone” is a strong show, but its’ short and sweet 70 minutes’ duration, leaves some characters unexplored. Still, Tong has done an admirable job of not only refreshing the story while remaining true to the original text, but making it accessible to people who are not necessarily familiar with the classic. Under Travis Dowling’s direction, the story is clear and easy to follow with no prior knowledge of Sophocles’ play, though, of course, familiarity does allow for the fostering of deeper connections. The show’s traditional touch stands it in impressive stead; it is full of drama as all the best theatre should be.

FANGIRLS fineness

FANGIRLS (Belvoir and Brisbane Festival co-production)

Queensland Theatre, Bille Brown Theatre

September 7 – October 5

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“FANGIRLS” begins with a couple of criminals on the run. The scene is one of 14-year-old smart, scholarship-girl Edna’s (Yve Blake, who is also responsible for the world premiere musical comedy’s book, musical and lyrics) imagining; she is the Beyoncé of fan fiction according to her online friend Saltypringl (James Majoos), specifically that written in tribute to Harry (Aydan), lead singer of the world’s biggest boyband True Connection. Edna knows she is destined to be with Harry and will do anything to achieve this. So when the band announces a tour stop in her home city, she sees this as her chance to meet Harry and convince him of their destined life together. But just how far is she prepared to go in the name of love?

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Clearly, nobody understands extent of Edna’s devotion and commitment to do anything – ANYTHING – in the name of true love, especially her single mother (Sharon Millerchip) who just wants to talk about priorities. Luckily Edna has a shared world of escape in the safe online space of fandom for the UK boy band, formed after its members individually auditioned for a reality tv show…. sound like a familiar direction? (#punindended) She also has her friendship with schoolmates Briana (Kimberley Hodgson) and Jules (Chika Ikogwe), which allows for inclusion of the usual teen focus of not being the last in the grade to get a boyfriend and having parents literally ruining their lives, in addition to its exploration of the power of young female passion. Even so, the celebration and vindication of misunderstood fangirls takes us to some dark places in Act Two.

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The show’s success also comes courtesy of its vibrant performers, all in debut at Queensland Theatre. Blake is triumphant as the determined Edna, whose facial expressions and reactions add nuance to her various scenes, and, as her friends, Hodgson, Ikogwe and Majoos are absolutely hilarious. This is a hardworking cast; when not playing primary parts they are mostly still on stage in other roles thanks to some slick costume changes. And they also play characters on the Internet in online interactions within the Harrysphere.

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“FANGIRLS” is a Trojan horse of a show; while it may on the surface appear to be making fun of its subject matter, specifically fangirls of boybands, it is cleverly crafted so as to sneak them into your heart. Indeed, those without regular experience of youth may not realise how true-to-life it representations are (the work is based on real interviews with teenage fangirls) through its revelations of the experiences of adolescent insecurity in navigation of the difficult distinction between being hot and thirsty, as well as the pain of feeling friendships drifting apart.

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The dialogue is literally authentic, like literally! And it certainly captures hyperbolic nature of teen obsession. The hyper-real experience of its aesthetic complements this. There is a freshness to its high-energy realisation, not just through the humour of its script and songs, but its multi-screen show of the disparate connectiveness of even modern fandom communities.

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The show’s soundtrack is dynamic, packed full of clever, cohesive songs (a program songlist would be been appreciated) that are realised like pop concert music, with striking harmonies. ‘Nobody’ is a catchy early number in which Edna tells Harry of her inability to eat and sleep because ‘nobody loves you like me’, while‘Tonight’s Gonna Be (The Best Night of My Life)’ is an infectious take to interval in culmination of the girls’ months of anticipation and outfit planning for the concert. When we return for Act Two, it is to an authentic True Connection concert experience, with help from David Muratore’s musical production, Justin Harrison’s AV design and Emma Valente’s lighting design, especially for those in the front rows.

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“FANGIRLS” is a fine example of a quality new work, experience of which generally flies by in what seems like the shortest of time, like a young adult novel set to music and full of glittery fun, complete with confetti cannon. And while the story may be of Edna’s journey towards attempted realisation of an imagined relationship, we can still apply its characteristics to our own experiences in revisit of the exhilaration of the expression of youthful obsession, even if it is now distanced from the show’s digital lense (fan fiction might not have always been a thing, but fangirls have always had way of sharing love.) The result is a funny, witty and relatable guilty pleasure of sorts, complete with important messages about gender-based hypocrisy and the way the world looks at young female enthusiasm, to hopefully inspire rethink of gendered definitions of what is reasonable. Its legacy of the power of community and finding your tribe, is an uplifting one, which should have audience members leaving the theatre empowered to love what they love without apology or fear.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry