Behind the scenes satisfaction

Scenes from a Marriage (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

November 11 – December 3

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Marianne (Marta Dusseldorp) and Johan (Ben Winspear) are cosy in the comfort of their overly-scheduled, boring bourgeois lives … well that’s what they tell a magazine interviewer when being asked about their union. But what lies behind their façade and how long will it be before their imperfect love begins to dissolve? These are the initial questions at the core of “Scenes from a Marriage”, and the answers, as they unravel, are far from comforting.

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Originally a 1970s Swedish television series by accomplished and influential filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, “Scenes from a Marriage” is a beast of a play. The stage adaptation by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith takes audiences behind the scenes into the intimacy of a marriage as it tries to survive secrets and suffering in the shadow of a single event and over-time, innate animosity. With a focus on domestic relationships, it has all the emotional and cognitive ingredients for audience engagement. Yet despite being a polished and visually stunning production with a first-rate cast, its resonance is more satisfaction in a neutrally-beige type way, than standout amongst a sensational season of shows.

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Even to those unfamiliar with the nuance of its Swedish creator, the production is noticeably Bergman. Staging screams Scandinavian in its simplicity, functionality and minimalism, opening as it does to a clinically white and sparely-furnished room. Even when, late in Act One, things open up to the reveal the reality of the couple’s conjoined life in a scene in the their holiday home, it is one of timbre tones affront a tree-lined lake backdrop. The aesthetics are quite stunning, enhanced by lighting that adds a theatricality to the sometimes shocking action on-stage.

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The authentic anatomy of a marital breakdown also comes courtesy of well-crafted dialogue that takes audience members from the light relief of predictable jokes through the devastating dynamics of divorce (and what comes next) and contemplation of if whether dislike is better than indifference.

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Real-life husband and wife Ben Winspear and Marta Dusseldorp are excellent in their respective roles, presenting the couple as two individual and complexly layered individuals. Their chemistry is clear… unsettlingly so in a physical fight sequence in one of the play’s uncomfortable scenes. Winspear’s glib Johan, shallowly self-assured and overconfidently narcissistic, allows Dusseldorp’s intense and ultimately vulnerable performance to take centre stage. And they are both well-supported by superb performances from Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary as the couple’s mutually, mercilessly bitter, married friends.

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For most of the story, Marianne and Johan are unlikeable people curiously drawn to the mutual misery of their marriage, yet there are also sometimes glimpses of them as ordinary, suffering humans who love each other in their own way…. necessary for audience empathy and investment in their story. Like so often in life, there is no happy ending to “Scenes from a Marriage”, but its experience brings a satisfaction of sorts from the confrontation of its truth.

Photos c/o – Rob Maccoll

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Octoroon originality

An Octoroon (Queensland Theatre and Brisbane Festival)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

September 15 – October 8

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An octoroon is a person who has one-eighth black heritage. This now-politically-incorrect titular understanding is at the centre of Queensland Theatre’s “An Octoroon” we are told in a meta-theatre pre-emptive explanation of the Act Four function in melodrama. The clarification is not necessary, but appreciated given all that is going in American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ confronting, challenging and compelling re-imagining of a 19th century slavery melodrama by Irish writer Dion Boucicault.

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The Peyton family’s Louisiana plantation seems destined to fall into the unscrupulous hands of its former overseer, M’Closky (Colin Smith). George Peyton (also Colin Smith) is a decent man who scandalously falls for Zoe (Shari Sebbens), the well-educated, illegitimate and octoroon daughter of the deceased owner. And so, he must choose between his love for Zoe and his need to save the estate by marrying the entitled rich heiress Dora (Sarah Ogden).

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It begins, however, with the meta-theatrical framing device of playwright character, BJJ (Colin Smith) sharing his frustrations with being a ‘black playwright’ before a confrontation with the original text’s playwright (Anthony Standish). With his white actors having quit the play, BJJ proceeds to don white face paint and perform their roles himself, which happens to lead to one of many hilarious scenes as he switches between the heroic George and the antagonist M’Closky in a physical altercation.

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In the hands of leading aboriginal artist Nakkiah Lui, in her directorial debut, this Australian exclusive production, has been subtly re-contextualised through our own lens. Its rich and resplendent tapestry of themes is realised in a lively work of much colour and movement. So much is going on in stylised chaos as music pumps, characters interact playfully and black actors wear whiteface and white actors wear blackface.

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Much of the laugher generated is of the uneasy sort and staging, with a long white traverse space with the audience seated on both sides, affords opportunity to see how others are also reacting both in its riotous moments and when serious consideration sharply contrasts earlier scenes. When the audience watches in absolute silence during these later-show moments, it is not with indifference but with acute understanding and acknowledgement of the impact of its message.

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Certainly, the indigenous re-contextualisation of the African American story to themes from Australia’s colonial history, works, without detracting from the spirit of the original. Risky themes and complicated questions are translated with effective use of visual language to create a completely original and engaging theatrical experience that is through-provoking and challenging in its layered exploration of who we are and who we are becoming.

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Although it is Smith, Standish and Antony Taufa who perform multiple roles in the show, it the ladies of the cast who leave the most lasting impression. Sebbens makes for a humorous heroine, Zoe and Ogden appears to be having great fun within her role as the heiress Dora; she is every bit a stereotypical Southern Belle desperate for George’s attention, complete with an over-the-top accent.

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Chenoa Deemal makes the most of her role as field-slave Grace, shunned by those of higher, house, station, while closely bonded house-slaves Minnie (Elaine Crombie) and Dido (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) provide the most laughs in their sassy banter about slave life, the chemistry between the pair filling the theatre in their every easy interaction. Indeed, as the brash, tell-it-as-it-is Minnie, Crombie is absolutely superb in her comic timing and the very best thing about the show.

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“An Octoroon” is an original and gripping provocation that gives audiences much to take away from its energetic, fearless approach to interrogating race and identity and the extent to which stereotypes are still embedded in today’s consciousness. It is not only a deconstruction of racial representation, but a gripping production (despite its two hour duration), to be enjoyed and appreciated in equal measure. … bold, inventive and probably unlike anything you will have ever seen on stage before.

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My Name is Jimi (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 22 – August 13

Jimi Bani is a ‘remote area boy’ from Torres Strait (not PNG or Fiji). His home, Mabuiag Island, has a rich history and culture that Jimi and his family are trying to keep alive amidst the cultural chaos of the changing modern world. And ‘My Name is Jimi’ really is family affair as Jimi performs alongside his son Dmitri, mother Agnes, and grandmother Petharie with his brothers Conwell and Richard Bani.

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As he draws directly on the experiences of his family and their role as leaders of the Wagadagam tribe of Mabuiag Island, through stories span the generations, Bani takes audiences on the most unique and appealing of journeys. Unlike any other theatre experience (#inagoodway), the show at once celebrates the legacy of Jimi’s father, an honoured chief, and promotes the need for preservation of cultural and family history.

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The show is full of eclectic, but important little details, meaning that there’s plenty on offer to audience members of all ages or theatrical preferences. Dapper-suited, Jimi (and his brothers) give audiences some memorable booty-shaking dance moments in accompaniment of the show’s disco segment and action moves effortlessly about the stage as digital projections fill the blank back wall. Handheld cameras film live puppetry from richly-detailed dioramas situated either side of the stage, in share of some of the childhood fables of Mabuiag.

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Song, dance and fire-side stories all add to storytelling and also, at times, humour. A highlight comes, for example, from within the show’s examination of contemporary cultural influences, as 15-year-old son Dmitri Ahwang-Bani demonstrates the reality of typical dress these days (because they ‘don’t get around in traditional clothing’), as if part of an anthropological exhibit. And yet there are also many engaging moments watching the family’s passion in performing in traditional dress.

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With its important messages regarding the role of culture in identity, “My Name is Jimi”, has an immediate appeal to school groups, and much to offer younger audience members through the engagement of its varied theatrical devices. There is an honest appeal to the intimacy of its family stories, meaning that when Jimi’s mother and grandmother wave hello in introduction, audience members all around are waving back from within the darkness. And the show’s memorable final family image lasts beyond its close in reminder of what is important in life.

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“My Name is Jimi” is story-telling is at its finest, personal, powerful and special beyond just its four generations of one family on stage together. Writer and lead actor, Jimi Bani is charismatic and the story he shares is charming, but also informative (beginning with its introductory glossary of names from family tree relationships) and important. Under Jason Klarwein’s instinctive direction, the cast’s generous, honest performances offer audience member contemplation of big issues but also joyous appreciation of their own family ties.

Photos c/o – Veronica Sagredo

Globalisation gets personal

Rice (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

June 24 – July 16

“Rice” is a deceptively simple story of two women working in the city: one is a struggling cleaner, while the other is a high flying manager; one a migrant from China, while the other is a second general Brisbane girl whose grandmother moved here from West Bengal. Yet, it in tale of families and friendships, it isn’t long before it becomes so much more.

It begins with ambitious ­corporate climber Nisha (Kristy Best), unhappy with the office’s Chinese cleaner Yvette (Hsiao-Liang Tang) for not disposing of her after-hours takeaway rubbish. ‘Indian princess and ‘Chinese cleaner’ is all they see when in confrontation with each other, however, although they are from different generations and different cultures, as time passes they find themselves helping each other navigate their complex lives.

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This navigation is aided by the additional characters that the talented actors each adopt, never losing their essential chemistry, as they assume roles as diverse as hipster boyfriend, ungrateful daughter, Indian official and Russian cleaning crew supervisor. Certainly, the dramatic use of actors playing multiple characters is a bold theatrical device that can have its ups and downs and initial jumps are jarring, however, once accustomed to the style, audience members can easily appreciate the value this adds to the show’s momentum, which is readily maintained through its taut 90 minute duration, with characters volleying dialogue from across either side of the wide stage.

An abundance of Brisbane references add interest and a memorable soundscape enhances plot and thematic aspects alike, while its minimalist stage design rightly allows the show’s outstanding performances to bring Michele Lee’s script to life. The script is an impressive one, filled with humourous one-liners and realistic dialogue, but also a Brechtian self-awareness and acknowledgement of the presence of the audience a voyeurs. (“This is the part where we eat,” we are told, for example, as they share a Monday night meal in the office). And its lack or resolve is refreshing in its realism.

“Rice” is a fresh and refreshing show, worthy of its Queensland Premier’s Drama Award. While it is as its tagline promises, “an insightful story about the personal side of globalisation,” what it is really about is life through the lens of two equally strong and vulnerable women, which makes it an engaging show from which attention never wanes.

Meta-farce fun!

Noises Off (Queensland Theatre)

QPAC, The Playhouse

June 3 – 25

Playwright Michael Frayn’s classic meta-farce has been running all over the world since its 1982 beginnings, which is unsurprising given that until “The Play That Goes Wrong” perhaps, it was regarded as the funniest play ever.

The story is one of doors and sardines… good old fashioned sardines, told three times over with increasing hilarity. The three acts (performed with one intermission) all depict a performance of the first act of a play within a play called “Nothing On”. It’s all very British in its “Man About the House” innuendo and slapstick, with its pants down moments and storylines of tax inspectors and sex addicts. But that is just the beginning of its humour.

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Things begin with the mediocre actors clumsily floundering through a late-night dress rehearsal for the about-to-tour farce; Dotty (Louise Siversen) is unable to keep track of her props, as her dim employer, Freddy (Hugh Parker) needs reassurance as to his character’s motivation and as Roger, leading man Garry (Ray Chong Nee) is, ‘you know’ unable to actually commit to a finished sentence outside of the dialogue.

Add in the hard-of-hearing Selsdon (Steven Tandy) and his drinking problem, as the play’s burglar, and it is of little wonder that the pompous director Lloyd (Simon Burke) is impatient, though he is somewhat distracted himself, given his secret simultaneous romancing of the young, inexperienced actress Belinda (Libby Munro) and dowdy, over-emotional assistant stage manager Poppy (Emily Goddard). At least the show’s backwards set has been fixed.

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When Flavia (Nicki Wendt), Philip’s dependable onstage wife, comments on how she likes ‘technicals’ because everyone is so nice, it not just funny because it is a dress rehearsal but because of its foreshadowing of what is to come. In the second act, set a month later, thanks to the show’s intricate revolving set, the audience watches from backstage as the actors stagger through the same material with limited regard and a whole lot of passive (and not so passive aggression) in response to interpersonal secrets being revealed, jealousy being aroused and murderous rage erupting. This section is absolutely hilarious, despite there being virtually no words spoken, lest they disrupt the ‘on stage’ show.

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Fast forward three months and the funny continues as we watch as if we were members of the audience during the play’s final touring performance, which has by that stage descended into a whirl of slammed doors and missed cues as backstage passions spill onto the stage.

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Even with a clockwork script, farce relies not on language but precision of performances. And in this regard Queensland Theatre’s “Noises Off” more than delivers. Despite their countless cues, all actors are spot-on in their timing and commitment to the physical precision required to last the 3+ hour running time distance. As individuals, all members of the ensemble are hugely talented; together than bring their distinct characters to complementary, quirky life. Standouts include Louise Siversen, whose physicality punctuates all that the aptly-named Dotty does and Hugh Parker, particularly in Act One when in panicky but always-polite need of plot clarification and character motivation. And despite only initially appearing as a voice, Simon Burke adds much to the initial act, making even the shortest of responses, ‘no’, so very funny.

Although its length makes “Noises Off” quite the theatrical commitment, it is one that is worthy of the investment. The comedy of errors may not be sophisticated in concept, but under the direction of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director, Sam Strong, it is infectiously energetic. And whether ‘off-stage’ or on, the shenanigans on show are full of meta-farce fun.

The linger of life lessons

Once in Royal David’s City (Queensland Theatre and Black Swan State Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 22 – May 14

If theatre is about making you think about life, then former QTC Artist Director Michael Gow’s “Once in Royal David’s City” (his first play in seven years) is theatre at its best as it takes audiences on a beautiful and emotional journey through life’s phases of hearing, living and telling stories, in exploration of what gives our life vulnerability, but also meaning.

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The play tells the tale of a mother and son dealing with the death of a loved one. Will (Jason Klarwein) is a Brecht-obsessed theatre director whose father has recently passed away. He wants to treat his mother (Penny Everingham) to a relaxing Christmas break so they can spend some quality time together. Yet, what sounds like a simple story becomes so much more as the non-linear narrative (with Will as narrator) spans time and location, taking audiences from West Berlin to Byron Bay and from the 1950s to the present.

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There are many nods to motifs of Gow’s seminal “Away” in that it sees a family holidaying by the beach at the typically-emotionally charged Christmas time (its title is that of a processional hymn about shattering perceptions of a picturesque nativity with reality, and its program cover is appropriately red and green in its design). However, its use of the Brechtian techniques sets it apart. Indeed, in early sections it seems that this is a show for drama folk, with its frequent references not just to the German director but to classic texts like “The Important of Being Earnest” and “Mother Courage and Her Children”, both of which have also appeared on the Playhouse stage in recent years. But as things progress, the references become more fused with contemporary realism, bringing with them considerations not ultimately appreciated until its final bookend ‘lecture’ on Brechtian theory and technique.

While the show is full of heartfelt moments and silences for audiences to fall into, with lip-biting, ‘I will not cry’ resolution in response to its challenging subject matter of saying goodbye to a loved one, there is a lot of light-heartedness too, including spontaneous song and dance numbers and amusing dialogue, with perfect comic-timing delivery of some early-show one liners.

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The ensemble cast is a strong one, led by Brisbane’s own Jason Klarwein in the complex leading role. As Will, Klarwein gives a riveting and finely-nuanced performance as a character dealing with emotional obstacles and the very human dilemmas of grief, loss, identity and an associated personal crisis of insecurity within a passion. As his ailing mother Jeannie, Penny Everingham is wonderfully spirited but ultimately vulnerable and Steven Turner, in particular, assumes multiple roles, all with equal ease.

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The talented creative team allows the actors to take centre stage. Stephen Curtis’s design is simple yet effective down to the smallest details, such as the hand sweep of curtains that sometimes signpost scene changes. The production benefits from an evocatively minimalist set and Matt Scott’s rich lighting design, which transports audiences between the stark fluorescence of hospital ward lighting to brilliantly backlit shadow play of a Marxist revolution, well-deserving of its opening night smattering of mid-show applause.

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As a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company, “Once in Royal David’s City” serves as display of all the good things that can come from collaboration. In the hands of Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Sam Strong, in directorial debut with the company, it is becomes a sensitive and engaging take of a compassionate story. The wonderfully life-affirming work is surprising, sad and unexpectedly funny, and could only perhaps be better if it were being seen in the festive season itself.

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“Once in Royal David’s City” is a beautifully crafted show from one of this country’s best playwrights and, accordingly, there is much to be taken away from its experience, both intellectually and emotionally. Not only are there references to Marxism and Christianity to continue to consider, but its ubiquitous reminder of our mortality and the need to enjoy life to fullest and cherish those special to us are poignant enough to linger as lessons long after its conclusion. And Molly’s (Kay Stevenson) monologue about the blink-of-an-eye progress from carefree teenage skylarking to the increased doctors’ visits that come with age will certainly resonate with many audience members. Still, “Once in Royal David’s City” is an enigmatic show… the type you want to tell everyone you know to see, without revealing specifics about its at-once intimate and epic journey in answer to American physicist and children’s television presenter Dr Julius Sumner Miller ‘s ask, ‘why is it so?’

Photos – c/o Philip Gostelow, photographed at Heath Ledger Theatre, Northbridge, WA

Cosmic complexities

Constellations (Queensland Theatre)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

March 9 – April 9

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Life is about choices right? Well, not really, according to British playwright Nick Payne’s “Constellations”, which is based on the scientific notion that we might be living in one of many universes which are co-existing simultaneously. It’s something to do with String Theory or Doctor Who philosophy 101 about alternative universes that exist separated only by a millisecond of time and a nanometre of space, without ever having contact.

Every moment that Roland (Lucas Stibbard) and Marianne (Jessica Tovey) share is at the mercy of the universe, meaning that there are infinite possibilities of their two lives shared in consideration of everything they have ever or never done. When they first meet at a barbecue, he says he is in a relationship and she is just making conversation. The odds of them getting together are astronomical; he is a beekeeper and she is a physicist working in the field of quantum cosmology. But when their worlds keep colliding, all the possibilities of their life together are shared, from first date to final farewell, through conversations of both varying physical proximity and intimacy.

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It is an up and down relationship reflected also in the undulating stage of celestial blue pin-pricked by light apart from during the complete blackout between some scenes switches. Ben Hughes’ lighting design serves not only to complement Anthony Spinaze’s set design but fulfils a significant narrative purpose as sections of the stage are lit to border character interactions as hint of the underlying issue that will take things in a totally different direction to initial anticipation.

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This is a play about language and initially, especially, deliberate attention is needed before the narrative’s direction makes its latter half more absorbing. This is especially so because of its organisation of often short and sharp scenes that are immediately repeated, sometimes with only slightly different emphases, sometimes with wholly different resolutions. Once settled into its unique structure, however, it is easy to appreciate the cast’s nuanced performances and Kat Henry’s subtle directorial choices that combine in its success.

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Stibbard and Tovey are both excellent and their repetition of scenes with just the slightest of transformed touch, a testament to the craft of both. And their chemistry is ample. As the neurotic academic Marianne, Tovey carefully balances vulnerability with awkward bluntness in blurt of whatever is on her mind. Stibbard’s Roland, however, is vulnerable in a more traditional sense, lovable in his sometimes self-doubt, eyes alight with enthusiasm in speak of beekeeping and devastated in his yearn for things to be different.

“Constellations” is an intelligent and powerful piece of theatre that is both a beautiful love story and an emotional delve into the mysteries that remain in our understanding of the multiverse, perfectly timed at 80 minutes without interval and perfectly prepared for without prior knowledge of its narrative journey. Although it is a slow burn at first, its humanity will sneak up on you and leave you with much to contemplate about the complexity of life, the universe and everything.