The Eyre affair

Jane Eyre (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

October 18 – November 9

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There is a chill in the air of the Cremorne Theatre as “Jane Eyre” begins. It’s an affair that befits the gothic terror of Charlotte Bronte’s sophisticated 1847 novel (originally published under the male pseudonym Currer Bell), represented in the stage’s steely blue aesthetic. Not only does it capture the miserable gothic dampness of the northern English landscape of its setting, but its shadows allow for unobtrusive execution of many of its cast’s multi-roles. Jason Glenwright’s lighting design is also used to great effect to later equally evoke the flickering of fire and the shadowy secrets of Thornfield Hall in this hybrid story of gothic romance.

The mistreatment of spirited orphan plain Jane Eyre (Nelle Lee) begins in earnest when as a 10-year-old she is cruelly confined to the novel’s notorious red room by her venomous aunt. She is soon shipped off to Lowood Institute, a religious boarding school for orphans, where she discovers Victorian class and gender hierarchies through the abuses of the headmaster, evolving into an educated young lady of conviction.

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This is just the start of what is an epic story so a long show and at times during Act One it feels this way, despite the considerable cut-down of the Lowood sections of the novel. However, the story’s early scenes are important to help the audience get to know Jane better to understand her plain-speaking pragmatism and righteous determination despite it being 1800’s England and, therefore, a time of strict and rigid societal structure.

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After leaving Lowood, Jane assumes employment at Thornfield Hall, the impressive yet mysterious home of Edward Rochester (Anthony Standish). As governess to young Adele (Sarah McLeod), the French daughter of Rochester’s opera dance mistress, she is given opportunity to show her compassion and soon Jane and Rochester become inexplicably drawn to each other as the dark secrets locked within Thornfield’s walls begin to unravel, forcing Jane on a journey towards commanding control over her own life. It is in this, Act Two, component of the narrative, that the production is heightened by its original music, written and performed live on stage by multi ARIA Award-winner and frontwoman of The Superjesus, Sarah McLeod.

The most astonishing thing about this “Jane Eyre”, however, is that the dedicated cast contains only four members, such is the detail that they bring to the array of characters they portray (especially the supremely talented Helen Howard). And their constant choreographed movement around the set is also impressive. The staging is deceptively complex; it looks minimal, a structure of ladders and platforms, however, it gives the actors a, dynamic space in which to showcase their craft and they utilise every nook and cranny of it over the course of the story.

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As Jane, Nelle Lee is the only actor to play just one character, although she still needs to embody both the unruly child of Act One and the later mature governess, which she does well. Her Jane is an isolated but bold and brave heroine, with care at the core of her being, seen in her consideration of Adele’s circumstances as being no fault of her own. As the mostly-silent Adele, McLeod is appropriately animated in doll-like demeanour, which adds some light-hearted relief to a show heavily weighted in expectations as much as subject matter. And while not understated, her take on the show’s madwoman in the attic, is wildly dark and terrifying, her head and face covered by her untidy hair.

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In true shake & stir style, the production maintains the integrity of the classic novel while emphasising its feminist themes. This is a fiery Jane and a fiery story, literally in an impressive feat of staging. Standish’s Rochester may be a little less commanding, but still as impatient. as his novel self, however, he is humanised so as to make the audience eager for his and Jane’s romantic relationship to succeed despite its obstacles. Authentic language and conversation between the two evokes the emotive tone and stylistic devices of the novel’s connotative language, and convey a genuine connection. As always with the company’s page-to-stage adaptations, this “Jane Eyre” not only caters for fans of the fiction, but makes the story accessible to those new to the work.

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Certainly, there is much to celebrate in this adaption by shake & stir co-Artistic Directors Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij. The stagecraft is intelligently considered, with, for example, stylised movement between characters who never really connect, adding new interest to one of the most iconic pieces of English literature. Indeed, this is a powerful original adaptation, characterised by integrity and intelligence, set to sell out and then rise from it ashes to take Brisbane’s best out in tour of the country.

Photos c/o – David Fell

and that’s a 2018 wrap

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A quick pre-Christmas trip to Melbourne this week has not only give me my favourite theatre experience of the year in Calamity Jane, but provided a chance to reflect on a theatre year now done. Although still in the triple digits, I saw fewer shows in 2018 than in previous years, because…. Netflix. And, as usual, there have been many highlights, making it difficult to providing a definitive list of favourites. But reflective lists are what the end of a year is all about, so here is my eclectic top 10 of the memorable, the musical, the moving and the mirthful, and some honourable mentions.

  1. Calamity Jane – Encore Season (Arts Centre Melbourne in association with One Eyed Man Productions, Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co)
  2. Hamnet (Dead Centre) as part of Brisbane Festival
  3. Good Muslim Boy (Queensland Theatre and Malthouse Theatre)
  4. Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)
  5. Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  6. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (The National Theatre)
  7. The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)
  8. Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects) as part of Brisbane Festival
  9. At Last: The Etta James Story (Brisbane Powerhouse)
  10. The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

And mention also to the following highlights:

Best performance:

  • Virgina Gay as the titular feisty frontierswoman in Calamity Jane
  • Paul Capsis as 1970s gay icon, English writer, raconteur and actor Quentin Crisp in Resident Alien at the Brisbane Powerhouse as part of the 2018 Melt Festival of Queer Arts and Culture.

Best AV – A Christmas Carol (optikal bloc for shake & stir theatre co)

Most thought provoking –- Home (Geoff Sobelle/Beth Morrison Projects)

Best new work – The Sound of a Finished Kiss (Now Look Here and Electric Moon in partnership with Brisbane Powerhouse)

Best musical

  • Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Michael Cassel in Association with Paul Blake & Song/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner)
  • Big Fish – The Musical (Phoenix Ensemble)
  • Bare (Understudy Productions)

Best cabaret:

Best music – The Origin of Love – The Songs and Stories of Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell)

Best dance – Everyday Requiem (Expressions Dance Company)

Funniest – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Most joyous – I’ve Been Meaning to Ask You (The Good Room)

Cleverest – North by Northwest (QPAC and Kay & McLean Productions)

Most moving – Hamnet (Dead Centre)

Stirring up a Christmas classic

A Christmas Carol (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

December 7 – 20

Shake and Stir’s “A Christmas Carol’ begins with a tune, the ironic ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman’ (because there is little about which to be merry for those suffering in Victorian era poverty). Still, it’s a lovely yuletide introduction, before it is interrupted by protagonist Ebenezer Scrooge (Eugene Gilfedder) and his famous humbug exclamation.

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Fast forward to Christmas Eve seven years later after the death of Jacob Marley and we see the money-lender Ebenezer again, a cold-hearted penny-pincher who despises Christmas, tight-fisted and hunched over his accounts counting his coals and cursing the happiness of others, despite being rich enough not to be miserable. In his disdain for do-gooders and desire to just be left alone, he is clearly far from merry… just ask his long-suffering clerk Bob Pratchett (Lucas Stibbard).

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After Scrooge is visited by his dead former business partner (Bryan Probets), now bound for eternity in the chains of his own greed after a life of hoarding his wealth and exploiting the poor, three other ghosts, of Christmas Past, Present and Future show Ebenezer the error of his ways. He consequently changes to see Christmas as a charitable and forgiving time of togetherness.

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Nelle Lee’s wondrous adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novella conveys a storybook feel, enhanced by the in-schools experience of many of its ensemble, which enables a craftedness of appeal for children and adults alike. At times, there is a pantomime atmosphere, not in the “he’s behind you!” sensibility of the peculiarly British tradition of winter musical comedy theatre, but rather in the all-encompassing spirit and sentiment of a traditional tale told in way that allows families to share in a theatre experience.

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QPAC’s notoriously chilly Playhouse Theatre in this instance suits the bleakness of the story’s shadowy staging and accompanying haunting soundscape. The large stage space is used to full and frenetic advantage, particularly in the flurry of early set transformations, that sees almost Escher-like creation and disassembly of sets while in use, as gothic house frames are precisely positioned to project laneways and interiors alike.

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The most highly impressive moments, however, come courtesy of the crucial design efforts of Jason Glenwright (Lighting), Chris Perren (Sound) and Craig Wilkinson (Video) in awakening the story’s supernatural forces, particularly through its ghostly visions. Although there may be a couple of frightening moments for the youngest of viewers (the show is recommended for children eight years and over and includes warning about its supernatural themes, haze, smoke, strobe effects and loud music), it is these production values that keep this “A Christmas Carol” innovatively fresh. Not everything is big and bold, however. The pathos of ‘all skin and bones’ Tiny Tim, the youngest song of Bob Cratchit, gravely ill as his family cannot afford to properly treat him on the salary Scrooge his father, for example, is captured perfectly in his ingenious representation.

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The last time I saw “A Christmas Carol” on stage, I found it bothersome that in realisation of his salvation, Scrooge sent a passing youth to buy a turkey for the Cratchit family’s Christmas meal, without giving the errand-boy any funds. Thankfully, in this show, the request is accompanied by some coins. It is but a small detail of course, but one that reflects the overall care the company takes in all of its productions, for it is the combination of these smallest considerations which ultimately group in production of such consistently high-quality work.

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 Under Michael Futcher’s direction, everything about the show is tight and well-paced to maintain engagement of young and old alike. Many of the show’s hardworking cast members play multiple roles with ease. Gilfedder is perfection as the cantankerous Scrooge, both in his mostly-dour demeanour and when he excitedly transforms into a kindhearted person. And Probets is also wonderful as all four of the ghosts, often bringing an infectious sense of pantomime whimsy to his realisation of their characters. His Ghost of Christmas Past, in particular, is a jolly delight of impish, gleeful energy.

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I have never really been “A Christmas Carol” fan, apart from maybe the Muppet’s movie version (because I’m not totally heartless). Clearly, I am in the minority though; the Victorian morality tale of an old and bitter miser who undergoes a profound experience of redemption over the course of an evening, remains a classic holiday story despite being written in 1843. That this company can ignite the imaginations of the young and not-so, to regard its charm anew is a wonderful testament to their energy and spirit. Hopefully it will form part of a Christmas show ritual as audiences obviously cherish the tradition of its story and the endurance of its themes. Its tell of compassion, forgiveness, redemption and the might of kindness is made even more powerful by its humour and heart, making it maybe even better than the Muppets.

There is no better way to kick off your Christmas season than with the defining tale of the holiday in the English-speaking world, brought to magical life in a brand-new adaptation. With live musicians (Composer Salliana Campbell), yule-tide carolling, innovative video design, lavish costumes and, of course, snow, “A Christmas Carol” has something for everyone, even those who imagine themselves to be more bah humbug than Christmas Carole.

Alien nation angst

American Idiot (shake & stir theatre company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

April 13 – 21

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I’m not a huge Green Day fan. Even so, this did not stop my enjoyment of the band’s high octane rock opera, “American Idiot”. The energy is infectious from the moment the sung-through stage adaptation of the punk rock band’s seventh studio album screams to an explosive start with its powerful, catchy title track of angsty frustration shares the experience of a group of suburban youths unhappily living mind-numbing, aimless existences in the Alien Nation’s Jingletown USA.

The onstage band is brilliant in contribution to the show’s rock concert sensibility. Dialogue is limited and there is barely any break in the music. As someone unfamiliar with the majority of the lyrics, it would be been helpful to have been able to follow more than just the choruses of the rapid-fire numbers that suffered under their booming musical accompaniments. Still, the narrative can be followed easily enough with numbers like the mammoth anti-war power ballad ‘21 Guns’ providing some light and shade respite.

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Like a rocking “Rent”, “American Idiot” has at its heart, a simple story of friendship. In this case, the story, expanded from that of the “American Idiot” concept album, is of three disillusioned and dissatisfied boyhood best mates, Johnny (Ben Bennett), Tunny (Connor Crawford) and Will (Alex Jeans) who are searching for meaning in a post 9/11, now Trump-era, America. Sick of life in the suburbs, self-proclaimed ‘Jesus of Suburbia’ Johnny flees with Tunny, while Will remains with his pregnant girlfriend. Tunny quickly gives up on life in the city, joins the military to be sent off to war, while the adolescent anti-hero Johnny turns to drugs and experiences lost love with Whatsername (Phoebe Panaretos in reprise of the role that earned her a Helpmann nomination last year).

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As narratives go, it isn’t a particularly complex one. However, the show’s spectacle is not in its story so much as it’s hyper-real realisation. Craig Wilkinson’s video design is amongst the best even seen on the Brisbane stage, bringing the show’s songlist to life with projections of everything from graffiti to weather and elevating songs like ‘Holiday’ which shares Johnny’s city-experience high and its bleak and sombre hangover ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, in which he wanders the city alone, to amongst the most memorable of the show’s earlier numbers. Choreography is dynamic, staging is simple and functional in its unclaustrophobic clutter and costumes represent the subculture with a grunge 101 checklist of leather, plaid, tank tops, band t-shirts, denim and chunky combat boots.

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Numbers are not always high-energy; the beautifully melancholic ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ is a wonderful showcase of the male talent of stage. The knockout numbers, however, come from the ladies. As Johnny’s rebellious, destructive alter ego St Jimmy, triple Aria Award Winner Sarah McLeod of Australian rock band The Superjesus (who is playing the role in rotation with other Aussie rock legends Phil Jamieson of Grinspoon and Adalita of Magic Dirt) is a commanding presence every time she steps on stage. Not only does she look the rock-chic part with platinum blonde highlights, smoky eyeliner for days, a killer pair of boots and all sorts of attitude, but her powerhouse vocals in ‘St Jimmy’, during which Johnny injects heroin for the first time, are flawless. And as a frightened and fed-up Whatsername, Phoebe Panaretos is blistering in ‘Letterbomb’ during which she shatters Johnny’s illusions in attempt to bring him to maturity.

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Despite its tight 90-minute duration, the show is filled with musical highlights such as its final number ‘‘Whatsername’ which literally reverberates through the audience as one year later, Johnny laments that he lost the love of his life, but looks towards a hopeful future of acceptance. Although we all probably wanted to hear ‘(Good Riddance) Time of Your Life’, even as encore, the inclusion of the high-school graduation staple seems to be awkward one at odds with the feel of the show’s infectious energy.

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Without intermission, “American Idiot” hurdles forth at an in-your-face unrelenting pace. It is not a jukebox musical but a pop-punk rock opera. Not only does it demand your attention musically, but it takes you along a ride of rebelliousness, resolve and reflection. Indeed, its versatile Green Day soundtrack offers much to contemplate through its a damning message about American values and mass media orchestrated public paranoia, brought to epic life in this highly-polished, politically-charged production. But as a musical for a younger generation, it abounds with foul language and also drugs-and-sex-references so is not for the easily offended.

Much (Ado) merriment

Much Ado About Nothing (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 10 – 11

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When the show starts well before the play begins with comic duo Constables Dogberry (Mckeira Cumming) and Verges (Cleo Taylor) leading the audience in Mexican wave and beach ball game to the sounds of Daddy Yankee’s ‘Gasolina’, it is clear that with this “Much Ado About Nothing” we are in for a good time. The vaudevillian clowning from the ockerish couple is the perfect preamble to the Queensland Youth Shakes Fest celebration of the works of William Shakespeare and share of their contemporary take of one of the Bard’s classic comedies.

“Much Ado About Nothing” tells the tale of returning war heroes and their fortunes and misfortunes in love. Decorated veteran Claudio returns to Messina and soon sets to woo host Don Pedro’s daughter, Hero. They are engaged to be married, but in the short period between the proposal and the wedding many misunderstandings and misleadings occur. The most prominent of these is the wedding party’s secret attempts to inspire passion between the quarrelling Benedick and Beatrice. From here one would hope for a double marriage ceremony but Shakespeare is rarely so simple.

The proverbially titled comedy is an excellent choice for this year’s production. It is easy to follow and gives opportunity for a large cast involvement. And this “Much Ado About Nothing” is certainly a crowd pleaser as it plays up the fun through song, dance and heaps of humour. Although this is an abridged version, the production retains all the wit and emotion of the original script. With a strong ensemble, clever direction and an effective design, it is fresh, exciting and impressive.

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Chelsea Dawson and Callum Ford are equally excellent as the modern, mature ‘rom-com’ sparing partners, Beatrice and Benedick, last to know they are in love, although perhaps more convincing as their individual characters than as part of the couple. Fittingly for the text-driven comedy, their delivery of the Shakespearan dialogue is eloquent and poetic, despite being mostly of insults, and together than provide an apt contrast to the more conventional courtship of Claudio (Charles Platt) and Hero (Megan Dale). Plus, their comic timing is highly entertaining.

Ford is particularly versatile, taking Benedick from roguish joker in his distain towards love to commitment in choice of love over friendship, so that we absolutely believe in the better version of himself that he becomes. Similarly, Dawson’s ability to portray Beatrice’s defensive wit alongside her genuinely heartfelt scenes such as in share of her sadness about never finding the right man, make her performance memorable in all of its moments. Also of note is Harlee Timms’s perfectly-pitched performance, as the nefarious Don John, the manipulative bastard half-brother of Don Pedro (Liam Wigney). His powerful portrayal of the trouble-making villain gives the audience a needed thought-provoking glimpse at the play’s sometimes darker themes.

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With staging full of bright colours and summer costumes, it takes the audience longer than usual to transition to the text’s darker later tones, despite the deliberateness of Director Johnny Balbuziente’s decisions to signpost character transitions as the plot progresses from silliness to seriousness (although unnecessary and easy-laugh stereotypes do not help).

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Delivered by some of Queensland’s brightest young actors, dancers and musicians, this is a most accessible Shakespeare. And to have put the work together to such a high standard in a matter of days is an amazing feat. The knockabout passion of the creative cohort energises the text and the manner in which the entire cast plays off the audience adds another level to an already fast-paced and funny piece of entertainment, showing that Shakespeare can still be as merriful as ever.

Abridged ambitions

Macbeth (shake & stir theatre company)

Judith Wright Centre, Performance Space

January 13 – 14

Shakespeare’s most famous political tragedy, aka The Scottish Play dramatises the rise and fall of Macbeth’s ambition for power, with urging from his wife and the consequential slaying of all who are an obstacle in his path to kingship. It is one of the darkest and most complex of the Bard’s journeys with some of his most infamous characters.

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To select it for the 2017 Queensland Shakespeare Production is certainly ambitious, given that the cast (of 2016 Queensland Youth Shakespeare Festival competitors) and creatives had only six days to rehearse, block, choreograph, design and tech the work. But from the moment the show begins with Kuda Mapeza’s melodic caution that ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World’, it is clear that the imaginative multi-arts exploration of the text is going to be an engaging one.

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This is an abridged version of the epic tragedy, cut down to just 75 minutes, yet still featuring all the key scenes and lines. Yet scene changes are almost imperceptible in their flow of actors, who enter from all parts of the performance space (even underneath its raised catwalks), never breaking the rhythm of the play.

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The physical theatre of its ensemble work is impressive, sitting well with its snippets of song and dance. Still, the production remains true to the violence of the savage drama and its fight scenes (choreographed by Johnny Balbuziente) are all impressive in creation of the illusion of physical combat. And there is even appearance of Shakespeare’s trademark witty innuendo in the porter scene, with Mitchell De Zwart not overplaying the bawdiness of the drunken gate-keeper’s exaggerated complaints and bawdy observations.

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Under the direction of Nelle Lee (along with Alexander Butt and Amy Ingram), Shakespeare’s language sits well in the mouths of cast members, evident particularly in the witches’ combined foreshadowing chants. Mathew Bengston gives a solid performance in the monumental role of the Scottish warrior poised at the point of possibility.

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As the ruthless Lady Macbeth, Evelina Singh is excellent. Indeed, her ‘milk of human kindness’ speech is a show highlight as she at-once conveys anger, confusion and despair along with her articulated ambivalence of gendered activity. Although the couple’s central relationship is not particularly gripping, however, this is perhaps a fault of the abridgement.

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The production’s aesthetics are impressive. A moody soundscape (from designer JP Vizcay Wilson) supports the shaping of Macbeth’s ambition in terms of the supernatural and the superstitious. And costumes offer interesting symbolism with players appearing in dark colours of contrast to the ensemble of witches, all dressed in white. While not the demotic secret black and midnight hags of Shakespeare’s imagining, the dishevelled coven convey an elemental force that is visually arresting in its grip of Macbeth as they intertwine about the stage.

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In the creative hands of a company with reputation for excellence in re-imagining the canon, like the previous Queensland Shakespeare Festival productions, “Macbeth” succeeds in bringing the Bard alive for contemporary audiences. It not only highlights the universality and ongoing relevance of Shakespeare’s themes but shows how, even in his darkest plays, there is still room for productions to make their own mark.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux