Romeboy reimagining

Julius Caesar (USC Theatre and Performance)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 7 – 10

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Before its traditional opening festivities of Roman commoners celebrating their ruler’s defeat of the sons of his military rival, Jo Roth’s “Julius Caesar” begins with a song. As Soothsayer Lucinda Shaw’s smoky ‘Never ‘til Now’ lures the audience into her fortune tell to the great Roman general and senator to beware the Ideas of March as a prophesied death day. It is a surprisingly intimate and still start to the show as the characters group together on stage before flurrying into the nooks and crannies of the opened-up Visy Theatre’s post-apocalyptic setting, for contemporary civilisation as we know it has collapsed and amidst the ruins, a group of storytellers present Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” to examine where humanity went wrong.

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Though there is never really as sense of anarchy, the story’s aggression and energy soon emerges despite the typically-testosterone-charged play being presented with gender-blind casting. With a dystopian aesthetic emphasised by Mad-Maxish dark costumes of buckles, boots and leather accents, this is clearly not a traditional take of the historical psychological drama of tragic hero Brutus’s conflicting honour, patriotism and friendship. Musical additions, especially ongoing instrumental guitar compositions performed by Daley Smith create an evocative soundscape but are unnecessary distractions.

Appropriately, however, the music stops once Brutus is persuaded by the other senators to join in an assassination plot to murder Caesar before he can become a tyrant. The beautifully stylised assassination scene, is a highlight, bathed in the red as perfect illustration of how lighting guides the audience through the emotions of story’s themes of fate and free will, even if it is less effective in its initial rudimentary representation of the mighty-god fire of a thunderstorm raining lightning fire over Rome.

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Michelle Lamarca makes for a striking Caesar from her initial Act One entrance, showing composure and vocal control befitting a military leader. However, the play isn’t so much about Caesar himself, but the effect of his dictatorship and conspiracy plan through assassination to aftermath. And the other performers convey the story with passion. Ross Miller, in particular, is excellent as the impulsive nobleman Cassius. The play’s Shakespearean language sits conversationally in his mouth as he changes pitch and tone to make meaning and emotion clear without the sometimes overly-laboured phrases of some others. His delivery is precise yet flexible, not only vocally but through his inhabit of movement and gesture and another highlight is his early conversation with his friend, Brutus, in attempt to persuade him that, in the best interests of the public, Caesar must be stopped from becoming monarch, even if some second-night slips from Brutus (Angel Kosch) detract from their later interactions.

The show’s most impressive performance moment comes courtesy of Rainee Skinner as Mark Anthony, Caesar’s most loyal supporter, imploring his friends, Romans and countrymen to lend their ears. The grand oration scene is impressive in both delivery and design; Skinner is perfectly simmering in share of Antony’s most famous political achievement, conveying an engaging light-and-shade approach to its energy and emotion. It’s an impressive section of the play as the eight-person cast successfully conveys a sense of mob mentality as they enter into the audience to hear Brutus’s defence of his own actions and then Mark Antony’s subtle and eloquent reminder of Caesar’s humility and trust of those who turned on him.

“Julius Caesar” is a play of great lines, containing some of the most famous of Shakespearean quotes and this production is a quality showcase of, not only the play’s great moments, but its endurance, because as the closest thing Shakespeare wrote to a political thriller, the tale of “Julius Caesar” still has things to say to a modern audience, especially in its illustration of how tyrants don’t recognise their own oppression. Indeed, there is much to enjoy in the play and this reimagining alike; its accessibility is appealing to those new to the story and its highlight performances of key scenes are satisfying to Shakespearean purists and lovers of language alike.

Hamnet heartbreak

Hamnet (Dead Centre)

QPAC, Cremorne Theatre

September 8 – 12

Brisbane Festival’s “Hamnet” is a lock-out show, not for purposes of pretention, but, as is immediately clear to audiences upon entry into QPACs Cremorne Theatre, due to its technical needs; an initially intimidating video image fills the stage wall, screening a live projection of the audience seated in the stalls. As things begin, its titular protagonist appears to enter from the audience, but not really, as Andrew Clancy’s design offers us two images, the boy before us and his video apparition.

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The use of ‘live and dead’ video projections is integral to proceedings as the production attempts to bridge the gap between two generations, that of 11-year-old Hamnet (Aran Murphy) and his father William Shakespeare, appearing in video projection. It is all very clever, as experience shows Dead Centre works to be. (The company’s multi award-winning productions “Lippy” and “Chekhov’s First Play” were both featured at the Brisbane Festival in 2016).

This is, as its title suggests, the story of Shakespeare’s one son, named Hamnet, who was just 11 when he died in 1596, while his father was away pursuing his theatre career. Hamnet is too young to understand Shakespeare, but he knows that he is just one letter away from being a great man such as the Danish prince of his father’s 1599 creation, “Hamlet”. It is a limbo existence that is effectively translated using audio visual technology in combination with live performance, yet this is not all that makes the essentially solo work so interesting. Adding to astound is the performance of youngster Aran Murphy as the vulnerable boy looking for guidance of how to grow up, though he never will. Unassuming yet anxious about possibly meeting his father, he introduces himself hesitantly, with hint as to the extraordinary, honest and intuitive, perfectly-pitched performance about to unfold.

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Hamnet is a curious boy, not just as to why his father left him. Luckily there is Google to ask about things like quantum physics, especially as his father is away. It’s a sad state of affairs for the young boy and the show is quite poignant in his predominantly apologetic manner, heartbreaking anticipation of possibly meeting his father and sad lament about the weight of legacy (“Will somebody play me one day?”) Even ask to his father about his Hamnet/Hamlet preference does not elicit the straight answer response for which he yearns, meaning that even in recall of the show to another the next day, I found myself becoming emotional, such is its impact.

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Layered as it is, “Hamnet” features many Shakespearean quotations and allusions within its dialogue. There is humour too, especially in an early scene which sees an audience member called on stage to help the young boy act out a father-son scene from his namesake tragedy. Mostly though it is just Hamnet and his father’s projection ‘on’ stage together. And the result is at-once technically fascinating and touchingly heartfelt.

“Hamnet” is the type of original and though-provoking work that represents all that is great about festival finds. Indeed, it is theatre at its most riveting, deserving of its extended full standing ovation in acknowledgment of the power of show’s message, the innovation of its execution and also appreciation of experience of its Australian Premiere, exclusive to Brisbane as part of the festival.

Roma Street R&G

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands

August 23 – September 9

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With the twilight of a Roma Street Parklands’ Sunday afternoon-into-nightfall hued in blue, the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s band provides its evening’s audience with pre-show entertainment. Although this is so often the case for QSE shows, it is especially fitting for “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” given the speculative tragicomedy’s opening line…. “There is an art to the building up of suspense.”

The words come from Guildenstern (Paige Poulier) to Rosencrantz (Ellen Hardisty) as the two Elizabethans pass time betting on the toss of a coin. The duo are the bickering bit-players of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, childhood friends of the Danish Prince traveling to Elsinore after having been summoned by the treacherous King Claudius (who murdered Hamlet’s father to obtain the throne), to distract the young Dane from his apparent madness and if possible discover its cause. Only in this instance they seem unaware of their role in the larger drama and confused by the play’s events, such is the nature of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 absurdist play, which expands upon the exploits of the courtiers.

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The action takes place mainly ‘in the wings’ of Shakespeare’s play, with brief appearances of major characters from “Hamlet” who enact fragments of the original’s scenes. (The title is taken directly from the final scene of the Shakespearen text). Between these episodes the two protagonists voice their confusion at the progress of events occurring onstage without them. Then, after witnessing a performance of “The Murder of Gonzago”, they find themselves on a ship taking the exiled Prince Hamlet to England (if England even exists). They have intention to give the English king a letter instructing him to kill Hamlet. Instead, Hamlet discovers this and switches the letter for another. When the ship is attacked by pirates, Hamlet disappears and the letter is discovered to now include instruction to execute them (because what Shakespeare play is complete without a letter complication of some sort).

There is not a lot information given about the titular protagonists; there is expectation that viewers are familiar with Hamlet”, on which so much of its plot is based. So it clever to see the inside-out play cleverly featuring as part of a double bill, a first for the company, which sees the ensemble of 15 actors presenting it in ‘rep’ with “Hamlet”, alternating shows each night with actors playing the same role in both plays. And after experiencing their “Hamlet” first, (which is the recommended viewing order), there is an additional layer of appreciation that comes from seeing scene snippets play out identically as they did in the first instance. This also adds to audience contemplation as while in “Hamlet” we maybe disregarded Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when they are condemned to death by the now-antagonist Hamlet (Silvan Rus), we are encouraged to consider them afresh. Indeed, it is interesting to see the Danish prince anew even though he has no new lines, only some extra scene-time during the journey to England.

Perhaps even more unfortunate than the concluding killing spree of “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” (to use the play’s complete title), is the misfortune of witnessing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to grips with their disposability as plot devices in the play. After all the frivolity of the night’s absurdity, there is a lingering sadness as they leave the stage with implication that they believe they will be given chance to live, frustrated by the lack of certainty as to if the characters are killed or not (they have, after all, spent the entire play misunderstanding their circumstances).

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With such a range of emotions evoked, it is easy to appreciate the play’s function as a metaphor for the absurdity of life. As the enigmatic leader of the travelling actors (Colin Smith) observes, ‘life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it. While the theatre of the absurd may be characterised by its ignorance of traditional structures and (literal) ridiculousness, in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” The QSE has made the style all the more accessible to even the most reluctant of audience members; the modern-classic is as funny as even in its quick and clever word play, and volleying dialogue delivery. The pace only wanes slightly after intermission, however, this is due more to the script than the energy of the protagonists’ performances.

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Poulier starts strongly as the smarter-of-the-two Guildenstern in speculation that the two have entered an alternate universe, in which normal laws of probability, time, and chance do not apply. Despite spending most of the play in bafflement as Rosencrantz (often needing reminder even as to personal identity), Hardisty brings much humour to the role, especially in a ‘game of questions’ during which the pair maintain a dialogue of asking questions back and forth for as long as possible, without making any declarative statement, in which she uses physicality to heighten competitiveness to great comic effect.  of questions physicality to competitiveness. Also a standout is Colin Smith as the First Player, prancing about the stage in attempt to lewdly pimp out and provoke interest in his troupe band, collectively known as the Tragedians. He milks every bit of wit from his character’s speeches, entertaining with his every movement, gesture, look and facial expression. And it is wonderful to see more of the troupe’s melodrama in rehearsal of the play within a play to catch the conscience of the king.

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Whereas Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is a tragedy with minor moments of comedy, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is a comedy with occasional moments of tragedy and there are a lot of deep philosophical truths evident in its nonsensical ramblings. This means that although its irreverence is central, the play often sways into big themes around life’s complexities, about morality and death as the ultimate negative (in addition to the dangers of going on a trip on a ship) and in amongst its continual questions and mixed metaphor word plays, there are a lot of meta-theatre mentions for audience appreciation.

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In the hands of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, the juxtapositions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s misadventures and musings are highly entertaining. Additionally, there is also the appeal of the play’s location; like always, the unique Roma Street Parkland setting aesthetics contribute much to the experience, such as when scenes end with the travelling troupe of performers dispersing into the night or, on Sunday night, when the show features a possum assuming a short-lived starring role.

Princely play

Hamlet (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands

August 23 – September 9

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I love “Hamlet”; it is my preferred Shakespearean tragedy and visiting its Kronborg Castle setting was my favourite of all days when touristing in Denmark. There is something rotten in the Denmark state of this ultimate revenge drama though. After his father’s death, Prince Hamlet (Silvan Rus) is overlooked for the crown in favour of his uncle, Claudius (Ben Prindable), who has not only killed Hamlet’s father but married his mother Gertrude (Liliana Macarone). In the complicated plot the follows the Danish Prince feigns (or perhaps not) insanity, kills his ‘girlfriend’ Ophelia’s (Sarah Doyle) father, the elderly Lord Chamberlain Polonius (Frances Marrington), drives Ophelia to madness, directs a play within a play and take revenges on his uncle, at the cost of almost every life on stage.

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From the outset, Hamlet suspects foul play around his uncle’s coronation, which is confirmed to audiences as the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble production begins with a ghost. With Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio (Dudley Powell) as witness, the apparition of Hamlet’s father appears, evocatively lit against backdrop of the Roma Street parklands (as both audience are seated and the majority of the performance takes place on its amphitheatre stage). Abridged a little (because who has time for all 4000 lines of this, the Bard’s longest play), but with only authenticity in those scenes that are presented, this “Hamlet”, under the direction of Rob Pensalfini makes some interesting choices, particularly in play with the characters. Although in his famous Act Three nunnery scene ‘soliloquy’, the Prince ponders the pain and unfairness of life as ‘the question’, uncertainty is evident in many characters whose worlds have shifted.

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Minor characters bring much to their moments on stage. And as the new King, Prindable makes for an almost likeable, more than calculating Claudius. Still, he is very statesmanlike in his manner, enunciating the text well, which sees the show off a solid start. Also notable is Powell, as the harbinger of truth, Horacio, Hamlet’s one true confidant. Together they balance each other’s essential sensibilities, in scenes that ground the play in reality. Indeed, their relationship is interestingly the one that conveys the most on-stage chemistry.

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Rus is exciting to watch in one of the most challenging of titular roles. His idiosyncratic energy never wanes as he speaks more (by a ratio of two to one) than any other character of the Shakespeare canon. Initially emotional and then apparently quite mad, his Hamlet is far from an original-emo type protagonist. Instead of wallowing in melancholy, he is the ultimate anti-hero, intensely passionate in both contemplation and sardonic contempt, but also ambitious and unreliable due to his own destructive mindset. And Rus’s stagecraft is impressive, especially in Act Five’s sword fight with an avenging Laertes (Nick Rijs), which thanks to Justin Palazzo-Orr’s fight direction serves as a real highlight. Gender blind casting sees Marrington as Polonoius, who not only shares the introspective but ironic maxim ‘to thine own self be true’, but interacts energetically with the audience without necessarily entirely breaking the fourth wall, which both adds humour and enhances authenticity.

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Comedy features throughout the work. The Gravedigger fool (Rebecca Murphy) of the tragedy’s final act, provides some delightfully simple but effective visual comedy and also quick-witted dialogue with Hamlet ahead (#punintended) of discovery of the skull of the castle’s beloved jester Yorick. And, as has been the case in many of QSE’s previous shows, there is a deliberate emphasis of the play’s crude puns. As he flirts with madness, Hamlet is persistent and less-than-subtle in his inappropriate humour, in revelation of his fundamental sanity. But humour is found not only in dialogue, but also in the physicality added to the spaces in between the script’s words. And the melodramatic re-enactment by players of Hamlet’s fathers’ death in a play within the play, “The Murder of Gonzago”, about a murder in Vienna, is a real riot.

Live music is also again used to memorable effect, transitioning scenes and evoking an apt emotional palette. Although staging is sparse, there is an apparent attention to detail down to the prominence of Danish flags always on stage in show of the macro politics at play along with the narrative’s essential family dynamics. Setting also again serves almost as a character itself with the eerie shadows and sounds of a wintery parkland adding to the atmosphere (rug up for a comfortable experience).

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Not only was “Hamlet” one of William Shakespeare’s most popular works during his lifetime, but it still ranks among his most performed, so one could easily label it a safe production choice, with which a company can’t go wrong. This is, however, far from true, although not in this instance. Not only have the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble presented an engaging take on one of the most powerful and influential works of world literature, but in a first for the company, the ensemble of 15 actors will present it in ‘rep’ with “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, Tom Stoppard’s absurdist, existential tragicomedy expansion upon the exploits of the two (minor) courtier characters from “Hamlet”, alternating shows each night with actors playing the same role in both plays. As Rozencrantz himself says, “their endeavor keeps in the wonted pace” and as audiences we can only reap the benefits of the company’s ambitious 2018 parkland provocations.

Reworking woe

Romeo & Juliet & Friends (Pastiche Theatre Collective)

Daily Planet Café

May 12 – 20

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Everyone knows the story of star-crossed lovers Romeo and Juliet. The tragic tale of their untimely deaths reconciling the two households of their feuding fair-Verona families is one of Shakespeare’s most frequently performed plays. Its woe has been reworked countless times, on this occasion in Wickham Street’s Daily Planet Cafe courtesy of Pastiche Theatre Collective. Rather than reimagining the classic as so many of its reworks do, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” gets straight to the core of its acclaim, condensing the two hours’ traffic, balancing its poetic language with contemporary vernacular and adding a musical soundtrack. There are also pauses throughout to make mention of earlier source material of Arthur Brooke et al, in show of how Shakespeare’s work is itself an adaptation. There is even metatheatre consideration of the question of adaptation which turns into an inset affirmative vs negative school debate.

Modern twists appear from the outset of the boisterous take through reappropriation of the prologue as a rap and later as the Nurse banters in text message with her mistress’ bae. Simple additions also establish characters beyond just the white frill collars of each of the four performers. Props serve their purpose too; milk crates are stacked to represent loving Juliet’s iconic balcony and foam swords become makeshift guitars one moment and in the next, Act Three fiddlesticks in the swordfight that sees the witty Mercutio stabbed. The venue itself is of good size for an intimate show of this sort with enough space for not only a decent stage area, but for actors to head into and around the audience to unfold some scenes.

The abridgment obviously means that many scenes are lost. The fairies midwife Queen Mab, for example, barely gets a mention, but the work does not suffer because of it. Wise content choices keep the integrity of the original text while adding interest and momentum. Having the scene of the Friar telling Romeo to flee to Mantua play out physically alongside the Nurse reporting to a heartbroken Juliet about his banishment, works wonderfully, for example.

Appropriately, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” starts out as a lively comedy before taking a sharp turn into drama. The performers assume multiple roles with ease and there is no confusion around their switches thanks to simple costumes and characterisation. And they are very funny, especially in gender blind casting which sees Daniel Simpson have a great time with his lines as Juliet’s chatty and excitable Nurse and Georgia Nielsen relishing in the comedy of the overly-invested Friar Laurence. Sam Valentine transitions easily a raging Lord Capulet determined to have his daughter married to a charming, lovestruck Romeo, and is excellent in both guises. Similarly, Samantha Sherrin is both the bold, quick-tempered ‘Prince of Cats’ Tybalt and a headstrong Juliet. Both Valentine and Sherrin are at their best in their protagonist roles after Romeo is banished; Sherrin excels, for example, in her emotional monologues.

Like its melodramatic source material, “Romeo & Juliet & Friends” has a lot going on and, as such, a lot to offer. While answer as to the ‘to adapt or not to adapt’ question is answered by the work itself, there is enough of both perspectives within it to keep proponents of either side of argument satisfied. As this accessible examination of the cannon classic shows, clearly, there’s life in the old play yet.

Bard style and stuff

‘All the world’s a stage’ we are told by a melancholy Jaques in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”. In the coming weeks this is especially true as the Anywhere Theatre Festival offers opportunity for Brisbane audiences to be immersed in theatre anywhere. This is not a normal theatre festival with shows instead taking stage in carparks, heritage homes, bookstores and backyards, amongst other obscure locations…. anywhere but on a traditional theatre stage.

Jaques’ iconic monologue opener is especially apt for this year’s festival, which features a number of Shakespeare works…. of sort. Shakespeare Plugged In’s “Much Ado” is a collaboration in the form of an immersive rock event featuring original tracks adapted from Shakespeare and written by local musicians. Indeed, the epic immersive creation promises killer music as it attempts to fit its witty Shakespearean comedy namesake with original songs, into 90 minute story of competing musicians on and off stage on the night of a home venue gig, performed in and around legendary Brisbane bar and venue, The Zoo.

Amongst other Shakespeares there is also Pastiche Theatre Collective’s “Romeo and Juliet and Friends” at Fortitude Valley’s Daily Planet Café which, rather than serving as an adaption, sets out to explore why we feel the need to keep changing the original tale of woe. And not really using a text at all is “A Midsummer Night’s Whatever” from Edge Improv at Annerley’s Junction Hotel, which every night sees its three actors devise and perform a band new Shakespearean play, based on audience suggestions.

One problem with getting people to see Shakespeare is that it’s often quite long, so these productions, which are of more manageable duration make for excellent either alternatives or toe-dippers to traditional takes. Coming fresh from opening night last week of Queensland Theatre’s “Twelfth Night” I am eager to keep the Shakespeare ball rolling by seeing 400+ year old texts being given new life by practitioners experimenting with dressing them up, stripped them down and turning them inside out.

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While online dialogue of late may be around consideration of it there might be too much Shakespeare, productions continue to show how, even when modernised and recontextualised, his works remain universal in their themes of passion, love, lust, loyalty and vengeance, which, as human emotions are not dependent upon time, place or culture. Certainly there is power in forcing an audience to consider a new take on what they thought they knew. To have the experience unfold in an unusual setting only adds to the curiosity, making the suggestion of shows like those on offer at this year’s Anywhere Festival entirely irrestable to a Bard girl like myself.

This is my fifth (I think) year as a Festival reviewer and, with this repertoire in mind, I know that anything Act React is also sure to be great. Having brought Brisbane smash, sell-out hits such as “Speed: The Movie, The Play” and “Titanic: the Movie, The Play” and last year’s Anywhere Theatre Festival fun “Let Them Eat Cake”, the improve troupe are back again with “Kiss of the Vampire Squid”, a tribute to nautical myths and legends, and ghost stories of the sea, on-board the HMAS Diamantina at the Queensland Maritime Museum at South Bank. With promise of a live piano accordion soundtrack some marvellous ocean-inspired creature creations in complement to its audience-inspired comedy, it is sure to be heaps of fun when it kicks off on opening night of the Festival on Thursday 10th May for its sixth show run.

This of course, is but a mere snapshot of what this year’s bigger and better Anywhere Theatre Festival has on show. There is so much ado around in Brisbane during May; you just need to look around and, in the case of the Anywhere Theatre Festival, get immersed for unique theatre experiences and Shakespeare like you haven’t seen before.