Princely play

Hamlet (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands

August 23 – September 9


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.


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.


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).


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.

Behind brotherhood

Nineteen (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 9 – 12


Wax Lyrical Productions’ dark comedy “Nineteen” begins with a confronting challenge: to consider the reasons behind the four male characters’ behaviour rather than dismissing it as offensive. And what follows is offensive as we see a group of mates in all of their bravodish binge-drinking glory in talk to each other and about women. (The show comes with warning of coarse language, partial nudity and adult themes, drug and alcohol use, smoking, self-harm and sexual themes).

The unapologetically flawed four, friends since a teen pact to always be best mates, live together in a rundown house. With a fridge to keep their beer cold and a toilet the mostly flushes, they seem happy enough, but appearance and reality are out of alignment and it doesn’t take much for the group to change from inseparable mates to lonely individuals.

There is, as narrator of sorts George Mills (Leonard Donahue) reflects, something deeper. Milsey, as he is known, is studying to be a writer so likes to tell stories such as this. It’s a story shared through a foreshadowing lens, as the audience is told early on that one of the four will be soon be dead. Clearly, each one has their demons and, in watching, audience opinion oscillates between whose fate is doomed (not necessarily noticing the hints that are easily acknowledged retrospectively), because being a man is not easy and uncomfortable honest confessions are not always as profound in themselves as they are in their consequences.


Emotionally vulnerable George, gym obsessed Josh (Jackson McGovern), obliging Adam (Daniel Hurst) and his older, angry brother Noah (Silvan Rus) don’t talk about things in any meaningful way; that’s not what men do. And silence is well used to emphasise the things unsaid. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a less-than-subtle repeat of ‘when you’re a man’ in explanation of perpetuated ‘real-man’ expectations of boorishness and lack of communication.

Staging is naturalistic, allowing for use of all of its space, but with a long rope symbolically webbing its way around the stage. And, the soundscape plays an important part in highlighting the housemates’ hide from their complex inner worlds. What raises the show to greater heights, however, are the performances, particularly those of Hurst and Rus as bantering brothers; it is obvious how talented and committed they are to their performances.


From beers and brotherhood to loss and loneliness, “Nineteen” uncovers the hidden, toxic aspect of masculinity through its exploration of ‘if only’. Beyond being an exercise in male privilege, it rawly reflects real hopes and fears, having been crafted from interviews with over 90 young people. As such, it reveals not only an unmistakable Australian extreme sense of humour but rips apart the mythology of masculinity, making it an important and necessary work for right now.

Photos c/o – Joel Devereux

Playing the laughter on

Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

August 24 – September 8

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

As their previous productions in the parklands have shown, The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble rarely disappoints in bringing the Bard’s works to life and in the group’s hands, “Twelfth Night” is accordingly a hilarious share of its revels.

The perennial favourite features many of Shakespeare’s predictable play patterns; there is a shipwreck, a countess in morning, a lovelorn Duke, misplaced love, confusion of twins, a girl disguised as a boy, a melancholy fool and of course a letter. The combination makes for a memorable romantic comedy of mistaken identities.

The play centres on twins Viola (Anthea Patrick), a young woman of aristocratic birth and Sebastian (Silvan Rus), who are separated in a shipwreck. Viola (who is disguised as a boy) falls in love with the powerful nobleman Duke Orsino (Lilana Macarone), who in turn is in love with the wealthy and beautiful Countess Olivia (Linda Taimre). Upon meeting Viola, Countess Olivia falls in love with her thinking she is a man.

Although the narrative necessitates a truly ensemble production, within the madness there are some outstanding performances. The lively comic scenes become highlights in the hands of Paige Poulier as the crude and jolly Sir Toby Belch and Chris Vaag as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, appropriate for a play in which the fools are the ones who control the humour through creating confusion. When joined by Rob Pesalfini as Feste to become three merry men rowdily turning the mistress’ home into an ale-house, the result is total hilarity, of both the physical and verbal kind. For as Feste proclaims in Act One, “Better a witty fool, than a foolish wit”.


Chris Vaag’s performance as the foolish knight, goaded into duelling and slowly having his money pilfered by Sir Toby, is a standout; he steals not only every scene but every moment he is on stage as the dim-witted and vain clown, with a Frank Spencer-ish wimpish smile and woe-is-me persona. And he is a hilarious, nuanced drunk who, even when intoxicated, is capable of making a good pun. And when Sir Andrew and Sir Toby are joined by one of Olivia’s servants, Fabian (Silvan Rus) in the garden of Olivia’s house to play their practical joke on the notoriously-abused Malvolio (Colin Smith) there is more mirth as the three men hide among the trees and shrubbery.


As the melancholy Malvolio, Smith is initially indignant and self-righteous as the stern, straight-laced head servant in the household of Lady Olivia. And even before the full effect of the cruel trick in making him believe that Olivia is in love with him is revealed, there is hint at evocation of audience sympathy in his Act Two monologue consideration of the forged declaration, thanks to an engaging delivery that exploits timing and emphasis to full effect, making the lines appear as clearly as if they were in a modern text. And then there is the Malvolio of later acts, hysterical as he struts about wearing cross-gartered yellow stockings and with strange plastered smile (mistakenly believing that this is Olivia’s desire).

This is a polished production that makes the most of every opportunity. Cover costumes enhance characters and add visual appeal to the often intimate staging, as once again, the audience sits upon the stage, allowing action to be spilled into the tiered amphitheatre and lush parkland surrounds. And it is appropriate for a show that begins with the immortal lines ‘If music be the food of love play on”, that live music features as another highlight, not just as a vital part of the show itself, but pre-show and at intermission, from a band of multi-talented cast members. This also an authenticity to the experience as the ragtag band of merry minstrels go on to bring the Shakespearean classic alive in such as gloriously chaotic manner.


Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble is a vibrant, energetic and enthusiastic company whose work is always worth watching for not only its entertainment value but its success in making the Bard’s works so accessible to modern audiences. With such a vivid text, lively performances and atmospheric additions, “Twelfth Night” guarantees a great time to had by all.

Parisian ponderings

Appalling Behaviour (Wax Lyrical Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 10 – 13

An unnamed homeless man (Tom Markiewicz) appears from amongst a makeshift rubble of rubbish. Wearing a strappy back dress and with a face smeared with red lipstick, he is unapologetically flawed, appearing as quite the tragic sight. It is an introductory image entirely befitting the story of life on the edges of society, which he will chronical over the following 55 minutes.

Wax Lyrical Production’s new adaptation of Stephen House’s “Appalling Behaviour”, told as complex monologue, is dark, gritty and enticing as the show’s anti-hero shares of how declining mental health and various addictions lead him on a downward spiral of powerlessness and vulnerability.  Things start slowly and initially it is difficult to give over to complete captivation of his story, but the honestly of his delivery and appeal of the dialogue’s eloquence, combined with some latter comic moments, court the audience’s attention. And despite its often uncomfortable themes, this night with a homeless queen in the sleazy Parisian underworld also contains some lovely messages about humanity and the need for compassion as the sadness from within this beautiful city is shared.

Appalling Behaviour

Staging is appropriately simple, both in consideration of the intimacy of the Powerhouse’s Turbine Studio and for the solitary nature of its story. Lighting effectively takes audiences through transitions from the shadows of sorrow to the strobe of a Parisian nightclub. And the addition of touching live music from Silvan Rus adds a valuable layer to a work which is ultimately both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Its realism (the work was based on the playwright’s own experiences of living on the streets of Paris) also adds to the appeal of the man’s stories of a woeful world on the streets alongside his hustler ‘friend’ Romano and the troubled Caroline, his perceived ‘Princess of Paris’. Markiewicz is a dynamic presence from the moment he begins the story, embracing the formidable task of an almost-hour-long monologue of precise, image-evoking language and concentrated emotional extremes. Not only does his performance promote the identifiable human values of humanity and goodness within the character, but it gives audiences much to ponder about the experience of those on the fringes of society beyond the banks of the Seine.

Ready for revenge

Titus (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)

Roma Street Parklands, Amphitheatre

August 19 – September 6

dad and stumps

The Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble is committed to sharing Shakespeare’s epic stories. And when it comes to epic they don’t get much grander than the bloody, vengeful “Titus Andronicus”, the source of their latest work, “Titus” in which we are told:

I must talk of murders, rapes, and massacres, 
Acts of black night, abominable deeds,
Complots of mischief, treason, villanies
Ruthful to hear, yet piteously perform’d:

The comic tragedy tells begins with the great, fictional Roman general, Titus Andronicus (Rob Pensalfini) returning home victorious but battle-weary after a decade-long, brutal war with the Goths. His first act is to ritually sacrifice his prisoner, the eldest son of his now Goth Queen, Tamora (Rebecca Murphy). However, when the corrupt Saturninus (Benjamin Prindable) is made Emperor and surprisingly makes Tamora his Queen, a new battle ensues as Tamora, and then Titus, enact a cycle of double revenge that sees violent acts met with violent deeds.

In the arduous role of the titular Titus, ‘the woefullest man who ever lived in Rome’, Pensalfini anchors the production with a steadfast performance as he did as Prospero in last year’s “The Tempest”. His Titus is enigmatic as he traverses his narrative of heroic veteran, stoic parent, crazy victim and clever revenger, for as with all the primary characters, his performance is one that emphasises the complexity to Shakespeare’s characters. As the Machiavellian villain Aaron, the Moor, Silvan Rus does an expert job of revealing his cunning, delighting in his malevolence in a manner like that of Shakespeare’s future Iago. Even when suggesting that Tamora’s sons rape Titus’ only daughter Lavinia before killing her as mean of affording Tamora her revenge, there is a musicality to his dialogue delivery that makes for a thoroughly engaging performance.

Rebecca Murphy is appropriate controlled and cold-hearted as the sensual but merciless Tamora, Queen of the Goths, unmoved by Lavinia’s pleas with her as a fellow woman to kill her to spare the pain and public stain of rape. Her performance is dramatic without being overly so, which is no easy task given the character’s selfishness and lack of feeling in delegating infanticide of her newborn, illegitimate son to his father’s hands. However, it is Johancee Theron who leaves the most lasting impression. Her energetic revelatory performance as Lavinia, ranges from chaste, obedient but feisty betrothed (she would be a marvel in the role of Kat in “The Taming of the Shrew”) to beaten-down, brutal rape victim. Disfigured and mute after the incident, she is deprived of traditional communication, yet her performance transcends this incapacitation as she shares emotion and even injects humour through subtle facial expressions and expressive eyes.


As much as modernisations and adaptations of Shakespearean plays have a place as evidence of his currency as a contemporary voice, there is something satisfying to the experience of seeing a more traditional take on his work, still able to actively engage its audience in such an array of emotions (especially for those unfamiliar with the horrific details of the show’s climactic, cannibalistic banquet). Not only does this “Titus” handle the story’s macabre aspects well, but it cleverly uses humour to engage the audience into lulled satisfaction ahead of its disturbing savagery as Rus showcases Aaron’s sadistic charm through playful, teasing sexual innuendo and even a ‘your mother’ joke as taunt to his lover’s sons, never missing a beat in terms of timing.

The choice to again have audience members seated on stage allows the action to be given a depth befitting its vast and varied scene-scapes as players take the action into the tied seating of the Roma Street Parkland Amphitheatre’s terraced stalls, with the pit over stage edge also becoming a convenient way of disposing of many of the tragedy’s victims, making transitions subtle and seamless. This is a production that knows how to make a visual impact. The proximity of audience members literally allows viewers to, in some instances, come face-to-face with characters, which affords additional investment in their narrative. And the incorporation of live music and movement inspired by the Japanese dance theatre form, Butoh only add to the interest and aesthetic appeal of show that is already visually lush with detailed costumes and atmospheric lighting, particularly a menacing red that awashes the ‘stage’ during its moments of heightened horror.

red dance

While it is a fictional account, unlike Shakespeare’s other Roman plays, “Titus Andronicus” contains echoes of many of the Bard’s later plays, with a finale scene revelation much like in “Othello”. Indeed, for Shakespeare enthusiasts there is much value in its consideration as one Shakespeare’s earlier works and its repeated negative Moor imagery in Aaron’s villainous choices in contrast to the unfortunate circumstances of Othello’s villainy a decade later. But this is far from an elitist work for Shakespeare aficionados. As exploration of the raw, primal instinct for retribution, “Titus” is a gripping production, well worth seeing for those looking for some Roma Street Parkland revenge. QSE is to be commended for daring to take on Shakespeare’s bloodiest and most violent work and showing audiences that there is more to the Bard’s tragedies than tales of youthful woe. Clearly, it not only respects the work but deserves to have audiences flocking to see how they do Shakespeare… properly.