Intertextual idealism

Brutal Utopias (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

May 18 – 28

“Brutal Utopias” is a bold and interesting new work by Brisbane’s own Stephen Carleton. The latest production in Playlab Theatre’s 2022 program, presented in partnership with Metro Arts, is an epic story about legacy and impact, that gives its audience members much to contemplate about having the courage of their convictions in response to life’s ethical dilemmas.

We begin with talented Australian Geo-Engineer Natalia Hoskings meeting new colleagues in Planning and Development at New York’s, Jackson and Saxon, having come from saving the third word in the central Pacific Ocean. Before long, however, we are swept back to Cold War Yugoslavia where Branislav and Valentina Radovic are being visited by an interpreter representing the President of Indonesia looking to commission design of a theme park hotel expression of the nation’s spirit, rather than in the era’s typically brutalist design…. modern and original, but also unpretentious in their bold and unapologetic aesthetic.

As conversation turns to combining the modern and traditional, there is humour in analogy explanations, but also the first tease of the play’s weighty subject matter. What follows is a provocative consideration of pragmatism vs idealism, patriotism and cultural responsibility, that characterises the Patrick White Award-Winning playwright’s intellectual script. Indeed, it’s a dense 90 minutes as audience members are jumped between Yugoslavia, New York and even Coolum.

As story returns to the modern-day home of global capitalism, talk is of a superstorm surge that sees lower Manhattan in need to a sea wall (of sorts) mitigation project to keep Wall Street high and dry from rising sea levels. Changing the habits of the city’s inhabitants is more difficult, meaning that Natalia’s suggestions for costal resilience fall on deaf ears, even to her mother, who is visiting as an escape from the reality of her life in Australia. Determined to attack the problem at its source, Natalia is steadfast in her determination not to dismiss the interrelationships that have and will continue to lead to catastrophe.

Clearly passionate, Natalia also has a penchant for dramatisation, including of the circumstances around her parents flee to Australia as refugees from Eastern Europe, as the story opens out into its wider themes. Amongst the big-picture considerations of compromise for the greater good, are many smaller moments of humour and alike. Many laughs come from Natalia’s Australian-in-America moments, often exacerbated by Anthony Standish’s pitch-perfect performance as Natalia’s very American gum-chewing, vaping boss, who manages by sports analogy.

There are no weak links within the show’s powerhouse cast of Ashlee Lollback, Michael Mandalios, Nikhil Singh, Anthony Standish and Kate Wilson. The ability of performers to switch characters, and accents, through swift scenes changes is a testament to their talent and means that even with only minimal costumes changes, characters are always distinct. And from when first see their characters meet at the Algonquin Hotel of Dorothy Parker fame, Lollback and Wilson, project a believable mother-daughter dynamic, authentic down to the smallest details of physical interaction and verbal inflections within their conversations.

A sophisticated aesthetic enhances Matt Scholten’s tight direction. Designer Bill Haycock’s striking set easily guides us through the story’s dual timelines, with the use sometimes of mirrors and alike to allow for added depth, while the subtleties of Guy Webster’s sound design plant us firmly in a New York City soundscape of background noise.

“Brutal Utopias” is a rich, multi-themed work, built upon a scaffold of architecture, but about so much more. Beneath its examination of the intersection between lofty ideals and realpolitik, there are a lot of intertextual and contemporary references throughout the play that contribute much to making it such an engaging theatrical experience, rewarding in realisation of its intersections of story and character. Crafted down to its finest details, it gives its audience much to consider with regards to idealism and compromise, making it both of its time and of all times, as all great pieces of theatre are.

Elephant absurdity

104181901_10159983708540744_1391391585085444296_o

The Turquoise Elephant (Queensland Theatre)

June 23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Territory Truths

Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre Company and Jute Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 6 – 16

A male voice begins from beneath the cloak of darkness, asking what identity the audience can create from just its sounds. What follows this initial challenge is a very human account of the narrator, Russell’s (Benhur Helwend) search for self, set against the story of a city’s attempts to carve out an identity. Russell is determined to be more than just a Friday night drag show (although his Act Three Bassey-esque “This Is My Life” is as impressive as it is thematically appropriate). But he is conflicted by his past. He doesn’t know who his biological father is, his mother Lois (Lauren Jackson) disappeared when he was eight and he has been raised by a conservative father Neville, who carries his own demons from his time in 1960s New Guinea, before repatriation to Darwin.

png.jpg

Over three acts, and with help from era-evocative costumes and soundtracks, the audience is transported back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and then the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as the city sits poised for political progress. With mentions of mahjong, TAA and apricot chicken, the Tupperware world of 1960s expats is established early in Act One. Newly-married, former hostie Lois doesn’t take naturally to the colonial plantation attitude of some within her new Port Moresby home, clashing deliciously in her interactions with the spiteful Nanette (played to perfection by Suellen Maunder), a woman initially loveably stereotypical in her delight in others’ business and later passively aggressive in her manipulations. With Lois’ public servant husband Neville (Peter Norton) forcussed on his work, she joins the ‘Moresby Arts Theatre’, where her mind is not all that is stimulated.

sue

Fast forward a stormy post-Tracey Darwin, when the kaftans and crème de menthe are both flowing to a soundtrack of Nana Mascuri and Abba and, unbeknown to Russell, the past arrives to catch up with his mother and tear her away from his life. Then it is 2001 and Russell and his partner Alistair have transformed Russell’s childhood home into a hip, urban art gallery by day, queer cabaret venue by night, much to the chagrin of Russel’s now elderly father.

It is a complex story, directed with precision by Ian Lawson, to account for the multiple roles of four of six actors in the cast. Helwend, in particular shows remarkable versatility, equally convincing in his varied potential father roles of draft-dodging artist, fierce freedom fighter and obliging houseboy, and also especially as his almost eight-year-old narrator self in Act Two. And Jackson captures the conflict of his mother, torn as she is between her need to nurture, want towards wanderlust and dissatisfaction with her lot in life.

mum.jpg

The standout performance, however, comes from the Country Party Minister Neville Senior (Steven Tandy) of Act Three, cutting in his comments to his son, accepting of his party’s impending loss of long-term power and cognisant of his own mortality

Like an anecdotal reflection “Bastard Territory” is not linear in its narrative, but, like memory, the saga jumps around a little in recall of events, all while maintaining a central focus on a flawed family. Stephen Carelton has created a story that is wry with humour, yet powerful and affecting. Some of its most commanding moments come from when dialogue is delivered in unison from the younger Neville, overlooked by his aged self.

old dad.jpg

This is what makes the show so rewarding; the fact that at the core of the confessional drama is a beautiful story about people, not just ideas, brought to life by a superb cast. As such, it is well worth the investment of time to join Russell on his journey towards discovery of his truth.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography + Film