The trauma of truths told

The Secret River (Queensland Theatre Company presents a Sydney Theatre Company production)

QPAC, The Playhouse

February 25 – March 5

“The Secret River” is an Australian classic; the internationally acclaimed 2005 novel by Kate Grenville has won numerous awards, the ABC miniseries was a 2015 television highlight and its Sydney Theatre Company stage adaptation has been lauded as outstanding. Accordingly, it is difficult to review the revived adaptation’s Brisbane opening without resorting to a run of superlatives as descriptors, for this is a play that will surely assume a place in the Australian theatrical canon.

“The Secret River” is a difficult story to tell, but a painful and profoundly moving one that needs to be recognised in acknowledgement of this nation’s tragic past and with view to a shared, inclusive future. The grand historical drama tells the story of William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) who is transported to the colony of New South Wales in 1806, with his wife Sal (Georgia Adamson) as his master. Pardoned within a few years, he celebrates his emancipation by taking his family to settle on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, of which everyone speaks but few had seen, at the extreme edge of the Sydney Town settlement of the time. He sees a blank page on which he can write a new life despite word of the outrages and depredations occurring in the area. The problem is that the land is part of the territory of the Darug people. As hostility escalates between the families, Thornhill, seduced by his passionate desire for a new life and legacy, makes a decision to stay with him the rest of his life.

greeting.jpg

Changes to the original text are understandable, however, with the story not touching the Thornhill’s time as a Thames Bargeman in London and then life in servitude in Sydney Town, allusion to the work’s title and the Hawkesbury’s appeal as the ‘best hidden river in the world’ is lost. Decisions about how to stage tricky moments within the production, are, however, embraced. Instead of a group of children swimming in the river, for example, they waterslide across the stage in a moment that is perhaps even more joyous.

boys playing.jpg

The use of narrator Dhirrumbin (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) takes the story to a whole new level, broadening the novel’s third-person perspective to allow the audience to see things through Dharug eyes, as well as Thornill’s. She not only keeps the play emotionally grounded, but encompasses the work by her very existence; the name Dhirriumbin in the play means river, so the river is telling the story.

narrator.jpg

As Director Neil Armfield notes in the program notes, three years on from its original Sydney Theatre Company season, the show continues to evolve, not only through conversations about the use of the Dharug language but also a new epilogue in which massacre survivor Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) heartbreakingly concludes with the words ‘my place’.

end act one singalong.jpg

An epic story of this sort requires a large cast, yet it is without a single weak link. As Thornhill, Dean conveys the quiet desperation of a man wanting to define his identity. Adamson is equally strong-willed as Sal. Determined to stay only five years to earn enough for passage home to England, her down-to-earth, bordering-on-bawdy nature provides many of the show’s early light-hearted moments. By contrast, Richard Piper is perfectly unlikeable as the starved-for-company, menacing and aggressively racist settler neighbour Smasher Sullivan, harsh in demeanour down to his high-pitched snigger.

smasher.jpg

The most powerful performance, however, comes from Kelton Pell as Dharug man Yalamundi, commanding in his every appearance, despite his non-English dialogue. Heath Jelovic, too provides a memorable performance as the youngest of the Thornhill children, Dick, bringing an aching honesty to his interaction with the Dharug family and attempts to convince his father of their shared humanity.

boy.jpg

Certainly frontier wars exist as a silence within the narrative of Australian history and engaging with the dark parts of our heritage has to be a positive, not just of reconciliation but as a fundamental part of ensuring identity as a society. However, despite his lack of moral courage, Thornhill isn’t demonised, but, rather, presented as a dedicated family man pressured into undertaking an appalling act.

confontation.jpg

As the two families grapple with language and cultural barriers there are many tense moments. Things are not always shocking, however. Act Two, for example, begins with some humourous moments as the cultural clash between Sal and some of the Dharug women becomes a source of humour, belying for a moment the sinister storyline to follow.

women humour.jpg

Stephen Curtis’ staging is perhaps the best of anything seen in a Brisbane theatre. The set is simple, yet majestic; the vast Playhouse space is fringed by eucalyptus branches, poking from around the scaffolds of lighting. Folds of cloth fall from ceiling to floor in suggestion of the bark of a giant gum tree to at once create a sense of place and establish the vastness of the continent into which the settlers have ventured. To one side, there is just one campfire, around which an Aboriginal family and a settler family alternately gather, creating a focus.

staging.jpg

The story is shaped from here, using clever props; soil is dug, trees are cleared, a rope becomes a boat and blowing flour in the air gives the impression of muskets being fired. Initially steely lighting is warmed by the time of the pre-intermission sing-along by settlers at the centre of their small, cozied world, and complemented by Grandage’s exquisite music, gorgeously realised on piano and cello by Isaac Hayward, performing live with the cast.

music.jpg

At one level, “The Secret River” is a complex and engrossing story of family and place. Simultaneously, it is an important, unsettling tale in the truth of this nation’s history, full of prophetic commentary like when settler-neighbour Thomas Blackwood (Colin Moody), who speaks the local Aboriginal language and lives with an Aboriginal woman with whom he has a child, warns that ‘ain’t nothing in the world just for the taking’.

Like all great works of art, this superb, multi-layered show appropriately renders one speechless. Indeed, when the play is over nobody in the audience of 850 seems to want to break the moment. And even after a prolonged, tearful standing ovation silence still hung over the opening night audience beyond their comforting of each other as they filed out of the theatre, stunned and traumatised in the most beautiful way.

Double blind devotion

The Effect (Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

June 7 – July 5  

“The Effect” is the story of four characters, set in a research facility for a pharmaceutical company studying the effects of a new drug regime in pursuit of relief for depression. Two paid volunteers, Tristan (Mark Leonard Winter), an energetic, flirty idealist and Connie (Anna McGahan), an uptight psychology student, come to the venture with their own emotional baggage. And despite the trial’s strict rules, as their dosages increase, they start to fall in love. Or do they? Is their newfound devotion instinctive or a by-product of dopamine? Is love double blind? And does it even matter?

Is depression the result of external factors or a consequence of chemical imbalance? This is the question explored in some interesting, albeit verbose debates between doctors Toby (Eugene Gilfedder) and Doctor James (Angie Milliken) – difficult subjects to tackle on stage, but ones that are handled well. Indeed, with such intellectual themes at its core, “The Effect” is an intelligent work its examination of sanity, neurology and modern science.

But the clinical romance is also funny and moving, thanks in no small part to the skilled performances from all four of its actors. Mark Leonard Winter, in particular, has a strong and immediate stage presence; he is passionate and endearing as Tristan. The sleek minimalism of the simple staging not only suits the actor-driven piece, but QTC’s intimate Bille Brown studio space. Glossy black tiles and overhead fluorescence lighting create a stark, clinical, almost sci-fi setting. Guy Webster’s soundscape also serves to heighten the situation.

theeffect_qtc

The play certainly has many elements to engage its audience and the first half, in particular, is entertaining in its buoyancy, flirtation and genuine humour. Act Two, however, sees things taking a serious turn and, in doing so, there is a struggle to maintain tension, perhaps due to the monologue-ish dialogue dominance that seems to halt its action and extend its running time.

I was aware of the acclaim of “The Effect” going into to see the show (it won the 2012 UK Critic’s Circle Theatre Award for Best New Play); my Whovian knowledge bank includes the fact that UK production featured Billy Piper in her National Theatre debut, in a role written specifically for her by her close friend, the play’s author Lucy Prebble. Coming to Brisbane as a co-production between The Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company, the show more than lives up to expectations from its overseas praise. This is a provocative and challenging play that offers insightful commentary about happiness in the contemporary world, but no decisive answers, which is exactly what theatre should do. For theatre to be relevant, it needs to create work that studies the process of who we are both as individuals and as a society. And in this regard, through its cerebral but heartfelt subject matter, “The Effect” excels.

Photo c/o – https://www.facebook.com/qldtheatreco/photos

Finding their way back home

The Long Way Home (Sydney Theatre Company)

Gardens Theatre

February 27 – March 1

“The Long Way Home” is not your typical night at the theatre. The show is the result of Australian playwright Daniel Keene’s work with servicemen and women from the Australian Defence Force who have returned from conflict overseas with physical or psychological injuries and illnesses. And the result is a profound theatrical experience, as 13 service men and women feature alongside actors. These are not their personal accounts, but, as the program outlines, “they play themselves reimagined.” However, this makes their terrible injuries, post traumatic suffering and difficult recoveries no less powerful.

Image

“The Long Way Home” is a show of human stories and, as such, it is not particularly political or preachy about the morality of war, despite its portrayal of the the reality of conflict in Afghanistan. The stories are told in a series of vignettes of camaraderie and determination:  children playing war, privates swapping nightwatch jibes and returned soldiers trying to reconnect with their partners. But the common message is clear – war changes those who fight it.

Though there are some cumbersome comic bridging scenes that contradict the work’s gravity, Craig Hancock and Tim Loch, both Afghanistan veterans, give memorable performances as men unable to cope with the aftermath of war as they attempt to redefine their non-military identities. Their stories not only anchor the show, but provide audience members with greater understanding of the struggles of returned servicemen attempting to adjust to non-military life in a sea of depression and anxiety, for homecomings are never as easy or as simple as we might imagine. And the men and women on stage courageously share their vulnerabilities with a generosity that generates esteem.

Image

Certainly, there is a lot of realism to this show, particularly in its little details, as, for example, returned soldiers reflect on things such as the impact of familiar smells upon return home. The language is confronting, but authentic. The verbatim straight-to-camera videos are effective in humanising the show and sharing its essential message – that regardless of the politics of whether you think they should be there or not, the bravery of those who fight in war is to be respected.

Image

The show is also visually stunning, thanks to sophisticated lighting and impressive creative design. Boxy stage pieces shape the space and act as screens to the compelling video design elements. Indeed, it is a creative refinement that, in all elements, says Sydney Theatre Company.

“The Long Way Home” is an important piece of theatre that is both well-intentioned and well-imagined. As a refreshingly honest and personal portrayal of Australia’s War veterans finding their way back home, its ardent sense of authenticity is of such impact that a standing ovation does not go astray.

Stage door success

Image

Nothing can top off a great night of theatre than the joy of meeting a star at the Stage Door. Of course it depends on if the theatre has an accessible Stage Door, encourages Stage Door stopping and if stars want to stop.  Sometimes, however, the stars align and you get the opportunity to personally congratulate an actor on their performance. Such was the case after Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” earlier this week, when Tim Minchin stopped for a chat, autograph and photos. Indeed, it was a show of unpretentious generosity to two fans and proof that good things can come to those who wait.

Image

Long Live Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Sydney Theatre Company)

Sydney Theatre

August 6 – September 7

Image

There are many reasons why “Hamlet” can justifiably be decreed as one of the greatest plays of all time. Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the young Danish prince holds an enduring appeal; the play provides incisive insights into life and the human experience. But there is comedy as well as contemplation. The way Hamlet mocks Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius by feigning lunacy, for example, is jocular.

But who exactly are these “Hamlet” bit-players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  This is exactly what Tom Stoppard’s “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” sets out to explore. And it is a superb premise for a very funny drama of confusion and word play, bringing together Tim Minchin and Toby Shmitz in a Sydney Theatre Company coup.

It is inspired casting. Schmitz is commanding in the role of Guildenstern, giving an outstanding performance of philosophical reflection with Jack Sparrowesque appeal, while Minchin’s innocent, naïve silliness as Rozencrantz charmingly presents the other side of the coin. Their camaraderie creates a clear connection and together they work wonderfully to perfectly present pun and pathos alike. This is especially evident in the scenes that see the characters playing a verbal tennis game where they lob questions at each other in an attempt to find order in the chaos. Words of wit and default wisdom tumble delightfully in a rhythmic cavalcade of double entredres, allusions and puns for the audience’s lingering consideration beyond the play’s poignant conclusion.

The protagonists have little memory, no understanding of what they are doing and a concern that life is pre-determined (aka scripted). They exist merely as accessories to another narrative, characters who pop in, do their bit and disappear again. What happens to them between scenes? As the gravediggers struggle to realise identity and purpose in a world that makes little sense, the play balances between absurdist theatre and slapstick humour in a manner that can be enjoyed by anybody and appreciated by “Hamlet” enthusiasts. This is complemented by the production’s bold staging. The set design is minimalist and post-modern, but incredibly interesting, using a steeply sloped stage and a series of tunnels into the wings through which “Hamlet” players enter and exit, which conveys the feel of being stuck in a piece of existential art.

“Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is a genius play as it builds upon the “Hamlet” concept of a play within a play by presenting a play on the periphery of a play (fragments of the actual action of “Hamlet” taking place in the background). Indeed, it is conceptual, verbose and quick-witted, resulting in captivating chaos, challenge and ultimately poignancy of the most entertaining order.

Puppetry of the pelican

Storm Boy (Sydney Theatre Company)

Wharf 1

August 9 – September 8

Image

Colin Thiele’s “Storm Boy” is part of Australian literary and cinematic folklore so it is fitting to see it being celebrated on stage to honour the 50th anniversary of the novel’s publication.

Sydney Theatre Company’s production tells the poignant story of Storm Boy and his reclusive father, Hideaway Tom, whose lives are altered when Storm Boy befriends aboriginal Fingerbone Bill and adopts a family of orphaned pelicans, his favourite being Mr Percival. This is where the show’s innovative puppeteering first enthrals as the birds cause havoc in their new beach hut hermitage home. The three pelicans, the creation of Peter Wilson (Director of Puppetry for “King Kong”), are engaging in their intricacy, with mechanisms to make their wings move and Mr Percival’s ability to move his head in reaction and even catch a stick.

At only 75 minutes in length, the show is perfectly positioned to maintain the attention of a youth audience. Though children were evidently engaged by the puppeteering and comedy in the initial acts, as it progresses the show does not shy away from the story’s tragedy or condescend to younger audience members. Rather, the production embraces the loss at the heart of the achingly sad children’s classic about a motherless boy’s friendship with an orphaned pelican and it is wonderful to see how true the show is to its earlier incarnations. Indeed, this shared nostalgic familiarity was clear, apparent in the abundance of adult audience tears, amongst the wonder on the faces of the youngsters being introduced to this simple, beautiful tale.