Century’s choice

Fortunate as we have been in Queensland this year, I was able to experience exactly 100 shows in 2021 and though I am thankful for every single one of them, there are of course some that stand out as favourites.

1. The Revolutionists (The Curators)

The drama-filled French-revolutionist play about a playwright writing a play was passionate, powerful, political and full of important messaging about women’s importance in history and the fundamental role of theatre and culture in history and civilisation.

2. Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

More than just recreating Trent Dalton’s story, Queensland Theatre’s landmark production of “Boy Swallows Universe”, honoured the original text and transformed it as a work of its own, dynamic in its realisation and anchored around its theme of resilience.

3. Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

As the Queensland Theatre play that audiences waited a year for, “Triple X” provided a commentary on the complicated issues of gender and sexuality that was funny, honest and powerfully moving.

4. Prima Facie (Queensland Theatre)

Queensland Theatre’s production of Suzie Miller’s “Prima Facie” was a riveting 100-minute one-woman tour-de-force indictment of the legal system, appropriately acclaimed by the thunderous applause of three curtain calls.

5. Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra’s production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” served as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but of how classics are classics for a reason.

6. Fourthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Shake & stir theatre company’s contemporary adults-only choose-your-own-adventure romantic comedy “Fourthcoming” not only placed the course of the narrative in the audience’s hands, but provided an avalanche of non-stop laugh-until-you-cry moments.

7. The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

Altitude Theatre’s inaugural production, “The Producers” was self-aware and hugely entertaining with distinctive musical numbers and laugh-out-louds a-plenty 

8. Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions)

The precision with which all elements of the three consecutively unfolding stories of BC Production’s “Anatomy of a Suicide” unfold made for a powerful exploration of the ideas of family, mental health, love and strong women.

9. Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra” was elevated in interest through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where events occurred in complement to the onstage action alongside the original dialogue.

10. Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, inspired by his real experiences working in a funeral home was not just an examination of what it means to die in the 21st century, but a very funny and moving night of entertainment at Queensland Theatre.

And of particular note….

Best Performance:

Glace Chase – Triple X (Queensland Theatre)

Playwright, Glace Chase was magnetic as the candid Dexi in “Triple X”. Bold but vulnerable, she made Dexi complex in her multi-dimension and identifiable in her inner conflicts, with a portrayal that added immensely to the emotional effect of the show’s unprecedented storytelling about love in the 21st century.

Oliver Childs – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Oliver Childs not only showed a talent for characterisation in his realisation of the two Joe Caseys of the alternative realities of Brisbane Arts Theatre’s “Our House”, but his enthusiastic energy and vocal delivery worked well to encapsulate the spirit at the core of the jukebox musical’s experience.

Best Musical – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical (Spotlight Theatrical Company)

It was easy to understand why Spotlight Theatrical Company’s season of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” sold out before even opening, given the company’s polished approach to all of its aspects and especially the strong performances of its main cast members.

Best Ensemble – The Producers (Altitude Theatre)

With a cast all pushing their eccentric performances to their full potential, Altitude Theatre’s The Producers was high-energy and immensely entertaining throughout.

Best Music – Creedence Clearwater Inspired Featuring Proud Mary (QPAC)

Proud Mary gave QPAC audiences a reminder of just how good live music is with an infectious 2-hour rock back to a time when the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival was the soundtrack of a generation.

Best Cabaret – Your Song (little red company)

The little red company’s world premiere of “Your Song” was a lively throwback to rock and roll with an edge of glam in a glitzy rainbow of celebratory colour and unquestionable on-stage talent.

Cleverest – Anatomy of a Suicide (BC Productions) 

With concurrently played out stories across three generations of mothers and daughters, BC Productions’ “Anatomy of a Suicide” had a lot going on in its Brisbane premiere. As the stories played out side-by-side, switching across stage sections, episodic scenes danced together rhythmically, colliding in synchronisation of key lines to emphasise the commonality of concepts, making for a cleverly crafted provocation around ideas associated with legacy.

Best New Work – Return to the Dirt (Queensland Theatre)

While Steve Pirie’s Queensland Premier’s Drama Award winning “Return to the Dirt”, deals with a number of heavy themes, it is a well-written, emotionally rich play that offered a refreshing take on a young man’s story.

Most Fun – Our House (Brisbane Arts Theatre)

Brisbane Arts Theatre’s jukebox musical “Our House”, based on the songs of Madness didn’t take itself too seriously, including through its number of nods to band’s music videos, making its experience all sorts of infectious fun.

Funniest – Fouthcoming (shake & stir theatre company)  

Thanks to performances in the face of its changing narrative, the hilarity of shake & stir theatre company’s “Fouthcoming” never stopped.

Special mention goes to the post show-within-the-show discussion of La Boite Theatre’s “Caesar”, which provided the funniest scene of the year, through its absolutely hilarious TikTok livestream nods to the Brisbane theatre scene.

Most Thought Provoking – Locked In (Shock Therapy)

Shock Therapy’s “Locked In” provided a thought-provoking exploration of experience and impact of living with a rare neurological disorder, for sufferers and their families alike.

Best Stage Design Staging – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Intimate traverse staging allowed audience members to become fully immersed in recognition of the stunningly rich aesthetic and, appropriately for a play set in revolutionary France, its cast of real-life fierce female characters to burst down its fashion runway.

Best Costume Design – The Revolutionists (The Curators)

Attention to detail added to the dynamism of the experience of this Curators show with lush pink and red mix-patterned ruffled and frilled costumery conveying a clear sense of opulence befitting the play’s French Revolution setting.

Best Sound Design – Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

The Hive Collective’s adaptation of Euripides’ classic “Electra” was elevated by a vivid, atmospheric sound design that both heightened audience suspense and fevered its story’s foreboding.

Best Video Design – Boy Swallows Universe (Queensland Theatre)

The blockbuster video design of Queensland Theatre’s “Boy Swallows Universe” both gave us Brisbane iconography and nooks and crannies alike, but bled its imagery into the story’s themes.  

Collective Conviction

Conviction (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 17 – 27

There’s something exciting about standing at the brave new world of the start of story we are told during Zoey Dawson’s “Conviction”, the final in new company The Hive Collective’s trilogy of works at Metro Arts. The truth of the statement is clear from the very start of the thematically rich and clever piece of independent theatre. It’s morning as a young woman, Lillian (Emily Burton) describes the surroundings of what we later know is her messy lounge room in Brunswick East, where she intends to write a play – an important play, an instant classic, a story that matters.

Before this, we are given an explanation of need for risk-taking to get started writing, especially when your all day can be so easily filled with distractions. As performers (Burton and Luisa Prosser, Kevin Spink and Jeremiah Wray) list through almost overlapping thoughts it’s difficult to determine their interrelationships and discovering them in forthcoming scenes becomes part of the show’s ongoing joy as the ideas interestingly blur the outlines of each section in a way that makes them easier to sink into. Indeed, it’s a clever device that threads all sections together allowing for an added depth to audience appreciation.

The divisive potential of this unconventional work is realised from its very first scene of the four performers standing on stage in darkness. This is also the initial of many times when Anna Whitaker’s sound design and Christine Felmingham’s lighting design serve as production standouts, especially in support of scene transitions. Quite different to the Collective’s earlier works, “Conviction” is risky in its dramatic structure. It’s clearly the most unconventional of three, not so set in Greek mythology, but still, like “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” and “Elektra/Orestes” very dynamic, thanks to Kate Wild’s sharp direction. On the way to this, however, things get quite odd and also dark at times in its dense but taut approximately 70-minutes duration.

True to its absurdist meta-theatre black comedy promise, the non-linear story goes first to colonial Australian, or farce thereof given the intentionally contrived representational character realisations. With the writer’s convict drama unravelling, all is not as it seems and not just because of its jarringly progressive and self-aware strong female protagonist who is conscious in her rejection of old fashioned cis gendered male sentiments of supremacy around women.

Aware of the big issues beyond her own story, Lillian is sympathetic to the plight of the first peoples and eager to see their stories told and all types of things that challenge our conception of historical drama. And it is here in mockery of the Australian canon (and the playwright’s own artistic ambition), where each cast member is at their deliberately melodramatic best, especially Burton who hits every note needed for maximum comic effect as the convict plot line unravels us deeper into the psyche of the playwright.

This is the strongest of sections which then shift us back to the mundane of the flat in which her partner returns from his day’s work to discover and discuss how she has spent her time and then the harsh dystopian conclusion of confronting imagery that also stems from Lillian’s writer brain, in contemplation of the journey a writer goes on trying to express themselves and what can work against it.

Things pace along perfectly until the final section of what could easily have been overly self-indulgent work about what being ‘just’ a writer means, the process of writing and the self-doubt that characterises a lack of conviction. Besides this interrogation of the creative process, “Conviction” is also about the darkness and light within us all, however, any universal themes are burdened by its daring, experimental style of independent theatre that may be challenging to audience members with preference for clearer narratives the experience of which requires less effort.

As the rollercoaster work crescendos to its conclusion, a voice over shares the creator’s hope that it all makes sense and that we understand everything exactly the way we are meant to. Clearly, The Hive Collective creatives are confident storytellers, especially in exploration of themes around the social inequality of the sexes and Brisbane audience can now only anticipate what the company might bring us next.

Photos – c/o Stephen Henry

Elektra engagement

Elektra/Orestes (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 3 – 13

A blackout beginning and suspenseful soundscape appropriately heightens audience senses towards The Hive Collective’s dynamic adaptation of Euripides’ classic Greek tragedy “Electra”. The dialogue of the retitled “Elektra/Orestes” also aptly begins with words in plea to the gods. They come from Elektra (Violette Ayad), a loud and passionate young woman of grand statements and drama in the search for answers. 

In modernisation of the well-known Greek tragedy, playwrights Jada Alberts and Anne Louise have the characters speaking in modern language, complete with swearing, that from the show’s opening minutes, establishes Elektra’s feelings about and to mother as she repeatedly vows to wait for her brother’s return. As Elektra is joined on stage by her sister Kyrsothemis (Tatum Mottin) and mother Klytemnestra (Caroline Dunphy), it is obvious that this is a family that has suffered a tragedy that all of its members are grieving independently.

The volatile Elektra is clearly disgusted with her mother and over time we realise the reason why she seethes with anger and vengeance as she blasts her music louder and waits impatiently for her brother Orestes (Tate Hinchy) to return from exile. Orestes was sent away to safety years earlier after Klytemnestra killed her husband Agamenmon. In the meantime, mother of the household and ruler of the people Clytemnestra has taken on a lover, the now-king Aigisthus (Marcus Oborn), who is secretly conducting an affair with Krysothemis. So when Orestes re-enters their lives to enact his forceful revenge, there is an excess of emotion that arises from conflicted loyalties.  

While the story is capably realised in and of itself, The Hive Collective have elevated its achievement through a very clever second-half reversal of scenes, where, like in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”, events occur in complement to the onstage action. Even without knowledge of this structure, there is much anticipation during the required mid-show choreographed set reconstruction, which is only enhanced by Julian Starr’s vivid, atmospheric sound design fevering forebodingly to crescendo. And as we are shown this complementary other side to the story, we see some Brechtian theatre traditions as performers remain side of stage, re-contributing their initial dialogue from behind microphone stands. It is all very interesting in the way that rewarding theatre should be.

Ayad gives Elektra the passionate intensity required, however, even when lamenting, the larger-than-life character has the potential to suck all the air from the room in that Shrew-esque sort of way and Mottin stands alongside her in good stead in early scenes where she is being questioned as to her loyalty and want of a morning of a normality. And Dunphy gives Klytemnestra a strength beyond her early political rhetoric-themed dialogue and flashes of humanising vulnerability in later interactions with her son.

“Elektra/Orestes” is brutal but exciting theatre that easily engages its audience members, as evidenced by their sometimes audible exclamations and physical reactions. While its modern language may cause some comically jarring tonal shifts which detract from its essential drama, its dilemmas around justice, revenge and the if you should remain silent about things that matter to you, still resonate strongly.

Ancient appeal

The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars (The Hive Collective)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

February 17 – 27

“He didn’t think much of her at first.” So, the audience is tantalised by the strong start to “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars”. The work is full of creativity, not only in Van Badham’s poetic, but not overly lyrical writing (which can make even box a sound sensuous), but in The Hive Collective’s lively and engaging presentation of the work. Indeed, Heidi Manché’s nimble direction of what is essentially a series of monologues spoken directly to the audience, only adds to the experience of this smart and spirited rom-com of sorts.

The interesting and intelligent two-hander, which is based on the Ancient Greek myth of Ariadne and Theseus, is essentially two stories in one as it traces a woman’s romances with two very different men. The character tying the stories together is Marion (Sarah Ogden), an artist working initially at a museum and later teaching a septuagenarian art group at a holiday resort in Wales.

The opening line narration establishes the work’s distinctive style, which sees the performers talking about the characters in third person narrative before transforming into them, enabling an additional layer of interest. Michael (Rob Pensalfini) is a publications manager at an Oxford museum. Marion, is the new artist-in-residence in a comfortable relationship with a stone mason boyfriend. There is no immediate attraction. (He is married and she isn’t even his type). However, a dangerous attraction is soon developed from provocations at the photocopier, a blue dress and baking, leading to an urgent encounter during an at-night vigil in attempt to discover the truth behind the mysterious, monstrous bull threatening the museum’s antiquities.

As Michael and Marion unleash the beast of their lusty animal attraction, the Minotaur is manifested from the edge of the dark. And when, in the aftermath, she is left emotionally perished, we understand her flee to a new life as art tutor in the seaside resort, when she finds herself initially infuriated but later intrigued by Mark, a wayward womanising Australian sommelier we know will go on to enliven her from the painful self-loathing of her life’s wreckage … for despite its mythic proportions of sensuality and debauchery, “The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars” is also touching in the emotional honesty of its reflection on the role of cruelty and heartbreak in character development into a new version of self.

The risky and at times risqué story ebbs and flows in the ways of life, which is enhanced by the cresendoing of overlapping character narration towards the first story’s climax. This, and the use of third person storytelling, effectively gives us insight into the private thoughts of both characters, which ensures a good balance between its hyperbolic mythology and its essential charm, which is seen especially in the second story of Marion and Mark, largely due to Pensalfini’s performance.

Pensalfini brings an irresistible, charismatic energy to the knock-about Mark, delivering a memorable performance, intuitively responsive to the audience’s energy. We also see his range not only across the stories, but within the first story itself, in which, like Ogden, he thunders his character to larger-than-life elevation. In both stories, the two establish clear, distinct characters, (for Ogden, the before and after of Marion’s infidelity) and there is a clear chemistry throughout.

Sarah Winter’s deceptively simple set allows the performers the space to shine, unburdened by much beyond the text. The only items in the clean, white space of the curtained stage-upon-a-stage of New Benner Theatre are a versatile collection of white boxes that are moved around to easily represent different places, spaces and even people. And when the curtains are drawn back and the space opens up for the second story, it works with Christine Felmingham’s lighting to signal the illumination of Marion’s new self. The live on-stage musical score courtesy of Shenzo Gregorio similarly assists in taking us from the build of the first story’s cacophonies to the tender rediscoveries of later gentler sections.

Even if unfamiliar with detail of Greek mythology of the work’s source material, it is easy enough for the audience to follow the most obvious allusions. Mark is, as is quoted, clearly Dionysus, the godof wine, fertility, ritual madness and ecstasy. Still, some program guidance to assist in appreciation of the work’s ancient inspirations, would perhaps have been helpful. Regardless, the playful celebration of the complexities at the heart of female sexuality is still a vibrant addition to the busy February theatre season. And if the appeal of this dynamic debut outing is any indication, the future works of this exciting new collective can only be awaited with much anticipation.

Photo c/o –  Stephen Henry