The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Copros, classics and close-to-home tales

The Queensland Theatre Company has announced its 2016 season, the last programmed by outgoing Artistic Director Wesley Enoch who is departing the company to take up the role of Sydney Festival Director for the 2017 – 2019 Festivals. As Enoch noted at the season launch, “we make theatre because we like to tell stories.” And what a bunch of stories he has left as the final component of his legacy… diverse stories of ambition, achievement and bravery.

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The highlight, coming early in the year is “The Secret River” adaptation of Kate Grenville’s multi-award-winning bestselling novel that tells of the bloody beginnings of colonial Australia, when pardoned convicts clashed with the traditional owners of the land they settled along the banks of the Hawkesbury River. Coming off the back of this year’s lavish ABC miniseries and previous Sydney season, the Sydney Theatre Company co-production is sure to be a powerful, epic (featuring 22 actors on stage) experience of a work that will surely settle into the Australian theatrical cannon.

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The provocative themes will continue in October’s “Disgraced” a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company of Ayad Akhtar’s debut 2012 play and winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The stirring drama promises to challenge notions of Islamophobia and terrorism through its intimate, intellectual Manhattan dinner party setting, (like “God of Carnage” with politics and sans the catalyst children perhaps).

disgracedSimilarly small in scale, will be “Switzerland”, in which Andrea Moor presents a thrilling re-imagining of the last days of crime novelist Patrica Highsmith (author of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and other twisted tales).

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At the other end of the serious scale is the bright and bold “Bastard Territory”, a co-production with Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company about the 1960s and ‘70s bohemian lifestyle of far northern Australia and the Pacific Islands residents. With soundtrack boasting Shirley Bassey and Suzi Q, it promises to be quite the weird and wonderful ride when it features at the Bille Brown Studio as a Season 2016 Add On.

A comedy of the more classic kind will be Moliere’s “Tartuffe” (starring Darren Gilshenan who was last year seen in “Mother and Son”), a co-production with Western Australia’s Black Swan Theatre Company. The story of the titular brazen conman may have first been performed in the 17th century but promises to be sinfully brilliant and perhaps surprisingly still relevant in its attack on religious hypocrisy and fanaticism.

The season opener at The Playhouse, “Quartet”, Directed by Andrea Moor, also promises to be devilishly funny as it journeys into old age with four feisty ageing opera singers who, having fallen upon hard times, find themselves trying to come to terms with life in a retirement home by headlining a convert to mark composer Verdi’s birthday.

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Fun too, will be the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, when Director Jason Karwein brings to life the classic romantic sparring of “Much Ado About Nothing”, one of the Bard’s most accessible and enjoyable comic works, when Shakespeare was ‘on his zing’, we are told at the launch. And as the prototypical but also terribly modern rom-com couple: squabbling like children until they realise they’re actually in love and fall into each other’s arms, Hugh Parker and Christen O’Leary promise to make love quite the battlefield. The addition of Ellen Bailey and Tama Maheson in paring as the more traditional Hero/Claudio couple is only added bonus, coming as they both are from some outstanding 2015 Brisbane Powerhouse performances.

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Indeed, it is wonderful to see so much local talent featuring within the season. And also that it will once again feature shows true to the Brisbane experience, whether it be from across the world or around the corner. Brisbane playwright, David Burton’s new work, “St Mary’s in Exile”, to be directed by Jason Klarwein, is one of those stories that would be beyond belief if it wasn’t true, telling the tale of how, in 2009, Brisbane’s Catholic community was rocked when the Catholic Church stepped in to oust beloved priest Father Peter Kennedy from his post at St Mary’s in South Brisbane.

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Motherland” is back too, moving from Metro Arts to QTC’s Bille Brown Studio, for a return season in April. This historical drama by local playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson was a 2014 highlight, telling with delicious language a trio of somewhat true stories: of Brisbane-born Nell who has travelled the world before marrying the Russian Prime Minister and helping him flee the Nazis in World War II, writer and academic Nina who quits her native Russia for Paris, only to return in her twilight years, and single mother Alyona, a Russian museum curator whisked away to Brisbane by an Australian businessman, in search of a brighter future. Both epic and intimate in its sweeping tales of different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands, it will take audiences from the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry.

And The Dead Puppets Society is also returning, this time for World Premiere of “The Wider Earth”, featuring local talents including Thomas Larkin and Margi Brown Ash, as well as a bevy of astonishing puppets breathing life into creatures great and small. It promises to be an extravagantly beautiful recount of the tale of scientific visionary Charles Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle in The Wider Earth.

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With its mix of classic and contemporary works, whimsical trips to the happiest of theatrical places and contemplation of differing opinions, the 2016 season promises to be all sorts of engagement. 3, 5 and 8 Play Packages are available now. Though if you are feeling adventurous, you could always all in to purchase the ultimate 10 Play Package!

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