Making right out of wrongs

The Sublime (No Interval Actors Theatre Co)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

August 30 – September 2

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Brendan Cowell’s “The Sublime” is a very Australian play, unfortunately not in a good way. This, however, is a reflection of what is wrong in our contemporary culture rather than comment on the controversial work itself, which is a sad, shocking and formidable theatre experience that crams much into its unrelenting and absorbing 70 minute running time.

25 year-old Dean (Tom Yaxley) is a Brownlow-bound AFL star, seemingly single-minded in his devotion to his sporting career because there will be plenty of time for life and a wife after his time at the top. His more happy-go-lucky brother Liam (Bradley Watt) is a league player of some controversy, trying to come back after a suspension, but easily led-astray by his new captain and NRL superstar, Nick. Despite their differences, the two brothers are united in emotion towards their respective games, because ‘footy’ is the name for whatever code you follow.

As the more responsible older brother, Dean not only obliges their mother’s request for him to watch over the laddish Liam, but seems like a sensible mentor for 17-year-old Olympics-bound athletics star Amber (Ellen Bailey) so much so that her parents suggest that he takes her and friend Zoe along on the boys’ rowdy end-of-year footy trip to Thailand. Although Dean’s intentions towards Amber are apparently innocent (he’s attracted to her athletic ability and determination), she is not looking for him to be a mentor. As an audience, we recognise the concern oblivious to Amber’s footy-fan parents and sure enough frivolity soon turns to a rip and tear tale of good times gone bad. Yet, the story takes still further turns as, after Liam rapes the ‘up for it’ teenage Zoe, the complicated fallout threatens to destroy all of their futures.

The play is well cast and the three performers are all superb in their comic timing and compelling commitment to flawed characters. Bailey is engaging as the chameleon-like Amber, juvenilely-naïve, but not-so, initially a victim but later instigator in the complicated media game. And Yaxley, is memorable as the seemingly-sensible but ultimately-troubled Dean. It is their skilled performances, in particular, that succeed in shifting audience sympathies throughout the show.

The simplest of staging makes the play even more unsettling as the story is told as three intertwining monologues from Amber and the brothers, each seated at a spot-lit table and chair. The writing is excellent. The anecdotal nature of the early dialogue delivery, for example, allows for a natural humour to engage the audience. It is initially light and playful banter about footy code rivalry, Sydney vs Melbourne preferences and the complexity of AFL scoring. But this is all in belie of its disturbing later scenes. When it does go there, there it is with contrasting offensive language and confronting imagery that fits the intensity of its narrative.

“The Sublime” is a powerful piece of storytelling that offers audiences much to think about around hypocrisy, moral corruption, the media, sporting hero worship and rape culture. It is far from thematically simple, leaving audiences conflicted by grapple with questions about the extent to which circumstance can create victims and anger about the complicity of all of its players. Yet it is this moral ambiguity that makes it so worthwhile. Indeed, if theatre is valued by its incite of audience reaction, then “The Sublime” is theatre done right.

Gogol giggles

The Government Inspector

Gardens Theatre

March 18 – 23

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After some pre-show policemen vocal entertainment, David Harrower’s version of Nikolay Gogol’s “The Government Inspector” begins with a town meeting at which the audience serve as attendees alongside the officials of a small Russian town. Word has been received that an inspector will be arriving incognito and under the direction of the Mayor (Tom Yaxley) everyone must spring into action to cover-up their many wrongdoings. As characters emerge from within the audience to voice their terror at the prospect, it becomes clear why the house lights have remained on and it is, unfortunately, some time before they are dimmed to allow the audience to properly settle.

It is a frenetic first scene, entirely appropriate for Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 comedy of errors satire of greed, stupidity and political corruption of Imperial Russia. And from there the absurdity continues like a story from the franchise of Carry On films; when news that a suspicious stranger has arrived from St Petersburg and is staying in the local motel, he is mistaken for the inspector and the penniless, opportunist civil servant Khlestakov (Liam Soden) takes full advantage of the confused identity to fleece the townsfolk for all that they have.

An inspired set helps to take audience members through the town, which is depicted at front of stage through a series of cardboard box models, completing with their own lighting. Much is made of the cramped hotel room ‘box’ in which performers interact, reflecting David Bell’s precise direction.

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The polish of the QUT final-year acting students’ performance of the farce is also seen in the after-intermission high speed Act One recap, a touch which adds interest to an act that lags a little comparative to earlier scenes. This is, however, until Khlestrakov’s individual meetings with the town’s merchants, sick and tired of the Mayor’s ludicrous demands for bribes, are punctuated the Mayor’s daughter Maria’s (Hugo Kohne) hilarious, show-stopping lip-sync attempt at seduction.

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As the paranoid, corrupt Mayor, Yaxley acquits himself equally well in delivery of hysterical speeches and nervous grovelling. And particularly in Act Two, Soden gives an engaging performance as the imposter inspector, regaling locals who have (literally) rolled out the red carpet for him, with exaggerated stories of his imagined life in St Petersburg. The standout performances, however, come from Meg Clark and Emily Weir as squires Dobchinsky and Bobchinsky. Like Shakespeare’s bumbling, almost-identical Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they are easily bamboozled and bamboozling themselves in their transferred enlightenment and epiphanies. Together, their physical comedy and finely tuned timing result in many audience giggles.

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At almost three hours duration, “The Government Inspector” is a commitment. Yet the time rarely drags thanks to its energetic performances and rapid scene transitions, to upbeat musical bursts. Indeed, the production does everything it can to squeeze as much as possible out of the 19th Century satire, resulting in a dynamic and spirited production of which the cast and creatives should be proud.

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