Life’s legacy live

The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table (Queensland Theatre)

June 2

If you are missing live theatre productions since the advent of social restrictions, then it is time to join the club… Queensland Theatre’s Play Club to be precise, which in its most recent event featured a live reading of “The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table”, Wesley Enoch’s universal love story about the destructive and restorative relationships between generations.

In the 1870s a girl is born under a tree — her birth tree — chosen to give her strength and wisdom. When the tree is cut down she follows it into the white man’s world, working as a cook for the big house on the island. Her tree has become a miracle kitchen table, one she will pass down through successive generations as a legacy — a way of carving out her family stories. Now, generations later, a young man and his mother fight for ownership of the table and audiences get to hear all about it in a lived streamed play reading of a domestic drama spanning four generations of a Stradbroke Island family’s history.

The titular table serves as a solid motif throughout the work, as a symbol of sharing but also separation. And the play is crafted to be equal parts beautifully-moving and wickedly-funny as it unravels what is essentially a universal story about the relationships between generations, at times heartbreaking in its emotions. The three-hander is full of flashbacks and stories of the past, and even without staging in support, the story sits easily between eras, thanks to the skill of its performers under direction of Isaac Drandic.

Despite not being buoyed along by audience reactions, the actors all play off each other expertly, capturing the moments of their relationships despite their few rehearsal opportunities. Their pacing also reflects their characters; in her share of extended family stories, Roxanne McDonald’s god-fearing Faith is considered in juxtaposition to her energetic but also damaged daughter Annie, (the spirited singer who has been estranged for many years) but is also fiery in confrontation of her daughter’s parenting. McDonald captures the essence of grandmotherly care and concern, but even in memory all is not necessarily as it seems as daughter Annie’s stories embellish their way around the underlying secrets that create the story’s tension. Indeed, there is more than one side to a story and as we work through the layered tale. Even with just her words, Ursula Yovich gives a charismatic performance, complete with precise comic timing in banter with her bureaucrat son Nathan, (an assured and versatile Guy Simon), the last in the family’s line. Her pitch-perfect delivery procures comic potential from every line, especially in her frank discussion and questioning of her son’s sex life.

Abandoned by his mother Annie and raised by his grandmother, Nathan left the island for university and a government career, until his grandmother’s funeral brings him back to country and family for the first time in years, evoking themes akin to those of Enoch’s “The Seven Stages of Grieving”. Whereas Annie just wants her son to talk to her, he just wants the table and won’t stop asking about it. Cue the conflict and insult trades of the ‘I brought you into the world and I can take you out’ type, but also realisation, for audience members, of the similarity of their stories and reasons for turning away from their island home.

“The Story of the Miracles at Cookie’s Table” is entertaining but also thought-proving theatre and, even in this format, it is easy to see why the play won the 2005 Patrick White Playwrights Award. The fact that its powerful storytelling transcends so easily into the virtual realm is testament to the universality of its themes of legacy, lineage and life’s memories and also serves a topical reminder of the inter-generational legacy of past traumas.

 

Heralding the Helpmanns

Helpmann Awards Nominations Announcement

The Playhouse, QPAC

July 14

Independent theatre and Indigenous stories have important roles to play in Australian theatre. This was one of the messages to be taken from this year’s Helpmann Awards nominations announcement.

Since their establishment in 2001, The Helpmann Awards, named in honour of Australian dancer, actor, director and choreographer Sir Robert Helpmann, have aimed to recognise, celebrate and promote Australia’s live performance industry, similar to the Tony Awards on Broadway and the Olivier Awards in London.

Nominations for the awards in the fields of theatre, musical theatre, opera, music and dance were announced at simultaneous events in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Perth. The Brisbane nomination event was hosted by internationally acclaimed, Queensland Ballet’s Artist Director, Li Cunxin, with local theatre figures Nellie Lee (shake & stir theatre company), Kris Stewart (Brisbane Powerhouse), Russell Mitchell (Opera Queensland) and Erica Hart (Queensland Music Festival) assisting in announcing the nominations within the 41 award categories.

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With such a plentiful and diverse theatrical landscape from which to garnish nominations, it is of little surprise, perhaps, that the final nominee lists came from more than 700 nominees. And while the final list was predominantly in favour of New South Wales based shows (Opera Australia and Sydney Theatre Company dominate in the opera and play categories), there were opportunities for cheerful celebration of Queensland’s representation among the accolades.

Expressions Dance Company’s beautiful and poetic work, “When Time Stops”, whose world premiere featured as part of 2013’s Brisbane Festival, featured in two categories, Best Choreography in a Dance or Physical Theatre Production for Natalie Weir and Best Original Score for Iain Grandage.

The local accolades also include nomination of Ursula Yovich as Best Female Actor in a Play for her role as the titular character in 2013’s Queensland Theatre Company production of “Mother Courage”, which continued the political commentary theme of Brecht’s original text by examining the moral ambiguity around mining.

There were also nods given to shows seen on or forthcoming to Brisbane’s stages. Among the 11 Indigenous nominations across nine categories is the Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival Production “Black Diggers”, which explores the untold and exceptional stories of Indigenous Australian soldiers who fought for the British Commonwealth. The Best New Australian Work nominee is set to not only feature as one of this year’s Brisbane Festival highlights, but will be broadcast live to nine major regional centres across Queensland in a state-wide first.

Malthouse Theatre’s “The Shadow King”, which will also feature at this year’s Brisbane Festival, is also represented, with nominations in four categories, Best Play, Best New Australian Work, Best Director of a Play (Michael Kantor) and Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Play (Jimi Bani). The epic play, which reworks Shakespeare’s tragedy, King, Lear, in an Indigenous setting, incorporating a number of Indigenous languages is set to be an unmissable theatrical event.

Also featuring at the 2014 Brisbane Festival will be Best Cabaret Performer nominee Sarah Ward (for Between The Cracks) as her fabulous character creation Yana Alana. Last seen early this year at WTF’s “지하 Underground” Up Late, this much loved cabaret provocateur will feature in the intimate “Tears Before Bedtime”, in the September festival.

The star of the night, however, had to be Hayes Theatre’s first production, the musical “Sweet Charity”, which scored a total of eight nominations, one more than its high profile Sydney counterpart, “Strictly Ballroom the Musical”. This is particularly significant given that the new, intimate not-for-profit Potts Point Theatre (named after Australian musical theatre legend, Nancye Hayes) has at its focus, the provision of a permanent home for small-scale, independent musical theatre and cabaret.  

For a nation with a relatively young theatre history, our artistic achievements fare well across the many genres of our vibrant and dynamic performing arts industry. However, we cannot afford to take this for granted or slip into complacency. And as long as we have new work and independent shows of the calibre of those nominated at the 2014 Helpmann Awards, then the future is looking exciting indeed.

After five years at the Sydney Opera House, this year’s Helpmann Awards will be staged at the Capitol Theatre on August 18, where they will be hosted by Jonathan Biggins (author of this year’s QTC opening work, Australia Day). The ceremony will take place on the set of “The Lion King” and will feature musical performances from “The Lion King”, “Les Misérables”, “Strictly Ballroom” and “Djuki Mala” (Chooky Dancers). As in previous years, Foxtel’s Arena channel will officially broadcast the Awards night in August.

*A reflection of this event also appears on the XS Entertainment website.