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.

 

Believe the roomers

The Odd Couple (Queensland Theatre Company)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 17 – November 8

Who would have thought that the comedy of the much-loved 1968 film “The Odd Couple” could be as fresh today as it ever was? Outgoing Queensland Theatre Company’s Artistic Director, Wesley Enoch, that’s who. And the result is a stellar show of non-stop humour and a lot of heart.

It’s Friday night at Oscar Maddison’s (Jason Klarwein) place and an assortment of his friends are gathered for their ritual poker game. Talk soon turns to the absent Felix (Tama Matheson) and in particular, his artisan sandwiches. Clearly it is unlike him to be a no-show. And before long the reason emerges as to why. Suddenly single after his wife has kicked him out, the news journalist soon turns up on the doorstep of his friend. Cleary the men are absolute opposites in lifestyle and disposition; Oscar lives in a cigar-hazed Hawaiian shirt world away from Felix’s highly-strung mannerly presence of pastels and bow ties. Empathetically in response to his friend’s woe, Oscar offers Felix a room in support of his transition to new-found bachelorhood. Besides which, unlike Oscar, Felix clearly knows his way around a ladle so can save them money by cooking at home.

ladel

And so begins the soap opera of their merged worlds of cold-cuts and coasters. Oscar thinks Felix needs to loosen up (even his hair is uptight), while control-fiend Felix just wishes Oscar would call if he’s going to be late for dinner. As the duo bicker like husband and wife the story gains momentum until after intermission when Oscar celebrates some payback for Felix’s first Act annoyances in quest for a breakup of their bromance. Initially their co-habitation conflict is passive-aggressive but things soon escalate almost into full farce and as truths are told, pasta is flung and the apartment upturned in a hilarious sequence of events

Christina Smith’s styling is deliberately ambiguous. Instead of cut off rooms, the retro renovated New York apartment set is open plan in nature, but still full of distinct sections and doorways to allow for slapstick elements. To also enhance its New York setting, all of the accents are consistent and easy-on-the-ear, particularly from the poker players Tim Dashwood as Roy, Steven Rooke as Speed, Colin Smith as Murray and Bryan Probets as Vinnie. Each represents a sliding scale between Oscar and Felix and they bring their different representations of masculinity to life in distinct but equally noteworthy performances, clearly comfortable in their individual and combined roles in the narrative. Indeed, the poker scenes are a real treat in their comfortable capture of typical male reactions to problems.

mess

As the ‘sweet bits of crumpet’ from the apartment upstairs, the two Pigeon sisters, Gwendolyn (Lauren Jackson) and Cecily (Amy Ingram), in Oscar Wilde tribute,  appear almost like an over-the-top French and Saunders type giggly double-entendred caricature sketch, however, are gleeful editions to Act Two. Indeed, Ingram shows some of her best work when though mere glance or ordinary word she elicits some of the biggest audience laughs.

pigeons

Clearly, however, the show belongs to the charismatic coupling of Klarwein and Matheson sharing the stage again after 2013’s “Design for Living”. Physically the two project perfectly into the roles and their natural rapport and synergy is immediately evident. As the Mary-Poppins-male Felix Ungar, Matheson is simply fantastic:  fastidious, uptight and full of compulsive neurosis. And as happy-go-lucky but slovenly sports writer Oscar Madison, Klarwein is likeable, especially in his attempts to convince Felix that they need to get out and meet people, which reveals a certain vulnerability in his reflection that it is the lack of female company (“something soft”) that is getting to him most. Indeed, he brings a lot of charm to the role, despite being, at times, sarcastic and unapologetic, thanks to a high-energy performance that never wanes but rather goes from strength to strength as the story progresses.

Playwright Neil Simon is an American institution and there is certainly no doubting his position as one of the wittiest writers of the twentieth century. The fact that a show that is familiar can still generate such spontaneous laugher is a testament to this. And audiences will adore it accordingly. In this final directorial work, Enoch has created a charming piece of entertainment, full of nostalgia but also brisk and upbeat in nature, making it one of 2015’s highlights about which audiences are sure to be sharing suggestion with everyone they possibly can.

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.

season

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.

secret river

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).

switz

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.

quartet

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.

much ado

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.

st mary

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.

puppets

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!

mother

Strange Happy Days

Happy Days (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

July 18 – August 15

umbrella

From its descriptor, “Happy Days” appears somewhat unappealing; the entire play, which was written by Irish, avant-garde playwright Samuel Beckett in 1960, revolves around an older lady named Winnie, who, while half-buried by her desolate, apocalyptic environment, meticulously catalogues the contents of her purse (the only object she can reach), while her laconic, rarely-seen-or-heard husband Willie, occasionally crawls out of his hole to read from a tattered old newspaper. In true Beckett style it is a demanding ask for actor and audience alike and clearly an acquired taste, as emphasised by the post-intermission empty seats, for here, all is strange, but also ironically complete with absurdist contemplation and surrealist symbolism.

QTC’s production, of “Happy Days” is a bold one. The action is bordered by a giant frame, (initially curtained with the Australian landscape image of John Gover’s ‘Launceston and the River Tamar’) making it seem like a surrealist artwork of Australian bleakness unpaused for the audience.

When we first meet Winnie (Queensland Theatre icon Carol Burns), she is asleep, her body buried to its waist in a huge mound of arid earth. An invisible alarm clock suddenly sounds to signal the beginning of her day and so she begins her ritual of mundane chores by brushing her teeth and examining the contents of her bag, which contains, among other things, a revolver. Optimistically, in cheery chatter, she bravely assures herself that this will be a happy day. Seeking to fill the hours, she natters away to her husband Willie (Steven Tandyz), reminiscing, commenting and laughing. Rather than being happy in the present, she derives her joy from the past or material objects of distractions.

teeth

By Act Two, Winnie has sunk further into the mound so that only her now-immovable head is visible and despite the desperation of her unchanging lot in life, she continues to pronounce it acceptingly as another heavenly day in attempt to preserve her sense of happiness through ignorance and routine.

Although the situation is absurd, there is a simple humanity to Winnie and her haunted reflections, emphasised by her prolonged pauses more than the verbosity of her dialogue delivery. As her words cascade out with cadence, it is clear that what matters to her most is not what they communicate, but rather, that there is someone to listen to them, for although, for most of the play, Willie remains silent and monosyllabic in is his exaggerated disinterest, there is, initially at least, a clear good-naturedness and durability to their rundown relationship.

saving her

Burns commands the stage as Winnie and her passion for the show (which she selected as part of the DIVA series showcase of wonderful female artists) is certainly evident in the calibre of her performance. Her animated facial expressions, whether of despair or joy, reflect perfect timing as much as suggestion of feeling, and vocally she achieves remarkable nuance, especially in conveyance of the script’s comical moments and her delicious delivery of lines full of sexual innuendo.

Burns’ magnetic performance is also reinforced by the simple, yet elegant set, atmospheric lighting and intense soundscape. But, beauty in theatre is about isolate moments and in this regard, “Happy Days” certainly delivers, showing how, as Beckett once noted, “life is more silence than action.” This is just one example of the paradox woven so intricately into the show’s fabric as Winnie wanes between optimism and pessimistic in her stoic endurance and fitful frivolity.

Although presented as a face of a tragedy in taking to the extreme the notion that extraordinary things happening to ordinary people is at the essence of good theatre, “Happy Days” conveys a clear allegory of the desire, hopes and aspirations at the core of the human condition. For at the centre of the absurdist play is an ordinary, brave woman, who despite preposterous predicament, conveys loneliness within a long-term relationship. Thanks to Wesley Enoch’s intelligent direction, it is a perfect, provoking representation of absurdist theatre, simultaneously challenging and rewarding and certainly worth a visit to expand your theatre repertoire and come to your own conclusions.

Protest and pride

The 7 Stages of Grieving (Queensland Theatre Company and The Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

March 17 – 31

“The 7 stages of Grieving” begins with a striking image of blue light bathing a centrally-situated mound of earth, upon which a small suitcase has been placed (containing, as is later revealed, the photographs of nameless deceased relatives.) It is a simple yet evocative picture that belies the show’s impressive staging, complex themes and tapestry of stories. Indeed, it is a work which makes a virtue out of its minimalism as it creates a sensory experience heightened by an initial full blackout and silence sans some bush sounds.

From this stark opening, performer Chenoa Deemal, (the only cast member) takes the audience on an almost hour long journey through tradition and heritage. From the darkness, she emerges to pour concentric circles of coloured sand around the mound (representing the rainbow coloured sands of Elim Beach where she grew up in Far North Queensland) before settling in to share her stories – narratives of her family, her friends and her ancestors. She begins with tale of her 62 year old grandmother’s recent death, funeral and the month of mourning that followed. There is much emotion within this initial episode as she tells of the sorrow of loss and joy of memory, in a manner of universal relevance to all have experienced grief. And as someone whose loss of a parent is still being measured in weeks, I must say that I was particularly moved by the emotional honesty of her lament of life, traditions and heritage gone. However, while “The 7 Stages of Grieving” chronicles loss, its focus is not so much on personal grief, but on the cultural loss experienced by Aborigines and it is soon apparent that what at first appears to be a play about death is actually about reconciliation.

Seven stages

Given the nature of this weighty subject matter, the work could easily wallow in the heavy depths of despair, but there are welcome flashes of humour and joy throughout thanks to Deemal’s thoroughly engaging performance, which showcases enormous range as she delivers episodes in varying styles, from standup comedy routine to the story of an Aboriginal man in police custody, delivered in the language of an official report. The strength of every story easily transcends the minimal staging and is complimented by Jason Klarwein’s creative direction, the show’s innovative staging and some impressive sound/projection designing, which makes riveting use of the Bille Brown Studio’s wide stage.

When Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch collaborated to create “The 7 Stages of Grieving” in 1995, they crafted an important theatre work that has gone on to become a modern Australian classic. Given recent controversial politician statements and the forced closure of aboriginal communities, its necessity in this 20th anniversary year, is, in some ways, as urgent as when it was first penned. Since its origin, the work has been updated with mentions of modern political figures and inclusion of references to the Australian Parliament’s official apology to the Aboriginal people and the ‘Sorry’ march across Sydney Harbour Bridge. But these changes are simply cosmetic, for this is a play that has endured the test of time simply because of the power of its messages of protest and pride. And the fact that its QTC season is virtually sold out, reveals that it is sharing accounts from a long tradition of storytelling that that people want to hear, particularly young people, given the demographic at the show I attended. Indeed this is a very accessible production. It is acutely emotive and visually stunning and I cannot recommend it emphatically enough as an absorbing, emotional and thought-provoking piece of theatrical art.

The ethics of independents

I like Wesley Enoch. His passion as a theatremaker is defining and his efforts as Queensland Theatre Company Artistic Director to represent diversity on stage are well overdue. As a patron, I have appreciated his philosophy of building audiences through personal contact, conversations about the work and the company’s obvious valuing of subscriber loyalty.

Enoch’s thoughts on the sustainability of artistic practices within independent theatre are no secret. I’ve heard him speak of this issue before and his conviction is admirable. It is unfortunate that the bulk of his Phillip Parsons Memorial Lecture statements have been overshadowed by the one point that “it is immoral for people on full-time salaries in companies with multi-million-dollar turnovers to be asking artists to do work for free.” But he did say it was going to be provocative.

Every industry has its politics; it would be naïve to assume otherwise. And, accordingly, many have responded to Wesley’s comments, generating some welcome intellectual debate in the social media sphere. This morning I read David Berthold’s candid defense of the La Boite Indie program. And as a patron on the fringe, I feel torn because although independent theatre often offers little financial reward for its makers, I like La Boite Indie. Indeed, I lament the time before its introduction into Brisbane’s theatre culture as an accompaniment to La Boite’s mainstage program.  Because more groups of artists gathering to produce work means more works of art to be enjoyed. The fact that last month’s “><R&J” was a sold out its performances is perhaps testament to others sharing this sentiment.

Enoch’s lecture was titled ‘I don’t do it for the money’. And certainly it would be immoral for audiences to expect artists, (be they emerging or established) to do otherwise in pursuit of their art. It’s like fair trade chocolate or coffee. You want to do the right thing, really you do, but sometimes, the alternative is right there in front of you. This is a simplistic summation, I know and I acknowledge that this is a complex issue. Regardless of one’s opinion, however, is that fact that one has an opinion. Because any dialogue has to be of value in ultimately strengthening the ecology of the arts in this state.