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.

Bigmouths being heard

BigMoutH (Brisbane Powerhouse and SKaGeN/Richard Jordan Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

February 25 – 27

The Visy Theatre stage is simply set with a long table containing arrangement of five sets of microphones spaced out on top. Behind, a screen appears like a blackboard listing the speechmakers to be portrayed, from Pericles to Anne Coulter (the only female), in director and performer Valentijn Dhaenens’ presentation of characters and occasions in history where rhetoric has spoken beyond the circumstance.

As each speaker, Dhaenens is absorbing, inhabiting individual personas and capturing the cadence of their deliveries, evident even in the speeches that are performed in languages others than English (subtitled for audience assistance). And although he never breaks from the characters, it is easy to track the show’s progress through the list of orators; as each section is complete it is erased from the blackboard backdrop as he moves seamlessly between characters.

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Although short on gender balance, speeches represent an interesting selection from an array of political persuasions from the conservative to the radical (think George Bush and Osama Bin Laden). Most are American, with hints at an over-arching anti-American discourse, but there is also the fascinating inclusion of Belgian historical figures, including Patrice Lumumba’s rally for Congolese independence and the abdication of King Baudouin due to his moral disagreement with his government’s decision to legalise abortion.

What is most striking about the selections are the contrasts presented. The most prominent illustration comes through one of the longest segments, early in the show, which sees Dhaenes alternates between Hitler’s Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and the American General George S Patton. While both are essentially attempting to inspire listeners towards wartime sacrifice, Paton appears off-puttingly overzealous, bombastic and blasphemous in comparison to the calm, controlled, soft-spoken and humble style of the Nazi propagandist.

These moments of commonality not only showcase Dhaenens’ commitment and skill as a performer, put provide sense of deliberate connectedness of the specifically-chosen texts that appears missing in other sections, making it hard work at times for the for the audience to make sense of it. Indeed, this is not a show of light-entertainment, even when some of its speeches are interrupted with acapella snippets of songs like Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and ‘America’ from “West Side Story”, which appears as part of a Robert F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Malcom X mashup.

If there is a point to the show it is not always clear from within its heavy content of exploration of 2,500 years of oratory. Even so, Dhaenes provides a powerful performance thanks to his tremendous stage presence in making his chosen orators again be heard, especially in his juxtaposition of enemies and allies. “BigMoutH” is a unique show of an essentially simple idea, effectively realised. While it may be more about the controversy of the messages of its chosen texts than the eloquence of their words, it is easy for audience members to appreciate the attempts to wield emotional power, even if unfamiliar with the speakers or their contexts.

Drills, dilemmas and a defenceless duck

Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster (Brisbane Powerhouse and Mobile States)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 25-27

The enigmatically titled “Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster” is a quirky show of lofty ambition as it sets out to present an anthropological exploration of the complexities of trying to be a better person. An incident lasting all of ten minutes is told from three different points of view: a woman is out running and sees a man throwing stones at a sitting duck. What happens next leaves the woman coming to terms with the event and its consequences and by proxy provides opportunity for the audience to be guided in examination of the ethics of intervention and the excuses we make for ourselves.

“Consider for a moment this moral conundrum” Nicola Gunn commands as she attempts to start the one-woman show with the story about a woman who is running by the water in Ghent, Belgium, when she witnesses a man who appears to be skimming stones on the water, actually throwing then at the duck, as two young children watch on. Should she do something and if so, what? Could his actions be tempered by other considerations (better he take his frustrations out on the duck as opposed to his wife or children perhaps)? What could be the consequences of confrontation in front of the man’s children?

In the 70 minutes that follow, the audience is faced with a range of such questions as all possibilities and perspectives are explored (even that duck has a say), but never as expected as Gunn’s direct-to-audience storytelling is delivered while completing a series of exercise drills around the stage (and even into the audience) in a series of exaggerated, stylised moments.

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The result is at once confusing and distracting, detracting from its quality premise with unnecessary, unrelenting physicality, especially given the lack of correlation between Jo Lloyd’s carefully choreographed moves and the dialogue being delivered. And when, in the work’s final minutes, Gunn emerges as the duck, the revelation represents some of the show’s most effective moments as finally, for a few moments at least, she is standing still.

In contrast, the show’s rambling monologue style serves as asset to its audience engagement as the core story is inset with titbits of random information of the type told in purposeless conversations – about Belgium and its fictional detective Hercule Poirot, Scotland the merit of the movie “Brief Encounter”. And peppered throughout are a number of eloquent observations about art, peace and the temptation of temptation.

Gunn is a personable performer with a likeable manner. Her vocal delivery is naturally charming, despite the eccentric, athletic performance with which it is accompanied. Niklas Pajanti’s lighting is initially stark, however, intense colour fills the space as shades of grey begin to emerge from within ponderment of the woman’s predicament.

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This also affords creation of some memorable images of shadowed movement and dazzling lasers as the work’s previously minimalist score swells to a lengthy finale of electronica thanks to Kelly Ryall’s hypnotic, synthesised soundscape, presumably from the ghetto blaster that appears on stage without any real relevance

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Even though it is the duck that gets the final word, “Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster” leaves audiences with much to consider about its moral quandaries. It is very much a festival show in its meritorious focus on ideas, the impact of which is diluted by unnecessary theatrics and, therefore testament to the value of the statement that less is often more.

Confirmation contemplation

Confirmation (Warwick Arts Centre and China Plate)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Turbine Studio

February 18 – 20

“Confirmation” is a show of questions more than answers. What lies at the heart of conviction? Is it fact or a burning belief that isn’t explainable? The result, more Ted talk than theatrical entertainment is a fast-moving, but lengthy one-man show exploration of the phenomenon of confirmation bias – our choice (whether consciously or subconsciously) to look beyond the facts and see only the evidence that proves the beliefs we already hold, especially when it comes to major social and political issues.

Early in the show, Chris Thorpe, engages the audience is a psychological experiment involving three numbers before explaining bias’ existence from a shared understanding. With Donald Rumsfeld’s quote about unknown unknowns shared as warning of the danger of confirmation bias, there is no denying the show’s interesting premise. However, this is also its undoing as its weighty subject matter makes engagement difficult to maintain long-term.

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Self-proclaimed privileged white liberal Chris Thorpe is a welcoming, energetic performer, moving about with an infectious conviction unrestricted by the intimacy of both the Turbine Studio space and the stage setup with audience members seated on all four sides. As both himself and Glen, a self-professed proud Nazi and holocaust denier, he is almost aggressively passionate. When he holds up index cards before front-row audience members and asks them to read questions he asked Glen, which he answers from a seat in front of them while staring into their eyes, things become a little uncomfortable, as is often that case with work rooted in reality, and one wishes with a time-out for contemplation of the work’s avalanche of notions.

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Dense in concept and language, “Confirmation” is an experimental performance of the type suited to festivals such as WTF. Although militant nationalisation and demonisation of the white working class, as presented in the work, are perhaps more of a British concern, its use of real-life dialogues and imagined struggles of political extremism and social liberalism, makes “Confirmation” an interesting intellectual exercise of metacognition that will both blow your mind in realisation of observations such as the inability to taste one’s own tongue.

And machine makes two

Huang Yi & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse in association with Seymour Centre)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Powerhouse Theatre

February 18 – 20

See the line between humanity and robots blur as a dancer transfers his human qualities to his robot… “Huang Yi & Kuka” is as remarkable in reality as it reads in writing. The work is flawless in its poetry, intertwining dance, mechanical engineering and robotics, often to the silence of an awed audience (the type so absolute that you can hear the vibration of silenced phones in pockets).

As the show starts to the simple sounds of piano, Huang Yi and an industrial robot from the Taiwanese company KUKA move alongside each other. As classical music crescendos as they merge together, it is easy to forget that there are not two humans on stage, so fluid, humanlike and precise are the machine’s movements, especially when moving a laser with and around Huang Yi.

This is a very cool show… not cool is a gushy fangirl way but cool in astonishment at the cleverness and inventiveness to contemplate and then execute its premise. And it is easy to appreciate the commitment of its development (for every minute of KUKA’s movement, Huang Yi spent ten hours programming it). Movement is impressively synchronised down to the finest of details of mimicry and response, which serves to showcase the essential emotions of the show’s series of vignettes.

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The work’s final scene, although disjointed from the others, sees two other dancers, Hu Chien and Lin Jou-Wen face each other, raising and lowering their arms in jittery slow motion as Kuka shines a red laser beam on them, seemingly controlling their limbs as they embrace and part, moving like marionettes. And in their scenes, Huang Yi and Kuka are equally lithe, conversing a tender tale as they communicate and interact with gestures, looks and touches. Indeed, intimacy abounds, particularly in its cello segment duet of human and robot.

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From its opening number in which man and robot dance in parallel, lighting is impressive in both highlight and shadows. The work allows multiple interpretations; without words, it is left to audiences create their own narrative from the clues of Huang Yi’s aging movements and an old-fashioned mechanical metronome that ticks as the sole sound until stopped by the bereaved robot’s outreach (its movement is that defined). The result is at times one of gentle sadness, but sadness tempered with touches of humour. Indeed, there is an essential beauty to the work that ultimately leaves audiences with a rewarding sense of joy.

As a collaboration of modern dance, multimedia and mechanical engineering, “Huang Yi & Kuka” is a unique and moving choreographic creation: full of tragedy, joy and contemplation of humanity, the relationship between humans and machines and our connectedness to the technological world. Brisbane audiences should feel privileged for opportunity of its experience.

Transcultural transcendence

심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard! (Brisbane Powerhouse and Motherboard Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

February 18 – 23

The epic tale of Shimchong, a motherless young girl who sacrifices herself to the under-sea Dragon King God in order to restore her father’s sight, is revered with Korean mythology. Yet, as noted by Director Jeremy Neideck, it is a story with significant currency, given this country’s recent refugee crises. And fittingly, political allusions and overt observation abound in this latest work from Motherboard Productions, in narrative premise, dialogue and a soundtrack that includes lyrics such as ‘they don’t speak for us; they don’t deserve our trust.’

“심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard!” is more melancholy than Motherboard’s last WTF hit “지하 Underground”, but appropriately so given its central political premise. Still, there are many moments of comedy as child’s play is used to parody its social commentary, complete with drawings, dioramas and torch-play to take audiences along a ride from abandoned submarine to a wrecked Kookaburra Queen as Shimchong (Alinta McGrady) encounters the Dragon King, who, according to prophecy, will be the cause wild sea storms and drownings.

Every aspect of the show is art. Clever props and original staging allow audiences to be taken to its distinct settings, with water maintaining place as cohesive tie. It trickles around the place as seagulls soar and jellyfish float across the stage’s palette. Lush lighting evokes an array of emotions, while its soundscape is stark in its realism, forcing characters to appropriately compete their dialogue against the sounds of hovering helicopters in its later lost-at-sea scenes. And costumes are versatile to allow for the multiple roles of many of its performers.

Giema Contini, in particular, transitions easily between multiple character roles, including as a memorably ignorant Susan from Noosa. And Ben Warren shows a Graham-Kennedy-esque comic skill, particularly alongside Younghee Park in the children’s show parody ‘Great Australian Bomb Making’. Park is of fine voice in powerful delivery of the peppy anti-government manifesto ‘Burn It Down’, while Alinta McGrady anchors the soundtrack with a soulful ‘I Want to be Seen’ and the haunting finale ‘All My Ghosts’.

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Accompanied by an array of instruments, songs range from the melodic contemplation to upbeat tempos and are memorable for their music as much as the messages, as is the case with ‘Roll Up’, a carnvialesque Ekka ditty with bouncy lyrics of urge to help the homeless and unemployed. Humour also often comes from the slap of lyrical, eloquent segments, also told in Korean, with ocker Australian lingo like ‘buckley’s chance’. Together the work to form a unique transcultural storytelling experience that typifies Motherboard’s conceptually driven, interdisciplinary work.

The story of Shimchong, destined to be Queen despite her determined disinterest in itself is a beautiful example of a myth of sacrifice such as those central to many cultural heritages. Thematically transcended to modern Australia’s border sovereignty vs loss of lives at sea struggle, it acquires a new resonance. With danger, drums and even a dunking machine, “심청 ⟨Shimchong⟩: Daughter Overboard!” is a magically synergy that is best experienced rather than read about. Although it drags a little in latter part of its excessive 100 minutes running time, its mix of the political and personal not only reflects the focus of WTF’s aim to feature international works that challenge the traditional definitions of theatre, but demonstrates all that theatre should be… innovative, engaging and relevant as means of investigating the world and ourselves.