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The Merchant of Venice

By William Shakespeare, Directed by Roslyn Hick; Technical Director Thomas G. Burt. Streamed Shakespeare www.streamedshakespeare.com August 21 – 23, 2020.

Photo : supplied

Reviewed : August 23, 2020

As Coronavirus struck Australia, closing theatres all around the country and in the process darkening the lives of all those involved in arts, actors, directors, creatives, technicians and administrators were suddenly out of work and facing an uncertain future. But hope and the possibilities of technology soon stirred creative minds, and a small wealth of theatrical ideas emerged.

One of these is Streamed Shakespeare, founded five months ago to give “performing arts professionals much needed opportunities in a suddenly dark world of cancelled contracts, dwindling savings and career chaos” (Artistic Director Holly Champion). By August they had become a group of one hundred creative artists in an online theatre company that reached beyond Australia. They are now creating fully rehearsed ticketed productions. The first of these, The Merchant of Venice, aired from 21-23 August.

Photo : suppled

A skilled production team, led by director Roslyn Hick and technical director Thomas G. Burt, take sixteen actors to a virtual contemporary Italy via the skilled video editing of David Castle. Incredible organisation is involved in such a production. Think “zoom” with a team of dedicated, patient actors and directors, backed by a “whizz bang” technical team, who are just as dedicated and patient.

The result is a very different form of ‘live’ theatre, playing to a much ‘distanced’ audience that watches Shylock and Antonio arrange their strange business deal across streamed screens in ‘home theatres’. The absurdity of their agreement is just as improbable. The racism it exposes – and unfortunately condones – is just as disturbing. Through careful direction and skilled editing, the cast take their audience into a world of business, family dysfunction, romance and prejudice that could sound a tiny bit familiar.

Photo : supplied

For actors, this new theatrical genre requires a re-adjustment of movement and expression. They need to be contained, restrained, yet still portray the varied emotions and reactions of the characters. They need to be constantly aware of proximity to the screen, lest features be distorted, and intentions lost. They need to appear to be listening to a fellow actor speaking in a totally different frame.

Geoff Sirmai, as Shylock, is very aware of all of this, and uses both his stage and film experience to good effect on this new small screen. Sirmai’s Shylock has a very “lean and hungry look”. I know, wrong play, but Sirmai finds both the wiriness and grasping determination needed by a man struggling to sustain his place in a bigoted, mercenary society, epitomised by businessmen such as the cool, unfazed Antonio played by Haki Pepo Olu Crisden, who is confident of risking a ‘pound of flesh’ bond for his needy friend Bassanio (Jamie Collette).

Collette uses the small space allowed by the screen effectively to create a character that listens carefully and reacts accordingly, whether supporting his benefactor – or courting his Paduan prize, the discerning Portia, played by Jess Loudon. Both react believably across their screens, Loudon more effectively in her restrained but entirely contained delivery of the courtroom scene.

Photo : supplied

Both Holly Champion (Nerissa) and Adriane White (Gratiano) skilfully pare their acting to infuse their characters with both emotion and humour. Shakespeare uses these two characters to bridge the social barriers, and both performers find the complexities written into the roles despite being contained to a small screen and restricted responses.

It being Shakespeare, there are many other characters – hence a great choice for involving more actors – and these are enthusiastically played by Jacqui Greenfield, Samantha Winsor, Jim Southwell, Chiara Charlotte Osborn, Kim Jones, Susan Jordan Meredith O’Reilly, Abdeed Razzouk and Jessie Trompp. All bring eager energy to their characters, some doubling and even tripling their roles.

It may take some a little while to adjust to this new genre – but innovation seems to be more important than ever if we are determined to combat the theatre-less effect of this pervasive virus – and the too apparent lack of sympathy or empathy with the arts. Fortunately, innovation and the arts have always gone hand in hand, and Streamed Shakespeare is as determined as Shylock, as innovative as Portia.

Keep in contact with what they are planning at www.streamedshakespeare.com

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Selby & Friends present Beethoven’s Ghost

Kathryn Selby with violinist Harry Ward and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve. Celebrating Ludwig van Beethoven 250th birthday. Filmed at the Sydney’s City Recital Hall. Streaming from July 4, 2020.

Reviewed : July 4, 2020

Photo : provided

Pianist Kathryn Selby’s second concert since lockdown was recorded in Sydney’s beautiful – but sadly empty – City Recital Hall. With violinist Harry Ward and cellist Timo-Veikko Valve she presents a special tribute to celebrate the 250th birthday of Ludwig van Beethoven. The concert is “centred on Beethoven’s revolutionary ‘Ghost’ Piano Trio, bookended by his much-loved C minor Trio Opus 1, No. 3 and Beethoven’s own arrangement for piano trio of his spectacular Symphony No. 2”.

It is strange to watch the performers walk on to the stage without the applause with which they are usually greeted – and to see them complete their performances with the usual flourish, but without the customary bow and appreciative ovation. Despite this, they presented an intensively rehearsed and emotionally charged concert to delight their performance-starved audience who, via the clever work of the camera crew, were able to follow closely the concentration and muscular intensity required by Beethoven’s compositions.

Opus 1, No 3 begins softly, eerily moving into a jaunty lightness that becomes more complex, making the musicians work hard, fingers speeding, watching each other for changes in cue as the emotion builds. It’s almost a teasing composition, taunting both musicians and listeners with variations on the motif and the way they branch away and dart back. Changes in tempo and mood are reflected in the faces of the musicians as thy respond to the growing strength and power that is almost strident before unexpectedly returning to a gentle more reflective conclusion.

The Ghost Piano trio was composed when Beethoven was working on an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth but his friend and pupil Carl Czerny felt that it reminded him more of the appearance of the ghost of the king in Hamlet. Thus, the origin of ‘The Ghost Trio’. It begins strongly, the strings and piano melding in fast tempos that change to lighter variations that seem to flit through the movements until they are sustained into controlled passages that evoke moodiness and unrest.

Photo : supplied

It must have seemed strange for Timo-Veikko Valve and Harry Ward to be performing Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major (an arrangement including every note of his spectacular Symphony No. 2 version condensed into a trio) when only a few months before they had played the symphony with a full orchestra on the same stage where, with Kathryn Selby, they now played to an empty auditorium. This time the violin and cello would play their parts, and in Valve’s words, Selby at the piano “would pick up all the parts of the orchestra”.

The composition is fast-paced and demanding in its changing tempo and emotions. The musicians reflect this in their faces. As the camera moves closer to them it is clear that their concentration is intense and enormous energy is required by the intricacy of the composition. It is an exciting piece that captures the imagination of the listener because of the changes in mood and pace that build evocatively through the movements.

At a difficult time for the arts, it is important that entrepreneurial artists such as Selby are able to find ways to keep sharing their art – and keep reminding audiences of the many artists that are “waiting in the wings” for a real rather than virtual audience, and a more lucrative living.

Carol Wimmer

www.selbyandfriends.com.au

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Selby and Friends at Home

Kathryn Selby, Andrew Haveron and Umberto de Clerici in concert. Streaming Online. Playing to ticketed customers from May 2 – 10, 2020.

Reviewed : May 2, 2020

Photo : provided

As a reaction to the closing down of arts venues by the coronavirus, pianist Kathryn Selby took one of her ‘Selby and Friends’ concerts to the screen. With violinist Andrew Haveron and cellist Umberto de Clerici, she presented three of the most loved Piano Trios in a concert recorded after only two day’s rehearsal at Sydney Grammar School.

Despite the difficulties of complying with social distancing, very clever camera work follows the music sensitively, close up shots of the musicians revealing their expressive joy in the music and the sustained energy that the pieces demand.

“Reaching out through music has always given comfort and solace – and elevated the soul”, Selby said of her decision to record the concert. “Being able to bring Selby & Friends concerts to music lovers in the safety of their homes was a satisfying goal, worth striving for… and well worth the challenge of overcoming technical hurdles. I am grateful to our loyal subscribers and my colleagues and friends in the industry for helping make this new initiative come to life!”

This reviewer is not a musician – and though I could rely on research to augment my review, I decided to write about what I heard in the music and saw revealed by musicians more closely than on a concert stage. Hence, expect language that describes feelings rather than expertise! Thought stream reactions if you like, possibly stemming from being at home alone watching and listening, rather than being constrained by the proximity of a larger, closer audience.

Mozart’s Piano Trio No 3B flat major exhibits the quirky complications one expects of his work: contrasting tempos, changing inflections, challenging changes in mood. Slower and more romantic moments show the contrasts in the instruments, especially the deeper voice of the cello as it converses with the lighter voices of the violin and the piano.

The third movement is faster, seemingly more intricate than those before it, a delicate motif that somehow allows itself to become more substantive and suggestive, sometimes even a little strident.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio in E flat minor allows the instruments to blend yet exposes their different tones. At times the piano is soft and persuasive, at others emphatic. Lightness in the movements becomes more vibrant. The instruments echo each other, one leading the others into variations of the motifs that are underscored by the deeper voice of the cello.

Photo : provided

In this piece particularly, the camera picked up the oneness of the musicians – with each other, and with the music. Close ups of the piano showed Selby’s delicate finger work, intricately delicate at one moment, restrained reaction and more atmospheric at others.

Dvorak’s Piano Trio No 4 in E minor’s shorter but poignant six movements show the different ‘faces’ of the composer and his close understanding and feeling for the instruments. In the first movement, a strong introduction by the cello invites a response from the violin. Together they invite the piano to join them in incredibly strong changes in tempo and mood. Later, in the third movement, the piano draws the strings into a range of emotive moments, gentle at times, more fluidly energetic at others.

At times in the fourth movement there are moments of almost complete silence and stillness, and in the fifth the instruments seem to whisper secrets that are picked up, embellished and retold. The final movement blends the tones of the previous movements but here the violin seems to declare the mood and changes in pace that are picked up willingly until the instruments merge in a final, uplifting series of notes.

If the language is a little flowery – and emotive – I don’t apologise! It reflects a reaction to the music – and to the inspiring work of the camera operators who helped bring Selby and Friends to us so uniquely in the artistic void that has been forced upon us.

www.selbyandfriends.com.au

First published oinStage Whispers magazine.

Les Misérables

Music by Claude-Michel Schönberg. Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Original French text byAlain Boublil and Jean-Marc Natel. Additional Material by James Fenton. Adaptation by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. Packemin Productions. Riverside Theatre, Paramatta. February 14 – 29, 2020

Reviewed : February 14, 2020

Photo : Grant Leslie

This is a brilliant production! The standing ovation it received on opening night was thoroughly deserved. The direction is brilliant. The voices are superb. The action is dramatic. It is everything a production of Les Misérables should be – and what one expects of a Packemin production. The fact that the season is almost sold out is indicative of the esteem in which the company is held by its western Sydney audiences.

Victor Hugo’s story of the luckless Jean Valjean, condemned to hard labour for stealing bread for his sister’s starving family, and his journey from prison to redemption pursued by his nemesis, Javert, has been immortalised in this musical theatre drama. This production does it proud.

Lit by a high spot above the orchestra pit, musical director Peter Hayward leads his musicians in those first unforgettable notes of Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stirring introduction. The curtain rises on a hazy stage where ropes hanging from high above are pulled by the hapless prisoners below. Light diffuses through the haze as guards pace menacingly.

Photo : Grant Leslie

Luke Joslin directs the production with impeccable attention to the timing and pace set by the music – yet still manages to ensure the cast finds the complex dimensions of the characters that are evoked by the lyrics.

Daniel Belle brings Jean Valjean to life once again in a stunning performance that finds all the power of the music as well as the growth in strength and character of the man in the seventeen years over which the story occurs. From aggrieved prisoner he emerges as redeemed factory owner, caring adoptive father and forgiving opponent. His flawless performance of ‘Bring Him Home’ pulled every heart string. His duets, whether with Javert or Fantine or Cosette, demonstrate the experience and talent of this very popular Australian tenor.

Robert McDougall brings similar conviction and power to the role of Javert. He finds the unwavering conceit of the man in a compelling performance that leads to his confused reaction to Valjean’s mercy and the agonising notes of his final ‘Soliloquy’.

Fantine is played with pitying poignancy by Matilda Moran, and Georgia Burley brings hope and a little joy to the production in the role of Cosette. The wistful character of Eponine is played by Emma Mylott, whose understated performance finds the touching melancholy of the role.

Brenton Bell is Marius in his first performance with Packemin. He finds the complex emotions of this role – his love for Cosette, his brotherly affection for Eponine, his idealistic politics – in songs that move from gentle caring to rousing rebellion.

That rebellion is epitomised by Noah Rayner in an impressive depiction of Enjolras, the student who leads his followers to The Barricade. Raynor’s expressive face and contained sense of rage and injustice brings believable passion to this role.

The humour of Les Misérables is found in the characters of the ruthless, bawdy Thénardiers, the innkeepers who have ‘cared for’ Cosette. Alex Cape and Prudence Holloway give these characters the energy and oomph that lift the ‘spirit’ of the story whilst still depicting the seedy under-class of nineteenth century France, where poverty and greed thrived. They are particularly captivating as they celebrate surviving yet again in their song and dance routine to ‘Beggars at the Feast’.

Photo : Grant Leslie

These performers are supported by a very talented and committed ensemble who depict the many French characters that Hugo built into his novel. Valjean’s fellow prisoners who “look down” because they know “sweet Jesus doesn’t care”; his factory workers who know that “the end of the day” will bring no change; the low life of Montreuil-sur-Mer who torment Fantine in ‘Lovely Ladies’; and the people of Paris who ‘hear the people sing’. They are a formidable chorus who act just as effectively as they sing.

The whole production is a credit to producer Neil Gooding and the combined flair of Joslin, Haywood, associate director Courtney Cassar, choreographer Madison Lee and associate musical director Rachel Kelly. It is a rousing, yet emotive production that will echo in the memory of its audiences for more than ‘One Day More’.

There are still some seats in the circle and gallery left, but they too are selling fast!

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

By Robert Louis Stevenson, adapted by Noah Smith. Castle Hill Players. The Pavilion Theatre Castle Hill. Jan 31 – Feb 22, 2020

Reviewed : January 27, 2020

Photo : Chris Lundie

Robert Louis Stevenson’s macabre novella about a dual personality, one good, one evil, was first published in early 1886. A year later the first adaptation for the stage opened in Boston. Many adaptations have followed, both on stage and screen. This adaptation by American playwright Noah Smith is a chilling science fiction thriller that demands meticulous direction, precision acting and accurate, split-second sound and lighting operation.

Director Paul Sztelma’s production at the Pavilion achieves all three. The action is fast, exacting. The characters are strangely disturbing. The lighting and sound effects, created by Sean Churchward and Bernard Teuben, are menacing, sinister. Theatrical teamwork such as this relies on trust and dependability, consistency and confidence. The sort of collaboration one expects of professional theatre – and this production is probably as close to that as community theatre gets.

Sztelma sets the play along a tall, dark diagonal wall.  Small, high windows draped in cobwebs allow in eerie, angled light. Large wooden crates, three chairs, a laboratory bench are the only furnishings. The stage is gloomy, bathed in an eerie haze. Two doors become symbolic of Jekyll’s dual personality … and the places it leads him.

Photo : Chris Lundie

On this set, his cast move with rigorously rehearsed precision, their characters clearly delineated, their voices clear, their emotions tightly contained. The atmosphere they create is scarily surreal. Their ethereal faces emerge from shadows with an unnatural glow. Their costumes, designed by Annette van Roden, meld with the darkness of the set. They are immaculately of the period, but are sombre, a little dusty, almost ghostly.

Dimitri Armatus plays Jekyll – and Hyde – transforming on stage from one to the other in a series of contortions and cries that are alarmingly unnerving. As Jekyll he is social, amiable but sometimes a little remote, a little unbalanced. As Hyde he is just the opposite: scarily energetic, deranged, controlled by the evil that drives him. Sustaining two such disparate characters is a challenge that Armatas meets with strong, convincing realism, finding the very different dimensions of each clearly and believably.

Scene changes occur accompanied by ominous sound effects and rapid lighting cues. With a clunk as if from a huge camera shutter, the stage is plunged into momentary darkness. From the mist two gothic chorus characters emerge in shadowy light. Together, as saturnine narrators, they move the grisly tale along – and, in so doing, establish the necessary pace of the action.

Nicole Hardwood and Robert Snars work in perfect tandem in these roles – and many supporting roles, including the pernicious voices that whisper in Jekyll’s head. Whether working from opposite sides of the stage, with light jumping from one to another, or re-setting chairs as they take the audience to the next scene, they are in tune, biting cues fiercely, relating to each other as closely as if they themselves, like their master, are also two parts of a whole.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Jekyll’s trio of friends are played by Hamish Macdonald (Hastie Lanyon), Jonathan Burt (Gabriel Utterson) and Adam Garden (Richard Enfield). Though these characters represent learned respectability, each has flaws that come to light with the effects of Jekyll’s transformations. All three actors sustain the pace that the rising tension of the production demands – and their frailties reveal the ‘good and veil’ that Jekyll (and Stevenson) believed is intrinsically part of the human personality.

Faith Jessel is Cybel, a socially aware prostitute who is the symbol of Enfield’s failing, but is Hyde’s champion. Sassy, in lacy red knickers and black fishnet, Jessel finds the feistiness of the less ‘respectable’ aspects of Victorian society.

Enfield’s fiancée, Helen, is played by Vanessa Purnama, who depicts Helen’s growing confusion with the turmoil in which she has become involved.

Sztelma’s production is indicative of the creative talent that abounds outside the mainstream theatrical scene. Directors, actors, designers, operators who live their ‘other lives’ rehearsing, building sets, developing effects, to bring performances such as this to community theatres across the country.

Get to see this one! Take the new Metro line to Hills Showground – the theatre’s just up the road from the station and trains run late into the night.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

The Lady Killers

By Graham Linehan. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. Jan 18 – Feb 15, 2020

Reviewed : January 18, 2020

Photo : Craig O’Regan

This play is an adaptation of a 1955 film of the same name where Alec Guinness starred as a bogus ‘Professor’ who led a gang of hardened criminals on a bank heist – and met a sad end in the home of Mrs Wilberforce, who had unwittingly rented them a room in her bomb-damaged house near a railway line.

Peter Capaldi was ‘Professor’ Marcus in the first production of the adaptation in London in 2011 – and Marty O’Neill returns to the Genesian Theatre to play that role in this black comedy about deception, a phoney string quintet, a parrot called Major Gordon … and a very long scarf.

O’Neill is joined by veteran actor Pamela Whalan as the elderly but astute Mrs Wilberforce – and Rod Stewart as a London Bobby. Stephen Doric, Doug Wiseman, Paul Rye and Barry Nielsen play O’Neill’s nefarious but very asinine partners-in-crime who, toting instrument cases, pretend to be members of a string quintet.

Setting this play, designer Grant Fraser has transformed the Genesian stage into an old, two storey London house suffering ‘subsidence’. On the second floor there is a hall to the bathroom, and a bedroom with a window overlooking a railway line. The living room downstairs has an exit to the kitchen, a stairway to the upper floor – and a cupboard deep enough to hide the ‘quintet’!

Obviously, the sight of five grown men crammed into that cupboard is a funny moment of the play – as is the concert the ‘quintet’ is compelled to play for Mrs Wilberforce’s friends. The humour continues through the second act – but to describe the cumulation of the antics of the robbers would give too much away. There are some running gags, a money-heavy double bass case … and the increasingly precarious very long scarf.

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Walter Grkovic directs a busy production that has people coming and going, doors opening and closing, the criminals scheming and arguing, and the parrot squawking. The ‘concert’ scene, for example, has the five ‘musicians’, Mrs Wilberforce and her neighbours – played by Pauline Gardner, Eve Lichtnauer, Susan Carveth and Rod Stewart – crowded into the living room.

Marty O’Neill and Pamela Whelan bring an abundance of experience to this production. O’Neill creates a Professor Marcus who is smarmily smooth and controlling. He uses comedic timing, and his scarf, very effectively.

Whalan’s Mrs Wilberforce may appear to be a little dotty, but she is also a shrewd observer who is never actually taken in by Marcus’s blustering. She portrays Mrs Wilberforce as a post-depression, post-war stiff-upper-lip Englishwoman with convincing appeal.

Pace is always vital in a comedy, especially one that verges on farce, and as the cast becomes more relaxed in their roles, the pace of this production should ramp up making the events of the second act as funny as they could be.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Lady Tabouli

By James Elazzi. Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Festival. Riverside Theatres Parramatta. January 9 – 18, 2020.

Reviewed : January 11, 2020

Photo : Robert Catto

In a short, opening scene of James Elazzi’s play, Danny (Anthony Makhlouf) and Josephine (Nisrine Amine), dance as children to a tape of famed Lebanese singer and actress, Sabah. Josephine encourages Danny to “dance like Sabah” and in a “dream sequence” to the side of the stage Sabah, complete with flowing blonde hair and shimmering dress, appears briefly to him demonstrating her sinewy hip movements for him to imitate.

Cut to the present, where Josephine and Danny are at their mother’s home preparing for the christening of Josephine’s eight-month-old son. Danny has the task of sticking flowers on to place cards. Josephine has brought in a bunch of blue helium balloons and the christening robe that has cost a small fortune.

Dana (Deborah Galanos), their mother, arrives with a new statue of the Virgin Mary to replace one which Josephine’s daughter has broken, and the sugar-coated almonds for the christening. Unfortunately, they aren’t all blue, which upsets Josephine. The ensuing argument is interrupted by the arrival of their uncle, Mark (Johnny Nasser), the family peacemaker, with the christening cake, fortunately iced in blue! And, through all this, Aunty Fatima, calling from Lebanon, talks to them all via the hands-free phone on the kitchen bench. It is very funny, almost chaotic.

Elazzi has used that chaos, and the cultural/religious expectations of the family christening, to explore “what comes to the surface, and what is lost, when we shake up our cultural fabric” (Elazzi). In the early scenes he establishes through pacey, bilingual dialogue, the cultural mores that are so typical of a busy, Lebanese Australian family – important because Danny has deliberately set in motion something that will expose “what can happen to unconditional love when it’s pushed to the limits” (Elazzi again).

Thrown together in the chaotic setting that Elazzi has created, Makhlouf, Amine, Galanos and Nasser easily establish the intimacy of four people who are very close. They are animated, lively, noisy, emotional. They argue, defend, assist, resist. Together they create a family united by culture, heritage … and love. It’s almost as if each identifies even more intimately with their character than one would usually expect!

Dino Dimitriadis directs this production with the compassion and imagination for which he is highly respected across the Sydney theatre scene. His understanding of what Elazzi wants to say in early scenes is evident in the pace with which he controls the action. His empathy with the characters and their emotions is exemplified in more intimate directions – the passing turn of a head, transitory pauses, the evocative power of still moments of complete silence. In the final scene, he uses imaginative vision, and Benjamin Brockman’s lighting skill, to create a more spectral effect.

For the first scenes of Lady Tabouli, Jonathan Hindmarsh has designed the compact kitchen and al fresco area of a suburban home. A venetian blind covers the window above the bench, where the hands-free phone sits among other utensils. It’s a busy kitchen. There are covered serving dishes, a coffee maker, shopping bags, a phone. The three-door fridge is full. A bowl of fruit sits on the table, which is soon covered with the paraphernalia of preparations for the christening.

Photo : Robert Catto

Later in the play, the cast will transform the set to become the prized, beautifully furnished ‘salon’ of the family home. This is a clever piece of set design which serves to consolidate the emotional turmoil in which the family finds itself – and the intrigue of the final scene.

Though the characters in Lady Tabouli are Lebanese Australians, the frenzied, funny, but emotionally complex family drama Elazzi has fashioned is one with which anyone can identify – because the complications that Danny introduces could happen in any family where strict customs or cultural expectations dictate the consequences of the choices individual members are forced to make.

The play is long (90 minutes with no interval), and though there are references which are specific to Lebanese culture, its appeal is broad, and its message deeply relevant.

Reviewed for Stage Whispers Magazine

Betty Blokk-Buster Reimagined

Sydney Festival. Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. January 7 – 26, 2020

Reviewed : January 10, 2020

Photo : Yaya Stempler

Betty Blokk-Buster hit Australian audiences with a raunchy belly blow in 1975. Reg Livermore’s saucy, white-faced, bare-bottomed, feather duster-flicking, cabaret-style ‘hausfrau’ charged on to the stage challenging critics to accept that his performance was much more than a “wank”! As Livermore took “Betty” and the other “dinkum battlers, freaks and survivors” he had created from the Balmain’s Bijou theatre to Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne in an unprecedented year-long tour, the country realised it had a new ‘star’ to light up the Australian stage – and confront its audiences.

Forty-five years later Red Line Productions and Josh Quong Tart (who was born in the same year as “Betty”!) bring a reimagined “Betty” to the Sydney Festival. With Livermore’s imprimatur, they transport the “makeshift fairground” of the original production into the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent and take some of Livermore’s ideas and characters into an equally entertaining but still challenging twenty-first century context.

The “makeshift fairground” is still there in the opening number where Tart, in “Betty’s” original incarnation of white frilly cap and apron, encourages the audience, via tawdry-looking signs, to applause (and laugh and breathe heavily)! Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest then changes the scenario from shadowy 1930s style cabaret to a 2020s style sparkling light show. Here Tart introduces some of Livermore’s funny/outrageous characters to a new generation – who will find them just as funny, and just as outrageous.

Photo : Yaya Stempler

Like Livermore, Tart is a vibrant, multi-talented performer. He needs to be in order to sing, dance and act his way through a one-man show with a host of costumes and characters – none more challenging than recreating a “Betty” that will attract a contemporary audience … and gratify Livermore’s original and still thriving fan base. Happily, Tart does so with abundant panache!

Some of Livermore’s iconic characters are still there, albeit with a contemporary slant – Beryl, for instance, has Siri to keep her company at the sink! The songs Tart chooses evoke similar social comment to those with which Livermore interspersed his original production, none more confronting than Tart’s rendition of Billy Joel’s Captain Jack or the sad Age of Anxiety. Whether singing or bemoaning life in a nursing home, dancing or explaining ‘inappropriate’ behaviour, Tart’s ‘reimagined’ show is still a block buster.

A live band led by musical director Andrew Worboys on keyboard with Andy Davies, Tina Harris, Glenn Morehouse and backing singers and dancers Kaylah Attard, Melissa Pringle & Elanoa Rokobaro set the musical scene. The Spiegeltent provides a glittering festive venue.

But it is Josh Quong Tart himself, like Reg Livermore before him, who is the star.

Also published in  Stage Whispers Magazine

La Bohème

By Puccini. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. January 2 – 30, 2020.

Reviewed : January 2, 2020

Photo : Prudence Upton

Puccini set La Bohème in the sybaritic Latin Quarter of Paris in 1830. Opera Australia’s 2018 production on Sydney Harbour saw it set in Paris in 1968 where civil unrest plagued the city. In this production, Gale Edwards sets it in 1930s Berlin in the final decadent days of the Weimar Republic where, “free of censorship, liberalism was extensive”.

Wherever it is set, La Bohème is a classic love story where the passion of first love is darkened by jealousy, mistrust and poverty.

In Edwards’ production, artist Marcello paints The Crossing of the Red Sea on the high walls of a freezing rented warehouse and writer Rudolfo consigns his latest play to the boiler to provide a little warmth. When their friends Colline and Schaunard suggest going to the Café Momus, Rudolfo remains alone until a knock at the door brings Mimi looking for a match to light her candle. They fall in love and join the others, where Marcello re-ignites his love for the lovely Musetta.

Were it not for Act II and the busy, bustling Café Momus, the opera would be just a sad love story told in beautiful music by incredible voices. At Café Momus the opera becomes more colourful – and in this production, more provocative, with fishnet, feathers and a little nudity.

In glittering silver, Musetta cuckolds her latest admirer and joins Marcello and his friends. Hawkers extol their wares while entertainers strut on stilts and the toy seller, Parpignol,beguiles a chorus of children whose light, young voices bring an extra brightness to the production.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The cabaret-style of the second act gives set designer Brian Thomson the opportunity to use the towering height of the Joan Sutherland stage to create a multi-tiered series of theatre boxes illuminated by glittering lights and a revolving stage on which a band of yellow braided frauleins march the opera into interval. Costumes, by Julie Lynch, are enticingly seductive. ‘Tis not often the opera chorus gets to be so dazzingly revealing!

Karah Son and Kang Wang play the sad lovers, their voices soaring so strongly in moments of passion, so sadly in moments of regret. The joy of their first duet “O lovely girl” in Act I is matched by the apprehension surrounding their final duet, “Have they gone?”

Samuel Dundas and Julie Lea Goodwin reprise their stunning performances as Marcello and Musetta, with Richard Anderson as Colline and Michael Lampard as Schaunard. Graham McFarlane is an easily tempted Benoît and Nara Lee an energetic Parpignol.

No young lover should end as wretchedly as does Puccini’s poor Mimi: humbled by rejection, racked by consumption, dying in a cold studio with poverty-stricken friends who pawn a pair of earrings to buy medicine that arrives too late to save her. And yet over 124 years she has been made immortal by exalted sopranos in opera theatres around the world – just as Karah Sang does in this production.

This review first published in Stage Whispers Magazine