Breaking The Castle

By Peter Cook. Director: Caroline Stacey. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. 7-9 April, 202

Reviewed : 8 April, 2022*

Photo : supplied

Breaking the Castle premiered in Canberra in 2020 and had a short season in Melbourne in 2021. This season in Parramatta is short too. A pity, because it means far too few have seen this extraordinary piece of theatre that looks closely into addiction – how it gains power, how it holds power and how hard it is to break that power.

Written and performed by Peter Cook, it follows an actor’s gradual submission to the temptation of turning to alcohol and drugs via the debilitating effects of depression and anxiety caused by failed auditions, incompetent directors, unemployment, family problems …

Photo : supplied

It describes the highs and the lows and the need for bigger highs. It explores the loneliness, the need to belong, even though that means being dragged further into despair. It wades into even murkier depths: the temptation to give in to self-harm, even to end life completely …

It follows, too, the long road to recovery – the pain of therapy, the drying out, the temptation to give in, the exultation of success, the awareness of how easy it is to regress.

As an actor, Cook knows how to reach the audience without preaching. His message is clear – and he explains in concisely. This is what can happen. This is how it does. This is what it feels like. This is why it’s so bloody hard to give up.

Photo : supplied

Cook is an athletic performer. He moves quickly from one scene to another, using the levels of the large, raked rostrum and small piles of related paraphernalia that are judiciously spaced around it to take the audience with him from King’s Cross, to waiting for an audition, to a therapy clinic in Thailand. He is never too long in one scene, never takes too long to explain but does so unambiguously.

Sound and lighting punctuate the production. Lights spotlight him in some scenes, wash over him as he lies prostrate on the stage in others. Music breaks a moment, introduces another. Actor and technicians work in perfect time, despite the many scenes and varied effects. This work has been carefully rehearsed to ensure perfect continuity.

Breaking the Castle has a strong, potent message. It’s well written, creatively directed and powerfully performed. Hopefully ACT’s The Street Theatre and Peter Cook will take it to more and bigger audiences.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening night of current production

Orange Thrower

By Kirsty Marillier. Director: Zindzi Okenyo. National Theatre of Parramatta. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 30 March – 2 April, 2022.

Reviewed : 30 March, 2022 (Opening Night)

Photo : Brett Boardman

Kirsty Marillier is a new, young writer who has honed her style carefully. “It’s not often you come across a new writer that already possesses such a unique and well-formed writing style,” writes director  Zindzi Okenyo.

In Orange Thrower Marillier has crafted a play that speaks buoyantly about diversity, difference, assimilation, the yearning for acceptance and the exhilarating power of determination. It is acutely honest, wittily satirical, and delightfully funny. Her writing is succinct. She draws her characters deftly. They are cleverly authentic – in the way they relate, the words they speak, and the way they speak them. Okenyo and her cast make them live in a production that is bright, fast-paced and expressive.

Marillier has set Orange Thrower in a fictional suburb in Perth called … Paradise. The play centres around Zadie, a young, coloured South African girl, her sister Vimsy and Leroy, Zadie’s boyfriend. Zadie is acutely aware of fitting in to the neighbourhood – and not doing anything to attract the attention of their disapproving neighbours, Sharon and Paul. When their cousin Stekkie appears mysteriously from Johannesburg, life becomes a bit more complicated – and noisier.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Zadie carries a lot on her young shoulders. As a nurse, she works hard, long shifts. As a sister, she is caring and concerned, and feels the reputation of her family resting heavily on her young shoulders. Gabriela Van Wyk incorporates all of this in a performance that is engaging and believable. She sustains an energy that defines the resilience and inner strength of the character she plays. The Zadie she creates is youthfully bright but sensibly mature, carrying her multiple responsibilities with an enthusiasm and positivity that is buoyed by innate optimism – and the affection and constancy of Leroy, played by Callan Colley.

Colley is breath of fresh air! He is an astute performer who finds every delightful quirk that Marillier has written into this role. His Leroy is proudly, boyishly masculine yet beguilingly insecure – and so anxious to please that he opens himself up to all sorts of misfortune. Colley uses the stage confidently and, as Leroy, establishes relationships that are believable and touching.

Mariama Whitton springs exuberantly into the role of Vimsy. Just out of school and working part time, Vimsy is itching for fun, and Whitton makes her a bit cheeky and defiant, energetic, game for anything, anxious to feel accepted. So, when Stekkie appears out of the blue – a ‘grown up’ who is brazen and sassy – Vimsy is ready to follow her lead.

Okenyo directs herself in the role of Stekkie. “I have never had such a visceral response to a character,” she says. “Living inside Stekkie’s brain was wild … I felt frightened and yet somehow without fear”. Rightly so, because Stekkie is volatile, spectral – an unpredictable Puckish  character who switches mood erratically. Okenyo finds all of this, dancing crazily one moment, searching introspectively the next … like “a child with no place to fit”.

Marillier sprinkles her insights into “womanness, blackness, colouredness, otherness and youngness” and in-betweenness with clever humour – and cunning satire.

Photo : Brett Boardman

The neighbours – Sharon, and, briefly, her husband Paul – are played by Colley and Okenyo. Sporting a blonde wig and, inevitably, a pink tracksuit, Colley becomes a caricature of every broad-vowelled, nosey neighbour waiting for the chance find something not right about the ‘different’ people over the road – and he does it exceptionally well. Sharon’s appearances  are relatively short but subtly, satirically, telling.

Designed by Jeremy Allen, the set is the living room of Zadie and Vimsy’s home. It is  minimalist, but colourfully effective. The wide sill of the central window allows Sharon to peer over inquisitively, Stekkie to enter stealthily, and doubles as the roof top where the sisters and Leroy sit to watch the night sky.

Verity Hampson and Benjamin Pierpont obviously relish the creative lighting and sound opportunities a play such as this suggests. Together they bring the sound of Africa, the light of Australia and the suggestion of the metaphysical to spark the senses of the audience.

Marillier hangs the themes of her play like “g-strings on a clothesline”, which Okenya spins skilfully to reveal a diverse coming-of-age story seen though a differently coloured lens. A story told succinctly yet evocatively, with subtlety and humour – and a lot of joy.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Blood On The Wattle

Written and directed by Geoffrey Sykes. Richard Wherrett Studio, March 25 and 26 and Chippen Street Theatre, Chippendale, March 31-April 9, 2022.

Reviewed : 26 March, 2022

Photo : suppled

Playwrights often have a lot to say. Sometimes they try to say it all at once. Sometimes that can be a little confusing, a little overwhelming, even a little disturbing. Such is the case with Blood on the Wattle. It touches on tawdry party politics, climate change, refugee detention, racism, discrimination, misogyny, stalking … even rape. Significant themes. And theatre is a good way to air them. But packaging them into one play means a fair bit of manipulation. And a fair bit for the audience to navigate.

Photo : supplied

In Blood on the Wattle, Geoffrey Sykes creates Karl Matters (Ken Welsh), a federal politician representing a country electorate for the fictitious, conservative  “Country First “ party. Karl has ‘fallen out of favour’ with his conservative party leadership because of his views on climate change. He may even lose preselection. His secretary and stalwart supporter, Louise (Kloud Milas), is determined to stand by him. A play in itself, perhaps?

But it becomes more complicated.

Karl meets Vania Azadi (Befrin Axtjärn Jackson), a newcomer to town, who has found employment at a local farm. When Karl offers her work in his office, Louise’s prejudices are revealed. As Karl becomes more obsessed with Vania, his persistent personal questions about her past lead to a theatrical treatise on government immigration policies and disturbing disclosures that might require prior warning for audiences. Vania’s story itself could be a second play.

Photo : supplied

Most of the action occurs in Karl’s office on one side of the stage, and Vania’s small flat on the other. Many of the scenes are short, and Sykes feels the need to identify the quick changes via slides on a screen, which prove a relatively unnecessary distraction (and an annoying light source) due to the clearly differentiated staging and his actors.

Welsh is realistically ‘political’ as friendly, sociable local member Karl.  His voice resonates in brusque political phone calls, but carefully changes tenor as his confidence and bravado slowly erode. Welsh shows that gradual erosion perceptively, especially in some of the longer scenes in the second act.

Axtjärn Jackson is a thinking performer who brings believable sensitivity to her interpretation of Vania’s story.  Though it is often very hard to hear her in the first act, she finds more vocal intensity in Vania’s angry reactions to refugee policies and her acute pain in the retelling of her treatment in detention. Some of these scenes demand intense control of emotion – and real guts to enact.

Milas is consistently supportive as Karl’s electoral and business office manager, despite some repetitive dialogue which is always hard to vary.

Photo : supplied

Sykes has the making of a good play here – or two good plays. There are some pertinent messages, and some moving, heart-breaking  moments. The fact that they are told in so many short scenes that move so quickly diminishes their intensity. Fortunately, it is the anguish of some of the later scenes that remain with the audience.

Plays that encompass so many themes and backstories can become confusing without serious workshopping – and it’s very hard for playwrights to workshop and critique their own work. Or to direct it effectively without engaging the assistance of a dramaturg. This is where dramaturgs come into their own. In a complex play such as this, a dramaturg’s experience, distance from ‘ownership’ and impartial advice would have been of great benefit.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Phantom Of The Opera

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics: Charles Hart. Additional Lyrics: Richard Stilgoe. Book: Richard Stilgoe & Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Opera Australia. Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Director Simon Phillips. March 25 – April 24, 2022.

Reviewed : 25 March, 2022 (Opening Night)

Photo : Prudence Upton

All afternoon weather warnings had interrupted every ‘Drive Time’ radio program. Heavy rain had pelted down in intermittent bursts. Storm clouds still hovered menacingly. Yet from 5.30 until 10.30pm not a drop of rain fell on Sydney Harbour for the opening night of this, the very first open-air performance of The Phantom of the Opera in 35 years.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Was it because composer Andrew Lloyd Webber himself was  to be in the audience? Or was it the Phantom himself who cast a spell on the weather? And did his power last only for those few hours? Because ten minutes after the finale, the rain came! In big, heavy drops! The cast, the crew, director Simon Phillips, designer Gabriela Tylesova, the technicians – and the crane operators – must have breathed a collective sigh of relief as “slowly, gently night unfurled its splendour” on this spectacular production.

Photo : Prudence Upton

“Spectacular” is often used to describe these productions and rightly so. The stage is lifted by two cranes onto pylons to make it appear to be ‘floating’. Gabriela Tylesova’s imaginative set involved 150 builders and painters in its construction. A gold balutsraded staircase sweeps up across the wide stage (2.5 metres larger than any indoor stage in Australia) to the towering pillar of the Paris Opera theatre and the Phantom’s special box. The legendary chandelier, that is a replica of the original chandelier at Paris Opera Garnier, is strung with 80 light bulbs and is, of course, a feature of the production. So too is the gondola – or gondolas – in which Christine is ferried into the Parisian sewers beneath the Opera House. The ingenuity of how this is achieved is typical Phillips and Tylesova working in clever collaboration.

Tylesova’s costumes, too, are spectacular. Fastidiously based on the fashions of the 1880s, yet in breath-takingly beautiful contemporary colours and fabrics, they glimmer under the myriad lighting effects designed by Nick Schlieper. For the Masquerade, she lets “the spectacle surround” the stage with a kaleidoscope of colourful, sparkling characters, none more fun than the Monsieur Firmin and Monsieur André as shiny, hairy bears.

Joshua Robson as the Phantom sparkles too, in long, velvety coats braided in gold and silver, with buttons that glitter and glossy masks, one in vivid red, and another, more sinister, that shimmers as if burnished in mercury. Robson wears this finery with a panache as potent as his powerful voice and the controlling fear it infuses under the hovering night sky. His Phantom embodies the inner turmoil and loneliness of the man – and his need for acceptance and the compassion he finally gets from Christine.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Georgina Hopson plays Christine with a naivety that allows her character to vacillate between the fear instilled by the Phantom and her love for Raoul. There is no such vacillation in the power of her voice or the emotions that fill her words. Her sweet innocence rings out as clearly as her fear – and eventually her understanding empathy of the Phantom’s plight.

Callum Francis is her loving protector, Raoul. Francis steps into this role with confident poise, giving his character the self-assuredness that counterpoints the heaviness of his rival in both action and voice, especially when all three sing together.

The diva, Carlotta Giudicelli, is played by Naomi Johns who obviously delights in the various vocal and emotional demands of this role. She moves with ease from operatic soprano in a rehearsal of Hannibal, to temperamental prima donna, to an object of ridicule by the Phantom – and she does so with fine voice and equally fine comedic timing.

Paul Tabone is Ubaldo Piangi, her Hannibal. He too has a fine voice and excellent comic timing. Together they make the ‘operatic couple’ a continuing feature of the production – as do Michael Cormick and Martin Crewes as Messieurs Firmin and André. Both bring a wealth of stage experience and vocal prowess to the production.

Maree Johnson and Kelsi Boyden contrast as the ballet mistress, Madame Giry and her ballerina daughter Meg – the former strict but kind, the latter impulsive and sympathetic.

Together with an ensemble of 36 singers and dancers (choreographed by Simone Sault), they re-tell Lloyd-Webber, Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart’s interpretation of  Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel in the music and words that have entertained the world.  They do so with the support of an orchestra of 27 musicians hidden beneath the stage in a specially built orchestra studio, from which conductor Guy Simpson connects with the singers via ‘in-ear monitors’ as well as television monitors. Sound designer Shelly Lee complements the music with creative effects made possible by the plein air setting.

It takes a crew of 45 to ‘manage’ a production as big, complicated, and weather dependent, as this. Imagine the safety precautions needed for the metres of electrical wiring. Imagine the intricate manoeuvring of the crane from which the chandelier is suspended. Even keeping the stage dry must be a mammoth task in the “unprecedented” weather Sydney has experienced of late.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The creative team have realised Simon Phillip’s concept of encouraging people “to imagine a point of reference beyond their own … and empathise with a life dramatically different – one that might change an otherwise promising, even brilliant human being into a damaged psychopath”. A life that Joshua Robson epitomes as his Phantom’s power, under Phillip’s direction, “is there inside our minds”.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Lady Windermere’s Fan

By Oscar Wilde. Director Jess Davis. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. 19 March – 7 May, 2022.

Reviewed : 19 March, 2022 (Opening Night)

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Oscar Wilde’s witty criticisms of society still give us cause to reflect even while we smile, though the criticism he made of the society of the time in Lady Windermere’s Fan – namely the hurtful effect of gossip – is nothing compared to the scandalmongering perpetuated in social media today, and its wide audience far surpasses the elegant theatregoers of the Victorian era!

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Elegance is synonymous with Wilde’s plays. It was the nobility he sought to unnerve in his plays – and the nobility meant the fashionable and well-heeled, who had time for ‘at homes’ and carriage rides in the park – and balls. They are ‘costume’ plays and this production, directed by Jess Davis, with costumes designed by Peter Henson, takes the audience back to the graceful gowns, elaborate hats – and waist coats and tails – of the late 19th century. The silk, lace and frills favoured by the stylish ladies of Wilde’s play, contrast with the sombre black and grey of the gentlemen, as they meet in Lord Windermere’s house on Carlton Terrace 130 years after the play was first performed.

People deport themselves a little more casually today than in the 1890s, and it’s always hard, especially for younger actors, to emulate the carriage and bearing of that time. Not so with more experienced performers. Liz Grindly as the Duchess of Berwick and Michela Noonan as Mrs Erlynne carry it off beautifully. With backs straight, necks arched, nimble steps, precise gestures – and clipped,  clear enunciation –  they epitomise the posture and posturing of the time.

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Aimee Honour is a sweet, virtuous Lady Windermere, shocked by the apparent betrayal of her husband, played with sober earnestness by Kendall Drury. Sam Walter is the love-lorne Lord Darlington, and David Boyd is humorously ingratiating Lord Augustus Lorton.

On a set, designed by Tom Fahy and lit by Michael Schell, they and the other enthusiastic members of the Belgravia set, show how easily a scandal can arise – and how an old scandal can be concealed – by a society that thrived on idle chatter but also followed relatively strict code of conduct. Davis’s idea of using projected images of quotes from a manners ‘Manual’ during scene changes accentuated the ideals of the time, even though Wilde disparaged those ideals through the words of Mrs Erlynne … “Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they are better.”

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

North By Northwest

Adapted by Carolyn Burns, from the Alfred Hitchcock film. Directed by Simon Phillips. Sydney Lyric Theatre. March 16 – April 3, 2022.

Reviewed : 16 March,  2022

Photo : Daniel Boud

A movie can do drunken car rides and a crop duster zooming over a lone figure on an empty road then crashing into a truck, no problem! But to do it on the stage? Sounds a bit far-fetched doesn’t it? Anyone who remembers Cary Grant racing across America dodging villains in the movie North by Northwest would probably say “No way! In your dreams!”

Give such a “dream” to producers like Andrew Kay and Liza McLean, a playwright like Carolyn Burns, an innovative director  like Simon Phillips and a veritable host of clever designers and they’ll always say: “Why not?”.

Photo : Daniel Boud

Like raising kids, the dream they envisage will need a village – a creative village of listeners, thinkers, planners, builders and organisers that will make the dream a reality. They will need a fit, united crew and a cast of 15 very experienced actors, who, just like the cast of the 1959 movie, are going to career around New York in a taxi and a police car, be swooped at by a crop duster and climb the rocky slope of Mt Rushmore! They will play over 100 characters, make many costume and accent changes, double as stage hands and props manipulators – and will do all that at a cracking pace!

Organising, blocking, choreographing and rehearsing a production like this is only possible with the cooperative and collaborative spirit of the wide arts family. Over 40 creatives involved in set, costumes, wigs, sound, lighting and audio visual design, props and model making have been part of this production. And the responsibilities of the stage management crew are massive.

I managed to catch a few moments with David Campbell, who has the awesome task of taking Roger O. Thornhill, the beleaguered hero of North by Northwest, charging all over America to clear his name. When I observed that this gig is “hard work” his smiling reply, “But so much fun!” encapsulates the essence of this production. It is fun!

Photo : Daniel Boud

It’s obvious from the moment the paper title and credits are ripped off and thrown into the audience that it’s going to be fun. And from the quick-fire lines and lighting of the first scene, it’s obvious that it’s also going to be fast. There are no fixed set pieces in this production. Everything is on wheels. A scene finishes, one or two actors freeze, the lights dim, and every item on the stage – chairs, tables, two dressers, a lounge, a private carriage on a train, even Mt Rushmore – is pushed off at a run. Every actor is involved. No one escapes from very exact choreography of the scene changes, nor the speed at which they occur.

The characters spring straight from 1950s Hollywood. The style, movement, gestures, language, the way the lines are delivered – pace, pause and inference – are Hitchcock, but in the flesh! Whether Campbell’s Thornhill is the slick businessman dictating instructions to his secretary, or the fugitive making love to undercover spy Eva Kendall (Amber McMahon), the filmic image is sustained. Whether Genevieve Lemon is playing Thornhill’s shrill mother or a collector bidding at a Sotherby’s auction; or Bert Labonte is playing a gangster or a policeman with eczema, their characters are clear. Whether other cast members are playing New York cops, a bell boy, a bus driver or an auctioneer … or operating a model train or plane, or moving a tree past the window of the image of a train, or pushing three chairs to simulate a ride in a police car… they are always in the moment, always aware of the split second timing that makes this production work.

“It’s entertaining.” “It was so clever”. “What fun!” Such was the buzz from the audience.  And it is all of that. It’s entertaining because the lines are funny, the timing and pace work perfectly, the characters recreate the ‘goodies and baddies’ of mid-20th century movies. It’s clever because the direction is taut, the action tight and the effects inventive. It’s like a radio play with action and scenery! One of the fun effects involved an actor lying on a skateboard lighting Campbell with a torch as he supposedly inched his way along the outside of a building. Such a simple idea, but effective – and funny.

Photo : Daniel Boud

David Campbell and Amber McMahon lead this multi-character cast. They do a superb job of reinventing the movie hero and heroine of the ‘golden movie’ years … the clipped sentences, the slightly suggestive lines, the just-long-enough lingering love scenes … and of taking their characters climbing to the “dizzying heights” of a cast-created Mt Rushmore.

The physical demands of this production are tough. The pushing, pulling, climbing and the fast scene changes require a very fit and active cast, and this cast, the young and not so young, meet every physical challenge. One and all work hard, never appear to miss a cue, and make every character, large or small, speaking or silent, totally recognisable, and often very amusing. To differentiate between them would be too hard and take far too long. Suffice to say that every one of them is integral to the production.

Simon Phillips is a director who works creatively across every form of theatre. His imagination knows no bounds, and he gathers people around him who see and understand what he sees and wants, and work to achieve it. If ever a major production depended on that sort of ensemble work and trust,  this is it.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Freud’s Last Session

By Mark St. Germain. Directed by Hailey McQueen. Clock and Spiel Productions. Riverside Theatre. 9-12 March, 2022

Reviewed : 10 March, 2022

Photo : supplied

Mark St. Germain is a prolific American writer of plays, musicals, and documentary films. All of them are much acclaimed, many of them involve famous people. His play Becoming Dr Ruth  tells the story Dr Ruth Westheimer, who escaped from Nazi Germany in the Kinderstransport, went on to Israel and America, and eventually became a pioneering radio and television sex therapist.

St. Germain’s  film My Dog involves actors such as Richard Gere and Glenn Close talking about their love of dogs. His musical Stand by Your Man is the story of Tammy Wynette. In the play Scott and Hem, he imagines a conversation about “the cost of love, friendship, and the price of being a writer” between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.

In Freud’s Last Session, St. Germain moves his research to England where he imagines a meeting between the aging Viennese psychoanalyst Dr Sigmund Freud (Nicholas Papademetriou) and Professor C.S Lewis (Yannick Lawry), Oxford don and creator of the Narnia fantasies. This is a reprise of Clock and Spiel’s 2018 production, directed with sage sensitivity by Hailey McQueen, and is a welcome addition to Riverside’s busy 2022 season.

The scene is London on the morning of  Sunday 3 September 1939. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain will shortly declare war on Germany. The setting is Freud’s study, a replica of the study he left behind in Vienna when he fled the Nazis.

Designers Tyler Ray Hawkins and Kaitlin Symons have reproduced the study in great detail,  including the famous couch and the collection of religious antiquities on his desk. Lighting designer Emma Lockhart-Wilson suggests subdued autumn light filtering through high windows and adds the warmth of two table lamps.

Freud paces slowly. He is a stickler for punctuality. Lewis is late. Freud is an atheist. Lewis is a born-again Christian. The air is not electric – but it fizzes! Freud’s dog announces Lewis’ arrival with a few barks … and Freud walks slowly to open the door.

What ensues is a learned, rational debate about the existence of God  – a debate that is never stuffy, as one might expect, or lacking in humour. St. Germain does his research well, and the characters he creates are enriched with the language and ‘style’ of both ‘characters’. Rational debate is sprinkled with scholarly repartee and humour. Both men are subtly defined in the writing – and the actors who play them use the dialogue to explore the many dimensions of these colourful 20th century figures.

Photo : supplied

Freud, at 83, is in great pain following treatment for oral cancer which required his upper palate to be replaced with a plate. He will die before the month’s end. Nicholas Papademetriou inhabits his age, his intelligence … and his suffering … with convincing belief.

Slightly hunched, holding a handkerchief ready to cover each pain-ridden cough, he shows the physical frailty of Freud’s age and illness, but there is none of that frailty in his intellect, his arguments or his humour. He listens carefully, considers every response, delivers it clearly, concisely – and watches for Lewis’ reaction. Papademetriou never loses the rhythm of Freud’s accent, built into the phrasing of his lines.

Lewis is 59, enthusiastic, influenced by his Oxford literary group the Inklings, and his strong belief in God. He is also a little nervous, believing Freud has ‘summonsed’ him because of his criticisms of Freud’s paper on Paradise Lost. Yannick Lawry manages to build all of that into his performance, including his respect for the older man and his concern for his health. He is deferent but is strong in his defence of his faith.

Under McQueen’s direction, they move around the stage judiciously, taking each segment of the argument to different parts of the room, at first on two elegant chairs near the door, later at each side of the desk. Each sits on the couch, though fleetingly. Thus the set itself becomes integral to the tone and tenor of the debate.

There is nothing to be faulted in this production. And it comes at a time when many of the references to Hitler, dictatorship, the Nazi invasions and the effects of war mean a little more to this contemporary audience than St. Germain intended in 2010.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

 

Guards at The Taj

By Rajiv Joseph. Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta. Directed by Bali Padda. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 24 Feb – 5 March, 2022.

Reviewed : 26 February, 2022

Photo : Noni Carroll

It is 1653 and the Taj Mahal is about to be revealed to the people. Years of speculation have almost immortalised the building, despite the fact that it has been hidden behind by a high wall. Humayun and Babur are two low level guards, stationed outside the wall to ensure secrecy until all is revealed at sunrise. They must not face the wall. They are not supposed to move or to speak. Their swords must be raised at all times. Disobedience will result in terrible punishment, including death by elephant.

Such are the ordeals faced by … the Guards at the Taj.

Guards at the Taj won the OBIE for Best New American play in 2016. Playwright Rajiv Joseph uses some of the myths that have embellished the construction of the ‘Taj’ to recall the vast differences in Indian society in the 1600s – the incredible wealth of the ruling class, the power they held over the people, and the cruelty practised by some of them.

One such was the Mughhal emperor, Shah Jahan, who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal in 1632 as the tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The impressive white building, with its high domes and pillars, was designed by Ustad Ahmad Lahauriit. It took 20 years to complete – and the labour of 20,000 workers. Joseph uses those workers – and the guards – to recall, graphically, the accepted inequality and brutal practices of the time.

Fortunately, he uses humour to counterpoise the horror – and director Bali Padda and his cast incorporate that humour very effectively, especially in the opening scene.

Photo : Noni Carroll

Imagine a towering, blue lit, cutwork wall reaching high and wide across the front of a stage. Imagine a guard, resplendent in shimmering white and midnight blue uniform, complete with blue and silver turban and juttis, standing, sword held in his right hand outside the wall. This is Humayun, played by New Zealand born actor Idam Sondi. He is still, silent, face immobile. All is quiet – then Babur (Akkshey Caplash) rushes in and stands beside him. He’s late! He raises his sword. Humayun turns to look at him. “Wrong hand!” he hisses out of the side of his mouth. And the tension is broken!

Babur continues to break the solemnity – and danger – of their task. He is curious about the dawn birdsong. He reminisces about a tree house they built when they were boys. He wonders about the stars and imagines an ‘airo-plat’ that could take them to the stars. Caplash makes this character lovably curious and ingenuous. He fidgets, smiles, looks wide-eyed as he wonders.

Humayun tries desperately hard to maintain his position and stature, but is constantly taken “off guard” by the inquisitive restlessness of his friend. Even his dire warnings of the punishments they could receive for various misdemeanours are ignored. Sond sustains the strength of his initial moments on the stage. He gives a little, but never too much. He is ever aware of being caught out and his fear of punishment remains a constant in his reactions and expression.

That fear is shown especially clearly when he explains a situation that is concerning him. He has heard that the architect has asked the Shah if the 20,000 workers who have toiled so faithfully could be taken on a tour of the completed building. The Shah has reacted violently to such a monstrous suggestion – and promised an awful punishment.

Unfortunately, Babur and Humayun are chosen to carry out that cruel, inhumane punishment.

The second scene finds them in the bloody aftermath. In a brick cell, awash with blood, they relive what they have done. Gone is most of the humour. Though there are some moments of repartee, this scene, and one that comes later in the play, are fairly gruesome. Be warned!

Photo : Noni Carroll

Caplash and Sondi make the transitions between ‘guard’ and ‘butcher’ well. One moment they are rigid and resplendent in silk uniforms, next moment washing a bloody floor with a sodden towel. They aren’t easy transitions – and the costume changes make the scene changes a little long despite effective music and the play of light on the screen.

Set designer James Browne knows the Lennox Theatre stage, and makes good use of its proximity to the audience in the “guards” scenes – and the possibilities of what can be hidden behind a carefully lit, cutwork screen. The brick walled ‘cell’ in the second scene, with its sunken bath filled with murky water, is a surprise!

Kate Baldwin’s creative lighting mixed elegance outside the wall with pervading dankness behind it – and Me-Lee Hay enhanced this with sound and music that skilfully matched the changing atmospheres.

Though the play is set long ago in India’s past, it rekindles the class structure that dogged the sub-continent for so long … and prevailed, still, under British rule. It recalls the cruelty practised by many in authority, not just in India, and not only in the distant past.

Bali Pada and his very talented cast and crew have made Rajiv Joseph messages clear – and done so in a production that is very carefully envisioned.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Otello

By Guiseppe Verdi. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 19,25 Feb; 2,5,8,16,19 March, 2022

Reviewed : 19 February, 2022

Photo : Prudence Upton

Otello is a Venetian general and the governor of Cyprus. Iago is his ensign. They have just returned to Cyprus in a violent storm after a victory against the Turks. The city is celebrating, but not everyone is happy! Otello has overlooked Iago by appointing another officer, Cassio, as Captain of the Navy. And Iago is angry! He is a malicious man and plots revenge against them both. The outcome is a cruel scenario based on deceit, manipulation, jealousy … and gullibility. It results in Cassio killing Roderigo, another young soldier – and Otello being driven to kill his newly-wed wife, Desdemona.

It is not a very pleasant story, yet Verdi was able compose music that evoked these harsh themes as well as the stirring emotions that provoked them. He wrote for a strong. powerful voices and an orchestra that could conjure a raging storm, a vindictive villain, a dying, mis-accused wife and a remorsely repentant husband.

Korean born tenor Yonghoon Lee is Otello. Baritone Marco Vratogna is Iago. Their voices match the demands of Verdi’s music – and the range of emotions their characters expose. Yonghoon Lee amazes in his ability to establish Otello’s respect and authority in compelling notes filled with power and command – and irresolute notes that show the wavering gullibility of the man. Amazingly this is the first time Lee has played Otello – and he inhabits the role masterfully.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Marco Vratogna finds every vicious dimension in Iago’s character – and the music Verdi created for this vengeful man. Vratogna sings and struts the villain well! He is a forceful presence – both vocally and theatrically – making Iago hatefully impressive.

Soprano Karah Son is the ill-fated Desdemona. Loyal and loving, she thinks well of everyone, falling prey to the fabrications Iago weaves around her. Son shines in this role. She has some special moments: the beautiful ‘kiss’ duet with Otello at the end of Act 1 – and the hauntingly evocative “Willow” song in Act 1V.

Australian tenor Virgilio Marino is the much-maligned Cassio. Marion finds all the oscillating musical variations Verdi has woven into his creation of Cassio – especially in the scene where Iago tempts him to drink too much. He sings and plays a very operatic drunk!

Iago’s wife, Emilia, is played by Sian Sharp. Richard Anderson is the luckless Roderigo, Andrew Moran is Montano – and Andrew Williams plays a Herald.

Photo : Prudence Upton

This relatively small group of principals is backed by a large and skilful Opera Australia Chorus, that shines particularly vibrantly in the storm scene at the beginning of the opera. They sing and move in time with the roaring wind and thunder invoked by the orchestra, creating waves of voice and movement that simulate the waves that threaten the harbour below them.

Andrea Battistoni conducts the Opera Australia Orchestra with energetic verve in this revival of Harry Kupfer’s 2003 original vision, directed by Luke Joslin. Kupfer’s production took the opera from the 1880s to the middle years of the twentieth century, exemplified in the exotic costumes designed by Yan Tax. The set is a double diagonal stairway stretching up to a wall of slatted folding doors that shake and flail in the storm. A rich gold and crimson carpet covers the central area of the stairs, providing a luxurious, yet almost threatening, context for this malevolent story, in which both the heroine and the hero die – and the spiteful villain survives.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

A Chorus Line

Conceived by Michael Bennett. Book: James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante. Music: Marvin Hamlish Lyrics:Edward Kleban. Produced by Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Directed and choreographed by Amy Campbell. Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House. Feb 13 – Mar 17, 2022

Reviewed : 16 February, 2022

Photo : Robert Catto.

The much-awaited production of A Chorus Line from Darlinghurst Theatre Company will be just as much acclaimed! It will fill audiences with joy and elation. The power that radiates from the production is dynamic. This cast really loves “This Job”!

Amy Campbell’s creative vision has given them much to love. Her innovative choreography has brought the cast leaping, spinning and flipping into the twenty-first century – and in doing so, has done nothing to lessen the impact of the plot! In fact, it reinforces it. If “getting cast’ was hard in the 1970s – it’s been even harder in the 2020s, especially after two years of … “Nothing”.

Photo : Robert Catto.

Even without the pandemic, the messages that inspired Michael Bennett back in 1975 resound more insistently today. There are more dance schools. More dancers. They are more highly qualified and experienced … and more ambitious. And making a living – and a life – in the arts is even harder. Yet the passion and fire are undiminished. Dancers still train and audition; keep training and keep auditioning … it’s what they “do for Love” .

The set (Simon Greer) is a brick loading dock, enhanced by mirrors, some sparkling surprises, some exotic lighting (Peter Rubie) and lots of carefully defined and considered costumes (Christine Mutton).

Twenty four dancers, having been taught set routines by assistant choreographer Larry (Brady Kitchingham), face tough, exacting director Zack (Adam Jon Fiorentino). Only seventeen remain after the first cut – and only eight will be required for the production. The competition is strong, the tension high. Then Zack makes it more stressful by asking some personal questions. Their stories underscore the theme. Some sad, some funny, they include the physical characteristics that hold dancers back – size, sexuality, shape, the inability to sing …

Photto : Robert Catto.

All of these pressures and problems are summarised beautifully by Val (Rachel Mansour) and the company in “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”. And the problem of trying to make it across all forms of theatre is beautifully explained by Angelique Cassimatis who takes Cassie’s solo “The Music and the Mirror” into a whole new, and perhaps for some, a little long, choreographic realm.

It would be impossible to try to comment on every performer in a production where solo moments and ensemble moments merge so smoothly and powerfully. There is a treasure of talent in this production, and a wealth of experience, nurtured both here and overseas, that informs the professional bearing and commitment of this cast.

This production of A Chorus Line is for those who love to dance – and those who love dance. It is bright, yet serious. It gives its cast – and its audience – exactly what Cassie sings about:

Give me somebody to dance for,
Give me somebody to show.
Let me wake up in the morning to find
I have somewhere exciting to go.

That “somewhere exciting to go” for lovers of dance is the Drama Theatre. But only for the next four weeks! Be quick! Tickets are selling fast!

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

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