Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Ulster American

By David Ireland. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Shane Anthony. 13 May – 8 June 2024

Reviewed May 17, 2024*

Photo : Prudence Upton

The lights snap up on to find Jeremy Waters in the middle of a voluble dissertation about the use of the “N… word”. It’s one of the many “Look at me! See how politically correct I am!” topics his character Jay, an acclaimed American actor, belches forth in his effort to convince theatre director, Leigh (Brian Meegan) that he is pro-feminist, anti-misogynist, forward-thinking, talented, intelligent.

Jay is in England to appear in a new play by Irish playwright, Ruth. While they await her arrival from Belfast, he is determined to prove himself as a thinking actor, unprejudiced and a resolute member of AA (he checks in with his AA sponsor regularly).

Photo : Prudence Upton

Leigh, a British director anxious to direct at the National, finds it all a little overwhelming. Meegan shows this in silent expressive asides, tentative pauses and replies from trembling, reticent lips. The character that he creates is cautious, chary. Though bewildered and indeed a little disturbed by Jay, he needs him for the play, needs his fame and talent – so he plays along, listening, nodding, agreeing quietly but diffident, hesitant.

There is humour in that hesitance; and black humour in some of Jay’s assertions and suggestions. Playwright David Ireland has set Jay up as the epitome of a man brought up in a patriarchal society, rising to fame in the chauvinistic, dog-eat-dog movie industry, but finding himself having to appear aware and sensitive in a “new” contemporary inclusive society.

Waters skilfully portrays that brittle, over-confident, assertive persona and the fragile insecurity of fame that he tries to cover. He is loud, forceful, just a bit scary, but seemingly sincere. He struts, poses, gestures, articulating forcefully one minute, wheedling charmingly the next.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The conversation becomes increasingly touchy, comically improbable and confrontational until they are both provoked into shocking admissions that it is best not to repeat!

When Ruth ,played by Harriet Gordon-Anderson, arrives she is tired and agitated. She has left her mother in hospital in Belfast following an argument resulting in a car accent on their way to the airport. Gordon-Anderson plays down her concern, intent on discussing the play. But while Jay checks in by phone with his AA sponsor, Leigh stupidly tells Ruth about Jay’s afore-mentioned admission.

J

Photo : Prudence Upton

ay’s fame, his praise for her play and his mention of it to Tarantino, impresses Ruth who basks in his praise until he begins to make suggestions about changes in the play, including his character wearing an eye patch. That, and his awful Northern Irish accent, infuriate Ruth and she comes into her own.

It was interesting to watch Gordon-Anderson make that change. A pause, a look, a straightening of the shoulders – and suddenly she was someone stronger, fiercer, perceptive. This Ruth wasn’t going to be railroaded. She would protect her work and fight against any change especially by someone as insensitive as the Jay that Leigh had revealed to her.

When she throws his crude admission at him, all hell breaks loose. Jay is furious with Leigh. Leigh is upset with Ruth. Ruth is shocked and aghast at both of them. Here the play becomes even more improbable, in fact becomes the wild, black, shock-making Irish comedy that we love.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Black comedy that reveals social flaws and faults in all their vivid, blue lividity.

David Ireland writes masterfully. His work demands clear, tight direction of characters and situations that challenge. Shane Anthony and this very strong, intrepid cast meet those demands in a fine production that, while it entertains almost uproariously, it also, as Anthony points out, “confronts us with uncomfortable truths” that don’t seem to be lessening despite #MeToo, Chanel Contos’ Teach us Consent and the continuous brutal domestic abuse.

The Ensemble brings this Outhouse Theatre Company’s 2021 production back to Sydney at a time that is, unfortunately, heartbreakingly appropriate.

*Opening Night

Misery Loves Company

By Isabella Reid. Legit Theatre Company. Director: Mathew Lee. KXT on Broadway. 3 -18 May, 2024.

12th May, 2024

Photo : Clare Hawley

Irish comedy seems to appeal innately to the Australian sense of humour. Perhaps because so many of us have Irish forbears. Perhaps because our land too suffered at the hands of British colonists. Whatever, we both love a mixture of pathos and bathos, comic repartee and bold characters, all of which amazing young playwright Isabella Reid has managed to capture in this very cleverly crafted play.

Written for her HSC Drama Individual Project, Reid’s play was showcased in February 2022 as an exemplar of HSC works. Mathew Lee realised its potential, not just as a comedy, but as a play that “reminded me how precious my connections are with those close to me and how important it is to not take life too seriously”. He has taken Reid’s play about “the place I love most in the world”, and, with ten multi-talented performers, shared Reid’s premise that “being miserable in company is a good thing”!

Photo : Clare Hawley

The play is about family. Sure, they come together for a wake, and it is Ireland, but it could be any family sharing memories of a lost loved one and at the same time digging up past grievances and rivalries … except there wouldn’t be Irish music, or “faerie” spirits, or the spectre of the Troubles, or the dictums of the catholic church. All of which Reid has managed to introduce into her play.

Her characters are drawn with a fast, sharp pen. The cast introduce them just as sharply, making them lovably identifiable, their interactions cleverly blocked on a set that allows room for tension to build, and space to watch and wait!

Ten actors play the family, undertakers assistants, the local priest and a minstrel who assemble in the living room of the diseased where her daughter Jackie (Annie Stafford) is deciding which of her mother’s extensive collection of brooches should adorn the corpse. Her cousins Cecilia (Lib Campbell) and Niamh (Rachel Seeto) revive their on-going rivalry and jealousy, while Cecilia’s younger brother, Ernie (Clay Crighton) wanders about, childishly playful and curious.

Niamh’s single-parent mother Dolores (Linda Nicholls-Gidley) tries desperately to assert the dignity of seniority, whilst still bemoaning her single state and her attraction to the local priest, Father John (Michael Yore).

Photo : Clare Hawley

Paul Grabovac is Henry, moved to ‘visions’ by the gravity of the occasion and a wooden box he has taken from a taxi driver! Teal Howie is Jasper, a nineteen-year-old care worker and Ronald Reagan impersonator who looks after their grandfather, Pa George (Mark Langham) who suffers from dementia and spends his days drawing the trees he nurtured as a forrester.

Lincoln Elliott is Gus, the minstrel who entertains the audience as they settle in the intimate space that is KXT’s stage, and spurs the family to song and laughter as they share stories, petty conflicts, and songs.

Lee uses the lilt and swing of Irish folk music to set the pace for the majority of Reid’s play – but there are more poignant moments of stillness, where the gentle notes of The Belfast Mill “weave and spin” the family into memories of the past – and the beautiful words and music of The Parting Glass remind them of why they are gathered and the love that binds them.

It’s not easy to master an Irish accent! For a start, there are so many of them! There is no

“Received Pronunciation” to use as a guide and this busy cast have worked hard and should be congratulated rather than criticised for the effort they have made whilst still following Lee’s fast, complex direction.

Congratulations too to designer Ruby Jenkins who has created a cosy living room complete with piano and a wooden casket! It’s comfortable, lived-in and the furniture allows for different conversations as well as some rollicking interchanges.

It’s unfair to describe specific performances.in a play such as this. Every character is clearly defined; every actor is in every moment whether telling a funny story, bickering spitefully, carefully setting out vigil candles, playing an instrument, or tenderly watching over Pa George.

With Isabella Reid’s insightful script, and under Mathew Lee’s impassioned direction, they have established a close-knit ensemble and a caring, fun-loving Irish family, so real that the production was booked out from the first few days of the run!

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

None of Us

DUTI Dance Company. Director /Choreographer Mathew Mizyed. FORM Dance. Riverside Theatres Parramatta. 10-11 May, 2024

Reviewed : April 9, 2024*

Photo : Nat Cartney

The sands of time sift gently and fluidly through this story in dance. Desert colours swirl as the dancers narrate in elegant movement a history that Mathew Mizyed has choreographed as a tribute his father’s homeland and the vast Wadi Rum desert.

In interpretative movements he suggests the long passage of time and the generations that have “walked the land before” – in good times and bad.

A lone, shadowy figure emerges out of darkness. Shrouded in black, Georgette (Sofatzis) Xuereb depicts bleaker times that have shrouded the land. She moves in edgy, angular choreography that is snakingly suggestive of famine perhaps, or disease, or invasion.

Rachell Dade, Andi Huynh and Chantelle Landayan however depict times of growth and prosperity. They move together, gracefully finding connections in flowing choreography that carries them across the land, reaching forward despite the winds that blow the sand and change the landscape – or the dark clouds that they need to hunt away.

Photo : Nat Cartney

The spirit of artistic collaboration envelops this piece of dance theatre. Mizyed alludes to it appreciatively in the program, but it is strikingly evident in the way his creative colleagues have helped realise his vision. Composer Tony Buchen infers the effect of time and change in the music and sound that scaffolds the performance. Gary Bigeni uses dull orange and sandy ochre satiny fabrics in costumes that suggest the colours and shapes of the desert. The lighting, designed by Frankie Clarke, hints at hidden moments in history, especially in one segment where three spots high above the stage shine down on each dancer swirling alone in the circles they form below.

That collaboration is especially poignant when a veil of sand spills from high above the stage, filtering and spreading around the feet of the dancers to become an intricate part of the performance.

Movement, light, sound and texture come  together in this story in dance told by Mizyed and his creative performers and collaborators.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance

Switzerland

By Joanna Murray-Smith. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Shaun Rennie. 3 May – 8 June, 2024

Reviewed : May 7th, 2024*

Photo : Brett Boardman

Joanna Murray-Smith’s fictional play about Patricia Highsmith captures many of the renown Amrican writer’s eccentricities and foibles, among them her troubled childhood, her racism, and antisemitism, her hatred of the French … and her fondness for cats and snails. She sets the older, reclusive Highsmith in her chalet in Switzerland and imagines an encounter with Edward Ridgeway, a pushy young envoy from her US publisher intent on contracting a final book about her infamous sociopathic ‘hero’ Tom Ridley.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Murray-Smith’s pits them against each other in dense, short, pithy dialogue that requires rapid-fire delivery and response. Shaun Rennie follows the playwright’s lead, matching the short, sharp sentences with tense, taut blocking that sees the characters stalking each other around Veronique Benett’s close, cluttered set where the icy light of morning reflects through glass off alpine peaks.

So intense is the cut and thrust between them, so cruel Highsmith’s taunting, that it feels almost prurient to be watching so closely. Having seen STC’s production in 2014 where distance from the action made Highsmith’s isolation seem more extreme, I wondered how it would feel on a closer, intimate, thrust stage. Rennie has answered my musing impressively.

Tony Scanlon IS Patricia Highsmith. She picks up on each characteristic suggested in the dialogue – the bitterness, hostility, harshness, wit, intelligence – and adds to this her own research and perceptive interpretation: a throaty smoker’s voice, the wariness of the isolate, the sharp confident delivery of the witty intellectual. She fires insults, makes insolent demands, constantly moving and gesturing, her Camel cigarette in hand. Scanlon’s portrayal seems almost to deny the age of the writer except for a sort of synthetic energy that she allows to waver every so often. It is a stunning portrayal.

Photo : Brett Boardman

A more intense energy is evident in Laurence Boxhall’s portrayal of Edward Ridgeway. Boxhall holds that energy back as his Edward ‘sizes up’ this strange, strong old woman whom he hopes to wrangle. Initially he is hesitant, in awe, startled, seeming even a little afraid of her quips and accusations. But when he begins to bite back, with gritty responses and a cool, wily charm, it is obvious there is more to this character than his superficial façade.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Benett’s set, framed by the high skylight windows and a narrow open stairway, with the paraphernalia of a cosy, writer’s den, allows Rennie to centre the action and concentrate on the cut and thrust of the dialogue and the inferences therein. The lighting, also designed by Benett, intrinsically follows the changing mood and tempo of the play; the iciness of the opening scenes, the quickening of the action, the almost brightness … and the shadows.

Shaun Rennie directs Murray-Smith’s beautifully crafted script and clear, multi-dimensional characters in a production that is close and fast, wittily funny at times, brutally vicious at others. And Toni Scanlon relishes the opportunity to play the visceral, bitter writer that created a charming psychopath like Mr Ripley.

*Opening Night

Asylum

By Ruth Fingret. Director: Olga Tamara. The Hellenic Art Theatre, Building 36, 146 Addison Rd, Marrickville. May 2 -12, 2024

Reviewed : 5 May, 2024

Photo : Renee Nowytarger

Asylum begins with tension. Three scenes play out simultaneously and Craig, an immigration officer, a husband, and a father, is caught in all of them. Playwright Ruth Fingret places her protagonist in a series of dilemmas, where decision-making and dishonesty juxtapose and diverge in a script that is tight and demanding. Olga Tamara’s direction is just as tight and demanding. She pushes the pace, ensuring the conflict and tension introduced in the first few moments continue through scenarios that are charged with anger, fear, violence, resentment, blackmail, lies, love …

Photo : Renee Nowytarger

Craig faces all of these as he oscillates between a refugee seeking asylum, a bi-polar ex-wife and an embittered son who has been arrested. It’s a tough role, but Chris Miller carries it well, carefully developing the emotional stress that grows with each new confrontation until his tight control is pushed beyond constraint and he gives in to anger, grief, and guilt. Miller allows the emotions to play on his face, but shows how tightly they are controlled in his rigid stance and clenched hands.

Eli Saad plays Hajir, a refugee who is so desperate to gain asylum that he eventually resorts to a lie that affects Craig’s final decision. Saad shows the fear within Hajir in his frightened eyes, and the fervour in his voice as he pleas for understanding and recounts the horrifying abuse he has seen and received. Another performance where tight control is used to show the different dark dimensions of the character.

Photo : Renee Nowytarger

Levi Kenway plays Craig’s Son Jason, brought up in a family dogged by the effect of mental illness and conflict.  Kenway makes Jason taut, fired by an anger that burns in his fixed, staring, resentful eyes and tightly coiled body. He makes him spiteful, bitter, and cruel … and hurt and confused and lonely … in a performance that inspires empathy and understanding.

Dianne Weller plays his sad, ill mother, Vikki. Weller manages to depict the desperation of the mentally ill, especially the sudden mood swings of bi-polar disorder that Fingret has skilfully represented in the script. Weller finds the edginess of Vikki … in the tightrope she walks between control and despair … and in her guilt, anger, self-loathing and desolation.

Emma Burns is Christine, the police officer charged with accusing Jason of threatening behaviour and stealth. Burns makes Christine calm and perceptive, tolerant of Jason’s reticence and anger, but tough enough to keep him under control, compassionate enough to understand the effect of his mother’s volatility.

Photo : Renee Nowytarger

The set, designed by Tamara, allows the over-lapping scenes to merge with astute blocking and clever lighting designed by Mehran Mortezaei. A lamp that flickers on in Craig’s living room. A shadowy light when Craig questions Hajir. A starker spot that highlights Jason’s fear in the police station. The final scene, with Craig’s face lit – and Hajir and Jason in ghostly blue behind him accentuates the finality of Craig’s decision.

Fingret tells this story in clear, economic writing. Tamara and the cast match this with tight direction and deftly developed characters.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Fourteen

Adapted by Shannon Molloy. Adapted by Nelle Lee, Nick Skubij with Shannon Molloy. Shake and Stir Theatre Co and QPAC. Director Nick Skubij. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 3-4 May, 2024

Reviewed : May 3rd, 2024 *

Photo : David Fell

This wonderful, troubling, but gentle story about a teenager growing up gay in a football mad catholic boys’ school in rural Queensland was only in Sydney for two short days before a four-month tour of the eastern states then a move to Adelaide. How lucky were those of us who braved the wild weather this weekend to see it!

Fourteen is yet another brilliant adaptation from the Shake and Stir team. Nelle Lee and Nick Skubij always find just the right way to stay steadfastly true to the original work yet make entertaining, thought-provoking theatre.

They have worked with award winning journalist Shannon Molloy to convert his telling memoir Fourteen into a beautiful piece of theatre that recreates the boy he was at 14, the ignorant abusive bullies in his Year 9 classroom – and the parents and friends who saved his life.

Photo : David Fell

Skubij directs seven actors to depict that year in a fast-moving 100 minutes that capture not only the incipient, homophobic ignorance of his ‘boofy’ fellow students – and some of the equally ignorant staff – but the understanding of his staunch mother, protective brother and sister, wise art teacher … and the support of friends who appreciated his loyalty, sensitivity and creativity.

Conor Leach plays Shannon Molloy, sharing his story with the audience in between scenes that depict graphic but cleverly written moments from ‘that year’ in his life. Leach reaches through the fourth wall in a performance that is perceptive, heart wrenching and wryly amusing. He finds not just the confusions of sexuality but the many other bewildering uncertainties of growing up as well as the importance of being true to yourself, loyal … and brave.

Leon Cain, Karen Crone, Judy Hainsworth, Ryan Hodson, Amy Ingram and Steven Rooke take on the roles of the different people in his life, moving from classroom to playground or home to park, in quick, vibrant pictures that are moving and upsetting, but tinged with humour and insight.

Each character they play is clearly defined but never laboured. Because the dialogue is economic, the language real, the humour touching. They are the kids who teased you … or shared their dreams with you; the teacher that put you down … or the one that “got you”; the parents you remember … or are yourselves. They are the the people of Molloy’s memoir brought to life on the stage in deft depictions by a clever, energetic cast and a director who realises their potential.

Photo : David Fell

Josh McIntosh designs clever sets that are transportable but skilfully re-create the time and place of the adaptations Shake and Stir take ‘on the road’. In this set he uses the full height of the acting space to create the frame of a two-storey tenement-type building. Stairs, a terrace and a slatted box provide a range of levels. Desks and chairs are ‘raced’ on and off the stage in short transitions that are backed by thumping music and coloured lights that flash through the many windows on the set. Those transitions are amazing snippets of theatre in themselves.

The collaboration between designers McIntosh, Trent Suidgeest (lighting) and Guy Webster (sound and composition) provides director Nick Skubij with the perfect space to take Shannon from cruel classroom, to happy home; from an imaginative fashion parade to a successful exchange student interview. To a place of contemplation that he shares openly with the audience.

Fellow designer Fabian Holford somehow organises costumes that can be changed quickly enough to take the cast from grey school uniforms to colourful day wear; from schoolboy to mother or teenage girl or ocker father. Changes that are just a momentary as the scene changes.

Shake and Stir describes Fourteen as a “moving coming-of-age memoir about adversity and tragedy (that) is also a story of resilience, hope and hilarity.”

Check their website for the tour dates: www.shakeandstir.com.au/mainstage/fourteen

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance

The 13th Month

By Cassandra-Ellis Yiannacou. Peg on a Line and Wildefang Productions. Flight Path Theatre, Marrickville, NSW. 1 – 4 May, 2024.

Reviewed : May 1, 2024*

Photo : Grant Leslie

The “13th month” in the title of this play refers to attempts to change the 12-month calendar to a 364 day year divided into 13 months of 28 days. It was first suggested in 1849 and the idea was revived early in the 20th century. Despite the support of some businessmen, statisticians and accountants, the idea was officially jettisoned in 1937.

Playwright Cassandra-Ellis Yiannacou has brought the idea into a 21st century Australian setting based in the offices of two government minister staffers, Peta (Isobel Ferguson) and Nick (Lisa Davidson), who are constantly described as public servants … which would probably offend most political staffers!

Photo : Grant Leslie

Caught up in a muddle of issues involving the inefficacy of the minister, public safety, a press conference, media releases and the political and financial value of the 13-month year Peta and Nick meet with three extremely wealthy capitalists (Anna Clark, Lotte Beckett and Ashyr Mason-Kaine) who confuse things even further with deals and counter-deals, unscrupulous admissions and unprincipled propositions.

The chaos that ensues becomes hard to follow (and far too muddled to describe). Suffice to say that, eventually – after a lot of talk and a lot of paper being thrown about – the “bad guys” win Rick over with an offer to good to refuse, and Peta is left alone with her rather battered but presiding principles.

Photo : Grant Leslie

Yiannacou herself describes her play as “a satirical absurdist piece” and whilst the satire is obvious, this production appears a little more inane than absurd. The three caricatured ‘tycoons’ appear to be playing for laughs rather than for irony, resulting in Yiannacou’s message getting lost in a hotchpotch of postering and profanity – a pity as it takes away from the more satirical performances of Ferguson and Davidson in the opening scenes.

Nevertheless director Madeleine Diggins keeps the action moving demanding energetic – sometimes frenetic – performances from her five enthusiastic actors. There is a ten person creative team and many weeks of organisation and rehearsal supporting the mounting of this production, which will run for only four days. Such is the passion and dedication of those behind the growing indie theatre movement in Sydney … and the arts in general.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance

The Front Page

By Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur, adaptated by Nicholas Papademetriou. New Theatre, Newtown. April 23 – May 18, 2024

Reviewed : April 28, 2024

Photo : Chris Lundie

From the opening moments of his adaptation of The Front Page, director Nicholas Papademetriou sets a quick pace that continues for 100 impressive minutes. The dialogue is fast but exceptionally clear. The action is just as fast. Every movement is tightly choreographed. Every character is sharply defined. The comedy is snappy too!

First performed in 1928, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play has gone through many stage and screen iterations. This adaptation adds Papademetriou’s imagination, contemporary staging, colour and more female charcters – none of which takes away from the insight of the original.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Papademetriou believes that a play, regardless of its genre, should be entertaining, and if there is also some social comment that is a “welcome by-product”. In this “wisecracking, Broadway farce” he says “are issues that are as potent today as they were when it premiered: corruption in politics, media manipulation, sexism, racism gender inequality as well as an insight into the world of journalists”.

He’s not wrong! It’s all there – along with some romance, a delayed hanging, a jail escape and a jump from a window!

Papademetriou’s adaptation of Hecht and MacArthur’s original script, the newshounds of the 1930s and the ‘scoops’ that made them tick is insightful. His direction is meticulously planned and timed, showing the same perception and definition that is evident in his acting.

Photo : Chris Lundie

In the press room of a Chicago Courthouse reporters await the hanging of a local miscreant, their banter and frequent phone calls interrupted by the noise of weights being “tested” on the gallows below. When the prisoner escapes bedlam ensues. Reporters, police officers, the prisoner’s girlfriend, the sheriff, the mayor and the prisoner himself charge in and out, shouting instructions and arguing. In the midst of this a love triangle is resolved, a court messenger bribed, a reprieve buried and a prisoner concealed.

Eighteen actors whisk the audience through this mayhem, seldom missing a beat of the pithy script or Papademetriou’s complex blocking and zippy pace. They work as a tight ensemble, making every character significant to the action, especially the newshounds – David Allsop, Barry French, Bruce Griffin, Gerry Mallaly, and Reuben Solomon – who are the backbone of the action.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Papademetriou introduces Hildy Johnson, a talented reporter played with cool aplomb by Rose Treloar who makes Hildy slick and a bit brash, well able to hold her own in the bristly male environment of the pressroom. Rita Bensinger, another female reporter, played by Georgia Nicholas, takes the ribbing from her male colleagues with gritty nerve  … and a flouncy flip of the hips on her final exit.

Some roles, though small, are memorable because of their comedic clarity: Cassady Maddox Booth’s depiction of the earnest, young policewoman, Officer Eichhorn; Braydon May’s wide-eyed innocence as magistrate’s clerk Samuel Pinkus; Callum Stephen’s enthusiastic press ‘goffer’ Diamond Louie. And the condemned man, Earl Williams, played by Diego Retamales, who’s jumpiness and sad, scared face add extra frenzy to the pace of the press room.

Designer Paris Burrows met Papademetriou’s directorial vision of a stylised set that would off-set the “hyper reality” of the text but also represent the “actual world beyond the pressroom” by opening up the full width and depth of New Theatre stage. Free standing doors and a large, double window establish the boundary of pressroom. Through the door shadowy spaces become the entry to the pressroom corridor, and beyond that a hallway and the suggestion of stairs to lower levels extend the perspective.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Burrows also adds colour rhythm to the production: a red chair and Treloar’s red tie and shoes; Nicholas’s green scarf and a green hanging light; the different colours of the seven phones on the press desk. Lighting designer Michael Schell accentuates that rhythm, swelling it at times, especially in the void beyond the windows that seems to be lit from street lights below.

This is another of New Theatre’s productions that should not be missed – especially in this post-Covid time when companies are still wary of illness and steer away from the challenges of large cast productions.

 

 

Mary Stuart

By Kate Mulvany, after Friedrich Schiller. Director Heather McGreal. Henry Lawson Theatre. 19 – 27 April, 2024

Reviewed : 19 April, 2024 *

Photo : supplied

Friedrich Schiller’s play Mary Stuart was first performed in 1800. Set in 1586, it tells of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I of England instigated by her cousin Mary Stuart, deposed Queen of Scotland, who claimed the right to the English throne.

Both were strong women who had the following of loyal supporters, but Elizabeth, as the crowned Queen, had the upper hand, and kept Mary in prison in England for 19 years. The plot, carried out by Mary’s Catholic followers, was unsuccessful and led, eventually to Mary’s execution.

Australian playwright Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Schiller’s play emphasises the inner strength and intelligence of these two women, sustaining control in a world dominated by men and religion and ambition. She makes them clever and determined. She gives Elizabeth wit and guile. She gives Mary faith and conviction.

Not often does a community theatre company take on a historical drama such as this, where costumes, staging, customs and language are as important as the characters and their story. And when that story has been retold by a playwright like Mulvany, one knows that there will be little quirks and twists that look at the events through a contemporary lens.

Photo : supplied

Director Heather McGreal has taken care to give this play its historical setting as well as Mulvany’s insight into the characters. The set is austere but the costumes, designed by Barbara Vasilescu, McGreal herself and Jake Martin, take the characters back into the 16th century where brocades, wide skirts, ruffed collars, knee-breeches, white stockings and restrained colours were de rigueur. Mark Prophet’s lighting suggests either the gloom of Mary’s dull cell in Fotheringhay Castle or Elizabeth’s brighter court in London, and sound designer Nicole Madden uses selections of music that echoes the sombreness of the story.

McGreal’s blocking accentuates the class divisions of the time and the characters’ perceptions of their social standing. This makes the small stage seem larger, the perspective of distance more evident.

The two queens are played astutely by Rebecca Fletcher and Nicole Smith.

Fletcher is the devout Mary, incarcerated, but dignified, buoyed by the kindness of her ‘keeper’ Paulet, her loyal followers and their optimism. Fletcher holds Mary’s head high, her  poise evident in rigid posture and tight composure. When she speaks, she does so quietly, thoughtfully, her gaze often seeming to take her beyond the walls of her prison. Even as she faces the executioner, Fletcher’s Mary is quietly contained.

Niccole Smith as Elizabeth takes full advantage of the wit and cynicism that Mulvany has written into the Virgin Queen. In gold brocade, black lace and beaded red wig, Smith makes Elizabeth regal yet accessible, and though susceptible to flattery, determined to hold the singularity of her position. She shows the different dimensions of the shrewd Elizabeth Mulvany has created with characteristic gestures and quizzical expressions. She’s a little cheeky, a little suggestive, cynical, wily … but also a little lonely.

There are no ladies-in-waiting in this court. Only men who hover in waiting.

Photo : supplied

In Mary’s castle prison Amias Paulet is played by Mark Prophet. Employed to guard Mary, he has become her friend and protector and Prophet shows that in his steadfast service and his anguish when she is condemned to death. His nephew, Mortimer, played by Gabriel Pope, shows a different sort of loyalty, that of scheming conspirator and failed assassin.

Anthony Brown plays Lord Burleigh who was the chief adviser to Elizabeth I for most of her reign. Brown makes Burleigh very loud and angry, giving him a strong stage presence that almost dominates some scenes, providing a telling contrast to the more refined Lord Shrewsbury played with quiet conviction and gentle civility by Aurel Vasilescu.

Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, stateman, landowner, man-about-town is played by Anthony Ashdown who gives Dudley all the fashionable panache and sycophantic charm that has made him the Queen’s favourite.

Elizabeth’s gives the responsibility of holding the warrant for Mary’s execution to her undersecretary, William Davison played by Rhys Ward who shows the awful burden of this task, especially when Burleigh hovers over him screaming to hand over the document..

Visiting the court with a marriage proposal from the French king is diplomat Guillaume de l’Aubespine. Angela Pezzano makes l’Aubespine persistent but polite, following Elizabeth in a gallant effort to gain her consent.

There are two non-speaking parts in this production. Firstly, there is ‘Girl’ played by youngster Aimee Baker-Smith. Whether assisting Elizabeth or Mary or carefully moving props, or watching the action as she mops the floor, Baker-Smith is an integral part of the action and takes her role very seriously.

Then there is ‘Dog’ who is Mary’s constant companion. “Teddy” Prophet plays this role with canine aplomb, and despite his well-behaved acting unknowingly steals the focus in each of his scenes!

Photo : supplied

Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I never actually met, but Kate Mulvany introduced a scene where they meet at a costume party. Some of the dialogue in this scene is taken from the letters the cousins wrote to each other. The rest of that conversation Mulvany has imagined creatively!

Heather McGreal has directed this production with an eye to detail. The characterisations are strong. She has ensured the wittiness and contemporary language in Mulvany’s script is clearly expressed, and though this sometimes leads to a lack of pace, that does not take away from the potential of this production. Bravo HLT!

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt

By Tusiata Avia. Director Anapela Polata’ivao. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 18-20 April, 2024

Reviewed : 18 April, 2024*

Photo : supplied

I am so glad I had the chance see this production! Not just because it is feisty and funny; nor because its messages “hit us hardhard” like “Aunty Fale’ and her broomstick in the poem “My Dog”! But because I knew that before I could start writing about the performance itself, I had to find out more about Tusiata Avia and her work!

And that has been very moving … stirring … and disturbing … just like the production itself.

Tusiata Avia is a New Zealand poet of Samoan and Palagi (European) background. She has received multiple awards for her work and was appointed a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2020. According to the judges of the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards Avia finds “eloquent ways to speak out against, horrors, injustices and abuse. Both domestic and public” – a quote that aptly describes just what Wild Dogs Under My Skirt has to say.

Beneath its humour, physicality and beautiful, strong voices there is hurt, despair and anger.

Director/performer Anapela Polata’ivao with performers Stacey Leilua, Joanna Mika-Toloa, Petmal Lam, Ilaisaane Green and drummer Leki Jackson-Bourke bring a selection of Avia’s poems to frightening, funny and physical life in this very strictly timed and graphic production.

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Polata’ivao’s direction is tightly tied to the rhythms of Samoan music and dance that inextricably pulse through Avia’s writing.

There is also that juxtaposition of poise and volatility that is often reflected in many Pacific Island stories. An introductory song that features the elegant arms, hands and swaying hips of Samoan dance is juxtaposed with a very wry description of the salt and fat content of the tinned corned beef that has been introduced to the Samoan diet.

Contrasts such as this can be found in much of Avia’s work. She adds comic “stings” to harsh criticisms of patriarchy, inequality and abuse and Polata’ivao makes that comedy an intrinsic part of the production – until the very poem that gives it its title.

Based on the custom of women’s legs being tattooed decoratively – and assumedly seductively – from the thigh to just below the knee, the poem begins defiantly with the words: “I want to tattoo my legs/not blue or green/ but black”. The black thighs “like the black octopus that catch rats and eat them” would  hopefully, be like “wild dogs under my skirt” scaring away any unwanted male aggression.

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While the harsh words of that poem are spoken abrasively above them, four performers kneel at the front of the stage barking and snarling viciously at the audience, teeth bared and eyes blazing. It is a chilling finale that is in keeping with the tenor of Avia’s work. She is a provocative writer whose messages reach beyond the stage and the South Pacific.

Wild Dogs Under My Skirt plays for only two days, but you can read much of Tusiata Avia’s poetry online including the chillingly beautiful “I Cannot Write a Poem About Gaza” …

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance