As You Like It

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 25

Emily Askell, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Emily Askell, Abi Tucker, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

2015 marks Bell Shakespeare’s 25th anniversary so it’s a shame that their first production of the year is a disappointment.

Set in the Forest of Arden, As You Like It is a delightful comedy that pokes gleeful fun at romantic love and supposedly idyllic rustic life. It is full of humour – but hardly any of it lands in this production directed by Peter Evans.

The laughs on opening night came mainly from various bits of stage business rather than the comedy in the play itself. Few of the touching or serious moments hit home either.

Michael Hankin’s set features paper flowers on hanging ropes backed by a canvas drape, along with a costume basket and a large ladder, which looks as if it has been left behind by the technical crew (a reference presumably to “all the world’s a stage”).

The staging doesn’t quite capture the romantic nature of the forest where people are changed and relationships healed, and Evans doesn’t manage to create any real sense of a world within it, or outside it. The production instead seems to be a mish-mash with no cohesive visual or performance style, and little unifying vision.

Kelly Ryall’s songs don’t feel as though they emerge organically from the production and Kate Aubrey-Dunn’s costumes, inspired by the 1930s, 50s and 60s, often sit oddly. Orlando appears on stage looking like an insurance salesman in neatly pressed trousers, shirt and brogues, while complaining about his brother keeping him “rustically at home” and having to eat “with his hinds”. Celia sports an elegant coat with fur trim and diamante buttons when she’s supposed to be disguised as a poor country maid. Worse, Rosalind’s disguise as the boy Ganymede consists of tight pants and fitted waistcoat, which actually emphasise her feminine curves.

Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters: strong, clever, witty and resourceful. Banished from her uncle’s court, she comes up with a plan to flee to the forest disguised as the young man Ganymede with her cousin Celia pretending to be Ganymede’s sister. She then hatches a scheme to have Orlando (who has fallen for her, and who has also had to flee to the forest) use Ganymede as a way to practice wooing Rosalind.

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Evans’ direction, however, robs the role of nuance and playfulness. Zahra Newman gives us no discernible difference between her Rosalind and Ganymede. All the gender-bending layers and much of the fun are therefore lost in the scenes between Orlando and Ganymede, when Orlando finds himself attracted to the youth.

In Shakespeare’s day, with the all-male casts, the exploration of sexual ambiguity would have been further compounded by having a boy play a girl disguised as a boy. We get none of that here.

Aside from that, Newman handles the language well and after a slightly tentative start is a lively presence.

Charlie Garber looks awkward as Orlando, giving a performance full of the jittery, emotionally detached, comic mannerisms we have seen from him so often before and misses Orlando’s honourable, romantic, dashing and tender sides. Scenes such as Orlando comforting his exhausted, elderly manservant Adam as he goes off to find him food aren’t moving, as they usually are. And there is little chemistry between Garber and Newman.

Evans has chosen not to portray the rustics as country bumpkins. But the decision to have them speak pretty much like the courtiers, without any kind of rural accent, diminishes the divide between the two worlds, and again much of the comedy is lost despite the cast’s best efforts.

As the melancholy Jaques, John Bell delivers a fresh and poignant “Seven Ages of Man” speech while, in one of the standout performances, Kelly Paterniti’s effervescent Celia has welcome heart and depth. Tony Taylor brings a droll charm to the role of Adam and Dorje Swallow impresses as Oliver.

Evans has clearly tried to avoid the tried-and-true tropes of this popular and regularly staged play but in putting them to one side, much of what makes it so delightfully entertaining has been lost.

As You Like It runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until March 28 then tours to the Canberra Theatre Centre, April 7 – 18 and Arts Centre Melbourne, April 23 – May 10

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 1

 

Matthew Mitcham’s Twists & Turns

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, February 26

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham is still in his 20s (about to turn 27 in early March) yet already he has packed an inordinate amount into his short life – from the highs of winning Gold with the highest single-dive score in Olympic history to the lows of depression and drug addiction.

It’s all great grist for the mill in his debut cabaret show Twists & Turns in which he tells his story with disarming honesty.

He begins the show with his ukulele, singing Pink Martini’s Sympathique, one of his mother’s favourite songs. From there he takes us on a journey through his rollercoaster life: a decidedly unorthodox upbringing with an alcoholic single mother, his achievements as a junior world champion on the trampoline leading to diving, his famous Gold Medal win at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, his struggle with self-esteem, his descent into depression and drug addiction, and his emergence into the light after realising that he needed help. (He is now training to compete in Rio).

Mitcham came out before he competed at Beijing and has become a gay icon and a role model for many young men. Performing in Sydney as part of the 2015 Mardi Gras festival, the opening night audience took him to their heart from the start and were clearly touched and entertained by his story. It’s fair to say they welcomed seeing him in his bathers too.

Twists & Turns premiered at the 2014 Perth Fringe World festival and has toured widely around Australia.

Directed by Nigel Turner-Carroll, Mitcham is joined on stage by cabaret artist Spanky (Rhys Morgan), in trademark trash-drag with long purple wig, who plays Mitcham’s imaginary childhood friend and gives voice to his inner demons.

Spanky also sings backing vocals along with musical director Jeremy Brennan who did the impressive musical arrangements and provides dynamic accompaniment on piano.

The show features an eclectic selection of well-chosen songs among them Alanis Morrisette’s Perfect, the Spice Girls’ Too Much, New Order’s True Faith and Rufus Wainwright’s Go or Go Ahead.

Mitcham isn’t a natural born showman, telling his stories with a straightforward nonchalance and the kind of even-handed calmness he has doubtless had to develop as a diver. But he has genuine charm, winning you over with his endearing honesty and cheeky, throwaway sense of humour.

Having Spanky there adds a colourful dimension to the show and a trampoline routine gives us a taste of the physical poetry he brings to diving.

As for his singing, Mitcham’s voice has a warm, pleasant tone and he interprets the songs with tangible emotion. In a musical highlight, he sings a haunting version of Nick Cave’s Little Water Song, which is beautifully lit and very touching.

There are a few clunky movements in the show. The opening section with voiceovers by his mother feels a bit awkward as does a bit of audience participation but overall Twists & Turns is an impressive cabaret debut and an inspiring, entertaining show. Well worth a look.

Twists & Turns runs at the Seymour Centre until February 28

Kill the Messenger

Belvoir St Theatre, February 19

Nakkiah Lui in front of a photograph of her nana Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nakkiah Lui in front of a photograph of her nana Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

In Kill the Messenger, Australian playwright Nakkiah Lui tells two troubling stories about people dying before their time: victims of what she calls “institutionalised racism”.

The first, she heard about from her mother who is a nurse. Paul, an Aboriginal man with a drug addiction, was turned away from a hospital emergency ward. They thought he was pretending to be in agony just because he wanted drugs. In fact, he had undiagnosed stomach cancer and hanged himself later that night in a park.

The other is about her beloved nana Joan, who died after falling through the floor of her rotting, termite-infested home, despite Lui and her mother reporting the problem to the Department of Housing everyday for a year. Because it was public housing for Aboriginal people, the complaint kept being put to the bottom of the pile and nothing was done.

This kind of invisibility is all-too-common, suggests Lui, when you are black and living in a predominantly white society.

Lui, who is a Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman, includes herself as a character in the play. While she hadn’t initially intended to, she plays herself in the production as well, having had to audition for the role. The on-stage Nakkiah interacts in scenes with the other characters and talks directly to the audience at times about writing the play.

Directed by Anthea Williams on a starkly minimal set by Ralph Myers (a square of light on the stage, a couple of props, some projections), Kill the Messenger is unadorned storytelling at its most powerful: raw, passionate, angry, urgent, real and full of sadness.

Lasarus Ratuere as Paul. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lasarus Ratuere as Paul. Photo: Brett Boardman

The play slides between documentary and the imaginary as Lui tells her “tale of black oppression”. It’s a politically charged piece, yet she tells it with humour too. And while she makes no bones about the constant injustices faced by her people, she also allows the harried, overworked emergency nurse who sent Paul home a voice. She doesn’t condone what he did or the system that he works within, but she lets him explain how it happened.

We also meet Paul’s sister Harley, who tries so hard to help Paul get off drugs, and Nakkiah’s boyfriend with whom she makes love (triggering a lovely quip about how she had imagined Miranda Tapsell would be playing her) and fights.

There are strong performances from the tight ensemble cast: Lasarus Ratuere as Paul, Katie Beckett as his sister, Matthew Backer as the nurse and Sam O’Sullivan as Lui’s boyfriend. Lui herself is a strong, warm, fierce presence and drives the production.

At one point, pondering her nana’s death, Lui asks a series of ‘what ifs?’ going all the way back to “what if the Brits never came and Cook and just fucked off and people weren’t dispossessed and we never needed the Housing for Aboriginals….?’” But she knows there are no answers to that; all she can do is tell her story and hope we listen. To hear it from her own lips makes it especially powerful, while the projected photographs of herself with her nana as a young girl, and of her nana in hospital after the fall, are deeply affecting.

Lui showed great promise with her first play This Heaven, staged in Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre in 2013. She has also been a writer and actor for the ABC’s Black Comedy and a writer on Blak Cabaret seen recently at the 2015 Sydney Festival.

Kill the Messenger (with dramaturgy by Jada Alberts) confirms what a talented, passionate, astute writer she is. The play is a powerful plea for us to take note and do something to stop this kind of casual injustice happening.

Kill the Messenger runs at Belvoir St Theatre until March 8

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 22

Turner’s Turn

Hayes Theatre Co, February 22

Geraldine Turner. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Geraldine Turner. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Returning to the cabaret stage for the first time in a decade, Geraldine Turner goes straight to it, opening her new show Turner’s Turn with the epic Rose’s Turn from Gypsy.

It’s a bold, almost bolshy choice both for her and the audience as it’s a song you would generally build to emotionally. But it does capture the kind of big, brassy chutzpah for which Turner is known.

She was cast as Rose in three different productions, she tells us, none of which happened. Cue a version of Some People with comic lyrics Tony Sheldon wrote for her.

Turner shot to fame in 1973 when she played the maid Petra in a production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, which opened Sydney’s new Her Majesty’s Theatre. By all accounts (I didn’t see it), her rendition of The Miller’s Son was a show-stopper.

Her four-decade career has been predominantly, though not exclusively, in musical theatre and she has the kudos of being the first person to have recorded an all-Sondheim album. (She met Sondheim and Hal Prince when they came to a musical theatre conference in Sydney in the 1970s).

In Turner’s Turn, she tells a series of entertaining, behind-the-scenes stories about various shows from her career including Sydney Theatre Company’s infamous, troubled production of Into the Woods, in which Turner played the Baker’s Wife. It opened two weeks late due to challenges caused by a double revolve, but went on to be a huge hit. There’s also a very funny story about Doris Fitton’s failing memory when she played Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music.

Turner brings a dry, self-deprecating sense of humour to the anecdotes, which she tells with verve. It’s in the storytelling that the show hits its mark. Musically, it’s more hit-and-miss.

She sings a career medley with brief extracts from shows including Oliver!, Anything Goes, Chicago (in which she starred with Nancye Hayes for STC), Company and Sweeney Todd among others.

She also performs a song Tim Minchin wrote especially for her when she was in the musical Somewhere by Minchin and Kate Mulvany at the Q Theatre, and a (fairly underwhelming) number from a new musical she is writing herself with Greg Crease.

There’s an interesting section when she sings an extract from a musical of Sunset Boulevard written for Gloria Swanson, and intercuts it with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s number for the same part of the story, As If We Never Said Goodbye.

She brings a nice sense of comedy to Sondheim’s The Boy From….. and I Never Do Anything Twice but the emotion she clearly feels while performing a couple of Jacques Brel numbers doesn’t communicate itself to the audience. And if you’re not going to deliver a riveting interpretation of Send in the Clowns, why perform such a ubiquitous song?

Turner’s trademark belt is still there but her voice is insecure and shaky at times, and exposed in certain song choices.

Directed by Caroline Stacey, with sensitive accompaniment on piano by her musical director Brad Miller, Turner’s Turn feels a bit overlong at 90 minutes and could be tightened. A little more context would also help at times for those who don’t know a great deal about her career.

But her fans love her for who she is and what she has achieved. They recognise her braveness in putting together a show of this nature at this point in her career and they weren’t disappointed, with a large section of the opening night audience giving her a huge, enthusiastic response.

Turner’s Turn is at the Hayes Theatre Co on March 1 and 8

Swan Lake

Capitol Theatre, February 20

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Madeleine Eastoe as Odette. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Graeme Murphy’s delectable Swan Lake was first staged in 2002. It is now one of the Australian Ballet’s most loved and frequently performed works – and it’s not hard to see why.

Inspired by the love triangle between Princess Diana, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, it is cleverly conceived (concept by Murphy, the late Kristian Fredrikson and Janet Vernon), ravishingly beautiful, choreographically inventive and deeply moving.

If the AB is going to present a commercial season at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, then this Swan Lake – now one of their signature works internationally – is the perfect choice.

More than a decade on, the production still feels fresh, particularly when performed as sublimely as it was on opening night by Madeleine Eastoe as the fragile Odette and Kevin Jackson as the conflicted Prince Siegfried.

What’s more, it’s great to see the ballet on the large Capitol Theatre stage, where there is more room to move than at the Sydney Opera House.

For those who haven’t seen the ballet, the re-imagined story line works beautifully, dramatically and emotionally, lending itself to some of Murphy’s most stunning choreography. On the eve of her wedding to Prince Siegfried, Odette has unsettling doubts about his love for her – with good reason, for he is having an affair with a Baroness. Odette realises as much at their wedding and her mind begins to shatter. She is committed to a sanatorium, where she finds emotional escape in hallucinations of herself as a swan with the Prince still her beau.

Some months later, the Baroness – who has the Prince very much in her thrall – hosts a ball. Odette appears, now radiantly serene. The Prince falls deeply in love with her. The Baroness attempts to have her returned the sanatorium. Odette flees into the night with the Prince in hot pursuit. They fall into each other’s arms but Odette knows there will never be a happy ending. With the Baroness there, she will never know any peace of mind and so she throws herself into the lake, leaving the Prince to mourn her forever.

The Baroness replaces the sorcerer Rothbart of the original and also takes the place of Odile at the ball where all the guests are in dark, glittering outfits except Odette whose white dress reflects her spiritual purity.

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin. Photo: Branco Gaica

Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin. Photo: Branco Gaica

Choosing an Edwardian setting, Fredrikson’s costumes are just gorgeous – the most famous being Odette’s ballgown with a long train, which Murphy weaves into choreography. There are all kinds of resonant touches in the costuming, including the swans appearing in black for the tragic denouement. Suffice to say the production, with sets also designed by Fredrikson, is a constant visual delight.

Murphy tells the story through emotionally imbued choreography that takes the breath away at times. It is wonderfully inventive while making references to the original, particularly with the swans. A pas de trois between Odette, the Prince and the Baroness says everything you need to know about the threesome and Odette’s bewildered anguish. The way Odette hurls herself into the arms of all the men at her wedding speaks of her broken heart, spirit and mind. There are signature Murphy flourishes, like Odette walking along the raised hands of the men, but they always feel as if they belong to the world of this ballet. And how the crowd loved the iconic cygnets, danced with admirable precision by Brooke Lockett, Benedicte Bemet, Karen Nanasca and Heidi Martin on opening night.

Eastoe is meltingly lovely as Odette. Always a superb interpreter of emotion, she is gossamer light, every moment perfectly performed yet intensely eloquent, her acting as convincing as her dancing. Jackson is her match as the Prince, portraying a conflicted man who is thoughtless rather than calculating, allowing himself to be swayed by the Baroness but finally realising what he has lost. I have rarely seen him convey such emotion.

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kevin Jackson and Madeleine Eastoe. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Dancing the role of the Baroness on opening night, Ako Kondo brings plenty of hard-edged flash to the role. With the entire company in fine form, this is just the show to seduce newcomers to ballet – and hopefully there will be many in the audiences at the Capitol, a venue closely associated with musicals.

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra is currently playing for Opera Australia so Orchestra Victoria played Tchaikovsky’s glorious score under the baton of the AB’s Chief Conductor Nicolette Fraillon.

All in all, a beautiful night.

Swan Lake is at the Capitol Theatre until February 28

After Dinner

Wharf 1, January 20

Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh. Photo: Brett Boardman

Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh. Photo: Brett Boardman

After Dinner is an excruciatingly funny yet surprisingly tender comedy of manners that pretty well everyone will relate to in some way or other.

Written by Andrew Bovell (The Secret River, Lantana) in 1988, it was his first play – but shows an extraordinary level of technical assurance and human insight for one so young and inexperienced.

Set in the 1980s in a pub bistro, After Dinner features five desperately lonely, sexually frustrated singletons on a Friday night out.

There’s the fun-loving, good-natured Paula (Anita Hegh) and her bossy friend Dympie (Rebecca Massey), who go there every week. In order to get a table, they have to eat. Paula would like to be close to the band and would happily stand but Dympie isn’t having any of it. At the back, well away from the press of sweaty bodies, is where they will stay.

Tonight they have invited Monika (Helen Thomson) a recently widowed work colleague to join them. At a nearby table is Gordon (Glenn Hazeldine) whose wife has left him and who needs to talk, and the seemingly cocksure Stephen (Josh McConville) who is only interested in chasing a bit of skirt. Naturally, they will end up interacting and there will be tears before bedtime.

Josh McConville and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Brett Boardman

Alicia Clements has designed an instantly recognisable set with icky carpet, plant mural on the walls and yellowing tiles, while her costumes are hilariously 80s-awful. Imara Savage directs a pitch-perfect production with riotously funny yet beautifully observed, painfully truthful performances from the cast. All the actors are superb, though the magnificent Thomson is the first among equals, delivering a drunken monologue about her adventures in the pub after escaping the toilet and a sexually graphic rant about her husband that is comic gold.

Massey, looking almost unrecognisable with long hair, large glasses and a deeply unflattering dress, is wonderfully sour as the passive-aggressive Dympie. Hegh captures Paula’s long-suffering kindness and desperation to have a good time, while looking faintly ridiculous in a dress with a hood.

Hazeldine is perfectly cast as the mild, conventional Gordon, who is smarting from his wife leaving him, while McConville – ever the chameleon – is hilarious as Stephen with slightly padded paunch and slicked-back hair, giving him a cheesy, sleazy swagger.

After Dinner will have you laughing like a drain but at the same time feeling great compassion for its sad characters.

After Dinner runs at Wharf 1 until March 7

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 25

Faust

Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 17

Michael Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Michael Fabiano and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sir David McVicar’s production of Faust, which premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2004, arrives now at Opera Australia. It’s an impressive staging in its own right – but what makes it especially exciting are the three central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

Based on Goethe’s play, Gounod’s 1859 opera tells a classic story of the battle between good and evil, encompassing religion, temptation, sexuality and morality. Faust (Fabiano) is an elderly doctor who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for the return of youth. With the help of Mephistopheles (Rhodes), he seduces the beautiful, innocent, religious Marguerite (Car) then abandons her five months later, leaving her pregnant and alone.

When Marguerite’s soldier brother Valentin (Giorgio Caodura) returns from war he is outraged to discover her condition, fights with Faust and, as he lies dying, curses his sister. Imprisoned for killing her child, Marguerite offers fervent prayers to heaven and her soul is saved.

Originally set in 16th century Germany, McVicar has updated it to decadent Paris in the 1870s around the time Gounod wrote it.

His production is darkly dramatic balancing real emotion with lots of tongue-in-cheek touches from gaudy devil’s pitchforks to daemonic ballerinas and Satan in drag. It is staged on an imposing set by Charles Edwards that looms ominously over the action, with towering columns and an organ representing a cathedral, the ornate, crumbling proscenium of a theatre, and a streetscape with Marguerite’s home.

Into this space come the wonderfully hedonistic, debauched nightclub Cabaret L’Enfer in Act II where Faust first meets Marguerite, and a gloomy graveyard with a bleeding, falling crucifix for the Walpurgis Night festivities.

The costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel add flashes of vibrant colour, with plenty of blood red, to the dark setting, while Michael Keegan-Dolan’s witty choreography ranges from a saucy cancan to a diabolical Walpurgis ballet in which classical dancers in white tutus turn feral with rapiers, sexual posturing and daemonic laughter. The dancing is super-sharp.

The OA production (helmed by revival director Bruno Ravella) is blessed with a fine cast. Making his debut as Mephistopheles, Rhodes is in his element. His deep baritone exudes a rich range of colour and his characterisation is devilishly good, playing Satan as a dashing, supercilious, charismatic showman-about-town, who dons a number of different guises including a black, bejeweled ballgown and tiara.

Fabiano, a 30-year old American tenor generating plenty of buzz, has a huge, thrilling voice that soars effortlessly, making the hairs on the back of the neck stand up as he sails to the top of his range. He is also a strong actor, moving convincingly from doddery old man to rejuvenated, dapper chap.

Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – is again radiant. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing has a sweet, luscious beauty and is full of emotion, and she is a beautiful actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. She and Fabiano work together superbly, their voices making for a premium blend.

There is also impressive work from Anna Dowsley as Siebel, Richard Anderson as Wagner, Giorgio Caoduro as Valentin and Dominica Matthews as Marthe. The chorus is in fine form, while the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra gives a passionate performance of the lush, melodious score under conductor Guillaume Tourniaire.

The production received a huge response from the opening night audience with many on their feet at the end. As for Fabiano and Car, both will doubtless go far. Catch them now while you can.

Faust runs at the Sydney Opera House until March 13