Oedipus Rex

Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs, August 26

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

It begins in darkness. A couple of minutes tick past in a silent void. Some have found this initial blackout (with more to follow) uncomfortable and agonisingly long but I have to admit it didn’t feel that unsettling or threatening in the audience I sat with.

Then in a watery pale half-light we glimpse a frail old man in grimy-looking underwear and blindfold breathing noisily through an oxygen mask. The darkness returns and a barrage of cacophonous sound throbs through the theatre.

As the light comes and goes, he clambers onto the chair and strikes a series of agonised poses reminiscent of classical sculpture.

When the lights finally come up fully, a young woman enters with towels, a basin of water and a laundry bag of clothes. Stripping the old man she washes him in a bored, matter-of-fact way but not without tenderness. Then they play games to while away the time, games that he cannot hope to win.

This is Oedipus (Peter Carroll), now aged, almost senile and in exile, looking back in anguish on the terrible tragedy of his life: fated to murder his father, marry his mother and sire children that are his half-siblings. He has already gouged out his eyes. He lives in the kind of darkness the production periodically thrusts us into. Now his daughter/sister Antigone (Andrea Demetriades) is with him as he faces death.

Director Adena Jacobs describes her hour-long production – which references Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus – as “a meditation on the myth of Oedipus Rex, and the notion of suffering itself. It is a poem. A code of symbols. A series of impressions that emerge from the darkness of the theatre. Tragedy cannot be represented. It can only be experienced through the senses,” she writes in the program notes.

It certainly helps to at least know the outline of Oedipus’s story, though there is a short section of text in which Carroll briefly articulates his tragedy, capturing through the poetry Oedipus’s once heroic status.

But for the most part, Jacobs uses loaded imagery. Are the games (which feel somewhat over-extended) a reference to human beings suffering as the playthings of the gods? Oedipus’s destiny was after all predicted before he was even born. The riddle of the sphinx was a kind of cruel game, as Antigone is at times here. Or is the game-playing merely a way of passing of the unendurably long days waiting for death?

One particularly striking image offers various possibilities around the theme of incest: perhaps a memory of the past or another twist in the present.

Max Lyandvert’s soundscape moves between rumbling electronic noise and glorious, lush early music that summons a sense of the epic, tragic grandeur of the myth – in complete contrast to the ugly, painful, squalid reality of what we see unfolding before us in this drab, carpeted room backed by a wall of timber frames and plastic sheeting (designed by Paul Jackson, who also did the lighting).

Somehow, though, as we ponder what each image might mean, we respond intellectually rather than viscerally. As with Jacobs’s recent production of Hedda (also for Belvoir) we are held at arm’s length emotionally.

Carroll gives a wonderful portrayal of a haunted man confused, possibly suffering dementia, consumed by suffering and the horror of what has been, yet still able to lash out in rage. The black contact lenses, which make dark holes of his eyes, lend a genuinely frightening touch to his haggard face.

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Demetriades is also impressive as Antigone, by turns caring, cruel and exasperated: a down-to-earth foil to the dramatic intensity of Carroll’s tortured performance.

It’s strange though, at the end of a piece that explores such a horrifying tale, for it to have had such little impact emotionally. It should be harrowing and full of pain. Instead I watched with cool detachment, admiring, pondering, wondering, yet not really emotionally involved.

Oedipus Rex plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs until September 14.

Kieran Culkin interview: This Is Our Youth

Kieran Culkin, Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson are currently on Broadway at the Cort Theatre performing in previews of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 drama This Is Our Youth. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the production – which arrives direct from a Steppenwolf Theatre Company season in Chicago – opens on September 11.

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

In 2012, Culkin and Cera appeared in a production of the same play at the Sydney Opera House. Here is an interview I did with Culkin then:

Ever since Kieran Culkin appeared in Kenneth Lonergan’s acerbically funny play This is Our Youth in London’s West End in 2003, he has wanted to perform in it again.

“I never actually stopped looking at it,’ he says over the phone from New York where the cast is rehearsing prior to a season at the Sydney Opera House.

“I’ve carried the same copy around with me for the last 10 years. I loved the play from the moment I first read it and when I got off stage well over nine years ago I just knew immediately that I wanted to do it again. I played the character of Warren the first time around. I knew I wanted to play Dennis at some point.”

Set in New York in 1982, This is Our Youth follows 48 turbulent hours in the life of two disaffected college dropouts from affluent but dysfunctional families: the magnetic, domineering, drug-dealing Dennis and the weedier, awkward Warren who arrives at Dennis’s Manhattan apartment one day with $15,000 stolen from his abusive father.

Since premiering off-Broadway in 1996, the play has starred the likes of Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhall, Casey Affleck, Hayden Christensen, Mark Ruffalo and Anna Paquin.

For the Sydney season, Culkin plays Dennis with Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno) as Warren. Completing the cast is Australian actor Emily Barclay as the fashion student Warren wants to bed. They make a pretty cool young trio.

Having spent ages looking around the right person to play Warren, Culkin realised Cera would be perfect when they were doing re-shoots for Scott Pilgrim vs the World, the 2010 geek-gamer movie in which Cera played Scott Pilgrim and Culkin his amusing gay roommate Wallace.

“I gave him the play about a year and a half ago,” says Culkin. “I didn’t realise he hadn’t done a play. I said you should read it. I don’t know anybody who has read it and not loved it so I figured if he read it he’d fall in love with it.

“The second I handed it to him I thought I can’t believe (I didn’t think of him earlier). I was smacking myself in the forehead. Now I can’t read it any other way. Every time I read it I see him in the part.

“He read it that night and came back the next day and said, ‘I love it. Can we do it?’ Being naïve, I said, ‘yes let’s put it up next month’ but it took about a year and a half.”

Eventually discussions between Broadway producer David Binder and the SOH’s head of commercial programming Andrew Spencer led to a Sydney season.

“The fact we’re all getting a trip to Sydney out of it is pretty amazing because I’ve never been there and I’m really looking forward to it,” says Culkin.

Asked if it will tour elsewhere, Culkin says: “That would be wonderful but there are no further plans. I’d do it for many more months in Australia. I’ll do it anywhere.”

Both the boys in the play have troubled relationships with their parents. Culkin and his siblings – which include Home Alone child star Macaulay – famously had a fraught relationship with their ambitious actor father Kit who pushed them all into acting and who was criticized for mismanaging Macaulay’s career.

However, Culkin says he has not drawn on personal experience for the play. “I can’t say that because their situations are extraordinarily different – especially Dennis and his family. It seems pretty dysfunctional. He mentions that he has brothers and sisters but he can’t be close to them as he hardly mentions them.

“I can’t draw on that at all from my personal experience. My mother is an amazing woman and I’m very close to all my siblings.”

Culkin began acting at age eight in the first Home Alone film. His other film credits include The Cider House Rules and Igby Goes Down (2002) for which he got a Golden Globe nomination.

Shortly after that he stopped acting for several years and disappeared from sight.

“I never thought, ‘no I don’t want to do this’ (acting) but I definitely reached a point around age 20 where I was uncertain,” he says. “Because of starting so young I never actively chose to be an actor. I never said, ‘I want to pursue this’ and it was strange to be 20 and have a career and never have decided to have that. So I took a lot of time to myself and just sort of figured out if it’s what I wanted to do. I was pretty sure it was what I wanted but I wanted to give myself (some) distance from it to come to that conclusion on my own. So that’s what I did.”

Fame doesn’t particularly interest him. “I’ve always been pretty fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with a lot of that stuff. I’ve tried my best to be as distant from that as possible by trying to remain uninteresting and beneath the radar.”

NEW SYDNEY SEASON OF THIS IS OUR YOUTH

While Culkin, Cera and Gevinson preview in New York, a new Sydney production is in rehearsal. Newly formed Sydney-based indie group The King’s Collective is presenting three American plays that explore youth at the Tap Gallery (September 10 – 28) as part of the Sydney Fringe: This Is Our Youth, Mark St Germain’s Out of Gas on Lover’s Leap and Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret

Hayes Theatre Co, August 20

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

Christie Whelan Browne as Britney Spears, with Mathew Frank. Photo: supplied

It ain’t hard to parody Britney Spears given the many train-wreck moments in her life. The genius in Christie Whelan Browne’s Britney Spears: The Cabaret is the way the laughs are accompanied by an unexpected humanity, compassion and pathos.

Written and directed by Dean Bryant, the script brilliantly satirises the price of fame. Tracing Spears’ career from Disney mouseketeer to pop princess to shaven-headed emotional wreck, it includes all the headline-grabbing moments but without over-egging them. So, while the show fizzes with hilarious one-liners it also hits home with a surprising emotional truth.

Beginning in comic fashion, with Britney Jean Spears portrayed as ditsy, naïve and none-too-bright but endearingly self-deprecating, the show becomes sadder and sadder as her life falls apart.

Taught to feel guilty from a young age by a pushy stage mother when she didn’t land work, betrayed by boyfriends who boasted and spent her money, committed to a pysch ward by her father who took control of her money, losing custody of her children, Spears has endured much.

“Sometimes I feel the only people who love me are the paps,” says Whelan Browne-as-Britney.

Musical director and accompanist Mathew Frank has rearranged all the hit songs as cabaret numbers for solo piano – and they work astonishingly well. It opens with a manic, waltz-like version of Circus. There’s a jazzy Oops! I Did I Again and a darker, Weimar-esque Baby One More Time, while Womanizer explodes with a Broadway-like belt.

The musically spare arrangements put a focus on the lyrics, which fit seamlessly within the structure of the show, cleverly illuminating Spears’ life (even though she didn’t write most of them).

Wearing a little black dress, the gorgeous Whelan Browne is sublime. Her comic timing is immaculate and she sings superbly, while totally inhabiting the role. The show has been around since 2009 and the emotional depth she now brings to it is even more moving than ever.

It ends with heartbreaking versions of I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman and Everytime. Hilarious yet terribly poignant, Britney Spears: The Cabaret is a stunning show. What’s more, it sits perfectly in the intimate Hayes Theatre. Don’t miss it.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until September 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 24

David Suchet interview

In 1985, David Suchet played Inspector Japp in a film of Agatha Christie’s Thirteen at Dinner with Peter Ustinov as Poirot. Fortunately he wasn’t very good. Had he been, he may never have taken on the role of Poirot himself.

Suchet, of course, played Christie’s fastidious little Belgian detective in 74 telemovies over 25 years, winning millions of fans around the world.

In between his Poirot commitments, he returned regularly to the stage though he wasn’t able to undertake a long run. However, after Poirot’s death in the final episode last year, Suchet now has the time to tour internationally in a play by Roger Crane called The Last Confession, currently in Australia. Set in the Vatican it is billed as “a thriller” set around the sudden (some think suspicious) death of Pope John Paul I in 1978.

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Hugo Glendinning

Next, he plays Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s “trivial comedy for serious people” The Importance of Being Earnest in London’s West End.

During a quick media stop-over in Sydney before the start of the tour in Perth, the thoroughly charming, genial British actor took time to talk about saying goodbye to Poirot, his current role in The Last Confession, his conversion to Christianity, Twitter and the chance to play Lady Bracknell.

Jo Litson: You have talked about the end of Poirot being like saying goodbye to a dear friend. Has it been very emotional?

David Suchet: It was and it is. I can’t really be allowed to let him go at the moment because I’ve just been in this play The Last Confession in Los Angeles and Canada and the last five episodes of Poirot are just being aired there now so when I was there I was doing publicity for Poirot – and that’s a year after I’d finished the series. So, in fact, I haven’t been able to put him to rest. Maybe I’m beginning to from now.

You’ll miss him a lot presumably?

I’ll miss him very much, but he’ll always be (screening) somewhere.

What would you say if they asked you to play him in a film?

I’ve always said if there was a movie to be made of one of the stories I would consider that, because it would be like revisiting one of Agatha Christie’s stories before he died so I wouldn’t mind that. And it would be in a different medium. I’d never do him again on television.

I have been asked to do him in the theatre but my theatre career has always been very distinct and separate from Hercule Poirot. Of course, I’d be tempted to do him in the theatre but I don’t feel, with the best will in the world, that it’s right for me to bring that character into my theatre repertoire. I think it may overshadow what I’ve done in 45 years. I’ve performed in these great plays – Joe Keller in All My Sons, Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Iago in Othello, Prospero in The Tempest – and then suddenly Poirot? You’d have to ask why, wouldn’t you? So it would be for the wrong reasons.

I have to let him go. There will be other Poirots sooner rather than later, I’m sure, and I must be generous and magnanimous and wish them luck and hope they have a huge success with it. But I have to let him go in exactly the same way Sean Connery had to let James Bond go. It was his decision to let go. It’s not my decision to let go but I’ve done all the stories now, there are none left to do so that’s it, I must say goodbye.

You were in an early film when Peter Ustinov played him?

Yes, I played Inspector Japp. He (Peter Ustinov) was such a lovely man. He was so generous to me when I took over and wished me all the luck, publicly as well. But I have to say that I am only grateful that when I played Inspector Japp with Peter Ustinov that I gave such a bad performance. I’ll tell you why. Peter went on to do four or five other films after that with the same cast so if I’d been good I would have been Inspector Japp in all those other films. I would never than have been asked to play Poirot.

I believe your involvement with The Last Confession goes back to before the play premiered in Chichester in 2007?

Yes, my involvement with the play goes back even further than that. It was sent to me by another director for another company in England, I would say four years before it was sent to me again. When it was first sent to me the play was not ready. I liked it very much. I was very intrigued with its plot but the script needed working on. I only was going to be given three weeks rehearsal and I knew those three weeks rehearsal were going to be rewriting the play rather than putting on a finished piece and I said to myself, ‘no, I don’t want to do that.’

About three or four years after that it was sent to me again having been reworked by the writer and it was much, much better to the extent that I was really interested in this play now and went to New York and worked with Roger Crane on my own to develop it even further. Then the producers came on board and then we got a director and he took over that job.

Because of Poirot I only had time to do six weeks in Chichester and 10 weeks in the West End. And ever since then the producers have wanted to do it again and I’ve never been available so now that Poirot has died it’s the first time that I have suddenly been free. I wanted to do it again because I wanted to re-explore the character. I hadn’t really finished in a sense.

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

David Suchet in The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

Apparently it’s thanks to you that the play is touring Australia?

We were always going to go to Canada and Los Angeles and I said to Paul Elliott, our producer, I’d like to go to other English speaking countries who have supported my Poirot all these years. Can we please go to Australia and South Africa? He tried both. Australia had (theatre) vacancies and wanted it. South Africa wanted it but had no vacancies at the time so this is why I’m now here. It’s all part of my desire to come and, in a way, say “thank you”. I have a huge fan base here. When Poirot is showing in Australia I always know it’s being shown because my mail bag is huge and I get messages on Twitter saying “I’m now watching you in Sydney or Brisbane…” and it’s always such a thrill for me that my program is being watched on the other side of the world. Now that I’m in Sydney I get stopped in the street and people are so charming and I’m so pleased to be here on stage doing something completely different and, in a sense, saying thank you.

Do you do you own tweets?

I do. People are always surprised. I don’t do it that often. I don’t have that many followers for a so-called star. (He has 29,000). I get on Twitter about once a week and do a few lines here and there but at least they know it’s me. I never wanted to do Twitter. It was when I was in All My Sons in the West End, the publicity department said I had to and they offered to run my Twitter page for me. I said, “well, if I’m going to do it, I know my Poirot fans are going to want to ask questions and things like that, which you wouldn’t be able to answer so I’ll do it on my own.” I don’t get into conversations but when people say nice things I get back and say thank you.

Superficially there would seem to be some similarities between Poirot and The Last Confession: a thriller with a possible murder?

That’s publicity from a long time ago. The play is not a whodunit. To a certain extent nobody will ever know who dunit if they did do it. Pope John Paul I was found dead in his bed 33 days after starting to be the most radical, reforming pope in the history of the Catholic Church. He was everybody’s idea of the parish priest, the “smiling pope”, the people’s pope, the pope that didn’t want to be carried on a throne for his coronation. Sound familiar? Yes, sounds a bit like Pope Francis doesn’t it?

My character Giovani Benelli, an archbishop originally, was a great friend of Albino Luciani who was to become Pope John Paul I and really got his friend into the papacy. He then becomes a cardinal and his friend having become Pope is found dead in his bed. My character then feels such pain and guilt that he has this great struggle of faith. So this play is as much about the struggle of this man as an investigation into the possible causes of the untimely death of this great pope. So it’s a play that will take you into the power politics of the Vatican. Yes, we may be walking around in scarlet robes all 20 of us but you could be entering parliament.

The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

The Last Confession. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

I believe your wife (Sheila Ferris) is in it?

Yes, she is playing the only female role in the play – a nun who takes care of Pope John Paul I. It’s a very long time since she was on stage, over 20 years. She gave up a wonderful career to look after our children, bless her, and this is an opportunity for her to come back, and she’s really enjoying it.

You have recorded an audio book of The Bible. That’s quite some undertaking?

Apart from being a Christian – and I do have a very strong faith – I’ve always found that The Bible is a library of books. We’ve got drama, we’ve got poetry, we’ve got allegory, we’ve got songs, we’ve got history, we’ve got everything in The Bible. As somebody said, it’s the greatest book in the world. For an actor to read it from beginning to end is massive, and it took me over 200 hours. I’m so pleased I’ve done it.

Is it true you converted to Christianity after reading a Gideon’s Bible in a hotel room?

No, there wasn’t a Gideon’s Bible; that was the funny thing. My conversion to Christianity from agnosticism or almost on the edge of atheism began in a hotel room in Seattle in 1986. I was beginning to think about my late grandfather and about life after death. I thought, “I don’t believe in life after death and yet I’ve always believed my late grandfather was a spiritual guide so how can I not believe in life after death?”

I looked in the drawer beside the bed for the Gideon’s Bible and it wasn’t there so the next day I managed to get the New Testament and I started to read. I thought I’d read somebody who actually existed so I read one of the letters of Paul. I’ve always been interested in Rome so I read his letters to the Romans. The first half of the letter I didn’t understand at all but then I found a way of existing in the second half of that letter in the Book of Romans that I’d been searching for all my life: how to relate to other human beings and how to be a human being. I thought this is great and suddenly I found a worldview, suddenly I was looking through a lens that made sense to me. Then I had to discover where did Paul get this from and it was from Jesus so that led me to Christianity.

What do you do next?

I’m going to be in The Importance of being Earnest. I’m going to be playing Lady Bracknell in the West End. I follow in the great shoes of Geoffrey Rush (who played Lady Bracknell for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011). It’s not the first time this cross-gender casting has been done. A number of actors have played Lady Bracknell and roles like Viola. And actresses – though you can’t say that anymore – have played roles like Richard II. But it’s a chance for me to embody a wonderfully written comedy role. I’m really looking forward to it. So I change from playing a cardinal to a lady. What an amazing career for an actor of my age! I’m so lucky.

The Last Confession is at His Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, August 27 – 31; Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, September 3 – 21; and Theatre Royal, Sydney, September 24 – October 5.

This interview was conducted on behalf of the Sunday Telegraph where a story ran on August 10

Constellations

Eternity Playhouse, August 12

Sam O'Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Written by British playwright Nick Payne when he was just 29, Constellations was rapturously received in the UK in 2012. In January, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in a Broadway production.

Grab the chance to see it here because it really is an ingeniously constructed, beautifully written two-hander – and this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production, directed by Anthony Skuse, more than does it justice.

Marianne (Emma Palmer) is a vivacious, voluble physicist interested in the “multiverse” theory. Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) is a laid-back beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue. She goes over to chat but he snubs her, saying he’s married. End of story. Or is it? The scene is then replayed again and again, each time with a slightly different outcome.

This pattern repeats throughout the play at different points in their relationship. But no matter how different possible outcomes we experience, they all end in imminent, untimely death.

Early on, Marianne says to Roland: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made, and never made, exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

Although Payne uses the idea of parallel universes for the play’s structure, he doesn’t actually explore the philosophical and scientific ideas around this in any depth. Instead, the play riffs on the idea of “what if?” and the way our lives could go in so many different directions depending on the little choices we make, the people we meet, when we meet them, and so on. Think Sliding Doors meets Groundhog Day (happening here and now in our world – or so it seemed to me).

Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s wonderfully spare set, which opens up the theatre to its bare, beautiful walls, Skuse directs with great precision but lightness of touch giving the piece room to breathe while putting the focus firmly on the human dimension.

Both actors are superb, bringing untold nuance to numerous variations of similar lines (which must make it devilish hard to learn), while creating totally consistent, convincing characters. The way the play loops back on itself also means they frequently have to turn on a dime emotionally, ending one phase in deepest melancholy before returning to perky cheeriness seconds later.

Palmer has the added challenge of portraying Marianne’s developing aphasia (which affects language), which she does in heartbreaking fashion. What’s more, they both nail the English accents – and from two different regions, no less. (Praise to the vocal and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley).

Sara Swersky’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s subtle sound also play their part in a beautifully modulated production.

The play runs a tight 80 minutes, which is the perfect length. Any longer and it could start to wear thin. Constellations may wear its scientific conceit very lightly but Skuse’s exquisite, moving production enthralls. Recommended.

Constellations runs at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until September 7. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 17

Nora

Belvoir St Theatre, August 13

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo:  Brett Boardman

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo: Brett Boardman

When Nora slammed the door behind her at the end of Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House, her decision to leave her husband and children was so controversial that it sent shock waves around Europe.

The actor playing her in the German premiere refused to perform the ending and Ibsen was forced to rewrite it, with Nora deciding to stay because of her responsibility to her children. Eventually, of course, the original – and far more powerful – ending was restored.

We don’t know what happens to Ibsen’s Nora but we know how hard it will be for her in a patriarchal society without money, work experience or a family to turn to. Ibsen has already shown us this through the story of her widowed friend Kristine. Nora will have the added shame of leaving her family to contend with.

In Nora, co-adaptors Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks (who also directs the Belvoir production) ask what that decision would mean for a woman in Sydney in 2014, and follow her out of the door.

Since Nora’s decision doesn’t have the same shock value in this day and age, Brookman and Sarks have put a strong focus on her willingness to leave her children – something many would still struggle to understand today.

Act I is a very loose contemporary retelling of Ibsen’s play with Nora, her husband Torvald (here a corporate financier about to be promoted) and their two children, but none of the other characters.

The play opens with Nora (Blazey Best) lying next to her young son as he goes to sleep, while her daughter lies above them in the bunk bed. It is clear they have a close relationship and all the scenes between her and the children are touching, emphasising how desperately they will miss her.

Set designer Marg Horwell has put a skeletal white metal frame of the whole house on stage so that we are able to see into all the rooms at once. Nora seems to be suffering from severe depression, periodically extricating herself from her husband (Damien Ryan) and children (Toby Challenor and Indianna Gregg on opening night) as they tear around the house to gaze blankly out of the window or cry bitterly. In one scene, she dances frenetically, her despair further highlighted by her children joining in joyfully.

Where the tension in Ibsen’s play builds inexorably as Nora waits for Torvald to discover that she borrowed money from Krogstad by forging her father’s signature, the first act of Nora is a slow burn.

In Ibsen’s play, Torvald’s appalled and appalling reaction to Krogstad’s revelation sends Nora out of the door but there is no such dramatic flash point here. Torvald discovers she has opened a secret bank account and has been “squirreling” money away but though he is upset that she wasn’t honest with him, he seems to accept what she has done.

Instead, Nora appears worn down by Torvald’s well-meaning but patronising control of all she does. Her decision to leave has clearly been brewing for some time.

Act II takes place later on the night of her leaving. Nora has gone to the home of Helen (Linda Cropper), a woman she worked with some years ago but hardly knows to ask if she can stay for a few days while she finds her feet. Helen is bemused as to why Nora has chosen to go to her, while her own personal situation means she finds it incredibly hard to comprehend how Nora could leave her children.

Horwell has created a similar-style set for Helen’s smaller home. There are sightline issues, which I noticed more in Act II, with the steel frame bisecting the face of the actors quite regularly.

If Act I was a slow (but interesting) burn, then Act II falls rather flat. Essentially Nora articulates why she left. She “feels dead”, “my children cannot be a reason for being”, “I can’t live not knowing who I am” – all of which we have already inferred.

The two women sit in silence while they wait for a kettle to burn. We watch them slowly make a sofa bed. Playing this out silently in real time does ratchet up the awkwardness of the situation but it doesn’t make for great drama. What’s more, it’s pretty clear that Nora has no intention of returning home – at this point anyway – so there is little to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Sarks draws fine performances from her cast. Best gives a powerful portrayal of a listless, unhappy woman struggling with depression – though for some reason I didn’t feel a great deal for her emotionally, which I suspect is more to do with the play than Best, who is terrific. Ryan gives a wonderful character study of a man who loves and cares for his wife but is oblivious to the way he patronises and controls her. His priggish nature is more subtle than in Ibsen’s play but still in evidence.

His children seem to love him. The way his little boy runs into his arms is lovely and he is gentle with his daughter but the fact that he pushes them to practice golf putting when they don’t want to because it could be useful to them speaks reams.

Cropper is also excellent as Helen and the children are very convincing.

Nora follows Sport for Jove’s recent, beautifully wrought, period production of A Doll’s House, which really packed a punch dramatically in a way that Nora doesn’t manage to do. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting venture and the first act works well. However, having followed Nora through the door I’d have liked to have seen how she fared weeks, months or maybe years down the track. As it is, Act II just seems to articulate, in rather deadly fashion, what we pretty much already know and leaves it at that.

Nora plays at Belvoir until September 14. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

Lady Sings it Better

Hayes Theatre, August 3

Lady Sings It Better – Anna Martin, Libby Wood, Maeve Marsden and Chandra Franken. Photo: Viv McGregor

Lady Sings It Better – Anna Martin, Libby Wood, Maeve Marsden and Chandra Franken. Photo: Viv McGregor

When it comes to the feminist agenda underpinning their work, comedy/cabaret group Lady Sings it Better takes a softly-softly approach, couching it within a hugely enjoyable, fun show – but, boy, oh boy! They still make their point, loud and clear.

The group, which has been performing for around five years in various incarnations, now has a four-lady line-up: founder Maeve Marsden, Chandra Franken, Libby Wood and Anna Martin. Their shtick is to sing songs written and performed by men. Giving the songs fresh musical interpretations but without changing the lyrics, they make us hear the words afresh.

Sometimes it’s quite shocking to realise what it is that we’ve been humming happily along to without really taking in the lyrics. In fact, some of them are so appallingly, hilariously sexist that at one point Martin feels the need to reiterate the fact that they are singing the lyrics exactly as written.

Their latest show begins with a mash-up of Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” and The Wiggles (the ladies are all dressed Wiggle-fashion in coloured tee shirts with logos and black bottoms). Other numbers include Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, Usher’s “Dive”, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”, Bruno Mars’s “Gorilla”, Tom Jones’s “Delilah” and Sting’s “Every Breath You Take”.

Backed at the Hayes by a terrific three-piece band, they all sing well (each has a solo) and make sweet harmonies together, delivering the songs with the odd wink and knowing look but essentially “straight” – which makes it all the more hilarious and, at times, downright unsettling.

At the encore they break from their trademark and sing Britney Spears’s “Womanizer” – though the song certainly fits their theme. Lady Sings it Better is an act of provocation in its own way, but above all it’s hugely entertaining and the enthusiastic audience lapped it up.

Two shows at the Hayes Theatre sold out fast. The Ladies give a five-year anniversary performance at The Factory, Marrickville on October 4