The Tempest

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

The symbolism may have been unconscious as John Bell insists, but he couldn’t have chosen a more apt play than The Tempest as his final production for Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago.

Thought to be Shakespeare’s last full-length play, Prospero’s final renunciation of his “rough magic” has been seen as the Bard’s farewell to the stage. This enchanting production is a perfect farewell for Bell too.

Bell doesn’t overlay any political interpretation but directs the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and a deft lightness, helming a production in which all the elements cohere in delightful fashion.

The opening storm conjured by Prospero to bring his former foes to the magical isle, where he has been living for the past 12 years with his daughter Miranda, is dramatically staged with wind machines, billowing drapes, operatic music and strobe lighting as the actors cling to a thick rope to represent the lurching ship.

As the winds abate, Julie Lynch’s minimal set (a disc-like platform backed by silvery-grey drapes) together with her costumes create the perfect setting for Bell’s lyrical vision, enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting, Alan John’s music and Nate Edmondson’s sound.

Brian Lipson’s Prospero is discovered sitting cross-legged on the stage meditating as we enter the theatre. His portrayal is less an avenging, autocratic sorcerer and more a world-weary, slightly absent-minded, emotional man with a wry manner, a fierce love for his daughter and a great deal of humanity.

Eloise Winestock plays Miranda with a touch of untamed animal about her, as well as wide-eyed delight when she sees other people for the first time, while Felix Gentle is a sweet-natured Ferdinand.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer’s spellbinding portrayal of Ariel makes the spirit’s desperate longing for freedom palpable. His tippy-toe physicality gives him an otherworldly quality and the way his movement echoes the mortals when he leads them with his magic is a lovely touch. In fact, movement director Scott Witt has done a superb job throughout. Backer’s clear-voiced singing also helps evoke the magic in the air.

Damien Strouthos’s Caliban is less brutish than often portrayed, making his famous speech about the noises of the isle all the more believable. Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas are genuinely funny as the comic servants Trinculo and Stephano, while also doubling effectively as Antonio and Sebastian. Robert Alexander as the kindly, dignified Gonzalo and Maeliosa Stafford as King Alonso complete the fine cast.

“Let you indulgence set me free,” says Prospero to the audience in the epilogue.

The words resonated beyond the play on opening night as the audience stood and turned to face John Bell sitting in the audience, offering him applause not just for the production but for his great achievements at Bell Shakespeare.

The Tempest plays at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse until September 18. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 30

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Seventeen

Belvoir St Theatre, August 5

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sure, it could easily have been another song in the event but it’s quite a moment when the veteran cast of Seventeen dances to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Famously, it nearly didn’t happen. When rights to the song were denied at the last minute, director Anne-Louise Sarks took to Twitter. The campaign went viral with Swift tweeting her permission, gifting the production invaluable publicity.

Written by Matthew Whittet, Seventeen is a very sweet play. On the last day of high school, a small group of friends gather in the park to party the night away before they all go their separate ways and life changes forever. As they drink too much, dance and play truth and dare, anxieties, fears and secrets bubble to the surface.

It could be performed by young people but Whittet wrote it for 70-year olds, adding another level of poignancy to his examination of those uncertain years on the cusp of adulthood when you ponder who you are and what you hope to become.

And so we have a cast of esteemed older actors in the roles. There’s the loud, pushy ringleader Mike (John Gaden), his quieter, more sensitive best mate Tom (Peter Carroll) who is heading interstate to Melbourne University, Mike’s pretty, popular girlfriend Sue (Maggie Dence) and Sue’s brainy friend Edwina (Anna Volska) who rarely lets her hair down.

Joining them are the uninvited Ronny (Barry Otto), the weird, misfit kid that no-one likes, and Mike’s 14-year old sister Lizzy (played by the younger Genevieve Lemon) who won’t go home no matter how much they tell her to piss off.

The company spent time during rehearsals with some 17-year olds to get back in touch with a teenager’s energy, physicality and way of talking – and they all do a great job. Carroll and Gaden, in particular, climb the playground equipment and get their groove on with the ease and exuberance of people decades younger (movement by Scott Witt).

There are a few clunky moments as Whittet sends characters off stage to allow others to remain alone, which feel a bit engineered, but overall Sarks’ production is nicely staged on Robert Cousins’ playground set, with very clever costuming by Mel Page.

The performances are exceptional. After initial laughter at seeing septuagenarians larking around, saying “fucktard” and dancing to contemporary pop songs, we accept the convention as the actors draw us into the character’s emotional dilemmas.

There are lovely moments for all the characters, while Otto’s portrayal of the sad, alienated Ronny is heartbreaking.

The characters can’t believe how quickly their high school years have flown. Young people will doubtless relate to that, but Seventeen will probably speak loudest to people whose teenage years are long in the past and for whom the passing of time and sense of nostalgia will strike even more of a chord.

Whittet writes with love, tenderness and a gentle optimism. He doesn’t tell us what happens to the characters – which would arguably make for an even stronger play – but he leaves us hoping against hope that things will turn out well for all of them.

Seventeen runs until September 13. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 9

The Nick Enright Songbook

Eternity Playhouse, March 29

The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press

The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press

Last night, I tore myself away from the Cricket World Cup Final (tough call) to attend the launch of The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press. Hosted by Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the Eternity Playhouse, it was a lovely, warm event with performances and fond reminiscences from several of his collaborators and former students, among other artists.

As well as a playwright and screenwriter, Enright ­– who died 12 years ago today – collaborated on many Australian musicals. The best known is The Boy From Oz for which he wrote the book but he was also a gifted lyricist.

The publication brings together 50 of the best songs from ten musicals for which he wrote the lyrics, with music by five composers. These include The Venetian Twins, Variations and Summer Rain written with composer Terence Clarke, Buckley’s! with Glenn Henrich, Orlando Rourke with Alan John, The Betrothed, Mary Bryant and The Good Fight with David King, and Miracle City with Max Lambert.

Miracle City was produced last year by the Hayes Theatre Co, winning two Sydney Theatre Awards: Best Performance by a Female Actor in a musical for Blazey Best and Best Musical Direction for Lambert. A cast recording is on the way and Currency Press is publishing the show’s book.

The Nick Enright Songbook also includes two numbers from On the Wallaby – Enright’s play with music – one of which has music by Enright himself, and a cabaret song written with Lambert. Composer and academic Peter Wyllie Johnson edited the book and wrote the commemorative foreword.

Ian Enright introduced last night’s launch, recalling that his brother wrote 13 musicals and 250 songs.

Clarke, Lambert and Henrich were on hand to chat about their different ways of working with Enright and to play several of their songs, while performers including Jay James-Moody, Genevieve Lemon, Margi de Ferranti and Anthony Harkin among others sang a selection of them.

Lemon said that she had recently been to a school concert and hoped that school libraries will acquire or be given the book so that the school children are able to discover and sing some of his songs at such events.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir performed a beautifully arranged version of Sail Away from Mary Bryant, which was very moving, and Eddie Perfect, who was taught by Enright at WAAPA, sang a number he wrote (in 15 minutes between lectures) called Someone Like You as a tribute to Enright immediately after being told of his death.

The evening was a reminder of what an intelligent, skilled, sensitive and witty lyricist Enright was.

The foyer bar at the Eternity Playhouse is called Nick’s, named after Enright. The Enright Family is supporting Darlinghurst Theatre Company to stage three Enright plays over three years. The partnership began last year with a production of Daylight Saving and continues this year with Good Works.

Ian Enright said last night that he’d like to see one of Enright’s musicals being staged there. Let’s hope.

The Nick Enright Songbook (RRP $49.94) retails from all good bookstores and online at www.currency.com.au

Angels in America review

Belvoir St Theatre, June 1

Luke Mullins and Paula Arundell. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Luke Mullins and Paula Arundell. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Set in the 1980s during the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic, Tony Kushner’s epic, two-part drama Angels in America was a landmark piece of theatre when it premiered in 1991.

First seen in Sydney in 1993, the social and political context has changed but the human dilemmas in the play still resonate powerfully in this very special Belvoir production directed by Eamon Flack.

Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Angels in America tells the cleverly meshed stories of several different characters, connected through other people that they meet either in real life or hallucinations.

In Greenwich Village, a young man called Prior Walter (Luke Mullins) has full-blown AIDS – as does Roy Cohn (Marcus Graham), the real-life, notoriously corrupt Republic lawyer. But where Prior, an ex-drag queen, is out and proud, the aggressive, tough-talking Cohn insists that he is dying of liver cancer because homosexuals have “zero clout” and he therefore cannot be one.

Unable to cope with Prior’s escalating sickness, his Jewish boyfriend Louis (Mitchell Butel) leaves him, becoming involved with Joe Pitt (Ashley Zukerman), a closeted, Mormon and protégé of Cohn’s with a pill-popping wife called Harper.

Angels in America is a thrillingly daring, imaginative, humanist play that combines political, social, religious and environmental themes with wonderful flights of fancy including an angel who declares Prior a prophet.

Michael Hankin has designed a stark, beige-tiled set, which works brilliantly for a play that moves between Central Park, Antarctica, Salt Lake City, hospitals and heaven among other locations.

On this open space, Flack directs a crystal clear production that flows seamlessly. He uses the space superbly and has choreographed the scene changes with economical precision. Characters in hallucinations arrive and depart with a cheek toss of glitter, while the arrival of the angel is a glorious explosion of colour and sound.

Perched on a stepladder in a slightly underwhelming costume, the first glimpse of the angel is a bit of a letdown after the Spielberg-like build-up to her revelation, but that’s a minor quibble.

In every other way Mel Page’s costumes, Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Alan John’s music add to a superbly staged production.

The casting could hardly be better with all the actors working together as a finely tuned ensemble. Mullins gives a deeply sympathetic performance as Prior that embraces his camp wit, fear and fortitude, while his skinny physique makes the ravages of AIDS-related illnesses painfully believable. It’s a performance so truthful it hurts to watch.

Graham is also superb as the demonic Cohn, conveying his physical disintegration so convincingly his face seems to become a stretched death mask.

Marcus Graham as Roy Cohn. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Marcus Graham as Roy Cohn. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Butel captures the guilt-ridden angst of Louis, whose mind and mouth are forever racing, while McMahon gives a touchingly warm, sweetly funny, poignant portrayal of Harper, whose fears about the destruction of the ozone layer and Joe’s true nature/sexuality tip her into Valium-induced hallucinations.

There are also excellent performances from Zukerman as Joe, Paula Arundell as a nurse and the angel, DeObia Oparei as Belize, a black drag queen who is a friend of Prior’s and a nurse caring for Cohn, and Robyn Nevin in a series of roles including a rabbi, doctor and Bolshevik as well as Joe’s Mormon mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who visits Cohn.

Part 1, Millennium Approaches, runs nearly four hours but zips by. It really is a contemporary classic. Part II, Perestroika, feels a little slow to start – but that’s in the writing rather than the production.

You can see both parts in one day (which I’d recommend) or separately. Either way, by the end of the seven hours of theatre (plus four intervals), you have gone on an extraordinary journey with the characters. You have laughed and cried with them, and shared their struggles, fears, anxiety, heartaches and joys.

Despite all the world problems canvassed by the play, you feel elated at the end, sharing its defiant optimism. 

Belvoir St Theatre until July 14; Theatre Royal, July 18 – 28

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 9