All My Sons

Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 9

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Chris Ryan, John Howard and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Even if you know nothing about Arthur Miller’s classic play All My Sons, the foreboding set for Kip Williams’ shattering Sydney Theatre Company production tells you immediately that all is not well.

Instead of the usual naturalistic backyard, designer Alice Babidge sets the action in a black box with a flat cut-out of the Keller family home. The blank façade gives little away though you can see art on the walls through the windows. Later, the set will be used to echo the revealing of secrets, as lies that lurk at the heart of the play are laid bare.

In the brighter opening scenes, the darkness of the set does rather undercut Miller’s initial depiction of a happy family apparently living the American Dream. But as the play unfolds, the setting adds to the feeling of something rotten behind closed doors.

The stark staging throws a laser focus on Miller’s beautiful writing and on the exceptional performances, which stand out in sharp relief against the dark, oppressive backdrop, while Babidge’s costuming anchors the play in its period. The production is eloquently lit by Nick Schlieper while Max Lyandvert’s music subtly underscores the building of tension.

Set in 1946, wealthy factory owner Joe Keller (John Howard) was exonerated for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft parts during the war but his business partner Steve, who took the rap, is still in jail. Meanwhile, Joe’s wife Kate clings to the hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot missing in action for three years, will return home.

Their other son Chris (Chris Ryan) has invited Ann Deever (Eryn Jean Norvill) home and Kate and Joe are on edge. Ann is Steve’s daughter and Larry’s former girlfriend. When Chris announces that he wants to marry her, a tragedy is set in motion.

Williams directs with a searing clarity, beautifully served by a cast who are able to reach deep into the emotions gnawing at the characters from within. Nevin is heart-breaking as Kate. She looks so tiny and fragile, wracked by an anguish she is too scared to acknowledge, yet she can still muster a sharp humour and a desperate cheerfulness.

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Robyn Nevin, Josh McConville and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

In a wonderfully measured performance, Howard’s Joe is big and bluff with a geniality tempered by something guarded, while his sudden bursts of anger are quickly suppressed. Ryan radiates determined optimism as the idealistic, clean-cut Chris yet manages in little ways to suggest that he hasn’t completely recovered from the war. Hit hard by the truth, we watch Chris snap as his world falls apart. Norvill’s stylish Ann seems delicate yet stands her ground with surprising strength as she clings to the possibility of love.

As Ann’s avenging brother George, Josh McConville arrives (in crumpled suit) with a blast of energy.  His body is tight-wired and physically wracked as he struggles with a whirlpool of emotions: rage, guilt and long-standing love for the Kellers.

In supporting roles as the Keller’s neighbours –  Bert LaBonte as Jim, a world-weary, unhappily married doctor, Anita Hegh as his rather sour, nagging wife Sue, John Leary as the over-chatty handy-man Frank who is doing Larry’s horoscope for Kate, and Contessa Treffone as Frank’s sunny wife Lydia – the rest of the cast deliver well observed performances.

Telling a story of cowardice, denial and profit at others’ expense, All My Sons still resonates as powerfully as ever. Beautifully structured as it moves inexorably to its terrible conclusion, I felt as if I had been holding my breath for ten minutes or more by the play’s end, almost as emotionally drained as the actors.

All My Sons runs at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 12

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The Present

Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 8

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun on stage, then eventually it must be used. In his latest Chekhov adaptation, The Present, Andrew Upton wastes no time, starting the tragicomedy with a bang.

In fact, Upton has the characters pull the trigger several times before the play’s dramatic conclusion – just some of the fireworks, emotional and literal, that punctuate and power this blisteringly brilliant Sydney Theatre Company production.

Upton has adapted a number of classic Russian plays with considerable success – Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, Maxim Gorky’s Philistines and Children of the Sun, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard – but The Present is arguably his best yet.

Written around 1878, Chekhov’s sprawling, untitled first play – often called Platonov after its central character – would run around five hours in its original form but Upton has condensed it to a gripping three hours including interval.

He has updated the action from pre-revolutionary Russia to the mid-1990s, post-Perestroika, another period of great change and disillusionment. Instead of the main protagonists being 20-something as Chekhov had them, they are in their 40s, intensifying their feelings of yearning, regret and frustration.

The play is set in the country house of Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett), the widow of an older, powerful General, where a group of friends and acquaintances gather to celebrate her 40th birthday. Among them are local doctor Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), Anna’s stepson, the slightly nerdy, awkward Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his brittle new wife Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), a doctor who has recently returned from working overseas.

Anna has also invited two powerful landowners (David Downer and Martin Jacobs) hoping one of them might marry her, securing her land and fortune.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

At the heart of the play is Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), who has not fulfilled his brilliant promise as a young intellectual and is now a womanising schoolteacher.

Mikhail brings his sweet but gauche wife (Susan Prior) and baby son. However, his roving eye soon alights on Sophia, a former flame, and Nikolai’s gorgeous girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford) – though it’s clear his heart belongs to Anna.

Irish director John Crowley helms a superbly paced production on Alice Babidge’s impressive, almost-naturalistic set, which moves from a verandah outside the dacha to a small balloon-festooned summerhouse to a night scene in swirling mist, and back to the dacha for the morning after, this time inside. It’s brilliantly lit by Nick Schlieper with a powerful sound design by Stefan Gregory who uses music by The Clash and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart to punctuate scenes.

Together Upton, Crowley and the magnificent cast nail the Chekhovian balance between laughter and tears as the characters struggle to deal with life in the here-and-now.

The first of the four acts is a slow burn as the guests arrive. Tensions and animosities simmer beneath the desultory chat, with conversations cutting across each other, all of which is performed with a convincingly spontaneous feel. Then, in the aftermath of lunch, the play suddenly explodes into shattering life.

Roxburgh gives one of the performances of his career as Mikhail, capturing his wit and charisma but also his world-weary vulnerability and self-loathing. Blanchett is equally virtuosic as Anna, moving from bored containment to drunken abandon. Both draw on deep, uninhibited emotional reserves and the chemistry between them is electric.

But it’s a genuine ensemble piece with superb performances from the entire 13-strong cast (which also includes Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland and Andrew Buchanan). As Upton prepares to leave STC at the end of the year, The Present is a thrilling parting gift.

The Present plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until September 19. It is sold out but $20 Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online at http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 16

Mother Courage and her Children

Belvoir St Theatre, June 10

Robyn Nevin and the cast of Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin and the cast of Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Mother Courage is one of the great theatre roles for women. Physically and emotionally demanding, she is on stage for virtually the entire play as she navigates her profiteering way through the horror of war, losing all three of her children in the process.

Robyn Nevin makes the role her own in this exuberant, economically staged Belvoir production directed by incoming artistic director Eamon Flack.

Written by Bertolt Brecht in the late 1930s, Mother Courage and her Children was his response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Germany’s invasion of Poland. He set the play during the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), a long, arduous, pointless, religious conflict. (Some things never change). A wily refugee called Anna Fierling – or Mother Courage as she is known – follows the troops with her three grown-up children and a cart from which she sells food, liquor and other goods, doing whatever it takes to survive. She is desperate for her children not to become casualties but when the chips are down she is unable to protect them.

A rage against war, capitalism and man’s inability to learn from history, it’s a tough play about both the surrender and resilience of humanity during extreme times.

Using a sharp new translation by Michael Gow and new music by Stefan Gregory for the songs, Flack’s production bristles with as much vitality as brutality, with snappily choreographed scene changes keeping the action moving.

Robert Cousins’s set has a black painted area in the corner resembling a backstage room with props and musical instruments where the actors often sit when not performing: a constant reminder that we are watching theatre being made. Alice Babidge’s contemporary costuming includes military gear and clothes the characters might have got from op shops or the cheapest of stores as they struggle to keep body and soul together.

The centerpiece of the design is the cart, which is here bright red with circus-like coloured lights, pictures of hotdogs and other junk food as well as cheap tat like plastic beach thongs. Other than that the stage is bare apart from a few plastic chairs, while firecrackers exploding in a metal bucket help evoke the sounds of war.

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Flack has mustered an excellent ensemble cast, who play various characters and musical instruments, and each nail their moments. Paula Arundell is gloriously funny as the feisty prostitute Yvette and sings up a storm, delivering the Song of Fraternisation standing on a plastic chair, while newcomer Emele Ugavule is very touching as Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin. Tom Conroy and Richard Pyros are also particularly strong as Mother Courage’s two sons.

But the production is driven by Nevin’s riveting portrayal of the fast-talking, pragmatic Mother Courage. While the character rarely betrays any emotion, Nevin still manages to convey the tragedy that envelops and batters her, as well as her wicked sense of humour. We glimpse emotions flit across her face only to be immediately concealed; we see her body droop just a tiny bit then steel itself.

Though she’s no singer or dancer, she also throws herself into both with endearing gusto, touchingly reinforcing the fact that Mother Courage will do whatever it takes.

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Then there are the brief flashes of tenderness that strike at the heart. The way she spoons soup into her daughter’s mouth like a mother bird ­– an unspoken vow that she won’t desert her child – is an unforgettably poignant moment.

The famous, final image of her pulling her cart alone, having lost all her children, hits hard as the lights snap off.

Mother Courage plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 14

Macbeth

Sydney Theatre, July 25

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

The casting of Hugo Weaving as Macbeth and the decision of director Kip Williams to turn the Sydney Theatre back-to-front make this Sydney Theatre Company production one of the hottest tickets of the year.

Weaving does not disappoint, giving a passionate, compelling performance, but the production itself waxes and wanes somewhat.

Entering the theatre, the audience is led to a seating bank on the stage for 360 people who sit facing the eerily empty 900-seat auditorium. On stage in front of you stands a long trestle table with a few props (a plastic tub of water, a ruff, a wig, a crown and on the back of one chair a red velvet gown with ermine collar).

It looks like a rehearsal room and when the actors appear casually dressed in contemporary street wear and begin performing seated at the table under a general lighting state, that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s a slow start.

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s not until after the death of Duncan (John Gaden) when fog fills the stage and sound and lighting start to transform the space that excitement levels begin to rise.

It’s a valid enough conceit to have the full theatricality only kick in once Macbeth has sealed his fate and begun his descent into a nightmarish world full of bloody horror. It’s just that the early stage business feels a bit silly. The witches (Kate Box, Ivan Donato and Robert Menzies) dunk their heads in the tub of water, blow bubbles and then recite their lines while dripping. As an image for the boiling cauldron it comes up short.

Having Melita Jurisic in a plastic rain mac, chugging on a cup of blood and then dribbling it down her front as the wounded Captain reporting from the battle also comes across as gimmicky.

But as Duncan lies dead, the production starts to hit its stride. The actors bang their hands on the table, Max Lyandvert’s visceral sound design picks up on the drumming and amplifies it tenfold, the stage fills with fog, the lighting changes and we’re off.

The stunningly staged banquet scene with candles, flowers and place settings comes as a relief. Having the murdered Banquo (Paula Arundell) sit at the table has been done before, of course, but it works exceptionally well.

There are some other wonderful effects – the sudden fall of a black curtain not far from us, isolating Macbeth from the world beyond, for example, and later Macbeth strobe-lit in battle. There is also an extended fall of shimmering “rain”, which inevitably recalls the golden shower in Benedict Andrews’s production of The War of the Roses in the same venue. But, no matter, it’s incredibly beautiful and very effective.

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Under Nick Schlieper’s lighting, the auditorium does become a haunting, ghostly backdrop. Williams doesn’t stage many scenes there but those that he does work well. Banquo is chased through the auditorium and murdered in the stalls. When Macduff (Kate Box) goes to England to beg Malcolm (Eden Falk) to return to Scotland, their encounter takes place at the front of the circle while Macbeth stands silhouetted on stage.

Many liked Williams’ restraint in not using the auditorium too much; I liked what he did with it but felt he could have used it a little bit more.

The costumes by the show’s designer Alice Babidge come across as rather ad hoc without a unifying style. The street wear is uninspiring, despite odd touches like the ruff and kingly robe, and Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth dress is downright drab and unflattering. It’s a shame the costuming doesn’t develop more as the rest of the production builds theatrically. That said, when Babidge does go for a flourish with the final image of Malcolm being dressed in doublet and hose for his coronation, it sits oddly.

The play is performed by an ensemble of eight, all of whom double except for Weaving. The acting is a little uneven with a range of vocal styles.

Weaving gives a magnetic performance that focuses on Macbeth’s interior torture. He spits and snarls as he gives physical and emotional expression to the conflict that rages within him between vaulting ambition, doubt, fear, ruthlessness and fleeting regret. His anguish is utterly palpable.

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

As Lady Macbeth, Jurisic is so febrile and intense from the start that she almost leaves herself nowhere to go. Like Weaving, her vocals are rich and mellifluous but in starting at such a pitch, some of her dialogue is lost by the time she plays the mad scene.

Gaden handles the language with effortless eloquence, as ever, and is very touching as Macduff’s young son in a moving scene with Arundell as Lady Macduff. Box is also impressive, bringing a quiet dignity to the role of Macduff.

In the end, however, the production – which runs a tight two hours without interval – is set around the mesmerising performance of Weaving. The back-to-front staging doesn’t make any strong comment on the play but proves to be an atmospheric backdrop and Weaving’s performance is thrilling.

Macbeth plays at Sydney Theatre until September 27. Most performances are sold out. A few tickets were released yesterday so check with the box office on 02 9250 1777. Otherwise a limited number of Suncorp $20 tickets go on sale at 9am each Tuesday for the following week either in person at the Wharf Theatre box office or on 02 9250 1929

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 27

Waiting for Godot

Sydney Theatre, November 16

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s just three years since Ian McKellen and Roger Rees toured here in a British production of Waiting for Godot that played up the vaudevillian theatricality in Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary, absurdist drama, with Vladimir and Estragon relating to each other like a well-oiled comedy duo.

Now comes a Sydney Theatre Company production starring Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir that undoes you emotionally in a far more profound way. The comedy is still there, beautifully so ­– though less self-consciously vaudevillian – but beneath both the humour and the existential bleakness is great tenderness, humanity, pathos and a disarming sense of caring.

Even the oppressed Lucky (Luke Mullins) gently wipes the face of his tyrannical master Pozzo (Philip Quast), having helped him to his feet at they prepare to depart in Act Two. It’s an incredibly touching moment that takes you completely by surprise and has you suddenly re-evaluating their relationship.

The production was to have been helmed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, who directed Roxburgh and Weaving in the STC’s acclaimed 2012 Uncle Vanya. When an injury left him unable to fly, Andrew Upton stepped into the breach, with Ascher’s assistant Anna Lengyel as his associate, and directs a production of great clarity that is light on its feet yet terribly moving.

Zsolt Khell’s stark set resembles a charred, empty theatre, open to the back wall, within a false proscenium studded with broken and missing light bulbs. The famous tree is a thin streak of trunk with a single branch that arches heavenwards, disappearing from view.

It is beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper, who bathes the stage in a sudden snap of blue light as night descends, while Alice Babidge’s costumes are suitably tattered and worn.

Weaving and Roxburgh are like two sad but resilient clowns who have made their way together, for better or worse. Roxburgh’s boyish Gogo is the more lost, despairing and occasionally angry, tugging plaintively at his ill-fitting boots and looking to Didi for comfort and food, yet he is playfully funny too.

Weaving’s Didi is jauntier and more in control, rolling the words around his mouth as he enunciates crisply like an old theatrical pro, the one who seems to remember more of the past, including the fact that they are to meet the enigmatic Godot.

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Quast and Mullins are more than their match as Pozzo and Lucky who appear in both acts, helping to alleviate the endless waiting.

Mincing onto the stage, his back arched dramatically as if promenading amongst high society, Quast is superb as the pompous, grandiose Pozzo: a big, corpulent figure compared to his scrawny servant. With his rich, resonant voice, Quast’s Pozzo is like a ringmaster in the first act, brutally in control. In the second act, now blind, he staggers on like a wounded bull, his authority undone.

With long, straggly white hair, Mullins is a ghostly yet feral presence and knocks you for six with his explosive, tortured outpouring of Lucky’s famous “thinking” monologue.

On opening night Rory Potter completed the exemplary cast as the boy who arrives, twice, to say that Godot won’t be coming.

In this thrilling, incredibly special production, you experience afresh Beckett’s iconic, exquisitely written play about everything and nothing. It really does seem to encompass the whole of life. Unforgettable.

Waiting for Godot runs at the Sydney Theatre until December 21. Bookings: 9250 1777 or sydneytheatre.com.au

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 24

The Maids review

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The starry line-up of Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Maids is one of the most glittering pieces of casting seen on the Sydney stage for a while.

The vehicle that brings them together, meanwhile, is a dark, challenging, existential play.

Written in 1947 by French playwright Jean Genet, The Maids was inspired by a notorious, real-life case in 1933 when two sisters working as servants in Le Mans brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter. Discovered naked in bed together with the murder weapons, they immediately confessed.

In the play, two maids play a sadistic, sexualised, ritual game in which they act out the roles of servant and dominating employer and fantasise about killing their mistress. Reality and fantasy slip and slide in a play with layer upon layer of role-playing.

On this particular day, Claire (Blanchett) is playing the role of the mistress, while her older sister Solange (Huppert) plays Claire. An alarm clock from the kitchen sits on the bedside table to warn them of the impending arrival of their mistress (Debicki).

Director Benedict Andrews uses a muscular, new translation by himself and Andrew Upton, which feels contemporary yet true to the play, while the glossy, stylised production features several of his directorial signatures: glass walls and cameras feeding live footage onto a large screen.

Designer Alice Babidge transforms the stage into an opulent boudoir with a long rack of elegant couture, a bed, dressing table and hundreds of flowers in vases all over the room, with fake flowers underlining the theme of artifice.

The walls act as mirrors but through them we glimpse camera operators. The video (designed by Sean Bacon) gives us close-ups of the actors and brief scenes from a bathroom behind the main room but also picks out details like a knocked-over vase or rubber gloves lying on the bed. At times it’s distracting but overall it works, enhancing the intimacy of the play in the large theatre and the sense of voyeurism.

Andrews does a great job of mining the dark humour in the play and genuinely jolts you at times (think spit, profanities and toilet scenes).

The three actors respond to his vision with deeply committed, heightened performances.

Blanchett is remarkable, mercurial and fearless as she swans around histrionically in the guise of the mistress, then slumps back into Claire’s slutty, bitter anger and despair at her dead-end life. Holding nothing back, she seems genuinely spent at the curtain call.

The petite Huppert is more wry, playful and laissez-faire as Solange in a highly physical performance that sees her doing pull-ups from the clothes rack, pumping her legs on the bed and moving in a jerky, girlish fashion. However, her strong French accent has you straining to understand her at times, particularly when she speaks quickly. In a wordy play where the language and what they say is so important, it’s problematic.

Though both Blanchett and Huppert are individually terrific, the relationship between the two maids as co-dependent sisters doesn’t feel entirely believable.

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett.  Photo: Lisa Tomaetti

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomaetti

In the smaller role of the mistress, the statuesque Debicki (a 22-year old newcomer fresh from playing Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby) holds her own. Flouncing in like a celebrity used to the glare of the paparazzi flashbulbs, she captures the character’s skittish, careless, preening, self-regarding behaviour as she gushes over the maids one minute and barely knows one from the other the next.

The mistress is play-acting herself: playing at being the authoritative mistress as well as the devoted, suffering wife whose husband has been arrested. Debicki feels very young for the role and pushes close to farce as the mistress dashes off to see her husband but it’s a mesmerising performance by an actor we will doubtless be seeing a great deal more of.

But for all the passion on stage, I watched the production dispassionately, almost forensically without being sucked into the play. I felt totally disconnected from it. Perhaps that’s what Andrews wants; Genet certainly doesn’t invite an emotional response but I suspect it’s partly the theatre too, which feels very large for such an intimate piece.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating production of an intriguing play with some very fine acting.

Sydney Theatre until July 20

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 16