Arcadia

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 12

ARCADIA1

Glenn Hazeldine and Ryan Corr. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ryan Corr gives a standout, charismatic performance in Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly clever 1993 play Arcadia but the production itself wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders on opening night.

Set in a stately English country estate called Sidley Park, Arcadia unfolds across two time frames, with alternating scenes set in the early 1800s and the 1990s (which eventually begin to overlap and share the stage).

Beginning in 1809, teenage genius Thomasina Coverly (Georgia Flood) is discovering chaos theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics a century before anyone else under the admiring eye of her dashing, witty tutor Septimus Hodge (Corr). Meanwhile, the garden is being transformed from a classical idyll to a Gothic wilderness.

In the same room 200 years later, Bernard Nightingale, a smug, ambitious Byron scholar (Josh McConville) desperate to prove that Byron fled England after killing a minor poet in a duel at Sidley Park, and Hannah Jarvis (Andrea Demetriades) a historian and author researching the mysterious hermit who lived in the garden’s faux hermitage, try to piece together the past from notes, drawings and other bits and pieces, which we have seen being created.

With illicit affairs, love, iterated algorithms, discussions about determinism and free will as well as Romanticism and Classicism in the mix, it’s heady stuff.

Richard Cottrell directs a sound, lucid, well-staged production on a handsome classical set by Michael Scott-Mitchell with stylish costumes by Julie Lynch.However, in striving to make Stoppard’s dazzling wordplay and complex ideas understandable to an audience, some characters feel underdeveloped and a little of the play’s sparkle and magic was lost on opening night.

At the moment, the historical scenes have a better rhythm than the contemporary ones where not all the humour lands, and there are times when the play feels pretty dense without enough of a leavening human dimension.

Corr has a wonderful, natural ease and charm as Septimus. He handles the zippy dialogue beautifully and his scenes with Flood have depth, heart and a lovely energy, though a stronger chemistry between them as the play progresses would make the ending more moving.

ARCADIA #2-749

Andrea Demetriades and Josh McConville. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Demetriades gives a strong performance as the wryly sceptical, somewhat stand-offish Hannah though one senses that there is more to find her character (a loneliness is hinted at in the play) and in her relationship with McConville’s Bernard, which we gather is underpinned by a sexual attraction, though there is little chemistry here.

McConville looks a little ill at ease as Bernard, though his zinging barbs are often very funny. Michael Sheasby gives a lively portrayal of Valentine, a gifted mathematician like his ancestor Thomasina before him, and Glenn Hazeldine is a hoot as Ezra Chater, a poet with precious little poetry in his soul whose wife has been discovered in “a carnal embrace” with Septimus. But not all the other performances feel entirely believable.

Given the brilliance of Stoppard’s writing and the top-notch production values, there is already much to enjoy but once the production settles, the cast will hopefully convey more of the play’s humanity and passion, and then it will really soar.

Arcadia plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 2. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

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The Lysicrates Prize

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Botanic Garden, January 30

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney after Premier Mike Baird announced the winner of the first Lysicrates Prize.From left:  Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden. From left: Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, NSW Premier Mike Baird, and John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

The inaugural Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting was to have taken place in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden on the Band Lawn near the replica of the original Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that gives the competition its name.

It would have been a lovely spot for such an event. However, torrential rain earlier in the week left the grass too wet for the seating stand, so the play readings took place in Verbrugghen Hall. Guests then walked down to the lawn for the announcement of the prizewinner by NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The Lysicrates Prize calls for Australian playwrights to submit the first act of a new play. The three short-listed submissions are given a rehearsed play-reading in front of an invited audience. What sets this Prize apart from any other Australian playwriting award is that the audience decides the winner – as happened in Ancient Greece. The prize is a $12,500 commission from Griffin Theatre Company, with the runners-up receiving $1000 each.

The three finalists for the inaugural 2015 Lysicrates Prize were Steve Rodgers, Lally Katz and Justin Fleming, with Rodgers awarded the prize for his play Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.

It all began early in 2014 when John and Patricia Azarias, the founders of the Prize, took a walk through the Botanic Garden.

John Azarias loves Hellenic culture and had seen the original monument in Athens. On that particular day, as he and his wife approached the sandstone replica (commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin), they were struck by how eroded it was becoming. He decided then and there to raise the funds for its restoration in readiness for the Botanic Garden’s bicentenary in 2016.

The original monument was built by a rich sponsor (or choregoi) called Lysicrates to celebrate the winning play at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 334 BC, as was the tradition during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The monument has a frieze featuring Dionysus, the god of theatre. In a nice little link, the name ‘Sydney’ is an English version of the French ‘St Denis’, which in turn is a Gallic version of ‘St Dionysius’ – as John explained in his welcoming speech.

Patricia suggested that they also establish a theatre competition associated with the monument as a way to celebrate its restoration. They approached Lee Lewis at Griffin Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the performance of Australian plays, who agreed to run the competition. With some assistance from the NSW Government, along with additional funds raised by John, and the support of the Royal Botanic Garden, they were off.

For the first Lysicrates Prize, an audience made up of Griffin supporters and subscribers, politicians and theatre industry folk gathered at the Conservatorium to watch readings (rehearsed over three days) of the three short-listed plays.

Entering the auditorium, audience members were each given a gold coin with which to cast our vote in large pottery urns.

Rodgers’ Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam is adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novella and is a haunting story of suffocating love, grief and loss, and a family so close that the parents made an extreme decision when their young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia; a decision their son will struggle to understand.

Darren Yap – who approached Rodgers in the first place about a stage adaptation – directed the extract, which was performed by Jennifer Hagan, Anthony Harkin, Natalie O’Donnell, Rodgers himself and Govinda Röser-Finch.

The emotional scenario and complex moral dilemma posed clearly struck a chord with the audience.

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Rodgers said of his win: “Jesus Wants me For a Sunbeam isn’t a play yet. It’s just a bunch of scenes and ideas adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novel. But because of The Lysicrates Prize, we now get the chance to develop it into a truly important new Australian play. I’m over the moon.

“Philanthropy of this kind in Australia isn’t common, so obviously I’m more than thrilled. This play is about family and explores a kind of love that in one moment you’re completely in sympathy with, and the next, you’re reeling away from in horror. The Lysicrates Prize gives us the chance, to hopefully unleash all that familial complexity on an audience.”

The evening began with Lally Katz’s Fortune, directed by Kate Gaul and performed by Briallen Clarke, Anni Finsterer, Sean Hawkins and Russell Kiefel.

The black comedy is set in a seedy hotel in the US where the woman who owns it has asked a psychic with a crystal ball to tell her about a man who spent time in one of the rooms. The Romany fortune-teller is pregnant and she and her cowboy boyfriend desperately need money to start a new life on his father’s land. Meanwhile, two men who have just lost their Wall Street jobs in the GFC are waiting to book into the hotel: one of them has been around the block, the other is a young Australian who had only just joined the company. It’s an intriguing set-up, the characters are all fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The night wound up with Justin Fleming’s The Savvy Women, another of his rollicking, contemporary Australian adaptations of Molière, following his success with Tartuffe and The School for Wives.

Directed by Gale Edwards, and performed by Andrea Demetriades, Morgan Powell, Fiona Press and Christopher Stollery, it began with two sisters vying for one man, their parents arguing over which daughter should prevail, and the mother’s sacking of the maid for her massacre of the English language. Fleming’s clever, witty rhymes drew much laughter, especially the maid’s bogan utterings.

Having the audience choose is a different way of commissioning a play these days. The proof will be in the production. But you’d have to say it was an impressive, well-chosen short list. All three extracts were entertaining and showed significant potential; hopefully we will get to see productions of them all in the fullness of time.

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.

Perplex

Wharf 1, April 4

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Perplex by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg starts intriguingly. Andrea (Andrea Demetriades) and Glenn (Glenn Hazeldine) arrive back at their apartment after a holiday to find that the electricity has been cut off, there’s an odd pot-plant in the kitchen and something strange about the coffee table in the lounge – not to mention an awful smell.

Their friends Rebecca (Rebecca Massey) and Tim (Tim Walter), who have been watering the plants for them while they were away, appear and things get weirder. Not only is the electricity on but as far as Rebecca and Tim are concerned, this is their apartment. Outplayed, Andrea and Glenn are evicted.

Then Andrea and Glenn – the four actors use their own names throughout – reappear. Now, Glenn is Rebecca and Tim’s tantrum-throwing son and Andrea is their au pair. Rebecca doesn’t remember hiring an au pair but pretty soon the power shifts and Rebecca is sent packing as Tim and Andrea cosy up.

And so it goes, with characters and relationships morphing and blurring as one scene slides into the next without referencing previous ones.

Once you realise that this is the conceit and structure, the play somehow loses its bite and fascination. There is philosophical talk embracing Darwin and evolution, Plato, and Nietzsche but though Glenn appears at one point in Nazi brown shirt regalia, and the play ends with an absurdist, Pirandello-like scene in which the actors realise they have been abandoned by their director, the dramatic stakes don’t feel particularly high or truly dangerous. In large part that’s because with each change of scene and situation, the characters are let off the existential hook so instead of the tension building, it dissipates.

As Perplex plays with themes of what is real (in life and on the stage), identity and middle class mores and morality, it entertains but doesn’t pack as much of a punch as previous von Mayenburg plays The Ugly One and Fireface.

That’s no reflection on this classy Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Sarah Giles, who lulls us into a false sense of up-beat security with a mood-enhancing blast of Queen’s greatest hits as we enter the auditorium.

Staged on a suitably anonymous, minimalist set designed by Renee Mulder (cream brick wall, mustard carpet, sofa and wooden coffee table) the polished production moves briskly with excellent performances from all four actors. A Nordic fancy dress party, which sees Tim dressed as an elk, Andrea as a volcano, Rebecca as a Viking and Glenn as a skier, with a hilariously madcap sex scene between man and elk, is particularly funny, while Tim spends long spells expounding his theories stark naked. Hazeldine’s brilliantly observed tantrum as the boy Glenn is an inspired piece of physical comedy and a standout moment.

Mid-way through, however, I found my interest in the play waning. Maybe some of the scenes have a different resonance in Germany but here, though the plot may perplex the play doesn’t disturb, perturb or provoke and so it ends up rather washing over you in entertaining, non-threatening, bloodless fashion.

Perplex plays at Wharf 1 until May 3. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777