Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bella Vista Farm, December 12

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Lara Schwerdt, Emily Eskell, Sabryna Te’o and Madeleine Jones in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Maryne Rothe

Sport for Jove’s outdoor season is always something to look forward to during the Sydney summer (weather permitting) and this year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a delight.

I saw the play at Bella Vista Farm Park in the Hills Shire and have been tardy in reviewing it so that season is now over. However, you can catch the production at Everglades Gardens in Leura during January – and it’s well worth it.

At Bella Vista Farm, Sport for Jove has a new purpose-built stage. With a lighting rig and backstage area, it is better equipped for the cast and crew. Constructed at the bottom of a gently sloping hill, it also provides better sightlines for the audience who can either sit on a picnic blanket, or a little further up the hill on provided plastic chairs. The set-up may not have quite the same charm as when the company performed in a courtyard in front of the farmhouse or in the nearby shed, but it is eminently practical.

What’s more, the set (co-designed by Damien Ryan and Anna Gardiner) is vibrantly attractive in a shabby chic kind of way with wisteria-draped screens and walls and a “marble” floor: a staging that sits well and looks good in the outdoor setting under Sian James-Holland’s lighting.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s early, rarely performed comedies. It’s a wordy piece though it never feels cumbersomely so here. In his program notes, director Damien Ryan writes that he has removed the play’s “most impenetrable material” but admits that some of the language remains “a curiously knotted garden”. However, there’s lots of wonderful poetry and the production rollicks along with such an infectious energy that any difficult language never becomes an issue.

The plot is light and rather silly. The young King Ferdinand of Navarre (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) and his friends Lord Biron (Tim Walter), Dumain (Curtis Fernandez) and Longaville (Gabrielle Scawthorn) take a pledge to avoid woman and wine for three years and instead devote themselves to study.

But before the ink is dry, the Princess of France (Emily Eskell) and her ladies-in-waiting Rosaline (Sabryna Te’o), Maria (Lara Schwerdt) and Katherine (Madeleine Jones) arrive and test their resolve.

A second plot involves a Spanish nobleman, Don Adriano de Armado (Berynn Schwerdt) who is bent on wooing a comely country maid called Jaquenetta (Claire Lovering). A bumpkin called Costard (George Banders) is also sweet on Jaquenette but is no match for the Don and finds himself being used at the go-between for one and all.

The women in the play are highly spirited and independent, and while attracted to the men refuse to become their playthings. As a way to increase the number of roles for women, Ryan has Longaville played by a woman in masculine attire (Scawthorn) who holds her own in the privileged men’s world. By doing so, Ryan introduces the issue of marriage equality. The device works brilliantly, without feeling at all gimmicky. When the young people eventually pair off, there just happens to be one lesbian couple.

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Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Curtis Fernandez, Tim Walter and Gabrielle Scawthorn in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Marnya Rothe

While using Elizabethan costuming, Ryan also injects a great deal of fun by portraying the officious, bureaucratic Anthony Dull (Scott Sheridan) as a contemporary park ranger.

Speaking of costuming, Melanie Liertz has done an exceptional job on the smell of an oily rag. Apparently the women’s gowns are made from painted canvas. Amazing.

Ryan’s cast is terrific. Some handle the language better than others, but overall it’s performed with a zest that fills the air, sailing effortlessly to the top of the hill. Beryn Schwerdt is hilarious as Don Adriano, flouncing around in melodramatic fashion with a fruity, comedic Spanish accent to match.

Aaron Tsindos is also funny as the Don’s manservant Moth. Scawthorn is impressive as Longaville, Lembke-Hogan exudes confident poise as Navarre and Walter is dashing as the serious, cynical Biron. But all the cast – which also includes Wendy Strehlow and James Lugton – are on song. A fun night.

The evening begins with a short curtain raiser: Josh Lawson’s Shakespearealism, a clever, 30-minute send-up about Ralph Shakespeare, a young playwright who pioneered realism on stage but lived forever in the shadow of his brother William. Directed by Lizzie Schebesta, with Lembke-Hogan as Ralph, James Lugton as jaded theatre manager Philip Henslowe, and Scawhtorn and Tsindos as two actors, it’s a cute piece but makes for a long night.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Bella Vista Farm, December 19

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Deborah Kennedy as Lady Bracknell and Scott Sheridan as Jack Worthing. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the greatest comedies of all time, but I’m not sure that the play with its witty repartee and drawing room settings lends itself to an outdoor production in the same way that Shakespeare does. Damien Ryan directs an enjoyable enough production but it often feels a bit try-hard in the comedy stakes. The slapstick routine of Algernon (Aaron Tsindos) and his manservant Lane (James Lugton) falling off the stage doesn’t sit right in Wilde’s stylish world, nor does Cecily (Eloise Winestock) gagging on the name Algernon. What’s more, I didn’t find any of that particularly funny.

Some of the gags work well – the running joke about the servant’s bell is amusing – but the portrayals of the gun-toting Cecily and hyper Gwendolen (Claire Lovering) feel far too overplayed.

Deborah Kennedy has the style absolutely right as Lady Bracknell and nails every laugh, delivering the famous lines as if they’ve never been said before in a standout performance. Wendy Strehlow is also on the money with Miss Prism, while Tsindos has the measure of the witty, devil-may-care Algernon.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 9 – 24. Bookings: http://www.sportforjove.com.au

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Mr Kolpert

ATYP Studio 1, August 1

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Would you like blood with your pizza? Mind games with your tiramisu?

German playwright David Gieselmann gives us both in his absurdist black comedy Mr Kolpert (translated by David Tushingham), which is at once provocative, stomach-churning and ridiculously funny.

Hip young couple Ralf (Tim Reuben) and Sarah (Claire Lovering) have invited Sarah’s work colleague Edith (Paige Gardiner) and her husband Bastian (Garth Holcombe) around for dinner to alleviate their boredom.

Hospitality isn’t high on their agenda. Sarah hasn’t even bothered catering, offering wine or fruit juice poppers and a choice of take-away. Instead, they intend to play cat and mouse with their guests.

At the start of the evening, they announce that they have murdered Sarah and Edith’s dull co-worker Mr Kolpert (Tom Christophersen) and stashed his body in the huge trunk in the room. Just joking! Or are they?

The build-up of tension as to whether they have or haven’t bumped off Mr Kolpert drives the play, which echoes with references to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hitchcock’s Rope, Eugene Ionesco, Quentin Tarantino, Joe Orton and Monty Python, among others.

The play, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2000, has fun and games with the idea of the extreme lengths some people will go to in order to feel something, anything, in a world of existential, urban ennui; a world where an overload of graphic news reports of horrific world events, and even more graphic depictions of violence in films and video games, numbs the mind and deadens emotions. It also plugs into the anxiety of the contemporary world.

Directing the play for indie Sydney company pantsguys Productions, James Dalton draws wonderfully calibrated performances from his cast in a well-paced production that finds just the right balance between absurdist drama and dark comedy of manners.

Gardiner is exceptional as the nice, placatory Edith who discovers something altogether different beating beneath her cheery, polite demeanour. Her oscillation between hysterical laughter and terrified screams when Ralf taunts her with the ropes he supposedly tied Mr Kolpert up with is side-splittingly funny.

Holcombe is wonderfully manic as the boorish, unpredictable Bastion, an aggressive architect with anger management issues. Reuben and Lovering do a great job of keeping us guessing what Ralf (who is appropriately enough a chaos researcher) and Sarah have or haven’t done, while Edan Lacey is very funny as the hapless pizza delivery boy.

The production strikes me as funnier than I remember Benedict Andrews’ 2002 production for Sydney Theatre Company, though memory sometimes plays tricks.

The drab, beige apartment by set and costume designer Antoinette Barboutis suggests the boredom Ralf and Sarah are railing against, as well as the idea that evil can lurk in the most mundane places. Every now and then, lurid green lighting (Benjamin Brockman) as well as UV lighting, lends the space a strange, sinister feel.

Pantsguys is emerging as a reliably exciting indie company. Their previous productions include Punk Rock in 2012, which won three Sydney Theatre Awards, and On the Shore of the Wide World earlier this year, which was Griffin Independent’s top-selling production to date (both directed by Anthony Skuse). Mr Kolpert is an equally impressive production.

Running around 80 minutes without interval, the ending of the play is somewhat abrupt, a pizza-ordering scene is overdone, and Gieselmann employs some sleight-of-hand (with the knocking). It is also fairly lightweight, its theme obvious enough. But it’s a darkly entertaining, provocative piece that had the audience laughing, shrieking and squealing.

Mr Kolpert runs at the ATYP Studio I, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road until August 16. Bookings: www.atyp.com.au or 02 9270 2400