The Golden Age

Wharf Theatre, January 19

2S4A8687

Back: Robert Menzies, Sarah Peirse, Anthony Taufa. Front: Liam Nunan, Rarriwuy Hick and Zindzi Okenyo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Louis Nowra’s epic play The Golden Age hasn’t been staged professionally in Sydney since 1987, following its Melbourne premiere two years earlier. This stunning Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Kip Williams, confirms that it is an Australian classic and as relevant as ever.

Thrillingly ambitious in its scope and imagination, the play roams from Hobart to the Tasmanian wilderness to Berlin at the end of World War II.

It begins in 1939. Two young men – Francis (Brandon McClelland), an engineer from a working class background, and his friend Peter (Remy Hii) from a well-to-do Hobart family – hike into the Tasmanian wilderness and discover a lost tribe descended from a motley group of European convicts and settlers, including one actor.

Isolated for 80 years, they have developed their own language and culture but have serious physical and mental disorders because of inbreeding. Realising that “the circle is burst” and they have no future, their leader Queenie Ayre (Sarah Peirse) decides they will return to civilisation with Francis and Peter.

However, the government is concerned that their genetic problems will be used as proof of Nazi propaganda and insists on putting them in an asylum until the end of the war.

Nowra vividly evokes the world of the tribe, inventing a muscular language drawn from Cockney, Irish, 1840s convict slang and bawdy verses. At first we have little idea what they’re saying but as some of it is explained and our ear attunes, we begin to decipher meaning. He also folds Greek drama and Shakespeare into the mix of the play.

The Golden Age takes an unflinching look at Australia’s colonial past and culture of ‘she’ll be right’ indifference, articulated in a particularly passionate speech by Francis. Themes include the destruction of one culture by another, what constitutes civilisation, war, class and the search for love, identity and belonging.

At its heart is the touching love story between Francis and Betsheb (Rarriwuy Hick), a young woman from the tribe, who are separated during the war years when Francis and Peter enlist and are sent to Europe, but who offer a glimpse of optimism amid the tragedy.

Williams’ production unfolds with cinematic fluidity on David Fleischer’s set, dominated by a huge mound of earth. It’s not particularly attractive and works better in some scenes than others. Initially, it seems like a rather drab, arid rendering of the Tasmanian wilderness, even with the odd leafy branch thrown onto it. It also looks odd to have an elegant dinner party scene in Hobart next to it. But it gradually seems to accrue meaning, symbolising the harshness of the story and the intermingling of the characters’ fates as the earth is paddled around the stage.

Fleischer’s excellent costuming feels very authentic. The production is beautifully lit by Damien Cooper, while Max Lyandvert’s sound is richly evocative.

It’s terrific to see such colour-blind casting, with actors from a number of different backgrounds, most of which simply ‘is’. Having Indigenous actor Ursula Yovich as the aristocratic, rather cold Elizabeth Archer, who utters sentiments such as “What a pathetic group they look, like those Aboriginals in shanty towns”, meanwhile, feels deliberately provocative and heightens the discomfort of such lines.

Among a strong ensemble, Hick shines as Betsheb, capturing her inquisitive, high-spirited, wild nature. Peirse is compelling as Ayre, exuding a natural authority as well as her desperation to protect the tribe and its heritage. Liam Nunan’s physicality as the crippled Stef is superb and McClelland is a passionate Francis. Robert Menzies also excels as combative tribesman Melorne and as Peter’s father, Doctor Archer, who becomes obsessed with the tribe.

Complex, challenging and wildly theatrical, The Golden Age has a haunting, dreamlike quality yet at the same time it feels painfully, movingly real.

The Golden Age plays at Wharf I until February 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

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Calpurnia Descending

Wharf 2, October 11

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Melbourne’s self-styled “gay DIY drag-theatre” group Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) has made a name for itself subverting classic film genres to create hilarious, high camp stage comedies.

Last year, Sydney Theatre Company had a hit when it presented Little Mercy, which played with the tropes of the “evil child” horror film.

Now comes Calpurnia Descending, a Sisters Grimm production commissioned by STC and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, in which Flanders and Paul Capsis play rival divas. It sounds like a match made in heaven but Calpurnia Descending ends up feeling rather less than the sum of its parts.

It’s 1939. Aging, faded, Broadway legend Beverly Dumont (Capsis) is living as a recluse in a New York apartment with her sinister butler Tootles (Sandy Gore). But when a small-town, wannabe starlet called Violet St Clair (Flanders) comes across her by accident, Dumont agrees to make a dramatic return to the Broadway stage.

Dumont will star as Caesar’s third wife Calpurnia in a tragedy written by her late husband, while St Clair will play Cleopatra.

But will Beverly tolerate Violet when the director (Peter Paltos) is so obviously infatuated with her? And will the not-so-sweet ingénue be content in Beverly’s shadow?

Calpurnia Descending begins in familiar territory with echoes of iconic films like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Then a screen covering the entire stage descends and the production turns filmic. Black and white footage shot live (and badly out of sync) transform the narrative – the rehearsal period – into an old movie. This then morphs into a manic, dizzily colourful, pre-recorded animation in which Beverly appears trapped in a nightmarish video clip or web page.

Where Norma Desmond was undone by the transition from silent films to the talkies, Miss Dumont will struggle to survive in the Internet era where pop stars are the new divas.

Beverly is a gift of a role for Capsis who made his name “channeling” divas as a cabaret performer, and he makes the most of it, playing her spotlight-craving, hard-drinking monstrousness to the hilt while still making her tragic. It’s a fine performance.

Ash Flanders,  Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ash Flanders, Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Flanders conveys the ruthlessness beneath the sweet façade beautifully. The cross-gender casting also features Gore in nicely observed, amusing performances as Tootles and Broadway producer Max Silvestri who desperately needs a hit, while Paltos hits just the right note as the dashing, young, diva-struck director.

Calpurnia Descending is technically ambitious and cleverly designed (set and costumes by David Fleischer, AV by Matthew Gingold, animation by Matthew Greenwood, lighting by Katie Sfetkidis, sound by Jed Palmer). It’s also fun but the filmic element feels over-long and the plot twists become confusing.

Directed by Greene, the production goes beyond mere homage or parody but in the end what it’s trying to say isn’t clear. Some have read it as an exploration of the commercialisation of queer culture and appropriation of gay icons (think Katy Perry) but I’m not at all convinced that comes across.

Calpurnia Descending is at Wharf 2 until November 8

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 19

Travelling North

Wharf 1, Sydney, January 18

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s a big year for David Williamson with eight of his plays to be staged in Sydney. It’s a shame then that the first of them – Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Travelling North – is a disappointment.

Written in 1979, Travelling North is a gentle, elegiac comedy about an autumnal romance between Frances (Alison Whyte, replacing the injured Greta Scacchi) and the grouchy, older Frank (Bryan Brown).

To the chagrin of Frances’s unhappily married daughters (Harriet Dyer and Sara West), she and Frank decide to head north together – but when Frank’s health fails there is trouble in paradise.

Directed by Andrew Upton, the production is hampered by David Fleischer’s stark, unattractive set. Performed on a large, slatted wooden platform backed by dark walls, with virtually no props, there is no sense of place, which the play needs. Instead, it is left to Nick Schlieper’s lighting to convey the shifts between chilly Melbourne and tropical Queensland.

It also seems odd that though the play stretches over a year or more, Whyte wears the same dress throughout while other actors have costume changes.

Brown brings little emotional depth or nuance to the role of Frank. He is at his most believable when angrily demanding information from his doctor (Russell Kiefel) but mostly looks slightly awkward as if uncomfortable on stage and captures little of Frank’s irascible charm.

Whyte is an elegant, dignified, warm-hearted Frances. Despite her late addition to the cast, hers is the most convincing performance, though Andrew Tighe gives the production an engaging shot in the arm with a very funny, sweet performance as the interfering but well-meaning neighbour in short shorts, socks and sandals.

It seemed to me that the problem is not in the writing. Williamson writes believable dialogue laced with a wry, gentle humour and canvases pertinent issues: older love, the generation divide and the way grown-up children so often demand that their parents remain at their beck and call – something we see a lot these days as more and more grandparents find themselves co-opted as child carers. We should care about the characters a whole lot more than we do here.

Instead, it feels as if none of the different elements of the production have really gelled. The emotional heart of the play is missing in this rather one-dimensional production, which doesn’t do Williamson justice.

Travelling North runs at Wharf I until March 22. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 2

Fury

Sydney Theatre Company

Known for writing plays that voice the concerns, dramas and ideologies of educated, articulate, middle class protagonists, Joanna Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s most successful playwrights, embraced by audiences but frequently dividing critics.

Her new play Fury, commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company, is set in the comfortable, inner-city home of a liberal, professional family. Alice (Sarah Peirse) is a highly successful neuroscientist who is about to receive a prestigious humanitarian award. Her husband Patrick (Robert Menzies) is a moderately successful novelist.

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Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The play opens with a well-researched student journalist (Geraldine Hakewill) interviewing Alice and then Patrick for a personal profile about Alice: an obvious device (which Murray-Smith also used in her play Honour) that allows the characters to articulate thoughts they wouldn’t in ordinary conversation.

A teacher (Tahki Saul) then arrives to inform them that their only son Joe (Harry Greenwood) has been caught with a high school friend putting graffiti on a local mosque. From here the play unfolds to reveal a secret that will undo the family.

Fury is very much a play of ideas set once again in a familiar, middle class milieu. It’s wordy but engrossing. The writing is heightened, sharp, intelligent and witty. The ideas are provocative and eloquently expressed.

In one scene the parents (Claire Jones and Yure Covich) of the other boy – who come from a more working class background and could not have afforded to send their son to the same school were it not for a sporting scholarship – visit Alice and Patrick to discuss with the mosque incident.

The father states clearly and unapologetically his views on the situation, from Muslims living in Australia to parenting today. Again, it’s a way to discuss ideas but to my mind Murray-Smith avoids making it all-too-obvious debate by creating characters that extend beyond stereotypical mouthpieces. Terrific performances by Covich and Jones definitely help.

Andrew Upton directs a tight, absorbing production, drawing detailed, layered performances from a strong cast. Peirse in particular is compelling as Alice, moving from easy, authoritative, self-assurance to unravelling doubt and vulnerability, while Greenwood makes a very impressive professional stage debut as the troubled Joe.

David Fleischer’s open set with concrete walls and polished marble floor is a cold, brutal, elegantly contemporary space that suits the emotional world of the play though it doesn’t feel like the book-filled home of arty intellectuals.

The plot of Fury does feel slightly contrived to embody the debate it dramatises and Joe’s act is never fully explained. Nonetheless, it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking play embracing themes including race relations, radicalism, intergenerational conflict, gender, and the anger and anxiety in today’s isolating society.

The foyer on opening night was buzzing with people discussing what they had just seen.

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1 until June 8