Black Jesus

Kings Cross Theatre, May 11

BLACK JESUS Elijah Williams as Black Jesus IMG_8679- by Nick McKinlay

Elijah Williams as Gabriel Chibamu or Black Jesus. Photo: Nick McKinlay

In presenting the Australian premiere of Black Jesus by UK playwright, bAKEHOUSE Theatre company gives us a glimpse into a world that few of us know about a great deal about and one that is rarely portrayed on our stages.

Black Jesus is set in Zimbabwe in 2015. Robert Mugabe’s government has fallen and a new Truth and Justice Commission has been established to investigate the horrific crimes committed during his regime.

A young woman called Eunice Ncube (Belinda Jombwe-Cotterill) is called up to question a prisoner called Gabriel Chibamu (Elijah Williams) about atrocities he is alleged to have committed as one of the most notorious members of Mugabe’s youth militia, the Green Bombers.

Gabriel is known as the Black Jesus because, as he says: “I decided who would be saved and who would be condemned. I took that responsibility for others and I now I take it for myself. I am Black Jesus. I do not crawl.”

The new Zimbabwe government is keeping an eye on Eunice’s investigation through Endurance Moyo (Dorian Nkono), a smooth-talking political operator who has known her since she was a child. Then there’s Rob Palmer (Jarrod Crellin) a white lawyer working with Eunice and with whom she has had a brief affair. He wants to support her but as soon as the threats start, he is quickly out of there.

Black Jesus evokes a dark world of violence, corruption and buried secrets where nothing is clear cut; everyone shares some form of guilt and is a victim at the same time.

Produced by John Harrison, co-artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Theatre, Suzanne Millar directs a taut, powerful production. With a simple but striking set – an African tree painted on the wall with branches overhead (set design by Millar and Harrison) – Millar uses the slightly awkward space (two banks of seating on either side of a flat stage) extremely well. The use of a drummer (Alex Jalloh) helps build atmosphere and tension.

Millar has assembled an impressive cast. As Eunice, Jombwe-Cotterill looks small and fragile but allies that with a quiet steeliness. She is frequently extremely still, which gives her an understated strength and resonant presence, and meets Gabriel’s ferocious energy with a cool, hard stare. As Gabriel, Williams exudes an intimidating, explosive rage that feels genuinely threatening. Together, the game of cat-and-mouse they play keeps you tense.

Though Eunice’s relationship with Rob is not particularly well developed, Crellin is very convincing in the role, while Nkono conveys the danger lurking just beneath Moyo’s ebullient joviality.

Running an intense 75-minutes, Black Jesus raises questions about societies trying to recover after brutal regimes and sends you home, intrigued to find out more about the complexity of life in Zimbabwe. Well worth a look.

Black Jesus plays at the Kings Cross Theatre, Kings Cross Hotel until May 21. Bookings: www.kingsxtheatre.com

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Blue/Orange

Ensemble Theatre, October 29

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Written by British playwright Joe Penhall (who grew up in Australia), Blue/Orange is a fierce comedy bursting with conflicting ideas about mental illness, its diagnosis and its treatment. Premiered by London’s National Theatre in 2000, it is given three exemplary performances in this impressive Ensemble Theatre production.

Christopher (Dorian Nkono), a young black Londoner, is 24 hours away from being released from a psychiatric hospital. The police sectioned him after an “incident” at a market but legally he can only be held for 28 days and he can’t wait to get out. In fact, he is climbing the walls – even without the coffee and coke he craves.

Christopher has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder but Bruce (Ian Meadows), a young trainee psychiatrist who has been treating him, suspects that he is actually a paranoid schizophrenic and wants to keep him at the hospital to do more tests.

He asks his mentor Robert (Sean Taylor), a senior doctor, to sit in on one of their sessions. But instead of supporting Bruce, Robert is dismissive. He is writing a book about “black psychosis” in which he argues that ethnic and cultural factors play more of a role in mental illness that is recognised and argues that growing up black and poor in Britain could go a long way to explaining Christopher’s problem. Besides, he needs the bed for other patients.

Soon the two doctors are at loggerheads. Robert insists Christopher be allowed to go home – even though it becomes clear that he has no home or family to go to. Bruce fights tooth and nail to change Robert’s mind, fearful that Christopher is a danger to himself and others.

As for Christopher, he thinks his father is Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and that the oranges in the room are blue.

Blue/Orange is passionately written. The arguments swing back and forth and Penhall keeps us wondering about the true state of Christopher’s mental health. At times though it feels overwritten, with dialogue turning into big, weighty speeches that feel imposed on the drama.

A couple of the twists don’t ring totally true and it’s hard to believe that the two doctors would argue so vehemently about Christopher in front of him, as they do at times. Robert also feels a tad too overtly Machiavellian. But then the play is also very much about power and ego, with the two doctors shown to be more interested in their own careers than Christopher.

Running two hours and twenty minutes (including interval) Blue/Orange would be sharpened by an edit. But the writing is so robust, and laced with so much humour, that it keeps you thoroughly engaged – especially when performed as well as it is here.

Anna Crawford directs a brisk, well-paced production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that contrasts a bland room with a large sculptural backdrop at the heart of which is a round void (somewhat reminiscent of an Anish Kapoor void) onto which coloured light is projected (a visual metaphor for Christopher’s confused perceptions).

Taylor is perfectly cast as Robert, capturing his patrician, easy swagger and enunciating each word with crisp precision in his seductively rumbling voice. But his charm becomes almost sinister as he is revealed to be patronising, bitter and manipulative.

Meadows is equally persuasive as the decent, passionate but inexperienced Bruce who speaks his mind with injudicious frankness, and Nkono is wonderful as Christopher, hyper-active one minute, forlorn and touchingly vulnerable the next. Remaining somewhat enigmatic throughout, Nkono’s Christopher certainly defies easy diagnosis, showing how hard it can be to recognise and treat mental illness – particularly when there are other agendas at play.

It’s a fascinating play that would probably be even stronger with an edit but nonetheless it still packs a considerable punch.

Blue/Orange is at the Ensemble Theatre until November 29. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644

The Winter’s Tale

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Shakespeare’s rarely performed play The Winter’s Tale is tragic and terrible in the first half, fantastical in the second, moving in fairytale fashion from jealousy and cruelty to love and forgiveness. Because of the stylistic disparity, it’s often considered one of his “problem” plays.

Out of the blue, for the flimsiest of reasons, a suddenly jealous King Leontes of Sicily (Myles Pollard) wrongly accuses his wife Hermione (Helen Thomson) of adultery with his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Dorian Nkono).

Leontes imprisons Hermione and orders that their newborn daughter Perdita be abandoned. His young son Prince Mamillius (Rory Potter) and Hermione both die of heartbreak.

In the second half, set sixteen years later, order is magically restored and the characters are reconciled.

In this new production for Bell Shakespeare Company, director John Bell focuses his interpretation around Mamillius, presenting the play from the boy’s perspective. So, the first half is what really happens and the second half is what the boy – now a spiritual observer – wishes had happened and conjures with magic wand in hand.

It’s an interesting, intelligent idea, which Bell is able to explore without altering the text. He merely reallocates a few lines to Mamillius (the reading of the Delphic oracle and the description of Perdita’s reunion with Leontes, told using hand puppets).

However, the production doesn’t totally work, somewhat diminishing the horror of Leontes’ actions at the beginning and detracting a little from the moving reconciliation at the end.

The entire play is set in a child’s bedroom – though Stephen Curtis’s set looks more like a pretty nursery than a boy’s room with diaphanous white curtains, a wicker basinet for the impending baby, a white bunk bed on stilts, and a large mobile with stars and other pretty knick-knacks as well as a few macabre ones (a naked baby doll, a skeletal forearm) foreshadowing things to come. There are also a few boys’ toys (castle, lego, dinosaur, teddy bear) and a dress-up box.

Many scenes in the first act sit oddly in such a setting. Some of the audience laughed on opening night when Leontes sat on a toddler’s chair holding a toy sword as he pronounced his awful judgment on Hermione. It did make him seem somewhat crazed – which works on one level – but we should have been shuddering not laughing. Pollard was not able to cut through and bring quite enough menace to the situation.

Most of the second half is set in Bohemia, which is here given a kind of 60s hippy-trippy vibe, with the plot, colourful costumes and special effects emerging as if from Mamillius’s imagination and dress-up box.

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

There are some lovely moments. The famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” is cleverly done – one of several neat effects using shadows – and Matthew Marshall’s many-hued lighting also adds lots of colour, emphasising mood swings.

There are a few changes to the mobile and some vibrantly bright costumes – but the idea of moving from cold, hard reality to Mamillius’s dream-world might have been more effective if the transformation in the set had been a little more dramatic perhaps.

Though the second half exudes a sense of joyousness, it labours under too much comedy that no longer strikes a chord today and does start to drag. (The production runs for three hours).

The acting is a little mixed. Pollard’s light voice and Aussie inflections don’t bring sufficient weight to the difficult role of Leontes and he isn’t totally convincing in either his fury or his anguish.

Thomson is moving as Hermione and Michelle Doake is in commanding form as Hermione’s fiercely loyal friend Paulina, delivering the language with great clarity. Both are also very funny as shepherdesses.

Meanwhile, at the heart of the production 13-year old Potter (who shares the role with Otis Pavlovich) gives yet another wonderfully subtle, touching performance as Mamillius, remarkable for one so young.

The Winter’s Tale runs until March 29. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

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