The Merchant of Venice

York Theatre, Seymour Centre, May 23

John Turnbull as Shylock.

John Turnbull as Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. It’s technically a comedy but it contains some decidedly dark elements, particularly its uncomfortable anti-Semitism.

Richard Cottrell’s production for Sport for Jove doesn’t bring a strong director’s “take” to bear on the play and isn’t revelatory in the way that the best Sport for Jove productions have been.

Its strength is the great clarity of the storytelling, with a keen focus on the text. Energetically and warmly performed, it’s a solid, enjoyable production with the comedy to the fore.

Anna Gardiner’s art deco set with a translucent screen wall and doors at the back and a parquet floor (by Lucilla Smith) locates it during the 1920s or 1930s: an era close enough to our own to feel contemporary but pre-dating World War II and the horrors of the holocaust. (A final image of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, left alone on stage as dark looks are thrown at her, is a nod to what is to come).

The production opens with a burst of We’re in the Money from the musical 42nd Street, which is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Beyond that, however, the choice of era seems mainly an aesthetic one, and even that becomes rather lost as the production unfolds.

The costuming doesn’t locate things specifically in the 1930s, the music moves from jazz age to classical, and overall there’s not a strong sense of time or place.

Writing in the program, Cottrell argues that though race is a factor, “the play is about money rather than money lending”.

“Antonio and Shylock represent the getting and spending of money. The relationship between them is not about a Jew and Gentile but about two men who hate each other,” he says.

Portia, meanwhile, is exceptionally wealthy – the main reason Bassanio, who is broke and needs to make a good marriage, was initially attracted to her.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

It’s true that in the play money makes the world go around, but it doesn’t register here as a touchstone or a key, overarching theme.

Instead, the production foregrounds the comedy and fun, tripping along lightly for much of the evening and generating plenty of laughter on opening night. Occasionally it is almost taken too far. Aaron Tsindos gives such a broadly comic, boomingly voiced portrayal of the Prince of Morocco that it feels dangerously close to racial caricature in a play where race is an unavoidable issue. That said, the audience lapped it up and roared with laughter.

But there’s no getting away from the prejudice at the centre of the play. We hear how Shylock has been called a dog and spat on; we understand why he wants revenge through his pound of flesh yet we shudder at what he is prepared to do, and at his ruthless refusal of mercy.

At the same time, when the judge rules against Shylock and he is ordered to renounce his Judaism it’s a deeply uncomfortable moment, with Gratiano’s boorish jubilation an ugly sight.

As Shakespeare shows, and as we well know, prejudice brings out the worst in people – both those doling it out and those on the receiving end. It’s something we are wrestling with here and now in Australia.

John Turnbull is terrific as Shylock, portraying him as a smart, dignified businessman who has been insulted once too often.

It’s not an unsympathetic portrayal – we see clearly why he behaves as he does – but nor is it an overly sympathetic one. The sight of him sharpening his knife on his shoe, while Antonio removes his shirt, is chilling. His steadfast refusal to grant mercy when the money he is owed and more is offered to him is done with a coldness as steely as his knife. And when he realises his daughter Jessica has left him, he seems only concerned about the money and jewels she has taken with her.

Turnbull keeps all this in balance in a powerful performance.

Lizzie Schebesta invests Portia with a playful intelligence, James Lugton plays Antonio with a mournful sincerity and Chris Stalley makes a dashing Bassanio.

There are strong performances from the rest of the cast, which includes Damien Strouthos as an exuberant Gratiano, Erica Lovell as Portia’s maid Nerissa, Jonathan Elsom as the comical, blind Old Gobbo and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica, along with Darcy Brown, Lucy Heffernan, Jason Kos, Michael Cullen and Pip Dracakis.

There are a few odd touches in the production, such as why does Jessica start out with auburn hair then suddenly appear in a blonde wig? Is she trying to disguise her Jewish heritage and look more like a Gentile or is it part of the spending spree Jessica and Lorenzo go on? I wasn’t sure.

All in all, it may not be the most memorable production of the play but it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well-staged, allowing the play to speak clearly.

The Merchant of Venice plays at the Seymour Centre until May 30. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

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Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

Hayes Theatre Co, May 14

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

You can see why Tim Freedman’s songs appealed to playwright Alex Broun as the inspiration for a musical. Not only do they have beautiful melodies and pithy lyrics that ring emotionally true but a strong sense of narrative and character, written as they were about real people, places and incidents.

Broun co-wrote his new musical Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You with Freedman (frontman of Sydney rock band The Whitlams) and uses 19 Whitlams classic including “No Aphrodisiac”, “Blow Up the Pokies”, “Keep the Light On”, “Beauty in Me” and the “Charlie” series.

Set in Newtown’s grungy pub scene, 20-year old Tom (Ross Chisari) arrives from Taree with a letter from his Mum, in search of Anton (Ian Stenlake) and Charlie (Scott Irwin), former members of a band in which his dead father Stewie (Toby Francis in flashback scenes) once played.

“Famous on three blocks” in Sydney’s inner west in their heyday, Anton and Charlie are now wrestling with demons and rapidly going to seed. Tom meets a girl called Beatrice (Erica Lovell) who is also searching for herself, having fled Mosman. The encounter between the four leads, predictably enough, to revelations from the past and the possibility of healing.

Produced and directed by Neil Gooding for Hayes Theatre Co, there’s much to enjoy about the production. It’s well staged and performed, the band led by musical director Andrew Worboys is terrific and the songs are great, but Broun’s script is not strong enough for the show to really take off.

Broun draws on Freedman’s themes of male friendship, lost love, disappointment and emotional damage but the characters and plot aren’t developed enough at this point for the climax to convince.

The writing is often perfunctory and never quite rises above the feeling that scenes are contrived to fit the musical numbers. The meeting between Tom and Beatrice, in particular, is clichéd and glib. In fact, the entire story of Tom and Beatrice is far less interesting than the story of the band yet it’s fore-grounded. The scenes about the band – which are the best written and performed – are the ones where we feel ourselves being suddenly drawn in and wanting to know more.

Staged as if in a grotty inner-city pub, Jackson Browne’s set design (lit by Richard Neville) provides just the right vibe. There’s a band set-up on a high stage, backed by all kinds of signs. The stage moves backwards to create room in front of it for various other scenes with simple props sliding out from underneath. It’s a clever solution in the tiny venue.

The actors work hard to bring the show to life. Stenlake as the shambolic, hard-drinking Anton, now letting it all hang out, and Irwin as the pokies-addicted Charlie are particularly impressive, both acting-wise and vocally, the scenes between them some of the most moving.

In the short time that it has been operating, the Hayes has already proved itself an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene and it’s great to see them providing a launch pad for new local musicals like this. Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You still needs work but it’s well worth a look. There’s already much to enjoy about it and there’s plenty of potential for it to be honed into something even better.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 1. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 19

 

The Removalists; Happiness reviews

There are two David Williamson plays running in Sydney at the moment – The Removalists from early in his career and a new play, Happiness, which has just premiered at the Ensemble Theatre.

They make a study in contrasts. The Removalists is a reminder of what a tough, terrific playwright Williamson has been in his time and why this particular play is considered a classic of Australian theatre. In recent years, however, his plays have become somewhat formulaic: pick a topical subject, find the characters to debate it on stage, and stir in some laughs. Happiness is all this – and one of Williamson’s least convincing plays.

The Removalists

Bondi Pavilion, May 29

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Written in 1971, The Removalists launched David Williamson’s career, sending a shock of recognition through audiences with its stark, savage portrayal of the ugly side of Australian culture: the open, rampant sexism, in particular.

Forty-two years on, Leland Kean’s terrific production for Rock Surfers Theatre Company still packs a real punch. Blatant sexism certainly isn’t as rife in public life as it was back then, but it ain’t disappeared.

Meanwhile, the themes of police corruption and brutality, abuse of authority, and domestic violence feel just as relevant.

On his first day in the police force, rookie Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan) finds himself under the command of Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy), a lazy, manipulative, sexist bully who prides himself on having never made an arrest in 23 years despite the high crime-rate in his area.

When the confident, well-heeled Kate (Caroline Brazier) and her quieter sister Fiona (Sophie Hensser) report that Fiona’s husband Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta) has been beating her up, the lecherous Simmonds decides they will help her move out while Kenny is at his usual Friday night drinking session. But Kenny returns home early.

Kean has wisely decided to keep the play in its original period, using blasts of 70s Oz rock and Ally Mansell’s drab, dung-coloured set with cheap furniture to create the perfect setting.

With excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Sam Atwell in the comic role of the removalist, Kean’s production feels tough, raw and very real.

Coy’s Simmonds is a man both odious and deeply ordinary. A school group attending the performance I saw remained attentive throughout, while the boys, in particular, seemed shocked by his behaviour, wincing visibly at his sexist remarks and sleazy bottom-patting.

O’Sullivan captures Ross’s naivety and nails the moment he suddenly snaps, Stewart Cotta is a convincingly brutish Kenny yet manages to make us feel something like sympathy when the tables are turned on him, while Brazier and Hensser deliver beautifully detailed, in-depth performances.

Kean’s production strikes just the right balance between humour, menace and violence as it builds tension. We laugh but we also cringe and shudder at a classic Australian play that still rings horribly true.

Bondi Pavilion until June 16.

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

Happiness

Ensemble Theatre, May 17

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

In Happiness, David Williamson takes on an interesting, pertinent question: why are Australians seemingly so dissatisfied and unhappy when we have never had it so good? However, the play barely scratches the surface of the idea.

It begins with a lecture by Roland Makepeace (Mark Lee), a professor of psychology who specialises in happiness – or “human wellbeing” as he prefers to put it – which sets up Williamson’s theme.

However, Roland’s own life isn’t exactly overflowing with wellbeing. His hard-drinking wife Hanna (Anne Tenney) is bitter and forever snapping at him, while his daughter Zelda (Erica Lovell) claims to feel suicidal on occasions.

When Roland tries to help Zelda with advice to go out and forgive someone, apologise to someone and do an anonymous good deed, there are all kinds of unintended consequences.

Rounding out the cast are Peter Kowitz as a rich, former lover of Hanna’s, Glenn Hazeldine as the editor of a right-wing newspaper where Zelda is an environmental reporter, and Adriano Cappelletta as two of Zelda’s love interests.

It’s all pretty unconvincing, while Williamson’s trademark ability to deliver cracking one-liners has also deserted him. Some of the audience laughed along now and then but I hardly cracked a smile.

Sandra Bates directs a pedestrian production in which the actors, by and large, do what they can. Hazeldine, Kowitz and Lee deliver the most believable characters, though they are all pretty sketchily written and we don’t particularly care about any of them. It feels very under-developed with more work needed on both the script and the production.

That said, as I left the theatre an elderly gent in front of me, who had clearly enjoyed it said, “Good old Williamson”. What’s more, the production is apparently almost sold out – which goes to show how many fans Williamson still has. It’s just a shame he hasn’t given them something better.

Ensemble Theatre until July 6. Noosa Long Weekend Festival, June 18 & 19.