The Literati

SBW Stables Theatre, June 1

The Literati

Gareth Davies as Tristan Tosser and Miranda Tapsell as Juliet. Photo: Daniel Boud

In his latest Molière adaptation, Justin Fleming has one of the characters bemoan the proliferation of over-rated writers:

“They seem to pop up everywhere, as if we somehow breed them;                                          With so many people writing, it’s a wonder there’s anyone to read them.                            And there are people who cannot write, re-writing authors who could,                                    And giving us appalling version of works that used to be good.”

The swipe at the number of new adaptations of classic plays seen on Sydney stages in recent years (including his, of course) was met with a huge roar of laughter on opening night.

The criticism of “appalling versions” can’t be levelled at Fleming who has cornered a market adapting Molière’s satirical comedies for Australian audiences, writing them in rollicking verse laced with colourful, contemporary slang.

After staging his laugh-out-loud versions of The School for Wives in 2012 and Tartuffe in 2014, Bell Shakespeare has joined forces with Griffin Theatre Company to present the third in a winning trifecta.

The Literati is adapted from Molière’s 1672 play Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies): a piss-take on literary and intellectual pretention. Fleming has anglicised names, removed a couple of characters – an aunt and uncle whose functions in the drama are given to other characters – and turned the scholar Vadius into a woman, all of which works a treat.

In a nutshell, young lovers Juliet (Miranda Tapsell) and Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould) want to marry. Juliet’s sensible but hen-pecked father Christopher (Oxenbould again) approves of the match. But her mother Philomena (Caroline Brazier) and sister Amanda (Kate Mulvany), both dreadful cultural snobs who host a Tuesday book club, are determined she marry the aptly named Tristan Tosser (Gareth Davies) who they idolise.

In fact, Tosser is a third-rate poet described as “one sausage sanger short of a barbie” who would “bore the arse off a Mallee bull”. Though he’s a complete charlatan with an eye to their fortune, he’s a more foolish, passive villain than the devious Tartuffe and doesn’t feel as much of a real danger. As a result, the play is fairly predictable.

The Literati

Kate Mulvany as Amanda and Caroline Brazier as Philomena. Photo: Daniel Boud

Nonetheless, it’s a gloriously funny production, directed by Lee Lewis (who also directed The School for Wives), in which the virtuosity of Fleming’s verse writing is matched by brilliant comic performances all round.

Fleming mixes up his rhyme schemes so that as well as frisky rhyming couplets there are a couple of other verse patterns. The changes of gear keep things fresh and varied.

Designer Sophie Fletcher works wonders within the tiny space to evoke a chic, bourgeois Parisian home with designer furniture. An eclectic mix of art on the walls speaks of someone buying work deemed collectable rather than a reflection of personal taste and passion. At the centre of the stage is a raised revolve, which Lewis uses very cleverly to keep the action moving without overdoing it.

Dramatic Baroque-flavoured music, co-composed by Max Lambert and Roger Lock, punctuates the drama with humour while quick-smart doubling from the cast of five adds another level of fun, with all the actors except Davies playing two characters. Brazier is a commanding presence, moving with skilful ease between the domineering, pashmina-draped Philomena and the wise scholar Vadius in black jacket. While Vadius maintains her elegant poise, Philomena becomes increasingly dishevelled as the play unfolds.

Mulvany is hysterically funny as the uptight, fierce, wilfully deluded Amanda who once rejected Clinton but now won’t accept that he could have transferred his affections to Juliet. The way she edges sideways onto the raised revolve in her tight skirt and high heels is a hoot in itself. And where Brazier’s hair slowly becomes messier and more unkempt, Mulvany’s entire body is upended at one point by the comical goings-on. She also plays an officious attorney in tightly belted raincoat.

The Literati

Jamie Oxenbould as Christopher. Photo: Daniel Boud

With just a baseball cap to differentiate them, Oxenbould flips convincingly between Clinton and Christopher, bringing the house down in one hilarious scene in which he plays them both.

Tapsell glows as the guileless Juliet and the bolshie maid Martina, sacked by Philomena for her bogan-phraseology (“the woman’s a walking earache”) and crimes against language. In an interview, Tapsell told me that she uses her native Darwin accent for Martina (which she worked very hard to lose while at NIDA).

As Tosser – or Tossère as he would have it – Davies, in artfully draped scarf and jewellery, poses and speaks with a quiet, affected languor.

Running 160 minutes including interval, The Literati makes its point about intellectual pomposity versus true wisdom, while its discussion about marriage and women’s role in society still strikes a strong chord, but mostly it’s heaps of silly fun. Recommended.

The Literati runs at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross until July 16. Bookings: www.griffin.com.au or 02 9361 3817

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 5

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As You Like It

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 25

Emily Askell, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Emily Askell, Abi Tucker, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

2015 marks Bell Shakespeare’s 25th anniversary so it’s a shame that their first production of the year is a disappointment.

Set in the Forest of Arden, As You Like It is a delightful comedy that pokes gleeful fun at romantic love and supposedly idyllic rustic life. It is full of humour – but hardly any of it lands in this production directed by Peter Evans.

The laughs on opening night came mainly from various bits of stage business rather than the comedy in the play itself. Few of the touching or serious moments hit home either.

Michael Hankin’s set features paper flowers on hanging ropes backed by a canvas drape, along with a costume basket and a large ladder, which looks as if it has been left behind by the technical crew (a reference presumably to “all the world’s a stage”).

The staging doesn’t quite capture the romantic nature of the forest where people are changed and relationships healed, and Evans doesn’t manage to create any real sense of a world within it, or outside it. The production instead seems to be a mish-mash with no cohesive visual or performance style, and little unifying vision.

Kelly Ryall’s songs don’t feel as though they emerge organically from the production and Kate Aubrey-Dunn’s costumes, inspired by the 1930s, 50s and 60s, often sit oddly. Orlando appears on stage looking like an insurance salesman in neatly pressed trousers, shirt and brogues, while complaining about his brother keeping him “rustically at home” and having to eat “with his hinds”. Celia sports an elegant coat with fur trim and diamante buttons when she’s supposed to be disguised as a poor country maid. Worse, Rosalind’s disguise as the boy Ganymede consists of tight pants and fitted waistcoat, which actually emphasise her feminine curves.

Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters: strong, clever, witty and resourceful. Banished from her uncle’s court, she comes up with a plan to flee to the forest disguised as the young man Ganymede with her cousin Celia pretending to be Ganymede’s sister. She then hatches a scheme to have Orlando (who has fallen for her, and who has also had to flee to the forest) use Ganymede as a way to practice wooing Rosalind.

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Evans’ direction, however, robs the role of nuance and playfulness. Zahra Newman gives us no discernible difference between her Rosalind and Ganymede. All the gender-bending layers and much of the fun are therefore lost in the scenes between Orlando and Ganymede, when Orlando finds himself attracted to the youth.

In Shakespeare’s day, with the all-male casts, the exploration of sexual ambiguity would have been further compounded by having a boy play a girl disguised as a boy. We get none of that here.

Aside from that, Newman handles the language well and after a slightly tentative start is a lively presence.

Charlie Garber looks awkward as Orlando, giving a performance full of the jittery, emotionally detached, comic mannerisms we have seen from him so often before and misses Orlando’s honourable, romantic, dashing and tender sides. Scenes such as Orlando comforting his exhausted, elderly manservant Adam as he goes off to find him food aren’t moving, as they usually are. And there is little chemistry between Garber and Newman.

Evans has chosen not to portray the rustics as country bumpkins. But the decision to have them speak pretty much like the courtiers, without any kind of rural accent, diminishes the divide between the two worlds, and again much of the comedy is lost despite the cast’s best efforts.

As the melancholy Jaques, John Bell delivers a fresh and poignant “Seven Ages of Man” speech while, in one of the standout performances, Kelly Paterniti’s effervescent Celia has welcome heart and depth. Tony Taylor brings a droll charm to the role of Adam and Dorje Swallow impresses as Oliver.

Evans has clearly tried to avoid the tried-and-true tropes of this popular and regularly staged play but in putting them to one side, much of what makes it so delightfully entertaining has been lost.

As You Like It runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until March 28 then tours to the Canberra Theatre Centre, April 7 – 18 and Arts Centre Melbourne, April 23 – May 10

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 1

 

The Government Inspector

Belvoir St Theatre, March 30

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies, Mitchell Butel. Photo: Pia Johnson

As many would know, Belvoir’s 2014 season was to have included a radically reworked production of The Philadelphia Story “created by Simon Stone, based on the play by Philip Barry”.

However, after the subscription brochure was released, it transpired that Barry’s wife was a silent co-writer. The play was therefore not out of copyright and her estate refused to grant the rights.

To fill the gap Stone decided to use the same cast in a production of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 political satire The Government Inspector. Well, sort of.

Gogol’s farce is set in rural Russia where corrupt bureaucrats mistake a lowly civil servant for a government inspector. They bribe him rotten until, having taken full advantage of them, he does a bunk just before the real inspector arrives.

Stone and his co-writer Emily Barclay have created a piece, devised with the actors, that riffs on Gogol’s themes while being set in a theatre.

The show begins with a morose Robert Menzies, in priest’s garb, stalking on stage to explain that not only will we not be seeing The Philadelphia Story but we won’t be seeing The Government Inspector either, so if anyone wants to leave, now’s the time.

On Ralph Myers’s revolving set – which has a performance space with a gold curtain on one side, and a backstage area on the other – Stone then whisks us back to three weeks before opening.

The actors – Menzies, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone – are discovered digesting the news that The Philadelphia Story has been cancelled. Next they learn that Stone has quit as director. Then Davies dies, choking on an activated almond.

Someone suggests staging The Government Inspector and a Google search locates Seyfat Babayev, an Uzbekistani director who recently mounted an avant-garde production. An invitation is sent and he agrees to come. To say more would spoil things.

Using their own names, the actors play heightened, wickedly comical versions of themselves. Butel is a flouncing, self-obsessed luvvie ready to decamp to Playschool if necessary, Norvill an air-headed soap star, Menzies, a grouch who will only enunciate clearly when paid, Stone, needy and ambitious, and Bazzi, a quiet, somewhat vague observer. Davies also plays a hapless actor called Frank who arrives to audition for an improvisation project, while Newman is a Hispanic cleaner with a love of musicals (and what a lovely singing voice she has).

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

They all work together as a tight ensemble. To play the panic and escalating chaos in the play requires absolute precision otherwise it descends into a total mess. They do it brilliantly with perfectly pitched performances, making sure we hear what we need to amid the hubbub.

The production becomes a rollicking, clever take on Gogol, skewering human vanity, pretension, ego and ambition, while poking delicious fun at Australian auteur directors (like Stone himself) influenced by European theatre, as well as musicals and theatre in general.

People in the business and committed theatre-goers will probably get most out of it but it’s so hilariously funny you’d have to be as curmudgeonly as Menzies is here not to enjoy it.

The Government Inspector is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 18. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6