Disgraced

Wharf 1, April 21

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Sachin Joab as Amir. Photo: Prudence Upton

There were audible gasps among the opening night audience several times during the Sydney Theatre Company’s gripping production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced.

 First staged in New York in 2012 and then produced on Broadway last year, Disgraced is a well-made American play clearly crafted to debate certain issues but it feels urgent and timely prompting plenty of discussion in the foyer afterwards around its provocative themes.

Set now, Amir Kapoor (Sachin Joab) is a successful New York corporate lawyer who puts in the hard yards as he aims for promotion at the Jewish firm he works for. He has denounced his Islamic faith, describing the Koran as “one very long hate mail letter to humanity” and is somewhat vague about his background, saying his parents were born in India though the area they come from is now in Pakistan.

Happily married to Emily (Sophie Ross), an artist with a particular interest in Islamic art, and living in a swanky Upper East Side apartment, life looks pretty rosy.

But when Emily and Amir’s nephew Hussein (Shiv Palekar) – or Abe as he prefers to be known – push him to represent an imam imprisoned for raising funds for Hamas, the consequences are far-reaching.

Things start to come apart when Amir and Emily have a dinner party for Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine), a Jewish curator who is considering including Emily’s work in a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and his African-American wife Jory (Paula Arundell) who is a colleague of Amir’s at the law firm.

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Sachin Palekar, Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dinner party is a well-worn dramatic device and naturally articulate arguments flow. But Akhtar has written well-rounded, believable characters and they are the kind of people who would have such passionate, intelligent, political debates, so it remains convincing even if you are aware of the dramatic set-up. What’s more, Aktar throws some provocative sentiments, sudden eruptions of drama and surprise twists into the mix that jolt and shock you.

Nothing is black and white as the play raises complex questions about identity, race, religion, prejudice, radicalisation and what it is to be a Muslim man living in the West. Amir may have turned his back on Islam but some of the views he has grown up with prove more difficult to dislodge.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s stunning design brilliantly evokes Amir and Emily’s swish apartment full of art and chic designer furniture, while Sarah Goodes’ superb direction gradually ratchets up the tension as she draws compelling performances from her excellent cast. Some have disliked the way she has the cast change the set but for me it worked fine; the way Amir slowly clears the dinner table is actually very poignant.

Joab has plenty of film and television credits but is making his stage debut as Amir– which surely says something about casting in this country – and gives an impressive performance moving believably from suave confidence to explosive behaviour that surprises even him and then a shattering sense of loss. The primal moan he emits when he realises the ramifications of all that has happened is harrowing.

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Sachin Joab and Shiv Palekar. Photo: Prudence Upton

Ross also colours her character’s emotional arc convincingly as she gradually realises what she has unwittingly triggered. Her interest in the history of Islam is conveyed with girlish enthusiasm initially and her pain and anger later in the piece feels very real.

Arundell brings plenty of sparky attack and zing to the piece as the smart, plain-speaking Jory, eliciting many laughs. Hazeldine finds the humour, passion and rather self-regarding arrogance in Isaac and Palekar makes a strong impression as Abe, whose attitude to his heritage changes through the course of the play.

Running a tight 90 minutes, Disgraced in a knotty play, engrossing play that raises plenty of pressing, topical questions and shows that there are no easy answers.

Disgraced runs at Wharf I until June 4. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

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Arcadia

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 12

ARCADIA1

Glenn Hazeldine and Ryan Corr. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ryan Corr gives a standout, charismatic performance in Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly clever 1993 play Arcadia but the production itself wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders on opening night.

Set in a stately English country estate called Sidley Park, Arcadia unfolds across two time frames, with alternating scenes set in the early 1800s and the 1990s (which eventually begin to overlap and share the stage).

Beginning in 1809, teenage genius Thomasina Coverly (Georgia Flood) is discovering chaos theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics a century before anyone else under the admiring eye of her dashing, witty tutor Septimus Hodge (Corr). Meanwhile, the garden is being transformed from a classical idyll to a Gothic wilderness.

In the same room 200 years later, Bernard Nightingale, a smug, ambitious Byron scholar (Josh McConville) desperate to prove that Byron fled England after killing a minor poet in a duel at Sidley Park, and Hannah Jarvis (Andrea Demetriades) a historian and author researching the mysterious hermit who lived in the garden’s faux hermitage, try to piece together the past from notes, drawings and other bits and pieces, which we have seen being created.

With illicit affairs, love, iterated algorithms, discussions about determinism and free will as well as Romanticism and Classicism in the mix, it’s heady stuff.

Richard Cottrell directs a sound, lucid, well-staged production on a handsome classical set by Michael Scott-Mitchell with stylish costumes by Julie Lynch.However, in striving to make Stoppard’s dazzling wordplay and complex ideas understandable to an audience, some characters feel underdeveloped and a little of the play’s sparkle and magic was lost on opening night.

At the moment, the historical scenes have a better rhythm than the contemporary ones where not all the humour lands, and there are times when the play feels pretty dense without enough of a leavening human dimension.

Corr has a wonderful, natural ease and charm as Septimus. He handles the zippy dialogue beautifully and his scenes with Flood have depth, heart and a lovely energy, though a stronger chemistry between them as the play progresses would make the ending more moving.

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Andrea Demetriades and Josh McConville. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Demetriades gives a strong performance as the wryly sceptical, somewhat stand-offish Hannah though one senses that there is more to find her character (a loneliness is hinted at in the play) and in her relationship with McConville’s Bernard, which we gather is underpinned by a sexual attraction, though there is little chemistry here.

McConville looks a little ill at ease as Bernard, though his zinging barbs are often very funny. Michael Sheasby gives a lively portrayal of Valentine, a gifted mathematician like his ancestor Thomasina before him, and Glenn Hazeldine is a hoot as Ezra Chater, a poet with precious little poetry in his soul whose wife has been discovered in “a carnal embrace” with Septimus. But not all the other performances feel entirely believable.

Given the brilliance of Stoppard’s writing and the top-notch production values, there is already much to enjoy but once the production settles, the cast will hopefully convey more of the play’s humanity and passion, and then it will really soar.

Arcadia plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 2. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 14

After Dinner

Wharf 1, January 20

Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh. Photo: Brett Boardman

Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh. Photo: Brett Boardman

After Dinner is an excruciatingly funny yet surprisingly tender comedy of manners that pretty well everyone will relate to in some way or other.

Written by Andrew Bovell (The Secret River, Lantana) in 1988, it was his first play – but shows an extraordinary level of technical assurance and human insight for one so young and inexperienced.

Set in the 1980s in a pub bistro, After Dinner features five desperately lonely, sexually frustrated singletons on a Friday night out.

There’s the fun-loving, good-natured Paula (Anita Hegh) and her bossy friend Dympie (Rebecca Massey), who go there every week. In order to get a table, they have to eat. Paula would like to be close to the band and would happily stand but Dympie isn’t having any of it. At the back, well away from the press of sweaty bodies, is where they will stay.

Tonight they have invited Monika (Helen Thomson) a recently widowed work colleague to join them. At a nearby table is Gordon (Glenn Hazeldine) whose wife has left him and who needs to talk, and the seemingly cocksure Stephen (Josh McConville) who is only interested in chasing a bit of skirt. Naturally, they will end up interacting and there will be tears before bedtime.

Josh McConville and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Brett Boardman

Alicia Clements has designed an instantly recognisable set with icky carpet, plant mural on the walls and yellowing tiles, while her costumes are hilariously 80s-awful. Imara Savage directs a pitch-perfect production with riotously funny yet beautifully observed, painfully truthful performances from the cast. All the actors are superb, though the magnificent Thomson is the first among equals, delivering a drunken monologue about her adventures in the pub after escaping the toilet and a sexually graphic rant about her husband that is comic gold.

Massey, looking almost unrecognisable with long hair, large glasses and a deeply unflattering dress, is wonderfully sour as the passive-aggressive Dympie. Hegh captures Paula’s long-suffering kindness and desperation to have a good time, while looking faintly ridiculous in a dress with a hood.

Hazeldine is perfectly cast as the mild, conventional Gordon, who is smarting from his wife leaving him, while McConville – ever the chameleon – is hilarious as Stephen with slightly padded paunch and slicked-back hair, giving him a cheesy, sleazy swagger.

After Dinner will have you laughing like a drain but at the same time feeling great compassion for its sad characters.

After Dinner runs at Wharf 1 until March 7

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 25

Every Second

Eternity Playhouse, July 1

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

“How could there not be a baby? With all that love?”

So says Bill in Every Second, a new Australian play by Vanessa Bates about two couples struggling to conceive.

Bill (Glenn Hazeldine) and Jen (Georgina Symes) decide to try IVF and stay strong through the ordeal. Their younger friends Meg (Julia Ohannessian) and Tim (Simon Corfield) are finding their quest for a baby more stressful.

Meg opts for natural therapies but is becoming very anxious. Tim is heartily sick of vile-tasting herbal remedies and sex becoming a chore. (There are several candid representations of sex and fertility testing, just so you know.)

Bates’s writing is pared back, heightened and very funny at times. She creates believable characters but needs to explore their situation in greater emotional depth if we are to be moved by their plight. Desperately wanting a child and not being able to have one is emotionally devastating for many people and Bates goes some way to capturing that. But it would be interesting if she were to analyse why they want a child so desperately. Is it just the hormonal urge or something else?

Certain things in the script (a hit-and-run accident, a plea to a dead friend, an extramarital fling) feel unresolved and rather cursorily dealt with, while a sperm ballet (a nod, presumably, to the sperm scene in Woody Allen’s film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) sits oddly and isn’t that funny.

That said, Shannon Murphy directs a terrific, nifty, inventive production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, with strong performances from all four actors. Andy McDonell’s abstract set – a spiral ramp around a womb-like core – works extremely well.

One in 33 Australian babies are conceived via IVF so Bates has tuned into a common experience. For the drama to resonant more broadly, she could usefully expand her story and deepen its emotional layers.

Every Second plays at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst until July 27. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 13

Perplex

Wharf 1, April 4

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Perplex by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg starts intriguingly. Andrea (Andrea Demetriades) and Glenn (Glenn Hazeldine) arrive back at their apartment after a holiday to find that the electricity has been cut off, there’s an odd pot-plant in the kitchen and something strange about the coffee table in the lounge – not to mention an awful smell.

Their friends Rebecca (Rebecca Massey) and Tim (Tim Walter), who have been watering the plants for them while they were away, appear and things get weirder. Not only is the electricity on but as far as Rebecca and Tim are concerned, this is their apartment. Outplayed, Andrea and Glenn are evicted.

Then Andrea and Glenn – the four actors use their own names throughout – reappear. Now, Glenn is Rebecca and Tim’s tantrum-throwing son and Andrea is their au pair. Rebecca doesn’t remember hiring an au pair but pretty soon the power shifts and Rebecca is sent packing as Tim and Andrea cosy up.

And so it goes, with characters and relationships morphing and blurring as one scene slides into the next without referencing previous ones.

Once you realise that this is the conceit and structure, the play somehow loses its bite and fascination. There is philosophical talk embracing Darwin and evolution, Plato, and Nietzsche but though Glenn appears at one point in Nazi brown shirt regalia, and the play ends with an absurdist, Pirandello-like scene in which the actors realise they have been abandoned by their director, the dramatic stakes don’t feel particularly high or truly dangerous. In large part that’s because with each change of scene and situation, the characters are let off the existential hook so instead of the tension building, it dissipates.

As Perplex plays with themes of what is real (in life and on the stage), identity and middle class mores and morality, it entertains but doesn’t pack as much of a punch as previous von Mayenburg plays The Ugly One and Fireface.

That’s no reflection on this classy Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Sarah Giles, who lulls us into a false sense of up-beat security with a mood-enhancing blast of Queen’s greatest hits as we enter the auditorium.

Staged on a suitably anonymous, minimalist set designed by Renee Mulder (cream brick wall, mustard carpet, sofa and wooden coffee table) the polished production moves briskly with excellent performances from all four actors. A Nordic fancy dress party, which sees Tim dressed as an elk, Andrea as a volcano, Rebecca as a Viking and Glenn as a skier, with a hilariously madcap sex scene between man and elk, is particularly funny, while Tim spends long spells expounding his theories stark naked. Hazeldine’s brilliantly observed tantrum as the boy Glenn is an inspired piece of physical comedy and a standout moment.

Mid-way through, however, I found my interest in the play waning. Maybe some of the scenes have a different resonance in Germany but here, though the plot may perplex the play doesn’t disturb, perturb or provoke and so it ends up rather washing over you in entertaining, non-threatening, bloodless fashion.

Perplex plays at Wharf 1 until May 3. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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.