Elektra/Orestes

Belvoir St Theatre, March 18

Ben Winspear, Hunter Page-Lochard and Ursula Mills. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Ben Winspear, Hunter Page-Lochard and Ursula Mills. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

A crumpled, somewhat slovenly figure is slumped at a dining table in a starkly furnished modern room having presumably sat up all night. Above her, a red neon sign spells out the name Elektra.

Sure enough, it is the Elektra of Jada Alberts’ and Anne-Louise Sarks’ Elektra/Orestes: a contemporary adaptation of the Greek myth about a family steeped in violence in the name of revenge. Dressed in baggy track-pants and a T-shirt bearing the scrawled words “My Mum Killed My Dad”, her hair wild and uncombed, she is angry, antsy, anguished, zapping a remote control to turn blasting music on and off.

The mythical tragedy survives in various versions by ancient Greek dramatists Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Elektra and her brother Orestes kill their mother Klytemnestra in revenge for her murder of their father Agamemnon with the help of her lover Aegisthus. Klytemnestra was in turn avenging the death of her eldest daughter Iphigenia, sacrificed by Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis in return for the winds to sail his ships to the Trojan War. He returned home with Cassandra, a war trophy who had borne him twins.

Alberts and Sarks (who also directs) give their new version a modern domestic setting, with a stage design by Ralph Myers. Running a tight one-hour, the first half takes place in the dining room on the day that Orestes finally returns after years in exile to exact Elektra’s long-planned revenge. A door leads into the kitchen, through which the characters disappear then return as events unfold.

As the day begins, Elektra (Katherine Tonkin) is petulant and aggressive towards her mother (Linda Cropper), while her sister Khrysothemis (Ursula Mills) makes coffee and tries to keep the peace. Aegisthus (Ben Winspear) comes and goes, a sleazy figure in boxer shorts and untied velvety dressing gown. Then a messenger (Hunter Page-Lochard) arrives to say that Orestes is dead; but it is Orestes himself.

Halfway through the play, the stage turns and the action start over again, as we watch what was happening unseen in the kitchen during the first part (including Orestes’ climactic murder of Klytemnestra).

It’s a clever concept that makes for an intriguing structure and gripping drama. Sarks balances the production beautifully, making sure the timings work and ensuring that we hear and glimpse just enough from the other room to trace the unfolding drama from the two perspectives.

She and Alberts have also added a shocking, new twist to the family dynamic that ups the ante yet another notch.

Where the Greeks kept the violence off-stage, leaving it to the imagination, Sarks puts it on stage. It’s not easy to portray violence live in the theatre and there were a few giggles on opening night but I thought they handled it well (fight direction by Scott Witt) with enough blood but not too much. The production certainly gives you pause to ponder what a body being stabbed more than 20 times (as we have read about in the news recently) actually means, and the frenzied nature of such an attack.

Hunter Page-Lochard and Linda Cropper. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hunter Page-Lochard and Linda Cropper. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The performances are generally excellent. Tonkin is ferociously good as Elektra, her fierce performance convincingly powered by overwhelming emotions that she can’t deal with. Instead she lashes out physically and verbally, in almost childlike fashion at times, as grief, anger and bitter resentment consume her.

Cropper is also superb as the cool, chic Klytemnestra encapsulating her tough steeliness yet also the world-weariness, regret and internal conflict she is now forced to live with. The script makes her actions understandable and the final scenes in which she explains herself have a real power.

Mills and Winspear make the most of relatively small roles with vivid performances, and Page-Lochard’s portrayal grows in strength as the play progresses.

Mel Page’s costuming, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Stefan Gregory’s sound all contribute to the taut, effective, stark staging.

The dialogue itself is believably every-day, though certain phrases sing, and there is a surprising amount of humour predominantly as a result of Elektra’s agro. But stripped of the poetry and grandeur of ancient Greek tragedy, Elektra/Orestes makes the violence real and ugly.

Elektra/Orestes doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact as Sarks’ 2012 award-winning, contemporary Medea (co-adapted with Kate Mulvany), which operated in a similar fashion, telling the story from the point of view of Medea’s murdered young sons, seen in their bedroom.

The concluding image of Orestes and Klytemnestra would be more moving if we had seen some of the conflicting emotions raging within Page-Lochard’s Orestes in the lead-up to the murder. As it is, his final reaction comes rather out of nowhere and is therefore less potent.

Nonetheless, Elektra/Orestes is a clever, provocative, pithy piece, showing that revenge only perpetuates cycles of violence and doesn’t assuage anger, grief and resentment (understandable though they may be). Only in forgiveness can we hope to find any peace – something we so often struggle to accept and achieve.

Elektra/Orestes plays at Belvoir St Theatre until April 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

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2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Sugarland

ATYP Studio, August 31

Elena Foreman and Dubs Yunupingu. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Elena Foreman and Dubs Yunupingu. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Sugarland is raw, tough, terribly painful, and some of the most moving theatre I have seen for a while.

A collaboration between Indigenous and non-Indigenous playwrights, directors and performers, it is, say co-directors David Page and Fraser Corfield in their program note: “about the meeting of different worlds, of different ideas.

Sugarland touches on profound current themes like the safety of our children and the identity of regional communities in modern Australia. But ultimately, it’s about finding the universal truths that unite us, whatever your background, what your problems.”

The themes and ideas they refer to certainly ring out in a troubling, at times, harrowing, but ultimately hopeful piece of theatre.

Commissioned by ATYP in 2011, playwrights Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair undertook a series of residencies with young people in the remote Top End town of Katherine. They delivered workshops and got the young people to talk to camera about their lives. The play they have written as a result of that experience really does hum with a sense of authenticity.

In Sugarland we meet a group of teenagers. Nina (Dubs Yunupingu) is a good student with a lovely singing voice but she needs somewhere safe to live. She’s been staying at her auntie’s in town so she’s close to school but the 22 stitches in the back of her head attest to why she is looking for her own place.

Erica (Elena Foreman) is an RAAF kid, always on the move with her family. Initially hostile and aloof, she gradually forges a relationship with the other kids, finding common ground with Nina through their shared love of music.

Jimmy (Hunter Page-Lochard), Nina’s cousin (“though not the way your mob means it”, as she tells Erica) is full of swagger but bleary-eyed from too much weed. A serial school truant, his father is dying, he owes money and his uncle will kill him if he finds out.

Aaron (Narek Arman), who arrived from Iraq as a refugee a few years earlier, is cheerful, friendly and the eternal joker, while Charles (Michael Cameron) keeps under the radar and for the most part goes with the flow.

Narek Arman and Hunter Page-Lochard. Photo: Tracey Schramm

Narek Arman and Hunter Page-Lochard. Photo: Tracey Schramm

A Sing Search competition at school, with a prize of $5000 and the chance to compete in a larger arena, could help the winner, while teacher Miss Penny (the writer Coopes) does all that she can to help the kids, but is all too often stymied by red tape.

Tackling themes of self-harm, domestic violence, drugs, truancy and systemic, bureaucratic failure, the play simmers with hurt, anger and pain. When the youngsters do lash out, it’s often at people they least want to harm.

Jacob Nash’s simple set – red earth, a few wooden boxes and a desk – makes for a flexible, effective setting, with lighting by Juz McGuire that heightens the ebb, flow and sudden surges of emotion.

Page and Corfield direct with great compassion but don’t shy away from the uglier aspects in a well-paced, nicely physicalised production that builds emotionally as you get to know the characters and the situations they are struggling with.

They have drawn powerful performances from all the cast that feel incredibly truthful. You share the teacher’s frustration, you hurt for the teenagers, and you want to sweep them all up in a huge embrace.

Running 80 minutes without interval, Sugarland doesn’t pull its punches, but it is not without humour or hope.

The play uses a framing story, told by Nina, of a boy who finds that the river has become murky and dirty. In his search for what is wrong, he discovers that the white and black communities on either side of it are contributing to the problem, with that one river infecting all the others.

“How are we going to fix it?” asks Nina at the end gazing directly at us. “How are we going to fix Country?”

Sugarland plays at the ATYP Studio until September 13. Bookings: wwwatyp.com.au

Black Diggers

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 19

The cast of Black Diggers. Photo: Jamie Williams

The cast of Black Diggers. Photo: Jamie Williams

The words “Lest We Forget” are movingly evoked at the end of Black Diggers but, in fact, this new Australian play is more about illuminating a little known part of Australian history – the role and treatment of around 800 Aboriginal diggers during World War I.

Sydney Festival is presenting the premiere of this important Queensland Theatre Company production written by Tom Wright and directed by Wesley Enoch to coincide with the centenary of the start of the Great War.

Drawing on verbatim and other source material held by the Australian War Memorial, with research by David Williams, Wright has created a script full of short scenes and little vignettes, punctuated by song, which come together powerfully to offer a shocking and moving insight into the subject.

We see why Aboriginal men joined up to serve a King and country that didn’t even class them as citizens, the camaraderie and friendships they forged with other Australian diggers in the trenches and on the battlefields where colour became irrelevant, and their dashed expectations as they returned home having enjoyed an equality they hadn’t previously known, only to find that nothing had changed in Australia.

As one of the characters so eloquently puts it: “They painted my colour back on the day I got off that boat.”

Worse, many found that their own lands were taken away from them and given to other returned servicemen as part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme, which Indigenous soldiers were ineligible to apply to. On top of that, many were ostracised by their own communities. And, of course, many suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Enoch directs all this with a light touch, balancing the dark moments with a genial, knockabout humour, though never shying away from the tough themes.

The all-male Indigenous cast play a wide range of characters, black and white, and do a terrific job of delineating them all, sometimes in very brief cameos.

Featuring George Bostock, Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, Guy Simon, Colin Smith, Eliah Watego, Tibian Wyles and Meyne Wyatt, some of the cast are more assured as performers than others but they work together as a strong ensemble and all deserve praise.

Stephen Curtis’s clever set (dramatically lit by Ben Hughes) works on both a practical and metaphorical level. Black walls frame a black stage with a raised central platform and a fire in an oil drum to one side. As the play progresses, the names and dates of soldiers and the battles they fought in are chalked on the walls until they have become covered in white – symbolic of the whitewashing of the Indigenous diggers’ role in our history. Finally, having filled in this gap in our knowledge, the cast wipe away some of the white to spell out the words “Lest We Forget”.

Running around 100-minutes without interval, Black Diggers is a compelling piece of theatre. It tells an important story but does so without hectoring or lecturing, moving us instead to laughter and tears. It deserves to be seen widely.

Black Diggers plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 26. Bookings: 9250 7777 or sydneyfestival.org.au

Hunter Page-Lochard interview

Hunter Page-Lochard made his first appearance for Bangarra Dance Theatre in Praying Mantis Dreaming at six months of age, when his father Stephen Page, the company’s artistic director, played a bit of a trick at one performance by substituting him for the baby doll usually used.

“The story was that he comes on stage and hands me to another dancer and the light fades on them. He didn’t tell the other dancer and apparently as the lights were fading I reached my hand up to touch his face so it got a real reaction,” says Page-Lochard.

Now 20, Page-Lochard is making a guest appearance in Bangarra’s new work Blak. In the interim he has appeared in their productions of Skin at age seven and Boomerang at age 12.

Hunter Page-Lochard (centre) with Leonard Mickelo, Luke Currie-Richardson and Daniel Riley McKinley in Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

Hunter Page-Lochard (centre) with Leonard Mickelo, Luke Currie-Richardson and Daniel Riley McKinley in Blak. Photo: Greg Barrett

His professional career began in an episode of Water Rats when he was five. “Ever since then I’ve loved performing,” he says.

His other credits include, among others, Bloodland for Sydney Theatre Company, Wayne Blair’s award-winning short film The Djarn Djarns, and the feature films Bran Nue Day and The Sapphires.

Later this year he will seen in a new film called Around the Block by writer/director Sarah Spillane in which he stars alongside Christina Ricci and Jack Thompson, playing a troubled Aboriginal teenager who is helped by his American drama teacher.

“It’s like a Billy Elliot (meets) Hamlet but instead of dancing he’s a drama student that has one foot in crime because of his older brother,” says Page-Lochard. “It’s a nice little film. It’s not too dark and it’s not too fun-loving.”

Page-Lochard grew up “with the smell of theatre backstage. I was always around it,” he says.

Like his father, his American mother, Cynthia Lochard, was also a dancer, performing with New York City Ballet and Sydney Dance Company and is now one of the leading Pilates instructors in the southern hemisphere. But despite his heritage, Page-Lochard acts more than he dances.

“Michael Jackson and Justin Timberlake are my teachers. I never had technical training. Mum and Dad tried and tried to get me into ballet classes when I was little and dance classes but I just didn’t want to dance. I wanted to act and create things,” he says.

“So being with these guys (Bangarra) for the last four months has been quite tough because I’ve had to do ballet and I’ve had to do contemporary. I can’t deny that it’s in my blood but it’s still really tough. I’m sure my mum can still do a better arabesque than I can.”

Blak has three sections: Scar, choreographed by Daniel Riley McKinley with the male dancers, which explores young men’s rite of passage to manhood and initiation from an urban perspective; Yearning, choreographed by Page with the female dancers, which explores domestic violence, youth suicide and the connection of the female spirit to the land; and finally Keepers in which the dancers pay homage to the land and the legacy of their elders.

The company spent a week and a half on Bremer Island in North East Arnhem Land before the start of rehearsals where they workshopped ideas.

“The girls went off and did some women’s business like weaving and the boys took the time to get together and (discuss) just normal questions – what is a man to you? What is your version of initiation in the modern world? Is it sharing a beer with your Dad for the first time? Or having sex? It’s a lot different to the traditional males (initiation) up there,” says Page-Lochard.

Page-Lochard, who is featured in Scar, says that his character embodies the six other men. “He is their flaws and traits. He makes up all of them and carries them through whenever they need to be carried. He’s always there. In a sense he’s kind of that spirit character who was in Skin and Boomerang.”

Page-Lochard is aiming for a future in film. He did a one-year screenwriting course at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School (AFTRS) and hopes to study screenwriting at the New York Film Academy. He has already written numerous screenplays that he’s keen to develop.

“I definitely want to make a film,” he says. “I have just as many (creative) visions as Dad does but not for the stage – it’s more film.”

Blak, Sydney Opera House, June 7 – 22; Canberra Theatre Centre, July 11 – 13; Queensland Performing Arts Centre, July 18 – 27.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 2.