The Blind Giant is Dancing

Belvoir St Theatre,  February 17

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Dan Spielman and Geoff Morrell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Stephen Sewell’s blistering 1983 play The Blind Giant is Dancing is very much of its time but it still feels timely in this ferociously good Belvoir production.

The epic drama is set in the world of NSW State Labor party politics in the early 1980s at a time when Australia’s strong manufacturing base was being dismantled in favour of a free market, with devastating consequences for the working class. Seething with political intrigue, Sewell looks at how power corrupts and at how individuals both shape and are shaped by the world around them.

At the centre of the play is Allen Fitzgerald (Dan Spielman), a social economist and Marxist from a working class Catholic family who begins as an idealist. Unhappily married to Louise (Yael Stone), a Jewish feminist socialist, he is seduced by financial journalist Rose Draper (Zahra Newman) and becomes so caught up in a political power struggle that he sells his soul and his family down the river.

Director Eamon Flack and designer Dale Ferguson bring the play to furious life on a stark set at the centre of which is a large screen, which can either resemble the metal bars of a cage allowing us to see scenes behind it or light up with dazzling brightness, flashing up place names and images to locate the numerous different scenes. It’s a clever solution for a play with umpteen short scenes, while Ferguson’s keenly observed 80s costuming evokes the period.

Steve Toulmin’s sound, which includes bursts of 80s pop songs, and Verity Hampson’s lighting enhance and punctuate the fast-paced staging.

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Zahra Newman and Dan Spielman. Photo: Brett Boardman

Unfolding over three acts with two short intervals, Act I requires great concentration as Sewell establishes the main players including: Allen’s arch foe Michael Wells (Geoff Morrell), a corrupt Social Democratic Party secretary; Mr Carew (Michael Denkha) an American advisor to Wells; Bob Lang (Ben Wood) an obnoxious, misogynistic banker; and Ramon Gris (Ivan Donato) a Chilean socialist exile working with Allen, among others.

Flack directs at a cracking pace and it is hard initially to get your head around it all with so much coming at you. But as soon as Act II begins, everything becomes clear and from there the play hurtles along like a runaway train as scenes become shorter and snappier, keeping you riveted.

A family barbecue in Port Kembla where we meet Allen’s father (Russell Kiefel) and brother (Andrew Henry), who are both steelworkers, and his housewife mother (Genevieve Lemon), brings a human face to the politicking. It also gives us an insight into Allen’s tortured personality.

Spielman gives a performance of extraordinary intensity, his body language reflecting the passion that drives him and is tearing him apart. As he slides deeper into the morass, his physicality and vocals become ever more aggressive, his humour ever more sardonic. It’s a huge, demanding role and Spielman is utterly convincing every step of the way.

Stone gives an equally passionate performance as Allen’s activist wife who refuses to play the role of housebound homemaker. Kiefel is superb as both wily capitalist Sir Leslie Harris, who is prepared to take Wells on in the battle over the steel industry, and as Allen’s father Doug who rules the family with a rod of iron. In another compelling performance, Morrell’s Wells has a recognisable touch of the mongrel about him.

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Genevieve Lemon and Yael Stone. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lemon brings a gentle humour to Allen’s mother and her efforts to keep the peace within her family are quietly touching, while Newman imbues the seductive Rose with a fascinating sense of enigma. However, the acting is incredibly strong across the board.

Blind Giant is driven by a visceral rage, which Flack’s production captures superbly. At times it feels as if Sewell is delivering an impassioned lecture but overall it’s compelling stuff with an astonishingly good performance by Spielman at the heart of a wonderfully fierce production.

The Blind Giant is Dancing plays at Belvoir St Theatre until March 20. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

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A Christmas Carol

Belvoir St Theatre, November 12

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

The magic begins as soon as you enter the theatre to find the seats dusted with (paper) snow. All over the theatre young and old excitedly lark around with it, dumping it on each other’s heads and tossing snowballs.

It’s the perfect start to Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol: a production so delightful and touching it would melt the hardest heart.

The costuming is contemporary (Mel Page) but the adaptation by director Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie is a faithful telling of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale.

In this materialistic society of ours, the story of the miserly Scrooge resonates as powerfully as ever. Visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, Scrooge learns to open his heart (and wallet).

The messages that although you can’t change your past, it’s never too late to change your ways, and that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, are as beautiful and timely as ever.

The Belvoir stage has rarely looked larger than it does with Michael Hankin’s steeply raked black set. It’s a deceptively simple design with trap doors and a platform that rises and falls, brought to vivid life by Benjamin Cisterne’s dynamic lighting.

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarks’ production doesn’t avoid the dark corners of the story but her production twinkles with joy and playfulness along with showers of snow and glitter, a human Christmas tree, and carol singers in wonderfully naff, knitted Christmas jumpers (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Robert Menzies is perfect as the mean-spirited, grouchy Scrooge, who starts the evening growling “Bah, humbug!” to any mention of Christmas and gradually thaws until he is gamboling in the snow making angel wings.

The other seven actors take on a number of roles each and work together as a tight ensemble. Steve Rodgers brings a beatific smile and deep humanity to the role of Bob Cratchitt, matched by Ursula Yovich as his kind-hearted but tougher, spirited wife. Together they are incredibly touching.

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell’s radiantly glowing face could light the darkest night as Tiny Tim. Wearing a gorgeous confection-of-a-costume made from gold tinsel, Kate Box brings a deliciously mischievous exuberance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Ivan Donato is a more solemn presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a shiny suit, Peter Carroll is hilariously, maniacally unhinged as Jacob Marley, while Eden Falk is decency and kindness personified as Scrooge’s nephew.

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

With music by Stefan Gregory and movement by Scott Witt, the heartwarming, family-friendly production (which runs 75 minutes) moves you to laughter and tears, sending you home filled with the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, I felt so uplifted that the next morning I booked tickets to take my family to see it just before Christmas. A real gift of a show.

A Christmas Carol is at Belvoir St Theatre until December 24. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 23

Macbeth

Sydney Theatre, July 25

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

The casting of Hugo Weaving as Macbeth and the decision of director Kip Williams to turn the Sydney Theatre back-to-front make this Sydney Theatre Company production one of the hottest tickets of the year.

Weaving does not disappoint, giving a passionate, compelling performance, but the production itself waxes and wanes somewhat.

Entering the theatre, the audience is led to a seating bank on the stage for 360 people who sit facing the eerily empty 900-seat auditorium. On stage in front of you stands a long trestle table with a few props (a plastic tub of water, a ruff, a wig, a crown and on the back of one chair a red velvet gown with ermine collar).

It looks like a rehearsal room and when the actors appear casually dressed in contemporary street wear and begin performing seated at the table under a general lighting state, that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s a slow start.

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s not until after the death of Duncan (John Gaden) when fog fills the stage and sound and lighting start to transform the space that excitement levels begin to rise.

It’s a valid enough conceit to have the full theatricality only kick in once Macbeth has sealed his fate and begun his descent into a nightmarish world full of bloody horror. It’s just that the early stage business feels a bit silly. The witches (Kate Box, Ivan Donato and Robert Menzies) dunk their heads in the tub of water, blow bubbles and then recite their lines while dripping. As an image for the boiling cauldron it comes up short.

Having Melita Jurisic in a plastic rain mac, chugging on a cup of blood and then dribbling it down her front as the wounded Captain reporting from the battle also comes across as gimmicky.

But as Duncan lies dead, the production starts to hit its stride. The actors bang their hands on the table, Max Lyandvert’s visceral sound design picks up on the drumming and amplifies it tenfold, the stage fills with fog, the lighting changes and we’re off.

The stunningly staged banquet scene with candles, flowers and place settings comes as a relief. Having the murdered Banquo (Paula Arundell) sit at the table has been done before, of course, but it works exceptionally well.

There are some other wonderful effects – the sudden fall of a black curtain not far from us, isolating Macbeth from the world beyond, for example, and later Macbeth strobe-lit in battle. There is also an extended fall of shimmering “rain”, which inevitably recalls the golden shower in Benedict Andrews’s production of The War of the Roses in the same venue. But, no matter, it’s incredibly beautiful and very effective.

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Under Nick Schlieper’s lighting, the auditorium does become a haunting, ghostly backdrop. Williams doesn’t stage many scenes there but those that he does work well. Banquo is chased through the auditorium and murdered in the stalls. When Macduff (Kate Box) goes to England to beg Malcolm (Eden Falk) to return to Scotland, their encounter takes place at the front of the circle while Macbeth stands silhouetted on stage.

Many liked Williams’ restraint in not using the auditorium too much; I liked what he did with it but felt he could have used it a little bit more.

The costumes by the show’s designer Alice Babidge come across as rather ad hoc without a unifying style. The street wear is uninspiring, despite odd touches like the ruff and kingly robe, and Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth dress is downright drab and unflattering. It’s a shame the costuming doesn’t develop more as the rest of the production builds theatrically. That said, when Babidge does go for a flourish with the final image of Malcolm being dressed in doublet and hose for his coronation, it sits oddly.

The play is performed by an ensemble of eight, all of whom double except for Weaving. The acting is a little uneven with a range of vocal styles.

Weaving gives a magnetic performance that focuses on Macbeth’s interior torture. He spits and snarls as he gives physical and emotional expression to the conflict that rages within him between vaulting ambition, doubt, fear, ruthlessness and fleeting regret. His anguish is utterly palpable.

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

As Lady Macbeth, Jurisic is so febrile and intense from the start that she almost leaves herself nowhere to go. Like Weaving, her vocals are rich and mellifluous but in starting at such a pitch, some of her dialogue is lost by the time she plays the mad scene.

Gaden handles the language with effortless eloquence, as ever, and is very touching as Macduff’s young son in a moving scene with Arundell as Lady Macduff. Box is also impressive, bringing a quiet dignity to the role of Macduff.

In the end, however, the production – which runs a tight two hours without interval – is set around the mesmerising performance of Weaving. The back-to-front staging doesn’t make any strong comment on the play but proves to be an atmospheric backdrop and Weaving’s performance is thrilling.

Macbeth plays at Sydney Theatre until September 27. Most performances are sold out. A few tickets were released yesterday so check with the box office on 02 9250 1777. Otherwise a limited number of Suncorp $20 tickets go on sale at 9am each Tuesday for the following week either in person at the Wharf Theatre box office or on 02 9250 1929

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 27