The Whale

Old Fitz Theatre, February 18

KeithMeredithThe Whale

Keith Agius and Meredith Penman. Photo: Rupert Reid

The lights go up on a morbidly obese man. Charlie is 600-pounds and counting – not just his weight but the number of days he has left.

“Do you find me disgusting?” he asks visitors several times during the course of Samuel D Hunter’s moving play The Whale, set in Idaho on the outskirts of Mormon country.

It’s certainly confronting initially to see someone so overweight, beached on a sofa gorging on fried chicken or masturbating to gay porn. But beneath the bulk, Charlie (Keith Agius) has an agile mind and a huge heart.

He teaches essay writing to English Literature students online (with the camera turned off). He has a close, loving friendship with Liz (Meredith Penman), a nurse who visits regularly and cajoles him into leading a healthier lifestyle while bringing him the junk food he now craves.

He is also desperate to re-connect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Chloe Bayliss), a troubled teenager whose need for love has turned into spitefulness and who he basically bribes to be there. Constantly prickly and sometimes downright vicious, Ellie lashes out at Charlie, who with the patience of a saint is prepared to take whatever she has to give in order to get to know her.

Into the mix comes a young Mormon, Elder Thomas (Alex Beauman) who wants to interest Charlie in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Charlie’s former lover Alan, it transpires, was also a Mormon. Latter in the play, Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Hannah Waterman), a single mother doing it pretty tough, also appears.

Gradually, we discover why Charlie is eating himself to death, and what has brought all the other characters to this point.

Lacing The Whale with references to Moby Dick and the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale, Hunter has written a humane, tender and compassionate play, which takes in themes including homophobia, religion, small-mindedness, self-loathing, grief and family.

Designer Charlie Davis has used the Old Fitz space cleverly, suggesting a hallway and other room beyond the rather squalid sitting room where the play takes place. There are also rows of seating on one side of the stage to create a more intimate performance space. Davis’s costuming is also spot-on as is Alexander Berlage’s lighting.

AlexKeithThe Whale

Alex Beauman and Keith Agius. Photo: Rupert Reid

Shane Anthony directs a tight, beautifully performed production. Agius, who wears a fat suit, conveys Charlie’s physical decay brilliantly: the laboured wheezing breath, the heart palpitations and the struggle to move. But he also warms the cockles of your heart with his endearing portrayal of a man who is patient, kind, loving, understanding and desperate to atone for previous wrongs: a true gentle giant.

The other actors all offer utterly believable, touching portrayals of people struggling with their own problems and hurts. The relationships that develop between them take you by surprise and the ending of the play is deeply affecting. Recommended.

The Whale plays at the Old Fitz until March 4. Bookings: www.oldfitztheatre.com

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Henry V

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, October 23

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

It is 1940. The date is clearly written on the blackboard in a basement room of a London school where a cardigan-wearing teacher (Keith Agius), some of his pupils and the school nurse (Danielle King) take shelter as German bombs rain down outside.

To distract the students from the air raid, the teacher hands out play scripts and an improvised performance takes place. Brief scenes from Richard II and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 act as a prologue and then we are into Henry V, a play about war.

It’s an inspired device by director Damien Ryan, which doesn’t just frame Shakespeare’s play but runs parallel throughout the multi-layered production. We never forget that this is Henry V as performed by terrified young people during wartime.

Now and again the stories intersect in moments of enormous power – one of them deeply shocking, another incredibly poignant.

Directing for Bell Shakespeare, Ryan proves yet again what an exciting director of Shakespeare he is. Henry V is a dense play yet he brings a customary clarity, energy and modern edge to it.

Ryan was inspired by real life accounts he read of a Boy’s Club, which put on plays and cabarets to raise the spirits of people in London air raid shelters during the Blitz.

The terrific set by Anna Gardiner gives the cast bookcases, books, blankets, a bucket, newspaper crowns and armour, among various other props, which they use with thrilling invention.

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

In a play in which Shakespeare calls for the audience to use their imagination on an empty stage, Ryan gets us to do the same but with a plethora of props. Full of surprises, the staging is quite brilliant. It looks improvised, with the actors moving the furniture around at breakneck speed for different scenes, but it’s highly detailed and precisely choreographed. Full credit to movement director Scott Witt who worked with Ryan.

Ryan has gathered a superb ensemble of 10 actors: Keith Agius, Danielle King, Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Darcy Brown and Ildiko Susany.

Sheasby plays Henry V with the charisma of the captain of the school rugby team. Everyone else plays multiple roles and yet it is always clear who is who and what is happening. Agius makes a wonderful Falstaff (with cushion up his cardigan) and also plays the Chorus, and Winestock is very funny as the feisty, French Princess Katherine, but each and every one of the actors plays their numerous parts with élan.

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

The sound by Steve Francis, moving vocal compositions by actor Drew Livingston and lighting by Sian James-Holland all contribute magnificently.

Ryan balances the valour and heroism of Henry – who has matured from the callow, irresponsible youth in Henry IV, who hung out in taverns with the reprobate Falstaff, to inspiring leader of his underdog “band of brothers” – with a powerful portrayal of the rank brutality, ugliness and futility of war.

This is one of the most exciting, moving pieces of theatre I’ve seen in Sydney this year. Don’t miss it.

Henry V runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until November 16. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 26