The Pride

Eternity Playhouse, February 9

Matt Minto, Geraldine Hakewill, Simon London (c) Helen White

Matt Minto, Geraldine Hakewill and Simon London. Photo: Helen White

Terrible repression in Britain in the 1950s when homosexuality was still a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison leading many men to live a life of denial, secrets and guilt; hard won sexual liberation in the present that makes relationships between gay men infinitely easier but not necessarily without complications.

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning play The Pride, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2008, moves between the two eras to explore the huge shift in attitudes to homosexuality over the last 50 years.

Set in London, the play opens in 1958 with a scene that could come straight out of a drawing room comedy where so much is unspoken or merely hinted at, with shades of Terence Rattigan or Noel Coward (drinks trolley and all).

Sylvia (Geraldine Hakewill), a former actress, has invited children’s author Oliver (Matt Minto) whose book she is illustrating to meet her strait-laced real estate husband Phillip (Simon London). Over drinks before the three of them go out for dinner, the conversation is polite and stilted with tension crackling beneath the surface. Sylvia cajoles an embarrassed Oliver into telling an epiphany he had in Greece that suggests he is gay. Philip meanwhile seems struggling with an attraction to him.

The play then jumps to the present with Oliver entertaining a costumed rent-boy. The names of the three central characters are the same but they are completely different people. Oliver is a freelance journalist with an addiction to anonymous sex, which his partner Phillip can no longer cope with. Miserable at losing him, Oliver constantly turns to his loyal best friend Sylvia for comfort.

Moving back and forth between the two timeframes, The Pride is a very well written and constructed drama in which Kaye Campbell balances the tortuous angst, guilt and dark, intense elements of the play with wit and humour.

Occasionally, it feels a little over-written: for example, a present day scene between Oliver and the editor of a lad’s mag who wants an article about gay sex that will appeal to straight men feels too long, if not unnecessary. And the 1950s scenes are more powerful than the present day ones but overall it’s a provocative, brave, compassionate play.

Directing it for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, Shane Bosher helms a riveting production on Lucilla Smith’s stark set with grey back wall, onto which the cast carry minimal furniture and props in quick flowing scene changes.

Bosher directs with sensitivity, finding both the humour and the deep, intense pain inherent in the piece. He stages one particularly brutal moment with a frank authenticity but without it feeling salacious. Above all, he draws excellent performances from a fine cast.

Geraldine Hakewill, Matt Minto (c) Helen White

Geraldine Hakewill and Matt Minto. Photo: Helen White

London and Minto are exceptional. Both of them create two characters across the eras that are so totally different (their physicality, accents, vocal rhythms and mannerisms) they could almost be different actors – supported by Lisa Mimmocchi’s excellent costuming.

London is so stitched up and humourless as the 1950s Phillip it’s as if he has every muscle in his body clenched, while his present day character has a physical ease about him. Minto’s 1950s Oliver is fumbling, awkward, embarrassed and clearly lonely yet witty and endearing, while his modern persona is louche, funny and confident in his own skin.

Hakewill is also terrific as the rather delicate, sensitive Sylvia married to Phillip, who intuitively knows what is going on, and as the sassy, open-minded contemporary Sylvia.

Kayle Kazmarzik lends strong support as the rent-boy (showing a sure comic timing), magazine editor and a doctor to whom the 1950s guilt-ridden Phillip turns to.

The Pride asks tough questions about gay life today as well as in the past, questions about fidelity, promiscuity, the pursuit of happiness, and being true both to yourself and others. Recommended.

The Pride plays at the Eternity Playhouse until March 6. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987

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The Merchant of Venice

York Theatre, Seymour Centre, May 23

John Turnbull as Shylock.

John Turnbull as Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. It’s technically a comedy but it contains some decidedly dark elements, particularly its uncomfortable anti-Semitism.

Richard Cottrell’s production for Sport for Jove doesn’t bring a strong director’s “take” to bear on the play and isn’t revelatory in the way that the best Sport for Jove productions have been.

Its strength is the great clarity of the storytelling, with a keen focus on the text. Energetically and warmly performed, it’s a solid, enjoyable production with the comedy to the fore.

Anna Gardiner’s art deco set with a translucent screen wall and doors at the back and a parquet floor (by Lucilla Smith) locates it during the 1920s or 1930s: an era close enough to our own to feel contemporary but pre-dating World War II and the horrors of the holocaust. (A final image of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, left alone on stage as dark looks are thrown at her, is a nod to what is to come).

The production opens with a burst of We’re in the Money from the musical 42nd Street, which is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Beyond that, however, the choice of era seems mainly an aesthetic one, and even that becomes rather lost as the production unfolds.

The costuming doesn’t locate things specifically in the 1930s, the music moves from jazz age to classical, and overall there’s not a strong sense of time or place.

Writing in the program, Cottrell argues that though race is a factor, “the play is about money rather than money lending”.

“Antonio and Shylock represent the getting and spending of money. The relationship between them is not about a Jew and Gentile but about two men who hate each other,” he says.

Portia, meanwhile, is exceptionally wealthy – the main reason Bassanio, who is broke and needs to make a good marriage, was initially attracted to her.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

It’s true that in the play money makes the world go around, but it doesn’t register here as a touchstone or a key, overarching theme.

Instead, the production foregrounds the comedy and fun, tripping along lightly for much of the evening and generating plenty of laughter on opening night. Occasionally it is almost taken too far. Aaron Tsindos gives such a broadly comic, boomingly voiced portrayal of the Prince of Morocco that it feels dangerously close to racial caricature in a play where race is an unavoidable issue. That said, the audience lapped it up and roared with laughter.

But there’s no getting away from the prejudice at the centre of the play. We hear how Shylock has been called a dog and spat on; we understand why he wants revenge through his pound of flesh yet we shudder at what he is prepared to do, and at his ruthless refusal of mercy.

At the same time, when the judge rules against Shylock and he is ordered to renounce his Judaism it’s a deeply uncomfortable moment, with Gratiano’s boorish jubilation an ugly sight.

As Shakespeare shows, and as we well know, prejudice brings out the worst in people – both those doling it out and those on the receiving end. It’s something we are wrestling with here and now in Australia.

John Turnbull is terrific as Shylock, portraying him as a smart, dignified businessman who has been insulted once too often.

It’s not an unsympathetic portrayal – we see clearly why he behaves as he does – but nor is it an overly sympathetic one. The sight of him sharpening his knife on his shoe, while Antonio removes his shirt, is chilling. His steadfast refusal to grant mercy when the money he is owed and more is offered to him is done with a coldness as steely as his knife. And when he realises his daughter Jessica has left him, he seems only concerned about the money and jewels she has taken with her.

Turnbull keeps all this in balance in a powerful performance.

Lizzie Schebesta invests Portia with a playful intelligence, James Lugton plays Antonio with a mournful sincerity and Chris Stalley makes a dashing Bassanio.

There are strong performances from the rest of the cast, which includes Damien Strouthos as an exuberant Gratiano, Erica Lovell as Portia’s maid Nerissa, Jonathan Elsom as the comical, blind Old Gobbo and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica, along with Darcy Brown, Lucy Heffernan, Jason Kos, Michael Cullen and Pip Dracakis.

There are a few odd touches in the production, such as why does Jessica start out with auburn hair then suddenly appear in a blonde wig? Is she trying to disguise her Jewish heritage and look more like a Gentile or is it part of the spending spree Jessica and Lorenzo go on? I wasn’t sure.

All in all, it may not be the most memorable production of the play but it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well-staged, allowing the play to speak clearly.

The Merchant of Venice plays at the Seymour Centre until May 30. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

Fireface: review

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf

ATYP Studio 1, August 4

Adolescence can be a confusing, angst-ridden time – particularly if your parents are everything you don’t want to become as an adult. But how much does ineffectual (as opposed to abusive) parenting shape a troubled teenager?

In his 1997 play Fireface (first seen in Sydney when the Sydney Theatre Company presented it in 2001) German writer Marius Von Mayenburg presents us with a middle-class family where communication has broken down.

The parents aren’t talking. The father (James Lugton) would rather read newspaper reports about murdered prostitutes than communicate with his wife (Lucy Miller), while she flaunts herself around the home in various states of undress.

Their alienated children, meanwhile, are exhibiting worrying behavioural traits. The burnt blackbird that the mother discovers wrapped in newspaper behind the garage is surely a warning sign but the father is in denial, dismissing it as nothing serious.

In this emotionally arid world, provocative teenager Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson) starts using her burgeoning sexuality as a form of power, solace and a means of escape, first seducing her equally alienated younger brother Kurt (Darcy Brown) and then Paul (Ryan Bennett) who catches her eye because of his motorbike.

Jealous at Paul’s arrival, Kurt’s fascination with flames escalates and he really starts playing with fire. There’s no doubt it will end badly – with no prizes for guessing how.

Von Mayenburg structures his taut 100-minute play using 94 short, snappy scenes.

Directing the play for Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf, Luke Rogers punctuates the myriad scenes with sharp blackouts and a surge of sound not unlike the explosive crackle of fire (sound design by Nate Edmondson). At times the momentum falters with so many scene breaks but on the whole Rogers manages to keep the tension building.

Simply staged around a table and chairs (set and costume design by Lucilla Smith), Rogers puts the focus firmly on the performances.

The cast of five are all convincing, with Brown in particular capturing Kurt’s weird, psychotic nature, his face looking increasingly blank and his eyes ever more dead as the play unfolds, while Lugton and Miller give just the right weight to the black comedy, as the parents sidestep responsibility and console themselves with the thought that it won’t be long before their troublesome offspring leave home.

Though we may know where it’s going, Fireface is a dark, disturbing play. Rogers could perhaps ramp up the sense of menace a little more but his production is certainly unsettling and sends you home pondering what you’ve just seen.

Fireface is at the ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf, until August 17