Hedda Gabler

Belvoir St Theatre, July 2

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

At the end of Belvoir’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler you come out thinking why? Why to many things in the production, but most particularly why cast a man in the title role?

Written in 1890, Hedda Gabler is one of the great dramatic female roles. There are few enough of them to begin with. What’s more, she is a strong woman feeling so trapped by a repressive, male-dominated society and unfulfilled marriage that she eventually finds herself in a situation where she believes the only escape is suicide.

A production needs to offer a fresh, compelling insight to justify casting a man in the role – and we don’t get that here.

Naturally, there has been a huge amount of interest and coverage around the decision by director Adena Jacobs to cast Ash Flanders as Hedda. Flanders is a co-founder of Melbourne’s queer indie theatre group Sisters Grimm, which has gone from cult following to a mainstream presence.

I saw Flanders play a glamorous, alcoholic housewife in Little Mercy, Sisters Grimm’s send-up of the “evil child” movies. He did it brilliantly. His performance was poised, very funny and believable within the camp, spoofy world they set up.

However, take him out of that world where he has so much flair and he doesn’t look quite so convincing – not on the basis of the choices made in this production anyway.

In interviews, Jacobs has said that casting Flanders “frames the crisis of Hedda Gabler as one of identity, and the problems of difference, rather than solely one woman’s drama.”

Flanders has said he’s “playing Hedda as written, as a person first, then as a woman and below that is the male actor. Adena has been saying you will forget that you are watching a man but at the same time there are moments that we can bring that to the forefront and it becomes something different altogether, hopefully something that is post-gender. Because I think Hedda is almost beyond gender, she is almost a mythical creature.”

With his own hair and a little make-up Flanders (who spends much of the production in a swimsuit) looks somewhat androgynous but you never forget that he is a man. There are a couple of moments when he briefly dons a long wig only to quickly toss it aside again. There are titters in the audience at the mention of a possible pregnancy.

At one point he stands naked. It’s a somewhat confusing image given the flat male chest but female genitalia (‘tuck job’ presumably) leading you to question exactly who he/she is supposed to be. Jacobs presumably presents this image of Hedda as both man and woman to underline the universal nature nature of her situation – as one of difference rather than solely a woman’s dilemma, as she articulated – but that sense of universality didn’t resonate for me in the production.

Clearly there’s no point in Flanders playing a woman so convincingly that we think he is one. You might as well cast a woman. But his performance doesn’t transcend the novelty of the casting or lend any fresh insight to the play.

His Hedda moves and speaks at one pace. She is forever observing or talking with a quiet, cold detachment, while posing languidly. Instead of the mass of paradoxes and emotional complexity usually associated with her, his Hedda feels flat and one-dimensional. Even when she plays with the pistol or guns down people in a violent video game, it’s done without any display of emotion. We never see any vulnerability, she just comes across as icily manipulative. Hedda may be bored, but she shouldn’t be boring and she comes perilously close to that here. It’s hard to see quite why all the men around her are in her thrall.

What’s more, there is precious little chemistry or tension between Flanders and any of the other actors – all of whom seem to be wrestling with characters that feel underwritten in Jacobs’ adaptation.

Marcus Graham is the most compelling as Judge Brack, played here as a suave, louche playboy, while Tim Walter’s Tesman is a bland, ineffectual, anxious figure. Oscar Redding fires things up briefly as Lovborg, and Anna Houston as Thea Elvstead and Lynette Curran as Aunt Julie bring some warmth to the production. But none of the cast seems really comfortable and you don’t feel anything for any of them.

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Jacobs’s decision to set the production in a contemporary world is a bit hit and miss.

Entering the theatre there is a strong sense of déjà vu. The set (by Dayna Morrissey) features the interior of a spanking new, soulless house at the back of the stage. Seen through sliding glass doors, it’s reminiscent of Ralph Myers’s set for Benedict Andrews’s The Seagull (along with any number of other glass boxes seen on Sydney stages in recent years). In front of the house is a small swimming pool. A large, flash, vintage car sits to one side of the stage, which inevitably brings Belvoir’s 2012 Death of a Salesman to mind.

There are sound issues whenever the actors are inside the house or in the car, with their amplified voices sounding muffled. In the car, it’s actually hard to understand some of what is said.

The production starts slowly in silence. A television inside the house shows a film featuring a wedding. (Hedda and Tesman are, of course, just back from their honeymoon). Hedda gazes from the window blankly then lies by the side of the pool with headphones on. The maid (Branden Christine) smokes a cigarette behind the car. Tesman arrives home sweating after a run. Not a word is spoken. It sets up the boredom of Hedda’s life – but from there you expect things to start to flare and they don’t.

Jacobs’s adaptation, which runs 90 minutes without interval, uses a lively contemporary idiom while sticking pretty faithfully to Ibsen’s plot (though the script has been ruthlessly pruned). By updating it, however, there are various paradoxes. In a world with television and smart phones wouldn’t Lovborg write his precious book on a computer rather than by hand?

So many things like this become distractions, from Hedda’s bare bottom beneath a short fur jacket to the maid taking a dip in the pool. Would Hedda really have let her maid do that without asking? And how come when Hedda locks Thea in the car, she’s desperate to get out but apparently sleeps through a vital conversation not long after being shut in?

The fact that you sit there asking yourself such questions when you should be immersed in the drama is indicative of how little the production engages. It’s a disappointing experience that seemed to promise so much, for whatever the success, or otherwise, of the gender politics at play, the production falls flat as a piece of drama.

Hedda Gabler is at Belvoir St Theatre until August 3

 

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Noises Off

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 21

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waves of laughter swept through the opening night audience at Sydney Theatre Company’s riotously funny production of Noises Off.

Michael Frayn’s 1982 comic masterpiece is a mind-bogglingly clever feat of construction. Add to that Julie Lynch’s gloriously OTT, psychedelic 70s costumes (which drew applause of their own) and some superb comic performances, and you have a night of laugh-out-loud mayhem.

The farce-within-a farce (which comes with a very funny program-within-a-program) follows a third-rate company of actors as they tour the English provinces with a lame bedroom farce called Nothing On.

Frayn has peopled Noises Off with a rum bunch. There’s the show’s backer Dotty Otley (Genevieve Lemon), a one-time “name” who is playing the housekeeper Mrs Clackett and having an affair with Nothing On’s temperamental leading man, the younger Garry Lejeune (Josh McConville); the somewhat vacant Brooke Ashton (Ash Ricardo), a blonde bombshell who keeps losing her contact lenses and who is having a fling with the philandering director Lloyd Dallas (Marcus Graham); Belinda Blair (Tracy Mann) who tries to keep things on an even keel but loves a good gossip; an elderly dipsomaniac (Ron Haddrick); and the morose, anxious Frederick Fellowes (Alan Dukes) who needs to be given acting motivations for every move his character makes.

Getting/keeping the show on the road are the timid but conscientious assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Danielle King) who is also involved with the director Lloyd, and the sleep-deprived stage manager/general dog’s body Tim Allgood (Lindsay Farris).

Over the course of three acts, we watch the same section of Nothing On as the production gradually disintegrates.

In Act I we see the disastrous dress rehearsal. Act II takes place at a matinee a month later when things are beginning to go wrong – the twist being that it’s shown from backstage. Act III takes place at the end of the tour when hostilities between the actors are spilling onto the stage and everything that could go wrong does.

Act I feels a little slow as Frayn sets everything up but from there on the play is like a runaway train.

The unfolding chaos requires absolute precision – which it gets in Jonathan Biggins’ very fine production, staged on Mark Thompson’s handsome, suitably old-fashioned set complete with the requisite eight doors. The set then spins to show the Spartan backstage area.

Lynch’s costumes are a delight: patchwork bell bottom jeans, patterned flares, clinging polyester shirts, frocks with bold geometric designs and platform boots among other wonderfully colourful outfits.

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Biggins’ has elicited priceless comic performances across the board from his excellent cast but McConville is an absolute standout as Lejeune, his daredevil physicality drawing gasps. Lemon is also a hoot, while Graham is “faded charm” to a tee as the droll, exasperated director.

Beneath all the hilarity there is a dark sense of the absurd and the creeping terror of things spiraling beyond our control. We laugh uproariously but we can’t help but feel for the characters, trapped in an existential theatrical nightmare, much of it of their own making.

Noises Off runs until April 5. Bookings: http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 2

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

Angels in America review

Belvoir St Theatre, June 1

Luke Mullins and Paula Arundell. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Luke Mullins and Paula Arundell. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Set in the 1980s during the Reagan era and the AIDS epidemic, Tony Kushner’s epic, two-part drama Angels in America was a landmark piece of theatre when it premiered in 1991.

First seen in Sydney in 1993, the social and political context has changed but the human dilemmas in the play still resonate powerfully in this very special Belvoir production directed by Eamon Flack.

Subtitled A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Angels in America tells the cleverly meshed stories of several different characters, connected through other people that they meet either in real life or hallucinations.

In Greenwich Village, a young man called Prior Walter (Luke Mullins) has full-blown AIDS – as does Roy Cohn (Marcus Graham), the real-life, notoriously corrupt Republic lawyer. But where Prior, an ex-drag queen, is out and proud, the aggressive, tough-talking Cohn insists that he is dying of liver cancer because homosexuals have “zero clout” and he therefore cannot be one.

Unable to cope with Prior’s escalating sickness, his Jewish boyfriend Louis (Mitchell Butel) leaves him, becoming involved with Joe Pitt (Ashley Zukerman), a closeted, Mormon and protégé of Cohn’s with a pill-popping wife called Harper.

Angels in America is a thrillingly daring, imaginative, humanist play that combines political, social, religious and environmental themes with wonderful flights of fancy including an angel who declares Prior a prophet.

Michael Hankin has designed a stark, beige-tiled set, which works brilliantly for a play that moves between Central Park, Antarctica, Salt Lake City, hospitals and heaven among other locations.

On this open space, Flack directs a crystal clear production that flows seamlessly. He uses the space superbly and has choreographed the scene changes with economical precision. Characters in hallucinations arrive and depart with a cheek toss of glitter, while the arrival of the angel is a glorious explosion of colour and sound.

Perched on a stepladder in a slightly underwhelming costume, the first glimpse of the angel is a bit of a letdown after the Spielberg-like build-up to her revelation, but that’s a minor quibble.

In every other way Mel Page’s costumes, Niklas Pajanti’s lighting and Alan John’s music add to a superbly staged production.

The casting could hardly be better with all the actors working together as a finely tuned ensemble. Mullins gives a deeply sympathetic performance as Prior that embraces his camp wit, fear and fortitude, while his skinny physique makes the ravages of AIDS-related illnesses painfully believable. It’s a performance so truthful it hurts to watch.

Graham is also superb as the demonic Cohn, conveying his physical disintegration so convincingly his face seems to become a stretched death mask.

Marcus Graham as Roy Cohn. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Marcus Graham as Roy Cohn. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Butel captures the guilt-ridden angst of Louis, whose mind and mouth are forever racing, while McMahon gives a touchingly warm, sweetly funny, poignant portrayal of Harper, whose fears about the destruction of the ozone layer and Joe’s true nature/sexuality tip her into Valium-induced hallucinations.

There are also excellent performances from Zukerman as Joe, Paula Arundell as a nurse and the angel, DeObia Oparei as Belize, a black drag queen who is a friend of Prior’s and a nurse caring for Cohn, and Robyn Nevin in a series of roles including a rabbi, doctor and Bolshevik as well as Joe’s Mormon mother and the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg who visits Cohn.

Part 1, Millennium Approaches, runs nearly four hours but zips by. It really is a contemporary classic. Part II, Perestroika, feels a little slow to start – but that’s in the writing rather than the production.

You can see both parts in one day (which I’d recommend) or separately. Either way, by the end of the seven hours of theatre (plus four intervals), you have gone on an extraordinary journey with the characters. You have laughed and cried with them, and shared their struggles, fears, anxiety, heartaches and joys.

Despite all the world problems canvassed by the play, you feel elated at the end, sharing its defiant optimism. 

Belvoir St Theatre until July 14; Theatre Royal, July 18 – 28

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 9