Nora

Belvoir St Theatre, August 13

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo:  Brett Boardman

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo: Brett Boardman

When Nora slammed the door behind her at the end of Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House, her decision to leave her husband and children was so controversial that it sent shock waves around Europe.

The actor playing her in the German premiere refused to perform the ending and Ibsen was forced to rewrite it, with Nora deciding to stay because of her responsibility to her children. Eventually, of course, the original – and far more powerful – ending was restored.

We don’t know what happens to Ibsen’s Nora but we know how hard it will be for her in a patriarchal society without money, work experience or a family to turn to. Ibsen has already shown us this through the story of her widowed friend Kristine. Nora will have the added shame of leaving her family to contend with.

In Nora, co-adaptors Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks (who also directs the Belvoir production) ask what that decision would mean for a woman in Sydney in 2014, and follow her out of the door.

Since Nora’s decision doesn’t have the same shock value in this day and age, Brookman and Sarks have put a strong focus on her willingness to leave her children – something many would still struggle to understand today.

Act I is a very loose contemporary retelling of Ibsen’s play with Nora, her husband Torvald (here a corporate financier about to be promoted) and their two children, but none of the other characters.

The play opens with Nora (Blazey Best) lying next to her young son as he goes to sleep, while her daughter lies above them in the bunk bed. It is clear they have a close relationship and all the scenes between her and the children are touching, emphasising how desperately they will miss her.

Set designer Marg Horwell has put a skeletal white metal frame of the whole house on stage so that we are able to see into all the rooms at once. Nora seems to be suffering from severe depression, periodically extricating herself from her husband (Damien Ryan) and children (Toby Challenor and Indianna Gregg on opening night) as they tear around the house to gaze blankly out of the window or cry bitterly. In one scene, she dances frenetically, her despair further highlighted by her children joining in joyfully.

Where the tension in Ibsen’s play builds inexorably as Nora waits for Torvald to discover that she borrowed money from Krogstad by forging her father’s signature, the first act of Nora is a slow burn.

In Ibsen’s play, Torvald’s appalled and appalling reaction to Krogstad’s revelation sends Nora out of the door but there is no such dramatic flash point here. Torvald discovers she has opened a secret bank account and has been “squirreling” money away but though he is upset that she wasn’t honest with him, he seems to accept what she has done.

Instead, Nora appears worn down by Torvald’s well-meaning but patronising control of all she does. Her decision to leave has clearly been brewing for some time.

Act II takes place later on the night of her leaving. Nora has gone to the home of Helen (Linda Cropper), a woman she worked with some years ago but hardly knows to ask if she can stay for a few days while she finds her feet. Helen is bemused as to why Nora has chosen to go to her, while her own personal situation means she finds it incredibly hard to comprehend how Nora could leave her children.

Horwell has created a similar-style set for Helen’s smaller home. There are sightline issues, which I noticed more in Act II, with the steel frame bisecting the face of the actors quite regularly.

If Act I was a slow (but interesting) burn, then Act II falls rather flat. Essentially Nora articulates why she left. She “feels dead”, “my children cannot be a reason for being”, “I can’t live not knowing who I am” – all of which we have already inferred.

The two women sit in silence while they wait for a kettle to burn. We watch them slowly make a sofa bed. Playing this out silently in real time does ratchet up the awkwardness of the situation but it doesn’t make for great drama. What’s more, it’s pretty clear that Nora has no intention of returning home – at this point anyway – so there is little to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Sarks draws fine performances from her cast. Best gives a powerful portrayal of a listless, unhappy woman struggling with depression – though for some reason I didn’t feel a great deal for her emotionally, which I suspect is more to do with the play than Best, who is terrific. Ryan gives a wonderful character study of a man who loves and cares for his wife but is oblivious to the way he patronises and controls her. His priggish nature is more subtle than in Ibsen’s play but still in evidence.

His children seem to love him. The way his little boy runs into his arms is lovely and he is gentle with his daughter but the fact that he pushes them to practice golf putting when they don’t want to because it could be useful to them speaks reams.

Cropper is also excellent as Helen and the children are very convincing.

Nora follows Sport for Jove’s recent, beautifully wrought, period production of A Doll’s House, which really packed a punch dramatically in a way that Nora doesn’t manage to do. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting venture and the first act works well. However, having followed Nora through the door I’d have liked to have seen how she fared weeks, months or maybe years down the track. As it is, Act II just seems to articulate, in rather deadly fashion, what we pretty much already know and leaves it at that.

Nora plays at Belvoir until September 14. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

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Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

SBW Stables Theatre, May 7

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography is a provocative title so it should be said right up front that this new play by Melbourne writer Declan Greene is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic.

There is some nudity, but it accompanies a fleeting glimpse of tenderness rather than anything raunchy, and some strong language. Essentially, however, the play is a dark, raw exposé of two desperately lonely people.

Greene has written a very ‘now’ play set in the Internet world where people around the world are connected like never before, while genuine human interaction seems more difficult than ever; a world where everything from groceries to porn are just a few clicks away.

It features two fairly unprepossessing, unfulfilled, middle-aged people. He (Steve Rodgers) works in IT and is unhappily married. She (Andrea Gibbs) is a nurse with two children and a crushing debt. Both are lonely and full of self-loathing. To fill the void he consumes Internet porn, she shops. They connect via an online dating site then meet at a bar.

Written with an incisive economy, most of the spiky dialogue is addressed directly to the audience as the characters confess their fears, dreams and dark secrets. Only now and again do they actually talk to each other. In a way this holds us a little at bay – which is partly the point – but gradually the actors draw us in.

Co-produced by Griffin and Perth Theatre Companies, Lee Lewis directs a stark production on a minimal set by Marg Horwell (pale mauve shagpile carpet on the floor and walls, and large white blinds), colourfully lit by Matthew Marshall, which captures the anonymity of cyberspace and the aridity of their lives, with a nod to the world of porn.

Lewis’s direction is as taut as the writing but she also leavens the bleakness with a surprising amount of humour.

Rodgers and Gibbs give unflinchingly brave performances as they mine their characters’ addictions, vulnerability and longing with devastating authenticity, bringing warmth where it might easily not exist.

Running a tight one hour, Eight Gigabytes is troubling, insightful and terribly sad.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography runs until June 4. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817. It then plays at The Street Theatre, Canberra, June 17 – 21, and Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, July 1 – 12.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden

SBW Stables Theatre, November 22

Agent Cleave and Bessie Holland. Photo: Marg Horwell

Agent Cleave and Bessie Holland. Photo: Marg Horwell

The life-sized horse in the foyer, with a crochet blanket skin and a mane of plastic flowers, is just a taster for what’s to come inside the theatre.

There, Marg Horwell’s dizzily colourful set  – with hanging baskets of iridescent flowers, a spouting golden statue fountain, a cane chair covered in crotchet and adorned with knitted toys, and mountains of cotton wool on the floor – is the perfect setting for Sisters Grimm’s gloriously camp, gothic melodrama Summertime in the Garden of Eden.

Sisters Grimm are a self-styled “queer DIY” theatre group formed by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene in 2006 in Melbourne, where they have built a cult following.

They were first seen in Sydney earlier this year, when Sydney Theatre Company presented their 2010 show Little Mercy, which put a trademark gender-bending spin on a film genre. In the case of Little Mercy, it was the “evil child” movie, with Flanders giving a dazzling performance as the bored, alcoholic wife of a musical theatre director with everything except offspring.

Now comes Summertime in the Garden of Eden, presented in association with Melbourne’s Theatre Works as part of Griffin Independent.

First staged last year in a shed in the Melbourne suburb of Thornbury, the current, reworked production arrives direct from a hugely successful season at Theatre Works.

Co-written by Flanders and Greene, and directed by Greene, Summertime draws on the Southern antebellum sweeping epic, notably films like Gone with the Wind and Jezebel, while the repression of desire and family secrets, as well as the onset of madness, is also reminiscent of Tennessee Williams plays Suddenly, Last Summer and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Flanders doesn’t appear this time – though the eagle-eyed may spot a frocked-up portrait of him on the wall as part of the Summertime set design.

Set in 1861 in the Deep South during the American Civil War, Summertime tells the tale of the Washington family: plantation owner Big Daddy and his daughters Honey Sue and Daisy May.

The cross-gender casting sees Bessie Holland as Big Daddy, while Melbourne drag artists Agent Cleave and Olympia Bukkakis don the crinolines as his daughters.

It begins with the homecoming of Honey Sue, who hasn’t been seen since she ran away 10 years ago on the night of her 16th birthday party. It’s clear she is much changed. What was it that happened in Big Daddy’s greenhouse (the so-called Garden of Eden) to make her flee on that fateful night? Where has she been since then and why is she back now?

Waiting at home with Big Daddy is her younger sister Daisy May, recently engaged to the dashing Clive O’Donnell (Peter Paltos). Naturally enough, everything is not as it seems, with revelations aplenty.

Though Summertime is as camp as Chloe, the production is precisely pitched, walking a knife-edge but never tripping over it and going too far over the top. For all the outrageous fun, the performances are played with enough honesty that the production stops short of becoming a drag show – even though it allows for Olympia Bukkakis to include a drag number.

Making an unforgettable entrance, Agent Cleave is entrancing as Daisy May. With his own long, thick hair flowing, he makes an incredibly beautiful southern belle, even with a beard, tattoos and sneakers, his every gesture convincingly demure and girlish – until pushed.

Olympia Bukkakis has all the right mannerisms as the worldly-wise, diva-like Honey Sue, Holland brings a Colonel Sanders-like gruffness to Big Daddy, and Paltos negotiates the plot’s twists and turns with charm and gusto.

Genevieve Giuffre makes up the cast, giving a hilarious performance as the family slave Mammy, with Giuffre manipulating a golliwog doll held in front of her, which makes you wince even as you laugh.

You have to suspend your disbelief more than a little with one of the final revelations in particular but fiddle-dee-dee. Beneath all the outrageous frivolity and tongue-in-cheek fun, there are serious political themes about gender, sexual power, race. privilege and prejudice. There’s even a touch of pathos at the end.

Running 65 minutes without interval, Summertime is as smart as it is fun. The high-camp, lo-fi aesthetic – complemented by Katie Sfetkidis’s lighting and Russell Goldsmith’s sound – is a blast of fresh air from young, audacious theatre-makers who are clearly going places, with political points to make while presenting ridiculously enjoyable shows.

Summertime in the Garden of Eden plays at the SBW Stables Theatre until December 14. Bookings 02 9361 3817 or http://www.griffintheatre.com.au