Arcadia

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 12

ARCADIA1

Glenn Hazeldine and Ryan Corr. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ryan Corr gives a standout, charismatic performance in Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly clever 1993 play Arcadia but the production itself wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders on opening night.

Set in a stately English country estate called Sidley Park, Arcadia unfolds across two time frames, with alternating scenes set in the early 1800s and the 1990s (which eventually begin to overlap and share the stage).

Beginning in 1809, teenage genius Thomasina Coverly (Georgia Flood) is discovering chaos theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics a century before anyone else under the admiring eye of her dashing, witty tutor Septimus Hodge (Corr). Meanwhile, the garden is being transformed from a classical idyll to a Gothic wilderness.

In the same room 200 years later, Bernard Nightingale, a smug, ambitious Byron scholar (Josh McConville) desperate to prove that Byron fled England after killing a minor poet in a duel at Sidley Park, and Hannah Jarvis (Andrea Demetriades) a historian and author researching the mysterious hermit who lived in the garden’s faux hermitage, try to piece together the past from notes, drawings and other bits and pieces, which we have seen being created.

With illicit affairs, love, iterated algorithms, discussions about determinism and free will as well as Romanticism and Classicism in the mix, it’s heady stuff.

Richard Cottrell directs a sound, lucid, well-staged production on a handsome classical set by Michael Scott-Mitchell with stylish costumes by Julie Lynch.However, in striving to make Stoppard’s dazzling wordplay and complex ideas understandable to an audience, some characters feel underdeveloped and a little of the play’s sparkle and magic was lost on opening night.

At the moment, the historical scenes have a better rhythm than the contemporary ones where not all the humour lands, and there are times when the play feels pretty dense without enough of a leavening human dimension.

Corr has a wonderful, natural ease and charm as Septimus. He handles the zippy dialogue beautifully and his scenes with Flood have depth, heart and a lovely energy, though a stronger chemistry between them as the play progresses would make the ending more moving.

ARCADIA #2-749

Andrea Demetriades and Josh McConville. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Demetriades gives a strong performance as the wryly sceptical, somewhat stand-offish Hannah though one senses that there is more to find her character (a loneliness is hinted at in the play) and in her relationship with McConville’s Bernard, which we gather is underpinned by a sexual attraction, though there is little chemistry here.

McConville looks a little ill at ease as Bernard, though his zinging barbs are often very funny. Michael Sheasby gives a lively portrayal of Valentine, a gifted mathematician like his ancestor Thomasina before him, and Glenn Hazeldine is a hoot as Ezra Chater, a poet with precious little poetry in his soul whose wife has been discovered in “a carnal embrace” with Septimus. But not all the other performances feel entirely believable.

Given the brilliance of Stoppard’s writing and the top-notch production values, there is already much to enjoy but once the production settles, the cast will hopefully convey more of the play’s humanity and passion, and then it will really soar.

Arcadia plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 2. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 14

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Switzerland

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 7

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland is a gripping psychological thriller about renowned crime writer Patricia Highsmith that creeps up on you slowly and then has you on the edge of your seat.

Highsmith’s novels include The Talented Mr Ripley, one of several she wrote about the psychopathic, sexually ambiguous Tom Ripley, and Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen.

Born in Texas, but bitter about her lack of serious recognition in her homeland as opposed to Europe where she was feted for her literary skill and psychological insight, she lived her last years in Switzerland, land of neutrality, secret bank accounts, picturesque mountain chalets and cuckoo clocks.

Widely regarded as a tough cookie, the eccentric, tight-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Highsmith (who was bisexual but more drawn to women) was considered misogynistic and cruel, even by her friends. She loved guns and cats and had a strange thing about snails. But Murray-Smith seamlessly weaves into the dialogue pretty much all that you need to know about her.

Murray-Smith’s play was commissioned by Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse – but fortuitously for Sydney audiences they agreed to Sydney Theatre Company staging the world premiere.

Set in the early 1990s, the cleverly constructed, tense drama finds Highsmith (Sarah Peirse) living with cancer towards the end of her life in Switzerland.

A young man called Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren) arrives from her New York publisher bearing jars of peanut butter (the wrong brand) and cans of soup.

Slightly nerdy and understandably nervous given the incident with the knife that befell the publisher’s previous emissary, Edward’s mission is to try to convince her to sign a deal to write one final Ripley novel.

Highsmith lacerates him with withering, caustic wit, delivered by Peirse with savagely funny brutality. But Edward – who is passionate about Highsmith’s oeuvre – holds his own (even if he can’t pronounce oeuvre) and things start to shift into a game of cat and mouse where it’s not clear who’s the cat.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s detailed, realistic set (based apparently on Highsmith’s final Swiss home) – with large fireplace, leather chairs, desk with typewriter, framed weaponry, a portrait of Highsmith, thick windows and spiral staircase leading upstairs – makes a virtue of the awkward, wide stage and works superbly in a way you wouldn’t expect for an intimate two-hander.

Nick Schlieper lights it so that it becomes a place of shifting light and shadows, and Steve Francis’s slightly creepy music heightens the growing tension.

Scott-Mitchell’s costuming is also excellent with loose-fitting jeans and mannish socks and shoes for Peirse, and gradually changing outfits for Farren that reflect his character’s evolution.

Sarah Goodes directs an immaculately paced production, drawing superb performances from the two actors, who take you with them through every tiny emotional twist and turn.

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

The way Peirse reveals sudden flashes of vulnerability, pleasure or admiration beneath the Teflon-tough, gruff exterior is done with a flawless subtlety. She totally inhabits the role. Edward’s transformation is brilliantly judged in an equally subtle performance by Farren.

Murray-Smith celebrates and emulates Highsmith’s writing, while giving us an insight into her fascination with violence and the dark side of human nature. At the same time, she explores a range of ideas including Highsmith’s relationship with her imagination and characters all the while playing intriguing mind games with us. The play is often laugh-out-loud funny too.

As for how the song Happy Talk from the musical South Pacific fits into all this – well, you’ll just have to go and see, but it’s an inspired theatrical moment.

Running 100 minutes without interval, Switzerland is a thrilling piece of writing given a superb production by STC. In some of Murray-Smith’s previous plays you feel her putting words into the mouths of the characters to serve the debate and themes she is discussing. Here the dialogue feels utterly truthful, emerging organically from the mouths of the characters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s her very best play to date. Highly recommended.

Switzerland plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 16

Storm Boy: review

Wharf 1, August 18

Rory Potter and Michael Smith. Photo: Brett Boardman

Rory Potter and Michael Smith. Photo: Brett Boardman

Colin Thiele’s much-loved 1963 children’s novel Storm Boy is a contemporary classic, its profile enhanced by the 1976 film. Now comes a beautiful stage adaptation by Sydney Theatre Company and Perth’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company.

Adapted by Tom Holloway and directed by John Sheedy, there is a lovely simplicity to every aspect of the production that suits the story.

Bereft widower Hideaway Tom has moved with his son to an isolated beach shack in the Coorong region of South Australia where they are living a simple life as fishermen.There, the boy befriends a local Aboriginal man named Fingerbone Bill who teaches him about the connection of all living things and the cycle of life. When they discover three motherless pelican chicks, Storm Boy raises them and forms a close bond with one he calls Mr Percival, only for hunters to eventually kill him too.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s poetic set features a large, curving, wooden skeletal frame that suggests both a beached whale and a sand dune, with a walkway across the top of it and a door set into it for the shack. On the stage in front, is a rowing boat and fishing gear.

Kingsley Reeve’s sound design instantly transports you to beach with the sounds of rolling waves and wind, while plaintive piano music adds to the feel of melancholy.

The storm scene, in which Storm Boy and Mr Percival help save several sailors, is excitingly staged with Damien Cooper’s lighting a key element in evoking the drama.

The pelicans meanwhile are portrayed by a series of wonderful puppets designed by Peter Wilson and created by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton that exude personality. Some of them dart around on wheeled feet while others fly, operated by Shaka Cook and Michael Smith who move with the earthy physicality of Aboriginal dancers. At other times, Cook and Smith simply watch, embodying local Indigenous spirits.

As Storm Boy (a role he shares with Joshua Challenor), Rory Potter proves once again to be a natural on stage. Peter O’Brien convincingly conveys Hideaway Tom’s numbing grief and gradual thawing, while Trevor Jamieson is endearing as the wise, joke-cracking Fingerbone Bill.

The production doesn’t shy away from the themes of grief and death, but nor does it overplay them and become schmaltzy. Instead it has a gentle, melancholic tone tempered with humour. The pelicans biting Hideaway Tom’s bum had children around me laughing delightedly, before shedding tears at Mr Percival’s death.

Storm Boy plays at Wharf 1 until September 8

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 25