Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 24

Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield. Photo: Jess Bialek

Jasmin Sheppard and Thomas Greenfield. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang is a luminously beautiful work in its staging, its performance and the story it tells.

Choreographed by Stephen Page as the centerpiece of Bangarra Dance Theatre’s 25th anniversary year, it is the first Sydney story that the company has tackled – and what a fascinating “first contact” tale it tells.

The inspiration was the relationship between Patyegarang, a 15-year woman of the Eora nation, and Lieutenant William Dawes, an astronomer, linguist and mathematician who arrived with the First Fleet and became the colony’s timekeeper. Patyegarang befriended Dawes and taught him her language and about her culture – which he detailed in his diaries, rediscovered at the University of London in 1972.

In creating this 70-minute work, Page successfully avoids literal story telling. Instead the piece unfolds in haunting, almost dreamlike fashion through 13 scenes, which take different themes that evoke the spirit of the land and people before the arrival of the early settlers, their culture, the notion of time, conflict, intimacy, resilience etc.

The choreography is lovely, combining the grounded traditional movement now so closely associated with the company with contemporary dance. The contrast between the movement for Dawes and the other indigenous men could have been highlighted a little more initially but there are some stunning solos, duets and ensemble numbers.

Jasmin Sheppard is radiant as Patyegarang, dancing with a lithe, gentle, expressive fluidity. A tiny figure next to guest artist Thomas Greenfield who is a strong, striking presence as Dawes, they are gorgeous together. Elma Kris and Waangenga Blanco are also standouts.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Jacob Nash’s stark, rugged set, Jennifer Irwin’s costumes and Nick Schlieper’s richly coloured lighting make for a work of stunning visual beauty, while David Page’s score, which combines traditional, classical and electronic music with spoken words, has a mesmerising, pulsing quality.

Dawes built up a relationship of trust with the local Aboriginal people. He wanted to stay in Sydney but was ordered home after he defied an order to take part in a punitive expedition against them. Patyegarang’s grief as she lies with his red jacket over her head is here a deeply moving image.

Richard Green, a Dharug man who acted as the cultural advisor for the project puts it simply: “Dawes was different, he listened.” Patyegarang intimates what might have been had there been more people like him. A beautiful work.

Patyegarang plays in Sydney until July 5 then Canberra July 17 – 19, Perth July 30 – August 2, Brisbane August 15 – 23 and Melbourne August 28 – September 6.

Once in Royal David’s City

Belvoir St Theatre, February 12

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Michael Gow’s new play Once in Royal David’s City is full of big ideas yet intimate at the same time, a piece that plays with form, and throbs with love and anger.

Theatre director Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell) is feeling somewhat adrift and in search of meaning after the death of his father (Anthony Phelan). Pulling out of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, he plans to spend Christmas with his mother Jeannie (Helen Morse) at a friend’s beachside house.

When she suddenly collapses, Will dupes himself into believing that it’s not that serious. In fact, she is dying of pancreatic cancer. Faced with the awful truth, Will sits by her hospital bed talking to her.

Locating the play right from the start as taking place in a theatre, Will sometimes addresses the audience directly and introduces scenes in Brechtian fashion.

Through his interactions with an eclectic range of characters – a school teacher who wants him to lecture on Brecht, his mother’s best friend, a woman consumed by grief and a Bible-basher who both visit his mother in hospital, a teenage boy fleeing family arguments over the Christmas Dinner table – Gow takes on a host of weighty subjects: Brecht and political theatre, Marxism, rampant consumerism, capitalist exploitation, the power of church music, mortality, grief and love among them.

Eamon Flack directs a clean, clear, eloquent production on Nick Schlieper’s pristine, open set that makes the Belvoir stage look bigger than I’ve ever seen it. A circular, white curtain around the space covers quick scene changes, while the cast performs harmonised Christmas carols (music by Alan John).

Flack draws excellent performances from his impressive cast, which also includes Helen Buday, Maggie Dence, Harry Greenwood, Lech Mackiewicz and Tara Morice.

Will is a huge role and Cowell pulls it off magnificently with a raw, compelling performance that captures Will’s pain and his rage at the world. Morse is radiant as Jeannie, seeming to fade into bird-like frailty before our eyes when illness hits.

I’m not sure that all the different elements of the play come together completely. A couple of scenes seem to add little, while Will’s final school lecture feels like an all-too-obvious device for Gow to vent without really shocking us into fresh insight – though he makes his points.

However, much of it is extremely moving (there is plenty of robust humour too), particularly the scenes between Cowell and Morse. The encounter between Will and the teenage skateboarder (Greenwood) is also unexpectedly poignant, while Phelan is terribly touching as an awkward, gentle godbotherer with a surprising insight into the gospels.

Once in Royal David’s City runs at Belvoir St until March 23. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16

Travelling North

Wharf 1, Sydney, January 18

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s a big year for David Williamson with eight of his plays to be staged in Sydney. It’s a shame then that the first of them – Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Travelling North – is a disappointment.

Written in 1979, Travelling North is a gentle, elegiac comedy about an autumnal romance between Frances (Alison Whyte, replacing the injured Greta Scacchi) and the grouchy, older Frank (Bryan Brown).

To the chagrin of Frances’s unhappily married daughters (Harriet Dyer and Sara West), she and Frank decide to head north together – but when Frank’s health fails there is trouble in paradise.

Directed by Andrew Upton, the production is hampered by David Fleischer’s stark, unattractive set. Performed on a large, slatted wooden platform backed by dark walls, with virtually no props, there is no sense of place, which the play needs. Instead, it is left to Nick Schlieper’s lighting to convey the shifts between chilly Melbourne and tropical Queensland.

It also seems odd that though the play stretches over a year or more, Whyte wears the same dress throughout while other actors have costume changes.

Brown brings little emotional depth or nuance to the role of Frank. He is at his most believable when angrily demanding information from his doctor (Russell Kiefel) but mostly looks slightly awkward as if uncomfortable on stage and captures little of Frank’s irascible charm.

Whyte is an elegant, dignified, warm-hearted Frances. Despite her late addition to the cast, hers is the most convincing performance, though Andrew Tighe gives the production an engaging shot in the arm with a very funny, sweet performance as the interfering but well-meaning neighbour in short shorts, socks and sandals.

It seemed to me that the problem is not in the writing. Williamson writes believable dialogue laced with a wry, gentle humour and canvases pertinent issues: older love, the generation divide and the way grown-up children so often demand that their parents remain at their beck and call – something we see a lot these days as more and more grandparents find themselves co-opted as child carers. We should care about the characters a whole lot more than we do here.

Instead, it feels as if none of the different elements of the production have really gelled. The emotional heart of the play is missing in this rather one-dimensional production, which doesn’t do Williamson justice.

Travelling North runs at Wharf I until March 22. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 2

Waiting for Godot

Sydney Theatre, November 16

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s just three years since Ian McKellen and Roger Rees toured here in a British production of Waiting for Godot that played up the vaudevillian theatricality in Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary, absurdist drama, with Vladimir and Estragon relating to each other like a well-oiled comedy duo.

Now comes a Sydney Theatre Company production starring Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir that undoes you emotionally in a far more profound way. The comedy is still there, beautifully so ­– though less self-consciously vaudevillian – but beneath both the humour and the existential bleakness is great tenderness, humanity, pathos and a disarming sense of caring.

Even the oppressed Lucky (Luke Mullins) gently wipes the face of his tyrannical master Pozzo (Philip Quast), having helped him to his feet at they prepare to depart in Act Two. It’s an incredibly touching moment that takes you completely by surprise and has you suddenly re-evaluating their relationship.

The production was to have been helmed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, who directed Roxburgh and Weaving in the STC’s acclaimed 2012 Uncle Vanya. When an injury left him unable to fly, Andrew Upton stepped into the breach, with Ascher’s assistant Anna Lengyel as his associate, and directs a production of great clarity that is light on its feet yet terribly moving.

Zsolt Khell’s stark set resembles a charred, empty theatre, open to the back wall, within a false proscenium studded with broken and missing light bulbs. The famous tree is a thin streak of trunk with a single branch that arches heavenwards, disappearing from view.

It is beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper, who bathes the stage in a sudden snap of blue light as night descends, while Alice Babidge’s costumes are suitably tattered and worn.

Weaving and Roxburgh are like two sad but resilient clowns who have made their way together, for better or worse. Roxburgh’s boyish Gogo is the more lost, despairing and occasionally angry, tugging plaintively at his ill-fitting boots and looking to Didi for comfort and food, yet he is playfully funny too.

Weaving’s Didi is jauntier and more in control, rolling the words around his mouth as he enunciates crisply like an old theatrical pro, the one who seems to remember more of the past, including the fact that they are to meet the enigmatic Godot.

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Quast and Mullins are more than their match as Pozzo and Lucky who appear in both acts, helping to alleviate the endless waiting.

Mincing onto the stage, his back arched dramatically as if promenading amongst high society, Quast is superb as the pompous, grandiose Pozzo: a big, corpulent figure compared to his scrawny servant. With his rich, resonant voice, Quast’s Pozzo is like a ringmaster in the first act, brutally in control. In the second act, now blind, he staggers on like a wounded bull, his authority undone.

With long, straggly white hair, Mullins is a ghostly yet feral presence and knocks you for six with his explosive, tortured outpouring of Lucky’s famous “thinking” monologue.

On opening night Rory Potter completed the exemplary cast as the boy who arrives, twice, to say that Godot won’t be coming.

In this thrilling, incredibly special production, you experience afresh Beckett’s iconic, exquisitely written play about everything and nothing. It really does seem to encompass the whole of life. Unforgettable.

Waiting for Godot runs at the Sydney Theatre until December 21. Bookings: 9250 1777 or sydneytheatre.com.au

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 24

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: review

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead you can’t help marvelling yet again that Tom Stoppard was still in his 20s when he wrote it.

The absurdist play, which made his name when it premiered at the 1966 Edinburgh Fringe, is not only an existential riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet but also draws on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

As we’ve come to expect from Stoppard, it is full of dazzling verbal and intellectual gymnastics, as well as meta-theatrical musings. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch their death predicted by the players it becomes a play within a play within a play within a play. I think.

With all the double entendres, puns, witticisms, word games and allusions it is a dense, cerebral piece and pays to listen closely. And yet, when it’s performed well – as it is here – it is as funny and poignant as it is clever.

In this smashing Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Simon Phillips, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz play the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who find themselves centrestage trapped in a world they don’t understand, with no knowledge about where they came from or what they are there to do beyond what they’re told.

As they wait – like Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon – for something to happen, the rest of Shakespeare’s play unfolds in the wings, spilling occasionally onto stage around them as events beyond their control hurtle them towards their death.

Minchin and Schmitz make a charismatic double act. As the more authoritative, philosophical Guildenstern, who has a keener awareness of their existential plight, Schmitz has the lion’s share of the words and delivers them superbly with an increasingly desperate bravado. I’ve rarely seen him in better form. He really does disappear into the character – and not just because his trademark floppy hair is hidden by a curly wig.

Minchin’s Rosencrantz is more of an innocent: a gentle, naive, clown-like soul. Cheerfully oblivious at first to their plight, he gradually becomes increasingly exasperated and then anxious. Together they mine the comedy brilliantly but are also touchingly tragic figures as they face their fate.

Angus King, Berynn Schwerdt, Paul Cutlan, Ewen Leslie, Aaron Tsindos, George Kemp and Nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Angus King, Berynn Schwerdt, Paul Cutlan, Ewen Leslie, Aaron Tsindos, George Kemp and Nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

They are surrounded by an exceptionally fine cast. Ewen Leslie is in swashbuckling form as The Player – the actor-manger of a rag-tag company who still loves a grand, theatrical flourish but is well aware that life is a charade.

As the players, George Kemp, Angus King, Nicholas Papademetriou, Berynn Schwerdt, Aaron Tsindos and Paul Cutlan create a wonderfully eccentric, tatty and downtrodden group.  Kemp, in particular, as young Alfred, who has to play all the female roles, does a lovely, very funny job of capturing their abject situation.

The fact that actors of the calibre of John Gaden, Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery were happy to play the small supporting roles of Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius says a great deal about the esteem in which they hold Minchin, Schmitz and Phillips – and the play itself.

Together with Adele Querol and Tim Walter as Hamlet, they play the court scenes from Hamlet with an outlandish theatricality, creating hilarious caricatures that emphasise the strangeness of the world in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a triumph. A steeply raked stage is flanked by sharply converging black walls that lead to a vanishing point in the void, while three arched tunnels down each side play tricks with perception under Nick Schlieper’s lighting. Hanging overhead is a weird funnel spouting a dead tree (a nod to Godot) that becomes a candelabra.

Into this mysterious, foreboding space, Tylesova introduces sudden explosions of colour with her whacky Elizabethan costumes for Hamlet’s court.

Phillips collaborated with Tylesova on the dazzlingly staged Australian production of Love Never Dies – and this production confirms that theirs is a very fruitful creative partnership.

All in all this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a stunning production, which, not surprisingly, is all but sold out. However, you can still try for one of STC’s Suncorp $20 tickets – on sale at 9am each Tuesday morning for the following week, either in person at the box office or on 9250 1929.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at Sydney Theatre until September 14

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 18