Machu Picchu

Wharf 1, March 8

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Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in Machu Picchu. Photo: Brett Boardman

After the success of Sue Smith’s previous plays Kryptonite in 2014 and Strange Attractor in 2009, her latest drama Machu Picchu was keenly anticipated – particularly with Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in the lead roles.

But despite the best efforts of McCune and Gilshenan, the play itself feels underdeveloped, while the production directed by Geordie Brookman does it no great favours.

Commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company, Machu Picchu is a co-production between STC and the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

In a program note, Smith reveals that she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma a month before Kryptonite went into rehearsals. Machu Picchu was written in response to that experience. The play isn’t about cancer but explores how you deal with a life-threatening or life-changing event, and how that might make you reassess and change attitudes and priorities.

Gabby (McCune) and Paul (Gilshenan) are both successful engineers and appear to live a charmed life, though after 20 years their marriage has gone off the boil. Then, on the way home from attending a disastrous mindfulness retreat, their car crashes into a kangaroo. Gabby escapes unharmed but Paul is left a quadriplegic.

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Darren Gilshenan and Luke Joslin. Photo: Brett Boardman

Machu Picchu takes its name from the Inca city: an engineering marvel both admire and have long planned to visit. It represents the missed opportunities and compromises so many of us make in the busy whirl of life today. With its extraordinarily strong foundations, which have ensured its survival, the ancient site is also a resonant image for relationships.

The play shifts back and forth in time, so that we see Gabby and Paul’s relationship before and after the accident. With Paul experiencing hallucinations from the medication, the play also moves between reality and more surreal scenes but this hasn’t been fine-tuned enough in the writing. Brookman’s direction does little to help and the shifts in tone and style feel somewhat clunky.

McCune and Gilshenan both turn in accomplished performances. McCune plumbs Gabby’s guilt, loneliness and frustration beautifully, while Gilshenan brings a dry humour to the role of Paul, convincingly portraying his physical limitations, pain and indignity as well as the emotional turmoil, all of which leave him wondering whether he wants to live.

Though the chemistry between McCune and Gilshenan doesn’t totally fire, the scenes between them are the play’s strongest.

The supporting characters, however, are sketchily drawn. Best friends Marty (Luke Joslin) and Kim (Elena Carapetis) – who have their own flimsy IVF story – come across as crass, insensitive and self-absorbed when visiting Paul in hospital. If there was any sense of subtext, we might feel they are nervous, unsure what to say or perhaps trying to hide their distress. As it is, it’s hard to believe Paul and Gabby could be close friends with such boorish people.

Paul and Gabby’s daughter Lucy (Annabel Matheson), a doctor, is also conveyed in a few broad strokes, while Renato Musolino does what he can with the Lou, the psychologist from the retreat who rather improbably reappears and tries to help Paul find meaning in life.

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Darren Gilshen, Luke Joslin, Elena Carapetis and Renato Musolino. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade’s drab, unattractive set (lit by Nigel Levings) has a curtained hospital bed on one side of the stage and what feels like acres of poorly used, empty space on the other. (It may well sit better in the Dunstan Playhouse when the play goes to Adelaide). The hallucinations (which include Elvis for some reason) aren’t staged with any great imagination and visually it all feels rather bland and clichéd.

Machu Picchu explores interesting themes we can all relate to but it needs further dramaturgical work if it is to draw us in, provoke us and touch us emotionally. At present, it is only part way to becoming a compelling drama.

Machu Picchu plays at Wharf 1, Sydney until April 9. Bookings: 9250 1777. Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, April 13 – May 1. Bookings: BASS 131 246

A version of this review ran in Daily Telegraph Arts online on March 11

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The Force of Destiny: review

Opera Australia, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 29

 

Svetla Vassileva as Leonora. Photo: Prudence Upton

Svetla Vassileva as Leonora. Photo: Prudence Upton

Death stalks Verdi’s dark, doom-laden, four-act opera The Force of Destiny (La forza del destino) as does the hand of fate – here made visible through the figure of the fortune-teller Preziosilla.

It’s an imaginative and effective device by director Tama Matheson, who has Preziosilla haunting the three central characters – Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo. Forever watching them, she intervenes at times, notably at the pivotal moment of Alvaro and Leonora’s elopement when she pushes Don Alvaro’s hand so that he accidentally shoots and kills Leonora’s father, setting the tragedy in motion.

Set in 18th century Spain and Italy during the Wars of the Austrian Succession, Verdi tells the story of forbidden love and honour killing against a background of war, also interweaving themes of religion and sex.

The love between Don Alvaro (son of a Spanish father and Peruvian princess) and Leonora only blossoms briefly. Separated when they elope, each believes the other dead for most of the opera. They don’t meet again until the tragic finale when – restoring Verdi’s original ending – Don Alvaro, Leonora and her avenging brother Don Carlo all die.

Matheson and designer Mark Thompson have created a mostly magnificent, visually dark production to match the bleak spirit of Verdi’s opera. On a black stage with tapestry-like backcloths, huge icons are used to create bold stage images.

It opens with a giant, gleaming skull and Preziosilla and the chorus holding similar masks as if at an underworld masked ball.

There’s also an enormous Madonna symbolising the monastery, the hermit’s cave where Leonora takes sanctuary for eight, lonely years, and various staircases and platforms around them.

In the first two acts, some of the scene changes feel a little clunky as things are moved around, notably the Madonna, which wobbles slightly as it is wheeled forwards. The massive scale and gaudiness of the religious statue also feels a bit overdone, representing as it does a small, out-of-the-way monastery.

In another scene, it takes ages for rows of candles to be pushed into place – though it looks beautiful when they are finally set.

But from there on, the production moves seamlessly and the distraction of earlier scene changes dissipates. Overall, however, the staging is marvellous, creating a visceral, dramatic environment seething with foreboding, enhanced by Nigel Levings’ gloomy lighting.

The final image of blood pouring from the crucified Christ’s side onto the giant skull below, flanked by walls of skeletons, is a resonantly powerful, disturbing one.

Thompson’s richly detailed, period costumes add flashes of colour to the darkness, in particular Preziosilla’s red, gold and black dress with its layers of lace and netting.

There’s a striking moment in the first act when Leonora’s maid helps her out of an ornate gown with enormous pannier into simple clothes for the elopement – which speaks reams about the power and status of clothing.

Heavy, dark eye make-up for many of the performers adds to the sense of the characters being haunted and doomed.

 

Jonathan Summers, Rinat Shaham and Riccardo Massi. Photo: Prudence Upton

Jonathan Summers, Rinat Shaham and Riccardo Massi. Photo: Prudence Upton

The casting is splendid. As Don Alvaro, Riccardo Massi appears slightly awkward to begin with but once he warms up sings with stirring passion and an effortless, soaring beauty.

Svetla Vassileva is radiant as Leonora, with a rich, clear, agile soprano, while her acting is equally expressive and poignant.

Jonathan Summers uses his dark baritone to convincingly portray Don Carlo, Leonora’s unlikable brother who is hell-bent on revenge, believing that his sister has dishonoured their family.

There are also vivid performances by Rinat Shaham as the gypsy Preziosilla, Warwick Fyfe as the grouchy, impatient Franciscan Fra Melitone, who resents dispensing charity to the poor, Richard Anderson as Leonora’s father the Marchese di Calatrava, Giacomo Prestia as the generous Padre Guardiano and Kanen Breen as a pedlar.

Andrea Licata conducts the orchestra with a spirited sense of urgency.

The Force of Destiny is a long opera, running three and a half hours with two intervals, but this powerful, new production keeps you in its grip and lingers in the mind.

The Force of Destiny runs until July 23.