Disgraced

Wharf 1, April 21

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Sachin Joab as Amir. Photo: Prudence Upton

There were audible gasps among the opening night audience several times during the Sydney Theatre Company’s gripping production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced.

 First staged in New York in 2012 and then produced on Broadway last year, Disgraced is a well-made American play clearly crafted to debate certain issues but it feels urgent and timely prompting plenty of discussion in the foyer afterwards around its provocative themes.

Set now, Amir Kapoor (Sachin Joab) is a successful New York corporate lawyer who puts in the hard yards as he aims for promotion at the Jewish firm he works for. He has denounced his Islamic faith, describing the Koran as “one very long hate mail letter to humanity” and is somewhat vague about his background, saying his parents were born in India though the area they come from is now in Pakistan.

Happily married to Emily (Sophie Ross), an artist with a particular interest in Islamic art, and living in a swanky Upper East Side apartment, life looks pretty rosy.

But when Emily and Amir’s nephew Hussein (Shiv Palekar) – or Abe as he prefers to be known – push him to represent an imam imprisoned for raising funds for Hamas, the consequences are far-reaching.

Things start to come apart when Amir and Emily have a dinner party for Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine), a Jewish curator who is considering including Emily’s work in a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and his African-American wife Jory (Paula Arundell) who is a colleague of Amir’s at the law firm.

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Sachin Palekar, Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dinner party is a well-worn dramatic device and naturally articulate arguments flow. But Akhtar has written well-rounded, believable characters and they are the kind of people who would have such passionate, intelligent, political debates, so it remains convincing even if you are aware of the dramatic set-up. What’s more, Aktar throws some provocative sentiments, sudden eruptions of drama and surprise twists into the mix that jolt and shock you.

Nothing is black and white as the play raises complex questions about identity, race, religion, prejudice, radicalisation and what it is to be a Muslim man living in the West. Amir may have turned his back on Islam but some of the views he has grown up with prove more difficult to dislodge.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s stunning design brilliantly evokes Amir and Emily’s swish apartment full of art and chic designer furniture, while Sarah Goodes’ superb direction gradually ratchets up the tension as she draws compelling performances from her excellent cast. Some have disliked the way she has the cast change the set but for me it worked fine; the way Amir slowly clears the dinner table is actually very poignant.

Joab has plenty of film and television credits but is making his stage debut as Amir– which surely says something about casting in this country – and gives an impressive performance moving believably from suave confidence to explosive behaviour that surprises even him and then a shattering sense of loss. The primal moan he emits when he realises the ramifications of all that has happened is harrowing.

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Sachin Joab and Shiv Palekar. Photo: Prudence Upton

Ross also colours her character’s emotional arc convincingly as she gradually realises what she has unwittingly triggered. Her interest in the history of Islam is conveyed with girlish enthusiasm initially and her pain and anger later in the piece feels very real.

Arundell brings plenty of sparky attack and zing to the piece as the smart, plain-speaking Jory, eliciting many laughs. Hazeldine finds the humour, passion and rather self-regarding arrogance in Isaac and Palekar makes a strong impression as Abe, whose attitude to his heritage changes through the course of the play.

Running a tight 90 minutes, Disgraced in a knotty play, engrossing play that raises plenty of pressing, topical questions and shows that there are no easy answers.

Disgraced runs at Wharf I until June 4. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 24

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Mother Courage and her Children

Belvoir St Theatre, June 10

Robyn Nevin and the cast of Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin and the cast of Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Mother Courage is one of the great theatre roles for women. Physically and emotionally demanding, she is on stage for virtually the entire play as she navigates her profiteering way through the horror of war, losing all three of her children in the process.

Robyn Nevin makes the role her own in this exuberant, economically staged Belvoir production directed by incoming artistic director Eamon Flack.

Written by Bertolt Brecht in the late 1930s, Mother Courage and her Children was his response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Germany’s invasion of Poland. He set the play during the Thirty Years War (1618 – 1648), a long, arduous, pointless, religious conflict. (Some things never change). A wily refugee called Anna Fierling – or Mother Courage as she is known – follows the troops with her three grown-up children and a cart from which she sells food, liquor and other goods, doing whatever it takes to survive. She is desperate for her children not to become casualties but when the chips are down she is unable to protect them.

A rage against war, capitalism and man’s inability to learn from history, it’s a tough play about both the surrender and resilience of humanity during extreme times.

Using a sharp new translation by Michael Gow and new music by Stefan Gregory for the songs, Flack’s production bristles with as much vitality as brutality, with snappily choreographed scene changes keeping the action moving.

Robert Cousins’s set has a black painted area in the corner resembling a backstage room with props and musical instruments where the actors often sit when not performing: a constant reminder that we are watching theatre being made. Alice Babidge’s contemporary costuming includes military gear and clothes the characters might have got from op shops or the cheapest of stores as they struggle to keep body and soul together.

The centerpiece of the design is the cart, which is here bright red with circus-like coloured lights, pictures of hotdogs and other junk food as well as cheap tat like plastic beach thongs. Other than that the stage is bare apart from a few plastic chairs, while firecrackers exploding in a metal bucket help evoke the sounds of war.

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Flack has mustered an excellent ensemble cast, who play various characters and musical instruments, and each nail their moments. Paula Arundell is gloriously funny as the feisty prostitute Yvette and sings up a storm, delivering the Song of Fraternisation standing on a plastic chair, while newcomer Emele Ugavule is very touching as Mother Courage’s mute daughter Kattrin. Tom Conroy and Richard Pyros are also particularly strong as Mother Courage’s two sons.

But the production is driven by Nevin’s riveting portrayal of the fast-talking, pragmatic Mother Courage. While the character rarely betrays any emotion, Nevin still manages to convey the tragedy that envelops and batters her, as well as her wicked sense of humour. We glimpse emotions flit across her face only to be immediately concealed; we see her body droop just a tiny bit then steel itself.

Though she’s no singer or dancer, she also throws herself into both with endearing gusto, touchingly reinforcing the fact that Mother Courage will do whatever it takes.

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin as Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Then there are the brief flashes of tenderness that strike at the heart. The way she spoons soup into her daughter’s mouth like a mother bird ­– an unspoken vow that she won’t desert her child – is an unforgettably poignant moment.

The famous, final image of her pulling her cart alone, having lost all her children, hits hard as the lights snap off.

Mother Courage plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

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

Macbeth

Sydney Theatre, July 25

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

The casting of Hugo Weaving as Macbeth and the decision of director Kip Williams to turn the Sydney Theatre back-to-front make this Sydney Theatre Company production one of the hottest tickets of the year.

Weaving does not disappoint, giving a passionate, compelling performance, but the production itself waxes and wanes somewhat.

Entering the theatre, the audience is led to a seating bank on the stage for 360 people who sit facing the eerily empty 900-seat auditorium. On stage in front of you stands a long trestle table with a few props (a plastic tub of water, a ruff, a wig, a crown and on the back of one chair a red velvet gown with ermine collar).

It looks like a rehearsal room and when the actors appear casually dressed in contemporary street wear and begin performing seated at the table under a general lighting state, that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s a slow start.

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s not until after the death of Duncan (John Gaden) when fog fills the stage and sound and lighting start to transform the space that excitement levels begin to rise.

It’s a valid enough conceit to have the full theatricality only kick in once Macbeth has sealed his fate and begun his descent into a nightmarish world full of bloody horror. It’s just that the early stage business feels a bit silly. The witches (Kate Box, Ivan Donato and Robert Menzies) dunk their heads in the tub of water, blow bubbles and then recite their lines while dripping. As an image for the boiling cauldron it comes up short.

Having Melita Jurisic in a plastic rain mac, chugging on a cup of blood and then dribbling it down her front as the wounded Captain reporting from the battle also comes across as gimmicky.

But as Duncan lies dead, the production starts to hit its stride. The actors bang their hands on the table, Max Lyandvert’s visceral sound design picks up on the drumming and amplifies it tenfold, the stage fills with fog, the lighting changes and we’re off.

The stunningly staged banquet scene with candles, flowers and place settings comes as a relief. Having the murdered Banquo (Paula Arundell) sit at the table has been done before, of course, but it works exceptionally well.

There are some other wonderful effects – the sudden fall of a black curtain not far from us, isolating Macbeth from the world beyond, for example, and later Macbeth strobe-lit in battle. There is also an extended fall of shimmering “rain”, which inevitably recalls the golden shower in Benedict Andrews’s production of The War of the Roses in the same venue. But, no matter, it’s incredibly beautiful and very effective.

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Under Nick Schlieper’s lighting, the auditorium does become a haunting, ghostly backdrop. Williams doesn’t stage many scenes there but those that he does work well. Banquo is chased through the auditorium and murdered in the stalls. When Macduff (Kate Box) goes to England to beg Malcolm (Eden Falk) to return to Scotland, their encounter takes place at the front of the circle while Macbeth stands silhouetted on stage.

Many liked Williams’ restraint in not using the auditorium too much; I liked what he did with it but felt he could have used it a little bit more.

The costumes by the show’s designer Alice Babidge come across as rather ad hoc without a unifying style. The street wear is uninspiring, despite odd touches like the ruff and kingly robe, and Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth dress is downright drab and unflattering. It’s a shame the costuming doesn’t develop more as the rest of the production builds theatrically. That said, when Babidge does go for a flourish with the final image of Malcolm being dressed in doublet and hose for his coronation, it sits oddly.

The play is performed by an ensemble of eight, all of whom double except for Weaving. The acting is a little uneven with a range of vocal styles.

Weaving gives a magnetic performance that focuses on Macbeth’s interior torture. He spits and snarls as he gives physical and emotional expression to the conflict that rages within him between vaulting ambition, doubt, fear, ruthlessness and fleeting regret. His anguish is utterly palpable.

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

As Lady Macbeth, Jurisic is so febrile and intense from the start that she almost leaves herself nowhere to go. Like Weaving, her vocals are rich and mellifluous but in starting at such a pitch, some of her dialogue is lost by the time she plays the mad scene.

Gaden handles the language with effortless eloquence, as ever, and is very touching as Macduff’s young son in a moving scene with Arundell as Lady Macduff. Box is also impressive, bringing a quiet dignity to the role of Macduff.

In the end, however, the production – which runs a tight two hours without interval – is set around the mesmerising performance of Weaving. The back-to-front staging doesn’t make any strong comment on the play but proves to be an atmospheric backdrop and Weaving’s performance is thrilling.

Macbeth plays at Sydney Theatre until September 27. Most performances are sold out. A few tickets were released yesterday so check with the box office on 02 9250 1777. Otherwise a limited number of Suncorp $20 tickets go on sale at 9am each Tuesday for the following week either in person at the Wharf Theatre box office or on 02 9250 1929

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 27

Clybourne Park

Ensemble Theatre, March 19

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

There was such interest in Clybourne Park that the Ensemble Theatre production sold out before opening so two performances in Chatswood have been added.

Written by American actor-playwright Bruce Norris, the play arrives in Sydney trailing numerous awards including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play and the 2011 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Expectations were therefore high – and the Ensemble production more than meets them.

The pithy drama straddles 50 years in a Chicago suburb. It begins in 1959. A clearly unhappy couple – the angry, taciturn Russ (Richard Sydenham) and his over-cheery wife Bev (Wendy Strehlow) – is packing up their home with the help of their black maid Francine (Paula Arundell).

Their local preacher (Thomas Campbell) arrives, clearly hoping to have a meaningful conversation with Russ, followed not long after by a neighbour called Karl (Nathan Lovejoy) with his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Briallen Clarke).

Politely outraged that they have sold the property to a “coloured” family at a knock-down price (for reasons revealed later), Karl tries to convince them to change their mind, his appalling bigotry expressed in the nicest way possible.

When Francine’s husband Albert (Cleave Williams) arrives to pick her up, his attempt to help Russ becomes excruciatingly awkward.

The second act is set in 2009. A white couple (Lovejoy and Clarke) has bought the run-down house in the now predominantly Afro-American suburb and wants to rebuild. This time, there are objections from a young, black woman (Arundell) who wants the history of the area to be respected.

Clybourne Park is a provocative play with some truly cringe-making moments, including several rancid jokes. But it is also very funny and sad as it tackles racism, political correctness and real estate, while weaving in grief and post-traumatic stress disorder too.

You’re aware that the play’s neat structure – which has the cast playing two different sets of characters across the two time-frames, some of them related – is well-crafted if not contrived in its balanced halves and set-piece debates. However, it’s so cleverly done and the writing so good that it works.

Tanya Goldberg directs a terrific production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that manages to make the stage look much bigger than usual (a feat that Lauren Peters has pulled off with equal flair for The Drowsy Chaperone currently playing at the tiny Hayes Theatre Co). The way the house is transformed into a graffiti-covered state of disrepair during the interval is very cleverly done.

Goldberg has elicited uniformly strong, utterly truthful performances from her excellent cast who work together as a well-oiled ensemble.

Clybourne Park could easily be set in Sydney, where right now there are plans for public housing in prime, inner-city locations to be sold off by the NSW State Government, despite the long-standing history of the area.

It’s a thought-provoking play that has you squirming at times and underlines with discomforting power that attitudes haven’t changed anywhere near as much as we’d like to think.

Clybourne Park runs at the Ensemble Theatre until April 19 and then at The Concourse Chatswood on April 23 & 24. Bookings: 9929 0644

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