Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark

Wharf 1, June 19

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Richard Higgins as Hamlet and Matt Kelly as Claudius. Photo: Prudence Upton

Anyone familiar with children’s comedy duo The Listies will know that fart, poo and vomit jokes feature large – and a Listies production of Shakespeare is no different.

The Listies are a classic odd couple with Richard Higgins as the sensible straight man and Matt Kelly as the goofy mischief-maker. Their latest show Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark, was created in cahoots with Declan Greene (of renowned queer Melbourne theatre group Sisters Grimm).

It’s a terrific match. Greene, who also directs, has helped them streamline their shtick into a more tightly structured show without losing any of the ridiculous fun that they are known for.

Presented by Sydney Theatre Company, Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark begins with Higgins and Kelly in usher’s outfits doing a lackadaisical job of guiding people to their seats. But when the lights go up on stage, there’s not an actor in sight. It turns out they are all suffering from “the brown plague” having eaten blue cheese that was 400-years past its use-by date, which Matt gave them in an opening night gift basket.

Rather than disappointing the audience, the duo decide to perform the play themselves with Rich in doublet and hose as Hamlet and Matt as everyone else except Ophelia, who they talk the stage manager Olga (Olga Miller) into playing.

However, they only have 60 minutes because that’s how long it takes for the brown plague to turn your innards to liquid, and Matt has made Rich taste the poisonous cheese too.

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Olga Miller and Matt Kelly. Photo: Prudence Upton

Aiming for a “confrontingly traditional” production, Rich does his best to stick to the plot, explaining it in simple terms for children and jumping from one big moment to the next. But before too long things start spinning out of control. Matt can’t help playing up and Olga’s feisty Ophelia isn’t going quietly to a nunnery and instead heads to Planet Nunnery with Claudius, returning as a zombie.

Throw in a dancing dinosaur, tea towel aliens, a giant ear, silly string, a communal version of “To be, or not to be” and a trademark list and you have one of the funniest introductions to Shakespeare imaginable.

Renee Mulder’s set (a painted castle which looks like a storybook pop-up) and wonderfully silly costumes complement the shenanigans perfectly.

Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark is recommended for ages 5+ but there is plenty of smart humour for the adults too, with young and old all laughing along together at the riotously funny Bard-arse show.

Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark plays at Wharf 1 until July 17. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 26

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Endgame

Roslyn Packer (formerly Sydney) Theatre, April 7

Tom Budge and Hugo Weaving. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tom Budge and Hugo Weaving. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

In 2013, Andrew Upton stepped into the breach when Tamas Ascher withdrew from directing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for Sydney Theatre Company.

In his place, but working with Ascher’s assistant Anna Lengyel and using Zsolt Khell’s set designed for Ascher, Upton helmed a superb production with Hugo Weaving as Vladimir, which goes to London in June.

Upton and Weaving have now collaborated on an equally impressive production of Beckett’s Endgame – often considered a companion piece to Godot – with Weaving both performing and involved as associate director.

The post-apocalyptic, absurdist drama has four characters trapped in a room waiting for death essentially. The controlling Hamm (Weaving) is blind and confined to a wheelchair. His mistreated servant-son Clov (Tom Budge), who is crippled and can’t sit down, scurries around looking after him, while threatening to leave.

Hamm’s amputee parents Nagg (Bruce Spence) and Nell (Sarah Peirse) live in two dustbins – here dirty old oilcans, suggesting environmental disaster.

Clov periodically climbs a ladder to peer through two windows at the nothingness on land and sea outside, while there are glimpses of a normal life in times past through Nagg and Nell’s memories of boating and cycling.

It’s bleak but the writing is brilliant, laced with unexpected humour and devastating insights as Beckett looks deep into the agony of being human.

The Beckett Estate is famously rigid, requiring productions to stick to the letter of Beckett’s very specific stage directions. Upton and set designer Nick Schlieper have come up with an imposing, monumental staging that abides more or less faithfully with Beckett’s requirements but makes for a far more threatening space than a bare, grey-lit room.

Hugo Weaving and Tom Budge. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving and Tom Budge. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Schlieper cleverly reduces the width of the stage to create a more intimate focus, while a towering, dark grey wall looms forebodingly over them. It looks like a fortified stone lighthouse, in which various windows and doors have been filled in, while the thickness of the wall is visible when the curtains are opened at the two remaining windows.

Because the wall is so high, disappearing from sight, Clov requires a long ladder to reach the windows, rather than the usual “small stepladder”, which adds to the comedy of his daily ritual.

Renee Mulder’s gloriously grubby, shabby costumes are full of wonderful little details. Clov wears boots most of the time but at one point he has a grungy rabbit slipper on one foot, as just one example. It’s all beautifully lit by Schlieper, with reflections dappling the wall, while dripping water (sound by Max Lyandvert) can he heard.

Weaving is in masterful form as Hamm. Legs tied and wearing opaque glasses, his face and arms, and even his tongue at one point, are wonderfully expressive but it’s his extraordinarily eloquent voice that mesmerises, so full of different textures, tones and sounds: velvety one minute, snarling the next. His Hamm is a tyrant but with a jaunty, fruity presence and a wry sense of humour. It’s a compelling performance.

Budge’s performance is all about body language. Bent-over, he performs with a robustly comical physicality. The way he removes the sheet covering Hamm, or climbs the ladder, or interacts with Hamm, suggests well-oiled routines he has developed over time to fill the endless, empty days, while his attempt to get rid of a flea in his pants is priceless.

Sarah Peirse and Bruce Spence. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sarah Peirse and Bruce Spence. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The appearance of Spence’s elongated face, caked in white make-up, is a hilarious sight when his head emerges from the oilcan and he and Peirse tug at the heart as Nagg and Nell.

Endgame is almost unbearably bleak but at the same time surprisingly funny. Upton and his fine cast find that balance perfectly in an engrossing, lively, moving production.

Endgame plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until May 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 12

Perplex

Wharf 1, April 4

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Perplex by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg starts intriguingly. Andrea (Andrea Demetriades) and Glenn (Glenn Hazeldine) arrive back at their apartment after a holiday to find that the electricity has been cut off, there’s an odd pot-plant in the kitchen and something strange about the coffee table in the lounge – not to mention an awful smell.

Their friends Rebecca (Rebecca Massey) and Tim (Tim Walter), who have been watering the plants for them while they were away, appear and things get weirder. Not only is the electricity on but as far as Rebecca and Tim are concerned, this is their apartment. Outplayed, Andrea and Glenn are evicted.

Then Andrea and Glenn – the four actors use their own names throughout – reappear. Now, Glenn is Rebecca and Tim’s tantrum-throwing son and Andrea is their au pair. Rebecca doesn’t remember hiring an au pair but pretty soon the power shifts and Rebecca is sent packing as Tim and Andrea cosy up.

And so it goes, with characters and relationships morphing and blurring as one scene slides into the next without referencing previous ones.

Once you realise that this is the conceit and structure, the play somehow loses its bite and fascination. There is philosophical talk embracing Darwin and evolution, Plato, and Nietzsche but though Glenn appears at one point in Nazi brown shirt regalia, and the play ends with an absurdist, Pirandello-like scene in which the actors realise they have been abandoned by their director, the dramatic stakes don’t feel particularly high or truly dangerous. In large part that’s because with each change of scene and situation, the characters are let off the existential hook so instead of the tension building, it dissipates.

As Perplex plays with themes of what is real (in life and on the stage), identity and middle class mores and morality, it entertains but doesn’t pack as much of a punch as previous von Mayenburg plays The Ugly One and Fireface.

That’s no reflection on this classy Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Sarah Giles, who lulls us into a false sense of up-beat security with a mood-enhancing blast of Queen’s greatest hits as we enter the auditorium.

Staged on a suitably anonymous, minimalist set designed by Renee Mulder (cream brick wall, mustard carpet, sofa and wooden coffee table) the polished production moves briskly with excellent performances from all four actors. A Nordic fancy dress party, which sees Tim dressed as an elk, Andrea as a volcano, Rebecca as a Viking and Glenn as a skier, with a hilariously madcap sex scene between man and elk, is particularly funny, while Tim spends long spells expounding his theories stark naked. Hazeldine’s brilliantly observed tantrum as the boy Glenn is an inspired piece of physical comedy and a standout moment.

Mid-way through, however, I found my interest in the play waning. Maybe some of the scenes have a different resonance in Germany but here, though the plot may perplex the play doesn’t disturb, perturb or provoke and so it ends up rather washing over you in entertaining, non-threatening, bloodless fashion.

Perplex plays at Wharf 1 until May 3. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

The Long Way Home review

Sydney Theatre, February 8

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

When Sydney Theatre Company announced that it was co-producing a new work with the Australian Defence Force about returning servicemen and women, it sounded like a wonderful initiative – though quite how it would play out on stage, given that the majority of the cast were to be soldiers, was anyone’s guess.

Well, not only is The Long Way Home a wonderful initiative but an important, moving piece of theatre with the power to make an impact on several levels. As well as offering the general public a glimpse into the experiences of our military personnel, it will hopefully aid the recovery of the participants, and help other returned soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who see it – many of whom are in denial – to realise that they are far from alone and seek help.

The production was initiated by General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, after he saw a production in London called The Two Worlds of Charlie F based on the experiences of British soldiers. Stephen Rayne, who directed that production, was enlisted by the STC to direct here.

Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene crafted the script after spending a five-week workshop with 15 volunteer soldiers, who had seen active service in Afghanistan, Iraq or East Timor. Twelve of them appear in the play: Will Bailey, David Cantley, James Duncan, Wayne Goodman, Craig Hancock, Kyle Harris, Patrick Hayes, Tim Loch, Emma Palmer, Sarah Webster, James Whitney and Gary Wilson.

They perform alongside five professional actors: Martin Harper, Emma Jackson, Odile Le Clezio, Tahki Saul and Warwick Young. Both Harper and Young have served in the Regular Army and the Army Reserve.

Keene and Rayne decided not to create a piece of verbatim theatre, preferring the dramatic flexibility of a play with characters and several interweaving narratives.

But as Keene writes in the theatre program: “Is The Long Way Home fictional? Yes, and no. Every situation that it presents and every line of dialogue is born out of the experiences of the soldiers who perform in the play. They will play themselves re-imagined. They are bringing their reality into contact with that of their audience.”

What emerges is a tapestry of scenes in Afghanistan and Australia through which we gain an insight into the life of the soldiers during active service – the camaraderie, the terror, the adrenaline, the thrill, the horrific injuries – and then the struggle to readjust to civilian life when they return home with physical and/or psychological injuries.

Linking the scenes are various narrative arcs, the strongest of which follow two soldiers with PTSD, both battling a gnawing sense of loss and uselessness now that they can no longer be soldiers. We have known about PTSD for decades, of course, but The Long Way Home gives it a human face, taking us into the two soldiers’ minds and homes.

One of them, played by Loch, compulsively irons, cleans the house and mows the lawn to give himself something to do when sleep eludes him and hallucinations crowd in on him. The other played by Hancock finds himself becoming increasingly short-tempered and aggressive with his wife.

With professional actors Le Clezio and Jackson as their wives providing a strong emotional anchor in their scenes, both Loch and Hancock are superb, performing with a raw honesty.

As you’d expect, some of the soldiers are more relaxed and convincing on stage than others but overall they do exceptionally well and their physicality when in military mode is naturally utterly authentic.

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Among many strong performances, Wilson plays a mostly comatose soldier with severe physical injuries including brain damage, who occasionally whispers lines from The Odyssey from his hospital bed. His final monologue had many in the opening night audience in tears – civilians and uniformed men alike.

Whitney is also terrific as a soldier giving stand-up comedy a go, with some cringe-makingly awful jokes.

Rayne directs a tight, brilliantly staged production. Renee Mulder’s flexible set with sliding screens and a huge screen at the back, onto which is projected video imagery by David Bergman as well as text and interviews with the soldiers, is highly effective. The recurring image of armed soldiers in combat camouflage silhouetted against the back screen becomes like a leit motif, both familiar and also somewhat sinister.

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Damien Cooper’s masterly lighting and Steve Francis’ crashing, rock-like soundscape also play a huge role in creating a highly charged, atmospheric space.

Keene’s script is funny, poetic and moving. It captures the robust, droll, F-bombing humour of the soldiers, which has the audience roaring with laughter. The next minute we are holding our breath at the brutal honesty of some of the confessions – from the mistaken killing of civilian women and children to the emotional breakdown of a weeping, traumatised ex-soldier.

Two sketch-like scenes in which a comedy character called Lieutenant Neville Stiffy (Tahki) dissects the “yes” and “no” parts of a soldier’s brain, and the way commands from the top brass filter down to the lower ranks, sit a bit oddly. There are also a few things that don’t quite ring true (would the doctor really talk like that about a patient, in front of him, even if he does appear to be comatose?).

But overall, even if there are no profound insights, The Long Way Home (which runs around two hours and ten minutes including interval) is a remarkable achievement.

The participating soldiers, some of whom had never even been in a theatre before, deserve high praise for opening themselves up in this way and for their commendable performances. Hopefully they will gain something from the experience. (Apparently Wilson’s speech – which was affected by his horrific injuries after a helicopter crash – has developed markedly after working with vocal coach Charmian Gradwell).

Audiences will certainly be enlightened and moved by the play. And if returned military personnel, particularly those suffering with PTSD, do see it – as hopefully they will – one can only imagine how it might speak to them.

The Long Way Home plays at Sydney Theatre until February 15 then tours to Darwin (February 22), Brisbane (February 27 – March 1), Wollongong (March 5 – 8), Townsville (March 14 – 15), Canberrra (March 19 – 22), Melbourne (March 27 – 29), Adelaide (April 1 – 5) and Perth (April 11 – 12). Booking details: www.sydneytheatre.com.au

An interview with Corporal Tim Loch and playwright Daniel Keene can be found here: https://jolitson.com/2014/01/28/the-long-way-home/