Seventeen

Belvoir St Theatre, August 5

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sure, it could easily have been another song in the event but it’s quite a moment when the veteran cast of Seventeen dances to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Famously, it nearly didn’t happen. When rights to the song were denied at the last minute, director Anne-Louise Sarks took to Twitter. The campaign went viral with Swift tweeting her permission, gifting the production invaluable publicity.

Written by Matthew Whittet, Seventeen is a very sweet play. On the last day of high school, a small group of friends gather in the park to party the night away before they all go their separate ways and life changes forever. As they drink too much, dance and play truth and dare, anxieties, fears and secrets bubble to the surface.

It could be performed by young people but Whittet wrote it for 70-year olds, adding another level of poignancy to his examination of those uncertain years on the cusp of adulthood when you ponder who you are and what you hope to become.

And so we have a cast of esteemed older actors in the roles. There’s the loud, pushy ringleader Mike (John Gaden), his quieter, more sensitive best mate Tom (Peter Carroll) who is heading interstate to Melbourne University, Mike’s pretty, popular girlfriend Sue (Maggie Dence) and Sue’s brainy friend Edwina (Anna Volska) who rarely lets her hair down.

Joining them are the uninvited Ronny (Barry Otto), the weird, misfit kid that no-one likes, and Mike’s 14-year old sister Lizzy (played by the younger Genevieve Lemon) who won’t go home no matter how much they tell her to piss off.

The company spent time during rehearsals with some 17-year olds to get back in touch with a teenager’s energy, physicality and way of talking – and they all do a great job. Carroll and Gaden, in particular, climb the playground equipment and get their groove on with the ease and exuberance of people decades younger (movement by Scott Witt).

There are a few clunky moments as Whittet sends characters off stage to allow others to remain alone, which feel a bit engineered, but overall Sarks’ production is nicely staged on Robert Cousins’ playground set, with very clever costuming by Mel Page.

The performances are exceptional. After initial laughter at seeing septuagenarians larking around, saying “fucktard” and dancing to contemporary pop songs, we accept the convention as the actors draw us into the character’s emotional dilemmas.

There are lovely moments for all the characters, while Otto’s portrayal of the sad, alienated Ronny is heartbreaking.

The characters can’t believe how quickly their high school years have flown. Young people will doubtless relate to that, but Seventeen will probably speak loudest to people whose teenage years are long in the past and for whom the passing of time and sense of nostalgia will strike even more of a chord.

Whittet writes with love, tenderness and a gentle optimism. He doesn’t tell us what happens to the characters – which would arguably make for an even stronger play – but he leaves us hoping against hope that things will turn out well for all of them.

Seventeen runs until September 13. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 9

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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

Miss Julie: review

Belvoir St Theatre, August 28

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Known for his contemporary rewrites of classical plays, Simon Stone’s radical 2011 adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was devastatingly good and has enjoyed considerable success in Europe.

His adaptation of Miss Julie, which is billed as being “by Simon Stone after August Strindberg”, is less persuasive – though powerfully performed.

Written in 1888, Strindberg’s drama about class and sexual power – examined through the story of the daughter of a Swedish count sleeping with one of his servants – was deemed so shocking it was banned in Sweden for years.

Updating the action to present-day Sydney, Stone retains the key elements of Strindberg’s plot but where the original play unfolded over one claustrophobic act, Stone adds an interval and sets the second act ­in a motel.

He has also changed the original ending, which had Miss Julie taking the “honourable” way out (Strindberg’s word in his foreword) and leaving the stage with a razor given her by Jean to commit suicide.

Miss Julie’s father is now a high-profile politician in the running to become Prime Minister. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his chauffeur and security guard with a gun on his hip. As in the original, Jean’s fiancée Christine (Blazey Best) is the housekeeper and cook.

Though class certainly exists in Australia – no matter how much we might like to deny it – it doesn’t trap people in the same way that it did in Strindberg’s day. And though rich people employ servants, the situation doesn’t resonate with the same widespread recognition.

So, in order to up the ante Stone has made Miss Julie 16 instead of 25, while Jean who was 30 in the original is here closer to 40.

After being discovered in a car with a boy and drugs, Julie has been grounded. Her absent father has charged Jean and Christine with looking after her. On this particular night, Jean has had to physically drag her out of a party. Now here she is in skimpy baby doll PJs (costumes by Tess Schofield) insisting he stay with her while she eats pizza.

Directed by Leticia Caceres, this Belvoir production is impressively staged. Set designer Robert Cousins creates a gleaming white, minimalist kitchen for the first act where Christine stands beneath a portrait of Julie cooking a risotto as the audience enters the auditorium, while second act takes place in a non-descript motel.

The sharp, strident chords of music by The Sweats that open and close the play help establish an unsettling mood.

The age difference between Jean and Julie certainly brings a different edge to the play. Watching him allow her to seduce him and then plan to use her as a way to a better life does feel shockingly grubby – wince-makingly so when 20-year old Taylor Ferguson (who looks convincingly younger) takes retainers out of her mouth before she kisses him.

The central problem of the adaptation is that it never feels believable that the Jean of Stone’s version would work for such a family. Cowell gives a very convincing portrayal of a gruff, lumbering, mono-tonal, Aussie bloke desperate to join “the secret club” as he puts it. But you can more readily imagine him working for a heavyweight in the Cross than for a leading politician.

Surely a wealthy businessman turned politician would employ someone more personable? And would he really leave such a thuggish man to look after his daughter?

Strindberg’s Jean was the son of a labourer but has “educated himself towards becoming a gentleman” and “has a sense of beauty” (Strindberg’s foreword again). He also has some charisma. Cowell’s Jean is such a charmless character it’s hard to believe Julie would fall for him – even as a means of escape or to get back at her father.

As for him being a former sommelier in London, it beggars belief. Cowell even pronounces the word wrong – which rings true for the character, but not for someone who really has worked as one.

Though the second act verges on soap opera, the production is powerfully performed. Cowell is a visceral, dangerous presence, while Best gives a fine performance as the mature, practical, pragmatic Christine who is prepared to stand by her man.

Ferguson makes a remarkable stage debut as the troubled Julie: a poor little rich girl, on the verge of womanhood, fast discovering her sexual power. Imperious one minute, throwing a childish tantrum the next, she captures the depth of the character’s loneliness and her sense of abandonment in a brave performance.

But where Strindberg’s Miss Julie willfully degrades herself, “trying to behave like the common people” as Jean puts it when she attends the servants’ party and insists he dance with her in front of everyone, here you feel Julie is so young and lost she just needs someone to love her and doesn’t quite realise what she is unleashing.

Ferguson’s raw, exposed emotion at the end certainly left me feeling churned up but the adaptation itself doesn’t totally convince.

There is plenty to be examined around the idea of class and ambition in contemporary Sydney but transposing Strindberg’s play from 19th century Sweden isn’t the most effective way of addressing it, while making Julie 16 subtly changes what Strindberg was saying about strong women who use sex for power.

Miss Julie runs at Belvoir St Theatre until October 8

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 1