The Golden Age

Wharf Theatre, January 19

2S4A8687

Back: Robert Menzies, Sarah Peirse, Anthony Taufa. Front: Liam Nunan, Rarriwuy Hick and Zindzi Okenyo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Louis Nowra’s epic play The Golden Age hasn’t been staged professionally in Sydney since 1987, following its Melbourne premiere two years earlier. This stunning Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Kip Williams, confirms that it is an Australian classic and as relevant as ever.

Thrillingly ambitious in its scope and imagination, the play roams from Hobart to the Tasmanian wilderness to Berlin at the end of World War II.

It begins in 1939. Two young men – Francis (Brandon McClelland), an engineer from a working class background, and his friend Peter (Remy Hii) from a well-to-do Hobart family – hike into the Tasmanian wilderness and discover a lost tribe descended from a motley group of European convicts and settlers, including one actor.

Isolated for 80 years, they have developed their own language and culture but have serious physical and mental disorders because of inbreeding. Realising that “the circle is burst” and they have no future, their leader Queenie Ayre (Sarah Peirse) decides they will return to civilisation with Francis and Peter.

However, the government is concerned that their genetic problems will be used as proof of Nazi propaganda and insists on putting them in an asylum until the end of the war.

Nowra vividly evokes the world of the tribe, inventing a muscular language drawn from Cockney, Irish, 1840s convict slang and bawdy verses. At first we have little idea what they’re saying but as some of it is explained and our ear attunes, we begin to decipher meaning. He also folds Greek drama and Shakespeare into the mix of the play.

The Golden Age takes an unflinching look at Australia’s colonial past and culture of ‘she’ll be right’ indifference, articulated in a particularly passionate speech by Francis. Themes include the destruction of one culture by another, what constitutes civilisation, war, class and the search for love, identity and belonging.

At its heart is the touching love story between Francis and Betsheb (Rarriwuy Hick), a young woman from the tribe, who are separated during the war years when Francis and Peter enlist and are sent to Europe, but who offer a glimpse of optimism amid the tragedy.

Williams’ production unfolds with cinematic fluidity on David Fleischer’s set, dominated by a huge mound of earth. It’s not particularly attractive and works better in some scenes than others. Initially, it seems like a rather drab, arid rendering of the Tasmanian wilderness, even with the odd leafy branch thrown onto it. It also looks odd to have an elegant dinner party scene in Hobart next to it. But it gradually seems to accrue meaning, symbolising the harshness of the story and the intermingling of the characters’ fates as the earth is paddled around the stage.

Fleischer’s excellent costuming feels very authentic. The production is beautifully lit by Damien Cooper, while Max Lyandvert’s sound is richly evocative.

It’s terrific to see such colour-blind casting, with actors from a number of different backgrounds, most of which simply ‘is’. Having Indigenous actor Ursula Yovich as the aristocratic, rather cold Elizabeth Archer, who utters sentiments such as “What a pathetic group they look, like those Aboriginals in shanty towns”, meanwhile, feels deliberately provocative and heightens the discomfort of such lines.

Among a strong ensemble, Hick shines as Betsheb, capturing her inquisitive, high-spirited, wild nature. Peirse is compelling as Ayre, exuding a natural authority as well as her desperation to protect the tribe and its heritage. Liam Nunan’s physicality as the crippled Stef is superb and McClelland is a passionate Francis. Robert Menzies also excels as combative tribesman Melorne and as Peter’s father, Doctor Archer, who becomes obsessed with the tribe.

Complex, challenging and wildly theatrical, The Golden Age has a haunting, dreamlike quality yet at the same time it feels painfully, movingly real.

The Golden Age plays at Wharf I until February 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

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A Christmas Carol

Belvoir St Theatre, November 12

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

The magic begins as soon as you enter the theatre to find the seats dusted with (paper) snow. All over the theatre young and old excitedly lark around with it, dumping it on each other’s heads and tossing snowballs.

It’s the perfect start to Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol: a production so delightful and touching it would melt the hardest heart.

The costuming is contemporary (Mel Page) but the adaptation by director Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie is a faithful telling of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale.

In this materialistic society of ours, the story of the miserly Scrooge resonates as powerfully as ever. Visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, Scrooge learns to open his heart (and wallet).

The messages that although you can’t change your past, it’s never too late to change your ways, and that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, are as beautiful and timely as ever.

The Belvoir stage has rarely looked larger than it does with Michael Hankin’s steeply raked black set. It’s a deceptively simple design with trap doors and a platform that rises and falls, brought to vivid life by Benjamin Cisterne’s dynamic lighting.

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarks’ production doesn’t avoid the dark corners of the story but her production twinkles with joy and playfulness along with showers of snow and glitter, a human Christmas tree, and carol singers in wonderfully naff, knitted Christmas jumpers (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Robert Menzies is perfect as the mean-spirited, grouchy Scrooge, who starts the evening growling “Bah, humbug!” to any mention of Christmas and gradually thaws until he is gamboling in the snow making angel wings.

The other seven actors take on a number of roles each and work together as a tight ensemble. Steve Rodgers brings a beatific smile and deep humanity to the role of Bob Cratchitt, matched by Ursula Yovich as his kind-hearted but tougher, spirited wife. Together they are incredibly touching.

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell’s radiantly glowing face could light the darkest night as Tiny Tim. Wearing a gorgeous confection-of-a-costume made from gold tinsel, Kate Box brings a deliciously mischievous exuberance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Ivan Donato is a more solemn presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a shiny suit, Peter Carroll is hilariously, maniacally unhinged as Jacob Marley, while Eden Falk is decency and kindness personified as Scrooge’s nephew.

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

With music by Stefan Gregory and movement by Scott Witt, the heartwarming, family-friendly production (which runs 75 minutes) moves you to laughter and tears, sending you home filled with the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, I felt so uplifted that the next morning I booked tickets to take my family to see it just before Christmas. A real gift of a show.

A Christmas Carol is at Belvoir St Theatre until December 24. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 23

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

The Government Inspector

Belvoir St Theatre, March 30

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies, Mitchell Butel. Photo: Pia Johnson

As many would know, Belvoir’s 2014 season was to have included a radically reworked production of The Philadelphia Story “created by Simon Stone, based on the play by Philip Barry”.

However, after the subscription brochure was released, it transpired that Barry’s wife was a silent co-writer. The play was therefore not out of copyright and her estate refused to grant the rights.

To fill the gap Stone decided to use the same cast in a production of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 political satire The Government Inspector. Well, sort of.

Gogol’s farce is set in rural Russia where corrupt bureaucrats mistake a lowly civil servant for a government inspector. They bribe him rotten until, having taken full advantage of them, he does a bunk just before the real inspector arrives.

Stone and his co-writer Emily Barclay have created a piece, devised with the actors, that riffs on Gogol’s themes while being set in a theatre.

The show begins with a morose Robert Menzies, in priest’s garb, stalking on stage to explain that not only will we not be seeing The Philadelphia Story but we won’t be seeing The Government Inspector either, so if anyone wants to leave, now’s the time.

On Ralph Myers’s revolving set – which has a performance space with a gold curtain on one side, and a backstage area on the other – Stone then whisks us back to three weeks before opening.

The actors – Menzies, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone – are discovered digesting the news that The Philadelphia Story has been cancelled. Next they learn that Stone has quit as director. Then Davies dies, choking on an activated almond.

Someone suggests staging The Government Inspector and a Google search locates Seyfat Babayev, an Uzbekistani director who recently mounted an avant-garde production. An invitation is sent and he agrees to come. To say more would spoil things.

Using their own names, the actors play heightened, wickedly comical versions of themselves. Butel is a flouncing, self-obsessed luvvie ready to decamp to Playschool if necessary, Norvill an air-headed soap star, Menzies, a grouch who will only enunciate clearly when paid, Stone, needy and ambitious, and Bazzi, a quiet, somewhat vague observer. Davies also plays a hapless actor called Frank who arrives to audition for an improvisation project, while Newman is a Hispanic cleaner with a love of musicals (and what a lovely singing voice she has).

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

They all work together as a tight ensemble. To play the panic and escalating chaos in the play requires absolute precision otherwise it descends into a total mess. They do it brilliantly with perfectly pitched performances, making sure we hear what we need to amid the hubbub.

The production becomes a rollicking, clever take on Gogol, skewering human vanity, pretension, ego and ambition, while poking delicious fun at Australian auteur directors (like Stone himself) influenced by European theatre, as well as musicals and theatre in general.

People in the business and committed theatre-goers will probably get most out of it but it’s so hilariously funny you’d have to be as curmudgeonly as Menzies is here not to enjoy it.

The Government Inspector is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 18. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6

Fury

Sydney Theatre Company

Known for writing plays that voice the concerns, dramas and ideologies of educated, articulate, middle class protagonists, Joanna Murray-Smith is one of Australia’s most successful playwrights, embraced by audiences but frequently dividing critics.

Her new play Fury, commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company, is set in the comfortable, inner-city home of a liberal, professional family. Alice (Sarah Peirse) is a highly successful neuroscientist who is about to receive a prestigious humanitarian award. Her husband Patrick (Robert Menzies) is a moderately successful novelist.

IMG_1603

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The play opens with a well-researched student journalist (Geraldine Hakewill) interviewing Alice and then Patrick for a personal profile about Alice: an obvious device (which Murray-Smith also used in her play Honour) that allows the characters to articulate thoughts they wouldn’t in ordinary conversation.

A teacher (Tahki Saul) then arrives to inform them that their only son Joe (Harry Greenwood) has been caught with a high school friend putting graffiti on a local mosque. From here the play unfolds to reveal a secret that will undo the family.

Fury is very much a play of ideas set once again in a familiar, middle class milieu. It’s wordy but engrossing. The writing is heightened, sharp, intelligent and witty. The ideas are provocative and eloquently expressed.

In one scene the parents (Claire Jones and Yure Covich) of the other boy – who come from a more working class background and could not have afforded to send their son to the same school were it not for a sporting scholarship – visit Alice and Patrick to discuss with the mosque incident.

The father states clearly and unapologetically his views on the situation, from Muslims living in Australia to parenting today. Again, it’s a way to discuss ideas but to my mind Murray-Smith avoids making it all-too-obvious debate by creating characters that extend beyond stereotypical mouthpieces. Terrific performances by Covich and Jones definitely help.

Andrew Upton directs a tight, absorbing production, drawing detailed, layered performances from a strong cast. Peirse in particular is compelling as Alice, moving from easy, authoritative, self-assurance to unravelling doubt and vulnerability, while Greenwood makes a very impressive professional stage debut as the troubled Joe.

David Fleischer’s open set with concrete walls and polished marble floor is a cold, brutal, elegantly contemporary space that suits the emotional world of the play though it doesn’t feel like the book-filled home of arty intellectuals.

The plot of Fury does feel slightly contrived to embody the debate it dramatises and Joe’s act is never fully explained. Nonetheless, it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking play embracing themes including race relations, radicalism, intergenerational conflict, gender, and the anger and anxiety in today’s isolating society.

The foyer on opening night was buzzing with people discussing what they had just seen.

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1 until June 8