All My Sons

Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 9

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Chris Ryan, John Howard and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Even if you know nothing about Arthur Miller’s classic play All My Sons, the foreboding set for Kip Williams’ shattering Sydney Theatre Company production tells you immediately that all is not well.

Instead of the usual naturalistic backyard, designer Alice Babidge sets the action in a black box with a flat cut-out of the Keller family home. The blank façade gives little away though you can see art on the walls through the windows. Later, the set will be used to echo the revealing of secrets, as lies that lurk at the heart of the play are laid bare.

In the brighter opening scenes, the darkness of the set does rather undercut Miller’s initial depiction of a happy family apparently living the American Dream. But as the play unfolds, the setting adds to the feeling of something rotten behind closed doors.

The stark staging throws a laser focus on Miller’s beautiful writing and on the exceptional performances, which stand out in sharp relief against the dark, oppressive backdrop, while Babidge’s costuming anchors the play in its period. The production is eloquently lit by Nick Schlieper while Max Lyandvert’s music subtly underscores the building of tension.

Set in 1946, wealthy factory owner Joe Keller (John Howard) was exonerated for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft parts during the war but his business partner Steve, who took the rap, is still in jail. Meanwhile, Joe’s wife Kate clings to the hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot missing in action for three years, will return home.

Their other son Chris (Chris Ryan) has invited Ann Deever (Eryn Jean Norvill) home and Kate and Joe are on edge. Ann is Steve’s daughter and Larry’s former girlfriend. When Chris announces that he wants to marry her, a tragedy is set in motion.

Williams directs with a searing clarity, beautifully served by a cast who are able to reach deep into the emotions gnawing at the characters from within. Nevin is heart-breaking as Kate. She looks so tiny and fragile, wracked by an anguish she is too scared to acknowledge, yet she can still muster a sharp humour and a desperate cheerfulness.

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Robyn Nevin, Josh McConville and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

In a wonderfully measured performance, Howard’s Joe is big and bluff with a geniality tempered by something guarded, while his sudden bursts of anger are quickly suppressed. Ryan radiates determined optimism as the idealistic, clean-cut Chris yet manages in little ways to suggest that he hasn’t completely recovered from the war. Hit hard by the truth, we watch Chris snap as his world falls apart. Norvill’s stylish Ann seems delicate yet stands her ground with surprising strength as she clings to the possibility of love.

As Ann’s avenging brother George, Josh McConville arrives (in crumpled suit) with a blast of energy.  His body is tight-wired and physically wracked as he struggles with a whirlpool of emotions: rage, guilt and long-standing love for the Kellers.

In supporting roles as the Keller’s neighbours –  Bert LaBonte as Jim, a world-weary, unhappily married doctor, Anita Hegh as his rather sour, nagging wife Sue, John Leary as the over-chatty handy-man Frank who is doing Larry’s horoscope for Kate, and Contessa Treffone as Frank’s sunny wife Lydia – the rest of the cast deliver well observed performances.

Telling a story of cowardice, denial and profit at others’ expense, All My Sons still resonates as powerfully as ever. Beautifully structured as it moves inexorably to its terrible conclusion, I felt as if I had been holding my breath for ten minutes or more by the play’s end, almost as emotionally drained as the actors.

All My Sons runs at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 12

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Robyn Nevin – from All My Sons to My Fair Lady

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Robyn Nevin co-stars with John Howard in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons for Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: James Green

From one of the great tragedies of 20th century theatre to one of the most perfect musicals ever written, Robyn Nevin will be running the emotional gamut in her next two productions.

A grande dame of Australian theatre, Nevin is currently at Sydney Theatre Company rehearsing Arthur Miller’s powerful classic All My Sons, which begins previewing on Saturday.

She then moves straight onto My Fair Lady, directed by Julie Andrews for Opera Australia and John Frost – which will doubtless be a tonic after the emotional toll of All My Sons.

“The play is a beautifully constructed tragedy, the playing out of which leaves us as actors pretty shattered,” admits Nevin.

“But there is also inspiration and deep satisfaction. Giving the work of a great writer to a different audience at each performance, and giving everything, is what sustains me.”

All My Sons is set in 1946 in the backyard of the Keller family. They appear to be a fine example of the American dream. Patriarch Joe Keller is a successful manufacturer, while his wife Kate keeps house. But there is something rotten at the heart of the family.

Kate clings to the hope that their son Larry, missing in action for three years, will return home. When their other son Chris arrives saying he wants to marry Larry’s girlfriend Ann Deever, a tragic series of revelations and events is set in motion.

“The play is basically about denial and secrets and how that corrodes individuals and families,” says Nevin who plays Kate to John Howard’s Joe.

“(Miller) wrote it as a 30-year old man and it was only his second play. They are clearly themes he felt very deeply about and it must have been very raw at the time, after the Second World War – but you know we’re always at war, it seems, and we are always losing soldiers and losing loved ones. Australia has been amazingly fortunate that we haven’t been at war on (home) land and we haven’t had a civil war but still (war) has taken its toll,” says Nevin.

“There’s so much more emphasis now on returned soldiers and the devastation that’s caused (in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder) to all who serve. That’s only just touched on in the play because it wasn’t examined in those days. But it is a presence in the play because one son has come back from the war and is embittered about his own country because of the fact that – as happened after the Vietnam War – the soldiers who returned were almost ignored as if nothing had changed in the world that they came back to. People didn’t understand the level of their devastation at all.”

Nevin describes Miller’s writing as “so strong, very simple and beautifully structured with wonderful rhythms. They are so authentic. You feel very supported by the structure of the play and the storytelling and the power of the plot. The characters are so beautifully written and so distinct from each other. It’s terrific to do a play like that because you can kind of sink into it. It stretches you and it forces you to work to your fullest, to exercise the muscle, but it’s also very supportive.”

The production is directed by Kip Williams, who directed Nevin in last year’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, staged with a huge video screen showing both live and pre-recorded footage.

“Kip and I had an odd time on Suddenly Last Summer because he was really directing for cameras so I feel this is like a new experience. I don’t feel that we worked so closely before. He’s the politest, sweetest man,” she says.

The chance to perform opposite John Howard was a big drawcard. “I haven’t worked with John for such a long time,” says Nevin. “He’s terrific: such a powerful presence on stage. It’s fabulous. The last time he worked here (at STC) was when I directed him in (Tony McNamara’s 2000 play) The Recruit. I also directed him in The Philadelphia Story (in 1986). I’ve known John since he first got out of NIDA and it’s great to have him back at Sydney Theatre Company.”

Nevin says that these days she has to be “much more wary than in earlier decades” when tackling such emotionally devastating material.

“I used to automatically plunge in. Now I’m much more careful about myself. I still have to plunge in. I have to go there. I have to feel what the character feels and imagine what the character is going through. I do that to the nth degree and that does take its toll. That means I have to be even more careful about myself and my mental, emotional and physical health,” she says.

When she’s not working, Nevin and her partner actor/writer Nicholas Hammond (who played Friedrich in the film of The Sound of Music) spend time in the Southern Highlands, south of Sydney.

“My life is very simple. I go out very rarely. We go to the country and that is an oasis of peace and calm and nature. We’ve got sheep. It’s very restorative,” she says.

In My Fair Lady, Nevin will play Mrs Higgins, society mother of Professor Henry Higgins – a prospect that clearly excites her enormously.

“I think it’s going to be wonderful,” she says citing the “beauty, scale and richness of the music and those wonderful lyrics that make  you weep with joy, they are so witty.

“I always wanted to be able to sing so to be inside that musical beauty will be very thrilling, actually,” she says. “My character doesn’t come on for ages until the Ascot scene so I’ll be able to hear them singing when I’m in the dressing room. Imagine that thrill. I’ll be like a groupie!”

Nevin is also excited about working with Julie Andrews and says they have had “a lively conversation” about the musical.

“I’ve met her before with Nicholas but not in a way that enabled a one-on-one conversation. We talked about the piece, we talked about Shaw (on whose play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is based) because I have directed Shaw. We talked about the musicality of it and the issues. She’s completely charming, of course,” says Nevin.

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the original Broadway production, as well as OA’s 60th birthday, Andrews is recreating the 1956 production in which she co-starred opposite Rex Harrison, playing cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle – the role that catapulted her to international stardom.

Oliver Smith’s set design and Cecil Beaton’s costumes will be recreated, with new choreography from Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli.

“I think she’s got an excellent team lined up and the designs and costumes are just extraordinary. I don’t agree with some commentary I read the other day about it being an old-fashioned museum piece and why would you want to resurrect that old production?” says Nevin.

“Well, it’s because it’s exquisite and true to itself. It has its own integrity and a lot of people will appreciate that. I think it will be a winner.”

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au. My Fair Lady, Sydney Opera House, August 30 – November 5. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 29

Alex Jennings Steps Back into Professor Higgins’ Tweeds

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Alex Jennings. Photo: supplied

There is nothing like a Dame as British actor Alex Jennings knows, having performed opposite some of acting’s greatest. He co-starred with Maggie Smith in the recent film The Lady in the Van and in 2006 played Prince Charles to Helen Mirren’s monarch in The Queen.

Still, he admits he was nervous when he met Dame Julie Andrews to discuss her 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady for Opera Australia/John Frost in which he will play Professor Henry Higgins – a role he first played in the West End in 2002.

“We met in London. I had a very lovely hour with her over drinks and we chatted about the piece and about her experience in it and my experience in it. I was quite nervous and completely delighted by meeting her,” he says.

A classical actor with three Olivier Awards to his name, including one for My Fair Lady, Jennings has worked extensively at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre.

Though born in Essex, he frequently plays “posh” characters. In something of a royal flush, having previously portrayed Prince Charles, he now plays Prince Edward in Netflix’s new drama The Crown and is currently in Yorkshire filming a British television series about Queen Victoria in which he plays Leopold I, King of Belgium, uncle to both Victoria and Albert.

“Where would we be without our royal family?” he quips in his silky, sonorous voice.

Jennings is coming to Sydney in August to co-star in My Fair Lady with rising star Anna O’Byrne as Eliza Doolittle – the cockney flower-seller Higgins bets he can pass off as an aristocrat by teaching her to speak “proper”. The top-drawer Australian cast also includes Reg Livermore, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Robyn Nevin.

Jennings was at the National working with Trevor Nunn on Vanbrugh’s Restoration comedy The Relapse in 2001 when Nunn asked if he’d like to take over from Jonathan Pryce as Higgins in his production of My Fair Lady, which was transferring to the West End.

“I’d never done a musical before and it was an extraordinary experience. I absolutely loved it,” says Jennings, who played the part for 11 months.

In 2014, he took over the role of Willie Wonka in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical directed by Sam Mendes and again relished the experience. Offered the chance to revisit Higgins in Australia, Jennings leapt at the chance.

“I’m really thrilled because it’s such a great musical and it’s such a great acting role as well as being a musical theatre role. It’s like playing Hamlet in a way, it’s inexhaustible really. So I’m thrilled to be having another go and slightly overwhelmed at the thought of working with Julie,” he says.

“And I’ve never been to Australia before so it’s a big treat,” he adds, saying that his wife, landscape gardener Lesley Moors, will come with him while their two children, now in their 20s, and his “dear, old Dad” will also visit.

Andrews is recreating the 1956 Broadway production in which she starred as Eliza opposite Rex Harrison.

“Even though the framework is going to be the same with the Cecil Beaton and Oliver Smith designs, there’s new choreography (by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli) and I think there’s room for manoeuvring and putting one’s stamp on it,” says Jennings.

“And, listen, they were great designs. I’ve been told that tweed fabrics are being rewoven as we speak. I’m happy to be in Rex Harrison’s old suits.”

Jennings describes the curmudgeonly, misogynistic Higgins as “volatile” but says: “he’s doing something quite radical I think. He wants to turn things on their head and give people lower down the social ladder – specifically Eliza in this case – opportunities to shift in society.

“He wants to mess with the English class system, which is a good thing. He’s passionate, he has borderline behavioural problems, living on his own. His heart and head have never been messed with in the way they are when Eliza comes to the house.”

Now 59, Jennings thinks there will be differences in his portrayal to when he last played the role.

“Since I last did it my singing has grown. When I was doing Willie Wonka I worked with a brilliant singing teacher called Mary King and she has given me confidence and brought on my singing,” he says.

“And I’m older – though I’m not as old as Rex Harrison was when he finished doing it. But there is going to be a bigger age difference between me and Eliza than there was when I last did it so any sense of romance would perhaps be less appropriate.”

My Fair Lady plays at the Sydney Opera House from August 30 – November 5. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 22

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

Robyn Nevin plays Mother Courage

Robyn Nevin has had a long, illustrious stage career, but 2015 could be one of her most memorable years yet.

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

She started it as the ruthless Mrs Venable in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer for Sydney Theatre Company, earning rave reviews, and will end the year there playing the Fool to Geoffrey Rush’s King Lear in a production directed by Neil Armfield.

Currently, she is preparing to play Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s great anti-war play Mother Courage and her Children for Belvoir, directed by in-coming artistic director Eamon Flack, who helmed Belvoir’s superb 2013 production of Angels in America in which Nevin also performed.

“It’s a wonderful year. I’m one very grateful woman,” says Nevin, now 72, during a break in rehearsals.

Best known as one of our leading stage actors, Nevin has found a whole new fan base since playing the posh, bigoted Margaret in the ABC-TV comedy Upper Middle Bogan.

She looks set to boost her screen profile still further with her performance in Brendan Cowell’s new film Ruben Guthrie, a black comedy based on his play, which opened the Sydney Film Festival this week before its general cinema release on July 16.

Ruben is a hard-living advertising executive who tries to get sober when he nearly kills himself jumping off a roof while pissed. Nevin plays his well-heeled mother, who keeps pushing him to go back on the bottle, because she finds him more fun when he drinks.

“It’s a great role. She’s fantastic,” says Nevin enthusiastically.

“She was a hard character to understand because I’m a great believer in Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step program. I know people who’ve been saved by those programs. I value them very highly. She’s got one fabulous line where she says, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s very impressive, do you, one day at a time?’ She’s just a brute, a wonderful character. I loved it. I had a wonderful time doing that film and Brendan was wonderful directing it. It’s a quintessentially Sydney story in its outlook and tone and visually. In a way, it’s a wonderful celebration of Sydney and a terrible indictment of it at the same time.”

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Anna Fierling – or Mother Courage as she is known – is yet another formidable character in Nevin’s armory (joining the likes of Miss Docker in Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul and Ana in Lally Katz’s Neigbourhood Watch). A refugee with three children and a cart, from which she sells food, liquor and other provisions, she buys and sells her way through a pointless, religious war, putting profit above all else. During the play, her three children are all killed.

Brecht wrote it in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Nevin directed the play for STC in 2006, choosing it as the first production for her newly formed ensemble, the STC Actors’ Company, with Pamela Rabe in the title role. Since then, it’s been on her bucket list of roles.

“I didn’t feel it was finished business although it was a very successful production. I loved getting to know the play and so I just thought, ‘yes, that’s a role I could one day have a go at,’” she says.

She programmed it at STC, she says, because she considers it “a great ensemble piece. It’s a very powerful piece of theatre. It’s arresting and gripping and entertaining and it’s a challenge for a company. Brecht has written it in such a way that there are 12 scenes and each scene requires a complex transition, which needs to be made slick and easy.

“In a small space, that takes a lot of time and effort and everyone is involved in that. I think audiences love watching a production unfold with ease and skill in a deft kind of way and Eamon is brilliant at that. But it’s taken an awful lot of time and it does require trust in each other. We all have to work very carefully in concert with each other, which I like about the piece itself. I like being part of a team. I’m addicted to the notion of an ensemble. I think they work, I think they’re very valuable and everybody gets better as a result of being in an ensemble production because so much is required of everyone.”

Asked whether she ever considered playing the role herself in the STC production, she gives the idea short shrift.

“I couldn’t possibly have considered playing it because I couldn’t give myself the lead role in the first play (by the STC Actors Company). The commentary from the media would have been too much for me to handle at that stage. They would have just thought it was personal vanity and I was not ambitious in that way at all. I gave opportunities to other people and rarely took the best opportunities for myself. And that was an occasion where I thought it would just look like hubris for me to lead the company in the first, inaugural production of the Actors’ Company so I directed it instead.”

Flack’s production for Belvoir features a new translation by Australian playwright Michael Gow and new songs by Stefan Gregory.

Brecht originally set the play in the 17th century during the Thirty Year War, but the Belvoir production has a contemporary setting. Nevin describes Gow’s translation as “ short, sharp and to the point. It’s got a directness, which I like. The lyrics are wonderful; the songs are fantastic….. It’s completely new compositions, it’s absolutely wonderful (music) by Stefan Gregory. He last did the entire musical score for Suddenly Last Summer. That was brilliant too.

“I don’t know how to describe (the Belvoir) production but it’s a thrill to be in it so I think it will be thrilling to see.”

An example of Brecht’s epic theatre, he wrote it to engage the audience intellectually rather than emotionally and apparently rewrote the role of Mother Courage when audiences sympathised too much with her.

Robyn Nevin rehearses Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin with Anthony Phelan in rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Nevin says she doesn’t spend time wondering how audiences will relate to the character.

“I just play one moment at a time and one action at a time. I play the action of the scenes; the meaning will be determined by the audience. I can’t preoccupy myself with what sort of person she is. She is defined by her actions so if I play the actions then the audience will judge as they will judge. But if you want to know what I think…..” she adds with a huge laugh.

She then cites a horrendous scene, which they have just been rehearsing, in which Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin returns having been brutally raped. Her mother tells her that she is lucky she’s not better looking or it could have been worse.

“That’s the tough job that Brecht gives the actors to do. He makes them say things that shock the audience horribly, (telling) a girl who’s just been raped that she probably would have been raped over and over if she’d been attractive enough. That’s actually what the woman is saying, and it’s hard to say, but that’s her way of dealing with it,” says Nevin.

“But in a minute she talks about Kattrin is a very different way, which shows her concern but is in no way sentimental, never sentimental. Over the course of the play she’s tough, she’s pragmatic, she’s only concerned about survival through trade even as her three children are killed.

“Brecht wrote that but he can’t stop that well of emotion, he can’t separate an audience from their humanity. (But) in a way the play is saying, ‘what good is humanity during war?’

“One of the songs really speaks to this quite clearly. It’s the Song of Solomon. One by one they describe the qualities of the great men of history and each one of them died for their good qualities: their wisdom, their courage. So what’s the point of being brave, of being wise, of telling the truth, of fearing God? So you’re playing characters who crush their better qualities in order to survive.”

Funnily enough, it’s King Lear that Nevin has been having nightmares about during Mother Courage rehearsals, rather than the Brecht.

“I’ve already had my Lear nightmare in which we were about to go on stage and I didn’t know a word, not a word. I was asking for a script and no one had one because they all knew theirs and they’d left it at home. Just terrifying! Then we went on stage and Geoffrey lay back and didn’t say a word and I thought, ‘well if he’s not going to speak, I’m not going to speak.’ It was just awful.”

Nevin laughs. “I should be having nightmares about Mother Courage, I’m already having nightmares about Lear.”

Accepting the offer to play the Fool was “a hard decision”, she says. “I don’t even know where to begin with the Fool but the thought of being in a (rehearsal) room with Neil doing a Shakespeare was exciting because I haven’t done a Shakespeare with Neil. I’ve done very few Shakespeares so that’s very exciting.”

Mother Courage and Her Children plays at Belvoir St Theatre, June 6 – July 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

King Lear plays at Sydney Theatre, November 24 – January 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 31

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