Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bella Vista Farm, December 12

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Lara Schwerdt, Emily Eskell, Sabryna Te’o and Madeleine Jones in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Maryne Rothe

Sport for Jove’s outdoor season is always something to look forward to during the Sydney summer (weather permitting) and this year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a delight.

I saw the play at Bella Vista Farm Park in the Hills Shire and have been tardy in reviewing it so that season is now over. However, you can catch the production at Everglades Gardens in Leura during January – and it’s well worth it.

At Bella Vista Farm, Sport for Jove has a new purpose-built stage. With a lighting rig and backstage area, it is better equipped for the cast and crew. Constructed at the bottom of a gently sloping hill, it also provides better sightlines for the audience who can either sit on a picnic blanket, or a little further up the hill on provided plastic chairs. The set-up may not have quite the same charm as when the company performed in a courtyard in front of the farmhouse or in the nearby shed, but it is eminently practical.

What’s more, the set (co-designed by Damien Ryan and Anna Gardiner) is vibrantly attractive in a shabby chic kind of way with wisteria-draped screens and walls and a “marble” floor: a staging that sits well and looks good in the outdoor setting under Sian James-Holland’s lighting.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s early, rarely performed comedies. It’s a wordy piece though it never feels cumbersomely so here. In his program notes, director Damien Ryan writes that he has removed the play’s “most impenetrable material” but admits that some of the language remains “a curiously knotted garden”. However, there’s lots of wonderful poetry and the production rollicks along with such an infectious energy that any difficult language never becomes an issue.

The plot is light and rather silly. The young King Ferdinand of Navarre (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) and his friends Lord Biron (Tim Walter), Dumain (Curtis Fernandez) and Longaville (Gabrielle Scawthorn) take a pledge to avoid woman and wine for three years and instead devote themselves to study.

But before the ink is dry, the Princess of France (Emily Eskell) and her ladies-in-waiting Rosaline (Sabryna Te’o), Maria (Lara Schwerdt) and Katherine (Madeleine Jones) arrive and test their resolve.

A second plot involves a Spanish nobleman, Don Adriano de Armado (Berynn Schwerdt) who is bent on wooing a comely country maid called Jaquenetta (Claire Lovering). A bumpkin called Costard (George Banders) is also sweet on Jaquenette but is no match for the Don and finds himself being used at the go-between for one and all.

The women in the play are highly spirited and independent, and while attracted to the men refuse to become their playthings. As a way to increase the number of roles for women, Ryan has Longaville played by a woman in masculine attire (Scawthorn) who holds her own in the privileged men’s world. By doing so, Ryan introduces the issue of marriage equality. The device works brilliantly, without feeling at all gimmicky. When the young people eventually pair off, there just happens to be one lesbian couple.

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Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Curtis Fernandez, Tim Walter and Gabrielle Scawthorn in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Marnya Rothe

While using Elizabethan costuming, Ryan also injects a great deal of fun by portraying the officious, bureaucratic Anthony Dull (Scott Sheridan) as a contemporary park ranger.

Speaking of costuming, Melanie Liertz has done an exceptional job on the smell of an oily rag. Apparently the women’s gowns are made from painted canvas. Amazing.

Ryan’s cast is terrific. Some handle the language better than others, but overall it’s performed with a zest that fills the air, sailing effortlessly to the top of the hill. Beryn Schwerdt is hilarious as Don Adriano, flouncing around in melodramatic fashion with a fruity, comedic Spanish accent to match.

Aaron Tsindos is also funny as the Don’s manservant Moth. Scawthorn is impressive as Longaville, Lembke-Hogan exudes confident poise as Navarre and Walter is dashing as the serious, cynical Biron. But all the cast – which also includes Wendy Strehlow and James Lugton – are on song. A fun night.

The evening begins with a short curtain raiser: Josh Lawson’s Shakespearealism, a clever, 30-minute send-up about Ralph Shakespeare, a young playwright who pioneered realism on stage but lived forever in the shadow of his brother William. Directed by Lizzie Schebesta, with Lembke-Hogan as Ralph, James Lugton as jaded theatre manager Philip Henslowe, and Scawhtorn and Tsindos as two actors, it’s a cute piece but makes for a long night.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Bella Vista Farm, December 19

Earnest Production Photo 5 - Credit Marnya Rothe

Deborah Kennedy as Lady Bracknell and Scott Sheridan as Jack Worthing. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the greatest comedies of all time, but I’m not sure that the play with its witty repartee and drawing room settings lends itself to an outdoor production in the same way that Shakespeare does. Damien Ryan directs an enjoyable enough production but it often feels a bit try-hard in the comedy stakes. The slapstick routine of Algernon (Aaron Tsindos) and his manservant Lane (James Lugton) falling off the stage doesn’t sit right in Wilde’s stylish world, nor does Cecily (Eloise Winestock) gagging on the name Algernon. What’s more, I didn’t find any of that particularly funny.

Some of the gags work well – the running joke about the servant’s bell is amusing – but the portrayals of the gun-toting Cecily and hyper Gwendolen (Claire Lovering) feel far too overplayed.

Deborah Kennedy has the style absolutely right as Lady Bracknell and nails every laugh, delivering the famous lines as if they’ve never been said before in a standout performance. Wendy Strehlow is also on the money with Miss Prism, while Tsindos has the measure of the witty, devil-may-care Algernon.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 9 – 24. Bookings: http://www.sportforjove.com.au

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Caress/Ache

Griffin Theatre Company, SBW Stables Theatre, March 4

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Caress/Ache, a new play by Australian playwright Suzie Miller, was inspired initially by the 2005 execution of young Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore. Under Singaporean law, his mother was not allowed to hug him before his death.

The shocking inhumanity of such a ruling set Miller thinking about the importance and power of touch. The result is Caress/Ache, a play, which went through a long period of studio development at London’s National Theatre. In her program notes, Miller also acknowledges the dramaturgy of a number of highly regarded theatre professionals. And yet, after so much work, the play – which now has its premiere at Griffin Theatre Company – still lacks the emotional depth to rise above its all-too-obvious exploration of a chosen subject and truly resonate.

Miller interweaves a number of stories. There’s Mark (Ian Stenlake), a paediatric doctor who feels like a god when he is saving children’s lives. Even the sex with his wife Libby (Helen Christinson) is better after a successful operation. However, when he loses a young patient on the operating table, he can no longer bear to touch his wife or be touched.

Mark later turns to a phone sex line, speaking to Cate (Sabryna Te’o), a single mother who is working there to support her child, asking her to touch her face and arm and describe the sensation. Cate is new to the job, taught how to handle things (as it were) by her cheery, experienced colleague Belinda (Zoe Carides), who lends the fairly heavy piece a little levity.

Then there’s the furious Saskia who confronts her poet boyfriend Cameron (Gary Clementson), after discovering he has slept with her boss. We also meet Arezu (Te’o), a young Iranian woman whose parents fled to Australia to give her a better life, naming their daughter after the word for “hope”. But Arezu is frustrated that they won’t talk about Iran. When her uncle gives her a book of Farsi poetry, she starts to wear the hijab and decides to return to her homeland to discover who she really is.

Her story is less linked to the all-pervasive theme of touch, but at the airport she meets Saskia who is flying to London. In a brief encounter, Arezu ends up giving the unhappy Saskia a hug – a moment that feels utterly contrived. There’s another tenuous connection between Cate, Cameron and Saskia via an autistic child, which comes out of nowhere and really does feel as if Miller is straining things unnecessarily.

Finally, there’s Alice (Carides) who goes to Singapore to be with her son Peter (Clementson) who is about to be hanged there for drug trafficking only to find she isn’t allowed to touch or hold him. Mark is the Australian doctor/coroner who will be at Peter’s execution and complete the paperwork afterwards.

This particular story strand leads to the powerful closing scenes and the play’s undeniably moving final image. However, it was impossible to watch this without thinking of what is happening in Indonesia. On the very day of the play’s opening, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were transferred from Bali’s Kerobokan Prison to the island of Nusakambangan to await their execution for drug trafficking.

For some, the extraordinary timing heightened the emotion and lent the play an added power, with a number of audience members in tears at the end of the play. Others – myself included – found it extremely uncomfortable. Clearly, Miller could have had no idea when she was writing the play of how closely it would be reflecting newspaper headlines. Had the preceding scenes been dramatically stronger, it might not have mattered. As it was, I found those particular scenes uncomfortably close to emotional manipulation, giving the play a resonance it hadn’t earned.

Directed by Anthony Skuse, the Griffin production is staged on a stark white set designed by Sophie Fletcher, which begins as a hospital operating theatre and then allows for quick, simple changes for different locations.

As the start of the play, a quote is projected onto the theatre walls: “Human skin and tissues contain millions of sensory receptors. Without them, there would be no capacity for people to sense the touch of another.”

Various statements and statistics relating to touch are flashed up periodically throughout the play. In the end, they just get in the way, reinforcing the feeling of a lecture. And therein lies the problem with the play. It always seems to be illustrating its chosen topic, rather than organically exploring it. The characters exist only to fit the theme. They don’t feel real, lacking a convincing emotional life beyond what they represent here in relation to touch.

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

The dialogue between Saskia and Cameron feels particularly clichéd, causing some sniggers on opening night as he mutters about feeling disgusted with himself, while she can’t believe he could do this to her. (“Tell me it didn’t happen, Please just tell me you didn’t do this.”) The way she goes on and on, furiously demanding more and more graphic details about his infidelities makes her come across as a victim, wallowing in his betrayal, while he hangs his head in shame but perpetuates his lies.

The opening scene in which Mark rhapsodises about his feelings when he is operating uses a heightened, poetic language. He rolls along the top of the metal bench as in a piece of choreographed physical theatre, while music swells. But this style of performance is just as suddenly dropped, apart perhaps from a bath scene featuring Saskia and Cameron.

And why, when Mark’s marriage has obviously been a loving one, would he not at least try to explain to Libby why he now shrinks from her? Instead he silently turns his back. As for Nate Edmondson’s music, sung by the cast, it feels overblown and sits oddly stylistically.

Skuse has the actors play things at full bore. The five performers turn in strong performances, but the play resists their attempts to give it a convincing emotional life. Instead Caress/Ache speaks to us “about” a theme. What’s more, it doesn’t have anything particularly new to say in relation to it.

The fact that a mother can’t hold her son before he is executed is a truly terrible thought. You can see why it would capture Miller’s imagination. She has clearly done a huge amount of research into the subject of touch and all that it involves but she hasn’t found a way to synthesise this into a genuine drama.

Caress/Ache runs at the SBW Stables until April 11. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

The Chimney Sweep

City Recital Hall, July 5

Stuart Haycock and Amelia Farrugia. Photo: Keith Saunders

Stuart Haycock and Amelia Farrugia. Photo: Keith Saunders

The surtitles before the start of The Chimney Sweep announce the restoration of Salieri’s reputation – and Pinchgut Opera certainly does him proud with this delightful production.

Most people these days would only know Antonio Salieri’s name from the 1984 Academy Award-winning film in which he was depicted as a mediocre composer who poisoned his fierce rival Mozart out of jealousy.

In truth, Salieri was more famous in his day than Mozart and almost certainly did not murder him. But where Mozart is now one of the most performed composers in the world, Salieri’s music is rarely heard.

Thanks to Pinchgut – which dedicates itself to the presentation of rarely seen operas from the 17th and 18th centuries – Sydneysiders have the chance to see the Australian premiere of Salieri’s comic work The Chimney Sweep (Der Rauchfangkehrer). A huge hit when it was first staged in 1781, it all but disappeared after the mid-1800s.

The Chimney Sweep is a rollicking comedy centring on Volpino, a musically gifted chimney sweep who is in love with Lisel, a cook in the household of wealthy widow Mrs Hawk and her stepdaughter Miss Hawk.

Learning that Mr Bear and Mr Wolf have won the lottery and hope to marry the Hawks, Volpino and Liesel cook up a plan to better themselves financially.

Pretending to be an Italian count disguised as a sweep, Volpino uses his musical skills to worm his way into the affections of the Hawks who he then auctions off to Wolf and Bear. From there it spins off into all kinds of comic complications – but as you’d expect it all ends happily.

Right from the start of the overture you can hear the fun in Salieri’s music, emphasised by a quick little leap of joy by Erin Helyard, who conducts the marvellous Orchestra of the Antipodes. The music doesn’t compare to Mozart’s operas (though it is often reminiscent of Mozart) but much of it is lovely and thoroughly enjoyable.

Written as a singspiel in which the musical numbers alternate with dialogue, Pinchgut performs it in English. Director Mark Gaal has translated the dialogue, while Andrew Johnston has translated the lyrics. Both have done a great job. Occasional phrases like “My god, they go ballistic” had the audience chuckling but the translations aren’t so tricksy that they compromise the original 18th century setting.

Gaal has staged a simple but effective production with gorgeous costumes and set by Emma Kingsbury. Performed against a gold wooden backdrop with a huge gargoyle-faced fireplace, and just a few props, Gaal uses signs (flamboyantly displayed by Gary Clementson as the servant Hansel) to announce each new location.

The performers all handle the dialogue and dramatic challenges extremely well, playing the comedy to the hilt, while the ladies really shine vocally. Amelia Farrugia is outstanding as Mrs Hawk and young soprano Janet Todd is also very impressive as Miss Hawk. Together they steal the show.

Stuart Haycock has a fairly light tenor voice but brings plenty of charisma to the role of Volpino. There is strong support from David Woloszko as Mr Bear, Christopher Saunders as Mr Wolf, Alexandra Oomens as Lisel and David Hidden as the master chimney sweep Tomaso, as well as Clementson, Nicholas Hiatt, Troy Honeysett and Sabyrna Te’o as the servants. The Sydney Children’s Choir makes up the cast as Tomaso’s young apprentices.

Overall, The Chimney Sweep is lots of fun and yet another feather in Pinchgut’s already well-covered cap.

The Chimney Sweep has its final performance tonight. Bookings: www.cityrecitalhall.com or 02 8256 2222