Kill the Messenger

Belvoir St Theatre, February 19

Nakkiah Lui in front of a photograph of her nana Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nakkiah Lui in front of a photograph of her nana Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

In Kill the Messenger, Australian playwright Nakkiah Lui tells two troubling stories about people dying before their time: victims of what she calls “institutionalised racism”.

The first, she heard about from her mother who is a nurse. Paul, an Aboriginal man with a drug addiction, was turned away from a hospital emergency ward. They thought he was pretending to be in agony just because he wanted drugs. In fact, he had undiagnosed stomach cancer and hanged himself later that night in a park.

The other is about her beloved nana Joan, who died after falling through the floor of her rotting, termite-infested home, despite Lui and her mother reporting the problem to the Department of Housing everyday for a year. Because it was public housing for Aboriginal people, the complaint kept being put to the bottom of the pile and nothing was done.

This kind of invisibility is all-too-common, suggests Lui, when you are black and living in a predominantly white society.

Lui, who is a Gamillaroi and Torres Strait Islander woman, includes herself as a character in the play. While she hadn’t initially intended to, she plays herself in the production as well, having had to audition for the role. The on-stage Nakkiah interacts in scenes with the other characters and talks directly to the audience at times about writing the play.

Directed by Anthea Williams on a starkly minimal set by Ralph Myers (a square of light on the stage, a couple of props, some projections), Kill the Messenger is unadorned storytelling at its most powerful: raw, passionate, angry, urgent, real and full of sadness.

Lasarus Ratuere as Paul. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lasarus Ratuere as Paul. Photo: Brett Boardman

The play slides between documentary and the imaginary as Lui tells her “tale of black oppression”. It’s a politically charged piece, yet she tells it with humour too. And while she makes no bones about the constant injustices faced by her people, she also allows the harried, overworked emergency nurse who sent Paul home a voice. She doesn’t condone what he did or the system that he works within, but she lets him explain how it happened.

We also meet Paul’s sister Harley, who tries so hard to help Paul get off drugs, and Nakkiah’s boyfriend with whom she makes love (triggering a lovely quip about how she had imagined Miranda Tapsell would be playing her) and fights.

There are strong performances from the tight ensemble cast: Lasarus Ratuere as Paul, Katie Beckett as his sister, Matthew Backer as the nurse and Sam O’Sullivan as Lui’s boyfriend. Lui herself is a strong, warm, fierce presence and drives the production.

At one point, pondering her nana’s death, Lui asks a series of ‘what ifs?’ going all the way back to “what if the Brits never came and Cook and just fucked off and people weren’t dispossessed and we never needed the Housing for Aboriginals….?’” But she knows there are no answers to that; all she can do is tell her story and hope we listen. To hear it from her own lips makes it especially powerful, while the projected photographs of herself with her nana as a young girl, and of her nana in hospital after the fall, are deeply affecting.

Lui showed great promise with her first play This Heaven, staged in Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre in 2013. She has also been a writer and actor for the ABC’s Black Comedy and a writer on Blak Cabaret seen recently at the 2015 Sydney Festival.

Kill the Messenger (with dramaturgy by Jada Alberts) confirms what a talented, passionate, astute writer she is. The play is a powerful plea for us to take note and do something to stop this kind of casual injustice happening.

Kill the Messenger runs at Belvoir St Theatre until March 8

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 22

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Constellations

Eternity Playhouse, August 12

Sam O'Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Written by British playwright Nick Payne when he was just 29, Constellations was rapturously received in the UK in 2012. In January, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in a Broadway production.

Grab the chance to see it here because it really is an ingeniously constructed, beautifully written two-hander – and this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production, directed by Anthony Skuse, more than does it justice.

Marianne (Emma Palmer) is a vivacious, voluble physicist interested in the “multiverse” theory. Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) is a laid-back beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue. She goes over to chat but he snubs her, saying he’s married. End of story. Or is it? The scene is then replayed again and again, each time with a slightly different outcome.

This pattern repeats throughout the play at different points in their relationship. But no matter how different possible outcomes we experience, they all end in imminent, untimely death.

Early on, Marianne says to Roland: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made, and never made, exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

Although Payne uses the idea of parallel universes for the play’s structure, he doesn’t actually explore the philosophical and scientific ideas around this in any depth. Instead, the play riffs on the idea of “what if?” and the way our lives could go in so many different directions depending on the little choices we make, the people we meet, when we meet them, and so on. Think Sliding Doors meets Groundhog Day (happening here and now in our world – or so it seemed to me).

Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s wonderfully spare set, which opens up the theatre to its bare, beautiful walls, Skuse directs with great precision but lightness of touch giving the piece room to breathe while putting the focus firmly on the human dimension.

Both actors are superb, bringing untold nuance to numerous variations of similar lines (which must make it devilish hard to learn), while creating totally consistent, convincing characters. The way the play loops back on itself also means they frequently have to turn on a dime emotionally, ending one phase in deepest melancholy before returning to perky cheeriness seconds later.

Palmer has the added challenge of portraying Marianne’s developing aphasia (which affects language), which she does in heartbreaking fashion. What’s more, they both nail the English accents – and from two different regions, no less. (Praise to the vocal and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley).

Sara Swersky’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s subtle sound also play their part in a beautifully modulated production.

The play runs a tight 80 minutes, which is the perfect length. Any longer and it could start to wear thin. Constellations may wear its scientific conceit very lightly but Skuse’s exquisite, moving production enthralls. Recommended.

Constellations runs at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until September 7. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 17

The Removalists; Happiness reviews

There are two David Williamson plays running in Sydney at the moment – The Removalists from early in his career and a new play, Happiness, which has just premiered at the Ensemble Theatre.

They make a study in contrasts. The Removalists is a reminder of what a tough, terrific playwright Williamson has been in his time and why this particular play is considered a classic of Australian theatre. In recent years, however, his plays have become somewhat formulaic: pick a topical subject, find the characters to debate it on stage, and stir in some laughs. Happiness is all this – and one of Williamson’s least convincing plays.

The Removalists

Bondi Pavilion, May 29

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Written in 1971, The Removalists launched David Williamson’s career, sending a shock of recognition through audiences with its stark, savage portrayal of the ugly side of Australian culture: the open, rampant sexism, in particular.

Forty-two years on, Leland Kean’s terrific production for Rock Surfers Theatre Company still packs a real punch. Blatant sexism certainly isn’t as rife in public life as it was back then, but it ain’t disappeared.

Meanwhile, the themes of police corruption and brutality, abuse of authority, and domestic violence feel just as relevant.

On his first day in the police force, rookie Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan) finds himself under the command of Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy), a lazy, manipulative, sexist bully who prides himself on having never made an arrest in 23 years despite the high crime-rate in his area.

When the confident, well-heeled Kate (Caroline Brazier) and her quieter sister Fiona (Sophie Hensser) report that Fiona’s husband Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta) has been beating her up, the lecherous Simmonds decides they will help her move out while Kenny is at his usual Friday night drinking session. But Kenny returns home early.

Kean has wisely decided to keep the play in its original period, using blasts of 70s Oz rock and Ally Mansell’s drab, dung-coloured set with cheap furniture to create the perfect setting.

With excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Sam Atwell in the comic role of the removalist, Kean’s production feels tough, raw and very real.

Coy’s Simmonds is a man both odious and deeply ordinary. A school group attending the performance I saw remained attentive throughout, while the boys, in particular, seemed shocked by his behaviour, wincing visibly at his sexist remarks and sleazy bottom-patting.

O’Sullivan captures Ross’s naivety and nails the moment he suddenly snaps, Stewart Cotta is a convincingly brutish Kenny yet manages to make us feel something like sympathy when the tables are turned on him, while Brazier and Hensser deliver beautifully detailed, in-depth performances.

Kean’s production strikes just the right balance between humour, menace and violence as it builds tension. We laugh but we also cringe and shudder at a classic Australian play that still rings horribly true.

Bondi Pavilion until June 16.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 2.

Happiness

Ensemble Theatre, May 17

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

In Happiness, David Williamson takes on an interesting, pertinent question: why are Australians seemingly so dissatisfied and unhappy when we have never had it so good? However, the play barely scratches the surface of the idea.

It begins with a lecture by Roland Makepeace (Mark Lee), a professor of psychology who specialises in happiness – or “human wellbeing” as he prefers to put it – which sets up Williamson’s theme.

However, Roland’s own life isn’t exactly overflowing with wellbeing. His hard-drinking wife Hanna (Anne Tenney) is bitter and forever snapping at him, while his daughter Zelda (Erica Lovell) claims to feel suicidal on occasions.

When Roland tries to help Zelda with advice to go out and forgive someone, apologise to someone and do an anonymous good deed, there are all kinds of unintended consequences.

Rounding out the cast are Peter Kowitz as a rich, former lover of Hanna’s, Glenn Hazeldine as the editor of a right-wing newspaper where Zelda is an environmental reporter, and Adriano Cappelletta as two of Zelda’s love interests.

It’s all pretty unconvincing, while Williamson’s trademark ability to deliver cracking one-liners has also deserted him. Some of the audience laughed along now and then but I hardly cracked a smile.

Sandra Bates directs a pedestrian production in which the actors, by and large, do what they can. Hazeldine, Kowitz and Lee deliver the most believable characters, though they are all pretty sketchily written and we don’t particularly care about any of them. It feels very under-developed with more work needed on both the script and the production.

That said, as I left the theatre an elderly gent in front of me, who had clearly enjoyed it said, “Good old Williamson”. What’s more, the production is apparently almost sold out – which goes to show how many fans Williamson still has. It’s just a shame he hasn’t given them something better.

Ensemble Theatre until July 6. Noosa Long Weekend Festival, June 18 & 19.