The Tempest

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

The symbolism may have been unconscious as John Bell insists, but he couldn’t have chosen a more apt play than The Tempest as his final production for Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago.

Thought to be Shakespeare’s last full-length play, Prospero’s final renunciation of his “rough magic” has been seen as the Bard’s farewell to the stage. This enchanting production is a perfect farewell for Bell too.

Bell doesn’t overlay any political interpretation but directs the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and a deft lightness, helming a production in which all the elements cohere in delightful fashion.

The opening storm conjured by Prospero to bring his former foes to the magical isle, where he has been living for the past 12 years with his daughter Miranda, is dramatically staged with wind machines, billowing drapes, operatic music and strobe lighting as the actors cling to a thick rope to represent the lurching ship.

As the winds abate, Julie Lynch’s minimal set (a disc-like platform backed by silvery-grey drapes) together with her costumes create the perfect setting for Bell’s lyrical vision, enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting, Alan John’s music and Nate Edmondson’s sound.

Brian Lipson’s Prospero is discovered sitting cross-legged on the stage meditating as we enter the theatre. His portrayal is less an avenging, autocratic sorcerer and more a world-weary, slightly absent-minded, emotional man with a wry manner, a fierce love for his daughter and a great deal of humanity.

Eloise Winestock plays Miranda with a touch of untamed animal about her, as well as wide-eyed delight when she sees other people for the first time, while Felix Gentle is a sweet-natured Ferdinand.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer’s spellbinding portrayal of Ariel makes the spirit’s desperate longing for freedom palpable. His tippy-toe physicality gives him an otherworldly quality and the way his movement echoes the mortals when he leads them with his magic is a lovely touch. In fact, movement director Scott Witt has done a superb job throughout. Backer’s clear-voiced singing also helps evoke the magic in the air.

Damien Strouthos’s Caliban is less brutish than often portrayed, making his famous speech about the noises of the isle all the more believable. Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas are genuinely funny as the comic servants Trinculo and Stephano, while also doubling effectively as Antonio and Sebastian. Robert Alexander as the kindly, dignified Gonzalo and Maeliosa Stafford as King Alonso complete the fine cast.

“Let you indulgence set me free,” says Prospero to the audience in the epilogue.

The words resonated beyond the play on opening night as the audience stood and turned to face John Bell sitting in the audience, offering him applause not just for the production but for his great achievements at Bell Shakespeare.

The Tempest plays at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse until September 18. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 30

Advertisements

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

Elektra/Orestes

Belvoir St Theatre, March 18

Ben Winspear, Hunter Page-Lochard and Ursula Mills. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Ben Winspear, Hunter Page-Lochard and Ursula Mills. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

A crumpled, somewhat slovenly figure is slumped at a dining table in a starkly furnished modern room having presumably sat up all night. Above her, a red neon sign spells out the name Elektra.

Sure enough, it is the Elektra of Jada Alberts’ and Anne-Louise Sarks’ Elektra/Orestes: a contemporary adaptation of the Greek myth about a family steeped in violence in the name of revenge. Dressed in baggy track-pants and a T-shirt bearing the scrawled words “My Mum Killed My Dad”, her hair wild and uncombed, she is angry, antsy, anguished, zapping a remote control to turn blasting music on and off.

The mythical tragedy survives in various versions by ancient Greek dramatists Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Elektra and her brother Orestes kill their mother Klytemnestra in revenge for her murder of their father Agamemnon with the help of her lover Aegisthus. Klytemnestra was in turn avenging the death of her eldest daughter Iphigenia, sacrificed by Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis in return for the winds to sail his ships to the Trojan War. He returned home with Cassandra, a war trophy who had borne him twins.

Alberts and Sarks (who also directs) give their new version a modern domestic setting, with a stage design by Ralph Myers. Running a tight one-hour, the first half takes place in the dining room on the day that Orestes finally returns after years in exile to exact Elektra’s long-planned revenge. A door leads into the kitchen, through which the characters disappear then return as events unfold.

As the day begins, Elektra (Katherine Tonkin) is petulant and aggressive towards her mother (Linda Cropper), while her sister Khrysothemis (Ursula Mills) makes coffee and tries to keep the peace. Aegisthus (Ben Winspear) comes and goes, a sleazy figure in boxer shorts and untied velvety dressing gown. Then a messenger (Hunter Page-Lochard) arrives to say that Orestes is dead; but it is Orestes himself.

Halfway through the play, the stage turns and the action start over again, as we watch what was happening unseen in the kitchen during the first part (including Orestes’ climactic murder of Klytemnestra).

It’s a clever concept that makes for an intriguing structure and gripping drama. Sarks balances the production beautifully, making sure the timings work and ensuring that we hear and glimpse just enough from the other room to trace the unfolding drama from the two perspectives.

She and Alberts have also added a shocking, new twist to the family dynamic that ups the ante yet another notch.

Where the Greeks kept the violence off-stage, leaving it to the imagination, Sarks puts it on stage. It’s not easy to portray violence live in the theatre and there were a few giggles on opening night but I thought they handled it well (fight direction by Scott Witt) with enough blood but not too much. The production certainly gives you pause to ponder what a body being stabbed more than 20 times (as we have read about in the news recently) actually means, and the frenzied nature of such an attack.

Hunter Page-Lochard and Linda Cropper. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hunter Page-Lochard and Linda Cropper. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The performances are generally excellent. Tonkin is ferociously good as Elektra, her fierce performance convincingly powered by overwhelming emotions that she can’t deal with. Instead she lashes out physically and verbally, in almost childlike fashion at times, as grief, anger and bitter resentment consume her.

Cropper is also superb as the cool, chic Klytemnestra encapsulating her tough steeliness yet also the world-weariness, regret and internal conflict she is now forced to live with. The script makes her actions understandable and the final scenes in which she explains herself have a real power.

Mills and Winspear make the most of relatively small roles with vivid performances, and Page-Lochard’s portrayal grows in strength as the play progresses.

Mel Page’s costuming, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Stefan Gregory’s sound all contribute to the taut, effective, stark staging.

The dialogue itself is believably every-day, though certain phrases sing, and there is a surprising amount of humour predominantly as a result of Elektra’s agro. But stripped of the poetry and grandeur of ancient Greek tragedy, Elektra/Orestes makes the violence real and ugly.

Elektra/Orestes doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact as Sarks’ 2012 award-winning, contemporary Medea (co-adapted with Kate Mulvany), which operated in a similar fashion, telling the story from the point of view of Medea’s murdered young sons, seen in their bedroom.

The concluding image of Orestes and Klytemnestra would be more moving if we had seen some of the conflicting emotions raging within Page-Lochard’s Orestes in the lead-up to the murder. As it is, his final reaction comes rather out of nowhere and is therefore less potent.

Nonetheless, Elektra/Orestes is a clever, provocative, pithy piece, showing that revenge only perpetuates cycles of violence and doesn’t assuage anger, grief and resentment (understandable though they may be). Only in forgiveness can we hope to find any peace – something we so often struggle to accept and achieve.

Elektra/Orestes plays at Belvoir St Theatre until April 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

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

Henry V

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, October 23

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

It is 1940. The date is clearly written on the blackboard in a basement room of a London school where a cardigan-wearing teacher (Keith Agius), some of his pupils and the school nurse (Danielle King) take shelter as German bombs rain down outside.

To distract the students from the air raid, the teacher hands out play scripts and an improvised performance takes place. Brief scenes from Richard II and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 act as a prologue and then we are into Henry V, a play about war.

It’s an inspired device by director Damien Ryan, which doesn’t just frame Shakespeare’s play but runs parallel throughout the multi-layered production. We never forget that this is Henry V as performed by terrified young people during wartime.

Now and again the stories intersect in moments of enormous power – one of them deeply shocking, another incredibly poignant.

Directing for Bell Shakespeare, Ryan proves yet again what an exciting director of Shakespeare he is. Henry V is a dense play yet he brings a customary clarity, energy and modern edge to it.

Ryan was inspired by real life accounts he read of a Boy’s Club, which put on plays and cabarets to raise the spirits of people in London air raid shelters during the Blitz.

The terrific set by Anna Gardiner gives the cast bookcases, books, blankets, a bucket, newspaper crowns and armour, among various other props, which they use with thrilling invention.

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

In a play in which Shakespeare calls for the audience to use their imagination on an empty stage, Ryan gets us to do the same but with a plethora of props. Full of surprises, the staging is quite brilliant. It looks improvised, with the actors moving the furniture around at breakneck speed for different scenes, but it’s highly detailed and precisely choreographed. Full credit to movement director Scott Witt who worked with Ryan.

Ryan has gathered a superb ensemble of 10 actors: Keith Agius, Danielle King, Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Darcy Brown and Ildiko Susany.

Sheasby plays Henry V with the charisma of the captain of the school rugby team. Everyone else plays multiple roles and yet it is always clear who is who and what is happening. Agius makes a wonderful Falstaff (with cushion up his cardigan) and also plays the Chorus, and Winestock is very funny as the feisty, French Princess Katherine, but each and every one of the actors plays their numerous parts with élan.

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

The sound by Steve Francis, moving vocal compositions by actor Drew Livingston and lighting by Sian James-Holland all contribute magnificently.

Ryan balances the valour and heroism of Henry – who has matured from the callow, irresponsible youth in Henry IV, who hung out in taverns with the reprobate Falstaff, to inspiring leader of his underdog “band of brothers” – with a powerful portrayal of the rank brutality, ugliness and futility of war.

This is one of the most exciting, moving pieces of theatre I’ve seen in Sydney this year. Don’t miss it.

Henry V runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until November 16. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 26

 

Tartuffe

Drama Theatre, July 30

Kate Mulvany, Genevieve Hakewill, Charlie Garber, Sean O'Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan and Robert Jago. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kate Mulvany, Geraldine Hakewill, Charlie Garber, Sean O’Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan and Robert Jago. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Right from the get-go, Justine Fleming’s contemporary adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe has the audience chortling in this new Bell Shakespeare production.

As with his adaptation for Bell’s 2012 production of Molière’s The School for Wives, Fleming combines colourful, irreverent colloquialism with rhyming couplets. Phrases such as “bunch of losers”, “shut your gob” and “a piddle short of a piss” had the delighted audience in stitches.

At the same time, it’s an extremely clever adaptation that faithfully captures the spirit of Molière’s satire about religious hypocrisy and gullibility and tells the story with great élan and clarity. Locating it in the present day, the themes certainly feel as relevant as ever.

Rich, successful and married to a gorgeous, younger second wife Elmire (Helen Dallimore), Orgon (Sean O’Shea) is looking for spiritual meaning in his life. Sensing that he’s ripe for the picking, the devious, duplicitous Tartuffe (Leon Ford) schemes to take him to the cleaners. Tartuffe also has his eye on Elmire, while Orgon wants him to marry his daughter Mariane (Geraldine Hakewill). No matter that she is already promised to Valère (Tom Hobbs).

Orgon and his mother (Jennifer Hagan) may be taken in, but the rest of the family see straight through Tartuffe’s fraud and plot to trick him into revealing his true nature.

Peter Evans directs a rollicking, extremely funny production on a set by Anna Cordingley with oversized furniture that not only matches the excess of all that unfolds but also suggests the childishness of their behaviour. Besides a massive sofa, there’s an off-kilter grandfather clock and a giant closet with an ever-changing interior. In the second act a sign descends inviting you, in Facebook fashion, to “accept” or “ignore” a request to  befriend Jesus.

Cordingley’s colourful costumes are also amusing, wittily combining styles and eras, while Kelly Ryall’s jaunty, synthesised versions of baroque music work a treat.

In the original 1664 comedy, tragedy is averted at the last minute with an intervention from the King. Here, Fleming puts his own twist on the ending with Poetic Justice saving the day, while tipping a nod to Molière being the French Shakespeare.

The cast all bring an enormous vigour to the roles. Kate Mulvany is a knockout as the outspoken, sassy, exasperated maid Dorine. Tottering around on vertiginous heels, her effortless command of the language and comedy is deliciously spot-on.

Ford is smoothly, smarmily sanctimonious as Tartuffe one minute, then breaks out with hilarious abandon when he thinks no one is watching. His pelvic thrusting move across the stage to Elmire is hilarious while his amorous advance on her, using her fishnets and high heels, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in ages.

Leon Ford and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Lisa  Tomasetti

Leon Ford and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

O’Shea is also very funny as the well-meaning but bullish, deluded Orgon. I’m not sure that in this day and age Mariane needed to be quite such a ditzy bimbo but Hakewill plays it to the hilt. The lovers’ tiff between her and Valère is a hoot, while Hobbs has fun and games breaking the fourth wall.

In fact, there are terrific performances all round from Charlie Garber as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis, Robert Jago as Orgon’s level-headed, clear-sighted brother-in-law Cléante, Hagan as the haughty, disapproving Madame Pernelle, Russell Smith as Monsieur Loyal and Scott Witt as the bumbling servant (among other roles).

All in all, the production is a delight, full of inspired comic touches from the funny little bounce as various characters flop onto the sofa to Dorine stashing a half-smoked cigarette in her bra. Too much fun. Highly recommended.

Tartuffe is at the Drama Theatre until August 23. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 3