OUR land people stories

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, June 16

Bangara Dance Theatre Our Land People Stories

Bangarra ensemble in Macq. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new triple bill OUR land people stories takes you to dark places but it is also a moving celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and the healing power of art.

Together the three works – each featuring a simple but striking set by Jacob Nash, beautiful costumes by Jennifer Irwin and moody lighting by Matt Cox – create an over-arching Indigenous narrative from colonial massacre, to the survival of identity through the strength of kinship and connection to country, to artistic success and expression today.

While Nayapanyapa marks Stephen Page’s 25th year as artistic director of the company, the other two works are by emerging choreographers drawn from the ranks of Bangarra dancers. The fact that together they make for such a satisfying program is an encouraging sign for the future.

The program begins with Macq by Bangarra dancer Jasmin Sheppard, which premiered in 2013 as part of Dance Clan 3 but which has since been further developed. Opening with mourning women gathered around a body, it is set in 1816 when Governor Lachlan Macquarie, believing that his well-intentioned social policies for “the natives” weren’t working, sanctioned the massacre of D’harawal people near Appin as punishment for attacks by “hostile tribes”.

Staging much of it on and around an extremely long table with a warped chandelier and tea set and the ensemble in costumes that parody colonial society, Sheppard has created some wonderfully inventive choreography. She has a very keen visual sense and several resonant images etch themselves deeply in the heart and mind. The haunting way she evokes hanging men – held up from behind by other dancers who represent both the trees they hang from and the fellow tribesmen who cut them down – is shocking yet tender. Red-coated soldiers with rifles crawling on their bellies are like a cross between contemporary commandos and lizards.

Daniel Riley is superb as the conflicted Macquarie in a tortured solo and a fierce, combative duet with Beau Dean Riley Smith as a D’harawal man, while Nicola Sabatino is moving as a mourning woman.

Macq features a stunningly evocative score by David Page, the company’s ground-breaking music director who died suddenly in April. The Sydney season and national tour of OUR land people stories is dedicated to his memory.

The pioneering way David (brother of Stephen Page) combined traditional and contemporary music with spoken language (both Indigenous and English) and song has become a distinctive Bangarra feature and his influence can be felt in the scores for the other two pieces in the program: Miyagan with music by Paul Mac and Nyapanyapa with music by Steve Francis.

Bangara Dance Theatre Our Land People Stories

Bangarra dancers in Miyagan. Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Miyagan is about the kinship system of the Wiradjuri Nation in NSW to which its co-creators, dancers Riley and Riley Smith, both belong. Set at the Talbragar mission in Dubbo in the early 1900s, where their great-great-grandfather lived, they use the entire company of 17 to evoke the complex web of family ties as part of which each person has their role and responsibility.

Nash’s overhanging branches with feathered leaves are visually arresting and there is some wonderful costuming by Irwin. The choreography has a springiness to it that feels a little different from much of the very grounded Bangarra style and there is some ebullient unison group work. Not all the story-telling is as clear as it might be (are the hairy-headed figures guiding spirits?) but there is much to enjoy.

In Nyapanyapa, Stephen Page celebrates the life of acclaimed visual artist Nyapanyapa Yunupingu, a Yolngu woman from North East Arnhem Land. Nash’s staging evokes several of her paintings, including one telling of her traumatic goring by a buffalo as a young girl. Through various short scenes including a joyous community dance where Nyapanyapa struggles to join in we watch her find herself through her art.

Bangarra Ensemble - Nyapanyapa, OUR land people stories - Photo by Jhuny Boy-Borja

Bangarra ensemble with Waangenga Blanco as the buffalo in Nyapanyapa. Photo: Jhuny Boy-Borja

The dancing is powerful across the board but the radiant Elma Kris brings enormous heart to the title role in a gorgeous work with lovely touches of humour.

To watch Nyapanyapa Yunupingu herself take slowly to the stage on Page’s arm for the opening night curtain call was a moving end to an inspiring night.

OUR land people stories plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com. It then tours to Perth, July 20 – 23; Canberra, July 28 – 30; Brisbane, August 12 – 20; Melbourne, September 1 – 10. Details: www.bangarra.com.au

 A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 19

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Switzerland

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 7

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland is a gripping psychological thriller about renowned crime writer Patricia Highsmith that creeps up on you slowly and then has you on the edge of your seat.

Highsmith’s novels include The Talented Mr Ripley, one of several she wrote about the psychopathic, sexually ambiguous Tom Ripley, and Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen.

Born in Texas, but bitter about her lack of serious recognition in her homeland as opposed to Europe where she was feted for her literary skill and psychological insight, she lived her last years in Switzerland, land of neutrality, secret bank accounts, picturesque mountain chalets and cuckoo clocks.

Widely regarded as a tough cookie, the eccentric, tight-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Highsmith (who was bisexual but more drawn to women) was considered misogynistic and cruel, even by her friends. She loved guns and cats and had a strange thing about snails. But Murray-Smith seamlessly weaves into the dialogue pretty much all that you need to know about her.

Murray-Smith’s play was commissioned by Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse – but fortuitously for Sydney audiences they agreed to Sydney Theatre Company staging the world premiere.

Set in the early 1990s, the cleverly constructed, tense drama finds Highsmith (Sarah Peirse) living with cancer towards the end of her life in Switzerland.

A young man called Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren) arrives from her New York publisher bearing jars of peanut butter (the wrong brand) and cans of soup.

Slightly nerdy and understandably nervous given the incident with the knife that befell the publisher’s previous emissary, Edward’s mission is to try to convince her to sign a deal to write one final Ripley novel.

Highsmith lacerates him with withering, caustic wit, delivered by Peirse with savagely funny brutality. But Edward – who is passionate about Highsmith’s oeuvre – holds his own (even if he can’t pronounce oeuvre) and things start to shift into a game of cat and mouse where it’s not clear who’s the cat.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s detailed, realistic set (based apparently on Highsmith’s final Swiss home) – with large fireplace, leather chairs, desk with typewriter, framed weaponry, a portrait of Highsmith, thick windows and spiral staircase leading upstairs – makes a virtue of the awkward, wide stage and works superbly in a way you wouldn’t expect for an intimate two-hander.

Nick Schlieper lights it so that it becomes a place of shifting light and shadows, and Steve Francis’s slightly creepy music heightens the growing tension.

Scott-Mitchell’s costuming is also excellent with loose-fitting jeans and mannish socks and shoes for Peirse, and gradually changing outfits for Farren that reflect his character’s evolution.

Sarah Goodes directs an immaculately paced production, drawing superb performances from the two actors, who take you with them through every tiny emotional twist and turn.

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

The way Peirse reveals sudden flashes of vulnerability, pleasure or admiration beneath the Teflon-tough, gruff exterior is done with a flawless subtlety. She totally inhabits the role. Edward’s transformation is brilliantly judged in an equally subtle performance by Farren.

Murray-Smith celebrates and emulates Highsmith’s writing, while giving us an insight into her fascination with violence and the dark side of human nature. At the same time, she explores a range of ideas including Highsmith’s relationship with her imagination and characters all the while playing intriguing mind games with us. The play is often laugh-out-loud funny too.

As for how the song Happy Talk from the musical South Pacific fits into all this – well, you’ll just have to go and see, but it’s an inspired theatrical moment.

Running 100 minutes without interval, Switzerland is a thrilling piece of writing given a superb production by STC. In some of Murray-Smith’s previous plays you feel her putting words into the mouths of the characters to serve the debate and themes she is discussing. Here the dialogue feels utterly truthful, emerging organically from the mouths of the characters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s her very best play to date. Highly recommended.

Switzerland plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 16

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

 

The Long Way Home review

Sydney Theatre, February 8

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

When Sydney Theatre Company announced that it was co-producing a new work with the Australian Defence Force about returning servicemen and women, it sounded like a wonderful initiative – though quite how it would play out on stage, given that the majority of the cast were to be soldiers, was anyone’s guess.

Well, not only is The Long Way Home a wonderful initiative but an important, moving piece of theatre with the power to make an impact on several levels. As well as offering the general public a glimpse into the experiences of our military personnel, it will hopefully aid the recovery of the participants, and help other returned soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who see it – many of whom are in denial – to realise that they are far from alone and seek help.

The production was initiated by General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, after he saw a production in London called The Two Worlds of Charlie F based on the experiences of British soldiers. Stephen Rayne, who directed that production, was enlisted by the STC to direct here.

Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene crafted the script after spending a five-week workshop with 15 volunteer soldiers, who had seen active service in Afghanistan, Iraq or East Timor. Twelve of them appear in the play: Will Bailey, David Cantley, James Duncan, Wayne Goodman, Craig Hancock, Kyle Harris, Patrick Hayes, Tim Loch, Emma Palmer, Sarah Webster, James Whitney and Gary Wilson.

They perform alongside five professional actors: Martin Harper, Emma Jackson, Odile Le Clezio, Tahki Saul and Warwick Young. Both Harper and Young have served in the Regular Army and the Army Reserve.

Keene and Rayne decided not to create a piece of verbatim theatre, preferring the dramatic flexibility of a play with characters and several interweaving narratives.

But as Keene writes in the theatre program: “Is The Long Way Home fictional? Yes, and no. Every situation that it presents and every line of dialogue is born out of the experiences of the soldiers who perform in the play. They will play themselves re-imagined. They are bringing their reality into contact with that of their audience.”

What emerges is a tapestry of scenes in Afghanistan and Australia through which we gain an insight into the life of the soldiers during active service – the camaraderie, the terror, the adrenaline, the thrill, the horrific injuries – and then the struggle to readjust to civilian life when they return home with physical and/or psychological injuries.

Linking the scenes are various narrative arcs, the strongest of which follow two soldiers with PTSD, both battling a gnawing sense of loss and uselessness now that they can no longer be soldiers. We have known about PTSD for decades, of course, but The Long Way Home gives it a human face, taking us into the two soldiers’ minds and homes.

One of them, played by Loch, compulsively irons, cleans the house and mows the lawn to give himself something to do when sleep eludes him and hallucinations crowd in on him. The other played by Hancock finds himself becoming increasingly short-tempered and aggressive with his wife.

With professional actors Le Clezio and Jackson as their wives providing a strong emotional anchor in their scenes, both Loch and Hancock are superb, performing with a raw honesty.

As you’d expect, some of the soldiers are more relaxed and convincing on stage than others but overall they do exceptionally well and their physicality when in military mode is naturally utterly authentic.

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Among many strong performances, Wilson plays a mostly comatose soldier with severe physical injuries including brain damage, who occasionally whispers lines from The Odyssey from his hospital bed. His final monologue had many in the opening night audience in tears – civilians and uniformed men alike.

Whitney is also terrific as a soldier giving stand-up comedy a go, with some cringe-makingly awful jokes.

Rayne directs a tight, brilliantly staged production. Renee Mulder’s flexible set with sliding screens and a huge screen at the back, onto which is projected video imagery by David Bergman as well as text and interviews with the soldiers, is highly effective. The recurring image of armed soldiers in combat camouflage silhouetted against the back screen becomes like a leit motif, both familiar and also somewhat sinister.

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Damien Cooper’s masterly lighting and Steve Francis’ crashing, rock-like soundscape also play a huge role in creating a highly charged, atmospheric space.

Keene’s script is funny, poetic and moving. It captures the robust, droll, F-bombing humour of the soldiers, which has the audience roaring with laughter. The next minute we are holding our breath at the brutal honesty of some of the confessions – from the mistaken killing of civilian women and children to the emotional breakdown of a weeping, traumatised ex-soldier.

Two sketch-like scenes in which a comedy character called Lieutenant Neville Stiffy (Tahki) dissects the “yes” and “no” parts of a soldier’s brain, and the way commands from the top brass filter down to the lower ranks, sit a bit oddly. There are also a few things that don’t quite ring true (would the doctor really talk like that about a patient, in front of him, even if he does appear to be comatose?).

But overall, even if there are no profound insights, The Long Way Home (which runs around two hours and ten minutes including interval) is a remarkable achievement.

The participating soldiers, some of whom had never even been in a theatre before, deserve high praise for opening themselves up in this way and for their commendable performances. Hopefully they will gain something from the experience. (Apparently Wilson’s speech – which was affected by his horrific injuries after a helicopter crash – has developed markedly after working with vocal coach Charmian Gradwell).

Audiences will certainly be enlightened and moved by the play. And if returned military personnel, particularly those suffering with PTSD, do see it – as hopefully they will – one can only imagine how it might speak to them.

The Long Way Home plays at Sydney Theatre until February 15 then tours to Darwin (February 22), Brisbane (February 27 – March 1), Wollongong (March 5 – 8), Townsville (March 14 – 15), Canberrra (March 19 – 22), Melbourne (March 27 – 29), Adelaide (April 1 – 5) and Perth (April 11 – 12). Booking details: www.sydneytheatre.com.au

An interview with Corporal Tim Loch and playwright Daniel Keene can be found here: https://jolitson.com/2014/01/28/the-long-way-home/

Dance Clan 3

Bangarra Studio, Pier 4, November 21

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Leonard Mickelo in Nala. Photo: Greg Barrett

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Leonard Mickelo in Nala. Photo: Greg Barrett

For Bangarra Dance Theatre’s contribution to the inaugural Corroboree Sydney festival celebrating indigenous arts and culture, artistic director Stephen Page commissioned four new works for Dance Clan 3 – a program he initiated in 1998 to nurture storytelling by the company’s artists.

In a bold, pro-active move, he decided this time to commission four of the company’s senior female dancers – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower and Jasmin Sheppard – all of whom rose to the occasion with pieces full of beauty and promise.

Performed in the intimate space of the company’s rehearsal studio on Pier 4, the evening began in high spirits with a playful scene at an outdoor cinema in Gower’s Nala. Jumping from deckchairs to dance with giant crisp bags on their feet, it got the night off to a joyous start. Drawing on the love affair between her grandparents in Broome, Nala then turned more serious with duets suggesting social and cultural divide as progress takes its toll on the land and way of life.

Sheppard’s Macq, centred on and around a large table, explored the 1816 ‘March of Macquarie’ on Aboriginal people after Governor Macquarie’s well-intentioned social policies fell apart, with the might of the colonial power set against the anguish of the Aboriginal people. Daniel Riley was a commanding presence as Macquarie, some of the choreography around the table was wonderfully inventive, while a stunning image of hanging men shook you with its simple beauty and shocking, haunting power.

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in Macq. Photo: Greg Barrett

Beau Dean Riley Smith and Daniel Riley in Macq. Photo: Greg Barrett

Deborah Brown choreographed a dance film called Dive about pearl fishing in the Torres Strait, shown on a large screen hoisted up on ropes. Interweaving film extracts with choreography featuring two dancers in large diving helmets and dancers depicting the pearls, she created a wonderful underwater world.

Yolanda Browne’s Imprint, inspired by the 1978 women’s Batik project to support native title and Emily Kame Kngwarreye’s yam-dreaming stories, used images of threads, weaving and fabric as a woman is covered with the colours of the earth, eventually becoming part of the land.

All the pieces had a distinctive feel, but they were staged so they flowed one into the other without breaks.

Performing as a true ensemble, the dancing was lovely with Elma Kris shining, while the music by Huey Benjamin, David Page and Steve Francis, set design by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin and lighting by Matt Cox supported each piece beautifully.

Though the Bangarra style, aesthetic and vocabulary was understandably evident in each work, all four choreographers showed moments of real individuality, suggesting much promise and potential. The night I saw it the performance certainly struck a chord with a packed audience who sat rapt and applauded wildly at the end.

Dance Clan 3 plays at Bangarra’s Studio, Pier 4 until December 1. Bookings: bangarra.com.au