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

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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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Hedda Gabler

Belvoir St Theatre, July 2

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Oscar Redding and Ash Flanders. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

At the end of Belvoir’s new production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler you come out thinking why? Why to many things in the production, but most particularly why cast a man in the title role?

Written in 1890, Hedda Gabler is one of the great dramatic female roles. There are few enough of them to begin with. What’s more, she is a strong woman feeling so trapped by a repressive, male-dominated society and unfulfilled marriage that she eventually finds herself in a situation where she believes the only escape is suicide.

A production needs to offer a fresh, compelling insight to justify casting a man in the role – and we don’t get that here.

Naturally, there has been a huge amount of interest and coverage around the decision by director Adena Jacobs to cast Ash Flanders as Hedda. Flanders is a co-founder of Melbourne’s queer indie theatre group Sisters Grimm, which has gone from cult following to a mainstream presence.

I saw Flanders play a glamorous, alcoholic housewife in Little Mercy, Sisters Grimm’s send-up of the “evil child” movies. He did it brilliantly. His performance was poised, very funny and believable within the camp, spoofy world they set up.

However, take him out of that world where he has so much flair and he doesn’t look quite so convincing – not on the basis of the choices made in this production anyway.

In interviews, Jacobs has said that casting Flanders “frames the crisis of Hedda Gabler as one of identity, and the problems of difference, rather than solely one woman’s drama.”

Flanders has said he’s “playing Hedda as written, as a person first, then as a woman and below that is the male actor. Adena has been saying you will forget that you are watching a man but at the same time there are moments that we can bring that to the forefront and it becomes something different altogether, hopefully something that is post-gender. Because I think Hedda is almost beyond gender, she is almost a mythical creature.”

With his own hair and a little make-up Flanders (who spends much of the production in a swimsuit) looks somewhat androgynous but you never forget that he is a man. There are a couple of moments when he briefly dons a long wig only to quickly toss it aside again. There are titters in the audience at the mention of a possible pregnancy.

At one point he stands naked. It’s a somewhat confusing image given the flat male chest but female genitalia (‘tuck job’ presumably) leading you to question exactly who he/she is supposed to be. Jacobs presumably presents this image of Hedda as both man and woman to underline the universal nature nature of her situation – as one of difference rather than solely a woman’s dilemma, as she articulated – but that sense of universality didn’t resonate for me in the production.

Clearly there’s no point in Flanders playing a woman so convincingly that we think he is one. You might as well cast a woman. But his performance doesn’t transcend the novelty of the casting or lend any fresh insight to the play.

His Hedda moves and speaks at one pace. She is forever observing or talking with a quiet, cold detachment, while posing languidly. Instead of the mass of paradoxes and emotional complexity usually associated with her, his Hedda feels flat and one-dimensional. Even when she plays with the pistol or guns down people in a violent video game, it’s done without any display of emotion. We never see any vulnerability, she just comes across as icily manipulative. Hedda may be bored, but she shouldn’t be boring and she comes perilously close to that here. It’s hard to see quite why all the men around her are in her thrall.

What’s more, there is precious little chemistry or tension between Flanders and any of the other actors – all of whom seem to be wrestling with characters that feel underwritten in Jacobs’ adaptation.

Marcus Graham is the most compelling as Judge Brack, played here as a suave, louche playboy, while Tim Walter’s Tesman is a bland, ineffectual, anxious figure. Oscar Redding fires things up briefly as Lovborg, and Anna Houston as Thea Elvstead and Lynette Curran as Aunt Julie bring some warmth to the production. But none of the cast seems really comfortable and you don’t feel anything for any of them.

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Ash Flanders, Lynette Curran and Branden Christine. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Jacobs’s decision to set the production in a contemporary world is a bit hit and miss.

Entering the theatre there is a strong sense of déjà vu. The set (by Dayna Morrissey) features the interior of a spanking new, soulless house at the back of the stage. Seen through sliding glass doors, it’s reminiscent of Ralph Myers’s set for Benedict Andrews’s The Seagull (along with any number of other glass boxes seen on Sydney stages in recent years). In front of the house is a small swimming pool. A large, flash, vintage car sits to one side of the stage, which inevitably brings Belvoir’s 2012 Death of a Salesman to mind.

There are sound issues whenever the actors are inside the house or in the car, with their amplified voices sounding muffled. In the car, it’s actually hard to understand some of what is said.

The production starts slowly in silence. A television inside the house shows a film featuring a wedding. (Hedda and Tesman are, of course, just back from their honeymoon). Hedda gazes from the window blankly then lies by the side of the pool with headphones on. The maid (Branden Christine) smokes a cigarette behind the car. Tesman arrives home sweating after a run. Not a word is spoken. It sets up the boredom of Hedda’s life – but from there you expect things to start to flare and they don’t.

Jacobs’s adaptation, which runs 90 minutes without interval, uses a lively contemporary idiom while sticking pretty faithfully to Ibsen’s plot (though the script has been ruthlessly pruned). By updating it, however, there are various paradoxes. In a world with television and smart phones wouldn’t Lovborg write his precious book on a computer rather than by hand?

So many things like this become distractions, from Hedda’s bare bottom beneath a short fur jacket to the maid taking a dip in the pool. Would Hedda really have let her maid do that without asking? And how come when Hedda locks Thea in the car, she’s desperate to get out but apparently sleeps through a vital conversation not long after being shut in?

The fact that you sit there asking yourself such questions when you should be immersed in the drama is indicative of how little the production engages. It’s a disappointing experience that seemed to promise so much, for whatever the success, or otherwise, of the gender politics at play, the production falls flat as a piece of drama.

Hedda Gabler is at Belvoir St Theatre until August 3

 

Perplex

Wharf 1, April 4

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Perplex by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg starts intriguingly. Andrea (Andrea Demetriades) and Glenn (Glenn Hazeldine) arrive back at their apartment after a holiday to find that the electricity has been cut off, there’s an odd pot-plant in the kitchen and something strange about the coffee table in the lounge – not to mention an awful smell.

Their friends Rebecca (Rebecca Massey) and Tim (Tim Walter), who have been watering the plants for them while they were away, appear and things get weirder. Not only is the electricity on but as far as Rebecca and Tim are concerned, this is their apartment. Outplayed, Andrea and Glenn are evicted.

Then Andrea and Glenn – the four actors use their own names throughout – reappear. Now, Glenn is Rebecca and Tim’s tantrum-throwing son and Andrea is their au pair. Rebecca doesn’t remember hiring an au pair but pretty soon the power shifts and Rebecca is sent packing as Tim and Andrea cosy up.

And so it goes, with characters and relationships morphing and blurring as one scene slides into the next without referencing previous ones.

Once you realise that this is the conceit and structure, the play somehow loses its bite and fascination. There is philosophical talk embracing Darwin and evolution, Plato, and Nietzsche but though Glenn appears at one point in Nazi brown shirt regalia, and the play ends with an absurdist, Pirandello-like scene in which the actors realise they have been abandoned by their director, the dramatic stakes don’t feel particularly high or truly dangerous. In large part that’s because with each change of scene and situation, the characters are let off the existential hook so instead of the tension building, it dissipates.

As Perplex plays with themes of what is real (in life and on the stage), identity and middle class mores and morality, it entertains but doesn’t pack as much of a punch as previous von Mayenburg plays The Ugly One and Fireface.

That’s no reflection on this classy Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Sarah Giles, who lulls us into a false sense of up-beat security with a mood-enhancing blast of Queen’s greatest hits as we enter the auditorium.

Staged on a suitably anonymous, minimalist set designed by Renee Mulder (cream brick wall, mustard carpet, sofa and wooden coffee table) the polished production moves briskly with excellent performances from all four actors. A Nordic fancy dress party, which sees Tim dressed as an elk, Andrea as a volcano, Rebecca as a Viking and Glenn as a skier, with a hilariously madcap sex scene between man and elk, is particularly funny, while Tim spends long spells expounding his theories stark naked. Hazeldine’s brilliantly observed tantrum as the boy Glenn is an inspired piece of physical comedy and a standout moment.

Mid-way through, however, I found my interest in the play waning. Maybe some of the scenes have a different resonance in Germany but here, though the plot may perplex the play doesn’t disturb, perturb or provoke and so it ends up rather washing over you in entertaining, non-threatening, bloodless fashion.

Perplex plays at Wharf 1 until May 3. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777