Arcadia

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 12

ARCADIA1

Glenn Hazeldine and Ryan Corr. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ryan Corr gives a standout, charismatic performance in Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly clever 1993 play Arcadia but the production itself wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders on opening night.

Set in a stately English country estate called Sidley Park, Arcadia unfolds across two time frames, with alternating scenes set in the early 1800s and the 1990s (which eventually begin to overlap and share the stage).

Beginning in 1809, teenage genius Thomasina Coverly (Georgia Flood) is discovering chaos theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics a century before anyone else under the admiring eye of her dashing, witty tutor Septimus Hodge (Corr). Meanwhile, the garden is being transformed from a classical idyll to a Gothic wilderness.

In the same room 200 years later, Bernard Nightingale, a smug, ambitious Byron scholar (Josh McConville) desperate to prove that Byron fled England after killing a minor poet in a duel at Sidley Park, and Hannah Jarvis (Andrea Demetriades) a historian and author researching the mysterious hermit who lived in the garden’s faux hermitage, try to piece together the past from notes, drawings and other bits and pieces, which we have seen being created.

With illicit affairs, love, iterated algorithms, discussions about determinism and free will as well as Romanticism and Classicism in the mix, it’s heady stuff.

Richard Cottrell directs a sound, lucid, well-staged production on a handsome classical set by Michael Scott-Mitchell with stylish costumes by Julie Lynch.However, in striving to make Stoppard’s dazzling wordplay and complex ideas understandable to an audience, some characters feel underdeveloped and a little of the play’s sparkle and magic was lost on opening night.

At the moment, the historical scenes have a better rhythm than the contemporary ones where not all the humour lands, and there are times when the play feels pretty dense without enough of a leavening human dimension.

Corr has a wonderful, natural ease and charm as Septimus. He handles the zippy dialogue beautifully and his scenes with Flood have depth, heart and a lovely energy, though a stronger chemistry between them as the play progresses would make the ending more moving.

ARCADIA #2-749

Andrea Demetriades and Josh McConville. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Demetriades gives a strong performance as the wryly sceptical, somewhat stand-offish Hannah though one senses that there is more to find her character (a loneliness is hinted at in the play) and in her relationship with McConville’s Bernard, which we gather is underpinned by a sexual attraction, though there is little chemistry here.

McConville looks a little ill at ease as Bernard, though his zinging barbs are often very funny. Michael Sheasby gives a lively portrayal of Valentine, a gifted mathematician like his ancestor Thomasina before him, and Glenn Hazeldine is a hoot as Ezra Chater, a poet with precious little poetry in his soul whose wife has been discovered in “a carnal embrace” with Septimus. But not all the other performances feel entirely believable.

Given the brilliance of Stoppard’s writing and the top-notch production values, there is already much to enjoy but once the production settles, the cast will hopefully convey more of the play’s humanity and passion, and then it will really soar.

Arcadia plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 2. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 14

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Empire: Terror on the High Seas

Bondi Pavilion, September 3

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

You have to applaud Toby Schmitz for the ambition behind his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas. But it still has a way to go before that ambition is realised on stage.

Set in 1925 on board a cruise liner called the Empress of Australia, headed for New York, we meet a group of first class passengers: the dandyish Richard (Dick) Civil-Lowe Cavendish (Nathan Lovejoy) who managed to avoid service in World War I, a brash South African called Anthony Hertz-Hollingsworth (Anthony Gee) and his new wife Nicole (Ella Scott Lynch), a London flapper and party-girl with a taste for cocaine, and a gangster-like Chicago businessman called Jacob ‘Bang’ Reiby (Fayssal Bazzi) who works for emerging company IBM.

There’s also Mr Frey (Anthony Gooley), a bookish, Australian poet who fought in the war and has been seduced by Dadaism, who has been invited onto the upper decks as a guest, a bigoted priest (James Lugton), a cabaret singer (Billie Rose Prichard) and a plodding detective (Duncan Fellows), among others.

It’s not long before we discover there is a serial killer on board. The first victims are Bengali ship stewards but the murders quickly escalate, becoming ever more grisly, so that no one is safe.

In a story by Elissa Blake in the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/sailing-into-the-darkness-20130829-2srew.html) Schmitz said that “the set-up is deliberately Agatha Christie” but that the ship is actually a metaphor for “a nation adrift” and a way to examine Australia’s post-colonial history.

In the theatre program Schmitz references the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (also alluded to in the play), which showcased the various nations in the Empire, while director Leland Kean writes: “As a nation, Australians find it extremely hard to face the fact that in the name of bettering the world we live in, we did some terrible things. That our ancestors committed atrocities in the name of race is something we still struggle to comprehend, and admit. Likewise it is also extremely hard to imagine the world they lived in, as it was when these atrocities occurred. This play bravely attempts to take us to this horror.”

I must confess that had I not read the story and program notes I wouldn’t have realised that this was Schmitz’s aim. Though the characters talk and talk, voicing views about the Empire, race, class, war and history, the play doesn’t cohere dramatically.

I found myself straining to follow what was being said. A lot of it is smart and amusing, with Noel Coward-like witticisms, but there is just so much of it that it’s an uncomfortable experience as you struggle to pull it all together and shape it in your mind.

There is a somewhat Stoppardian feel about it. Schmitz is, of course, starring in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company at the moment. But where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also dense and rewards close listening, Stoppard allows you to relax, follow what is being said and enjoy it. Empire has you straining so hard it’s exhausting. Gee’s aggressively loud turn as Hertz-Hollingsworth coupled with a frequently indecipherable South African accent doesn’t help.

There’s little tension along the whodunit lines; it’s obvious fairly early on who the killer is and the perpetrator is revealed in Act I – though the other characters remain in the dark. Why the killer is driven to murder so indiscriminately and voraciously isn’t entirely clear. Post-traumatic stress as a result of war? Or were they already a psychopath? As for the mix of styles, the play never convincingly moves beyond the nod to Coward and Christie to something genuinely horrific.

There has been publicity about the gothic horror being similar to something from the Saw films but don’t believe it. It’s hard to put fake intestines on stage and make it look believable. I’m incredibly squeamish but the gory scenes come across as comical in a gross-out way rather than stomach churning.

Staging a play this big – with a cast of 15 – is just as ambitious on the part of Rock Surfers Theatre Company. Kean runs a fairly tight ship in his staging.  James Browne’s handsome set with wooden crates, suitcases and a chintzy looking cabin is effective and his costumes are stylish.

The performances are generally good. Lovejoy is particularly impressive as the “pansexual” Cavendish, tossing off witticisms with just the right level of breezy, self-satisfied affectation, his comic timing immaculate as the words trip effortlessly off his tongue.

But in the end it just doesn’t come together. Running three hours including interval, Empire feels long and underdeveloped.

Schmitz is an exciting writer. His play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth movement is a little gem and his recent work I Want to Sleep With Tom Stoppard (also directed by Kean) is an entertaining, intelligent comedy.

Empire is commendably ambitious. All too rarely these days so we see work of this scale.  But the play needs further work for the themes and big ideas in it to emerge more strongly.

Empire plays at the Bondi Pavilion until September 28

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: review

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead you can’t help marvelling yet again that Tom Stoppard was still in his 20s when he wrote it.

The absurdist play, which made his name when it premiered at the 1966 Edinburgh Fringe, is not only an existential riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet but also draws on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

As we’ve come to expect from Stoppard, it is full of dazzling verbal and intellectual gymnastics, as well as meta-theatrical musings. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch their death predicted by the players it becomes a play within a play within a play within a play. I think.

With all the double entendres, puns, witticisms, word games and allusions it is a dense, cerebral piece and pays to listen closely. And yet, when it’s performed well – as it is here – it is as funny and poignant as it is clever.

In this smashing Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Simon Phillips, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz play the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who find themselves centrestage trapped in a world they don’t understand, with no knowledge about where they came from or what they are there to do beyond what they’re told.

As they wait – like Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon – for something to happen, the rest of Shakespeare’s play unfolds in the wings, spilling occasionally onto stage around them as events beyond their control hurtle them towards their death.

Minchin and Schmitz make a charismatic double act. As the more authoritative, philosophical Guildenstern, who has a keener awareness of their existential plight, Schmitz has the lion’s share of the words and delivers them superbly with an increasingly desperate bravado. I’ve rarely seen him in better form. He really does disappear into the character – and not just because his trademark floppy hair is hidden by a curly wig.

Minchin’s Rosencrantz is more of an innocent: a gentle, naive, clown-like soul. Cheerfully oblivious at first to their plight, he gradually becomes increasingly exasperated and then anxious. Together they mine the comedy brilliantly but are also touchingly tragic figures as they face their fate.

Angus King, Berynn Schwerdt, Paul Cutlan, Ewen Leslie, Aaron Tsindos, George Kemp and Nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Angus King, Berynn Schwerdt, Paul Cutlan, Ewen Leslie, Aaron Tsindos, George Kemp and Nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

They are surrounded by an exceptionally fine cast. Ewen Leslie is in swashbuckling form as The Player – the actor-manger of a rag-tag company who still loves a grand, theatrical flourish but is well aware that life is a charade.

As the players, George Kemp, Angus King, Nicholas Papademetriou, Berynn Schwerdt, Aaron Tsindos and Paul Cutlan create a wonderfully eccentric, tatty and downtrodden group.  Kemp, in particular, as young Alfred, who has to play all the female roles, does a lovely, very funny job of capturing their abject situation.

The fact that actors of the calibre of John Gaden, Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery were happy to play the small supporting roles of Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius says a great deal about the esteem in which they hold Minchin, Schmitz and Phillips – and the play itself.

Together with Adele Querol and Tim Walter as Hamlet, they play the court scenes from Hamlet with an outlandish theatricality, creating hilarious caricatures that emphasise the strangeness of the world in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a triumph. A steeply raked stage is flanked by sharply converging black walls that lead to a vanishing point in the void, while three arched tunnels down each side play tricks with perception under Nick Schlieper’s lighting. Hanging overhead is a weird funnel spouting a dead tree (a nod to Godot) that becomes a candelabra.

Into this mysterious, foreboding space, Tylesova introduces sudden explosions of colour with her whacky Elizabethan costumes for Hamlet’s court.

Phillips collaborated with Tylesova on the dazzlingly staged Australian production of Love Never Dies – and this production confirms that theirs is a very fruitful creative partnership.

All in all this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a stunning production, which, not surprisingly, is all but sold out. However, you can still try for one of STC’s Suncorp $20 tickets – on sale at 9am each Tuesday morning for the following week, either in person at the box office or on 9250 1929.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at Sydney Theatre until September 14

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 18

Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz: interview

Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz discuss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and other future projects including the Australian tour of Matilda the Musical and the new musical Minchin is writing.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

In 1996, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz performed together in a University of Western Australia (UWA) student production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the 1966 play that made Tom Stoppard’s name.

Schmitz was initially cast in one of the lead roles but during rehearsals broke up with the director, who he’d been dating, and promptly found himself demoted to the much smaller part of Hamlet. Minchin played the meatier role of The Player and helped his brother write the music.

Seventeen years on, they about to co-star in the play for Sydney Theatre Company, this time with Minchin as Rosencrantz and Schmitz as Guildenstern: a casting coup that has triggered such demand for tickets, the production has extended before opening.

The excitement at such a double act is hardly surprising. Minchin is now a superstar comedy-musician whose hilarious satirical songs have won him an international cult following and who is regularly hailed “a genius”.

Based in London with his wife and two young children, he recently received rave reviews for his rock star turn as Judas in the UK arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar alongside Mel C and Ben Forster. He has also been winning serious plaudits as the composer/lyricist of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical, currently doing a roaring business in the West End and on Broadway, and headed for Australia in 2015 – more of which later.

Schmitz, meanwhile, is one of Australia’s most in-demand actors. In October, he plays Hamlet for Belvoir then jets off to Cape Town to film a second season of US television series Black Sails: a pirate drama prequel to Treasure Island, which premieres early next year.

He is also a successful playwright whose comedy I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for Tamarama Rock Surfers (TRS) last year and whose latest play Empire: Terror on the High Seas opens at Bondi Pavilion for TRS next month.

Friends since they met as teenagers at a youth theatre company in Perth, an interview with the two of them is a lively affair with thoughtful, intelligent conversation punctuated by sharp wit and much easy banter.

“We arm-wrestled and I lost,” deadpans Minchin when asked how they decided who should play who in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Stoppard’s play was just one of many productions they collaborated on at the UWA drama society, during which time they also performed as a cabaret duo.

In 2004, after Schmitz had graduated from NIDA and Minchin had moved to Melbourne to kick-start a career in music and cabaret, they co-wrote a show with Travis Cotton called This Blasted Earth, which had a short season at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre.

“It was a musical about putting on a terrible musical,” says Minchin. “The first half was the terrible musical and the second half was the cast saying: ‘I can’t believe we are in this terrible show.’ I think I came away with $50 for my songs and three months of work.”

To date, it hasn’t been revived. “Travis and Tim and I talk about it. It wouldn’t take too much work to re-mould it for 2013,” says Schmitz.

“If we didn’t have anything else to do we would probably do it,” says Minchin. “If we had spare time on an island together it would be fun.”

Spare time, however, is the last thing on their hands right now.

It was Luke Cowling, a co-director of the UWA production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who suggested around four years ago that they revisit the play with the two of them co-starring.

“But then he had a baby, blah, blah, blah and it kind of ground to a half. But my manager Michael knew it was a good idea and wasn’t going to let it go so he set up a meeting with these guys (STC),” says Minchin.

The play is an absurdist tragicomedy in which the two hapless courtiers of the title – minor characters in Shakespeare’s play – find themselves in the spotlight, trapped in a confusing, existential world where most of the drama is happening elsewhere as the plot of Hamlet unfolds predominantly offstage.

On the page, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem somewhat interchangeable. They finish each other’s sentences, are mistaken for each other by other people, and even muddle their own names up.

In the stage directions at the start of Act One in which Rosencrantz is tossing a coin that improbably keeps coming up Heads, Stoppard writes that Rosencrantz “betrays no surprise at all – he feel none. However, he is nice enough to felt a little embarrassed at taking so much money off his friend. Let that be his character note.

“Guildenstern is well alive to the oddity of it. He is not worried about the money, but it is worried by the implications; aware but not going to panic abut it – let that be his character note.”

Schmitz and Minchin chuckle at the casual brilliance of Stoppard’s succinct character notes.

“At the beginning you think, ‘I wish you’d given us just a tiny bit more here Tom!” says Schmitz. “But the genius is that you realise he has given you just enough. It’s your job to take one word and riff on it for four pages or hark back to a moment an act ago.”

“We bang on about his incredible genius to be able to write this play at the age he wrote it – you know, almost in a Shakespearean way, how could he have the knowledge?” agrees Minchin.

“But there’s an incredible maturity in how he used that knowledge and I reckon that’s very apparent in the stage directions: ‘Let that be your character note.’ What 29 -year old writes that? The effortless authority at age 29 – I would have wanted to punch him!”

“It becomes quite quickly apparent in performance or on reading out loud even that Stoppard has delineated two quite different personalities,” says Schmitz. “And then in the third act when things start to fall apart for them, lines are crossed and the characters are blurred a little more but I think it’s very clever in its delineation.”

“For the first half of the first act Rosencrantz does a lot of listening,” adds Minchin. “Guildenstern has a lot more text throughout the play. Rosencrantz does a lot more reacting and responding so that when his rants come they are really exceptions to the rule.”

The STC production is directed by Simon Phillips and designed by Gabriela Tylesova who produced the extraordinary sets and costumes for Phillips’ production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Love Never Dies.

Schmitz was at NIDA with Tylesova and says that even then the students were excited by her special talent – “and it’s not that common among the acting fraternity to go and be interested in any other department at acting school.”

He describes her design as “a vision of Elizabethan England” though Minchin qualifies that as being “not so much Elizabethan England as a traditional, Elizabethan-style Hamlet.

“The set is a minimalist, post-modern set, so it’s a Beckettian, Stoppardian non-specific set with entrances and exits designed to have their own weight because of our (Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s) inability to enter and exit. So the entrances are foreboding and the stage disappears in a converging line into infinity.

“There’s a nod to Godot because the play was a nod to Godot so the set design is very minimal but the costumes make it very clear that it’s a traditional Hamlet. You need that to anchor the play. If you reinterpret what are meant to be the foundations then your house crumbles a bit.”

Not surprisingly, Schmitz and Minchin are relishing Stoppard’s famously dazzling word play.

At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game akin to verbal tennis where they have to keep lobbing questions at each other.

“In that questions game, everything they say is utterly related to the characters and the text as well as relating to a rhythm and a toying and a playfulness,” says Minchin. “It’s scary, man. He’s the monster as they say in jazz. The monster.”

Phillips has gathered an exceptionally fine company of actors for the supporting roles, among them Ewen Leslie as The Player, John Gaden, Christopher Stollery and Heather Mitchell: “an embarrassingly fabulous cast” says Schmitz.

“It’s thrilling when the court (characters) come on. It’s seismic. You can do nothing but be slightly rattled and a rabbit in the headlights – which is exactly the effect you want.”

“I think it’s very difficult to do a brilliant production of a Stoppard play,” adds Schmitz. “You need a sparkling cast, great direction and great resources.

“And you need time too,” says Minchin.

“That’s right, like a Shakespeare you need time to plumb and realise that a lot of it is bottomless but you just have to pull up somewhere and say, ‘OK we’re going to have to make a decision.’ Like all brilliant plays, it just continues to reveal itself,” says Schmitz who first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at age 12.

Schmitz played Dadaist Tristram Tzara in STC’s 2009 production of Travesties – his only other experience of performing Stoppard – while for Minchin it’s his first on-stage encounter with the playwright.

However, he has met the playwright a couple of times at awards nights. “The first time I met him it was just me going, ‘oh my god?’” he says. “And the second time he’d become aware of who I was – which is the most profoundly satisfying thing from someone. You want to meet your idols but actually you don’t want to meet them. What you want is for them to meet you.

“He’s so youthful in his curiosity that he had gone ‘OK, that guy wrote Matilda’ so he’d gone away and discovered I do other things.”

Schmitz has also met Stoppard – though it was only the briefest of encounters. “It was during a writers’ festival and a bunch of young playwrights were being herded into a back room at the Opera House to meet him,” says Schmitz. “Someone had told him I’d written a play called I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard. He said, ‘I’m just glad it’s not called I just want to sleep during Tom Stoppard.’ I didn’t even name the play, it was my Dad’s title.”

The chance to see Minchin on stage in Jesus Christ Superstar and now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is something for Sydneysiders to cherish because we’re not likely to see him in another musical or play any time soon given his hectic schedule.

However, we will be seeing Matilda the Musical. Ever since the show premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, Australian producers have been vying for the rights.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel and featuring songs by Minchin, the RSC production transferred to the West End in November 2011 where it won rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical. In April this year it opened on Broadway, again to ecstatic reviews and 12 Tony nominations (though it was pipped to the post for Best Musical by Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots).

At last, a deal has been done for the RSC to present it in Australia in 2015 in association with a local producer, reveals Minchin.

“We actually know who the local producer is going to be (but) it’s still embargoed. I only found out (on Tuesday),” he says. “The plan is for it to open in Melbourne in September 2015.”

Meanwhile, Minchin is busy writing a new musical. “It’s still embargoed even though I’ve been working on it for six months,” he says. “But it’s a very interesting, arty but much-loved early ‘90s film we are adapting for the stage: very conceptual, somewhat Stoppardian. It will be more complex and dark (than Matilda). Even though I am working on it with Matthew Warchus, who was the architect and director of Matilda, we are going to try and start it quietly.”

Minchin is also working on an animated musical film for DreamWorks about animals in the Australian outback and when that is done will put a new solo show together.

Schmitz also has a lot happening. Rehearsals for Belvoir’s Hamlet (his second stab at playing the Prince of Denmark after taking on the role for Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre in 2010) begin while he is still performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which will make for “an interesting double play”, as he puts it.

At the end of August, TRS will premiere his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas about a serial killer aboard a luxury cruise liner in the 1920s featuring a cast of 20.

“The first half is my take on an Agatha Christie and the second half descends into something far more gothic and horror,” says Schmitz. “It’s a spectacle. It’s huge and it’s really ambitious. Leland Kean (artistic director of TRS, who is directing) has always done my stuff well and the cast is really talented and stupidly good-looking, I realise.”

Schmitz wrote his first play at NIDA. He won the 2002 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award for Lucky and was shortlisted for the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award for Chicks Will Dig You in 2003. His 2007 play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth has toured widely and I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for TRS last year.

“I’ve never had any interest from any (mainstage) theatre company in putting on any of my plays, ever – and this is play number 12. And I’ve had some really popular ones and critically acclaimed and even relatively economically successful ones,” says Schmitz. “But it got to the point a few years ago where I said to Leland Kean, ‘I’m just trying to get a mainstage company to put one on’ – hence I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard (with) four middle class people and a couch.

“And he said, ‘for your own soul, write one as if it was going on independently as a commercial thing like The 39 Steps or The Mousetrap or something. Don’t worry about the budget.’ I don’t think he was expecting 20 characters or an ocean liner.”

Given the number of projects they both have on the go, is there no end to their talents?

“I hope not,” fires back Schmitz.

“Is there no end to your ego is really the question,” quips Minchin.

But in the end, they agree, it all comes back to a love of words – and music, in Minchin’s case.

“It’s not multi-skilling,” says Minchin. “It’s a love of language and expressing ideas, wanting to perform other people’s great work and wanting to perform your own. That explains everything I do pretty much.”

“Yes it’s just another way of generating your own material,” says Schmitz. “We’ve both been doing that since before we can really remember.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at the Sydney Theatre from August 6 to September 14. Bookings: 9250 1777 or http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au