04
Nov
18

Neon Tiger

 

Neon Tiger

La Boite Theatre Company

La Boite Roundhouse Theatre

October 31 – November 17 2018

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

The adult gap-year you never know you needed.

 

Fast, frivolous and continuously flashing, the always-away playground of a tourist mecca in Bangkok paints the scene for Neon Tiger – a new Australian musical love story. Andy (Lisa Hanley) is an Australian traveller outrunning her broken heart. She has taken residence as a host at a Bangkok part-district karaoke bar where she meets Thai-American Arisa (Courtney Stewart) who’s on a personal quest to connect with her mother’s culture. When the two meet, sparks fly.

 

Once somebody sent me to Bangkok for ten days with two strangers and now they are my friends and this show exists.

Gillian Cosgriff

 

The sense of this show was seeded overseas and brought forth into the world by its female creative team and the team at Brisbane Powerhouse, after Kris Stewart asked Director, Kat Henry, to come up with something during ten steaming hot days in Bangkok with two women she’d never met before. Co-creators, Kat Henry, Julia-Rose Lewis (Writer) and Gillian Cosgriff (Writer/Composer/Performer) returned from that trip in 2015 conceptualising a number of vastly different productions, including something like a cross-cultural physical theatre performance using masks, until Stewart sagely told them, “It’s a musical.” And so, Soi Cowboy was born. A creative development season in the Visy Theatre was so polished, I walked away from it with the impression that the piece was just about ready to tour! (And if you have a space, ArtTour will look after Neon Tiger following its world premiere season). 

 

 

Performed by dynamite duo, Gillian Cosgriff and Courtney Stewart, in that first instance (2016), Soi Cowboy was a vibrant story of a friendship cum fling evolving over ten heady days in the midst of the city’s summer haze, and its cacophony of sounds, smells, beers, bars, gutters, beggars, flashing lights, ridiculously sweet and garishly coloured cocktails, temples, tuk tuks and muck. Over the last two years, the simple story has been pared right back by Lewis, and the dialogue retains its smart, sassy pace, making the new shorter, sweeter iteration – Neon Tigeran engaging and entertaining 90-minute new musical. Although I miss Cosgriff’s sass, her comic timing, and her extraordinary vocals, Lisa Hanley in this role brings a different sort of spunk and sound with her acoustic guitar (the vocals are extraordinarily similar in tone and style to Cosgriff’s……) 

 

 

Sarah Winter’s open split-level design offers specificity and scope, putting us anywhere – everywhere – in Bangkok, from the titular karaoke bar on Kao San Road, to the Tiger Temple, the Don-Rak War Cemetery, the streets, a shrine, a five-star hotel… Deceptively simple, it’s a set that reminds us how much magic can occur using very little. Andrew Meadows resists overusing the neon and strobe lighting (there is some, necessarily), working intimately with the sound design to give us the afterglow of the city, the afterglow of a relationship that retains its lustre even over time zones and oceans, without prolonged and potentially fit-inducing pulsating lights. Sound Designer, Guy Webster, assisted by Anna Whittaker, intricately weaves an evocative soundscape between dialogue and song, bringing to life the vibrant city, and bringing back a looped vocal excerpt to tug at the heartstrings at various intervals. This unsuspecting theme is almost the through line of the piece, a gentle memory that lingers in the heart not the head, interrupting real life, just for a second sometimes, for years to come. 

 

This play is about feeling like a tourist in your own life. It’s about falling in, and out of, love. This play is about meeting yourself, the real you, for the very first time on the vibrant city streets of Bangkok.

Julia-Rose Lewis

 

Kat Henry’s direction is so refreshing – remember, I loved her Constellations for QT so much that I went a second time – and in this I recognise the same real stuff. Henry uses every opportunity to move the performers, inwardly and outwardly on their journeys, expertly manipulating pace and production elements to shift out of languid and into high alert in a split second, and embracing the natural pauses and stillness of the script, so often glossed over or stretched for too long (in case we don’t get the poignancy of half a moment? I don’t know; this aspect of so many productions, on stage and on screen, completely baffles me. Why can’t we just let the actors say the words and see what happens?). Cleverly structured and measured direct address means we get the girls’ inner monologues in short bursts and freaking-out-outbursts at times, as they navigate the fascination and trepidation of a new relationship, however; nothing is superfluous or melodramatic, just so Australian. And so American. So universal. 

 

There’s a big mood here just beneath the surface, and I love that we’re not made to feel obliged to explore it at length or worse, to wallow in it, but instead we’re asked to simply bring our attention to it, and just like when we’re travelling, there’s a gentle nudge to consider perspectives other than our own. I’m sure there’ll be directors and performers in the future who want to ramp it up, make Neon Tiger racier, spicier, and add “some girl-on-girl action” (actually an opening night comment!). But I would advise against it! Just as it is, this is a story around which the artists have reserved some respectful, gorgeous, really very groovy space.

 

 

Cosgriff’s original songs are witty and funny as always, included here under the premise that they make Andy’s debut album. Hanley delivers each with sassy, smiling aplomb, unapologetic about her point of view and at the same time, perplexed about what she sees and feels about the situation in Bangkok, and about Arisa.

 

There’s nothing steamier here than the city’s suffocating heat, not even a flash of flesh (disappointingly for some, erotic scenes are recounted rather than played out; for me this is far more effective and a stroke of genius in terms of the work being widely viewed and read in secondary and tertiary circles. What a joy it will be for our young female performers to find this text in their hands!). The intimacy of Arisa and Andy’s complex relationship is kept shrouded in the hot haze of memory, and we savour its allure and magic as if it were our own precious, private experience. It’s the story behind the Instagram story.

 

 

We had to accept that Thailand was unknowable to us, that we were part of the problem, and that creating a piece of entertainment about this complex place would seem, to most Thai nationals, a perplexing and peculiar privilege. But this is our experience, and this is a version of love: messy, thrilling, and confusing, with temperatures rising, full of paradoxes – wanting both to stay forever and to find a way out; always trying to understand what the hell is going on.

Kat Henry

 

Neon Tiger is the most genuinely culturally sensitive theatrical work we’ve seen in years, beautifully personal and universal in its explorations and observations on what happens when we give ourselves over to new experiences and new influences. Neon Tiger is innocent, optimistic, charming, chaotic, comforting, raw and real. It’s for anyone who’s ever even dared to dream of travel or adventure or love, or forgiveness.

15
Oct
18

Everyday Requiem

 

Everyday Requiem

Expressions Dance Company

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

October 12 – 20 2018

 

Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway

 

I have tried to approach this work with a sense of nostalgia for the past, but even more, with a sense of what is important in moving forward for a 70-year-old man. Forgiveness, acceptance, love and family — surely that is what is important.

Natalie Weir, Artistic Director, EDC

 

 

In making Everyday Requiem, the singers and I have aimed for simplicity and beauty, interacting with jarringly everyday imagery.

Gordon Hamilton, Artistic Director, The Australian Voices

 

 

Everyday Requiem is choreographer Natalie Weir’s final signature work for Expressions Dance Company as Artistic Director. After 10 years, in which the company has grown and developed under her leadership, and in which she has created a string of outstanding works, she is moving on to a new phase of her life and career.

 

Everyday Requiem is the story of 70 years in the life of an ‘ordinary man’, reflecting the way our lives are complex mixtures of mundane routine, everyday joys and disappointments, ecstatic happiness and shattering tragedy.

 

 

Vocal ensemble The Australian Voices is an integral part of this work, performing an a cappella vocal score by their Artistic Director and composer, Gordon Hamilton. The six singers not only sing with a moving purity of tone and faultless diction: they also act, they engage with the dancers, and perform some demanding choreographed movement while singing. Isabella Gerometta, one of the singers, subtly conducts the ensemble.

 

Their vocal performance includes interesting effects and techniques such as harmonic chant, and singing while gargling. Snatches of text from the traditional Latin requiem appear in among more banal, everyday words, such as lists of items from a schoolbag, and pet names used by lovers. A song by Tibetan musician Tenzin Choegyal also runs through the work.

 

The focal point of Everyday Requiem is the Old Man, played by guest artist and veteran dancer, choreographer and actor Brian Lucas. He looks back on his life, seeing its progression from childhood to youth and first love, to maturity, marriage and fatherhood, and on to middle and old age.

 

 

Lucas is a tall and commanding figure, but projects great warmth and tenderness in this role, conveying a wisdom born from hard experience, and a yearning for happy moments in the past while appreciating the present. He has a powerful stage presence.

 

The choreography for dancers playing the roles of people in the Old Man’s past is intensely athletic, fluid and expressive, with duos full of inventive lifts that flow naturally out of the movement. Mixed in with the complex movement are repeated motifs of simpler, more everyday ones, such as slow dancing, and playing the child’s ‘hand over hand’ game.

 

Jag Popham is a playful incarnation of the character’s Infancy and Childhood, showing a strong bond with his Mother, Australian Voices member Sophie Banister, who evokes a tender affection that is one of the enduring themes of the life story. (There is no Father character.) Humour springs from the playfulness in the movement and music, the vocal text introducing the refrain of names of items in a child’s schoolbag.

 

Jake McLarnon is strong and intense as the Adolescent and Young Man, very much resembling a younger version of Lucas. His duos with Isabella Hood, as his Young Love, are athletically lyrical, showing an awakening passion. The duos become trios when the Brother (Scott Ewen), compounding earlier sibling rivalry, steals the girlfriend. Ewen plays the cocky, bullying brother with relish, and portrays a later reconciliation with great sincerity.

 

The Young Man marries The Wife, played by guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis. Vilmanis is EDC’s Rehearsal Director, a former company dancer, and also now an independent artist. Standing in for an injured Elise May, she is wonderful in this role. Technically strong, fluid and precise, she expresses all the emotions of the role without histrionics, but making a powerful impact.

 

As the Mature Man, Richard Causer projects a brooding physicality and frozen anguish on his return from war. While his relationship with his wife remains strong, the difficult relationship with his daughter (Alana Sargent) is a key part of the ongoing story. Causer and Vilmanis are well matched, and generate a heart-wrenching intensity of emotion. The daughter is the character most overtly expressing emotions, which Sargent does with speed and abandon.

 

There is a note of optimism and recovery all through Everyday Requiem, and it finishes with a moving 70th birthday party. The large group of nostalgic and happy party guests are older dancers from WaW Dance (a Brisbane ensemble of mature-aged dancers led by Wendy McPhee and Wendy Wallace).

 

The set and costume design (Bill Haycock) and lighting design (David Walters, assisted by Christine Felmingham) are simple and very effective: a dark backdrop is sometimes lit to glow dark gold, and tables and chairs are shifted around in different configurations.

 

The singers wear white, and the male dancers wear conservative pants, shirts and jackets in neutral colours with touches of black, and jungle greens for a war scene. The women’s costumes stand out as touches of colour: a salmon-pink cardigan for the Mother, a full-skirted 1960s yellow dress for Young Love, a dark-red plaid dress for the Wife, and a light denim blue for the Daughter.

 

 

On the first night, the performance was briefly interrupted by a fire alarm at a significant moment. However, this was soon forgotten as everyone involved in the performance drew us straight back into the story.

 

After the emotional and celebratory conclusion of Everyday Requiem, the first-night audience leapt to their feet in a standing ovation, clapping, whooping and cheering in response to the performance, and to Natalie Weir in particular. It was a well-deserved acknowledgement of a stunningly beautiful work that pierces the heart with joy, sadness, and ultimately celebration. It was also a fitting tribute to Weir herself and her achievements as a choreographer and Artistic Director.

 

03
Oct
18

Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff

 

Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff

Lunchbox Productions

QPAC Playhouse

October 2 – 7 2018

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward and Poppy Eponine

 

 

Discover your Hogwarts house here

 

It’s not essential but it’s nice to know which house you’re in prior to seeing the smash hit Potted Potter, an unauthorised parody of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts’ experience, attempting to condense all seven Harry Potter books live on stage in 70 minutes. Actually, it’s just two funny British guys telling us what we already know about the boy wizard defeating the evil Lord Voldemort, and unashamedly failing to fill in the gaps. That’s it! That just happened!

 

Because we’d missed Potted Potter at the Powerhouse a few years ago, we walk in not knowing what to expect and walk out loving every bit of whatever irreverent clever comedy that was. 

 

The first thing to realise is that it doesn’t feel like 70 minutes because it’s so much fun. And the second thing to realise is that it’s so much fun because what seemed a solid plan, to recount Harry Potter’s adventures as they occur chronologically in J.K. Rowling’s famous series comprising seven books, is thrown out the window when it’s revealed very early in the piece that one of the two performers hasn’t actually read any of the books. Nor did he secure any actors to play over 300 roles, or get the set and props required to accurately represent the story on stage for a discerning audience of Potterheads and their parents.

 

While Scott is a legit Potterhead, the authority figure to Dan’s little boy persona, super serious at first and intent on sharing his knowledge with us, all Dan wants to do is play quidditch. He’s obsessed! Like a kid who’s been promised a trip to the beach after a week of rain, he can’t let quidditch go. For Dan, quidditch is the answer to everything. Interestingly, without reading the books, and without being familiar with the characters, quidditch-obsessed Dan manages to nail a Powerpoint presentation summarising Book 3 (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), before the quidditch World Cup has even occurred! It’s a mystifying muggle miracle! 

 

Dan’s quidditch match, played live in the theatre with the audience divided into Gryffindor and Slytherin fans, is an absolute highlight for most, it’s so much fun. As silly as it is, there’s just something about a big inflatable ball being shared with the audience, isn’t there? And a special side note from Dan to everyone seated above in the balcony might have them booking earlier in future, in order to secure seats in the coveted stalls where all the action is! These offhand comments, obviously irresistible, and usually coming from naughty, distractible Dan, are typical of the frequent funny hooks for the “casual fans”, who may miss some of the actual Potter references. Rather than admonishing him, Scott just about falls about laughing with him, which makes the whole experience even more relatable and enjoyable, although we’re quite sure there are some cynics in the crowd thinking, “Get on with the storytelling!” and “I thought this was a Harry Potter show!” 

 

 

Other hilarious meta-references are at the expense of teachers and Trump’s America. After Dan questions the greatest wizard in all the world choosing to become, of all things, a teacher, an awkward silence follows and he fills it by innocently observing, “Who knew there were so many teachers in Brisbane!?” We all remember when Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the Americans, giving Dan licence to admit that it’s a pleasure to be back in an intelligent country. Further political references ensue, including a dire warning that “Donald Trump is coming for you, Australia!” These jokes (however terrifyingly too-real!), are met with cheers and applause from an appreciative audience. The prepared improvisation is exceptional, and exceptionally funny. These guys gain the respect of the Potterheads and the casual fans, appealing to all ages and sentiments. 

 

 

Dan’s interpretations of the characters are deliberately at odds with the original characters, which is very funny. Ron becomes Gangsta’ Ron in a bright orange wig and Hermione sports blonde schoolgirl plaits beneath a straw hat, more Hanging Rock than Hogwarts, and a baritone voice; there’s room for a Priscilla style drag queen act here. (Of course, no spoilers re the finale, but we also enjoy plenty of Priscilla-playing-next-door references, ie. “You won’t see that in Priscilla“)! Lord of the Rings, Narnia and even (the “inappropriate, Scott!”) Fifty Shades of Grey get a nod, as do Star Wars, Shrek, Wicked and little orphan Annie – not Ginnie – introduced as the youngest of the Weasley family. Unsurprisingly, Scott recoils when Dan-as-Ginnie-not-Annie tries to give him a kiss.

 

The running joke, repeated ad nauseam (almost too often, just as the set up appears to run too long before the show really starts), remains stubbornly focused on the amount of production money spent not on actors or scenery or props, but on the fire-breathing Hungarian Horntail dragon featured in Book 4 (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), not an enormous animatronic King Kong creation but a hand puppet accompanied by Dan’s vocal effects and sweeping gestures. Scott Hoatson is the perfect foil to Daniel Clarkson’s ridiculous antics throughout, always trying to get the show back on track and simply tell the story. We love his Scottish accent, his undying trust of Dan and the constant deferrals to him, and his determination to honour his “close friend” J.K. Rowling’s storytelling. These guys are a super talented pair and it’s a delight to see them work so effortlessly at this style of comedy. It’s even funnier to share the jokes and the happy accidents with them, as they lose it and laugh on stage. It makes the whole experience special, just for us, and totally relatable, as if we’re sharing our favourite Harry Potter moments amongst friends.

 

The clever incorporation of props at precisely the right time helps to punctuate the most dramatic or poignant moments from each book. When Dan opens the coffin on stage to take two hats for our quidditch seekers (willing volunteers from the crowd), from a skeleton’s hand, he addresses the skeleton as Cedric, thanking him as he takes the hats. Complete silence follows. “Too soon?” he asks. More uncomfortable silence. Still in shock, we miss the Twilight reference that follows but others laugh hysterically. We always notice that we like to laugh during uncertain times, don’t we, and this show is just the thing. Whether or not you’re a Potterhead is irrelevant; the laughs are in the polished-unpolished, superbly confident and cheeky, transparent performances more than in the content.

 

Nevertheless, our own memories of reading the books for the first time, of seeing each film, of sharing our favourite moments with family and friends who are just as obsessed (or not!) with Harry Potter as we are, come flooding back during the show and afterwards, as we recall the funniest scenes on stage, either very loosely handled or very precisely manipulated – who can say? – by Director, Richard Hurst. 

 

Potted Potter relies on a relaxed sense of humour and our knowledge of Harry Potter’s world, or at least the knowledge acquired through osmosis by those who live with Potterheads, and follows a deceptively simple formula of broken expectations. It’s the sort of childlike, improvised, never-to-be-repeated genius that you might expect to see in the living room around Christmas time, a play put on by the kids, involving every stuffed toy and unassuming adult in the house. This show is so crazy it just works. You can’t help but love it and laugh out loud.

24
Sep
18

DUST

 

Dust

Dancenorth & Liminal Spaces

Brisbane Powerhouse Theatre

September 19 – 22 2018

 

Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway

 

 

Upon birth, we arrive into a world in which those who precede us determine everything.

 

From this lottery of birth we inherit the architecture of both restriction and opportunity in countless manifestations. Structures, barriers and borders pre-exist, and past tense illuminates both our present and future thinking…

 

Dancenorth

 

Dancenorth’s work Dust premiered at this year’s Brisbane Festival. It is inspired by weighty and solemn concepts, outlined by directors/choreographers Kyle Page (Dancenorth’s Artistic Director) and Amber Haines (Associate Artistic Director) in their program notes.

 

Page and Haines are married and have a baby son, whose birth last year led them to contemplate ‘the architecture of inheritance’, and to think about the present, past and future worlds, and how we shape these worlds and they shape us.

 

In the post-performance Q&A on opening night, Page referred to the set for Dust, designed by Liminal Studio, as ‘another performer’. It dominates this work. At first, a large, wedge-shaped wall looms over the performers. Angled across the stage, it separates one dancer (Ashley McLellan) from the six others (Samantha Hines, Mason Kelly, Jenni Large, Georgia Rudd, Felix Sampson and Jack Ziesing). The themes of barriers, restrictions, insiders/outsiders and inclusion/exclusion continue throughout the work.

 

The power of the soundscape matches that of the set. Created by composer/sound designer Alisdair Macindoe and Canadian composer/musician Jessica Moss, it surges, booms and pounds, ebbing to quieter moments with sounds like bells, harmonic chanting, droning, and distorted voices calling.

 

Threading their way among the recorded electronic sounds are echoes of Middle Eastern and Eastern European music. Moss plays the violin live during the show, electronically modifying the sound of her instrument.

 

Early on, the dancers dismantle the wall into its constituent box-like blocks. As the work progresses, they move the boxes into various configurations: a ramp, a pile of rocks, a low wall around the stage perimeter, and parallel rows of columns.

 

The action continues with duos and solos while this happens, but shifting the boxes takes up much of the dancers’ time and effort. (The dancer representative at the Q&A, Felix Sampson, confirmed the impression that the blocks are heavy.)

 

 

Once the arrangements of blocks are in place, striking images are created by the dancers moving and posing on and round them. A group moves and stands on a ramp, while a lone man creeps alongside. A woman stands and lifts her arm, like a priest or an ancient oracle. A group of dancers bow and abase themselves to a pile of blocks; one woman walks slowly among them and they follow her.

 

It is as if we are witnessing some ancient ritual in a sacred space. This effect is accentuated by the configuration of the Powerhouse Theatre, with the audience in tiers of seats rising above the stage, as in an Ancient Greek theatre.

 

The dancers perform heroically, and one can only wonder at their energy. The quality of movement is athletic and grounded, fluid at times and jerky and robotic at others. McLellan in particular impresses with her intensity, strength and fluidity.

 

The pattern of the movement is full of circles: for example, using the impetus of whirling around in lifts, or rotating on the spot like a dervish, or running in circles, and people circling each other. The group of dancers sometimes huddle in a circle, moving in close action and reaction to each other, like a flock of birds. They also undulate in slow motion, like a group of sea creatures. There is a great deal of floor work.

 

 

The lighting (Niklas Pajanti) is subtle, often quite dim, with simple minimal colours that correspond well with the cosmic soundscape and the monumental set – such as gold, and pink strengthening to red. These are the only touches of colour other than shades of grey (for the backdrop, the wall, and the costumes).

 

The costumes (Harriet Oxley) are lovely. In contrast to the dominating set and the sound, and more aligned with the mood of the lighting, they are delicate and almost transparent. Of fine, pale, lightly patterned fabric, the combinations of tunics, wide pants, long skirts, and sleeveless tops are reminiscent of Ancient Greek or Roman draperies.

 

The whole creative team was represented on the 9-strong panel for the Q&A (facilitated by Bradley Chatfield, formerly with Sydney Dance Company, and more recently with Dancenorth and the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts). All were very passionate about their particular discipline and about the collaborative process of creating Dust.

 

The different creative elements in this work all make a powerful impression. However, for me they did not gel as a whole: rather, they seemed to be struggling for dominance, a struggle won by the set. At around 70 minutes, the work is not over-long, but is repetitious in parts.

 

In the current drought, the title Dust might first suggest clouds of windblown particles of soil. However, on reflection, the biblical idea that we are all made of dust seems more relevant: ‘… out of [the ground] wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return’ (Genesis 3:19).

24
Sep
18

Peter Grimes

 

Peter Grimes

Brisbane Festival, Opera Queensland, Philip Bacon AM

QPAC & QSO

QPAC Concert Hall

September 20 – 22 2018

 

Reviewed by Matthew Hickey

 

 

THE centrepiece of the Brisbane Festival Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes fell apart on Thursday night when the star couldn’t sing due to illness.

When the internationally renowned Australian heldentenor, Stuart Skelton, was wobbly in the high register during the first act, everyone thought it was just the histrionics of the part. But after the interval, Brisbane Festival artistic director David Berthold emerged to tell the audience the bad news that some in the concert hall at QPAC had already guessed, that Skelton, 50, was ill and would be unable to continue singing.

 

Phil Brown, the Courier Mail

 

Art criticism is fundamental to a healthy arts scene.

 

Informed and considered criticism applies a torch to artists’ feet. Dialogue between critic, artist and audience is central to the development of great art. When done well, there is nothing like arts criticism. Sadly, the Courier Mail’s criticism of the premiere of the semi-staged production of Peter Grimes, which forms the centrepiece of this year’s Brisbane Festival, was nothing like arts criticism done well.

 

Peter Grimes is an opera by British composer, Benjamin Britten. Here, it is sung (as originally composed) in English. The story is set in a Suffolk fishing village. It centres upon Peter Grimes, a troubled local fisherman, of whom insular locals are suspicious. His young apprentice has recently died, “in accidental circumstances”, during a misadventure at sea.

 

Contrary to the Courier Mail’s hyperbolic clickbait headline, last night’s production did not “fall apart”. It’s lamentable that Phil Brown’s piece ignored entirely the many positive things that deserved to be acknowledged in print. Before addressing those, one must speak about the obvious.

 

 

The star, internationally-acclaimed Australian heldentenor Stuart Skelton, was unwell. As much became concerningly obvious when the achingly glorious moment, which usually arrives in the first duet between Peter Grimes and Ellen Orford – when they sing “your voice, out of the dark” in a leaping ninth – frankly, didn’t.

 

For those close enough to the stage to see him well, it was obvious that Skelton was working hard, very hard, to produce his sound. But, despite the odd crack here and there, in a narrow part of the voice where Skelton seemed to be struggling to get his vocal folds to come together, in the first act the audience received a thrilling demonstration of why this man is the best Peter Grimes on the planet right now. His singing was exciting and powerful and his hulking physicality brought equal parts menace and pathos to the role.

 

After the first interval, it fell to David Berthold, Brisbane Festival’s Artistic Director, to gingerly take to centre stage (where his awful task was prolonged by darkness until someone found the light switch) to tell the audience what many had already guessed: Skelton was ill; he would be unable to sing the rest of the performance; the understudy (to whom I will return) would sing the performance from the side of the stage; and Skelton had “generously” agreed to act out the role.

 

Berthold’s use of the word “generous” seemed initially an odd choice. But, by the end of the performance, it made complete sense. It was an act of generosity for Skelton to walk through the role. Grimes is a dramatically challenging character. Complex, brooding, dysfunctional, tortured, despised, shunned and, ultimately, cast out by a community disappointed in him. One couldn’t help but feel, observing his personal anguish during the bows at the end of the performance, that Skelton had begun to personalise Grimes’ pain, by transmogrifying the Borough’s hate into (what his mind might have convinced him was) the audiences’.

 

But there was no hate from the audience. Only admiration. Those who were there were treated to a tantalising (and satisfying) glimpse of the voice that has made the Australian heldentenor a star on mainstage opera houses abroad.

 

It fell to Skelton’s understudy Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts, a Welsh tenor, to sing the role of Grimes from a music stand at the side of the stage while, from time to time, leaping back onto the stage proper to sing the role of Reverend Adams, in which he had been cast. His singing was clear and powerful. He is a very fine singer and, as may be seen from his leaping into the fray without any real time to think about it, a courageous one.

 

Other notable international guests included British soprano Sally Matthews, who sang the role of the schoolmistress, Ellen Orford, with great control and line, and British baritone, Mark Stone (who, interestingly, read mathematics at Cambridge University) sang the role of Balstrode. I can’t remember being more excited by a baritone’s performance since hearing Simon Keenlyside sing at the Opera House, in the mid-90s. Even without Skelton, the price of admission is worth it to hear those singers alone.

 

But they were not alone. Through the musical and dramatic skill of the rest of the featured cast, the Suffolk fishing village came to life on the Concert Hall stage.

 

 

Andrew Collis was steadfast as the dour Swallow, with his drunken dancing a particular highlight. The nieces were played to trashy, fish-netted, stiletto-heeled perfection by Katie Stenzel and Natalie Christie Peluso. Jacqueline Dark’s portrayal of the laudanum-baked Mrs Sedley was beautifully nuanced. Michael Honeyman’s cheeky turn as Ned Keene, the pill-pushing apothecary, in particular when leading a pub-full of tense drunks in the ditty “old Joe has gone fishing”, was great fun. Brad Daley again showed why he remains among the best-known tenors in this country. His voice remains bright and strong, and from the moment he “started shouting” as the dishevelled bible-basher Bob Boles, he made the character his own. Jud Arthur (whose biography records an unsurprising history as a rugby player) provided wonderful physical menace as the performer of “dirty jobs”, Hobson the carter.

 

 

A particularly poignant moment in this production is the quartet in the first scene of act two, between Ellen Orford (Martin), Auntie, played stoically by Hayley Sugars, and the nieces (Stenzel and Christie Peluso). They sing despondently of the role women play in supporting men. “And should we be ashamed because we comfort men from ugliness?” they sing. In the era of #metoo, that quartet resonates like never before.

 

The Opera Q Chorus, supplemented by talented students from the Queensland Conservatorium, again revealed astonishing vocal polish and discipline, and dramatic commitment. That so much is accomplished by this ensemble, year in, year out, when they are retained on an ad hoc, casual basis, is testament to their collective talents. We are lucky to have them. They sang their hearts out. The power of the moment at the end of Act 2, when they stormed the front of the stage, with flame torches aloft, a terror-inducing, frothing-mouthed mob, baying for Peter Grimes’ blood, was especially confronting.

 

Finally, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of the baby-faced Scottish conductor, Rory Macdonald, has rarely sounded better. Their performances of the famous four sea interludes, in particular, were evocative and atmospheric.

 

While it was disappointing he couldn’t sing the second and third acts, to suggest the production “fell apart” is to do a grave and thoroughly unjustified disservice to the rest of the performance.

 

It was, simply put, a remarkable evening in the Concert Hall.

 

 

 

20
Sep
18

Mother’s Ruin

 

Mother’s Ruin: A Cabaret About Gin

MILKE & The Ginstress

La Boite, QUT & Brisbane Festival

La Boite Roundhouse Theatre

September 18 – 22 2018

 

Reviewed by Nicole Reilly

 

For one week only, as part of Brisbane Festive 2018, La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre has been transformed into a boozy, magical gin joint. The cheekily self-proclaimed ‘threesome’, Maeve Marsden, Libby Wood and Jeremy Brennan, take their audience on a hilariously whirlwind, hazy and musical journey through the history of ‘mother’s ruin’, AKA gin.

 

The show begins with Maeve and Libby performing a Prayer to Gin, with Jeremy accompanying on piano, amidst the clutter of gin bottles of every shape and size strewn across the set. Don’t let the amount of empty bottles surprise you, the trio manage to pull gin bottles from anywhere and everywhere, with several hiding in the cleavages of Maeve and Libby to be retrieved mid-song.

 

Though the history of gin, and its reputation as a depressive tipple, is quite a downer, mostly due to the mistreatment of women throughout history, the expertise of these rising cabaret stars is in their ability to not take their narrative or themselves too seriously. As they race us through 18th century London, Libby confesses that it’s probably best for everyone if she just doesn’t attempt the accent, while Jeremy later remarks that he desperately wanted to do an accent because he’s “from NIDA!”. The songs and on-stage antics are equal parts cheeky, sexy and grotesque – with a memorable rendition of Fever by Libby ending in her dying of malaria after suffering from a range of delightfully disgusting symptoms on-stage – always with gin in hand. 

 

 

Both Maeve and Libby are incredibly dynamic performers, and unashamedly themselves (albeit heightened for stage), as they banter with the audience. They exude sexy, and their voices, together and individually, are mesmerising. Towards the end of the show, Maeve takes the microphone at the front of the stage and the other two disappear into a fiercely blue lit stage. I cannot even recall the song, it’s irrelevant, but Maeve’s ability to hold an audience, to captivate us with her authenticity and vulnerability was utterly engrossing. The audience was completely immersed in her world, which is a credit to her formidable skills as a performer.    

 

 

The passion and enthusiasm for their drink of choice, including the inclusion of a certified gin expert to their creative team, is infectious – if the gin bar of the Theatre Republic post-show is anything to go by! And so finally, after critically acclaimed sold out seasons at Edinburgh Festival Fringe, London Underbelly Festival, Sydney Festival, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Fringe World Festival Perth, Adelaide Fringe and Festival of Voices, Mother’s Ruin has landed in Brisbane!

 

With a gin in hand, don’t miss this wonderfully silly and informative cabaret.

17
Sep
18

Stalin’s Piano

 

Stalin’s Piano

Robert Davidson and Sonya Lifschitz

Brisbane Festival and Griffith University

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

Friday September 14 2018

 

Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway

 

 

I think everyone is a composer, at the very least through endless spoken melodies

Robert Davidson

@robcomposer

22 Jan 2015, Twitter

 

You and I may not have noticed before, but there is music in everyday speech. According to Brisbane composer Robert Davidson, we are all composers, creating and performing music every time we speak.

 

Davidson is fascinated by politics, the connection between politics and art, and by the music of speech. These preoccupations fuse in Stalin’s Piano, a multimedia work developed in collaboration with pianist Sonya Lifschitz, and premiered at the Canberra International Music Festival 2017. Together, Davidson and Lifschitz uncover the music in the speech of 19 famous artists and politicians, creating musical portraits of them in a powerful piece of theatre.

 

The 19 range from Bertolt Brecht, to John F Kennedy, Joseph Stalin, Robert Helpmann, Mao Zedong, Gough Whitlam, Percy Grainger, Ai Wei Wei, and Jackson Pollock. Particularly memorable were Percy Grainger, with his astringent description of music as ‘the art of agony’ and ‘derived from screaming’; EE Cummings, with a lyrical reading of one of his love poems; Robert Helpmann, with stories about his early life; and former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, with the surprising and stirring music of her anti-misogyny speech to the Australian Parliament.

 

Lifschitz is centre stage at the piano, with video clips playing on a large screen behind and above her. In this performance lasting just over an hour, she is playing or speaking almost constantly.

 

She gives an awe-inspiring performance of great warmth, playing music of varying styles, from lyrical to frenetic, martial to Latin jazz.

 

Her timing is uncannily precise, with the piano exactly echoing the musical notes of speech from the video soundtrack. The listener feels a sense of discovery and illumination in response. At other times the piano is in counterpoint to the voice and connects with the images on the screen, or it elaborates on or accompanies the music of the speech.

 

 

The composition, the images and the performance of Stalin’s Piano arouse many emotions: it is by turns lyrical, fierce, horrifying, funny, chilling, sad, and nostalgic.

 

The film clips are often sampled and looped, with the repetition and rhythm reflected in the music. This has been used to create comic effects, for instance in the portrait of JF Kennedy, with exhilarating Cuban-influenced rhythms and choppy film echoed by the piano, and contrasting with the tension of the Cuban missile crisis.

 

As part of her spoken performance, Lifschitz talks about Stalin, Shostakovich, and Russian pianist Maria Yudina. The story of Yudina and Stalin is central to the work, as reflected by its title. The story is of two absolute opposites: the dictator who destroyed millions of lives, and the pianist who championed artistic freedom and openly defied Stalin’s regime, yet survived.

 

Stalin loved Yudina’s playing and demanded a recording of her performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which was made especially for him in a late-night recording session by terrified conductors and musicians. This recording is said to be the last music he listened to before he died.

 

Yudina was revered in Russia, and a huge influence on Lifschitz and her contemporaries as students. In a poignant tribute during Stalin’s Piano, Lifschitz plays some Mozart along with the recording of Yudina.

 

Davidson and Lifschitz both spoke in a relaxed and friendly way to the audience about the work beforehand, and took part in a Q&A after the show (chaired by Brendan Joyce, Artistic Director of Brisbane chamber orchestra Camerata). The show certainly stands alone without the Q&A, but this added some fascinating insights (such as revealing that Gough Whitlam spoke in B flat major, and explaining how Lifschitz manages to synchronise her playing with the spoken words and moving images).

 

 

 

In discussing the comedy of Stalin’s Piano, Davidson said that manipulating sound and image, as in the JFK portrait, is only one element of the comedy in the work. Sometimes comedy lies in what the person is saying, as in the portrait of Percy Grainger, with his spiky response to an interviewer echoed by the piano. Humour also comes from the realisation that there is inherent melody in speech, which was borne out in the frequent laughter from the audience.

 

Davidson said that while music isn’t as precise as words, it enhances what is underneath them, ‘where the real punch comes in’. Stalin’s Piano certainly does that, amplifying the feeling in the spoken words of 19 people. The show is intense, entertaining, and completely absorbing.

 

There was only one performance of Stalin’s Piano at Brisbane Festival. If it ever comes back, or you can see it somewhere else, don’t miss it!