Author Archive for Xanthe Coward

25
Apr
16

Motherland

 

Motherland

Queensland Theatre Company

Bille Brown Studio

April 22 – 30 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Based in fact, the epic and intimate Motherland intertwines the sweeping stories of three very different women from different times, united in the heartache of exile from their homelands.

From the chaos of a Russian military coup, through the hell of Nazi-occupied France to a turbulent Brisbane in the throes of the Fitzgerald Inquiry, Brisbane playwright Katherine Lyall-Watson has penned a painstakingly researched historical drama about how world-changing events can ripple out and take a terrible toll on everyday lives.

Motherland was first produced by Metro Arts and Ellen Belloo at the Sue Benner Theatre, Brisbane on 30 October, 2013.

Motherland is a sweeping family saga, shifting across time and oceans to bring us three richly textured stories that make our hearts sigh and sing.

If you haven’t seen Motherland, you’ve missed a bold step forward in the shaping of Australia’s theatrical landscape. The sophistication and complexity of its storytelling, and a strong, clear narrative voice gives a nod to our ‘post dramatic’ writers, the likes of Tom Holloway and Daniel Keene.

Having seen the original production at Metro Arts, I miss the darkness and shadows and ambiguity of the first design, which you see in the trailer below (Annie Robertson is Associate Designer this time), but what I love about this version, reworked for QTC, is its clean, slick approach to the storytelling. Writer, Katherine Lyall-Watson, has sufficiently reworked the text to tell the tale without superfluous detail. Using slightly less text, each character is more fully formed than before, and each performer embodies their role with greater depth and empathy than before. Director, Caroline Dunphy, has sensitively and skillfully shaped this piece for a new audience.

Despite David Walters’ fine lighting, against Penny Challen’s squeaky clean all-white set I feel some of the original intimacy is lost, but we’re in the Bille Brown Studio now; it’s difficult to create a small space for a larger audience, and a larger, broader audience is what I wished for Motherland the first time.

Belloo Creative is a marvellous company of four talented and deeply connected women; their work is vital, bringing us stories we may never have known without them. And with the injection of state theatre company funds and a safe, supportive environment, this quietly determined indie company has had the opportunity to stretch their legs. And now we see they’re in for the long run.

The actors are poised to tell a story from the outset, entering from out of the initial darkness and stoically taking their places in the light to the beat of Piaf’s swirling, stirring “padum padum padum”. They never leave the space; everyone is in the story all of the time. And it takes several minutes to establish each story, and for us to focus and settle into each era, and its characters and their accents. The slower pace at the outset is likely deliberate, to allow our ears and eyes to adjust. We do so, quickly becoming immersed in the interwoven stories, the seamless transitions made all the more effective by the old world elegance of Dane Alexander’s cinematic underscore.

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One of my favourite Queensland performers, especially after sharing the stage with her during GAYBIES, Barbara Lowing, is Nina, the 90-year old Russian writer; hot tempered, outspoken and often in trouble for speaking her mind…and her fierce heart. Lowing gives a gutsy, beautifully measured performance, taking this thick-skinned, complex character into a grey and gentle space between oppression and self realisation. Nina cares for Slav for years (he’s a weak, sickly, petulant poet) until she can do so no longer, finding freedom in independence. But is it the freedom she’s yearned for?

There’s something fantastic and liberating about playing such a flawed character and Lowing sinks her teeth into this woman whilst retaining a devastating vulnerability. It’s a superb performance; we are transfixed.

Daniel Murphy brings to life both Slav and the boy, Sasha, both difficult and dangerous roles for an actor, with the temptation to overact ever-present. But Slav is as irritating and as brilliant as any self-destructive artist, and the boy like any other boy, uprooted and displaced without a common language or a circle of friends to help him fit in. Murphy perfectly channels the young boy’s mistrust, his discontent and ultimately, his love for his mother.

The inner conflict and sheer strength of every mother is captured more confidently than before by Rebecca Riggs as Alonya, the “lioness”. Riggs has discovered something more to this role and offers a richly informed performance (her warmth emanates fully in the final moments of the play). She falls in love with an Australian businessman and his promise of a place of refuge for her and her son, a new motherland down under, as well as a visit home to Moscow each year. It all seems too good to be true…

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Peter Cossar (Chris/Kerensky) has sharpened the Russian accent and let loose on the Aussie twang. The dinner scene, in which we witness both his characters occupying one chair, was the first to be written by Lyall-Watson, and its skilful shape and pace is testament to the success of the connection here between writer, director and actor. The staging is simple, with Cossar seated between Riggs as Alonya and Kerith Atkinson as the Australian journalist, Nell, who seeks the hand of Kerensky. The seamless transition of characters and the clarity of the overlapping, interwoven stories, due largely to Cossar’s ability to switch between his two roles, is outstanding. I’ve not seen more solid or more confident work from Cossar.

motherland_Barbara Lowing and Kerith Atkinson

Atkinson’s Nell is almost a duel role in itself, as she convinces herself of the life she feels she must lead until her death gives us cause to ponder the connection between self-denial and self-inflicted emotional pain, and the slow demise that comes with chronic illness. Atkinson’s vocal work is precise and her characterisation is vibrant and energetic, wilful and wonderful, making the news of Nell’s passing all the more moving.

Nina’s final words are more fitting than before, simpler and less flowery, reflecting the overall tone of the reworked text, which is sharper and clearer. It’s the truth and tone of the piece now, more than any massive rewrites (although the writer may correct me on that point!) that makes Motherland a defining work, bringing our focus back, again and again, to the incalculable value of our own stories. 

The re-writing process fascinates me, and I know it started at Metro Arts, with audience feedback offered directly to Lyall-Watson as writer/usher at the time. I understand that audience members had no idea she was the writer, so offered their thoughts freely on their way out the door; a fantastic opportunity for a writer, to gain insight from the immediate and emotional response from audience members and actors. Lyall-Watson has no doubt spoken on this, but I particularly remember reading what Matthew Ryan had noted about being in the room with the actors for the first reading of his seminal work, Brisbane:

“It never fails to surprise me the difference that a reading can make. You can convince yourself 100% that your script works. But until you have actors saying the lines you’re not really hearing the play. You’re just hearing (in your own head) what you hope it is.

I make a point of not looking at my script at a reading. I watch the actors. I already know what’s on the page. It doesn’t interest me. The best lessons are on actors’ faces and in their eyes. When they connect with each other. When they struggle. A good actor is the writer’s best friend. They will give it their all and tell you what they struggled with. I always try to get the most opinionated actors. The ones who won’t just accept what I’ve done but challenge me with questions and observations of where it fell short. They are in the moment and can often feel the bumps better than I can.

The reading of BRISBANE was a real eye-opener around the structure. What I thought would resonate didn’t. What I didn’t care that much about was bouncing off the walls. The first Act needs a polish but the second Act needs to be completely re-written. Before the reading I was sure it was fine. I was sure it all worked. Now I know how far I have to go. You can never tell the geography until you send out the scouts to see for themselves. If you’re smart, you listen to what they found out there.”

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Motherland’s director, Caroline Dunphy, has caressed this text and coaxed this cast out of their original raw performances into another realm altogether, facilitating closer connections and new resolutions within more naturalistic performances. (I imagine this company must have become closer than most; we feel such genuine history in the relationships and we retain such hope for each individual’s future). Dunphy’s talent is this emotional precision: her attention to the delicate detail of each individual in each relationship, though her gift might masquerade as merely* the competent manipulation of the elements and the actors in the space. She’s very humble, and what we see is that there is so little, and yet so much of her in this production… What a beautiful thing for a director to be able to claim.

*As we appreciate, directing is no easy task; there’s really no “merely” about it, but still…

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These stories will make you curious about your own… And just imagine if you could have your family’s stories told. Would you not want that history to remain this intriguing, and shared this respectfully, this lovingly?

Motherland is the most beautifully crafted and intelligently delivered story you’ll see on stage this year. Its passion and fierce beauty will stay with you long after you leave the theatre.

And once you’ve lived through it you might like to read it. I forgot to pick up a copy of the updated text but I’ll be back at the Bille Brown next month to see Andrea Moor & Matthew Backer in Joanna Murray Smith’s SwitzerlandIf you have time to read Motherland before then, get your copy from Playlab. And if you’ll miss seeing it in Brisbane, book now and catch the production at a venue near you. You’ll be a richer person for it.

2016 TOUR DATES:

Queensland Theatre Company, Brisbane (April 20 – 30)

Maleny Community Centre (May 4) + meet the cast for drinks on the deck

The Arts Centre Gold Coast (May 6 – 7)

Ipswich Civic Theatre (May 11)

Redland Performing Arts Centre (May 12)

Gladstone Entertainment Centre (May 14)

Glen Street Theatre, Sydney (May 17 – 22)

Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre (May 25 – 28)

22
Apr
16

VELVET

 

Velvet

QPAC & Organised Pandemonium

QPAC Cremorne

April 21 – May 8 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

VELVET is a night club and a state of mind – a fantasy.

– Craig Ilott

Live_22_Brandan Maclean_ADE_Tony Virgo

VELVET is this year’s best night out so far, especially if you missed it last time, at the Powerhouse during Brisbane Festival last year. It’s a dazzling disco cabaret; a feast for the senses and a wake up call for the soul.

We’re seated at the top of a catwalk stage, with additional seating on either side of it. The Cremorne has become a dance floor, with five giant glitter balls suspended above, flashing, moving, colourful lights on all sides, lots of haze, revolving mirrors and entire walls of light below a balcony boasting yet another wall of flashing lights, and the omnipresent DJ, MD & Percussionist, Joe Accaria.

Inspired by Studio 54, a club famous for its wild parties and hedonism but also ultimately for its culture of acceptance – blind to colour, creed, class, gender, size and sexuality. VELVET is a celebration of that freedom.

– Craig Ilot

An outstanding soundtrack of back to back 70s smash hits (get the original cast recording here) takes us on a journey that is focused on a young man’s hopes and dreams (Brendan Maclean). There’s a whole lot of Pippin about it; Maclean’s character’s gotta’ find his corner of the sky (only his Corner of the Sky is If You Could Read My Mind). He finds it in a flashy, racy late night venue, VELVET.

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A stronger storyline may have seen Maclean more explicitly seek a soulmate or a Drag Mother; nevertheless, he appears to find both, sans awkward scenes or dialogue, in the divine Marcia Hines. The story is not much clearer than boy-goes-to-big-city, boy-becomes-confident-with-the-help-of-fairy-godmother-and-a-few-good-men, boy-lives-out-his-wildest-dreams, and nor does it need to be. Those who seek a deeper meaning will find it.

Moments – impressions – have come back to me today, outlasting the high energy of the performers (Choreography Lucas Newland), the glamorous discotheque aesthetic (Design James Browne & Lighting Matthew Marshall), in particular, a moment of real connection between Hines and Maclean, and a later moment of truth, when the boy faces a mirror image of himself in another performer. Does he even recognise his previous conservative self, and how far he’s come? There are enough moments like these to make VELVET the more narrative of the increasingly popular cabaret variety shows.

Indie singer-songwriter, Maclean, is fabulous in this role; brilliant, bold and barely able to contain his excitement, driving the semblance of plot with a full range of facial expressions and a full spectrum of emotion behind them. His energy on stage is infectious and we watch as he stumbles into this strange and exotic new world with grins big enough to match Maclean’s. He’s a phenomenal, full-hearted performer, with the glorious gift of true versatility and not a weak aspect. Like his friend and hero iOTA (with whom Director Craig Ilot has also worked), Maclean wears sequins and feathers well, and can take us from the most flamboyant and colourful camp heights to the most sombre, moving, modern ballad lows. His heartbreaking acoustic rendition of Stayin’ Alive transports us, transforming us. Can you even imagine? No, you can’t. You simply must be in the room for this performance. I feel bereft, and in the same way a heavy metal band has recently repackaged Simon and Garfunkel, this classic disco smash hit will never be heard in the same way again. Ilot has clearly left room for the artists themselves to come to this party, making it a beautifully intimate experience.

Live_8_Marcia Hines_ADE_Tony Virgo

Hines sparkles and shines, a true diva, her full, rich, real voice a joy to hear live. She commands the stage as only an enduring star can, and in It’s Raining Men and, with Maclean – it’s fabulous – No More Tears (Enough Is Enough) we hear her full vocal super power, quite extraordinary.

Her backing vocalists are two of the best in the biz and not so much “backing” as “flanking”. Rechelle Mansour and Chaska Halliday are stunning, with the dance and vocal ability to give Beyonce’s girls a run for their money. They could be next year’s Super Bowl half time entertainment, but we’d be foolish to lose them. Turn the Beat Around is a showstopper, showcasing their combined and individual formidable talents.

Live_2_Mirko Kockenberger_ADF_Tony Virgo

Mirko Köckenberger is not only the handstand acrobat of the company (he impresses early, undressing upside down on a stack of suitcases) but also, the mirror image and symbolic self to Maclean’s soul-searching, world-seeking character. Another striptease is noticeably absent from this version of the show, according to friends who’d seen the first, but the production is not lacking. If anything, it’s a relief to enjoy a circus cabaret that doesn’t feel the need to go there (anymore). The show is inherently sexy and the slightly risqué (I guess? Perhaps for some of QPAC audiences?) comes in the form of a dangerous, gorgeous bondage aerial sequence featuring Stephen Williams and Emma Goh. They demonstrate strength, grace and a range of S&M options for the, er, high-flyers amongst us.

Live_33_Stephen WilliamsADE_Sam Oster

Craig Reid (AKA The Incredible Hula Boy), offers comic relief – perfect comic timing – and cheeky fun in a perfectly polished hula hoop act to impress even the most discerning circus crowd. Hilarious, he’s a firm favourite with the opening night audience.

There’s nothing to dislike here. VELVET is sensational; the most unashamedly entertaining Spiegeltent show outside of the Spiegeltent. This season will sell out. See it or see it again. You won’t be disappointed. 

20
Apr
16

Flaunt

Flaunt

Claire Marshall and Metro Arts

Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre

April 13 – 16 2016

 

Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway

 

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The changes for women over the past 120 years have been significant … but are we there yet? Or are the current times of social media where women are socially conditioned to police each others’ ‘acceptable’ images a step back in time for women?

– Claire Marshall

 

The first version of Flaunt, by independent choreographer and director Claire Marshall, was shown in a season at the Brisbane Powerhouse in 2014. For the 2016 season at Metro Arts, Marshall has extensively reworked this piece, making it much richer, with its themes of gender construction, and cooperation and competition between women fully integrated with its theatricality.

 

Flaunt grabs the attention and doesn’t let it go.

 

It’s like a journey in a time machine, with a central figure (Amelia Stokes) appearing to be brought out of cryogenic storage to experience the lot of women in five different eras: the early 1900s, the 1950s, the 1970s, the 1980s and today.

 

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Both sound and costume design are by Marshall. Each era is accompanied by music from that time, with the sound design also effectively using layered words (such as ‘sexuality’, ‘freedom’, ‘fertility’) and spoken extracts, including a letter, and part of an academic paper about gender construction.
The costumes are simple, but effective: over short black pants and crop tops, the dancers don Edwardian ‘hobble’ skirts, 1950s full-skirted dresses, pastel chiffon 1970s evening dresses, clunky 80s jackets with shoulder pads, and for today, bright little tops teamed with blue wedge sandals.
In a clever device, different floor coverings, lined up in rolls at one side of the performance space, are spread over the floor to match the costume changes for each era. The other main feature of the set design (Frances Hannaway) was a frame, about medium-shed-size, of steel posts and cross-pieces.

 

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This framework echoed the theme of ‘construction’ of gender, while also resembling a cage, or part of a set in a circus or a nightclub. The dancers and the choreography made great use of it, climbing, vaulting through, swinging and hanging from it, as well as using it as a support to lean on or huddle against.
The sound, costume and performance show the restrictions suffered by women in every era. Their support for each other is contrasted with the cruelty of women towards others as they police their appearance and actions, and force them to conform.
This time there are three dancers instead of four: Essie Horn, Courtney Scheu, and Amelia Stokes (who was one of the cast in 2014). They all have strong individual presence, with Stokes a particularly magnetic performer. They showed courage and skill in their use of the frame, and dexterous management of the on-stage costume and floor-covering changes that were part of the performance.
The lighting (Michael Richardson) is dramatic and submerges the audience, as if we are in a club.
It was good to see this show again in its striking 2016 reincarnation.

 

 

13
Apr
16

Bastard Territory

 

Bastard Territory

Queensland Theatre Company

Bille Brown Studio

April 6 – 16 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Everyone I spoke with before attending this play was terrified by the thought of a 3-hour commitment! But Bastard Territory doesn’t feel too long, thanks to a reasonably fast pace and light-hearted moments landing amongst some heavy themes. Playwright, Stephen Carlton, explores thoroughly and fairly efficiently, identity, belonging, and not.

While Act 1 takes its time to establish the human context, the detail is probably necessary to give us a complete picture of Russell’s world and its inhabitants. He’s on a mission to find out who he is and who his biological father might be. He tells his story from within, and from just outside of it.

A different set of eyes on the text (or the luxury of a longer rehearsal period –  just two weeks were available for the remount of this production) might allow the time and space for Carlton or Dramaturg, Peter Matheson, to take to it with a red pen. Act 2 is the tightest and most engaging of the three, exposing the truth about complex relationships and identity. It seals the deal: if we’re not with Russell by now we never will be.

The final act deals with new and renewed alliances, the tatters of the old torrid relationships, post-independence political fragments and new possibilities, but a sudden ending leaves us unsatisfied. This is perhaps intentional. There’s a feeling that Russell’s quest must continue and yet…it feels rushed, contrived. In fact, the final scene undoes a lot of good, with the token reappearance of a suitcase Russell had packed when he was eight years old, and the gift of a CD, the original vinyl record broken by Aspasia in a fit of childish rage. But surely she would have thought of giving that gift already, when CDs first became available years before, and she, older and wiser, first felt inclined to replace it? It’s illogical. Following this clumsiness, I would like to have seen the mother return home, to simply appear at the door. An even bigger cliche? Well, she has her Nora moment, but honestly, who else but Nora actually leaves her children? (Lagertha always returns to hers)…

Lauren Jackson is a vibrant and emotionally vulnerable Lois, the mother of our narrator. At first forlorn, conservative and entirely dependent in Port Moresby, she embraces the freedom of a more bohemian lifestyle after dabbling in the local amateur theatre scene and art class.

Witnessed by Russell, she meets men whom, one after another, he supposes in hindsight could have been his biological father. She learns to live silently with her husband, Russell’s “dad”, Neville; the younger, Peter Norton & the elder, Steven Tandy. Norton is inconsistent in applying the after-effects of a tragic event he chooses to endure in the line of duty; he’s more convincing later, in the less obtrusive role of Russell’s boyfriend, Alistair. Tandy is a stern, self-righteous father at the end of his political career, conflicted, and stubbornly keeping a firm grasp on a long string of lies as it begins to unravel. By the end of the play he earns our sympathy as only Tandy can, with a single poignant line.

Bender Helwend makes a sincere, if somewhat insecure Russell, conversing directly with us and leaping in and out of his additional roles with aplomb. A drag act may come across more confidently by the end of the season (after all, he’s rehearsed it or performed it every Friday night since he was eight years old! It should be of Priscilla standard), and the references to Tennessee Williams’ work will probably sound less obvious and more natural in this time too. Additional roles (Cleo/ Tinneka/Aspasia) are played by Ella Watson-Russell, another Corrugated Iron Youth Arts (pre-drama school) product.

Nanette (Suellen Maunder) represents the unavoidable small town type and makes this character appropriately annoying. A caricature, larger than life, like the people from the past our parents tell us about; constructed memories, formed piece by piece from the stories told time and time again. Everyone knows a meddling, smiling assassin like Nanette.

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The style, sweeping across three eras, is very meta from the outset, letting us in on the making and staging of a play, with frequent reminders that it’s just a story being told and the details could be inaccurate, but it’s Russell’s story and this is the way he tells it. I love this relaxed style of writing, casually, persistently working its way around vital political and personal issues, the things we most often gloss over in real life.

It’s an epic story, spanning oceans and decades to remind us just how complicated real life – and the relationships that really matter to us – can be.

Sean Pardy’s warm lighting makes available every space, although the economic direction forgets sometimes there is an upper level, to which eight year old Russell sometimes retreats. Director, Ian Lawson, plays nicely with pace and handles with care the high stakes and political points, bringing our attention neatly to the plight of anyone under someone else’s rule, including the wives of colonial community military leaders. His respect for the work and the writer is clear. No red pen will have made it into his hand.

Penny Challen’s set design is immediately interesting: the 2-storey timber floored skeletal structure serves abstractly as the basic Port Moresby accommodation, the Darwin bones after Cyclone Tracy has hit, and the vaguely flamboyant renovated gallery and bar. Challen’s costumes are more authentic in form, with the men in shorts and long socks (the – a-hem – trend at the time, which my father adopted, day after day in the DPI. You’ll still see it if you’re lucky, in some government departments and state school staff rooms), and the women in floral frocks and later, the kaftans of the seventies. Guy Webster’s super cinematic soundtrack successfully takes us through the years.

Bastard Territory precedes another new Australian (and abroad) family and political saga, Motherland, written by Katherine Lyall-Watson and staged originally at Metro Arts. These essential tales are boldly told and not easily forgotten. It will be fascinating to see what has become of Motherland with the bigger state theatre company budget behind it. In the meantime, Carlton’s Bastard Territory is thoroughly enjoyable; well worth the three hour commitment to Bille Brown’s seats, which are much more comfortable than those elsewhere.   

Production pics by Stephen Henry

 

11
Apr
16

Ballet Preljocaj brings Snow White to Brisbane

 

The Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) International Series 2016 was announced today confirming an Australian exclusive season from France’s Ballet Preljocaj performing only in Brisbane at the Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) from 2 to 11 September 2016.

 

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Headed by award winning Artistic Director, Angelin Preljocaj, Ballet Preljocaj is one of the leading contemporary ballet companies in the world today.

 

Acting Premier of Queensland, The Hon. Jackie Trad MP said this Australian exclusive cements Queensland’s reputation for attracting the world’s best in performing arts.

 

“Ballet Preljocaj will perform Snow White, a highly-acclaimed work with costumes from world renowned fashion designer Jean Paul Gaultier,” Ms Trad said.

 

“Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Johannes Fritszch, will play with Ballet Preljocaj.

 

“QPAC is presenting Ballet Preljocaj in association with the Brisbane Festival and with support from Tourism and Events Queensland”.

 

“The QPAC International Series presents some of the world’s greatest arts companies and continues to grow the state’s reputation as a vibrant cultural tourism destination,” said the Acting Premier.

 

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The QPAC International Series has brought exclusive seasons of the best international companies to the state in recent years, including companies such as the Bolshoi Ballet, The Hamburg Ballet and American Ballet Theatre.

 

QPAC Chief Executive John Kotzas said this Brisbane exclusive is an exciting new twist to the QPAC International Series story.

 

“The QPAC International Series program brings those companies that are exemplary across performing arts genres to Brisbane and those who are pushing the boundaries of their art forms”. 

 

“Ballet Preljocaj is certainly one of those companies. Snow White is a phenomenal piece that traverses the darker side of the human condition and explores themes and ideas that are familiar to us all”.

 

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Mr Kotzas continued, “The QPAC International Series will also provide several opportunities for deeper engagement with community; artist to artist and artist to audience, a whole program of events that open up a dialogue on the arts and that makes a connection between art and meaningful participation in civic life.

 

“We expect about one third of our audience will travel to Brisbane to participate in our International Series; these exclusives are a way to showcase our wonderful state”, said Kotzas.

 

Minister for Tourism and Major Events, Kate Jones MP, welcomed the Australian exclusive Ballet Preljocaj performance to Brisbane as a significant cultural tourism drawcard.

 

“As part of the QPAC International Series, this performance showcases Queensland’s ability to attract and host internationally renowned performing arts presentations,” Minister Jones said.

 

“Ballet Preljocaj builds on the success of the QPAC International Series that has already attracted an audience of 112,000 people and generated more than $12 million for the Queensland economy since its inception in 2009.

 

“QPAC, in partnership with Tourism and Events Queensland, is continuing to help grow the State’s vibrant cultural tourism offerings that inspire visitors both here and abroad to experience Queensland”, said Jones.

 

Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White comes to the Lyric Theatre, QPAC from 2 to 11 September 2016; an exclusive Brisbane season as part of the QPAC International Series.

 

11
Apr
16

When One Door Closes

 

When One Door Closes

La Boite Theatre Company & Circa

La Boite Roundhouse Theatre

April 6 – 23 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

breathing. running. pink hair swishing. resting. gasping. pink hair running. falling, clumsily. bewildered. resting, but not. unsettled, but not. unwilling. undone. unfinished.

and then the men…

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It’s Nora Helmer (Britannie Portelli), in sweet pink, hot pink and sparkling, sequinned pink. Pretty, and unpredictable, in pink. One day she decides not to settle for less and she’s gone. In unapologetic orange, Hedda Gabler (Bridie Hooper). In bold red that belies every moment of “hysteria”, every insecurity, Miss Julie (Nicole Faubert). Unless you’re well acquainted with the women, or even if you’re well acquainted with the women, these three are any women. Every woman. Everywoman.

Late in the 19th Century they burst on stage and quite literally changed the world. Their presence called into question assumptions about women and their role in male dominated society.

They were of course written by men. They live within the conventions of the well-made play. In a sense they are trying to escape their forms as well as their men.

The circus we make is definitely not a well-made play. Rather it is abstract, shifting, elusive. Meaning occurs for sure but exactly where or how are mysterious.

– Directors, Yaron Lifschitz & Libby McDonnell

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The problem with abstract, shifting, elusive forms is that we are often left dissatisfied by the lack (or mysterious placement) of dramatic meaning, but the real problem here – if we are to discuss openly and honestly (and we do that here) – is that the product doesn’t match up to the sales pitch. It’s not what I expected. And that’s okay but I’m left feeling slightly confused because the production doesn’t do what I thought it said it would. I think I thought wrong… To be fair, the only claim was that the women would meet in a “visceral force of extreme acrobatic theatre.” And they do.

A door slams. A shot is fired. On the other side, unseen by the audience or by the befuddled, inconsequential husband and lovers are the three great heroines who created twentieth century drama: Miss Julie, Hedda Gabler and Nora.

What if they all ended up in the same room?

What if they couldn’t speak?

What if the room was full of scratched recordings of A Dolls House, Hedda Gabbler and Miss Julie, plus a dash of Freud?

How would they navigate each other, their own pasts and the future?

La Boite and Circa join forces on this new creation. Three masterpieces of turn-of-the-century drama meet the visceral force of extreme acrobatic theatre.

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 Circa is one of our country’s most highly regarded contemporary circus companies and at first glance, in this first stage of development (it’s officially a finished product but what is ever really finished?), this work is not nearly as exceptional as we have come to expect from Circa (they raised the bar with Il Retorno), however; presented by La Boite, When One Door Closes is also an experiment, relating the stories of the women – or, their frustrations at least – via varying levels of tension and court jester comedy, through acrobatics and high-risk tricks, some of which are symbolic of what the characters are going through.

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Not always the case, at times the tricks are arbitrary, included in the show because they can be, and executed in such a literal way as to bring out the comical, as when one of the men tips Nora upside down so that she becomes a broom, her hair used to sweep the stage. It’s a strange way to reiterate what we already know; these women exist in service roles only. No wonder they feel as if they’re choking, hanging, dead…

Oonagh Sherrard’s original compositions lead us in and out of the women’s heads, while at times, it’s odd; the men get comical musical numbers to lip-synch for seemingly no reason other than to provide the girls with a drinks break and the audience with an easy laugh. The collective physical strength and sheer force of the men’s presence underlines the power that men have held within each of these women’s lives. Perhaps the David Armand inspired parodies are an attempt to truly balance the stakes. (I love that the women claim their power, hand-balancing in the end, but I hate the male playwrights using “sickness” and suicide and the abhorrent act of leaving the children to do so).

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Hedda has the strongest presence, her chalk outline creating a devastating, enduring image, as she contorts herself to reach all the way around her body. She marks her own end on the glossy black floor. This routine, and the most arresting, disturbing straps routine I’ve ever seen (that’s a good thing; it’s brilliantly conceived and executed), keep Hedda at the centre of the story-not-story, and for me, provide the strongest thread, that is, if we are determined to see one running through the piece.

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If I’d decided not to write it up, I would have viewed When One Door Closes through a completely different lens, enjoying much more than I did on Opening Night, its circus and its comedy, and not needing any further structure or story. But because, perhaps foolishly, we went in with the expectation that this would be circus that was somehow more “theatrical” in its form and nature, my expectations weren’t met. To put it simply, I would have left feeling more satisfied if I hadn’t had to think too deeply about it! This is often a critic’s struggle, and not something general audiences will experience. It’s important to note because my opinion is no more valid than anybody else’s, but because I choose to share it widely I (mostly) feel the need to justify my conclusions. There are times when I simply respond to the work, without looking at it very critically at all, and this style of “review” could be said to be far more valuable to both audiences and artists. In fact, by not discussing the way the different elements work together, we indicate perhaps even more clearly the success of a piece. (Don’t tell that to the Drama students who must master the art of academically arranging their thoughts and assessing the way in which a director has created meaning by manipulating the Elements of Drama).

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Regardless of the reviewer’s style (and we follow those whose style we like, and whose opinions confirm our bias), a considered written response is always a valuable addition to the conversation. A star rating not so much, but easier, certainly, for publicists to use…

It could be reasonably assumed that because this is a circus show it can be sold under a family friendly banner, but I’d advise parents to consider the meaning that (mysteriously) comes across and ask yourself whether or not your child will question, as my child has done, “Which is the husband and which is the lover?” “Does the chalk outline mean she’s already dead or that she’s dead inside?” and “Are the straps the rope she hangs herself with?” And in response to my whisper, “Well, why does she have a straps routine if she shoots herself?”

If you bring children to the theatre, be prepared to discuss the themes and historical contexts of the original texts as well as those within the final work. Always.

(Or, everyone can simply enjoy the sequins and lifts and balances for what they are and avoid talking about anything else).

Circa is more successful than most in its exploration of blurring lines between forms. And with greater theatrical input (Todd MacDonald as Co-Director – or Director – rather than, or in addition to Dramaturg, for example), When One Door Closes might make more creative and contextual sense. Let’s look forward to the company continuing to experiment with form and style.

Without thinking too deeply about it, or expecting too much from it, the first production of La Boite’s 2016 season is perfectly engaging and entertaining. But let’s hope it’s not indicative of all they have to offer this year.

Performers: Nathan Boyle, Todd Kirby, Martin Evans, Duncan West, Nicole Faubert, Bridie Hooper, Brittany Portelli.

Production pics by Dylan Evans

10
Apr
16

Banquet of Secrets

Banquet of Secrets
Brisbane Powerhouse & Victorian Opera
Brisbane Powerhouse Performance Space
April 7 – 9 2016

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

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Featuring David Rogers-Smith, Dimity Shepherd, Michael Carman, Kanen Breen and Antoinette Halloran.

 

I wasn’t going to publish this review because everything I’ve seen about Banquet of Secrets is amazing; it’s been exceptionally well received by everyone in the country except me…and Sam, who has since referred to it as “Banquet of Boredom”.

As a reviewer, I often wonder about the value of putting my opinion out there at all.

When we write for free, we write for ourselves. And yes, while it would be nice to at least cover the cost of fuel, parking and dinner, and while we’re at it, a lovely little Wheels & Dollbaby number every month, I’m also just putting here for later, something that might be useful or interesting one day about Queensland theatre. Live performance disappears once it’s done, but some sort of intelligent or heartfelt response to the work is a worthwhile record of what our creatives are doing, and how they’re doing it, and where we’re heading together, surely.

I don’t know. It probably doesn’t help that I’m terribly inconsistent, and I continue to resist further tertiary study and the sort of academic writing that appears to be the only way to add any sort of gravitas to a body of work, and instead stay stubbornly more or less within my own little world. That’s right. Write for free, but only for yourself…….

In the case of Banquet of Secrets, I’d decided that since this year has been challenging enough already (and it’s only April!) it was hardly worth making a comment about it. Who am I to say it’s anything less than brilliant? I’ve wondered, “HAVE I MISSED THE POINT?” (if you loved it you will answer yes, yes I have) and, “WHAT IF I’M WRONG?” (if you loved it you will answer yes, yes I am) and, “WHO EVEN CARES?” and, “WHO WILL EVEN NOTICE IF I SAY NOTHING, OR IF XS DISAPPEARS FOR A WHILE?”, which is something I’ve been wondering a lot about lately. At the same time, on several different occasions, I’ve been told by industry friends that they always look forward to reading what’s here and I must publish this review because…well, perhaps other (louder) voices have offered accolades with which they also disagree.

So I persist with this blog (and the reviews that are not as favourable as some) because who even am I if I quit responding honestly to what I’m seeing? 

This work is certainly challenging. It’s probably some of Paul Grabowsky’s best work, brilliant by design, comprising complex orchestrations that boast multiple layers (and he conducts from the piano); entire worlds exist beneath discordant harmonies. I don’t mind a bit of discord (life is dishing up plenty of discord!), but it’s not my favourite new work and it might not be yours either… But will you say so? 

The reason musical theatre and opera remain separate is because they are separate entities. Each form has its merits and the two haven’t mixed well here.

Actually, they’re calling it “chamber music theatre” but chamber is more lilting and haunting, opera is slicker and music theatre more entertaining. The dialogue is cliched, uneventful, the banter not witty enough. The only real comedy comes from the waiter, who describes each course of a ridiculously decadent dinner in flowery language and declares triumphantly each time, “You’re welcome, thank you very much!” before exiting. He is clearly relieved not to play a larger part in the evening’s proceedings.

Kaneen Breen’s character, the host Jean Pierre, is the next best established (and next best dressed) character but he can only do so much with what he’s been given. Breen’s first solo, establishing that everything must be perfect, reveals the Last Supper premise and his final piece confirms it; it’s the only musical number to make me feel anything; his love, and admiration and appreciation for the friends is touching.

The opening scene however, a thunderstorm (Sound Design Jim Atkins, Lighting Design Matt Scott & Set Design Christina Smith; we’ll say nothing more of her costumes), does little to establish each of the four characters and doesn’t make us keen to hear more from them. The first ten minutes of the classic comedy Clue, inspired by the board game, should have provided Director, Roger Hodgman with some sense of setting up a similar story. Yes, yes, it’s all there, but we don’t believe a word of it. It’s a shame because they are such beautiful, accomplished vocalists and clearly capable of tackling meatier roles.

Unashamedly contrived, Banquet of Secrets makes a mockery of the quest to discover, develop and disseminate “new” art to intelligent audiences. While other writers struggle to garner support to bring their work to the stage, Steve Vizard and Grabowsky over promise and under deliver in this poor excuse for a musical theatre / opera hybrid. They’ve created an elitist monster, which rears its ugly head in a landscape that consistently offers more interesting and challenging work. It’s simply not audience friendly.

We see each secret coming and feel nothing for any of the four characters; predictably, a lawyer, a writer, a doctor and the collector, our host. We can’t ever be sure whether or not the friends meet in a restaurant, despite the program notes advising that this is the case according to the friends’ tradition. (It might have been a more intriguing night had events taken place in Jean Pierre’s home). Apart from the immediate breathtaking impact of the overhead ornate mirror, which is not used to its full effect, the staging is arbitrary, with musicians to one side and an under-utilised upright piano and bar setting opposite. The singers either stand across the downstage space or sit at the dining table. Quite often there is some aimless wandering around the table and through the space. Characters connect with each other by placing a hand on another’s shoulder as they pass, or holding a gaze for a moment too long… Oh! And one number is staged on the table top. Nuance is lost or never there to begin with.

The music is mostly jarring, largely repetitive (Sam enjoys it much less than I do; clearly the world of commercial radio is beginning to have an effect), and it doesn’t help the performers to embrace their characters in order to give us the guts (or hearts) of the people they claim to be. It’s all rather surface level, like a dinner with strangers might be. We never feel as if we get to know them and because we don’t know them we don’t feel any sympathy for them. As each secret is revealed we feel nothing. Transitions are slow and mostly awkward. There is polite applause at the end of each number,although a substantial number of older audience members give much more generous applause during the curtain call. I’m pleased that they’ve enjoyed it! Do we recall any of the melodies at this point? No. In fact, during the curtain call Sam reminds me: even CATS has a memorable tune…

And why didn’t we see them eat? And why didn’t the food on the plates match the foodie photos projected across the mirror’s tilted surface? Perhaps it’s okay to gloss over these details in “chamber music theatre”???

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As an experiment, Banquet of Secrets is an interesting attempt to seek a broader audience but sadly, it’s self-indulgent and reeking of desperation, like the mediocre children we insist – not all of us insist – have what it takes to “make it”. Ugh.

 

Banquet of Secrets appears to have been written for the elite old-school upper classes; the Racer Cruisers. They spend vast amounts of money on well appointed, comfortable racing yachts, defeating both purposes and impressing those who know no better.

 

 

Read Grabowsky’s tribute to Prince.

 

Hear more of Grabowsky’s work at QPAC this week.

 




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