Author Archive for Xanthe Coward


The Pillowman


The Pillowman

Brisbane Powerhouse & Shock Therapy Productions

Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre

August 19 – 29 2015


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.


the pillowman_benwarren


Horror and hilarity in the interrogation room? OK!


EDIT: SPOILER ALERT! Sorry, I never do this, but it was brought to my attention that I’ve totally told you here what happens by the end of the play. Come back after you’ve found out for yourself! Trust me, there’s no question whether or not you should see the show. IT’S GOOD. BOOK HERE


Brisbane has seen The Pillowman before. In 2009 23rd Productions staged an apparently stellar production at Metro Arts with Michelle Miall in the director’s chair. Reading through the cast and creatives certainly gives the impression that this was a first rate show. In October we’ll see the ambitious UQ student group tackle Martin McDonagh’s macabre piece for the Australian Festival of Student Theatre at La Boite; theirs is a remount of a production staged earlier this year at the Schonell.


McDonagh’s witty, grisly comedies trigger all sorts of feelings, but none more so than discomfort, the extreme kind, which makes you squirm and shrink in your seat. The playwright’s dark characters remind us that humans are more capable than we think of committing horrific and appalling acts against their own kind.


In The Pillowman, a writer’s strange and shocking Brothers Grimm style stories provide the pretext for a series of real life crimes against children, each warped fable a precursor to violent murder, and each case more gruesome than the last; copycat crimes inspired by the sickening detail in Katurian’s tales.


It’s not the writer, Katurian, who’s committed the crimes though (or is it? Why even write about such miserable, disturbing stuff?! We have to hope the creative process has been cathartic!), but as we discover, it’s his brother, Michal, abused for several years by the parents to the point of brain damage. He’s beyond repair and reproach. We’re challenged to consider art, science, parenting, power, censorship and citizenship in one foul swoop.


Hot tip: stop by Bar Alto before the show and grab a drink. The first act is a 90-minute commitment!




It’s a typically stark white set in the intimate confines of the Visy Theatre (Design Sam Foster & Luke Wrencher, Lighting Design Geoff Squires), the basement of an unknown government building in an unnamed totalitarian state, empty of implements and other distractions but containing all the conventions of an interrogation room – bright white light hanging above a table, a couple of chairs, a filing cabinet and a wastepaper basket. Silhouettes, masked actors, and then later a paper bag puppet all help to illustrate less pleasant moments of the past replayed in a simple narrative style, thanks largely to the love – seriously, she is all love – and vocal and physical finesse of Anna Straker (you might know her from her exceptional work with Dead Puppet Society). The voodoo doll paper puppet takes the pin and a real little person somewhere is dealt the pain.


A less competent director couldn’t integrate these additional elements so seamlessly into the storytelling but Foster creates a world in which reality and fantasy blur and become wickedly intoxicating…


Wait. How can we even have empathy for a child killer?!


Katurian K. Katurian reveals the horror of his brother’s childhood, and the complex decisiveness he feels in ending it. Think Betty Blue. And then think whether or not you’d do the same…in fact, how could you not? In this role Ben Warren wins our sympathy, and in the ultimate act of compassion brings to life “The Pillowman” of the title. As his brother, Michal, Tama Matheson earns both our compassion and revulsion. His carefully considered realisation of Michal is insightful, sympathetic and sinister. His facial contortions and frequent twitches demand physical precision, muscle memory and stamina, and his patience in the role means we sit uncomfortably in real time while he processes what is said to him and considers the situation, which is serious, but which might allow him the last little sleep he’s likely to get for a while. It’s the lightning-fast quips and oddities that make this character, and I can’t think of a more accomplished performer for this challenging role. His are the real heartache moments.




As good cop/bad cop duo, Hayden Jones (Tupolski) and Sam Foster (Ariel) are black comedy gold. Their complete lack of compassion and careless retorts, insensitive jokes and quick tempered false starts are all hilarious and completely appropriate given the roles they are playing. The repartee is sharp, fast, well punctuated and precise. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of horror comedy, their physical and verbal brutality combined creates a frightening and intimidating double act. And despite ample warning about the way the play will end it comes as a shock. The surprise is genuine, not least because of the tight writing, but also because these guys get suspense and storytelling.




Of course by its nature black comedy incites the sort of laughter you don’t want to be caught out not trying to contain. We feel dreadful laughing but laugh we must, or cry and give up on humanity altogether (and our own tawdry attempts at life). “Naturally bleak but naturally funny”, says McDonagh of his work. Director, Sam Foster, says it’s a new absurd approach to theatre and I say this production nails it.


Foster directed the original production on the Gold Coast and recast it, adding himself to the mix for this Brisbane Powerhouse season, Shock Therapy’s Brisbane debut. He tells me after the show on opening night that everything they need is already there, in the text. As Mamet preaches, “Everything that you need to communicate is in the text.” But it takes an astute director and bold actors to bring the text to life.


This is a dynamic company who have been around for a while and now seek to have the same impact on mainstage audiences as they do on their school audiences. (Sound familiar?!).


The Pillowman will surprise, delight and devastate you, leaving you wanting more, much more, from Shock Therapy Productions.




Pillowman Trailer from Try Less Be More on Vimeo.



7 Deadly Sins


7 Deadly Sins

Expressions Dance Company (EDC)

QPAC Playhouse

August 21 to 29 2015


Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway




‘We are committed to contemporary storytelling that touches the human spirit …’


Natalie Weir, Artistic Director, Expressions Dance Company


In EDC’s latest work, the seven deadly sins enter in a blaze of gold, and then strip back to reveal the darkness beneath, battling for supremacy over each other and over a hapless Man.


Initially, we see the Man (Thomas Gundry Greenfield) watching TV, with the eerie flicker of the changing images reflected over him. As he sits in a vegetative state, his soul appears to rise from his body to indulge in or wrestle with the sins. His body stays as a lifeless dummy in front of the TV set, and this is where the soul returns in the end.


Each sin – Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, Lust, Envy, Pride and Wrath – is represented by a single dancer. They each wear a distinctive gold costume – all stunningly opulent, except for Sloth’s simple, loose shift. After a spectacular entrance by each sin in turn, appearing out of boxes of various sizes, the costumes are discarded to reveal the dancers in brief black practice wear. Every dancer has a wonderful initial solo, punctuated by various duos and other combinations with the Man, with each other, and as a whole group.


Natalie Weir's 7 Deadly Sins_Photo shows Daryl Brandwood (top) and Benjamin Chapman (bottom)_Photo by Chris Herzfeld_med res


The boxes echo the Ancient Greek myth of Pandora’s box, which contained all human evils and miseries. Pandora opened the box, releasing evil into the world. The boxes also echo the initial inspiration for the work: paintings of human vices by Giotto di Bondone, an Italian artist of the 13th–14th century, who depicted each vice as a single, closely framed human figure.


7 Deadly Sins is an abstract expression of the sins’ essence, rather than a strongly narrative work, although there are elements of narrative. For instance, the first sin to appear is Sloth (Cloudia Elder), summoned by the Man’s TV-induced inertia. The scenario could be interpreted literally as television being the source of all sin – another incarnation of Pandora’s box – but that might be going too far, and the connection is a looser, more dreamlike one.


Following the appearance of Greed (Daryl Brandwood) and Gluttony (Jack Ziesing), they and the Man attack Sloth, hurling her into the air and catching her in a savage display. The feeling is that they are forcing her into showing some energy.




Towards the end, after Wrath (Michelle Barnett) has appeared, the whole group dances in a frenzy, and the Man hits out at Lust (Elise May). In this violent interpretation of ‘to spurn love and opt for fury’ (as the program notes describe wrath), she becomes a wounded creature trying to escape from him. In this scene, May seems to represent Love, rather than the coldly seductive Lust she portrays earlier with awe-inspiring grace and control. In her gold costume, she looks like a princess from some ancient world.


The movement is intensely acrobatic, moving seamlessly through every dimension of the space. Elder, as Sloth, is a burden to the Man, dragging him down and, in a memorable image, hanging face-down and unsupported over his head in an inverted V. Gundry Greenfield is a strong, muscular figure as the Man, while also projecting a sense of bafflement and of being in thrall to the sins.


Brandwood makes Greed look savagely elegant, extending and contorting his limbs impossibly as he manoeuvres over, around, and out of a giant rectangular box. His polish and control always stand out. We will miss this wonderful dancer when he leaves EDC at the end of this year.


Ziesing is a very athletic Gluttony, after ridding himself of his outer gold costume that only mildly resembles a ‘fat suit’. Benjamin Chapman evokes an emperor with conquered subjects in a commanding interpretation of Pride.


Rebecca Hall is a snakelike Envy, slithering and twining – and making her entrance in a fabulous billowing gold snakeskin coat. As Wrath, Barnett projects strength and energy in her explosive movement, her legs and strongly arched feet like weapons.


Natalie Weir's 7 Deadly Sins_Photo shows L-R Elise May, Thomas Gundry Greenfield and Michelle Barnett_Photo by Chris Herzfeld


I could go on watching these dancers and this choreography forever, mesmerised by the feats the dancers perform, and the beauty and power of the movement choreographed by Artistic Director Natalie Weir, in collaboration with the dancers. Weir also acknowledges the important contribution to creation and staging by Rehearsal Director Amy Hollingsworth, formerly Dance Director with Sydney Dance Company.


The mesmerising choreography and movement distracted me from the confusing ending of the work, in terms of structure and flow. A conclusion seemed to be reached several times (at one point the audience starting to applaud as if this were the case) before the final resolution.


7 Deadly Sins makes a big visual and aural impact. The gold costumes are the dominant visible feature of Bill Haycock’s design, which he says in his program notes are inspired by the ‘currently popular “sword and sorcery” films’. The set, based on the idea of a gold living room, is minimal, enriched by the lighting (David Walters) in different tones of gold, and also blue and red.


Darrin Verhagen’s music (with additional material by Ben Keane) evokes each sin – slow and meditative for Sloth, overlaid with snuffling and muffled snoring sounds; driven percussion for Greed; slow and voluptuous for Lust; sinister for Envy, overlaid with hissing, and sly whispering (like Parseltongue, the Harry Potter serpent language); and frenzied drumming and hoarse screaming for Wrath.


7 Deadly Sins runs until 29 August.







QPAC and shake & stir

QPAC Cremorne

August 13 – September 5 2015


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


I will take no refusal…






shake & stir’s Dracula is an ambitious gothic horror piece with spectacular production elements playing the pivotal roles.



This new version of the Bram Stoker classic, adapted for the stage by Nick Skubij and Nelle Lee, presumes we know Dracula down to its last detail but as I discovered after the show on opening night, of course there are some for whom the story is new. A difficult text to condense – an epic story across oceans, and oceans of time – we miss some early detail, such as Jonathan Harker’s first dreamy, lusty, dreadful encounter with the brides of Dracula, the “devils of the pit” (We hear about it after the fact, as the encounters continue). It’s not a biggie, but it’s typical of this adaptation, which seems to skirt around the themes of female sexuality and the genuine fear during the Victorian era of women awakening to their own sexual power, more so than any power a man might wield.


Harker’s narration of strange and supernatural events comes to us in the form of a pre-recorded voiceover that detracts from the overall effect of the production rather than enhances it. (The passage of time is evident in Jason Glenwright’s ingenious lighting states and Josh McIntosh’s spectacular set changes, incorporating a revolving winding stairwell and too many nooks and crannies to list!). Guy Webster’s spine tingling soundscape is otherwise perfect, complete with cracking thunder, buzzing flies, the snarling and howling of hounds outside and the chilling screams and screeches of the devil’s concubines.




It’s not the lush, decadent, delicious show I’d expected (although, as I tell everybody whenever I’m off to see shake & stir, these are the beautiful people of Brisbane theatre, gorgeous on stage and off, every one). Their Dracula is a dark and sombre journey, unrelenting, with the only light and shade coming from Glenwright’s lighting design (doors opening with a shaft of light sans door?! It’s really incredible work, his best to date), and David Whitney’s high-energy performance as Renfield and later, as Van Helsing. With his appearance as Van Helsing, Whitney whips up the pace and holds his loyal band of vampire killers at his heels.


A great study in status and deadpan delivery, Whitney commands the stage, dominating the narrative and the space.


Michael Futcher’s direction is gentle and sure, allowing each member of the company to play to their strengths. His use of the imposing set is brilliant, with the versatile design allowing seamless transitions between rapidly changing scenes and successfully hiding the pale faced, platinum blonde Dracula from us multiple times, causing those around me to jump in genuine fright each time the Count appears from out of the shadows.


As Jack, Ross Balbuziente’s confounded game is strong and as Harker, Tim Dashwood offers a genteel, endearing performance, but by the same token doesn’t get a chance to be seduced and subsequently ravished, which seems a shame (although that racy version might require an R-rating. Don’t worry, parents and principals, it’s all very tame, implied rather than made explicit). Some of the most shocking and surprising moments come from the special effects. The flash paper and the blood effects are superb. Likewise, some of Nigel Poulton’s best work is showcased in a no holds barred True Blood style fight scene.




Despite the potential to do more (ravishing) within their roles, Nelle Lee (Mina) and Ashlee Lollback (Lucy) rely on some safe choices, however, having said that, feeling less than 100% on opening night, Lollback’s vocal work is strong and her extraordinary physicality is bold and sure (and suitably shocking). Leigh Buchanan’s exquisite gowns on these girls are testament to his intuitive and dramaturgical design sense, allowing full movement and at the same time, constraint of their feminine wiles. Buchanan retains the lavish authenticity of the Victorian times in the gentlemen’s garb too, bringing only Dracula’s street style into the new millennium for the later London scenes.


Nick Skubij wears his leather well.


He’s as ancient and as alluring and intriguing as he needs to be to convince every senior student in a skirt that it would be just fine to hold her breath through the bite and opt for eternal life by his side. Oh, right. Not very PC to say so? Okay. AND YET.




Even without the hedonism I’d expected, Dracula is an accomplished production, with all the hallmarks of “another bloody classic” that teachers and students will appreciate for its astute combination of dramatic elements and entertaining performances; everything in alignment with our Australian Gothic Theatre criteria. The general public will love it because with Zen Zen Zo MIA and Brisbane Festival still a few weeks away, there’s nothing else quite like it, is there? And, look, at the end of the day, who doesn’t love a good vampire story? But does it go as far as it could go to seduce, surprise and shock us? No. Why not? Why lead us to the edge of delicious lust and the struggle for power only to pull us back before we experience it? Are we (am I?) so desensitised that this neat, safe staging of sex and blood and gore, and the struggle between the supernatural and the human spirit fails to impress?


If theatre isn’t a form of voyeurism, continually challenging and changing our self-perception and our perspective of the world through our imagined experiences, what are we doing in it? What are we doing with it?


Why do we ever revisit a classic? Why do we need to see this story brought to life again? Is there a new lesson? Is it challenging the status quo? Is it simply an entertaining story?


shake & stir have always set such a ridiculously high standard with their mainstage productions that it comes as a complete surprise to walk away feeling slightly underwhelmed by Dracula. Once again, shake & stir have created a mainstage show that is perfectly tweaked for schools. This has been their strength for some time, but in time for their 10-year anniversary next year, I’m hoping that this exceptional and enduring company considers turning their approach on its head in order to stake a stronger claim in the national mainstage landscape. shake & stir remain one of this country’s most exciting, original, dynamic and dedicated theatre companies. I would hate to see them plateau after they’ve worked so hard to continuously raise the bar.



Production pics by Dylan Evans








Judy Strikes Back


Judy Strikes Back

Judith Wright Centre

Judith Wright Centre Performance Space

August 13 – 15 2015


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward



Will the real Judy Garland please stand up?






When you’ve lived the life I’ve lived, when you’ve loved and suffered, and been madly happy and desperately sad – well, that’s when you realise you’ll never be able to set it all down. Maybe you’d rather die first.

– Judy Garland



Judy Garland wasn’t born in a trunk and didn’t want to be remembered as a tragic figure. Bernadette Meenach’s Judy Strikes Back attempts to dispel the negative stories surrounding Garland’s life and instead focus on her talent, her work.


Meenach is a fine Judy Garland – strong and soulful, and very funny – she gives us one of the better versions of the iconic woman with a good balance of fragility and hard won diva sass. She also acknowledges the other versions, and the actors who created them, dismissing them with a toss of her head and half a wry smile. It’s a very good study of the woman we think we know so well.


On the ivories, in role as Garland’s musical director, Mort Lindsay, is Morgan Chalmers, who effortlessly creates the opening magical moments to set the scene, as fingertips connect with keys. The rapport between these two feels authentic.



One of the highlights of the show is We’re A Couple of Swells, which, if you can believe it, is just as gorgeous as if it were Garland and Fred Astaire on stage. The success of this number is largely due to the talent and charm of Patrick Dwyer, whose talent and charm I’d missed until only recently, when he visited the Sunshine Coast earlier this year, stepping into the role of Seb in deBase’s touring production of Fly In Fly Out. At the time I wondered where he’d come from…and what he was doing in that show.


It’s great to see and hear a little more from Dwyer in Judy Strikes Back. If he were to jump on the cabaret bandwagon next Dwyer would do all right.


Unfortunately, a drag duet doesn’t work quite as well (somehow it’s the wrong song choice) but Dwyer struts and snarls spectacularly well and we enjoy the snarky duel between the two Judies nevertheless.


Rather than reveal itself as Garland’s “autobiography hot off the heavenly presses”, or a true tribute complete with fangirl scrapbook of stage door selfies and newspaper clippings, the show veers off course and feels less satisfying when Dwyer removes Meenach’s wig and challenges her to sing Over the Rainbow as herself. I know everyone around me is happy with this ending, I can feel it and I overhear it after the show (“Well, it was set up early! The opening number!”), but it didn’t strike the right chord with me. I wanted to leave with Judy Garland indelibly printed in my mind, and not the actor. It’s as if the magician had revealed her secret.


I walked away feeling that the story ended tragically after all because who can ever live up to one’s own expectations???


With the first half of the show stronger than the latter, I came to the decision before its conclusion that this was not the piece I thought it was going to be and tried not to be disappointed because NOOSA LONG WEEKEND FESTIVAL PROGRAMMING POSSIBILITIES.


All the right questions are posed and if you don’t mind the turn it takes, Judy Strikes Back is a deftly directed cabaret (Director Lewis Jones) worthy of a return season. It could enjoy a little more sparkle though, and if the notion is to draw a parallel between artists, it could do so more clearly, in celebration of the talent, the work, without the apologetic end.


Always be a first rate version of yourself instead of a second rate version of someone else.

– Judy Garland



Entries Open for Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2016-17


Entries now open for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award 2016-17



Continuation of page-to-stage award celebrates Queensland talent





Australia’s only playwriting award that guarantees a professional production of the winning entry within two years has opened for nomination, as part of a long and successful partnership between the Queensland Government and the Queensland Theatre Company (QTC).


Premier of Queensland and Minister for the Arts Annastacia Palaszczuk said the Queensland Government had maintained its serious and ongoing commitment to the arts by calling for entries for the Queensland Premier’s Drama Award (QPDA) 2016-17 and celebrating previous winners who had seen their works developed and transformed into professional productions.


“Since its inception in 2002, QTC has developed 24 plays as part of this award, employed more than 160 actors, writers and directors, and generated audiences of more than 26,000 to new and emerging Queensland work. This is an excellent result for the Queensland arts industry,” Ms Palaszczuk said.


Queensland Theatre Company Artistic Director Wesley Enoch said the awards had helped discover some exceptional storytellers who had introduced Queenslanders to a variety of narratives that were sometimes complex and confronting.




“Daniel Evans won last year’s award with his modern Australian-suburbia-meets-Greek-tragedy Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, following the 2012-13 winner Maxine Mellor’s controversial character play Trollop, chosen from a field of 83 entries from across the country,” Mr Enoch said.


The award covers a two-year cycle. In the first year, three finalists are selected and their works undergo creative development with industry professionals prior to judging and the announcement of the winner. The second year involves further development of the winning play followed by the professional world premiere production and the publication of the script.


The deadline for this year’s submissions is Friday 30 October 2015 with three finalists selected in December 2015. The winning entry is announced in the second half of 2016. Groups, as well as individual artists are encouraged to apply.




Previous winners include:




2012-13 Maxine Mellor for TROLLOP


2010-11 Marcel Dorney for FRACTIONS


2008-09 Richard Jordan for 25 DOWN


2006-07 David Brown for THE ESTIMATOR


2004-05 Adam Grossetti for MANO NERA


2002-03 Sven Swenson for ROAD TO THE SHE-DEVIL’S SALON


The conditions of entry and entry form can be obtained by visiting Queensland Theatre Company’s website at or by contacting the Producer of New Work and Development on 07 3010 7607



Luminaries on the Loose launches this weekend!



The knowledge of the heart is in no book and not to be found in the mouth of any teacher, but grows out of you like the green seed from the dark earth.


Red Book, Carl Jung


Experience the sunlit world of Your super-conscious self – living Your best life exactly as You would have it.


This is my quest…super-consciousness and living my best life exactly as I would have it. This is why I struggle sometimes with being told what to do or how to do it. When Nadine asked me to share a part of the journey, I contributed a chapter written one morning with the light of the moon still lighting the room…



Actors are practised in making their dreams reality.



Luminaries on the Loose is a book of transformational steps and stories to guide you along three ancient and time tested phases and twenty-two steps that make up the Archetypal Trail so that you can live your best life.



Nadine Love has written nine of the compelling chapters and invited thirteen luminaries – all Australian – to pen their stories to demonstrate archetypal themes that spoke to each author.



You may recognise some of the fabulous faces above:  Dr John Cronin, Edgar Winter, Susan Marie Hill, Kim Taylor, Peter Barr, Amelia McLarnon, Lana Mayes, Diane Steed, Rachel O’Connor, Xanthe Coward, Alice Haemmerle and Nadine’s own magical daughter, one of Poppy’s besties, Mira Love. They’re all contributors to Luminaries on the Loose. 
Listen to the author interviews here.



12 of the 14 Authors will be at the Launch Event – we hope you can be there too!



The Bohemian Bungalow, 69 Memorial Drive, Eumundi on 15 August 2015 9.30 am – 11:30am. Book online.





*Live Music


 *Author Talks


 *Delicious Nibbles


 *A Glass of Bubbly


*Your signed copy of Luminaries on the Loose


 *Access to 3 Online Classes so you can “Track Your Archetype Trail” with Nadine Love


Stay after the launch to enjoy the up-beat feel-good funk/rock/reggae vibe of Byron Bay’s Wandering Eyes.



Wandering Eyes








Bangarra Dance Theatre

QPAC Playhouse

August 7 – 15 2015


Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway


I.B.I.S lore - Bangarra men ensemble - Photo by Edward Mulvihill



‘… it is our wish to leave you with a message of hope and joy.’

Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco, I.B.I.S.



‘We are not one thing, we are many. That’s our survival, our adaptation. We’re not afraid to evolve.’

Frances Rings, Sheoak



I.B.I.S. and Sheoak, the two works on Bangarra’s double bill lore, are very different. I.B.I.S., by dancers/choreographers Deborah Brown and Waangenga Blanco, is a lively, joyous celebration of Torres Strait Island culture; Sheoak, by Resident Choreographer Frances Rings, is an intense work about an endangered culture renewing its spirit and forging a new way ahead.


I.B.I.S. is named after the Islanders Board of Industry and Service, a small authority that runs local stores on islands in the Torres Strait. Set in a fictional store, I.B.I.S. is a tribute to the organisation’s success, and the sense of community on which this is based.


I.B.I.S lore - Deborah Brown & Waangenga Blanco - Photo by Jeff Tan


Brown and Blanco say in the program notes that they see the store’s patrons as modern hunters and gatherers. The action starts in the store as the day begins, shifts to scenes about turtle hunting and turtle eggs, and a dreamlike sequence where crayfish in the freezer come to life, and finishes as people gather in the shop and socialise before leaving at the end of the day.


Elma Kris is the store manager and a central figure in the community, at first seen sweeping the floor around the shelves of brightly coloured boxes and packets. Waangenga Blanco plays the guitar, and Kris sings You Are My Sunshine in Ka La Lagau Ya language.


In the shop scenes, all the dancers sing and create percussion accompaniment, using their bodies and items such as wire shopping baskets, sardine tins, and boxes. Their movement is springy, stepping with bent knees. The female dancers’ tropical-print cotton frocks add to the carefree ‘party’ atmosphere.


The joy is infectious, and I’m sure everyone in the audience was discreetly tapping or jigging along in their seat – it was too hard to resist. The concluding numbers in particular, when the dancers were singing, and the men danced for the women and the women for the men, and then in unison, were pure joy. The dancers all gave strong performances, with the energy of Brown and Blanco standing out.


I wondered if Sheoak, coming after the energy and joy of I.B.I.S. would seem an anticlimax, but I was very wrong. Taking a completely different turn, Sheoak is an intense and gripping journey from loss to renewal, with many beautiful and inspiring moments along the way.


Rings says in her program notes that the sheoak tree is a powerful symbol in itself, providing tools, medicine, food and shelter, and in her work also symbolises Indigenous culture. The design and choreography strongly reinforce this symbolic connection between culture and the tree throughout, with the dancers carrying and manipulating trimmed leafless branches several metres long. Visually, the branches create interesting patterns, and extend the effect of the dancers’ movement.


Sheoak lore - Bangarra ensemble - Photo by Jeff Tan


The opening story is one of loss, with the death of an ancient scar tree. The dancers are piled on top of each other in a column, slowly twisting and grappling to rise up in a shaft of light.


They wear black and white short unitards with markings like twigs or veins, and jerkin-like tops, slashed in strips and resembling bark or bones, or the skin of a lizard. The accompanying soundtrack includes rending booms and creaking noises, and birds screeching in alarm.


The tree’s Keeper (Elma Kris) mourns. In this pivotal role, Kris is a powerful presence moving through the different stages of the story, sorrowing, guiding, enduring and inspiring.


Hearteningly soon after the death of the tree comes the poignantly beautiful ‘Seed’, a scene of hope and new growth, with the women creeping in on the ground, wrapped in white gauzy skirts that glimmer in the dimness. Their arms and legs occasionally extend and waver, like new shoots growing from the seed.


The journey to renewal is not straight ahead, though. It lurches into violence and breakdown in the section ‘Swinging Trees’, with the men, their bodies smeared with black and red, fighting against swinging suspended branches, and moving as if drunk or drugged.


‘Synthetic Seed’, a haunting duo between Kris and Yolanda Lowatta, a small intense figure, seems to set out again towards hope and renewal. They dance with the branch that Kris carries and then transfers to Lowatta, who is laid down on the earth in darkness at the end.


Sheoak lore - Leonard Mickelo - Photo by Edward Mulvihill


Out of the darkness, a new spirit is born. Two almost invisible dancers carry in a filmy bundle of white cloth, lit from within, cradling and then unfolding it, so that it seems to move by itself.


Finally, comes a celebration of the hard-won renewal and the continuing journey of the spirit in a scene for the whole company, their faces and bodies daubed with white, and wearing filmy pale long skirts, wrapped with strands of twisted fabric, string and feathers. At the end, a pyramid of branches has been rebuilt around the Keeper.


This resolution was very moving and, coming after such an intense journey, brought the first-night audience to its feet.


Bangarra is a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘to make fire’, and that’s what the company does in lore, inspiring and illuminating in a revelatory performance.


The elements of dance, music (Steve Francis), design (Jacob Nash), lighting (Karen Norris), and costumes (Jennifer Irwin) all combine to provide a powerful sensory experience for the audience. Bangarra’s lore finishes August 15.


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