Posts Tagged ‘QPAC

07
Nov
19

Jane Eyre

 

Jane Eyre

QPAC and shake & stir

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

October 18 – November 9 2019

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

 

No one does a slow-burn gothic treatment better than shake & stir, and there was never going to be a better time of year to schedule this one than during the sassy, scary Scorpio season. Let’s face it: Rochester is as Scorpio as Scorpio gets.

 

shake & stir’s Jane Eyre, like its titular character portrayed by Nelle Lee, is fiery and full of promise, but it’s not Polly Teale’s take and it’s not my favourite. Adapted by Lee and Nick Skubij, it’s quite simply overly long, however; if you leave before Interval, you’ll miss the best half of the show, so don’t!

 

Have we even seen a Jane Eyre since QUT’s student production in 2010 at Gardens Theatre? (And is it true that Gardens Theatre is the next live theatre venue to go?).

 

The tech elements here are absolutely next level, a bleak mood from the outset, helped by smokey blue hues and the darkest shadows, cast across multiple levels of a scaffolded set, thanks to Brisbane’s most awarded and appreciated creative triumvirate, Josh McIntosh (Designer, having designed a completely different production for HR in 2008 – wish I’d seen Edward Foy’s Rochester), Jason Glenwright (Lighting Designer) and Guy Webster (Additional Music and Sound). If you can’t imagine how incredible the result of a collaboration between these guys can be, see it for yourself before Jane Eyre closes this weekend, or during the return to QPAC later this month of A Christmas Carol).

 

shake & stir’s productions are truly world class.

 

The Superjesus and Green Day’s American Idiot star, Sarah McLeod, takes artistic stakes even higher, and it’s a gamble that pays off, with a haunting, stirring soundtrack of original music commissioned for this production. In her compositions and rasping, grasping vocals, lies the deeper realisation of both Bertha, the mad wife of Rochester (McLeod), and Jane. And without feeling the need to return to Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea I get a sense that it’s this version, or essence, of Bertha we see here, beneath McLeod’s sculpted arms and ink, and fierce, frightened eyes in this challenging role. (McLeod’s Bertha is probably as Polly Teale as we can expect to get for audiences that include Year 9 – 12 students). In a future role, it will be interesting to see if there is a need to reign in McLeod’s extraordinary energy and natural presence on stage. Let’s hope not; it can be better managed than that!

 

The duality of the female characters is further examined in the treatment of little Adele, Rochester’s ward, represented here by the actor’s posturing and impossibly wide eyes, a Sia-sized ribbon in the hair, and the jaunty movements, as marionette, Adele’s invisible strings pulled by the adults, who regard her with vague interest, or none at all, rather than with Jane’s attitude of love and acceptance, until the little dolly demands more and drops the coquettish act – literally; this is a very funny fuck-you moment – as individuation finally kicks in, and she is seen to stomp – not skip or twirl – to assert her place in the household, in the world. I would like to have seen a more deliberate prelude to this, in Jane’s very early behaviour, which of course would have had little to no effect in the context of the Reed’s oppressive home; perhaps this would be too subtle after all, to foreshadow the widening distinctions between class and wealth and society and privilege and pride, or perhaps we just had to see her as someone different. 

 

 

We have to remember that Charlotte Brontë published under the male non de plume, Currer Bell, in 1847 – a time when class structure began to be challenged and the romantic notion of the gentle ‘feminine’ was supposedly being left for dead, and a stronger ‘feminist’ approach was taking hold, although not everywhere; even the women of the day were shocked and dismayed by the boldness of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. A female critic famously referred to the story as a “very naughty” one.

 

A production picture of McLeod and Lee, facing off only inches away from each other, contains all the intensity and harnessed energy expected on opening night. The adaptation is still too dense to make this version a truly captivating one, and this production lacks the necessary pace to keep us on the edge of our seats. At least it’s not set in space. There is something lacking in the bullying scenes, which are rushed and light-handed, and then we spend an overly long time in the red room, and away at Lowood School. An extended choreographic sequence here, of ritual and repetition, ticks a box but fails to enhance or advance the story; it’s such a short moment actually, and you might enjoy it as a prelude to the very interesting symbolism later of little Adele, but these are the things that are slightly clunky after seeing other, flawless moments work magnificently in shake & stir’s previous productions.

 

Nelle Lee’s Jane Eyre is quietly brash and bold, with appropriate agency, giving us a sense that actually, Nelle Lee is quietly this brash and bold.

 

Anthony Standish is the bully, John Reed, the principal, Mr Brocklhurst, the missionary, St John and the gentlest, gruffest Rochester ever, and despite the distinct lack of scintillating, simmering sexual energy between he and Lee (let me know if you sit closer and feel heat from anything other than the house fire), at least we get the gorgeous playful moments, such lovely moments for actors and audience, and those looooooong looks that should have felt more…thrilling. Perhaps each piece really is just so precisely measured for schools now, so careful not to titillate or offend. Or does it still, in the moment, on the night, come down to casting, timing and bold, impulsive choices? With Intimacy Coordination/Choreography/Direction and wellness at the centre of our actor training and the entertainment industry, and in the meantime, complaints directed to school administrations at the mere mention of a gothic element, or a stiletto strutting teen in a scene for assessment or assembly, this is a very interesting conversation. To be continued…

 

 

Helen Howard is one of our most accomplished actors and directors (and with a bit of Irish luck, COCK will start something in terms of regular directing engagements for Howard). As Aunt Reed, as well as various school teachers, each with their own stance, posture, gesture, accent, and social mask/set of facial expressions, and as Mrs Fairfax and Blanch Ingram, Howard reasserts her superior authority and versatility on stage, and her place in the hearts of Brisbane audiences. 

 

Did you remember that both Helen Howard and Michael Futcher are Matilda Award Hall of Fame(ers)? No. So. There’s your reminder and a little timely nod to Rosemary, whom we miss. so. much.

 

Director, Michael Futcher, has a sharp eye; his astute and super sensitive direction of just four performers in this magnificent contemporary starkly gothic space, contained beautifully by the Cremorne, brings some splendid literary moments to life, and heightens some of the subtleties of the original text, including a stunning image of the women, Bertha above and Jane Eyre below. But by resisting taking a red pen to this adaptation, in its inaugural season this Jane Eyre is not yet the absolutely extraordinary example of live theatre it promises to be. When this production grows up and goes beyond even its own wildest imagination, watch out!

 

What a joy it is to always be able to recommend a company for each new theatrical work offered (even when it’s not my favourite!), based upon the extraordinary body of work, and on the clever and creative team’s ongoing commitment to making live productions continue to work for as broad an audience as possible.    

 

17
Jun
19

TOSCA

 

Tosca

Opera Queensland

QPAC Lyric Theatre

June 13 – 22 2019

 

Reviewed by Shannon Miller

 

 

Last year within the walls of the historic Italian city of Lucca, I visited the birthplace of Tosca’s composer, Giacomo Puccini who was born in 1858. Once a wealthy apartment overlooking the Piazza Cittadella it is now a museum enshrined with his personal artefacts, costumes from his operas, personal letters and postcards, photographs, and an old baby grand piano said to have been used by the young composer before he departed for Milan where he would undergo his serious musical training. He would go on to eventually write the operas which he has now become so famous for including Tosca, the awe-inspiring production currently part of Opera Queensland’s 2019 season.

 

 

With its themes of police corruption, executive overreach, political terrorism and feminism, it’s not hard to see why Tosca continues to hold relevance for contemporary audiences, despite its first debut more than 100 years ago, in 1900. Program notes co-authored by artistic director, Patrick Nolan and executive director, Sandra Willis make mention of our media recently becoming the focus of the world’s attention due to the raids on our national broadcaster, calling into question the idea of free speech and the integrity of the media – concepts central to Tosca’s verismo melodrama.

 

Originally set against the Napoleonic invasion of Rome in the 1800s, director Nolan sets the scene during Italy’s ‘Years of Lead’: a dark period of great political terrorism and violence spanning the 1960s and 1980s. (*Lead allegedly denoting the shootings and bombings of the time.)

 

As we enter the Lyric Theatre the curtain is already up. We see a church with floors polished to a mirror’s gleam. There are candles to be lit, long minimalist pews, imposing linear structures, and cubic compartments framing the proscenium as if the set will attempt to contain in an orderly fashion what chaos and tragedy will seek to undo. The production design is boastful and foreboding, and the program notes explain that it is the work of Italian modernist architect Pier Luigi Nervi that influenced the design; a conflation of religious iconography and bureaucratic geometry – a tension upon which the plot of Tosca pivots.

 

Angelotti, sung by Sam Hartley, is an escaped political prisoner who takes refuge inside the church and hides as a Sacristan enters to prepare for the evening mass. Joining him is Cavaradossi, sung by Angus Wood, an artist employed to paint a portrait of the Mary Magdalene. The iconic motifs of the strings and woodwind herald the opening of the first main aria Recondita Armonia. Here, we get a real sense of Woods’ bold tenor voice; a resonant and youthful timbre which lilts boldly, but wraps sensitively with a controlled legato around the lyrical phrasing. With the climax of the aria’s closing note, we pinch ourselves as we come to realise, we are indeed listening to one of the world’s most beloved operas, and we’re in expert hands.

 

The Sacristan leaves, Angelotti re-emerges, and after promising to protect him, Angelotti hides as Cavaradossi’s girlfriend arrives, Floria Tosca a famous singer. The titular character, sung by Rachelle Durkin, channels Sophia Loren with wild sunglasses, high-waisted pants, a silk floral blouse and fur, no less. Tosca’s gumption, style and physicality are magnetic as Durkin commands respect, inhabiting the stage with a conspicuous nonchalance, her voice generously picking out the flowers in the music, while gorgeously navigating its churning ocean with a vibrant vocalism and vibrato that lashes but then reigns in to show off a deeper discipline and modesty. She jealously accuses Cavaradossi of cheating on her and also that the painting resembles another woman as the two engage in playful tête-à-têtes. They are in love and we cannot help but fall in love with them.

 

 

After they leave, the Sacristan returns with a congregation, but the celebrations are interrupted by chief of police, Baron Scarpia. Moustached and skivvied, he is followed by his police agents and henchmen hot on the trail of Angelotti. Scarpia, sung richly by baritone Jose Carbo, leads the chorus in the final number of the first act – a rousing Te Deum – which is a more structured piece speaking to the rigidity of the internal demons of process that drive Scarpia; very much in contrast to the musical language of our lovers. The chorus and orchestra fuse together, the melody twisting upward impossibly, divinely, and culminating with a palpable electricity still buzzing amongst the audience during intermission.

 

In act two, Scarpia, in an effort to discover the whereabouts of Angelotti, will manipulate the lovers by torturing and threatening to execute Cavaradossi unless Tosca yields to his sexual advances. In a final plea to God, she sings a heartbreaking Vissi d’arte, followed by Woods’ E lucevan le stelle – arguably Puccini’s best tenor aria outside of Turandot’s Nessun Dorma. Woods’ performance had me so star struck and fangirling that I was flung back to my bedroom floor at thirteen, singing along to a $5 bargain bin compact disc titled Puccini Favourites which I still have to this very day.

 

 

Show stealers maestro, Oliver Von Dohnanyi and the Queensland Symphony Orchestra bring this magnanimous score to life; a demanding musical work of extremist romantic dynamics, sensitivity and vociferous power. The orchestra were generous and rigorous in their efforts to produce the chocolate, velvet and violence necessary for Tosca to leave you breathless and yearning. Opera Queensland’s production of Tosca shouldn’t be missed. With its complex, modern sets and period costumes by Dale Ferguson, contemporary lighting concepts by Mark Howett, and masterful direction by Patrick Nolan, this is an extravaganza; a unique and successful revitalising of one of the world’s most sacrosanct cultural artefacts.

 

15
May
19

The Dinner Party

 

The Dinner Party

Expressions Dance Company

QPAC Cremorne Theatre

May 10–18 2019

 

Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway

 

Expressions Dance Company

 

Power can be used in many ways and can be misused. I love the famous saying, ‘Power corrupts: absolute power corrupts absolutely’… I invite the audience to decide who really holds the power at this dinner party.

 

Natalie Weir, Choreographer

 

In its first mainstage season this year, Expressions Dance Company is performing The Dinner Party, choreographed by former Artistic Director Natalie Weir. New Artistic Director Amy Hollingsworth chose well with this piece, both for its intense theatricality and intricate, breathtaking choreography, and for its gracious tribute to Weir.

 

The Dinner Party is a reworking of Weir’s The Host, performed by EDC in 2015. (Before that, Weir created a version for the Queensland Ballet in 1998.) In the 2015 incarnation, the work had a cast of seven dancers, and four string players of the Southern Cross Soloists performed the music live. The Dinner Party has a cast of six, and the music is recorded.

 

Expressions Dance Company

 

Weir sees the dinner party as a setting for complex interactions between its six characters, involving power, manipulation, domination, submission, love, desire—and some love and consolation.

 

The octagonal black dinner table is the key element of the minimal set. In endlessly inventive choreography, the dancers perform on the table, fly over it in gigantic leaps, huddle under it, move it around, and hang off it tipped on its side.

 

As the central figure of the Host, Jake McLarnon is a towering and dominant presence, his long limbs covering impossible distances. His character is upper-class, wealthy and controlling, but he doesn’t have everything his own way.

 

At first, the Host manipulates the hapless drunk Wannabe (Jag Popham) like a puppet, in some of the more humorous moments of the work. Popham uses his strength and athleticism to create a character of spineless subservience.

 

The Rival (Bernhard Knauer) is a more serious threat. Knauer creates a sense of danger and malicious charm in this role. The struggle between the Host and the Rival is fierce and exciting, as they hurl each other into the air and wrestle, their formal clothing now dishevelled.

 

The callous Rival also toys with the Insecure Party Girl (Josephine Weise). She tentatively wields her sexual power, but is no match for him. Her movements alternate between expansive allure and protective wrapping of arms and legs around herself. With fearless acrobatic strength, contrasting with her fluffy, girly costume, Weise projects her character’s combination of fearfulness and youthful brashness.

 

Expressions Dance Company

 

The Host is involved with two women: the Lover (Isabella Hood) and the Hostess (guest artist Lizzie Vilmanis). The Lover seems to be the least troubled of the characters, although a languorous duo with the Host develops into a competitive trio with the Hostess.

 

The Hostess is a pivotal role, reappearing as a highlighted character throughout. She is a mature woman, obviously of high status, like the Host. This is made very obvious at the start, when she literally walks all over the dinner party guests. In an emotionally charged performance, Vilmanis combines arrogance with sober dignity and a feeling of sadness and regret.

 

The partnering in various duos and trios is thrilling to watch in its daring and control, as bodies wind around each other in unexpected ways, or are hurled through the air. Weir’s choreography is always inventive, and full of physical energy, yet with a sense of refinement rather than violence.

 

Expressions Dance Company

 

The music is appropriately intense and dramatic. The composers are not credited, but include Prokofiev.

The costumes by Brisbane fashion designer Gail Sorronda are various combinations of black and white, and perfect for the characters: formal suits for the men, with black tails for the Host and white for the Rival; elegant long black net and ruffles for the Hostess; a very short ruffled black outfit for the Party Girl; and sophisticated filmy white and black for the Lover.

 

Expressions Dance Company

 

The lighting by Ben Hughes is moody, suitable for a dinner party, with occasional piercing shafts of light illuminating key moments and characters.

Following the Brisbane season, regional audiences will have the chance to see The Dinner Party. It will tour for 6 weeks (from 28 May to 6 July) around Queensland and New South Wales, and to Darwin and Alice Springs.

 

Dinner Party – Trailer from Expressions Dance Company on Vimeo.

29
Mar
19

The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon

John Frost, Stuart Thompson & Important Musicals

QPAC Lyric Theatre

March 20 – May 31 2019

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

 

One man’s blasphemy is another man’s scripture. Matt Stone

 

Religious stories are just stories. That’s enough. They don’t need to be more. Bobby Lopez

 

We grew up with Mormons, and their MO is to beat you by being kinder than you and higher than you. Trey Parker

 

 

Is the opening of this musical not the most iconic and adored since we first saw Maria running, twirling and singing across the tops of those hills? (You can’t miss the cheeky nod to her later). In keeping with the new curriculum – not that any school should feel the need to make a group booking; see note below – The Book of Mormon blows musical theatre apart. And raises suit standards for young male Mormons everywhere.

 

PARENTAL ADVISORY: If you’re a parent and you’re OK with your kids watching South Park, then use your own judgement about letting them see this. I would add to that, if you would consider that I’ve taken my child to just about everything, and that we talk about just about everything, now that she’s 12-going-on-32 we agree that this content is not what she needs in her life right now. It’s a little like choosing not to have the evening news on in our house. We know stuff is happening to people everywhere, and quite simply, we can better serve those near us. It’s not so much about being blissfully ignorant as it is about retaining our right to make conscious choices. Having skipped the songs marked explicit on the soundtrack for years, we discussed again recently that there is so much else for Poppy at the moment, and she can look forward to experiencing this show in its entirety another time. As an adult, you might decide the same thing. And then you’ll have to decide how you feel about that because when everyone else is seeing it and talking about it, there’s a real risk of FOMO! 

 

HELLO! Hilarious and irreverent beyond belief, and boasting a company of new and engaging triple threat male performers, The Book of Mormon must be the most eagerly awaited show to open at QPAC this year. And it returns next year! It doesn’t disappoint. If you’ve never even listened to the original Broadway cast album (apparently, there are still people who go in cold to a show) you’ll be thrilled to see that it’s been brought to life in the most outrageously musical theatre way imaginable. 

 

Directed by Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw, with choreography by Nicholaw, and outstanding full orchestrations from a 9-piece band under MD David Young, The Book of Mormon, for those making a conscious choice, is a must-see. 

 

 

When Elder Price (the ridiculously talented and gorgeous, Guy Smiley channelling Blake Bowden) is paired with Elder Cunningham (his perfect foil and the best import ever, Canadian, Nyk Bielak) at the Mormon mission training centre and they’re assigned their mission destination, Africa is not exactly the place they had in mind. (Two By Two & You and Me). While their pals get to go to Norway and Japan, the mismatched pair are sent to war-ravaged, poverty-stricken, AIDS-infected, maggot-infested, fuck-you-God Uganda.

 

Disappointingly, it’s not a bit like The Lion King. (Hasa Diga Eebowai)

 

 

Despite their best efforts to deliver the word of the Heavenly Father and convert the sinners, the suit clad, little blue book bearing boys make little positive impact on the Ugandan people. In fact, they attract all the wrong sorts of attention, from cynics to local war lords, as well as complicating relationships with their Mormon missionary brothers (Turn It Off & I Am Here For You) and before long, having given preaching a red hot go (All-American Prophet, the first incredible showstopper, harking back to the all-singing, all-dancing, all-grinning numbers of the 1950s-ish Golden Era of all-American musicals), Elder Price walks away from his mission partner and his mission, with the intention of going to Orlando, with its clean streets and theme parks. Without his best little buddy by his side, the version of biblical events offered to the villagers by Elder Cunningham is mostly imagined, but the strange stories appear to make sense to the Africans, who all agree to be nice to people, and to be baptised as Latter Day Saints. (Man Up, Act 2 Prologue, Making Things Up Again). Bielak has so many fantastically funny moments that it’s impossible to pick just one. The secret to his performance, and to the rest of them, is that there’s nothing happening that’s actually outrageous. Everyone is completely genuine and responding just as they might in real life, within the world view created on stage, and therein lies the best kind of comedy and the most convincing kind of theatre, no matter how silly the premise might appear to be.

 

A proper South Park style scene, Spooky Mormon Hell Dream takes the ridiculous to new heights – or depths – as Elder Price laments his decision to leave, hearing from Lucifer, and a couple of Starbucks single-use styrofoam coffee cups, and infamous historical figures, including Ghengis Khan and Hitler. This is a dazzling musical theatre disco zombie showstopper; it’s superbly staged, very Fosse, riotously funny. The design team – Scott Pask (Set), Ann Roth (Costumes), Brian MacDevitt (Lighting) and Brian Ronan (Sound) – create worlds within worlds, keeping each chapter of the story within a proscenium of stained glass, complete with revolving heralding angel, against a backdrop of the entire universe. If you look closely, you’ll see that you have your own planet up there. 

 

The costume design, I would hope, is certainly conscious of what the show is saying about the world. Ann Roth

 

 

The high energy performances from every last member of this company means that there are no weak links. It’s virtually impossible to single out an ensemble member, but the Brisbane audience thrills in seeing our own Alex Woodward (a standout, though we don’t know when he’s had time to learn the show, having been busy recently staging so many of his own), Tom Davis and Billy Bouchier. Sydney’s Joel Granger is a perfectly over-enthusiastic McKinley, and Andrew Broadbent is a groovy and gallant Joseph Smith, among a number of other roles. The bedtime tap number, Turn It Off, is a properly polished and fabulous number, and includes a nifty costume trick to draw gasps and squeals of delight. A new graduate of APO and VCA with beautifully controlled vocals and a smile to brighten even the darkest Ugandan day is Tigist Strode, a light-filled Nabulungi. (Sal Tlay Ka Siti, Baptize Me)

 

 

We went to restaurants and we’d grab one of the wait staff and say, do you know any Mormons who went on missions? They’d say, yeah, me and all of our wait staff. And then we’d say, do you know anyone who was gay, and gay Mormons? And they were like, yeah, me and all of our wait staff. Bobby Lopez

 

 

Blake Bowden smashes the role of Elder Price, and I Believe serves as confirmation, in case we weren’t sure when we heard You and Me, that Bowden is a superstar. On the Sunshine Coast we already knew this, having hosted Bowden in Noosa over the last couple of years. But if you don’t get out much, or you subscribe to the myth that Broadway still boasts the best of musical theatre, it might be difficult to predict how good Bowden’s performance is. You simply have to experience it to believe.

 

 

…there are literally no jokes in that song; it’s just facts. It’s just funny ways to describe Mormon things that they believe in. It’s all directly from The Book of Mormon. Bobby Lopez.

 

 

Matt Stone, Trey Parker and Bobby Lopez use the darkest and most ludicrous comedy to highlight some truly horrific humanitarian issues, including religion, race, gender, power, privilege, politics, violence, sex, discrimination and indoctrination. And just like any issue highlighted or disrupted by an art form, what we do about it after the show, or not, is up to each of us. The Book of Mormon is the most irreverent, the most hilarious, the most surprisingly poignant in parts, and the most polished, energetic and entertaining show we’ll see in Brisbane this year. You better believe it.

 

 

According to its own merch and social media, The Book of Mormon is God’s favourite musical, and it might just be yours too. 

 

 

The Book Of Mormon is the winner of four Olivier Awards (West End, London) and nine Tony Awards (broadway, NYC), including Best Musical, Best Score (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone), Best Book (Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, Matt Stone), Best Direction (Casey Nicholaw, Trey Parker), Best Featured Actress (Nikki M. James), Best Scenic Design (Scott Pask), Best Lighting Design (Brian MacDevitt), Best Sound Design (Brian Ronan) and Best Orchestrations (Larry Hochman, Stephen Oremus); the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical; five Drama Desk Awards including Best Musical, the 2011 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album; four Outer Critics Circle Awards, including Best Musical, and the Drama League Award for Best Musical.

 

The Australian production of The Book of Mormon is the winner of the coveted 2017 Helpmann Award for Best Musical. It has performed for over 500 packed houses since opening on January 17, 2017, and broke the house record for the highest selling on-sale period of any production in the 159-year history of Melbourne’s Princess Theatre.

27
Feb
19

Death of a Salesman

 

Death of a Salesman

Queensland Theatre

QPAC Playhouse

February 9 – March 2

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

THE REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM THAT DEFINED THE 20TH CENTURY

 

What is a human life worth?

 

I saw the very first preview performance (this is the first time the play is seen by an audience outside the privacy and security of the rehearsal room) and two and a half weeks later, one of the final performances of the season. Despite my knack for writing really interesting and insightful and particularly generous preview reviews because I can imagine that a show will be exactly where it needs to be by opening night (I keep telling them that!!!) we tend not to write up previews – in fact, we’re asked not to – because at this stage the production is still in its infancy, and things can be a little clunky, or not quite clear. There’s still time before opening night to make changes and tweak things, and this is why you’ll often pay less for a preview ticket…and why it’s often a good idea to make a return visit to experience the show all over again, as the director intends it to look and feel, before closing night.

 

 

And so, in true teacher guise, I experienced Queensland Theatre’s first offering for the year, Death Of A Salesman, not once but twice: the first time, at the end of an excellent and entertaining day of professional development with Andrea Moor, analysing the text and remembering tricks to try with drama students to get realistic scenes on their feet without any fuss or (ironically) theatrics, and the second time, with our senior drama students after a chat with the director in the Playhouse Lounge. As  you can imagine, if you know the play at all or anything of it, there were some strong reactions to the matinee performance on Wednesday February 27, and some tears.

 

 

Arthur Miller’s seminal text from the 1940s remains as disturbingly relevant now as ever. With society’s emphasis on mental health, the worth of a man or woman, our best advice coming to our newsfeeds in the form of funny memes, the #metoo movement, and the somewhat token efforts to overhaul our education and health systems, Jason Klarwein’s faithful production for Queensland Theatre stands firm and strong. This version is a towering warning sign, as we continue to veer towards our own self-destruction as a workaholic, weary society. Sounds dismal, doesn’t it? Well, we know there’s not going to be a happy ending. Willy Loman is not a happy man. His failure to attain for himself, and deliver to his family the fabled American Dream sees him broken, unable to celebrate the success of others or relinquish his stranglehold on the past, defeated and eaten up by envy, self-loathing and regret, unable to go on.

 

 

Peter Kowitz lives and breathes every complex, tragic aspect of Willy Loman. Every haunted look comes from somewhere we wish we could see into more clearly so that we might know the ways to help him to see for himself the good that his long-suffering wife, Linda (Angie Milliken), still sees in him, and that we want to believe is at the core of every man. It’s a slow-burning, heartbreaking performance, challenging us to withhold judgement and simply accept that he’s always done only what he’s always felt he had to do. Kowitz has boundless energy in the moments spent in Willy’s mind, literally leaping and dashing about the stage, in stark contrast to his downtrodden state each time he returns to reality. Kevin Hides leaves his indelible mark on this production as the distinguished, rich, dead, older brother, Ben, and what a settle-back-in-your-seat pleasure it is to hear his beautiful, distinctive vocal work again. Likewise, elevating this role into another realm entirely, Charles Allen holds our attention, and in his voice and powerfully still presence, brings both ancient wisdom and boyish joy to the role of the neighbour Charley, the man whom Willy recognises – while Charley does not – as his only friend. “Now, isn’t that remarkable?”

 

 

 

Thomas Larkin’s finely layered performance – perhaps the best we’ve seen from him; certainly it’s the most demanding role he’s been gifted and he rises to every challenge – is just as heartbreaking, the measure of a man made clear to Biff by his father and Biff’s perception in turn made clear to us, that he will forever fall short of expectations. Larkin and Kowitz find something so raw and real in their father-son relationship that even the toughest teenaged boys in the audience are visibly affected, finally shifting in their seats after their perfect stillness throughout the savage shouting, and tears around the kitchen table, and awkward embraces by the sink, and end-of-the-night promises on the stairs.

 

 

Jackson McGovern, the perfect foil for Larkin’s Biff, is his younger brother, Happy (really, this is such superb casting, these two), and for a whole disquieting scene, he is also Willy’s heartless employer, Howard.

The audience reaction to this scene is something else, taking the travesty of Willy’s situation beyond even the mood the actors have established.

Each of Willy’s offers to take a pay cut are met with audible sighs of disappointment, shock, immense sadness. The air in the Playhouse gets heavy. The pauses on stage start to get uncomfortably long and it’s perfect. I’ve never heard or felt anything like it. The energy of the entire audience is with Willy, wanting desperately for him to see his worth and to sell that.

 

 

I always feel when I read this play on the page as if not enough attention is paid to Linda, who chooses her suffering and enters graciously into a life of it. (Imagine the contemporary sequel! Again I say, Bubnic it!). She can get a bit lost, but attention must be paid to Milliken, whose magic is in her seemingly effortless embodiment of the woman behind the man and the mother of their two hopeless, lovely boys. Her attempts to gently influence, and interrupt and disrupt the train wreck of family events / non-events are well measured, and her outbursts are as magnificent as her quieter, more nuanced, more devastating moments. We feel kids and adults alike, all around, cringing and squirming, and the couple in front include me in their parenting discussion during interval (they’d seen on the news that our College has banned mobile phones on campus).

 

Meanwhile, Miller’s words out of Milliken’s mouth have never been truer. 

 

 

The slightly jarring, suddenly changing lighting states to signify Willy’s altered state of mind happen seamlessly now, making what has always been a little confusing in the text abundantly clear on stage. The new wave design team here include: Verity Hampson (Lighting Designer), Justin Harrison (Composer/Sound & Projection Designer), Anthony Spinaze (Associate Designer/Costume Designer) and Richard Roberts (Set Designer). No, no one is new to their job but there might be a lovely new combination of aesthetic and abilities right there.

 

If I could, I would even see this production a third time. The play is a masterpiece. By leading us into their world and onwards to the crescendo of their lives, we recognise something of ourselves in these characters – these humans – and in their choices, and in the story they tell. It’s actually our story and there is medicine in its darker aspects, its shadows, if we are willing to look beyond what we are led to believe is best and real and right.