Posts Tagged ‘QTC

30
Aug
16

St Mary’s In Exile

St Mary’s In Exile

Queensland Theatre Company

Bille Brown Studio

August 27 – September 25 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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I have stillness.

Peter Kennedy, St Mary’s In Exile

How powerful is truth? How profound? How necessary?

An urgent, new, local story, impeccably researched and superbly shaped by local writer, David Burton, reveals the tiny detail in the big news of the Catholic Church in 2009. It’s a monumental story that you didn’t know you needed to know. An intimate and explosive production, St Mary’s In Exile puts us right in the middle of highly controversial real-life events as they occur in the retelling.

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The tale is presented without bias and at times we’re shocked to feel, for half a moment, that the Church representatives from their perspectives may have a point, however; from the perspective of the tight-knit community (and most of the rest of the world) their views seem obtuse and outdated. (A razor sharp, highly entertaining QANDA segment brilliantly summarises all sides of the story before sending one camera down the rabbit hole before the scene ends with a bang. It’s weird, it’s current, it’s meta…and it works). 

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By framing the tale within a single stormy storytelling evening when Peter Kennedy, excommunicated from the Catholic Church, must finally leave the premises, we’re able to view events through a retrospective lens and also, see the action take place in real time.

Anthony Spinaze’s spare design works so beautifully in the space it almost looks as if it’s a permanent part of the Bille Brown Studio, despite the concrete and slate and well worn, grubby carpet in the set, which is certainly not in keeping with the clean and cosy style of Queensland Theatre, but authentic in its representation of the little church around the corner. Daniel Anderson’s evocative lighting and Justin Harrison’s moody, stormy sound design take us in and out of time and across the mind and heart and soul of ex-Father Peter Kennedy (Peter Marshall) as this unbelievable story is retold one stormy night to a mysterious homeless man (Ben Warren).

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I’m not Catholic. I didn’t know the story of St Mary’s. I missed the headlines when the diverse-as-the-lamb-ad-backlash congregation of St Mary’s left the building located just 300 metres from the rebranded Queensland Theatre building and moved to Peel Street in the most dramatic schism since the 11th Century. Still meeting in the Trades and Labor Council building today, these are the several hundred loyal, enlightened followers and friends of Peter Kennedy.

It seems so bizarre that these events actually happened, that people actually caused such a fuss over a Buddha statue in the foyer, or the blessing of same sex couples, or women in the pulpit, and that the Catholic Church kicked up the biggest stink of all. This play nails it – the problems brought about by the media circus and organised religion as opposed to genuine faith, and the ways in which individuals are most affected. Why not live and let live, tolerate those who do no harm to others, and move through the world peacefully? It’s easier than people make it out to be. This play doesn’t need to spell it out, but simply introduces characters who are trying to do just that.

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The performances are moving, the characters connected and interconnected, the relationships within this ensemble shaped with care by director, Jason Klarwein, and honoured by actors Chenoa Deemal, Joss McWilliam, Kevin Spink and Luisa Prosser. It’s a strong cast with stand out performances from Peter Marshall as the compassionate Peter Kennedy and Bryan Probets as Joseph. One of Brisbane’s favourites, Probets embraces the vulnerability, despair and devotion of this character so ably we see someone we hope never to recognise in real life and yet, these people, the most vulnerable of all, exist, if only we look around and open our eyes and arms and hearts to them. It feels as if each character is someone we already know, and of course there are those who really do, or really did, know these people. (Peter Kennedy attended opening night). They are so real, so beautifully drawn from life; we see right into their heads and hearts. We feel a part of this little congregation. We feel the enormous injustice against them. We’re fully invested from the start and we’re reminded by the end, we have a responsibility to help make things right. Can we all walk away and help make things right?

Burton’s new play is powerful; it’s good, quiet, humbly world-changing theatre that gets in early on Sam Strong’s mantra for the 2017 season. Deserving of a place in the Australian canon, St Mary’s In Exile sees the company proudly #leadingfromqueensland

 

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That’s the stillness. That’s the peace. Words get in the way, but … I know it. Freedom is knowing everybody’s right and everybody’s wrong and it doesn’t matter. It’s funny. It’s the Buddha laughing. It’s a joyful thing. And it’s the only place to find peace. 

Peter Kennedy, St Mary’s In Exile

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27
Jul
16

The Wider Earth

 

The Wider Earth

QTC & Dead Puppet Society

Bille Brown Studio

July 9 – August 7 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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The discoveries Darwin made while onboard the Beagle rewrote our understanding of the world.

David Morton

An epic journey, a quest of the soul; a question of creator or creation by nature… Darwin threw his theory of evolution into the mix of Christian faith and fear, and unveiled in 1859 in his book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s thinking changed the way we view and understand the world and its inhabitants.

The Wider Earth is a complete and thoroughly complex experience, drawing us into the detail, and the wonder and excitement of Darwin’s discoveries. We journey across the seas with twenty-two year old Darwin as he sets out to observe a whole new world and record his findings, only to leave his detailed notes behind him, in Tasmania, struck by crippling self-doubt, ready to abandon five years of work and his newly formed beliefs about the natural order of things, based on what he’d observed and knew to be true, despite the indoctrination of society at the time by the church. 

Last night I finally realised how I’d been feeling about QTC & Dead Puppet Society’s vivid imagining of The Wider Earth… wonderment. The curiosity and wonder of a child – before she is trained by the adults of her intriguing, impatient world to hurry up, and keep up and stop messing about in the garden – fascinated all over again by story and science presented in this unique way, and completely blown away by the design elements and the manipulation of the puppets, integral in this impressive world premiere.

In fact, this is the first production in a long time in which I’ve felt the entire audience completely immersed in the story from start to finish. A much younger audience than opening night enjoyed, the first Monday evening performance saw a couple of secondary school groups in the mix. And Poppy. This always changes the experience and I know some adults prefer not to hear the self-conscious laughter and the comments that teens whisper during a production but I love to see young people – all people – connecting and engaging with the arts. I love witnessing the moments of enlightenment, when the kids realise how all the elements combine in that mystical, magical, alchemical way of theatre and suddenly, they get it. In this case, an intriguing rom-com lens was cast over the show; I enjoyed hearing the giggles and squeals of delight from the girls, and the hearty applause before the final moments, testament to the entertainment value of this production, as well as its quality and substance (a trifecta rarely seen, if we’re honest). The Wider Earth is living, breathing theatre of the most intoxicating kind. We feel that it’s evolving even as we experience it. It’s the most exciting culmination of brilliant minds and skills, and real support networks in Brisbane in a long time. If only this was the result of every creative process: this feeling of immense pride, and true ownership and sheer joy, shared.

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We enter the Bille Brown Studio after catching up in the foyer with everybody else who’d missed The Wider Earth opening night (having committed to the opening night of We Will Rock You – n.b. the early invites, folks!), passing a timber ship-pretending-to-be-a-rock structure that reminds me of the outback texture, colour and shape of the central feature of The Rabbits. It’s necessarily more versatile, serving as an imposing mountain, a gentle slope, a row boat, a number of landscapes, interiors, stormy waves and the deck of the HMS Beagle. It revolves. It’s brilliant. There are few full revolves used to their full potential and this is one design (David Morton & Aaron Barton) that doesn’t disappoint. Above it is a panoramic screen, lashed and hung with ship’s rope. The images cast across it begin as if we’re inside the pages of Beatrix Potter’s journal and become the entire universe. More on this aspect later; Justin Harrison has outdone himself here, muscling in on a space previously occupied by the talented boys from optikal bloc and Markell Presents.

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Tom Conroy, whom we remember from MTC/La Boite’s Cock, fearlessly embraces the complexities of young Darwin; his vulnerability and fears, his sense of wonder and obsessive attention to detail, his self-loathing, and his ambition and determination to develop his ground-breaking, game-changing theory. This is fine casting and a stand-out performance from Conroy.

On board the Beagle with Darwin is the conflicted Captain Robert Fitzroy (Anthony Standish, in his most impressive role to date, balancing light and dark and various shades of grey to create a commanding presence without losing lightness and genuine human connections towards the end), Father Richard Matthews (David Lynch), John Wickham (Thomas Larkin) and Jemmy Button (Jonty Martin). They are joined by Lauren Jackson as Darwin’s fierce and ambitious, very patient sweetheart (and his eventual wife), Emma Wedgwood, and Margi Brown Ash as both Reverend John Henslow & John Herschel. We hear from the outset the rich tones of Robert Coleby as the voice of old Darwin, landing us in the present with minds open to the stories of the past, and we see the extraordinary prowess and emotional investment of Anna Straker, Puppet Captain and notably, adorably, Polly the beagle. It’s a stellar ensemble, worthy of a new award category nom…

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We’re transported across vast seas and exotic lands by a timeless original cinematic score by ARIA Award Winner (and Woodford Folk Festival’s Mystery Bus superstar), Lior and producer/songwriter Tony Buchen, with a sweeping sound design by Tony Brumpton and superb ambient lighting by David Walters. The combination of elements elevates this production not only to national tour but to world tour status, if only someone would invest in this piece of theatre at the same level as men’s sport in this country. (That would also equate to a film option for international distribution, just saying). Justin Harrison’s projection art (with sketches from the original photo-composites by Straker) is an astounding success, taking us from Great Britain to the ends of the earth and back again, and into the mind of Charles Darwin.

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I’d love to see inside David Morton’s mind (Writer, Director, Co-Designer and Puppet Designer). I think The Wider Earth is a glimpse at how it works, but no more than The Harbinger or Argus was…there’s obviously so much more to come. It’s quite extraordinary, really. It’s another extraordinary production. It will impress aficionados of old and new theatrical forms and also appeal to those who have never seen anything outside of the cinema or their own living room. The Wider Earth, in one form or another, is destined for a much wider audience. (This season was close to selling out before it opened). 

It’s not the sort of theatre we see often. We often see theatre that is touted, celebrated and promoted as something like this. But it’s nothing like it. This is an epic tale made so intimate that we feel every atom is a part of the storytelling. And why are we even surprised by its stunning success on stage?! Dead Puppet Society have raised the bar – have been raising the bar – in visual theatre since 2009; it’s largely due to the support of our two major theatre companies that we’ve seen the work come this far this quickly, however; the simple fact is that Morton and Dead Puppet Society Creative Producer, Nicholas Paine, see the world differently, and they see the business of putting on a show differently, and they’re able to present their ideas in a complex and highly technical, yet incredibly childlike way, unfolding immense notions and universal truths and heavy moral dilemmas before our eyes, capturing our hearts before we’ve realised we’ve changed and in reflection, remembered how vulnerable we are. This is the little company that could, and does, despite so many major challenges facing artists and producers in this country, which stop others in their tracks.

Meanwhile, only the strongest survive, and Dead Puppet Society continue to prove they are intrepid explorers of the world, forging their own path, reimagining the landscape, terraforming the theatre industry. 

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The Wider Earth is breathtakingly beautiful, an emotional, visceral theatrical experience. For artists within, and for audiences on the outside of a dynamic and diverse industry that is continuously changing and growing and stalling and starting again, and never quite stepping out of its own way, The Wider Earth is a truly inspiring theatrical event, serving as a gently powerful reminder that we really do exist only to evolve as much as we can before we expire, as artists, and as human beings who share this planet.

You will see nothing more magical this year. The Wider Earth – its vast and intimate beauty – will stay with you long after the lights go down.

 

Production pics by Dylan Evans. Portrait of Tom Conroy by Susan Hetherington. Compilation of projection art by Justin Harrison.

 

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31
May
16

Switzerland

Switzerland

Queensland Theatre Company

Bille Brown Studio

May 20 – June 26 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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“She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person…”

– Otto Penzler

“Writing is a way of controlling experience.”

– Joanna Murray-Smith

“I’m going to enjoy what I’ve got as long as it lasts.”

– Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

 

Patricia Highsmith was a difficult woman.

 

In Joanna Murray-Smith’s brilliant slow-burning two-hander, renowned US crime writer and recluse, Patricia Highsmith, meets her publishing company’s earnest rep, Edward Ridgeway, in a fictional encounter that demands of her a final Ripley novel to put her back on the bestseller list. Ridgeway won’t leave until the contract is signed and the two grapple with power, perception, deception and wit, and drink beers before breakfast (Highsmith hated food) before a sly twist turns the situation on its head.

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Steve Toulmin’s creeping cinematic score and Ben Hughes’ moody lighting contribute to the feeling of isolation in Highsmith’s haven near Locarno, Switzerland, where she lived for the last thirty years of her life. The play takes place during the last three days of her life. Despite warm accents in the weapons on display, the soft furnishings and timber pieces (Highsmith had enormous hands and feet, and proudly carved some of her furniture herself), Anthony Spinaze’s design, incorporating cold whites and steely blues, complete with raked ceiling and false proscenium, creates an uncomfortable, open space for Highsmith’s unwelcome visitor, and for us too. Tension seeps into the room with the shadows that stretch across the floor, moonlight leaking in, sneaking in, from beyond authentic French doors. We’re flies on the wall, keeping a safe distance from the intricate web being woven, knowing there is something awful to come, knowing the end will be dire.

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When the French doors are thrown open to reveal the contrasting darkness outside, the mood and pace of the piece is dramatically altered. A moment suspended in time sees Highsmith here, moonstruck, moving to music (although we can’t be sure if she’s hearing what we’re hearing or something else entirely), oblivious to everything but her innermost thoughts, having dowsed the rest of her soul and her insecurities with Johnny Walker Red.

Andrea Moor has stepped into Highsmith’s loafers and into this difficult woman’s head, embodying the imagined real-life character and all her complexities. She’s witty and impatient and caustic, rising like a snake in the face of her antagonist, ready to strike, but often taking her time to do so while she sizes up the opposition, considering perhaps, with which weapon she’ll finish him off. Highsmith meets her intellectual match in Ridgeway and Moor meets her on-stage equal in Matthew Backer. In every aspect of his communication Backer encapsulates the initial timidity and gradually gained prowess of a ruthlessly ambitious admirer. He needs few words to make his position known.

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It’s thrilling to see two accomplished actors simply acting. Having said that, the greatest compliment we can pay the actors is to not have seen their acting; to know that the work has been done and not see them doing it, only the effects of it, and that is the case here. Murray-Smith’s complex characters are perfectly realised by Moor and Backer, under the watchful eye of Director, Paige Rattray. Deftly fashioned suspense, created by Rattray’s superb manipulation of the text, timing, design features and plot twists, builds a little like the dark, lilting, recurring Norma Desmond theme of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Toulmin’s score balances this mysterious and sombre mood with interludes of Hitchcock style high stakes, and to further elevate the mood in that weirdly comically nightmarish horror movie way, we hear the innocent, joyful, slightly absurd strains of South Pacific’s Happy Talk.

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The end is not altogether unpredictable but it comes as a shock nevertheless. We’re drawn toward unimaginable horror; the writer’s reality, the inevitable, the loss of control. The actual end.

Switzerland is compelling and richly rewarding. It’s darkly funny, provocative and ultimately terrifying. It’s highly accomplished humble theatre; the strongest we’ve seen from within QTC’s walls this year.

Production pics by Rob Maccoll

Want to learn more about Patricia Highsmith?

Read THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.

02
May
16

Much Ado About Nothing

 

Much Ado About Nothing

Queensland Theatre Company

QPAC Playhouse

April 23 – May 15 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Much Ado About Nothing has everything going for it. A stunning design, a stellar cast and deft direction; it’s joyous, genuinely uplifting, entertaining theatre.

Jason Klarwein’s mainstage directorial debut marks him as one of our brightest, with an aesthetic that is a breath of fresh air to Brisbane. We’ve seen the commercial appeal of his approach to reimagining the classics with QTC’s production of Dan Evans’ Oedipus Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and with this take on Shakespeare we’re reminded that there are those who just get it. Klarwein is one of those, with his production demonstrating why it is we still “do” Shakespeare. Klarwein brings an unequivocally entertaining version of Much Ado to the Playhouse stage.

Thanks to Designer, Richard Roberts (Design For Living, Managing Carmen) and Lighting Designer Ben Hughes (The Seagull, Happy Days, Grounded, HOME), the company has the most beautiful Queensland setting in which to play (although, interestingly, it’s contained, rather than being allowed to fill the space). His Messina boasts no Tuscan inspired marble floored mansion or pencil pines out front, but a luxury waterfront home of pristine white, wooden shutters and billowing curtains, wide verandahs, towering palm trees and manicured lawns, and simple, stylish furnishings. We might be on Hamilton Island, overlooking Whitehaven Beach during Race Week, or relaxing in Cato’s during the days and nights of a pre-refurbished Sheraton Noosa. The place feels light and breezy, sophisticated and carefree. A full revolve, as it did for Managing Carmen, allows seamless transitions and amusing stage antics between scenes.

In this serene playground for the privileged, against the beautiful blue hues of the sea and sky (and later, gorgeous dark storm clouds), Shakespeare’s characters chat and frolic, eventually confessing their true feelings, challenging us to consider love and longing, and the value of living in the moment, making every minute count. We don’t have to work hard to work out what’s going on; the language is clear (the cuts to the text are clean) and the contemporary reading makes Shakespeare’s themes as relevant now as they were 400 years ago without labouring any of the political points. But without adding the technological advances (there’s no tinder here, nor does anyone stop to take a selfie or type a status or relationship update – IT’S COMPLICATED), I have a single moment of dissatisfaction when considering the storytelling… And it’s only because I’ve thought about it. During the show I think nothing of it, simply accepting that it’s an unplugged, technology-free weekend away. And don’t we dream of such weekends?!

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For the bantering, bickering Beatrice and Benedick, love is a battlefield. Once bitten and twice shy, the sharp-witted pair are locked in a verbal fencing match with no quarter asked and none given. Is there any way their friends can open their eyes to their true feelings for each other?

For the starry-eyed young couple Claudio and Hero, love is a many-splendoured thing – that’s if they can take their eyes off each other long enough to avoid being deceived by bitter schemer Don John.

Christen O’Leary’s energy is infectious, her bold Beatrice, on the Saturday evening after opening, achieving the perfect balance of scorn and pixie charm. Emboldened, quickened vocal work and the assured stage presence we’ve become accustomed to makes O’Leary’s performance a stand out. I know it seems strange to mention the stage presence of a seasoned performer (should it not be a given? It’s the confidence in the space that translates to something very difficult to define), however; there are others who, with much the same experience in the industry, still don’t impress upon me such a solid, grounded, glorious energy, and a genuine connection with the actors and audience. Handled beautifully, her later frustration commands our attention.

O’Leary, along with Hugh Parker and Bryan Probets, are among the favourites from QTC’s stables (or should that be staples?), and from their work in this production (let alone their individual bodies of work) it’s not hard to see why. Parker’s Benedick brings great comedy to proceedings, his “skirmish of wit” with Beatrice and his gangly physical comedy delighting the audience. As a QTC statesman, it’s appropriate to see Probets as the statesman here – a wise and reasonable, distinguished and smartly dressed Leonato. Just when we thought we were getting used to Probets-the-comical-and-character-actor, we are shown a completely different aspect to the man. I love it.

You know I love Tama Matheson, exuding natural confidence and charm here as Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon. (I can’t wait to see him again in Don Juan, in Noosa in July). By capturing the very essence of upstanding royalty (and loyalty), Matheson’s performance is a magnificent example of making a character one’s own. In this ensemble he shines, along with O’Leary and Liz Buchanan (Dogberry), who each live and breathe the language fully; their lines coming “trippingly on the tongue”. Interestingly, no vocal coach is credited, though it’s my guess Klarwein felt comfortable enough with the spoken text (and with the support of the singers in the cast and creative team) to omit this role.

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Hayden Jones (Don John) is appropriately nasty and melancholy and Mark Conaghan (Borachio), the ideal henchman. Buchanan, Megan Shorey (Verges) and Kathryn McIntyre (Margaret) handle their cleverly-revised gender blind comedy superbly, and treat us to entertaining musical interludes with original composition and vocal arrangements by Gordon Hamilton, including a rousing new version of OutKast’s Heya. But it’s the gorgeous Patrick Dwyer (a suitably slightly insecure Claudio) who sings the sweetest treat, with a moving tribute to his love in Act 2. As Hero, Ellen Bailey is the epitome of a modern Shakespearean maid, a joy to watch and a pleasure to listen to. Keep an eye on Bailey this year…

We enjoy wonderful camaraderie between the men in this production, however, this means sitting patiently through a couple of unnecessary moments of high camp in addition to the (presumably) boyish Naval affection. Irresistible perhaps, to include these guaranteed laughs. And a costume change for O’Leary would be appreciated; despite the impact of the red and all its metaphors for her, it seems unreal for her not to have at least one other outfit available. She’d wear a Camilla equally well (the recent Athena or Pirate Heart drops would certainly suit her sensibilities and the resort style setting). Perhaps Roberts’ focus remained squarely on the set rather than the costume design for this one.

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Having been perfectly cast and playfully prepared for a broad audience, QTC’s Much Ado About Nothing is set to be something that Brisbane talks about well into our state theatre company’s next season, despite this one just beginning. It’s a joy to see any of Shakespeare’s comedies handled so adeptly, with sensitivity on an emotional level, and with a strength of conviction and distinct style, which also delivers the social and political messages with aplomb.

Whether or not you know the 400-year-old work of The Bard, Klarwein’s astutely reimagined production will delight, and will definitely have you asking for more of the same. So be sure to ask.

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)

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

 

15
Feb
16

QUARTET

 

Quartet

Queensland Theatre Company

QPAC Playhouse

January 30 – February 21 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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QTC’s production of Ronald Harwood’s Quartet coincides with the passing of a great artist and industry leader, the much-loved Carol Burns. This production is dedicated to Carol, “matriarch of stage and screen”, honoured last Monday night in a moving tribute, which took place on the Playhouse stage, beneath Bruce McKinven’s beautifully realised conservatory set. The industry – our close-knit arts community – came together to celebrate her life and her craft, at which she worked tirelessly until December last year. Many friends generously shared their stories about working with Carol. You can read what Kate Wilson shared with us here.

Carol Burns – was one of the most uncompromising, truly alive human beings I have known. To have known her is to have experienced a force of blazing energy that came from deep inside her – on stage and in person. At times, she seemed almost to glow.

– Kate Wilson

Quartet brings together on stage four extraordinary artists – Kate Wilson (Soprano, Jean), Trevor Stuart (Baritone, Wilfred), Andrew McFarlane (Tenor, Reginald) & Christine Amor (Mezzo-Soprano, Cecily) – to remind us of so many things… Director, Andrea Moor notes, “The themes of Quartet are acutely in focus for the Queensland theatre community right now, resonating with the universal nature of Ronald Harwood’s writing. We expect a rich and brilliant cultural life and yet how much do we support those who give us this experience?” As a show of the utmost respect and support, Moor has enveloped this play and its players in a big, warm embrace to emanate the sort of gorgeous feelings you get when you walk into Grandma’s kitchen and smell the cookies she’s baked especially for you, just because.

There is a “peculiar fascination some opera lovers have for superannuated opera singers who still perform before the public. Their frailty and artistry combined with a reluctance to see their careers end is part of what is so touching about these rare people.”

Opera lovers will realize that Harwood and, perhaps, Hoffman took inspiration from the marvelous documentary, “Il Bacio di Tosca” (“Tosca’s Kiss”), about the life of real retired musicians at the Casa di Riposo in Milan that Giuseppe Verdi, who conceived of it, paid for its construction and is buried there, called “la mia opera più bella” (“my most beautiful work”). I have visited this home often and have had the pleasure of meeting and listening to performances by these wonderful old artists. 

A recent development at the Casa di Riposo is that young musicians from foreign countries also live there, studying with the older artists and providing company and a loving ear for recollections. This is a wonderful place for opera lovers to support. The institution counts among its past supporters Renata Tebaldi and Luciano Pavarotti, whose names are carved into a wall in the atrium.

– Fred Plotkin

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Quartet celebrates the individual – our talents, our quirks – but more so, community and connection, drawing attention to the unlikely friendships we form and lose and rediscover…

Harwood’s text is tightly, neatly penned, pulling together the stories and precious memories (as well as those that are less precious and best forgotten) of four retired opera singers who have been put out to pasture – imagine the most elegantly appointed pasture if you will, romantically lit by David Walters – and in doing so, opens our eyes and awakens our senses to the simple joys and frustrations of every day, elderly lives. (You might remember the 2012 film, directed by Dustin Hoffman). We recognise the strength and fiery spirit of independent souls still very much alive inside frail, failing bodies. Balancing wistful glances into the past with bright-eyed glimpses of the future (or what’s left of it!), this show is a strange, sweet comfort, directed and delivered with full, glowing hearts. It’s easy to forget, after all, that one day, given good health and good fortune, in just no time at all, we too will be old…er.

The grace and wisdom and wit and pensiveness of old age comes across beautifully, as does the dry, mostly gentle humour of those who were once “great” in the eyes of their peers and the public, and some more comfortable now than others in their new state of grace. With each performer displaying various physical ailments, and the unique qualities of his or her character, these fascinating people become fully realised on stage (there are no simple stereotypes, nor any over sentimentality), earning our admiration and heartfelt sympathy. Hilarity comes with their wry observations and the relentless sexual references from Trevor Stuart’s character, Wilfred, which are more often than not directed at Cecily, brought to life with gusto and child-like joy by Christine Amor. She’s rather forgetful and fidgety, and I bet you know – or once knew – someone just like her. 

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Stuart might be that odd and slightly creepy ageing guy who steals a look at legs and breasts when you stop at the library or the IGA if it were not for his delightful grin and rapid-fire delivery of all things a workplace or public place or shared living space should now be proudly void of. His comic timing is impeccable. For Wilfred, a cheeky pinch on the bum isn’t sexual harassment, it’s simply friendly, and persistent efforts to bed Cecily are light and funny, despite our acknowledgement from the stalls of his rather old-fashioned and increasingly tiresome behaviour. Had it been seen in real life, he might be the uncle or the father-in-law who misses out on a return invitation to the Christmas dinner table. Wilfred is THAT GUY. Stuart’s second act costume takes the cake and he clearly relishes every opportunity to draw our attention to it.

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Kate Wilson’s Jean is the disregarded diva, a woman of substance and immeasurable talent but with few real friends left in life and so little self confidence that when the mask drops we see at first only a shadow of her former self. She hides a deeply realised fear and the private shame of letting a vital relationship dissolve into nothingness. Andrew McFarlane’s Reginald, a true gentleman, all class, is debonair and adorable to watch. The connection created on stage by these two is that magical thing of theatre, an intimacy that transpires as something we might seek ourselves if only we’re brave enough and true enough in our everyday lives.

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Act 1 feels limited by a garden terrace design utilising the narrow space in front of a lush green curtain, which allows very little room for movement, however; it’s a text focused play, and there are four back stories that must be established early on to make this fine character piece ring true. Each story is gradually revealed through the insights (and snipes) of the other personalities on stage as much as it is by the individuals themselves. Act 2 opens up splendidly, putting us inside at last, the stunning atrium of the establishment, a living and entertaining space that also serves as the dressing room (ladies on one side, gents on the other) before our four stars step forward into their light to perform the famed Quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. They lip synch it (does anyone expect them to actually sing?), and so well studied is the technique that we are quite convinced of their past success in the opera world. Sound design by Tony Brumpton is on point throughout, down to the last pretty twitter of birdsong.

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Quartet is a beautiful, lingering, lovingly crafted character piece boasting great moments of quick, witty comedy and rare insight into the whimsy and reality of the elders of our tribe, perfectly suitable for all ages. Continues until February 21 at QPAC before touring.

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Production pics by Rob Maccoll