Posts Tagged ‘rachel gordon

08
Aug
18

Jasper Jones

 

Jasper Jones

Queensland Theatre & MTC

QPAC Playhouse

August 3 – 18 2018

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

THIS IS WHAT HAPPENED……………

 

In the sizzling summer of 1965, a bookish 14 year-old boy flees from the boredom and bullying of small-town life by burying himself in stories of epic adventure. He never thought he’d find himself living one. Charlie Bucktin lives in a tiny, insignificant bush town where nothing happens. Nothing, that is, until Jasper Jones stumbles upon a gruesome crime out by the dam. Who else would he call on for help but the sharpest kid around?

 

A midnight tap at Charlie’s window sparks a race to solve a murder and clear Jasper’s name.

 

JASPER JONES IS AT MY WINDOW

 

A superb re-staging of the MTC production, adapted by Kate Mulvany and directed by Sam Strong, this Jasper Jones will satisfy. Brisbane’s opening night audience leapt to their feet, in the stalls at least, not even waiting for the final moment to sink in, in appreciation of the talent on stage and off. This tends to happen on opening night! And sometimes it’s best to see a different performance, once the season has started. With a stellar cast and creative team, Strong’s telling of Craig Silvey’s darkly disturbing small town story of intolerance, abuse, suspicion and suicide, is made surprisingly light and broadly appealing. It’s chilling in its true-crime flavour, but a distinctly Australian sense of humour prevails, both in the book and on stage, largely due to Kate Mulvany’s instinctive adaptation.

 

 

I miss the underlying moodiness of the novel at times and the eerie sense that a constructed eucalyptus forest on stage might bring to the live performance, with moonlight shining through branches rather than, as it is here, sensibly, through a fast and functional scrim, which is flown in and out to change our location in an instant, wasting no time to take us to the scene of an unspeakable crime, a place that’s so special to the titular character. The scrim has its place and yet it’s my least favourite aspect of the Helpmann Award winning design, which has come from the incredible imagination of Anna Cordingly, incorporating water and using tiny houses set around the outer edge of a revolve to bring to life the insular town of Corrigan. The revolve and the actors’ excellent timing allow for seamless transitions between scenes and brings some of the pivotal action centrestage, to the cricket pitch, the town’s common ground. Matt Scott’s inspired lighting states and Darrin Verhagen’s bushland soundscape help to transport us back in time and out of the city to a typical Australian town. This creative team’s close attention to detail, from the street lights to the gutters, to the louvres to the sandals and to the dirt beneath them, may have you convinced that this is in fact your place, your childhood neighbourhood. 

 

I spoke with someone recently again about the importance of memory, personal associations and adding scent to the live theatre experience to support a properly multi-sensory way into a story – remember, we’d diffused rose oil during our La RondeErotique and Diabolique, and then there was the breakfast cooking offstage during Neil Armfield’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll – anyway, without it being incorporated in the design, during Jasper Jones I could nevertheless smell the eucalyptus, the wattle, the creek, and the dust of Stringybark Road. It’s always amusing to see the look on students’ faces at school when I start a story with, “Before this school was built…” or “Before this road went through…” and watch their eyes widen before one of them invariably asks, “How old ARE you, Miss?”

 

 

Nicholas Denton’s embodiment of Charlie Bucktin is one of the most searingly honest, and sensationally funny physical performances we’ve seen on this stage in a long time. It’s an endearing performance, his ability to go from awkward and gangly to grown up, wise and worldly within seconds giving us a sense of an old soul in an adolescent body. His love of literature feeds his reality and his relationships, and helps us navigate our way through the mystery as he narrates. It’s through the use of gesture and the manipulation of spatial relationships that we gain additional insight into Charlie’s world, and the people inhabiting it. That comment obviously for the students… Denton takes special care as Charlie, to establish a lovely, awkward, guarded rapport with his strikingly beautiful, strong and stubborn mother, Ruth, the sensational Rachel Gordon. In this role she is somehow a symbol of the era’s frustrations and feelings of isolation, sharing repressed rage and grief, and personifying a similar lingering discontent and sense of disempowerment to Carita Farrar Spencer’s poignant performance in Ladies in Black. I feel like she’s every woman before me, and also me. Charlie also has some weightier moments with his dull and detached, determined-to-do-better father, Wesley. A sensitive Ian Bliss, with just a dash of Doug Hastings/Barry Otto, complete with shameless combover, earns our sympathy and eventually, our admiration too. 

 

 

YOU GOTTA’ GET BRAVE

 

Shaka Cook is a real, raw, intriguing and engaging Jasper Jones. Like a hunted, haunted animal, his vulnerability lies, barely visible, beneath the surface of a tough act that’s become his habitual behaviour. Cook beautifully underplays the complexity and sustains the edgy energy of a thing about to pounce or run away. By the same token he has a languidness about him, unnerving Charlie and suggesting to us that, in possession of this juxtaposition, he might just be the coolest guy in school these days, as opposed to the scapegoat dropout. The unlikely friendship between Jasper and Charlie is handled sensitively, keeping all the nuances intact; it’s a joy to witness this relationship, and their mutual respect, develop before our eyes. 

 

The less subtle friendship is between Charlie and Jeffrey Lu, an animated, dynamic performance by Hoa Xuande, hilarious and at times, heartbreaking. I do wonder if the others were warned during rehearsals that he might steal the show. Melanie Zanetti is exquisitely ageless, playing both the ghost of Laura and her little sister, Eliza, who is very much alive, and coquettishly bold and cute, until her complete unravelling, which also undoes us a little bit. Hayden Spencer, as well as contributing the satisfying thwack! of the cricket ball as Jeffrey finally gets his moment in the sun/on the crease, lets loose as Mad Jack Lionel, Corrigan’s biggest mystery and apparently, most obvious murderer. His truth is revealed beautifully, compellingly, and completely believably, adding rich context to the themes of secrets, lies, love, family and forgiveness.

 

 

Silvey’s novel is a contemporary classic and Mulvany’s stage adaptation, directed by Sam Strong, could tour forever under the same banner, such is its unblinking look into human nature, connection and communication, and the prevailing attitudes of 1960s Australia, which haven’t necessarily changed very much, have they? I love the seemingly low-tech approach, the attention to detail, the unhurried moments spent in Jasper’s sheltered, secret glade, the musings and laughter and delight of the friends, and the days spent outside sans digital devices, as well as the look inside Charlie’s head, and through him, the remarkable insight we gain into the humans that surround him, and that surround us. With the astuteness of To Kill a Mockingbird, the kooky humour of The Goonies, and the casual, lasting impact of Stand by Me, Jasper Jones is easily my favourite Queensland Theatre production this year…perhaps until the final two.

24
Mar
17

Odd Man Out

Odd Man Out

Noosa Long Weekend

In Association With Ensemble Theatre

The J Theatre, Noosa

March 23 – 25 2017

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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David Williamson’s Odd Man Out sold out in Sydney over an eight-week season. Secure in the knowledge that it would be another smash hit for Williamson and Ensemble Theatre, Noosa Long Weekend invited the company to bring the production to The J for an exclusive pre-festival fundraising weekend (4 performances only), launching the rebrand of the festival only weeks prior.

Noosa Long Weekend Festival is now Noosa Alive! presenting an exciting program of world class events over 10 days in July.

Williamson’s success is unparalleled in this country. His work not only reflects the many aspects of our individual lives and the broader societal values to which we subscribe but also, it brings to light the little details of our relationships, our connections with other humans. Always funny, always touching, always extremely intelligent, examining all the things we think we should be getting right and all the things we know are not right with the world, Williamson is a master of making misfortune a gift. We see his characters expand and grow in the advent of disaster rather than be defeated by life’s difficulties.

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While Anna Gardiner’s design (lit by Christopher Page) is contemporary and suitably symbolic, at times it feels almost too sterile, which is perhaps the point: it suits every scene and our focus remains on the performers. Alistair Wallace’s soundscape adds an interesting dimension, most effectively incorporated into the second act to up the pace and underpin the absurd comedy act required of Ryan in each new social situation. 

When a production is mediocre we don’t take much away from it (except perhaps a thought that we’ll not see that company again for a while, just while they work themselves out!). But when the actors excel in bringing a terrific, insightful script to life, we experience a degree of what the characters on stage are going through. This shared empathy is part of what makes live theatre so special, so vital, and how it’s possible to invest so much emotionally in what’s essentially a cute little love story. In the case of Odd Man Out, the story is much larger, and we feel more deeply than we expected to for Ryan, a high-functioning autistic physicist, and for Alice, a physiotherapist with a ticking biological clock; we quickly became complicit in her attempts to change Ryan, in a frustrating journey through life and love.

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In creating Alice, Lisa Gormley has discovered something beautifully gentle and natural, and building on it gradually, layer by layer, she develops incredible strength and purpose so that we understand completely by the end of the play, her unfailing love for Ryan and her determination to support him, in spite of the challenges he continuously throws at her. We see her undergoing the kind of transformation that can only come from a place of whole-hearted love and unwavering kindness. This role might be wasted on anyone else but Gormley gives Alice the necessary warmth and depth, and good natured sense of humour to enable us to believe in her crazy pursuit of happily ever after with a guy who seems incapable of understanding her needs, or communicating his own.

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Williamson has said to me that Justin Stewart Cotta (Dream Homes’s memorable “Lion of Lebanon”) is one of our finest stage actors – high praise indeed; I’d seen the proof of it during our brief rehearsal period and limited run of that production, directed by the playwright, for Noosa Long Weekend Festival 2015 – and in Odd Man Out we see once again, Cotta’s knack for nailing a challenging character, bringing to this complex role a heartbreaking vulnerability that might remind you of Noah Taylor and/or Geoffrey Rush in Shine, and well-studied idiosyncrasies, which are likened in the play to Dustin Hoffman’s Raymond in Rainman. And in this moment, Williamson very succinctly makes a point about our lack of references in the mainstream, since the release of Rainman, to Autism Spectrum Disorder. In recent years we’ve seen a bit of a run on bipolar and depression and dementia in the movies, however; unlike sitting in a cinema and feeling somewhat removed from the situation, when we’re just metres away from the humans having to find a way to live with a mental illness or developmental condition in a world that doesn’t offer much assistance, we can’t help but feel for them, and wonder how, given the same set of circumstances, we might behave.

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Ryan is hyper-intelligent but emotionally stunted and socially anxious, and innocently offends everyone with whom he comes into contact, including Alice, his sharp wit and honest observations providing the play’s funniest and most uncomfortable moments. An awkward and highly entertaining scene involving good friends and wine (or is that friends and good wine?) puts the approach to the test with hilarious results. But without support from her parents or friends (that gorgeous Rachel Gordon as best friend Carla, let’s face it, is far more bitch than BFF), Alice has had to find a way to teach Ryan a new way to present himself to the world. The consequences are disastrous, giving us a mother of a monologue from Cotta, just in case we weren’t already convinced of his utter conviction in the role. These two bare their souls and connect with such genuine honesty and intimacy that we can’t help but be moved. A friend told me after the show that for him, in Ryan and Alice he saw his parents’ relationship, Autism included. And he could see he was the child, whom Ryan and Alice can’t quite agree to have…until we find ourselves at the neat, optimistic ending (there’s no spoiler there if you’re familiar with Williamson’s unashamedly, cleverly crowd-pleasing style). Look, there may have been a few tears shed.

Gordon, Gael Ballantyne, Bill Young, and Matt Minto beautifully flesh out the secondary characters, but this show rightly belongs to the effervescent Gormley, and to Cotta, in his most honest, detailed and nuanced work to date.

A Williamson play is always such a gift to actors and audiences, and this one, his best yet, so sensitively directed by Ensemble’s Artistic Director, Mark Kilmurry, offers greater insight than ever into the way humans behave and successfully – or not at all – relate to one another. 

03
Feb
15

Boston Marriage

 

Boston Marriage

Queensland Theatre Company

QPAC Playhouse

January 24 – February 15 2015

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

AD LIBITUM

towards pleasure

 

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“Acting, which takes place in front of an audience, is not as the academic model would have us believe. It is not a test. It is an art, and it requires not tidiness, not paint-by-numbers intellectuality, but immediacy and courage…

 

In life there is no emotional preparation for loss, grief, surprise, betrayal, discovery; and there is none on stage either.”

David Mamet

 

Did you know? Despite the fact that Massachusetts, in 2004, became the first American state to legalise same-sex marriage, a “Boston Marriage” didn’t originally imply only a sexually active relationship, but also a platonic one between two women of independent means.

 

You might not know this either (I tend not to tell people so there’s no reason you would), but I’m not fond of flying. I KNOW. I don’t love it. In fact, I really don’t like it at all. I LOVE CRUISING. But I hate flying. I hate the hold-your-breath moments of the take off and the landing and I remember crying once all the way through a bit of bad turbulence. It was a flight to Hobart, a really looong flight, for a funeral. Typical. Way to set the mood, Universe…

 

This probably helps to explain why I’m not quite as well travelled as I would like to be (that, and my penchant for fine food and wine). On a plane, as soon as I’m seated, I click the belt closed, and check it, and tighten it to make my waist approximately size 4 (I’m already holding my breath in case something bad happens so no probs there), and all my energy goes into surviving enjoying that flight. I try to think I’m not even on a plane! Usually I try to do this by reading. I read A LOT. FAST. I read the safety chart, the papers, the in-flight mag, the script that Sam is supposed to be reading, the pages of whatever the person in front of me is reading (no, it’s not creepy; it’s resourceful) and at least one novel before we get to where we’re going. But the other week, coming home from Auckland, a movie caught my eye and I watched it. And I forgot I was miraculously supported in mid air by a complex set of mechanical and aerodynamical MIRACLES. It was Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth. I was completely absorbed. And not entirely due to Colin Firth’s presence (yes, I’m a fan, which also explains Hugh Parker’s appeal, doesn’t it? I’ve mentioned that before). It’s a sweet, funny film.

 

Magic in the Moonlight follows Firth’s character as he attempts to unmask Emma Stone’s character. She claims she’s a mentalist, and runs around the country hosting séances with her MOTHER. ANYWAY, hosting or attending a séance was once A THING and it’s A THING that is used by David Mamet in Boston Marriage to a) add a presumably highly amusing plot twist and b) take away any sort of sense that he had almost begun making before any mention by his leading ladies of a séance. Magic in the Moonlight is really A LOVELY FILM. And Colin Firth and Emma Stone are really LOVELY. LOOK…

 

 

 

 

Now, what a very interesting conversation we can have about QTC’s production of Mamet’s Boston Marriage. This is the first show of the year for our state theatre company, and it’s certainly difficult, but it’s also quite delightful! (It was Mamet who said we come to the theatre to be delighted!). I say you’ll come to Boston Marriage and be delighted, and perhaps, well, possibly slightly disenchanted… Oh well!

 

 

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While Mamet is not always for everyone, this production, directed by Andrea Moor, a massive fan of Mamet and a Practical Aesthetics aficionado, offers an especially inviting point of access in her exceptional cast; strong performances that give us whole, hilarious characters. With a B-Grade plot (yes it’s Mamet but not as we know him), and characters and devices to distract us from the fact, Boston Marriage is an intentionally pretentious comedy of errors set in one lavish room featuring three female performers. It’s unique in Mamet’s repertoire, as he wrote mostly ghastly male characters; you’ll know the fast-talking guys in Glengarry Glen Ross, American Buffalo and Speed-the-Plow (the latter was given new life at the cinema as Wag the Dog). Although there was something intriguing to Mamet about the power of a woman in a man’s world, this is the one play in which he explores women’s power over each other (and their support for one another), in an undeniably “feminine” chintz covered New England drawing room.

 

And the set is exquisite. It’s not as intimate as we might have expected, and nor should it be, the imposing columns standing as the rest of society might – just out of reach and privy to every word and deed from the fringes, if only for the entertainment of their highly critical self entitled social circles.

 

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Designer, Stephen Curtis, has created an ancient temple of love sans decay and crumbling stone because everything here has, of course, cost a pretty penny. Of course, not one cent of it is Anna’s (Amanda Muggleton); she has attracted the attention of a married man who “keeps” her. He doesn’t know it, but the bargain Anna has struck with him is part of her attempt to re-snare her lifelong friend, Claire (Rachel Gordon). Claire stops by to ask if she may bring her young friend to the apartment and if she may have Anna’s assistance in the seduction of the pretty young thing. Anna, being the cheeky c…. cat that she is, agrees to assist her, er, dear friend, as long as she may watch.

 

A maid from the Orkney Islands (Helen Cassidy) bears the brunt of the couple’s learned upper class malice and, it should be said, their ignorance about anybody other than themselves. Insert mistaken Irish heritage banter and plenty of potato famine jokes here. The plot – what little there is of it – takes a turn when it is discovered that the young friend and the married man are connected, and the maid is accused of stealing an emerald necklace gifted to Anna by the gentleman.

 

 

“It is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor’s job to make the performance truthful.”

David Mamet

 

 

These women are aggressive, they are written that way and many lines are delivered in bold, brassy, sassy terms. Some are shouted. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it ain’t. These well-heeled Edwardian women know what they want and they know they can have it…or can they? There are lovely moments of vulnerability and tenderness, giving us glimpses into another side to these beautifully crafted characters, but they are short-lived and ultimately, we see the women as Mamet sees them, through a man’s eyes. Interestingly, each is aware – of course she is – of the other’s immense suffering but even under the guise of refinement and polite conversation (not to mention the intimacy and respect of a long-standing relationship), some comments and criticisms cannot be undone. But they can be accepted…

 

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Helen Cassidy, as the Scottish maid Catherine, delivers a nicely measured performance of physical comedy and tempered timing (although there are a couple of times when the pause following most entrances is a touch too long). To her merit, Cassidy’s performance prompted after the show the story of a production elsewhere, in which the long-term subscriber telling the tale HAD NOT ACTUALLY REMEMBERED THE MAID IN THE SHOW. In stark contrast, Cassidy’s performance is unforgettable. If we were going to do old-school character arcs with secondary students, we’d look at Cassidy’s maid. Hers is quite the journey.

 

 

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Rachel Gordon is truly radiantly beautiful (she could have been a face of Lancome…she might be yet!), and there are times when her lusty, wanton manner of speaking drops to a delicious purr, up there (down there?) with Eartha Kitt and Meow Meow. She’s the perfect foil for Amanda Muggleton, who is just as fabulous as we had expected her to be, perhaps more so. In sharpening the edge of every word and playing up every nuance between them, Muggleton creates a character better than even Mamet might have imagined. She’s a force to be reckoned with, and I can’t help feeling I wish I’d seen more of her recent touring work.

 

QTC Artistic Director, Wesley Enoch, spoke after the show about David Walters’ lighting design in terms of a fragrance. He was spot on. He explained that it has its base notes, heart notes and top notes. I would go so far as to say Walters’ lighting lends an oriental woody feel to the production: woody, honey base notes, patchouli, lily and pine heart notes, and jasmine and rose top notes. It’s a work of art. It all feels as if IT’S VERY EXPENSIVE.

 

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I think this is the best way to look at Boston Marriage overall – it’s a loud, lovely looking work of art, a savvy contemporary collector’s piece, brimming with ascorbic wit and some very obscure references (by all means, glance at the glossary in your program but don’t spoil your evening by poring over it!). It will appeal to some and be a source of irritation for others. Unfortunately, it has to be said, the final moments are disappointing; the ending is surprisingly droll rather than superbly passionate. I feel it’s misjudged, or underplayed. It doesn’t need to be salacious, just delicious enough to make us leap to our feet for a shaky standing ovation after we’ve taken a moment to gather ourselves. Instead, the final moments are like a terrific third date that inexplicably ends with the same awkward car-side kiss as the first! Oh well!

 

Boston Marriage has so much good and gorgeous going on (you simply must see Amanda Muggleton at the top of her game) that it’s well worth experiencing this one yourself, no matter what anyone says.

 

Images by Rob Maccoll