Posts Tagged ‘sarah mcleod


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.    



An Experiment With The Caucasian Chalk Circle


An Experiment With The Caucasian Chalk Circle

Backbone & Artslink

Adapted and Directed by Marcel Dorney


Featuring Sarah McLeod & Zachary Boulton


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward


I was lucky enough to see An Experiment With The Caucasian Chalk Circle on Friday 26th July 2013 at Caloundra City Private School on the Sunshine Coast. When I turned up early, the teacher and students thought I was the artist they were expecting from Backbone, there to run a workshop. I told them I’d love to come back to work with them another time, but that I was there to review the show they were about to see.


In an unassuming science lab-turned-drama room, two talented performers from Backbone blew my mind, in Marcel Dorney’s brilliant adaption of Berthold Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The experiment? An unqualified success.




Two women both claim the child. But what makes a mother?

A chalk circle is drawn on the ground. But to whom does the ground belong?

The women each take one of the child’s arms. Why should we care who lets go first?

Brecht’s legacy is not what he did. It’s what he makes us do. This experiment with The Caucasian Chalk Circle drills to the engine of the text and rebuilds it. Equipped with a few bolts of cloth and a piece of chalk, one female and one male actor describe the paths of Grusha and Azdak and determine the fate of the lost child.


Studying Brecht is hard. It is. Not because Brecht is hard to understand – well, maybe a little – but because so many teachers are either a) tired of teaching him or b) have never quite felt the level of passion for Brecht that they have done in other areas of the Drama curriculum. Stories of boredom seem to filter down from the older students to the current year levels, they see an old-school “traditional” performance or something so new and “contemporary” it makes little sense in their world, and by the time one has the time to actually focus on Mother Courage or The Caucasian Chalk Circle, students are often very “whatever” about it! But they haven’t seen it like this. And it’s my guess that very few teachers have had the privilege of seeing it like this.


Trust me. This is the best buy-in for Senior Drama I’ve ever seen. Book it now.


This neat little show is like no other performance you or your students have experienced. Adapted and directed by Marcel Dorney, Backbone’s production is, as well as being an outstanding performance by two versatile young actors, a thorough theoretical and emotional exploration, analysis and summation of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, its themes and its characters.


The tale, as we know, is timeless because who is ever the rightful mother of a child? And how do we prove love? That’s right. By letting go. And the climax, as we hoped it would be, is the perfect combination of exquisite pain, satisfaction and relief, even after early (and recurring) Zombie jokes, and a cracking pace, allowing the actors to utilise every physical theatre and contemporary performance trick in the book to share their take on the story.


The success of this production is three-fold. First, the performers (Sarah McLeod & Zachary Boulton) are sensational – warm, funny, intriguing, and completely convincing in their characterisations, despite their transgender swaps, which happen quite often and have the audience in stitches. Second, the setting is wherever you have a quiet space to put on a show, and students have the opportunity to observe the way ordinary things in an ordinary place are used in symbolism and storytelling to transport an audience. Third, the adaption of Brecht’s script is masterful, and the direction so insightful you’ll be just as surprised as your students by some of the revelations in it.


Importantly, there is nothing condescending or ordinary about this production, though much of the original text is used, so even the students who are more familiar with the play will discover new points of view, new ways of looking at each dilemma, and those who skipped the pre-performance reading that you set for homework the previous week will not only follow the play with ease, but be mesmerised by it and recall accurately, all major plot points. An interesting exercise would be to identify where the actors stop and explain something, or use an example from their own lives to illustrate Brecht’s big points. Their timely pauses don’t slow the pace, and rather than taking away from the enjoyment, enrich the experience. In fact, I can’t help but notice that each time Sarah and Zachary stop to speak directly to their audience – and their connection with the students is electric – there are actually heads nodding in agreement!


I didn’t want to take my eyes off the performers for a moment, but I enjoyed glancing over to see ten or more boys, for a full 60 minutes, completely captivated amongst the audience of around twenty-five students from Year 9 – Year 12. They were so absorbed in the story, and their teacher was so impressed with the performance and their acceptance of it, that she quipped about being done with Mother Courage and making the set text for her students the following year The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Indeed, with its study of ethical behaviour, politics, and human character and relationships, it’s certainly my preferred piece, especially when we have such a rich resource at our fingertips in the form of Backbone’s An Experiment With The Caucasian Chalk Circle.



Touring in Term 4: Mackay, Townsville, Charters Towers, Cairns