Review: Melancholia

So, this is the way the world ends, not with a bang… or does it?

By Leeor Adar

Lars Von Trier’s cinematic masterpiece, Melancholia, is conceptually breathtaking and frightening all at once. What begins as wedding party blues turns into the most intimate and bizarrely universal existential crisis. Oh yes, it’s Chekhovian, but as it releases itself, Melancholia leaps away from its inertia and challenges its spectator and characters into asking the big, dark and pulverising questions about life as we know it.

It’s totally arresting cinematically, and a monumental challenge for anyone attempting to adapt it for stage. But this is what Malthouse Theatre maverick Matthew Lutton is drawn to, and what he has taken on with astonishing success. Declan Greene’s writing is an excellent match here for Lutton, and the language takes flight with such rich, fullness that I can smell the manure, woods, and scent that the bride Justine (Eryn Jean Norvill) smells in her heightened state.

The opening of Melancholia immediately reflects the Romantic elements of Von Trier’s world with the floor chandelier, manor-grand carpeting and stunning costuming of glittering light and pearl shades. The ceiling, with its large circular opening, is like a planetarium that dispenses pink confetti to dust the scene with its ominous beauty. Set and costume designer Marg Horwell delivers with immaculate detail, and her work gives an ethereal glow to the whole piece. Paul Jackson’s lighting design triggers the most sensual and terrifying feelings within the audience, as it acutely reflects the hours of time ticking towards doom. These elements are aided by J. David Franzke’s sound design that shakes us to our core from the middle to the crashing end. It takes a powerhouse of a team to bring together this overwhelmingly good production, and the designers delivered threefold.

Act One begins with a wedding party that is so delayed, it turns the bride’s neurotic perfectionist of a sister, Claire (Leeanna Walsman), into a mad manikin. It is a riotously comedic start, and the actors have the opportunity to stretch their talents, namely the mother played by the stellar Maude Davey. The audience, like the characters (sans Justine), are lulled into the lavish evening before the beauty of it all begins to decay in Act Two. The mother’s humour turns into a drunken rampage, Justine steps out of her pearlescent, yet muddied bridal gown as if to remove her mask, and Claire’s husband (Steve Mouzakis) hits peak menace.

Featuring Leanna Walsman & Eryn Jean Norville. Photograph by Pia Johnson
Featuring Leanna Walsman & Eryn Jean Norville. Photograph by Pia Johnson

Melancholia, without lending itself to the cause, beautifully depicts the shadow of depression and mental illness upon a family. Norvill’s Justine is perfection, reflecting fragility and exerting her numbing power with such grace that I am transfixed by her performance. Walsman, whose stern yet loving resolve is no match for the finality of what is to come, supports Norvill wonderfully. Nature itself caves in upon the sisters as Melancholia, the planet, brilliantly shows itself in the sky with its threatening size and magnetic pull. The pull of the planet seems to elevate Justine out of her hiding place, and I get the impression that it has a similar effect on all of the characters. Everyone reveals their real faces, including Claire’s husband whose cowardice and cruelty emerges breathtakingly, literally.

It’s a hard play to stomach, as you leave the theatre feeling as though you’ve exerted all your power to the planet, Melancholia. The actors, especially Norvill and Walsman, give so much of themselves to the performance that you can just feel the harrowing nature of its undertaking. I found myself unable to tear away my gaze, because the production is simply so beautiful in all of its elements and I found the exertion a worthy exercise. I was particularly triggered by some of the feelings uttered by the characters, as its existential questions sink within the spectator so spectacularly.

You may have been living under a crushing behemoth planet if you had not heard of Von Trier’s work, but I wager you to give Greene’s theatrical adaptation a whirl at the Malthouse Theatre this season. Ground breaking and bold has been Lutton’s mark thus far on the Malthouse, but he absolutely hits his highest notes in his direction of Melancholia.

Melancholia will be performed at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse until 12 August. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9685 5111.

Photographs: Pia Johnson


Review: Polygraph

Deception and truth probed in metaphysical detective story 

By Lois Maskiell 

In French-Canadian maven of dramatic art Robert Lepage’s metaphysical detective story, truth is interrogated in a seductive narrative. A waiter, a criminologist and an actress are linked by a past murder and in a series of non-chronological events, their connection to the victim is slowly teased out.

Prolific Australian director, Tanya Gerstle, leads this elegant production of Polygraph which is based on Lepage and Marie Brassard’s internationally staged play as well as the ‘96 film of the same title. Re-worked and re-told, Gerstle’s version is intriguing and elusive in its heightened drama and brutal physicality.

Lepage’s playful fusion of unrelated phenomena is made clear from the outset when criminologist, David’s (Grant Cartwright) monologue about blood circulating in the body merges with words of political science student and waiter, Francois (Lachlan Woods). Francois’ own dialogue focuses on the Berlin Wall and the flow of traffic between the East and West.


Emily Thomas plays the spontaneous Lucie Champage, a friend and neighbour of the disturbed Francois, whose troubled psyche is suggested in his compulsive fits of cleaning and snorting cocaine. Lucie’s chance encounter with criminologist David develops into an unlikely relationship – her unrestraint contrasts with his analytical mentality. It’s soon revealed that Lucy has been cast for a movie based on true events and will play murder victim, Marie-Claire, who was a close friend of Francois’.

This twist is based on a real-life murder case in Quebec City in which a local actress was raped and killed, and those who knew her (including Lepage) were subjected to polygraph tests. When Francois confesses that he was a prime suspect, he tells of his experience undergoing lie detection. It’s the results of the test – or never knowing them – that has caused his psychological demise.

A powerful scene featuring Lucie in an audition positions the audience voyeuristically as the casting agents. We watch the actress lay bare her emotions at command and Thomas’ metamorphosis from a joyful state to one of terror is astounding. These moments that question the deception and truth of emotions peel back the layers of Lepage’s nonlinear story, where everything is questionable, and nothing can be taken at first instance.

Set in Quebec City during the ‘80s, the actors skilfully juggle a range of accents and languages: American-English, French and at times German. While not distinctly French-Canadian, their polished accents succeed in creating an atmosphere of a foreign city and add to the production’s illusory nature.

This superb cast of three perform the hyperrational criminologist, the instinctive actress and troubled waiter with mastery and power. Bound not only by their sexual relationships, but also by a murder, their entangled lives unfold in a disjointed narrative. Situations emerge like dreams, and gaps in the story leave room for the audience to render their own interpretation.

OpticNerve has created a brilliant and elusive murder mystery that leaves you searching for a resolution, or perhaps content without one.

Polygraph is being performed 17 – 29 July at Theatre Works, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9534 3388.

Photographs: Pier Carthew

Review: William Tell

Victorian Opera does justice to Rossini’s monumental opera

By Leeor Adar

For having one of the most recognised overtures globally, it is a surprise to learn that Rossini’s William Tell left Australian shores in 1876 and only returns now in 2018 (Halley’s comet has a better track record).

At 5 hours in length, it is certainly palatable to learn that Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, has cut the production down to 3 hours with “unfussy, lucid staging”. The content of William Tell is explosive and powerful. It has the grandiosity in concept of Wagner’s work, but is concerned less with magic and more with the good fight of everyday citizens.

Guillaume Tell is a Swiss man fighting for the freedom of his people from the oppression of Austrian forces, and with scores of cast and chorus, the production needs one hell of a baritone to command the stage. Armando Noguera as Guillaume Tell is a revelation; he embodies the power, charisma and magnanimity to play the hero of this tale, and does so with enormous spirit. His voice is superb, and he is fortunate to be joined by the mesmerising Colombian tenor, Carlos E. Bárcenas, who plays Arnold, the son of the late elder Melcthal (Teddy Tahu Rhodes), is torn between the duty to his people and to his love for the Austrian princess Mathilde (Gisela Stille).

Bárcenas also had the mountainous task of the vocal range required of his role, and he managed the most gorgeous notes with real feeling. The feeling unfortunately did not translate between his character and that of Stille’s, and it was the love between father and son that really stole the show in the performances between Noguera and the marvellous soprano Alexandra Flood (Guillaume’s son Jemmy).

Victorian Opera 2018 William Tell  © Jeff Busby (3)
Featuring Carlos E. Bárcenas and Gisela Stille. Photograph by Jeff Busby.

The tale follows the usual preparations for battle, and the tense encounters with darker forces; most notably, the infamous arrow to the apple scene, which left the audience wondering how Victorian Opera planned to stage such a complex magic trick. Unfortunately, the arrow did not pierce the apple, and it’s a surprise that Guillaume’s son was spared from the comically maniacal clutches of Austrian villain Gesler (Paolo Pecchioli). No doubt this will be rectified for future performances, and it will be a treat once achieved.

In terms of Rossini’s music, I would not say the production will be memorable for the sheer beauty of its pieces, despite an excellent orchestra conducted by the talented Mills. What will remain with me, however, is the large ensemble and its wonderful cohesion and power conveyed which was at times breathtaking. It is certainly an achievement by Director Rodula Gaitanou to maintain dramatic impact with such a vast cast. Having witnessed previous works of Victorian Opera, I would say this is a landmark for the company and showcases their capacity and ability to harness such a wealth of talented creatives from around the world.

Given the scarcity of performances in over one hundred years, I would recommend you take yourselves to catch the spectacle. William Tell will continue to run until 19 July at the Palais Theatre, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling Ticketmaster on 1300 723 038.

The Antipodes

The latest play by Pulitzer Prize winning writer Annie Baker celebrates storytelling, procrastination, and the eternal struggle of writer’s block.

By Owen James

Storytelling is at the heart of theatre itself, and crafting the perfect story is a rare and revered act. In The Antipodes, a roundtable of creatives are employed to create stories for an unnamed organisation on an unclear mission that feels mysteriously greater than them.

As weeks and even months pass, these creatives agonise over finding the right idea – a spark that will resonate with audiences like no other. It’s the struggle that has plagued every writer since the beginning of time, and I’m sure we’ve all wondered before – will we ever reach a point when all the ideas have run out? I know I have, and it’s the mounting stress of this idea in The Antipodes that pushes these characters to their boiling point.

Featuring Ngaire Dawn. Photograph by Jodie Hutchinson.
Featuring Ngaire Dawn. Photograph by Jodie Hutchinson.

It’s a fascinating journey to watch them undergo, and even though the majority of the text is a relaxed spitballing of ideas and stories, the concepts that are raised are universal and often beautiful – even within the most bizarre or extreme monologues. It’s a meditative and reflective room to be in, and the choice of traverse staging is genius – the audience watches the audience, and we become intrinsically aware of how ancient yet unchanged this ritual of storytelling is.

It’s impossible to single out a single one of these performers, as every one of them so truthfully contributes to this celebration of storytelling. They bounce off each other’s energy consistently and make us bawl with laughter – there is clearly a lot of respect between these actors.

The Antipodes is mesmerising and cathartic, and will resonate with any creative fascinated by the genesis of stories and the legacy of art. It comes highly recommended – I found it frankly captivating. Any fans of films like Holy Motors, Melancholia, or The Method will also feel right at home.

The Antipodes is being performed at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre 10 July – 12 August. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9533 8083.

Featuring Ngaire Dawn Fair, Casey Filips, Darcy Kent, Ben Prendergast, Harvey Zielinski, Jim Daly, George Lingard, Dushan Philips and Edwina Samuels. Set & Costume by Design Chloe Greaves, Sound Design & Composition by Dan Nixon, Lighting Design by Clare Springett & Bronwyn Pringle, Design Assistant Alexander Rothnie, Dialect Coach Jean Goodwin, Stage Manager Jackie Mates and Assistant Stage Manager Terri Steer.

Photographs: Jodie Hutchinson

A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney

Another side, another story

By Owen James

‘A Public Reading of an Unproduced Screenplay About the Death of Walt Disney’ presents a fictional script penned by Walt himself as a reflection on obsession, self-sabotage, and his own death.

This piece written by US playwright Lucas Hnath and presented by Melbourne’s MKA Theatre of New Writing is absorbing and intriguing. By taking one of the most prolific creative figures in history and questioning and even defacing his memory through a fictionalised and sensationalised characterisation, it leads us to contemplate the purity of some of our own most treasured childhood memories. But just how warped is this portrait of Walt? It’s common enough knowledge that his demeanour didn’t match the friendly family face he exerted publicly, and that his obsessive, antagonistic, and even racist darker sides often inflamed his personal and business lives. The script by Hnath explores this representation of Walt – whether fictional or accurate – and the weight it placed on his family and business decisions in his life.

Tobias Manderson-Gavin plays Walt with an unforgiving intensity that ensures the energy of this show never dips – which is essential, as for the majority of the show it is very visually stagnant, with four actors sitting in chairs reading from their screenplays. He is so present and truthful in every moment, that his unpredictability makes every scene uniquely exciting. Manderson-Gavin is the puppet master of this play just as Walt was of his company, and the control he has over the energy in the room is palpable.

The supporting cast features Kerith Manderson-Gavin as Roy Miller, Lenore Manderson as Diane Miller and Patrick Galvin as Ron – but none of them quite match Tobias’ energy. This seems like a very conscious decision though, as with Tobias launching himself at the night’s atmosphere with absolutely zero reservations, matched energy from the supporting cast would be overkill.

‘The Death of Walt Disney’ has deep, captivating monologues scattered throughout, and it’s these moments that I find most engrossing. The bizarrely absurd world that directors Tobias Manderson-Galvin and Cara Dinley have created is sometimes highly erratic, but it’s this lunacy that keeps it alive. It’s unclear which moments in the show are improvised and how much is genuinely pre-planned or premeditated, but again it is this excitement that makes the wild ride oddly mesmerising.

Find yourself caught up in the world of ‘The Death of Walt Disney’ at The MC Showroom in Prahran, to decide for yourself how falsified or tarnished this account of Walt is – or perhaps how terrifyingly realistic it may be.

‘The Death of Walt Disney’ was performed 11 – 14 July at the MC Showroom as part of Provocaré Winter Festival 2018.

Photographs: Supplied



Review: Mamma Mia! The Musical

Musical extravaganza will have you dancing in the aisles to ABBA’s greatest hits

By Owen James

It’s the classic party music we all know and love realised onstage in this musical extravaganza that makes it a great night out for all ages.

When 21-year old Sophie secretly invites three of her mother Donna’s past lovers to her wedding on the fictional Greek island Kalokairi, chaos and confusion ensue. Throw in twenty two of ABBA’s best songs alongside this simple but effective plot, and Mamma Mia quickly becomes a joyous musical extravaganza.

This is the third professional incarnation of Mamma Mia The Musical in Melbourne, and its pure, unbridled joy is infectious and irresistible for everyone in the Princess Theatre. If you’re not grooving in your seat during this show, you’re either deaf or soulless. The energy of the performers is palpable, and every person onstage gives their all to this electric, joyous atmosphere.

Gary Young has directed this polished production, ensuring that it parties harder and bigger than any other jukebox musical. The second act moves a little slower than the first, but familiar peppy ABBA tunes accompany a very colourful disco-style finale that makes dancing in the aisles genuinely irresistible.

The choreography by Tom Hodgson is jaw-droppingly spectacular. Huge kudos to the entire ensemble for their slick, sharp execution, and to Hodgson for a truly fantastic grasp of effective ensemble movement.

Featuring Natalie O’Donnell. Photo credit: James Morgan.

Sarah Morrison as Sophie brings a beautiful warm energy to the stage in every scene she’s in. Her infectious smile and sublime vocals ride the deceptively complex ABBA melodies with ease, and she’s an utter joy to watch in every moment.

Natalie O’Donnell’s Donna is heart-warming and heart-breaking, and she belts every iconic ballad and party classic with divine passion. ‘Money, Money, Money’ is one of the show’s best moments thanks to O’Donnell’s energetic and jovial performance. Jayde Westaby contributes a cheeky and feisty Tanya, and Alicia Gardiner is glowing as hilarious Rosie – her gleeful physical comedy is a highlight of many of the trio’s group numbers.

Phillip Lowe as Harry Bright, Josef Ber as Bill Austin, and Ian Stenlake as Sam Carmichael are each a perfect fit for their three beautifully distinct characters. Their comedic confusion is enchanting as they bounce off one another with ease, and moments of fond reflection throughout the show of their time on this island twenty years prior are heartfelt and warm.

Take A Chance on Mamma Mia The Musical – it’s guaranteed to leave you with a grin, and possibly some sore calves from boogying in the aisles. Lay All Your Love on this Super Trouper playing at the Princess Theatre until September 30th.

Mamma Mia! The Musical is being performed at the Princess Theatre until 30 September.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 111 011.

Photographs: James Morgan

Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady!

From West Footscray to West End, Coral Browne’s remarkable story is adapted to stage

By Owen James

The true life story of assertive and determined actress, Coral Browne, is lovingly told in this delightful tour de force, as we watch her recall her journey from West Footscray to the West End, and beyond.

Never heard of Coral Browne? Before this show, neither had I. But this joyful and witty piece of theatre will open your eyes to the incredible life of a bawdy, ambitious Australian actress who found great success across the oceans in England and America. After some brief local success on Australian shores in her teens, she moved to the UK with only fifty pounds, charm and talent. Her career spanned decades and included many mainstage productions and Hollywood films, all while maintaining a busy and eventful personal life – including her marriage to famous horror film actor Vincent Price.

She’s certainly deserving of this tribute and indomitable performer, Genevieve Mooy, is utterly exemplary as Browne. Mooy’s Browne is a fierce but elegant woman, unbridled by her era or colleagues – a true force to be reckoned with. Mooy jumps between Browne and other influential characters seamlessly and segues through decades with mounting charm and sass. Mooy is the perfect actress for this role, hitting every comedic beat with laughter-inducing perfection and she ensures that despite Browne’s intrinsic ferocity, she never loses her stoic yet charming composure.

The script and direction by Maureen Sherlock effortlessly combine and maintain a beautiful flow throughout the show. The story races along at breakneck speed just as any good one-hander should, and Sherlock’s portrait of Coral Browne is clearly written with great love and admiration.

I really, really loved this show – it is delightfully charming and hilarious in a manner that is at once uniquely British and Australian – just as I suspect Miss Browne would have been. It’s an exhilarating tale of Australian ambition and success, and gives us a laugh a minute. Miriam Margolyes was spot on with her recommendation: “A must see!”

Coral Browne: This F***ing Lady! runs at Fortyfivedownstairs until 22 July. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966.

Photo credit: Rob George