Category: Theatre

Review: Since Ali Died

Theatre making and storytelling at its simple best

By Owen James

Using nothing but words, an empty stage and some very simple lighting, wordsmith Omar Musa has concocted a beautiful and chaotic cacophony of language that inspires, amuses, and shocks with Since Ali Died. Musa is a master conductor of words, and this symphony reflects his passion for these art-forms – poetry and rap.

Using “the death of his hero Muhammad Ali as a lyrical springboard”, Musa launches into story after story, tackling love, loss, and divinity – and we are enthralled for the entire duration. There were many moments throughout the hour-long performance you could hear a pin drop. Musa is scathingly honest as he presents reflections on his life as a “brown man growing up on black land”, enduring episodes at primary school where he was told his “skin is the colour of shit”, and recounting encounters with racist politicians (inspiring the rap piece ‘Un-Australia’), tumultuous past loves, and perhaps his worst enemy, personal demons. There are insightful personal descriptions as he defines (and defies) wrestling with identity, and the expectations that stem from heritage and masculinity.

As this compelling performer rhymes and riffs, any notions of poetry being a boring and antiquated requirement confined to the high school classroom are demolished – every word is riveting and current, the atmosphere in the audience alive with anticipation. But it’s more than his gritty eloquence as a poet that makes the work so engaging; Musa is a storyteller who is charming and relaxed no matter the topic, always comfortable presenting his work mostly alone onstage, with the exception of guest performer Sarah Corry alongside for two pieces.

Fully deserving of the standing ovation he received at the end of the performance, Since Ali Died is a cutting and contemporary lyrical refraction of Musa’s powerful perspective on Australia and humanity. It’s a reminder of how powerful language can be, and a wake-up call to habitual Australian ignorance.

Don’t miss this intimate and intelligent work, playing a very short season at Arts Centre Melbourne until August 17th, as part of the third year of their ‘Big World, Up Close’ series. Tickets: https://www.artscentremelbourne.com.au/whats-on/2019/festivals-and-series/big-world-up-close/since-ali-died

Photography by Robert Catto

 

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Review: ‘Night, Mother

A balanced of light, shade and reams of texture

By Ross Larkin

One could be forgiven for hesitating at the prospect of a two-hander, set in real time, staged in one act, and all about suicide. It sounds gruelling for the audience and more gruelling for the actors. And it is – intensely so. However, it’s also not to be missed.

Marsha Norman’s daring and brutal piece makes no apologies for its subject matter. Right off the bat, middle-aged divorcee, Jessie, reveals, quite calmly to her ageing mother Thelma, with whom she resides, that she’s decided to take her own life, and plans to do so later the same evening. 

What ensues is an emotional minefield of denial, fear, rage, nostalgia and revelation as the pair unpack Jessie’s reasoning and Thelma tries every approach she can muster to talk her daughter out of it. 

Aside from desperate and harrowing, ‘Night, Mother is a fascinating character study, enhanced by the fact that Jessie is level-headed and contented with her decision. This is offset by Thelma’s spiral into despair as she tackles every stage of grief in the space of 90 minutes.

It’s a tall order for the most capable of creatives to undertake, and thankfully, Iron Lung Theatre succeeds in dealing with the content intelligently and thoroughly. 

Imperative that such a dialogue heavy piece set in one location find all the right emotional beat changes, subtext and layers, director Briony Dunn fleshes these out for the most part, particularly in the final third of the piece when the tension really starts to wreak havoc. 

As the troubled Jessie, Esther van Doornum brings a beautiful subtlety to a role, which, in the wrong hands, might risk an overly depressive portrayal, but van Doornum hits the mark with her matter-of-fact, often peaceful resolution, only letting tinges of sadness emerge at the most poignant moments.

Caroline Lee as Thelma has her work cut out for her in a heavily demanding role that requires a plethora of intense emotional states, and she does a fine job where many an actor might struggle.

‘Night, Mother may not be for the faint hearted, but it’s every bit engrossing and rewarding in a rare instance where extremely heavy content is balanced with light, shade and reams of texture. Iron Lung’s version of it is definitely worth seeking out.

‘Night, Mother is playing now at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran until August 17. Tickets are available online at www.chapeloffchapel.com.au or by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photography by Pia Johnson

Review: A Midnight Visit

An immersive, choose-your-own-adventure, gothic experience

By Narelle Wood

 A Midnight Visit is an immersive, choose-your-own-adventure experience inspired by the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Poe, famous for his dark and morose themes, both captures and plays with the human psyche, and it is this intent that Broad Encounters attempts to capture in their gothic house of madness.

The audience are free to move in and out of rooms at their discretion, literally choosing the way they experience the performance. Characters also move about, blending the boundaries between audience participation and voyeuristic experiences. Just as the characters and audiences move from room to room, so do the performances. But with the exception of Poe’s work there is seemingly little to no thread to connect the different vignettes together, the only indication that a performance is taking place is the sound of a monologue or singing floating down the long black corridors.

The performances I stumbled upon – John Marc Desengano’s Detective Dupin, Sarochinee Sawakghim’s the Black Cat and Bri Emrich’s Madeline Usher – were amazing, and I would have been happy to sit for the hour and take in their interpretations of the different gothic tales. While I’m sure I missed significant parts of the various performances on offer, Danielle Harvey (Production Director) and Kirsten Siddle’s (Production Creative Producer) attention to detail throughout this production is astonishing. The rooms, thanks also to Loren Bell (Design Manager) and her team, are performance pieces in and of themselves. Close attention reveals minute details, such as tealeaves in the shape of a raven at the bottom of a teacup, adding to the authenticity of this gothic fantasy world that Harvey and Siddle have produced. Layer on top of the visual aesthetic a haunting soundtrack of beating hearts with other atmospheric music and sounds, as well as detailed costumes and make-up, it is obvious that A Midnight Visit has been realised through the collaborative efforts of some extremely talented people.

I did leave disappointed though. I was frustrated that I had missed bits of the performances and confused about how it all came together; I admit though I do prefer theatre with a clear narrative thread. My main gripe wasn’t to do with the show, but the pre-show theatrics. We were asked to sign a waiver before entering, but any indication of this is buried deep in the last line of the Frequently Asked Questions on the website. This seemed like information that needed to be more upfront. We were also asked to wear facemasks and while I understand the aesthetic behind this, it was presented as a fait accompli despite some people’s discomfort. It was clear that the pre-show is designed to heighten the sense of anticipation, and that may have been at the root of my disappointment; I left wanting more.

If your idea of a night at the theatre revolves around voyeuristic comfort and a clear storyline, this is not for you. But the premise of A Midnight Visit is so different and interesting that I think it would be an absolute delight for anyone who desires to be immersed in the gothic brain of Edgar Allen Poe or for theatregoers who revel in a show specifically designed to push some boundaries.

Venue: House of Usher – Funeral Services, Melbourne

Season: Until 15th September

Tickets: From $62

Bookings: https://amidnightvisit.com/#tickets

Photography by Graham Denholm

 

Review: My Dearworthy Darling

An inspired and thought-provoking work

By Leeor Adar

Feminist collaborators and visual provocateurs, The Rabble (Emma Valente and Kate Davis), bring audiences, My Dearworthy Darling, a thought-provoking work that is both entrancing and utterly disconnected all at once. I was particularly titillated that I’d be critiquing the work of the widely respected writer, Alison Croggon, a former critic that I both admire and who’s theatrical opinion I’ve revered. It is surprising to me then to find that I have a love-hate relationship with this work, which sets my mind into motion and confounds it equally.

My understanding is thus: our leading woman (Jennifer Vuletic) is struggling with her mental health as she wrestles her own image of herself away from her worst emotional abusers, her partner (Ben Grant) and her sister (Natalie Gamsu), who are also gripped with the torments of their life and its mundanity. In breaking free, Vuletic’s character strikes a chasm to the past, unravelling her own mind and reflecting the collective woes of womankind to a time where voicelessness was enshrined.

The chorus of medieval voices is perhaps the most breathtaking part of this production. Croggon’s inspiration here was taken from her residency in France’s monastery and centre for theatre writing, La Chartreuse. Inspired by Margery Kempe, a 14th century English Christian mystic, who’s book was considered to be the first autobiographical work, the chorus speaks the text of this work as Vuletic’s modern woman is grappling with telling her own truth, rather than through the twisted reflection of others.

It’s brilliant to me that in Croggon’s own words, the “writing is not so much about conscious intention as it is about process and discovery”, and My Dearworthy Darling achieves exactly that. Like an unfurling scent, I am at first overwhelmed and unable to see the notes for what they are, but with time I see with clarity the complexity of its character. The work on first impression, is a high-brow ‘art for art’s sake’ snobbery into the woman’s mind, with particularly gifted composing (Valente), and set and costume design (Davis). But with deeper introspection, I see where the Croggon/Rabble collaboration was reaching for.

The play splits between often humorous and relatable daily modern drudgery, and the other realm of our lead’s enigmatic psyche. The work opens with Vuletic sprawled sensually upon a boulder, silk-satin, languid-limbs, describing in luscious detail how her body is exposed and caressed. This visual and erotic reverie is interrupted by her partner, accusing her of poor memory as he refuses to take responsibility, an assault upon the earlier voluptuousness. The woman here is servile, not in charge of her voice or body, but a vessel without steam. This emptiness continues to pierce her reality, and she is accused by her sister of being selfish and cruel, goading the partner’s disgust. Unsurprisingly, facing the internalised misogyny of the existing women of her life, Vuletic’s character retreats in her mind to a world where she is supported in body and mind by the hooded chorus. After a particularly brutal episode in her current reality, she is taken to a place without hard edges (a mental health care facility perhaps) and ascends to take a crowning place amongst the medieval chorus, eventually stripping herself bare of her life before.

My Dearworthy Darling will divide its audiences, and this is largely due to its disjointed and often confusing trajectory. What one can do is enjoy the lush language, stunning visuals and Old English choral pieces. It is an inspired and thought-provoking work, but I too left the theatre wanting to perch myself upon a rock, and contemplate what it is I’ve been exposed to, and if that’s all there really is.

My Dearworthy Darling will be performed at the Malthouse Theatre’s Beckett Theatre until 18 August 2019. https://malthousetheatre.com.au/whats-on/my-dearworthy-darling

Photography by Zan Wimberley

 

Review: Blackrock

Chilling tale of murder, misogyny and monstrous masculinity

By Bradley Storer

EbbFlow Theatre Company make their debut with a strong inaugural production of Blackrock, Nick Enright’s classic Australian work that remains as horrifically relevant as when it was first penned. This small town tale of murder, misogyny and monstrous masculinity proves that in the nearly twenty-five years since it was originally performed almost nothing has changed.

Every member of the cast feels perfectly suited to their role, managing the tricky transition between the broad comedy of the opening scenes to the darkening horror that engulfs the rest of the play. It is a credit to all the actors involved that I felt I knew every one of these characters from my own adolescence, laughing and cringing in recognition as they unfolded. Director Nicola Bowman wisely keeps the pace racing at high speed, although some of the scene transitions involving drums and metal scaffolding in the set slowed this down on opening night.

The standout of the cast is Jayden Popik as surfer legend Ricko, perfectly capturing the effortless and compelling charisma that slowly crumbles over the course of the story. Karl Richmond as Jared gives us a compelling portrait of a teenager caught between his own gentle spirit and the inexorable pull of masculine violence that envelops all around him. Luisa Scrofani ably handles Rachel’s transformation from lovestruck young girl to the strongest voice of moral outrage.

What must also be considered is the politics of a play (controversially based on the true murder of an 14-year-old girl) about rape culture that was written by a man and focuses primarily on male characters. While the exploration of male friendships and relationships feel painfully real and layered, the female characters seem curiously flattened and less textually complex. In addition to these questions is the implication of never having the female victim appear on stage or have any voice – she is essentially erased from the story of her own death.

While Bowman as director does an admirable job of emphasising the voices of women and the continuing marginalisation and violence against women in the modern day, the text feels inescapably planted in the male gaze and experience – the one aspect that has not aged well, though this is in no way the fault of this solid production.

An auspicious debut for an emerging company, and a strong take on an enduring classic that deserves viewing by anyone who loves Australian theatre!

Blackrock is being performed at St Martin’s Youth Theatre until 3 August. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photograph by Cameron Taylor featuring Luisa Scrofani and Karl Richmond.

Review: A Room of One’s Own

Sentient Theatre sets thoughts alight

 By Leeor Adar 

“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” – V. Woolf

Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own remains so powerful it leaves my mind gaping at the beauty of her words, and the astonishing strength of what they carry. It is, and will always remain, a masterpiece by a woman, for women. Adaptor and director, Peta Hanrahan masterfully returns her adaptation to stage since its successful season in 2016 at La Mama.

Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own is a work ripe for adaptation and as Hanrahan points out, the words are no longer confined to their pages, breathing a new life into all that they offer – something which Woolf herself did in a lecture in 1928. In this adaptation, the dialogue is extracted from Woolf’s writing into a new medium and expressed by four narrators. The words restlessly turn the lived experiences of women and their sex across generations of voicelessness. Without the tools to articulate their insights and feelings, women have been historically forgotten and obscured by “reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size”. We are reminded of all the doors closed in our faces, the education denied us, and the pleasures extricated from our lives from the pincer-like fingers of man and his indoctrinated disciples. The anger expressed in the language used to demean women in historical texts and even great literary works is a documented example of fear and an absolute lack of reason. Despite being such loathed creatures, Woolf clearly shows that women remain man’s obsession.

I absolutely loved how this production pulled the string of a history of mistreatment and fashioned it into a living and breathing criticism of the tired trope of women’s inferiority. It remains relevant both then and now, and without needing to examine the state of our world today, Hanrahan’s production sets our thoughts alight.

Much like Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, the multi-narrator work is explored wonderfully through fluid dialogues on stage between The Questioner (Anthea Davis), The Diplomat (Marissa O’Reilly), The Sceptic (Anna Kennedy, also producer), and The World (Jackson Trickett). The strength of Hanrahan’s direction is evident in the engaging way her cast approaches the complex and eloquent material. The work feels like an enlightening reverie, and in this hour, we are invited into an articulate trance. Each actor embodies their role perfectly; Davis opens the dialogue like a seasoned lecturer, O’Reilly’s ethereal presence gently coaxes us to consider all viewpoints and Kennedy is magnetic with her casual wit that is both thought-provoking and on point. As the only masculine presence on stage, Trickett approaches the dialogue with respect – an outsider of sorts commenting from ‘the world’ at large.

Dagmara Gieysztor’s set design is minimalist to the unconcerned eye, but we are in fact surrounded by thousands of pages from books, strung up and fashioned like chains of history. Layer upon layer, laying down the foundations from one generation of writers to the next, androgynous minds unencumbered.

I think Woolf would have loved this production, grateful to see that her writing has inspired another generation of women to continue to create and explore fearlessly.

 

A Room of One’s Own runs until 28 July at fortyfivedownstairs. Tickets are available online or by calling the box office on (03) 9662 9966.

Photograph: Tommy Holt

 

 

 

Review: Solaris

Enigmatic vision of isolation

By Leeor Adar

Of all planetary science-fiction writing, Solaris, remains one of the most cerebral and enigmatic. Published in 1961 by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Solaris has found itself adapted for cinema and the stage a number of times. Solaris emerged at a time when space travel was new and vogue, still unfurling its mysteries to the world. The possibilities of what the universe had to offer, the terror and terrific, captivated the imagination – and clearly still does today.

Award-winning playwright, David Greig, breathes new life into the work, catapulting a female heroine into its centre. Matthew Lutton directs one of his most evocative works yet, with the usual intensity of sound design by Jethro Woodward, which we have come to expect from his productions.

In this adaptation, Solaris, a planet at the far reaches of space, is visited by a small cluster of humans. For over two years no contact has been received from this expedition, and it is upon the arrival of Dr Kris Kelvin (Leeanna Walsman) that some rattling truths about the crew’s time in isolation emerge. Through a series of tapes, the recently deceased leading scientist, Gibarian (Hugo Weaving via video), reveals to Dr Kelvin his discoveries of the lonely planet, which is clearly attempting to make contact with the crew on board.

Fode Simbo and Leeanna Walsman_photoPiaJohnson_005.jpg
Featuring Fode Simbo and Leeanna Walsman. Photograph by Pia Johnson.

Aloneness, the frightening alien other that nestles itself in the mind, is at the heart of the work. Hyemi Shin’s set design extraordinarily creates the sterility of space travel and its disconnection from the familiar. A series of white moving parts typical of space travel juxtapose with scene changes incorporating a visual curtain of black liquid waves from the planet below. The set design mimics the depths of human intention, and for the more poetically inclined, the depths of the soul as it invites connection. It is unclear if the planet is inviting the crew into itself, or vice versa, remaining a point of fascination and uncertainty.

Lutton asserts that the power of representing science fiction on stage is through its ability to explore alternate realities, and Solaris is the kind of work that suits the confinement of the stage perfectly. The shifting spectrum of primary colours injects both beauty and trepidation into this world, expertly designed by Paul Jackson. The final image of Dr Kelvin standing alone, her shadow awash with red lighting is reminiscent of the feminine power of another famous science fiction performance. Alone, Dr Kelvin faces the dangers of her own mind rather than the danger of aliens that Ellen Ripley must entertain.

Leeanna Walsman is in her element here, and an excellent cast supports her. Fode Simbo as Snow, Jade Ogugua as Sartorius, and Keegan Joyce as the “visitor”, Ray, are captivating. Weaving’s presence via video is warm and earnest, adding a layer of depth to this already quality production. There is a crackling humour in the writing and acting, despite the gloom of the world they inhabit, and the audience regularly laughed and connected with the performances on stage.

Solaris makes for a pleasurable theatrical experience in every way. The questions that the characters explore, particularly on our power to inflict the worst of ourselves onto an innocent other, are pertinent. Like Solaris, we all seek connection – but what are we prepared to do to keep it?

 

Solaris runs at Malthouse Theatre until 21 July. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photographs: Pia Johnson