Category: Theatre

Review: Wake In Fright

Beer, babes and brutality in chilling adaptation 

By Leeor Adar

Australia, the land of plenty, the land of expanding planes, and dust. Dust as far as the eye can see. No sea in sight to quench the traveller’s hungry eyes, just the heat rising from the earth.

Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake In Fright, is a jolting horror of the kind of underbelly Australia that a city slicker would gladly forget. The 1971 film directed by Ted Kotcheff finely and fantastically brought this horrendous fever-dream to life, and essentially became a cult film for its notorious representation of hunting the ‘roo.

I am therefore very pleased to see Declan Greene (Melancholia, Pompeii L.A., The Homosexuals, or Faggots) adapt and direct Cook’s work for the Malthouse stage. In this incarnation, Wake in Fright, a usually bloke-soaked nightmare, is spectacularly performed by one woman – Zahra Newman, who boldly embodies the terror and toxicity of masculinity.

The 70-minute performance, much like the sleepiness of the town Bundanyabba (“The Yabba”), begins rather benignly as Newman struts about all-beared-up as Lead Ted, the friendly 1990s bear, teaching the children of Broken Hill about lead poisoning – a first foray into the horror of the night. During Newman’s playful introduction, we are treated to a talk about immigration, racial issues and more of the gamut of the daily-woke blogosphere. I liked how Newman challenged the audience, but I admit I wanted to see the show unfold rather than be subjected to a surface-level string of views without proper unpacking. Wake in Fright is itself a cruel truth about the worst of our nation.

With excellent lighting and projection design from Verity Hampson, and music and composition from friendships, we descend into the gloom with the skilful Newman. I am truly, honestly, terrified.

John Grant, an educated fellow, finds himself waiting for a plane back to Sydney in the remote Yabba. Coaxed into a brutal bender by local cop, Crawford, he soon finds himself in a two-up joint, rendered penniless and with a missed flight back to the world of the living. Stranded, he takes a ride with a local into the outback, and so begins Grant’s final mad descent into the Yabba culture of beer, babes and brutality.

Hampson’s projection design coupled with the intense beats of friendships DJing in the corner of the stage turned the Beckett theatre into a hellish nightclub. As an audience we feel strapped in for a ride we don’t want, sucked into the psyche of Grant as he battles his way through the unknown cruelties of this world. It feels indeed like a rung of hell, with no end in sight.

This is a thoroughly ingenious modern take on Wake in Fright. Greene’s work is compelling and effective. The Malthouse has shown again that some of its finest work is one woman on stage taking a male-dominated story and making it her own. Newman joins the ranks of Pamela Rabe in The Testament of Mary, and Alison Whyte in The Bloody Chamber. You really can’t get better than that, mate.

Wake In Fright runs until 14 July 2019 at the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on (03) 9685 5111.

Photograph: Pia Johnson

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Review: Two on the Night Train

Inquisitive, curious and exquisitely designed 

By Irene Bell

Two strangers find themselves on a train, politely asking each other where the train is heading and which stop was last. Neither can remember anything but they are certain they know something and that they make sense, though they cannot explain why. And so, a loop ensues with the characters constantly waking at different times and in different parts of the train. The various timelines interweave and dare the audience to try and unravel the puzzle that playwright and director Martin Quinn has woven.

The voice of the writing and overarching mood of abandoned expanse puts the audience in Beckett territory immediately, so it is no surprise that the celebrated absurdist is cited as an inspiration for the production. From the outset, we know the ending will not be a plot-satisfying, linear conclusion – but that does not mean the ride is any less enjoyable.

This is a play that invites you to contemplate. Quinn’s grasp on language is so masterful it becomes a joy to listen to his wordplay. Quinn toys with the use of seemingly concrete language to define concepts as fluid as memory and meaning.

There are moments where the philosophical underpinnings of the show feel a little heavy-handed, like when the characters describe what the play had previously only alluded to. However, these instances are brief and never detract from the overall artistry of the writing. Frazer Lee and Katherine Pearson read the text beautifully, with their emotional transitions and timeliness being flawless.

The true heroes of this production are the lighting, set and sound designers. Adelaide Harney, Alaina Bodley and Edwin Cheah’s designs are inspiring to see in a black box theatre. The atmosphere of simultaneous claustrophobia and eternity that the set design and lighting manage to create is superb. The sound is another character in this production: it is the train and the expanse, it is what haunts the characters.

Glassbreaker Productions are a new and exciting company established in 2018. Two on the Night Train features in their work as a fresh and wonderful glimpse into the sorts of philosophical and spectacularly literary shows we can expect in the future.

Two on the Night Train runs at Gasworks Arts Park until 22 June. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on (03) 8606 4200.

Photograph: supplied

Review: Almost, Maine

Nine couples, almost in love 

By Samuel Barson

Almost, Maine is a town that is as remote as it is mythical, where love is lost as quickly as it is gained. For their debut production, Between The Buildings Theatre Company has chosen John Cariani’s romantic comedy Almost, Maine. The play tells the story of nine couples navigating various situations of love and loss in the fictional town of Almost, which takes its name from the couples’ love that is almost found but never entirely fruitful.

For a debut, the cast and crew of this production have done a respectable job in bringing to life the characters of the eponymous town, but unfortunately it was too plagued with performance issues and weak approaches to the script for it to be anything outstanding.

Despite some setbacks, the cast work together well with Ruby Duncan’s performance being the standout of the evening. I believe some of the performances were let down by a lack of understanding of the script or the characters’ motives. Dialogue became predictable and the energy was, at times, monotonous. However, Duncan’s portrayal of a woman desperate to return her boyfriend’s love was moving and wholly engaging.

A significant issue that repeatedly arose during the play was characters forcing themselves on strangers or distant lovers, despite the clear discomfort of the other character. The idea of forcing yourself on someone in the hopes they will be instantly won over is an outdated depiction of seduction, and I would have liked to see these moments treated more carefully.

The saving grace of the show was the design. Justin Gardam and John Collopy skillfully balance the tightrope of realism and fantasy in the worlds they created, with a gorgeous combination of colours and sounds.

Between The Buildings is to be congratulated on taking their first leap into the independent theatre scene. Their future productions will undoubtedly reach spectacular heights.

 

Almost, Maine runs at Meat Market’s Stables, North Melbourne until 16 June. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photograph: Jack Dixon-Gunn

Review: Escaped Alone

An everyday collision with the apocalypse

By Lois Maskiell

In the frightfully apocalyptic vision of Escaped Alone food is diverted to television programs, rats are eaten by those left with digestive systems and cancer grows in laptops. Meanwhile, four elderly ladies drink tea in the yard while conversing about a range of subjects from family and illness to science-fiction and travel.

Everyday conversations collide with a dire dystopia in Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s 2016 play. It truly is an exciting prospect to see this text, by such a prolific British playwright, performed in this Australian premiere.

When Mrs Jarrett finds herself in her neighbour’s garden for a cup of tea after losing her key, she takes a seat among three other others including an ex-hairdresser Vi, a retired doctor Sally and the warm yet anxious Lena. Banter moves quickly over all manner of topics. We learn that Lena’s anxiety stops her leaving the house, Sally has an extreme phobia of cats and Vi spent six years in prison for murdering her husband.

The play swiftly wheels from this world to another, never stalling as it shifts from the simple green lawn of Dann Barber’s set, to the lower floor area where Mrs Jarrett (Julie Forsyth) delivers monologues of death, disease and disaster. Forsyth is totally absorbing in her descriptions of a dark situation where “the chemicals leaked through cracks in the money” and “survivors go insane at different rates”.

These futuristic monologues often venture into nonsense, leading the audience through meaning towards loose ends and drawing much laughter along the way. Despite their comic twists, the monologues manage to spell out a degree of truth. The effect is similar to watching a world news broadcast focused on transmitting the most extreme and disastrous of current events.

Direction by Jenny Kemp keeps the speed and chatter perpetually buzzing. It’s impressive considering the topics discussed are hardly logical and the dialogue is interrupted by each character speaking before the other has finished their sentence. Rachel Burke’s lighting design separates each of the play’s eight segments with a low line of circular bulbs that light up so brightly their blinding effect wipes your focus fresh for the next moment.

Characters are excellently played: the refinement of Sally (Caroline Lee) contrasts to the tense yet endearing Lena (Marta Kaczmarek) and quick-witted Vi (Margaret Mills). Barber’s costume design aptly captures each woman’s demeanour and allows Mrs Jarrett (Julie Forsyth) to stand out as the neighbourhood outcast. Mrs Jarrett’s ordinariness in manner and frankness in speech not only brighten the group dynamic but keep the action chugging along.

A jubilant moment emerges when the women sing ‘Da Do Ron Ron’ and the drama peaks when Forsyth repeats “terrible rage” over and over in a vocal range that holds you engaged through every syllable. Forsyth is a force throughout this one-hour show and is spellbinding to watch as she moves effortlessly between joining in the humdrum of everyday routine, to presenting a world of dystopic doom – as if balancing the two were something we all do every day.

It might seem mundane to think of four people chatting over tea on the lawn, though I assure you this play isn’t even slightly tedious. It’s brimming with all kinds of connections and nonsensical wisdom that offer perspicacious networks of meaning about existence and nothing all in one mouthful.

Sublimely clever and current, Red Stitch’s Escaped Alone will have you reeling at the truth and absurdity of it all.

Escaped Alone runs at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre St Kilda until 30 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9533 8083. 

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson

Double review: Shit and Love

Exciting double bill of two Aussie plays 

By Samuel Barson

Australian artists have had a strong history of presenting narratives of the downtrodden and damaged – from Rowan Woods’ Little Fish to Neil Armfield’s Candy – there has always been an attraction to the ugliness and distortedness that characters can embody.

When it comes to telling these narratives, there is no better than Patricia Cornelius. Two of her best-known works, Shit and Love, are currently playing as a double bill at fortyfivedownstairs.

Shit tells the story of Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady). These women have lived a life devoid of love and filled with abuse. They believe the world is shit, that their lives are shit and that they are shit, and the audience bear explicit witness to their observations. The acting is flawless, the commitment of each actor in bring their respective character’s story to the floor is outstanding. Portraying the roles of women who belong to a low socio-economic class could easily fall into ill-fitting stereotypes, but this is certainly not the case here. The cast exquisitely manoeuvre between dark humour and pure moments of confronting devastation. Just as you feel a laugh begins to form in your throat, you must swallow it again.

Shitprodimage
SHIT featuring Nicci Wilks, Peta Brady and Sarah Ward. Credit: Sebastian Bourges

The design was unapologetic in bringing the audience deep into the underground of the world the women inhabit. Rachel Burke’s lighting design and Anna Liebzeit’s sound design are equally haunting in their spontaneity and cold, threatening overtones. Cornelius, director Susie Dee and the actors have beautifully presented commentary with impact about the resilience of women in the face of the most devastating adversities.

Perhaps sharing the same streets as the women from Shit, are Tanya (Tahlee Fereday), Annie (Carly Sheppard) and Lorenzo (Benjamin Nichol). This next trio of characters present the exploration of love and addiction in the second play of Cornelius’ double bill, Love. The three young people are the abused as well as the abusers and are incredibly difficult to like. Together they share a distorted and mutated reflection of love that holds them together through scenes of equal beauty and toxicity.

Sheppard is the clear standout, her innocence and fragility amongst the abuse and exploitation around her leaves the audience heartbroken. She is a lost child, relying on the corrupt minds of her lovers to guide her through the world. Nichol has some standout moments acting as the comic relief throughout. However, he also brings what is perhaps the show’s highlight when he depicts a drug withdrawal fuelled breakdown that is very much the opposite of comedic.

Fereday puts in commendable effort, but I would have liked to hear more variety in her dialogue. Anna Liebzeit and Andy Turner’s respective sound and lighting designs were powerfully simple, acting to complement the actors who were the true creators of this world. Marg Horwell’s design included a stage full of glitter that surrounded the actors creating an image that was very far from the ugliness of the play’s characters.

Love and Shit is playing at fortyfivedownstairs 29 May – 9 June. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966.

Top photograph: LOVE featuring Tahlee Fereday, Carly Sheppard and Benjamin Nichol. Photograph credit: Pier Carthew.

Review: Three Graces

Original, enigmatic and sobering

By Irene Bell

Growing up as a girl, you tend to simply accept that one day you will become a mother. At some point, you come to the realisation that in fact being a mother is not a necessity – it is not a must. It follows that you are faced with the daunting question: if not must, then why?

The Anchor Theatre Company’s enigmatic and sobering piece, The Three Graces, explores not only the possible whys but also the possible – and probable – repercussions of bringing children into an increasingly devastated world, populated with an increasingly nihilistic human race.

The piece explores this reality through two perspectives. First we are introduced to the eponymous Graces derived from Greek and Roman mythology, the Graces here represent mirth, brightness and elegance. The Graces watch as people go about their days and revel – or try to revel as best they can – in the machinations of the modern world. Simultaneously, we follow the lives of three women: a visual artist, an environmental and feminist activist, and (at the risk of simplifying the character) a mother. As these women ponder the ethics of rearing children in an ever-collapsing climate, the graces try to remain positive and gracious about a world that has long forgotten them.

Laura Lethlean has written a magnificent piece of theatre. It simultaneously breaks your heart and inspires you to attempt to be a positive, better person. The script is exquisite and the interchanging monologues and scenes are transfixing.

The performances, by Madelaine Nunn, Candace Miles and Anna Rodway, are an absolute force. Their actors’ ability to transform themselves and to flow between characters as well as their physicality are powerful to watch – in each of them the audience will recognise pieces of themselves. Breaking the fourth wall side, these actors invite you into their world and it is impossible to turn them down.

While the writing and acting shine on grand proportions, under the direction of Katie Cawthorne,  Tyler Ray Hawkins’s set design, Grace Ferguson’s sound design and Rachel Lee’s lighting create an ambience that is both minimal and mystical. The black-box theatre is transformed into an ancient Greek-like amphitheatre, with the audience seated around a sandpit. This immediately transposes us to another world – the world of the graces, where lighting is warm and hopeful. The women, however, live in another, starker reality. The shifts in lighting and in mood nudge the audience along, creating a perfect canvas for the performance to harmonise with, and the music elegantly ebbs and flows, enveloping the action in a cinematic way.

Each part of The Three Graces comes together in glorious fashion, creating a sensational production. Led by an exceptional team, it’s a show not to be missed. I look forward to what the Anchor Theatre Company produces next.

 

The Three Graces is being performed at Theatreworks until 2 June. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 9534 3388.


Photograph: Sarah Walker

Review: Cloudstreet

Inescapably brooding adaptation of Winton’s novel

 By Leeor Adar

From the moment the audience is silent, Matthew Lutton’s reincarnation of Tim Winton’s classic, Cloudstreet, begins to play out like a sombre funeral procession. The work takes a very far turn from the warmth that is conveyed even through the darkest moments of Winton’s novel, becoming laden with the density of the pooling grief of the First Nation girls whose souls drown the house. Lutton makes this clear from the outset: Cloudstreet’s living residents are living on haunted land, and here, Lutton takes a fist-full of Winton’s Western Australian earth and presents it to the audience through a new, more enlightened lens.

Cloudstreet tells the tale of two battler Australian families after World War II who find themselves sharing a large house on Cloudstreet, Perth. The house is full of tragic history and is itself a character breathing in the background of the families’ lives. The house is a witness as it brings them together in a maelstrom of fortune and tragedy. Through the magic realism employed in Winton’s writing, Cloudstreet has become one of Australia’s most beloved works.

What Lutton has achieved is specific to the times: this work addresses the racial diversity of the Australian story, and it charges the work from the choice of casting through to the addition of Noongar language in the script. The ambition here is clear, and it is served as a vehicle to bring Cloudstreet into a conversation of today. Throughout the production, the Indigenous Australian characters narrate events and connect to the new residents of the home, creating a fresh pathway into what has been a forgotten storyline in the great Australian work. With so much promise in this crucial retelling, my appreciation for the production sadly leaps off the page into disappointment. Lutton’s usually electric style missed its mark in what is one of the most anticipated shows of the Malthouse season.

Ebony McGuire, Benjamin Oakes, Brenna Harding, Guy Simon, Ian Michael. Photo Credit - Pia Johnson
Ebony McGuire, Benjamin Oakes, Brenna Harding, Guy Simon, Ian Michael. Photo Credit: Pia Johnson.

The performances are mostly bloodless, and the lack of vocal modulation led to excessive shouting in unnecessary moments. This is exacted by most characters, and particularly by the usually brilliant Alison Whyte. Whyte’s turn as Oriel exceeds in the brashness of the character, and Natasha Herbert’s Dolly Pickles is so brazen and gargantuan it borders on slapstick-hideous. Herbert however redeems herself in the shift towards the character’s grief later on. This contrasts with the performances of Bert LaBonté’s Sam Pickles and Greg Stone’s Lester Lamb.

LaBonté delivers some of the few moments of low-key humour and Stone’s exuberance is a welcome energy in this production. Another exception is Benjamin Oakes as Fish Lamb – an incredibly likable character who extracts a warmth and care from the audience. Brenna Harding’s intensely bitter Rosie Pickles is strong and driven, and one can hardly imagine her choosing the company of Guy Simon’s Quick Lamb. The portrayal of Quick Lamb is so highly-strung it is difficult to see much of the character’s humanity through what appears to be extended teenage angst.

Zoë Atkinson’s set design is grim. With a few human shapes drawn in sections, the misery of the house is etched crudely. The shifting walls and rising water through the floors are a clever addition, but hardly novel. Paul Jackson’s lighting design does not add to the gloom that settled on stage and includes unnecessary flashes of light to throw the audience into darkness. J. David Franzke’s sound design coinciding with the blackouts was another irritation, particularly the loud gunshots – in their desire to shock the audience, they only became an anticipated tension in dramatic moments. While I have enjoyed these effects in numerous Malthouse/Lutton productions, here they became an overbearing element that served little towards the story unfolding.

This is a production that has so much to say, but ultimately loses sight of the core of Winton’s work in its inescapably brooding qualities, even at the supposedly happier moments of the play. I wanted to love this two-part production, but it served as a kind of blunt-force knock to the head – the point is made, but the quality is not.

 

Cloudstreet is being performed at Malthouse until 16 June. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on  03 9685 5111. 

Photograph: Pia Johnson