Film Review: Escape and Evasion

A story of survival on the battlefield and of the mind

By Sebastian Purcell

Seth (Josh McConville) returns home from a mission in Myanmar after losing not only his fellow soldiers but also one of his best friends. Seth’s transition to life at home, becoming a father again, is punctuated by the series of PTSD episodes he experiences. Driven by the guilt he feels for the loss of his men and his actions, he is confronted by Rebecca (Bonnie Sveen) for answers about the death of her brother and Seth’s best mate Josh (Hugh Sheridan).

Writer and Director Storm Ashwood takes the all too familiar war in the jungle screenplay but overlays the effects of PTSD on returning servicemen. The use of alcohol to mask the pain, suicidal tendencies, inability to integrate and provide support to family are all themes explored. Ultimately the film seeks to reiterate that getting professional help is the most effective treatment; if a tough guy like Seth can accept help, then others can too. Ashwood also makes social commentary on the Australian Military’s role in training soldiers and not victims. Seth’s new mission is now to survive back in Australian suburbia.

McConville provides a committed performance throughout and the complexity he brings to the character is to be commended; displayed through his ability to swap between someone who displays brutal physical strength in a bar fight and survival in the jungle, to the vulnerable and emotional character in the aftermath of PTSD episodes.

The film uses flashback scenes to move the narrative forward and is well edited and paced by Editor Marcus D’arcy. The audience finds out the truth of what happened to Seth and his team as Seth re-lives the trauma and builds a bond with Rebecca. The most impressive scenes are the overlay between Seth’s current world and the trauma he is experiencing, allowing the audience to feel the same Seth’s horror, which, at times is realistically frightening. In saying that, I sometimes found the relationship between McConville and Sveen lacked chemistry, and at times, the physical relationship that develops feels quite forced.

This is an interesting take on a war film, but viewer discretion is advised as there are graphic torture scenes and suicidal material throughout.

Escape and Evasion is out in cinemas March 5, 2020.

Review: À Ố Làng Phố – Vietnamese Bamboo Circus

The epitome of modern circus

By Rachel Holkner

Asia TOPA is fast becoming one of my favourite Melbourne festivals. It is a hugely valuable months-long showcase of Asia-Pacific performing arts where the sheer volume of performances creates a powerful movement against the Eurocentric tradition of arts in Australia. The quality is consistently so high I would cheerfully throw a dart at the program to select a show. So, happily fed thanks to the Vietnamese menu currently on offer by Chef de Partie Vinnie Nguyen at Café Vic, I settled into the State Theatre for À Ố Làng Phố with very little idea of what would unfold. I was not disappointed.

À Ố Làng Phố (Vietnamese Bamboo Circus) is the epitome of modern circus, a flawless blend of storytelling, elite physical skill, music and choreography. The multitalented cast demonstrate a strength and depth of performance that is joyful and exuberant.

In an exploration of place, time and human relationships, the usual suspects of circus, such as juggling, contortion, dance and puppetry are utilised in a celebration of culture. What shone particularly for me were the harmonious interactions between cast members both within complex routines and in interstitial sections.

Delightful moments of clowning employed gentle self-mockery which was never demeaning of others, so often the go-to of circus clowns. All the comedy sketches were beautifully timed and added poignancy to the overall production.

The lighting, props and costumes remained straightforward throughout with the emphasis on bamboo as a material. Whether woven into a basket or disk, as a short stick or long pole, a juggling club or an instrument, it seemed bamboo was used in its every possible configuration except as a food. Its warmth was echoed by the sepia tones of the opening, transitioning through to a multicoloured and joyous conclusion. Motifs of pattern-making and rhythm grounded the entire performance.

My complete lack of any Vietnamese language proved no barrier at all to my understanding. Through song lyrics or occasional dialogue, the expression of voice and gesture were far more important in conveying meaning.

The entire simplicity of execution lent an elegance throughout, balanced beautifully by the undertones of truth and humour. All these aspects were perfectly integrated into a whole celebration of Vietnam and, by extension, humanity.

Asia TOPA continues through March 2020 at various venues across Melbourne. See http://www.asiatopa.com.au for more information.

Photography courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne

 

Preview: The Secret Garden

A favourite musical returns to Melbourne

By Samuel Barson

The Phantom. Daddy Warbucks. Doctor Zhivago. The list goes on for national treasure Anthony Warlow and the endless list of memorable musical theatre characters he has played. None however, in his own words, will ever reach Archibald Craven in The Secret Garden. 

And in November 2020, after 25 years since he first played the role, Warlow’s Craven will be reintroduced to Australian audiences, alongside an exciting and fresh Australian cast for a national tour of The Secret Garden.

The cast were announced yesterday by John Frost OAM and Opera Australia. They include Georgina Hopson (Ragtime, West Side Story), Rob McDougal (Assassins, Les Misérables) and Gold Logie winner Rowena Wallace (Sons & Daughters, Neighbours).

The musical originally premiered on Broadway in 1991, with an Australian tour following in 1995. It tells the story of Mary Lennox, an orphaned 10 year old girl who is sent to live with relatives who she has never met. She learns about herself and her family as she tends a neglected garden that has, yes you guessed it, secrets.

The 2020 25th anniversary will see the production at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from 2nd August before moving to Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on 13th November.

Tickets for the Melbourne season are on sale from February 28th via secretgardenmusical.com.au or by calling 1300 795 267.

Photography by Samuel Barson

Review: Salome

A disturbing opera, masterfully presented

By Narelle Wood

Victorian Opera opens its 2020 season with a performance of Richard Strauss’s unsettling Opera Salomé, based on Oscar Wilde’s play by the same name.

The Opera opens with Narraboth (James Egglestone), the captain of the guards guarding the prophet Jochanaan (Daniel Sumegi), voicing is admiration and infatuation for Salomé (Vida Mikneviciute). Salomé soon enters, having left the banquet to escape her step-father Herod (Ian Storey), who is also infatuated by Salomé. The plot quickly thickens as Salomé demands to speak to Jochanaan. Upon meeting Jochanaan Salomé becomes intoxicated by his looks, but Jochanaan rebukes her advances, denouncing Salomé, her family, and their wickedness. Meanwhile, distraught at the sight of Salomé’s admiration for another, Narraboth takes his own life. And just when you think that this may be the climatic end to the story, Herod and Herodias (Liane Keegan) enter, and the plot takes yet another dark turn.

Conducted by Richard Mills, Orchestra Victoria bring a sense of urgency to the score that seems to foreshadow the impending tragedy, even when the characters are declaring their love for another. Director Cameron Menzies has capitalised on the uncomfortable themes of Strauss’s opera, bringing to the stage characters who are complex, unlikeable and disturbing, especially in their interactions with each other. There is no mistaking Herod’s leering, and almost predatory pursuit of Salomé’s affections, but he is also tormented and seems to have some resemblance of a moral compass. Herodias, while gleeful at the prospect of her husband’s potential demise, is also at times seemingly concerned for him. The setting, designed by Christina Smith, superbly mirrors some of the architectural features of the Palais theatre, and is almost dishevelled in appearance, but is still reminiscent of a ‘great palace’. The costuming by Anna Cordingley is stunning, but again there is something that is just ‘off’ enough, deliberately so, for it to look constricted, unsettled or out of place.

Everybody’s performances are exceptional, including the impressive ensemble. There is potential with this storyline for the characters to become more caricatures. And while there were certain character traits that each performer emphasised, it didn’t ever cross the line into something more farcical. And, again, this seemed to contribute to the troubling nature of the performance. Mikneviciute, for instance, moves from emotion to emotion, portraying Salomé as someone confident in who they are and what they want, despite how irrational or comedic her behaviour might appear to the audience.

While the opera is short – one act of 90 minutes – the impression it leaves is lasting. Victorian Opera’s interpretation of Salomé is tragic and uncomfortable, but captivatingly so.

Salomé is on at the Palais Theatre until February 27th. Tickets at http://www.victorianopera.com.au/season/salome

Photography by Craig Fuller

 

 

Review: Billy Elliot

A celebration of communal desires and the importance of relationships

By Joanne O’Mara

Billy Elliot: The Musical is a stunning piece of musical theatre that lifts us out of our everyday lives and takes us beyond ourselves.

When the curtain opens we are immediately plunged into the darkest depths of the 1984/85 coal miner’s strike in Durham, England. We are placed in a time when the miners’ collective unionism and shared sacrifices are threatened by Margaret Thatcher’s push to weaken the union system. Immersed in an empathic narrative that leads us to understand both the politics and lived experience of the miners— we meet Billy Elliot (played in Melbourne by Omar Abiad, River Mardesic, Wade Neilsen, and Jamie Rogers)—a boy who falls in love with ballet when he is meant to be boxing. Like many heroes, the odds are stacked against him—poverty, a toxic masculine culture and lack of social capital. We are inspired, moved and exalted as we travel the inspirational journey with him as he negotiates all of this to transcend his life and circumstances through his engagement with the arts.

The show is a celebration of communal desires and the importance of relationships. Billy is supported on his journey by three women—Mrs Wilkinson, a local B-grade ballet teacher (played by Lisa Sontag); Grandma (played by Vivien Davies) and Dead Mum, his mother, who has died several years before (played by Danielle Everett). All three of these women uplift him to enable him to rise above the toxic masculinity.

Billy’s Grandma describes her complex, oppressive, violent 33-year marriage to his alcoholic grandfather in a song describing how “your life ended when you had a ring around your finger” and the brief reprieve she and her husband both felt from the industrialised environment and their noxious lives when they went dancing. In another moving scene Billy recites and Mrs Wilkinson reads Dead Mum’s letter to Billy, where she pleas, “You must promise me this, Billy, in everything you do, always be yourself, Billy, and you always will be true”.

Through all of this, it is the male chorus, that set up the scenes so effectively as the strike and clashes between police and miners are ever-present in every moment of the play, most notably when the dance classes is so surrounded by the circumstances that the young girls and Billy merge with the strikers.

The most delightful rendering of the “Be yourself” theme is when Billy and his friend Michael dress in Michael’s mother’s clothes and sing a song about expressing themselves, asking “Cos what the hell is wrong with expressing yourself/ For wanting to be me?”. This celebratory number joyfully concludes, “The world’s grey enough without making it worse: What we need is individuality”.

The recently renovated Regent Theatre was sparkling and the lighting and sound in the play were incredible as a team of gifted designers worked effectively with some of the constraints of this beautiful venue, which was purpose-built as a movie theatre. I was most moved in the scene where Billy dances with his future self (played by Aaron Smyth). In this scene the scale of the boy dancing with a much larger male dancer and the use of effective lighting transports us into his imagination and dreams of his future self.

The heart of Billy Elliot: The Musical is about personal freedom—to choose your own path and live your own life. It is also about struggle and loss, and, while set in 1984, is incredibly contemporary, speaking to the circumstances that led to Brexit, to current conversations about male violence and redefinitions of what positive masculinity looks like. It is a stunning, inspirational, emancipatory piece of musical theatre.

Billie Elliot is playing at the Regent Theatre until the 19th April. The running time is 2 hours and 55 minutes with a 20-minute interval.

Show times and tickets at https://billyelliotthemusical.com.au/

Photography by James D. Morgan

 

Review: Shrek

A warm and lovely treat

By Bradley Storer

Based on the beloved film with a score by modern Broadway legend Jeanine Tesori, Shrek opened last night at Her Majesty’s Theatre to rousing response and standing ovation. Despite some minor technical issues and a slightly overpowering sound balance from the band pit, it is easy to see why this production has been charming audiences around Australia.

As the titular character, Ben Mingay offers a refreshingly truthful performance that helps to ground the cartoonish surroundings in emotional reality. Tapping into the loneliness and awkwardness that lies beneath the character’s abrasiveness, Mingay showcases a beautiful vulnerability alongside his gargantuan voice and stage presence. Nat Jobe has a harder time as Donkey, dealing with a role whose humour doesn’t translate as well from screen to stage but manages with good-natured cheek and bombastic energy.

In contrast to her earlier work as high energy fairytale ‘princess’-esque characters, Lucy Durack plays the stereotype-shattering Princess Fiona in a slightly more laid back and chilled manner than one would expect. This characterization can leave one wanting more in certain moments but pays off handsomely in her comic and romantic chemistry with Mingay, and she still sells her big Act Two opening – ‘Morning Person’ – with charm and cheer.

Todd McKenney as the walking visual gag Lord Farquaad steals every scene he is in, proving the very definition of a ‘star’ by milking what is essentially a one joke character to maximum effect. The ensemble are an absolute joy, shifting through various roles throughout but truly providing the heart and soul of the show as a ragtag bunch of displaced fairytale characters – watching them let loose during the ridiculous and empowering ‘Freak Flag’ is quite possibly the best moment of the entire performance. (Special mention to Denise Devlin, stepping in for Marcia Hines on opening night in the role of the Dragon, and unleashing some truly astonishing vocals during the finale)

A warm and lovely treat for children and parents alike, it would be hard to leave this show without a smile on your face!

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, 219 Exhibition St, Melbourne

Dates: February 19th – April 12th

Times: 7:30pm Wednesday/Friday/Saturday, 6pm Sunday, 1pm Wednesday/Thursday/Sunday, 2pm Saturday

Bookings: ticketek.com.au

Photography by Brian Geach

Review: The Importance of Being Earnest

“A Trivial Comedy for Serious People”

By Margaret Wieringa

How can a farce from the late 1800s be relevant over two hundred years later? Perhaps because politics and society seem to be as farcical as ever, with world leaders shunning education and humanity and instead using confounding language to say very little. Or perhaps it’s just that we need a break from it all and to really laugh.

If it’s a laugh you need, this is certainly the show to go to. This interpretation of the Importance of Being Earnest by Ridiculusmus has the magnificent talents of Jon Hayes and David Woods playing all of the characters. Being the work of Oscar Wilde, comedy is in almost every line, but Hayes and Woods manage to elicit humour even from the silences. Each costume change brings titters of laughter from the audience, as much from the action itself as the anticipation of what is coming next. The timing is perfect, starting with long pauses filled with slight movements as we wait for a character to reappear, and then moving to fast-paced, frenetic changes as the play reaches its climax.

Even the set was humorous, with every surface (including the leaves of an indoor plant) covered with busy wallpaper and Persian rugs. While the magnificent costumes were practically characters of themselves, the set was used delightfully for the performers to do some of the more complex character changes.

The show plays with the concept of theatre itself, with the actors using remote controls and the like for sound and lighting cues (supported by lighting designer Stephen Hawker and  sound realiser Tom Backhaus). They play with conventions, use modern music to add humour to scenes, and enjoy letting the audience in on the joke when things start to go off the rails.

Perhaps the greatest joy of the show is that the audience feels as though they have joined the actors on a magnificent journey and reach the end victorious and fulfilled.

Venue: Malthouse Theatre

Dates: 14 Feb – 8 March

Time: Varies between 5pm and 7:30pm starts

Prices: $49-$89

Bookings: https://tickets.malthousetheatre.com.au/production/5676 or call the box office on 9685 5111

Photography by Pia Johnson