Saturday, 7 September 2019

Assassins, Everyman Theatre, Belconnen Theatre

Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical is one of the special ones for me - I encountered it, age 16, when the cast recording was played in full on ABC Classic FM in their Sunday musical theatre slot. And it's a powerful show, with moments that shocked and astounded 16-year-old-me, that a musical could go this far  - dealing with big questions about American identity through the prism of 9 people who all attempted to kill a sitting US president (four successfully). Through a combination of Sondheim's score (genre hopping from Sousa-ish patriotic marches to seventies light-FM romantic ballads to a grand cakewalk) and John Weidman's script which mixes and matches the nine across time and space to confront each other with the questions of why they felt drawn to murder, and what the underside of the American Dream really is.

The show does have its revue-ish tendencies, and there's a certain structural repetitiveness as each of the Assassins are introduced and have their story told, drawing us into sympathy with them before throwing us back out again as we see the consequences and ugly sides of their actions. But Kelly Roberts and Grant Pegg's production keeps it moving along, played almost as a small local carnival of the angry disenfranchised. On Christopher Zuber's set of a lawn, a covered wagon,  a couple of boxes and a faded American Flag, we get an up close and personal view of these historic malcontents.

All 9 performers knock their sections of the show out of the park. Jarrad West as John Wilkes Booth combines self-important actorish pomposity with terrifying rage when he unleashes it ("The Ballad of Booth" is one of my favourite songs of the score, and the way it moves from drawing you in with Booth's southern lost-cause sentimentality before reminding you what dark roots that lost-cause had). Isaac Gordon's Leon Czolgosz has a sweet, yearning quality combined with anger at his losses (and his sweet voice at the top of "Gun Song", another of my favourites, drew me in). Jonathan Rush's demented Charles Guiteau, vain, deluded and ultimately lost in his own ego as he bellows "I will be remembered!" (ultimately, of course, Guiteau is an obscure murderer of an obscure president, making the moment all the more pathetic). Belle Nicol's smugly enlightened Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, who repeats everything Charles Manson's taught her with absolute assurance is engrossing and powerful. Pippin Carroll's Balladeer has the challenge of bringing back perspective to what these people really are, and the implications of what they have done, and he sells his songs with compassion and clarity. Tracy Noble's Sara Jane Moore is a nutty delight, bewhildered, disorganised and easily drawn into the idea of murder as a possible release for her confusion. Jim Adamik's Samuel Byck is largely communicated in two monologues, full of bitterness and rage but trying desperately to communicate outside his own circle. Joel Hutchings' Guisseppe Zangara maybe gets the least exposure of the nine (his one big song is largely a song about the bystanders to his attempted assassination) but his powerful voice and evident pain remains impactful. And Will Collett's John Hinkley Jr is an all too familiar figure of a young man who doesn't recognise how ludicrously out of place his desires are.

This was a bucket-list show for me that I desperately wanted to see, and it paid off everything I ever hoped it could be. There are moments, particularly in the climax of this show, that I desperately want to write about but won't because they spoiler moments of the extraordinary that need to be discovered in the moment - but this is powerful, urgent, engrossing work that tore into me in the best possible way. Most impressive. Tickets at

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Woman in the Window, Canberra Rep

A look at art, freedom, loyalties and supression, "The Woman in the Window" plays in two timeframes, Leningrad in the 1950s and Australia in a distant future. The first looking at the historical Anna Akhmatova and the period when she was kept virtual prisoner by the Stalinist regime, forbidden legally to write anything but translations of other people's poems, and required to show herself at her window twice a day, her life with her supportive friend Lili, her neighbour Tusya, and the police, Stetsky and Korzh. In the future, we follow Rachel Sekerov, a young "conference stress consultant" (which in reality appears to be a government-approved prostitute) assigned to a poet from a rich family who struggles with her own kind of freedom.

The two halves sometimes make strange bedfellows - the thematic links are apparent but it's not until the second act that they start to feel like they actually belong together and are informing each other. For the first half, we get the viscerally staged scenes of Akhmatova and her life, passionate and engaging, cut across with Rachel's story, which is (deliberately) somewhat more sterile in design. The Akhmatova scenes are anchored by two glorious performances from Karen Vickery (as Anna) and Lainie Hart (as Lili), who sell a relationship driven by survival and passion for art and admiration for each others work, even in the dire circumstances they're currently in - both are given room to breathe and to build a real, three dimensional friendship between old colleagues. Vickery also has most of the best jokes in the play (in particular one line demolishing Chekov - I'm starting to think a one-woman show of "Karen Vickery Plays Authors who Hate Other Authors" would be my dream night in the theatre). In a more minor role, Michael Sparks makes his authority clear as the key interrogator Stetsky. 

It's in the future sections where the play struggles a little - Rachel, perhaps inevitably, comes across a little more shallowly than Akhmatova, and it's not until the second half that she really starts to engage in the themes of the play more deeply. I think there's a little more space than this production presents for these sections to have a bit more passion and engagement (and the moments where that does sneak through - a VR encounter with a tartigrade, and towards the end, are the ones that work best) - and while I understand the desire for contrast between the two sections, the future sections feel a little bit flat. Zoe Swan as Rachel and Alex McPherson in two roles as the stern Miz and the emotional Maren drive a lot of the energy of these scenes where it comes - Michael Cooper's poet Sandor isn't ever quite as deeply drawn as the plot seems to require him to be, and Marli Haddell's Auditor is more an abstract menace figure than anything permanent.

Liz Bradley's direction mostly serves the period sections rather than the future sections well - while the scenes flow together reasonably, it tends to feel a little bit sterile (this may be partially a function of most scenes playing without any accompanying music or soundscape - it does feel like it needs something to give it just a little more drive). Michael Spark's set is functional without really finding a good visual metaphor that might tie the action together. and Anna Senior's costumes are, again, appropriate without really ever standing out into anything surprising or eye-catching.

This is an interesting attempt at a challenging work, but it, for me, doesn't quite engage me as much as I hoped it would - it's liberated largely by the performances of Vickery and Hart, which is where it feels most human. 

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Shakespeare in Love, Melbourne Theatre Company, Canberra Theatre

This is a case of a production that is gorgeous (Gabriela Tyeslova), staged fairly well (Simon Phillips direction flows the scenes together tightly and ensures everything moves well) and has a lot of witty dialogue and a rich and strong supporting cast (Deirdre Rubenstein, as is appropriate, steals every scene as Queen Elizabeth I but there's also good work from Tony Taylor, Aljin Ajella and Francis Greenslade). So why did I leave just a little dissatisfied?

I think it's that I just didn't quite buy the love story that's meant to be at the centre. Michael Wahr as Shakespeare and Clair Van Der Boom as Viola should spark off each other and ... here, it never quite takes hold and captures me up in the grand romance of it all. They go through the motions effectively but ... the spark just doesn't land. Which is a pity. This is a clever production that, while it has all the familiar highlights from the movie, doesn't feel slavishly tied to its image or its performances - all the performances feel like they've been developed organically - it's just that, at the centre, this doesn't quite go from "very pretty" to heartfelt and lifechanging. Which, well, is how I like my theatre.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Belfast Girls, Echo Theatre, The Q

In the middle of the 19th century, five women embark on a journey from Belfast to Sydney, escaping impoverished Ireland in the hope of a new life where they can leave behind the horrors of their past. But it becomes increasingly apparent that those horrors have left its scars on all of them - old hatreds and traumas resurface and their hopes for a second chance rub up against their knowledge of what they have been through.

This is a strong debut for Echo theatre - a chance for five actresses to show their skills both comic and dramatic as the women's small fights and squabbles escalate alarmingly into something brutal. Jaki McCarrick's script is maybe a little lackadaisical in the first act, easing our way into getting to know the dynamics of these five women (from Isabel Burton's eminently practical organiser, Judith, to the push-me-pull-you relationship between Joanna Richards' earthy Ellen and Natasha Vickery's more hopefully dreamy Hannah, and the two outsiders, Phoebe Heath's slightly snobby country girl Sarah and Eliza Jennings' inquisitive Molly), but the second act builds to a fairly brutal climax before sending the women off  the ship to an uncertain future.

The physical production is rich and absorbing, from Chris Zuber's evocative set to the personalised costumes of Anna Senior and the carefully chosen props of Yanina Clifton. Director Jordan Best builds in a strong sense of time and place, juggling the dynamics as the women vary between hope and trauma, finding ways to speak their truths. This is an engrossing, gorgeous looking production with strong performances and demands your attention.

Monday, 26 August 2019

City of Gold, Griffin and Queensland Theatre Company, Stables Theatre

"City of Gold" is a play definitely drawn from writer/lead actor Meyne Wyatt's personal experience - he plays an actor who's been in "Home and Away" and played the Bastard in "King Lear" (King Lear is on Wyatt's resume, though it's Neighbours he's shown up in), who reconnects with his family when his father dies in the town of Kalgoorlie. And it's at its best when it's drawn, almost unreconstructed, straight from his life (there's a ten minute monologue near the top of act two which is Wyatt, alone and unleashed, leting loose on the contradictions and challenges of being Aboriginal in Australia). The problem is, there's six other actors in the play, and I don't know Wyatt the playwright has served them nearly as well as he's served himself.

In particular, Shari Sebbens has more than proved she's a strong capable actress. But this offers her very little to play that's interesting, and being left on  the sidelines to play sympathetic sister is, frankly, at this point a disservice. I haven't seen as much of Mathew Cooper, Maitland Schnaars and Jeremy Ambrum, but they need more than the thin gruel that's left for them here. This is a play that desperately needs either to become the monologue it's eagerly looking to be, or to actually flesh out the rest of the people on stage. I really got caught up in Wyatt's monologue. but it either needed to be the whole play, or to be part of a show that let other actors get the chance to carry the action as well.

It's hard to criticise something as obviously drawn from the soul as this is. And this does have the raw material to be something great and interesting. But while Wyatt is one of Australia's great actors, he's not yet shown himself a great playwright. He has something to say, but here, he either needs to learn how to get that expressed by a number of characters, or to embrace his inner monologue and let it take over.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Life of Galileo, Belvoir

I'll be honest, this was the one I was most marginal on in this year's Belvoir Subscription. The combination of the director of one of my least liked productions of last year and the adapter of another of my least liked production last year (both, incidentally, have left those shows off their bios for this year) uniting, on a play I've seen already (albeit 23 years ago in a very glossy Richard Wherrett production at the STC)? Still, it's a play I remember liking, an oddly intimate epic covering the emergence of Galileo as a scientific mind at the same time as it looks at his struggles against the church to continue his work. It's by no means an easy hagiography - Galileo is no science-for-science's-sake genius, he's always looking for ways to sell his ideas (from the military application of the telescope to see the enemy before they see you, to the financial benefits of starcharts that can allow navigation further from shore) - and he's not above a little chicanery (in particular in stealing the idea of the telescope from a young student's report of seeing it developed in Holland).

Eamon Flack directs this in the round, using a simple wooden stage with the occasional assistance of a cosmological model flown in from the roof and a chair. Tom Wright's adaptation is a tight distillation, occasionally a little too much so (there's one or two scenes that feel chopped off at the end), and a little too keen to signal the contemporary resonances with a key phrase or two. But dammit, this does move pretty well.

Colin Friels as the lead has the shifty, inquisitive wheeler-dealer type to a T - he's pragmatic, cunning, and just about smart enough to get away with his beliefs until the inquisition catches up with him. The supporting roles have a fine mix of performers, from Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as his closest follower Andrea, almost more dedicated to his cause than he is himself, to Peter Carrol shifting through a range of roles up to and including the pope, as imprisoned by his role as Galileo is by his. Some of the roles feel slightly squeezed in the trimming (Laura McDonald as Galileo's daughter, Virginia, in particular - I do remember her case for living an undisturbed life getting slightly more prominent presentation in the STC version) - and there's a few instances of fourth-wall breaking that feel like they should be building to more than they actually do. But in general, this is a solid rather than a remarkable presentation of an interesting text - but at least it'ts still interesting.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Prima Facie, ETC and the Canberra Theatre centre, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

This is a taught tense masterwork looking at the pressing issue of sexual assault and how it is prosecuted through the vantage point of one female defence barrister, Tess, who herself becomes the victim of sexual assault. It represents the coming together of three remarkable women - writer Suzie Miller, director Lee Lewis and actor Sheridan Harbridge.

There's a careful drawing-you-in during the first half, as Tess celebrates her legal victories, her place in chambers, rising out of her rough working class family and not only surviving but thriving at the bar. And then, as it's shattered in a moment, we get a Tess torn between past and present as she approaches her day in court, over two years later, rebuilding a different, less naive woman who seeks justice for the wrongs done her, even as she knows how the system is stacked against her.

I expect there will be many other productions of Miller's script - it's a skillfully written one woman show with a simple design of one platform, one chair. But I think this production, with this actress and this director, will be hard to beat - Lee Lewis has become my favourite Australian director with her ability to cut through directly to the heart and sole of a script, to know its rhythms and hit exaclty the points this needs. I suspect some elements of this in lesser hands could easily become diadactic or "worthy" theatre, but there's a sure sense of character and rhythm here that means this is the story of an individual, not an abstract case study. Sheridan Harbridge wasn't the actress originally cast for this role, but it belongs to her utterly - she takes control of every moment, every pause, every breath, as she tells her story with truth and honesty, charting the journey of Tess second by second with clarity and strength.

This is theatre that takes confronting themes straight on with skill and care, brutal and honest and true. It should not be missed.