Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Great, NUTS

NUTS all-modern-Australian drama season continues with another clever choice - Tony McNamara's Russian-history comedy-drama, "The Great". An anomoly in McNamara's writing, this breaks from his usual contemporary comedy mode (seen in plays like "The Cafe Latte Kid", "The John Wayne Principle", "The Virgin Mim", :"The Give and Take", "The Unlikely Prospect of Happiness" and "The Grenade" (the man really likes starting his titles with a "The"), as well as his copious TV writing career for shows like "The Secret Life of Us", "Love My Way" and "Tangle") and instead chucks us back into 18th century Russian history, in particular, the reign of Catherine the Great, telling the tale in two chunks - Act I depicting Catherine's arrival in Russia, her marriage and subsequent involvement in plots against her husband, and Act II dealing with events towards the end of her reign, as she's challenged by her children.

It's a grand story full of humour, revenge, anger and a fair amount of sex, and Casey Elder's production mostly presents pretty well... particularly on the sex. This is a very lushly designed production for NUTS, with red curtains covering the Drama Lab and the cast in some great mixed-modern-and-period costumes by Ara Steel and Chrissy Solazzini. The costume look is almost Amanda-Palmer-esque in its burlesque style, which is accompanied by some music selections from her current album (particularly well-applied in the use of "Do It with A Rockstar" with full lighting effects in the opening moments of act two - less so with the reprises of "The Bed Song" as a romantic theme, which seems to pick the same moment to begin cueing from throughout and becomes a little too repetitive (and misses the point of the lyrics of "The Bed Song", which has bugger all to do with romance and is far more about time and alienation)). The production doesn't quite maintain the pace - it presents a lot of the humour well but gets a little bit lost when things get more serious. It could have used a bit more of Palmer's pop-punk-enthusiasm thrown into the production. The decision to have frequent blackouts between scenes, rather than blend from moment-to-moment also led to a bit of pacing difficulty - bridging the space between scenes is important, and it's slightly flubbed here.

Bojana Kos as Catherine is central, and captures some of Catherine's capering naivety early on very well, and gets her groove on in act two as the older, wiser, and more bitter Catherine. But it's partially structural that there's a scene missing where her naivety gets finally broken and she goes from innocent miscomprehension of the strange Russian court that surrounds her into anger and resentment., and the show therefore gets a little subdued for a short time while I got used to the fact I wasn't going to get a smooth transition.

As her husband in act one and her son in act two, Andrew Eddey has a vehicle to be wonderfully, selfishly silly, and he grabs it with both hands. His work with a tricycle in act two is particularly outstanding. His casual use of his power in act one maps him out as a dangerous sociopath, and his entitled brat in Act two is equally funny. Meanwhile Ben Russell as her lover (in act one) and her daughter's lover (in act two) has a fair amount of charm and swagger to him, which turns to arrogance in act two. If he's never quite sympathetic ... I don't think that's really what anybody is going for here. He's charming and he's kind ... but he's also dead wrong and hedonistic, and the production wisely never lets us forget it. Brody Warren as Orlo starts out solidly but seems to slip away as the character becomes more and more marginal to Catherine - his last-minute confession of devotional love doesn't feel like it's been maintained throughout so it's a little bit lost.

Lauren Klein as the maid, Marial, maintains interest throughout, smart, snippy and not-too-far outside the boundries of good servant-y behaviour. Saskia Roberts's teenage entitlement as Catherine's daughter in act two launches delightfully, but by the time she's debating Catherine on roughly equal terms towards the end of the play, there isn't really a sense of growth so much as a sudden transition.

This is an unusually ambitious piece, but also strangely suitable for NUTS - it's character-focussed and its uneven-ness seems to suit the performers, allowing them to slide between contemporary and period nicely, with a combination of sarcasm and melodrama that plays nicely. This'll be my last review of NUTS for the year (I'm out of the country when "Female of the Species" premieres) but I've been strongly impressed with their work this year. They've survived some fairly rough treatment (including one offensively rude BMA review) but I've noticed solid audiences engaged in new Australian drama that I don't often see in more "respectable" established companies.

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