Saturday, 13 August 2016

Macbeth, Canberra Repertory

Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy gets a fast-moving and stripped-for-action production here. Jordan Best has got to be using some form of witchery to handle so well a large cast and complex text in a production of such directness and clarity of purpose. Michael Spark's deceptively simple set allows fast movement, sudden appearances and presents a space for widely varying stage pictures. Heather Spong's costume designs give a basic approach that could be tightened a little (in particular, the men's basic blacks could be consistent rather than such a widely varied set) but otherwise has the right idea in terms of simplicity and labelling the cast easily in multiple roles.

First among a strong cast are the Macbeths - Chris Zuber plays the journey as a good soldier becomes a maddened tyrant with the promise and assumption of power, his difficult journey towards becoming a murderer eased with the persuasion of his eager wife, Jenna Roberts. The instant regret both feel after committing murder is palpable, as is the disintegration of their formerly close and seductive relationship as the rot sets in (the image of them going their separate ways is heartbreaking just before interval). The donning of kings's robes and a crown let Zuber unleash some rather magnificent hair and gives him the image of a bestial lion, but much that was human about him disappears under the weight of the acts he has committed to get power. Roberts' disintegration into madness is heartbreaking - her formerly-determined self now damaged beyond repair.

There's too many names to talk about all individually in a 23-strong ensemble, but there are images that stick in the memory like the disturbing hand movements of the witches, isolated against their black robes; the reactions of the attendees at the disintegrating bloody banquet; the touching short story as Lady Macduff tries to disown her husand only to see him still doom her; the ragefull Macduff ready for righteous avenging; the wild clowning of the Porter; the every-inch-a-king-ness of Duncan; the young Malcom resisting and eventually answering the call of his rightful kingship; Hecate's act-two-opening-rage at her coven... oh, pretty much the whole two and a half hours.

This is major theatre by a major director with a major cast. You should not miss this.

Sweeney Todd, ANU Interhall Productions and ANU School of Music, ANU Arts Centre

Student theatre has its limitations. Mostly that the casting pool tends to be, mysteriously enough, students, meaning that you end up with most of your cast somewhere in the age range 18-23 - which can get problematic when they're meant to be playing parents and children. Still, this is theatre we're talking about, not strict realism, so a certain amount of suspension of disbelief should be brought to the table anyway.

And Sondheim's musical thriller is a classic of the genre - an updated Victorian-era thriller that combines the pulpish thrills and scares with a tight revenge structure. It's pretty much unique as the only major slasher-musical I can think of (maybe Phantom, although he has a much smaller body count). And it uses the music for maximum tension, drawing at least as much from Bernard Herrmann as Rogers and Hammerstein. Gowrie Varma's production works very well at establishing a disconcerting atmosphere where dark deeds are certain to happen, and then allows the deeds to be exactly as dark as we'd feared they were going to be.

Key among the performers is Spencer Cliff in the title role. He has astounding vocals for such a young performer and has a great way of seeming midly off - closed and brooding. His movement is perhaps a little stiff and he doesn't always commit to the grand moments (his "My Right Arm is Complete Again" doesn't quite get to be as glorious a moment as it surely needs to be), but he has the basics of the role down quite well. George Juszcyzk as Mrs Lovett joins him in oddness, and has the vocal dexterity to handle the tricky "Worst Pies in London" (although her "By the Sea" suffers a little in comparison), but she's a powerful comic and coniving presence. Will Collett as Anthony has the handsome hero down pat - he's charming, handsome, and sings gogeously. Amy Jenkins' Joanna similarly sings with great beauty and sensitivity, and disappears down into the rabbit hole of insanity with aplomb as the second act complications start to set in. Colin Balog's Judge is clearly much more young and attractive than the role requires, but he has powerful vocals and he makes up for his physical attractiveness by being personally disconcertingly overbearing in pretty much every other way. Cameron Allan's Beadle Bamford does milk the obsequiousness a little bit (and in his "Parlour Songs" he milks the miming-the-harmonium thing even more) but he has a good high tenor. Anna Rafferty is a disturbing presence as the Beggar woman, shifting between pitifulness and terrifying with ease. Jeremy Hoskins has a great italianate pomposity but should possibly have not been costumed in high-heels-and-shorts - he has fantastic legs, but fantastic legs are not what the role really cares for and they probably shoulda been in long pants for this one. Sachini Poogoda is a delightfully naive Tobias and brings a sweet presence.

Varma's set design is impressively-grand-on-a-budget, and KAtarina Tang's orchestra plays strongly throughout. Technically, this is one of the best-sounding musicals I've heard in canberra lately - there's none of the standard "mics get turned on one line into the song" moments you get all too often. Lighting is a little patchier - there's a couple of moments where scenes are left waiting for the lights to go on.

All in all this is recommended viewing for anyone who's ever despaired of seeing a "Sweeney Todd" on Canberra stages - no, it's not 100% perfect but it's pretty darn solid.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Letters to Lindy, Merrigong Theatre Company, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

"There are three things that have divided Australia: Conscription, Whitlam, and Lindy Chamberlain". Conscription drives one of the New Wave of Australian Playwriting's first great plays, "The Legend of King O'Malley", and Whitlam drives a whole heap of the rest of that New Wave. But Lindy Chamberlain hasn't really had much of a theatre presence - there was an opera in 2002 but otherwise the space is clear for a good-quality piece of theatre for an enduringly controversial story.

Alana Valentine's telling uses, as the title suggests, the thousands of letters sent to Chamberlain since the controversial death of her daughter in 1980. It keeps the setting very clearly domestic (James Browne's set is a simple lounge-and-dining-room-setup, with adaptations largely through lighting and staging to take us to other locations) and has Lindy as our prime viewpiont, with most commentary coming from the letters. Jeanette Cronin holds the stage as Lindy with aplomb - with multiple costume and wig changes to cover the era (from the iconic big-bob to her modern smart-clipped hair). It is in some ways a very folksy evening, and offers a lot of light and shade in telling the story - Lindy is eminently pragmatic and common-sense about what happened to her and we're not subjected to two-odd hours of angst so much as a story with an undercurrent of pain that sneaks through. The focus so tight on Lindy does occasionally mean we get the sense other elements don't get much traction (her husband Michael, for instance, is virtually invisible in this version), but what it loses in breadth it gains in individual empathy.

The remaining ensemble play various letter writers and other figures, crossing age-ranges and genders with aplomb.  Glenn Hazeldine maybe does the greatest range (slipping touchingly into the role of Lindy's youngest son, Aiden) but Phillip Hinton and Jane Phegan match well in various roles.

This is engaging, intriguing theatre that captures the heart and the mind and is worthy of a watch.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Twelfth Night, Belvoir

I've seen a lot of "Twelfth Night" over the years. It's a popular perennial which combines romance with better-than-usual parts for women and a lot of fun comedy. It also has a few production difficulties, key among them the requirement for realistic-looking-twins who are of opposite genders.

Eamon Flack's production succeeds in elements but somehow doesn't entirely cohere. It's partially, I think, that the pre-show device (having the cast in generic white clothing meandering around the stage fooling around together) doesn't really tie into the rest of the show in a dramatic way - are they meant to be children or madmen, and how does this inform the show that happens afterwards? Alas, it doesn't quite inform anything - the white clothing shows up when the cast are playing minor characters occasionally, as does the child-like behavior, but it's not quite a big enough gesture to really hold the evening together.

Having said that, this is by no means a show that one should write off. Key among the performances is Keith Robinson, a onetime Belvoir stalwart whose health problems have kept him offstage for about a decade. His return is an absolute triumph - he's a more-than-usual fourth-wall breaker of a Feste (including recycling some old "Popular Mechanicals" jokes at the beginning of Act Two) and he hands singing duties over to Emele Ugavule (whose voice is strong and pure), but it works and makes him compelling. Peter Carroll seems born to play the angry puritan turned crazed lover Molvolio, and owns the role brilliantly, Anita Heigh builds nicely into the role of Olivia - her increasingly obsessive romanticism is delightful. John Howard is falling a little too comfortably into a standard "drunken cynical John Howard role" but he's good at it. Anthony Phelan has a good comedic presence as Sir Andrew, and Lucia Mastrantone has good frenetic busyness as Maria. Amber McMahon scores well as both FAbian and Sebastian (in particular she does great leg-comedy as Fabian attepting to get off a wall). Damien Ryan does not do a lot with the role of Orsino but there is not necessarily a lot to do with it, while Nikki Shiels is not the most interesting Viola I've ever seen but is personable and perfectly pleasant. 

There are some staging highlights in here - especially the almost-music-video-ish "Come away death", but all in all this is a show that is more likeable than compelling. So I have to call this mixed. It's not bad, by any means, but it's not brilliant either.