Saturday 26 August 2017

Amnesia - Theatre Review

What: Amnesia
When: 18 - 27 August 2017
Where: LongPlay
Written by: Clancy Fraser
Directed by: Hannah Smallman
Performed by: Jeni Bezuidenhout and Palmer Marchese

Jeni Bezuidenhout and Palmer Marchese
Amnesia is a new play written by Clancy Fraser and being performed at LongPlay. It is produced by Short Straw which is Fraser's creative partnership with director Hannah Smallman.

The play has been billed as a black comedy and it is definitely morosely funny in parts, but with a few tweaks Amnesia could be an exciting and clever psychological thriller. The story begins with Lucy (Bezuidenhout) finding herself in a kitchen with a dead body (Marchese). What unfolds is a finely crafted, table turning exploration of events which led to this moment and constantly asks the questions what will happen next?

The play is strong and clever and the performers, whilst still learning their craft, give strong and detailed performances. My one tip for them it to remember to look up and not down so the audience can see inside your mind and travel the journey with you.

What lets the show down in a big way is the direction. This play is tightly wrought with status and power always on a knife edge - literally. Lucy's weapon of choice is a carving knife. A knife is a close combat weapon and yet Smallman has allowed the actors to constantly be on opposite sides of the stage.

The whole premise underlying Amnesia is both characters have reasons to not leave despite feeling in mortal danger, but in Smallman's production either of them could walk out at any time. I did think the big, round table dominating the most powerful space on stage was some sort of mechanism which would allow the animalistic prowling and circling of predators but nothing this interesting was allowed to occur.

I often say that good writing will survive whatever directors do to it in performance and Fraser is a good writer. Despite Smallman's attempts to the contrary, it is easy to follow what Fraser has created and I would love to see this play in the hands of a director who knows stage craft.

Marchese and - especially - Bezuidenhout also do a great job of processing the shifts and changes their characters undergo and it is through them the audience get the final pay off. It is really exciting to see this kind of new writing coming to our stages and I look forward to seeing more of Fraser's work.

2.5 Stars

Saturday 19 August 2017

The Absence of Knowing - Theatre Review

What: The Absence of Knowing: Four Men & Dog Play
When: 17 August - 3 September 2017
Where: La Mama Theatre
Written by: Elvis Peeters
Directed by: Richard Murphet
Performed by: Tom Dent, Rob Meldrum, Emma Smith, Jackson Trickett, and Tim Wotherspoon.
Set by: Eloise Kent
Lighting by: Kris Chainey
Sound by: Roger Alsop
Stage Management by: Jackie Mates

Emma Smith and Jackson Trickett
Elvis Peeters is a Flemish playwright we have no familiarity with in Australia so it is only fitting that his work be brought to our attention by one of our leading theatre makers, Richard Murphet, in the season The Absence of Knowing at La Mama Theatre. Two of Peeters' plays - Four Men and Dog Play - are partnered in an explosive exploration of the emergence of post-truth theatre in this powerful and transformative night of story telling.

We are constantly asking the question what comes after post-modern? Over the last decade it has become increasingly clear it is a world of post-truth and this is being reflected in the writing of people such as Peeters, Kevin Armento, Moira Finucane, and Kerith Manderson-Galvin. The concept of post-truth is the point where the importance of truth is superceded by emotional persuasion. It is the point at which each person's truth is the most important thing which leaves little room or significance for a universal truth - and yet it is a space where universal truths are revealed as a result.

Peeters finds his way into this space through his post punk music and writings and in The Absence of Knowing Murphett brings all of the energy and power of Peeters' provenance into this staging, managing to balance the overtly self-conscious writing delicately so as to reveal rather than explode the characters in their breakneck pace to their worlds end.

The evening begins with the 1995 play Four Men. AD (Tim Wotherspoon), Cas (Rob Meldrum), Vic (Tom Dent), and Jeff (Jackson Trickett) leave on a trek into an uninhabited and hostile terrain. Ostensibly it is a blizzard-strewn mountain, but their escape into an uninhabited and hostile environment is as much a trek into their pain wracked psyche as it is a physical endeavour.

One of the great achievements of the post-punk movement was the integration of the energy and power of punk with recognised traditional elements to create an unexpected and intensely dynamic experience which stirs the mind and body in ways never before experienced. Think of Bjork's 'Oh So Quiet' where you are lulled into a sense of rest and safety before being blasted with shocking intensity. This is a technique Peeters works with and is one mirrored in Murphet's direction.

Supported by clever design by Eloise Kent, Kris Chainey and Roger Alsop, Four Men traverses stillness of empty expanses with the raging of the natural elements. The blizzard strewn Nordic mountain top and the hot, empty expanse of the American mid-west are one and the same. These European cowboys traverse the same lonely frontiers as they search for themselves. It is their leaving other humans which allows them to find their humanity, but what good is it to them as they sit on the ledge of death?

There is a lot of theatre which screams the pain of women in this world. Four Men screams the pain of men. It is the pain of men desperately in need of the women in their life but completely unable to connect in any other form but sex - and not necessarily consensual or personal sexual encounters, more just the act of copulation.

At first I admit to thinking I was not the audience for this play, but as I came to understand the story I realised I was exactly the right person for it to be told to. Watching the confusion, pain and inability to comprehend I came to a softer appreciation for how and why men are struggling to see women in the space of complete humanity as is being demanded now. How would any of us adjust to recognising a teacup as a sentient being?

Four Men has a timelessness which disappears in Dog Play. This second short work is clearly a contemporary portrayal of a young couple (Trickett and Emma Smith) snarling and growling at each other as they play their life away with drugs. As their minds 'expand' with psycho-tropic assistance their desperation increases. These two people are together in almost every conceivable way, but the question asked in the end is the same one asked in Four Men. What good does it do them when they cannot truly connect?

The Absence of Knowing is fast-paced and physical. It will blow your mind to see how big La Mama Theater seems under the expert guidance of Murphet. It will also shock you to see just how much physicality such text-laden material can allow. Murphet's masterful direction is important because the degree of self-consciousness in the writing and the almost 'try-hard' philosophical musings would drown the work as theatre in less skillful and experienced hands.

It is also  a credit to the skill and commitment of the actors to both the work and the process. This ensemble take risks - both physically and psychologically - which will leave you in awe. They meet Murphet's and Peeters' challenges head on maintaining a tension and balance which trips along the tight-rope over the great canyon of self-knowing.

4.5 Stars

Thursday 3 August 2017

The Exotic Lives Of Lola Montez! - Theatre Review

What: The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez!
When 27 - 30 July 2017
Where: Her Majesty's Theatre
Written by: Jackie Smith
Directed by: Moira Finucane
Performed by: Holly Durant and Caroline Lee

Caroline Lee
The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez! is the newest project by Finucane & Smith and is set to take the world by storm. Tracing the too amazing to be true life of notorious courtesan and performer Lola Montez (played by Caroline Lee), born Marie Gilbert, the audience travels from County Cork throughout the exotic realms of Europe, to the USA and all the way to our very own Ballarat - returning to the place Montez hit the news by hitting the Editor of The Ballarat Times for giving her a bad review! (Note taken...) The show is enjoying it's world premier at Her Majesty's Ballarat this weekend.

Written by multi-award winning playwright, Jackie Smith, The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez! is a monologue. A little too wordy in the first half of the show, the story of this remarkable woman is very important and continues the work of Finucane & Smith in exploring and demanding personal freedom and self-determination for everyone.

There are many, many important quotes to take away from this passionate tale. For me the ones which resonated included Montez demanding the right to tell her story her way, and asking the quintessential question why do we have to look at the world through mens' eyes? Of course, this is just two of many, many such moments.

During her sojourn in Australia (1855) Montez become notorious for her provocative 'spider' dance. A dance which revolved around the idea of spiders crawling up her legs, it was considered lewd and provocative - as was Montez herself with her life long history of scandalous love affairs. In a red and black corsetted gown evocative of the cannibalistic black widow spider, Lee is a constant reminder of the men Montez has been involved with across her life (and across Europe). The likes of Alexandre Dumas and Franz Liszt gave way to King Ludwig of Bavaria. Not bad for a simple Irish lass!

Lola Montez is played by Caroline Lee who is apparently a true descendent of the original and this brings a special gravitas to the story and Lee brings all of her skill and experience to this epic tale of a woman who dared to be herself and do what she had to do to survive in a time when this was one of the greatest crimes a woman could commit. Her journey is special though, because she did it without apology and she did it with style and influence. As is true of so many stories of great women though, her life ends in penury, disease and abandonment despite a life well lived indeed.

The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez is directed by Moira Finucane, herself our very own Australian doyenne and champion of personal freedom and her influence and vision for the production is unequivocal. Everything from performance style, visual aesthetics, and subtextual tangents is unmistakably Finucane. I even thought Lee was at one point channeling Finucane in performance much like Alexandre Dujarier was channeled for a final passionate encounter at a seance. (This was a genius way for Smith to bring in 'the love that dare not speak its name' as another great act of freedom for women).

Lee herself is not really a dancer and perhaps the one flaw in the show is the gravitas she brings as a first class actress plays against the lightness found in the body of a dancer. Finucane shows creative brilliance in casting the thrilling Holly Durant ostensibly as a Parisienne dance siren. Durant's true purpose is as the avatar for the true spirit of Lola Montez on stage with Lee. Flitting on and off Durant is born, is the sail of Lee's ship, is the Can Can she once performed, and so on.

In 2016 Finucane was appointed the first ever Creative Fellow of the National Gallery of Victoria and as you watch this show you understand why. Finucane is as much a master of the visual art of performance as Michelangelo was of the art of painting. Every moment, every detail in all her works and in particular this one, are a moving gallery of glorious imagery. Everything from the composition to the light fall, to the textures are considered. Everything Finucane does is luscious and indulgent and glorious and The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez never fails to make the most of everything for the sensual pleasure and spiritual release of the audience.

The show is a little long, but you won't regret a moment of it. Like everything Finucane & Smith produce The Exotic Lives of Lola Montez is riveting and empowering and awe inspiring in its beauty and pain. It is rare for artists of this quality to come together and you should not miss your chance to experience a transformative and spell-binding night of story telling.

4.5 Stars

#SWIFTOK - Cabaret Review

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