Friday 25 August 2023

HOW TO SAVE A TREE: Theatre Review

WHAT: How To Save A Tree
WHEN: 22-26 August 2023
WHERE: Gasworks (Theatrette)
WRITTEN BY: Louise Hopewell, Megan J Reidl, Bruce Shearer, and Gregory Vines
DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth Walley
SOUND BY: John Jenkin
LIGHTING BY: David Silvester
PERFORMED BY: Rhys Carter, Lansy Feng, Alec Gilbert, Cosima Gilbert, Cassandra Hart, Rohan D Hingorani, Carrie Moczynski, and Gabrielle Ng
STAGE MANAGED BY: Isabella Gilbert

Rohan D Hingorani, Cosima Gilbert, Lansy Feng, Gabrielle Ng - photo supplied

Melbourne Writers' Theatre has become known for their seasons of short play collections around themes of place and people. The latest iteration is How To Save A Tree which is being presented in the Gasworks Theatrette this weekend and the theme this time is protest.

Four short plays by member playwrights have been selected for performance to commemorate moments which have incited protest for social change - to varying levels of success. Bruce Shearer has tackled the suffragette movement with 'Jennie Baines versus The World'. Megan J Riedl investigates the art world occupations of the climate change movement in 'The Time is Now'. Louise Hopewell interrogates the absurd connection between Novak Djokovic and the asylum seekers locked up at the Park Hotel in her play 'Waiting Game'. Finally, Gregory Vines brings us a surprisingly heart warming look at the camaraderie which has built over the years with the Albert Park Grand Prix protestors in his piece 'Good Trouble'.

I personally love a good protest and firmly believe no significant social change has ever taken place without aggressive disruption. How To Save A Tree reaffirms my beliefs. As a woman I have a real soft spot for the suffragettes and I was quite excited for the program to start there with the life story of Jennie Baines. Whilst Shearer managed to condense Baines' whole life into this little play and Cassandra Hart did a magnificent job of bringing her to life I personally think the short play tried to do too much. Full of tiny snapshot moments across her entire career as a Salvation Army member in the UK through to her senior years in Melbourne as a Magistrate there is little time to really appreciate the impact of her work or the struggles she must have faced to be seen and heard and honoured the way she was. Shearer has tried to give some emotional depth by infilling a love story with her husband (Rhys Carter) but it is too little and none of that really speaks to the social change she effected.

Carrie Moczynki and Alec Gilbert brought a bundle of energy and zeal in Riedl's 'The Time Is Now'. The two actors recreate the 2022 occupation of NGV where two protestors glued themselves to the Picasso painting 'Massacre In Korea'. The genius of this play is how Riedl layers in the current climate change protest with Picasso's protest informing his art. Flitting across time long past, the present and a time in the perhaps not so distant future, Riedl links Picasso's rebellious painting style, the rebellious content of the art work itself, and the current protestors disrupting in the face of climate change. Perhaps one the of most compelling scenes is the one (pictured above) where a grandmother (Lansy Feng) tells the story of a time when the last car filled up with petrol and other intriguing anecdotes before the climate crisis event took place. 

Adding to the beauty and power of this short play is how Elizabeth Walley (director) has the ensemble replicate the painting in the background - an ever-present reminder of violence and ignorance. Walley has a talent for moving and shaping an ensemble. It is a talent she gets to exercise regularly in these Melbourne Writers' Theatre seasons, and to be honest, it is the thing which saves How To Save A Tree from tedium because, as interesting as the topics are, much of the writing is expositional and this is not the strongest acting ensemble the team have ever gathered on stage. Some of the cast are strong (Alec and Cosima Gilbert and Cassandra Hart for example) but even performers I have seen and admired in other shows were disappointing. Moczynski and Feng, for example, seemed to have real trouble with their lines. On the other hand, some of the other ensemble members were barely even used.

Hopewell's 'Waiting Game' juxtaposes modern celebrity outrage with a great Australian shame. When tennis star Djokovic was detained during the Australian Open COVID scandal he was placed in the same hotel the government had been keeping asylum seekers in for years prior. Gabrielle Ng plays an ABC TV journalist interviewing an asylum seeker advocate (Moczynski). Suddenly the tennis player turns up at the hotel and we enter a dream sequence where the advocate sits Djokovic (Carter) and an asylum seeker (Rohan D Hingorani) down to share some tea. The absurdity of the attention Djokovic got and the speed with which he was released is heightened when placed against the plight of the men held in indefinite detention. 

The style of this play is a bit too expository for my taste but it could have been powerful if Moczynski didn't struggle with her lines so much. I also think Walley needed to spend more time with Moczynski to really drill down and find the dynamics in the writing. Hingorani's understated and truthful performance spoke volumes about us and about the circumstances these men find themselves in.

How To Save A Tree ends with a sweet little play about the Albert Park protestors. Vines introduces us to all of the characters who have been protesting the Grand Prix since it was first proposed. Yes, they are still at it and yes, the police are still arresting them. A holding cell becomes packed to the rim with all the repeat offenders who have somehow come to form their own little extended family. This event may be all they have in common, but they see each other every year and a beautiful bond is formed, emphasised by the chorus of 'Do You Hear The People Sing' (from Les Miserables) at the end. 

The song invites us all to join in. To join in the song and also to join in the act of protest. Find your passion and fight for your beliefs. This is the message How To Save A Tree is trying to impart. John Jenkin's sound design reminds us that protest is not a quiet act, and it is not a safe act. The playwrights remind us how essential that act is though.

2 Stars

Sunday 20 August 2023

CYGNETS: Theatre Review

WHAT: Cygnets
WHEN: 16 - 26 August 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Delta Brooks, Rebekah Carton, and Harry Haynes
DIRECTED BY: Harry Haynes
DESIGN BY: Juliette Whitney
LIGHTING BY: Nicholas Moloney
SOUND BY: Miles O'Neil
PERFORMED BY: Delta Brooks, Rebekah Carton, Tom Richards, and uncredited ensemble.
Delta Brooks, Rebekah Carton, and Tom Richards - photo by Matto Lucas

I think one of the great truths being revealed in the 21st century is that our understanding of women - who we are, how we behave, what we feel and experience - has historically been man-washed by the great creative writers and artists of Western History. In a desperate rush to scream 'we are human in all it's good and bad' playwrights are looking back at iconic historic/mythic female characters and ripping off the Eve mask to see the flesh and blood of what must have really been going on. The latest in this zeitgeist is Cygnets being presented by The Liminal Space at the Explosives Factory until 26 August.

Clytemnestra and Helen are two such iconic women. They are twin daughters (or quads if you include their brothers Castor and Pollux) born from an egg laid by Leda who had been raped by Zeus when he took the form of a swan. (Those Greeks really like to make their mythology complicated!). Both daughters went on to marry kings (Agamemnon and Menelaus respectively) who were important players in the epic poems of Homer.

It seems to be standard fare in Greek mythology that women begin all their relationships with rape and in Cygnets Delta Brooks, Rebekah Carton, and Harry Haynes explore what that really means for these women and their familial relationships. Being the result of rape, how bonded was Leda to her daughters and how do those daughters choose to remember her? Playing lovingly as little girls, how damaged was their sibling relationship after Helen was abducted by Theseus? Was she the same little girl when she was returned to her family? 

In particular, in Cygnets Brooks and Carton explore their sorority. They play as little girls and move on to joint pre-wedding celebrations as both girls prepare to marry their kings. They settle into their fates and all the while Tom Richards is circling with his video phone, watching them and live streaming onto screens for the audience to watch. Do you want to watch them through his gaze or look at the real women in all of their totality? You get to choose in Cygnets - sometimes.

It really helps to know something about who these mythic women are to fully appreciate Cygnets. In particular, the journey of Helen is painful and magnificant. Without recounting the story of Helen of Troy, Brooks and Carton manage to expose all the ugliness she must have held inside of her as a result of the traumas inflicted. In Cygnets they make them part of her external visage. This 'face which launched a thousand ships' (as cited by Christopher Marlowe and, earlier, by Lucian) becomes a slobbering drunk with matted hair and cake smashed over her face, her body covered in rivers of blood - menstral, but also the blood of the men who died in the battle of Troy. 

As she poses opposite Richard's perfect David, Brooks cries out "I am not yours to die for!" Just as Eve is blamed for eating the apple and getting everyone thrown out of Eden, Helen is blamed for the war at Troy. Once again men blame women for their own mistakes, atrocities and weaknesses. Helen was just a woman. A woman raped. A girl abducted. A child spurned.

Carton's Clytemnestra is less transparent than Brooks' Helen. The start of her reminiscences with Helen are full and engaging, but after her marriage to Agamemnon it becomes opaque. There is no reference to her first marriage, and no significant reference to the fate of her daughter Iphigenia. They do speak about her murders (Agamemnon and Cassandra) but we don't really see the journey towards that or impact thereafter. 

What we see of Clytemnestra is a development into someone hard and uncaring towards her sister although how and why this happens is unclear. At one point Helen tells Clytemnestra she thinks she is pregnant and Clytemnestra says 'Don't be silly!' and then becomes quite aggressive. I don't get it because Helen had children so it is not as if she was making a false claim...Anyway, my point is I lost my place in Clytemnestra's story at that point and it never really seemed to go anywhere which is a bit of a shame. 

Beyond that I really loved this production. It begins with a live art element for the audience to explore, juxtaposing Ancient Greek iconography with modern costume items and living bodies (the uncredited ensemble). Juliette Whitney (designer) has created a stunning aesthetic of white and red and Nicholas Moloney has lit it well despite the constraints of traverse staging. I loved the choice of the traverse by Haynes (director) which emphasised the public gaze on these tragic women just trying to live their lives. The power of Whitney's design is coupled with the driving force of Miles O'Neil's sound design. 

Nothing in this space is comfortable, but everything has impact. Everything is beautiful, but nothing is pretty. Cygnets is a story about women. It is about the person behind the visage. It speaks to celebrity today through celebrity of ancient times. It speaks about women as people, not as icons. It shows women unveiled from the male gaze. It shows us.

4 Stars

Monday 14 August 2023


WHAT: No Former Performer Has Performed This Performance Before #8
WHEN: 10 - 19 August 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
PERFORMED BY: Carolyn Hanna, Michael Havir, and Penny Baron 
LIGHTING BY: Bronwyn Pringle
VISUAL DRAMATURG BY: Dagmara Gieysztor 

Michael Havir and Carolyn Hanna - Photo by Dagmara Gieysztor

NFTs are all the rage now in our digital economy. One single digital art work purchased and stored in your block chain to be enjoyed at your private leisure. No Former Performer Has Performed This Performance Before #8, currently playing at Theatre Works, gives you that thrill of having an experience nobody other than the rest of the audience on your night of viewing will ever see. Every night is a new experience. It is exclusive and it is yours.

The members of Born In A Taxi had an idea in 2015. Working with Andrew Morrish, the team decided to create an annual program of improvised performance until one of them dies. That sounds a bit macabre, but the journey for the performers and the audiences following along must be so incredible!

Penny Baron and Carolyn Hanna are physical theatre specialists and Michael Havir is a composer who, in No Former Performer, responds and offers in real time with the actors. He is on stage with them, whilst in the background Dagmara Gieysztor (visual dramaturg) and Bronwyn Pringle (Lighting Designer and Operator) work their special brands of improvisational magic. The aural, textural, and optical architecture shifts and changes, forcing the actors to respond as they writhe and patter their way through intellectual concepts, emotional lability, and an ever-changing environment.

You might think this is a recipe for chaos, but this ensemble know what they are doing. You can tell from the moment they step on stage that, whilst they are exploring what the performance of the night will end up being, these theatre makers are masters of their craft and wherever they end up taking the show, it will be intriguing, exciting, and extremely entertaining. 

Gieysztor and Pringle are newer to the team and perhaps a bit timid in their roles at the moment. My biggest hope is that they will gain the confidence to be a bit more overt in their offers and interventions. It is hard for production people to break down the training of being invisible but it is necessary in No Former Performer. This show demands participation and is stronger in those moments of bravery and interaction. 

I reckon if Tamara Saulwick and Ridiculusmus had a baby, it would be No Former Performer Has Performed This Performance Before #8. It is exciting to go and see a show not knowing what that show will be and this show delivers on all counts. It has mastery, humour, anticipation, heart, and a guaranteed time limit of 50 minutes. What more could you ask for? And you can go back night after night at half price to see what the team create next! 

4.5 Stars

Monday 7 August 2023

THE CAVE OF SPLEEN: Theatre Review

WHAT: Cave of Spleen
WHEN: 2 - 12 August 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosive Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Laura Collins
DIRECTED BY: Stephanie Ghajar
DESIGNED BY: Fiona Macdonald
COMPOSITION & SOUND BY: Imogen Cygler and Rachel Lewindon
LIGHTING BY: Giovanna Yate Gonzalez
PERFORMED BY: Amelia Jane, Nisha Joseph, Pia O'Meadhra, and Heather Riley

Amelia Jane, Nisha Joseph, and Pia O'Meadhra - photo supplied

in 8BCE Homer wrote the epic poem Odyssey. In 8CE Ovid wrote 'Metamorphoses', another narrative epic poem. In 1712CE Alexander Pope wrote a mock epic poem called 'The Rape of The Lock'. In 2023CE Laura Collins debuts her play, The Cave of Spleen, at the Explosives Factory. What connects these four literary events?

The concept of katabasis is a journey into the underworld where secrets may be revealed which are not available to mortal men. Odysseus was directed to go down to Hades where he spoke with the ghosts of heroes of the past. In Metamorphoses, jealous of her sister, Minerva enters the cave of Envy to get revenge. In his epic parody 'The Rape of The Lock' Pope creates the cave of Spleen. Mirroring the description of Ovid's cave, within this cave lies the Queen of Spleen, languishing on a bed and tended by Pain and Megrin. The cave is populated by misshapen and miserable women (and a man who thinks he is pregnant). In the 1700's it was believed that the spleen sent vapours around the body which caused illnesses. In Pope's poem these sad and broken people were distorted and tortured due to sexual frustration - commentary of the plight of the imperfect woman at Court.

Collins has taken Pope's concept and attempted to draw a more serious analogy between her experiences with chronic pain, the climate crisis, and the continual social pressure on women be silent. Thus, four women find themselves in a cave (I am not sure why or how) and decide to use it as a base of operations to plan a social rebellion against patriarchy and climate crisis denial. They stride around railing at men and how hard it is to create social change. Each woman has different levels of activism ranging from Pia O'Meadhra's softer appeasement through to Heather Riley's radical violence.

I recently reviewed another play by Collins, Bleached, so it will be no surprise to anyone when I say the show begins with a lot of shouty, shouty words, words, words showing how angry and disempowered these women feel. Fear not, though. Under the skilful hands of Stephanie Ghajar (director), The Cave of Spleen has better dynamics and some clever choices which give the audience a way to tune out some of the excessive verbiage which is a feature of all of this current rash of eco-feminist plays which are littering Melbourne stages this year.

After the initial onslaught the women start to peel off, one by one, feeling some vertigo which turns into pain and finds them lying on the cave bed and writhing together replicating some of the images created over time from Pope's work. As Riley continues to rant and rage and plot, O'Meadhra, Amelia Jane, and Nisha Joseph recite side-affects from various medical and homeopathic treatments. Riley holds out right up to the end of the play and one of the more powerful images is Riley screaming silently at the other women as they writhe into their various poses in a dreamlike fashion.The whole thing begs the question when do we stop seeing, hearing, caring?

The performances are dynamic and it is unfortunate that the play shifts between derivative word mush, quotes from 'The Rape of The Lock', and voguing. Collins does make some good observations and has sharp and witty interjections of the cliches people spout to avoid actually having to do something about, well, anything. The problem is that in The Cave of Spleen there isn't a strong enough narrative link between the concepts of pain and climate crisis. 

Due to the non-narrative writing style the links have had to be made visually, but in my opinion what this ends up doing is creating a science fantasy world where, through a temporal and/or interdimensional portal, these modern women are overtaken by the vapours of the original Cave of Spleen and the ghosts of the pasts take over. I didn't see a connection between the physical pain being created by the continued forced silence of women and their anger over climate change. As with Bleached the call to action is missing. What am I supposed to think about or do after seeing this show? I don't know because this cluster bomb approach to all the things making these women angry leaves me in a minefield with no path out. I know all the things which are so very frustrating. I am a woman. What I need is ideas for action and The Cave of Spleen lacks those ideas.

The production elements of The Cave of Spleen are wonderful although I find myself perplexed by the fact that all of these eco-activist plays begin by polluting the air with smoke/fog/haze.  Having said that, Fiona Macdonald (designer) has created the cave with exquisite, simple elements and side from the haze (technically accurate, but conceptually curious), Giovanna Yate Gonzalez has created a powerful and driving lighting design. Rachel Lewindon and Imogen Cygler have worked together to create a wonderfully dynamic and atmospheric sound design which really helps us cut through the journey we are being taken on.

Things I love about The Cave of Spleen include the wonderfully deep literary provenance and Ghajar's control of the elements to reign in the script. As I mentioned, the show looks and sounds fantastic, and the actors do well to try and maintain some differentiation between the women. Riley's performance is powerful as the rebellious hold out. Joseph and Jane deliver some outrageous zingers cleverly crafted by Collins, and O'Meadhra fades skilfully into the Queen of Spleen. Ironically, I just feel the direct references to Pope's ideas overwhelm the connections Collins is trying to make in the here and now.

3.5 Stars

KOAL: Theatre Review

WHAT: KOAL WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory) WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024 CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford DIRECTED BY: Tre...