Monday 25 September 2023


WHAT: Biographica
WHEN: 21 September - 1 October 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
MUSIC BY; Mary Finsterer
LYRICS BY: Tom Wright
DIRECTED BY: Heather Fairbairn
CONDUCTED BY: Patrick Burns
DESIGN BY: Savanna Wegman
LIGHTING BY: Niklas Pajanti
PERFORMED BY: Helen Bower, Melody Chia, Julia Cianci, Belinda Dalton, Tom D'Ath, Elyane de Fontenay, Rosa Hwang, Rachael Joyce, Douglas Kelly, Dion Mills, Juel Riggall, Ely Ruttico, Mira Stephens, Laura Tanata, Terrence Teo, Brandon Waterworth, Tim Willis, and Raphael Wong
VIDEO BY: Aron Murray
STAGE MANAGED BY: Brittany Stock

Rachael Joyce, Juel Riggall, and Douglas Kelly - photo by Jodie Hutchinson

For a short period at the start of this century Chamber Made was producing small but magnificent new operas of the scope and scale of the show being presented at Theatre Works right now. Sadly, Melbourne has lost that resource as the company has moved in a different direction now. On the other hand, Lyric Opera has sprung up and moved into that space. Whilst this season of Biographica is not a premier (it was first staged in 2017 in Sydney) it demonstrates how important it is to bring these stunning new works to other parts of the country to inspire and invigorate an art form struggling to be seen as relevant in our ever-progressing performance syntax.

Biographica is a surrealist exploration of the life of Renaissance man Gerolamo Cardano (1501 - 1576). Who? You may not know his name, but you know this man's work. He invented algebra, developed probability calculations (the way to work out betting odds), and - among other things - invented the gimbal and the basis of the combination lock. Without him we wouldn't have compasses, binomial coefficients, or a systematic use of negative numbers. 

Cardano was a mathematician, a physician, a philosopher, and a rampant gambler and playboy. The unwanted illegitimate son of a lawyer, Cardano went on to marry and have three children, all of whom died in ignomy. Cardano himself died at the hands of the Inquisition after accusations of heresy.

Mary Finsterer is a dynamic contemporary composer who works to meld the music of the Renaissance with the modes of today. The life of Cardano was perfect fodder for this obsession and it shows in the composition of the music in Biographica. Finsterer plays with the progression of music in the 16th century, mirroring Tom Wright's tale of the life and times of an amazing thinker who changed the world.

The show opens with golden guardian spirits singing the prelude in stillness. A static tableau allows the music to establish itself and its intentions. Early in the 1500's church music was still using Gregorian style chants and this style influences the early movements in Biographica. However as the century moved forward secular music began to be included in sacred circles and Finsterer plays with that, introducing a jaunty madrigal into what had been established as a formal and processional space. The tensions between these styles play with the tensions between the protagonist and his children as his life story unfolds.

One thing to know about the music of that time is that it was slower. The standard note in the Renaissance was the semi-breve compared to today where it is the crochet. Also at that time there was a move towards featuring vocals over instruments. This is when the basso continuo became de rigeur, and music embraced the cantus firmus and polyphony. All of this becomes evident as the voices of the singers fills the Theatre Works auditorium and vibrate through the body - a little bit uncomfortable and a whole lot sensuous.

In the 1500's vocal music became more expressive and singers where given permission to explore and luxuriate in the notes. This creates extraordinary effects on the body but I have to admit it does get in the way of intelligibility of the lyrics. Biographica is sung in English, but I do think it needs surtitles - not because of articulation problems, but because it is a style we are not conditioned to hear and understand anymore. It does show the measure of skill and ability of the singers though!

Belinda Dalton (soprano) has a powerful voice which is weapon of mass impression! The other soprano, Rachael Joyce, has a gentler tone perhaps but is still as impactful and she plays the dying daughter with pathos and authenticity. Hearing her cry out for her father's love on her death bed almost brought me to tears. Juel Riggall brings incredible acting skills along with her beautiful mezzo-soprano voice to her roles. Riggall never drops out of her characters at any moment, even when she is chorus. She is always engaged and engaging.

Douglas Kelly (tenor) displays an incredible range and his falsetto is as sweet as any choir boy's. Playing the younger son, Aldo, he faces his father down as he points out the sins of the father must necessarily be the downfall of his son. Raphael Wong (baritone) brings a surprising softness to his deep tones as he examines the torment his cheating wife bestows on him.

One of the things which makes Biographica different and modern is the non-singing character of Cardano himself, played by Dion Mills. The story begins at the moment of his death. It is a solipsistic rememberance of his life. 

A curious truth about European religion is how astrology and Christianity became entwined whereas these days we think of them as separate and conflicting ideologies. If you tour the churches of Europe you will see all sorts of astrological iconography all over them. It is fascinating and confusing for us now, but Cardano's obsession with the stars and their impact on humans was commonplace back then. He begins and ends asserting he always predicted exactly when he would die.

Mills is outstanding as Cardano. The role is not easy because although it is spoken, it is definitely metered and pitched with musical imperative. He does it well, carrying the visage of the harried genius orator comfortably. Walking around and peering into the fringed gimbal hoops created by designer Savanna Wegman, Cardano watches his memories reveal themselves. 

Perhaps a flaw in the structure of this opera is that there is no evidence of insight or revelation but perhaps there doesn't need to be any. He is about to die after all... More disappointingly is that his amazing discoveries and inventions are only hinted at through some muttering at his workbench and some quite magnificent projections (Aron Murray). The core of the work focusses on his family and his personal failings. I would have liked a better balance between the two.

Wegman's set is stunning in it's simplicity and Niklas Pajanti has lit it beautifully. Whilst not exactly a contemporary of Cardano (Caravaggio was born 5 years before the inventor's death), Wegman and Pajanti have used the tonal palette and chiarascura effect of the great painter's works. Real candles glow and flutter on Cardano's workstation and Pajanti has managed to use the lights to expand the yellow glow to exude across the stage to light a shadowy world. Even the ubiquitous smoke machine centres around those flames and the haze is allowed to gently float above the performers rather than engulfing them (and us).

The orchestra consists of instruments of the time - mainly strings and wind with some percussion. An electronic keyboard sits among the historical instruments, playing the continuo role historically owned by the harpsicord or organ. All of it making up a gentle and exquisite back line to the emerging expression and exploration of the voices.

Director Heather Fairbairn has led the Biographica team to create a magnificent visual diarama which allows Patrick Burns (conductor) to showcase the music as it expands and embraces the audience. Both production and music take control immediately and lead us through a shadowy world of human frailty and magnificence.

Biographica is a wonderful chamber opera. If we had more of these and less of those behemoth productions by the major companies I think more people would make opera a part of their regular live theatre repertoire. Finsterer and Wright have combined forces to create an incredible opera. Thank you Lyric Opera for bringing this to Melbourne.

4.5 Stars 

Monday 18 September 2023

TURN, TURN, TURN: Theatre Review

WHAT: Turn, Turn, Turn
WHEN: 13 - 23 September 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
DIRECTED BY: Renee Palmer
SET BY: Tom Brayshaw
LIGHTING BY: Gabriel Bethune
SOUND BY: Patrick Slee
PERFORMED BY: Melanie Audrey, Sarah Hartnell, Sodi Murphy-Shrives, and Eben Rotjer
COSTUMES BY: Adele Cattenazzi

Sodie Murphy-Shrives, Sarah Hartnell, Melanie Audrey, and Eben Rotjer - photo supplied

I love science fiction. I live it. I breath it, I would eat it if I could. I REALLY love how science fiction is making a permanent and entrenched place in live theatre. The latest entrant in that genre is Turn, Turn, Turn which is being presented at the Explosives Factory this month.

Written by Keith Gow, the premise for Turn, Turn, Turn is a future in which humanity keeps moving from planet to planet as they use up the resources on each one they colonise. In this play the characters are abandoning Earth 7 and are in a race to get to Earth 8. Earth 8 is different though because they are not colonising a pre-existing planet. This one has been terraformed for them.

Much like the land grabs in the pioneering days of the USA, if you get to the next planet first you get the best bits of land and greater privilege in the new community. Along the way the play has surprisingly little to say about the environment, a bit to say about tradition, and a whole lot to say about privilege.

Riffing off ideas such as those found in The Hunger Games, Hon (Melanie Audrey) and Tee (Sodi Murphy-Shrives) have been selected from birth to have the right to emigrate as long as they win the race to the spaceships. They have been given lifelong advantages and a thing called 'Juice' which makes them think better and heal more quickly. The play starts with these two racing to the ships but Hon has broken her ankle. Her lover, Tee insists on helping her sneak onto a ship despite her injury. We find out later in the play why. Instantly we are introduced to the theme of rule breaking.

The ship takes off and we meet Navigator Naz (Sarah Hartnell) and their partner, Engineer Elk (Eben Rotjer). The ship is a junky old freighter with no chance of winning the race to Earth 8, or so Hon and Tee think. This ship has illegal temporal drives though, so they all have to choose whether to use them and risk getting caught and kicked off the new planet and returned to Earth 7. This is the core of the play. It all centres around an ethical battle between jockeying for a position of privilege or respecting community standards - which in this play are sneered at as 'tradition'...? Personally I think tradition is not the same thing.

I find Turn, Turn, Turn a confusing play and I feel like maybe Gow doesn't actually understand what he has written. He speaks to wanting to address privilege and tradition but what I walked away with was the ideas that cheaters win and we should feel sorry for people with privilege because they do it tough too. I suspect that was not meant to be the intention but Turn, Turn, Turn is a world which is definitely leagues away from the Roddenberry universe.

Turn, Turn, Turn is a tough play to stage because it is, for the most part, set in the claustrophobic space of a ship made for 4 people. Brayshaw (set designer) has done some good work on the set but in the end I think he created too much space. Renee Palmer (director) moves the cast around skillfully but it would be much more visually dynamic if the cast had to keep climbing over each other and dancing around each other. It also would have helped sell the stakes of how desperate they are to get back planetside.

Gabriel Bethune's lighting does the job but I did not understand the constant haze. In a spaceship you should only see smoke when something is broken and then you get scared. If I was on a ship constantly smoking like this one I would run straight to the airlock. I am probably going to die anyway. More importantly though, having it there all the time dilutes the moments of specific terror when things actually go wrong. Luckily, Patrick Slee's sound design is full of energy and dynamics which keeps us believing in the uncertainty of the journey the four miscreants are all undertaking.

The cast are skilled and intriguing. In particular, I really loved Naz (Sarah Hartnell) and Elk (Eben Rotjer), and I think I am supposed to. My one tip for the caste would be to focus on keeping your cores activated. It is natural to relax when you sit down - and there is a lot of sitting in this play! When the core relaxes the voice relaxes too, and then we all relax. Nobody should be relaxed in Turn, Turn, Turn, especially not the audience.

I can see the play Turn, Turn, Turn wants to be but I don't think it is there yet. People say good science fiction is just people stories in space suits. I disagree. You have to get the science right or there is no world for us to believe in. I guess from the publicity I wanted more information about climate crises, colonisation, and the carelessness of moving from world to world rather than changing behaviours to save the world the people are already living on. This play assumes there are a lot places for us to go. There isn't.

I personally don't have much time for people of privilege crying 'poor me' and I certainly don't like it when privilege gets their happily ever after because they cheated. Turn, Turn, Turn is fun but I really struggle with the subtext. I always enjoy a fun trip into outer space though, and that is as good a reason as any to see this play.

3 Stars

Thursday 14 September 2023


WHAT: The Nervous Atmosphere
WHEN: 14 - 17 September 2023
WHERE: Arts House (Main Hall)
DIRECTED BY: Ingrid Voorendt
SOUND BY: Jed Palmer
PERFORMED BY: Zoe Barry and Goldie Palmer
COSTUME BY: Renate Henschke
Zoe Barry - photo by Sarah Walker

Before you sign a contract you really need to make sure you read the fine print. I strongly recommend you do this before going to see The Nervous Atmosphere produced by Chamber Made and presented at Arts House this week. If you don't you risk not really appreciating the show for what it is and that would be a shame.

Zoe Barry (writer, composer, performer) had three unexpected and unusual encounters with lightning in the space of 6 months at a certain point in her life. Whilst none of them were direct, unabated traumas (the first hit her car, the second landed in front of the car and the third hit her house several months later) she felt changed by the experiences. It is a basic fundamental of human psychology to look for meaning in our world and our lives - that's how religion got invented - so it is no surprise these events triggered a quest for Barry.

Coincidentally, Barry had already started reading up on the parascientific debates of the 19th century. This was a strange point in history when real scientists discovered electrical current can trigger muscles spasms, when real and pseudoscientists were curious about electricity and the brain, and when the difference between a tarot reader and a psychologist was a matter of linguistics. Having been targeted so dramatically by natural electrical forces as she had been, there is little mystery about the breadth of Barry's quest to find equilibrium.

Undoubtedly, this curiosity was also peaked by the zeitgeist of our current times when the difference between truth and hope are blurred. Fake news is not just a political term. It invades our health and wellness with just as much danger as it invades our halls of power. Just like the quackery which emerged in the 19th century, today people are selling herbs and vitamins as miracle drugs, magnetic jewellery is being sold as a cure for arthritis, and TENS machines are sending low level electrical current into bodies by the millions to manage chronic pain. All of this is the parascience of today.

Barry spent a long time after these incidents chasing answers for her altered state and perception of the world. Everything was strange and she was strange in her spaces and places. We discover, in The Nervous Atmosphere, an incredible array of people she consulted with including doctors, psychologists, osteopaths, and - possibly the most interesting of all, although sadly not much explored in the show - a psychic. The great disappointment of this show is that beyond being a list of description, Barry stays on a metaphysical plane with all of her text so we don't really get to enjoy the ups and downs of her reality. Rather we stay suspended in the ether of altered consciousness.

This is where reading the fine print is important for this show. The Nervous Atmosphere - although having a starting point of thunder and lightning - is a sonic meditation. The word nervous in this case means 'of the nerves' and is not referencing an in situ agitated psycho/physical state beyond the most incidental of references. It is, in fact, a reaction against that very thing.

As Barry bows her cello rhythmically, and speaks her texts in a slow, hypnotic fashion, you are meant to fall into a kind of trance. The cello is bowed in steady time although it slides between majors and minors (mostly settling in the minor modes), and occasionally lazily sliding out of tonality altogether as if the weight of gravity and/or ennui make the act of bowing just too active for Barry...too connected...too grounded.

The show is 70 minutes long though, and I would suggest it could happily sit at 45 and that would make a satisfying experience. Instead, it lingers long past it's natural end which is disappointing. Having said that, Barry's practice is based around slowness which makes it entirely in line with her creative oeuvre. I guess I am just a bit too MTV. 

I think Ingrid Voorendt (director) could have helped guide Barry a bit more strongly with regard to performance dynamics. In particular it was the wrong move for the show to be performed with Barry in the back corner of the playing space which allows her to become disconnected from the audience. This is basic theatre-making and as much as there may be a good array of artistic rationale, it is bad blocking.

I have to say The Nervous Atmosphere is visually and sonically stunning. Bosco Shaw (set and lighting) has created a liminal space for Barry to examine her metaphysical investigations. Shorn sheep wool is piled across the stage like a big fluffy cloud and lights flicker underneath. It is as if Barry has ascended above the electrical turmoil which changed her so emphatically. Nature chose her and now she transcends it. The thing which impressed me most about Shaw and his impactful and innovative lighting is that he was able to evoke this limbo, this ether, without smoke, fog, or haze. There are not many lighting designers in Melbourne with that kind of skill or creativity these days and it is powerful.

Jed Palmer (sound) also works hard to keep this altered state and space in play, shifting the sound in space and time. Sometimes in synch with Barry's looped cello and reinforced speech, and sometimes in counterpoint. The cello and the loudspeakers have their own conversations about stasis and untethering. If the script (a combination of writings from Barry and other sources) was more relaxed and lyrical these sonic excursions married to the explorations of the bowing of the cello would have really taken us all to a higher plane.

The Nervous Atmosphere is an intriguing exploration. With some stronger performance dramaturgy it has the possibility of being incredibly disquieting and utterly peaceful at the same time. 

3 Stars

Tuesday 12 September 2023


WHAT: A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum
WHEN: 8 - 24 September 2023
WHERE: Chapel Off Chapel (The Chapel)
MUSIC & LYRICS BY: Stephen Sondheim
BOOK BY: Larry Gelbart and Bert Shevelove
DIRECTED BY: Melanie Hillman
SET BY: Sarah Tulloch
COSTUMES BY: Jemima Johnston
LIGHTING BY: Rob Sowinski
PERFORMED BY: Sarah Barlow, Sarah Brown, Gen Campbell, Rina D'Cruz, Charmaine Gorman, Milo Hartill, Jacqui Hoy, Trevor Jones, Kristie Nguy, Mel O'Brien, Alanna Ritchie, Judith Roberts, Luisa Scrofani, Sophie Weiss, Cathy Woodhouse, and Sarahlouise Younger
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Sophie Loughran
SOUND BY: Marcello Lo Ricco
STAGE MANAGED BY: Daikota Gerrett

Charmaine Gorman, Jacqueline Hoy, Milo Hartill and Mel O'Brien - photo by Jodi Hutchinson

Let's be honest. Staging A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum today is a fraught decision - almost as fraught as staging Shakespeare. After having watched it I truly believe the only way you can do it in modern times is exactly the way Watch This have done it. You can see what I mean by heading to Chapel Off Chapel this week.

Written in 1962 by the incredible Stephen Sondheim with Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, Forum is a classic sex farce which which even predates the word farce! Riffing on the comedy stylings of ancient Roman playwright Plautus, this team play with all the archetypal comedy tropes to create a comedy of errors Shakespeare would envy (particularly as this is exactly the kind of thing he did too). There has been an attempt to list the specific Plautus plays encompassing the plot of Forum but why bother? As all wise theatre makers know, once you have a formula you put it on rinse and repeat and voila! you have a career, repertoire, and a reputation. If you are lucky enough to be a man it can sustain you for centuries.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum is a tale of men seeing sexy women and striving to own them or bed them, women as sex slaves, and house slaves doing anything to buy their freedom. All the men are rich, brave, or strong, and the few women included are slaves or wives. This should not work on a stage in 2023 but Melanie Hillman (director) has dipped into the feminist and non-binary gender zeitgeists and found a way to tell this story, but also reveal and expose this story for everything it is and everything it isn't.

Every character in this production of Forum is played by a woman. And not just any women. The women in this cast defy the male gaze. They come in all shapes, sizes, and colours.  Mel O'Brien is a knockout as the sexy and dumb Philia despite spilling out of her blue gown in all the right places. Luisa Scrofani is a giant on stage despite her diminutive size as she plays the bombastic Miles Gloriosus. Sarahlouise Younger brings gravitas and sophistication to the scurrilous brothel owner Marcus Lycus.

The genius of Hillman's production is that she hasn't changed a word of the script. There is no concession given to the gender of the actors in word or deed. This is what packs the punch and masculine ribaldry and lasciviousness runs amok along these Ancient Roman streets. The cast play the story true and that is the most dangerous thing they can do. In the process they do their own lampoon on this old lampoon and also the modern theatre strictures for women who dare to tread the boards of the great theatres of the world.

As a musical, this production of A Funny Thing Happened To The Way To The Forum is fine. The acting, directing and choreography (Sophie Loughran) do the job they need to do. Luckily all the women are very fine vocalists, the band is uptempo, and Sarah Tulloch's set is visually outstanding even though it doesn't really give the actors much of a dynamic playing space. Kristie Nguy as the protean (an ancient supernumerary) is absolutely scene-stealing in her incredible acting, singing and dancing.

If you really want to go and see such old and out-dated theatrical offerings such as A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum then this is the one to see. At least this one says something new and current rather than engraving old patriarchal tropes even deeper into our psyche. Oh, and yes, it is very funny. Literally a laugh a minute.

3.5 Stars

Monday 11 September 2023

MYRA IN SPACE: Theatre Review

WHAT: Myra In Space
WHEN: 7 - 17 September 2023
WHERE: Fortyfivedownstairs
WRITTEN BY: Bridgette Burton
DIRECTED BY: Alice Bishop
DESIGN BY: Silvia Shao
LIGHTING BY: Richard Vabre
SOUND BY: Nat Grant
PERFORMED BY: Nicholas Jaquinot, Annie Lumsden, Kelly Nash, Rama Nicholas, and Greg Parker

Kelly Nash and Greg Parker - photo by Jody Jane Stitt

The space race is on again thanks to a few outrageous gazillionaires and it has caused some of us to think back to our youths when space was a frontier and flying into it was a future full of options and adventures. Myra In Space, now playing at Fortyfivedownstairs, explores what that yearning was and now is for the people who lived it the first time around.

It is impossible for the current generation to ever truly understand the hope and belief space travel inspired us to embrace last century. The idea of breaking free from the limitations of this world, this life, and exploring that big blue/black expanse of nobody knew what would be found. A real and urgent commitment to the idea of finding aliens drove science and the imagination. Asimov, Herbert, and McCaffrey wrote endless books imagining life beyond earth and this was the generation taking the first steps. Those first steps on the moon were only the beginning of hope and possibility.

This sense of forward movement was embraced by feminists and when Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space in 1963 the possibilities exploded in the minds of women everywhere. Barriers were being broken down in education and employment and whilst it is not true to say anything was possible, a great many things felt within our reach. They were...are...but it is all taking a lot longer than anyone back then could have ever imagined.

In 2023 we are being told homelessness for women over the age of 52 is rising at a rate exceeding any other demographic. How is it these women who grew up with so much hope and so many doors starting to edge open can be finding themselves so lost and alone and with nowhere to live? This is the question Bridgette Burton (writer) is asking in Myra In Space

Myra (Kelly Nash) and Bruce (Greg Parker) are a couple in the latter years of a working life. Bruce is a Supreme Court Judge and Myra is his wife. They have 2 children still finding their careers, but who are no longer living at home. Valli (Annie Lumsden) is a radio shock jock and Phillip (Nicholas Jaquinot) is a young lawyer, following in his dad's footsteps.

The story begins the evening Bruce is to accept an honorary doctorate for his work in the law. In his speech he acknowledges how he couldn't have done any of it without his wife, Myra, dealing with all the stuff at home. A speech we have been hearing from men for decades now, the confirmation of that old adage 'behind every good man is a good woman'. 

Looking on from afar is a strange woman in an orange flight suit. We learn that this is Valentina Tereshkova (Rama Nicholas), the first woman in space, and she seems to have a very special interest in Myra. Around family barbeques and in conversations between Myra and Valentina we learn that Myra did a lot more than tend the home and children for Bruce. Her ambitions were to do an engineering degree and follow Tereshkova into space. Instead she supported Bruce through his law degree and, after 3 miscarriages finally gave birth to their first child, Valli. It doesn't stop there, and over the course of an hour and a half we find out just who should have been awarded that degree.

Unsurprisingly we also learn that depression has dogged Myra and the family are forced to start seeing Myra as she starts moving further and further away from them, in training for a trip to Mars and coached by Tereshkova. Fictional billionaire Fred Chen has created a competition for people to go on a one way flight to Mars and Myra tells the family she has entered. Valli's radio co-host Bob (Jaquinot) makes a very telling point when he taunts her by saying her mother would rather go on a one way trip to a dead planet than stay with her family.

Whilst the scenes are written and constructed in a very realist style, Alice Bishop (director) and Silvia Shao have created a stunning surrealist landscape helping us connect to the inner life of Myra. Shiny black dance floor creates an abyss the family are falling into and space station exo-frames hover and loom overhead pressing the family down into the inescapable gravitational pull of that black hole. Nat Grant's sound keeps the energy and momentum of the family's struggles to see and understand in time to save Myra and save themselves. Richard Vabre's lighting keeps  the world contained despite the show being performed in the round.

One of the great delights of Myra In Space is Shao's costumes. Having given up her dreams to be an astronaught, Myra keeps them alive by playing with her children when they were little. She has an incredible collection of home made space suits which, as she and Tereshkova start training for Mars, start to be worn again. When you see the show you will be amazed at what can be done with plastic bowls, newspaper, and bulldog clips. It is a collection to rival any Paris fashion runway.

Myra In Space is beautiful, magical, and so very sad. It is a tale of now, and a history of yesterday. It answers a question our society has been asking for a few years now. It delves deeper into the difficulties women over 50 are facing in a depth and detail I haven't seen before. It looks at grief and love and hope and defeat. It speaks to a life lived. I life well-lived. A life missed. 

4.5 Stars

Sunday 10 September 2023


WHAT: SLUTNIK™ 2: Planet of the Incels
WHEN: 7 - 16 September 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Acland St)
DIRECTED BY: Tansy Gorman
SET BY: Harry Dowling and Tansy Gorman
COSTUMES BY: Emily Busch
LIGHTING BY: Georgie Wolfe
PERFORMED BY: Ben Ashby, Michael Cooper, Matilda Gibbs, Ethan Morse, Sara Reed, Benji Smith, and William Strom
SOUND BY: Jack Burmeister
AV BY: Derrick Duan

Sara Reed and Matilda Gibbs - photo by Sarah Clarke

So here is one of life's more incredible ironies. The term 'incel' was actually coined by a woman back in 1993. What began as a website for all people to explore their non-sexual experiences and situations, by 2010, become a range of sites dominated by white cis males extolling hate and violence and strongly linked to the alt right. We heard a lot about them last decade but then a little thing known as COVID came along and they seem to have disappeared back into their dark and lonely spaces...we hope. Playwright Flick is having none of that though and, as expansion 2 of 5, they are dragging the incels back out of their closets and into the limelight in SLUTNIK™ 2: Planet of the Incels which just opened at Theatre Works (Acland St).

I have to confess I did not see Flick's original release SLUTNIK™ but from what I have read the show was a high energy, high camp tale of a group of cannibalistic lesbians who give up on the patriarchically enmeshed Earth and escape into the galaxy with the help of AI character Motherboard (Matilda Gibbs). With Planet of the Incels Flick has brought together the original core creatives - Tansy Gorman (director) and dramaturg Enya Daly - and also kept Gibbs who took over the role of Motherboard at some point in the first productions many iterations across festivals. Beyond that, the rest of the creatives and performers are new to the franchise and Planet of the Incels swaps out cannibalistic lesbians for gay cowboy incels.

Much time has gone by since the original release and the space-faring lesbians find themselves crash landing on a planet (I counldn't quite work out if it was an Earth of the future or another planet with a parallel developmental timeline). At this point I am going to say the information at the start is a bit overwhelming so I have to take a few guesses... Anyway, one of the cannibal lesbians (Sara Reed) [who were they eating for all that time in space once they didn't have men around?] demands Motherboard load her dead mother's memories to ... I don't know why, sorry... The result is the memories are implanted and the mother's last moments are relived through her daughter as if it were happening IRL.

For no reason beyond dramaturgical conceit, Motherboard wraps it all in a veneer of Magic Mike style gay dancing cowboys, a dark and terrible tale is told of a community of incels who are segregated in a dome to live their misogynistic lives. Are they prisoners or did they remove themselves from society voluntarily? Are incels just misunderstood men who, with the right opportunities/women, would happily reintegrate functionally into mainstream society? These are the questions Flick is asking. It's not a question which can be answered in 2 hours of  lapdancing, glitter, and cowboy hats but Planet of the Incels does investigate the complexities of the men and the issues in between the best Collar'N'Cuffs show you will see this side of Vegas. Big shout out to Mia Tuco (choreographer) for some great work!

After the information prelude where Motherboard and the cannibal lesbian set the conceit, the show opens with a rousing hen's night dance interlude which leave the audience hooping and hollering loud enough to raise the roof of Theatre Works with Gibbs lipsynching 'It's Raining Men' in the best Queer tradition. Ben Ashby (Elliot), Michael Cooper(Elon), Ethan Morse (Neo), Benji Smith (Jon), and William Strom (Ben) are great actors but also phenomenal dancers and across the evening the audience is given plenty to drool over no matter which side of the lines you live on.

The story centres around a romance which blooms between Elliot and the mum when first contact is made. Motherboard and the mum find themselves inside this dome of incels. They have no idea how dangerous this environment is and learning is always slower than we ever like or need. What ensues is a dark story of deciept and confusion with a tragic ending. 

What is impressive is how Gorman, Daly, and Flick have managed to keep such dark material so light and bright even though much of the text is verbatim from incel chat rooms, as is all of the projected chat room conversations. The first half of the play packs a huge punch in terms of audience impact. 

I do wonder if it comes at a cost to the second half of the play which loses all of that Magic Mike energy and explores the true depths of danger and trauma? Or is that just because at 2 hours it is a fraction too long? I don't know that answer to that, but I do think I wanted to feel as much horror at the end as the joy and fun I felt at the beginning. Jack Burmeister (sound) could have done more to help change the tone perhaps. 

Planet of the Incels is a wild ride. The gay cowboys are a blast of energy and fun and Motherboard is a fantastic character impeccably performed by Gibbs. I found myself forgetting some of the show parameters such as the gay cowboy overlay but Motherboard reminds us which helps. One thing I did want was better definition by Reed as to when she is the mother and when she is the daughter. Again, this would have helped in following the story because the dramaturgical conceit is such an important driver and is actively worked against the underlying story. 

Gorman and Dowling have created an amazing world for the incels with a very few elements doing a lot of evocative work. The screen design (Derrick Duan) keeps us in the sci-fi world and mainframe managed by Motherboard. Georgie Wolfe's lighting sets the atmosphere perfectly (and she didn't need to kill us all with haze and smoke to create her magic - take note lighting designers everywhere)!

Whilst there is an almost unending list of trigger warnings before the show and time is allowed for people to reposition or leave if they have concerns, in the end I didn't feel anything particularly unsurprising or terrifying was revealed. That could be because I am so inured by patriarchal violence and abuse in society that I can't be shocked. Maybe that is the sadder story.

SLUTNIK™ 2: Planet of the Incels is brilliant theatre precisely because it has me asking all of these questions. As well, it is an emotional roller coaster I loved being on. Flick seems to be exploring ideas of segregation vs inclusion in their SLUTNIK™ franchise. I am thoroughly intrigued to see what the next 3 expansions will reveal about us.

4.5 Stars

Sunday 3 September 2023

WHAT OF IT: Theatre Review

WHAT: What Of It
WHEN: 30 August - 9 September 2023
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WRITTEN BY: Rebecca Fingher
DIRECTED BY: Mitchell Whelan
LIGHTING BY: Spencer Herd
PERFORMED BY: Xanthe Blaise, Courtney Cavallaro, and Emma Wright
SOUND BY: Rebecca Price
CHOREOGRAPHY BY: Samantha Hortin

Xanthe Blaise and Courtney Cavallaro - photo supplied

Reality has a lot to answer for in this world. Not a lot of it is good, but Geordie Shore has spawned something which perhaps make the world a better place. Riffing off chav culture, an other-than-binary zeitgeist, and feminism, Rebecca Fingher's debut play What Of It has found it's way to the Explosive's Factory to kick off Spring.

What of it is a trio of chavettes hanging in the hood. Bored and restless they see a sign saying the world will end in three days and this begins a journey of indulgence and despair as the limitations of their lives become stark. Rebecca Fingher (writer) has crafted her characters well and their narrative arcs reveal their vulnerabilities and classic tragedy mores. They bring about their own downfall because of their own personality traits as much as because of the people and social structures around them.

Emma Wright's (Daks) piercing blue eyes and looming body dominate at the start, placing her squarely in the role of strongman in this gang of three. Courtney Cavallaro (Luck) embodies the young one, desperate to prove herself, perfectly. It is Xanthe Blaise's (Cory) performance which, in the end, left me amazed though. At the start of the play I thought she was too sweet to be the boss of this girl gang, but as the play progresses the character's psychopathy emerges and Blaise's girl next door demeanour makes it even more chilling than it might have been.

It is tempting in the current social climate to suggest that Fingher is inverting the gender stereotype but the truth is chavettes exist so What Of It doesn't reveal anything about the condition of binary gender constructs although it inadvertently does demonstrate the pathos of girls living in such a harsh patriarchal social system. I think the gender bending is supposed to sit in how Finger keeps the language in the male paradigm even though the characters are female. As such, they call each other bro and they call all the men around them bitches. Beyond that, I don't think there is much to speak of on this topic. Having said that, What Of It wins the award for best meme with their adage 'Big clit energy' and the hairdresser scene is a hilarious counterpoint to whatever a guy gang might have chosen to do at the end of the world.

I read an interview where Fingher says the idea for What Of It was spawned by a chilling event which happened in Perth around the behaviour of private school boys and how scared that made her feel. I am disappointed that, rather than facing those boys in her work, Fingher has descended to the low hanging fruit of people in poverty to work out her fears, thus enforcing the stereotype of poor people as dangerous. What Of It is good, but in terms of impact it is no Trophy Boys.

Now let's talk about the accents. I will begin by saying they are excellent and authentic - to the point where I almost felt I needed surtitles at the start! But then I started asking the question why. Why has an Australian playwright written a play specifically placed in a subculture which is not hers/ours? Why would you perform this play in this manner for an Australian audience and thus immediately alienate us from the story and therefore limit its impact? It could be argued that the accents are essential to the rhythm and meter of the work - and there is spoken word poetry within the text placing it in a rythmic realm. 

I kind of feel a bit more cynical about the whole exercise though and found myself wondering just how was this researched? Parts of What Of It felt like outtakes of things I have seen on TV and in films. Whilst Fingher finds beauty and depth in the pain of these wonderful characters I want to just bring a word of caution about authenticity. If the intention is to go international you don't need to pretend to be  something you're not. The thing which will bring international acclaim is authenticity. There is a basic adage amazing writers follow - write what you know. I just can't help wondering how powerful and real What Of It would have been set in the eshay subculture of Perth. 

What Fingher does do so well in What Of It is to examine sororal relationships. Cory, Luck, and Daks explore bullying, teasing, rites of adulthood and peer pressures. Their bonds to each other are dangerous and strong. What Of It starts a conversation about decision making and turning points. They say everyone has choices, but these three young women only have bad ones and for all the right reasons keep making things worse. 

I wish the play had gone a bit further. I think the natural end still hadn't arrived when the play ended. Daks, for me, became the most intriguing character. As tough as she is, her veneer cracks early and she is called out for it by Cory. In the ultimate rave scene she is pushed to decide who and what she is, but we never find out. We know Luck only has 2 possible outcomes and both see her ending up in a dark place. We know Cory is lost forever. What we don't know is what Daks' next move ends up being. Perhaps that unknown is deliberate. I really want to find out though!

Rebecca Price keeps the subculture vibe alive with hip hop rap and Samantha Hortin brings fun and powerful choreography for our gang girls. One of the strengths of What Of It is the endless array of tongue in cheek moments, lifting it out of the dark morass of chav culture, doing so through words and movement. Spencer Herd's lighting is dark and shadowy, evoking lane ways and night time. The places where cockroaches are free to roam, this is the home of our poor chavettes.

I think this review has been confusing, but that is because I am confused. On all technical levels What Of It is a superb play: excellently designed and directed for touring; exquisitely performed; and the writing is structurally strong with some beautiful phrasing and meter. I guess I am just tired of hearing English stories. I am not English and I do not live in England. I am sure they are all very jolly fellows but what I care about is Australians in Australia. I want my theatre to speak to me about me. I want to be offered insight into my world and my place in it. Otherwise, why am I even there?

4 Stars


WHAT: The Roof Is Caving In WHERE: La Mama Courthouse WHEN: 8 - 19 May 2024 WRITTEN BY: Matilda Gibbs with Jack Burmeister and Belle Hansen ...