Tuesday 16 July 2024

LA BELLE EPOQUE - Theatre Review

WHAT: La Belle Epoque
WHEN: 10 - 20 July 2024
WHERE: Theatreworks (Acland St)
WRITTEN BY: Future D. Fidel
DIRECTED BY: Budi Miller
DESIGN BY: Shana Mackay Burns
SOUND BY: Jack Burmeister
PERFORMED BY: Nelly Kouakou, Tariro Mavondo, Effi Nkrumah, and Mike Ugo

Effie Nkrumah, Mike Ugo, and Nelly Kouakou - photo supplied

Every so often you see a piece of theatre which makes you shout out to the world - Yes! This! This is what theatre is all about! For me, La Belle Epoque, currently playing at Theatreworks is one of those pieces of theatre. It has everything. It is current with all the weight of history behind it. It is urgent, and painful, but lets you laugh all the way through...until it really matters. It is a call to action lest we forget.

La Belle Epoque is the tale of a colonised Belgian Congo lived through the generations of a king and told through the eyes of the true descendent, Chris (Mike Ugo). Chris is a refugee - yes, the Congo is still a terrifyingly dangerous place to live - living in Melbourne with his boo Isioma (Effie Nkrumah). Isioma. Isioma is helping her friend, Tarisai (Tariro Mavondo) and her sidekick Bob (Nelly Kouakou), make a documentary about the history of the Congo as part of a university assignment. They have enlisted Chris to give an authentic Congolese voice to the show although they don't really understand why that is important. In the meantime, Chris and Isioma are also trying to plan a life together. Spoiler alert - one of the funniest scenes in the play is when Chris is brought home to meet Isioma's parents.

This all sounds very straight forward, and perhaps a bit dry right? Let me tell you, La Belle Epoque is not dry at all! Future D. Fidel (writer) has an incredible gift of storytelling. He weaves time and characters so that they blur with perfect clarity. One minute we are in a Melbourne living room in 2024, and within the space of a few lines, hilarious character work, and a lighting shift we have travelled back in time a century or more. Just as easily Fidel can pull us right back into the present with a script problem Tarisai has to solve for Isioma. Just as easily he can make us laugh in one moment with a Laurel & Hardy style routine between Tarira and Bob, and then slip us into a tense struggle for survival by a king turned slave. In Fidel's writing the dark is as dark as the bright is bright.

These transitions are not easy and one of the best things director Budi Miller has done is to keep the stage and staging clean and clear. Along with the artful use of projection, it is the clarity and dynamic breadth of Nkrumah's performance in particular which pushes the narrative forward and makes sure we know where and when we are in this epic tale.

I mention Nkrumah because she is truly amazing, but the rest of the cast are strong too. Ugo's monologues are powerful and unflinching as he speaks Fidel's words and experiences and history. In fact, the final moments of this play packs a massive punch as it becomes clear suffering is nowhere near ending in the Congo any time soon. One of the clever aspects of this show is Fidel's observations about the through line of progress on the fate of the Congolese. In the 19th century the people suffered because of a need for rubber for motorcars. In the 21st century the suffering is going to continue because of the need for cobalt for electric vehicles. We need to think about how we save the people as we also strive to save the planet.

There are so many layers to La Belle Epoque and yet all of the strands in the loom are clear, concise and insightful. In this play the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It is not perfect - there was not enough time or money for perfection - but perhaps the rawness of this production allows the ideas and concerns to flow so much more clearly out to the audience. This play is so very much more important to see than I could ever effectively communicate.

4.5 Stars

Sunday 7 July 2024

THE LONG GAME - Theatre Review

WHAT: The Long Game
WHEN: 28 - 13 July 2024
WHERE: TW Explosives Factory
WRITTEN BY: Sally Faraday
DIRECTED BY: Krystalla Pearce
SET BY: David Bramble
COSTUMES BY: Olivia Adamow
LIGHTING BY: Natalia Velasco Moreno
SOUND BY: Beau Esposito
AV BY: Eddie Diamandi
PERFORMED BY: Gloria Ajenstat, Petra Glieson, and Charmaine Gorman

Charmaine Gorman and Petra Glieson - photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Walking into TW Explosives Factory for The Long Game you just know you are in for a night of polished and sophisticated theatre. Glieson-Faraday productions does not disappoint for a single second in this regard.

Flipping the standard modern end stage upside down, rather than raking the audience, set designer David Bramble has raised the main playing space for this production which is a much better seating solution for this venue, and also allows the team to play with the vertical space with ease and safety. The entire set is a wash of muted beige and white which is the perfect representation of 'safe' wealthy home aesthetics. Richly carpeted floors, floor to ceiling drapes and an external wooden deck are all there to tell us we are in upper class suburbia. Whatever ugliness is about to ensue is going to happen to the bright, shiny people of the world.

As if on cue, out comes Gay (Gloria Ajenstat) dressed in couture white and gold, wine in hand and dancing her cares away. Two women, her daughters, echo her dancing down in the dark abyss of the forestage. The three women speak intermittently, the mother engaging in gay party repartee whilst the daughters tell of two very different non-consensual sexual encounters which form the nexus of the story of The Long Game.

After this prologue the play begins in earnest with Esme (Petra Glieson) turning up unexpectedly at the family home. Esme is obviously the 'black sheep' of the family in her torn, worn jeans and Medusa t-shirt. We quickly find out she has been absent for 2 years and has a history of alcohol abuse. Once Gay and Esme have established their relationship Miranda (Charmaine Gorman) turns up and we learn that this younger daughter has followed her father's footsteps into politics with some assistance from long-time family friend Byron who we never meet. We don't need to.

According to interviews by playwright Sally Faraday, what is supposed to ensue is a searing interrogation of sexual abuse in the political arena. Riffing off the experiences of Julia Gillard and Bethany Higgins, apparently the driving ideas were of victim complicity, the challenges of 'coming forward' and public perceptions. These ideas and questions are, indeed, vitally important but in my opinion very little of that comes through. Enough to start a conversation perhaps, but it all gets muddied up in the socio-political dialogue and the overt reluctance of Faraday to take a position. In many ways the story gets lost in the taupe tones of the set and the pastels of the costumes (Olivia Adamow). The play looks good but lacks real substance and bite.

Don't get me wrong. The Long Game is a real horror story. My problem is that nobody ever escapes despite the many open doors the characters could run through. Evil in this story lies in that ambiguous force called Byron. Byron was the dead husband's political partner in crime and family friend. After the death, somehow Gay stays within Byron's orbit and the political party circles and watches her daughters bloom into womanhood. So does Byron.

Byron has become a love interest for Gay, but we learn he is at the heart of Esme's battles with addiction, and he is also a key player in Miranda's progress towards political leadership. Across the course of The Long Game the relationships between these three women - so close and yet so far away from each other - is interrogated and truths are revealed. 

This all sounds like the recipe for a gripping, on topic tale which could rip a large whole in the fabric of sexual assault culture, right? So why doesn't it pack the punch it should despite excellent performances, great design, and experienced direction? There are a few issues in my opinion. 

The first is that the story gets lost in trying to be too much about manoeuvring in politics. Is this play a story about how to get ahead in politics or is it a story about rape? 

Secondly, the characters leave the original concept completely unresolved, and they end up looking as if they don't care. If they don't care, why should we? Gay disappears at the end, but the daughters don't investigate. Esme walks out to avoid the issue which she has a history of doing, and Miranda is left to do whatever she wants or doesn't want to do with her story and her career. As far as the play goes, there are few consequences if she does nothing and no real incentive to do anything. As such, The Long Game fails as a vehicle to demonstrate a way forward for women drowning in these kinds of circumstances. We see a status quo and that is all we see.

Finally, there is little light and shade in the writing or direction (Krystalla Pearce) of these characters. We can't fall into the depths of despair if we never see the light of love and joy shine through. Everyone starts the play in a dark and tense place, and we are never released from that which leads to emotional fatigue and a lack of stakes. These three women are never happy and seem to not have been for a very long time. Nothing about being in each other's company sparks joy. Eddie Diamandi's film work does show Esme and Miranda playing joyfully as little girls, but the actors don't demonstrate any of that in the show. There are few, if any unguarded moments of being lost in their past playfulness to help us see just how far away from each other they have travelled. Everyone could have worked harder to find the pre-trauma family dynamics.

The Long Game tackles very, very difficult ideas and experiences and I do commend the team for addressing things we don't want to see or talk about. The show looks amazing, and everyone on the design team can pat themselves on the back for creating main stage perfection in an independent theatre context. Performances are strong and lively, and Pearce makes sure the playing space is used extremely well, wielding the design elements with confidence too. The Long Game certainly exposes something, I guess it is up to us (just as it becomes up to Miranda) to figure out what we can or will do about it.

3.5 Stars

LA BELLE EPOQUE - Theatre Review

WHAT: La Belle Epoque WHEN: 10 - 20 July 2024 WHERE: Theatreworks (Acland St) WRITTEN BY: Future D. Fidel DIRECTED BY: Budi Miller DESIGN BY...