Review: Cosi – La Boite Theatre Company at the Roundhouse Theatre

Images: Dylan Evans Photography (Main Image L-R: Trevor Stuart, Jessica Marais, Amy Ingram, Anthony Standish, Benjamin Schostakowski, Jennifer Flowers, James Stewart)

Cosi by Louis Nowra is a much-loved and, by now, a classic in the canon of modern Australian plays. According to David Berthold, it’s also the playwright’s personal favourite. It’s certainly admired by La Boite Theatre Company who have produced it three times over the years. The latest has just opened at the Roundhouse under the direction of Mr Berthold and it’s a production that finds the rhythm of the play’s compassionate heart.

Filled with marvellous characters, and set in an asylum during the Vietnam War, Cosi follows the adventures of young Lewis (Ben Schostakowski) a uni student, who gets a job helping the inmates “put on a show.” He’s all for a bit of Brecht but Roy (played with glorious gusto by Trevor Stuart) is adamant that the music of the spheres must be heard in their shabby little theatre, and so it’s Mozart’s opera Cosi Fan Tutte that gets the nod. It’s as nutty an idea as is possible to imagine, and perfect given the play’s setting. No one can sing, one can hardly speak – all are damaged and apparently incapable of any kind of cooperative activity. Young Lewis (‘Jerry’ to Roy’s ‘Martin’) is clearly out of his depth.

Aaron Davison and Benjamin Schostakowski - Photo by Dylan Evans
Aaron Davison and Benjamin Schostakowski

‘Putting on a show’ plays are ready-made for comedy. Typically we are treated to agonising (hysterical) auditions; shambolic (hysterical) rehearsals and, finally, awful (hysterically awful) performances. There are often great one-liners and in-jokes for the theatre crowd so there’s a lot to laugh at. By the way, the little theatre that designer Hugh O’Connor creates in the big room at the Roundhouse is just delightful. Cosi is no different in this regard, but there’s a whole lot more going on.

One of the great strengths of Nowra’s play is its ability not only to make us laugh but also to make us feel the hurt of those we’re laughing at. Cosi also makes plain the importance of so much we take for granted. As we watch the hapless troupe and their director grope and stumble around it’s clear that they are, perhaps for the first time ever, rediscovering what it means to be useful. No longer isolated they come together squabbling, arguing points of view finding a kind of collective wisdom and joy on the fly. Continue reading Review: Cosi – La Boite Theatre Company at the Roundhouse Theatre

Review: The Glass Menagerie – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

Image: Kathryn Marquet and Julian Curtis | Photography: Dylan Evans

We believe in theatre not just plays. (La Boite: About Us – programme THE GLASS MENAGERIE)

So it comes as no surprise that David Berthold‘s production of Tennessee Williams‘ classic play THE GLASS MENAGERIE (1944) is nothing if not theatrical. Perhaps only radio drama can do it better than the stage – you know, the old line about the pictures in radio being better – but this production takes Williams’ poetic play about memory, loss, and especially illusion and recontextualises it beautifully to give us a boldly fresh take on an old classic. Continue reading Review: The Glass Menagerie – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

Review: Holding the Man – La Boite Theatre at the Roundhouse

Main Image: Jerome Meyer and Alec Snow. All images by Al Caeiro

I confess to loving a good play title; it can occupy a fruitful seminar for ages – that’s the recovering academic in me talking.

I’m also very fond of theatricalism in design and execution – the challenge and frisson created when it bumps up against realism in a production and, as it pulls naturalistic acting into its embrace, gets to be over the top and obvious, understated and true. Sometimes you can be wrong-footed but the dance is always enjoyable. And so, on opening night of La Boite’s latest Season 2013 offering Holding the Man by Tommy Murphy and directed by David Berthold, I found a lot to like.

Mr Murphy’s much-admired play has a new production by Mr Berthold who has directed it previously to great acclaim: at Griffin Theatre and the Opera House in Sydney (2006) and subsequently in Melbourne, the Brisbane Powerhouse and in London (2010). This was my first time. The play has been adapted from the late Timothy Conigrave‘s biography of the same name. It is also unknown to me though it’s gone to the top of the must-read list. I want to hear more of the singular voice of Conigrave who, in the play at least, is not the most likeable of characters but certainly a most compelling, and isn’t that the way with so many of the best roles going?

Alec Snow_Holding the Man_Image by Al Caeiro
Alec Snow

Alec Snow, making his professional debut at La Boite, is cast as the man who is held by John Caleo (Jerome Meyer) the light to his dark, the chalk to his cheese, the athlete to his artist. Mr Meyer is also making his first professional appearance in this production. And here’s where the play’s title is food for thought. ‘Holding the man’ is a term taken from AFL football – it defines a transgression that incurs a penalty. Conigrave the actor and Caleo the footballer (and Essendon fan) were lovers. The many personal and societal transgressions that accompany the lives of the protagonists from childhood through adulthood provide the narrative with its subject matter and tension. Continue reading Review: Holding the Man – La Boite Theatre at the Roundhouse

Review: Tender Napalm – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

What to say – what further words to add to the experience that is Tender Napalm by Philip Ridley, directed by David Berthold, choreographed by Garry Stewart and currently playing as part of the Brisbane Festival?

The built-in shock factor in this extraordinary piece of cerebral and visceral theatre lies in the words and in the way they are re-imagined and configured in tandem with the body at rest and in extraordinary motion. Sounds and energies are articulated, spun and reshaped to create the most wonderful and terrifying stories, the kind that are the stuff of a child’s daydreams and nightmares.

A reading reveals Ridley’s shocking poetical fantasies and that, in itself, is a rich experience. His writing for young people is evident in the text not just in his monsters and monkeys and battles that pepper the dialogue but also in the way the characters engage with their fantasies – improvising and blocking one another, weaving plots on the fly – playing. You can hear this approach at work in school playgrounds and backyards. It is only in performance – at play – that this text’s emotional depths and theatrical sophistication are realised.

This is a bold, energetic production that doesn’t let you slip away for a second and, as I watched, at times holding my breath, I was reminded of Jerzy Grotowski‘s words “The actor will do, in public, what is considered impossible.” That’s part of the thrill of this work. Continue reading Review: Tender Napalm – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

Review: As You Like It – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

Main Image: Bryan Probets (Touchstone) | Images: Al Caeiro

David Berthold is quickly setting up a tradition for La Boite: opening a season with a Shakespeare, directed by the Artistic Director himself. As You Like It was preceded by Hamlet (2010) and Julius Caesar (2011), in which Berthold proved he could bend the material to his will, creating sexy and contemporary productions. Make no mistake, As You Like It has a completely different feel, and is a more cohesive production than its La Boite forefathers. Indeed, it feels as though Berthold is infinitely more comfortable in the comedy of Shakespeare, and the result is superb production.

Helen Howard - Rosalind

As You Like It centres mainly around the love quest of Rosalind (Helen Howard), the daughter of a Duke who has been usurped. Rosalind is banished from the new Duke’s court and takes her cousin Celia (Helen Cassidy) and the court’s jester (Bryan Probets) with her. In order to escape persecution Rosalind disguises herself as a man, and leads her band of exiles through the Forest of Arden in an attempt to find her exiled father (Kate Wilson). But the real spice of the plot lies in Orlando (Thomas Larkin) who is forced to flee the court when he is rejected by his older brother Oliver (Luke Cadden) and then upsets the fascist usurper Duke (Hayden Spencer) by challenging and defeating his wrestler, Charles (Thomas Carney). But before he flees, Orlando and Rosalind fall in love, only to be reunited once again in the Forest of Arden, but with Rosalind in a man’s disguise. Commence Shakespearean gender-bending comedy.

The show is stolen, in my opinion, by an absolutely spell-binding design. Renee Mulder’s costumes and set are absolutely breath-taking.

This is theatre design at its very best, peppered with all sorts of tricks and surprises that the audience never see coming … it’s a spectacular achievement.

Mulder’s work is accompanied by sublime music and sound from Guy Webster, and incredibly clever lighting from David Walters. Together, the trio create a forest of Arden that is warm and inviting. The evocation of a campfire makes the potentially cold La Boite theatre feel small and intimate. The gypsy aesthetic of the the exiled Duke and his kingdom has the appeal of a charming, cleaner Woodford Folk Festival. It’s a spectacular achievement. Continue reading Review: As You Like It – La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

Review: Ruben Guthrie – La Boite Theatre at The Roundhouse

My local bottle department practically gives away the booze. Pop in any afternoon of the week and there’s almost always a tasting going on – handy little refreshments for drivers heading home after a hard day. The specials are stacked up in tempting piles round the shop. When I remark on the week’s ‘buy one, get one free’ deals, the cheery guy behind the counter tells me that there’s a wine mountain ‘out there’ and that “Someone’s got to drink it.”

La Boite’s latest production, and the last for their 2011 season, is Ruben Guthrie by actor, writer, director Brendan Cowell. In the course of the play Ruben’s Czech girlfriend Zoya refers to Australia as a beautiful ‘alcoholic country,’ and Cowell’s play points its considerable critical armoury right at our culture’s denial of the problem. Someone’s got to drink it after all. Whilst the play is pretty gut-wrenching at times, it’s also wickedly funny. Cowell’s shredding of the ethics of the advertising industry is satirical writing at its best. I think it’s his best play yet.

If this corker of a social satire didn’t make you laugh so much you’d weep. Ruben Guthrie is a tragedy about the fall and fall of a talented young man whose health, career and relationships are ruined by booze and drugs. Ruben creates ad campaigns but wants to be taken seriously as a writer – cockiness masks his insecurity. Ruben’s lifestyle where the ‘caine is freely available and grog flows to inspire creativity, celebrate, commiserate and, well, just because you can, see him sucked under. He loses his girlfriend at the start of the play, gets the wake-up call and decides to go on the wagon. Brendan Cowell’s Writer’s Note speaks of the year in which he gave up alcohol not just because he knew he was drinking too much, but to see what it would be like to go without. The experiences he had, the ‘run-ins’ with his ‘baffled’ friends and family who couldn’t understand his denial of ‘the great drink’ were the inspiration for this play.

David Berthold directs a fine, unvarnished production that takes full advantage of the theatre’s architectural space – we’re back in the round, by the way. Mr Berthold admits to admiring the play greatly, and it’s not hard to see why. Mr Cowell’s witty text flows from the compassion at its heart, and its dialogue springs off the page. Berthold has orchestrated its rhythms and thematics with confidence and sensitivity. The play also needs a gutsy company to have it work the way it needs to, and the director has cast it beautifully.

Caroline Kennison

Ruben Guthrie has a dream team ensemble headed by Gyton Grantley who is on stage as Ruben for all but a few seconds of the action. Mr Grantley’s performance is quite superb; it’s assured and powerful, and his Ruben utterly charming and heartbreaking. He is wonderfully supported by Hayden Spencer as Ray his boss, by Caroline Kennison as his mother Susan, and Kathryn Marquet as Virginia his AA sponsor and lover. New faces Lauren Orrel (Zoya) Darren Sabadina (Damian) and John McNeill (Peter) are terrific as fiancée, best mate and father respectively.

Design by Renée Mulder is stripped back and suggestive of a boxing ring right down to its bright blue squares. It’s absolutely perfect for the no-holds-barred slugfest which is the play. Jason Glenwright (lighting) and Guy Webster (sound) complete the design team with meticulously detailed lighting, composition and soundscapes.

The production is wonderfully theatrical and performative; the audience is brought into the action as Ruben addresses us as fellow meeting attendees. The cast sit around the perimeter of the square within the round and watch the action, setting and striking furniture and props, coming and going into the ring for the ’rounds’ that play out over two acts. Yes, there is an interval where you can get a drink. You are invited to bring it back into the theatre if you wish. As an aside, I asked the bar staff whether sales had been up or down during the season. They indicated rather discreetly that they hadn’t really noticed a difference. You could, however, feel a real tension in the room as Ruben agonises over the temptation of drinks forced upon him by friends and family. I don’t mind admitting my own inner voice was screaming, ‘Don’t do it!’

Don’t miss it. This is an excellent realisation of a very good, contemporary, and very Australian play.

Ruben Guthrie by Brendan Cowell plays at The Roundhouse Theatre for a limited season. Catch it between the time you’re reading this and its closing performance on 13th November. Details on the company website.

Images by Al Caeiro
Main Image: Gyton Grantley and Kathryn Marquet