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 

Review: The Removalists – Queensland Theatre Company at Bille Brown Studio

It’s been a while since I’d last seen one of David Williamson‘s best plays, The Removalists – 36 years, in fact, in an opening night performance of a production by QTC at the old La Boite Theatre in Hale Street. I took the opportunity this week to see a matinee performance once again at Queensland Theatre Company. I was surrounded by kids, and seniors like me; weekday matinees tend to be like that.

The current production, directed by Michelle Miall for the Studio program, was a bit of a nostalgia trip in many ways, and I wondered how the high school students around me would react to a period piece – for such it is. The first production of the play in Melbourne in 1971 featured David Williamson as the removalist, and his wife to be, Kristin. This production marks the play’s 40th anniversary. Still hard to believe …

Back in the early 1970s Australian drama was going through its heady nationalist phase. The Ocker figure made his appearance over and over, the women’s liberation movement was getting an exploratory nod (here and there) on stages, and more than a fair sprinkling of vulgarity and violence was the norm. Lots of beer cans were popped on stage and the male vernacular ruled. They were exciting theatrical times and it was all exhilarating stuff, although female characters tended to be short-changed in what was an overwhelmingly masculinist world on stage. More often than not, these productions shocked the socks off seniors at matinee performances back then. These plays hadn’t made the schools’ syllabus list – these too were awaiting liberation.

Williamson’s text is tight, entertaining realism in the service of a good yarn; this much hasn’t changed at all. The twin protagonists – Sgt Dan Simmonds played by Chris Betts and Kenny Carter by Steven Rooke – are terrific, layered characters which remain a challenge and, I imagine, a delight to play for any actor. They are two of the great roles in modern Australian drama. Both Betts and Rooke are well matched here and in good form as they spar verbally and physically.

As I watched, I was reminded of something that was obvious in a lot of Australian plays from the 1970s: Williamson wrote awful roles for women. Until later on, when complex, central characters like Frances (Travelling North) or Barbara (The Perfectionist) appeared in his works, this lack of meaty roles for women in his plays was a bone of contention amongst female actors. In this production of The Removalists (one of those plays) two fine actors Emmaline Carroll (Fiona Carter) and Natasha Yantsch (her sister, Kate) are constrained by roles which are as slight as the male roles are rich; they are almost entirely satellites and supports to the males. Peter Cook as Rob, the Removalist, and Anthony Standish who plays Simmonds’ foil, the new cop on the job, Const Neville Ross round out the cast.

Michelle Miall’s production keeps the pace up – 1 hr 44 mins with no interval – and she lets more of the comedy show. Chris Betts’ Simmonds is less the sinister, terrifying thug than comic, lecherous braggart circling Kate in hopes of some overtime fun. Steven Rooke is excellent as Kenny; it’s some of his best work, and he’s always good. Anthony Standish is terrific too as Ross; he’s the embodiment of a boofhead – all nervous, try-hard precision. In a weird way, even after you know he’s committed an appalling crime, you just can’t help feeling sorry for the guy. Kenny’s the same. He’s unlikeable but sufficiently complex to grab our interest and our sympathy. ‘I’m unpredictable. It’s part of me charm,’ he notes cannily of himself. Williamson may well have written the role of Rob knowing he was going to play it himself in that original production. It was a smart move either way; it’s an unforgettable little pearler of a role. Once heard, you never forget that defining mantra from the guy who knows he’s the real man in charge, ‘I’ve got $10 000 worth of machinery ticking over out there in the drive.’ Peter Cook fills this smartypants Everyman role with relish – and a smirk.

In the post-show Q&A session the kids asked about the props: ‘Were they real?’ they asked. There’s a television audience for you! It turns out that the labels and packaging, uniforms and set dressing were all of period in which the play is set. Lit by Jason Glenwright,  Simone Romaniuk‘s wonderfully-awful-70s (you can still get that wallpaper?) set design works well for police station (Act 1) and Kenny and Fiona’s living room (Act 2.) I’m a sucker for those soundscape atmospheric mixes of music and popular culture from a period. Here, Sound Designer Tony Brumpton gathers snatches of television and news broadcasts from the early 1970s and gets the sound of the times spot on as well. By the bye, hasn’t the style of VO announcers changed?

Whilst the student audience asked about the police corruption portrayed in the play, no one talked about how the actors had worked on the violence which made The Removalists such a shocking piece when it was first produced on Australian stages; there’s that television audience again. Whilst I recall squirming during the onstage violence – choreographed by Scott Witt – I found even more revolting the perverted mateship that plays out over a beer and a cigarette. Kenny drags himself back from the kitchen where Ross has beaten and kicked him to a bloody mess, and, in the scene that follows, Williamson sets up one of the most violent and disturbing endings in Australian drama. Beer can in hand Kenny dies from a massive cerebral haemorrhage and, in what the stage directions describe as ‘a frenzied ritual of exorcism,’ both police officers beat each other senseless over his body. It’s truly brilliant, ghastly stuff.

When it first appeared to great acclaim, the black comedy and the horror of The Removalists was undeniably shocking. Whilst it may not have the visceral impact of the original productions in their own time, there is no doubting its dramatic power.

The Removalists by David Williamson Directed by Michelle Miall for Queensland Theatre Company plays at the Bille Brown Studio, 78 Merivale Street, S Brisbane until 6 August. Check the Company website for details.

 

Review: Gaijin at QUT Gardens Theatre

The word Yakuza written in Hiragana
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Gaijin, currently playing in a very short (3 day) season is the brainchild and production of Director/Designer Ben Knapton and Rock and Roll Musical/Stand-Up Performer/Sound Designer Dave Eastgate.

The play is essentially a series of snapshot episodes played out by various characters involved in the story of a young Australian gaijin (foreigner), Chris Thompson, who has gone to Japan to work in a theme park. He falls in with a Yakuza family member and, after a series of brushes with the underworld, is jailed for possession of drugs. Chris ends up in a notorious Japanese prison where, he is told, he will ‘cry every day.’

The play begins with a long monologue by a young Japanese man, Akira. He explains that he has grown up in a Yakuza family – the Japanese equivalent of the Mafia in other cultures. Although of Yakuza, he has not followed their ‘way.’ Chris Thompson’s one hope is the friendship of Akira who has befriended him and for whom Chris has apparently done favours. We see Akira on his knees at the play’s end pleading before a Yakuza prisoner ‘boss’ (Father) – a wonderful tattooed torso projection – to have Chris spared some of the prison’s horrors.

The play is built from a series of monologues accompanied by some pretty impressive multi-media and lighting and sound effects. The design and manipulation of the production’s projection technology with its live action is most impressive and, arguably, Gaijin’s strength. The big design team credited in the program is testament to the production’s focus. Lighting Design is by Jason Glenwright, whose work is gracing lots of Brisbane stages at the moment. Multimedia Design is by Nathan Sibthorpe and Ben Knapton

Dave Eastgate’s characterisation – the suite of Japanese and gaijin characters who weave in and out of Chris’ story – is strong and assured. His Japanese choreographer and the American theme park manager are particular delights. However, I did have some difficulty simply understanding a couple of his other thickly-accented Japanese English characters and, as a result, suspect I missed a few key plot points as they went by. Loved his musical ‘interludes’ as the drugged-out ‘Chris’ struts the stage howling into a microphone at a concert and, as himself in the closing ‘Epilogue’ moments of the play.

Direct audience address is far more satisfying in Gaijin than a couple of awkward-feeling scenes between one character and an invisible ‘other’ on stage, and when off-stage action is presented through sound effects and disembodied speech whilst the stage remains empty. Empty stages make me nervous.

Gaijin is a good-looking, smart piece of theatre-creation and a vehicle for the undoubted talents of Dave Eastgate and some pretty hot audio-visual designers. It is well worth a visit down to the QUT Gardens Point Theatre.

Review: Dead Cargo – !Metro Arts Independents 2011

Image of hell, part of The Garden of Earthly D...
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Another week, another show – this time from the !Metro Arts Independents 2011 series. It’s always fun to be at the first performance of a premiere play; there are no preconceptions, nothing to prepare you for what is to come. Well, I lie (a little) about this, having chatted last week with Nigel Poulton the director and also co-writer (along with long-time collaborator Tim Dashwood).

Nigel warned me that some audiences may be confused by the play. He went on that it was, among other things, ‘about’ hanging on to things long past their use-by date – whether those things are psychological or material – obsessions, preconceptions, needs, words, things, and even people.  So, as I sat pre-show looking at the dozens and dozens of suitcases on the set of Dead Cargo, I began to start threading together the clues Nigel had given me with what I could see in front of me. I had the suitcases sorted; they were the material expressions – symbols – of the ‘invisible baggage’ we carry about with us. Right.  I was starting to feel a bit more confident – getting my head ready for the kind of play that I’d be seeing. I fancied it would be a bit of psycho-realism with expressive movement.

I knew about the movement – see the aforesaid interview re Meyerhold’s Theatrical Bio-Mechanics in Related Articles (below). I knew the script had been written by Messrs Poulton and Dashwood – what to expect in that regard? No idea – this would be a first exposure to their work, at least for me. The set – great by the way – looked messy, deliberately so. Was it meant to stand for the detritus of our lives, maybe? At this point I ran out of clues and started chatting with a friend. What I didn’t do was to read the program. As it turned out, I’m glad I didn’t because there was a clue in the Director’s note which would have sent me on quite another track to the one I pursued during the show and on the drive home. So I’m going to riff a little in this review on how a play – or this particular play – worked on me, about how it sent me down particular tracks in my head. Continue reading Review: Dead Cargo – !Metro Arts Independents 2011

Review: ‘Forensic poetry’ Tender – and moor theatre and !Metro Arts Independents 2010

I’m sure Nicki Bloom, like that other playwrighting wunderkind Polly Stenham (That Face), is tired of hearing how marvellous it must be to write so well at such a young age. We tend not to gush quite so much over absurdly talented young musicians and sports stars but, somehow when it comes to writing plays, you’re not supposed to hit all the marks until you’re much older.  Just why you can’t be as prodigiously clever with imagination and words as you can with bat, ball or musical notes certainly escapes me.

Having got that off my chest, I have to say that Nicki Bloom’s first play Tender, currently playing at !Metro Arts for the Independents 2010 season really does demonstrate an impressive mastery of dialogue (I understand she also writes poetry) and, with this work at least, an equally striking command of dramatic form – not bad for someone aged 22 when she wrote it, had it performed by Belvoir Street’s B-Sharp and then Hothouse Theatre (Albury-Wodonga) and back to Griffin in Sydney. Continue reading Review: ‘Forensic poetry’ Tender – and moor theatre and !Metro Arts Independents 2010