Review: Romeo and Juliet – Queensland Theatre Company at Playhouse QPAC

This is a big, elemental production. It is austere and physical, stripped back to the essentials. There is no blood, little adornment, no shoes even. The focus is on the actor’s body – its material and vocal expressiveness in service of the text. In so many ways it reminded me of Poor Theatre’s stripping back to the fundamentals of performance in, as Grotowski attempted to describe it, a ‘… discarding of masks, the revealing of the real substance: a totality of physical and mental reactions.’

Director Jennifer Flowers has produced a Romeo and Juliet that will appeal to those who like their Shakespeare and their acting unvarnished and quick. Certainly, this production is all of that. Playing time is under 2 and a half hours with no interval.

The cast of twelve (8 men and 4 women) inhabit a world that is indeterminate; their unadorned costumes are of another time and place although in setting – elemental stone and water – designer Bill Haycock (with lighting by David Walters) has beautifully referenced the coldness of a classical citadel rather than the usual richness and warmth of Verona’s Renaissance city. It fits the rest of the production and provides a new viewing of a play whose story is so well known in our culture that even those who have never experienced it on page, stage or screen feel that they ‘know’ it. Ms Flowers’ production is a bold revisioning, and one that may take people by surprise. That’s no bad thing at all. Continue reading “Review: Romeo and Juliet – Queensland Theatre Company at Playhouse QPAC”

On the Occasion of Mr Shakespeare’s Birthday – or – Me and Will

“To me, fair friend, you never can be old.” (Sonnet 104)

We go back a bit, Will and I. It’s his 448th birthday today but my knowledge of him only goes back about 50 of those years.

I first met him as a child in the Queensland Primary School Readers. Little extracts or quotes from the plays littered the pages as my 8 years of elementary school tripped by. Back then the word ‘Shakespeare’ meant very little to me, although I came to recognise this quite exotic name in time.

I do recall loving poetry as a kid. Along with the person whom I came to learn was called ‘The Bard’ I loved Coleridge, Tennyson, Wordsworth … all the great English poets. They appeared in our readers along with Australian bush balladeers and romantics. These were a great introduction to literature, I must say. But, back to Will …

I really got to know him in high school. I think I studied … and I mean, studied … and learned how to learn lines in at least four of the plays. It’s a skill that has stood me in great stead. They were Julius Caesar, Twelfth Night, Henry IV (I) and King Lear, although I could be wrong on this last one. The good Sisters of Mercy made us read the plays out loud – hooray – and learn great chunks of the speeches. I remember the thrill of standing behind my desk or in front of the room reciting away madly to the bemused faces of my classmates. I can still trot out huge passages of … Caesar. Needless to say, I adored these classes and learned to love language even more because of Will. During high school we were taken to the theatre to see productions of the plays or the Young Elizabethans visited the school with their travelling shows. I would get the tingles sitting in the audience for even the dreadful stuff. I was falling in love, you see.

By the time I got to Teachers’ College in the mid-60s, I was pretty much hooked on theatre and had decided that was where my life should be. I just had to save the money to run away to London, as most of us did back then, in order to study acting. I did, eventually, but not before working on a couple of the plays for the amateur Brisbane Arts Theatre: Julius Caesar (Portia) and backstage in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Shakespeare’s plays are windows onto other worlds – to those long gone in history and to those private worlds that still reside deep within men and women.

During my actor-training in London I played Helena in a rather hippie version of MND – lots of purple as I recall – and saw lots and lots and lots of Shakespeare: in the West End at the National Theatre (still at the Old Vic in the late 1960s-early 70s) and up at Stratford Upon Avon. I recall queueing from dawn and eating breakfast in the line to get standing-only tickets to that day’s performance of Peter Brook’s seminal … Dream.  I’ve been back to Stratford a couple of times since. Touristy it may be, but it’s still magical, especially when the crowds are gone. Just walking in the Warwickshire countryside through harvested wheat fields under the wide, blue skies is sheer bliss. There are skylarks … Continue reading “On the Occasion of Mr Shakespeare’s Birthday – or – Me and Will”

Review: Chicago – Blue Fish Theatrical at Schonell Theatre

Main Image: Supplied Blue Fish Theatrical

It’s good, isn’t it … grand, isn’t it?

Oh I do love a musical! And as far as musicals go, John Kander and Fred Ebb’s satirical slice of razzle dazzle, the murderous Chicago (1975) is a corker. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re not one of the four people alive that hasn’t seen one of the many hundreds of productions on stage since its Broadway opening or the 2002 Academy Award-winning Hollywood blockbuster, so I won’t bore you with a recap. But I’ll say this – I’ve never met a Kander and Ebb number I didn’t like. As I drove out to UQ’s Schonell Theatre for the opening night of Blue Fish Theatrical‘s production of the duo’s best known piece, I was crossing my fingers that this company, who bill themselves as ‘Queensland’s hottest independent musical theatre company,’ would pull it off.

Sitting in the dark, the theatre was half-full and the curtain wide-open. Apart from ‘CHICAGO’ up in lights and the band centre, the stage was bare black, and I immediately knew we’d be stepping into a vaudevillian, concert-style interpretation – excellent, just how I like it. I flicked through the program to check out the designer and was surprised to find there wasn’t one, but three.

Director Tony Campbell, Musical Director Julie Whiting and Stage Manager Brett Roberts are billed under Set Design whilst Choreographer Jenny Usher is ‘costume co-ordinator’ – whatever that means. Alarm bells. Too many cooks? Thankfully, by the end of the opening number – Chicago’s anthem ‘All That Jazz’ – my fears were allayed. This Chicago‘s design is slick and minimalist with sexy but not ‘distracting’ costumes. In fact, apart from a few pairs of ill-fitting men’s trousers, the design was wonderfully simple and classy. And what a joy to see a community theatre company cleverly putting their resources into all the right places.

Blue Fish do a good band and this production was no exception. It’s jazz and liquor hot … Julie Whiting and her troupe of talented musicians are just terrific

Tony Campbell, who clearly knows his way around a comedy, played it safe and directed the show by numbers. If you’re looking for a new or ground-breaking re-invention, you won’t find it here. Then again, if it ain’t broke… Continue reading “Review: Chicago – Blue Fish Theatrical at Schonell Theatre”

Review: Midsummer (a play with songs) by David Greig and Gordon McIntyre -Traverse Theatre (Edinburgh) & La Boite Theatre Company at The Roundhouse

This, for me, was pretty much a perfect evening in the theatre. Silly and sad, lyrical and earthy, and always tender at heart, this marvellous two-hander from Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, currently on tour around Australia, is a sheer delight. Judging by the ovation at play’s end and broad smiles, the others at the sold-out opening night performance felt the same. Just a tip at the top of this review – get your ticket now.

Traverse Theatre, founded in 1963, is Scotland’s leading ‘new writing’ company. This work from 2008 was created and workshop-honed by both actors (Cora Bissett and Matthew Pidgeon) and writer-director David Greig and songwriter Gordon McIntyre. The play kicks off with the meeting of Helena and Bob, two mismatched 35-year olds who meet in a bar at the start of the Midsummer long-weekend. It’s an unlikely coupling as both are all too aware. However, it’s Midsummer and anything can happen; we know that, don’t we theatre-lovers? As writer David Greig puts it, it’s a ‘love-story told from two perspectives – the man and the woman.’ It’s also a love poem to the great, grey city of Edinburgh where (as I recall) the beer is dark and the men pasty – the latter from the lack of sunshine.

I can’t recall a play that is as deliberately grounded in the geography and feel of place as is Midsummer… .  Indeed, a handy map in the front of the programme (which, sweetly, includes Traverse Theatre’s location itself) tracks protagonists’ Helena and Bob’s journey over one MAAAD!, debauched, hilarious Midsummer long-weekend. It’s a magic time for those in the far north where the hours of night float upon those of day  … . I can’t recall the exact phrase, but there are glorious moments of lyricism like this in the play’s dialogue as well as gritty Scots’ vernacular. Midsummer … is a play with music – not a musical – and its simplicity and urban-folk sound sung and accompanied by the actors is just … right. Is there a more romantic-sounding instrument than the acoustic guitar or a more endearing than a ukelele? I think not. We get both. By the way, if you like hearing authentic dialects in plays (as I do) then you are going to love this one.

The Roundhouse can accommodate 400, which is close to the Traverse’s own intimate 300-seater home room. This kind of space – here configured to a three-sided ‘thrust’ staging – allows the audience to get up close. It’s ideal for a play about intimacy.

The set by designer Georgia McGuinness is a marvel of simplicity without ever screaming ‘We’re on tour,’ and it fits beautifully into the big room at La Boite. The focus in an all-purpose room space is a large bed, itself a clever bit of stage machinery that provides most of the space for the action, hiding and revealing props in turn.

Ms Bissett and Mr Pidgeon, who have been with the show from the get-go, are a joy to watch across the couple of hours that track Helena and Bob’s crazed weekend. Midsummer … is an actor-focussed work and it makes big calls on its actors by foregrounding role-playing and story-telling. Both are simply terrific. You might think playing over such a long time would leave stale marks but there isn’t a hint of slick. They play with each other and the audience in what is a finely-honed duet – their cheekiness charming and drollery a pure delight. Mr Greig steers his team and Midsummer‘s tempo-rhythms with a fine hand.

Midsummer first appeared in a ‘low-budget production’ at the end of 2008 and went on to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2009. It’s been a huge success along the way – first in its hometown, and then in London, Canada, the USA and now Australia. The presentation gives production credits to La Boite, Merrigong Theatre Company (Wollongong) and Richard Jordan Productions.  Midsummer … ‘s genesis from low-budget indie to international success is heartwarming, to say the least. It’s the kind of co-production model to watch and emulate.

Midsummer is one to catch and treasure. Truly …


Images: Lisa Tomasetti

Review: X by Sunny Drake – Metro Arts The Independents 2012 at the Sue Benner Theatre

It was a supportive and packed audience for the opening night of X the latest in the Metro Arts Independents 2012 seasonEach of us was holding an obligatory drink as we entered the theatre but, long before the lights went down, aspects of the show, written, created, and performed by Sunny Drake had already begun.

We’d been asked to write a judgmental thought about alcoholics on our way in. Upon arrival at the door, we were given someone else’s judgmental ‘thought’ in return; they’re used during the show. Mr Drake begins the show saying it’s not at all about him and, by the end of the night the message is searingly clear: this show is about us. It’s about our addictions and our judgements, particularly around alcohol.  In X, the fourth wall is well and truly down.

This one-man show, directed by Therese Collie, doesn’t feel like a one  man show at all

There’s astounding multimedia and projection design, along with a cast of puppets, and it’s the animation and multimedia that steal the show. There are theatrical moments that represent vibrant and imaginative independent theatre at its absolute best.

The puppet characters regularly escape into a blissful, green-tinged, alcoholic world but, as the show goes on, the blissful and the real worlds collide with staggering consequences. Ingrid K Brooker helped along by Georgie Hauff, Taylor Wilson and Jordan Higgins has designed beautiful and enchanting stop-motion animation. Penny Everingham’s puppets are delightful and inventive creatures, although Drake occasionally struggles with his performance of them.

I’d love to tell you more about the plot, but I had extreme difficulty understanding it. There are two central characters: Jamie and Caitlin, although they take a leave of absence in the show’s middle as we focus on ‘Mr. Fancy’. There are also other characters who may or may not have been somehow connected with Jamie and Caitlin. The puppets are initially introduced and performed by Caitlin, but she quickly disappears, and how they’re connected to the real world remains a mystery.

The blurring of the puppet and the real world is at times a deliberate choice, but is also frequently confusing. The central tension of the play is set around a state-wide crackdown on alcohol, but this gets buried and lost, which means the plot’s momentum occasionally slows down. The play’s final five minutes of meta-theatricality become too declamatory to be truly powerful as the character’s we’ve been introduced to are deserted by Sunny for another purpose altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of true wit and satirical mirth here that are fantastic. I haven’t been exposed to Sunny’s work before, and there’s a lot here to like. In so many ways though, X feels like a warm-up to something greater. Mr Drake is an intelligent performer in the making, with plenty of ambition and vision, but he occasionally struggles with the pressures of a one-man show. Ms Collie’s staging has moments of sheer delight and beauty, and the numerous theatrical tricks employed throughout the show are worth the ticket price alone.

Georgina Greenhill’s set, a discombobulated body that is sprawled across the stage, is inventive and detailed. Ms Greenhill manages to mix beauty and surprise into her design, and provides a fertile playground for Sunny. Brett Collery’s soundscape and composition present him at his atmospheric best. whilst the lighting design by Andrew Meadows is incredibly clever and beautiful. Indeed, Greenhill, Collery and Meadows create a production with technical cohesion that is rarely seen on the Brisbane Independent stage.

Greenhill, Collery and Meadows create a production with technical cohesion that is rarely seen on the Brisbane independent stage

As the audience left the theatre, everyone’s glasses were empty, our judgement purged, and our creative brains tickled.  X is a show of invention and imagination, and will give you plenty of moments of delight.

X  plays at Metro Arts from Wed-Sat until 28th April as part of their The Independents 2012 season ahead of its North American tour to the USA National Queer Arts Festival.
Book Online or (07) 3002 7100

Duration: 60 – 65 minutes