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A deep dive into the heart of darkness

Review: Feet First Collective, S-27 ⋅
Fremantle Arts Centre ⋅
Review by Steven Cohen ⋅

There’s something about dystopian reality that bites, that shakes and shudders at our sensibilities. And when that “something” manifests itself in the theatre it leaves a discerning mark on the audience.

From Orwell’s’ 1984 to The Handmaids Tale, we’re used to dystopian thrillers. Audiences seem drawn to alien settings and alienated characters. The stories are riveting, the dialogue terse and the scenes dramatic.

But dystopian drama is much rarer because the style is founded in science fiction. And a theatre, by its very nature,  is a forum for collective reflection, drawing out participation and expression of popular concerns.

Good dystopian theatre will illuminate the urban and reflect the irreparable. Perhaps more than that, dystopian theatre gives us a chance to recall the true horrors of horrors so that we might learn something and begin again.

Sarah Grochala’s play S-27, first produced in London a decade ago, is better than good.  It is both tense and disturbing in recounting the tales from Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

Aptly staged in the historical asylum of the Fremantle Arts Centre, local producers Teresa Izzard and Lauren Beeton successfully manage to immerse the audience into a universal atrocity, balancing the cultural intricacies of Pol Pot’s ruthless ideology with the indignation of his horror.

To begin, we are stripped of our belongings, given numbers, separated from our partners and hoarded into a small slither of a room.  Violence is within earshot and sometimes seen.  Posters illuminate the blankness of the walls – English renditions from Pol Pot’s Little Red Book – illuminate the extremism of the revolution.  Some of the audience are pulled away. Most stay in situ and in line. Quiet and following.

Eventually we arrive in a cold dank old hall, replete with a single line of facing parallel seating with a single forward fronting chair perched alone in between. An old-style camera, the type my dad used to carry, sits on a tripod aimed at the empty chair. The theatre space is more a thriller scene. The audience become intimate witnesses.

Then we meet May, cold and tearless, whose job is to photograph the living dead. As May’s story slowly unwinds, so does she and we become witness to the frailty of human emotion and what it takes to survive a holocaust. Compassionately played by Gabriella Munro, May is the protagonist whose interactions with those she photographs underpins the production.

The seven supporting cast members are nameless. Sheathed either in black police garb or for a few, they serve as photographic fodder. Their acting is tight and well-controlled, blending erratically into the catastrophic nightmare.

Balancing the well-constructed performances is original music by Rachael Dease, haunting sound by John Congrear and claustrophobic lighting by Andrew Portwine, who successfully encase the audience’s senses in a confronting maelstrom.

This is a story that must be told.  It is uncomfortable, horrific and bloody, but important for our own humanity.  S-27 is a gem of a play.  We are lucky to have such wonderful talent in our city.

S-27 continues until July 21.

Pictured top: May (Gabriella Munro) and Cousin (Sally Clune) as photographer and subject. Photo: Photo: Susie Blatchford.

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Frantic fun

Review: Barking Gecko Theatre, My Robot ⋅
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre ⋅
Reviews by Gabriel and Sascha Bott ⋅

Gabriel  (aged 10)

One thing you want in a show is a good story. Nailed it. Another thing you want is a good cast. Nailed it. Finegan Kruckemeyer has done a fabulous job with writing Barking Gecko Theatre’s My Robot.

It tells the story of a girl named Ophelia (Marlanie Haerewa) who moves into a new house by the beach, next to an old junk shop. Ophelia makes a robot out of some parts sent from the junk shop.

The show is ever-changing and very sudden in terms of emotion and setting. The lighting wasn’t the best though; it was very dark at some key points in the show. On the bright side, the robot is a robot, which I think is awesome.

I feel like the cast was picked very well, including St John Cowcher as Ophelia’s father and Sarah Nelson, who plays Olivetti the robot. The only problem with the cast is that there are only three cast members in the whole show, which means that cast members are rushing around trying to change their clothes all the time.

Overall, I think it’s great. 9 out of 10 stars for me. Barking Gecko have continued to make amazing shows, and this would be their best one yet.

Sascha (aged 8)

I watched My Robot tonight at the State Theatre Centre. It was written by Finegan Kruckemeyer and performed by Barking Gecko Theatre. My Robot is about a robot made by a little girl who just moved house and was very sad about that.

I like that the robot was a real robot, not just a person dressed up as a robot. I think that they could have made the bully meaner because he was a bit too nice. It was clever how they made it look like the robot was shooting the toys onto the shelf.

I liked the show, I think that schools and families should come and watch it.

My Robot continues until July 14.

Pictured top: Ophelia (Marlanie Haerewa) and her father (St John Cowcher) rushing around. Photo: Daniel Grant

Read another Seesaw review of My Robot from the 2017 season.

Quirky robot action!

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Captivating creatures

Review: Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fox ⋅
Spare Parts Puppet Theatre, Fremantle, July 6 ⋅
Review by Bethany Stopher ⋅

Based on the book by Margaret Wild, Fox is a beautiful show that incorporates puppetry into dancing with ease.

As the lights dimmed we could see the shadow of two trees being held up by performers. The lights flashed to represent lightning and suddenly we could spot orange silk unfurling from the sides of the stage. The magpie (played by Gala Shevtsov) flew around the stage, twittering loudly, until the fire snatched away one of her wings.

Right from the start Fox was captivating. The performers were very convincing, acting exactly like the creature they were portraying. Magpie was very quick on her feet, emitting high-pitched wails that sounded very similar to the actual bird. Dog (played by Scott Galbraith) was very boisterous, making the little kids laugh with his antics and scratching. Fox (played by Rachel Arianne Ogle) was a very sinister character with a vicious snarl and twisting body.

Whilst simple, the scenery was also very effective. At the back of the stage there was a sheet used to project things on. Most of the time it was just a plain colour or pattern but sometimes they were illustrations from the book, which I found a nice link to the source material. The sheet was moved from backstage in certain scenes, which made a rippling effect or the ripples of water dropping on a pond.

The lights (controlled by Graham Walne) and music also had a big impact on the emotions of the story; when the characters were happy, the lighting was warm and the music upbeat. When the story turned unpleasant the colours were stark and the music intense.

“Puppetry involves giving life that didn’t have life in itself,” director Michael Barlow stated at the Q&A session after the show. It was interesting how many of the children had questions for the cast, which shows how involved they were in the experience.

One thing that I particularly liked was that use of the narration from the book as a voiceover. If anything got too scary for younger children it reminded them of the fact that it was a story and nothing terrible was actually happening. Although the show stuck to the storyline of the picture book, the depth of the emotions and meaning were thoroughly explored. This made it a very enjoyable experience.

The puppets, made by Leon Hendroff, are truly works of art. They added so much to the performance as the actors became them and gave them a personality. I especially admired the fox puppet, a fox head perched on the hand while vibrant silk draped over her arms along a piece of wire. This gave a very life-like effect.

Overall, I was very impressed with the show. It is an emotional, inspiring story that cleverly incorporates dance. The actors were brilliant, the puppets amazing.  What more could you want? Definitely a must see for the holidays.

Fox continues until July 20.

Pictured top: Dog (Scott Galbraith) and Magpie (Gala Shevtsov) are playful friends. Photo: Photo: Simon Pynt.

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Making America Great Gatsby again

Perth Festival review: Elevator Repair Service, Gatz ⋅
Octagon Theatre, March 1 ⋅
Review by David Zampatti ⋅

It’s impossible to claim that Gatz, Elevator Repair Service’s heroic word-for-word performance of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, is a reaction to the state of America under its current president (after all, the project was conceived under Clinton and first performed under Bush II).

But I doubt if anyone who experienced this demanding, adventurous, beautiful, funny, desperately sad tour de force of theatrical daring and skill during the dying days of this year’s Perth Festival would have failed to feel the sense and personality of Trump reverberating uncannily through it.

ERS performs The Great Gatsby in its entirety, and without a single additional word of dialogue. For the record, the performance of those roughly 50,000 words takes 360 minutes (there are three intervals, one long enough for a meal). According to one ready reckoner, Fitzgerald’s novella (he insisted it was a novel for commercial reasons, complaining that novellas didn’t sell) takes a minute under three hours for the average reader to complete.

There’s little needs saying about the story – it’s a known commodity: the mysterious, obsessed tycoon and the woman he (foolishly but inevitably) loves to his death, and the damage they do, as reported by a decent, ordinary man who fell into their web, ensnared by their charm and his timidity.

It’s hard to believe that performing a novel word for word could work so perfectly on stage, but Gatsby is no typical novel. As Gertrude Stein wrote admiringly to Fitzgerald: “You write naturally in sentences.” T.S. Eliot, for whom compliments did not come easy, was also a fan. He read Gatsby three times, repaying, I think, a compliment Fitzgerald had paid him through the novel’s tone and sensibility – Gatsby may be the great American novel, but it is also its Waste Land.

That natural economy of Fitzgerald’s phrase and structure makes the transition to the spoken word and the stage easy. Whether it’s in the long narrations that Nick Carraway (Scott Shepherd) delivers, or in the dialogue between the book’s characters – Gatsby (Jim Fletcher), Daisy (Annie McNamara) and Tom (Pete Simpson), Jordan (April Matthis), George (Frank Boyd) and Myrtle (Laurena Allan) – Fitzgerald’s language is vivid, easy to grasp and imbued with life.

Let me explain: the world of the play is a humdrum office some time in the late 1980s, judging by the computers and remnant typewriters. One office worker (Shepherd) fills the tedious hours reading The Great Gatsby aloud. Others go about the desultory business of the modern administrative workplace until, unobtrusively at first, they assume the personages of Fitzgerald’s East and West Egg on Long Island and hurtle down to the book’s scandal and its tragedy.

Three men in office attire lean against a desk.
In the office: Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan and Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

Once the characters are established and the action mounts in the first “section”, it’s an exhilarating ride, with the atmospherics created by Fitzgerald – and amplified and enriched by director John Collins – anticipating much of the best of American literature, cinema and theatre.

When it moves to the Gatsby mansion parties and Jay and Daisy’s reunion, the production becomes a comedy of New York manners worthy of Damon Runyon and Dorothy Parker. As the screws tighten in the Plaza Suite scene – where Gatsby and Tom Buchanan battle for possession of Daisy – there’s a Tennessee Williams shift in mood. And later, when Myrtle Wilson goes under the wheels of Gatsby’s automobile and their battle turns fatal, Gatz reads like James M. Cain.

Finally, we are left with Nick looking out over Long Island Sound at the dark water and the green light, and the voice – its admonition and its premonition – belongs to Fitzgerald alone.

Shepherd is astounding as Nick Carraway. Apart from the enormous feat of remembering almost an entire book (he pretends to be reading it, but that ain’t so) and holding the stage for six hours, his habitation of the character of Nick is complete. You don’t doubt him for a second.

Nor do you doubt the other characters. Fletcher’s Gatsby is imposing, humorous and threatening (he’d be an extraordinary Kerry Packer); McNamara makes Daisy not an alabaster beauty but a woman a man might ache for; and Simpson’s Tom Buchanan is manspread and dangerous. Even the sound designer, Ben Williams, who steps out from his cleverly camouflaged sound desk to play minor characters, is perfect.

Daisy sits by a window, flooded with light from behind.
Annie McNamara’s Daisy Buchanan is a woman a man might ache for. Photo Toni Wilkinson.

But it is the contemporary parallels – Gatsby/Tom Buchanan as precursors to Trump, the inheritance man and cagey outsider; Gatsby’s bootlegger Wolfsheim and Trump’s Russian oligarchs; the racism and the womanising – that make Gatz such a fascinatingly relevant work.

For Gatsby, it was not enough that Daisy loved him; he needed her to have always loved him. It’s his expectation of, and demand for, complete loyalty and possession that destroy him. Perhaps it will destroy this president, too.

The worst thing about them all – the Gatsbys, the Buchanans, the Trumps – is that, as Fitzgerald says, “they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made”.

And the worst mess they have made – the one they are still making now, from Wall Street to the Oval Office, from sea to shining sea – is the retreat from the promise of the American future: the green light that Gatsby believed in but was too greedy to attain. And so “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.

POSTSCRIPT

Two years ago, we marvelled at The Gabriels – another eight-hour American epic, set, coincidentally, in the year leading up to the election of Donald Trump. It remains the best experience I’ve had at the theatre. I would gladly see both plays – The Gabriels followed by Gatz – back to back over 16 hours.

I thank Perth Festival’s departing director, Wendy Martin, for bringing them both here, and congratulate her on a wonderful four years of theatre programming. I’ll have more to say about it later.

Picture Top:  (left to right) Scott Shepherd as Nick Carraway, Jim Fletcher as Jay Gatsby, April Matthis as Jordan Baker, Annie McNamara as Daisy Buchanan and  Pete Simpson as Tom Buchanan. Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

 

 

 

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Brutal ghosting

Perth Festival review: Dickie Beau, Re-Member Me ·
Studio Underground, February 27 ·
Review by Jonathan W. Marshall ·

Near the commencement of Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me the audience is treated to a silhouette of a man seated in a pose reminiscent of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker, accompanied by a synchronised voice-over provided by the actor Ian McKellen. McKellen claims blithely that “Anyone can play Hamlet!” before clarifying that Hamlet is such an open theatrical part that it can be easily re-shaped to be about anyone. We are then rapidly treated to an array of distorted Hamlets, now accompanied by the live lip-synching Beau, leaping about and posing while dressed like an extra from the film version of the Village People’s YMCA.

Complete with Max Headroom-style stutters and reboots and a dazzling day-glo disco projection, the combination is deliberately jarring, garish but also stilted. It’s full of light, colour and joyous action, but it is also — like the best drag performance — slightly distanced, or as Susan Sontag used to say of Andy Warhol, affectively flat and hence “camp”.

Although Re-Member Me focusses on a version of Hamlet performed by the late Ian Charleson (best known for Chariots of Fire) it is, in fact, about the gay subculture of London and West End theatre. Beau playing the late Sir John Gielgud bookends the evening, initially with a recording of Gielgud’s incomparable vocal performance of Hamlet, returning to perform a rather tragic late recording of Gielgud discussing how horrible becoming truly old is since all of one’s friends are dead and one knows that one is next. Gielgud was charged in 1953 for “persistently importuning men for immoral purposes”, while Charleson played Hamlet shortly after it had become known to friends and colleagues that he was dying of AIDS. Both Gielgud and Charleson suffered, albeit in different ways, for their sexuality.

Beau sets up a horizontal space running across the back of the stage, which is bounded by partially see-through plastic curtains, as in a hospital. Above this is hung a wide projection screen onto which four versions of Beau’s head are beamed. For much of the production it is these heads, not the “living” actor below who lip-syncs interviews with Charleson’s friends and colleagues such as McKellen, the former director of the Royal National Theatre, a one-time costume assistant and others. Representing that generation of very English thespians who were taught that correct pronunciation and the Queen’s English was the very essence of their trade, these voice-overs themselves sound vaguely unreal and staged. The equally mannered, exaggerated movements of the mouth and face which Beau adopts when seeming to recite this material increases this sense of unreality and distance.

At a crucial point one of the subjects asks if maybe they are all now creating this romantic myth about how this was one of the best Hamlets ever out of nostalgia, and from their retrospective knowledge that this was to be Charleson’s last major role. Having put this forward, the speaker immediately rejects this, insisting it really was one of those once in a lifetime moments in the theatre. As if to prove this, a recording of a critic from The Times reciting a frankly ludicrous, hagiographic review is then played. One is therefore left with a niggling doubt that, tragic though the tale of Charleson’s death may be, the show is something of an act of smoke and mirrors, an attempt to “re-member” something that maybe never was. It is less a deeply affective myth or piece of stage magic than perhaps a rather brutal, deliberately clunky mixtape of memories and incomplete actorly presences — like the lifeless plastic mannequins which Beau sets up below the disembodied heads.

This is therefore a rather more thoughtful and jarring show than it might at first appear, both homage and debunking all in one, and all the more fascinating for this.

Re-Member Me is playing at Studio Underground until March 3,

Pictured top: Dickie Beau conjuring the ghosts of Hamlets past.  Photo: Sarah Lewis.

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Treasure trove

Perth Festival review: Danny Braverman, Wot? No Fish!! ·
Studio Underground, February 20 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

The stories of the great ones are carved in stone.

Around them teem millions of people with lives that pass unknown, their stories unnoticed and then forgotten – evidence of their joys and sorrows, their increase and decrease, the circumstances of their coming and their going reduced to a few dusty lines in government files, a photograph album soon to be discarded or fading from living memory.

Or left, forgotten, in a shoebox under a bed.

Which is where the English storyteller Danny Braverman and his mother found a treasure-trove of common life – and a long, ordinary love affair told in an extraordinary way – as they were clearing out her deceased cousin’s flat in Chelsea.

Since 1926 when he married his beautiful next-door neighbour Celie, Braverman’s great-uncle Ab Solomon had taken home his payslip from the shoe factory where he worked and given it to his wife with the housekeeping inside and a simple drawing or a painting on the outside.

When he retired he kept giving her an envelope with a painting on it every week until she died in 1982.

It’s the history of their marriage, from their ardent newlyweddedness through to ailing old age.

History – depression, wars, austerity, the exodus of the middle-class from old cities to new, milquetoast suburbia – comes and goes; Abe and Celie suffer hardships and personal tragedies, feel their ardour cool and, sometimes,  distances grow, but Abe’s little sketches tells the story of an enduring love that recalls John Donne’s great metaphor, “If they be two, they are two so, as stiff twin compasses are two”.

Braverman tells Ab and Celie’s story in the simplest possible way, projecting a selection of these little doodles on a screen while commentating – and often speculating – about what’s happening in them.

He has a broad, knowing East-End Jewishness that disarms you immediately. If you enjoy words starting with schm… you’ll have a ball; if you love fishballs dipped in chrain (the traditional relish made from beetroot and horseradish that Braverman hands around as an icebreaker)  you will be with him from the get-go.

As you should be, whatever your taste in dialects and finger-food, because the story of Ab and Celie that he tells with good humour, taste and emotional precision is a window into the world of real people that will survive, in our common humanity, when all the statues have crumbled and there’s nothing left of the great ones they memorialise but names.

Wot?  No Fish!!  is playing at Studio Underground until February 24,

Pictured top: Danny Braverman diving deep into his family history. Photo: Tony Lewis.

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A star is born

Perth Festival review: The Last Great Hunt, Lé Nør   ·
PICA, February 13 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Lé Nør  (The Rain) is the most ambitious work yet by The Last Great Hunt. It’s also the first time that all six members of the West Australian company have combined their talents as devisers, operators and performers in one production.

The result is awe-inspiring.

Here’s the bare bones: Lé Nør is set on the imagined North Atlantic island city-state of Sólset (from now on I’m going to dispense with the accents and umlauts; more on them later) that has endured a terrible seven-year drought that has reduced its inhabitants to water-hoarding, water-blackmailing obsessives. When the rains finally come, they keep coming. Before long the little island faces an even more existential threat.

We follow the lives of the inhabitants of one apartment block, Inez (Gita Bezard), a pregnant rescue helicopter pilot, and her husband Leal (Jeffrey Jay Fowler), Petri (Chris Isaacs) and his inseparable mate Tobe (also Fowler), and two single women drawn to each other, Eliza (Arielle Gray) and Soren (Adriane Daff). Another woman, Suzette (Jo Morris, the only non-Hunter in the cast) pines for her fled boyfriend in her lonely flat, endlessly playing and replaying Phil Collins’s Against All Odds.

All of their shenanigans are overseen with mild menace by the narrator, TLGH’s gamester-in-chief, Tim Watts.

That’s the last you need bother about the plot. It’s the how, not the what, that this thing is about.

As well as the Collins dirge, there’s I’m Not in Love, White Wing Dove, Head over Heels, How Do I Get You Alone, steak knives and more in the exquisitely hideous 1980s soundtrack ­– is there a word for nostalgia for a time you didn’t have to endure yourself?

That’s only part of the referential delight of the work. It’s a deep dive into a world transformed by the lens of a camera, a stage show that becomes, more completely than anything I can remember, the Grand Illusion, the making of cinema.

Effectively the set is a screen that dominates the PICA stage, designed, along with its attendant gadgetry, by the “seventh Hunter”, Anthony Watts. All the show’s action, all its effects, are created for, and live on, that screen. Around it bustle the Hunters and stage manager Clare Testoni, setting scenes, setting up camera shots, striking poses, delivering lines, all to be distilled into images on it.

It’s a phenomenally intense ride – if anything a little too dizzying to actively engage in for 90 minutes – wildly funny and sexy. It’s a technical achievement, with a personality and charisma, like nothing we’ve seen from a West Australian company.

The title, the Hunters say, means “The Rain” in the hilarious gibberish-language they have concocted for the show (there are English surtitles), but we know better.

It really means film noir (although some of the shots, of Gray and Daff in particular, owe as much to flicks like David Hamilton’s soft focus, gauzy 1977 Bilitis as anything grittier) but film theory is probably as unimportant here as narrative. Nothing is important (when nothing is real, there’s nothing to get hung about).

So just sit back and watch Jo Morris in a phone box climbing up the walls and across the ceiling while you see how it’s done; watch two fight superstars (Gray and Daff as goodie and baddie respectively) suddenly come to life on their billboard; watch Bezard’s matchbox helicopter swoop down to rescue our heroes from Solset’s last unsubmerged rooftop (the one with the billboard) like eagles on the slopes of Mt Doom.

With Lé Nør The Last Great Hunt have confirmed their individual and collective stardom and their mastery of their craft. Now it’s time for the real fun to begin.

“Lé Nør” is playing at PICA until February 24, and Mandurah Performing Arts Centre February 28 – March 2.

Pictured top: Visual marvel – Jo Morris and The Last Great Hunt soar. Photo: Daniel Grant.

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Ursula Martinez performing in a white suit against a red curtain
Comedy, News, Perth Festival, Reviews, Theatre

Brickbats and bouquets

Perth Festival review: Ursula Martinez, Free Admission ·
Studio Underground, February 14 ·
Review by Robert Housely ·

The art of bricklaying, typically, is practised by tanned alpha men in stubbies shorts and blue singlets on dusty building sites.

When a well-manicured gay woman with hair in a neat bun wearing a white business suit does it on stage, the stereotypical world order has been seriously disrupted.

Although this contradiction is extremely unlikely, it is possible, sometimes. Sometimes, anything can happen.

That is precisely the point of acclaimed UK experimental theatre maker and cabaret performer Ursula Martinez – a Perth Festival artist-in-residence – in this one of her several festival offerings.

The starting point for this Mark Whitelaw-directed show was her realisation that “the word sometimes reinforces the idea that there is no absolute truth … that life isn’t fixed … that we are all prone to contradiction and all capable of change.”

Her performance comprises a strategically entangled compendium of personal anecdotes and observations, many of which begin with the word “sometimes”.

All the while she uses small concrete blocks, a trowel and mortar to fill in a cut-away section of a partition wall between her and the audience.

Slowly but surely you see less and less of her as she gradually builds a wall which, in keeping with her intent, is a complete contradiction to her unabashed personal exposé.

Her anecdotes can be bawdy, are frequently topical and – whatever the subject matter – are often hilarious.

“Sometimes”, she says, “the world would be better without penises and religion; and I’m not saying get rid of penises.”

“Sometimes”, she says, “I get jealous of Catherine Tate because I once did a comedy show with her 20 years ago. Sometimes, I’m not ‘bovered’.”

She remembers racist childhood ditties from the 1970s, reciting them as though still in the schoolyard with friends.

She reveals her “obsession with having a clean bum hole” as though intimate personal hygiene was open to public debate.

She mentions her current divorce proceedings with ex-partner “princess mental case”.

Nothing is off the table in what is a smorgasbord of personal admissions.

Her command of multiple accents complements many of her stories whether parodying her Scottish sex-education teacher or channelling her Spanish mother, who has a propensity for “hitting the nail on the head”.

Some playful audience engagement and an outrageous finale contribute to making this thoroughly accessible show well worth the price of admission.

Free Admission is playing at the Studio Underground until  Feb 18.

Pictured top: Ursula Martinez trowels it on.

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Ambition and emptiness

Fringe World review: New Ghost Theatre, Paper Doll ·
&
FUGUE, Indigo Keane and Nicole Harvey, Silence My Ladyhead ·
Blue Room, February 12 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

There was something about New Ghost Theatre’s Paper Doll that bugged me until I looked back over the 35-odd productions I’ve been to so far this festival season.  Then I realised it was just about the first play, rather than theatre (or other related stuffI’d seen.

Fourth wall firmly in place; two human beings talking to each other; a distinct linear narrative; start (young woman opens door to a bedraggled, soaking older man), middle (they talk it becomes clear he is her father, he’s been inside and her friends have warned her to keep clear of him) and end (their dark secret is revealed).

Katy Warner’s play, conceived as a response to Arthur Miller’s masterpiece A View From The Bridge, is erudite, powerful and raw, reminiscent in many ways of David Harrower’s mighty Blackbird.

It’s perfectly cast (Hayley Pearl is the woman, Martin Ashley Jones her father, both are totally convincing).

Lucy Clements, who has launched a serious career since graduating from WAAPA and delivering the impressive Fracture to the Blue Room in 2015, directs here, and, by and large, it’s a strong piece of work. But I take issue with two of her (or her and Warner’s) decisions.

The first was to perform an essentially naturalistic piece on a completely bare stage. What purpose there was in not providing even a table and a couple of chairs for the actors to work – and put their beers and chips on – defeats me. It created an unnecessary and unhelpful unreality in a piece that didn’t need it.

The other, far more important quibble, was their lack of control of the piece’s temperature. Even though Paper Doll is only 45/50 minutes long, it still needed the character’s heat to rise along with its tension and reveal.

Warner/Clements got them up too far, far too fast, which meant that that the play began to plateau when it should have still been peaking.

But they are the risks you take when you eschew easy allegory or dystopia, or all the other shortcuts that mortal contemporary theatre-making is prey to, and resolve to write an actual play. It’s hard, bloody hard, and I commend them all for doing it.

Nothing I could honestly say about Silence My Ladyhead (apart from noting its cool title) would be likely to encourage you to see it.

It’s a pity because its star Indigo Keane has quite a bit going for her (in a previous review I described her as “a pneumatic, diaphanous gobsmack” and, as this show uses the quote in their publicity, I assume I’m at liberty to repeat it), but this is not the vehicle for her talents.

The piece starts promisingly enough with her long-limbed, smoke-wreathed, darkest-legal-blue tinted emergence from the shadows (assumedly as Arachne, the mortal weaver who challenged Athena on the loom and got four more limbs for her hubris), but nothing after that lives up to that promise.

Her songs (I Was Made for Loving You, a bewildering Stand By Your Man, PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love) all suffered from really limp backing tracks that left her with nowhere to go, and made her attempts at a sort of Patti Smith-like anti-performance stance lacking the Patti Smith bit.

Sorry, but after shows like Bitch on Heat, Feminah and last year’s Power Ballad, Silence My Ladyhead was, um, devoid.

Paper Doll is playing at the Blue Room until  Feb 16.

Silence My Ladyhead is playing at the Blue Room until  Feb 13.

Pictured top: Major disappointment – Indigo Keane in Silence My Ladyhead.

    

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Olympian spectacle

Perth Festival review: Dimitris Papaioannou, The Great Tamer ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, February 8 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Dimitris Papaioannou’s The Great Tamer begins with a slow, simple contest. A man’s naked body lies on a white panel on a grey/black stage. A man covers the body with a sheet; another man blows the sheet away. They enter, play their game, leave. Enter, play and leave. Again and again.

As it transpires, all of Papaioannou’s spectacle (it can’t be meaningfully described as a play, or a dance) is a game, the subject of which, the rules it adheres to or breaks, the bats, balls, dice, cards it plays with, is time. Time is the great tamer.

Papaioannou, who is best known as the creator of the opening ceremony for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, is by training and inclination a visual artist, and The Great Tamer is most satisfactorily approached as an animated work of art.

The set, a captured ocean swell, consists of a seemingly disordered jumble of those panels, like a jigsaw puzzle all of whose pieces are the same colour and shape. On and through this monochromatic landscape, Papaioannou’s troupe of ten actor/dancer/acrobats form and reform into tableaux, mutant creatures, or body parts, appearing and disappearing through unseen fissures into some unimaginable underworld.

It’s a world of art, sometimes specific (Dr Tulp gives his anatomy class, Kronos/Saturn devours his children) sometimes suggested (there’s much of the spirit of Dali in Papaioannou’s visual imagination; Escher and Bosch also), always playful.

Unsurprisingly, the forms and images of classical Greek art recur throughout. A figure has its marble surfaces cracked away to reveal the boy beneath (the debris is the rubble of time, swept up, bagged and thrown into the void), disembodied arms, legs and heads scurry from holes across the stage

For all the visual thrills of The Great Tamer perhaps the most brilliant effect Papaioannou creates, with his colleague Stephanos Droussiotis, is its music, a remarkable attenuation of Strauss’s An der schönen blauen Donau (The Blue Danube). It’s signature passages are excised, gradually dissolving into separate phrases and, finally, single notes, the musical equivalent of the aforementioned disembodied limbs. It’s a game, of course, a playing with the time that tames sound to make it music.

The Blue Danube is also, of course, a recurring motif in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Lovers of that similarly disconcerting visual extravaganza (I bet Papaioannou is) will recognise other references to it in the incongruous spacemen who float awkwardly across the stage, the light behind their helmets’ visors, like the reflections of the eye of HAL.

The cast of The Great Tamer are superbly skilled and superbly choreographed. Some of the physical effects they create defy logic, their acrobatic and circus skills are of the highest order, their wordless expressiveness compelling.

Because this is a world without words, and without narrative. It’s Plato/Socrates’s world of forms, of timeless ideas, of sight and appearance, the original Twilight Zone.

It’s Papaioannou’s playground; it’s where Estragon and Vladimir wait and Lear is exiled. It’s Beckett and Eliot and Shakespeare distilled, first into images and then to thought.

It’s no surprise, and no accident, that Papaioannou’s final image is of a skeleton breaking apart into rubble like a ruined Greek statue. Its skull rolls off the stage and comes to rest against . . . a book.

Perhaps waiting, in the marvellous game of The Great Tamer, for a Danish prince to play with.

The Great Tamer is playing at the Heath Ledger Theatre until February 12.

Pictured top: Platonic forms – the cast of The Great Tamer animate classical works of art

Photo: Julian Momert

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