Features, News, Performing arts, Theatre

A sweet metaphor for the many ways to be Muslim

In their first production since 2015’s vivid chronicles of young queer Muslims Once We Were Kings, Third Culture Kids are back with a festive “living room dramedy” about the world of three migrant Muslim sisters.

Named for the sweet cordial beloved in many countries, SHARBAT is shaping up to be an earnest blend of the personal and the universal, mixed in with a good sprinkling of brown youth realness.

Patrick Gunasekera sat down with the show’s writer and performer Doreshawar Khan to discuss the good Muslim/bad Muslim rift, Khan’s dreams for brown youth theatre in Perth, Rami Malek, family, white supremacy, and so much more.

Patrick Gunasekera: This story of navigating tumultuous relationships with siblings is a deeply universal one, but what was the starting point of SHARBAT, for you?

‘… the term sharbat is like a metaphor for how people observe religion or pay respect to their culture.’ Doreshawar Khan in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

Doreshawar Khan: So, it started specifically on September 17, last year. My brother had moved from Perth to Melbourne to pursue a number of things, his arts career, for one, because there wasn’t much acting work in Perth for him, and his music career, because, again, very limited here. Him leaving was almost a blow to this idea of having my family around me constantly … he was the last of my siblings to go and do their own thing. It brought me to this place of, “Hey, we’ve all grown up now, no one lives with Mum and Dad anymore, we’re doing our own thing, soon they’re going to get married and have their own lives!”

That whole thing of seeing your siblings as “adults” with their own lives gets very scary if you’re the oldest and don’t really have your life together, or, what is presumed to be “together” if you’re the arty kid. And so, I started thinking about that a lot, what it’s like to have a huge cultural background where siblings, at least in Pashtun and Pakistani culture, are very close. You all share a bedroom, you don’t really get your own spaces, you’re all enmeshed, everything is done together as a family. And then, you move to Australia and suddenly you’re allowed to have your own space and your own bedrooms, your own identities, and then you kind of grow slowly apart. And, it’s really strange because these are people you grew up with, who are witnesses to your past, to a place and a time that no longer exists.

So I started thinking, you know, what would it be like if you had three sisters who grew up in this household as children of migrants, and they all took different directions in how they pursued their life, and also their faith. I think the starting point was my own experience with my siblings, because we all have a very different take on how we practice or don’t practice our religion, and we also have a very different take on how we have structured our lives, and sometimes we have little arguments about what the “right” way is to live or do things.

PG: There’s a metaphor you’re exploring in SHARBAT – “They say blood is thicker than water but the Gül sisters think it’s more like diluted cordial.” For me the title and that metaphor really speaks to the disappointment of unmet expectations in family relationships…

DK: Yeah. There are many reasons why I picked the title SHARBAT. Sharbat is a drink that we have at celebrations back home, particularly Rooh Afza (we are not affiliated with Rooh Afza by the way!) Sharbat is this cordial, and everybody has a different way of making it. Some people like it super sweet, some people water it down immensely so it’s red but tastes like water, some people put milk in, whatever. There’s different ways to serve sharbat.

So I feel like the term sharbat is like a metaphor for how people observe religion or pay respect to their culture. There’s different ways to do it: some people are all in, some people take bits and bobs, some people tend to water it down a lot because it’s safer to do that in this climate. There’s no right or wrong way to observe a religion or a culture when you’re in this space which makes it inherently unsafe for you to be part of your culture.

There’s no right or wrong way to observe a religion or a culture when you’re in this space which makes it inherently unsafe for you to be part of your culture.

There’s a lot of discussion about, you know, can you be “culturally” Muslim? And I think you can, personally, because religion and culture are such personal things, how you observe something that belongs to you, that was given to you through your heritage, your parents, only you get to decide how you can use that. Just like anyone can say there’s only one way to make sharbat, well, there’s not just one way to make sharbat, it depends on what you grew up with.

Trying to get away from that ‘one size fits all’ idea of what an ethnic family behaves like or looks like: writer/performer Doreshawar Khan and performers Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

But I also think, with “blood is thicker than water”, you expect family is always going to be this perfect structure. Especially with multicultural society, people say, “Oh, I love your culture so much, it’s based so much around family!” And I’m like, “Really? Have you met my family? We go days without talking to each other sometimes, months even!” Not all ethnic families are as bonded as some stories suggest.

So again, the dilution thing, of how Australian you want to become and how much of your culture you want to observe. But also, is blood really thicker than water? Are your siblings always going to take your side in a situation? Siblings can do some pretty nasty things to one another too, as you will find in the play. But, they can also be your greatest allies and supporters sometimes. I guess it was trying to get away from that “one size fits all” idea of what an ethnic family behaves like or looks like. In particular, I wrote this from the perspective of somebody who grew up in a Pakistani family that migrated to Australia… though we don’t really allude to the Pakistani-ness of the characters because I just wanted to keep it – not generic – but, something that everyone could see themselves in.

PG: Yeah! I super relate to the thing around growing up with religion in the 21st century. Something I think is a curious difference between you as a Muslim and me as a Buddhist is that the way a lot of Western culture engages with Islam is through fear and prejudice, but then the way a lot of Western people engage with Buddhism is through cultural fetishism and harmfully appropriating that religion. I’m sure there are elements of that happening in Islam as well, but that’s definitely been a strange part of my relationship with growing up with Buddhism.

DK: What I always find interesting entering any space that expects me but has not met me, is that there’s a certain expectation of what a feminist Muslim looks like, and I can tell you now, they aren’t expecting me when I walk into the room. And it’s because I don’t cover my head, I’m tattooed, and I dress really weird. I’m gonna say weird because people say, “Oh you dress really interesting” and I think interesting is code for weird…

PG: I love the way you dress!

DK: I wear a lot of vintage, old-timey clothes.

PG: Yaaaasss.

DK: So, often when I walk into a space, usually arts spaces, people expect someone very different to be showing up, and then when I’m like, “It’s me, I’m the writer of this show, I’m the creator of this work,” they’re like, “Oh, uh, so um, Muslim…!” And it’s this dot dot dot, explain yourself, that sits really heavy in the air, and I don’t know why that is. I don’t know why who I am is at odds with what the idea of a Muslim feminist looks like.

I guess it’s also because people assume there’s only one way to be Muslim and that’s to be hyper-observant of this whole body of spirituality, when in reality a lot of it doesn’t speak to me anymore, and some parts of it do. I grew up Muslim, and whether I observe it now or not, it’s part of who I’ve become, it’s shaped who I’ve become. So, it doesn’t matter how observant I am in this part of my life, part of my character has been shaped by the good things in it, part of my anxieties come from certain ways that it was preached to me or taught to me.

As a person, it’s shaped me, therefore, for people to assume that to be Muslim you have to be a particular kind of Muslim, it irks me a lot. Who gets to decide these rules? I think that’s what I was trying to bring out with the three sisters, they grew up in the same household with the same parents, one of them was very observant, one of them was more relaxed with how they observed religion, and then all three of them took a different turn in how they decided to pursue their search for faith and identity. And it’s a very real thing! There’s no”one size fits all” mantle that you can wear and be like, “I am the representation of females in Islam now!”

And this “good Muslim”/”bad Muslim” thing needs to die a very quick death, because it prevents people from telling honest stories, because you triple think and go, “Will this make me look like a bad Muslim? Am I dishonouring my culture, heritage, family, society, group?” There’s already so much tension, people counting on our behaving in this one particular way so we’re not seen as a threat. And I feel like we have to overdo that so that we can get these spaces that we can be ourselves in, but then we don’t even end up being ourselves in them.

PG: The current climate of independent theatre in the metro area is a dynamic and multifaceted one, but also one in which a show like SHARBAT isn’t frequently programmed. Most theatre audiences in Perth aren’t used to seeing work made by and about families like ours. How has this dynamic shaped the development of this project?

Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes in 'SHARBAT'. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.
‘…the moment you put three brown people on a stage, suddenly it becomes ‘that Muslim play’ or “that brown person play”, and they feel like they can’t empathise with our characters, and that’s a real problem!’ Pictured are Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

DK: As I was saying before, it’s hard because I don’t come from a theatre background. As I’m sure you’re aware, a lot of people who come from culturally and linguistically diverse and migrant communities don’t get to choose the arts as a first choice because there is this huge expectation from our own families and from our communities that we will do something to better the community. In 2003 when I migrated here, my parents brought us here because they wanted us to pursue careers that would give us a better place in the world. Their understanding of a better place in the world is very much shaped by the capitalist society we live in, so having money equals having respect as a brown person. The arts was not a way to do that, and so people like me didn’t pursue the arts after we finished high school. And so it means that there are hindrances to our understanding of the structure upon which things like theatre are built.

I was also hyperaware with my team being very new to theatre, like, how are we going to get the word out? How are we going to engage with these people, because yes, you’re right, the kind of people who come to theatre, even independent theatre, are a very specific demographic. Are we going to have to water down our script? Am I going to have to take out all the inshallahs and mashallahs and alhamdulillahs out of my script because white people or non-Muslim people don’t know what that means? And so it became a really big artistic struggle when I was writing and directing it – how do I maintain the integrity of the piece and make it reflect at least a very generic Muslim family, because I couldn’t find Pakistani actors to play Pakistani characters, I couldn’t even find Desi actors at the time to play three Desi sisters. It’s so difficult.

Are we going to have to water down our script? Am I going to have to take out all the inshallahs and mashallahs and alhamdulillahs out of my script because white people or non-Muslim people don’t know what that means?

So, the script saw many changes. In the end, we decided it was going to be a Muslim family, we alluded to someplace that they could be from. In future mountings, I’d like it to be a Pakistani family, I’d like it to be a bit more honest. Due to time constraints (because apparently theatre is only meant to go for 75 minutes) a lot of the script ended up getting cut. Although, I’m used to Bollywood three-hour sagas, I want a three hour saga onstage with a little break in the middle, that would be really nice! One day, I hope we get there.

I don’t know if anyone else has had this experience, but even when I talked to teachers in high school about my grade and was like, “Please, you’ve got to give me an A, my parents would be so disappointed,” they didn’t get the whole “parents being disappointed” thing, and I’m like, “You don’t understand how much it means to us as brown kids to please our parents.” And I feel like that is a part of the show as well, how hard these daughters work to please their father or mother and appease them and not want to disappoint them, and I was worried that would get lost to an audience even ten years later. What do they understand about our dynamics and our families? This could be a real learning and teaching moment. But then, I’m also worried that all works that I create will just forever be stuck in this loop of having to teach audiences first and then express feelings later, so how do you fit all that in 75 minutes? First of all, I have to educate this audience, then I have to explain what we’re feeling, and then from there I have to make them empathise, or sympathise with these characters. Most brown people grow up seeing white people on screens, we already empathise and sympathise with their problems even though we don’t experience them. But the moment you put three brown people on a stage, suddenly it becomes “that Muslim play” or “that brown person play”, and they feel like they can’t empathise with our characters, and that’s a real problem!

Most brown people grow up seeing white people on screens, we already empathise and sympathise with their problems even though we don’t experience them. But the moment you put three brown people on a stage, suddenly it becomes “that Muslim play” or “that brown person play”, and they feel like they can’t empathise with our characters, and that’s a real problem!

If I make even three or four people who aren’t from my background cry within the whole run I’d be like, this is great, we’ve somehow struck empathy gold. Because I just find that that’s a really huge problem, people don’t seem to feel as bad for brown people, because apparently, we’re supposed to struggle, we’re built for struggle, we’re so “strong” and so “brave”, that’s all we ever do, struggle! And we’ll get through it! But there’s no empathy for that struggle, it’s painful! One part of me is content writing stories that are cathartic, but at the same time I don’t want to be stuck in a career where all I’m doing is repackaging my trauma to make it better because the system has failed all of us in providing other avenues to deal with so much generational pain. So maybe that’s what theatre is doing now, but it shouldn’t always be that way. I’d like to see happy endings for queer brown characters, I’d like to see success stories onstage, not just,”By the way, we disappointed our parents and this is how it played out onstage.” It would be nice to make works that are diverse within the diversity as well.

More diversity, less about adversity!

But I have to say one quick shout out, I went and saw Fully Sikh on Saturday, and it’s funny because in 2003 when I moved to Australia, the first thing I saw in my English lit class was Bend It Like Beckham, and my teacher said to me, “You’re from this general area,” and I’m like what, the UK? I’m not from the UK! And she said, “These are your people!” And I’m like, they’re Sikh! I’m Muslim! No commonality. But that’s how little representation there was in Australia in the media about being brown, and so I had to somehow be like the conduit between Bend It Like Beckham and my white classmates.

And I remember thinking, well, there’s a movie about brown families and I relate to this, and then it was so surreal fifteen years later sitting in an auditorium, shoeless, watching Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa cook dhal on the Black Swan stage! And I was sitting there going, am I in a weird fever dream? There is a brown woman cooking dhal on a stage, when fifteen years ago there was only one movie about being Sikh, and now this person has gone and created this body of work at Black Swan State Theatre Company, there is hope!

And that gave me this weird perspective of, maybe someone will have this moment when they come see SHARBAT and they’re like, “There’s somebody yelling alhamdulillah and mashallah and somebody just did the Arab trill in the middle of the room!”

And I want that to be the thing, because in 2005 when I graduated from high school and I wanted to go to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, my dad decided that law would be a better option because, “You’re not Cameron Diaz, no one is going to hire you for a movie.” 2005 was the year of Cameron Diaz, look it up, so many movies. But that’s so sad, when your own parents are like, “I’m just trying to protect you, you’re not going to get into the movies, you’re not white.” That was the general feeling.

But then, early this year when I told Dad, “I’m not really going to do anything else, I’m going to make theatre, SHARBAT’s been picked up, this is happening now,” he was like, “That’s very nice. I was watching the Oscars with your mother, there was a very nice boy, his name was Rami Malek, he won an Oscar, maybe you can write for Rami Malek.” So my dad just assumes as well that I will write for Rami Malek one day, so if Rami’s reading this interview, I can write for you, Rami! But it was just so cool to see my dad’s perception over fifteen years change, because he saw Rami Malek accept an Oscar. He sends me little snaps of Sukhjit’s face on the bus, saying, “That Sukhjit girl was on the bus, one day you will be on the bus,” so he’s still doing the Desi parent thing of, “She’s on the bus, why aren’t you on the bus?”

But even so, it’s so nice for him to acknowledge that there is a future in theatre for brown people, brown families, it’s great. It’s like shifting a giant boulder, because my dad is very strict in his views of the world and for him to go, “Yeah, I guess theatre could be a career” is a huge thing! And it’s all because people like Sukhjit are making art, they’re being given spaces, because movies are coming out about our lives, because people like Rami Malek are being casted as brown characters.

My dad is very strict in his views of the world and for him to go, “Yeah, I guess theatre could be a career” is a huge thing! And it’s all because people like Sukhjit are making art, they’re being given spaces, because movies are coming out about our lives, because people like Rami Malek are being casted as brown characters.

Fifteen years ago, they probably would have picked some white guy to play Freddie Mercury, but they didn’t. And it would be great if someone from Freddie Mercury’s community could have been picked, that would be the next great thing. But hey, they picked somebody who was born as an Arab-American and they made a name for themselves. We need more of this. The more we see ourselves in these roles, the more the other generations will be going, “You know what? I can do this, it’s not impossible.” So, shout outs to the people who made Bend It Like Beckham, because I would not have thought that anyone would be interested in any narrative I wrote.

Whenever I hear things about dreams, I just feel like, dreams are great, it’s wonderful to have a dream, but it’s way better to have a to-do list.

PG: What are your dreams for the future of brown youth theatre in Perth?

Pictured: Sabrina Hafid in ‘SHARBAT’. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

DK: Whenever I hear things about dreams, I just feel like, dreams are great, it’s wonderful to have a dream, but it’s way better to have a to-do list. And, I reckon the to-do list for brown theatre is that we collectivise, we start an organisation, we unionise, we make demands on spaces to have our work and go, if you’re going to tout diversity as a thing, if you’re going to talk about how diverse your shows are and how diverse you are, show it, and give us better deals. Don’t just ask us to work for free in spaces, don’t just ask us for letters, for our support, and then forget about us when it’s our turn to take a space or a job. It’d be nice to be thought about at times other than when you need support letters, when you need a speaker, when you need somebody for a diversity poster.

This is not a jibe at any institution in particular, I think we all have a lot of work to do. I hate that the only time I ever look for other brown people in theatre is when I’m making a work. I should know who these people are to begin with … Maybe there could be … an autonomous theatre group for people of colour, or an autonomous space where we can go and create work without having the expectation that we’re going to behave a particular way.

It would be nice to see more senior officials or members or CEOs who are people of colour in positions of authority … For there to be more people in positions of power and authority and leadership who are brown and young would be nice.

It would be nice to see more senior officials or members or CEOs who are people of colour in positions of authority. It would be nice to have more diverse theatre that is programmed across the year and not just all at the same time. I’m very aware, I don’t know if this was deliberate, but we’ve got Cephalopod playing at The Blue Room after SHARBAT finishes, we have Fully Sikh on, we have Yirra Yaakin’s Ice Land playing, and we also had Layla Majnun. Five amazing productions that are all PoC centric are all on in the same month. It’s PoCtober! But I feel Perth audiences aren’t at that point where they go, “We’re going to watch all of the PoC-made stuff,” it’s usually more like, “We’re just going to pick one.” And so, programming them across the year would be great.

For there to be more people in positions of power and authority and leadership who are brown and young would be nice. For there to be more programs for us to develop our skills, because like I said, we don’t always get to go to tertiary places like WAAPA and NIDA, and some of us can’t afford to, some of us need to work, there’s still a huge pay gap guys! So that would be nice, for more workshops to be there.

For there to be mentorships that are culturally sensitive as well, like, it’s great that there are mentorships for writing and for acting and theatre, but it’s very rare that you’ll get a mentor who is culturally and linguistically diverse. So it would be nice to see more people matched to someone who would support their work in the most honest way possible, not just because, “You’re Muslim, I’m Muslim, let’s work on this,” more like, “Hey, you’re queer, I’m queer and Muslim, let’s collaborate on this because we can speak to each other’s experiences.”

Also, more stories would be great, and like I said before, it would be nice to have stories that are not just trauma stories. I’d like triumph stories, I’d like weird, wonderful, whacky works of art as well, because I feel like somehow we’re always relegated to telling the story about our culture and background and explaining that, but we don’t get to make as much postdramatic theatre.

… it would be nice to have stories that are not just trauma stories. I’d like triumph stories, I’d like weird, wonderful, whacky works of art as well, because I feel like somehow we’re always relegated to telling the story about our culture and background and explaining that …

For there to be more scholarships, for there to be more workshops, for there to be more space, and when I say space in theatre I don’t just necessarily mean a physical building, I mean space: give us space to make work that is honest to ourselves, we don’t speak for an entire community any more than a white person speaks for all Australia. Give us space just to be ourselves, to create honest works of art where we don’t have to fit into a mould so we can get money and funding. That would be nice. That would be great.

And also: Rami Malek I’m still waiting for your email.

PG: Yes! And finally, what do you hope audiences will take from seeing SHARBAT?

DK: My hopes are that people can come into this living room play and see how life sometimes plays out for some people who are Muslim in different ways; that people can look at Muslim women in different ways and see that not all Muslim women behave the same, dress the same, have the same reason to dress a particular way. That there’s a new way to look at and humanise what it means to grow up between cultures in Australia, because this is a reality for us now.

We’re moving to the point where some people my age in our communities are having children … It might be a nice thing to pass down to newer members of the community/planet, that you can essentially choose how you decide to represent yourself as a member of the community, and we will have your back. There’s no such thing as bringing shame to the community unless you are a terrible human being and make other people’s lives very very difficult.

There’s so many ways to be Muslim, that’s really what I want people to take away from this. There’s no one Muslim narrative, there’s no one migrant family narrative. SHARBAT is about one particular family, and at the end of it, the relatable part is that we all have family members that sometimes we can’t stand to be around, but how do we make peace with that? … With a lot of learning about a dynamic that we don’t necessarily learn in brown families, because apparently forgiveness is everything when you’re Muslim, forgive everybody! What if you don’t have that space in your heart to forgive? That should be okay too.

So, it’s broadening that discussion, breaking down those boxes that we were taught in one place, and breaking down the boxes in the other place that we’ve come to live in. I don’t know how else to answer that question, hopefully it gives a cross section of many different aspects of what it means to be young, Muslim, and Australian.

In SHARBAT you have three different people who have this different way of seeing the same religion and what it means to them, and how they view God and view the dynamic of what’s happening in society at the moment. And, it boggles the mind because, I don’t know, the number of times that people have said to me, “You’re just Muslim when it’s convenient,” it’s hurtful! And you hear that about yourself, and you go, “But why do you even say that? Is it because I’m not doing a ‘good job’ at being Muslim?” And that question comes up a lot, like, “Am I a bad Muslim?” And so, the bad Muslims are represented, the good Muslims are represented, the ambivalent Muslims are present there, the punk Muslims, the Instagram Muslims, the mipsters are in there, it’s like a whole cross section of people I’ve met in my life, people I’ve been in my life, and people I hope that I one day am comfortable in being in my life, are in that little space.

I hope that SHARBAT touches some people and says, “You know, it’s okay to be the way you are, that character did it and it worked out okay for them.”

SHARBAT is running October 24 to November 2 at The Blue Room Theatre.

Pictured top are writer/performer Doreshawar Khan and performers Sabrina Hafid and Mani Mae Gomes. Photo: Kayleigh Scott.

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Exhilarating and absurd

Review: GreyWing Ensemble, ‘Text’ ⋅
The Sewing Room, October 8 ⋅
Review by Eduardo Cossio ⋅

Local ensemble GreyWing are known for performing works that mix environmental sounds with acoustic instrumentation. Their penchant for the extra musical was taken one step further on ‘Text’, a concert presented as part of Tura’s Soup Nights at the Sewing Room. In what might be their most diverse program yet, the pieces explored spoken language as accompaniment for absurdist actions, problematising meanings and emphasizing the allusive qualities of text.

Moving to the other side of you by the French-Australian composer Emmanuelle Zagoria created fluid connections between instrumental performance, choreography, and the voice. The musicians seemed absorbed in their own private conversations as they gathered around a microphone for statements such as ‘Would like to come over?… Maybe I should leave…’. These were delivered in a self-conscious and fidgety manner, evoking a heightened psychological state. Voices overlapped as the ensemble took to their instruments matching their speech to jagged rhythms. A folk-influenced drone by guitarist Jameson Feakes brought momentary calm but it was soon disrupted by a waltz in the style of the French chanson. The sentimental melody was one of the many non sequiturs thrown at the ensemble, each of which was artfully integrated into the dark tenor of the work. The last section was particularly affecting, the musicians gathered again around a microphone to utter laconic statements until they stood together in silence. Moving to the other side of you proved an ambitious work whose changes of mood succeeded in maniacal fashion.

Wheels of a spoke by the local composer Annika Moses paid homage to the sounds and sights of Hyde Park. GreyWing started with sustained tones played at low volume. Guest musician Ben Green rubbed styrofoam on a snare, making creaking noises akin to the sound of tree branches sagging. The austere textures are characteristic of the Wandelweiser aesthetic, a compositional outlook Moses has engaged with in recent years. Yet, her knack for quirky interpolations was evident in the chiming figures Catherine Ashley played on harp. These were followed by playful trade-offs among the ensemble that brought a fairy-tale quality to the music. In the final section Moses joined them on stage to read a series of impressions of Hyde Park. The easy-going work had a variety of attractive textures and demonstrated Moses’ astute handling of the ensemble’s resources.

The concert by GreyWing ensemble focused on spoken word. Photo Tristan Parr

The pieces by Brisbane composers Erik Griswold and Vanessa Tomlinson were in the form of text scores, a format favoured by Fluxus artists during the sixties. Just like in a Fluxus piece, Griswold and Tomlinson favoured intuition and whimsy, as well as a more personal engagement with sound. In Erik Griswold’s Starts of Ours, a series of performance instructions were read by Catherine Ashley and readily enacted by percussionist Ben Greene. A variety of metallic objects were made to chime and rattle against the surface of a bass drum. It was interesting to hear the instructions before seeing them realized. Ashley and Greene seemed like the characters of a Samuel Beckett play, caught up in trivial actions and strange power dynamics. Yet, Greene’s performance emphasized the materiality of the objects, and highlighted the translation of meaning between composer, the score, performer, and audiences.

Taking a more conceptual route, Vanessa Tomlinson’s Nostalgia (Perth) is ‘a preparation for improvisation’ where performers received cards with text written on them: ‘Listen to the sound of urgency’ or ‘Listen to the sound of your father’s voice’ served to prompt the player’s imagination. Although GreyWing are adept improvisers, they had a hesitant start and only half-way through the performance they achieved a cohesive flow of subdued timbres.

Kirsten Smith performing with GreyWing ensemble.

The performance-installations of Dutch composer Cathy Van Eck treat speakers and microphones as musical instruments. In Song #3, a work for solo performer and electronics, Kirsten Smith wore a large cardboard mask with a small speaker attached in front of her mouth. By varying the distance between microphone and the speaker, a feedback signal was further processed by Lindsay Vickery on laptop. Harsh plosives created a gibberish language whereby semantic meaning was abandoned in favour of vocal effects. Song #3 brought a sort of cognitive dissonance in the listener; while Smith moved her hands and arms in a declamatory, opera style, the resulting sounds had a degraded quality. The human voice was also disembodied, being hidden behind a mask and obscured by effects. This fascinating work subverted performance expectations and created an ambiguous context that was eerie and quaint.

Although hardly known in Perth, the work of Irish composer Jennifer Walshe is widely performed across Europe. Walshe belongs to a generation of composers mixing mass-media tropes with a high modernist outlook. He Was She Was started with recordings of distant traffic. An unnerving atmosphere settled in as Vickery whispered gossipy statements into a mic, Jameson Feakes snapped sticks and threw them on the floor, and Ashley blew matches repeatedly. All of these while Green and Smith played quiet textures on their instruments. Yet, the ensemble’s sounds and actions did not interact; rather, the piece unfolded as a series of events co-existing in tense relationship with each other. GreyWing were engrossing in this work of instrumental theatre and convincingly channelled its rarefied atmosphere.

Closing the concert was a new work by Vickery. His predilection for found objects as sources of constraint and possibility informed t o r b u a m m p a. Words from the inauguration speeches of Obama and Trump were put in alphabetical order to create a backing track. GreyWing played over it in twists and spurts; elongating Trump’s drawl or adding hip-hop phrasing to Obama’s assertions. It was a tightly orchestrated work whose contrasting passages evoked a mixture of mischief and despair over the state of US politics. A flurry of growling lines played in unison by guitarist Jameson Feakes and Vickery on bass clarinet was particularly memorable. Although Vickery has used ‘speech-melody’ before (the technique of matching words to instrumental sounds), t o r b u a m m p a might be his most accomplished work in that style.

‘Text’ showcased GreyWing’s ambition and versatility; but most importantly, did so by bringing some of their loosest, most invigorating playing yet.

Picture top: Members of GreyWing ensemble explore spoken language as accompaniment for absurdist actions. Image supplied.

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a king spotlit on a dark stage, with witches in the shadows
Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Magnificent Macbeth

Review: West Australian Opera, Macbeth ⋅
His Majesty’s Theatre, 19 October ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

West Australian Opera’s new production of Verdi’s Macbeth must be one of the best offerings in Australian opera in recent years, a complete success in almost every aspect. The work in itself is an excellent distillation of the Shakespeare play, with great clarity of story-telling, musical characterisation and atmosphere aplenty just waiting to be brought to life by creative operatic forces.

With respect to the staging, Roger Kirk’s simple but clever set comprised a combination of large moveable uprights and lighting effects with bursts of dry ice  brilliantly reflecting the creepy environs of the witches and gloomy Scottish castles, the latter enhanced as appropriate by sumptuous costuming depicting the courtly scenes of Duncan’s visit to Glamis castle and the crowning of the Macbeths.  The witches – in the opera Verdi multiplies the original three into three sections of a women’s choir – are suitably weird in black gowns with large-toothed necklaces, the male nobles are represented as barbaric warriors, all kilts and furs and crossed swords, while Lady Macbeth appears initially in her underwear (bodice and long underskirt), but wears a truly magnificent red and gold gown in her stately scenes. The courtiers define the period with sixteenth century starched ruffs and Elizabethan hairdos.  It is clear that director Stuart Maunder and the designer Roger Kirk were sharing a coherent vision. The coming of Birnam Wood to Dunsinane was wonderfully effected by shafts of green light cutting through the darkling stage, and the battle at the end was one of the best staged fight scenes I have seen, where you could easily track who was doing what to whom in a convincing fashion.

Antoinette Halloran and James Clayton as Lady Macbeth and Macbeth. Photo James Rogers.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra play magnificently under Brad Cohen, with every nuance and dynamic subtlety of the score brought forth without ever overriding the singers.  The WA Opera Chorus is exemplary, moving confidently around the stage whether representing witches, warriors or courtiers and singing with precision and conviction.

James Clayton in the baritone title role cements his reputation as an operatic star. His voice is resonant and accurate and he projects charisma and authority as a leader, no less convincing in his deterioration and desperation as he follows the course he has set himself. Both opera and play are usually considered to be a morality tale on the dangers of blind ambition, not to mention warnings against heeding false prophets (there is a view this was originally aimed at James I and VI who was unduly preoccupied with witches), but there is also the influence of the ultimate power wife.

The motivation of Verdi’s Lady Macbeth is somewhat more obscure than that of Shakespeare’s. In the play we find out early on that Lady Macbeth bore a child who has somehow disappeared from the Macbeths’ lives, presumably dying young. Verdi omits this information and we are left with a far less sympathetic character who seems bent on evil almost for its own sake.  The character has been portrayed by many a famous soprano, and often tends toward caricature. Antoinette Halloran teeters on that edge, but overall manages a convincing portrait of a woman determined for her husband to rise in society no matter what it takes. Her vocalism suffers somewhat however, with her undeniably powerful high notes tending to sound somewhere between shrill and squally at the top. Overall however her dramatic rendition provides a suitable reading of the character.

Jud Arthur is a commanding Banquo. Photo James Rogers.

The rest of the cast is nowhere less than excellent. Jud Arthur is a commanding Banquo and a terrifying ghost, and tenor Paul O’Neill a ringing Macduff, ably partnered by Matthew Lester as Malcolm.  The small roles of Lady Macbeth’s Lady in Waiting and the Doctor are more than adequately performed by Ashlyn Tymms and Kristin Bowtell, respectively.

Verdi is not exactly an obscure composer for the lyric stage, but Macbeth is certainly more of a rarity than the well-trod path of Trov and Trav. It is great to see this collaboration between WAO and State Opera South Australia bestow such excellent production values on something rather off the beaten (Australian) path.

Macbeth continues at His Majesty’s Theatre until October 26 with a season in South Australia in 2020.

Picture top: James Clayton as Macbeth, shadowed by witches. Photo James Rogers.

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Flamenco maestro still in command

Review: Paco Pena, Ensencias ·
Regal, October 11 ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

It’s been my joy and privilege to see the giants of Spanish instrumental music, Jordi Savall and Paco Pena, in one year (and squeeze a music-rich trip to their homeland in between)!

Savall’s musical interests range across Europe and the Americas to encapsulate the Baroque, before and beyond, while Pena stays close to his native Andalucia, and flamenco.

But, like that magnetic province, flamenco absorbs so many influences  — Arabic, Jewish, gypsy and ancient Spanish folk music —that are integral to its own wide, sun-browned, olive-drenched world.

Pena has been at it a very long time (he’s been a professional musician for 65 years and an international star for 52 of them), and there isn’t a trick of the trade he hasn’t mastered.

One of them is to respect your age; so, at 77, he’s careful to surround himself with artists who can steal his show, and skilled musical colleagues that let him lay back a little.

On this tour that artist is the celebrated flamenco dancer Angel Lopez Munoz, and his compadres are the marvellous guitarists Jose Luis Fernandez Losada and Rafael Montilla Recio and the singer Rafael Planton Heredia.

The maestro steps into the spotlight throughout the show with gorgeous solos, but often provides tempo and structure for those around him. We are rewarded by exquisite playing from the other guitarists, especially Recio, who added some fine improvisation to the band’s solid core.

Pena himself insists that the song, and its singer, are at the heart of flamenco, and Heredia evokes the pain and struggle that hard times in a hard country bring. He’s not as dark or elemental as Granada’s amazing Juan Pinilla, but he fits this company like a glove.

There’s an understood vaudevillian drama to a flamenco “show” that’s the same whether it’s in the tourist traps of Cordoba (Pena’s home town) or the world’s concert halls — and it’s all about the dancer.

Imagine a building site. The musicians are the brickies, toiling to erect the building, and the dancer is the interior decorator, dropping by to admire his handiwork in his too-tight party clothes.

They plough on as he taps and flounces, spins and bows. In his early pretty turns the dancer is out of place (a little ridiculous even) as all that grunt goes on behind him. If he gestures to the players, they bury their heads in their work.

There’s only one way he can win their respect, and our admiration. He must work even harder than them. The sun must beat on his handsome head as fiercely as it does on their grizzled ones. He must sweat as much as they do.

Munoz, who is tall, dark and very handsome (and in far-too-tight clothes) plays the part to perfection, and, after interval, the stage is his.

He smoulders, his boots flash, his arms reach skywards, sweat pours from him like the spring from which the mighty Guadalquivir rises. The bull is slain, the musicians beam at their shared triumph and we are on our feet even before its all over.

And Paco Pena, who has seen it all before but is not tired, or tired of it, at all, smiles knowingly as the theatre explodes in applause.

Pictured top: Paco Pena, who has been a star for 52 of his 65 professional years.

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Mozart plus some

Review: Perth Symphony Orchestra, ‘Mozart by Candlelight’ ⋅
St George’s Cathedral, 17 October ⋅
Review by Sandra Bowdler ⋅

The Perth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jessica Gethin, has been in existence for nine years now. As last night’s concert demonstrated, they have reached a polished level of consummate performance, which was rather at odds with the church fête-like atmosphere surrounding them.  Candlelight is fine and makes for an attractive atmosphere in St George’s Cathedral’s gothic-ish interior, but flashing coloured lights, illuminated personal screens (audience members were encouraged to look up the program or take photos), people constantly moving around, fast food and drink consumed during the performance and sales of merchandise could all be ignored if they didn’t interfere with the music but, initially, they did.

The opening number, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, was played in chamber music style led by concertmaster Paul Wright, one of Perth’s most eminent musicians. Comprising four movements, these were punctuated by applause (annoying in itself to this fuddy duddy) and the distraction of excerpts from Mozart’s letters read over a loudspeaker. The music itself was beautifully, crisply played but its integrity was rendered problematic. After that, things improved, with the flashing lights stilled, most of the audience tiring of waving their phones around and the music allowed to unfold as written.

The programming was creative and stimulating, bookended by works of Mozart with homages to him by modern composers in between. It was remarkable how distinctive these were, given they were drawing from the same well. Australian Calvin Bowman’s string quartet, led by Wright, began with a moving Largo which did not remind me so much of Mozart as other later composers, while the second (of two) movements, a lively Presto, referenced Eine kleine Nachtmusik as well as Figaro’s aria ‘Non più andrai’ from Le nozze di Figaro.

The actual orchestra under Gethin came together for Jonathan Dove’s An Airmail Letter from Mozart, which takes its first movement, Theme, from Divertimento KV 287 followed by eight variations, and is scored like the original for two horns and strings, with the inclusion of a piano delicately played by James Huntingford. This delightfully represented the idea that Mozart flew around the world in a plane, and encapsulated musically the different countries he visited (northern Europe, Italy, Hispanic countries) culminating in a modern ragtime/Broadway like finale.

Joe Chindamo was present for the premiere of his composition Fantasie auf Nachtmusik. Photo by Ezra Alacantra Photography.

The centrepiece of the evening was the premiere of a chamber work by Australian pianist and composer Joe Chindamo (who was in attendance), commissioned by the PSO.  This lively work entitled Fantasie auf Nachtmusik intertwined variations on said Nachtmusik sounding as though they had been written by a variety of people from Shostakovich (in Moscow Cheryomushki mode) through Strauss to Stravinsky but returning punctually to Mozartian sonorities. An exciting premiere which elicited much applause.

The final piece for the evening was a more or less traditional rendition of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 17 in G major (K453), said to include aural references to the composer’s pet starling.  This is a relatively large scale work; as well as strings and piano, it features a flute, the welcome return of the horns, two oboes, and two bassoons. Gethin held this together with flair and discipline, with excellent dynamics in the remarkably good cathedral acoustics. Huntingford has a wonderfully light touch while clearly articulating every note, and sparkled where the score calls for sparkles. The Andante was noticeable for the mellow tone of the band overall, and the winds shone in the last movement, the flute happily echoed by an oboe, the horns blending nicely for an exultant finale. Perth can be proud of its symphonic namesake, and Jessica Gethin’s mastery of her role as its conductor.

Pictured top: Jessica Gethin leads James Huntingford and the PSO through Jonathan Dove’s An Airmail Letter from Mozart. Photo by Ezra Alacantra Photography.

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hip hop, Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Hip-hop odyssey tells confronting truths

Review: Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Ice Land: A Hip h’Opera ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 17 October ·
Review by Gina Williams ·

Don’t let the lush red curtains, the painted ponies and the pretty lights fool you; this production was never going to be about beauty or feeling good. Ice Land: A Hip h’Opera examines the ugly consequences of a society that stops living like a community and begins to function as an economy. As the bottom falls out of the mining boom and the cracks appear in community, our most vulnerable fall into the abyss of ice addiction.

It’s almost midnight in the Emergency Department of Royal Perth Hospital. Unseen staff move slowly as the plot unfolds. Here, we meet Joy (Layla Hanbury), Carly (Moana Lutton aka Moana Mayatrix of West Australian rock band Moana) and Cole (Benjamin Hasler of WA hip-hop group Downsyde). As the title suggests, this is a story told through the densely packed blend of words, song and beats that is hip-hop.

Research has ensured this production has authenticity. Pictured is Layla Hanbury as joy. Photo: Dana Weeks.
Research has ensured this production has authenticity. Pictured is Layla Hanbury as joy. Photo: Dana Weeks.

There’s plenty of drama; Joy’s only child has taken ill and is receiving emergency treatment. Carly is almost driven to distraction with fear as her brother is placed in psychiatric care following a psychotic episode. And Cole is waiting for his critically ill nanna, who is in intensive care.

Collectively they battle a common enemy; methamphetamine addiction. Their stories are held together and moved along deftly by Dnale Ci (Downsyde’s Scott Griffiths). As dealer, devil and seducer combined, Griffiths is compelling to watch; at once menacing and charismatic.

We discover that Joy has fallen into addiction following the rejection of her parents and the loss of a previous pregnancy. She loses her job and significant relationships and supports, leaving her child as the sole reason to continue living.

We learn that Carly’s parents died in a car crash, leaving Carly with her brother. Depression, alcoholism, self harm and domestic violence are never far away.

But Cole has the story which is easiest to relate to and hardest to watch. Cole lives with his nanna, his family torn apart by addiction. The intergenerational trauma is palpable. Cole, the King of Belmont, named “Waarlitj” (Eagle) by his nanna, has swagger to boot. Yet if you dig a little, you’ll find a hurt little boy who is disconnected from culture and community, who was abandoned by his parents and now struggles to articulate what he needs to heal. “I have love to give,” he says, and it’s hard not to feel the sadness.

It’s hard not to feel the sadness: Benjamin Hasler as Cole. Photo Dana Weeks.

Under the clever direction of Kyle J Morrison (King Hit, The Fever and the Fret, Skylab), the performance moves along swiftly. The set and lighting (Matthew McVeigh, Joe Paradise Lui) add to the dramatic effect of the storytelling without distraction.

Of course, the music is fantastic – a real credit to the collective talent of the four cast members/lyricists, and music director Darren Reutens (Downsyde), librettist/lyricist Zac James and lyricist Ryan Samuels aka Trooth. I’d love to see the soundtrack released as a concept album.

For me, the musical highlight was a rare moment when Lutton softly sang to herself and we were treated to one of the most bittersweet, purest voices you’re ever likely to hear. But again, this production was never going to be a thing of beauty and her powerful vocals are undeniable.

Avoiding clichés: Dnale Ci (Scott Griffiths) and Carly (Moana Lutton). Photo: Dana Weeks.

It would be easy to trot out all the regular tropes and clichés around stories of addiction, but Ice Land manages to avoid this. Interviews held for 18 months with various sectors of the community in the lead-up to the creation of Ice Land have informed this production and given it an authenticity it may otherwise have lacked.

Ice Land: A Hip h’Opera was confronting and difficult to watch. But lots of important stories are. At the end of the opening night performance, Scott Griffiths thanked the audience and hoped out loud that “we fill this venue, because we need to start these conversations and we need to start ridding ourselves of this scourge that is ice addiction.”

After watching this production, it’s impossible not to agree.

Iceland: a Hip-h’Opera runs until October 26.

Pictured top: Layla Hanbury and Scott Griffiths. Photo: Dana Weeks.

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Pomp and gloom

Review: West Australian Symphony Orchestra, ‘Beethoven’s Eroica’ ⋅
Perth Concert Hall, October 11 ⋅
Review by Varnya Bromilow ⋅

If you’re lucky enough to find them, there are some pieces of music so personally transcendent, so transportative, that they seem to have been created with your specific ears in mind.  For me, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams is one of these.  This means of course, that I can’t possibly describe the music to you.  But hang on, that’s my job.

Williams (1872-1958) had strong opinions about the English music of his time.  In short, he found it wanting and so set out to create his own “national music”, drawing on the folksongs of the past, as well as the Golden period of Tudor music and interweaving these with the Romantic stylings of his time.  The piece referred to in the title is from a 1567 hymn tune Tallis created for Psalm 2.  A little like the way Michael Nyman was to riff off Mozart’s melodies a century later, Williams transposes Tallis’ gorgeous vocal strains for strings.  The effect is a song of strings – the violin and the viola in a heavenly call and response that makes your heart burst. Williams intended the music to evoke the beauty of the British countryside (the word pastoral is used almost constantly to describe his music) but for this listener, with no such associations, the music is simply a step into the sublime.  As though he managed to distill all the tiny beauties and griefs of the world into 15 minutes.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra, under the accomplished direction of guest conductor Douglas Boyd, (music director of L’Orchestre de chambre de Paris and artistic director of Garsington Opera), gave it their all.  Of particular note were genuinely extraordinary performances from concert master and violinist Laurence Jackson and associate principal violist Alex Brogan.

So for this reviewer in particular, Williams is a tough act to follow.  Luckily, Iain Grandage’s brand new work Orphee – Concerto for Cor Anglais is, to use an underused term in classical circles, an absolute humdinger. Grandage introduced the work with a piano accordion in tow – his punishment for the time needed to reset the stage for his own composition. Using his prop, he gave the audience a charming but perhaps slightly bewildering account of the work’s tonal similarities to Williams, whose work is a frequent inspiration for the Perth-born composer.  Grandage created the work as homage to his music professor, UWA Professor Emeritus David Tunley.  Tunley specialises in French Baroque and the Orphee concerto embraces this tradition with the criminally neglected cor anglais at its centre.

Where Williams is beatific and reassuring, nothing is as certain in Grandage’s world. The piece is gorgeous yes, but with a pervading sense of menace. The cor anglais was played with a sinuous fervour by the brilliant Leanne Glover, glittering in green. Trembling drums, a single bell, sliced across by a draught of strings. It felt ominous, the slightly mournful horn carried on a bed of dense strings, at times lushly beautiful, at others like a buzzing, frenzied cloud that brought bees to mind.  Grandage has an acute ear for melody and pacing – again and again we were brought back to the cor anglais’ pleading refrain, almost jazz-like at times.  The end result was a genuine triumph – a charged, evocative work that challenged as much as it delighted.

It was a special joy to witness the composer’s own response to this world premiere of his work, especially one so personally dedicated. Grandage, seated across the aisle from me, twisted his beard, leaning forward nervously, in response to the work’s more ambitious movements.  Wonderful too, to relish the prospect of a Perth Festival curated by an artist who seems as eager as he is accomplished.

And then there was the Beethoven.  Caveat – I’ve got Beethoven baggage.  More specifically, symphonic baggage. I’m not sure whether it stems from my horror of A Clockwork Orange or from sheer overexposure, but when I hear the crashing chords of any of his symphonies it’s all I can do to stop myself from keeling over in boredom.  In admitting this, I don’t mean to be contrary for the joy of contrariness. Beethoven’s contributions to Western music are perhaps unsurpassed, (with the possible exceptions of Mozart, Miles Davis and the Beatles) laying down formative melodies and musical structures that inform music of all varieties.  Maybe it’s because his symphonies are so ingrained in our musical imaginations that it’s difficult to find them interesting now? The bombast; the driving cadence; the building crescendo and then, the requisite moment of delicacy.  Listening to a Beethoven symphony is like slipping into a warm bath – you don’t do it because it’s exciting, you do it because you know exactly how it will feel and it’s lovely.

WASO performed Eroica (Symphony No. 3) with great verve.  The work (1802-1804) is often heralded as a stylistic dividing line between the Classical and Romantic periods, reflected in the different tonal flavours of the four movements.  Primarily, it’s a Classical work but there are generous hints of the incoming subtlety of the Romantic period – oh, the glorious strings early in the second movement! It’s almost like you can feel something more tender trying to escape from the heavy majesty. The players worked hard to extract every last gasp of pomp out of the score, under the feverish direction of Boyd, rousing them on towards the last grand notes.  And grand it was.

But ultimately, I tend to side with Charlie Brown’s famous curmudgeon Lucy.  In her words: “Beethoven…he’s not so great.”


Pictured top: Iain Grandage with cor anglais soloist Leanne Glover. Photo Rebecca Mansell. 

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No rain on the Dream’s parade

Pop-up Globe, A Midsummer Night’s Dream ·
Crown Perth, 11 November ·
Review by Jan Hallam ·

Another night, another play… thoughtful tragedy, one night; uproarious comedy the next; clear, starry skies for Hamlet, relentless rain on the Dream. The Pop-up Globe has got the lot and the common denominator is that, come rain, hail, or moonglow, the show goes.

The enthusiasm of the crowd was far from dampened by the persistent showers on the opening night of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the folk in the pit, with supplied ponchos, were ready to party. It added enormously to the atmosphere to what is already a very atmospheric venue.

Pop-up has two companies performing in repertory. The Exeter’s Company is performing the Dream and Twelfth Night, while the Nottingham’s Company takes on Hamlet and Measure for Measure. The concept, while offering more work for more actors (always a good thing), is attractive from an audience perspective too –  there is always something new and intriguing to discover.

Anatonio Te Maioha as Oberon, embracing Renaye Tamati (Titania).

So it is with Exeter’s Dream. After the youthful brooding of the previous night’s Hamlet, director Miles Gregory’s full-on assault of the Dream’s gender wars was a sight to behold.

It’s interesting that he doesn’t dwell long in the marble halls of Athens, first of the play’s two settings, and quickly heads for the hills and anarchy of the world of the “fairies” led by Titania and Oberon. Certainly, the laughs are all there but the comparison between the two settings is important.

Theseus’s Athens is power and order – for him. The forest is a creature of a different shape altogether. Here Titania calls the shots… mostly.

So hugely significant, then, is Gregory’s opening scene of Theseus dragging in his captured bride, Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, through the crowd, bound and gagged. If we weren’t going to spend much time in this place, it was a great conveyor of how business was conducted there.

Not surprisingly that what follows is a father declaring he would rather his daughter dead than to marry a man he hadn’t chosen for her. Thus, the antecedence of the absolutely hilarious, loveable quartet of lovers, Hermia and Lysander, Helena and Demetrius, is born from this darkness.

All four players nailed this. Rebecca Rogers’ Hermia was a brittle diamond, Ruby Hansen’s Helena was shimmering, gibbering neurosis, Harry Bradley’s Lysander was a fabulous Eton mess of a thing and Simon Rodda’s Demetrius was, well, quite slimy. They took these attitudes through the cobbled streets of Athens, through the murky swamps and thorns of the relationship forest and out the other side, still keeping their essential selves. Loved it!

The Mechanicals are Shakespeare’s gift to the world. Led by Peter Hambleton’s Bottom, almost literally, they are the joy that gives air to this crazy, crazy play.

The Mechanicals are the joy that gives air to this crazy, crazy play. Held aloft is Sheena Irving as  Starveling.

But perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this production was the magic created by the language of Titania’s and Oberon’s forest. Here the otherworldliness comes in the lyrical sounds of te reo Maori spoken by Anatonio Te Maioha’s Oberon, Renaye (Ngati Kahungunu/Te Atiawa/Kai Tahu) Tamati’s Titania and Eds (Ngapuhi) Eramiha’s Puck.

And not just the odd outbreak – almost the entire engagement is exquisitely rendered, led entirely by some great acting of voice and body. Not a drop was spilt – well maybe we were missing a foundling or two, but if anything is incidental in the fiery relationship of Oberon and Titania, it is probably the kid.

Here the enslaved Hippolyta transforms into Titania’s wild dervish, and the masculine certainty of Theseus is completely undone in Oberon, who learns that every action has an effect that cannot be controlled.

And Puck! A success of a performance of the Dream, I reckon, rests largely on the chemistry of the Quartet and the interpretation of Puck. I have seen some nasty Pucks in my day. Eramiha’s good hearted, bit of a bumbler, bit of a chancer but helluva dancer Puck set the tone of this good natured and thoroughly entertaining show.

Nothing rained on its parade.

So, Pop-up, two out of two. Two to go!

Pop-up Globe’s Perth season (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Measure for Measure, Twelfth Night) runs until October 27.

Pictured top is Anatonio Te Maioha as Oberon.

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Students strut their stuff in sordid story

Review: WAAPA third year acting, Birdland ·
The Edith Spiegeltent, 14 October ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

Birdland, the rise and fall of Ziggy Stardust rock melodrama by the notable British playwright Simon Stephens (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time), has been given a highly charged, highly sexed going over by WAAPA’s final year acting class under the whip of Andrew Lewis in the Academy’s Edith Spiegeltent.

It’s the cautionary tale of Paul (Ben Chapple), a rock star at the zenith of his career, playing the stadia of Europe from Moscow to Berlin to Paris to London, and leaving a trail of self-destruction behind him.

He fucks – no point in beating around the bush – Marnie (Camila Ponte Alvarez), the French girlfriend of the band’s guitarist and his best mate, Johnny (Bryn Chapman Parish), and tortures her with threats of exposure, leading to a catastrophic outcome.

He scoops up Jenny (Ruby Maishman) a young woman working in his hotel and squires her across the continent, including to the home of Marnie’s distressed parents outside Paris where he behaves abominably.

Ben Chapple’s performance is a tour de force. Photo: Jon Green.

He is an abomination, in every way, coming apart under the weight of fame and money, sex, drugs and all that stuff. His generosity is as callously uncaring as it is easily given, even to his hard-up father (Lachlan Stevenson).

His undoing is as swift and inevitable as it is thoughtless and reckless, and when his manager, David (Hamish White), picks up the pieces, he’s not particularly fussed how many of them are what’s left of Paul.

At times the show feels a little anachronistic; although its iPhonic trappings are present day, its feel is more ’70s, more glam than hip-hop, more acid than meth. And it’s surprisingly two-dimensional, coming from a writer who is capable of growing empathy in unpromising soil.

But Chapple’s performance is a tour de force. He commands the stage (which he occupies for the entire show) with a kind of wide-eyed evil. You can’t like him, but you can’t help but worry that you might.

Parish (who has more than a little of David Bowie’s look about him) is both an excellent foil and an impressive individual character, and Maishman juggles Jenny’s opportunism and rising alarm, as Paul disintegrates, with aplomb. The incidental roles in the 17-strong cast (Christian Meares and Poppy Lynch accompany on guitar and drums) are provocative and excellently played.

The creative forces Lewis has marshalled, lighting designer Matthew Erren, sound designer Heinrich Krause and costume designer Maeli Cherel, and a team of specialist coaches and directors from fight to intimacy (hello!) help give this sordid, sad story both its spit and its polish.

Birdland is a great opportunity for a WAAPA graduating class to strut their considerable stuff.

Birdland runs until October 17.

Pictured top: Ben Chapple and Jonathan Lagudi. Photos: Jon Green

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It’s finger-clicking good

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre, Fully Sikh ·
Studio Underground, 12 October ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

I can’t recall ever having used the word “sick” as an expression of enthusiasm or admiration, let alone having coupled it with its obligatory intensifier, “fully”. That’s all about to change.

Like everything about this show, written and performed by Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa and directed by Matt Edgerton, its title is perfect. Not only does it hint at the show’s cultural themes, it provides a succinct and accurate review. Fully Sikh is fully sick.

One of my all-time favourite poems is “Capital Letters”, by the spoken word artist Omar Musa. It relates his experience growing up in Queanbeyan, NSW, among the “kids of immigrants” who were “made to feel very small”. Musa recalls “the whistle of go-back-to-where-you-came-froms” and how it was rappers who taught him the power of his voice. His clarion call to others who are marginalised is to “weave your stories into nets, trawl for the things you thought you’d lost”. Above all, he commands them to reject labels, be bold and live their dreams.

Fully Sikh is Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa’s story of growing up in suburban Perth – and in many ways her story parallels that journey described by Musa. Khalsa’s father came from Punjab, she tells us, and “the city of five rivers lingers in his limbs”. From the school yard, to the local swimming centre, from the supermarket to the cinema, she encountered ignorance and xenophobia. (“All that echoes is ‘towel head’ and the salty taste of embarrassment.”) She found her voice writing hip hop parodies and performing for family, before hitting the performance poetry scene six years ago – and making her mark across the country.

Tellling her stories through verse: Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa is accompanied by composer Pavan Kumar Hari. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

Khalsa has indeed woven her stories into a net of sorts. Fully Sikh trawls the depths of her family, culture and identity. And it captured the audience’s heart – from the moment we slipped off our shoes and stepped into the auditorium, to the unique curtain-call, in which she performs a shabad, a divine poetic song.

Khalsa says she was the shyest child at Leeming Primary School and in the Sikh community. You wouldn’t know it now. She manages to not just own the stage but populate it too, creating an illusion of her family members, school friends and frenemies.

Her stories, told through verse, are enhanced by show’s composer, Pavan Kumar Hari, who performs the music live on stage as well as assuming several character roles to hilarious effect.

Isla Shaw’s ingenious set has all the magic of the wardrobe from Narnia. Central to this is what appears to be functioning kitchen, representing the heart of the family home in Leeming. At times throughout the show, various pantry cupboards are opened to reveal a garden or the Gurdwara. Clever manipulations also set the scene in Woolies, Hoytes, the recreation centre, Sukhjit’s bedroom and a school assembly hall.

The action takes place under four rows of draped fabric, stretching the width of the performance space. It’s an evocative spectacle.

Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa and Pavan Kumar Hari. image credit Daniel J Grant.jpg
A generous spirit: Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa and Pavan Kumar Hari in ‘Fully Sikh’. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

Fully Sikh highlights the struggle for acceptance that newcomers face, where there is ignorance and prejudice. It reminds us that the past was not necessarily a better place and that Australia is strengthened by cultural diversity. It does this not through angsty rants but through a brilliant balance of humour, honesty and a generous spirit.

At one memorable point, the audience is invited to stand and learn a Bhangra dance. (“Screw the lightbulb, tap your feet, bounce the ball.”) It’s rare to be among an audience having so much fun. Later, in silent rapture, we watch as Khalsa ties a turban onto the head of a volunteer from the audience. Along the way, we learn how the fabric reminds the wearer of their roles in their family and community, and of the values of courage, strength, unity.

Those who frequent poetry slams will be familiar with the convention of finger clicking. Rather than saving their applause until the end of a poet’s piece, audience members are free to click their fingers when they’re particularly “feeling it”. At the beginning of the show, Khalsa invited the audience to express themselves this way. The clicking soon wore off, though – not because the audience wasn’t feeling it, but simply because it’s not physically possible to click your fingers for 75 minutes straight.

Fully Sikh runs until October 27.

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