2 contemporary dancers
Calendar, Dance, Featured, November 19, Performing arts

Dance: And Then Some

13 – 16 November @ State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by STRUT Dance and State Theatre Centre of WA ·

An exhilarating evening of contemporary dance made in WA. Provocative, bold and sassy, And Then Some, showcases a double bill of daring and devil-may-care dance, served up to you by two of Australia’s finest young makers Lewis Major and Scott Ewen.

For four shows only, high-octane moves collide with dark comedy in the Studio Underground of the State Theatre Centre – the home of contemporary dance in WA.

More info
W: www.ptt.wa.gov.au/venues/state-theatre-centre-of-wa/whats-on/and-then-some/
E:  marketing@ptt.wa.gov.au

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Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa. image credit Daniel J Grant.jpg
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

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.

Sukhjit-Kaur-Khalsa-and-Pavan-Kumar-Hari.-image-credit-Daniel-J-Grant.jpg
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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Dance, News, Performing arts, Reviews

An exhilarating ride

Review: Rachel Arianne Ogle, precipice ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre of WA, 29 May ·
Review by Nina Levy ·

Silence.
Two thin beams of light mark the stage with a giant “x”. A dancer in each corner.
Standing. Waiting.

From the opening moments of precipice, local independent choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle places the viewer on edge. The prolonged silence at the start of the piece – before two of the four dancers tip off-balance into a run – sets the scene for a work in which movement, light and sound unite to repeatedly push the dancers and, by extension, the audience to that edge… to the precipice.

It’s a wild ride; visceral and invigorating. Though the work is abstract, there are clear arcs – sensual rather than narrative. And though precipice is unquestionably a contemporary dance work – the movement is often athletic in that way that makes you draw your breath sharply – it’s the deft interweaving of the choreography with the lighting and visual design by Benjamin Cisterne and score/soundscape by Luke Smiles that makes the ride feel so immersive.

Niharika Senapati and Tyrone Robinson in the 2014 season of 'precipice'..
The female dancers become perilous dolls: Niharika Senapati and Tyrone Robinson in the 2014 season of ‘precipice’.. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

And finally, though it is designed around ramping up the senses, there is a poetic quality that infiltrates precipice. Now the stage is sliced in two by one of those beams of light from the opening. Against a swathe of ghostly electronic sounds, we see a dancer (the wonderful Tyrone Robinson) twisting, falling, staggering, limping. On the other side of the line, the remaining three dancers (Niharika Senapati, Yilin Kong and Linton Aberle) move through a series of supine tilts, rolls and suspensions that trace circular patterns on the floor and through the air.

Those circular patterns repeat throughout; we see them again as the two female dancers move through balances in which their legs and arms bring to mind the hands of a clock marching endlessly through time.

Though it’s hard to pick favourite sections (there are many), the synchronised male-female duos are a highlight. Apparently immobile, the female dancers become perilous dolls, to be manipulated by the male dancers who diligently insert themselves between the women and the floor. This morphs into a dance of fanning and falling counterbalances as the lighting gently oscillates between warmth and cool. The strength and focus required to pull off this movement material is considerable and on opening night, Aberle, Kong, Robinson and Senapati ensured this section had the audience mesmerised.

Another memorable movement phrase sees the dancers lie across one another as though their bodies have been plaited. To a soundscape of lightly pattering beats interspersed with electronic surges, a pattern of planks and folds ripples through the quartet; a strange caterpillar labouring through a field of light circles.

Storm Helmore, Tyrone Robinson, Imanuel Dado and Niharika Senapati in the 2014 season of 'precipice. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis
Though the work is abstract, there are clear arcs: Storm Helmore, Tyrone Robinson, Imanuel Dado and Niharika Senapati in the 2014 season of ‘precipice. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis

There is relatively little to separate audience and performer at the Studio Underground and in the penultimate scenes of precipice, the energy from the stage feels encompassing. Engine-like noises become increasingly loud and urgent as the dancers variously move as one, separate, pause, and explode into the space. The tension builds and builds until, with a blinding flash of light, it hits an almost unbearable peak. No spoilers – you’ll have to see the show to find out what happens next.

As aforementioned precipice depends heavily on the physical and mental discipline of its dancers. On opening night Aberle, Kong, Robinson and Senapati gave an outstanding performance.

This is not precipice’s first outing. The work was originally presented in the same theatre in 2014. As Ogle notes, it is rare that independent work is granted a second outing. Watching precipice for a second time, it’s easy to see why the State Theatre Centre of WA and Perth Theatre Trust chose to break with tradition and program this work.

Together with her creative team, Ogle has made a work that is exhilarating.

precipice plays the Studio Underground until June 1.

The sequel to precipice, i have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night, plays PICA, June 5-8.

Read a Q&A with Rachel Arianne Ogle about the two works here.

Pictured top is a scene from the 2014 season of ‘precipice’. Photo: Traianos Pakioufakis.

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A scene from Water, featuring Glenda Linscott. Amy Mathews. Emily Rose Brennan. Richard Maganga
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

The perils of polemic

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, Water ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

As we all come to grips with the most pressing issue of our age – humanity’s impact on our planet – it’s only fitting that this theme makes its way onto our stages. As is often the case, theatre is miles ahead of cinema or TV in grappling with this topic – it’s hard to make art that reflects our growing concern, while not straying too far into the boredom of strident polemic. So far, at least, it’s been left to theatre to press the case.

With Water, Melbourne-based playwright Jane Bodie has created a work for Black Swan State Theatre Company that is as ambitious as it is broad-ranging. Set in three different time periods and places, the play examines two of Australia’s thorniest political challenges – climate politics and refugees.

The first and strongest act is set on Molloy Island off WA’s Southwest in the not too distant future. Water has become scarce, birds have all but died out and food rationing is in place. We meet Peter (Igor Sas), a disgraced politician, recently forced to resign over his handling of refugee policy; his wife, Beth (Glenda Linscott) and the couple’s daughters Gemma (Amy Mathews) and Joey (Emily Rose Brennan). Gemma, a corporate lawyer, and Joey, a hippy traveller, have returned to the family’s holiday home to celebrate Peter’s birthday. Joey has been travelling for years and, as with all prodigal offspring, her return is cause for joy, dampened slightly by the fact that she has invited along a friend (and African immigrant), Yize (Richard Maganga).

A scene from 'Water', set in a holiday home on Molloy Island.
An undercurrent of tension: Igor Sas (Peter), Glenda Linscott (Beth) and Amy Mathews(Gemma) in the first act of ‘Water’. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

Bodie begins slowly, casting out small measures of narrative and context that makes the play an enjoyable tease for half of the first act. Why exactly did Peter leave politics? Why is Beth so on edge? Why does Gemma seem so irritated? What are Joey’s motives in inviting Yize? Director Emily McLean paces the show beautifully, creating an undercurrent of tension that is bound to explode. She is aided in this effort by a gorgeous soundscape and score from Clint Bracknell. Beginning with the clatter of parrots, an echo of a more bountiful time, Water is notable for its aural sparseness. We feel the absence of the birds, just as we feel the absence of water. The silence at the show’s beginning builds via stilted conversation, elongated pauses, until finally – with a remarkable soliloquy from Yize – the dam bursts. Maganga’s performance here was so impassioned, so utterly authentic, that it was followed by spontaneous applause from the packed house.

But, despite the talent of the actors, Water is a deeply flawed work. For a contemporary piece written by a female playwright, the raft of characters is alarmingly cliched. We have the absent poli dad; the long-suffering, needy wife; the wild, irresponsible daughter and the corporate careerist. I understand the seduction of writing about characters we are familiar with – there’s little an audience enjoys more than seeing itself reflected onstage – but for a new work, these roles seemed all too predictable. Of course the roguish daughter is there to cause trouble! Of course the corporate careerist is secretly unhappy! In writing such broad caricatures, Bodie underestimates the capacity of her audience to comprehend something more nuanced.

A scene from 'Water'. A nurse examines a patient's throat.
Bodie takes the audience to Ellis Island in 1921. Pictured are Amy Mathews and Glenda-Linscott. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

By the end of the first act though, we are engaged. We know these people, we care about them. Minor irritations like the distraction of Gemma’s resignation can be overlooked in favour of the over-riding pull of any good story – what happens next? But, in an ill-advised attempt to underscore the injustice of Australia’s refugee policy, the next act deprives us of this satisfaction. Instead, Bodie takes us to Ellis Island in 1921 where an elderly white Australian couple is attempting to emigrate to the United States. By drawing an apt but facile comparison with immigration systems elsewhere, Bodie again underestimates her audience. Her point was already made with stirring eloquence through the vessel of Yize – the clunky comparison doesn’t make the point stronger, it weakens it.

Similarly, when we are then transported to Queensland in 1905 in a brief reference to the slave trade that supplied the labour for Australia’s cane plantations, I had no idea where we were or why. Compounding the confusion is Bodie’s decision to use similar names for the characters in each setting. But what happened to the people on Molloy Island? When, finally, the playwright brings us briefly back to the characters of the first act, we are left without any meaningful resolution.

By divorcing us from the characters of the first act, Bodie sacrifices audience enjoyment to belabour her point – our climate policies are failing; our refugee policies are inhumane; we are not learning from history. As someone who agrees wholeheartedly with Bodie’s politics, it pains me to see this sort of didacticism onstage. Making theatre with a political message is extremely difficult; making theatre with a political message while avoiding the perils of polemic is even harder.

Water plays until May 26.

Pictured top are (L-R): Glenda Linscott (Beth), Amy Mathews (Gemma), Emily Rose Brennan (Joey) and Richard Maganga (Yize). Photo: Daniel J Grant.

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2 contemporary dancers on stage
Calendar, Dance, June 19, May 19, Performing arts

Dance: precipice

29 May – 1 Jun @ Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by State Theatre Centre of WA and Rachel Arianne Ogle ·

Inspired by tectonic shifts, gravitational torsion and states of emotional rupture, ‘precipice’ is a dance of abandon and precarious control. Australian choreographer Rachel Arianne Ogle wields her technical and extremely physical style to draw immense unseen forces in the bodies of four dancers.

Ogle has assembled leading performance designers to create a multi-sensory experience where choreography unfolds within an electrifying light and sound installation. Contrasting precision and strength with mounting tension and fragility, this is a bold and unique work of contemporary dance from one of Australia’s rising choreographic artists.

precipice returns to the State Theatre Centre of WA after premiering here in August 2014 to critical acclaim. It was subsequently nominated for a Helpmann Award for ‘Best Dance Work’ and an Australian Dance Award for ‘Outstanding Achievement in Independent Dance’ in 2015.

“precipice began its life as an exploration of various physical states in opposition. It very quickly grew to take on a voice and direction of its own, to transcend my initial points of departure and delve into territory encompassing grander concepts of the universe. The infinite space in which we exist and to which we are intimately interconnected, and the invisible forces that are constantly at play within this, are beyond the realm of my conception. Through considering our place in this immense system, we unveil a profound vulnerability and fragility that is both ephemeral and enigmatic.” – Rachel Arianne Ogle

“A knockout production… Rapid high-tech triggers transport us into an expansive universe through light, sound and dance… a ticket to another dimension” – The West Australian

“An intriguing visual feast… the resultant whole assaulting the senses and stirring emotions.” – Artshub

Choreography by Rachel Arianne Ogle
Performance by Tyrone Robinson, Niharika Senapati, Yilin Kong, Imanuel Dado
Visual Design by Benjamin Cisterne
Sound Composition by Luke Smiles / motion laboratories
Costume Design by Colleen Sutherland
Produced by Sam Fox

More info:
www.ptt.wa.gov.au/venues/state-theatre-centre-of-wa/whats-on/precipice/

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Juliet at her balcony
News, Reviews, Theatre

Students hit sweet spot

Review: Romeo and Juliet, WAAPA 3rd year Acting directed by Michael Jenn ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, 16 March ·
Review by David Zampatti ·

I suffer from an unfortunate condition called Veronaphobia, brought on by a couple of productions of Romeo and Juliet so excruciating that good manners and the advice of my lawyer constrain me from identifying, other than to say that at the first the urge to flee at interval nearly overcame me, and at the second it did.

There’s a reason for the malady. Romeo and Juliet, while it is an extravagant achievement of the English language, can be a rose that smells too sweet.

Shakespeare (who, remember, was likely only 30 and six years into his career) had just discovered his mastery, and hurled it at everything he did with little restraint. For this reason his great early plays, Richard III and A Midsummer Night’s Dream among them, need to be handled with great control and command.

Lack either, and things can get very ugly very quickly.

Happily this production, performed by WAAPA’s third year Acting students, directed by the visiting British actor and director Michael Jenn, is an antidote to what ails me.

Camilla Ponte-Alvarez (Tybalt) and Ben Chapple (Samson). Photo: Jon Green.

He navigates his ill-fated lovers and their squabbling families towards the West Side Story point of the compass, without working that relocation too hard (I’m okay for a character to cross the stage on a Vespa, and street knives actually work better than rapiers in Andy Fraser’s fight scenes). Kara Rousseau’s set in the Studio Underground is timeless and functional; the balcony is a platform on scaffolding that doubles as the upper levels of villas and palaces above Verona’s dangerous streets.

Most importantly, Jenn allows his young actors to attempt Shakespeare’s lyrical text (only fifteen per cent of the play’s lines are in prose) with a natural, colloquial rhythm, and this gives it clarity and accessibility.

Even Shakespeare’s most audacious conceit, the sonnet “If I profane with my unworthy hand” injected into Romeo and Juliet’s love-making, is natural and unforced, while maintaining its aching beauty.

The supporting cast give strong, distinctive performances: in particular Bryn Chapman Parish and Saskia Archer are perfectly drawn as the grasping daughter-peddling Capulets, Mercutio is given a sassy humour not always afforded Tybalt’s pincushion by Peter Thurnwald, and Ruby Maishman’s Friar Lawrence brings much more than the traditional hapless meddler in the affairs of the heart.

Jonathan Lagudi is a tall, dark and handsome Romeo, well suited to love and be loved, but the play is always Juliet’s, the “splendid” Juliet as Harold Bloom described her, the prototype of all Shakespeare’s great heroines, his too-young Rosalind-in-waiting, the girl whose bounty is as boundless and deep as the sea.

Poppy Lynch is a beautiful Juliet, sensible, determined and ready for anything love and death can bestow on, and take from, her. There’s nothing ethereal about her Juliet, and she acts her age (something too often overlooked).

It’s a fine performance that caps a fine production.

Romeo and Juliet runs until March 21.

Poppy Lynch as Juliet and Jonathan Lagudi as Romeo are pictured top. Photo: Jon Green.

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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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News, Performing arts, Perth Festival, Reviews, story telling, Theatre

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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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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Unforgettable

Perth Festival review: Ursula Martinez, A Family Outing– 20 Years On ·
State Theatre Centre Studio Underground, February 8 ·
Review by Mark Naglazas ·

When the advertising for a show features its creator and leading lady stark naked (albeit with pixelation in all the right places) and her co-star is her elderly mother, who has the beginnings of dementia, you brace yourself for an evening of confrontation and confession.

However, the marketing for A Family Outing – 20 Years On is the first of a series of marvellous rug pulls expertly executed by British LGBTQ diva Ursula Martinez as she toys with the audience’s expectations, so relentlessly that your lasting memory is of a show about putting on a show.

From the moment Martinez steps into the spotlight and explains she will screen a video of the earlier iteration of A Family Outing in which she sat on a “crappy sofa arguing with her mum and dad” through to the final stages when she provides her own review  of the new show (“a platform for marginalised communities” she boasts), this is meta-theatre at its most joyous, accessible and human.

However, the breezy, knockabout approach disguises Martinez’s deeper purpose – to examine the toll taken by the passing of time and, in particular, the impact of dementia.

Instead of dissecting the disease in a scientific and sociological sense, as is familiar in today’s fact-based narratives, Martinez uses the idea of a show that constantly meanders off-script as a wonderfully apt metaphor for the mind struggling to hang on to reality.

And by having the previous version of the show running in the background, in which we see Martinez and her Spanish-born mother Milagros and late father Albert Lee, we’re thrust into an echo chamber in which past and present become confused in the same way they must in a mind slipping away.

Milagros is a long way from being put into full-time care. She is a vivacious and funny stage presence as she fully engages with her daughter’s playful theatrics. “It’s really boring,” whines Milagros when Ursula leaves the stage to get a pen (yes, that’s about as dramatic as the action gets).

But a part of the fun of A Family Outing – 20 Years On is working out how much of the show is scripted and how much of it is improvised. When Ursula’s sister Facetimes in from the UK I wasn’t sure if it was live or if Martinez is so expert at playing casual that she’s turned a pre-recorded moment into something spontaneous-seeming.

Again, this slippage between scripted and improvised action, while commonplace in film and television, works perfectly as a metaphor for a mind struggling to remember the common script of humanity.

But it is not just Milagros who is battling to recall the facts of her own family history. Martinez is just as willing to poke gentle fun at her own mental decline, which she illustrates with a hilarious black-and-white home movie-ish recreation of how Milagros and Albert met and fell in love (a really cute story involving her teacher-father’s obsession with all things physics).

In every image of Milagros she is wearing a mantilla, a traditional Spanish lacy headdress. She’s wearing it while vacuuming, while going on a date and while lying in bed crying about Albert and begging her own mother for advice.

When Milagros sees herself dressed in something straight out Semana Santa in her southern Spanish homeland she gags. “I’ve never worn one of those in my life. I’ve never seen anyone wear one. I don’t think they’ve worn them since the 19th century,” scolds Milagros.

It’s this delightful struggle between two women who deeply love each other that is the heart of A Family Outing – 20 Years On. Can you imagine any other performer taking her mother on tour and putting her on stage so she can keep an eye on her? Or is that part of the show? Who cares. It’s funny and touching and, by the end, richly meaningful.

A Family Outing – 20 Years On is playing at the Theatre Underground until February 12.

Pictured top: Milagros  (left) and Ursula Martinez (right). Photo: Toni Wilkinson.

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