Girl hunches over notebook, on stage strewn with rubbish
Fringe World, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Quirky metaphors mix mental and eco health

Fringe World review: Public Service Announcement, Grace⋅
Blue Room Theatre, January 23⋅
Review by Xan Ashbury⋅

Grace is a quirky play tackling the serious issue of mental health and environmental pollution. It is written by Zachary Sheridan (who describes it as semi-autobiographical), directed by Phoebe Sullivan and presented by Public Service Announcement, a new collective of Perth theatre makers.

The opening scene, featuring Elise Wilson, was a highlight for me. She used puppetry and mime to hilarious effect, engaging and intriguing the audience. Her character’s identity – as an octopus – is revealed when the home’s resident, Grace, returns. The teen, played by Ana Ika, is socially isolated and neglected as a result of family breakdown, illness and poverty.

Stylistic features such as looped dialogue build empathy for Grace, who seems to suffer with anxiety and depression. The discomforting set consists of strewn rubbish constantly being shuffled and sorted by the characters and offers an insight into Grace’s emotional state. Simone Detourbet and Anna Dooley slip easily between the roles of octopi, Grace’s parents and unkind peers. The octopuses have their own tale of woe, thanks to the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”.

Some of the dialogue between Grace and the uninvited guests sparkles with wit. Other moments are poignant and the audience is left to ponder the layers of metaphor and symbolism long after leaving the theatre.

Grace continues until January 26.

Pictured top: Ana Ika as Grace. Photo: Zachary Sheridan.

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Implied Consent
August 18, Calendar, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Implied Consent

17 – 18 August @ The Actors’ Hub ·
Presented by: The Actors’ Hub ·

DO WE pretend we don’t understand consent to push our own agendas – or are we genuinely confused?

It’s a question explored in Implied Consent at The Actors’ Hub, after more than 50 interviews were conducted with people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

“The show gives a 360-degree perspective on what people believe consent is, giving an often harrowing exploration as to how they imply it,” director Amanda Crewes said.  “Many were nervous to talk about it – Implied Consent presents challenging and diverse perspectives on where the line sits in such a grey area.  We take this unvoiced issue and, through real people’s stories, show how implying consent to the small things can spiral out of control.  This insidious epidemic needs to be taken back to the basics of care, compassion and tolerance.”

Implied Consent is the second in a trilogy of plays from The Actors’ Hub exposing a culture that needs to be redefined, following the subject of coward punches in One Punch Wonder. All use the genre of verbatim theatre, using the exact words of people interviewed.

“The actors aim to give as accurate a representation of the interviewees as possible,” Crewes said.  “It’s always a challenge to present the material in a way that is engaging, especially given the subject matter can get quite heavy at times.  We want to do justice to all sides of the argument, so all the stories need to be told.   But how do you tell the big stories delicately and the small ones richly without distorting the truth in any way?”

Crewes said the idea of using theatre to demand cultural change – and the possibility of Implied Consent starting that change – excited her.  “We have allowed ourselves to be drawn into technologically-induced isolation to a point where we have forgotten how to relate to each other, perhaps even forgotten what it means to be human,” she said.  “Theatre is the best place to explore that because we go to see and understand ourselves to make sense of what is going on around us.”

Implied Consent plays at 7pm August 17 and 18. Tickets are $30, $25 concession – book at
The Actors’ Hub is at 129 Kensington Street, East Perth.

More info:

Tyler Lindsay-Smith, left, Justin Gray and Quintus Olsthoorn explore unvoiced issues in Implied Consent.

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Children, News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

An absolute cracker

Review: shake & stir theatre co, George’s Marvellous Medicine ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 4 July ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Making children’s theatre is hard.  Unlike adults, children will not laugh politely at your jokes or remain silent when bored.  If a heartfelt monologue is a trifle too long, it’s liable to be interrupted with a half-shouted “Can we go now?”  Combine indulgent parenting with whiny kids and it’s a short step to a theatre-maker’s nightmare audience.  And then there’s the issue of dual audiences – can you make a work that kids will love and that adults will also enjoy?  Can you get away with a few ribald jokes?  

I point out the difficulty of the feat because I want you to take what I say next seriously – George’s Marvellous Medicine is the best show I’ve seen in recent memory.  Not the best kids’ show, the best show.

This production, based on the famed Roald Dahl book, is co-produced by Brisbane’s shake & stir theatre co. and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.  Under the direction of Ross Balbuziente, each aspect of the production has been finessed from start to finish.  It’s rare to find a show that so comfortably straddles the stylistic line between charmingly home-made and professional, but this is that unusual spectacle.

The wonderfully elaborate set, representing the farmhouse in which George lives, is a patchwork of jumbled shelves, crammed with all the accoutrements of domestic life.  The shelves are set upon a series of moving panels that shift as the action shifts, large enough for the performers to weave in and through. Part nostalgia trip, part theatrical wonder it’s a piece of exceptional craft from designer Josh McIntosh.  Lighting design by Jason Glenwright is also a central feature – the walls of the set are studded with an assortment that flicker on and off at opportune moments, adding to the magical lustre of the production and providing rich fodder for visual jokes.

And sure, the actors have gold to work with – Dahl’s words beg for dramatic interpretation – but shake & stir has taken brave liberties here with an adaptation that deserve accolades of its own.  The story cleaves pretty closely to Dahl’s narrative, but the characters are airlifted into the modern age with genuinely hilarious results.  George’s mother, played by the fabulous Nelle Lee, has become a saucy, selfie-taking shopaholic replete with chunky red heels, leopard skin skirt and fishnets.  Her sassy rapport with George’s Dad, played with an easy joy by Tim Dashwood, is central to much of the sly adult humour that sneaks its way into the script.  George himself is convincingly depicted by Nick Skubij as a wide-eyed mischief-maker, perhaps a trifle sweeter than Dahl’s own creation but very funny nevertheless.  The chicken in Dahl’s story is here too, embodied by the lithe Johnny Balbuziente who has a grand time incorporating a variety of au courant dance moves into his chickenish antics, much to the awe and delight of the young audience.  Flossing and dabbing anyone?

A wide-eyed mischief-maker: Nick Skubij as George. Photo: Dylan Evans

But for me, it was Grandma who stole the show.  As the anti-heroine, Leon Cain is sidesplittingly evil.  His flatulent, mean spiritedness providing all the justification one needs for George’s drastic actions.  Cain has a perfect gift for comic timing and physical humour, well aided by a bang-on soundscape created by Guy Webster.  From the initial horror of her easy-chair entrance (cue terrifying music) to her sudden expansion and diminution later in the show, each scene featuring Gran had me in extended giggling fits.

The 55 minutes pass extremely quickly – if you recall Dahl’s tale, there’s actually not a great deal that happens.  All the more extraordinary then that this bunch manages to weave such a spell in such a brief time.  As my ten year-old companion exclaimed to me post-show, “It was like magic.”  And the nine-year-old?  He rated it 15/10.  An absolute cracker.

George’s Marvellous Medicine plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until July 8.

Pictured top: Leon Cain in ‘George’s Marvellous Medicine’. Photo: Dylan Evans.


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Second Woman
News, Performance art, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

Brave, intense, strange

Perth Festival review: The Second Woman by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon ·
Perth Institute of Contemporary Art, 3 March ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

How many ways can you say the words: I love you?

In sarcasm; anger; desperation; with nonchalance; with love.

Nat Randall’s revelatory performance at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art was a study in the nuances of language and in epic theatre.  Randall began the show at 3pm on Saturday and performed the same, fairly short scene with 100 different men over a period of 24 hours.  24 hours!  Is she mad?  Maybe.  But wow, it was good.

The scene is inspired by a very similar one from the John Cassavete classic, Opening Night.  In her version, Randall is a woman alone in what appears to be a hotel room.  She is visited by a man (well, 100 men), her partner.  They exchange about ten minutes of sparse dialogue, parsing some of the details of their relationship.  They dance, they drink, the man leaves.  This short exchange was performed over and over and over, separated by intervals of ten minutes during which the packed audience could leave, chat, or stay.  Most chose to stay, many for an hour.  Some stoic souls stayed for the whole fraught adventure.

Randall is a Sydney-based performance artist and a core member of the collectives Hissy Fit and Team MESS.  She’s no stranger to Perth audiences, having performed most recently in last year’s Proximity Festival.  She performed The Second Woman in Hobart’s famed Dark Mofo last year and in the Next Wave Festival in 2016 for which the piece was created.

Randall is incredible to watch.  Taking her cues from each new sparring partner, she changes the tone of the same piece as easily as you or I might change underwear.  The first iteration I saw was bursting with humour – the audience breaking into laughs at every second line.  The second was heartfelt, intimate.  It felt like we shouldn’t be there, hanging on each word.  Another was a scene of fatigued sadness, of love gone old and stale.  In each scene of course, the dialogue was almost identical.  The dramatic tension of the work arises from the chemistry between the players, and the audience’s concern (or investment) in the welfare of Randall.  (When) will she falter?  When will she get to go the toilet?  Is she wearing special senior’s knickers?  (Answer: she has a 15 minute break every two hours)

The male players were chosen from a general call-out made through the Festival’s publicity channels.  They called for men of diverse ages and backgrounds with non-performers specifically encouraged to apply.  Of course, some of those who were featured were certainly actors, but many (most?) were not.  They were blokes who might otherwise be in the audience…in some cases wonderfully unwitting of the thrills of live performance.  In preparation, each was given a script with the barest of stage directions.  They knew where to move, what to say and do, but the open question was how.  And therein lies the power of the piece.  I love you.  I love youI love you.  It was genuinely surprisingly to see how ten minutes of dialogue could be interpreted in such radically different ways.  How a tone can change an outcome.

The set, designed by Future Method Studio is a thing of great beauty.  A boxed room, red and lushly lit with the fourth wall sheared off for our viewing pleasure.  It feels a little Lynchian, as does Randall in her red fitted frock and tragically blonde wig.  This room dominates only half the stage with the other half of PICA’s black box taken up with a large screen – each scene is filmed in real time by two camera operators who hover just outside the room.  Randall’s collaborator for this project is Anna Breckon, a film writer and director who is the co-creator of The Second Woman.  It’s Breckon directing the footage as it gets projected onto the adjacent screen, resulting in a very unusual cinematic experience that is almost as compelling as the live action happening next door.

Audience members came and went.  And the line to get in grew ever larger (though I’m betting there was no line at 3am).  I wanted to get in for a third viewing – but alas, by that time, word had well and truly spread and the line snaked outside PICA.  A small band of brave ones (mostly artists themselves as I understand it) stayed for the full experience.  I wish I had.

Brave, intense, strange.  These are a few of my favourite things.

Photo: Perth Festival

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The Far Side of the Moon_Cr. Toni Wilkinson, Perth Festival 2018_03
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

The far side of expectations

Perth Festival Review: The Far Side of the Moon, Robert Lepage ·
State Theatre Centre, 24 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

Occasionally you’ll see a performance that is so captivating, it changes the way you view almost everything in its wake.  When I saw Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota at the Perth Festival back in 1998, it was a transformative experience.  I’ve tried to describe that show to countless people since but because it’s a seven-hour theatrical experience, I always come off sounding insane.  Seven hours?!  On the strength of that show, I’ve always been keen to see everything Lepage has created since.  Which is why I was so excited to The Far Side of the Moon programmed as part of this year’s festival.  

Expectations huh?  I tried to rein them in, honest I did.

The Far Side of the Moon tells a story based loosely around humankind’s first exploration of the moon.  Lepage’s work usually incorporates major world events, cultural or geopolitical and then frames them within the microcosm of human experience. In Seven Streams it was Hiroshima; in Quills it was Napoleonic France; in The Dragon’s Trilogy it was the Chinese diaspora.  Lepage has enjoyed global acclaim for his work – his back-catalogue is littered with awards.  There are a couple of main reasons for this success – stagecraft and narrative drive.  Far Side has all the gorgeous stagecraft of any Lepage show, but it’s the narrative that meanders, resulting in a concept that seems to be searching for a story.

The show opens with a glaring bank of fluorescent lights, pointed at the audience.  The lights then rise and invert, revealing a panel of mirrors.  The show’s only actor, Yves Jacques, steps into view and explains the premise of the show.  Perhaps alarm bells should have sounded then – what show worth its narrative salt requires an explanatory prologue?  Jacques recedes and projected production credits replace him.  Lepage’s work is often filmic in quality – his other main medium is film.  Far Side was made into a film in 2003 and the Quebecois artist has either directed or acted in many others.  

Incorporating archival footage of the Soviet and American space landings, Far Side is part homage to Soviet space exploration (as a Quebecois Canadian, no love is lost for the victorious Americans here); part exploration of two brothers’ fractious relationship.  One is a flamboyant weatherman, the other a failing PhD student.  Their mother has just died and these two very different brothers need to come together to distribute her meagre last possessions.  The topic of the PhD student’s thesis is a Russian artist/cosmonaut – therein lies the loose narrative thread that binds the two parts of the story together.  But neither of these two disparate tales are fully told and their interweaving feels both awkward and strangely superficial. Unlike the other Lepage works I’ve seen, the emotional core of Far Side feels unrealised.  The weatherman brother verges on caricature, and the other, while a far more nuanced role, feels constrained by the script. We want to feel real grief with this character as he mourns his mother, but our attention is repeatedly diverted to the latest chapter of the space race.  

Better then, to focus on the spectacle.  The set is a chameleonic wonder, packed with sliding panels, light boxes, multi-media projections and hidden compartments.  Each new scene brings an ingenious re-imagining of each set piece – a circular port hole is re-assigned functions throughout, what was once a washing machine becomes a spacecraft becomes a fishbowl and so on.  It’s extraordinary.

In the end though, no amount of visual splendour can compensate for the lack of storyline punch.  Jaques, an accomplished and talented actor, does his level best to bring emotional resonance to the script, but it’s difficult to take the audience on a emotional journey when you keep being interrupted by bulletins from the final frontier.             

Pictured top: Yves Jacques in The Far Side of the Moon. Photo by Toni Wilkinson.

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A tense and captivating ride

Review: An Almost Perfect Thing, Gabrielle Metcalf –
The Blue Room Theatre, 15 August –
Reviewed by Claire Trolio –

Three characters search for connection: an abductee, her kidnapper and a journalist. Nicole Moeller’s psychological thriller An Almost Perfect Thing has been brought to life by Perth director Gabrielle Metcalf, at the Blue Room Theatre.

Chloe (Daisy Coyle) has been held captive for the last six years. Taken when she was 12 years old, we meet an 18 year old Chloe running, gasping as she finds her way home. Past Oak, Pine and Crabapple Streets she makes it to her father’s house, and what follows is her story. But is it her story; can she own it? An Almost Perfect Thing is a clever discourse on who has the right to the truth when it is the victim who holds the answers.

It’s a recognisable tale: a young girl is captured to re-emerge later. When she does, the police want the facts and the public feel entitled to know the truth about what happened to her. The play questions whether a victim has an obligation to share what she knows (not least to prevent future crimes) and also contemplates the motive behind protecting her attacker. Coyle’s portrayal of Chloe reveals the character’s intelligence and strength, whilst wrestling with trauma and vulnerability. She’s a girl who wants to discover normality at the same time as relishing her celebrity status.

For every captive there is a captor, and Mathew (Nick Maclaine) is a lost man… introverted, alone and desperate for a family. He’s a monster, but he too is a victim. Not much is said of it, but a complicated relationship with his own parents seems to have led to his psychiatric illness and compulsion to “save” Chloe by abducting her.

The third character is Greg (Andrew Hale), a struggling journalist who wrote about Chloe’s disappearance six years earlier. Chloe chooses to reveal her story to Greg so that it will be published in a manner that she regulates. The power struggle between Chloe, obsessed with control; Greg, who is  desperate for a good story as much as he is captivated by its subject; and the public’s demand for answers is a tense and captivating ride.

L to R: Nick Maclaine (Mathew), Daisy Coyle (Chloe), Andrew Hale (Greg). Photo: Pixel Poetry.

The tensions are compounded by Christian Peterson and Andrew Michie’s sound design. A simple sound score quickly transports us to the inside of a bar and out again with no need for a set change. But it’s the addition of a jarringly high pitched note at crucial times that makes us feel the characters’ anxieties, anguish and lack of control. It’s remarkably effective.

Meanwhile, set and costume designer Tyler Hill, who recently made his mark designing for Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Endgame and The Eisteddfod, shows why he’s in high demand. The blackened set is at once confined (dark and boxy) and free (nothing physical demarcates time and place), covered in dismembered mannequins that reflect the fragmented selves of the characters. Hill’s set helps question whether Chloe’s newfound freedom is in fact illusory as she remains suffocated beneath a bodyguard and her psychological trauma.

In the session I attended something seemed to be distracting the actors, causing a number of dialogue errors by each of the three on stage. Fortunately the misjudged cues compounded a feeling of confusion, torment and powerlessness that was a major part of each characters’ psyche, rather than detracting from my enjoyment.

Running at just under two hours, An Almost Perfect Thing is longer than usual for a production at the Blue Room, yet doesn’t feel it. Every one of the 110 minutes is compelling theatre, a suspenseful piece that caught me off guard and stayed with me long after leaving the theatre.

An Almost Perfect Thing plays the Blue Room Theatre until 26 August.

Pictured top: Nick Maclaine (Mathew) and Daisy Coyle (Chloe). Photo: Pixel Poetry.

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Features, News, Performing arts, Theatre

Placing old age centre stage

Acclaimed Australian actor Jenny Davis OAM talks to Nina Levy about why her role in Black Swan State Theatre Company’s Switzerland holds special significance.

For Jenny Davis, one of the most appealing aspects of taking on the role of twentieth century novelist Patricia Highsmith in Switzerland is the character’s age. “It’s so wonderful that this is a role written for women in their seventies… a central role,” she enthuses, in a break between rehearsals. “Switzerland is a play about an older woman – she’s not an add-on, or an angry granny, or a miserable old bag – she’s the central character. It’s very empowering.”

The visibility of seniors is a subject close to Davis’s heart. She is the founder and director of Agelink Theatre, a company that makes theatre works to affirm the value of senior citizens, celebrate their wisdom and experience, and share their stories. The company not only presents professional work, but also engages with seniors, explains Davis. “We interview seniors and collect stories for our shows on stage but we also work with people with dementia and, after working with them for a few weeks, we bring them on stage and they tell their stories, briefly. They love it because they feel celebrated – it gives them a kind of authenticity. Their mood is elevated and it also helps their mental acuity. We’ve been working with Bethanie Riversea on that and we recently won the fifth Asia-Pacific Award for working in care for the elderly.”

A “senior” herself, Davis also won 2016 WA Senior of the Year, received an OAM in the Australia Day 2017 Honours List for a lifetime of service to the performing arts industry and was inducted into the WA Women’s Hall of Fame in March of this year. “The Department of Communities asked me to be their ambassador for positive ageing, so I’ve been popping about being very positive about ageing,” she adds with a laugh. “It’s not actually that difficult because there are a great many positives for being a senior, I can tell you, that you don’t actually realise until you get there. You think it’s going to be all downhill and then it’s not! Every era of your life has something new to offer.”

Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella with director Lawrie Cullen-Tait (seated),at Northside Books, William Street, Perth, WA. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

These awards and accolades have led to numerous invitations to speak publicly about ageing, and Davis says she is relishing these opportunities. “It’s been really busy in a way I hadn’t expected… but I’ve loved it! We all need to have our value affirmed, don’t we? And that’s what we do at Agelink. We’re always about affirming people’s value. You’re not on the scrapheap just because you’ve reached a certain age, or because you’re not contributing to society the way you used to. There are always new ways to contribute.”

So it’s no surprise that Davis is thrilled take on a role that places a woman in her seventies centre stage… and the character of Patricia Highsmith offers appropriate scope for an actor of Davis’s calibre. Written by Joanna Murray-Smith and directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait, Switzerland finds Highsmith living a reclusive life in the Swiss Alps, taking solace in her collection of books and antique weapons, her cats and her cigarettes. The famed writer’s solitude is interrupted when a young man, Edward Ridgeway (played by Giuseppe Rotondella), arrives. He’s a delegate from her publisher, demanding a contract for another novel featuring her best-known character, Tom Ripley of The Talented Mr Ripley.

“It’s really exciting to be in a psychological thriller because we don’t get so many of those on stage anymore,” reflects Davis. “It’s the complexity of this character which is so fascinating. She’s full of rage, resentment and dark moments but she also has her witty, sardonic side. She’s very clever with words. There’s a certain amount of comedy in the play, as well as suspense. It’s a very rounded text and character… a lot of intellectual rigour but an emotional journey as well.”

There are interesting discussions in there about being human, getting older, facing death. In the end it’s quite positive, despite the fact that there is so much darkness in the play. There’s also a nice twist in the plot, which will keep you guessing.

Remembered for her suspense novels such as The Talented Mr Ripley, The Price of Salt (recently made into the film Carol) and Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith was, by all accounts, a difficult, prickly person. “I don’t think she was very likeable and I think she almost cultivated that,” remarks Davis. “One of her passions was her snails. She liked to do anti-social things like taking the snails to dinner parties and letting them crawl on the table. The snails are a wonderful metaphor for her because she had this vulnerable part inside, which she cemented in a shell that the world saw. Not many people saw her vulnerable side. She had lots of private hurts that she never let go, all her life. Some were from her childhood – her mother was super-critical of her, and then deserted her when she was little. When she was in therapy later in life, the suggestion was that she sought out romantic relationships with people who were going to leave her.”

Highsmith also felt bitterness that she was not taken seriously as a writer in America, continues Davis. “She felt dismissed by the American literary establishment, which was male-dominated in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, dismissed as a crime novelist rather than recognised as a psychological writer,” she explains. “She was really furious that they didn’t regard her as highly in America as in Europe, so she spent the latter years of her life an exile because they didn’t ‘get’ her in America.”

“The other thing about her is that she was a lesbian but she was very anxious about that in her younger years because she was brought up strictly Calvinist,” Davis says. “So she tried to normalise herself, she tried to not be. She fought against it. It was always this secret in her life.”

While Switzerland is about Highsmith, it’s also about what it means to be a writer, an artist, a human being. “I think you’ll start out thinking, ‘God, this woman isn’t very likeable,’ but by the end of the play, you might understand where she’s coming from,” comments Davis. “There are interesting discussions in there about being human, getting older, facing death. In the end it’s quite positive, despite the fact that there is so much darkness in the play. There’s also a nice twist in the plot, which will keep you guessing. There’s a lot to take home and ruminate on. That, for me, is a yardstick for a good play, if I’m still thinking about it the next day.”

Switzerland plays the State Theatre from 19 August – 3 September.


Top: Jenny Davis and Giuseppe Rotondella rehearsing ‘Switzerland’. Photo: Philip Gostelow



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Confronting privilege & prejudice: Bell Shakespeare’s ‘Merchant of Venice’

Review: The Merchant of Venice –
Bell Shakespeare –
State Theatre Centre of WA –
9 August –
Reviewed by Xan Ashbury

Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering. Oh, and money can’t buy you love. For anyone more familiar with Star Wars and the Beatles than the Bard, there are your takeaway messages from The Merchant of Venice.

While the play starts with the words “In sooth”, no one prances around in tights. The men are clad in sharp suits, as are the women for a while … because what would Shakespeare be without a bit of secret gender-bending? This modern aesthetic immediately suggests this is a play for our times.

And it certainly is. The Trump administration has prised open questions that seemed long settled, including the acceptability of open discrimination against minority groups. Here at home, we are still struggling to rid our country of racism, xenophobia and homophobia. Under the direction of Anne-Louise Sarks, whose recent credits include Jasper Jones, the play felt fresh, subversive, accessible and rich with contemporary resonance.

Antonio (the affluent Christian merchant, of the play’s title) is a forlorn character, outfitted in this production in a beautifully tailored puce jacket. “In sooth I know not why I am so sad,” he declares. While he is financially secure, he is unfulfilled. The world is “a stage where every man must play a part, and mine a sad one”. Because it’s a Shakespearean comedy, we know it’s going to end in a wedding. Or, in this case, three. But where is Antonio (Jo Turner), during this otherwise joyous scene? Watching from the sidelines, excluded and miserable.

Fayssal Bazzi (Gratiano) and Damien Strouthos (Bassanio). Photo: Prudence Upton

Shakespeare’s text offers numerous clues that Antonio’s love for his bestie, Bassiano, has a homoerotic dimension. While that interpretation is often overlooked or underplayed on stage, it is central to Antonio’s characterisation in this production.

The plot is set in motion when Antonio offers to lend money to Bassanio (Damien Strouthos) so that he can woo the wealthy Portia (Jessica Tovey). Although he owns a fleet of ships, Antonio has cash-flow problem and instead seeks to borrow the money from a Jewish moneylender, Shylock. The men are sworn enemies. Antonio hates Shylock because of his religion and profession; Shylock has had a gutful of Antonio’s bigotry and insults. Shylock agrees to lend the money at no interest but there’s a catch: if Antonio defaults on the loan, it will cost him a pound of his flesh.

There is no dodging the fact that this play has a sinister history. Its characters express deeply anti-semitic views and traditionally Shylock was portrayed as a greedy, bloodthirsty villain. The play was even used as Nazi propaganda in the 1940s.

How is it possible to stage a comedy, steeped in anti-semitism, without it feeling like anything other than a dance upon the graves of millions of Jews? I admit I had my reservations before seeing the play, despite being a fan of Bell Shakespeare’s work.

First, however, Mitchell Butel’s nuanced rendering of the Shylock is masterful. Inevitably, the representation contains some stereotypical elements but Butel creates an air of dignity and authenticity. His delivery of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech was breathtaking. “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” And so he goes on, reminding Antonio of their shared humanity. But he’s had enough of being spat upon and treated like a dog. “The villainy you teach me I will execute – and I shall go hard but I will better the instruction.” The speech challenges the audience to confront their prejudices, check their privilege and realise that hate begets hate.

Although Portia’s quick thinking and trickery succeeds in saving Antonio’s life, it is a somewhat hollow victory. The scene in which Shylock is forcibly stripped of his prayer shawl and kippah, after losing his daughter and fortune, is heart-wrenching. This production points to hypocrisy on both sides and implies that adherence to ideology and religious doctrine, of any persuasion, has a dark side. In that scene I found myself thinking about other minorities who become the scapegoat; the low-hanging fruit society choses to isolate, blame or exclude.

The scene in which Shylock is forcibly stripped of his prayer shawl and kippah is heart-wrenching. Photo: Prudence Upton.

The simple yet stunning set was key to the play’s success. The action takes place in front of a vast stretch of golden fabric – a constant reminder of one of the play’s famous lines: “All that glitters is not gold.” A tree at one side of the stage, reinforces the value of life and connection. Poignant and mesmerising were the swirling leaves falling from the rafters at various points throughout the play.

In a break with convention, every actor stays on stage the whole play. Four benches form a semi circle on the stage and, instead of exiting the stage after a scene, the actors return to the bench, facing away from the audience. But – in what becomes a powerful statement about visibility – characters such as Shylock and Antonio continue to face the audience, bearing witness to what is unfolding.

This bold staging seems to represent a bigger idea: In this era of Wikileaks, omnipresent cameras and digital hyperconnection, the line between public and private discourse is blurred. There are fewer places for bigotry and intolerance to hide.

Amid these challenging themes, there were some delightfully comic moments – most of them from the incredible Jacob Warner, playing Launcelot.

Where the play began with Antonio’s melancholia, it ends with Jessica’s desperate cries of: “What have I done?” As Shylock’s daughter realises her mistakes, the audience is left to ponder the value of cultural pride and diversity.

The Merchant of Venice closes 12 August.


Pictured top: Mitchell Butel as Shylock and Felicity McKay as Jessica. Photo: Prudence Upton.

Photo: Prudence Upton
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News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

1984: the message amidst the medium

Review: 1984, Headlong, Nottingham Playhouse & Almeida Theatre –
His Majesty’s Theatre, 4 August –
Reviewed by Varnya Bromilow

I remember the first (and only) time I watched Stanley’s Kubrick’s adaption of the Anthony Burgess novel, A Clockwork Orange. I sat, aghast and writhing in my thinly padded seat at Lumiere Cinemas in the underbelly of the old Entertainment Centre. Munching nervously on buttery popcorn, I waited desperately for the midnight screening to end so that I might go home and (vainly) try to sleep. I remember being unnerved by the laughter in the room as the violence and the Beethoven swelled to a compelling but wholly disturbing climax.

This formative experience kept popping up in my middle-aged brain on Friday night as I sat in His Majesty’s Theatre, surrounded by a capacity crowd. Before the curtain had even lifted, there were clear signs I was in for a confronting experience. Repeated announcements from theatre management warned of violence, loud noise, bright lights and on the whole, entertainments unsuited to the faint of the heart. But I am the faint of heart! I thought. There were paramedics near the exits! I spoke to one of them – she reassured me that they attended every performance, regardless of the show’s content. This was not as reassuring as it should have been. Steel yourself woman! Do your job! I took the proffered earplugs and sat back, awaiting the experience.

Many of you will be familiar with the storyline of 1984. One of Britain’s great men of letters, George Orwell, describes a dystopian future in which Winston Smith is attempting to live a life of free thought in a world where free thought (let alone free expression) is forbidden. Comrades are watched by the ever-present Big Brother, persecuted by the Thought Police and punished via a variety of creatively abhorrent methods. In such an environment Winston becomes understandably paranoid.

This production, by British theatre innovators Headlong, is wholly infused with Winston’s sense of wretched paranoia as he tries to carve out a small space in which to think. From the ominous buzz of the pre-show soundscape right to the last of the 110 minutes, this was a morbidly electrifying experience.

Orwell’s writings are referenced frequently in popular culture with good reason. There are several unnerving similarities between Orwell’s imagined future and our own lived one, a fact this production underlines with force. While much of Orwell’s text is mulched for the purposes of theatrical expediency, key lines stand out for their gloomy prescience. “The people will not revolt. They will not look up from their screens long enough to notice what is happening.” Surely that’s not directly from Orwell’s 1949 text, a time when the only televisions were in public places? I looked it up – it is. Talk of terror alerts and the presence of a constant, necessary war is just as eerie. War on terror anyone?

‘Uniformly terrific’: the Australian cast of ‘1984’. Photo: Shane Reid.

Like the book on which it is based, this production of 1984 is a cautionary tale. But while the book has slim glimmers of hope, this incarnation suffers from a one-noted sense of dread. When Winston finds a room of his own, for himself and paramour Julia, doom hangs over that respite. Even if you’re not familiar with the text, you get the distinct impression things aren’t going to end well.

My Kubrickian fears really kicked in during the second half. A starkly white stage is over-lit with glaring fluorescents, a jump-suited Winston sits strapped to a chair in the centre as the menacing O’Brien (the magnetic Terrence Crawford) leers over him, blood-red tie flapping. It is fifteen minutes of pure terror, replete with blaring sound, blood and torturers in gas masks. The theatre-makers have incorporated some interesting strands of reality in these minutes: the suit Winston wears, though blue in colour, strongly suggests the garb worn by those in Guantanamo; a scene that starts with Winston’s mouth sputtering blood alludes to an injury Orwell himself sustained while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It’s clever, but it ain’t subtle.

This production premiered on the West End in London, garnering several awards including Best New Play at the Olivier Awards and a UK Theatre Award for Best Direction. Originally created by Duncan MacMillan and Robert Icke, this is the first time the production has been staged in Australia and features a full Australian cast, the members of which are uniformly terrific. As Winston, Tom Conroy is the clear standout. With a gentle charisma that reminded me of James McAvoy, Conroy’s Winston is a fearful but determined opponent of the system. A deer in the headlights who has decided to take on the car, with the results you might expect.

When the house lights came up, the audience looked suitably stunned. Less perhaps by the startling relevance of the text, than by the sheer spectacle of horrors they’d just witnessed. I came away impressed with the professionalism of the show and the talent of the performers, but certainly feeling as if the message had been a little lost in the clamour of the medium. There may not be televisions in every room watching us but in the internet age surveillance is constant… and yet the outcry of a Winston Smith is largely absent, or are we just deaf to the warning, consumed by our devotion to our screens?


1984 plays His Majesty’s Theatre until 13 August.

Top photo: ‘A clear standout’ – Tom Conroy as Winston in ‘1984’. Photo: Shane Reid.

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Twist, turns and music: Jenny Simpson (Part I)

This year Jenny Simpson is celebrating a decade at the helm of AWESOME Arts, an organisation dedicated to making incredible arts experiences for WA’s children. Nina Levy caught up with Simpson for a chat about childhood, career paths and what makes a great festival show.

With a splash of colour in her hair and a ready laugh, Jenny Simpson brightens any room. Gregarious,  hilarious, and passionate about the arts, it’s hard to imagine a person better suited to the role of chief executive officer of of WA’s AWESOME Arts. The organisation presents the AWESOME International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things, an annual feast of theatre, dance, music, film and activities designed for children aged 0-12 years and their families, and the Creative Challenge, a year-round program bringing arts experiences to children in regional and remote WA. Like Simpson, AWESOME is recognisable for its colour, joyfulness and engagement with the Perth community.

Simpson’s love of the arts began early in life. Born in Bowral, NSW, she had an idyllic rural childhood. “I grew up running around the paddocks,” she reminisces. “It was a lovely childhood. My family was very musical. I grew up with lots of bonfires, playing music, having musicians come and stay. My parents were involved in running a musical festival. I used to be on the door, ripping tickets. I performed in the festival too. I used to sing – I still sing.

“Community was big for us as well,” she adds. “One of the things that I did as a child and do to this today is performing in nursing homes. Mum would play the accordion and we’d put on a show. I learned a great deal of respect for older people.”

Simpson’s happy childhood was shattered, however, when she was 15. “My mum died. That was a shock. She was young and I was young. My world fell apart.” Looking back, Simpson believes that music played a crucial role in helping her through the difficult years that followed. “I had a very troubled teenage life,” she reflects. “My father wasn’t a particularly teenage-girl friendly father. I found myself playing my guitar and singing in my bedroom, for hours at a time. That’s what got me through.”

Barrowland Ballet’s ‘Tiger Tale’, performed at the AWESOME International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things in 2015. Photo: James Campbell.

After finishing school and completing a degree in history, psychology and English literature, and Simpson’s early career took a turn that may come as a surprise to those who know her now. “I was all set to head to Latrobe to do a graduate diploma in secondary education,” she says. “I withdrew the night before. The prospect of standing in front of children and presuming to know more than they did terrified me. I ended up being a commodity trader in Melbourne. I drove a red car, I had shoulder pads, I did deals,” she dead pans. “At the same time I played in bands.”

Simpson’s day-job saw her visit WA, precipitating her first move West in 1995. “I loved the place, I loved the vibe of Fremantle at that time. Some of the best musicians and artists I knew were from WA,” she recalls. “I figured there was something in the water and I probably needed to drink more of that water.”

Although Simpson remained engaged with music, becoming the co-conductor of the One Voice choir in Fremantle, by day she was still working in the corporate world, this time at Schweppes. “Gee, I was really good at selling soft drinks,” she exclaims with a grin. “And then I was coming up to 30 – I think a lot of women, when they get to a certain age, start to re-evaluate what they’re here for – and it hit me like a bolt from the blue that maybe being really good at selling soft drinks was not going to be something I was going to be proud of at end of my days. Coming from that background of believing in community and doing good things like my parents used to do, I had a bit of a crisis about that.

“I’d always had this interest in finding audiences for good artists. In my spare time I used to tour people, for fun. So when I was having this existential crisis about what to do with my life and I saw a job for touring manager at Country Arts WA come up, I thought. ‘Touring! I do that!’”

In spite of the fact that she was the self-described “wild card” in the interview process, Simpson got the job and she never looked back. From Country Arts she went on to direct the National Folk Festival in Canberra. Then Arts Queensland needed an interim director at Brisbane Multicultural Arts Centre, where she was offered the position of director… but Simpson’s heart belonged to WA. “Fremantle was calling me home,” she remembers. “I felt it in my gut. Even though I wasn’t born here this place had imprinted on to me. The light here is different, the landscape is different. I regard it as home, I just feel it in my bones.”

‘The Secret Life of Suitcases’ by Ailie Cohen Puppets, from the 2015 AWESOME Festival. Photo: James Campbell.

Simpson didn’t have a job lined up but after a short stint at Kulcha Multicultural Arts, she landed the position of general manager at AWESOME. Initially, she recalls, she wasn’t that excited about the role. “For the first couple of years I felt a bit detached. I was the general manager then, so someone else was curating the program… And then I started to see the impact of what we were doing on children. I started to realise that actually this is the future and we’re getting in at ground level and making a better community. The sense of purpose started to burn in me.”

Simpson believes that AWESOME’s role goes well beyond exposing children to the arts. “I’ve realised that if you have something inside you that’s creative, that actually becomes a spring from which you can draw when the external world gets tough,” she explains. “It becomes about having an internal locus of control, as they say in therapy. It’s not letting the world control you, but having something strong inside you.

“I feel what we do, at AWESOME, is about giving children that inner courage through having creative energy. I want kids to be in their rooms, drawing, they can make a film on an iPad, they can dance, whatever… but I want them to have something they’re passionate about, that helps them engage with others and create networks, friendships. I think that supports problem solving, communication and development.

I think every human being needs that… especially children.”

This is part I of Nina Levy’s interview with Jenny Simpson. Read part II here.


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