Review: Black Swan State Theatre Co. with WA Youth Theatre Co., Medea ·
State Theatre Centre of WA, 10 August ·
Review by David Zampatti ·
They have been so long dead. Two thousand, four hundred and fifty years in fact.
Like the princes in the tower or the infant victims of Macbeth’s fell swoop, the sons of Jason and Medea died mute and unknown, their individual humanity unexplored and undefended.
Since then, Medea – sorceress, she-devil, spirit of vengeance, woman scorned, arch-nihilist and exterminating angel – has been reimagined and recast a thousand times, from antiquity through to Fay Weldon, her character and motivation examined, and claimed, by feminists and misogynists alike.
She has become an elemental figure in art and life.
So it’s an audacious and fecund idea to invert the focus of Medea; to bring her boys to life in their last innocent hour so that their mother’s crime against abstract nature is against real, identifiable people, however young.
In the original, Medea is in every scene, always with only one other character. The boys are never seen, and only their screams are heard as they are slaughtered. In this adaptation the boys are always on stage, and Medea is the only other character we see.
It’s risky. It’s not like, say, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, where we have the framework of the characters available to us, where we have heard them speak, seen the whites of their eyes, before.
We know nothing about these boys, and the writers, Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, have created them from absolutely nothing other than the fact of their death; we know how they died, but we can’t be certain why.
It’s hardly through any fault of their own. Leon (Jesse Vakatini) and his younger brother Jasper (Jalen Hewitt) are just kids, locked in the toy-splattered room they share. Mum and dad are having a grown up talk: “About love”, says Leon. “That could take an hour”, replies Jasper, exasperated.
What their parents are talking about – although we never hear them – is his plan to marry Glauce, the daughter of King Creon, while keeping Medea as his mistress.
It’s not going to wash with Medea. She’s in the boys’ room, full of bad tempered mothering: “This room’s a pigsty – clean it up”.
The boys get to work, and so does she. She’s back, with a beautifully wrapped gift she wants to give Glauce. They are fond of their dad’s “friend”, and happily write a sweet card to go with the deadly present.
And then Medea is back again. This time with a blue cordial for her sweet boys.
There’s little concession to the conventions of Greek tragedy in the writing or in Sally Richardson’s direction; there’s no prologue or chorus, and its brutal and effective catharsis – a sudden glimpse through the gates of Medea’s hell – lasts an instant and is gone.
What replaces the awful power of the original is the universal story of children becoming the victims of their parent’s conflicts and passions; we’ve seen it in countless other ordinary places; we will see it again.
The great strength of this Medea is that ordinariness; the boys play with toy guns and swords, they tease and wrestle, they snuggle up under a doona to watch the stars. Medea bustles about in jeans and shifts; she’s a harassed suburban mother with a lot to deal with, and a lot on her mind.
We know them very well. Which makes their fates even more plangent.
Vakatini and Hewitt give winning performances (they alternate with Jack Molloy and Lachlan Ives; the four were cast after an exhaustive process by WA Youth Theatre Compny, who collaborated with Black Swan for this production) and Alexandria Steffensen is convincing as their mother, even if denied the towering power of the classical Medea.
Which is, perhaps, the dilemma for the audience in this production. If you expect the mighty heights of Greek tragedy and the emotional release it engenders, this prosaic Medea may leave you perplexed and disengaged.
There is something in it, though, that reaches out in a more direct, human way. It is no great monument in a temple on the hill; it’s a couple of little wooden crosses with wilted flowers on a verge outside an everyday suburban house.
How do you take an ancient Greek play about betrayal and revenge, that culminates in a mother murdering her two children, and reimagine it into relevance for a contemporary audience?
Nina Levy asked this question and more of Sally Richardson, the director of Black Swan State Theatre and WA Youth Theatre companies’ upcoming production of Medea.
Nina Levy: This version of Medea is by Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks… how have the writers shaped this story for a contemporary audience? Sally Richardson: Kate and Anne-Louise’s Medea is very much an “of the now” re-writing of the play. This is Medea as experienced from the perspective of the two sons of Jason and Medea, and set in the boys’ bedroom in a family home somewhere in Australia. It’s a story that is over 2500 years old, with events unfolding as per the Euripides version but it is adapted into a modern vernacular and represented in a very human, poignant and moving way.
NL: When did you first come across this version of Medea? What drew you to the play? SR: The work was first performed in 2012 and won the Sydney Critics Circle Awards for Best New Australian Work, Best Main Stage Production, Best Direction, Best Actress in a Leading Role and Best Newcomers. Friends had seen the show at Belvoir St Downstairs studio space and said it was incredibly moving.
I had directed Kate’s play The Danger Age in 2010 for [the now defunct Perth theatre company] Deckchair Theatre and I was keen to do another work of Kate’s here in Perth. Given the subject matter around the breakdown of a family unit and a once passionate marriage, this work feels both timely and relevant to our audience.
NL: Medea is a collaboration between Black Swan and WA Youth Theatre Company (WAYTCo) – tell me about the collaborative process. SR: WAYTCo helped us undertake the critical first stage of the project in finding the two young casts to play the key roles of the brothers Jasper and Leon. In a process facilitated by WAYTCo, and in their space, over a single day we saw more than a hundred boys. We then ran a once a week workshop for eight weeks for the selected 25 emerging artists. The boys received an introduction to Medea and professional theatre, and it allowed the team a real chance to work with and get to know our potential cast members. There are two alternating casts, so at the end of the process two pairs of boys were selected for the roles: Jalen Hewitt and Jesse Vakatini, and Lachlan Ives and Jack Molloy.
Now in rehearsal we have WAYTCo’s ongoing support and WAYTCo Associate, emerging artist Amelia Burke, has also joined the team as an observer.
NL: The fate of the children is one of the most tragic elements of Medea. How do you look after the emotional well-being of the young performers playing the roles of Leon and Jasper? SR: Although they are playing characters a couple of years younger, the four boys are actually aged 14-15 so in many ways they are quite mature, and even joke about the play being actually quite funny “except for the homicide at the end”. We have had some deep discussions around how this might happen and why it can happen, but it’s the tragedy of this that is also what makes the play so relevant and timely.
NL: As a director you’re renowned for bringing together multiple disciplines. Describe the vision for this work in terms of your artistic practice. SR: My creative practice through Steamworks Arts has seen me actively championing the voice, presence and creativity of women in the performing arts. This production is no exception having been created by two leading female playwrights with a female lighting designer in the incredible Lucy Birkenshaw, singer/songwriter/composer and arranger Melanie Robinson on the team, Laura Boynes as movement director and powerhouse actor Alexandria Steffensen in the lead role. We also have an all-female backstage team in Erin Coubrough and Ana Julien Martial so we balance out the boy numbers pretty well! The script also gives us lots of room to choreograph our own play and fight sequences, so there are plenty of opportunities to create an exciting physical score as well.
SR: What do you think the cast members will bring to the play? NL: The boys are wonderful and bring buckets loads of enthusiasm, energy, a wicked sense of humour and cheeky playfulness to their roles. Never mind superb good looks and charm… (they’ll love me for saying this!).
Alex [Steffensen], a WAAPA grad recently return from over East, will be new to Perth audiences and I know her Medea is going to blow people away. Her reading is intelligent, gutsy, while also being deeply moving. All together, it’s going to make for an unforgettable night in the theatre.
Fringe World review: WA Youth Theatre Company and the National Trust of WA, REST ·
East Perth Cemeteries, 25 January ·
Review by Jenny Scott ·
Set in the first burial grounds of the Swan River Colony, REST provides a unique, immersive opportunity to explore the East Perth Cemeteries after dark.
Created and directed by James Berlyn in collaboration with members of the WA Youth Theatre Company (ranging in age from 15 to 25), this sophisticated production reinterprets the early history of Perth in a vital and compelling way.
As they move through the site, audience members are encouraged to “follow the lights”, which leads to encounters with black clad figures among the grave markers – sometimes in shifting tableaus, other times in intimate face-to-face engagements.
In one striking “Choose Your Own Adventure” styled moment, audience members are invited to sit individually with the solo figures scattered throughout the grave sites. Choosing a seat leads to an intimate and personalised storytelling, as each cast member speaks about, or on behalf of, a person buried on the grounds.
These impressive young performers conversationally tease out ideas from historical narratives, asking questions of their listeners and encouraging a sense of connection – between both living strangers and people from the past. The tales of the cemetery residents are handled with respect and grace, while being used as a starting point to provoke deeper contemplation of issues, including immigration, legacy, family and mortality.
The result is a fascinating, emotive and sometimes confronting experience that is unique for every person in the cast and audience.
REST challenges the singular narratives of history class, delivering diverse stories with a multiplicity of voices to question what is missing from official records – particularly the still-overlooked histories of Noongar Aboriginal peoples. The formerly neglected East Perth Cemeteries, where less than ten percent of the graves currently bear a marker, provide the perfect context for these considerations.
Complete with the opportunity to stare at the stars, this well-crafted and profoundly moving show will leave you with a new-found interest in the history of our city.
What were Seesaw writers’ favourite shows this year? What were the highlights and lowlights for the arts in WA? And which artists will our contributors be looking out for in 2019?
As 2018 draws to a close, Seesaw writers reflect on the year that was and the year that will be.
Xan Ashbury Top shows Cloud Nine, by Caryl Churchill. Directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler for West Australian Youth Theatre Company in July. Gutenberg the Musical, starring Jacob Jones and Andrew Baker. The musical was directed by Erin Hutchinson for Western Sky Theatre in June. Huff by Cree playwright and solo performer Cliff Cardinal and directed by Karin Randoja, staged at the Subiaco Arts Centre in March by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.
Looking forward to… Our Town at Perth Festival. Black Swan State Theatre Company present Thornton Wilder’s classic play. Clare Watson directs a cast of professional actors and everyday citizens. Le Norat Perth Festival. Perth theatre-makers The Last Great Hunt tell interwoven stories of love in a world that’s falling apart, as they perform a faux foreign film live. Re-member Me at Perth Festival. Lip synching maestro Dickie Beau channels audio recordings of great historical performances of Hamlet. Billed as “humorous and haunting”.
Top Shows “No Second Thoughts: Artemis Women’s Project” @ LWAG – a stunning inquiry into the continuing history of feminist art in WA. The Second Woman @ PICA – If I could turn back time I would have made the effort to try to attend the whole 24 hours of this endurance piece! However, the four hours I spent watching Nat Randall and assorted men replay the same scene over and over was life-changing.
Can I say the entire Unhallowed Arts program? It was so amazing to have a festival (a monstrosity!) that encompassed institutions, ARIs (artist run initiatives), performance, experimental and visual art, and cutting-edge science and humanities research.
Nationally, the (slowly…) increasing number of ARIs that are now able to offer artist fees to exhibiting artists. I hope that a Perth ARI is soon able to access funding that will allow them to pay artists on a regular basis too!
Locally, it would be hugely biased of me* to say the opening of a new ARI in Perth’s CBD… but seeing a few more spaces opening up as exhibition venues has been heartening. I’m thinking of venues such as Old Customs House and the Lobby as well as Cool Change Contemporaryhere!
* Miranda is a co-director of Cool Change Contemporary.
The renaming of the Fringe World Pleasure Gardens to include a certain company’s name has been a recent reminder for me of the huge amounts of money that oil and gas companies give to the arts, and how they use the arts to appear “progressive” whilst contributing hugely towards climate change, making no effort to reduce emissions and paying very little tax. Of course it’s not news that this happens and that all our arts institutions rely on this source of funding in lieu of adequate governmental funding, but it’s been increasingly on my mind, and something that I think will require a reckoning amongst us artists and arts professionals – we are all implicated.
Looking forward to… “Cassils” @ PICA, as part of Perth Festival “Love, Displaced” @ Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery, as part of Perth Festival The Violent Years@ The Blue Room Theatre Summer Nights, as part of Fringe World
Leon Levy Another year of frequent absences from Perth has meant missing some significant productions and performances. Some of these – had I seen and heard them – would most certainly have jostled for inclusion in a “top 3” which was, in any case, challenging enough to achieve.
“Don’t Stop the Music” (ABC TV), for the moving depiction of the transformative impact of the introduction of music teaching at primary school level, and for the possibility that it will prove to be a catalyst for widespread adoption of music in the school curriculum. Such a development would also be an apt tribute and memorial to Richard Gill whose untimely demise was a grievous blow to music-education and to the nation… the “arts lowlight” of the year, if this loss can be thus characterised.
Since I’m only allowed to nominate three events, I’ll have to keep as a secret the fact that I’m also looking forward to Wot? No Fish!!, with Danny Braverman (Perth Festival), and can barely contain my excited anticipation of the glorious Elgar Violin Concerto, to be played by Nikolaj Znaider with WASO under Asher Fisch.
Nina Levy Top shows
Really difficult to choose this year! So many great shows.
Attractor by Gideon Obarzanek, Lucy Guerin, Dancenorth and Senyawa’s , presented as part of Perth Festival. Oh the Dancenorth dancers. Sigh. Huffby Cliff Cardinal, presented by Yirra Yaakin and Cliff Cardinal. Utterly compelling. You Do Eweby Unkempt Dance, performed by Co3 Australia as part of “The WA Dance Makers Project”. Ok, I didn’t actually see this work in the theatre because I was interstate for the season, but the studio show won me over with its highly relatable humour.
Arts highlight As I said at the time, the realisation, earlier this year, that we only have one more festival under Wendy Martin sent me into a period of premature mourning. At the risk of sounding unoriginal (because I’ve edited this piece and know how many other people have said the same), the appointment of Iain Graindage as the next Perth Festival director made my heart lift.
And seeing Strut Dance’s Sunset headline the 2019 Perth Festival launch was pretty special – a huge achievement for local independent dance.
The passing of the wonderful Richard Gillat age 76, conductor and music educator extraordinaire – such a loss to our community.
At a more personal level, I am also deeply saddened by the recent passing of my friend and mentor Lesley Goodman, a visual arts educator, who worked at the Art Gallery of WA for many years. For a short time I had the privilege of working with Lesley at AGWA, as her education assistant, and learned so much from her about how to talk to young people about visual arts.
Jonathan W. Marshall Top shows
2018 was an especially good year for dance, beginning with Vessel in the Perth Festival: a piece in which the dancers hunched forward so as to become faceless, moving sculptures.
Marrugeku’s trilogy of solos Burrbgaja Yalirra (Dancing Forwards) was also superb, featuring Eric Avery’s tremendous “burlesque” (or disrespectful re-enacting) of colonial tropes, performed while dressed in an animal hide tail coat, and using a violin and a microphone stand in ways which would feature well in a punk band.
Although there were strong musical showings from both Greywing Ensemble and Decibel (notably the latter’s wonderful Revolution), for sheer digital joy, Robin Fox’s lesson in live avant-techno was hard to go past.
2018 saw the first program at Black Swan Theatre actually devised by still relatively new artistic director Clare Watson (who had until now overseen much of the work programmed by her predecessor). While Xenides and Skylab were disappointing, it was still a bold selection of works, and the bleak queer/trans drama Hir was a stand-out.
Robert Lepage’s approach of taking significant cultural events, conflicts and exchanges and turning them into feel-good theatre about families continues to be massively over-rated (Far Side of the Moon, Perth Festival), while Fringe seem to be digging in their heels in their misguided belief that the more massive and completely uncurated the Fringe festival is, the better — even though this means that artists end up competing with each other for audiences and the program booklet is completely impossible to navigate. At least the Blue Room are curating their Fringe program; always worth looking out for!
Looking forward to…
WA’s gift to new music, the organisation Tura, turns 32 next year, kicking things off with Cat Hope’s bass and extended-vocal-technique opera Speechless(Perth Festival 2019), while our fabulously inventive MoveMe dance festival is almost certain to be back next year.
Meanwhile PICA continues to bring us some of the most exciting interdisciplinary performance, with new works from Aphids (who’s fabulously rag tag Howl featured at PICA in 2018) and Last Great Hunt already programmed.
Also worth looking out for is a new adaptation of Medeafrom Black Swan Theatre, who are also hosting Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is the New White, which made waves in Sydney in 2017.
Claire Trolio Top shows
Not only was Dizzee Rascal (for Perth Festival) my gig of the year – his show was one of the best live music experiences of my life so far. Let Me Finish was a powerful, hilarious and emotive feminist work that showed at The Blue Room. If you missed it, it’s coming back for Fringe next year so get tickets!
The appointment of Iain Grandage as Perth Festival artistic director for 2020-2023. Whilst I’m still sad that Wendy Martin’s time at the helm is coming to an end, I’m excited to see what direction Grandage will take!
David Zampatti Top shows Folias Antiguas & Criolas: “From the Ancient World to the New World”, Jordi Savall with Hesperion XXI and Tembembe Ensamble Continuo: It is impossible to imagine a more exciting or exquisitely performed concert than this. It was thrilling to listen to, and wonderful to watch. The Tale of Tales, Clare Testoni: A small, brilliant gem of storytelling, and a breakout achievement for its deviser and performer, Clare Testoni. Her images have a magical three-dimensionality, and move with an almost cinematic quality. It’s an honest show, and a heartfelt one. What Doesn’t Kill You (Blah Blah) Stronger by Tyler Jacob Jones and Robert Woods: Tyler Jacob Jones, as a writer of script and lyrics, and as a comic actor and singer, is the most prodigious talent in this town. His long-standing partnership with the composer Robert Woods and the versatile performer and director Erin Hutchinson has honed their skills to starry heights.
The appointment of Iain Grandage as Perth Festival Director for the next four years. We’ve got much to thank our recent directors for, but Iain brings his virtuosity as composer and musician, and makes history as the first born and raised West Australian to fill the position. Exciting times ahead!
Obviously I can be accused of self-pity here, but the retreat of The West Australian from coverage of the arts is both a symptom of a much wider malaise and a cause for particular concern. Still, change is good. Platforms like Seesaw have the capacity to fill the void and energise and grow the audience.
Looking forward to…
It’s hard to look past the festivals right now: Gatz: After the overwhelming experience of The Gabriels, who wouldn’t be looking forwad to another 8+ hour (with breaks for libations) American marathon. Icarus: Christopher Samuel Carroll’s Paradise Lost was one of the marvels of the ’17 Fringe. This time he’s taking to ancient skies. Our Town: I’m not sure that “looking forward” is exactly what I’m doing to Clare Watson’s take on Thornton Wilder’s classic American novel performed by a cast of professionals and “everyday Perth Citizens”. Including me…
Pictured top are Andrew Searle and Zoe Wozniak in “You do Ewe” by Unkempt Dance, performed by Co3 Australia. Photo: Stefan Gosatti.
8 – 25 August @ The State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company &
WA Youth Theatre Company ·
This new adaptation of Medea, co-written by Anne Sarks and WA’s own Kate Mulvany, puts one of history’s most notorious family breakdowns under the microscope. Locked in their bedroom, two brothers play games to pass the time, as siblings do. Off-stage, their parents are having a very famous showdown. At an inevitable moment, the children will be drawn away from their games and into their parents’ bitter argument. From there, they will enter mythology as the most tragic siblings of all time.
19-28 July @ The State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by: WA Youth Theatre Company ·
What is your version of being on CLOUD NINE and how difficult is it to get to in this day and age? This enduring masterwork by Caryl Churchill resonates today with its exploration of gender, race and colonisation. CLOUD NINE comedically depicts the heavy burden of colonisation for both the colonised and the colonisers, in a carnivalesque pastiche of stereotypes and clichés about the British Empire. Act One, set in colonial Africa, parodies conventional theatre comedies and satirizes Victorian society and colonialism. Act Two is set 100 years later in 1979 London, portraying a version of the same characters only twenty-five years later, exploring some loosened conventions and equally charged tensions.