Friday, April 29, 2016

How to Hold Your Breath

First of all - it's been a while since I've written a review! In the year or so since my last review, I finished my PhD, graduated, and moved to Tasmania to take up a new job at the university here. Now that I'm all relocated and settled, I'm hoping to write reviews a little more regularly than the "not at all" I've been doing lately (although the Sydney focus has obviously been replaced with a Hobart one!). 

How to Hold Your Breath (Loud Mouth Theatre Company) runs at the Moonah Arts Centre from April 29-May 7 2016. By Zinnie Harris, directed by Julie Waddington.

Zinnie Harris’ play How to Hold Your Breath is a play preoccupied with ideas of transaction. A young woman, Dana (Simone Dobber), sleeps with a young man (Robert Maxwell), who thinks she is a prostitute. When she refuses to accept money for sex, he is unable to comprehend this, because he is a demon (one who has sold his soul), and cannot bear the thought of being in debt to her. He tries repeatedly to repay this debt, but Dana will not let him: a researcher whose area is the intersection of the commercial and the emotional, she is fascinated by the way the relationship between vendor and consumer is like a romantic relationship. “I do have power over you,” she crows to the demon, when he unwillingly reveals that he is falling in love with her, demonstrating that she, like him, is obsessed with the notion of transaction, but levies her toll in emotion, not money.

But what happens when this capitalist economy falls apart? As Dana and her sister Jasmine (Elka Bezemer) travel from Berlin to Alexandria so Dana can interview for a research fellowship – an opportunity she feels she has not earned, but is eager to take up anyway – all the banks in Europe fall apart. The rules of transaction change. Emotion is worthless in this new world order (and indeed, the most emotional character, Jasmine, is broken by her emotionality and left unable to function). Dana and Jasmine find themselves cut adrift from society, moving from bourgeois comfort to refugee status overnight.

This exploration of the commercial and the affective, using the European refugee crisis as a lens, ought to be a good match, but sadly, this is not the most coherent production of what is not the most coherent play. Harris has a lot of balls in the air with this script, and she never adequately manages to reconcile the theoretical underpinnings, the magical realist plot about the demon, and the meditation on the refugee crisis. What results is… well, kind of a mess. Mess can be creative and productive and beautiful and meaningful, but in this particular case, some moments of brilliance are lost in meandering conversational pieces which seem designed to hammer home a point rather than move the story forward.

On the subject of movement: this particularly production suffers greatly in this regard. The surrealist nature of the script suggests the need for fluidity in the play’s progression – several episodes, such as Dana’s interactions with the librarian (Ivano del Pio) take place in a liminal otherworldly space, which overlays and overlaps with the more realistic political world – but the insistence on light changes, stoppages, and set changes after every scene gives the play an odd staccato rhythm which does not fit at all. The momentum is halted, and any energy that had been created dissipates – often quite unnecessarily (the set changes are, I would contend, not needed, particularly given that this is not a play that requires an especially naturalistic treatment). Likewise, the performances of the cast never generate the momentum required to push the show forward: and given that, at almost two and a half hours, the show is already much too long, this is a considerable weight that needs pushing.

I can certainly understand the decision to program this play: given its subject matter, it obviously has resonance in the Australian political climate. However, Harris’ script is uneven at best – there are some excellent moments, but other scenes in which I found myself completely tuning out (particularly the ponderous scenes between the two sisters), as well as a graphic depiction of sexual violence that felt unnecessary. It is reminiscent in parts of Sarah Kane’s Blasted (which had its premiere at the Royal Court twenty years before this play premiered there), but it never reaches the poetic heights that play did: instead, it feels like a mish-mash of different ideas smashed together, beginning with an almost comic tone and ending in heavy-handed didacticism, with not a lot of overall coherence. With stronger design and direction – which in turn probably would have contributed to stronger performances – it’s possible this could have been quite compelling, but as it is, How to Hold Your Breath never quite comes together.  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Blue Wizard

Blue Wizard runs at Belvoir from 19 February – 15 March 2015. By Nick Coyle.

I first saw and wrote about Nick Coyle’s Blue Wizard at PACT in 2013, when it was part of the Tiny Stadiums festival. My friend Hannah and I was utterly entranced by it. We were thrilled when we heard it was coming back to play at Belvoir, and we took the opportunity to drag a whole bunch of friends along with us this time so that they too could understand its fabulousness.

Blue Wizard is such a special piece of theatre. It’s ridiculous and sublime and silly and touching and spectacular all by turns. The Blue Wizard (Coyle) has come to earth on a special mission from his home – a crystal planet where everyone’s gay – but when his dance of erotic greeting isn’t exactly received the way he’d hoped and he realises that he can’t contact home (in particular, he can’t contact his beloved boyfriend, John Quark Jon), things take a darker turn. Alone except for a truly creepy wizard baby that he christens Meryl Streep, the Blue Wizard must work out how to survive in an unfriendly and lonely world.

The story of a fabulously sparkly gay wizard isolated in a world that does not welcome him is not a particularly subtle allegory, but there’s no reason for it to be. What I remember most from the last time I saw this show is how funny it was, but what struck me this time was just how sad it was as well. That’s something that’s clearly been built on in development, because the underlying level of pathos in this version of Blue Wizard is much more poignant. The Blue Wizard is fabulous and funny, but he’s also horribly lonely. He tries to do the best he can and to parent Meryl Streep insofar as he is capable (parenting is not something that Blue Wizards – the wizards of flirting, fucking and dancing – are usually that good at), but he misses his home, and he misses his life, and he misses his boyfriend, and he misses belonging.

It’s a really wonderful piece of queer theatre and it’s perfect for Mardi Gras. I’m so, so glad I got to see it again, and that I could make more people experience it too. It also clearly contains the best use of Britney Spears’ song Perfume in the history of theatre, ever. It has a truly startling and moving ending (which is still a shock even when you know it’s coming), and the end sequence with the treadmill is hair-standing-up-ingly spectacular. I was worried that it wouldn’t be as magical the second time around, but I was wrong – the Blue Wizard’s spell is even more powerful this time.

(Also, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to know more about the Pink Wizards of Love and Passive Aggression. I would watch a show that was just about them doing day to day tasks and living their crystal planet lives.)

As You Like It

I reviewed Bell Shakespeare's As You Like It over at Australian Stage. You can check out what I thought here.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Friday, February 6, 2015

Between Us

Between Us plays at ATYP from February 4-21 2015. By the 2014 National Studio Writers and the 2014 ATYP Writer in Residence, directed by Sarah Parsons.

The Voices Project, for those not in the know, is a great initiative that ATYP put on every year. Some of the country's best young playwrights go away together for a week, tasked with writing a monologue for a young actor. Ten of the best pieces then form ATYP's first show of the year.

I love this project. I've seen it for for a few years now, and it's been so exciting to see the level of work produced. Sadly, I don't think Between Us, this year's showcase, quite lives up to the standard of previous years. There's some good work, and certainly that work that has potential, but I didn't leave wowed, as I have before.

The theme this year was “secrets”, and I wonder if this might have something to do with it. While the ten pieces presented definitely had distinct authorial voices, there was nevertheless a sort of sameness across them beyond thematic consistency. I think this might be because secrets are necessarily linked with confession – particularly when the art form being used is the monologue, which abets this confessional tone. Every piece was, in essence, a confession. While there's nothing wrong with this, it feels repetitive ten times in a row.

Between Us was staged in promenade – that is, the audience was active, following the actors around the space. Ultimately, I think this was a good choice, because it functioned to break up the showcase's repetitive confessions a little (even though as a lady of very little height, I generally dislike promenade theatre as I invariably get stuck behind someone super tall). While some of the actors pushed their performances a bit too hard, verging on overacting at times, overall, director Sarah Parsons did a fine job with the material.

This might not be the best ever instalment of the Voices Project, but there's definitely some potential in Between Us. It's a worthy project which supports and develops young artists, and I will always be excited to watch them grow.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015


Asylum plays at the Old 505 Theatre from February 3-21 2015. Presented by Apocalypse Theatre Company.

Asylum is important theatre. A collection of rehearsed readings of plays responding to the implementation of the Operation Sovereign Borders policy, it is an evocative mosaic of the issues facing and the lives of those seeking asylum in Australia.

 This is a massive project. Over 65 artists are participating, and the effort that Apocalypse Theatre Company have gone to in order to bring Asylum to the stage is incredible and must be applauded. The season is broken into five blocks of five or six plays each, so it would be possible to attend a number of times and have an entirely different experience.

I saw the second block of plays. There is a tendency for a lot of political theatre to be didactic – which I think would have been more than understandable in this case, given the issue – but the pieces I saw didn't really veer too far in this direction. (As an aside – I think verbatim theatre has become popular in political stories as a way of combating this tendency towards didacticism.) This wasn't a two hour lecture and it wasn't preachy. Instead, it focused on small, human, individual stories – often a much more powerful way of communicating – and on evoking the mythic.

There were some standout pieces in the block I saw. Melita Rowston's Bread and Butter was a beautiful story about an Afghani woman who sought asylum in Australia, and has now finally found happiness and a new family to replace the one the Taliban took from her in the bakery where she works, although she remains haunted by fears that her temporary protection visa will be revoked and she will lose everything. The writing was a tiny bit heavyhanded at times, but any flaws were masked by a luminous, joyous performance by Josipa Draisma, who I could easily watch for hours. Similarly brilliant is Jan Barr in Mary Rachel Brown's Self-Service. This piece – in which Pamela, who works at Woolworths, is forced to deal with her trainee Abdul-Rasheed becoming her boss – manages to be hilarious at the same time as horrifying as Pamela's unthinking casual racism is slowly revealed.

 But I think my favourite piece of the night was Amir Mohammadi's Gol Pari, a distinctly Afghani piece (like, literally – it was translated from Dari the day before the performance) which had a whiff of the mythic about it. It reminded me of the myth of Psyche and her sisters, or Cinderella and her stepsisters, as Pari Gol, the third wife of a rich man, is victimised and falsely accused of immodesty by the other two wives and her community. The most remarkable thing about this piece is its context. Mohammadi is from Afghanistan himself, a radical theatremaker who campaigned for women's rights, illegally rehearsing plays like this one and secretly showing them to an all-female audience. Someone needs to give him a big arts grant immediately, because this is the kind of theatre we need to be seeing – theatre that can bring hope, foster rebellion, and change the world.

Even leaving aside the fact that it is certainly vital and necessary theatre, Asylum is enjoyable theatre. It is evocative, engaging, and incredibly moving, and you should definitely spend your money on it - not least because all profits go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. 


*NB: I’m just about to hand my PhD in, so a more regular reviewing schedule should resume. My apologies if you invited me to something in the last six or so months and I didn’t respond – my inbox got super out of control with thesis revisions. Things are basically back to normal now!