Sunday, July 18, 2010

Shakespeare's R&J presented by QUT Gardens Theatre Brisbane from 12 to 17 July 2010

Below is a copy of my review published at

Shakespeare’s R&J is a highly physical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, featuring a cast of four young men set in a Catholic boarding school during the 1950s. Typical of mischievous teenagers in any era, these school boys are initially drawn by the forbidden allure of Romeo and Juliet--a text banned in their school. Progressively they take turns reading and enacting the various roles from the text in hidden corners well away from teacher surveillance. The result is a culturally relevant interpretation of Shakespeare with particularly confronting commentary on gendered role-play and gay marriage. R&J originally ran for 400 performances in New York City and won the prestigious Lucille Lortel Award in 1998 for outstanding achievement in Off-Broadway theatre. Written by American playwright Joe Calarco, and directed by Craig Ilott, this adaptation shortens the original tragedy and weaves a number of Shakespeare’s sonnets into the action, thereby lending a richer texture to this enduring paean to unrestrained love.

What did you like about this performance?
Both Tom Stokes (Romeo) and Ben Gerrard (Juliet) bring authenticity and tenderness to their first exchange at the Capulet’s ball. Here they hold the corporeal nature of their attraction in perfect tension with the quasi-religious, transcendental overtones of their love. The thrill and immediacy of the meeting is brought quickly to climax with their first kiss, reaching poetic consummation with the sonnet’s concluding rhyming couplet: "saints do not move, though grant for prayers' sake; then move not, while my prayer's effect I take." Moments like these deserve celebration. Everyone should experience the music of the interlocking lines of this beautifully crafted sonnet in a live environment.

What didn’t you like about this performance?
It’s easy for directors to become distracted by the challenge of setting a Shakespeare play in a new and more relevant context for today’s audience. Consequently they sometimes forget the most important goal is to provide quality acting that exhibits a sound grasp of dramatic verse. Unfortunately during the first third of R&J there were moments when lines sounded rushed and the rhythm of the verse lost. The ensemble skipped over the natural phrasing of the text, giving the effect of an urgent race to the end of each scene. When pushed along like this the meaning is glossed over while the tempo ticks along at allegretto speed leaving the audience lagging behind. The result is similar to listening to a pianist hammer through a Bach minuet while forgetting to musically breath, only to rest once they reach the double bar line. Surely just as a pianist first uses a slower tempo to work on the more difficult aspects of each line of music, then an actor should work closely on the technique of each line of dialogue before pitching up the tempo in the full flight of performance. In hindsight I think that opening night nerves may have contributed to the problem considering the players sounded more relaxed as the night progressed.

Why should we go and see this show?
It’s helpful when well-meaning friends counsel you on how best to deal with the vicissitudes of life, but as each year passes you might find their advice starts to stale and become predictable. When this happens I think literary heavyweights like Shakespeare, best interpreted by shows like R&J, can step in and give a fresh and innovative perspective on your own life. Want advice for the best way to recover from unrequited love? It’s right there in R&J when Benvolio advises Romeo to “weigh” the vision of Rosaline (Romeo’s love object) “against some other maid”. Such advice suggests clearer judgment of one’s romantic prospects can be better achieved when two women are poised evenly in the “crystal scales” of the mind. That's quite a sophisticated and powerful metaphor for the decision-making process and all the more memorable due to R&J’s ability to creatively convey what is so often thought but rarely so well expressed.

Was there anything remarkable about your experience?

Some of you may be familiar with the various approaches directors have taken when adapting Romeo and Juliet for Australian audiences. Back in 1999 Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre explored issues of racism and reconciliation by casting the Capulet family with indigenous actors and the Montague family with non-indigenous actors. The colonising impulse of Australia has been similarly explored by casting indigenous actors in the role of Caliban, whose intimate knowledge of the land is cruelly exploited by Prospero in The Tempest. Such modern interpretations do effectively shed light on the anxieties surrounding our nation’s shady history, but I personally cannot see why theatre continually feels the need to rescue Shakespeare from the category of boring capital ‘L’ Literature in its original form. To create a distinctive production today you don’t need elaborate conceits in casting and setting to give the text currency. Shakespeare even in its barest form will always be current and will continue to bring what Andrew O’Hagan calls “the news that stays news” well over four centuries after its original conception. After saying that, I must confess that I’ve never seen an interpretation of Shakespeare quite like R&J with its challenging take on an often told story that still manages to retain the spiritual essence of Shakespeare’s original.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Dante's Inferno presented by Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre at The Old Museum, Brisbane, 6 - 22 May 2010

(Gustave Dore's Avaricious and Prodigal)

What you see below are my responses to some review questions that will be published online at next week. Enjoy!
Inferno, the first cantica in Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy, has proven to be an overwhelming favourite among generations of artists who have repeatedly appropriated this first part of the poem over the lesser known Purgatorio and Paradiso sections. You just have to view Peter Greenaway’s video project A TV Dante, or the detailed illustrations rendered by Gustave Dore and William Blake, or even the film Dante’s Inferno using hand-drawn paper puppets, to see how this epic has attained and retained its status as a classic today. Now Brisbane audiences have their chance to experience Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre’s own revision of Hell, Dante’s Inferno: Living Hell, set in the heritage-listed grounds of The Old Museum and running until 22 May.

What did you like about this performance?

One of the strengths of this production is its ability to place the audience in the role of a questing pilgrim. When left alone to roam the conical layers of hell, we have the chance to play protagonist, poet, and narrator, by taking Dante's place in the original text. As a theatre-goer who is used to passively sitting quietly through the duration of a play, I found the experience of wandering between the third (the gluttonous), fourth (the avaricious/spendthrifts), and fifth (the melancholic) circles of hell a welcome change from the confining codes of audience behaviour. The first half of the performance set outside the building recalls the mystery plays popularised in Europe during the Middle Ages which were known to dramatise biblical subjects in a churchyard or marketplace. We are even provided with our own heralds in the form of two joking guides who deliver vernacular synopses of the narrative. Couple this with the various canto prologues printed on banners around the site, and we are left in no doubt about the nature of the errors committed by the wretched souls before us. It’s also worth adding that it seemed entirely appropriate and clever to tie three tormented souls under a large sausage tree marking the circle of gluttony. Equally inventive was the adoption of a leafy arched hedge as the gateway into hell. Both instances demonstrate imaginative and judicious use of the grounds that mark this play as a must-see for Brisbane audiences.

What didn't you like about the performance?

As much as I enjoyed the freedom of taking in the sites of hell outside, I found the various distractions and interruptions (ballet students walking through the middle of performance spaces, flashing beams from cars parking too close to the setting, difficulty in hearing some of the performers) detracted from the experience as a whole. Considering I attended the first preview night, I’m sure these problems will be ironed out as the season progresses. I should also add that the burlesque routine in the circle of lust, exhibiting what can only be described as bawdy zombies, failed not only in its execution, but in its choice of subject over the Francesca and Paolo episode. The sentiment and pathos in this story of two lovers is arguably one of the most celebrated episodes in the Inferno, yet it was overlooked by this production, resulting in an uncomplicated representation of lust that failed to capture the psychological depth explored by Dante in the original. This is just one example among many where I thought the production lacked emotional heft.

Was there anything remarkable about your experience?
Stellar performances from Lia Reutens and Earl Kim during the second half help the company wrest free from the dead hand of Dante and embrace a more relevant interpretation of the lower depths of hell more familiar to a contemporary audience. We first meet the couple sitting in a kitchen. They are expert in the art of self-deception; a situation I’m sure many of us can relate to in this realistic depiction of a living hell. Their dull table talk is thrown into relief by a chorus line belting I’m Through With Love (made famous by Marilyn Monroe) into spatulas instead of microphones. I think this is a good example of how a transition in style from the lofty to the commonplace works well, bringing some levity to the interpretation of an otherwise earnest text. It’s also worth noting the plastic beauty of the actor playing an angel sent to guide us into the second half of the performance. Her serenity was enthralling, and enhanced beautifully by makeup that gave her the quality of well-formed sculpture.

Why should we go and see this show?

The original text of the Inferno is famous for the imaginative variety of its torments at every level of hell, but I think in this production it is the last region in the journey that provides the most thought-provoking and dismal depiction of life. It is a region blinkered by an ideology that affects every member of today’s audience. I know I wasn’t alone in my surprise at how evil manifests itself in this concluding scene. I’m not going to spoil the ending for those yet to attend a performance. Just keep your eyes, ears, and mind open. You’ll discover just how tragically flawed we all are in our irrepressible desire for knowledge, power, and happiness.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Streetcar Named Desire, QUT Gardens Theatre 18 - 25 March 2010

(Tennesee Williams)

A few weeks ago Briztix requested a review of A Streetcar Named Desire, written by Tennessee Williams, directed by Leonard Meenach, and featuring QUT's third-year actors. What you see below are my responses to some of the review questions that will be published online next week. Enjoy!

A Streetcar Named Desire first opened on Broadway six years before second-wave feminism began to dismantle defined gender roles in the home and workplace. Back in 1947 tangible freedoms were yet to be realised by the likes of Blanche DuBois, an ageing southern belle from Mississippi, and her sister Stella, living in New Orleans with husband Stanley. Both of these characters represent a generation of women who had long suffered under entrenched sexual double standards, traces of which still remain today in our own communities. Streetcar shocked and disturbed audiences back in the 40s because it was the first American play to expose a strong sexuality at the core of its female characters, attracting negative criticism from America’s Legion of Decency. Even for today's audience the play has the potential to be equally contentious. Blanche’s predilection for romancing young boys, we’re talking teenagers here, would strike a chord for anyone familiar with current debates surrounding the sexualisation of children in our society. Streetcar opens with Blanche seeking shelter under her sister's roof in the hope of escaping her tainted reputation back home, but I will stop the narrative here to avoid plot spoilers for those who will attend the QUT Gardens Theatre production of Streetcar this week.

What did you like about the performance?
Hilary Caitens, playing Blanche, manages to achieve what any good actor should achieve. She makes her character empathetic. Initially when she walked on stage I let out a quiet guffaw of disbelief that such a young woman could be cast in such an ageing role. But after some settling in Caitens makes the vain and pretentious Blanche a completely believable character with the help of her lofty style and grandiloquent gesturing. I couldn't help wondering how Caitens sourced and developed the highly convincing mannerisms of a much older woman. What is also remarkable is that even the southern dialect of Blanche appeared flawlessly consistent and effortless for this duplicitous character adept at concealing her advanced age and dark past. It is Caitens’ protean ability to shift between doleful frailty, audacious coquetry, despair, and unchecked rage that lends her performance a kind of manic quality as Blanche descends into madness.

What didn’t you like about the performance?
I think any actor taking on the role of Stanley would be aware of Marlon Brando’s long shadow cast from his menacing performance in the film version of Streetcar released in 1951. It is not just the stage actor, but also the audience that holds Brando’s interpretation of Stanley firmly in the front of their mind. The situation is simply unavoidable when an audience is exposed to yet another adaptation of a work carrying significant cultural value accumulated from exposure to generations past.

(Marlon Brando in film version of Streetcar 1951)

With this history in mind, you could forgive me for expecting Nathaniel Middleton (Stanley) to convey the same irascible, cocksure performance that Brando delivered as a hulking, enfant terrible, battling to restore balance to his household. Instead, Middleton shows us a weaker version of the original Stanley. His presence on stage failed to exude the kind of threat that could break Blanche down and violently consume her in the penultimate bottle-smashing scene. His voice didn’t project as strongly as his fellow cast members, leaving the impression of a less than overwhelming character that works against Williams’ intention for the role. You see, Stanley is supposed to challenge not only Blanche, but the politeness and values she embodies as a relic from a fading agrarian aristocracy. Overall, it is a shame that Middleton does not manifest the rough strength of the rising underclass that is crucial for bringing a thrilling tension to his relationship with Blanche.

What was the audience’s reaction to the performance?

Some of the best scenes were those that made the audience laugh. Middleton does well to reveal the humorous side of Stanley’s limited intellect, especially during the scenes where his character is talking out of his depth about property law, or the quality of Blanche’s jewels and furs. Taiyo Hara (Mitch) and Caitens also do well to bring out the awkwardness of their courtship ritual, which was warmly met with hoots of laughter from the audience. On exiting the theatre I couldn’t help but overhear fellow audience members speak favourably about Caitens’ performance. It seems my gushing praise for her portrayal of Blanche was shared by others that night.

Was there anything remarkable about costume and set design?
I think it is worth noting that costume and set design coincides with the era in which the play was written. I think this approach has its advantages in allowing theatre to do what it does best--recreate and expose the historical roots of the narrative, while also shedding light on the provenance of today’s social mores and customs. Perhaps for the sake of historical accuracy Stella should have worn stockings and suspenders instead of the seamless nylon pantyhose that were not sold publicly until well over a decade after the period in which the play was set.

Why should we go and see this show?
After reading Streetcar in one sitting just one week before the performance, I found the actors brought out elements of humour that I had entirely missed on my first reading. This in itself is a pressing reason to see the play performed live whenever the opportunity arises. Another reason to see the play is that many of the actors' performances match those that you would find in any Queensland Theatre Company, or La Boite Theatre Company production-–but for half the price.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brisbane Arts Theatre 31July - 4 September 2010

My audience response published at

The Brisbane Arts Theatre’s production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof uses Tennessee Williams’ original script to deliver a version of the play written before any alterations were made during the censorious 50s. We are first introduced to Brick as the feckless anti-hero of this very modern tragedy; a man who has retreated from life after the suicide of his best friend Skipper. Brick’s specialty is inaction and his reasons are complex. He refuses to play husband to Maggie (the eponymous Cat), instead preferring the anodyne caresses from the liquor cabinet. Only Brick’s father, Big Daddy, manages to break down the laconic Brick in the closing scenes of the play by forcefully disinterring memories from Brick’s repressed past. Directed by Alex Lanham, and running until 4 September, there is still time for culture vultures with a predilection for everything mid-century to check out this gorgeously costumed period production.

What did you like about this performance?

Fans of the American television drama Mad Men, or even those who are just mad for all things vintage, would undoubtedly get a kick out of the verisimilitude of the 50s styled costumes and stage setting. We are even allowed a cheeky peek at the tops of Maggie’s (Dominique Mutch) stockings, and her curves could easily be interpreted as those from another era. Small touches adding glamour to the night did not go unnoticed, such as recordings of American classics “Mack the Knife” and Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” played during interval. My only quibble would be with Maggie’s hair that looked more like a throwback to a style sported by practitioners of 90s riot grrrl think L7 and Babes in Toyland), than the smooth and voluminous look donned by Elizabeth Taylor for the Hollywood screen back in 1958.

What didn’t you like about this performance?
As a longstanding patron of Brisbane Arts Theatre who has attended a number of performances over the past decade in this most intimate of theatres, I was disappointed with this particular production for a few reasons. First, Alex Comben as Brick has considerable trouble settling into a consistent vocal register and appeared to be in constant battle with the Deep Southern dialect that has become synonymous with Williams’ plays. One wonders what kind of performance Comben could have delivered if he had dropped all attempts at foreign locution and directed his energy toward other aspects of characterisation that were lacking, such as his on-stage dynamic with Maggie. The same can be said for William Davies as Big Daddy who rapidly oscillates between his native Australian accent and the demotic rhythms of the Mississippi plantation home where the play is set. The production is running for well over a month so one would hope Davies and Comben smooth out these inconsistencies or drop the American accents altogether.

Was there anything remarkable about your experience?
One of the more experienced actors, Meredith Sinclair playing Mae, shines with strong delivery in a consistent American style that is no doubt aided by her previous role as Maggie back in the 1998 BAT production of Cat.

Why should we go and see this show?

To witness a challenging examination of masculinity that helps us measure and contemplate the widespread uncertainties surrounding gender that we experience today.