16 May 2019

Review: The Temple

The Temple
Malthouse Theatre and Pan Pan
8 May 2019
Beckett Theatre
to 26 May

The Temple. Photo by Pia Johnson

I went into The Temple knowing as little as I could about it. I left not knowing much more.

But I know a theatre reviewer having a week when they couldn't write would fit in very well on that stage.

The Malthouse co-production with Ireland's Pan Pan theatre ( Playing The Dane, 2011) was developed in rehearsals by director Gavin Quinn and the cast – Aljin Abella, Ash Flanders, Mish Grigor, Marcus McKenzie and Genevieve Giuffre. Guiffre replaced Nicola Gunn who worked on the development.

There's a line where process and on-stage look-at-me indulgence smash together and create art. The Temple does this, but it's far more successful when it fails and collapses into almost incomprehensible chaos.

The Temple is whatever it needs to be. With yellow walls, cheap chairs and a table filled with too-bright cordials to drink (designer Aedín Cosgrove), it could be a church, an addiction meeting, a reality game show or a residential therapy centre. Or whatever you want it to be.

It's every work training session I've been forced to go to, every conference, every bloody yoga retreat I chose to go to, every hope that maybe some intense time with strangers will be fun or enlightening or bearable. They're not. Strangers are the worst. Strangers who know they can be whatever and whoever they want to be without consequences are more the worst.

Each character is a version of the actor. Maybe turned up a lot. Maybe nudged down a smidge. Maybe just without their off switch. Their stories are as likely to be true as they are fiction created by someone else. Their behaviour is at best frustrating, which is often harder to deal with than when they are mean.

It's selfish behaviours without the fear of being cruel. Imagine being able to do what you want and say exactly what you think without the fear of consequence or repercussion? Maybe a reviewer doesn't fit in on that stage.

Drink The Temple Kool-Aid. Even if you don't know the reference. Even if you don't like it or have any idea what it's all about.

15 May 2019

Review: Cloudstreet

Malthouse Theatre

11 May 2019
Merlyn Theatre
19 June

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

The 1991 novel Cloudstreet won WA writer Tim Winton his second of four Miles Franklin Awards. It's a book that's easy to find in op shops as it's studied at high school, has been a telly mini-series and is one of those books that needs to be seen in bookcases.

The 1988 Black Swan and Company B Belvoir stage adaption by Nick Enright and Justin Monjo brought a new generation to the story as it toured Australia and went to London.

Matt Lutton directs the new Malthouse production. He's from Perth and says how reading the book helped him "understand what it meant to be growing up on Perth". Now, he lives in Melbourne and this Cloudstreet is more about its far-reaching themes than a reflection on living in the most isolated capital city in the world.

In the early 1940s, circumstance, luck or God bring the Pickles and the Lamb families to share a sprawling house in suburban Perth: 1 Cloud Street. Each family have challenges, successes and tragedies – and the threat of a serial killer – over the 20 years it takes for their stories to become one. It can be seen all on one night or split into two.

The stage adaption naturally cuts and condenses the novel. The pig doesn’t make the cut, but the third person narration does and is given directly to the characters. Talking about themselves in the third person creates intimacy as the audience become confessor and are allowed to know more than we see. But Lutton's new production brings the story even further into now. The most powerful changes are the introduction of Noongar language – the house is on Noongar land – and the "Black Man" character has become a male and a female storyteller. This helps to honour the story of the women who once lived, and now haunt, the house and, supported by a racially diverse, makes the story less about the people who lived there in the mid-20th century.

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

This is supported by having a small cast playing multiple roles. The bigger picture is evident, but it doesn't help make the story clear. There are times when it's confusing as to who are Pickles, Lambs, storytellers or new characters. Even something as simple as a cast list and synopsis in the program would help.

The actors with one character are much stronger. Natasha Herbert and Bert LaBonte are Dolly and Sam Pickles. Alison Whyte and Greg Stone are Oriel and Lester Lamb. Each bring a compelling understanding of the characters and the added complexity of seeing them with an empathy that can be missed in the book. Herbert lets Dolly be loved far more than she ever allows her herself to be loved; Whyte shows how Oriel hides her broken soul; and LaBonte and Stone each find a different kind of acceptance, determination and lovability in Sam and Lester.

As the story moves into the latter years, it becomes that of Rose Pickles (Brenna Harding), Quick Lamb (Guy Simon) and ultimately Fish Lamb (Benjamin Oakes), the favourite child who nearly drowns and suffers brain damage. Harding also brings a complexity to Rose and lets her make decisions rather than face consequences; Simon captures Quicks constant guilt; and Oakes lets Fish always react with a mix of wonder and patient acceptance that one day he will go back to the water.

Cloudstreet. Malthouse. Photo by Pia Johnson

At first view, Zoe Atkison's design looks like it's embodied the themes and motifs of the story with dark waves and hints of ghosts on its three sides. The stage floor of old thick floorboards and hidden walls that slide in and out, like the lift doors on Star Trek, hint at the old house and its many rooms. But as the rooms are indistinguishable, the design doesn't capture the house as the titular character that wants the families gone as much as it wants them to stay.

While there are some mighty powerful moments with complete black outs and a flooding stage, the story often feels too literal. Its magical realism of rowing through fields, swimming through stars, and Quick Lamb glowing is told far more than is seen. This ultimately makes it feel like a family-saga-cum-soap-opera, which seems to flow against the bigger Dreaming story that’s also being told.

This Cloudstreet isn’t the same as the book, the mini-series or of the first famous production. Its version is very much one seen through a contemporary point of view. This is its strength and part of the reason it doesn’t resonate as strongly as it could. None of which should will stop Cloudstreet lovers from seeing and loving it.

And if you don’t know what the fuss is about, grab a copy from an op shop for a couple of gold coins. For what it's worth, I like the book.

08 May 2019

Review: Matriarch

Jinda Productions
7 May 2019
The Butterfly Club
to 11 May

Sandy Greenwood

Sandy Greenwood wrote her honours thesis about the intergenerational trauma of the Stolen Generations. She understood it, but it didn't help her own trauma.

Greenwood tells her story in Matriarch. It's a story that is inseparable from those of her mother, grandmother (Nan) and great grandmother on her father's side (Gran).

She's a Gumbaynggirr woman from Bowraville on the mid-north-coast of NSW. It's a town that had an Aboriginal Christian mission, where Greenwood was brought up in the 1980s. It's also a town that once had a white pub and black pub, segregated its cinema, was a stop on the 1965 Freedom Ride and is remembered for the unsolved murder of two Aboriginal children in the 1990s.

But Greenwood's matriarchal story doesn't begin or end with the past and the ongoing disrespect and trauma facing the Indigenous people who live there. Her story is one of family and love. It's one of teenagers going on dates, of getting your mum and gran to help heal a bird's broken wing, of bath time for 14 children, of kids growing up and playing in the bush. It's about knowing that mums and nans are always there even if you don't know why they behave in the ways that they do. And it's one about learning that there's love and healing in clan and country even if you've got your dad's skin-colour gene.

Greenwood knew at a young age that having white skin gave her an unearned advantage. Matriarch is her story about understanding the women who created her and a way for those women to talk to us today and let their story become ours.

I've never been to Bowraville, but seeing their stories in an alternative cabaret venue in the middle of the city I live in makes it a story that belongs to everyone who sees it. It's so far from my story, but it's a story about women and family and the history of the country I was born in.

Greenwood tells her story and her mum's story and channels those of her grandmother and great mother. Stories are how we begin to understand experiences that aren't our own. Matriarch is a story about healing trauma.

Greenwood's Nan had 14 children. When her husband left her, she left the city and went back to her country where Gran (who was also a traditional midwife) helped her look after the children. They were all loved, fed, clothed and went to school. They were all taken away.

07 May 2019

Review & photos: Whale

2 May 2019
Northcote Town Hall
to 11 May

Sonya Suares. Photo by Theresa Harrison

With two works opening within a week of each other in two of Melbourne's significant independent theatre venues, playwright Fleur Kilpatrick might be a bit overwhelmed. Hopefully in a good way. A remount of her remarkable adaption of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five (which she also directed) has just finished at Theatre Works in St Kilda, and Whale – which won the 2018 Max Afford Playwright's Award and was supported by crowd funding – is part of Darebin's Speakeasy program at Northcote.

Whale is participatory theatre.

That's all that a lot of people need to know as they book tickets without a moment's hesitation; the rest are shuddering and deciding to watch TV instead.

But there's no need for fear. Really.

Ok, there's a real need for fear as this work is about climate change, but not about the participatory nature of this night.

Whale is as much about theatre as it is theatre. In Kilpatrick's theatre stories, the audience are, to different degrees, characters and participants as much as observers. Theatre isn't just what happens on the stage, it's how we feel watching it, it's what we talk about afterwards, it's whether we go home and forget it or are still thinking about it days and weeks later. It's what we do.

Whale is all about what we do.

It opens with host Sonya Suares, in a Ted-Talk-suitable vest and matching pants, welcoming everyone as if we know the purpose of our meeting. Meanwhile Sarah Walker takes photos so that this important event is documented. It doesn't take long before we know we've gathered to make a group decision that will end climate change. Pretty good, huh? But there are consequences, and when there's choice, there's disagreement.

But none of this matters if participatory independent theatre saves our world, right? May as well give it a go, because anger and despair aren't working. And we've given up on politics.

Theatre is not a void. And even when knowing  Suares, Walker and Chanella Macri are performing,  the audience are fully engaged and committed to the result.

Director Katrina Cornwell and the design team (composer and sound: Raya Slavin, set and costume: Emily Collett, lighting: Lisa Mibus, AV: Sarah Walker) create a world that is far more than the one envisioned in Kilpatrick's writing. Whale is written to allow other creatives to make a work that belongs to everyone. In the same way that the audiences are trusted to be so vital to the result that everyone puts on their party hats without hesitation.

There are party hats. And chips and drinks. And penguins, projections, rocks, bad congratulations certificates, flooding and a discussion about if a play called "Whale" has to include a whale. It's unexpected theatre that's easy to get lost in and be a part of. And it might even make you do something new when you leave.

Photo by Theresa Harrison

Photo by Theresa Harrison
Photo by Theresa Harrison

Photo by Theresa Harrison
Photo by Theresa Harrison

Photo by Theresa Harrison
Photo by Theresa Harrison

Review: Cosi

Melbourne Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company 
4 May 2019
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner
to 8 June

Cosi. Photo by Jeff Busby

My review is in Time Out.

01 May 2019

Review: Hotel de Haven

Hotel De Haven
RAG Theatre

5 April 2019
101 Engagement Hub, St Kilda Drop in
to 6 April
Facebook page

 Photo by Nicolette Forte
Photo by Nicolette Forte

I just found an awesome pair of retro white cat-eye sunnies in my bag. It took me a minute to remember why I have them.

Sometime in the middle of the comedy festival, I traded a balloon flower for them at an op shop at RAG Theatre's Hotel De Haven.

RAG Theatre are supported by the City of Port Phillip. The ensemble is formed by people who experience barriers to participating in the arts, including people who live with mental illness. They create original work based on their diverse experiences.

The result is authentic storytelling from the hearts of its makers, and theatre experiences that welcome all audiences. Hotel De Haven is their new work presented at the 101 Engagement Hub in St Kilda, a place where everyone is treated with kindness and respect. Maybe some of our professional theatre companies could learn a thing or two from RAG about respecting and welcoming all voices.

Arriving at the "hotel", guests are quickly tested and let into the communal space. There are no chairs, but there is a gorilla with a clip board and a sherif on a hobby horse welcoming everyone. This is an interactive immersive experience. In an imagined near-future, nature has had enough and is taking over. There's no electricity and, with no banks, money is useless. Trade and bartering is the only way to get stuff and the only new things have to be made by hand.

Hotel De Haven is also a place where the community can safely meet and share their knowledge. As new comers, we learn the history of how survivors only have what they could fit in a suitcase. And as we meet, listen and trade our way around the hotel's many spaces, we learn how their skills and experience are more useful than their saved stuff.

With director Scott Gooding and artistic associate Trudy Radburn, the performance was created in workshops. As well as writing the overall story together, each performer (Carla Mitterlehner, David Carlisle, Rhonda Purczeld, Di Pattison, Sarah Berry, David Baker, Raphael Kaleb, Vicki Coates, Zufa Nezirovic and support artists Marjetka McMahon-Krizanic and Nicolette Forte) developed a character and an experience for a small group or one-on-one encounter. These include an op shop, survival classes, meditation advice, story telling and a knitting circle.

RAG make theatre where we have conversations with performers and get to know the rest of the audience. It's a place where the theatre rituals are about breaking down barriers and all shows are created knowing that everyone has a story to tell.

 Photo by David De Roach
 Photo by Nicolette Forte

 Photo by David De Roach

 Photo by David De Roach
 Photo by David De Roach