Away: Review

Away, STC/Malthouse Theatre, Until May 28

By Michael Gow, Direction: Matthew Lutton, Cast: Marco Chiappi, Julia Davis, Wadih Dona, Glenn Hazeldine, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell, Liam Nunan, Naomi Rukavina, Set and Costume Design: Dale Ferguson, Lighting Design: Paul Jackson, Sound Design: David Franzke, Choreography: Stephanie Lake

★★★★☆

Julia Davis, Marco Chiappi, Natasha Herbert, Heather Mitchell and Glenn Hazeldine - photo PiaJohnson

In thirteen years as a theatre critic, I’ve never seen a production of Michael Gow’s Away. That’s a crime for a play with a reputation as a modern Australian classic – if we don’t stage such works, who will? – and I confess some trepidation at the thought of a first encounter under the auspices of director Matt Lutton, whose monumental imagination for visual theatre is often unmatched by, and can sometimes seem unmoored from, a secure grasp of the verbal aspect of performance craft.

Well, I needn’t have worried. The show is magnificent on every level.

Here, Lutton’s vision thing creates a fever-dream of 60s Australia, an epical frame on a wide brown stage which, paradoxically, invites us to telescope in on intimate, beautifully turned performances. And the acting is sublime, achieving a resonance and theatricality that reminded me strongly of that Twelfth Night Lee Lewis directed some years back, conceived of as a scratch production set in the ashes of the Black Saturday bushfires.

Our theatre might be at its best when it adopts a rough-and-ready attitude to the classics, one that seizes authenticity by surrendering to pretence with a laid-back smile.

True, Patrick White fulminated about amateurism as “the besetting vice of Australian theatre”. In Away, Gow mines an opposite truth. It’s a play that begins, and very movingly ends, with amateur theatre, and the dying boy at its heart – an actor who won’t outlast the humble, naïve beginnings of a career – has a doomed but also a charmed life: one much closer to the love and wonder and sense of discovery we seek to recapture every time we sit down in an auditorium.

Liam Nunan is luminous in the role, from the tentativeness and torment of an adolescent crush opposite Naomi Rukavina’s Meg, to his parting gift – a spell of release from the grief to come. His sprite-like quality’s sharpened by his ten-pound Pom parents (Julia Davis and Wadih Donah), played more as earthy mechanicals, seizing each moment and bravely muddling through.

Liam Nunan photoPiaJohnson

As Meg’s snobbish and controlling mother, Heather Mitchell fills out a frightful, familiar – and hilariously well-observed – suit of armour. Behind the ugliness of her quenchless aspiration, and the misery it consigns her to, lies an abject poverty the latest generation of Australians (who’ve never known recession) can only imagine. The jigsaw of her dysfunctional family is seamlessly completed by delicate and economical portayals from Rukavina and Marco Chiappi.

Glenn Hazeldine is effortlessly amusing as the headmaster and achieves pathos as a small man overwhelmed by the vastness of his wife’s grief. Their son was killed in Vietnam, and Natasha Herbert gives a brilliant fugue of a performance as a woman haunted to the point of dissociation by the death of her child.

That Matt Lutton can nurture acting of this calibre – it’s all so funny and moving and true, and excavates as many troubling as nourishing seams in the Australian psyche – is a credit to him. And the superb design, which evokes a high school production of Shakespeare through a kind of phantasmagorical ballet; glitzy conga lines of 60s revellers; a purging storm (in an arresting, majestic coup de theatre); and a beach scrubbed clean that doubles as a clinical antechamber to death, creatively engages the play’s themes in a way that feels at once timeless and fresh.

Marco Chiappi, Heather Mitchell, Natasha Herbert, Wadhi Dona, Julia Davis & Liam Nunan_photoPiaJohnson

Bianco: Perth Festival Review

Bianco, NoFit State Circus, Directed by Firenza Guidi, Ozone Reserve, East Perth, Until March 1.

FOUR STARS

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NoFit State Circus, Bianco. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Audiences expect more from contemporary circus than pure spectacle and NoFit State Circus, founded in the UK in 1986, delivers in spades. In Bianco, the big top becomes a moveable feast, with the performers adjusting mobile scaffolding to create different sets and apparatus, and the audience corralled around the tent to accommodate the action.

This device really draws you in to the event, as does the live music, which together with Firenza Guidi’s inventive direction, gives Bianco a more theatrical ambit than most circus aspires to and delivers a context for the athleticism and grace of the performances that can really pack an emotional punch.

A double trapeze routine becomes a sensual song of heartbreak and consolation. A muscular sequence on aerial straps soars and dives into the flames of memory. Strenuous acrobalance is a vehicle for a clownish take on obsession with appearance.  Trampolining acts recall the freedoms of youth, and graceful juggling stands as a metaphor for the transience of the present.

There are some terrifically innovative visual surprises and almost every circus discipline works its way into the show. The ensemble demonstrates a level of skill, trust and enjoyment in performance that it’s impossible not to wonder at.

Only one moment in the evening – a full company free-for-all over the mountainous set – looked a bit unchoreographed and didn’t justify itself dramatically. Otherwise, it’s a solid two hours of superior circus that will dazzle and delight.

(Hot tip: Full-time student tix are a steal at a mere $25. Just sayin’.)

Not By Bread Alone: Perth Festival Review

Not By Bread Alone, Created by Adina Tal and Nalaga’at Deaf-Blind Theatre Ensemble, Directed by Adina Tal, Performed by Rafael Akoa, Itshak Hagay Hanina, Nurani Levy, Zipora Malca, Igor Osherov, Bat Sheva Rabansari, Shoshana Rozilia Segal, Evgenia Shtesky, Yuriy Tverdovskyy and Mark Yaroski, Regal Theatre, Until Feb 12.

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Nalags’at Deaf-Blind Theatre Ensemble, Not By Bread Alone. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

THREE AND A HALF STARS

The Nalaga’at Deaf-Blind Theatre Ensemble is the only theatre company of its kind in the world. “Nalaga’at” translates as ‘Do Touch’ and refers to sign language performed through touch – sometimes the only way deaf-blind people have of communicating with others around them.

Not By Bread Alone is generous and affecting theatre that propels us in to the lives and dreams of its deaf-blind performers. From the outset, the actors are masked, making bread at a table. The bread is baked during the performance and afterwards, the audience is invited onstage to taste it. (It’s delicious.)

During the show, the masks fall to reveal the individual stories and quirks of each performer, their hopes and fears. It isn’t all biographical, by any means, and reflections on life in a world of silence and darkness are spliced with amusing interludes. Wistful monologues from performers who can recall the experience of vision and hearing jostle with richly articulated comedy – a whimsical sequence in a high-class hairdressing salon, for instance, or a lively slapstick double-act in the mould of Laurel and Hardy.

Just as important to the performance are the translators who assist the actors to move around the stage, vocalise the signed dialogue and translate into English the spoken elements of the show.

There’s a temptation – best avoided when reviewing performers with disability – to lower the bar, or to marvel at courage in adversity, rather than concentrate on the artistry. That’s patronising in the extreme, and the best parts of the show stand tall on any measure.

What is true is that the desire to communicate lies at the heart of this piece, and Adina Tal’s achievement is to shape it into the kind of communion between actor and audience so essential to great theatre. Not By Bread Alone will make you reflect on the difficult pleasures of self-expression. It asks you to unlearn some common preconceptions about sensory disability, and opens a window into a ways of being in the world that seem at once strange and utterly familiar.

Deca Dance: Perth Festival Review

Deca Dance, By Ohad Naharin, Performed by Batsheva Dance Company/ Batsheva Ensemble Dancers, Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, Until Feb 13.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS

Batsheva Dance Company, Deca Dance. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Batsheva Dance Company, Deca Dance. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

Batsheva Dance Company, founded by Batsheva de Rothschild in 1964 and initially advised by no less a luminary than Martha Graham, has risen to become one of the world’s finest pioneers of contemporary dance under artistic director and choreographer Ohad Naharin.

The company is performing two works at the Perth Festival 2014. Deca Dance is unusual in that it’s a sampler of Naharin’s choreography from over 20 years, although it feels absolutely like a completed piece in itself, rather than a medley of greatest hits.

It begins while the house lights are still up. A lone dancer in a tailored suit arrives on stage without fanfare, and starts to boogie to the sort of soft, piped lounge muzak you might hear in an elevator.

This seemingly freestyle routine incorporates almost every style you can think of – from pointe to break dancing – and as it progresses from pre-curtain light entertainment into a kind of juddering marathon, the solo reveals both the intense private elation of expressive movement as well as the fierce compulsion it can inspire.

It’s a telling moment. Perhaps dancing is as inevitable as life itself; and choreography a kind of preserving commandment – a way to tame The Red Shoes or the bite of the tarantula. That impression is amplified two sequences later in a cheeky bit of audience participation. (As a theatre reviewer I see such devices all the time, but it’s a revelation – comic and joyous – to experience it in dance.)

Ohad Naharin’s imagination is often mischievous and always on the side of life. Deca Dance is something of a deconstruction of his choreography, laying bare the elegance and the unpredictability of creative process. The title sequence, for instance, uses three lines of dancers to create a dance from scratch from an escalating series of one to ten beats, juxtaposing the sublime and the ridiculous (probably only Naharin could get away with having ‘mooning the audience’ as a dance step).

The fluidity and contrast of the movement keeps you spellbound. A pas de deux in early modern dress can leap from the precision and grace of ballet to awkward clodhopping,  a quintet that seems to be based on Biblical scripture encapsulates the drama of fraternal discord, the austere repetition and synchronicity of a chair dance embodies the endless tension between conformity and dissent.

I don’t really know enough about contemporary dance to talk in detail about the technical innovation on display, but I can say Deca Dance left me fascinated, energised, and filled with delight at the possibilities of the human form pushing against, and surrendering to, all kinds of limits.

Unlike the popular perception of contemporary dance, it’s also great fun.

Mies Julie: Perth Festival Review

Mies Julie, Written & Directed by Yael Farber, Set: Patrick Curtis, Sound: Daniel & Matthew Pencer, Performed by Hilda Cronje, Bongile Mantsai, Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Lungisa, Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town/ South African State Theatre, at the Octagon Theatre, University of Western Australia, Until Feb 13.

FIVE STARS

Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje in Mies Julie

Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje in Mies Julie. Photo: Toni Wilkinson

One highlight of the Perth Festival this year is a superb, emotionally devastating production of Mies Julie that adapts Strindberg’s torrid battle of the sexes to the plains of post-apartheid South Africa. There has been much discussion in Australian theatre circles lately about the rights and wrongs of rewriting canonical drama, and it’s a pleasure to see such an exemplary instance of the craft.

In Strindberg’s play, love and lust are confused – and desire itself perverted – by social forces beyond the lovers’ control, and Yael Farber’s stroke of genius is to find a complex analogue to the stultifying class system and patriarchal mores of 19th century Sweden in the legacy of racial servitude and hostility to women in the Karoo, a rural part of South Africa still dominated by the injustices of the past.

Farber’s version is set on a homestead (aptly named Veenen Plaas or ‘Weeping Farm’) owned by Julie’s father. The farm has fallen into desuetude, and evocative stage design from Patrick Curtis instils a sense of entrapment as well as the precariousness of life against the harsh land and the terrible freight of history: a treestump emerges through cracked terra cotta tiles, a birdcage swings, a fan revolves in air stagnant before a storm, and the red dust of the veldt peeks out from underneath – implacable, hungry for blood.

Both Julie’s ancestors (she is descended from the Voortrekkers) and her lover John’s (an indigenous South African) are buried in the earth nearby, sharing a common fate. And the most significant departure from Strindberg’s text involves the spirit of John’s great-grandmother (Tandiwe Lungisa), whose mournful presence and traditional songs haunt the action.

Against that spectral quietude, the lead performances rage like wildfire, savage and stunning. John (Bonglie Mantsai) and Julie (Hilda Cronje) capture Strindberg’s volatile emotional register and cruel power plays to perfection. Both actors seethe with a doomed eroticism that’s utterly compelling to watch.

Unmanned by a life of exploitation, poverty and the constant threat of violence, John’s desire for his master’s daughter keeps running into a psychological wall – one Julie is determined to break through aggressive cockteasing, demeaning John’s masculinity, and racist abuse. John, for his part, transforms from tormented to tormentor with dark inevitability. After their passion is consummated, he yields to monstrous sexual rage.

The chemistry is incredible; the sense of John and Julie not just as doomed individuals but abject embodiments of forces in South Africa that continue to wound the present, imbues the profound histrionic intensity in the performances with a broader tragic scope.

Then there’s the role of Christine, transformed in this production from John’s fiancée to his mother. A lifelong maid who has grown to love the bars of her own cage, this earthy, gentle and ultimately piteous portrayal from Thoko Ntshinga pierces to the core. It is she who has the final moment, silently reminding us that people have to find a way to go on living through the flames which consume the title character.

Yael Farber’s Mies Julie is brilliant, bold and totally engrossing theatre that melds the political and the personal into a desolating whole. It would be a great shame if Perth were the only Australian city with the privilege to witness it.