THEATRE

Reviewed by Frank Barnes

Welcome to Theatre 2014. Before telling you about what I have seen this year let me go through the shows I saw after my final column last year. Most important was the Sydney Theatre Company (STC) production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. This is possibly the most famous play of all and certainly creates debate whenever it is produced. Many dismiss or praise it as a play about nothing: I find it presents a discussion of the state of the world at any point. I found that this production definitely reflected the current state of Australia in the land of the Abbott Government. It was the best of the many productions I have seen. Hugo Weaving, Richard Roxburgh, Luke Mullins and Philip Quast were all as brilliant as expected and the show was a highlight of the year — or any year.

At the other end of the scale was a production from the experimental arm of the STC, a surprise knockout. Machinal is one of the few plays from the early 20th century written by a woman, Sophie Treadwell. While it was written almost a century ago it was directed by Imara Savage with a 21st century sensibility. All the performances in this surreal production were excellent and the central character, played by Harriet Dyer, was superlative.

No less important was the final show from Belvoir which continued its commitment to Indigenous theatre with this production of Coranderrk by Andrea James and Giordano Nanni and presented with the Ilbijerri Theatre Company, directed by Isaac Drandic. This is a really wonderful story from the town of Coranderrk in Victoria. While I found the production wanting, having Jack Charles as the narrator lifts the show considerably. The story is so interesting, positive and important that it shores up the Belvoir’s policy of regularly presenting Indigenous theatre. Nobody else is doing it as consistently as the Belvoir.

On the Fringe I caught an excellent production at The King Street Theatre in Newtown. The Maintenance Room was a two-hander starring Kim Knuckey and Lynden Jones. I don’t get the chance to see much theatre out of the mainstream and was glad to see this little thriller with a great set designed by director Allan Walpole.

And so to 2014, which has started really well. It is festival season and while I was unable to see any of the marquee Sydney Festival shows (the shows have very short runs and you have to be in Sydney for them, which I cannot afford) I did get to an excellent piece at the Belvoir, to Empire at the Entertainment Quarter and to the Short and Sweet Cabaret.

Empire

Directed by Terence O'Connel
Presented by Spiegelworld
Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park

A few years ago The Sydney Festival presented a little show in the Spiegeltent. La Clique was an instant and major success. It featured circus, cabaret and burlesque all together, performed on a circular stage just two metres in diameter. Add music and alcohol and it became an event. This grew to La Soiree which has now played for three years at the Opera House. Last year Empire played for the first time and was also a sell-out success. I commented at the time that it was the best fun you could have while sitting down. So I went again this year, and while it was basically the same show, it seems even better. It was tighter and funnier.

It would be impossible to improve on the thrill factor achieved by the acts of skill from the trio of acrobat beautiful women, the contortionist, the extraordinary foot jugglers, the roller skaters and the amazing skill of the branch balancer who has the audience in silence and holding their collective breath for 10 minutes. Add the risqué humour of Oscar and Fanny, the bold, screamingly funny audience participation and the pumping music and you have 90 minutes of superb delight. Circus/cabaret is now big business and there were at least five shows around Sydney during the festival.

Short and Sweet Cabaret

Festival Director Kate Gaul
New Theatre, Newtown

This is the 13th year of Short and Sweet which until now has been a festival of theatre comprising of new plays up to 10 minutes long. It has grown in strength, giving writers, directors and actors a chance to strut their stuff and sometimes surprising audiences with some great, some not-so-great and some awful theatre. The festival has always been popular and attracts big audiences. This year it has expanded to have three strands, adding dance and cabaret.

I went to a night of cabaret and had a great time. As I expected, some of it was terrible and some OK. None of it was great but a few of the performances had potential. The audience, myself included, loved it and what I was most pleased with was the audience being young. It reassures me that there is a future for theatre. I have no doubt the festival will grow and go on to be a big success. Judging by the House Full signs, I am sure it will.

Oedipus Schmoedipus

Written by ‘post’ (Zoe Coombs Marr, Mish Grigor and Natalie Rose)
Directed by Zoe Coombs Marr and Mish Grigor
Belvoir Upstairs

I approached this festival theatre piece with some trepidation as the critics had been somewhat harsh. I am not always open-minded but for some reason I was on this occasion and came out an hour later with an enormous smile, having enjoyed wonderfully inventive and fun theatre that included 20 volunteers who had had just three hours to run through what they were to do in the show. The post theatre company comprises three Sydney-based writers who in this production have bravely taken on death as their theme — that is, “death” as perceived by the writers of the past who, of course, are mostly “dead white males”.

This surprisingly funny and exciting theatre piece opens with Zoe and Mish on a white stage killing each other and themselves for 10 minutes in silence but with lots and lots of stage blood. The deaths are the many ways characters die on stage using props that create wounds and blood, and the performers do it in a sly, knowing and mischievous fashion. By the time they finish, they and the stage are covered in prop blood. Although I and my companion were falling about laughing I noticed that some members of the audience were visibly distressed.

After the stage is cleaned a covering screen is rolled away and we see some of the volunteer performers, who hold the stage for the rest of the show while they “act” instructions and words from a couple of screens that only they can see. The words they read are mainly from well-known writers, and most are recognisable. For some reason this all works and is both funny and moving. We spoke to some of the performers after the show and they confirmed they had only had three hours of rehearsal and knew nothing of what they were to do beforehand. They acted and danced and, for a few minutes, were stars performing the words of some of the most famous writers in history. It was wonderful, and while audiences were small I am glad I was part of the number who had the privilege of seeing the show.

The Festival period continues with the Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras. I start my indulgence in the theatre part of the festival this Saturday when I see Falsettos. The week after next I will see seven productions: one of them will be Privates on Parade at New Theatre.

Frank Barnes is retired and wonders if too much theatre is ever enough.