Two up, two down

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Workhorse Theatre Company, September 23

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company, September 24 (matinee)

The Last Confession, Chichester Festival Theatre production, Theatre Royal, Sydney, September 24 (evening)

Wicked, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, September 25

LET’S start with Wicked. It’s not quite The Lion King, which last week was announced as the world’s most successful entertainment with box office of more than $6 billion, but it’s not doing too shabbily. In its 10 years (to The Lion King’s 17) Wicked has grossed about $3 billion worldwide. Normally one doesn’t like to make money the measure of success, but in the musical theatre sphere it tells the story in the simplest possible way. People – lots and lots and lots of people – love the spectacle, the rousing music, the romance and the sense of occasion that these productions so expertly combine. Some audience members will see them once, others will go literally hundreds of times.

And some of us – critics, for instance – will see such productions perhaps three or four times. We are not the swept-away first-timers, nor the intensely (worryingly?) devoted regulars. We can see that every production is the same as the one that went before it, and the one that will follow it. That there is an automatic quality that can seep into the performances unless the cast members have particularly individual gifts.

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

In this incarnation of Wicked Reg Livermore, playing the Wizard, stands out as such an individual – but then that was always Reg. (I first saw him as Betty Blokk Buster in 1975 and it remains a cherished memory.) I salute Jemma Rix (Elphaba) for her generous, unmannered stage presence despite having performed this role more than 800 times. I found Lucy Durack (Glinda) somewhat frayed of voice and a touch too effortful in the comedy. The ensemble didn’t dance well enough, although the choreography isn’t all that much to write home about.

That said, Wicked has important themes in the acceptance of difference and the need to question oppressive authority (and how relevant are those right now!), and it has two strong women at its centre. Anyone seeing it for the first time should have a terrific night out.

Not such a terrific night out is The Last Confession, a too-wordy exploration of Vatican politics at a most intriguing time in modern Catholic Church history. It deals with the making of popes, the machinations of the Vatican Bank, the exercise of power within the Vatican and the sensationally short reign of Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days as pontiff. Was he murdered because he wanted to curb the ambitions of some senior and rather secular men of the cloth?

It’s a brilliant idea for a drama but first-time (and as far as I can tell, only-time) playwright Roger Crane has made dull work of it. The Last Confession is long, clunky and only occasionally gripping.

It does boast some fine acting, most especially from Richard O’Callaghan as Cardinal Albino Luciani, the man who reluctantly accepts the office of pope and immediately makes powerful enemies. The drawcard is David Suchet, the late Hercule Poiret, who perhaps chews the scenery a little too vigorously at times but is a resonant, commanding stage presence. The multinational cast is a very good one but the play and production feel very, very old-fashioned indeed.

There are, however, two unmissable productions in Sydney at present: Sydney Theatre Company’s Children of the Sun and Workhorse Theatre Company’s revival of its 2013 hit The Motherf**cker with the Hat. (I don’t quite get the use of asterisks in a word a seven-year-old could decipher, but at least it’s better than the American version, in which the key word in the title was expressed with a very long dash. Not one letter betrayed what the word might be.)

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Workhorse’s premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s scintillating tragi-comedy took place at the tiny TAP Gallery last year and in truth suited that space better than it does the larger Eternity Playhouse stage. Virtually sitting on the bed and couch with the cast really worked for this sexy, passionate, tempestuous piece, but more people can fit into the Eternity, and Workhorse greatly deserves that audience. Jackie (Troy Harrison) is just out of the Big House, is trying to stay off the booze and drugs and has got himself a job; his adored Veronica (Zoe Trilsbach) has waited for him, but has she stayed faithful? Jackie sees a man’s hat on the table in her apartment and it’s on for young and old. Drawn into the force-10 emotional hurricane are Jackie’s AA sponsor Ralph and his spectacularly discontented wife Victoria (John Atkinson and Megan O’Connell) and Jackie’s cousin Julio (Nigel Turner-Carroll).

Guirgis’s language is a blast – inventive, highly coloured and hilariously profane – but his heart is tender. Trust, hope and love are his themes, explored in a setting that just may make it impossible for them to prosper.

The cast is fabulous and Adam Cook’s direction crackles with energy. And if you haven’t yet visited the Eternity Playhouse, you’re missing a wonderful addition to Sydney theatre.

At the end of the matinee performance of Children of the Sun that I attended, the audience was stunned into silence for quite a few moments. Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Gorky’s play is wondrous. It enlivens the language with modern touches that bring the characters closer but never feels as if it’s trampling on the original spirit of the piece.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Hamish Michael in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Chris Ryan in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s the mid-19th century and we can see that the comfortable bourgeois life enjoyed by the family Gorky puts before us will not last (Gorky was writing in 1905, in jail). These are essentially good people, but not all of them are paying quite enough attention. There’s a scientist who can see into the future but not what is right in front of him; there’s a woman whose sensitivity to impending disaster is debilitating; there are people trying to love and people – the poor – finding it hard to survive.

Director Kip Williams has assembled a superb cast, with none better than Jacqueline McKenzie’s seer-like Liza. Justine Clarke is very fine as the percipient, neglected wife of chemist Protasov (Toby Truslove) and Helen Thomson manages to make the needy Melaniya less ridiculous than she could easily be. Presiding over the household is Nanny (Valerie Bader in top form), the kind of servant who holds everything together but still has to do the family’s bidding.

David Fleischer’s revolving set, with a detailed family room but otherwise vestigial corners of other spaces, marvelously shows a world in the process of disintegration. We know how it all ended for Russia. Children of the Sun shows it in the process of happening within one family. The ending is devastating, which is why we all sat silent in the darkness, scarcely breathing.

The Last Confession, ends October 4; The Motherf**ker with the Hat ends October 19; Children of the Sun ends October 25; Wicked, no closing date announced for Sydney. Brisbane season opens February 15.

Giselle, Paris Opera Ballet

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, January 29

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

GISELLE may be seen as a ballet of two contrasting halves, the world of the living giving way to the realm of the spirit. It is usually played in that manner, with Giselle’s death at the end of Act I the bridge from reality to the fantastical world of the Wilis, wronged women who wreak revenge on any man foolish enough to enter their ghostly domain.

Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite production fruitfully blurs that distinction. The curtain rises on Alexandre Benois’s 1924 design for the ballet, one in which castles perch on peaks in the background and the foreground is a leafy, autumnal glade. The idealised, romanticised peasant village of the first act is already a place of the imagination. For once it’s meaningful rather than puzzling that all the young women – jolly girls celebrating the harvest – are dressed identically, as they will be in the second act.

The mime for Giselle’s mother, often reduced or smudged elsewhere, is absolutely central. Berthe (Amelie Lamoureux on opening night) describes in detail what lies beyond the village confines for young women whose hearts are broken. Not only that, she is warning of very present danger in the person of Albrecht, the disguised nobleman who has won Giselle’s heart but fails to fool Berthe. The veil separating this world from the next is almost transparent.

All this is embedded in the bodies of the POB dancers, who capture an essence rather than carve out character. On opening night Mathieu Ganio’s glamorous Albrecht was nobility encapsulated, Audric Bezard’s gamekeeper Hilarion the equal in looks and bearing to Albrecht, Dorothee Gilbert’s meltingly beautiful  Giselle almost a creature of the air from the beginning, Marie-Agnes Gillot’s Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, a figure of implacable control.

Interestingly and tellingly the non-dancing royals who stop by Berthe’s cottage for mid-hunt refreshment are the most recognisably human, but they are important only as a way of precipitating the tearing of the veil.

The choreography has many hands on it, as do all productions of Giselle, which had its premiere in Paris in 1841. The 1991 adaptation by Patrice Bart and Eugene Polyakov adds individual grace notes to the generally known framework that add to the high level of sophistication. Particularly lovely is the way in which feet sparkle with the clarity and brilliance of diamonds – the speed and articulation are extraordinary – while the upper body curves with languorous sensuality.

Best of all is the quality of restraint. At no time is the work stretched out of shape in a hunt for the big bang. The dancing is superb because it refuses to glitter emptily, and because there is that unanimity of style and purpose for which POB is famed.  All is underpinned by a wonderful reading of the Adam score by the Sydney Lyric Orchestra under the alertly responsive conducting of Koen Kessels.

The women of the corps are breathtaking in Act II as is Gillot – a dancer with enormous presence. The stage is hers to control and she does it superhumanly, landing as silently as a cat. There is a striking moment when the Wilis, kneeling to Myrtha, turn what you might expect to be a legato sweep of the arms into two definite movements. The automaton-like effect further imprints the idea of the Wilis’ subjugation to their queen and their existence as a regiment rather than as individuals – something that is possible only because of the immaculate corps.

And above all there is Gilbert. Shyly and quietly radiant in the first act, almost transparent thistledown in the second, and entirely unforgettable.

Four other casts are scheduled to appear during the season. Gilbert appears only twice more, on Thursday evening (January 31) and Saturday’s matinee (February 2). Also dancing the title role are etoiles Isabelle Ciaravola, Ludmila Pagliero and Myriam Ould-Braham. Premiere danseuse Melanie Hurel, who was charming and vibrant in the opening night peasant pas de deux with delightful Emmanuel Thibault, is given one performance at the matinee on February 9.

Veteran POB star Nicolas Le Riche was a last-minute scratching so Ganio – who joined the POB corps in 2001 at the age of 17 and was named etoile an astonishingly swift three years later – steps into the breach to partner Ould-Braham when his performances with Gilbert are done. Ganio’s elevation, the speed and precision of his beaten footwork and his aristocratic lines make him a wonder to behold – a man who could never be mistaken for one of the people, to be sure, but really, when did we ever believe that when watching Giselle?

This review first appeared in The Australian online on January 30. An edited version appeared in The Australian on January 31.