SHIT, by Patricia Cornelius

A Dee & Cornelius/Milke Production. Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, July 20

Patricia Cornelius gets right to the point, as the titles of recent plays attest. Savages (2013) is the one about men off the leash, and how a toxic mix of testosterone, grievances real and perceived, booze and group dynamics plays out on a cruise ship. Not well, as you might imagine. In SLUT (2008), a young girl is brutally labelled and shamed; in SHIT (2015), three women who have been treated as such pretty much from birth both fight their destiny and fulfil it.

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Nicci Wilks, Peta Brady and Sarah Ward in SHIT

Cornelius is, obviously, a provocateur. Note the capital letters. Note the bolshie challenge to an audience member who might want to ring up the box office for a ticket or tell a friend the name of the play they’re about to see. Not to mention the challenge to mainstream theatre companies, who by and large have decided to duck it.  You don’t see Cornelius on our big stages even though, as absolutely everyone points out, she has a mantelpiece groaning under the weight of prestigious awards.

There’s no mystery really. Cornelius is a superb playwright whose chief objective is to disrupt while Australian mainstream theatre is – to co-opt a term with a lot of currency these days – a safe space for middle-class audiences. Not a lot of horse-frightening goes on at companies with large overheads that depend hugely on box office and private sponsorship.

Cornelius wants to scare the shit out of you. She certainly did with Savages, which I saw at a schools performance with a full house of young men from a private secondary college. They were practically shell-shocked from what I could tell – in complete silence when not gasping involuntarily.

SHIT is equally confronting. Well, confronting for the kinds of people who usually go to the theatre and who usually don’t meet the likes of Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady), women with masculine names to go with their battle-hardened exteriors. The products of neglect and abuse, they’ve done whatever it takes to claim some place in the world. Their resilience is admirable in theory but you’d swap train carriages or cross the road to get away from them. These women are trouble and the damage is too extreme to fix.

Sam was only four and placed with a family where she understood without question that she would never really belong. What she did about it made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pugnacious Billy can never forget hearing someone say she had been forsaken, the temerity of which makes her shake with rage. Bobby recalls abundant physical contact that, unusually, appears to have been benign, or something approaching it. Kindness is a rare commodity.

Billy, Bobby and Sam are used to the ground constantly shifting under them so it’s no surprise they are mercurial women with hair-trigger tempers. Like poorly trained dogs they might lick you one minute and bite the next. Cornelius’s writing effortlessly straddles the divide. There is so much to like about these sharp, funny, incredibly vivid people but they are also untameable and therefore dangerous. And loud. God, are they loud. Sweary too, of course. “Fuck” and “cunt” get a heavy-duty workout.

Susie Dee’s highly physical production matches the restlessness of the characters and Cornelius’s shifts in place and time. Even when they are apparently still you can feel the jumpy energy coursing through Billy, Bobby and Sam. Marg Horwell’s set is a bleak wall with three openings, emblematic of the women’s cheerless past and descriptive of their inevitable future.

Wilks, Ward and Brady, who have been with the production since its earliest days, are all tremendous. Wilks is like a bantamweight boxer, all mouth, aggression, lean muscle and attitude; Ward’s fascinating Bobby is more complicated and more unknowable. Brady’s Sam hasn’t yet had all the longing and hope knocked out of her but it won’t be long before that’s sorted.

All this in just 60 uncompromising minutes. Cornelius doesn’t moralise, philosophise, offer solutions or platitudes, certainly doesn’t offer comfort and above all doesn’t judge. She just shows. We all should look.

Postscript: Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON independent theatre project first brought SHIT to mainstream attention, and for this it deserves much thanks. And now Cornelius is in the first cohort of Australian playwrights commissioned to write for MTC’s visionary Next Stage program, announced last month. Perhaps mainstage theatre is about to get a bit less safe.

SHIT ends at the Seymour Centre on July 29. Darwin Festival, August 22, 25, 26 and 27.

Three premieres

The Aliens, Old Fitz Theatre, August 27; La Traviata, Belvoir Downstairs, September 1; Bull, Old Fitzroy Theatre, September 3

AMERICAN playwright Annie Baker has been mentioned, many times, in the same breath as Chekov and it’s a comparison that has merit. Baker, who is only 34, probes beneath the surface of apparently ordinary and often fragile lives to unearth the struggle and the wonder of life. Nothing much happens, unless you think that an intimate understanding of how people connect with one another counts as a lot.

I was able to see The Flick – first produced in 2013, winner of a Pulitzer Prize last year – when in New York earlier this year and found it profoundly moving. (Melbourne’s Red Stitch was smartly on the case, producing it last year with direction by Nadia Tass.) Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre staged Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation, set in a community adult drama class, in 2012, and now at the Old Fitz it’s possible to see The Aliens, written in 2010 (no one can accuse Baker of slacking) and given a luminous production by Outhouse Theatre Co.

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters) hang out in the cruddy garbage area at the back of a café and shoot the breeze about music, writing (Jasper is a Charles Bukowski aficionado) and relationships in a patchy, tentative, affectionate kind of way. Their conversation is all stops, starts and gaps but far from empty. Hurt, aspiration, bravado and need are often expressed as much in what is not said as what is.

When shy young café employee Evan (James Bell) ventures out the back to try to shoo them away – this is private property – KJ and Jasper stand firm. They are going nowhere, and for the tiniest moment you think The Aliens might fall into convention; that Evan will be bullied by these older, bigger, apparently more worldly men. But no. KJ and Jasper draw him into their little circle and supremely delicate connections are made. The performances are perfectly pitched. One does wonder why actors of the calibre of Wood and Waters are not seen more often and Bell is quite, quite magical.

Hugh O’Connor’s design is spot-on, with its crappy furniture and weeds poking through the cracks, and Craig Baldwin directs with a huge heart.

Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which is just finishing a short late-night season at the Old Fitz, is given its Australian premiere by Renaissance Productions with Rowan Greaves directing. It is a kind of companion piece to the same playwright’s Cock, which was so effectively staged at the Old Fitz earlier in the year. But unlike Cock it has only one idea, swiftly rendered in a four-hander that takes less than an hour to deliver the message that some people are natural victims who will be at the mercy of the amoral.

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Thomas (George Kemp) is the one destined to fail and Isobel (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Philippe Klaus) are his tormentors. As in Cock, three characters dominate the action with a fourth – here the corporate trio’s boss, played by Craig Ashley, entering late in the day – but the piece is not much more than a few brutal punches to the head turned into a rather longer fight than strictly necessary.

Sydney audiences will see Bartlett in a much more expansive mode when his King Charles III comes from London’s Almeida via Broadway during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 program. It’s wildly interesting in form and content – I saw it at the Almeida last year – as Bartlett projects forward to the earliest days of the reign of Prince Charles as British monarch. (King of Australia, too, undoubtedly.)

Also of interest in smaller-scale Sydney theatre is Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata, even if it’s not as revolutionary as one might have expected. Sisters Grimm – writer-director Declan Greene and writer-performer Ash Flanders – were inspired by Verdi’s 1853 opera as a piece of social criticism (the composer wanted it performed in modern dress but to get it on at Venice’s La Fenice had to make it a historical piece). But new work doesn’t always become what was originally intended. The political arguments flagged in the Creators’ Note in the program don’t make themselves felt strongly enough, but on the plus side it turns out you can do La Traviata in a theatre as small as Belvoir Downstairs and do it justice. In the course of a discussion about the value of art in a society that knows the cost-benefit ratio of everything, Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm have created a touching and memorable version of Verdi’s opera.

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

It’s wildly truncated and mostly lipsynched but the essence is there and it’s staged in a way that would cause no palpitations in, say, Germany, where regietheater (director’s theatre) reigns. Well, obviously it’s a hit-and-run version of the big thing, but it’s good. The countryside where Violetta and her lover Alfredo live is dotted with sheep, flower-entwined swings fall from the ceiling and Violetta’s gown is a cage. In Marg Horwell’s sets and costumes there are also jokey visual references to Lohengrin and Carmen. There’s quite a lot going on if you know your operas.

When the axe falls on Violetta’s happiness it is shown in devastating manner by Emma Maye Gibson, ever more desperately seeking approval from the audience, even to the point of standing on her head to sing (enter The Magic Flute). This is the courtesan as performer, but it’s also the performer as courtesan, touting for applause and money.

La Traviata is at its most original and thought-provoking here. The first third is an overlong satire on arts funding that, despite the warmth of Flanders, Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo, is more than the teensiest bit lame. Flanders does shout rather desperately in lieu of insights.

But the rest more than makes up for it. In the final third of the show the audience is invited to talk with the cast and each other and – surprisingly – the feeling is not the usual terror of audience participation but warmth and inclusion. Then opera singer Michael Lewis, the fourth cast member, comes to the fore, telling a deeply personal story about mortality before assuming the role of Violetta.

When it was announced last year as part of Belvoir’s 2015 season, La Traviata was proposed as a critique of current Australian arts politics. The word protest was used, although it’s hard to read this production as a call to arms. Instead it looks into the heart of the artist, the person who needs to perform and to be loved. What are the transactions required to achieve that?

Along the way La Traviata is also a love letter to the operatic art form, despite the pro forma sniping at the start (boring, long, elitist). Who better, indeed, than Sisters Grimm to understand the power of a theatre of grand emotions and extravagant gestures?

Bull ends September 12; The Aliens ends September 19; La Traviata ends September 20.

Reviews of The Aliens and La Traviata first appeared in The Australian on August 31 and September 3.

Macbeth and Cock in Brisbane

Macbeth, Queensland Theatre Company, The Playhouse, Brisbane, April 9. Cock, Melbourne Theatre Company and La Boite, The Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, April 9.

QUEENSLAND Theatre Company’s Macbeth isn’t set in a boardroom, or in Nazi Germany, or in the fiefdom of the Klingons. The unchanging set (Simone Romaniuk, who also designed the costumes) is a thicket of gnarled trees, Birnham Wood having already come to Dunsinane as Macbeth plays out his doomed tilt at a glory he hubristically hopes will last for generations. The men are dressed in simple battle attire, are always dirty and often bloodied. The witches are wild-haired, mud-caked creatures who slither out of the mire. Composer and sound designer Phil Slade’s opening volley of doom-laden thunder and David Walters’s shots of lightning support the louring stage picture. This is a dark and forbidding place for dark deeds.

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

QTC engaged Michael Attenborough, former artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre, to direct the Scottish play and he does so with a very straight bat indeed. His Macbeth is reverent, respectful and ultra clear in the delivery of its language. No one could leave the theatre thinking Shakespeare is hard work. These are not qualities to be derided, to be sure, but they do render this Macbeth too tame and earnest. The whiff of a production suitable for high school students hangs over it.

Attenborough has a long pedigree when it comes to Shakespeare, having, among his many other eminent positions, been principal associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 2002. His Brisbane cast doesn’t lack Shakespeare credentials, but perhaps Attenborough felt those credentials were insufficiently deep. Whatever the reason, the excitement engendered by the sound and light show that introduces the play is swiftly damped down as soon as the actors begin to speak. Attenborough has them deliver the text deliberately and carefully, almost as if they were still in the rehearsal phase, teasing out exactly what each phrase means.

This makes for the utmost legibility, but at the expense of dramatic tension, individual character and intensity of feeling. What is really driving each character, how they feel, what is at stake emotionally and politically, is apprehended intellectually rather than viscerally. The savagery of this society, riven by civil war and prey to the influence of spirits and auguries, is made really quite polite. This is so even in the case of the semi-clad witches, who hiss and writhe theatrically but are over-choreographed (by Nerida Matthaei). They mostly look contrived, although it’s a nice touch to have them as hooded attendants at Macbeth’s feast where they accompany Banquo’s ghost.

In such an environment Jason Klarwein’s Macbeth has many separate moments of value but they don’t add up to a tightly woven portrait of raging, flailing ambition fatally undermined by a susceptibility to portents. Veronica Neave’s Lady Macbeth is perhaps more of a piece but is too coolly efficient – a terrifically organised headmistress type who isn’t about to reveal much about herself. Thus there is little sexual spark in the Macbeth ménage and her breakdown has a guarded quality. One was a little surprised that she would kill herself.

The highly experienced Eugene Gilfedder seemed the most at ease at the matinee performance I saw. Playing a trio of small roles – Duncan, Old Man, the Doctor – he effortlessly differentiated between them and his delivery of the text was the most naturally achieved.

Macbeth was a venture between QTC and Brisbane company Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe, which enabled it to put a larger than usual cast on stage, and the state government’s Super Star Fund supported Attenborough’s involvement. The result is a strong, clean, handsome production that has attracted big audiences and given them a very nice night’s entertainment.

NO one comes out of Cock particularly well. John (Tom Conroy) is a character described as giving the impression of being drawn with a pencil and is as wishy-washy as that suggests. M (Eamon Flack in the Brisbane season of this MTC/La Boite co-production; Angus Grant played the role in Melbourne) is the teensiest bit over-bearing and controlling. W (Sophie Ross) is the same, only more manipulative. M’s father, F (Tony Rickards), a late entrant into the action, rounds out an unlikely dinner party and uses the occasion to deliver a homily on sexual preference.

Those who come out of it least well, however, are director Leticia Caceres and designer Marg Horwell. Horwell’s soft-furnishings set made entirely of white cushions gives a clue: Cock is ultimately flaccid, or at least it is in this production.

Mike Bartlett’s compact play, written in 2009, is composed of a series of scenes in which John is deciding whether he wants to be with M, with whom he has lived for seven years, or W, who inducts him into heterosexual pleasures after John makes his first go at breaking away from M.

M treats John as a child, but W adores him and offers the prospect of children. What to do? John is a great vacillator and liar, but no matter. What he thinks – well, he doesn’t know what he thinks. Others are more than happy to do the thinking and acting for him. In this scenario F may be seen as a kind of referee, albeit one who loads the dice in favour of M. But he’s there to outline the rules as he sees them pertaining in this day and age.

M and F are acting out a battle of the sexes with a twist and John is the weapon that keeps changing hands. The exercise of power is M and F’s sport, and they are prepared to play very dirty. John’s situation is more fluid. He is in one sense putty in the hands of both M and F, twisting and turning between them. But he’s also the prize, and in that respect is the combatants’ Achilles heel.

The man with the pencil-drawn outline – no heavier than 2B one would suggest – is only a fragment of a character, as are the others. We hear of M’s career as a broker, W’s as a childcare assistant and F’s loneliness following the death of his wife, but these are little more than are labels enabling a couple of good quips or, in the case of F, a detail that obliquely bolsters his line of argument. We can’t see the information as part of the fabric of a complex character. Caceres seems to want more, however. You can feel the pull towards humanising the players – F’s slightly sad old-guy tracksuit, all the tumbling around on pillows, M’s air of domesticity – but it only dilutes the impact of the play.

Cock is, or can be, an act of provocation – cold, hard-edged, laugh-aloud funny and irritating. John is the empty vessel into which are poured ideas about sex, love, ownership, power and desire; M, W and F pour away. The irritant factor is important, and an unusual one in the theatre. The depiction of the feminine in the shape of W is intensely vexing. The out-of-left-field sermonising of F is awkward and frankly unbelievable in any realistic context. M is something of a cliche – the well-off guy who likes everything just so – and John is Mr Cellophane. But as the punches keep on coming and the ducking and weaving goes on, the ground shifts and the raygun of one’s irritation is continually redirected.

I freely admit to having been influenced in this view by seeing, in New York, James Macdonald’s sparer than spare, gladiatorial production. It was cold as ice and a bracingly savage dissection of sexual power play.

Macbeth ends April 13; Cock ends April 12.