Angels in America, The Maids, Phedre, Othello

Angels in America, Belvoir, June 5 and 6; The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company, June 8; Phedre, Bell Shakespeare, June 12; Othello, Sport for Jove, June 14.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

THEATRE, from companies big and small, has been particularly rich in the first half of the year in Sydney. There were exceptional new works, old ones given a jolt and imports done proud; the diversity was such that you pitied those people who remain faithful to just one company. So far this has been a year to be promiscuous in one’s theatre-going and the rest of the year promises to be as tantalising.

In this first half a partial list of favourites would include Belvoir’s rough magic Peter Pan and, at Belvoir Downstairs, Nakkilah Lui’s devastating new play of suburban Aboriginal aspiration and despair, This Heaven; Sydney Theatre Company’s majestic Secret River, adapted from the Kate Grenville novel, and STC’s small and sweet Dance Better at Parties, which grew out of a work by Chunky Move dance company. At the Ensemble, Joanna Murray-Smith’s strong series of female portraits, Bombshells, and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were graced by exceptional performances; Van Badham’s The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin irrepressibly mixed ancient myth and modern sex comedy; and the American drama The MotherF**ker with the Hat, seen in the tiny TAP Gallery space, was given a staggeringly good production by independent outfit Workhorse Theatre Company.

The range of theatrical possibility was extended further if you add the visitors: there was a Sydney season for the madly uplifting School Dance, which came from Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre; Bojana Novakovic’s enchanting, and improvised, The Blind Date Project had small seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane before fetching up as a petite gem in this year’s Sydney Festival program; and the Sisters Grimm’s Little Mercy – provenance Melbourne – was outrageously, implacably, divinely irresistible. (I relegate to parentheses the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and the achingly beautiful gift of seeing Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy only because they are fully imported.)

A lot of the best theatre was small-scale and fighting well above its weight. Then came June, and with it the possibility of seeing – within the space of 10 days – a cluster of classics that would fascinate if you’d seen them in the span of an entire year. Or two.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

I think I can get away with saying I believe the two-part Angels in America to be the greatest play written in English during my lifetime. (Waiting for Godot, which premiered a week or so after I was born, was written in French and first staged in that language. So.)

Sydney Theatre Company staged Angels in 1993, less than two years after its San Francisco premiere and a couple of months before its Broadway debut – a great act of percipience on the part of then artistic director Wayne Harrison. Michael Gow directed a piercingly spare production that did everything it needed to: it let this profoundly moving and intellectually searching piece speak for itself. The breadth, depth and reach of Angels is dazzling and Belvoir’s current production, directed by Eamon Flack, understands, as did Gow’s, the central necessities of Tony Kushner’s piece – cast it well, honour its multiplicity of emotions, tease out the many strands of its narrative and tone, clarify the complexity of its language and imagery, and stand back. In other words, don’t have a production that over-decorates a work that is already magnificently ornate.

Angels in America is concerned with but also transcends the questions of AIDS in the 1980s, the Cold War, Reaganite philosophy, climate change, gay politics, right-wing politics, ethics, religion, personal responsibility and much more. In that transcendence lies its connection with audiences today and anywhere. The ease with which Kushner interweaves realism and fantasy is breath-taking. I was reminded when seeing Angels, entirely engrossed, of something New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote in a preface to one of his celebrated profiles of New York characters: “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual.” And elsewhere he wrote: “You’ve got to get to the true facts.”

Belvoir’s cast is exemplary, led by Luke Mullins as the AIDS-inflicted Prior Walter, who has visions both profane and ecstatic. Marcus Graham has the part of his career as lawyer – and helper of Senator Joseph McCarthy – Roy Cohn (fun fact; his middle name was Marcus). Graham’s Cohn burns like a wildfire that is fuelled by his ambition and certitude, along with the disease he refuses to acknowledge by name. Amber McMahon’s lost-soul Harper, who is charged with one of the play’s most achingly potent images as she escapes the pull of New York, is exceptional. Mitchell Butel’s unwaveringly steady compass as an actor – he is always one of the clearest interpreters of any text in his enjoyably wide repertoire – makes the flexible conscience of Prior’s lover Louis explicable and even worthy of sympathy. And what a joy to see DeObia Oparei as Belize, a part he performed with such distinction for STC all those years ago. Only connect.

The true facts. Again this idea comes into play in Jean Genet’s The Maids, in which Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert play sisters. Claire and Solange act out “ceremonies” in their Mistress’s over-blown boudoir, escaping into cruel fantasies to blot out their sordid reality. They turn on themselves and each other, the interchangeable torturer and tortured holed up in the same prison. In a naturalistic play this blood relationship would test credulity. And yet on deeper levels – those of understanding, of equality of standing, of temperament, of spirit, of intelligence – they are quite clearly soul sisters.

Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s translation of Genet’s 1947 play is robust, mordantly funny and chilly, as is Andrews’s direction of his stars.

Blanchett impersonates her Mistress with raucous, savage glee but can be undercut in a micro-second, visibly deflating so that a great beauty becomes a plain nonentity in the blink of an eye. Huppert, tiny as a sparrow, does limber calisthenics while lying on her employer’s bed, and as she opens her legs wide a camera captures the view and conveys it to the audience. It’s a familiar Andrews choice, but so apt on several levels. Not only is surveillance a very real possibility in this sleek, contemporary household, but on a practical level it helps connect the audience in this slightly too-large theatre to the action. It’s a kind of voyeurism too, spying not only on two maids but on the women playing them.

Make no mistake. If The Maids were not starring Blanchett and Huppert it could easily have been slotted into STC’s Wharf 2 space. There is layer upon layer here. Not only are stratospherically famous actresses playing the part of role-playing maids, their Mistress, in a piece of casting announced late, is played by the gorgeous and very, very young Elizabeth Debicki. She is too tender in age to have established such complete dominion over her household help, but let’s not be too literal. Debicki has come to attention recently through her appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby and adds another level of drop-dead glamour. Please don’t think this is a criticism. Far from it. There is something absolutely delicious about seeing a production in which there is an explicit invitation to examine one of its most important strands – the assumption of roles as a way of surviving – from a variety of angles. It keeps the viewer constantly on the qui vive, thinking and re-calibrating.

Debicki, by the way, may be just at the start of her career but she holds her own gallantly with Blanchett and Huppert, and looks so dewily beautiful you could cry. The camera comes in leeringly close to her and to Blanchett and Huppert, both of whom are ravishing in a different way. So much visual information to absorb along with the text. And if you can’t understand Huppert all of the time, too bad. She is an electric presence as she darts about, swings from the clothes racks, plays games of abasement, hitches a ride on a long train of a gown like a playful – or abject – child and so much more. Truth not facts …

French drama is given a second gripping outing with Bell Shakespeare’s Phedre having landed in Sydney after its Melbourne season. Racine’s 1677 drama based on Greek legend is given in Ted Hughes’s plain-speaking, supple translation and given a production that enthrals from beginning to end.

Director Peter Evans’s taste for stillness on stage and for clearly marking entrances and exits has never had a better fit than here. He takes the elegant formality that is a hallmark of classical French drama and converts it into an atmosphere of fear – the kind that makes one freeze with terror.

We are told Phedre has a fatal illness, but what’s really gnawing away at her is forbidden love. Phedre has conceived a passion for her stepson Hippolytus, who in turn loves where he is least allowed. The play opens with most of the players placed separately on Anna Cordingly’s wonderful stage upon a stage. The set resembles a disintegrating country house folly with its jagged hole in the ceiling and signs of decay all about. Kelly Ryall’s soundscape of barely discernible beats, fluttering voices, groans and bells adds to the foreboding.

The scene is static for quite some time as the play’s concerns unfold. The stillness, unusual in our theatre, brings its own tension. When the hell is someone going to do something? And then Phedre touches Hippolytus (a fine, unmannered Edmund Lembke-Hogan), and the tragedy is unleashed.

Catherine McClements’s rail-thin Phedre is, like Marcus Graham’s Roy Cohn, doubly burning up inside. The passion that’s devouring her will get her before the unnamed physical ailment can do its work, that much is evident. McClements gives an unsparing, towering performance. And speaking of towering, Phedre wears difficult, vertiginous shoes secured with gladiator-style straps that are their own form of bondage, as well as being a slightly too-young choice for the queen. I found that oddly touching.

Also tremendously good are Bert LaBonte as Theramene – his long description of Hippolytus’s death is mesmerising – and Marco Chiappi as Phedre’s husband Theseus. Abby Earl as Hippolytus’s secret love Aricia is, unfortunately, too inexperienced in this company. She certainly looks lovely enough to secure the prince but lacks texture and conviction in her delivery.

Similarly, in Sport for Jove’s Othello the casting of Isaro Kayitesi as Desdemona puts the young actress, not long out of training, at an unfair disadvantage. That aside – and one must admit it is a big aside – Othello is riveting. In the Seymour Centre’s small Reginald Theatre, Sport for Jove yet again finds a way of presenting Shakespeare without tricks, with no heavy-handed “concept”, but with force, clarity and a satisfying sense of purpose. It’s as if a light has been turned on. (The way the production always has a fresh surprise up its sleeve without distorting the text is definitively demonstrated by Anthony Gooley’s hilarious Rodorigo and the way in which he shows his devotion to Desdemona. Unmissable.)

Damien Ryan’s Iago is meticulously and persuasively thought out. In Ryan’s hands and under Matt Edgerton’s direction, Iago can’t be faulted for his logic: he’s been passed over and demeaned and he’s going to do something about that in his own good time. Ryan presents a man who is proud, intelligent, implacable and as creatively manipulative as any top politician. He could turn day into night with his arguments, and so he does.

Ivan Donato’s attractive Othello is more good-guy soldier than powerful military chief, which tends to minimise the tragedy of his downfall and give even more oxygen to Iago. And of course there’s always the problem of that handkerchief, the bit of fabric on which the denouement so precariously turns. But Sport for Jove makes a reasonable fist of keeping the stakes high here, anticipating how the drama will end with an inventive and relevant opening image.

I saw the production with a group of students and their attention was held, as was mine, for nearly three and a half hours with just one interval. Enough said.

Angels in America plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 14 and then Sydney’s Theatre Royal from July 18-28. The Maids, Sydney Theatre, until July 20. Phedre, Sydney Opera House, until June 29. Othello, Seymour Centre, until June 29.

Frankenstein

Ensemble Theatre, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, April 3.

FRANKENSTEIN is a name that despite one’s best efforts to resist brings forth mental images of freaks and bogeymen. Perhaps nothing quite as silly as a lurching giant with bolts through the neck, but something not quite human.

Lee Jones (top) as The Creature with Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Lee Jones (top) as The Creature with Andrew Henry as Victor Frankenstein. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nick Dear’s over-weening scientist Victor Frankenstein is not this kind of sentient wreckage, at least physically, but he is indeed the real monster of Dear’s piece; a demon in fine clothes and from a good family. Frankenstein experiments in areas he ought to avoid, he fails to rise to the challenge of the practical, moral and philosophical questions that arise, and he ultimately reveals himself to be more lacking in humanity – and courage – than the patchwork man he puts together.

Dear’s animating idea for his play, if you’ll forgive me, is to stack the deck against Frankenstein in a way Mary Shelley did not in her 1818 story. Dear sides with The Creature and so do we, from the first unforgettable moments of the play when we are made to share his birth pains and early lessons in the ways in which the different are treated.

And in these moments, and much that follows, lies a weakness of Frankenstein, which is that The Creature is infinitely more interesting than his creator – more intelligent, more feeling, more passionate, more violent, more everything, yet the scientist is treated as if he were just as fascinating. The justly lauded National Theatre production of 2011 in London (seen here via the NTLive series) got around that one by alternating Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller in the two roles. That was a double win: not only would it have kept the actors invested as much in Frankenstein as in The Creature, it made audiences want to see it twice. Simple, yet elegant.

Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre doesn’t have a trick like that up its sleeve nor the scenic resources to cast a veil of glamour over the lumpier parts of text and structure. That’s not to say it isn’t well designed for its space (it is), but there’s nowhere for the play to hide, metaphorically speaking. Which leaves Lee Jones’s Creature to carry the show, which he does heartbreakingly well. It’s an incredibly demanding role, and confronting on a number of levels. Jones’s contorted (and we couldn’t help but notice exceptionally well honed) body is the vehicle for extreme physical and metaphysical anguish. Added to that is the necessity of conveying The Creature’s growing sophistication in thinking, reasoning and argument. A third layer is finding the balance between attraction and repulsion, the gaining or forfeiture of sympathy.

When Jones is absent from the stage, which he is for longish stretches, Frankenstein drops considerably in temperature. Andrew Henry is a very creditable Victor, but the character can’t compete with the white heat thrown out by The Creature, who gets the very best writing Dear has to offer.

There are big themes everywhere – the lure of science over religion, intellectual arrogance, the degree of power people seeks to exercise over others, the scarcity of compassion, the effect of brutalisation, whether, as Milton had it, it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven, and so much more. (“You’ve read Paradise Lost,” marvels Frankenstein. “I liked it,” says The Creature in perhaps the shortest and most heavily freighted sentence in the play.)

Only in the figure of The Creature are all these ideas brought to incandescent life. Why do you want me to make a mate for you, Frankenstein inquires of The Creature (Victor really is quite dense). “Because I am lonely,” howls the man who has known a small amount of acceptance and a vast store of cruelty, hate, abandonment and deception. It’s a devastating moment, as is a quieter one: Victor’s fiancée, Elizabeth, asks The Creature his name: “He did not give me one.” Not long after The Creature will get his revenge.

These are the places in Frankenstein that prick the eyes, and there are more than enough of them. On the debit side is that some of the minor characters are clumsily played, which is unfortunate. There are times when the two-hour, no-interval action needs assistance it doesn’t get.

Director Mark Kilmurry may have presided over a somewhat uneven production, but one with punches to the solar plexus that won’t be readily forgotten. Simone Romaniuk’s circle of translucent curtains proves an excellently fluent base for the action and it was a stroke of brilliance to ask Elena Kats-Chernin – a composer of instinctively dramatic gifts – to write a score, here played by cellist Heather Stratfold amidst Daryl Wallis’s evocative sound design.

In the Playhouse of the Sydney Opera House Frankenstein has a space suited to its action. It’s hard to see how it’s going to work in the minuscule Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli when it moves there after the short SOH season. Under scrutiny as close as that Jones is going to have to give an even braver performance. He looks up to it.

Frankenstein at the Sydney Opera House until April 13; Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli April 17-May 4. A national tour starts in Canberra on May 7. Venues in Victoria, Tasmania, Queensland and NSW follow. The tour ends in Wollongong in August.