Three companies, one great show

Sydney Festival Parramatta Program, January 23

PUNCTURE starts with “Hello” and ends with “I love you”. Has there been anything more life-affirming than this at the 2015 Sydney Festival? I doubt it.

As I write, the 2pm show has recently finished at the Riverside Theatre at Parramatta and there will be just two more: tonight at 8pm and tomorrow at 2pm. With Wednesday’s preview there will have been seven performances in all. Is there a chance of more? One can only hope so.

Puncture puts both performers and audience on the stage of the biggest theatre at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, screened from the auditorium by the fire curtain. The audience is very close to the performers and despite the ample size of the space there is an atmosphere of urgent intimacy. As the young dancers enact age-old rituals of meeting, attraction, flirtation, confusion and passion one can hear the breath, see the sweat, feel the impact as they hit the floor and share in the adrenalin rush as they arc through the air on ropes.

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dancer flies in Puncture. Photo: Prudence Upton

That would be sensory ravishment enough, but there’s more. In one of the loveliest ideas I have encountered in dance for many years Stefan Gregory’s score for Puncture is sung live by VOX, a 30-member vocal ensemble drawn from members of Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, who move in and out of the dance and allow us to see them as smiling, engaged individuals – participants in the fullest sense.

Puncture is concerned with the human need for connection, as that sung “Hello” makes radiantly clear. One could call that the statement of intent. After that comes the physical manifestation as six couples collide, grapple, touch, fight, fly, support, change partners, argue and love. Choreographer Kathryn Puie evokes the formalities of Elizabethan court dance, the uniformity of line dancing, the romance of the waltz, the zing of the tango, the group spirit of folk and much more, but ultimately the dance is about body against body, skin against skin; sometimes restrained, sometimes tender, sometimes wild.

Gregory’s music is similarly eclectic and always strikingly beautiful. He arranges Madonna’s Steingberg/Kelly song Like a Virgin to great effect and it supports one of Puncture’s most cherishable moments. It’s possible someone reading this today might feel impelled to head to Parramatta tomorrow (tonight, even!) to see the piece – that would be wonderful; I wish I could see it again myself – so I won’t reveal what happens here. I’ll just say that VOX soprano Charlotte Campbell is a real surprise package.

Mic Gruchy’s video design sends evocative flickering figures along the walls of the space and Mel Page designed the show, which includes some divinely pretty skirts and dresses for the female dancers. The names keep on coming – this project really has gathered the best of the best. Damien Cooper did the lighting, and Bree Van Reyk (percussion) and Luke Byrne (piano) support the singers, whose music director is Elizabeth Scott.

And – this is the crowning touch – heading the beautiful ensemble of dancers are Kristina Chan and Joshua Thomson, two of the country’s finest contemporary dance artists.

Patrick Nolan, whose concept it is, directs this greatly complex piece in such a way that it feels quite simple and natural and incredibly satisfying. The flow of human history continues.

Current Sydney theatre

Blue/Orange, Ensemble, October 29; Emerald City, Griffin, November 10; A Christmas Carol, Belvoir, November 12; Daylight Saving, Eternity Playhouse, November 13; Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre, November 18.

WHY did quite a few commentators, myself included, feel we had to advertise our reservations about the prospect of A Christmas Carol? Or to liken ourselves to Scrooge when it comes to a Christmas cheer? I know I didn’t entirely trust that Belvoir wouldn’t do one of its out-there makeovers; perhaps others didn’t want to seem sentimental or – even worse – just a teensy bit unsophisticated.

Well, we learned our lesson. Don’t pre-judge. Don’t be mean. Don’t be cynical. A Christmas Carol is generous and open-hearted and asks the same of us. The adaptation by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, who also directs, is faithful to the Charles Dickens story and told clearly and honestly. It’s often very funny but doesn’t shy away from the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Scrooge and its staging is strong and simple – well, let’s say deceptively simple. The ideas are precise and powerful. There is an empty space in which Scrooge’s arid life is lived and recounted and changes are rung with a handful of props and a few trapdoors. And there is fabulously fake snow, dusting every seat in the house. Michael Hankin (set), Mel Page (costumes), Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) and Stefan Gregory (composition and sound design) can be very proud of this one.

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Above all there is a cast of cherishable actors whose collective radiance could warm Vladivostok in winter. Kate Box as the spirit of Christ Present is done up like a Christmas present wrapped by an excitable three-year-old, carolers sing sweetly from the stairs dressed in gaudy seasonal pullovers it would have taken Gran all year to knit, Steve Rodgers appears at one point as a Christmas tree, finished off with a major star on top, and Miranda Tapsell as Tiny Tim – well, the woman’s smile could power the national grid. Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato and Eden Falk are splendid in a range of roles and it goes without saying that Robert Menzies, so often seen as a man of much severity, is Scrooge to the life. As for Rodgers and Ursula Yovich as Bob and Mrs Cratchit, it’s the kind of casting that elevates roles that could be a touch dull into something profoundly moving.

The other absolute must in Sydney theatre is Sydney Theatre Company’s Cyrano de Bergerac – not for the staging, which has some problems, but for a clutch of indispensible performances. Top of the list, not surprisingly, is Richard Roxburgh in the title role. He gives Cyrano the kind of bone-deep melancholy that comes from a lifetime of deflecting jibes about his looks and disguising the pain with superior swordsmanship, wit and, above all, panache. Andrew Upton, who adapted and directed (from Marion Potts’s original translation), keeps Cyrano in the 17th century but oh, how it speaks to the 21st century’s obsession with appearance.

All in the large supporting cast are very good, particularly Eryn Jean Norvill as the luminous Roxane; the touching Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano’s friend Le Bret; the astonishingly versatile and charismatic Josh McConville as over-bearing nobleman De Guiche; and Chris Ryan as the guileless, luxuriantly follicled, not-quite-as-stupid-as-he-looks Christian, through whose shiny good looks Cyrano expresses his love for Roxane.

Electronic sound enhancement – amplification is too strong a word – is needed to combat the difficult Sydney Theatre acoustic. Even so, when Cyrano gets hectic it is not always easy to comprehend all the dialogue. Alice Babidge’s design (with Renee Mulder) has a handsome and effective theatre-within-a-theatre motif which makes a lot of sense but loses some of its power when actors are sent scampering up ladders to use a high, narrow balcony. But it’s Roxburgh’s night, and anyone who loves great acting will want to add this to memories of his Hamlet, Vanya and Estragon. (Not to mention rake Cleaver Greene, of course, a man who would have been entirely at home in certain 17th-century circles.)

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Also worth a look, if you can get in, is Lee Lewis’s revival of David Williamson’s Emerald City at Griffin. The play, which premiered in 1987, stands up very well. Scriptwriter Colin and his publisher wife Kate move from Melbourne to Sydney; he most eagerly, she most reluctantly. Melbourne is where ideas and values matter; in Sydney it’s all about money and the view. As time goes on, both find their ground shifting under them rather more alarmingly than they expected.

The Ken Done-designed production looks good and makes its points eloquently but it is not entirely satisfying, for good reason. During rehearsal Marcus Graham, originally cast as Colin, and Mitchell Butel, originally cast as brash entrepreneur Mike, asked to switch roles. Lewis agreed. Perhaps it may have worked but we won’t know, because Graham withdrew from Emerald City shortly before opening due to illness. The lateness of all this is illustrated by the fact that Graham’s photograph adorns the cover of the playscript one can buy at the theatre (excellent value – just $10 courtesy Currency Press).

Butel continued as Colin and Ben Winspear valiantly stepped into the breach to play Mike. Well, we can all play casting director, but I think Winspear – a very fine actor – would have been a more natural Colin than he is a Mike. Even three weeks in, which is when I saw it, he was pushing the bolshie externals too strongly. Butel is extraordinarily multi-faceted but I can see why Lewis initially wanted him as Mike. Or perhaps, given what must have been a quite testing rehearsal period, there wasn’t quite enough time for Butel to get absolutely pitch-perfect with his character. He’s very good, no doubt about it – funny, charming and fizzing with energy – but I wanted a deeper sense of his inner conflicts. Lucy Bell – who, as far as I know, was originally cast as Kate and stayed that way – absolutely nails it.

Nick Enright’s Daylight Saving, written only a couple of years after Emerald City, unfortunately has not aged as well as the Williamson. I remember enjoying it back in the day and found it entertaining enough now, but it feels too slight to merit its revival – not quite funny enough, or persuasive enough about human foibles. It’s done very competently under Adam Cook’s direction and I must say I was highly entertained by Belinda Giblin’s flawless turn as the slightly daffy but steely Bunty.

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

Finally, one for those who enjoy excellent acting wrapped in an argumentative play. Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange puts Dorian Nkono’s Christopher in the middle of a medical-philosophical turf war between aspiring resident psychiatrist Bruce (Ian Meadows) and his wily, manipulative supervisor Robert (Sean Taylor). Questions about correct diagnosis of mental illness, race and social services jostle with more personal matters for the two doctors: the exercise of power and the best way to manage career advancement. There’s a lot going on and much of it is fascinating and thought-provoking, but Penhall loses his grip in the second half, resorting to a frankly ludicrous crisis and consequently weakened conclusion. The three performances are terrific though, particularly Nkono’s depiction of a young man whose condition sends his equilibrium flying off in unpredictable directions but who nevertheless has great charm and knows how to use it.

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Blue/Orange to November 29, Daylight Saving to November 30, Emerald City to December 6, Cyrano de Bergerac to December 20; A Christmas Carol to December 24

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company

Sydney Theatre, March 17

WHAT a rich, diverse evening this is. Sydney Dance Company’s Interplay offers three works, any two of which would have given a stimulating experience, but who’s complaining? Each makes a strong appeal to a different human need and shows the SDC dancers in shape-shifting, magisterial form.

Rafael Bonachela takes on Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor for an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, has heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models – well, that gives the libido a workout.

Violinist Veronique Serret plays for Bonachela’s piece, called 2 in D Minor, planting her feet firmly on the stage and engaging fiercely with the dancers. Also on the program is new music from Stefan Gregory (invigorating, rhythmic tunes for L’Chaim!) and Nick Wales (intriguing electronic miniatures that act as contemporary interludes for in 2 in D Minor, based on Serret’s playing). This is a big, big show.

Bonachela’s piece doesn’t always rise to the complexities and nuances of Bach but has many luscious moments, particularly in sections involving Charmene Yap, David Mack and Cass Mortimer Eipper. On Monday night Yap embodied the music with alert, sinuous grace, frequently making eye contact with Serret, and Mack and Mortimer Eipper’s closely intertwined duo in the first movement also gave the sense of bodies merging with the music and emerging from it.

There was a fine contrast in the second movement, Corrente, when Fiona Jopp’s lively solo was more external: a performance bubbling on top of the music.

As the piece progressed some of the dance material and structures lost their juice when familiarity set in. The solo interludes between movements were the surprise element, with white-clad figures offering present-day, somewhat anguished homage to Bach. These interpolated pieces were danced on a square of light on the stage, mirroring the skylight-like light that hovered above the Bach movements. (Benjamin Cisterne created the set and lighting.) I couldn’t help but think these little dances referred to the noble struggle involved in living up to the genius of Bach.

When Raw Models premiered in 2011 I was struck by the various meanings of the word model it evoked: fashion, mechanical device, computer modelling. This time the piece felt a little different. Overall there isn’t quite the level of chic and haughty sheen the original cast brought to it but it is still very sexy. The ripples, poses and elongations of seven dancers dressed in skin-tight black bring to mind the enacting of a creation story or perhaps, given the gloom and frequent blackouts, rebirth from a catastrophe.

Whatever it is, it’s happening in a galaxy far, far away. These superb physical specimens may look human but could well be aliens from the planet Glamour Major. The opening night crowd went wild, particularly (and rightly) for Yap’s knockout duo with Andrew Crawford, a man with the wingspan and presence of a golden eagle, both of which he puts to excellent use in Raw Models.

Where Raw Models demonstrates the vast gulf between elite performers and their audience, L’Chaim! seeks connection. Folk dancing is the choreographic impulse and the illustration of community. A disembodied voice (that of actress Zoe Coombs Marr, text is by David Woods) asked company members questions – some banal, some impertinent, some useful – about themselves and what they felt about dancing. The idea is an extension of a long-running interest Obarzanek has in why people dance and what dance means, and there is a work of greater depth there for the taking. Nevertheless L’Chaim! is already an endearing addition to the inquiry.

Gideon Obarzanek's L'Chaim! Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! Photo: Wendell Teodoro

Wearing a motley array of ordinary clothes in a nondescript space (costume Harriet Oxley, set and lighting Cisterne) the full SDC company beautifully illustrated how highly trained bodies can move in ways denied the rest of us. Then, as they almost imperceptibly let go of their technique, they movingly showed how a civilian may be absorbed into the dance.

Interplay runs in Sydney until April 5. Then Canberra, April 10-12, and Melbourne, April 30-May 10. 

Symphony, It’s Dark Outside, Sydney Festival

Symphony, Legs on the Wall, CarriageWorks, January 13

It’s Dark Outside, Perth Theatre Company, CarriageWorks, January 13

WHAT do 30 large cardboard boxes have to do with Beethoven’s sublime 7th symphony? Unfortunately, as it turns out, very little. The intriguing starting point for Symphony is Stefan Gregory’s arrangement of Beethoven for one electric guitar. From that, Legs on the Wall director Patrick Nolan posits a theme of the group versus the individual, the many against the one. Not only is the idea sadly well trawled; its articulation brings no new insights.

Symphony, Legs on the Wall

Symphony, Legs on the Wall

Those 30 boxes are put into one formation, then knocked over. They are placed into a different pattern and then fall over. Then the performers move the boxes around once more. Andrew Wholley’s attractive video design finds a home on them, but there’s more tedious box work than during the late-night shift at Woollies.

The performers dash about, recount several dull stories and look at each other meaningfully. They work extremely hard but the movement language lies somewhere between dance and gymnastics and has the clarity of purpose of neither. Gregory creates a huge wall of sound that sometimes focuses tightly on Beethoven’s themes and at others makes them more diffuse, but is always of musical interest.

IT’S Dark Outside takes a difficult, bewildering subject and handles it with delicacy, tact and grace. An old man with dementia takes off into the night and is visited by his dreams, fears and memories as he tries to make sense of a retreating world. His mind is clouded – It’s Dark Outside makes that idea a beautiful and touching motif – but he gallantly tries to go on.

Tim Watts – he of the widely travelled, much acclaimed The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik – and collaborators Arielle Gray and Chris Isaacs tread gently in an emotional minefield. Their theatre of puppetry and animation takes the edge off a very brutal business while Rachael Dease’s mellifluous score offers the audience a soft, protective cushion.

I suspect, however, that anyone who has seen dementia up close will see It’s Dark Outside through tear-filled eyes. I know I did.

Both works are part of the Sydney Festival’s invaluable About an Hour series, which has seen several incarnations since its inception by former director Fergus Linehan in 2006. Whichever way it goes, it’s a winner.

This review first appeared in The Australian on January 15