Five plays

The Pride, Side Pony Productions, Bondi Pavilion Theatre, March 25; Fight Night, The Border Project/Ontroerend Goed, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, March 26 (matinee); The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, Lambert House Enterprises, Gingers at the Oxford Hotel, March 26; Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre, March 27 (matinee); Stitching, Little Spoon Theatre, TAP Gallery, March 27.

WHEN I was in fulltime employment I rarely went to a matinee and I saw shows almost exclusively at their opening performance. First nights are usually great fun, of course. The foyer is crowded with friends and acquaintances of the cast and crew and many in the audience know one another well. The best seats in the house are given over to critics, politicians and maybe a celebrity or two; there will be industry figures and perhaps a few representatives of sponsors; and many – sometimes all – in the house will not have paid for their tickets. I don’t want to call this an artificial situation because it is an accepted, regular part of the process of putting on a play, an opera, a ballet or whatever. But it is not representative of the rest of the season.

That standing ovation given to a musical may indeed turn out to have been for one night only, fuelled by the show’s producers and invited celebrities leaping immediately to their feet. The house that didn’t have a spare seat at the premiere may be far easier to access once word of mouth does its influential work. On the other hand, it’s sometimes possible to find much greater enthusiasm for a piece when it’s played for a general public audience than for a tough opening night crowd – the opera is a good example.

Whatever the result, I always find it rewarding to see a show during the run, to observe the make up of the audience, to listen to their comments and to gauge their reactions.

The cast of The Ensemble's Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

The cast of The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park. Photo: Clare Hawley

This past week I saw five pieces of theatre, only one of which – Stitching – was having its opening night. It was therefore a good week in which to see paying customers in action. In Fight Night, the audience is literally seen in action because its attitudes help shape the show. It is a deliberately manipulative piece in which the audience is asked to vote for actors representing politicians in an election. Additionally, the audience is asked to give some information about age, income, and attitudes. I was at a matinee, so wasn’t entirely surprised to see that more than 85 per cent of my audience was aged 60 or older.

At Fight Night everyone is given an electronic pad that can register choices, although as is the case with most situations where one appears to have alternatives, there are strong limits to the number and nature of those offered. The actors make their pitches, we vote, they throw in a couple of not entirely democratic twists and turns, and we’re left with one person who is supposed to be the one most of us want. The result is actually deeply unsurprising.

The best bit at the performance I attended was near the end, when one of the actor/politicians persuades some audience members to opt out of this obviously skewed process by handing in their electronic pads and leaving the theatre. One man in this dissident group stomped out, throwing the word fascists at us as he departed. The actor representing the last politician in the race commented that this man hadn’t understood the play, but I thought that unfair. Fight Night only works if the audience pretty much agrees to be manipulated, so I thought it a bit thick to knock someone for having been taken in to the degree that he actually felt something important was really at stake.

If you want to see important things at stake, The Ensemble’s Clybourne Park is the go – if you can get a ticket. The season at The Ensemble’s Kirribilli home was sold out very early but there are two extra performances at The Concourse in Chatswood. It is highly recommended.

In acts set 50 years apart, there is a beautifully wrought discussion about race and history seen through the prism of a family home, although with intimations of the wider world. In the first half a white couple is about to move, their house having been sold to a black family – unseen – who will be the first coloured people in the neighbourhood. In the second half the house, now dilapidated, is about to be demolished. Both situations spark fractious argument undimmed by a half-century of change.

Tanya Goldberg directs an unimprovable cast of seven – Paula Arundell, Thomas Campbell, Briallen Clarke, Nathan Lovejoy, Wendy Strehlow, Richard Sydenham, Cleave Williams – in a production that is exceptionally funny, sometimes quite shocking, and always very, very sharp.

I also very much enjoyed The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, David Drake’s autobiographical 1993 piece (originally a solo show) about growing up gay. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the additional scene Drake has written to take same-sex marriage into account, but Ben Hudson and James Wright’s performances lit up the tiny Gingers space. There’s nowhere to hide for actors and audience members alike when both are scarcely an arm’s length apart and there was lots of lovely eye contact.

Hudson and Wright gave their all in front of a very small audience. It was undeservedly small, but part of the truth of theatre is that the house won’t necessarily be packed at all times – something the inveterate first-nighter doesn’t get to see. The cast of The Pride had the same experience this week as they acted out what was, for me, a fairly ho-hum fable about domination and the loss of it. The Pride has had success elsewhere but I was underwhelmed. As I was about Anthony Neilson’s two-hander Stitching, which has also received praise in other productions. Stitching presents a relationship in big, big trouble. To spice things up it jumps around in time and introduces hot and heavy role-playing.

Unfortunately actors Lara Lightfoot and Wade Doolan were unable to make me believe in their plight or sympathise with it, but others may feel differently. That’s the beauty of an audience, that singular entity made up of many individuals.

The Pride ends on April 5. The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me ends April 6. Stitching ends April 12. Fight Night ends April 13. Clybourne Park ends at The Ensemble April 19 (season sold out); extra performances at The Concourse, Chatswood, April 23 and 24.

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.