Hidden Sydney and other current theatre

Poor old Kings Cross. It used to have a bit of glamour back in the day, what with its famous crims, flamboyant, unconventional characters and nightclubs that could attract international performers. Now a stroll up Darlinghurst Road of an evening is an exercise in swerving around backpackers and wondering how the small businesses manage to stay afloat.

But 40, 50, 60 years ago the place did have a bit of thrill about it, a louche charm that Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile enterprisingly tries to recapture. It’s what’s known as immersive theatre, which essentially means the audience is in the thick of the action and might play some part in it. You needn’t worry though; Hidden Sydney is very gentle in its co-option of patrons.

Up Mansion Lane, just off Ward Avenue in the Cross, audience members mill about in a makeshift box office and bar area before heading inside a building that once housed The Nevada, a famous brothel and gathering place for some of the city’s more colourful identities. It was obviously a pretty swanky place, although now rather down at heel. Still, with the lights kept low it’s possible to get some sense of the long-gone allure.

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Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield in Hidden Sydney. Photo: Jamie Williams

A small group – about 30 at a time at half-hour intervals – is led through rooms and corridors and up and down stairs, pausing here and there for vignettes of life at the margins of legality and respectability. Along the way you find yourself jammed into a Les Girls dressing room hearing some drag-queen confidences up close; a lounge where cheerful and candid advice is delivered about sex work; and a balcony where the inimitable eccentric Bea Miles touches patrons up for a dollar or two. If you don’t care for close contact with your fellow human beings this isn’t the place for you.

Some sections of the 75-minute show are more successful than others. The lengthy – or so it felt – drama relating to the disappearance of activist Juanita Nielsen doesn’t come up trumps and a bartender’s self-congratulatory story about drug-dealing isn’t revelatory. But much can be forgiven when a show includes Virginia Gay as Bea Miles, Ben Gerrard as a delightfully chatty drag performer and Christa Hughes as Judy Garland at The Silver Spade – remember that? – even if Hughes could afford to pull back the act a notch or three. Director Lucas Jervies has an extensive background in dance and it was an inspiration to celebrate the White Witch of Kings Cross, Rosaleen Norton, via a steamy pas de deux from Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield. Luxury casting indeed if you know your dance world, and fabulously enticing even if you don’t.

Truth to tell the dance is as dangerous as Hidden Sydney gets. A little more edge wouldn’t go astray but it’s a fun idea – and it’s a shame the audience can’t linger too long at The Silver Spade, where Rob Mills, Grant Galea and Aaron Robuck preside smoothly. It’s the final stop in the show and the next group is inexorably on its way.

If you can see only one piece of theatre in Sydney in the next two weeks that would have to be The Drover’s Wife at Belvoir, written by and starring Leah Purcell. You might have to put your name down for returns, mind you, as it’s completely sold out except, at the time of writing, for one performance.

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Leah Purcell and Will McDonald in The Drover’s Wife. Photo: Brett Boardman

Henry Lawson’s short story provides the bones for Purcell’s play but she gives it very different flesh. Within the frame of an old-fashioned story of harsh colonial life there is a harrowing demonstration of how entrenched, brutal power works. The unforgiving landscape is as much an antagonist as the undeserving, appallingly vicious men who grab it for themselves. A woman has to be over-flowing with courage, resourcefulness and resilience to control the trouble constantly at her door. When an Indigenous man on the run turns up, the stark white-hat, black-hat scenario turns into something quite other. It becomes a mysterious and ultimately uplifting exploration of identity and connection that transcends the almost unbearably brutal day-to-day existence.

Over at the Old Fitz Theatre in Wooloomooloo there are two plays worth catching and you need only one evening in which to accomplish the feat if you choose the right night (not many left). The early show, James Fritz’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, sends a woman into a spin when she gradually learns via that most banal of things, the sex video put online, that her beloved son and her husband are not who she thought they were. It’s a taut, tense drama with a terrific central performance from Danielle King. The current late show at the Old Fitz is Threnody, a new work for six women by Michael McStay that is perceptive and often very amusing about a young woman’s journey from innocence to experience. Its observations about freedom, sex and the great wide world are delivered via a poetic text that packs a lot into 50 minutes. Threnody is perhaps more a curiosity than a stayer but all the women are terrific, particularly Josephine Starte as the inquisitive Virginia.

Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile ends October 9; The Drover’s Wife ends October 16; Four Minutes Twelve Seconds and Threnody both end October 8.

When Time Stops

Expressions Dance Company
Brisbane, September 10

IN Greek mythology the river Styx marks the point of no return. On one side is life, and on the other death; the ferryman Charon is the intermediary, transporting souls to the afterlife. Natalie Weir has taken this enduring story as the wellspring of When Time Stops, a new work for Expressions Dance Company that has just premiered at the Brisbane Festival. The central character is a woman who, In Weir’s words, “could be anyone, in her last moment of life’’. That moment is extended and suspended as experiences are relived, in flashes, by the Woman or replayed by others.

When we first see the Woman (Riannon McLean) she is at the point of joining the Ferryman (Thomas Gundry Greenfield) for her final journey. He is seated in a small white boat, back rippling as his arms press and circle in huge, powerful strokes that have a mesmerising but implacable rhythm. Never, one imagines, has the afterlife looked quite so enticing. McLean, so poised and centred, reaches towards him but is interrupted. The stage fills with musicians and other dancers. A life’s flashback begins.

This is a striking and eloquent beginning, much enhanced by Bill Haycock’s cool, elegant design and David Walters’s sympathetic lighting. And how marvellously and unselfconsciously the members of Camerata of St John’s move in and out of the dance, playing Iain Grandage’s new score from memory and doing it very, very proud. Weir’s direction of this aspect of the production is exceptional.

The dancers give every sinew of their being to the work and are captivating. McLean draws the eye even when still and in the background, such is her charisma; there can never be too many opportunities to see Daryl Brandwood; and Gundry Greenfield, whether entering the dance or continuing his endless ferryman labour, is as imposing a presence on stage as I have seen in quite a while.

When it comes to the choreography itself, however, I have significant reservations. Weir relies too much on several relatively obvious ideas – running backwards, slow-motion moves, rolling, leaping – in a way that does little to differentiate stages in the woman’s journey (there are 12 sections). There are several intimations of tenderness but mostly I felt as if I were seeing 17 kinds of sorrow on a loop.

Most troubling for me is a hardness in much of the partnering that borders on violence. There is one section clearly depicting some kind of accident or harm where the use – abuse? – of male strength is dramatically justified. But there were so many times when young women hurled themselves at the men, when they were slung over shoulders and when they were hurled around. The partnering looked very unequal in power and authority. I was also dismayed when women upended themselves on the floor, their floaty skirts naturally dropping down over their heads and shoulders as they extended their legs. I don’t mean to suggest Weir had the intention of making her female dancers look manipulated and anonymous; far from it. But, to me, apart from McLean they looked just that and I found it hard to watch.

That said, When Time Stops has many individual moments of great beauty. Apart from the opening the most satisfying image is of Gundry Greenfield morphing into a man who, in earlier times, rescued the Woman (danced at this point by Elise May) from drowning. The section is overlong, but has clarity of purpose not always so evident elsewhere.(It’s astonishing to learn that Gundry Greenfield did not start formal dance training until he was 21, although his background does include Australian Rules football, so that sort of counts.)

When Time Stops could do with some focusing and tightening. So many new works fail to get the second look they deserve because of time or money constraints, but I hope Weir does have a chance to reconsider some things about When Time Stops because it’s certainly worth it. Undoubtedly a major problem about restaging would be the participation of the number of musicians Grandage requires for his score, and the dance would be immeasurably diminished by the use of recorded music.

Grandage, whose score for Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River was greatly admired, describes his music for When Time Stops as having, among other things, elements of minimalism, surrealism and polytonality. That may sound rather dry. In practice there is a great wealth of colour and texture as the orchestration – for strings alone – moves from the group to individual instruments, from the lower strings to the higher, from quite romantic plushness to thrilling astringency. The music appealed greatly on this one hearing and the Camerata of St John’s and their music director, Brendan Joyce, put in a blinder.

When Time Stops continues at the Playhouse, QPAC, until September 14.