Friday, 25 April 2014

Bye. Gone - Second Chance Theatre (25 April 2014)

“You can’t run away from the pain.”

Alaska. A place where the lights are one of the most beautiful things you might ever see. A place where the stars bring more than light and dust. A place the wolves fear. Where memories come to life in the form of “ghostings”. Perhaps the wolves are right to be afraid…

A young man (Nic Doig) is stirred from his slumber in the snow by an old war veteran (Daley King). As they talk both men are visited by visions from their past – the ghostings – that reveal how each man has come to this strange place and why. War has raged for ten years with the promise of twenty more to come. The Old Man has already experienced its horrors, able to recite the number and method of those he has killed. The Young Man is disorientated but seemingly there to meet a friend.

Their memories are played out through The Reflection (Andrew Dawson) who portrays both men – in childhood, young adulthood, through key moments of their past, some good, most clouded by the pall of missing fathers and stern mothers.

The play is a fascinating rumination on guilt, regret, pain and, ultimately, choice. The setting is deliberately surreal – the set covered with white sheets to depict Alaska while clever use of lighting and an excellent soundtrack by Drew Krapljanov usher in the transition to what, in effect, amount to flashbacks as memories are played out before the two men.

Daley King is a strong presence as The Old Man who questions and cajoles The Young Man with authority yet also regret as his secrets are slowly revealed. Nic Doig’s Young Man is more the innocent with the much calmer temperament of the two as he grapples with his current predicament and the examination of his past. Both get to play narrator as memories are re-enacted telling us, particularly in The Old Man’s case, what are lies and what is the truth.

Andrew Dawson not only plays both men in the various memory scenes but over different timeframes – a young child hurt in a fall; playing robots with a childhood friend; moments of first love as a teenager; a café patron on the hunt for rhubarb pie; promising the now older friend that he will enlist and join the war. He does an excellent job in playing an array of emotions in these diverse scenarios.

The key memories, however, revolve around the fractious relationship the men have with their mothers, both women played by Emily David. Motherly concern is paramount but expresses itself in predominantly negative fashion with the slaps David delivers to Dawson (as the Young Man) flinchingly real.

The cast is rounded out by Launce Ronzan as The Friend who goes from wanting to be a robot with a chainsaw for a hand to enlisting to fight in the war and calling The Young Man a coward for having doubts about doing likewise; Shannon Rogers is The Lover who is despised by The Young Man’s mother; Chelsea Kunkler as The Stranger who visits the café every Monday and Friday that The Old Man used to frequent; and Rhianna Hall as The Owner who injects some playful humour as she talks to The Old Man in those past memories.

The whole thing is played out to a thought provoking conclusion that had the audience chatting away as the lights came back up. Indeed it is a thoughtfully written and constructed play with the “flashback structure” allowing great insight into the two main characters. Written and directed by Scott McArdle I enjoyed this examination of the past and how it informs our choices despite of, or indeed perhaps because of, the mistakes we make and the guilt we feel because of them.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

The Pillowman - Endless Theatre Company (16 April 2014)

Black. Jet black. Black as in you go on a tour of a mine shaft a mile underground and they turn all the lights off BLACK.

Torture. Murder. Not just any murder mind you. The murder of children. In gruesome ways. In horrible ways.

Funny. Sorry? Yes, you read that right. Very funny. If you like your humour JET. FUCKING. BLACK.

But most of all, surprisingly, fabulously, a play about stories, about writing and what it means to be a writer. About taking responsibility for what is written. About where stories come from, even the dark ones – especially the dark ones. About legacy. For what is a writer without their stories?

A play that toys with language, that is full of sly writer jokes, that pokes fun at yet celebrates even the bleakest of tales; but a play that doesn’t shy away from, indeed embraces, the ramifications of what can be wrought when a story enters the world. When a tale enters the imagination of those whose responses are unpredictable. Heinous. Devastating. The culpability of the writer in this and the consequences they face. Be that of their own making or that of external forces represented here as the instruments of a totalitarian state.

As a writer I was gobsmacked. It was an astonishing, dark, twisted metaphor for the creative process. I loved every fucking minute of it.

This is exceptional writing by Martin McDonagh ("one of the most important living Irish playwrights") on every level. Deliciously pointed dialogue; stories within a story told with pride, with sadness, with horror, even with glee; and moments of tenderness and insight amongst the brutality and bluster. Revelations for every character; unexpected reversals; and a beautifully crafted first act climax that would happily cap off most plays. ‘Happily’ being a relative word here. It all ends with a bittersweet moment that is about as ‘lighthearted’ as this play gets but a moment that ties up the tale of the “Pillowman” to telling effect.

The story itself is deceptively simple:

A hooded writer sits in an interrogation room. A “bulldog policeman” and a detective question him and they’re none too subtle about it. The policeman uses brute physical force while the detective belittles and badgers with words. It seems the writer has written stories that bear remarkable resemblance to the murder of three children. In the next room is the writer’s retarded brother. They are both scheduled to be executed by the state. The writer’s stories are used as accusations against him. But will he give up everything to protect them, even his own life?

The performances are uniformly excellent. Jordan Gallagher does so much of the heavy lifting as the writer, Katurian. There is hardly a moment he isn’t on stage and his character swings from fear and disbelief to moments of defiance; to pride and self-loathing, to begging, even cajoling and then soothing his brother. He is also the chief ‘storyteller’ as he recounts his morbid stories and the tale of how they came to be written. It is physically demanding role and he pulls it off well. Anyone who doubts how physical should have seen the golf ball sized egg on his left elbow after the show, the result of being battered and clattered about in the more intense moments of interrogation.

Kiefer Moriarty-Short is the standout here as the brother, Michal – a tricky role that requires him to be childlike yet cunning and insolent as well. The work between Gallagher and Moriarty-Short in the long scene in the second half of the first act is superb as it swings and oscillates leading to a cracking conclusion. It is a master class in action changes, the scene spiralling off into new directions on the most casual of remarks.

Garreth Bradshaw’s Detective Tupolski deploys cold, smiling charm and sarcasm as he probes for the truth amongst the horror. He also has moments where barely contained rage explodes into life and has a showcase story of his own to tell, dodgy Chinese accent and all.

Bryn Coldrick’s policeman, Ariel, is all coiled anger and he is as likely to use his fists as he is the electrodes connected to a real life battery (that made the audience decidedly uneasy). Yet he also has brief moments of true compassion and understanding that reveal more complexity than we first perceive.

The staging is very simple which is appropriate as it is the writing and acting that are the stars here. There is interesting use of shadowed figures on the white backdrops during the telling of Katurian’s tales that added an unsettling effect as did the lighting and sparse music.

It was in fact quite an intimate location in one of the rehearsal rooms upstairs at the State Theatre seating about 80. A front row seat meant I was mere metres away from the action. The intensity was palpable. I must stress though that this is a darkly funny piece despite the lurid subject matter. Sure, it may not be everyone’s cup of tea as evidenced by one audience member who stood speechless afterwards as if in shock. But for me this is four actors revelling in world class writing and pulling off a stunning show with aplomb.

The aspects that resonated with me the most? As a writer what are you without your stories? What would you be prepared to do to save them? To make sure they carried on long after you are dead? There is also very much an exploration of what makes a writer write the way they do. Good and bad. Without those things could you still write?

Yes, I indeed loved every minute.

Written by Martin McDonagh, Directed by Rebecca Virginia Williams, and starring Jordan Gallagher, Kiefer Moriarty-Short, Bryn Coldrick & Garreth Bradshaw, there is only one more performance, Saturday 19th April, 8pm at the State Theatre Centre. I'd be there if you haven't seen it. Hood optional.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Pyramus and Thisbe - The Mechanicals (5 April 2014)

What a joy to discover that a travelling troupe of actors had descended on the Marloo Theatre in Greenmount to perform the tragedy Pyramus and Thisbe. And what a performance it was! I laughed, I cried, I oohed and aahed, I marvelled at the talent on display. Nick Bottom gives a compelling performance as Pyramus, a simple weaver who longs to be with Francis Flute’s comely Thisbe. Bottom commands the stage with a startlingly naturalistic performance – from whispered exhortations to his beloved to saliva driven tears of grief - he is truly magnificent. It’s difficult to believe Flute is in fact a man such is the skill with which he inhabits the passionate Thisbe.

Between them is a Wall stoutly played by Tom Snout whose ‘chink’ proves more than a mouthful as the lovers communicate with cum hither intensity. What would a doomed romance be without moonlight, capably supplied by Robin Starveling? Starveling adroitly wields a candle whilst walking an uncredited toy dog. The villain of the piece is the oddly named Snug who plays a Lion armed with a fearsome roar. The troupe is rounded out by Peter Quince who delivers a prologue designed to comfort the audience such is the emotional intensity of piece.

The lovers agree to meet after some expertly executed wall talk but Thisbe is beset by the Lion and flees leaving a bloodied scarf at the scene. Pyramus arrives to discover said garment and, fearing the worse, takes his own life such is his devastation. In a heartbreaking moment, Thisbe returns to find Pyramus dead. She (eventually) prises the sword from her lover’s cold, lifeless hands and turns it on herself, the lovers reunited in morbid death.

I was on the edge of my seat. The deaths were vivid, the tragedy shocking. The physicality of the action was so authentic the audience winced at every blow, every thud, every sword thrust. The urgent messaging between Bottom and Flute through Wall’s chink was truly holesome glory. The only downside for me was the heckling of this magnificent group of actors by a bunch of royal prats on the fringe of the stage who clearly did not appreciate the skill and subtlety on display. In a word this was outstanding. No wonder Shakespeare ripped it off for his Romeo and Juliet.

Strangely though, there was also a prequel of sorts about how the troupe came to perform this short masterpiece. Something called A Midsummer Night’s Dream or some such nonsense…

A Midsummer Night’s Dream - Garrick Theatre (5 April 2014)

Ah, Shakespeare - generally acknowledged as the greatest writer in the history of Western Civilisation. Intimidating! Yes, I studied him at high school – Henry IV, Part 1 and Hamlet to be precise – but, and here’s the heresy, I generally find his plays a chore. Mine modern ears doth struggle to tune in to the language and odd rhythms and when it’s delivered at breakneck speed as it is so often these days, it leaves me cold.

What a delight then to have that fog lifted with Garrick Theatre’s production of this classic Shakespeare comedy. Talking to the director Peter Clark afterwards, the cast spent the first three weeks of rehearsal concentrating solely on understanding the language. This pays off in spades as I found it much easier to comprehend (and appreciate) the delivery than another version I saw a while ago.

Sure, it still took me a little while to get my ear in (not aided by the distraction of some idiot in the audience using a mobile phone during the early going) but from the moment Helena (Gemma Sharpe) makes her entrance everything snaps into place. Whereas before I was totally lost, this version all made sense. That clarity is great credit to the director and cast who obviously worked hard to make this a priority.

The play is a set of three interweaving stories. Four young Athenian lovers, Lysander (Samuel Tye), Demetrius (Finn Alexander), Hermia (Clare Thomson) and Helena (Gemma Sharpe) journey to a wood near Athens to resolve their romantic entanglements; a troupe of six actors – The Mechanicals – prepare to perform Pyramus and Thisbe at the wedding of the Duke of Athens, Theseus (Jesse Wood) and his bride to be, Hippolyta (Jayden Payne). The actors are Peter Quince (Adrian Wood), Snug (Ben Anderson), Nick Bottom (Rodney van Groningen), Francis Flute (Alan Markham), Tom Snout (David Seman) and Robin Starveling (Melissa Scott).

In the woods, the lovers and actors fall prey to the machinations between the King of the Fairies, Oberon (John Taylor) and his Queen, Titania (Jacqui Warner). Oberon is ably assisted in this by Puck (Krysia Wychecki) who causes all kinds of mischief while Titania has a retinue of fairies (Jayden Payne, Melissa Clements, Dailin Manning and Natasha Smith). The cast is rounded out by Michael Hart as Hermia’s father, Egeus and Natasha Smith also plays Philostrate, the Master of the Revels.

It is a simple set with a lighted tree the centrepiece. Camouflage netting is used across the stage to indicate the woods which also allows for interesting lighting effects as the fairies frolic behind it for example. The costuming is a mix of modern style suits for the men, bold patterns for the women and Wychecki’s Puck is a startling punk like figure.

A feature of the play is the physical nature of the performances. These are real slaps and blows being exchanged and the cast seem to revel in the high energy levels. The exchanges between Taylor and Wychecki, in particular, are almost brutal at times as Oberon battles with his unruly emissary.

Above all, this is downright funny in parts. The play within a play is hilarious and van Groningen has a ball as Bottom, ass and all. There’s a lot of physical comedy here and the Mechanicals play off each other nicely with pratfalls galore.

The cast are uniformly good with the work of a vibrant Wychecki and van Groningen the highlight. Tye is a boisterous Lysander and Sharpe very strong as the spurned then desired Helena. The fairies are all suitably playful and Payne reveals a lovely singing voice. Taylor has a commanding presence and Thomson is put through the ringer as Hermia’s fortunes wax and wane. As mentioned, all the Mechanicals play up to the over-the-top nature of Bottom’s antics and their own amusing parts in the sham play.

This is one of three plays being performed as part of the Shakespeare Anniversary Festival, the others being Othello and Macbeth. Three clubs have joined forces to celebrate the 450th anniversary of The Bard’s birth in this way – Garrick Theatre, Kalamunda Dramatic Society and the Darlington Theatre Players. If A Midsummer Night’s Dream is anything to go by, Shakespeare lovers are in for a real treat during the month of April.

***All three plays are being performed at the Marloo Theatre in Greenmount***