No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: Ben Flett

Review: Random

Zindzi Okenyo. Photo by Sophia Calado.

Zindzi Okenyo. Photo by Sophia Calado.

debbie tucker green’s Random is a mammoth of a play for an actor to take on. It runs at under an hour, but asks a lot from its performer emotionally as she moves through the textually dense piece. Over the course of a day we follow a family – Mum, Dad, Brother and Sister – as they start their days, and then hear the news of a brutal, random knife attack on Brother.

Here director Nescha Jelk, making here State Theatre Company debut, also rests a lot on performer Zindzi Okenyo’s shoulders. In the first half of the play, Jelk places Okenyo in almost utter silence. Compounded by Ben Flett’s lighting that keeps Okenyo only lit from the waist up, Jelk is asking a lot of her audience, too, to train in and engage with the language of green’s text.

But lean in we do. green’s text brings a crammed, rhythmic poetry to everyday speech. This rhythm is intensified with the accents of the characters: the soft Jamaican lilt of Mum, the different tonal slangs of Brother and Sister. Some words are lost, particularly in the voice of Mum and at times it feels like the rhythm of the piece is more important to Jelk than the specific words.

In the first half, Okenyo fells most at home in the body of Sister – closest physically, but also the character she goes on to spend the most time in. Jelk gives Okenyo a breath between each character; transitions at first seem to be made too slowly, disrupting green’s internal rhythms. Lit by projections of blurred, muted colours as well as the rig, occasionally, too, transitions in the projection screens take away from the pace of green’s text. As the play develops, though, Jelk and Okenyo find the rhythms that speak through and they take over the performance.

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Review: Hedda Gabler

Kate Cheel and Alison Bell, photo by Shane Reid.

Kate Cheel and Alison Bell, photo by Shane Reid.

The house lights drop. The music rises, thumping through the auditorium. Half-light on stage. Hedda Gabler (Alison Bell) stands in the doorway. Stressed. Out of place. She moves the couch. It’s in the wrong place. Sits. Rubs her eyes. Stressed. Blackout.

Considered one of the greatest female roles of the repertoire, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler comes roaring into the 21st Century in this contemporary adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Geordie Brookman. The dialogue is contemporary, formalities and the maid have been dispensed with, the characters wield iPhones, yet this faithful adaptation leaves the structure and major beats of Ibsen’s text intact.

While the characters keep their Norwegian names and the location is never explicitly stated, the spirit of Murray-Smith’s text is that of Australia, perhaps almost chiefly for Hedda’s relationship with guns. Murray-Smith’s Hedda is an anomaly in this society for owning guns at all, not simply for being a woman who owns them. Here, inherited and never registered, “you should have turned then in”, says Brack (Terence Crawford), a reference to Australia’s 1996 gun reforms. Indeed, because of this, it’s almost impossible to see this work having the same relevancy in contemporary America.

Perhaps one of the dangers in adapting Hedda Gabler to a contemporary context is the way that women’s place in society has changed in 120 years. Ibsen’s women, his Hedda and his Nora in particular, were revolutionary in their portraits of middle-class women unhappy with their lives, questioning society, and, ultimately, taking control of their own destinies – in radically different fashions. It would be all too easy for a contemporary Hedda to not ring true: while women are still under many pressures and societal expectations, today’s women are, on the whole, more activated both inside and outside the home. Yet, Murray-Smith’s adaptation brings with it startling relevancy, none more so in the ever-prevailing expectation and tension on women to become mothers: here, this conversation feels shocking but in no way false.

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Review: The City

This review contains minor spoilers to the plot and the production. 

When Christopher (Chris Pitman) went to work today, his swipe card wouldn’t swipe. No matter what he did, the door wouldn’t register him. The cleaners didn’t even recognise him. As Clair (Lizzy Falkland) waited for the train today, a man came up, worried he hadn’t had a chance to say good-bye to his daughter. Recapping their days, overlaps and intersections of the mundane and the important, husband and wife talk past each other more than they talk to each other.

Slowly, their lives dislocate: Christopher finds himself unemployed – was the failed swipe card a sign?; Clair finds herself drawn to the man from the train station, Mohamed; their lives are interrupted by strange tales and accusations from their neighbour, Jenny (Anna Steen).

Martin Crimp’s The City, here presented by nowyesnow and directed by Geordie Brookman is a tight and tense look at lives that, while, perhaps aren’t faltering, are wrecked with tautness and strain. Crimp’s text, tightly woven and obsessed with structure, holds its audience at arms length: there is a mystery to the work, but it takes much labour to find your way into his mind and the mind of his characters.

Despite all my preparation for seeing The City, I wasn’t on top of the piece until the final scene in this production. In Crimp’s world, eerie and out-of-balance, nothing can be assumed to be the truth. As soon as you come to this realisation, as soon as you start noticing the cracks in this world, everything that is said is questioned. Things that once seemed true become lies, things that seemed lies become true, and even as the play ends I couldn’t tell where the frame of the “real” world within Crimp’s work began, and an imaginary world ended. Was any of it intended to be true? Was the whole thing fallacy after fallacy, lie wrapped up in a lie?

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Interview: Geordie Brookman and The City

Already this year Adelaide theatre director Geordie Brookman has worked as assistant director on the Force Majeure / Sydney Theatre Company / Sydney Festival production Never Did Me Any Harm; directed the development and reading of Nicki Bloom’s 170 page, five hour long The Sun and the Other Stars for the National Play Festival in Melbourne; was the community coordinator at the Adelaide Festival club Barrio; and, in a “stupidly swift manner”, applied for and was announced as incumbent Artistic Director for the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

But before any of this came along, Geordie and wife Nicki Bloom had planned a year’s worth of work for their independent theatre company nowyesnow, for which they are co-artistic directors. I meet with Geordie twice in the last month to discuss directing nowyesnow’s first production for 2012, Martin Crimp’s The City.

Chatting on the second day of rehearsals in March and during bump-in to the theatre three days before the first preview in April gave me the opportunity to learn more about how a work is approached at the beginning and end of a rehearsal process, and (here’s hoping) gave me an opportunity to come to a clearer understanding of the work before seeing the piece and formulating my response to it (which you can now read here). The traditional approach is, of course, there is no connection between the artists and the critic before a work, as if conversations will some how “taint” the opinion (or, at worst, “subjectivity”) of a critic. But trying to stand completely outside of the theatrical culture in Adelaide is rather impossible, and I’m also interested in the place a critic occupies between the “audience” and the “artist” and how, by forming a clearer picture of intents and processes, the gaps on all sides (between audience and critic; between critic and artist; between audience and artist) can become smaller.

How this works in practice is something I’m still working out, but I’m glad to have artists who will help me in the process.

Geordie previously directed Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life for STCSA in 2008. “He’s always struck me,” he told me at our first meeting.

“Whenever I read something of his it always has an impact, and it doesn’t mean every word of his is perfect, but every one is so finely wrought and so deeply intelligent and so determined to simply be what it is. That beautiful thing in an artist: he doesn’t try to please anybody except himself, and he just allows the audience to come to him.”

Of The City, Geordie said the work is “a really quiet, really controlled, very very very intimate piece of chamber theatre that maintains that wonderful, dark, wicked sense of humour that he has, but makes no apologies for being deeply intelligent and highly cerebral.”

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Review: Boxing Day Test

Lest anyone be scared off by the title, no more than your absolute basic knowledge of cricket will be required when watching Boxing Day Test. My knowledge perhaps only just extends to the finer points of tippy go, and believe it is best experienced by playing on a sand bar.  I have absolutely no idea of how the scoring works, and to be honest I don’t much care to know.

After I couldn’t go to the Opening Night, or the following night, I was offered tickets to the preview performance: a night I could go to, but I wouldn’t have any time following to write about it.  I also felt strange about going and reviewing on a preview.  I have no problem with going to preview performances, and have done so frequently, but I also feel if I’m reviewing “professionally” then these shows should be untouched.  And they’re probably glad I didn’t review it: I heard the show went for four hours, had five stops, and twice actors were left suspended from the ceiling for eight minutes.  Oh, wait, no, that was Spiderman! The Musical!

This review originally appeared on

Christmas. It’s that time of year again. For some, a time for families, celebration, and looking forward into the future of a new year. Or for others, just the day before Boxing Day, and with it, the glory of the Boxing Day Test. For brothersPatrick (Tim Overton) and David (Nic English) and the Christmas approaching the one-year anniversary of their mother’s death, this test is going to be tougher than most.

Michael Hill’s Boxing Day Test is an often dark and tense look at a particularly hurt family, with damage traipsing back fourteen years finally coming out. Around the holiday,Dave flirts and connects with Patrick’s crush and fellow law student Sophie (Renee Gentle). To try and save from eviction, Patrick asks their father, John (Patrick Frost), to buy the house: he doesn’t realise this will mean his father coming back uninvited into Dave’s life.

Floating around for at least eight years, in an earlier incarnation, entitled Poor BrotherHill was shortlisted in the 2002 Jill Blewett Playwright’s Award, awarded at Adelaide Writers Week biennially. Despite these early accolades,Junglebean (a young company established and run by EnglishOverton and Gentle) is giving the script its world premiere production. It is a terrible sign as to the state of presentations of new works by South Australian writers that an accomplished piece of text has taken so long to reach the stage.

But through Junglebean, and under direction and dramaturgy by Duncan Graham, audiences are finally getting the chance to discover the script. While slightly uneven, where the piece tends to get unnecessarily bogged down in verbalisation rather than simply allowing the strength of character to come through, Boxing Day Test is a crafted portrait of four human and flawed characters, some more than most, and it is the final destination of each of these characters that truly creates the production.

Such characters cannot be brought to the stage without a strong cast. Here, English is the standout. While Dave is often unlikable in his actions, English strikes the balance between tortured soul, sexy bad boy, and a hint of brains, to create a thoroughly engaging character.

Frost is in fine form in the most narrowly written of the characters, yet this is a play that belongs to its young cast.Overton and Gentle truly come into their characters towards the last third of the play, as their characters are drawn in to the conflict. Gentle as Sophie in the last scene in particular left my heart beating. Overton does his best turn not as the straight-laced-student Patrick, but the drugged up Patrick. Where Gentle finds her best performance asSophie finds great strength, Overton finds his best as Patrick falls apart.

In an interesting directorial choice by Graham there is minimal physical contact between all characters on stage. While violence and sexual relationships are spoken about and are the overall themes of the piece, when onstage they are never extended beyond a short grab or a skimming embrace. While emotions run raw in a play that is so much about physical mistreatment, Graham never expands these emotions physically. This interestingly serves to create a level of frustration in these restrictions placed, yet highlights the tensions which are already present in the text, and do not need to be literalised.

Even in the one scene of overt violence, Graham maximises on the skills designers Tammy BodenAndrew Howard and Ben Flett, as a fight is created with a single actor, strobe lights, and frantic music. It is simultaneously a brutal exploration of violence and an exploration of the power of theatre to create images and ideas where there are none.

Playing around in the bleak, near squalor, of Boden’s simple, pared back and realistic set, Flett’s lighting design is tight, quickly changing between scenes in interplay between an abrupt change in Howard’s sound design. Within the frenetical world of the characters (particularly when under the influence of drugs or beer) these abrupt changes and high energy add to the tension of the construct.

As a counterpoint to these moments of high energy, Flett’s lights in the moments of tension and near quiet highlight the menace and pain within the script and the characters. Within the already small forum of The Bakehouse this extreme tightening serves to constrict focus onto the best parts of English’s performance.

Howard’s sound, primarily used in the scene changeovers and for snippets of commentary from the actual Boxing Day Test on the television, but also as more of a sound track to scenes veering on montage, provides a palpable energy and helps build the humour and the tension within the script.

The piece, while a fully contained story about a single familial conflict, also satisfyingly feels as if it fits into a much larger framework: there is a clear trajectory of where the characters have come from to get to this point, and an ambiguous yet present trajectory that these characters and relationship continue off the page beyond the confines of Hill’s script.

Yet, while HillGraham and Junglebean are tackling tough subjects that take a risk, overall it almost veers too much on a side of caution. Deliberate ambiguity in the set up led me to concoct a much darker storyline in my head, ultimately incongruent with the conclusion of the piece. The production would benefit from being pushed just a bit further into darkness and over that edge it sits on. Nonetheless, Boxing Day Test is a strong, new Australian work, from a young Australian company, which deserve to be seen.

Junglebean presents Boxing Day Test by Michael Hill.  Directed by Duncan Graham, set and costume designer Tammy Boden, sound designer Andrew Howard, lighting designer Ben Flett.  With Nic English, Patrick Frost, Renee Gentle and Tim Overton. 

Almost a review: romeo&juliet

It may be thought we held him carelessly,
Being our kinsman, if we revel much.
Therefore we’ll have some half a dozen friends,
And there an end. But what say you to Thursday?

– Act III, Scene IV

I think when you’re in high school, the texts and films you are exposed to in English and Drama tend to be either the best thing or the worst thing in the world. You’re a teenager: there isn’t a middle ground. It can be very dependent on the teacher,  but sometimes great teachers can assign terrible texts, while terrible teachers can expose you to playwrights, and knowledge about those playwrights, which still shape the way you look at theatre when you’re 21. Sometimes, they’re terrible simply because you have to read or watch them fifty million times, and you get asked inane questions on what the author was trying to deeply symbolise. My answers that maybe they just liked it, or “because it was funny” didn’t always go down a treat.

What good is Shakespearian tragedy without violence? Great movement choreography by Larissa McGowan. Michaela Cantwell as Romeo, Thomas Conroy as Mercutio and Mark Saturno as Tybalt. Photo by Shane Reid

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