Friday, February 27, 2015


Created by Yaron Lifschitz   -  Canberra Theatre Centre February 25 - 28

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Circa never fail to surprise. Just when you thought you have seen every circus trick imaginable, Circa come up with something new and surprising. Often classic circus tricks reworked and pushed beyond what you thought possible.

In “Circa Beyond” a troupe of 7 acrobats, 4 female and 3 male, ( 3 of whom are former Canberrans), hardly leave the stage for a moment of this 80 minute, high energy, presentation currently  touring Australia after an eight month season in Berlin.

The performance begins simply with a spot-lit hand beckoning through the main curtain. The hand is replaced by a leg, then a torso. The torso appears to struggle with the hand and leg, before the curtains open to reveal a dramatic black and red setting, on which the women, dressed in snappy black and white leotards, and the men in white shirts, rolled up chinos and grey waistcoats, fill the stage with astonishing acrobatics involving flying bodies, flying chairs, and possibly some animals, to the tune of “New York, New York”. On the last note of the music the mayhem finishes in a tableau with the whole cast surprisingly wearing huge rabbit heads.

The following act, performed to the Johnny Mathis version of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square” involves a rubic cube being passed around among the cast as they perform complicated lifts, throws, and tumbles until the problem is solved on the last note of the song.

Each imaginative segment segues seamlessly into the next, punctuated by ripples of appreciative applause. Each is choreographed to the split-second and brilliantly performed. The rabbit heads are woven through the show, as are stylised animalistic movements and routines involving silks, straps, trapezes and Chinese poles, all designed to showcase the amazing strength,  extraordinary flexibility and indeed bravery of each performer.

Because the work is such an ensemble effort it would be unfair to single out a particular performer. All contribute brilliance equally and their names are Robbie Curtis, Rowan Heydon-White, Bridie Hooper, Kathryn O’Keefe, Paul O’Keefe, Skip Walker and Billie Wilson-Coffey.

The overall effect is surreal, tantalising, and occasionally bizarre. It is also constantly entertaining, mesmerising and memorable.  Those looking for hidden meanings will find themselves tantalised, while those seeking only to be entertained will not be disappointed. “Circa Beyond” is a brilliantly packaged demonstration of extraordinary circus skills.

Sunday, February 22, 2015


Written by Oscar Wilde
Directed by Judi Crane
Canberra Rep, Theatre 3
February 20 - 7 March, 2015

Review by Len Power

Oscar Wilde’s, ‘The Importance Of Being Earnest’, is the most well-known of his string of comedies written in the 1890s.  Judi Crane’s entertaining new production for Canberra Rep captures the spirit of the play very well.

To be successful, the play needs skilled performers who can play the intent of a line which often differs from what is actually being said.  For the most part, the performers in this production get it right.  Miles Thompson is outstanding as the young Algernon Moncrieff.  His stylish playing never falters and his delivery of some of Wilde’s best lines is excellent.  Karen Vickery gives a strong performance as Lady Bracknell.  She is formidable, as expected, but the actress adds an unexpected playfulness to her character which works extremely well.  Kayleigh Brewster gives a finely mannered performance as Gwendolyn and Jordan Best is almost unrecognizable in her delightfully funny performance as Miss Prism.  The other players give nicely judged performances, although Michael Miller as the butler, Merriman, overplays to the point of caricature.
From Left: Kayleigh Brewster (Gwendolyn), Miles Thompson (Algernon), Jessica Symonds (Cecily) and Karen Vickery (Lady Bracknell) - photo by Helen Musa
The play requires three settings.  Set designer, Michael Sparks, has opted for simplicity with essentially the same set re-dressed for each scene.  His design for the garden scene was the least successful, looking like another interior room.  Costumes by Heather Spong were nicely in period.  The women’s hats were well- designed by Helen Drum but those worn by Karen Vickery had a tendency to shade the actress’s eyes.

Overall, Judi Crane has delivered a fine production of this now classic play.

Originally published in Canberra City News digital edition 21 February 2015 and broadcast on Bill Stephens’ ‘Dress Circle’ program on Artsound FM from 5pm Sunday22 February 2015.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine Holly

Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams.  Directed by Kip Williams.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House, the Drama Theatre, February 13 - March 21, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 21

The play about whether Catherine needs brain surgery because she ‘babbles’, or is the only one who knows the truth, is one of Tennessee Williams’ enduring works for theatre.  In his own time he experimented with staging techniques, famously in The Glass Menagerie where Tom at times removes himself from the action and becomes a narrator, while text signs remind us of people’s misconceptions – such as the hopeful “Blue Roses” for the ill-health condition ‘pleurosis’.

Kip Williams, perhaps channelling his namesake, has taken this production of Suddenly Last Summer far beyond the standard Brechtian distancing approach into the modern world of live video – and has done a brilliant job with his design team, Alice Babidge (Designer), Damien Cooper (Lighting), Stefan Gregory (Composer and Sound) and Shane Johnson (Audio-Visual Consultant).

For many years I have found myself critical of the use of multi-media as it became de rigeur – often being used as an unnecessary adjunct to the drama, merely because it had become the fashion.  This production proves that media on stage has grown up at last from its very early days (even back as far as Erwin Piscator’s political theatre in 1920s Germany).

An underlying but crucial theme of Suddenly Last Summer is revealed when the young woman under attack from her aunt, her mother, her brother, her nurse from St Mary’s Psychiatric Hospital, and, she suspects, from the specialist doctor who must decide if she should have a lobotomy, bursts out that she knows she is ‘being watched’.  Here’s a theme which, of course, has nowadays become a major political issue called ‘privacy’, and we all feel the threat of ‘surveillance’.

Using live video in this production, everyone on stage is being watched – by us, in exquisite close-up when we need to see exactly how a character is feeling, or to judge a character’s motivation.  Combined with a full-stage revolve, we are able to see every nuance throughout the extensive semi-tropical, almost primeval, garden in a way that would normally be impossible in a large conventional proscenium theatre. 

In fact, for perhaps the first time in my experience, the far too wide letter-box shape of the Drama Theatre stage has been used to the advantage of the play.

The result is absolutely rivetting.  Whatever we might think of the psychological ideas of Tennessee Williams’ era, which this play criticises in any case, the technique used by Kip Williams exposes the awful attitudes and destructive behaviours of Sebastian Venable (Brandon McClelland), his mother Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin), his dead father’s sister Grace Holly (Susan Prior), and his cousins George Holly (also Brandon McClelland) and the central young woman Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill).

Including Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Cukrowicz (or ‘Sugar’ in translation), Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and Melita Jurisic as Violet’s servant Miss Foxhill, the whole cast expertly worked in both stage and film method.  The only (minor) technical fault was that the good doctor’s mic lead showed above his collar in shots from behind. 

If any special praise should be given, beyond the high praise all deserved, it has to be for Eryn Jean Norvill’s tour de force as Catherine.  Her performance, and the whole production, should be watched for its clarity of purpose on the part of the Sydney Theatre team and of the author, Tennessee Williams.  And, as usual, the STC program is a very worthwhile read in itself.

Grace Holly (Susan Prior), her son George Holly (Brandon McClelland) and her daughter Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill)
 All photos by Brett Boardman
Mark Leonard Winter as Dr Cukrowicz (watching live on screen), Paula Arundell as Sister Felicity and Eryn Jean Norvill as Catherine Holly

Melita Jurisic as Violet’s servant Miss Foxhill with Robyn Nevin as Violet Venable

Two views of Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin)

Violet Venable (Robyn Nevin) being watched by Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill) on live camera

Three perspectives on Catherine Holly (Eryn Jean Norvill)

Catherine Holly in a different mood (Eryn Jean Norvill)

Violet Venable and Miss Foxhill (Robyn Nevin and Melita Jurisic)

Watching as Catherine tells the truth:
Melita Jurisic, Susan Prior and Paula Arundell as Miss Foxhill, Grace Holly and Sister Felicity
with Robyn Nevin (foreground) as Violet Venable

Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui

Illustration by Julian Meagher

Kill the Messenger by Nakkiah Lui.  Directed by Anthea Williams; set designer, Ralph Myers; lighting by Katie Sfetkidis; costumes, Mel Page; dramaturg, Jada Alberts.  Indigenous theatre at Belvoir, suppported by The Balnaves Foundation at Belvoir Upstairs, February 18 – March 8, 2015.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 20

Author: Nakkiah Lui

Kill the Messenger is a great little play, and a different play.  It is a modern play.  As I left the theatre, I was confronted by the vociferous excitable melee of Friday night revellers bunched around the restaurants in Elizabeth Street, and wondered what world I was in.  This was not where I had been for the previous hour and a half.

Great big plays of the past, let’s say by Sophocles or Shakespeare, were set in another time and/or place.  For the characters, the story might be personal, but the audience knew that after the emotional engagement, their task was to interpret the author’s intention.  What does Oedipus’ tragic unwitting mistake in marrying his mother tell us about the human condition?  Are the gods worthy of our continuing belief, or might not we be better off to forget them?  How does the ex-king’s son, Hamlet, deal with his uncle’s perfidy?  Is the play in 1604 a warning not to continue to rely on the honesty and propriety of the new King of England, James the First (also James the Sixth of Scotland).

We may look back on these plays and see how the ancient Greeks took the first steps which established the scientific method, without the need to believe in gods, and how the next King of England, Charles the First, was killed in 1649, and how the Commonwealth Parliament ran without a king for 11 years, establishing the principle that the Parliament would choose who would be King for evermore.

Nakkiah Lui has set her play in her time and place: St Marys in Western Sydney where her Nanna fell through the white-ant rotten floor of 37 Griffith Street, owned but never maintained by HFA – Housing for Aborigines – despite years of complaints.

Nakkiah Lui (Nanna on screen)

On the screens which are the backdrop we see the photos of Nakkiah’s family, including herself as a child and Nanna, bright, alive, and later near the death caused by the fall.  The time is recent: perhaps it was only yesterday when the phone call came from the hospital, or when Paul hanged himself in the park nearby because the Emergency Department had to make him wait while other more urgent lives were saved – or not, as the case may be.  Nakkiah did not know Paul but had to write his story.  Did she meet him in the park?  If she had, could she have changed his story?

Lasarus Ratuere as Paul

The modern play is immediate, in the here and now.  Unlike the authors Sophocles and Shakespeare, Nakkiah Lui is on stage.  For us, watching, she becomes a character in her own life, frightened even that we, observing from a certain distance, may not appreciate, like, understand her play.  Off stage, Sophocles and Shakespeare surely had the same fears.   On stage last night, at curtain call, in the centre of the line of actors, Lui’s fear was palpable.  This is extreme risk-taking.

Nakkiah Lui

But she needn’t be afraid.  She has written a great work, even if not on the grand scale.  Our engagement in the emotions of the characters, including the author herself, inevitably embraces us, urging us on to understand her intention.  Beyond the question of why are Aboriginal people still treated as beneath rather than of equal standing to others, is the more frightening concern.  Is life truly out of our control?  Are we kidding ourselves?  Like Nakkiah, we write our stories of our lives as if things make sense, as if there is some sort of order in our universe.  But at curtain call we must face up to the possibility that we cannot understand the what and why of life.

Shakespeare, perhaps seeing himself in Prospero, came to this point in The Tempest.  Lui has proved that she, a Gamilaroi / Torres Strait Islander, stands equal among her playwriting peers.

The performances and direction of this production are exemplary, and must provide Lui with a great sense of support.  Each part requires emotional expression of sensitivity and guts, in a structure of short scenes, and each actor – Matthew Backer (the ER nurse Alex), Katie Beckett (Paul’s sister Harley), Sam O’Sullivan (Peter, Nakkiah’s boyfriend and confidant), Lasarus Ratuere (Paul) and Nakkiah Lui as herself – has created an instantly real character.  Their work, under Anthea Williams’ precise direction, draws us into a weird experience where the borderline between what might or might not be fiction or fact keeps shifting, like those metaphorical goalposts.

The result is outstanding and should not be missed.  But give yourself a little time outside afterwards to adjust.

It’s important to realise that Nakkiah Lui is writing within a new tradition of Indigenous playwriting, presented on our mainstages.  Belvoir and The Balnaves Foundation have been crucial to this development.

Two plays earlier in this tradition are the Noongar story of Yibiyung by Dallas Winmar, 2008 (in association with Malthouse, Melbourne) and Conversations with the Dead by Richard Frankland, 2003, both directed by Wesley Enoch at Belvoir.  My reviews of these plays were published in the Canberra Times and can also be found on my personal blog at .

The script of Kill the Messenger is also published by Currency Press, 2015.

Nakkiah Lui as Author with Sam O'Sullivan as boyfriend and confidant Peter

Paul in the Park
(Lasarus Ratuere)

Matthew Backer as Alex

Katie Beckett as Harley
Lasarus Ratuere and Katie Beckett

Mathew Backer and Katie Beckett

All photos by Brett Boardman

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Kip Williams. Designed by Alice Babidge. Composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory.

Sydney Theatre Company at the Drama Theatre. Sydney Opera House.

February 13 - March 21 2015

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Robyn Nevin as Violet Venable in Suddenly Last Summer. Photo by Brett Boardman

At the close of Kip William’s intriguing production of Tennessee Williams’s harrowing psychological drama, Suddenly Last Summer, Doctor Cukrowicz says “ I think that we should consider the fact that she might be telling the truth.”  “she” refers to Catharine Venables (Eryn Jean Norvill), the institutionalized neice of wealthy Southern American matriarch, Mrs. Venables (Robyn Nevin), who has engaged Sucrowitz (Mark Leonard Winter) to assess her neice for a lobotomy to prevent her from telling lies about her deceased son, poet Sebastian Venables. In return for his agreement to perform the lobotomy, Sucrowitz would receive a handsome endowment.
Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine and Robyn Nevin
as Mrs. Venable. Photo by Brett Boardmann
Sucrowitz’s search for the truth of what occurred during Sebastian’s last summer vacation with Catharine lies at the very heart of Williams’s tortured quest for the truth of his own existence. Williams’s writing writhes with the torment of self-appraisal. His characters disguise truth behind a veneer of prevarication. Domineering Mrs. Venable contains the unbearable pain of a mother whose suffocating love for her son has driven him to the deep despair of denial of his talent and his homosexuality. Catharine suppresses the memory of the truth of Sebastian’s horrific death. Melita Jurisic’s Miss Foxhill, Mrs Venable’s maid, grovels in subservient acquiescence. Within the pain of fearful experience hides the truth of Foxhill’s sad life. Private greed is  revealed in  the desperate appeal by Catharine’s mother, Mrs. Holly (Susan Prior) and brother, George (Brandon McLelland to ensure that Mrs. Venable’s willis in their favour.) Only Catharine’s ward, Sister Felicity appears truly honest in her motive to supervise Catharine during her visit to Sebastian’s luxurious garden, opulently designed by Alice Babidge.

The action of the play takes place in the luxurious garden of Mrs. Venable’s Southern estate.  Originally titled Garden of Deceit, Williams’s setting for Suddenly Last Summer within the rich foliage of the densely grown garden hides the terrible truth that Catharine has concealed. Motive is cloaked in deceit. Truth is the first casualty of human behaviour. And it is human behaviour that has prompted director Williams to offer a radical and ingenious device to reveal the truths that Tennessee Williams brings to the surface in Suddenly Last Summer. On a large white wall that traverses the proscenium, the action of much of the play is projected as the actors are filmed enacting the drama on the set. A revolve reveals the garden as three cameras follow the action which continues to be projected upon the revolved screen at the back of the stage. Film and live theatre provoke a zoom in and out effect on the audience’s sensibility. Projected close-ups probe the truth behind the character’s magnified appearance on the screen or within the mind of the chacter, live upon the stge. In a cast as consummate as the actors upon this stage, it offers a powerful insight into the truthful effect of the doctor’s treatment and use of hypnosis to draw out Catharine’s account of the events of the last summer.  As the revolve turns to reveal the actors upon the set, they become diminished by the new reality, insects amongst the leaves , significantly acting out their insignificant lives. Williams’s dialogue cuts through the artifice, incisive in its perception of motive, acerbic in its judgement of hypocrisy. Director Williams’s inventive use of filmic technique to accentuate character combined with playwright William’s acute observation of character, drawn from experience, and the outstanding performances of the cast make this a powerful, riveting and provocative experience for the audience. The two-act drama has been condensed into one act, played through for ninety minutes without an interval, heightenting the tension and fully engaging the audience’s involvement.
Robyn Nevin, Melita Jurisic as Miss Foxhill, Susan Prior as Mrs. Holly and Paula Arundell as Sister felicity. Photo by Brett Boardmann
Although powerfully effective in magnifying character and  motive and drawing us irrevocably into the psychology of each character’s words and action, the use of film occasionally distracts, drawing us from the character to the ingenuity of the technique. At times, such as during a conversation between the doctor and Catharine, hidden from view, far stage right against the flyropes, while the discourse is projected upon the large screen at the back of the stage, Williams intentionally introduces the split focus of live theatre and film, while still revealing the live actors far to the right of the stage. It is a rare and very occasional frustration, almost verging on Brechtian Alienation Effect, as is the presence upon the stage of the camera operators. Although dressed in black, their presence creates at times distraction, and might have been more effective had they adopted the Bunraku device of hooded see-through black material to remove the distraction of the faces.
Susan Prior as Mrs. Holly, Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine and Brandon McClelland as George Holly.
Photography by Brett Boardmann

Ultimately, the true power of this production rests with the quality of its cast. Williams, the director, has done full justice to Williams, the playwright. Williams is renowned for his remarkable observation of women. One merely has to think of Blanche DuBoit in A Streetcar Named Desire or Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie. In Suddenly Last Summer, Williams has drawn on his mother and sister, who underwent a lobotomy, encouraged by the mother and resisted by Tennessee Williams’s father. In Robyn Nevin, director Williams has cast the ideal Australian grand veteran of the theatre to play the steely, privately tortured, bitter and vindictive mother, consumed by a personal guilt that a stroke had prevented her from taking her son on his last summer vacation, as she had done with obsessive, possessive delight for so many summers before. Nevin is brilliant, never swaying from a rigidly controlled state of emotion until that final    expression of sheer horrifying realization of the consequences of her domination of her only son. Nevin’s performance is counterpoised by Norvill’s  astounding portrayal of the fragile, confused and manipulated Catharine. And yet in a moment of flirtatious will with the doctor, Norvill leaves the audience in no doubt that there is an element of wilful intent that brings true motive into question. Norvill is a shining star of the Australian stage, and this performance again attests to her versatility, emotional depth and striking intelligence in the various roles that she has played for the Sydney Theatre Company. To see Nevin and Norvill on the same stage in Tennessee Williams’s outstanding roles for the younger and older woman is a sheer delight, and one that I would recommend all theatre lovers to witness.
Melita Jurisic as Miss Foxhill. Robyn Nevin as Mrs. Venable. Photography by Brett Boardmann
Kip Williams has taken risks with his interpretation and use of film and live theatre to explore Tennessee Williams’s deeply disturbing insights into human behaviour and attitude. However, one senses that he has never veered from a deep respect for the playwright and his text, and with a team that have shared the passion and the insight to bring  the rarely performed Suddenly Last Summer to the stage in a production that is contemporary, absorbing, dynamic and true. If there is a ticket left, then I suggest you rush to get one before this season is sure to sell out.

Eryn Jean Norvill as Catharine. Paula Arundell as Sister felicity. Photo by Brett Boardmann



Sunday, February 15, 2015


Book by Neil Simon
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Directed by Dean Bryant
Presented by Luckiest Productions, Neil Gooding Productions, Tinderbox Productions and Hayes Theatre Co in association with Canberra Theatre Centre
Canberra Theatre Centre – The Playhouse
February 11 - 22, 2015

Review by Len Power 11 February 2015

Who would have expected this very much of its time 1966 musical to be dusted off and given a snazzy new production while respecting the original material?  A huge success with critics and audiences alike at the Hayes Theatre in Sydney last year, the production won several Helpmann awards, too.

‘Sweet Charity’, based on Fellini’s 1950s movie, ‘Nights Of Cabiria’, tells the story of a New York dance hall hostess who is unlucky in love but forever optimistic.  I doubt there are still dance halls where you can hire a girl just to dance with you, so the show probably can’t be updated.  This production celebrates the morals and manners of people in the 1960s but gives it a flashy, modern, fast-moving production with a small cast playing multiple roles.  The book by Neil Simon is very worldly and funny but with a sadness under the surface that is very real.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine is a revelation.  This is a formidably large role for any actress and the star of the show has the singing, dancing and acting ability as well as the charisma to bring it off.  Her soulful interpretation of the song, ‘Where Am I Going?’, is the best version I’ve ever heard.  Whereas both Gwen Verdon in the stage original and  Shirley MacLaine in the movie played the role as a sweet but dim-witted girl, Ms Hunt-Ballard plays Charity as a woman who is basically intelligent enough but hasn’t had the education to get anywhere in the world.  This gives her performance a reality that is ultimately quite moving.

Martin Crewes plays three roles – sleazy boyfriend, Charlie, sophisticated Italian movie star, Vittorio, as well as the nerdy Oscar.  He makes each one so different that it’s amazing to think it’s the same actor.  He sings strongly and with great emotion.  Debora Krizak scores as Charity’s best friend, Nickie, and also plays the smaller role of Ursula, the spoilt girlfriend of the Italian movie star.  Her comic timing is excellent as is her singing and dancing.  Everyone in the cast are working at the top of their game.

The clever set by Owen Phillips with its moveable mirrors works sensationally well.  Some of the most atmospheric lighting I’ve seen in ages was designed by Ross Graham.  Musical direction by Andrew Worboys is superb and the band plays the score with a heavier rock sound than the original, which works very well.  The sound was a bit loud on opening night but hopefully that has settled down quickly.

Director, Dean Bryant, has given us an imaginative show that is totally satisfying.  The in-depth character work is especially notable and the decision to have the cast play multiple roles makes it more viable in this era of higher running costs.  This is arguably the way forward for some of these older but still worthwhile shows done traditionally with large casts.  Anyway, just go to this and enjoy it.  You’ll have a great time!

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 15 February 2015 from 5pm.