Friday 28 April 2017

Review: Bell Shakespeare's Richard 3, Melbourne

Guest reviewer: Narrelle M Harris (who's just had a new story published in the adventure anthology And Then...)

I first heard that a woman would be playing Richard in Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Richard III (rebadged by the company as Richard 3) via an article the title actor Kate Mulvany wrote for The Age back in February.

Her casting was fascinating not only as a woman intending to play Richard as a man, but because Mulvany herself has a severe spinal malformation resulting from treatment for childhood cancer.

Shakespeare’s King Richard III, with his hunched back and withered arm is not precisely the Richard of history, as we know from the discovery of his remains in recent years. Many people also make good arguments that he’s a lot less evil than the Lancaster-adoring (and by association Tudor-adoring) play would have him.

With this in mind, Bell Shakespeare’s production is a further step away from a play about history and embraces contemporary issues.

In the micro view, it’s about a terrible person whom we learn has been vilified since birth for his physical malformation. Richard is a monster, with a mind as twisted as his body. But which came first – his malice or theirs? Did he grow up so cruelly scorned that he chose to become the monster they saw, just to get back at them?

These are questions I always find fascinating about this play, and which were explored well in the London production starring Martin Freeman which I saw in 2014.

Bell Shakespeare’s Richard makes these questions central to the characterisation of the king, where we see his actions but only hints of his motivations, beyond the fact he hates the world and deliberately chooses to be as vile as possible.

He’s also charming, charismatic, ruthless and clever – or he’d never get away with what he does. He’s much cleverer than the people around him, who are riven by quarrels, rivalries, self-interest, petty ambitions and greed. They’re easy pickings for Richard to divide and therefore conquer.

Despite his cleverness and gleeful treachery, Mulvany’s Richard is a lonely man, “deliberately unloved” as the actress said in her article. As villainous as he is, you can see bent Richard is either patronised or treated with utter contempt by his family.

It’s easy to perceive that this has been his lot throughout his life. That kind of thing has to affect your own self-image, and onstage Mulvany masterfully gives Richard a very believable self-contempt that leads inexorably to his later realisation: “Alas, I rather hate myself.”

On this busy set Richard is forever surrounded by people, but almost nobody ever touches him, and rarely with any kindness. All the hands laid on him as he is declared king bestow on him a knowing glow. He’s tricked them all (and us too), and yet there’s a vulnerable joy for him in the contact.

That’s not as heartbreaking as a late scene where he’s trying to find something to swear on that he hasn’t ruined, and Elizabeth hushes and holds him a way, it seems, he never has been. It’s much too late to save or forgive him by then, but that moment of fragility is profoundly affecting.

Mulvany plays Richard as a man, but the combination of her true gender and her own crooked back (revealed to our awkward discomfort at one point) add to the sense that this prince, descended from kings, is accounted less than fully human because of an accident of birth.

There’s mastery in making an audience fall half in love with a self-confessed villain, leading us to collude with him in dreadful deeds, and then ultimately to feel compassion for someone who has proven himself a pitiless brute. And this is what the actor does with her final speech, lifted from Act V of Henry VI Part III: “I am myself alone.”

The collusion of the audience with Richard is the other brilliant strength of this production and the way it speaks of current politics. In the play program director Peter Evans says plainly: “For our times, this play is completely about Trump.”

The production that plays beautifully with the fourth wall, inviting the audience to egg Richard on as he slyly claws his way toward a crown. The cast make the most of the wicked humour and Mulvany is flawlessly, deliciously, blackly funny.

But like many who have voted for someone who’ll shake up the system – and who perhaps have found entertaining, even when their utterances are demonstrably untrue and contradictory – there comes a time when the sociopath on the throne isn’t funny anymore.

Despite achieving the crown and, it would seem, the love of the people, Richard can’t rest. Brutality follows brutality and the audience stops laughing.  One particular death, shown graphically on stage, renders his previous sass and wit very ugly after all.

I’ve spoken so much of Mulvany here, it’s obvious that she’s the linchpin of this production. She graces monstrous Richard with such humanity that even if you can’t forgive his grievous sins, you can feel compassion for him. Richard might hate the world, but nobody hates Richard more than Richard does.

Her jewel of a performance is ably supported, although the remainder of the cast shine less brightly. Sandy Gore as Queen Margaret curses her enemies with great gravity and intensity, and James Evans’ Buckingham provides an excellent counterbalance in his scenes with Mulvany.

There’s so much more to unpack, but it’s best to see it for yourself. Whether your interest is in the study of a very human man warped in soul and mind as well as body, or in the study of how power can be seized by the plausible from the complacent, you’ll be rewarded.

Whichever it is, the power of Kate Mulvany in the central role sustains the play. Melbourne audiences are rightly grudging with their standing ovations, so Mulvany richly deserves the one she was willingly given the night I saw her perform.

Richard 3 runs to 7 May 2017 at the Arts Centre Melbourne; find details and make bookings here. For more about the Bell Shakespeare Company, visit its website.

Friday 21 April 2017

By Train (and Train Ferry) to Copenhagen

I paid my own train fare from Lübeck to Copenhagen.

Last year I had an interesting surprise on my way from Germany to Denmark.

Having booked a first class train ticket to the Danish capital, I discovered upon boarding that the journey would include a sea crossing. And we wouldn't be changing trains on the way.

The trip began at Lübeck's main station, an attractive example of German railway architecture:

This was my first class seat. Deutsche Bahn's first class carriages tend to be arranged in a 2-1 configuration, so a solo traveller can get a comfortable spot with a table.

The countryside we passed was flat and green, with the odd crop of wind turbines. The exciting part, however, occurred when we reached Puttgarden.

This German town is a port on the the Fehmarnbelt, an 18km wide strait. On the other side is Rødby, on the island of Lolland in Denmark.

At the water's edge the train was guided toward a massive ferry which was waiting for us, and ran along tracks which extended inside the vessel's loading bay. Once we were snugly slotted between numerous trucks which were also making the crossing, we were requested to leave the train and go aloft via lifts or stairs.

It was a surreal sight, to step down and walk alongside a train parked among other vehicles inside a ferry:

Up top there was a beautiful view, though the hot days of the past week were starting to give way to chillier weather.

On the decks below there were shops, a cafe, a restaurant and even a dedicated lounge for the truckers. Quite a generous spread of diversions, given it was only a 45-minute crossing.

The short voyage over, we returned to the train, where once again I marvelled at the neighbouring trucks:

And a few hours later we arrived at Copenhagen Central Station:

So that was the end of my train ferry adventure. Sadly the train ferry crossing from Puttgarden to Rødby is due to be replaced by a tunnel in the next few years.

It'll cut the train journey from Hamburg to Copenhagen by 90 minutes, which is great; but it won't be half as much fun.

You can find find rail timetables and book tickets between Germany and Denmark at the Deutsche Bahn site.

Sunday 16 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 3)

So far, Narrelle Harris and I have reviewed four shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival - four in the first week and another four in the second.

Now here are our final three reviews, this time from two smaller venues away from the Melbourne Town Hall hub...

1. Small Car
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

To succeed, improvisational theatre needs a cast with rapport, who trust each other to take bizarre moments and run with them, and know when the moment is running out of steam so they can flip it around to start a new scene.

Andrew Watt, Broni and Mario Hannah come onto the tiny Tuxedo Cat stage claiming the only thing they've prepared is "their friendship". It's clearly all they need to deliver on the aforementioned techniques.

Naturally, every night will deliver a unique show. Easter Sunday's audience provides the prompt of 'a painter's studio', and they're off with an hour of improv that tells a single story.

It's the tale of an artist whose paintings are blurry ruins because his model won't sit still. It's the story of his client, the wealthy Glenroy, whose chauffeur can't eat until Glenroy is happy, and Glenroy won't be happy until his mother is happy, and his domineering mother is never happy. Well, unless she's talking to Glenroy's brother Trevor, because Trevor is just so cool.

There are stolen hats, leading to a heartbroken milliner, onward to a science project and a dodgy dad who pretends to be dead to find out if his son loves him. It ends with Glenroy and his chauffeur finally getting a meal. Or nearly, anyway.

It's mad, it's unexpected, it's hilarious and unpredictable; yet strangely coherent. God knows what story you'll get when you take a ride with Small Car. Judging by their camaraderie and energy this night, the scenery will be great along the way.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Songs in the Key of Awesomesauce
Reviewed by Tim Richards

With his clean-cut, bespectacled appearance, Matt Kilpa looks more like an accountant than a comedian - something he happily admits to. He's a talented guy with a guitar, however, and his show is a stream of comic songs on a variety of topics: including TV shows, sex, naturopathy and science.

It's amusing stuff, though there's nothing groundbreaking in the material; which in the case of Captain Planet, has to be explained to half the audience. However, Kilpa is confident and amusing and well-suited to his 6pm slot; he'll warm you up for the rest of your comedy evening.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Just Like Buddha
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Life can be difficult if you're trying to develop an easy-going Buddhist approach to life, but you have anxiety issues and work in advertising.

Anthony Jeannot explains how he navigates these tricky hazards, explaining what to do when the girl you're dating springs a surprise that doesn't end how either of you expect, and the unhelpful things that go through your mind when meditating. He also conducts an audience poll on whether certain insights he's had are the result of meditation or magic mushrooms.

Jeannot is nervy but likeable. His material and approach feel fresh, though more confident, crisp delivery would give the material extra oomph.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

That's our final coverage for this year's festival. Hope you had some laughs! Back to the regular schedule of travel-related posts next week.

Saturday 8 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 2)

Last post, Narrelle Harris and I reviewed four shows at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival. Here are four more...

1. Nanette
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Hannah Gadsby is giving up comedy. She tells us so at the start of her show, and insists it's not solely the fault of the surly Nanette who radiated so much hostility at a small town cafe. What follows is a powerful show that is as much drama as comedy.

The thing is, says Gadsby, she's built a career out of making painful parts of her life a joke, and editing out the end of each story - not so much a punchline as a punch in the gut. What we get here is best appreciated if you've followed the last decade of her shows, the themes of which inform an act that is fierce and funny, though not always simultaneously.

She does her comedian's job of building tension and then relieving it, but then builds more and more of it, and relieves less and less of it. The result is unexpected, deeply moving though also shockingly funny. It's almost like she's done a Bill Hicks of her own life, stripping it down and presenting a raw, honest version of it.

I say 'raw' but this is nothing like an undercooked performance. Gadsby may seem understated, but she's very good at what she does, guiding the audience from the usual droll routine to more prickly, more pointed elements of her relationship with the world. It's essentially a crafted theatrical monologue.

"Don't get the impression that because the world doesn't care about me [as a woman, as a lesbian] that I don't care about the world." Gadsby is indeed passionate. When the equal marriage debate hauls up lines like "think of the children!" she does think of the children: the ones growing up marginalised and ashamed of who they are.

This show is full of humour as well as anger, full of love as well as ferocity - often simultaneously, as in life. If this really is Hannah Gadsby's last season on the comedy stage, she's leaving us with her whole story, with tension-relieving laughter but also deep truths. Just as the best comedy should.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Sassy Best Friend
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Rose Matafeo is a likeable, slightly dorky Kiwi who finds herself stuck in the role of the sassy best friend in a romantic comedy. You know, the one with the unruly curly hair and the lighting-fast comebacks, urging the lead character on to triumphs in love.

She'd like to be the lead though, and she has a stab at it in this hour of good-natured stand-up: telling us, for example, about her lonely life when she moved to London, and how she tried to solve that by hanging around Leicester Square and inserting herself into other people's stories.

She also has a stab at seducing a member of the audience over the hour (tonight's victim: Wes the marketing guy), partly through the time-honoured medium of removing her glasses to show how hot she is. In between these forays she relates her shortcomings, and how they keep her from perfection.

Matafeo is a warm, engaging comedian whose comedy revolves around her relatable life and its limitations. Her show is light but fun, and the audience in the tiny venue is won over. The only flaw, perhaps, is that the "sassy best friend" rom-com trope isn't explored enough; with development it could support a whole show by itself.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

3. Organic
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Arj Barker is in love, and he's not afraid to admit it; thought he does submit any new jokes about his relationship to the other half for her approval before delivering them onstage.

Another element of his coupledom is an emphasis on organic food, and even gluten-free food (basically apples), which has made his life... interesting. In laid-back style, Barker hints at the trials healthy eating has caused him, while never varying from his "everything's fine" tone.

Although a relaxed delivery style is Barker's shtick, it sometimes seems too relaxed. The comedian has a habit of holding the microphone away from his face, causing the volume to drop, and there's not much energy as he arrives on stage and fiddles with his phone in order to record the show.

Having said that, there are plenty of laughs in the show, and Barker's familiarity with Australia is a strength as he flawlessly skewers the Aussie penchant for incorporating "shit" into slang, and cunningly subverts an event that's one of Melbourne's holiest of cows.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. P.O.R.T.E.N.Z.A
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

When you enter a room to find a man in an unflattering blue dress, lipstick, rouge and a beret, dancing and greeting everyone ebulliently as they arrive, you know you're not in for the same old stand-up routine.

Absurd, clownish, unpredictable but ultimately rather sweet, Portenza feels like he's channelling absurdist comedy greats of the '70s - perhaps Kenny Everett or characters from Grahame Bond's Aunty Jack Show.

Through running gags (card tricks, poetry and an oft-mentioned family at the airport) and bizarre scenes and characters, the audience quickly comes to trust Portenza. We willingly engage with his banter and interaction. Ridiculous gags are set up early and later return, more ridiculous, to the delight of the crowd.

It's all a bit barmy and utterly absurd; and thoroughly good fun.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

Enjoy the festival!

Sunday 2 April 2017

Reviews: Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2017 (Part 1)

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival is one of Australia's biggest cultural events, and 2017 is its 31st year of operation.

Every autumn it takes over the city centre, with numerous performance spaces sited within the grand Melbourne Town Hall, along with many others in nearby theatres, pubs and bars.

Several of this year's festival shows will be covered here by myself and Narrelle Harris (who's just had a new story published in the adventure anthology And Then...)

Here's our first set of reviews.

1. The Cat Show
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

Justin Heazlewood sets the tone for The Cat Show by crawling onto the stage in white shorts, spats, a furry bib and cat ears, and inspecting the stage. He gets onto his feet soon enough, but throughout the show he reverts to a dedicated cat-ness in which he gets audience members to dangle cat toys for him to play with, and chases scrunched up paper.

Other very recognisable cat behaviours come and go in between Heazlewood’s trademark comic songs, ranging from diagnoses of the mental health states of our feline friends and the perils of share houses, to more surreal topics.

Heazlewood’s fey charm, musical talent and occasional inspired bit of observation – his analysis of 'Missing' posters for lost cats springs to mind – keep this show going in spite of weak structure and some spots of sloppy execution. When he points out partway through that he really needs a director, you can’t help thinking he’s right.

But then there’s another strange and wistful song about life, and he head-butts a bit of furniture before inspecting the litter tray, and it seems that, like cats, The Bedroom Philosopher gets away with a lot because he’s so engaging.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

2. Something Better
Reviewed by Tim Richards

I should've known that seeing a British comedian in the week Brexit was finally triggered would result in hearing material on that fateful blow to the EU. I just didn't expect it from Josie Long. Last time I saw her onstage, years ago, she was the quintessential "nice guy comedian" full of whimsical humour. This time, however, she's political - though still charming and sweet and endearingly gormless in her application to activism.

The impetus for her rambling but funny act might have been Brexit and Trump, but its subject is more herself than any outside force. Trying to figure out how things went so horribly wrong, she references To Kill a Mockingbird and the Daily Mail, while explaining why wishes always backfire. In the end, it seems, the trouble we're in is all her fault. But at least she can make you laugh about it.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

New Order

3. New Order
Reviewed by Tim Richards

Shows comprising several comedians doing individual sets can be like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates. You never know what you're going to get, except one will probably be a blokey young guy doing dick jokes.

Happily, New Order defies this tradition by giving us four up-and-coming British comedians who are funny, sharp and innovative. Brennan Reece, leading the set, does good-natured stand-up which revolves around family, particularly the nightmare son of his girlfriend.

He's succeeded by Ahir Shah, or "Shit Shag" (you'll have to attend to understand why). This beautifully spoken Brit of Indian heritage makes fun of his posh accent, then twists it to address racism and stereotypes. Brexit gets a run here too, as he works his way up to an eloquent near-rant which remains entertaining.

Third on the bill is Emma Sidi, who performs a large chunk of her set in pseudo-Spanish, as she plays out the scandalous betrayal of her character by her lover, Pablo. Switching to English, she drags a hapless audience member up on stage to harangue him, then reveals her terrible past as an addict of such drugs as Vicks Vaporub, Gaviscon and Paracetamol. She's an energetic breath of fresh air.

The final performer, Steve Bugeja, is a Class-A geek who gets mileage from his awkward love life. He recounts his failed attempts to fit in with the lads, and the horror of his failed attempt to spark a round of "Hip hip hooray". He's a likeable nerd and a funny final act.

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

4. How to be a Middle-Aged Woman (Without Going Insane)
Reviewed by Narrelle Harris

As a woman of a certain age, I knew I'd spend this show either laughing or crying. In the end I did both.

There's undeniable hilarity in a brazen, frank woman sharing, brazenly and frankly, the physical, hormonal and emotional experiences of being middle-aged. As someone still new to the hazards of peri-menopause, there's also some tear-inducing relief that I'm not actually going nuts. (Or, as my husband puts it, I am a bit, but there's a reason for it.)

I last saw Jenny Eclair 16 years ago, where she was breathtakingly hilarious about the perils of having turned 40. At 57, she remains earthy, forthright, uproariously inappropriate and gloriously honest about not giving a damn if her bra and knickers match; sudden bouts of incandescent rage; ideas on how to harness the power of the hot flush; and the teeth-grating irritation that is Gwyneth Paltrow.

The audience is largely made up of middle-aged women (laughing so hard they possibly wee a little), and some younger women gaining unwelcome insights into the years to come. A smattering of men laugh just as hard.

And it is a very funny show. This isn't some cosily humorous look at menopause, and despite the title it contains almost no tips on how to survive it. Jenny Eclair is ribald, laugh-till-you-wheeze funny and also, as it happens, hotter than Beyonce (body temperature-wise).

[Find details and buy tix for this show here]

More reviews next week. Enjoy the festival!