Sydney round-up: Margaret Leaske

Margaret Leask in Sydney

Billed as “an epic new Australian story about love, refuge and reconciliation”, Counting and Cracking by S. Shakthidharan was a highlight of both the 2019 Sydney Festival (where it premiered) and the 2019 Adelaide Festival (It is also reviewed by our Adelaide correspondent Malcolm Page). This co-production with Sydney’s Belvoir St Theatre and the community arts company Co-Curious was reviewed at both festivals as a significant and ground-breaking collaborative work in style and content.

 

Counting and Cracking by the Belvoir Street Theatre Company.
Photo credit: Brett Boardman.

 

Shakthidharan, known as Shakthi, is a western Sydney storyteller with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. Researching his mother’s background, he found a bigger story than just that of his family: “a story about coming together and breaking apart — in our families, our countries”. The divisions between the Sinhalese people and the Tamils and the decade-long civil war in Sri Lanka ultimately broke his heart. Shakthi’s description of democracy as “the counting of heads within certain limits, and the cracking of heads beyond those limits” led to the title of this work. During the 1983 Black Friday riots, Shakthi’s mother, dancer Anandavalli (Suntharalingam’s granddaughter and this production’s cultural and costume advisor), made the painful decision to flee her country with her infant son. They finally arrived in Australia via India and Singapore. While this is the story’s starting point, Shakthi’s epic moves back and forth in time and place.

lt begins in 2004. Siddhartha (Sid, played by Shiv Palekar), a young student in Sydney, finds love with a Yolngu woman from Arnhem Land, Lily (Rarriwuy Hick). While Lily knows her family’s story and country, Sid knows little of his background. His mother, Radha (Nadie Kammallaweera) is not inclined to talk about the past. She is, however, at last ready to complete her grandfather’s burial rites, having had his ashes under her bed for 21 years.

An international phone call throws their lives into confusion. The husband she thought murdered has been found in a Sri Lankan prison and is being released. He is planning an attempt to get to Australia with a group of “boat people”. The scene then shifts to Sri Lanka in the 1950s, where Radha was born. This was at a pivotal time when Sinhala became the official language: a divisive move that marginalised the Tamils. As Radha’s family deal with the changing world, we become immersed in her growing up, her wedding plans, and in the people, events and decisions that impact her life. Her grandfather, the dignified Apah (or ‘Father’) played by Sri Lankan-Australian actor, Gandhi Maclntyre, is an impressive central figure in this powerful insight into how we are shaped by family, political expediency, and the actions of others.

 

Counting and Cracking by the Belvoir Street Theatre Company.
Photo credit: Brett Boardman.

 

Counting and Cracking was some six years in the making. Director Eamon Flack composed a creative team of 16 actors and three musicians (Kiran Mudigonda, Janakan Raj, and Venkhatesh Sritharan) from Australia, Sri Lanka, India, France, New Zealand, and Malaysia, all of whom together play around 50 characters. Five languages are spoken (with simultaneous translation) throughout the performance, which spans three acts for more than three hours.

The two “community” venues at which the production was staged, the Sydney Town Hall and the Ridley Centre, Adelaide Showground, underwent major transformations. A Sri Lankan-style town hall was built, with a long-thrust stage surrounded on three sides by tiered seating. Set and costume designer Dale Ferguson, together with lighting designer Damien Cooper, created a simple performance area to accommodate Australian beach scenes, Apah’s sturdy and secure housing compound in Colombo, a prison yard, a park, and Radha’s home in western Sydney.

There were simple signs up stage, changed by cast members, to indicate the time and place of each scene. The scenes flowed quickly into one another. It was impossible not to engage with the characters and their experiences: Shakthi’s story-telling comes from the heart, with a deep understanding of the search for refuge, love, and identity. Flack’s direction maintained a generous balance between the realities of happiness and trauma, the past and the present. The committed, multicultural cast provided heart-warming evidence of the power of acceptance and coming together.

As part of the ticket price, Sri Lankan food was served before the performance. This contributed to the positive energy and sense of community enjoyed by the audience.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Mosquitoes is the third of her plays to be staged by the Sydney Theatre Company in as many years (Chimerica 2017, The Children 2018). Directed by Jessica Arthur, it played at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House in April and May 2019.

As in her other plays, Kirkwood puts big issues in the path of family and personal dramas. This challenges her actors and audiences to consider the ‘bigger picture’ in light of human misunderstandings and confusion. She also challenges her directors to find a balance between the complex information to be conveyed (scientific exploration in this case) and the dramatic implications of personal responses to such information.

It is 2008. Physicist Alice (Jacqueline McKenzie) is working in Geneva for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), in search of the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider. Her sister Jenny (played with great passion, exuberance, and emotional intelligence by Mandy McElhinney) arrives from England at Alice’s home with their mother, Karen (Annie Byron). Jenny is seeking family comfort, following the death of her infant daughter from measles. She had read and believed misinformation on the Internet and failed to vaccinate her child.

 

Mandy McElhinney and Annie Byron in Mosquitoes. Photo credit: Daniel Boud.

 

In Alice’s view, Jenny is not just “epically thick” but is “devoted to being stupid”. There is an immediate and continuing collision between the siblings. The difficult, cantankerous, former scientist, Karen, is not averse to adding her resentment and opinions to the situation. Although looked after by Jenny, Karen favours Alice’s intellect and career.

Inevitably, others are impacted. Alice’s teenage son, Luke (Charles Wu, maybe a bit too mature for this role), is full of resentment and angst towards his mother. He also hates living in Geneva, and is challenged by the apparent intrusion of his bolshie and distressed aunt. Jenny, however, is quick to recognize what his mother cannot see and understands his fears and need for affection.

Then Luke disappears to spend some time with his sexting girlfriend (Nikita Waldron), taking with him his mother’s research, which threatens to disrupt Alice’s process at CERN. While Alice tries to hang on to her self-discipline and career, she struggles to cope as a parent. Her personal anxiety manifests itself in the criticism and denigration of her sibling. This fraught family situation may well be enough for the audience, but Kirkwood adds disjointed scientific lectures between domestic scenes. Delivered by Boson (Jason Chong), these perhaps are intended to illustrate the failure of, and need for, clearer communication by scientists who include Alice and Karen. These “lectures” and a choreographed, semi-robotic ensemble piece near the end of the play (where the cast as scientists in spacesuit-type outfits play out some futuristic scenario), resulted in a degree of detachment from the audience. You can only surmise that they would have been more interested in seeing how the family copes with personal loss, anxiety, and finding emotional balance.

While Jacqueline McKenzie is convincing as Alice, her character is less substantially drawn than is Jenny’s. Mandy McElhinney’s performance is the stand-out one, as her fears, inner turmoil and pig-headedness frequently lead her into impulsive and self-destructive situations. McElhinney relishes Jenny’s acerbic sharp tongue, gutsy humour, and intuitive understanding and her energy never flags.

Designer Elizabeth Gadsby’s bare stage setting with a few pieces of furniture and props, and Nick Schlieper’s focussed lighting, facilitate director Jessica Arthur’s fluid staging. There are, however, too many intimate scenes played upstage which in the Drama Theatre is alienating (and frustrating for the audience). It’s a difficult play to watch, as it challenges its audience both intellectually and emotionally. Given that none of the characters are particularly likable, the need to take away some sense of hope leaves the audience clinging to Jenny’s flawed humanity at the end, with an uneasy sense that science does not have all the answers.

 

Zahra Newman as Maggie and Harry Greenwood as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Photo credit: Daniel Boud.

Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, presented by the Sydney Theatre Company and directed by Kip Williams, played at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Sydney. Set at the 12,000-acre Pollitt family estate in the Mississippi Delta, the play takes place over the span of one hot evening, when the family has gathered to celebrate the birthday of its patriarch, Big Daddy. Kip Williams, in his programme note, says that, in coming to terms with the undermining of truth in politics and the media today, he was drawn to Tennessee Williams. He describes Williams as “one of the greatest dramatic poets of the twentieth century. . .who seeks to understand its [truth’s] grey areas … He looks at the personal toll that truth has on us “both telling it and denying it”.

The lies and truths pulling the Pollitts apart are the driving force of Cat a Hot Tin Roof. Much is revealed in the course of three hours. In Act One, Maggie (Zahra Newman, with volatile energy that fully encapsulates the play’s title) confronts her husband Brick (Harry Greenwood), the favoured son of the family. He is a former football hero drinking himself into oblivion; she has a desperate need for physical and emotional love.

While Brick is mostly silent and seated (except for awkward forays to the drinks cabinet, assisted by a crutch after having broken his ankle), Maggie fills the cluttered bedroom with her frustration and unfulfilled desires. She rapidly changes her clothes and shoes, smokes, and chases her brother-in-law’s children – four “no-necked monsters” running wild in the house. While initially this feels like Maggie’s story, the powerful presence of Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy dominates Act Two and, ultimately, the production.

Act Two is the confronting heart of the work. Big Daddy, thinking he has a reprieve from cancer (his family knows this is not true) and nursing an apparent “spastic colon”, confronts Brick’s issues. This opens up a major truth-telling session, from which there is no going back.

Weaving is awesome in his ferocity. He unleashes his contemptuous feelings about Big Mama (Pamela Rabe), his irritation with eldest son Gooper (Josh McConville) and his wife Mae (Nikki Shiels) and their precocious children, and his dangerous determination to force Brick to deal with his demons and face his future. As John Shand, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald says, ”Weaving shoves you hard against the back of your seat and, were he matched by the rest, this would have been riveting theatre”.

Greenwood struggles to build convincingly Brick’s trajectory towards the emotional outburst of despair and self-loathing caused by the suicide of his friend Skipper (who may also have been his lover) as his father closes in on him. He is quick to outbursts of anger with both Maggie and Big Daddy, but there needed to be more of the former athlete in him to match their strong provocations.

The children in the cast are suitably obnoxious and noisy. Peter Carroll as Reverend Tooker and Anthony Brandon Wong as Doctor Braugh are appropriately ineffective in circumstances beyond their control. Given Big Daddy/Weaving’s absence in Act Three, the momentum slides away. This is partly because the physical stripping bare of the stage works against the claustrophobia of the family’s drama, as they squabble over the estate in light of Big Daddy’s terminal illness.

Mel Page’s costumes are sophisticated and representative of the wealth and style of the family. At times, however, the dark, monotone set (David Fleischer) and lighting (Nick Schlieper) work against the drama. This is particularly an issue during Act Two, when the entire back wall of the stage has multiple large, yellow studded lights that flash periodically to indicate party fireworks off stage. Weaving’s fireworks on stage do not need any interruption or distraction.