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Top Girls (theatre review)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 18 January 2018

My mother used to tell me a story about women who would come into the emergency departments where she worked as a nurse. Complaining of agonising stomach pains, staff would have to break the news they were in labour and would soon be giving birth. The story always made me think about the extraordinary lengths women go to in order to avoid looking at the blindingly obvious thing that was happening to their lives, to their bodies.

There’s a key moment in the first act of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls (directed by Imara Savage for the Sydney Theatre Company) that reminded me of my mother’s story. Marlene (Helen Thomson), all ’80s shoulder pads and electric blue suit, is throwing a dinner party to celebrate her promotion at a London recruitment company. The famous women from history and art she has invited to join the toast include a ninth-century woman who disguised herself as a man to become Pope. As the Frascati bottles empty, Pope Joan (Heather Mitchell) describes the pains that kept coming closer together as she rode a horse during a religious procession. When a baby slides out onto the road, Pope Joan and child are stoned to death.

The other characters listen but, in between ordering steak or Waldorf salad, they are busy bringing up their own dark tales. There is Lady Nijo (Michelle Lim Davidson) a concubine to the Japanese Emperor, Isabelle Bird (Kate Box) a Victorian traveller, and a Chaucer character Griselda (Paula Arundell) a peasant girl who became a nobleman’s wife. Then there’s Gret (Contessa Treffone), a figure from a Bruegel’s painting who led an army of women through hell to fight the devils who’d hurt them (does that ring any bells?).

Each woman is celebrated and strong in her own way, but as they describe the horrors they endured, they each justify the men and ideologies they lived under as ‘just the way things were’. Lady Nijo gushes about the fine silks she wore and says that it was fine that the Emperor had sex with her when she was 14 because he “owned her” (and that’s also why she had to give up her first child). Griselda’s husband sends her children away too, but she insists he is a good man. And fearless Isabelle internalises her own patriarchal world, insisting on her husband’s superior qualities.

It’s easier for these women not to look too deeply at the world that betrayed them. “I didn’t want to pay attention, it was easier to do nothing”, Pope Joan tells no one in particular. It’s a gripping scene of revelations, non-sequiturs and characters speaking over each other, in turn oblivious to each other and appalled at the compromises and justifications their dinner companions made. Apart from Gret, that is. She spends most of the time back to the audience, squireling food away, barely talking until the end of the scene when tells a tells a story of taking revenge on the “bastards” who murdered her son.

Thomson is terrific here as Marlene, the alpha female boss holding the party together, in turn boosting the others and impatient with their compliance. “We’ve all come a long way”, she insists. But Marlene has given up a child too, as we learn in the next scenes. She’s also blindly swallowed her own share of questionable values on her way to the top, as we discover when the play shifts to her office and she can barely contain her contempt for Jeanine (Paula Arundell again) who wants to have a job and marriage and children.

All the actors from the first act’s dream sequence return to play contemporary characters that variously contrast with or parallel their earlier character. Adventurous Isabelle returns as housewife Mrs Kidd, who comes to Marlene’s office to tell her she should give up her promotion for the sake of her husband who deserves it more. The silent waitress from the first act (Claire Lovering) returns as ambitious lying job seeker Shona. Lady Nijo returns as a career woman (but she’s also a mistress again). Pope Joan becomes Louise, another job seeker who’s given her life to a male-dominated workplace and feels “she passes for a man”. Subaltern Gret returns as Angie, the daughter Marlene relinquished to her sister and who is in remedial class at school.

In putting these women of such different times, places, abilities and ideologies alongside each other, Churchill questions any notion of a universal sisterhood or essential womanhood. And in having the same actor playing multiple characters with such different fortunes, each character shaped by her own time and place, she mocks Marlene’s celebration of the individual’s ability to rise above their circumstances to become a top girl. And what is sisterhood anyway, when Marlene’s success relies on her own working class sister to raise her odd child?

Like the Pope’s pregnancy, the women lie to each other and to themselves to make some sense of a world that doesn’t work for them. Marlene’s version of a top girl is really just Thatcherism and neoliberalism in feminism’s name. Or worse. Her sister Joyce tells her “I suppose you would have liked Hitler if he was a woman. Got a lot done, Hitlerina”.

But the unacknowledged and repressed has a tendency to return and, like Pope Joan’s baby, Angie appears unexpectedly at Marlene’s ordered office, in eerie circumstances that suggest all is not quite right with Angie (and what has she done with Joyce?). All the performances are strong, but Treffone is particularly terrific, playing Angie so guilelessly transparent it’s almost painful to watch. A stand out too is Box as Joyce, the put-upon sister whose skin has worn both thick and thin.

The smart thing about this production is that we don’t see Marlene as simply evil or unredeemable, as the Stones’ Sympathy For the Devil coming at the end of act one seems to suggest (the song also seems to be a comment on the women’s misplaced identification with the men who exploited them). Marlene has that will to power that, whether wielded by women or men, can hold us all in complicity. Angie is drawn to her aunt/mother Marlene because she’s so “special”.

Churchill wrote the play in 1982, a time when the gains of second wave feminism were settling in, but it was also during the first years of Margaret Thatcher’s prime ministership. I was still in high school when my mother took me to see the Melbourne Theatre Company’s version in 1984. I was listening to a young Madonna and performing in an all-girl school production of The Crucible. Many critics have rightly cited Churchill’s socialist politics, and particularly Top Girls, as a trenchant critique of Thatcher’s “There is no such thing as society” individualism. But as a young girl, seeing all these strong figures on stage – including a young rising star called Pamela Rabe as Pope Joan – the politics mostly washed over me. I remember thinking of it as celebration of girl power that was gathering strength and peaking in the 90s. In this year’s STC version, I see different things. Now the play reads to me like a searing radical feminist critique of the misogyny that is expressed in a fear of women, their sexuality, and the children they give birth to and that can’t be incorporated into structures of power.

I listened particularly to Lady Nijo, a thirteenth century concubine who becomes pregnant to her boss – an emperor who leads a country – describing how she was banished to the countryside. And I wondered whether her story is really different from an office affair that is currently threatening to derail the deputy Prime Minister and has seen another pregnant woman fleeing to the country. And when a woman leads an avenging female army through hell to pay back the bastards who’ve done them over, I can’t help but think of #MeToo. The ‘8os office scenes and excellent costumes expertly evoke the 90s and Princess Diana and the film 9 to 5, but Top Girls is brim full of contemporary resonance.

The play which starts with a dream sequence ends with a nightmare, as Angie wakes from her sleep and a single world: “Frightening”. Any hope of change, as ever, seems to lie with the Angies, the Grets: those who have no stake in the system, and therefore nothing left to lose.

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Sami in Paradise (Belvoir, Sydney)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 7 April 2018

Poor Sami. He’s lying in bed at the UNNHCR (sic) refugee camp, craving sausages and dreaming of learning the tuba. He wants to perform concerts and earn enough money to escape to Germany with his wife and mother-in-law. Miraculously the hapless Sami (Yalin Ozucelik) finds a tuba: the saucy madam in the tent next door runs the camp’s Happy Cat Café, and the house band has one (it’s that kind of camp). There are also Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation hats and T-shirts for International Water Day (but no water) as the camp’s loudspeaker informs everyone. But when Sami’s tuba-playing instruction book calls for a piano, he reaches a dead end (so to speak).

Sami spirals into suicidal despair and he secures a gun, and now the entire camp is agitating for a piece of him. A refugee girl (Vaishnavi Suryaprakash) wants his death to draw attention to girls’ education. A femme fatale (Paula Arundell) is determined Sami will die for his love for her. And at the centre of it all is Charlie Gerber (Charlie Garber) the coolly manipulative towering maypole everyone else spins around. (Although the show starts with the conceit of a play within a play, the cast’s real names, or versions of them, are mixed with invented names. And snippets of real refugee’s stories and words have, likewise, been interwoven into the fabrications.)

Gerber, the opportunist-in-chief, runs a little start-up South African charity called WACAFECKEA. It has the UNN (sic) contract to run World Toilet Day, and Gerber is looking to raise his organisation’s profile. Sami’s death will be podcast! There will be memes and memorial recipes donated by Jamie Oliver! He is Malala! He is Mandela! He is Pussy Riot (or he will be Riot Pussy, as Sami, swept up by the possibilities, hilariously mis-repeats).

Things are pretty grim when it takes the prospect of someone’s death to energise everyone. But even as they connive with Sami in his delusion of grand departure, life is beautiful, as more than one character insists (and yes, Benigni’s movie seems to be invoked here too). Sami’s death will be beautiful too: it will go viral, Gerber assures him (he’s already taking selfies and planning a press conference for the funeral): “When millions frown and nod, that’s how change happens,” Gerber insists.

Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack and his company have adapted the script from The Suicide, by Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman. A writer and satirist ranked alongside Chekhov, Erdman only managed two comedies before he was imprisoned by Stalin. He was rehabilitated by the time The Suicide was first performed 40 years later in Sweden, but he didn’t get to see the performance (the reviews were apparently excellent). For this production, Belvoir has changed the setting and some of the characters and storylines. And rather than targeting the malevolence of the secret police and state functionaries, it takes digs at trickle-down economics, Mercedes-driving humanitarians, and the rest of us who feel we are doing something meaningful with memes and hashtags.

As in the Sydney Festival show Tribunal, there’s scarcely a more important topic for theatre to tackle right now than the world’s treatment of refugees. Tribunal was a powerfully-told story of real life refugees and their advocates (some of them playing themselves). But where that show seemed committed to asking the audience to look at refugees and like me because I am good and talented and worthy, Sami in Paradise ask us to see refugees as human like me: as oddball and romantic and venal and vain and stupid and passionate as the rest of us (and with perhaps more reason to explore all the extreme range of human emotion, given their extreme environment).

If we argue for refugees to be freed from the prison of camps, how can we argue for the psychological prison of personality straightjackets? One where refugees and humanitarians must be heroes with halos to counter the state’s determination to turn them into criminals. There are no heroes in Sami’s paradise. Just crazy human beings and accidental saints; the second act starts with a Last Supper-like scene, a golden-crowned Sami surrounded by twelve cast members on the eve of his planned death. Every hustler is determined to write their own version of his legacy once he’s gone.

Ozucelik presents an increasingly tortured soul in Sami, and Garber delivers some of the funniest lines as he never stops looking for the angle. Hazem Shammas (as writer and poet Hazem) exudes experience and confidence. Paula Arundell, as Sami’s mother-in-law Fima and femme fatale Fairuz, is excellent, at one point seamlessly transforming in seconds from one character to the other (particularly remarkable given she only recently ended another performance of multiple roles in the STC’s Top Girls). If there are any criticisms, they are small: the tuba is picked up and dispensed with so quickly we feel cheated of a promised musical plot. Ozucelik confusingly dropped his South African accent into flat Australian vowels once or twice (but that strangely had the effect of adding to the character’s duplicity).

Flack says the company was deliberately frugal in the production’s staging, using whatever furniture and material they could find in the Belvoir space. But that doesn’t detract from the show – instead it feels free of anything unnecessary. Sami in Paradise is the kind of theatre you hope to find. It is smart but it has plenty of heart. It is about serious things, but it is full of absurdity and finds humour everywhere. It might be a play about suicide, but it couldn’t feel more alive.

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RIOT cabaret review (Sydney Festival)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 12 January 2018

If the Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair appeals (reviewed here), so will Emmet Kirwan’s spoken word – passionate and rapid fire monologues about teen pregnancy, loneliness, alienation and the need for socialist revolution. If the voice of the Beats can still be heard in his delivery, Kirwan also looks back to the Irish poets and then back across the Atlantic again to African-American rap. But Kirwan is just the opening salvo and the intermittent conscience of this Irish variety show RIOT, playing at the Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. This is the circus, and the circus is sexy these days, as one character remarks. And so Ronan Brady – a former Irish football star whose post-injury rehabilitation exercises led him to acrobatics, and then to the circus where he added a striptease to the routine.

They are joined by night’s mistress of the ring, Panti Bliss, who arrives on stage as if she is here to personally MC the after party to the marriage equality triumph. Fielding a call from Lyle Shelton, she swats him away (‘two tops don’t make a bottom’). Her monologues and audience interactions are ribald, and balanced by her heartfelt tale of a young boy who wanted to grow up to be Farrah Fuckin’ Fawcett. Her ‘love each other and be kind in this huge spinning world’ message serves as a softer coda after Kirwan’s sharper politics.

Throughout, performers keep reminding us of Emma Goldman’s warning that a revolution without dancing is not worth joining. The Lords of Strut, Famous Seamus and SeanTastic, pull us along on a tour through ’80s pop culture. Famous Seamus (Cian Kinsella) holds SeanTastic (Cormac Mohally) aloft as Morten Harket’s falsetto pours from the speakers: ‘I’lllll beeee gone…’. The crowd has fallen in love with a-ha’s Take on Me all over again.

The acts keep coming, including the Irish dancing duo Deirdre Griffin and Philip Connaughton. Their heads are submerged in giant pink balls like an amniotic sack – this is a queer show, so they can represent whatever you want – boobs, balls or giant pimples that burst and become raggedy skirts in the act’s finale, if that appeals. The church is taken on – there’s a chaotic scene involving cling warp, Jesus and a very blasphemous Australian-summer scene of whipping by pool noodles. A four-person choir, meanwhile, sounds like it has descended from some sort of queer heaven and holds the disparate show together.

It’s an exhilarating 90 minutes, full of light and moments of dark illuminated by iPhone torches and hard hitting politics. But it builds to a coherent message: that in a world full of hating we must keep loving, and an almost Germaine Greer-esque command that in the face of a world that keeps fucking us over, we must never stop joyfully fucking. Even in the dark, there’s pockets full of glitter. You’ll walk out feeling like your heart has been taken out and replaced by mirrored disco ball pulsating to Annie Lennox’s voice soothing your troubled soul: ‘Sweet dreams are made of this.’

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Antony and Cleopatra (Sydney Opera House)

This review was first published at Daily Review on 11 March 2018

The cast of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Antony and Cleopatra spend much of their stage time languidly posing in shifting configurations amongst the set’s simple luxe elegance – oversized velvet seats that suggest the lobby of an exclusive international hotel. Designer Anna Cordingley has dressed the cast in stylish and sharply tailored suits, expensive polo neck knits and artily structured cocktail wear. In this production, from the company’s artistic director Peter Evans, the Roman politicians and their boosters and servants have become the celebrities of today.

The cast look and carry themselves like the global citizens who move with ease between the UN or the EU and fashion shows and award ceremonies. It takes me a while to work out what the whole ensemble keeps reminding me of (when characters aren’t speaking they tend to sit pensively or moodily on the sidelines). And then there it is: if the cast paused intermittently to stare defiantly at the audience, they would be a series of Annie Leibovitz-directed tableaux for Vanity Fair special edition covers.

Evans’ re-imagining of the play makes sense when you think of the way politicians like Macron, Obama and Trudeau carry themselves with rock star élan and mingle with movie stars. And celebrities are now our idols and royals. We worship and model ourselves on them, we follow their every coupling and de-coupling.

Antony and Cleopatra is a celebrity love story set against the backdrop of political drama: the collapse of a great alliance between a triumvirate of Roman rulers, Octavius (Gareth Reeves), Antony (Johnny Carr) and Lepidus (Jo Turner). The play opens in Egypt, where Antony is partying with Cleopatra, but Octavius has summoned him back to Rome. Catherine McClements’ Cleopatra slinks around the stage, variously purring and cajoling Antony and striking out with her claws and fists whenever he or anyone else displeases her. She’s dressed in black pants and a long white shirt that reminded me of Uma Thurman’s Mia Wallace in Pulp Fiction, although her leonine mane is more Michael Hutchence (Thurman’s black Cleopatra bob would be too cliched).

Antony eventually bends to Rome, where Agrippa (Steve Rogers as a veteran political advisor, dishevelled in leather jacket and the exception to the otherwise primped cast) has a plan. He convinces Octavius and Antony that the latter should marry Octavius’ sister Octavia (Ursula Mills), ‘To make you brothers, and to knit your hearts’. The changes of scene are effectively signalled by Benjamin Cisterne’s lighting – warm reds, sensual pinks and sandy yellows denote Egypt, cool corporate blues take us to Rome.

Effective too, are the inter-scene projections on the tall diaphanous curtain pulled across the stage when the play skips forward years at a time. A bold and classic Helvetica-esque font announces the year and key dramatic events that have played out off stage. (The gauzy curtains – which create the lush hotel mood, but which also seem a nod to mid-century Hollywood Roman movie epics – are also used cleverly to create a watery effect for a battle scene at sea and a hazy effect for a drunken party).

Carr and McClements (pictured above) conjure a middle life, lusty love that is kept alive by long absences. But it is not as saccharine or corporeally bodily as young love can be. Don’t come expecting explosively heated scenes. Cleopatra comes across as the stronger partner: although she stays in place, she drives Antony, and the plot, until she fatally overplays her histrionic hand. And Shakespeare doesn’t spare her the full range of human failures: she slaps her servants and orders whippings for messengers more than any other man on stage.

Antony is caught between his duty as a soldier and his crazy-making love for Cleopatra. A bearded and youthful Johnny Carr brings a fresh take to the character, playing him like Joaquin Phoenix in his is-he-insane-or-is-he-a-genius? phase, when the actor seemed to turn his back on Hollywood to become a rapper. But Cleopatra fell in love with Antony the soldier and politician, and the couple’s central problem is that the very thing which power won him – a woman’s love – becomes the thing which can destroy him.

When Octavius disposes of Lepidus, and the triumvirate becomes a coalition of two, Antony betrays his commitment to Octavius in favour of plotting and intrigue with the more political Cleopatra: ‘And you shall see in him/The triple pillar of the world transformed/Into a strumpet’s fool’. It perhaps gives the coalition of Turnbull and Joyce too much gravitas and significance to compare them to Octavius and Antony, but you can’t help but imagine the Bell Shakespeare company exchanged many wry and knowing smiles as the news of Joyce’s affair, Turnbull’s sex ban and Joyce’s very public personal disintegration played out over the past few months.

Unless you know the play well, the dialogue can at times be hard to follow. That’s not overly the fault of actors – Shakespeare often just doesn’t sound right when spoken too slowly, as even my plus one, a 13-year-old Roman history and drama fan, noted. But some of the supporting cast are really terrific – particularly Ray Chong Nee as Antony’s companion Enobarbus, and Lucy Goleby as challenger Pompey and political advisor Scarus. Actor and singer Zindzi Okenyo has enormous stage presence as Cleopatra’s servant Charmian, and Evans puts her beautiful voice to great use towards the play’s end. With many major plot points taking place off stage, and the on-stage action focussed on characters plotting and politicking and persuading each other, much of the production’s success depends on charisma and conviction of the cast. Carr and McClements are, thankfully, both appropriately convincing and thoroughly watchable.

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The Town Hall Affair (review)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 12 January 2018

Writer Norman Mailer was no Milo Yiannopoulos. But his attack on the women’s movement in a 1971 issue of Harper’s Magazine (which became the book The Prisoner of Sex) led Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem to no-platform themselves from a panel Mailer hosted on ‘Women’s Liberation’ at New York’s Town Hall the same year. Mailer settled for slugging it out with Germaine Greer, then on a triumphant world tour publicising The Female Eunuch, Jill Johnston, a writer and dance reviewer for The Village Voice, Diana Trilling, introduced by Mailer as ‘our foremost lady critic’, and Jacqueline Ceballos, New York president of the National Organisation for Women.

The event (minus Ceballos and a couple of hours) is recreated at this year’s Sydney Festival, and this production, by New York’s Wooster Group, reminds us that this was a time when the productive powers of sex, rather than the destructive powers of sex, were being furiously debated.

Mailer is played by both Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, as if the writer’s enormous presence couldn’t be conveyed by one actor. ‘He’ introduces Greer by Life Magazine’s descriptor – ‘the saucy feminist even men like’. But Maura Tierney’s version of Greer is less the glowing Amazon from down under whose book had just been an international sensation, and more the simmering sexuality of the precise Cambridge scholar on the lecture circuit.

The Female Eunuch had argued that women’s liberation had to begin with sexual liberation, with orgasms and ecstasy: ‘the cunt must come into its own’, she wrote. Mailer, in contrast, wanted to put sex back in its patriarchal box, arguing we needed to celebrate the base male desire to fill the female with semen, whose primary role is to mate and reproduce. Unsurprisingly, the event was as bawdy as it was brutal: at one point Mailer offers to “take out my modest little Jewish dick and put it on the table and we can all spit and laugh”. Trilling, dressed like a candidate for president of the country women’s association and played with great verisimilitude by male actor Greg Mehrten, takes on Greer’s codification of the right kind of orgasm: “I could hope we would also be free to have such orgasms as, in our individual complexities, we happen to be capable of.”

But this production, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, really belongs to Kate Valk’s Jill Johnston, whose incantatory speeches call up the rhythms of the Beats and Greenwich Village and extol the transformative power of lesbian love: “We’re getting to the bottom of women lib, we’re going down on women’s lib, until all women are lesbians there will be no true political revolution”. It’s too much for Mailer, who scolds her for running over time in one of the play’s many funny moments: “I wanna talk to you about lesbianism god dammit, we’ll take a vote”.

The actors on stage are doubled by their real-life counterparts in a screen above – the footage is from a 1979 documentary of the event, Town Bloody Hall. The performers’ ventriloquism of their 1971 twins is both mesmerising and unsettling. At one point actors turn the panel they are seated at and the screen so the figures from 1971 and on the stage in 2018 merge. Along with stretches of dialogue that sound like they could have been uttered this morning, it underscores the ties between then and now. 1971’s Greer appears to predict today’s #metoo: “Is it possible that the way of the masculine artist in our society is strewn with the husks of people worn out and dried out by his ego?”

We’re reminded of Greer’s gift for the crushing one-liner: “Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you,” she tells one male interlocutor. But the play is also a reminder of the intellectual verve of the era, a time when Freud and social theory about the origins of the nuclear family are effortlessly debated in public forums on feminism. Today the same panel would include a celebrity actor from the latest subscription TV miniseries, while even the rare feminist intellectual who ventures out into the public sphere is more likely to talk about her own experiences of, say, female friendship than Freud or Firestone. The politics and poetic polemic of the 1970s have been usurped by a more personal tone, one that leads us to be easily injured and afraid of tough debate now. It’s a joy then to see two very different thinkers like Greer and Johnston high five each other at the end of their speeches.

Three and a half stars

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Lethal Indifference (Wharf 1, Sydney)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 23 February 2018

A woman steps off her balcony into her bedroom and starts listing the kinds of things women living in fear of violence routinely do to stay safe. What is your escape plan? Have you hidden a knife in the cake tin? Has he put a tracking device in my child’s teddy bear?

The Woman (Emily Barclay) has drawn the audience into a mindset where constant vigilance and safety checklists are an everyday part of life. All women do it to varying degrees to guard against randomly violent men all the time, but it’s magnified for the clients at the family violence legal service where the Woman works.

Lethal Indifference (a Sydney Theatre Company production at the Wharf 1 Theatre directed by Jessica Arthur) unfolds as the unnamed Woman delivers a one-and-a-half hour monologue as she moves around the bedroom. The claustrophobic domestic scene initially seems a perplexing choice, then you realise it only emphasises the way violence infiltrates every nook and cranny of women’s lives. There is no safe place.

Barclay, the actor, is unmistakably heavily pregnant, and she changes clothes, cools herself in front of a fan and checks her phone as if she’s readying herself for bed. But she tells the audience a bedtime tale that’s a horror story rather than the kind of fairytale she might want to read to her soon-to-be-born child. Bit by bit, she recounts the fate of Reema, an Indian woman brought to Australia by her taxi-driver husband. He locked her up, raped her and, when she fled, hunted her down and brutally murdered her.

Barclay performs engagingly and intimately, making the most of every moment, taking us effortlessly here and there, from the Coroner’s Court to the office where she works in communications pitching cases to journalists and tweeting hashtag violence against women, to the final death scene in another bedroom. The play, by the much awarded playwright Anna Barnes, is written in the kind of stream of consciousness, loosely structured, personal essay style that is popular now.

Small details – buying a snack in a servo station, witnessing a couple fight over a phone, a day handing out leaflets for the Greens where she details her outfit of frilly socks and shirt and heels – are offset with statistics about family violence and the unfolding story of Reema’s efforts to escape. It’s the sort of style that many people love – and Barclay honours every moment and detail – but, when it is not done with great skill, it’s a style that (for this reviewer at least) can feel overly mannered, even when it is pretending not to be.

The layering of small detail after detail, the purposeful mixing of the consequential and deadly with the frivolous and banal, the insertion of the narrator into the centre of the story, all these things are meant to convey a sensitive, ethical and feeling witness. It attempts immediacy and verisimilitude but in the process,  the craft – the deliberate and careful sifting and choosing of which detail and why – can seem buried.

Barnes’ play makes the good point that male entitlement and the need to control exists on a spectrum. From the Labor boys who shove her off ‘their’ handing out spot, to the private detective and Ajay’s squad of friends who hunt Reema down. The problem is that if it’s every man and every women, if it’s all of us, how do you make that #yesallmenandwomen story dramatic? How do you make us care about this one woman’s story? How can we understand this one particular monster?

We’ve been talking about male violence for a while now, and this play is a significant part of the conversation. It’s a systemic problem and it’s a structural problem, as Barnes points out. Barclay gives it everything, but making a riveting drama out of a systemic problem takes enormous skill.

Photo: Prudence Upton

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Mamma Mia! (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 16 February 2018

ABBA are too often dismissed as those comely Nordic popstars who defined Eurovision camp while singing of heterosexual love and heartache. To do so forgets the group’s music has only been outsold by those other four megastars of pop, The Beatles. And ABBA arguably left an even greater imprint on pop. Madonna, Kylie, Taylor – ABBA is all over all of them. Like the Swedish seasons, they could do darkly melancholic as well as they could do light (What’s The Name Of The Game? The Winner Takes It All), particularly after ABBA’s married pairs consciously uncoupled.

The reasons for ABBA’s success are not unlike that other famous Swedish brand of four upper case letters. Walking into an IKEA display room is like being in an ABBA song: everything is beautiful, clean, perfectly placed and infused with dashes of Swedish folk notes. But the effect of pared back simplicity is painstakingly achieved with the carefully layered placement of hundreds of elements. ABBA made not so much a wall of sound, as a room of sound that, like an IKEA showroom, could sometimes seem to contain the whole world.

But that’s where the analogy ends. For while about five percent of the IKEA catalogue is built solidly and beautifully enough to stand up in twenty or thirty years, the ratio is reversed for ABBA’s back catalogue. The word ‘perfect’ is carelessly tossed around these days, a mostly meaningless phrase that seems to function as an antidote to a world of petty meanness. But ABBA really did do perfect pop songs. Lots of them. And ones that aren’t easily recreated at home, which is really the best reason to see this latest production of Mamma Mia! (touring Australia and now playing in Sydney).

This latest Australian production has Natalie O’Donnell as Donna, mother of the bride-to-be Sophie – the character O’Donnell played in the original Australian production in 2001. Donna was left heartbroken and washed up on a Greek Island 20 years ago by Sam (Ian Stenlake). When he returned and found out she’d gone off with another other man, he went home, married and became an architect more successful at building homes than keeping his own home together.

He’s back on the island with the two men Donna consoled herself with all those years ago – London banker Harry (Phillip Lowe) and wandering commitment-phobic writer Bill (Josef Ber) – because Sophie read her mother’s old diary and wants to find out just who her father is. Anybody could be that guuuuy… (See what I mean? You can’t spend a few hours lost in the ABBA oeuvre without picking up a gorgeous thing you didn’t know you wanted or even needed: before you know it it’s in your trolley and you’re at the checkout making it yours).

It’s the older cast members who really inhabit ABBA’s songs. Jayde Westaby as Tanya, Donna’s four-time married friend and uber cougar, is phenomenal. Her take on Does Your Mother Know? is a masterclass for the cast’s younger members. The production’s gender flipping of the song (the original has an older man singing ‘you’re so hot/teasing me’ to an underage girl) pulls it back from the wrong side of awfulness. Here, Westaby is well matched by beach bum Pepper (Sam Hooper).

Alicia Gardiner (Offspring’s nurse Kim Akerholt) plays Rosie, the third member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio. When Sam’s arrival sends Donna into a spin, her two friends console her with a gorgeously funny take on Chiquitita. In fact the best numbers of the night – Dancing QueenSuper Trouper – are so good because, like ABBA, they make the most of beautiful female harmonies overlaid with that room full of sound.

Sarah Morrison, as bride-to-be Sophie, makes Honey Honey as sweet as can be, but her musical theatre delivery style often seems to be from another production. There’s an old-fashioned trill to her voice that – on the best interpretation – is matched by Sophie’s old-fashioned fantasy of a white wedding.

Mamma Mia! is all about the wedding and love matches – the Bechdel test has never been failed so badly. While the three older women all suggest there’s more than one way of being in that demographic – single parent, serially married and defiantly unhitched – the unhappily unmarried must eventually marry. But not before Donna wards off some slut shaming: ‘I haven’t slept with hundreds of men’. Or before ‘headbanger Harry’, the original weed fiend who spent his middle years as an investment banker, finds love with another man. Sophie, as seems her birthright, is left free from matrimonial chains, for the time being.

The costumes stay on the right side of lurid – a little bit Priscilla, a little bit Ibiza. The band brings out the big sound for the big tunes – Dancing QueenWaterloo – but at times if felt as though it was holding back, like it was the house band for the gambling cruise ship Sophie’s beau, Sky, wants to circle the island. ABBA’s power was that their music was so forcefully seductive it could compel millions of people to move with a few opening bars. With a bit of rock music, everything is fine/You’re in the mood for a dance That’s why we come.

Weddings aside, Mamma Mia! is also, in the end, a story about mothers and daughters. At the hens’ night Donna turns the love song Super Trouper into a love song for her daughter ‘cause somewhere in the crowd there’s you’. If you have one in your life, take your own Chiquitita (see what ABBA does to you?).

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