Review: Disney’s ALADDIN

No Disney magic is spared in the touring adaption of Broadway musical hit, Aladdin, based on 1992’s blockbuster animation.

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The first stars of the show are set designer Bob Crowley and costume designer Gregg Barnes. There’s enough glitz in Aladdin to completely re-sand the South Bank beach with glitter and crystals. No detail goes un-bedazzled, and the result is a spectacle that overwhelms like, well, the proverbial Aladdin’s cave. The pyrotechnics are quite literally dazzling, and even my cold, miserly heart lights up for Jim Steinmeyer’s illusion design.

It’s no surprise; Aladdin is delivered by the studios with perhaps the world’s tightest hold on their brand. Yet Disney leaves wiggle-room for some local touches – delivered with wit by our fourth-wall-defying Genie – that warm the audience right up. (“Where do you think I’m from?” he asks Aladdin. “Ipswich?”)

Aladdin successfully translates rather than replicates the film. In fact, the theatrical production gives the show a New York rags-to-riches feel, blending big band and tap into the mix. Instead of Aladdin’s monkey pal, we have three loyal buddies: Kassim (Adam-Jon Fioentino), Babkak (Troy Sussman) and Omar (Robert Tripolino). These guys have great chemistry – their numbers together are a blast (particularly “High Adventure”). It’s a shame most of Babkak’s characterisation comes back to fat jokes.

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Hiba Elchikhe and understudy Graeme Isaako are perfectly plucky as Jasmine and Aladdin, and they fill the big shoes of their filmic predecessors in sweet duets like “A Whole New World”. George Henare is an endearing Sultan, and understudy Dean Vince demonstrates that English accents always sound more evil, but it’s Aljin Abella as Iago who really steals the show with his comedic timing – and wicked laugh. Genie is such a charismatic character, and we can forgive understudy Anthony Murphy when his shrill-camp dialogue and singing is often hard to understand. Murphy sure looks the part, and Genie is certainly the character whose freedom we’re rooting for with the most vim, and who earns the biggest applause.

The ensemble deserves kudos, too, as a tireless, dynamic bunch under the supervision of director/choreographer Casey Nicolaw and a team of associates.

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Danny Troob’s orchestration is a highlight, led by music director Geoffrey Castles. There’s plenty of nostalgic earworms from Disney past, with the most striking new songs coming from the original team (music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, with book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin).

It will likely not shock you to know that Disney still has a gender problem (not to mention, famously, an exoticism problem). Where Aladdin’s monkey is replaced with three men with distinct personalities, names and songs, Jasmine’s tiger companion is replaced by nameless women from the ensemble, who march off to leave her alone in her room with an unwelcome intruder. I was disappointed, given the number of thrilled kiddos in the audience, to see Aladdin tap his cheek to request a kiss and tell Jasmine, “Don’t you owe me something for showing you around?” Why not take the opportunity, when you wield such epic influence, to normalise language that supports a culture of consent and nurturance? Shout out, by the way, to Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (make-up design) and Natasha Katz (lighting design) – the only two women listed in a creative team of 22 people.

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It all works out okay: Aladdin gets a new tragic backstory and in the end Jasmine’s dad tells her she’ll be equal ruler once she’s married. These aren’t new criticisms. I might not know how Aladdin’s magic carpet works (no, really, it’s going to keep me up at night!), but the structure of a Disney production is a tale as old as time. So it goes. Ol’ Walt sure puts on a hell of a show, and it was fun watching parents trying to unravel their children from reams of gold streamers.

Aladdin runs until 3 June at the Lyric Theatre, QPAC. You can also enter a lottery, Broadway-style, for cheap tickets throughout the season.

Photos by Jeff Busby.

 

 

 

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Adelaide Fringe: The Institute of Invisible Things and Glittery Clittery

The Institute of Invisible Things

We genuinely stumbled across this one, in Adelaide Central Markets. We happened to arrive 15 minutes before the Institute opened, so we grabbed piroshkis and waited with Karen, the installation’s gatekeeper.

The Institute of Invisible Things is a free, pop-up experience open only three hours a day during Fringe Festival. It’s also my favourite encounter this week. The show is a 10–15 minute miniature – the haiku of theatre, perhaps – which you enter alone, leaving your bags (and baggage) at the door.

Presented in three “chapters”, The Institute of Invisible Things asks you to contemplate nothingness, light, and connection. Creators Sarah John and Emma Beech guide you through this experience, set in a tiny gallery in a quiet corner of the Adelaide Market, the bustle of vendors just outside.

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The Institute makes powerful, tender use of very little: strong, concise writing; resonant imagery; and gentle participation. Sensory touches – a warm bowl of tea placed in my hands – are grounding and genuinely meditative.

The show’s epilogue asks you to contemplate sonder – both the loneliness and unity of realising that everyone who passes by is living their own complex life, with its own. For this moment, you’re the solo audience member at the Institute’s front window, looking into the theatre of the living market.

The Institute of Invisible Things runs until 3 March at Adelaide Fringe 2018.

 

 

Glittery Clittery: A Consensual Party

The Fringe Wives Club seem to be an institution at Adelaide Fringe – several friends and colleagues recommended their cabaret show at the Garden of Unearthly Delights. Glittery Clittery is part musical, part stand-up, part game show and all feminist comedy. They call it performance activism – “for the greater, glittery good.”

Playing at 10pm, this is a party worth staying up for. Tessa Waters, Rowena Hutson and Victoria Falconer sparkle – both literally and figuratively – as they sing about the sexism of pockets (and their absence) in women’s clothing, mactivist men, and how feminism is so hot right now. In all the fun, the Fringe Wives also acknowledge the show’s limitations – but there’s enough patriarchy-fucking in the show to get the audience very fired up indeed.

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For the game show Lagoon of Mystery, named for Carrie Fischer’s euphemism for the vag, Hutson appears dressed a huge, plush vulva. Three audience members compete to answer anatomical trivia. (My inner Hermione kicks in as I regret not volunteering and stick my arm up anyway to answer how many nerve endings a clit has (8000, cheers).) It’s edutainment at its finest, but also a gloomy reminder of how bad our sex ed. is. (Folks, it’s not too late to learn!)

Glittery Clittery is such a joy that I nearly bought a glittery bum-bag. I’d definitely buy a soundtrack. Tessa Waters and Victoria Falconer each has a solo shows running at Fringe, too – check them out if you can. Fellow critic Jane Howard has been tweeting about the disproportionate representation of male comedians at Fringe. Help address the imbalance while also learning more about the lagoon of mystery or, as I prefer, breakfast of champions.

Glittery Clittery: A Consenusal Party has recently been nominated for a Green Room Award for Best Ensemble. It runs until 18 March 2018 at Le Cascadeur at The Garden of Unearthly Delights as part of Adelaide Fringe Festival.

Adelaide Fringe: Fallot (FÄ-‘LŌ)

Fallot is a circus-infused physical theatre work about the eponymous heart defect, Tetralogy of Fallot, as experienced by circus artist Marianna Joslin. Company 2 directors Chelsea McGuffin and David Carberry produce Fallot, performed by Joslin, Phoebe ArmstrongOlivia PorterCasey Douglas and Jake Silvestro.

The show had a developmental run at Brisbane Powerhouse during Wonderland Festival 2017; I missed Fallot then, so I was glad to catch up on my Bris-circus during Adelaide Fringe. In the intimate Empire Theatre tent, I love that you can see more of the physical work of circus by sheer proximity. There’s a lot of muscle and control in Fallot, perhaps fitting for a show that explores the heart muscle’s control over the function of body and mind.

In this particular run of Fallot, Joslin’s role in the show is limited by a recent injury, so she becomes the narrator and shadow of her own story. Joslin has experienced the physical and emotional trauma of several open-heart surgeries, and Fallot is at its strongest when its performers use their physical strength to show the vulnerability that comes with being at the mercy of doctors, anaesthetists and nurses.

The show has a fantastic, uncanny look: screens turn theatre into operating theatre, with freaky robed surgeons contrasting with beige lace and medical corsetry. White hospital sheets are a recurring motif, used as tissu to climb, rope, or costuming. The female performers each embody aspects of Joslin’s experiences, centred around a black operating table on wheels. A standout scene has Douglas and Silvestro, as doctors, shifting their co-performers on, off and around that table, using subtle versions of Company 2’s signature toss-the-girl manoeuvres to rob them of their agency. Another sees nurses weave hospital sheets around Armstong’s legs before hoisting her to the ceiling to float in the limbo of anaesthesia.

Fallot does struggle to settle on a tone. It plays up moments of classic cabaret between pathos-driven scenes, but there isn’t a clear sense of physical narrative between these – it doesn’t quite flow yet. This is most evident in the final scene, a lip-syncing number complete with heart puppets – its weirdness, though not unwelcome, comes from left field. It’s madcap, but inconsistent. Part of the challenge here is that Fallot’s narrative is held together by actual narration by Joslin – some live, some recorded – often overlong and leaning hard on clichés that wind up more tiresome than heart-warming.

Company 2 works with first-rate physical performers, but Fallot doesn’t trust those artists to show (rather than tell) the story. Fortunately, David Carberry’s musical score is a compelling pulse that resonates with the performers and with the beat of our own hearts.

Fallot runs at the Royal Croquet Club at Adelaide Fringe until 25 February.

Adelaide Fringe: Séance

I booked very cheap tickets to Adelaide months ago, not even realising we’d be here in time for Fringe. It’s a happy coincidence, so in between eating a lot and looking at myself in the Gallery of South Australia, I’ve been seeing as much theatre as my wallet can handle (not heaps, but still). Why leave my cosy AirBnB bed during daylight hours when I could write scrappy reviews all day and see shows at night?

To a Queenslander, Adelaide Fringe Festival – particularly the Rundle Park venue Garden of Earthly Delights – looks like The Ekka but for actual art. There’s a good bit of dustbowl Carnivàle vibe thrown in, and plenty to stumble across. We were contemplating Sideshow Alley (my beau has never been on a Ferris Wheel?!) when we found Séance.

It makes sense that Séance is near the thrill rides: it kind of serves as the haunted house of Fringe. Séance is, quite literally, a show-in-a-box – it takes place in a shipping crate, in pitch darkness. It’s only 15–20 minutes long, but we decided it was a far better way to sink $20 each than on dodgems. The show (and, presumably, crate) has been transported from Edinburgh Fringe, but is facilitated by newish Melbourne theatre company, Realscape (in association with Darkfield – a collaboration between Glen Neath and David Rosenberg). Their modus operandi is to present “unforgettable theatrical experiences that captivate and inspire even the sixth sense.”

Inside the container is a long table, with old-fashioned red theatre chairs lining either side. We’re asked to put on noise-cancelling headphones before we’re plunged into darkness. Without wanting to give the game away – especially with such a short show – Séance relies on aural illusion. Using binaural audio, the show takes place inside your head, with your brain extrapolating Foley into reality around you. (For those who’ve never encountered the weirdness of ASMR YouTube, binaural microphones record “3D sound”. It’s virtual reality, but via audio.)

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I’m pleased to read that Darkfield is an ongoing project – using “actors … binaural sound, pitch darkness and movement … in shipping containers to explore fear and anxiety.” What a damn fine project. Séance is the first in this collection of shows, and it proves that binaural audio and light (or lack thereof) are a fantastic way to create a memorable, affecting experience. As well, the show’s transportable nature calls back to the travelling illusionists and snake-oil salesmen of old.

But, for a show that relies on immersion, the team handling the audience is careless. While I understand the importance and complexity of safety warnings for such a show (e.g. to have someone leave partway would destroy the darkness), there was little effort to set the mood and bring us into the Spiritualist world of the séance itself. We were initiated by a dude in green basketball shorts, as chill and casual as any carnie strapping us into a ride. The show ought to have begun outside the container, not once the lights went out. This isn’t the dodgems; this is a dollar-a-minute theatre experience.

Within the audio of the show, as well, a few key clues busted the suspension of my disbelief, despite the Mulderesque fervour with which I wanted to believe. (For example, perhaps the audio could’ve been rerecorded with local accents.) But all in all, I found myself wanting more. While I get that there’s only so long you can lock 20 people in a dark box, another five, 10 or even 15 minutes would’ve allowed the writers to flesh (or perhaps spirit) out a more consistent, impactful narrative.

I loved the innovations used in Séance, and hope this spooky little show encourages more theatre-makers to push on the potential of binaural audio.

Séance plays in The Garden of Earthly Delights throughout Adelaide Fringe Festival.

Three and a half stars.

Dream: a blog

It’s several weeks ago now, but Vena Cava’s Dream: A House (Anywhere Festival) is still resonating – in a very dreamlike way. This installation took over the whole of House Conspiracy in West End, a sharehouse-turned-shared-arts space.

Transforming an entire building into an immersive experience is an enduring fantasy of mine. On top of that, exploring uncanny Queenslanders is the theme at the heart of my Master’s thesis. I bought tickets so fast I was just a blur with a credit card.

I haven’t written reviews in a couple of years, so this isn’t really criticism. Technically I could’ve squeezed Dream: A House into my recent lit review but never mind that. :| I’m just glad this show had its moment in Brisbane, and wanted to make a few notes that might help me respond to it more creatively in the near future.

Dream: A House was directed by Sarah Winter, who created A Library for the End of the World a few years ago: an uncanny walking tour of West End (guided by audio on headphones), which led to a tiny library of memories. The show ended by inviting you to record a memory of your own to add to the collection. I remember wanting to stay in that library room forever.

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A Library for the End of the World, 2014

This new work operates on the conceit that the show is your night’s sleep, and the rooms of House Conspiracy are a series of dreams. Like A Library for the End of the World, it’s a solo experience, and the Dream team take pains to create a sense of safety and ritual before showing you to the front door. Going into a show alone – especially a walking show – is a wonderful experience: without a fellow audience, you can be vulnerable and react without moderating your feelings and facial expressions.

Sarah Winter, Siobhan Martin (production manager), and Rebekkah Law and Samuel Seagrott (stage management team) have put a great deal of time and love into creating a labyrinth of detailed dreams within House Conspiracy. (That house has a surprising number of rooms! I’ve been trying to map out the space – I’ll have to revisit when it’s functioning normally.)

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The show is most successful at its most intimate and sensory. I couldn’t bring myself to miss sniffing a single memory in the smell library (legit a dream I would have, too). In the sand room, I felt safe in the mystic’s intimate, attentive gaze. When I slow-danced with the woman in the flower room, I felt we’d known each other a long time – but only just fallen in love. I probably spent too long on the phone in the kitchen shit-talking the Northern Lights. The spaces and characters invite you to engage deeply – and I only wish I’d had more time to do so (and to scribble my secret missive in the bathtub full of books).

The rooms where the illusion was broken were where the dreamy themes were overwritten or overacted – minor issues easily tweaked. I loved the attention to detail throughout – from taking off my shoes at the beginning to finding them waiting for me in front of a chair under the house, swathed in cloud-like clean sheets on lines, which you unpeg your way through to leave. In hindsight I’d have gladly booked out two spots so I could explore the house for longer.

CIRCUS REVIEW: Scotch and Soda

Company 2’s Scotch and Soda began its life at Woodford — and that grassroots festival vibe stays with it, even confined to a theatre. The Judith Wright Centre again proves itself to be a chameleon space: Dan Black’s clever lighting design makes use of colourful string-lights to evoke the big top. Company 2 (known for Cantina) conjures an immersive speakeasy atmosphere in the round through simple design, costuming and music. In this case, the Crusty Suitcase Band binds the production together and takes it from great to unforgettable.

Scotch and Soda features circus staples — acrobalance, aerials and slapstick — but what sets Company 2 apart is that, while each performer is at the top of their game, there’s a larrikin sense of chaos and play. It reassured me (just in case I was wondering if I was having a great time or not) to see two of Limbo’s cast members (Danik Abishev and Heather Holliday)* in the audience, having a damn good time. If international circus talent of that magnitude loves your show, it’s definitely good stuff.

Scotch and Soda by Sean Young (SYC Studios)

Scotch and Soda photographed by Sean Young (SYC Studios)

Chelsea McGuffin (co-director), whose signature move is to tiptoe across wine bottles, could balance her way out of any dilemma; David Carberry, Daniel Catlow and Ben Walsh bring chemistry to adagio and vaulting; and Mozes is hilarious on roller-skates but gobsmacking on trapeze. But Scotch and Soda is more than spectacle: the Crusty Suitcase Band is a vital part of the performance, with weird sax breaks and percussion-offs definite highlights. They even play the plastic bag, to great effect.

The only time Scotch and Soda takes a dip in energy is during a sequence featuring budgerigars, whose unwillingness to play along is comic, but ultimately overlong — and it’s unclear how keen the budgies are to keep us company. (There was also a puppy at the start that didn’t reappear — alas!)

Company 2’s last production, She Would Walk the Sky (World Theatre Festival, in collaboration with Finegan Kruckemeyer), struggled with incorporating sluggish prose. In Scotch and Soda, the company returns to its strengths, and the result is sheer delight.

SCOTCH AND SODA played at Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts from 24 to 27 September, as part of Brisbane Festival. Company 2 returns to JWCoCA in November with Sediment.

*BTW, Strut and Fret’s LIMBO is completely astounding and I spent all my BrisFest dollars on seeing it twice.

 

DANCE REVIEW: Deluge

Motherboard Productions break away from the rambunctious structure of their previous work (you may have heard me gush about JiHa Underground…) in this meditative contemporary dance piece.

As we file in to the Powerhouse’s main theatre, performers move back and forth between the audience and a kitchen hutch that stands centre-stage. Person by person, we are offered tea. It’s a ritual that grounds the tone of Deluge and sets the scene at a low-key gathering at an Auchenflower share-house.

The kitchen vanishes, the party is washed away and we’re left holding our cups. The performers re-emerge in costumes that evoke rushing water (designed by Kiara Bulley, Bianca Bulley, Noni Harrison). Dane Alexander’s electronic soundscape takes us out into the storm, lit in blue and lightning by David Walters (who — briefly — makes the best use of strobe lighting I’ve ever seen). Each sequence of Deluge builds layers of movement patterns, repeated with swelling energy.

Jeremy Neideck (Deluge)

The performers explore grief through tidal tableaux, but the show’s most haunting moments arise out of frenzy: surges of operatic song, convulsions that suggest drowning. And, in a resonant climax, a river-spirit drags itself across the stage, weighed down by a cloak of human trash (including the paper cups and serviettes in our hands).

Water is a theme that gushes through both JiHa Underground (World Theatre Festival 2014, Brisbane Festival 2012) and Deluge, yet here Motherboard takes a brave step away from previous work — in this case, from interactive musical theatre to meditative dance. The pieces haven’t quite come together yet: there’s disconnect between the distinct Brisbane note of the kitchen scene and the body of the work, which in itself often relies on repetition over depth.

Director/lead performer Jeremy Neideck and devising troupe (Hoyoung Tak, Younghee Park, Youngho Kwon, Katrina Cornwell, Sammie Williams, Amy Wollstein) have proven their talents time and again — and Brisbane is lucky to host continued collaboration between Korean and Australian traditions. No doubt, with further development, Deluge will come to further illuminate its themes: water, ritual, loss, growth.

DELUGE played at Brisbane Powerhouse from 18 to 20 September as part of Brisbane Festival.

THEATRE REVIEW: Sex with Strangers

Words by Tahnee Robinson 

Sex with Strangers is off to a good start. It has an intriguing title and an attractive cast — and the same play recently opened off-broadway starring Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad. Brisbane’s version, directed by Jennifer Flowers, stars Veronica Neave as the self-composed Olivia, with Thomas Larkin as the self-aggrandising Ethan. Despite the raunchy title, Sex with Strangers is essentially a romantic comedy. Two miss-matched souls meet-cute in a conveniently empty writers’ retreat cabin-in-the-woods; the action proceeds as expected (perhaps with more action than Brisbane’s theatre-going public is accustomed to).

It’s rare to see two characters so quickly and fully asserted on stage. The American accents initially come as a shock — though it becomes apparent that this was dictated by the script, which is set firmly in North America. Without microphones (clothes come off far too frequently for that to be practical) Neave and Larkin are challenged with conveying intimacy while making themselves heard. They do an admirable job, though it’s when both actors’ accents momentarily slip that I feel I’ve really seen their true potential for depth and sincerity — these are the people I want to be watching.

Larkin and Neave

Laura Eason’s script relies heavily on some well-worn territory — the comedic potential of age differences, the sexual appeal of bad boys — and is occasionally downright problematic. Ethan’s modus operandi seems to be to sail blithely over Olivia’s clearly articulated boundaries, and the initial result is a sexy good time. Naturally this approach only takes the pair so far before things start to get complicated. It’s tricky ground to navigate: understanding that having our boundaries pushed can be creatively beneficial and kind of hot, but that it can also be horribly disrespectful and destructive. It’s hard to tell if this exploration is deliberate or accidental, though it’s held together by the wholeness of Olivia’s character. She is a woman with hang-ups, on a journey of self-discovery, but she does not need to be rescued.

All of this takes place on Troy Armstrong’s simple but clever set. Each side of the open stage gives the audience a slightly different perspective — I was lucky enough to be able to see down the hallway, to catch the emotional nuances of the characters’ comings and goings. The lighting design (Jason Glenwright and Tim Gawne) is similarly clever: subtle changes in intensity and direction guide the audience’s sense of time and place. The first act closes memorably, using only the light of Olivia’s laptop screen. Dane Alexander’s sound design is fairly spare, serving largely to denote sex in a way that feels a little tongue-in-cheek. The music signaling Ethan’s arrival and departure from the writers’ retreat is a perfectly executed little touch.

Sex with Strangers explores some interesting territory with regard to consent and desire. And while it’s not quite as daring as I had hoped it would be, I suspect some of my fellow punters might disagree (there is something to be said about age gaps after all, and perhaps my browser history is filthier than I thought).

SEX WITH STRANGERS runs at Brisbane Powerhouse until 26 July 2014. Tickets $38

THEATRE REVIEW: 1984

Cremorne Theatre, QPAC
17 July 2014

Photos by Dylan Evans

In the intimate (even stuffy) Cremorne, we are blinded by roaming searchlights. A huge screen looks down upon us from the bleak stage. Shake & Stir immerse their audience in George Orwell’s 1984 — a draconian future where “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” Here, the past is malleable and even private thought is public property.

Bryan Probets is compelling as Winston Smith, the quietly sharp, nervous dissident who works in the Ministry of Truth rewriting records of the past. The telescreen — a two-way television that both broadcasts and monitors — dominates his home and life. Winston’s internal struggle against Big Brother is broadcast to us even while, in person, he hides from prying cameras. His monologues induce doublethink in the audience: we know this is private; we know we are watching.

Set designer Josh McIntosh has stashed the past in crevices and under floorboards. The unfolding of a secret, museum-like room is a special delight. But it’s Optikal Bloc’s visuals that are at the heart of this production. (Ironically, they edited 2013’s season of Big Brother for Nine Network.) Matched with Guy Webster’s suitably overwhelming sound design and Jason Glenright’s always-clever lighting, Optikal Blok evokes a claustrophobic sense of constant surveillance.

1984 — photo by Dylan Evans

Unfortunately, the cast can’t quite maintain this sense of dread. Ross Balbuziente, Nelle Lee Julia and Nick Skubij — company co-artistic directors — each seem miscast as cartoonist iterations of their characters: keen patriot Parsons, secret rebel Julia and elderly antiques-peddler Charrington respectively. David Whitney as O’Brien brings a gravity essential to the double-agent role; he is the production’s much-needed metronome, keeping the pace even.

There’s a particular bleak resonance in Orwell’s vision: in 2014, we enact doublethink every day; we willingly cling to the devices that monitor and data-mine us. Michael Futcher makes note of these phenomena in his director’s notes. Yet scenes in 1984 that ought to remind the audience of its role in its own panopticon are often played lightly enough for laughs. Winston’s prison experience is at one point reduced to toilet humour. And, significantly, there’s a bitter-sweetness lacking from his frantic connection with Julia. Even the live rats meant to signify terror are, well, really cute.

Shake & Stir’s production faithfully follows the plot and text of Orwell’s 1948 novel (I did my homework and read it last week), yet something is missing. No amount of audio-visual saturation can stand in for genuinely felt fear. Opening night, if I understand correctly, was the 101st showing of this particular adaptation; after 124 days on the road, perhaps 1984 is going through the motions. Still, Orwell’s inventive language alone reminds of our tenuous grasp on memory; our disconnection from inconvenient histories; and how easily we might be complicit in our own enslavement.

“If you want a picture of the future,” says O’Brien, “imagine a boot stamping on a human face — for ever.” Shake & Stir has long since found its feet; during 1984’s QPAC run, I hope it’ll find its steel-capped boots.

1984 plays until 2 August 2014 at Cremorne Theatre, QPAC.

THEATRE REVIEW: Caligula

The Danger Ensemble likes to live up to the name — testing the boundaries of experimental theatre, confounding expectations of narrative and taste, and generally taking a lot of risks. Like the ensemble’s previous fare, Caligula serves a challenge to its audience, asking how far we are willing to follow them and threatening to leave the meek behind.

My enduring image of Matthew Barney’s art project The Cremaster Cycle remains a painted, white-suited satyr, dragging himself laboriously through a Vaseline-filled duct. It’s grotesque: overtly sexual but lacking clear meaning. (I always assumed it was an allegory for the journey through the vas deferens, but to each their own.) It was this image that sprang to mind during Caligula. Director Steven Mitchell Wright has omitted enormous quantities of petroleum jelly from his production — perhaps even the wonderfully adventurous Judith Wright Centre has its limits — but the set is creative, nonetheless. The stage is a raised trapezoidal platform; the centre is filled with clear plastic cups. The cups give the impression of water or gems, albeit far louder when stepped on. The performers will spend most of their time cavorting on the raised edges, though they journey periodically into their crackling pool to wade or writhe about. The strongest aspect of Caligula is the visual design — from the costumes to the props and the characters’ physicality, the imagery is the most memorable part of this show.

Caligula: Chris Beckey

Perhaps the most striking image of the entire performance is the opening tableau: five busts wreathed in fog, immersed in a bassy, ambient soundscape. As the lights go down the characters behind them peel away from the dusty stone artifacts to come to noisy, lascivious life.

Initially we are treated to a brief history lesson, delivered in a bratty, synchronised monologue by performers Gabriel Comerford and Stephen Quinn. Wearing spectacles and cardigans, their scarcely restrained genitals bouncing in g-strings, the two introduce us to Caligula, who scandalised the Roman Empire during his brief reign as emperor between 37 and 41 CE. We will be taken on a tour of incest and general debauchery.

It’s around this point that shit starts to get weird. We meet sexy siblings Caligula (Chris Beckey) and Drusilla (Lucinda Shaw). Beckey manages to conjure the entire character of Caligula through voice alone, commanding and licentious, entirely sure of himself in his depravity and probable insanity. Unfortunately this does nothing to dispel the jarring tackiness of Drusilla launching into a mournful rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball”. Shaw has a distinctive and powerful voice, best showcased on some of the later numbers. That’s not the problem here: the song is simply incongruous, and not in a way the aids the ensemble’s agenda.

Incongruity is an intentional part of Caligula; the show is not a linear narrative – it is not, in any real sense, a narrative at all. Instead it is a chain of impressions, images and ideas, including borrowed texts and scraps of pop culture. We are spectators to a carnival of highly sexualised folly. There is a sense that Wright and his creatives would like to link the story of Caligula and his hungers to our modern selves, a magnificent temporal fantasy of exhibitionism and desire. Unfortunately, it seems like the ensemble may be expecting too much from their audience on this front. Stripped of narrative, there isn’t enough material to conceptualise these links, and the end result is baffling and unsatisfying.

Caligula: Nerida Matthaei

Caligula relies heavily on shock value to give it weight, and in this aspect it feels as though they’re not giving their audience enough credit. At one point the performers engage in a kind of call-and-response interlude resembling a chat-room conversation or series of personal ads for fetish encounters. The content is intended to be shocking but the result is banal — there’s a glibness to their delivery that suggests that the performers aren’t quite committed to the conceit.  Nerida Matthaei is a superb physical performer, and her dance and movement throughout Caligula are no exception, but I can’t make myself believe she really wants the filthy things she’s asking for. Which is a pity — earnestness might go a long way here.

Despite the assertion towards the show’s end that the 21st century is home to an apathetic generation (why is that a thing in theatre at the moment?) I believe that what audiences crave is sincerity — no matter the subject matter. Performances that push the boundaries, like Caligula, are precious in the world of theatre, especially in Brisbane. Your audience is there because they want to leap into the void with you — if you let them.

CALIGULA plays at The Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts until 12 July. Tickets $20–35, restricted to viewers 18+.

TAHNEE ROBINSON is a Brisbane-based writer. She was OffStreet Press’s visual arts, film and fashion editor.