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Reality’s other perspectives

Stephen Carleton: Brisbane Festival

The Importance of Being Earnest, Wild Rice The Importance of Being Earnest, Wild Rice
photo courtesy Brisbane Festival
I’m going to be very honest here and admit that there have been years recently where the Brisbane Festival has come and gone and I haven’t really registered that it’s on. Riverfire (the festival’s culminating firework spectacular) happens, sneaking up and strafing me as an annual wake-up call to say that it’s all just finished. The Theatre Republic, hosted by La Boite (curated by Glyn Roberts under David Berthold’s jurisdiction as then Artistic Director) was my viewing highlight last year, and a highlight again in 2015, but this time with Berthold at the helm of the festival itself, it felt an integrated part of a rejuvenated and eclectic program. Chris Ioan Roberts’ Dead Royal contained some deliciously scabrous writing in his coruscating dissection of the private lives of women who marry royals (think Dorothy Parker meets Joan Rivers) and Dead Centre/Sea Wall was a compelling study of grief. In that context, It was gratifying to see Thomas Quirk’s locally sourced The Theory of Everything take its place alongside the Melbourne-heavy national (and indeed, international) line-up.

Thomas Quirk, The Theory of Everything

Quirk’s tightly scripted anarchy (‘contributed to’ by J M Donellan and Marcel Dorney) had the feel of improvisation and managed to sustain focus for its tight 60-minute span. During that time we see the ensemble cast (Ellen Bailey, Thomas Bartsch, Katy Cotter, Chris Farrell, Coleman Grehan, Dale Thornburn, Merlynn Tong and Reuben Witsenhuysen) announce themselves as actors attempting to explain the formulation of the universe and meaning of life in post-dramatic montage fashion. Actually, they all announce themselves as creator Thomas Quirk at one point. They ‘shoot’ each other playfully to fight for the soapbox in one scene, then transform into iconoclastic thinkers of the past two thousand years—Aristotle, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Warhol (!) et al, then personalise the search for the meaning of existence, then comment meta-theatrically on the fact that that’s what they’re doing. It’s a riotous theatrical experiment that somehow conjures up Kenny Everett’s spirit of anarchic comic ridiculousness for me. I look forward to seeing how Quirk’s work develops.

As for the broader festival program, there was a distinct postcolonial bias to the line-up, with dance, opera and theatre pieces from Africa and South-East Asia proving popular highlights.

Wild Rice, The Importance of Being Earnest

From Singapore, Wild Rice’s all-male version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest was a delicious confection. The play is cast entirely with male actors from Singapore’s evidently deep talent pool. The conceit could have proven gimmicky, but it rose above queer parody for me. While the energy was high and camp and paced at the frenetic end of the farce spectrum, the pitch was just right. The outlandishness of the plot was overplayed, inviting the audience in to laugh at its ridiculousness. We weren’t laughing because Cecily and Gwendolyn (Gavin Yap and Chua Enlai) were men playing girls falling for men. We were laughing because Wilde’s text somehow felt fresh and raucous again under Glen Goei’s direction. The colour scheme was smart, austere black and white (though the set did feel like it had been whacked up for a quick bump in and bump out—something that wouldn’t cause headaches in the luggage hold). A string quartet from the Queensland Conservatorium provided fitting period ambience. And Ivan Heng’s Lady Bracknell was appropriately withering and evocative of Maggie Smith at her caustic, distingué Downton Abbey best. The cast was uniformly excellent. Hanging over it all was the knowledge that this theatre company really does push the envelope in socially conservative Singapore, and while the text’s queerness is safe enough to ‘pass’ as British panto here (and there), this production enabled me to re-access the piece and feel something of the frisson of salaciousness that no doubt attended its original performance. Social media tells me that at least one QPAC dowager subscriber was outraged by the all-male inversion of the text. “And they’re all Asian!” she evidently loudly declared. If those feathers alone have been ruffled by this joyous production, it’s been worth it.

Macbeth Macbeth
photo Nicky Newman
Third World Bunfight, Macbeth

Brett Bailey’s reconceptualisation of Verdi’s Macbeth was an altogether more sinister affair. Bailey’s company, Third World Bunfight, is committedly engaged with socio-political commentary in South Africa. The central conceit is that a troupe of East Congolese refugee performers stumble across a trunk full of musical scores and costumes that once belonged to a local amateur opera company who performed Verdi’s Macbeth. They use the outfits to tell their country’s own story of colonial corruption. That premise was something of a dramaturgical leap of faith, and not one I’m convinced was brokered clearly in performance. Once it was up and running, though, things cohered more clearly. Here, the three witches are converted into voracious mining company executives whose augury sees installation of a regime supportive of their own rapacious ambitions for the country’s resources. Macbeth (Owen Metsileng) is the corrupt puppet who benefits and grows decadent on his country’s imperial exploitation. The scene where he and Lady Macbeth (Nobulumko Mngxekeza) transform into booty-grinding bling-clad hip-hopsters (singing to the original Verdi score) is the highlight and the moment, for me, when the adaptation—the collision of parent text and contemporary interpretation—crystallised most successfully in performance.

It didn’t always feel like the audience was ‘there’ with the piece. There was some inane giggling whenever the word “fuck” appeared in the surtitled translation of the text, and despite the excellence of the singing by the entire cast, I sensed some audience detachment for long stretches. Perhaps this is, again, a dramaturgical problem with a parent text that doesn’t quite know when to end. As Berthold writes in the program foreword “Shakespeare’s play and Verdi’s opera are, I think, flawed works that very often fail to ignite in the theatre.” At various points, there are Brechtian interventions in the form of projected biographies of the chorus performers. We learn that several of these singers are themselves either former child soldiers or first-hand survivors of the Congolese wars, and suddenly, despite the didactic way in which this knowledge is introduced, the piece resonates more deeply. The musicians too (the No Borders Orchestra from central and eastern Europe) are reminders, as Berthold notes, that “homelands are torn apart in many parts of the world.” When the singers and the orchestra embrace each other during the curtain call, there is a theatre-wide standing ovation and that earlier disengagement is forgotten. The piece is, ultimately, a triumph of compassion over human greed and rapacity.

Brisbane Festival: The Theory of Everything, deviser, director Thomas Quirk, presented in association with Metro Arts, Theatre Republic, La Boite Studio, 15-19 Sept; Wild Rice, The Importance of Being Earnest, QPAC Playhouse, 11-13 Sept; Third World Bunfight, Macbeth, concept, direction, design Brett Bailey, QPAC Playhouse, 15-19 Sept

RealTime issue #130 Dec-Jan 2016 pg. 39

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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