2015 Brisbane Festival diary

ArtsHub throws itself head-first into David Berthold’s debut Festival program, squeezing seven shows into three and a half days.
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<p>La Boite Theatre Company & Brisbane Festival’s Prize Fighter. Photo by Dylan Evans.

Instead of assembling a shopping list of the most popular productions from the international festival circuit – an opera from Edinburgh, a dance work from Manchester, a circus piece from Avignon – for his debut Brisbane Festival, Artistic Director David Berthold has carved out a rather different path.

It’s a path that connects the warn-torn Congo with the city-state of Singapore, and draws parallels between the 2004 death in police custody of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island, and the more recent deaths of young African-American men at the hands of the police in the USA.

The result is an ambitious, broad-ranging and genuinely exciting program, which has much to offer the average punter and the seasoned festival-goer alike.

Strut & Fret’s Fear & Delight

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Perhaps it was because I was seeing this new Strut & Fret production during daylight hours, conditions which really don’t suit its ​laboured evocation of decadence; perhaps it was because I was only seeing The Show, without the much-hyped gastronomic aspect of the work, The Devil’s Banquet; perhaps it was because I was sober instead of part of a late-night, more forgiving party crowd; perhaps it’s because it’s just not very good – for whatever reason, Fear & Delight failed to engage me.

MC and singer Ian Bruce performed valiantly, but a muddy sound mix meant his lyrics were hard to decipher; and there was a brief moment during proceedings where he looked genuinely bored, as if wondering why he was giving his all to a half-empty tent in the middle of the afternoon.

Spencer Novich’s clowning was excellent, especially a routine performed to a montage of samples and sound effects; and circus artist Leo Sanchez also impressed on the cyr ring and in a final, thrilling, but all-too-short trapeze sequence – but these were the few highlights of an otherwise uneven and poorly directed production.

There was no real flow to proceedings; the show as a whole felt episodic and laboured, with the majority of the production consisting of poorly choreographed dance sequences and short routines which aimed for sexually transgressive but which fell distinctly flat. There’s little that’s genuinely taboo in these depictions of auto-erotic asphyxiation, shibari (Japanese rope bondage) and simulated sex; and a hint of sexual violence in proceedings left a bad taste in one’s mouth that not even a cloud of gin and tonic vapour (part of The Devil’s Banquet) could have dissipated.

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Strut & Fret’s Fear & Delight at Arcadia, Cultural Forecourt, South Bank, until 25 September.

La Boite’s Prize Fighter

Inspired in part by the personal experiences of playwright and La Boite Artist-in-Residence Future D. Fidel (who fled the war-ravaged Congo as a child, spending eight years in a Tanzanian refugee camp before being granted refugee status in Australia) Prize Fighter is a confronting and compelling drama about a young man’s attempt to transcend his brutal past.

Having witnessed the murders of his father and sister, young Isa (Pacharo Mzembe) is forced to serve alongside his family’s killers as a child soldier. Several years later, having been accepted into Australia as a refugee, he trains as a boxer, spurred on by his coach Luke (Margi Brown-Ash) but constantly struggling with the memories which confront him in the ring.  

This highly kinetic production begins with the actors training in the theatre alongside a group of local boxers, and generates a remarkable degree of verisimilitude. The stamina demanded of all the cast is remarkable, and Isa’s story is compelling – as is Pacharo Mzembe’s performance. But while the play is notable for its authenticity and intensity, the constant, almost televisual flashbacks to Isa’s past tend to inhibit the narrative’s momentum – especially in the first 20 minutes or so of the production.  

Consequently, for the first third of the piece I felt I was sitting outside the drama, observing it rather than feeling it; but thanks to Todd MacDonald’s lean and dynamic direction, the excellent sound and lighting design (Felix Cross and David Walters respectively) and some superb performances – in particular, recent NIDA graduate Thuso Lekwape, who swings impressively and adroitly between terrifying and heartbreaking as a child soldier who is Isa’s friend and enemy both – I was quickly caught up in events.

Moments of the production are genuinely disturbing; its final scene is beautiful. Expect it to tour in 2016-17 – it’s too important a production not to be seen again.

ArtsHub reviewer Colleen Edwards has also written about Prize Fighter; read her review here.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

La Boite Theatre Company and Brisbane Festival’s Prize Fighter, Roundhouse Theatre, 5-26 September.

W!LD RICE’s The Importance of Being Earnest

A precise hand gesture, an arched eyebrow, a perfectly timed line of dialogue, a delicious moment of gender ambiguity; there’s so much to enjoy in this superb Singaporean production of Oscar Wilde’s final play.

The Importance of Being Earnest, A Trivial Comedy for Serious People premiered in 1895, only weeks before Wilde was charged with ‘gross indecency’ and sentenced to two years hard labour. As directed by Glen Goei, the play does not feel 120 years old. A delectable comedy of manners, its witty mockery of Victorian social conventions remains fresh, incisive and subversive.

While there have been many productions of The Importance of Being Earnest in which the imperious Lady Bracknell is played by a man in drag (such as the 2011 MTC production starring Geoffrey Rush) Goei’s production goes one step further by having men play all the roles. As well as introducing a delicious note of camp to proceedings, this quietly seditious casting choice takes on deeper meaning in light of the fact that section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore, which prohibits consensual sex between men, is a colonial remnant of the same law under which Wilde was prosecuted.

Consequently, the declarations of love between Algernon Moncrieff (Brendon Fernandez) and Gwendolen Fairfax (Chua Enlai), and John Worthing (Daniel York) and Cecily Cardew (Gavin Yap) take on much greater resonance. It also allows the actors to playfully yet powerfully fuck with the conventions of gender, such as moments when the ‘women’ switch in an instant from coquettish to butch, dropping their feminine affectations and the register of their voices to superb comedic effect.

Goei’s cast conduct themselves extremely well, especially W!LD RICE Artistic Director Ivan Heng (who also designed the set) as a poised and potent Lady Bracknell. Special credit goes to Hossan Leong as the governess Miss Prism, who cut through the sparkling comedy with an unexpected and genuine moment of pathos late in the piece, bringing an unexpected tear to this reviewer’s eye.  

Performances by a string quartet from Queensland Conservatorium at intervals before and during the performance help create the play’s Victorian drawing room atmosphere. Heng’s restrained yet striking set (inspired by Wilde’s contemporary, the artist Aubrey Beardsley) and beautiful costumes by Frederick Lee further enrich the production. The restricted colour palette – broken by Lady Bracknell’s striking first act entrance – reminds us that real life is never black and white, and also reminds us of Wilde’s famous line, ‘The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.’

W!LD RICE’s production of The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the best I have ever seen of this play. Oscar would have been proud.

(The company also staged a one-off reading of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde by US playwright Moisés Kaufman (best known for The Laramie Project) on Sunday 13 September; sadly this critic had to leave at interval, in order to catch a flight back to Melbourne, so a review of the performance would not be appropriate.)

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

W!LD RICE’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Playhouse Theatre, QPAC, 11-13 September.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One Lady Rape About Comedy, Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!

Part stand up act, part performance art, this clever and subversive one-woman show premiered at Edinburgh Festival in 2013, to great acclaim. Its short Brisbane season is part of the Theatre Republic program at La Boite; a curated program of independent theatre and performance from around Australia and overseas.

A co-founder of cabaret duo The Wau Wau Sisters, Truscott is an intelligent performer who makes deft use of her wit, anger and physicality to comment on the many myths and excuses which enable rape culture. Asking For It is peppered with hard-hitting gags as well as sometimes shocking statistics about the prevalence of rape in society. It’s not a show for the prudish or the faint-hearted, but its message is one which more people need to hear.

ArtsHub published a more detailed review of Asking For It earlier this week, following a one-off performance by Truscott in Melbourne shortly before her Brisbane season. Read Brooke Boland’s impressions of the show here.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One Lady Rape About Comedy, Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! at Theatre Republic – QUT Creative Industries, The Loft, 8-12 September.

Circa’s Il Ritorno

Photo by Chris Herzfeld – Camlight Productions.

Since 2004, Brisbane company Circa has emphasised the art in ‘circus arts’, developing sophisticated productions which blur the line between circus, dance and theatre. The company’s latest production, Il Ritorno (a co-commission between Brisbane Festival and numerous other partners including The Barbican and Dusseldorf Festival) is exquisite; a timely exploration of diaspora and loss, longing and homecoming, which fuses circus and opera to compelling effect.

While I’ve admired Circa’s previous work, it’s always struck me as somehow slightly dispassionate, almost cold. Similarly, opera has never before moved me to tears. In Il Ritorno, I began crying within the production’s first few minutes, as plaintive voices sang from a darkened stage. The emotional intensity of the work only grew as the lights slowly raised to reveal a stage, bare except for a blank wall – evoking the Israeli West Bank barrier or the US border fence – and a group of circus performers and opera singers clad in various shades of prison-like grey.

Adapted from Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria (‘The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland’) and also influenced by Primo Levi’s post-Holocaust homecoming tale The Truce, Il Ritorno features six members of the Circa ensemble – Nathan Boyle, Jessica Connell, Nicole Faubert, Gerramy Marsden, Brittannie Portelli and Duncan West – performing alongside opera singers Alicia Cush, Bethan Ellsmore, Matthew Hirst and Mattias Lower. Musicians Tim Byrne and Catherine Stirling sit at stage left, the singers joining them at intervals throughout the performance.

Movement and music are exquisitely matched. Bodies spin and slam to the floor, evoking the loss and horror of war, accompanied by composer and arranger Quincy Grant’s blend of Montiverdi, original music and traditional folk tunes. As Penelope (Alicia Cush) sings of her longing for Ulysses (Mattias Lower) the women of the Circa ensemble evoke her struggle through startling feats of acrobalance; later, the performers don clown noses as Penelope tries to escape her suitors, while in the background, bodies are flung against the wall, physically embodying her song.

When Ulysses sings of his joy of being reunited with his son, Telemachus (Matthew Hirst) after 20 years of ‘salt and emptiness’, the men’s grappling transforms into an intimate display of tenderness and love; at other moments, the writhing bodies of the ensemble and the select use of ropes, trapeze and hand balance equipment vividly encapsulate the struggles and anguish of refugees.

The singing is pure and beautifully enunciated, and the four opera singers are sensitively amplified. Lighting is precise and striking, exemplified by a scene in which first only an acrobat’s hands, then his entire body, emerge from the darkened stage into a narrow corridor of golden light.

The production’s final image is a moment of theatrical magic, simple but beautiful, which once more brought tears to my eyes.

A masterful blending of genres and a moving highlight of this year’s Brisbane Festival.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

Circa’s Il Ritorno, Brisbane Powerhouse until 12 September

Club Swizzle

Spiegeltent shows have become de rigueur on the festival circuit following the premiere season of and subsequent acclaim for La Clique at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe, and invariably follow the same familiar template. But like a good cocktail, the secret of a successful Spiegeltent show is in the way its mix of cabaret, circus and burlesque are balanced. Club Swizzle doesn’t quite get the blend right, but it’s well on the way to being extremely palatable and is still a tasty and entertaining treat.

Presented in a newly constructed and spacious Spiegeltent, Club Swizzle takes the cocktail metaphor and runs with it, under the watchful eye of Creative Producer Brett Haylock (La Clique, La Soirée). The setting is a speakeasy, and an ingenious piece of stage design means the central bar from which drinks are served before the show, and at interval, quickly transforms into a stage upon which the likes of ‘beer drinking blues woman’ Christia Hughes and burlesque performer Laurie Hagen can strut and swing their stuff.

The stars of the show are undoubtedly The Swizzle Boys (acrobats Joren Dawson, Tom Flanagan, DJ Garner and Ben Lewis), whose highly physical take on mixing and serving drinks is genuinely breathtaking – their routines were punctuated by gasps and cries of ‘Oh my god!’ from the audience around me. Flanagan’s first-act ending front aerial flip while carrying an unspilled tray of shot glasses is particularly impressive.

Not every act works so successfully: circus artist Valerie Murzak’s charms are undeniable, but her routines – including a balancing act on a giant mirror ball – underwhelm; they lack the punch to make Club Swizzle sizzle. Nor does the elderly and charismatic song-and-dance man Warren Kermond particularly impress, though his tap-dancing routines went down well with the generous and engaged Thursday night crowd. Conversely, Hughes’s SM-loving nun act, and a superbly performed reverse strip tease by Hagen were sharp, focused, subversive and memorable.

The production is anchored by MC Murray Hill, an American drag king whose sardonic and raffish charms are a key aspect of the show’s success from the moment he is carried, potentate-like to the stage. Supported by house band Mikey and the Nightcaps, Hill’s jokes land with a bang – but also occasionally misfire, such as an awkward moment when he called upon a young gay couple in the audience to kiss, and they uncomfortably refused: Hill had just outed them. Hill recovered quickly, however, ensuring that other moments of audience participation, such as pole-dance dance-off, went down a treat.

Though it hasn’t yet found quite the right balance between tart and sweet, generic and original, Club Swizzle definitely entertains; its infectious exuberance is a fine introduction to the Brisbane Festival’s charms.

Rating: 3 ½ stars out of 5

Club Swizzle at Arcadia, Cultural Forecourt, South Bank, until 26 September.


Brisbane Festival 2015
5-26 September

Richard Watts travelled to Brisbane as a guest of Brisbane Festival.

Richard Watts OAM is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, a Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend, and was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize in 2020. In 2021 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Green Room Awards Association. Most recently, Richard received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in June 2024. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts