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Tag: Jason Cavanagh

Theatre review: Man of the Year



Full marks to 5pound theatre for opening one of the first shows for the Melbourne Fringe Festival. And it does so with voluble vigour, packing significant moments in our history over 2,000 years on a stage hardly larger than a pocket-handkerchief.

Thanked for their presence the audience finds themselves as guests of a speaker: the eponymous Man of the title. Soon, around and about two lecterns, memorable speeches by some of the world’s most prominent leaders begin to roll off his tongue. The Man leaps from Abraham Lincoln to Adolf Hitler, swerves past Martin Luther King to Margaret Thatcher, not before meditating on Winston Churchill, then glides on to Saddam Hussein and Stan Grant, through Susan B Anthony and Julia Gillard and Paul Keating. It is minute after enthralling minute of stirring rhetoric and rousing statements.

And now and then, through the 50-minute, one-person show, like words coming out of the air, a woman’s voice emerges from behind the curtain, interjecting the Man’s breathless recitals, as if speaking our unheard thoughts: she chastises his method of delivering the message, she interrogates the direction of his articulations, she questions his right to those famous articulations.

Despite the occasional whimsy this is a decidedly intense work, paying tribute to — and criticisms of — revolutionary luminaries, on whom time has passed judgement that the theatre-makers are here inquiring. With perceptible reverence and sensitivity the play contemplates the motivations behind the gleam of eloquence and ramifications of persuasive oratory. It dwells upon the way violence can be justified and asks if the desire for power and influence might not have been the common fuel in the infernal belly.

Then the Man, half-way through the staging, transforms into a rogue performer, as he narrates the execution of his plan to take his listeners hostage. He imagines a locked door, police thumping on the other side, tying up a victim. For a moment, with a glass-case on the lectern displaying a gun, its label “Chekhov’s Gun” staring tellingly at us, one is made to feel appropriately uneasy.

Only, nothing happens.

Instead, we move on to hear about racial discrimination and gender inequality, and their injustices and danger. We realise that because of the reformer in Anthony there rose the Iron Lady. And even though he rattles away in German the pronouncements of Hitler with deep, sonorous, guttural vibrations, the Man disdains Hussein’s Arabic. These certainly bear repeating at a time when hard-right groups are again emerging across Europe (and Australia), when women continue to endure lower salaries, and ethnic tensions are high. That the theatre company has chosen Man of the Year rather than Person of the Year to be the name of their drama seems to echo those sentiments.

Tim Wotherspoon’s production handles the weighty considerations in the material with control. The illumination that almost every important event can be linked all the way back to the first ages is astounding. There is nice work from Sharon Davis whose Voice has an effect profound enough on the Man to suggest the world eventually gets what they deserve. Jason Cavanagh is tremendous as the Man; dressed in a tuxedo over pyjama trousers and bedroom slippers he brings conviction and sincerity and spirit to the part, showing how words can charm and frighten and churn hearts and shape stories.

Man of the Year has plenty to say and one hopes it will not be edited away from the dramatic scene, like Chekhov would recommend for the gun that never goes off.



Theatre review: The Judas Kiss

Dear Dad

The Judas Kiss

Towards the end of the play, Oscar Wilde says John, not Judas, should’ve been the one to betray Jesus since John was the apostle Jesus most loved while he hardly knew Judas. And watching how Oscar has been forsaken by the love of his life, we understand why.

Jason Cavanagh’s elegant revival of David Hare’s 1998 play is a rich portrait of unequal love, and a moving portrayal of what it means to live under the conviction that “Only when we love do we see the true person. Love is not the illusion. Life is.”

It is 1895. Oscar has lost a libel suit against the Marquess of Queensberry who has accused him of sodomy. The Marquess is the father of his paramour, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), and the writer himself now faces arrest.

Meanwhile, Robert Ross, his former flame who still harbours a passion for Oscar has organised for the embattled prosecutor-turned-defendent to leave whilst at the same time nursing the heartache of having the man he loves loving somebody else.

Under Chris Baldock’s thespian brilliance, Oscar who died more than 100 years ago wits his way back to life before our eyes. But rather than the flamboyant spirit with a piercing intellect you’d imagine, Baldock presents a more sombre figure that the Irish poet became.

Allowing himself to see only the best in his object of desire, Baldock’s Oscar is vehement in his delusion, in denial of being used by Bosie as a tool to rebel against his father.

Refusing to give in to the oppression of aristocracy, blindly believing that Bosie will work on acquiring his bail, that flight would represent a betrayal of their love, Oscar rebuffs Robert’s well-meaning gestures, and stays to be apprehended.

Hare’s exquisite writing finds character distinctions between Oscar and Bosie; it contrasts the devotion Robert has for Oscar with the selfish callousness of Oscar’s new beau, and compares Oscar’s unreturned love for Bosie with Robert’s for Oscar.

After the interval, in Naples, following two years of hard-labour incarceration, a perceptibly-diminished Oscar is reunited with Bosie who carries on with his promiscuous ways despite their destitution.

But Oscar, even when facing demands to leave Bosie or have the allowance from his wife cut off, will not abandon his lover — only to find himself soon enough dumped.

Through Baldock, we see the despair of a fervent romantic who, wrapped up in extravagant quixotism, had clung on to the hope that the world (including his wife and children) would understand if Bosie and he could prove their inextinguishable love.

“The governing principle of my life has been love,” Oscar says to the departing Bosie. “But of yours, it has been power.”

And the script is woven with a language that is as lush as it is lustrous.

Other performances, too, have been tremendous. Nigel Langley’s Bosie is positively unlikable (as he should be), callow and curiously self-righteous; hotel servants by Soren Jensen and Lauren Murtagh and Zak Zavod are appropriately human beneath uniforms of subservience. Oliver Coleman, though, is worthy of special mention: remarkably poised, he combines in Robert a quiet dignity and an emotional anguish when told that what he had with Oscar is “not the same” as what Oscar now has with Bosie.

Besides drawing out the psychological truths of the drama, Cavanagh also gives the simulated-sex and nude scenes an artful quality. And the lighting design by Rob Sowinski is excellent as well in conveying the dusk of a dying love, and the darkest moments of the final goodbye before dawn.

Having everything taken from him, not least his ability to write, Oscar would have seen why it was Judas who gave Jesus away — he hardly knew Bosie afterall — if he had realised that perhaps life is not the illusion; but love is.

Theatre review: How I Learned To Drive

Dear Dad

We may feel we have heard and read enough about pedophilia, especially of late, to last us a lifetime. Yet here is a revival of a 1997 award-winning play by American playwright Paula Vogel that again explores this disturbing subject. But rather than adopting a blunt judgement-driven approach, Mockingbird Theatre’s staging of How I Learned To Drive handles the issue with tremendous sensitivity, control, and finesse.

Central to the action is Li’l Bit, now a 35-year-old woman, recollecting her relationship with an Uncle Peck from whom she learned how to drive. Narrating this 100-minute one-act play, she takes us on a wildly emotional ride as she tosses us back and forth through various aspects of her memory play.

She was all but 11 years old when her uncle (by marriage) made her sit on his lap in the driver’s seat and dug his hands into her breasts. She never exposed his iniquities. His advances lasted for years.

Vogel first shows us how manipulative an offender can be when Uncle Peck repeatedly assures his niece he “would not do anything she didn’t want”, thereby sowing the seed of complicity — and hence imposing self-enforced silence — in the young girl’s mind.

But when the narrative unfolds to reveal how he is always there as her confidante in a less-than-nurturing family environment — and she, his — one starts to (reluctantly) question a black and white moralistic stance.

Under Chris Baldock’s elegant direction, the staging is in keeping with this dilemma, subtly shaping in a palpable tension between desire and discomfort during Li’l Bit’s times alone with Uncle Peck as she progresses through her teenage years.

Nevertheless, the predatory character of Peck, played by Jason Cavanagh, is never far from that: predatory. A fishing scene with a young nephew quickly reinforces our initial opinion of him although Cavanagh is utterly adept in shifting into and out of the avuncular, the machiavellian, the troubled, obsessed, and wasted.

His character’s background as a traumatised returned war Marine and his subsequent marriage proposal to Li’l Bit only intensify our struggle to grasp his motivations.

It is Sarah Reuben’s Li’l Bit, however, that captivates and steals the show. From the carefree, innocent adolescent offering conversation as solace to her distressed uncle, to the inebriated teenager, the tormented 18-year old, then the world-weary adult, Li’l Bit’s every emotion is carved onto Reuben’s face and every anguish pours from her dark eloquent eyes.

Whether the set conjures Maryland in the 1960s is arguable, but the occasional analogy with car and traffic symbols projected by voice or on a giant screen towards the back of the stage is an unfortunate distraction, and sometimes detracts from the riveting drama unfurling in front of it.

Baldock’s renown choreography and the timeliness of the other cast as family and members of the Greek chorus, however, are indubitably effective in demonstrating how the abuse later goes into fashioning Li’l Bit’s attitudes towards prospective relationships in her young adult life.

But the final grace of this often poetic, often hilarious piece of theatre is found in Li’l Bit’s attempts as a grown woman to understand what drove her uncle’s actions, and in how she ultimately found it within herself to forgive him, however much he haunts her life, her memories, and her freedom.

A tender moving staging of an exceptional play.

Theatre review: Kiss Them All Soundly

Dear Dad

Whether nursery rhymes had been written for pure entertainment — or whether they contain hidden meanings or origins — has been a matter of much debate for several centuries. And has remained rather indeterminate up to the present day.

Jason Cavanagh, of 5pound Theatre, has nonetheless clearly chosen to be on the more sinister side of this contention. In Kiss Them All Soundly, he subjects three nursery rhymes —  Simple Simon, Mary Had A Little Lamb, Georgie Porgie — to his creative re-imaginings, and presents his version of the possible narratives behind those innocuous rhyming lines.

First, his Simon begins as anything but simple. In fact, Cavanagh’s Simon is aggressive, he is impatient, dismissive and irascible. We know he has a wife and a baby son. We think he is an overworked marketing executive hoping to hire imminent help.

Next, Kiss’ Mary, too, is not remotely like the carefree Mary of the children’s rhyme. Here, Mary is outwardly cheerful, yet intensely subdued. She seems to live in a world of her own, oblivious to her husband’s pleas for variety in the food she prepares for him, insistent on feeding their baby after he leaves.

And if these have not subverted your expectations yet, Cavanagh’s George is not quite the shady Georgie Porgie who kissed the girls and made them cry — or, not what we had imagined of him, anyway. Here, he is an elderly tottering kindly gentleman, with a shy affinity for a 16-year-old schoolgirl with whom he has struck up an acquaintance at the local bus-stop.

Still, not only does each tale develop to eventually substantiate the nursery rhymes we know so well (or, should, anyhow), they are woven together to form one single story, creating an evocative evening of pathos and pain.

The play, directed by Cavanagh himself, rolls forward in a circular, iterative style, as each vignette progressively intensifies, and reveals, and resolves, before leading to the final epiphany.

With effective use of lighting and the space, the writer-director deftly switches between the scenes of home, of office-turned-hospital, of the grassy roadside lane. The opening scene in which Susannah Frith, as narrator, stands before the closed curtain, that catches her looming shadow behind her, as she takes us beyond the point after Mary’s lamb has been turned away from school, is especially haunting, and serves as a precursor for what is to follow.

Frith, as Mary, vividly (if subtly) illustrates the ominous metaphor in the household rhyme: she carries with her apparitions of her dead baby everywhere she goes, just as Mary did her lamb wherever she went. Adam Willson, on the other hand, gives his character Simon a volcanic, explosive performance in which we see him mistaking a healthcare worker for a potential employee as he grapples with memories of his unfortunate encounter with the pieman(‘s truck) that has left him penniless, homeless — and, yes, simple.

More memorable, however, are Peter Rowley’s Georgie, and Brooke Smith-Harris who plays the 16-year-old opposite him. Although he starts out as a suspicious figure, leery of an easy prey, Rowley’s character turns out to be a poignant tale of accident and of loss — tragic enough, perhaps, to make girls cry. And while Rowley’s talent is indisputable, reminiscent in parts of Robin Williams, Smith Harris confidently holds her own, with her flawless expressions of unease, of fear, then friendship, and compassion.

Mostly, nevertheless, we are here to savour Cavanagh’s dark humour, his taste for the macabre, and uncanny ability to home in on the darker reaches of human ingenuity. The way he plays with theatrical unities, to fuse past and present, dreams and reality, in particular, hints at the psychological hinterland of his creative writing.

So, while there are admittedly areas of (what we think are, unintended) confusion — e.g. the all too nuanced changeovers by Frith between Mary and Simon’s wife, by Willson between Simon and Mary’s husband — and the curious use of canned responses (those you’d find in American sitcoms), this is a theatrically daring and  disarmingly innovative piece of work.

And yes, Cavanagh has certainly done his mother proud, for it was she who modified the nursery rhyme — There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe/She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do/She gave them some broth without any bread/
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed — to a version where the old woman Kiss(ed) Them All Soundly instead.

Theatre review: The Blue Room

Dear Dad

Sex (still) sells, despite what some might say. Just head down to The Owl and the Pussycat now, if you need any convincing.

On attendance night, the theatre was nearly full, packed with people from the young (no, not kids, of course) to the doddery old. There were homosexuals, heterosexuals; there were talkers, and watchers, the chic, and the scruffy.

And what about theatre reviews? Barely one week since the opening show, and the web is already buzzing with a flurry of enthusiastic write-ups, that mostly only high-budget, high-profile productions seem able to enjoy.

When David Hare’s play, The Blue Room, opened in London in 1998, featuring Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen, people thronged their way to glimpse at Kidman’s bare buttocks. And when Simon Phillips staged a production at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2002, ticket sales were phenomenal. So, things have hardly changed.

Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1921 Reigen, this play is an interlocking lace of sexual rendezvous: a prostitute latches on to a taxi-driver, who coaxes his way into an au pair’s knickers, that gives exploitative pleasure to her employer’s son, who matures under the hands of a politician’s wife, her husband meanwhile wheedling a 17-year-old model, who is entranced by a playwright seeking inspiration from her and an actress, who tempts into her bosom an aristocrat, who turns out to be the first prostitute’s soul-searching client.

Yes, that was enervating to write, enervating too to watch. But that is perhaps the whole idea: through his wry social portrait, Schnitzler (a doctor) wants us to follow debauchery as it (and the diseases it carries) traverses its way through different classes of society. If the subterranean agenda is too subtle to deter, the sheer iteration of the theme itself becomes too tedious after a while.

Fortunately, director Jason Cavanagh has given his revival a decidedly light and engaging flourish, making the 120-minute production enjoyable to sit through, without compromising on the hollowness of those lives it conveys.

As with most of Hare’s writings, the script is woven with probing political questions: has the liberty our society craves for become too libertine for our own good, for example. And do the wealthy have more entitlement to freedom than the poor?

We do not get answers, as you’d expect, but what we get is an insight into how carnal desires have no respect for class, or any other boundary. It drives us, (often) defines us, and contrary to received wisdom, offers as much sensory gratification no matter who the co-participant, what the reasons for participation, or where.

Kaitlyn Clare and Zak Zavod play the woman and the man, each one taking on five roles, over 10 separate scenes.

Clare is a consummate performer who segues between characters, accents, and personas with flawless ease. She is scorching as the raunchy hooker, demure as the au pair, manipulative as the actress. Her angelic innocence as the young model enraptured by the playwright’s musical rendition is especially memorable. And her crisp English inflection, delicious French intonation are altogether pretty impressive. Most will agree she is one of the most talented, most exciting actresses to watch today.

While Zavod may not display as much versatility and flair as Clare, consistently pushy or aggressive in most of his personalities, he gives his final character a moving introspective journey. And, as his piano sequence demonstrates, his talent is nothing less than multi-faceted.

The shopfront venue in darkly trendy Richmond is ideal for The Blue Room, and the set is something of a portmanteau affair, with all the scenes folded more or less into the same intimate space. The grand finale, however, must count as the most unexpected, the lights, the street, the motion all conspiring to jolt us firmly back into reality.

There is more nudity here than in other productions, but far from hastening the activity of complex proteins, it seems to have the opposite effect. Although Clare’s body is as beautiful as a white marble sculpture, and Zavod’s trim physique just as enviable, I cannot help but feel how the first glance at the prostitute’s covered crotch was more prurient.

And is that not Schnitzler’s point: sex still sells, but sexual excesses are as counterproductive as always.

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