REVIEW: PIAF 2015 Theatre, Opera and Dance (and a little circus)

PIAF 2015 is Artistic Director Jonathan Holloway’s last hurrah with Perth, and he has proven once again that his magic touch generates inspiration, enthusiasm and excitement about the arts that translates into increased attendance to one of Perth’s most beloved cultural institutions. He’s going out on a high note by having brought The Giants to our shores, which in turn brought sleepy suburbanites into the city to see the free spectacle over one weekend in February. Accounts of overflowing capacities in the city’s trains and and images of astoundingly large crowds on Perth’s foreshore attest to the fact that this was an event that met and maybe even exceeded Holloway’s expectations (we hope he wasn’t disappointed in us, in any case), and proved our city’s capacity to get behind large-scale cultural events that don’t have to do with sport.

The fact that PIAF dovetails so seamlessly with Fringe World means that Perth can feast on festivals for nearly two months non-stop. This could lead to festival fatigue for those who make it their business to cater to and participate in all two months, but for those who take things in moderation, it simply means that for two months, there’s no twiddling of thumbs wondering what in Perth there is to do on a Wednesday night in the city.

As a reviewer of primarily theatre, I was a little bit underwhelmed by the selection from this year’s program, as evidenced by my previous post here. But of course, in the end there are always shows that take you by surprise if you’re willing to take a chance. I managed to squeeze in the five productions mentioned in that post as well as a few others. A brief review of each follows:

Not I, Footfalls, Rockaby – The Studio Underground, 14 Feb 2015 ★★★★

A bold opening to the theare portion of the PIAF program. I gave this one a full review on X-Press magazine here.


I Wish I Was Lonely – State Theatre Centre of WA, 20 Feb 2015 ★★ 1/2

This was a fairly uninspiring follow-up to the Beckett. It felt like a youth outreach workshop, and may be best suited for just that demographic as a sort of crash course in “Responsible Mobile Usage” In theory it sounded like an interesting theatrical experiment: come to the show, bring your mobiles, leave them on (sound turned on), answer whatever call, text or notification you get during the performance and performers Hannah Jane Walker and Chris Thorpe will work around it and possibly use the interruption as fodder for the show. And though there were several interruptions during the show I attended, these awkward pauses in the flow of the show didn’t seem to make much difference to the overall outcome of the performance.

There were some intriguing moments, however, such as when Thorpe engages one audience member in a mobile phone conversation in which he plays a man on the verge of committing suicide reaching out to a friend. The audience member plays along to a very truthful, tender conclusion. When Thorpe and Walker ask us to give up our mobiles to a chalk circle on the floor, there is hesitation from much of the participants, which shows just how attached we are. This isn’t significantly revelatory, but more an interesting reminder. And towards the end, Thorpe tells us “don’t be a dick” when using our phones, and the whole affair begins to turn slightly preachy and condescending. The finale of the piece requires the audience to pair up and stare at each other silently for a full two minutes and then arrange to meet up at some future point, ostensibly without taking each other’s phone details. This is meant to take us back to the pre-mobile dark ages when people held each other’s gaze and held appointments without the use of a calendar app. I’m left shrugging; I appreciate the sentiment, and I understand the exercise, but this really isn’t the kind of production that’s worthy of inclusion in PIAF. It would be better suited to Fringe World at $20 a ticket.

Circa: Beyond – Regal Theatre, 21 Feb 2015 ★★★★ 1/2

Circa  Contemporary Circus’s Beyond moves beyond the circus genre and spreads its infectious charm into the realm of physical theatre. There is a decidedly European air about this troupe and this production, though they call Queensland home. Perhaps it’s the back-to-back Jacques Brel songs (La Quête and Amsterdam), or maybe it’s the mostly stark black and white costumes by Libby McDonnell, or maybe it’s just the surreal quality of bunny heads and animal noises on display that makes it so, but whatever its continental leanings, Beyond is pure entertainment from start to finish.

I’ll admit it, my eyes welled up with tears of joy when the ensemble came flying and tumbling across the stage, and the joy was sustained in each and every display of strength, humor, sensitivity and beauty. I get chills now even thinking about the production, nigh on three weeks later. They made me want to run away with the circus, just as Circus Oz did when they came to town two years ago. The performers are not only in top physical form and on top of their game as acrobats, jugglers and contortionists, they were literally piled on top of each other and carried around. One of the most wonderful surprises of this show of strength is that there’s one particularly strong young woman who is able to carry three or four men at a time, and she’s often the strong one at the base of the human tower or pyramid formation. It’s empowering to see a female in this position lifting and throwing men, when tradition would have those positions reversed.

The set is simple but effective, and director and creator Yaron Lifschitz has given the team wonderful business to do in between and during acts; there is an enormous sense of play and mischief, and even sometimes a little mystery as performers move in and out of velvet curtains and bunny heads. And of course, you can’t sit through an afternoon show of a circus without being enveloped by the giggles and quiet chatter of thoroughly engaged children – and they were absolutely delighted and awed by the spectacle, as were most of the adults around me. The tricks elicited gasps of surprise and exclamations of “Oh!” and as I turned to look at the audience behind me during the curtain call, I saw a sea of beaming smiles that matched my own. Outstanding.

Ubu and the Truth Commission – Heath Ledger Theatre, 24 Feb 2015 ★★★ 1/2

Ubu and the Truth Commission is a very challenging piece of theatre; it is often times unpleasant, confronting and uncomfortable viewing. There is hardly anything uplifting about the piece, and its dire perspective on the post-apartheid politics of South Africa is grim, cynical and sobering. But this is just as it should be. It’s no easy task to try and dramatize such tragic circumstances of gross power abuse and systematic murder, and playwright Jane Taylor has chosen to use Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi as a framework for the narrative around the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In so doing, the piece takes on its own absurd-farcical tone, and Ma and Pa Ubu (Busi Sofuka and Dawid Minnaar) become caricatures that behave in selfish and single-minded ways.

William Kentridge’s approach of using animation and puppets to stage this piece creates layers to the narrative that also present a bit of a challenge to audiences who aren’t readily familiar with the total history of South African apartheid. The puppets hark back to Jarry’s Ubu Roi, which, after an extremely unpopular single-night run in Paris in 1896, was eventually moved to puppet theatre; certain puppets stand in for verbatim testimony from the Commission, while other puppets are anthropomorphic representations of the vicious perpetrators that inhabit Pa Ubu’s deadly entourage. The animation by Kentridge is fascinating, and could certainly work as a stand-alone piece, as it is intellectually and emotionally compelling in itself. However, the incorporation of all these elements tends to be overwhelming and difficult to process. There is some relief when we are shown actual footage and photographs from the era; this helps to ground the piece and give the audience signposts as to the real-life atrocities and injustices the play denounces. At the plays conclusion, we walk away with a heavy sigh and a heavy heart, knowing that swallowing this bitter pill is all part of the way in which art can transform and inform us.

The Paper Architect – CIA Studios, 26 Feb 2015 ★★★★

In stark contrast to the heavy tone of Ubu sits The Paper Architect by Davy and Kristin McGuire. Performed by John Cording, The Paper Architect is a bifurcated tale of an old man facing eviction from his paper-filled abode and two lovers pursuing each other inside the paper world the old man has constructed. This intimate piece is limited to a very small audience of approximately 25 because of the very small scale scenery of the second story line, which may even necessitate the use of the opera glasses that are on standby for patrons who want a closer look.

The 25 of us are gathered out back at the CIA Studios building,  and told to take care to remain quiet and still during the performance. As we file through the doorway and into one of the converted rooms, we are brought into the architect’s world which is made up of stacks of cardboard boxes, some of which are open to display exquisite small-scale models of buildings and rooms made of paper. We are then seated in the architect’s living room; a small space filled with a model Victorian street scene and a grand drafter’s cabinet atop which sits a delicate wetland scene featuring weeping willows and a gorgeous little treehouse.

The old man has enters and receives a letter: it’s a final eviction notice which he adds to a pile of previous notifications. He then finds an item he’s been missing for some time: a tiny cut-out of a woman that becomes part of the second story told in this work. Eventually she’s placed behind the backdrop screen of the wetlands screen, and she appears to come to life. The architect watches her for a bit, then finds the cut-out of a man (who wears the same waistcoat and cap he’s wearing) in one of the Victorian buildings  and places him behind the screen too. The architect waits for the story to unfold, and we perceive or interpret that this is  a fantasy of the old man’s imagination that stems from his real-life past. It’s full of regret, sweetness and sorrow. He must let go of his surroundings and let go of the past.

The show is a marvel of beautiful detail and fairy-like magic. It is calm, peaceful, hushed and bittersweet. I have yet to understand how it is achieved technically, but I don’t think I want to. I want to keep the memory of this show in a realm of wonder and enchantment, just like the Paper Architect keeps his memories.

Cut the Sky – Regal Theatre, 27 Feb 2015 ★★★

Who are the custodians of this Great Southern Land? Surely all of its inhabitants have a vested interest in taking care of its great beauty, but whose lead should we follow? Cut the Sky explores this, among other topics that concern the intersection of land, sky and humans, through dance, music, poetry and audiovisual elements. The production is a massive cross-disciplinary undertaking, and as such it feels like an artistic melting pot. Some elements or segments are stronger than others, but it’s a gripping and engaging piece that holds you in its grasp until the cathartic end. Particularly memorable moments come from co-choreographer Dalisa Pigram; she demonstrates a physical force and emotional presence that risks bringing down the set during one solo piece. This dance theatre work may suffer from a lack of editing, but the total impact is greater than the sum of its parts. It strikes at the heart of so much of what troubles this land, its peoples and our future.

Madama Butterfly – His Majesty’s Theatre, 28 Feb 2015 ★★★

Visually sumptuous and beautifully sung, Anthony Minghella’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is certainly one for the history books, which is why it’s been remounted 10 years after its original run. It’s even masterfully and flawlessly sung by the original production’s Butterfly, Mary Plazas. Technically, I have no bone to pick with this production, and for those who have been longing to see this particular version of the opera, I’m sure it was absolutely worth the ten year wait to be able to see it live (and not just on DVD) .

However, I do have qualms about the fact that this opera generates such reverence to this day; it’s the story of a man who has “marries” and promptly forgets about a fifteen year-old girl after he’s had a night in the sack with her. Isn’t that romantic? And as is the case with most opera, roles are cast for the voice, not the look; now, I’m all for non-traditional casting, because it promises inclusion and a break from tradition, but here, I’d go for just a little traditional casting, to be honest. Give the role of a young Japanese girl to…well…a young-ish Japanese soprano. Just once. Maybe? I am probably asking too much, I’m sure, and am making myself sound like the worst type of philistine. But really, I can only suspend my disbelief so far before I have trouble connecting to the story. And perhaps that’s the point. If Cio-Cio San was played by someone who brought the story a little closer to “reality” then maybe we wouldn’t have such a soft spot for it.

And while I’m confessing things that I perhaps shouldn’t as a reviewer, I found the set and the crew/dancers to be the most entertaining elements of the piece. I could very easily have watched these black-clad near-ninjas move furniture, around, manipulate puppets, dance with lanterns and paper birds on sticks, and slide screens back and forth for an hour on this beautiful set, whose bold lighting turned the raked stage into a study in color gradients, and been very satisfied and happy.

Black Diggers – Heath Ledger Theatre, 3 Mar 2015 ★★★★ 1/2

What a wonderful way to wrap up PIAF 2015, with this very important piece of theatre written by Tom Wright and directed by Queensland Theatre Company’s Wesley Enoch. Telling stories that have remained untold for decades is an essential part of reclaiming and revising history, and dramatising these stories for theatre certainly helps to create a lightening rod effect to the heart of the matter. Black Diggers is one such lightening rod, and its performers are all bright sparks. This ensemble cast gave of themselves with generosity, commitment and pride. These Diggers dug deep into themselves to wrest out some truly compelling portrayals that took us from moments of joviality, mirth and irreverence, to moments of haunting sorrow, sadness and pain.

Luke Carroll’s monologue in the middle of the piece is probably one of the finest pieces of acting I’ve seen on a Perth stage in the last year or two; it was an absolutely riveting retelling of and by the spectre of war, symbolic but also viscerally real. Trevor Jamieson also speaks so truthfully when he portrays a veteran who begins bleeding from his side due to decades-old shrapnel that has made its way to the surface. They are just two of this wonderful cast, who each put their heart and soul into their work and make these recollections and reminiscences come to vivid life.

The set by Stephen Curtis is dark and cavernous, and becomes part of the action as actors paint graffiti across its walls, marking soldiers’ names and dates, then painting over them with locations, and repainting over them again with phrases until essentially history is etched, erased and rewritten right before our eyes. This is a compelling symbol of how these soldiers’ experiences and histories have been written, erased and then retold over the decades. This company of soldier-artists have made a significant contribution to making sure that we remember the sacrifices of these men, who wanted so much to be included.


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