VIEWS: This Month in Perth Performing Arts – October 2019

October, you’ve been good to us here in Perth. As the weather gets a little warmer, companies start to head into their final productions, while artists and indie producers begin gearing up for Fringemas. I want to take a look back at the shows I got to enjoy this month, and look ahead to a couple of big seasons that were launched by two of our majors, WA Opera and Black Swan STC. I’ll get a little more personal with this post than you’d see with a typical review, so if you decide to read on, I hope you’ll indulge me. WARNING: LONG READ.

Layla Majnun

First up, I attended Layla Majnun at Subiaco Arts Centre, presented by Performing Lines, and written and performed by Feraidoon Mojadedi. Wow, what a lovely community event this was. The foyer of Subi Arts was completely transformed into a Persian lounge – or what I imagine a Persian lounge might feel like; I can’t say I’ve ever been in one to make a legitimate comparison, but hopefully I’m not too far off. Carpets and embroidered cushions in rich tones covered the floor, low tables were laden with books, dates, nuts, and biscuits. The bar was out of commission for the evening, exchanged for a tea tasting station where we were meant to guess the origin of each tea and when it might be consumed. My friend was served a tea garnished with crushed almonds and infused with salt. We didn’t get a chance to find out the origin of that tea, as the servers were kept quite busy on the night, but my Google search results and Wikipedia tell me it could likely have been a version of Tibetan or Kashmir butter tea, which is often served in the morning in high altitude regions, for sustenance and to prevent chapped lips. We were also invited downstairs to enjoy Perisan miniature paintings, henna tattooing, and a halal food truck. As for the show, it was a beautiful story, told well, with many aspects of family, honour, love and spirituality touched upon. It gave me food for thought, and I was able to recommend the show to a Muslim colleague who then attended with his wife the following evening. They had never been to a theatre event before, and reported that they really enjoyed their evening as well. It feels great to open up the performing arts to new folks, and it also feels great to hear stories from non-Western artists. Well done to all involved for a memorable evening.

On Our Beach

Next in line was On Our Beach by Spare Parts Puppet Theatre. Oh I had the best time! I felt like a little kid again. As we entered the venue, we were made to pass through a checkpoint where we made our own ID tags by drawing our faces and writing our names on a round card, which was later attached to our shoes by a rubber band (what’s the Aussie word for this?). We then were sent through a quarantine checkpoint where we were misted with water and thereby cleaned of any ‘foreign materials’. Then we went into the main lobby of the theatre where we waited our turn to enter a beach tent to remove our shoes. On our way out we were handed a beach towel and told to follow a path through a darkened corridor lit with glowing lights of many colours. We were asked if we wanted to step into this bit of water that had squishy rubber bubbles in it – weird! – and then we were shown through a black curtain into the main space. The stage was completely covered in black velour and the floor was soft and padded. It was so delightful to step into! A young woman (Tani Walker) was singing softly in the middle of the stage with a guitar, and we were shown where to sit in groups on four sides of the stage.  We found ourselves under the sea, marveling at cleverly constructed sea creatures operated by the performers. It was so soothing. I could have stayed there all day. The stage curtain parted and things got a WHOLE lot livelier – we took a huge group selfie, had a Sculptures By the Sea beach towel sculpture competition, and the biggest, craziest surprise, I will not reveal! After this, we were led into the stalls and were treated to an Andrews Sisters-style song and dance by the three performers (Tani Walker, Rebecca Bradley, and Shona Mae) to end the show. There was not a single person, young or old, who didn’t have an absolute blast at this wonderful show!

Ice Land: A Hip h’Opera

Mid-month saw me back at Subiaco for Yirra Yaakin‘s Ice Land: A Hip h’Opera. Whoa. What an epic work. This was a collaboration between the theatre company and local hip hop group Downsyde, and the whole thing was sung and rapped through. Four performers brought four unique energies and tonnes of talent and charisma to the stage: Benjamin Hasler (Downsyde, AKA Beni Bjah), Layla Hanbury (Syllabolix, AKA Layla), Moana Lutton (Moana Mayatrix), and Scott Griffiths (Downsyde, Syllabolix AKA Optamus) under the direction of Kyle J Morrison. I had a few complaints about the set design, which had a circus/cabaret aesthetic; the large full-length picture or mirror frames blocked the actors bodies and cut off the energy between them and the audience. The staging was problematic in spots, as the performers spent a lot of time upstage, again the audience-performer connection broken by the circular podium in the middle. This created too much distance and lessened the impact of the emotional scenes. The show was absolutely packed with music and lyrics, both hard-hitting and tender. It was wonderful to see these musicians and MCs embrace the theatrical genre, but I suppose a lot of hip hop is drama and storytelling. I really hope the piece gets workshopped and tightened. Don’t get me wrong, it’s solid work as is, and I get the sense that so many people poured their souls into it, which is why it deserves to continue to have life and further development. It’s such a unique work, one that the Yirra Yaakin team, the artists involved (so many others than I have room to name), and dare I say Perth, should be so proud of, it would be SUCH a shame for it to be shelved as a one-off.

BSSTC Emerging Writers Group 2019

Saturday of the same week, I got a little carried away. I smashed in three shows. Well one was a play reading, but in my book it still counts. Late morning, I went to BSSTC’s Emerging Writers Group‘s first play reading of this year: Michelle Aitken‘s KIND REGARDS, MICHELLE AITKEN, held this time not at the State Theatre rehearsal room, but at the City of Perth Library.  Oh wow, I’m so embarrassed to admit that was my first time inside the building and I really would have stayed to have a poke around but I had to shoot off to another show after the reading. Aitken’s reading was really enjoyable; her personality, point of view, sense of humour and pathos were packaged neatly into the piece, which was full of quirky ideas that slowly revealed a tricky relationship with her father. I don’t know how much of it was autobiographical, but it definitely had a memoir feel to it. I could easily see it being expanded into a novel, should she ever get the time, space, motivation and money(?) to do so. More difficult for me was seeing how it could be done on stage, but perhaps with some strong direction, it could go the way of Fleabag. A far more sweet and light, Fleabag, to be sure.


Early Saturday afternoon, I trundled back to Subiaco again, to the Studio space, for Disenchanted! by Grey Lantern Productions. Full disclosure, director Lorna Mackie has directed me in a couple of productions in the past, so while I don’t feel comfortable giving the show a ‘review’ I can register my impressions of, and praise for the show. I’m not big into princesses; Disney princess-worship kinda bypassed me. I did love my old Disney classics as a kid, though, like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, all of which (whom?) feature in Disenchanted, so I didn’t feel totally removed from the show. This musical rips apart the princess complex and the BS that Disney (not Walt specifically, necessarily, bless his cryogenic head) has fed its audience over the years about romance, love, women’s roles, etc. etc….I don’t think I need to explain it further, but of course, the charm of this show is the individuals who perform it. And this cast had all the talent, timing, and star quality you could ask for. Further proof that there’s such a huge lack of opportunity for MT performers in this town. Professional independent shows like this should be on offer every damn month of the year in the City of Perth. People lapped it up, the audience roared, and everyone left happy after the lighthearted and fun two hours.


Saturday evening, I mustered my strength for WA Opera‘s Macbeth. This one I reviewed for Broadway World here. I found the show quite demanding, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s good to be challenged. By the time Saturday was in the bin, I thought I might not leave the house again for a week.




Fully Sikh

But no, the following Tuesday I was at it again, with BSSTC & Barking Gecko‘s Fully Sikh by Sukhjit Kaur Khalsa. This show is right up there with some of the very best of BSSTC and/or Barking Gecko that I’ve ever seen. I don’t like to give star ratings, but it gets high fours if not fives across the board in all categories. It was ingenious with its magical hidden-compartment set, and absolutely alive with Sukhjit’s boundless energy. She tells the story of her 10-year-old and teenage self, her peers, her family, and her culture with fearless candour and a deep love that came across the audience in waves. By her side throughout is musician Pavan Kumar Hari supplying music, foley on an eclectic array of instruments and non-instruments, plus a little character work and dance. Khalsa’s a poet, so I believe most of it is written in verse; well, there’s a lot of rhyme anyway. That means that many of her ideas are expressed in ways that transmit a raft of meaning in a concise way, which I found very satisfying. She talks about her identity crisis as a Sikh girl in a white western world, and I fully understood her struggle between wanting to fit in, and being proud to stand out. I had a childhood friend who was Sikh and went through the same fundamental struggles as Khalsa; things did not turn out as happily for her, unfortunately. I wish kids of my generation had been more empathetic and embracing of difference. Kids today seem to be much better at that than we were. I digress, but that’s the kind of personal impact this show can have. It’s a celebration and a kind of love letter to not only her family and culture, but to us, who have come to listen to her story. I hear it’s going to live on after this run, which is fantastic.

Sprinkled in between shows in the last two weeks, we’ve had 2020 season launches from two of our majors, like I said up top. Ages ago, before I started rambling. 

West Australian Opera

Lots of variety in the 2020 season – the company has most definitely turned their focus to programming works that appeal to a wider audience, hoping to initiate newcomers into the world of opera, gently taking the sting out of the word. They’re presenting the groundbreaking musical Bran Nue Day  at Perth Festival in February, featuring none other than Mr Ernie Dingo. What an extraordinary treat! I’m a little disappointed it’s at the Regal; I am not fond of that venue, but will grin and bear it for the chance of seeing what is sure to be a show to remember. I can feel the goosebumps already. Also in late February will be a one-night performance of Humperdinck‘s Hansel and Gretel at Opera in the Park, sung in English, with projection design by the media artist behind Perth Festival’s Boorna Waanjiny, Sohan Ariel Hayes. As if this weren’t enough for the company to do in February, they’re also presenting Beethoven‘s Fidelio at Perth Festival in concert with WASO, for which the WAO chorus will join with the WASO chorus for a big night (and one afternoon) at Perth Concert Hall.

After a short recess (not really), in March they will present a concert premiere performance of a new opera by beloved rocker Tim Finn, which has been jointly commissioned by New Zealand Opera, Victorian Opera and West Australian Opera. Finn will be performing with the orchestra, and this is sure to draw the Split Enz/Crowded House crowd to hear the story of Tupaia, a Tahitian star navigator who sailed with James Cook on the Endeavour in a meeting of minds and cultures under the tapestry of the starry skies. Sounds really lush. In May, they’ll be doing a staged version of Mendelssohn‘s Elijah at UWA’s Winthrop Hall, which will bring UWA Music Conservatorium student musicians into the chorus and orchestra. If memory serves me, the seating will be in tiers on two sides of a playing space down the middle of the Hall, I imagine somewhat like a catwalk. So if you like your theatre and opera up close and personal like I do, you won’t want to miss this performance. Next up in July, the company settles back into the Maj for their first main stage production, Cavalleria Rusticana & Pagliacci, two one-act operas written by two different composers, often referred to by those in the biz as Cav/Pag, and written in the verismo style (i.e. not about royalty and gods, but about the average man, for instance).

In October we come to another big collaboration between WAO and WA’s youth arts companies, The Nightingale, which is an opera for the young. As such, the company brings Co:3, WAYouth Theatre Company, WA Youth Orchestra, and WA Young Voices to present this adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale by Canadian composer Imant Raminsh. This world premiere production will be the first time The Nightingale is performed in Australia. The main cast and 14-piece orchestra of The Nightingale will be cast with young people and the two principal roles will be cast with two of WAO’s Young Artists. This will be part of AWESOME Festival and will also have a relaxed performance. Again, the company clearly wants to make opera accessible to more people, young people and people with special needs too. The season concludes with Mozart’s Così fan tutte after Nicholas Hyrtner’s Glyndebourne production. I guess this one’s for the regular opera crowd, the traditionalists, although Music Director Chris van Tuinen indicates that this production handles the outdated social and sexual mores found in the libretto in a way that’s more palatable to our modern norms. Here’s hoping.

Black Swan State Theatre Company

You still with me?! Good!

The BSSTC 2020 Launch was great. The Welcome to Country by Olman Walley was quite unique; he was deadpan funny and treated us to some didgeridoo (even though it’s not a Nyoongar instrument), and set the tone for a celebration of the ‘Stories from Here’ that are on offer next year.

The first homegrown story for 2020 will be the stage version of Tim Winton‘s 1991 novel Cloudstreet, which will be remounted as part of Perth Festival in a co-production with Malthouse Theatre under the direction of Matthew Lutton. Artistic Director Clare Watson welcomed Winton himself to the stage to give a very poignant speech in which he addresses how Australia has changed in the decades since he wrote Cloudstreet. He feels Australia has transformed from a community into an economy, where shopping is our primary function. Of course he puts it far more eloquently, so I would really encourage you to have a look at the Facebook live feed of the launch at approximately the 28-minute mark to hear it in full, and be moved. Winton and his ideas stood in stark contrast to the previous words from the political and corporate sectors; Rio Tinto is outgoing and FMG is incoming as the company’s principal partner, and the CEO of Fortescue dreams of bringing a production to one of their mine sites with the mine operations as a backdrop. Make of that what you will.

Next up is Chekhov‘s The Cherry Orchard. Now, I know this is not a homegrown play, but they’re setting it in Manjimup, so it counts, right? And it’s adapted by local theatre heroine Adriane Daff and Katherine Tonkin. They’re homing in on the play’s humour and giving it an 80s touch, so I’m hoping for something smart and funny, with Watson directing. The cast list is GREAT, filled with many of my favourite locals: Angela Mahlatjie, Ian Wilkes, Humphrey Bower, Sam Longley, George Shevtsov just to name a few.


The next offering gets me pumped. We’ve got Unsung Heroes, a series of short solo plays written by six local writers split over two programmes, one directed by Joe Paradise Lui and the other directed by Emily McLean. So far there’s only been one actor officially announced, Alison van Reeken, but the writers list is a who’s who of local greats: Barbara Hostalek, Gita Bezard, Chris Isaacs, Hellie Turner, Mararo Wangai, and Will O’Mahony. I’ll be seeing all six, for sure.


In August, we have a new full-length work written by Ian Michael and Chris Isaacs called York, centred around an abandoned hospital, and interweaving its stories from the past 200 years that have been buried over. The stories are inspired by real accounts, and will feature Shareena Clanton, Alison van Reeken, and some emerging actors from WAYTCo, directed by Clare Watson. I hope it’s kinda spooky. If it’s not that’s ok too, but I do like spooky stories, and how can you set a play in an old abandoned hospital and not have some element of spooky?


“All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” — George Orwell, Animal Farm. It’s as true today as it was when Orwell wrote it. I suspect this political satire will feel really, really on the nose given the world’s current pendulum swing towards ridiculous authoritarianism. Adapted by Van Badham and featuring three performers including the absolute legend of comedy, radio and theatre, Andrea Gibbs. I hope this one bites. And barks. And howls. And roars. And grunts.


Then comes a production I’m a little less enthused about – Wake in Frightadapted from Kenneth Cook‘s novel by Declan Green with Zahra Newman. A single female performer Alexandria Steffensen (who audiences will remember from 2019’s Medea), will play all the roles in this story. I haven’t read the novel, but I did attempt to watch the film and didn’t make it through. It was deeply disturbing to me, and I had to walk out of the kangaroo scene, which made me sick. But I’m going to keep an open mind and hope this version won’t be nearly as traumatising.


The final stage production of the year got me all giddy inside. Giddy-up, that is! It’s OKLAHOMA! My number one absolute favourite musical of all time ever. I’m not a huge MT buff or lover, but I LOVE THIS MUSICAL. I must have watched it a million times as a kid, enchanted by the frilly petticoats (so many frilly petticoats), gingham, dancing cowboys, hyuck-hyuck humour and the most singable melodies in the world. I even played French horn for it in the pit of our high school musical. Now, I know this one will be more stripped-back and gritty, with direction by Richard Carroll (who adapted Calamity Jane over in Sydney which blew my hat clean off) but that’s ok, I’ll still love it. I’ll still be sitting there with goosebumps and a silly smile on my face, barely containing the hum in my throat. (I apologise in advance to whomever will be sitting next to me.) Gee, do you think they’d let me audition? A gal can dream… Oh, and Billie Court gave us a beautiful jazz rendition of ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin” to wrap up the presentation of the 2020 Season.


Something really special is coming in celebration of NAIDOC week: the Maali Festival. This new FREE festival which takes its name from the Nyoongar word for black swan, is curated by BSSTC resident artists Ian Michael (Nyoongar) and Chloe Ogilvie (Yamatji Nhanda) and will take place on July 12 on Whadjuk boodja at the State Theatre Centre. It will feature First Nations culture and arts, entirely led and presented by First Nations artists, arts companies and community. This is going to be wonderful. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land.


Ok, so that’s a wrap for October and 2020! If you made it to the end, thank you for reading! I hope you’re as excited as I am for what’s in store next year, and have enjoyed this month of performing arts in Perth, as I have!