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Art is a Weapon- Review

Art Is A Weapon
New Theatre, Sydney; newtheatre
Tuesday, October 30, 2007. Opening Night Performance. Review by TROY DODDS.

Until November 2. Bookings: 1300 306 776.

The good thing about an evening of short plays is that you know what you’re in for. It’s very rare that you’ll come across a bunch of terrible plays, or for that matter an array of brilliant ones. Short play evenings generally feature three or four really good pieces of theatre, a few you can take or leave and others that have you thanking the lord above it’ll all be over in 10 minutes.

For a little while, it looks like Art Is A Weapon, an initiative from the newtheatre in which writers must present plays under the theme of the concept’s title, is going to defy the odds given the first three plays are absolutely wonderful, but by the time the two-and-a-half hour marathon comes to an end we’ve managed to go through the full gamut of good and bad, on so many levels.

All of the plays have an element of controversy, whether it be references to politics, terrorism, war or sex. The test for the playwrights is ensuring that the lines don’t get blurred between penning something controversial for controversial’s sake, and writing something that actually conveys an intended worthy message.

The two plays that do best in ensuring the balance is right is Suzie Miller’s Flight / Flight Mode, a post September 11 look at how the dynamic of the “fear of flying” has changed for both Caucasians and those of “Middle Eastern appearance”, and Wayne Tunks’ Unspoken, a sometimes amusing but deeply serious look at a gay affair with a little more than a tinge of politics thrown in.

Flight / Flight Mode works so well because it’s not a difficult play to write. That’s not to question Miller’s ability – indeed, it takes a supreme talent to ensure the process from thought to concept is crafted so well – but unfortunately the ever-real threat of terrorism in the skies has changed the way people think and act when on a plane, and it’s something anyone can see day in, day out at airports across the world. The obvious glares at people presumed to be Muslims and the clear fear on the face of many is so evident in this world addicted and in some ways obsessed with 9/11, and Miller has done a superb job in consolidating those fears into a 10 minute piece and perhaps opening the eyes of many.

It’s also fortunate that this play features the two best acting performances of the evening, with Beejan Olfat and Anna Hruby simply amazing in their very different, but incredibly similar roles.

Tunks is no stranger to plays focusing on gay relationships, hence it’s no real surprise it is the focus of Unspoken. The piece follows an older politician (a family man, no less) who is having an affair with a man in his early 20’s. What is initially a quirky and funny piece eventually becomes one questioning gay rights in modern day politics. It’s a good, solid play, and Tunks has done a sensational job in developing it, while Augusta Supple’s direction is impressive.

Other highlights exist in Ned Manning’s Pericles, Jon Fosse’s A Red Butterfly’s Wings and Terence Crawford’s hilarious Fuck ‘Em If They Can’t Take A Joke. The latter unfortunately falls over at the end but with a little more work it could be a real winner at short play festivals around the traps in the years to come.

Nick Parsons’ The Gallery Sketch is somewhat amusing, as is Woman With Books which features a stellar individual performance from Marika Aubrey.

The other pieces are far from terrible, though they’re not very good either. However, only The Generous, The Merciful, The Giving (Horrific Acts) and I Can Make You Disappear would fall into the “never again” category.

The evening finishes with a piece labelled Civics Lessons by Stephen Sewell. A talented writer, Sewell is the perfect example of one who gets sucked into the passion of being controversial, an element of his writing that has let him down before. Instead of telling a story, Sewell tries to force it down the audience’s throat, a ploy that rarely works. Sewell’s desperation to be controversial is becoming predictable and hence his work is less explosive than it once promised to be.

All in all, there’s some quality plays here from writers who deserve to be unearthed on a more regular basis. It’s an entertaining night out, with plenty of laughs and a few thought-provoking moments along the way.

Naomi in the Living Room 2008

Naomi in the Living Room & Titanic
Written by Brett Casben
Tuesday, 26 February 2008
Titanic & Naomi in the Living Room‘Titanic’ and ‘Naomi in the Living Room’ are both very funny plays. Christopher Durang, their playwright, is a very funny writer; ‘Mr. Durang is one of our theater’s brightest hopes – he knows how to write funny plays, which makes him a rarity… he manages to combine all three modes farce, satire, good-humored wackiness (Sylviane Gold, Wall Street Journal); ‘Christopher Durang is one of the funniest dramatists alive, and one of the most sharply satiric.’ (Edith Oliver, The New Yorker)

The two plays comprise a double bill performing at the Newtown Theatre as part of the Mardi Gras Festival.

The plot of ‘Titanic’ is convoluted to say the least. It involves the Tammurai family comprising Victoria, played by Jan Langford-Penny, Richard, Richard Mason, and Teddy, Will Snow. Then there is Annabella/ Harriet Lindsey, Megan Drury who at one and the same time is either the unnatural offspring and/or sister of Victoria as well as doubling or trebling as Lidia, the daughter of the Captain of RMS Titanic, played by Jonathan Elsom on board whose fated ship the events take place.

It is a fairly obvious choice for Mardi Gras since, as the director, Jonathon Wald notes, it has currency in terms of its depiction of characters with extremely fluid sexuality’. The play was written in 1974 and premiered at the Yale School of Drama the same year, moving onto The Direct Theatre in New York two years later.

There is to be sure a good deal of sexual allusion in the dialogue as a ‘joyous expression of sexuality’ (Wald). Beneath this parody of sexuality there lies something more sinister and more damning. The Director alludes to it in the comment ‘Durang … explore[s] the characters’ uptight English morality and expose[s] the real sexual and emotional dynamics which lie beneath the facade of polite behaviour.’ The truth is that the behaviour is anything but polite.

Being Catholic by upbringing Durang is very aware of symbolism as it is associated with faith at all levels and the power it has on our subliminal senses. He engages it here at the highest level seen in his work with the possible exception of ‘Mrs Bob Cratchit’s Wild Christmas Binge’ combining it with absurdist elements presented in a widely stretched reality.

The key to the drama is not so much the sexual proclivities although they make for a rare breed indeed. It is the need in the characters to see themselves as something other than what they are, regardless of how variant perception may be from reality. Sex is only the icing not the cake. The characters in ‘Titanic’ irrevocably have been denied the gift to which Robbie Burns pays homage, ‘to see ourselves as others see us’.

The imagery of the fateful Titanic is obvious as is the appearance of its captain with strapped dildo as a latter-day unicorn. Even the hamsters and seagulls that nest in Lidia’s vagina have seen multiple manifestations. It reaches its height, however, in the duality seen in the younger generation where Teddy crosses over with the sailor played by Tom Oakley and Lidia runs amok between her several incarnations.

What is at the core of Durang’s biting satire is not the British upper class but the seduction and exploitation of the following generation of Americans by his own rapacious one.

This may well appear to be a gay sex romp but the consequences to which Durang was trying to draw attention are as bitter and tragic as those that shaped the poetry of W. H. Auden. In the hiatus of the twenties and thirties, in Britain, he watched a shell shocked society helplessly let its youth be sucked into the vortex of a storm that very nearly annihilated them.

Durang’s work is not ‘ahead of its time’, it’s a creature of it. We are now witnessing what he foretold. It is at the crux of Marius von Mayenburg’s ‘The Cold Child’ seen last year at the Griffin. The tragedy in this country is that thirty years ago we never gave our playwrights the voice to tell it in our own idiom and so we have to read it in the observations of outsiders. Their language is not our language and their images are not ours and so we sometimes miss the point. When the soul has died the only language left is sex, greed and death. Our youth now binge and suicide and we now look for answers. Those answers are in the past. It’s no good saying sorry.

It’s a fun play, there is no denying but you should walk out wishing you had never seen it. In this respect the present production fell somewhat short.

As a production it is tight and has a great deal of energy. It’s beautifully presented through the joint efforts of James Croke’s set design, Larry Kelly’s lighting and Paul Matthews’s costumes in a space that is demanding in terms of both design and performance. The underlying issues however are skated over and regardless of the entertainment the message still needs to be there.

Music by Kyls Burtland and sound by Michael McMenomy contributed well to the general staging and the choreographed set changes were inspired.

The styles of acting seemed out of sync ranging from that of realism to borderline pantomime. Durang’s play’s can be performed in a variety of styles but they need an over arching integrity. This could be symptomatic of its stage in preview and it may well have cohered in later runs.

Outstanding in terms of connection were the performances of the doubtful siblings by Snow and Drury who came together in some of the most hilarious and moving scenes of the play.

Naomi in the Living RoomNaomi is a far lighter piece, thank God. The play is the first of the two presented in the double bill, a short one Act cartoon. It is a parody at which you can laugh and thank God you’re not related or wish to heaven you weren’t as the case may be.

The cast comprising Nick Curnow as John, Shannon Ellis as Johnna and Odile Le Clezio as Naomi were very much the quintessential caricatures seen in Durang’s character sketches. The direction by Augusta Supple overcame the greater than usual limitations presented by the Newtown Theatre space having to occupy the foyer while ‘Titanic’ took up the auditorium. In this piece the dramatic styles were well matched and coherent.

It isn’t a story so much as an interlude somewhat in the style of Basil Fawlty with Naomi making her son at home in the only way she knows how, humiliating him. Johnna just happened to be the bug that got caught on the windshield.

Hot Seat and Brave New Theatre present
TITANIC and Naomi in the Living Room

Venue: Newtown Theatre | Cnr King & Bray Sts, Newtown
Dates: Feb. 20th (Preview) to Mar. 8th
Times: Tuesdays – Saturdays at 8pm
Tickets: $28/$24 Tuesday nights pay-what-you-can at the door only
Wednesdays ‘Hello Sailor’ nights: 2-for-1 if you dress as a sailor
Bookings: 1 300 306 776 or |

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Augusta Supple

Sydney-based theatre director, producer and writer. This site is about my long, deep, bright-eyed, ever-hopeful, sometimes difficult, always invigorating, rambunctious, rebellious, dynamic and very personal relationship with Australian Arts and Culture... I reflect on shows, talks, essays, writing, artists that inspire me to say something, and you'll find out what I'm working on, who I'm working with and what inspires me.