Category: Festivals

Review: À Ố Làng Phố – Vietnamese Bamboo Circus

The epitome of modern circus

By Rachel Holkner

Asia TOPA is fast becoming one of my favourite Melbourne festivals. It is a hugely valuable months-long showcase of Asia-Pacific performing arts where the sheer volume of performances creates a powerful movement against the Eurocentric tradition of arts in Australia. The quality is consistently so high I would cheerfully throw a dart at the program to select a show. So, happily fed thanks to the Vietnamese menu currently on offer by Chef de Partie Vinnie Nguyen at Café Vic, I settled into the State Theatre for À Ố Làng Phố with very little idea of what would unfold. I was not disappointed.

À Ố Làng Phố (Vietnamese Bamboo Circus) is the epitome of modern circus, a flawless blend of storytelling, elite physical skill, music and choreography. The multitalented cast demonstrate a strength and depth of performance that is joyful and exuberant.

In an exploration of place, time and human relationships, the usual suspects of circus, such as juggling, contortion, dance and puppetry are utilised in a celebration of culture. What shone particularly for me were the harmonious interactions between cast members both within complex routines and in interstitial sections.

Delightful moments of clowning employed gentle self-mockery which was never demeaning of others, so often the go-to of circus clowns. All the comedy sketches were beautifully timed and added poignancy to the overall production.

The lighting, props and costumes remained straightforward throughout with the emphasis on bamboo as a material. Whether woven into a basket or disk, as a short stick or long pole, a juggling club or an instrument, it seemed bamboo was used in its every possible configuration except as a food. Its warmth was echoed by the sepia tones of the opening, transitioning through to a multicoloured and joyous conclusion. Motifs of pattern-making and rhythm grounded the entire performance.

My complete lack of any Vietnamese language proved no barrier at all to my understanding. Through song lyrics or occasional dialogue, the expression of voice and gesture were far more important in conveying meaning.

The entire simplicity of execution lent an elegance throughout, balanced beautifully by the undertones of truth and humour. All these aspects were perfectly integrated into a whole celebration of Vietnam and, by extension, humanity.

Asia TOPA continues through March 2020 at various venues across Melbourne. See for more information.

Photography courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne


Review: The Campaign

One fraction of Australia’s shameful legacy

By Owen James

The 80’s and 90’s were tumultuous times for the LGBTQI community worldwide, as social movements fighting for equality came to a head for many Western countries. The Campaign focuses on the activism efforts of the Tasmanian Gay Law Reform Group to extinguish the particularly nocuous laws prevalent in Tasmania – criminalising gay sexual activity between consenting adults with a potential sentence of 21 years imprisonment (much higher than the prison term for rape or armed robbery).

This piece of verbatim theatre plays out like a gripping documentary, keeping us riveted throughout as its two-decade historical journey is condensed into a neat and expeditious ninety minutes. Detailed direction by Peter Blackburn succeeds in bringing the many layers of Campion Decent’s text to realistic but theatricalised life, highlighting the joy in each small victory along the way. Blackburn makes the most of the small studio space at Gasworks, utilising intricate lighting and use of simple but effective props and set pieces to keep us engaged and connected to the story throughout. Occasional musical moments act as effective punctuation and give the storytelling a boost at crucial moments.

Emotionally-charged performances from the cast of five ground the theatricalisation of these terrifying events that took place. Their collective depictions of their dozens of real-world counterparts are often highly realistic, creating many moving and rightfully upsetting moments. This focused and balanced ensemble are lead by a sensitive and natural performance from Patrick Livesey as Rodney Croome, who remains brave and loyal across the decades. He is one to watch. The four other extremely strong performances come from Claire Sara, Ally Fowler, Ben Stuart, and Ben Noble (who has the most fun as various politicians and left-wing extremist caricatures).

Don’t miss this compelling and fascinating history lesson of our country’s shameful recent draconian past (arguably in part also a disturbing reflection on the recent campaign for marriage equality), with a heartwarming triumph above adversity that hits close to home.

This important entry for Midsumma runs until 1st February at Gasworks.

Image courtesy of Gasworks



Review: This Bitter Earth

A triumph display of different voices singing the same tune.

By Sebastian Purcell

This Bitter Earth looks to provide an inside running track on the lives of six 20 somethings through powerful stories and interactions. This Bitter Earth is thoughtful; touching on themes of loneliness, lust, love, unrequited love, complicated relationships and friendship, exploring what it means to be gay in this modern world.

Writer Chris Edwards presents a smart, dark, sexy, sometimes rambling and neurotic show, yet it’s importantly grounded in heart-felt, self-discovery moments. There is a litany of pop references from Meryl Streep’s performance in The Deer Hunter to the iconic soundtrack of Titanic, My Heart Will Go On, allowing multiple generations to relate.

A simplistic, yet elegant lighting design by Phoebe Pilcher comes alive in the club and hostel scenes and works wonderfully with Grace Deacon’s sparse set design allowing the direction of Riley Spardaro to shine. Spardaro’s and Deacon’s staging and blocking combination creates an intimacy which allows the cast to deliver fresh, razor sharp and authentic performances.

Michael Cameron, Elle Mickel, Matthew Predny, Ariadne Scouros, Sasha Simon and Alexander Stylianou deliver engaging and believable performances and project clearly without amplification to a packed house. The dramatic to vulgar, to savage to poignant, are interjected sparingly with deadpan humour delivering the core message – that we are the sum of all our parts and not just our sexuality.

Most impressive is the final scene, a repeat from the opening monologue, but delivered collectively by the entire cast. This gives the effect of the many voices being internalised and at the same time that there will always be someone else who has had a similar experience to share.

This is a terrific opening act for Theatre Works in its 40th year. A must see for any LGBTIQ + or ally.

Appropriate for mature audiences, alcohol, sex, and drug references.

This Bitter Earth, part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival.  January 19 to February 02 at the Theatre Works, St Kilda. Tickets available

Photography by Matthew Predny

Review: Merciless Gods

Gods and monsters rendered achingly human 

By Bradley Storer

Queer performance collective Little Ones Theatre returns to the stage with the critically acclaimed production Merciless Gods for Midsumma Festival. In this production playwright Dan Giovannoni adapts Christos Tsiolkas’ collection of short stories to present a series of vignettes which encompass lives across the social and economic strata of Australian society. It’s a thrilling reminder of the burning necessity for Australian stories on our stages.

What remains most striking in the memory is director Stephen Nicolazzo’s powerful use of imagery as he channels the divine forces that give the play their name and inspiration. We see a heroin addict bathed in the heavenly halo of a Christian saint, we see a murderer locked in the gracefully muscular pose of a Grecian statue and we see a bedraggled and defiantly grotesque old woman sipping from a cask of cheap wine. This magnificent imagery is only made possible through the transporting simplicity of Eugyeene Teh’s set design, the glorious lighting of Katie Sfetkidis and the seductively mysterious sound design of Daniel Nixon.

The ensemble are excellent across the board, never more so than in the opening scene where they bounce off each other effortlessly in a seemingly normal suburban story that morphs into an unsettling and disturbing account of human brutality.

Each actor is given their moment to shine. Brigid Gallacher plays the voluptuous mother disgusted by the baseness of her own offspring. Paul Blenheim plays a drug addict enraptured by the twin figures of his straight best friend and the Lord Jesus Christ. Stefan Bramble stars as an imprisoned murderer both terrifying and tender in equal measure. Charles Purcell embodies a grieving gay son of a dying man. And Sapidah Kian, in the final glorious sequence, stars as the domestic Delphic Oracle relaying a vision of ecstasy.

The only negative, since there was seemingly no vocal amplification used, was the loss of textual and vocal clarity whenever the actors would play upstage away from the audience – an unfortunate side effect from a space as acoustically unforgiving as the Fairfax.

If forced to pick a standout performance it would have to be Jennifer Vuletic’s. Whether she is prowling the stage proudly nude as a pretentiously provocative German novelist, curling and contorting in spasms of pain as an aged Australian patriarch or bowed over in operatic fits of grief as an Italian mother mourning the loss of her son, Vuletic is a charismatic chameleon.

This unapologetically queer production, centred on the outsiders and outcasts of society even at their most reprehensible, is so luscious and commandingly seductive in its urgency and power that it’s impossible to resist. The cast and creatives of Merciless Gods have crafted a piece overflowing with horror and love, and is a must see this Midsumma season!

Merciless Gods plays at Arts Centre Melbourne until 10 February as part of Midsumma Festival. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: Pier Carthew 


Review: Become the One

Smart, moving and challenging examination of sexuality in sport

By Samuel Barson

The results of a 2015 study into homophobia in sport documented that 87 per cent of Australian sportspeople felt compelled to hide their sexuality in some way.

Adam Fawcett’s smart and challenging new play, Become the One, tells the fictional story of Tom, a celebrated AFL player who belongs to that 87 per cent. When Tom meets the openly gay Noah, sparks immediately fly, and as their relationship grows so do questions around identity, sexuality and a devotion to a toxic masculinity that sport can bring.

Fawcett’s exquisite writing is undoubtedly the highlight of this production. His clever combination of romance, comedy and drama has given director Lyall Brooks and actors Chris Asimos and Henry Strand the room to explore and create a piece of theatre that is exceedingly important for audiences to witness. Asimos is charismatic and brooding as Tom, the perfect counterweight to Strand’s precocious, yet sweetly gentle Noah. The two bounce off each other beautifully and present a dynamic and chemistry that surpass the stereotypes their respective characters could have easily risked slipping into.

The set design was simple and stationary yet exceedingly effective: the relationship never leaving Tom’s apartment just as Tom wanted it, behind closed doors and away from the public eye. It’s amusing to note the decision to design the set with synthetic grass (footy oval!), and the use of a single red pillow (footy!) that made its way around it. As an equal lover of footy and theatre this imagery pleased me greatly. Tom Backhaus’ and Benjamin Morris’ respective sound and lighting design complimented the rest of the production well, providing various atmospheres of swelling emotions as Tom and Noah journeyed through the highs and lows of their relationships.

It cannot be stressed enough how important a story like this is. Classy, sharp and deeply moving, Become the One makes for a special experience. A huge congratulations to all involved.

Become the One is currently playing at Gasworks Theatre until 9 February as part of Midsumma Festival. Tickets can be purchased online or by calling the box office on 03 8606 4200.

Photograph: Jodie Hutchinson



15 Minutes from Anywhere presents Cock

Cock is hot, Cock is great

By Leeor Adar


From the get-go, Beng Oh’s direction of Mike Bartlett’s witty work is sharp and arresting. We are thrust into the ring of a domestic dispute between John (Matthew Connell) and his long-term boyfriend, M (Shaun Goss). The dialogue is the kind of whip-crack smart that makes you laugh and consider for a moment the tortured inertia that lingers between the pair and coupledom at large.

Cock plays out like a fight between M and W (Marissa O’Reilly) for the affections of John, but it rapidly reveals itself to be the fighting rounds in John’s own mind that drive the plot, oscillating between the feminine ideal and the comfort of his accepted sexuality.

Shining the light on bisexuality it would seem, John crushes his poignant observation that love is reserved for the individual and not the gender while he still remains wholly inept at choosing his person. I find myself torn between the belief that Cock is a genuine attempt for Bartlett to unpack bisexuality in a world that seeks to rigidly define desire, or a plot that clenches its fists at the insecurity of indecision whilst moonlighting as an intellectual take on sexuality. Despite these feelings, I am raptured in the glory of the performances and dialogue that truly carry this play.

Emily Collett’s costume and staging is minimalist, allowing for the characters to shine, whilst gussying up W and throwing a stern jacket on the judgemental father figure, F (Scott Gooding), to solid effect.

Goss is pure energy, unrelenting in his performance throughout, countering with his grand movements the wilting indecision of Connell’s almost boy wonder. Connell perfectly captures the differing relationships his character has with M and W. With M, he is the lost boy needing direction in discovered territory, and with W he seeks direction like a voracious and able explorer. One is almost rooting for his passage to W, and not for ultra-conservative reasons, but for the new pathway he forges to a would-be maturity.

Having now witnessed O’Reilly’s performance a second time as W in Cock, she takes the character to a more insecure and jaded place. This incarnation of W frets a great deal more, leaking her truth of the wreckage of a past relationship, throwing her hopes and dreams upon John with the intent that his virgin heterosexuality will invoke a new life for her too.

The entrance of Gooding as F late into the play is a great shift in the dynamic of the piece, carting out now generally accepted archaic belief systems to pick apart the revelations of John’s newfound feelings and desires. F’s focus to define and box the individuals before him largely fails, and he enters and exits Cock’s world like an awkward flashback.

It’s all a bit overwhelming, and in the last gasp of the play, the great question hangs above us all. Quoting critic Michael Billington’s earlier observation, Cock is truly in Schopenhauer’s words, a “tyranny of the weak” – and a spectacular display of it.


Cock is being performed as part of Midsumma Festival at Fortyfivedownstairs until 10 February. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966.

Photograph: supplied

Review: Re-Member Me

A mammoth excavation of Hamlet’s legacy 

By Owen James

Lip-sync performer Dickie Beau has taken perhaps the most iconic play ever written (Hamlet) and broken down its legacy into a beautiful historical tapestry that acts as both an inquisition into tradition and memory, and a celebration of art and artists.

Dickie Beau alongside his collaborator and director Jan-willem van den Bosch have created a world that is inquisitive and daring, framed by two core questions prominently displayed in the programme: “why is this play so iconic? And why is it done over and over again?” Instead of simply accepting the great Hamlet’s legacy as given, Beau takes us on a journey narrated by some of the most famous artistic minds in history (including Sir Ian McKellen, Sir John Gielgud and Suzanne Bertish), to discover why Hamlet is so deeply steeped in tradition and honour.

Hours upon hours have gone into preparing this meticulously crafted sequence of interweaving voices and projections, devised from dozens of interviews both conducted by Dickie himself and obtained from mining theatrical archives. Beau has undertaken an extraordinary examination of detail in learning these interviews verbatim, proven as he perfectly lip-syncs every breath, every pause, and every stutter or stammer that occurs naturally in each interviewee’s speech. Imagine learning every subtle shift of a singer’s intonation across an entire album and that’s only a slither of what Beau has accomplished, for as he embodies the eight or more voices we hear, each characterisation is noticeably distinct and seems like a different person appears before us.

It’s more than simply lip-syncing – it’s a unique branch of theatrical art that mines comedy and detail in a way I certainly hadn’t seen let alone considered before. Beau is clearly an extremely passionate and detailed storyteller who is fascinated by history, and the transformation of that history into a modern setting.

For even the least Shakespearean-inclined person, Beau’s amalgamation of perspective and memory will still be captivating. It’s not a show about Hamlet, but about humanity. In asking why we return to see great actors give “their Hamlet” across decades and centuries, Beau taps into our sense of self, asking us to reflect on what we presume is iconic without usually questioning it.

This self-described “human Hamlet mixtape” is a journey into the past seen through a window of the future. It’s a mammoth undertaking for Beau and his team, and overall a joyful celebration of humanity’s obsession with repetition and heritage.

Re-Member Me was performed 17 – 21 October at the Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. See here for more information.

Review: Trustees

Politically charged theatre as beautiful as it is crushing 

By Owen James

I can’t remember the last time I stood up so quickly when the lights came up for applause. Trustees is by far the most relevant, powerful and responsive piece of theatre I’ve seen in a long time, and any Australian concerned with the dumbfounding rates of racism, indigenous discrimination, refugee torture and sexism prevalent in our country will resonate with the honest and painful truths to which Trustees opens our eyes.

Yes, Trustees is highly socially and politically charged – but it’s a necessary and all-too-pertinent reminder of how we do have the power to overcome the “traditions, habits and stereotypes” that we silently ignore every day. After a fast-paced and technologically interactive opening (keep your phone on and web browser open!) where a new government policy has stripped the fictional Lone Pine Theatre Company of their funding, the trustees of Lone Pine meet to determine the route towards a secure economic future in our typical noncommittal Australian creative climate. From here, a turbulent ride through perspective, privilege, and uncertain, unreliable reconciliation makes for easily the most engaging and jaw-dropping evening at the theatre you will witness all year.

Co-directors and writers Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada (both political refugees) have created a very comfortable, creative space that both performers and audience feel mutually at ease in – you will laugh, you will cheer, and you will join in on the Mexican wave. With their refugee background greatly informing and influencing the work, the depiction of these actors’ stories has been handled with sensitivity and love, despite the raw and confronting nature of the material presented.

The warmth of all five performers (Daniel Schlusser, Tammy Anderson, Natasha Herbert, Niharika Senapati and Hazem Shammas) resonates throughout the room as these creatives tackle extremely personal issues with confronting and honest performances. This diverse cast of five share with us their “testimonies about the state of our society” from the perspective of their unique backgrounds and each new perspective presents a strand of our normalised and embarrassing history. It’s their own experiences with inequality and battles with society, prejudice and culture that they’re laying naked (sometimes literally) for us to understand, in many ways donating their personal life experiences to a larger cause, pushing for change.

The set design by Romanie Harper serves every unique corner of the text with chilling physicality, placing all the action atop a lush red carpet where only the privileged should walk. The core set piece is a gargantuan metal table that gradually uncovers its secrets across the ninety-minute runtime; I won’t give them away here, but its transformative properties are utter genius. Trustees gets messy with liquid, fire and dirt – so huge kudos to the stage management team (Adam Chesnutt and Adalaide Harney) who deal with the catastrophic aftermath nightly.

Amidst the constant, inescapable flow of #fakenews, Trustees teaches that our shameful history is embedded deep within our culture – and it will be a long and hard road to remove our racist, unbalanced and ignorant hivemind-mindset. Trustees desperately pleads for a reconciliation of fractured ideas of equality, and seeks to reclaim Australian multicultural pride and eliminate illogical nationalistic patriotism, uprooting our stoic and imbalanced sense of white male perfection.

Congratulations to Malthouse and Melbourne International Arts Festival for presenting this relevant piece of theatre Australia desperately needs, with genuine truth at its heart. Do not possibly miss this masterpiece.


Trustees is being performed at Malthouse Theatre until 21 October as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on  03 9685 5111.

Photograph:  Nicolai Khalezin

Review: Watt

Deadpan humour and storytelling in adaptation of Beckett’s Watt 

By Samuel Barson

It’s 1942, and France is occupied by Germany. Samuel Beckett is on the run from Nazis. Throughout this grim reality, Beckett wrote a novel titled Watt, describing the journey of the titular character to, and within, the house of Mr Knott. Renowned Irish actor Barry McGovern has adapted this novel for the stage, delivering a powerhouse one man show that pays the perfect homage to Beckett and one of his most fascinating characters.

McGovern is the ultimate storyteller. He manages to keep the audience drawn into the world of Watt for the entire hour, despite some parts being particularly dry and wordy. Credit must also, of course, be given to director Tom Creed for allowing McGovern to realise the beauty in such an absurd world.

McGovern’s deadpan approach to the absurdity of Watt’s experiences was the cause of immense (and regular) laughter. McGovern’s ability to allow the audience to feel empathy for characters he was not even playing was incredibly special, an ability rarely seen amongst most performers. This was a testament to McGovern’s own intelligence and experience as a theatre maker.

The set was simply, yet effectively realised by Sinéad Mckenna, a bare concrete wall in the foreground providing context to the drab and dreary existences Watt witnesses in Mr Knott’s house. A wooden chair and trolley are also on stage at the immediate and useful disposal of McGovern. An equally simple yet, effective lighting design was also implemented by Mckenna.

This is a show that could have very easily been boring and lost amongst audiences. There is a lot of dialogue, drawn out and confusing. There is not a lot of action to keep audiences entertained. Yet, McGovern and Creed have proved that the art of simple storytelling has not been lost. Watt is a stunning, entertaining piece that is a joy to experience.

Watt is being performed 4 – 13 October at the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 1300 182 183.

Photograph: Pia Johnson

Fringe presents Ascent

Citizen Theatre’s optical illusions push senses to new extremes

By Owen James


Theatre is usually confined to only two of our senses, relying on sight and sound to entertain, create and delight. Ascent pushes our relationship with these two senses to a new extreme, challenging our eyes to unusual visual stimulants and gifting our ears to aural delight. Through these frames, Ascent explores expectation, change, acceptance, and most of all, identity.

This very tight and expertly polished ensemble of five (Marty Alix, Jordan Barr, Kala Gare, Jessica Vellucci, Willow Sizer) are dressed head-to-toe in black and expose different limbs in low lighting as to create shapes and represent zoomed-in parts of one body. While this might have been more effective with a black light or under UV lighting, the shapes this group creates throughout the piece are mesmerising and magical. We are transported to a world where anything is possible and where our lens can transform between microscopic and wide-angle with nothing more than bodies and creativity.

Director and writer Jayde Kirchert uses these “visual illusions” to meditate upon contemporary themes and pose questions we ponder long after the show is over: Why do we attempt to create a standardisation for beauty? Do we change for ourselves or for others? Is our obsession with modernisation blinding us from comfort? Kirchert’s unique world tackles these deep questions with zest and comedic flair, and gives us as an audience space to reflect and consider throughout the piece.

The original music composed by Imogen Cygler is breathtaking, reminding me of works by Philip Glass. Every piece of movement is influenced by the music and the music by it, clearly presenting a very solid working relationship between every member of this team. Every change of music and movement are precisely timed, and as each new musical motif is introduced, Ascent raises the stakes and physicalised obsession a step further. Cygler’s cyclic music is beautifully rich in emotion and thought. I would have purchased a CD in the foyer if one were available!

If you want something “fresh” where “less is more” Ascent is for you. This first foray into “experimental music theatre” has greatly excited me for the future of this company and where these experiments will lead them. This polished, collaborative piece runs until 30 September at Theatre Works in St Kilda as part of the Melbourne Fringe, but hopefully Ascent or its future sibling will return to a theatre before too long.

Ascent is being performed until 30 September at Theatre Works, St Kilda. Tickets can be purchased online.

Photograph: Stu Brown