Monday, August 29, 2022

Theatre: Blue/Orange

By Joe Penhall
Directed by Stuart Halusz
Set and Costume designer Neil Sherriff
Composer and Sound designer Noah Ivulich
Lighting designer Garry Ferguson

Performed by Tinashe Mangwana, Jarryd Dobson and Andrew Lewis

Burt Hall
20 August – 3 September, 2001

Andrew Lewis and Tinashe Mangwana (pic: Stewart Thorpe)

What dates a play?

Not for the first time, I wonder whether the cataclysm of 2001 and the two decades since that are, undoubtedly, its direct aftermath, have become a prism through which we look at many things, including the theatre.

Blue/Orange, Joe Penhall’s Olivier Award-winning drama about systemic racism, mental illness, the individuals who treat it and the economy in which they operate is a case in point.

First staged in April 2000, it has many of the hallmarks of the topical, realist, character-driven theatre of that time. It’s loquacious, tendentious and combative. It’s three characters: the ambitious, passionate young registrar Bruce (Jarryd Dobson) and the vain, strategic specialist Robert (Andrew Lewis) parry and thrust while their patient, Christopher (Tinashe Mangwana) bounces around the walls of their dialectic.

Blue/Orange works around valid questions about unconscious cultural and racial bias, the logistical challenges facing health services like Britain’s NHS (the play is set in it’s mental health system), hierarchical structures and the personal responsibility of specialists dealing with the vulnerable and damaged, the minority person and the unentitled.

No-one can doubt the currency of these questions – a quick scan of the WA Coroner’s Court list this week provides a particularly tragic example of them.

But, for all that, is Blood/Orange dated? Are we too skittish now, do we take too much in with us to our seats, does our own uncertainty and anger override the uncertainty and anger of a play and its characters? Do we want to participate in a conversation any more, or do we just want our opinions reflected in what we see and hear.

Or are we so careful in our own thoughts and expressions to honestly examine to the things we have become careful about?

“Uppity nigger*”.

Two words (according to the Urban Dictionary, words used by racist old white Southerners to refer to any black person who looks them in the eye) that encapsulate the thesis of Blue/Orange, and its problem.

First used, cunningly, by Christopher to describe how the world, and the two doctors, view him, then weaponised by both Bruce and Robert, they are a fulcrum on which the power struggles of the play are balanced.

Each of the doctors is convinced in their worldview, each hitches their personal ambitions to it. But perhaps it’s only Christopher who sees his world as it is, and who clearly knows what is wrong with it, and him.

Christopher is the play’s hero, and it’s victim

Even when the play feels out of its time, there’s no doubting the quality of the production. Stuart Halusz manages the action on a claustrophobic stage in the round, defined as much by Noah Ivulich tense, often subliminal compositions and Garry Ferguson’s interrogatory lighting as the space itself.

Dobson and Lewis are excellently cast, unmasking the self-interest behind the younger man’s idealism and his senior’s pragmatism.

But it’s all about Mangwana’s Christopher. He’s a great ball of fire, torching the stage with physical and expressive humour, yet capable of great subtlety of mein and inflection.

As he showed in his fetching, idiosyncratic Valere in WAAPA’s Tartuffe earlier this year (Mangwana was released from his studies there for his role in Blue/Orange) he’s a compelling, singular performer who will be worth keeping a close eye on in future.

His performance is a highlight of a quality production of a play with plenty to say, even if the way we expect things to be said may have changed.


* I’m reminded that my daughter was castigated by her professor at the liberal arts college she attended in the US for quoting the word verbatim from Randy Newman’s Rednecks – a brilliant, excoriating attack on racism and racists from the 1970s – in her presentation. Perhaps she, and this production, needed to be more “careful”.         



Sunday, August 14, 2022

Theatre: Last Train to Freo

 Written and directed by Reg Cribb

Fremantle Theatre Company 

Designed by Renato Fabretti
Lighting designed by Peter Young
Sound design and music performed by Cat Shaw and Steven McCall
Performed by Michael Abercromby, Kasmir Sas, Chloe Hurst, Sandie Eldridge and Josh Virgona 

Victoria Hall, Fremantle until August 27

Michael Abercrombie and Chloe Hurst

 I’ve nothing but praise for this powerful, precisely produced and performed revival of Reg Cribb’s Return (2008), now retitled as Last Train to Freo. As an entertainment, Cribb’s narrative, consciously or otherwise, is a take on the craft of Agatha Christie; not a whodunit exactly, but one steeped in the strategies and tactics of her game of cat and mouse.
Inside the skeletal, but convincing, frame of a Transperth carriage, designed by FTC’s artistic director Renato Fabretti, late on a night when the usual railway security patrollers are out on strike (real-world improbability is always acceptable in a good cause), a disparate band of travellers take the 50-minute ride from Midland to Fremantle.
Steve (Michael Abercromby) and Trev (Kasmir Sas) take this trip regularly, but for no good purpose. They hoon down the tracks, tearing around the carriage and harassing its passengers.
Trev is a bit bruised and battered, his arm in a sling; he’s a small dog in the habit, one suspects, of biting off more than he can chew.
Steve is a different kettle of fish entirely. He looms over the space, there’s magma in him. He’s a dangerous man.
For a while they have the carriage to themselves, but in Bayswater a young woman, Lisa (Chloe Hurst) gets on. If she’s taking a basket of goodies to Grandma in Fremantle, she’s just run into the wolf.
A little later an older woman (Sandie Eldridge) lugging a suitcase, and a young man (Josh Vigona) also come aboard. They sit quietly, she in a seat by the carriage’s standing room, he huddled darkly in back, scribbling in a notebook.
All the while Steve’s attention is turning to Lisa. He mocks her with faux politeness, invades her space, probes at her. He’s up to no good at all.
But what, the Christie in Cribb asks us, is she up to?
Of course, none of these people are who they seem, all of them are carrying secrets, all of them have reasons to be where they are when they are.
Having mixed his brew, Cribb lets it bubble until it overflows in rage, terror and, finally, exposure. If the momentum flags a little in the final scenes, it’s a forgivable flaw; there’s much to reveal, and explain, and it has to be done sometime.
The cast is exemplary. None better than Eldridge, who gives Maggie fortitude, good sense and the courage perhaps only those with nothing left to lose can muster.
So to is Hurst. Her character is in an illogical and invidious position, but you can look back on what you’ve seen and realize that she had something going on that you, and her antagonists, aren’t aware of. It takes skill to be an actor playing an actor, and Hurst has it.
For all that, Last Train to Freo is Steve’s play, and Abercromby gives a mighty performance. It’s a rare gift to be genuinely menacing on stage (let’s call it the Chopper effect), but Abercromby does it. As Steve is revealed to be more complex, more unexpected, and both less and more dangerous, Abercromby’s performance expands to encompass it all.
At the core of his character is an explosive misogyny, as eloquent as it is repugnant. It explodes in a rage-filled attack on women, single mothers in particular, that is a distillation of the hatred and loathing underlying so much of gender politics and behavior in society.
I was taken aback by its ferocity, and the impact on the audience pressed close to the action by the production’s traverse staging, was apparent.
Could permission be granted for such an outburst in a work of art? Who gets that permission, who doesn’t, and who grants it?
I was curious to see what response this would generate, and I didn’t have long to wait.
I won’t single out any particular commentary, but amongst them two reactions have given me pause.
One, in essence, disapproved of the play because it observed the behavior and attitudes portrayed in the play but didn’t criticize it.
Another suggested that the play was dated, not because of the reprehensible conduct of some of its characters, which no-one can deny is still there in the real world, but because, in these enlightened times, it should be portrayed more “carefully” than in its original iteration twenty years ago.
The world, this argument runs, had changed in the intervening decades, but Cribb’s play had not.
I couldn’t disagree more. The theatre’s mission is to show, not tell. If you want sermons, go to a TED talk or your local church. The artist should show us the world that has such people in it, and let us draw our own conclusions from what we see.
Characters can’t be amortised, they can’t be made to fit the zeitgeist, or the sensitivities of the observer. They must be alive, in the real world of the play.
Like it or not.
Absent that, theatre becomes a lecture rather than an exchange between its creators and an engaged, participating audience with the agency to come to their own conclusions.
The worst play I have ever seen, despite its glittering reputation, is Peter Shaeffer’s Equus. In it, the mystery and terrible beauty of the boy’s relationship with his horses is completely undercut by the interventions of the psychologist who explains to us what is behind what we have just seen.
When I saw it, at the old Playhouse, with Richard Todd as the psychiatrist I had to resist the temptation to storm the stage and tell him to fuck off and let us work it out for ourselves.
And that’s what theatre should do. This is not a “Cancel Culture” argument, neither is it an attempt to rationalize the shameful or forgive the unforgivable.
Quite the opposite. It’s an argument for clarity, for insight, against bowdlerization and dishonesty. An argument for the theatre, unfettered.
All of which Last Train to Freo is.
The season of Last Train to Freo was interrupted by COVID, but has been extended until August 27 at Victoria Hall, Fremantle