Reviews, Stage, Theatre

Power Plays review (The Wharf, Sydney Theatre Company)

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Sydney Theatre Company’s degustation of five new short plays by five of Australia’s leading and emerging women playwrights is a great idea on paper.

Melissa Bubnic, Michele Lee, Nakkiah Lui, Hannie Rayson and Debra Thomas. Five women with a diverse range of experiences, some of whom don’t get nearly enough of their works programmed given the limited slots available for new plays at major companies.

So STC commissioned a 20-minute play from each of them on the theme of power in all its forms. The result is a diverse bunch of plays that don’t always fit together as well as you might hope in terms of form or content.

Only one of them feels completely ready for an audience and, for better or worse, that’s the first play: Melissa Bubnic’s When Vampires Shop. The very funny stream-of-consciousness monologue lays into all aspects of consumerism — the greed and emotive forces which drive it and the way it shapes lives all around the world. It’s mostly one woman’s thoughts about the handbag she just absolutely has to have, but it extends well beyond the limits of her own desire and off into the lives of those who have suffered to bring this bag to her.

It’s also the best-directed and performed chapter, with Michelle Lim Davidson leading the company in an abstract, highly stylised performance using hand-held microphones.

Apart from that, only Hannie Rayson’s quite vividly drawn piece, featuring a group of entitled children bickering over their wealthy mother’s poor investment of their inheritance, feels like it understands what’s achievable in a 20-minute play.

The other three are overstuffed with plot or characters.

Nakkiah Lui’s play, set backstage at a fictional, Q&A-esque panel show, has a great central plot twist. It could make for a much more interesting hour-long piece, with the opportunity to get to know her various characters and what makes them tick, but it leaps a little too quickly from revelation to revelation. Its satire doesn’t zing quite as much as it could, but that could owe just as much to the slightly breathless performances as the writing.

Michele Lee’s play, again, has a great potential dramatic launchpad — a meeting between the embattled Minister for Social Services and a young, poor woman who has a massive Centrelink debt — but never takes off.

Debra Thomas’s piece starts off strongly. She’s written a repugnant male Minister for Women, played with relish by Steve Rodgers, and a woman who, it’s clear from the start, is playing dumb to extract the truth. Some of the early dialogue between the pair is great when the Minister lets his guard down, but the major plot turn is overblown and a little ridiculous.

Director Paige Rattray doesn’t necessarily do a bad job with any of the plays on their own terms, and makes a decent attempt at stitching them together with some very funny and inventive scene changes, but the actors (Michelle Lim Davidson, Vanessa Downing, Anthony Gee, Steve Rodgers and Ursula Yovich) don’t always comfortably leap from one writer’s style into another’s as effortlessly as you might hope.

David Fleischer’s rather simple set transforms effectively enough from one play to the next, while Ross Graham’s smart lighting keeps each play in its own distinct world.

[box]Power Plays is at Wharf 2 Theatre until October 22.

Featured image: Anthony Gee, Michelle Lim Davidson, Steve Rodgers, Vanessa Downing and Ursula Yovich in Sydney Theatre Company’s Power Plays. © Lisa Tomasetti[/box]

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