Stage

The Wizard of Oz review (Belvoir, Sydney)

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Director Adena Jacobs’ radical response to L. Frank Baum’s seminal myth The Wizard of Oz must be a mixed blessing for the marketing department at Belvoir. On the one hand, many ears would prick up at the mere mention of The Wizard of Oz but, on the other, Belvoir has had to emphasise time and again that this is not a work for children and it’s not The Wizard of Oz you know.

We’re not in Kansas anymore — hell, we’re not even necessarily in Oz. Jacobs’ work is not an adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, but a series of dream-like theatrical vignettes inspired by the images and mythology of Oz. There’s little dialogue and a sparse, loose plot, but the magic which Jacobs and her colleagues conjure with lighting, sound, costumes and makeup (and a real-life dog, and a bunch of robotic dogs) is absolutely captivating and speaks as loudly as any piece of traditional drama could.

It starts fairly recognisably. A young girl, Dorothy (Emily Milledge) lands in an unusual world, inside her house (a small glass booth at the back of the set designer Ralph Myers’ bare concrete stage). She finds a dead woman onstage, the witch (Luisa Hastings Edge), with her face covered in green material and ruby red shoes on her feet. She steals the dead woman’s shoes and sets off on an unusual journey.

Firstly, she discovers the Scarecrow (Melita Jurisic), who is strung up via her hands, and has her face covered with a terrifying mask. As Dorothy rescues her, it’s clear she’s lost her mind (brain), as she swings wildly around the space, cackling maniacally. Then the Tin Man (Jane Montgomery Griffiths), who speaks through a crackly speaker strapped to her bare chest. She’s cold, having lost the ability to love, or really feel any kind of passion (she does regain this at some point, in a dangerous way). Finally, the Lion (Paul Capsis), who Dorothy helps to regain her voice. It’s a great opportunity for Capsis to pull out his impersonation of a late-career Judy Garland, singing I’m Always Chasing Rainbows.

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Each of these three women are the stereotypical, theatrical image of a damaged older woman. With Myers’ stark set and Kate Davis’ ragged, beige costumes, these could be three women Dorothy has met in a mental health ward. They all desperately crave something for completion.

Jacobs constantly plays with traditional images of femininity, warping them from one to the next. It speaks clearly to how a woman changes her role, appearance and sexual identity as she progresses through life. The connections which she draws between the women are often unexpected, and open up a multitude of narrative possibilities.

As Dorothy finally confronts the witch, the witch also appears in Dorothy’s iconic, girlish dress. They grasp hands, staring out into the audience, as the witch slowly breaks down. Dorothy strips and robs the witch of her sexual power and then murders her with a method more humiliating than a simple drowning. But who has Dorothy become in this violent act?

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Jacobs also has a flagrant, deliberately executed, disregard for Chekhov’s gun principle (involving a fluorescent gun at the very centre of the stage), which reads as a statement of feminist rebellion. Why should we conform to dramatic principles established by dead white males?

And that’s one of the questions which pervades the entire work. Jacobs even examines how the literary trope of “the witch” has been used as an oppressive force to demonise powerful, ambitious women. For many women, the only way to achieve their ambitions and independence is to become “the witch”.

But it’s entirely possible that none of these readings were intended by Jacobs at all. She gives the audience a licence to allow their imaginations to run wild and read her mystical images however they choose.

It’s a fine team all-around, with a superb cast led by Emily Milledge as Dorothy, who morphs between feminine forms live on stage as her eyes are opened to the world. The costumes, by Kate Davis (of the Rabble) are mystical and perfectly grotesque, indicating archetypal female images, while lighting designer Emma Valente’s (also of the Rabble) work is colourful, oppressive and fascinating. There’s also excellent work from composer and sound designer Max Lyandvert, who creates a number of soundscapes from the subtly creeping to the bombastic and overwhelming (although I do wish the levels were adjusted so I could have made out the words Capsis was shouting into a microphone at one point).

This is the most exciting work Jacobs has presented during her time at Belvoir. It’s certainly the most uncompromising and well-resourced, driven by queer and feminist perspectives. While her Hedda Gabler felt a little under-cooked and hamstrung by the expectations of creating a new production for the larger Upstairs Theatre, Jacobs clearly had Belvoir’s trust in creating this work, and it’s entirely true to her creative vision as a theatre-maker.

There are, undoubtedly, many who will walk away from this work feeling mystified and unsatisfied. Audiences are used to drawing meaning from plot and dialogue-driven theatre, but they often baulk when asked to interrogate simple images and actions (or just allow the visceral emotional experience they may trigger to wash over, like they might with great works of visual art). Jacobs has imbued every moment of this production with richness, magic, and the capacity to trigger bucketloads of emotion. It’s a generous work.

But this is theatre which pushes against conventions and challenges you to lean in and become a more engaged audience member. If you choose to do so, the rewards are immense. It’s entirely up to you.

[box]The Wizard of Oz is at the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir, Sydney until May 31. Images by Brett Boardman.[/box]

8 responses to “The Wizard of Oz review (Belvoir, Sydney)

  1. I could not have been in the same theatre as Ben Neutze. The high point of my night was the dog, who looked as confused as I felt. And it wasn’t helped by the actors frequently being positioned upstage far away from the audience. I felt no encouragement to engage in the “visceral emotional experience”, to which Ben refers. Paul Capsis triumphed, as he always does, over the confusion I felt, but his personal charisma is indestructable.

    A cold bewildering evening.

  2. It’s a totally magical experience. I’ll admit that there were a few times toward the end where I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening, but it really didn’t matter, it was so well done I just went along with it, and it all came together for me.

    A great production, and fair review by Ben.

  3. I totally agree with Hilary, however the dog didn’t have a long enough part!! Very disappointing production.

  4. Great review. This is one of the most spectacular shows I have seen in a long time. Too much theatre assumes its audience must be hand-held through a narrative that they already know – Oz doesn’t patronise the viewer like this but rather respects their capacity to delve into the symbols and questions posed by this classic myth. The repeated reminders that there was no wizard after all, only a man behind a curtain – particularly when the real dog gave way to the mechanical ones – were a smart way of framing Dorothy’s journey to an understanding of the darkness of adulthood and being a woman. A brilliant piece of theatre.

  5. “But this is theatre which pushes against conventions and challenges you to lean in and become a more engaged audience member. If you choose to do so, the rewards are immense. It’s entirely up to you.”

    Translation:

    If you want to play the game of finding coherent meaning where there is none, you can pat yourself on the back flattered by your own intelligence and convince yourself it was a great show.

    or:

    If you don’t like the show it’s because you’re an incurious passive piss poor excuse of an audience who has no right to blame the artist.

    I’ve seen three other shows by Ms Jacobs and nothing in this review makes me think I’ll get any more from this one.

    1. You have every right to blame the artist if you think a piece doesn’t work. But art exists in the space between the artist and the audience. The audience does play a role, and what type of audience member you are (or what type you choose to be) is a material factor in what you take away from any work.

      And there is an extraordinary amount of meaning packed into this work. It is probably the most “meaningful” piece of theatre I’ve seen all year.

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