From 17th century Spanish melodrama to high school angst to a World War II thriller -“ it’s been a weird week of Sydney theatre.
First up was Life Is A Dream. Pedro Calder?e la Barca was born in Spain when Shakespeare was at his peak, and there’s something creepily familiar about de la Barca’s dramas. His plays in Spanish are played with fewer stressed beats per line than our Willy, and with a heightened emphasis on honour, violent retribution and cross-dressing. With a great translation and/or adaptation, de la Barca potboilers like The Surgeon Of Honour play like Hamlet on magic mushrooms (with a dash of speed).
Director Benedict Andrews, whose STC excursions have included the equally trippy German genre-rippers Fireface and Mr Kolpert, tends to inspire clunking cliches like you’ll either love it or hate it. With Life Is A Dream, Andrews has come his closest yet to presenting a work that preserves his zany ex-Adelaide university-theatre edge while maintaining a bearable pace and a sense of dramatic unity. Life Is A Dream is ultimately a lot of fun, with one of the great female roles of the era (the proto-feminist Rosaura) played with gusto by Paula Arundell. Major quibble? Despite the claim that the work was freely adapted by Andrews and Beatrix Christian, they have remained loyal to de la Barca’s over-commitment to nature metaphors, and also retained his somewhat irritating denouement.
From the classical to the crass, Rebel Wilson’s new play Spunks opened at the Stables on the weekend, and it’s nasty stuff. A menagerie of high school misfits battle and bond on their last days together, although the humour is more South Park than The Breakfast Club. No one is spared: from Nigel, the drama queen obsessed with experimental dance (Andrew Benson, a.k.a. Aunty Mavis) to Jimmy (Ed Hyland-Kavalee), whose wheelchair-bound angst is truly shocking. It’s a bit of a mess, and a massive rewrite might excise a regrettable attempt at pathos. But if you’re up for a guilty laugh, there are enough utterly painful reminders of the evil of the best years of our lives to satisfy.
Finally, a trip to the more traditional theatrical world of the New Theatre proved surprisingly gripping. Gabriel is a classic well-made play set on Nazi- occupied Guernsey Island, and concerns a naked man who washes up on the beach who might be a British soldier or an SS officer. This is only a subplot, however, with much of the drama drawn from a battle of wits between Jeanne Becquet (Elaine Hudson, who is terrific) and Nazi officer Major Von Pfunz (Pete Nettell, also strong and convincing). A testament to the power of great writing and tightly focused direction and performances, Gabriel is seriously unnerving from the opening scene to the horrifying finale. Worth a look.