The Literati is why I love Sydney. Where else can you pop into a little hole-in-the-wall theatre on a random weeknight and see a hilarious, intelligent English translation of a French classic, in sassy verse, executed with ease and style by faces you recognise from television and the big screen? The Literati is proof that the contemporary Australian performing arts scene is alive and kicking ass.
Written by Australian playwright Justin Fleming after Molière’s Les Femmes Savantes, it is a witty, laugh-out- loud, roll-in-the-aisles, thoroughly modern update of the 17th century play, faithful to the original rhyming style, but even-handedly satirising pretentiousness in general, not just that of learned ladies, and significantly placing a woman in the role of respected scholar and voice of reason, Vadius. Lee Lewis, Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company, in co-production with Bell Shakespeare Company, leads a band of five sparkling actors, most of whom play double roles.
Kate Mulvany delivers a superb performance as Amanda, who devotedly follows her mother in unbalanced literary fandom and misuses feminist rhetoric to try to reason her sister out of marriage, apparently objecting to the institution itself, but actually suffering from jealousy and rejection at being passed over. Not only is she insanely funny, but she successfully portrays the internal conflict of her character, who is torn between powerful contradictory emotions. From the overacting of awkwardly negotiating steps in a tight pencil skirt and splaying herself across a table in an orgasmic fit, flashing Spanx in the face of the front row, to the understated facial twitches and subtle corporal trembling of her suppressed rage, Mulvany puts on a clinic in acting the contradiction.
Miranda Tapsell, who is so familiar now because of her award-winning role in Channel Nine’s Love Child, is adorable as Amanda’s sister, the sweet and simple besotted Juliet. Her alternating role of the housemaid whose wisdom is worldly rather than wordy, is a complete contrast in style and is delightfully comic and likeable. Tapsell admits that having grown up in Kakadu, she can easily identify with the rougher role and enjoys playing the ‘bogan’ character very much.
Caroline Brazier plays the domineering wife, Philomena, fooled by and obsessed with a talentless poet who she has picked as husband for her daughter Juliet, in place of the more simple man she is in love with. Brazier stamps her character with a touch of the ridiculous by acting perpetually on the edge of tipsy. “I try to embody that large, inflatable man you see outside a car sales yard”, says Brazier. With her long limbs moving just slightly out of control, standing taller than everyone else and swaying just a little, this mental image she uses as a catalyst really works. After two hours of unrelenting pedanticising and terrorising, the genuine tears that stream down her face in the final moments of realisation of her error come as a surprise to the audience and bring a tender humanity to her comic character.
Jamie Oxenbould plays the double role of Juliet’s lover and her father, both characters of which are honest and humble. His athletic switching between the two roles in a frantic scene on a rapidly revolving stage elicits a spontaneous burst of applause from the opening night audience.
Gareth Davies is the aptly named imposter poet, Tristan Tosser, whose plagiaristic rantings have mother and daughter cast under a spell. Davies’s extravagant gesturing and posing, are reminiscent of that “wanker” each of us knows. In fact, Davies says he modelled his movements and his voice on characteristics of three different friends of his.
Performed at SBW Stables Theatre, which feels almost like a secret spot, hidden away in the silent dark, whilst being literally just steps from the buzzing nightlife of Kingscross, the dynamic play is all the more engaging. In the intimate space of the theatre, the front row is one crossed leg away from the stage, within spit-reach of the projecting actors, and the two sides of the audience, at ninety degrees from each other, can see each other’s faces and enjoy each other’s reactions.
Get a group together and enjoy a night out – there’s a generous discount for buying multiple tickets and under 35s are nearly half price. The Literati is showing at SBW Stables Theatre until July 16, then at Riverside, Parramatta, July 27-30.
By Alicia Tripp
Alicia is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, reviewing the premiere concerts, symphonies, operas, ballets and stage shows in Sydney. She is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.