Reviews - Heavenly Bodies & Beautiful Souls | November 2015


Toby Longhurst | 20 November 2015

In a week when people around the world have been despairing for humanity, Brisbane playwright Sven Swenson’s Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls, currently playing at the Brisbane Powerhouse brings us back to the simple connections within human relationships that give us hope – even in our darkest moments when all hope appears lost.

Set as two independent but intertwined plays, Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls are both touching and engaging pieces that highlight the fragile nature of the human condition and the ways in which we try to mask our vulnerabilities.

Heavenly bodies in particular will be particularly poignant for LGBT audiences with it’s focus on gender identity and acceptance.

Set in Singapore in 1942 as the Japanese invasion is fast approaching, Aussie digger ‘Cutty’ is pressured into visiting a brothel despite missing his wife Ruby whom he loves deeply. It is here that he meets Laidie, a young transgender woman who wants nothing more than to find her place in the world. As the bombs continue to shell the city around them, this unlikely pair form a bond commonality far more intimate than most brothel encounters ever could.

Dialogue between the pair starts off awkwardly but when honesty prevails, barriers are broken down as Cutty and Laidie discover that the similarities that unite them are greater than the differences that divide.

The second play in this double billing is Beautiful Souls is at times heart wrenchingly difficult to watch yet, ultimately impossible to look away from. Evoking the memories of watching the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia earlier this year, Beautiful Souls offers a glimpse into the final hours of convicted drug smugglers David, his mentally disabled brother Justin, and friend Bethany.

As they sit in adjacent cells in a Thai prison awaiting their fast impending fate, the three must come to terms with their decisions and the consequences.

While both of these plays tackle some pretty heavy issues, they both, however were able to make audiences laugh and smile as the humour and good nature of the human condition shone through despite the dire circumstances.

Brian Adamson | 20 November 2015

How would you feel if you were trapped in the lift of an old building with one or more strangers and/or old friends or colleagues? The emergency button doesn't work, there are no mobile phones and there's a fire raging outside somewhere, where, you don't know.

This was not the setting of these two one-act plays but moreso the psychology behind the impact this kind of situation could have on relations between each character right then and there.

The first play, set in ravaging second-world-war-Singapore, evokes a similar scenario between a married soldier who, after a nudge from a mate, books in for an hour with a transsexual prostitute escaping from society pressures in hometown Adelaide. The second, in Bangkok, is a confrontation between three characters on death row, each able to communicate with each other from their single cell, after a light drug transaction goes terribly wrong.

Without wanting to reveal too much about the outcomes (reveal also=nudity), these plays concentrate more on the psycho-sexual side of the relationships and appear to be written from a deeply erotic point-of-view.

Both characters, for example, in the first play, are such 'lookers' in their own right, including a superlative character performance from Sam Ryan as the soldier, Cutty, while the suggestion of the homo-erotic relationship between one of the two brothers in the second play, who is mentally handicapped, questionable, though touching. Also included is the resolve of an emotional bond with displayed ample-bodied David, played by Zachary Boulton, and the passing sentiment of a brush with lesbianism, and perhaps love, from the predominantly straight female prisoner, Beth, in an emotionally packed and stirring performance by Casey Woods.

These controversial scenarios concocted by the author are an ingenious device to reveal those hidden streaks in human nature we sometimes overlook or keep hidden. They also seek to ask questions.

The title Heavenly Bodies & Beautiful Souls couldn't have been a more apt choice of words to describe these two engrossing and evocative Freudian-based dual experiences.

Katy Cotter | 20 November 2015

Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls features, yet again, exquisite writing by Sven Swenson that brings to life afflicted and loveable characters, making us reflect on our own human existence. Each play is an hour long, allowing the audience a brief glimpse into the lives of one particular family, four generations apart.

The stage design by Ray Milner is stunning; as the audience enters the Visy Theatre, they are transported to a den of iniquity in Singapore, 1942. Heavenly Bodies opens with Laidie (Regan Lynch) a woman of hidden talents preparing her boudoir for the next soldier and trying desperately to block out the sound of artillery shells exploding outside. She makes the bed and then reclines on a chaise lounge, surrounded by lavish rugs and precious trinkets that comfort and make her feel desirable in a time of war. The stage is surrounded by debris; broken furniture, crumbling brick and all covered in a ghostly white sheet of dust. As beautiful as Laidie’s world appears to be, a brutal reality is ever present and creeping through the cracks in the window.

She is soon joined by Australian solider Cutty Cutler (Sam Ryan) who is quick to express his love for his wife, Ruby, and that he only requires friendly company and conversation. The narrative unfolds into a sweet, confronting and transformative encounter between two people searching for inner peace and acceptance in dark times.

Ryan’s performance of the “joker from the scrub” is jovial and endearing. The writing includes brilliant moments of Aussie slang and hilarious anecdotes that Ryan handles with ease. Lynch has an incredibly difficult role, with Laidie by the end completely and unashamedly revealing her true self to Cutty. Whether or not it was opening night nerves, it seemed that Lynch’s performance was bubbling on the surface. His restraint captured Laidie’s discomfort but there were times I wanted more! I wanted to see her harrowing struggle with the person she use to be, is now, and who she yearns to become. The text is so rich and desperate that more weight and time needed to be given to certain lines.

Heavenly Bodies explores themes that are still (unfortunately) relevant today. This play reminds us of the importance of being vulnerable; that it’s ok to be scared but not to be controlled by our fears. It is imperative to look upon someone with love, without judging them too quickly; to see them for who they truly are. Perhaps then, our own true selves will be revealed.

From the beginning, Beautiful Souls thrusts the audience into a cage of regret, loneliness and uncertainty. This story introduces David Cutler (Zachary Boulton) who travelled to Asia with his intellectually disabled brother, Justin (Peter Norton) and companion, Beth (Casey Woods). After David convinces Justin to hide the remains of their marijuana on his person, the three are convicted of drug-trafficking and sentenced to death.

Swenson has mentioned that at the time of writing Beautiful Souls, no Australian had been on death row since drug offenders Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers in 1986. He has also refrained from altering the script due to recent events.

The stage is surrounded by debris with the actors standing on three raised platforms with a wall of thick barbed wire behind them; above each hung a noose. It is a stark and terrifying design that allows the audience to draw their focus to the actors. All three performances by Boulton, Norton and Woods are raw and completely harrowing, each leading to a defeated acceptance of a grim end.

There are moments when it seems the text does not sit well with Beth, that the character would not utter particular words given to her, though Woods has everyone on the edge of their seat. She speaks with such sincerity and moves honestly through moments of grasping for hope, lost in memory and wallowing in despair. Boulton plays David as a broken man tormented by the past and fighting against the inevitable future. Due to the fact he is continually battling with his raging emotions, his quick acceptance of his fate at the end is somewhat abrupt. On opening night I was yearning for glimpses of light in this dark character. Perhaps this resistance was a conscience decision, a reminder of those who fight and fight and fight till the very end.

Norton’s performance is a stand-out. He is completely charming, providing the right amount of comedy when need be, and also an incredible depth and knowing, allowing the audience to delight in the many facets of the character.

Beautiful Souls forces you to reflect on the history of humanity.

While our world can be cruel and relentless, this play reminds us of the beauty found in minute moments, and in the company of those closest to us.

Steven Morgan | 20 November 2015

These two plays follow similar, strong themes of our mortality framed within a time restricted scenario, encouraging the characters to 'cut the bulldust' and make the most of what little time they have.

With his acute empathy and ability to create captivating dialogue, it’s no wonder Sven Swenson is known as ‘The Bard Of Brisbane’. His ability to create believable multi-dimensional characters a true gift.

Beautiful Souls tackles the awkward situation of a true blue Australian soldier during WWII and his encounter with a transgender prostitute, while Heavenly Bodies tackles three Australians on death row for drug smuggling in Thailand.

All characters are acutely aware of life’s delicate balance, confined to a small space, leaving nothing else other than the words spoken. In its restrictions there is an undistracted attention paid to the words which are spoken, and both plays thrive under this condition.

There are times where a series of inter-related events happen in quick succession leaving you trying to make sense of their significance in the chaos of the universe. I didn’t intend to write this review this way, but it feels like cheating after the profound affect these plays had on me when they were followed by the news of a close relative passing away.

I’ve lived in Australia for almost exactly one year, and since moving I became an uncle for the first time to a niece I’ve never met. My correspondence with my brother no longer so light-hearted as the responsibility for the life of another changes his view of the world. We communicate less frequently than we did in the UK, life getting in the way with the distance of each contact putting an update on life events in the way of true connection.

I can think of no greater compliment to either of these plays than the power of emotion they stirred within me. There is a timelessness in their message, delivered in different eras as they are, but at their core connecting with the individual and their place in their tribe.

Though each one had gone through a different series of events to become who they were, the human condition that lay beneath them all showed how similar we really are when you strip away the life defences that get us through the day. It’s a testament to the power of their message that I found myself reflecting on my own life long afterwards and questioning those things which may have changed.

Scripts like these must be a dream for an actor, with the complications of the characters, layers stripping away as their internal journeys progress. All five actors in both plays skilfully navigate their parts in a way that sells you completely to who they as things progress. Both make us question what true honesty or intimacy is, the character of Laidie making it clear that though she may have sex with numerous men, it doesn’t give her a true emotional connection for which she yearns.

I’m left thinking about those that matter to me and those that I care about. What are the things left unsaid that need to be said? What are the words I yearn to hear and what is the power that their absence holds over me? What assumptions do I have that limit the way in which I see the world? I’ll get in touch with my parents this evening, once the sun rolls around to GMT.

It’s been too long since I’ve talked to them. Every now and again we need a catalyst to get us to think about these sorts of things and take stock of where we are. This was mine and it could be yours too.

Nahima Kern | 20 November 2015

On so many levels and in so many different ways, the need to be understood and accepted is a universal human drive. This was a note from playwright Sven Swenson in his program notes and begs the mind to really contemplate these needs. That is where the exploration of tonight’s plays come in.

Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls are gritty. They’re dark, funny, harrowing, gruelling and touching. They are two of the best plays I have ever seen from Australian theatre. It is a fitting title for Swenson to be dubbed “The Bard of Brisbane”, his works were really something else. This double bill production, produced by Pentimento Productions was definitely something energetic, fast paced and poignant.

Heavenly Bodies follows the story of Henry Cutler, or “Cutty” for short. He is a soldier in World War II and is stationed in Singapore. Allowed to go on furlough for a few hours, Cutty and his comrades make their way to a brothel wherein they each go their separate ways to find some fun. Cutty is sent to a room where he finds the special Laidie. As he is a very married man, Cutty just wants to talk and wile the time away not doing the usual business. Laidie is very accommodating but as time stretches on, they begin to come to know one another more and eventually, find in one another mutual respect and understanding. This piece was so stunning. The acting was exceptionally good, with Sam Ryan and Regan Lynch as Cutty and Laidie making performances so real that it was hard to imagine, at times, that these were actors. Both men spun their roles with skill and ease so as to weave a realistic image of war torn Singapore. Admittedly, I enjoyed this play a little more than the second half of the double bill – Lynch as Laidie was absolutely gorgeous and Ryan’s Cutty was quite endearing. The energy from both actors was high which meant that nothing dragged and the emotions shone through all the clearer.

Beautiful Souls followed the warm, nostalgic ambience of Heavenly Bodies with a coldness and sterility that was bled through the script. It introduced the stories of Beth, David and Justin and allowed the audience to see into the lives of convicted drug smugglers on death row in a foreign country. It is alluded during the performance that Beth would have met David and Justin, who are brothers, and then travelled with them. Beth is a daring, thrill-seeking young woman, who has bitten off more than she could chew.

David and his intellectually disabled brother Justin, are descendants from Cutty the soldier and both thought it would have been ok to smuggle hash through Thailand without getting caught. Beautiful Souls recollects their final night together as they desperately await word of a reprieve. What was more likely to await them however, was a hangman’s noose. Here, the acting, like in Heavenly Bodies was executed extremely well. Casey Woods, Zachary Boulton and Peter Norton as Beth, David and Justin respectively each captured the basic human instinct for a fight to survive. They really were able to act out the tumultuous emotions that death row prisoners must face and like the play before it, with an ease that blurred the lines between acting and reality. The energy from all three actors was high and snappy which again, picked up the pace of the performance, allowing it not to drag and sag and fall into what could easily have been an hour of nails-on-chalkboard screeching.

The sets for both these pieces were very well constructed. The warmth of Heavenly Bodies was reflected in shades of red with plush furniture and golden lighting. The sterility and coldness of Beautiful Souls, in the eerie sparseness of simple chain link fencing and ominous nooses hanging from the ceiling with simple white lighting. Ray Milner, Production designer and Matt Milne, lighting designer should be commended for their work in adding to the ambience of the show and making it shine, sometimes literally.

Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls is a double bill production of two interconnected plays that flow through time and afford intimate and ambient looks into the lives of Australians trapped with the ongoing fear of death and how they deal with it. Both plays were acted with incredible talent and it will be interesting to follow the careers of these talented actors in the future.

Toni Megan | 21 November 2015

Sven Swenson's next brilliant production

Sven Swenson's newest theatrical creations, Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls, opened on Wednesday night at the Brisbane Powerhouse to an audience in both awe and shock at the themes and the conversations which occur in these two interconnect works. Both moving productions are currently in season until the 28th of November in the Powerhouse's Visy Theatre, and are definitely worth a trip to Brisbane iconic building to experience.

Heavenly Bodies

When the stage lit up on Heavenly Bodies I was first thrilled to see the way the set had progressed from the sketches I saw during rehearsal months ago. The room was pure Asian decadence but around the edge of the set lay rocks, rubble and broken furniture and, like the bombs exploding in the background, these didn't seem to fit at first with the glamour of the room. It quickly becomes clear however that this pretty room inside a Singaporean brothel, is there to serve one purpose, as entertainment for the soldiers of World War II.

On this gorgeous setting sat a statuesque lady in a stunning gown and very fluffy shoes. She was silent whilst Cutty, a nervous solider, who had never fired a gun, walked into her room. He seemed tense and very uncomfortable about his current surroundings and instead of engaging in the expected, the two indulge in honest and frank conversations about belonging. And as the bombs fall alongside the fireworks of their imaginations, the two find a perfect comfort in each other's arms.

All five performers did a brilliant job at portraying the fragility of the human condition but for me it was Sam Ryan who played Cutty, the nervous solider, who really captured my attention. From the moment he stepped on stage he exuded a perfect awkwardness by constantly making inappropriate jokes and jamming his foot inside his mouth. Ryan showed his skill as a performer with the timing of his gags, as each one caused bursts of giggles, which is exactly what an audience needs when tough topics are being tackled on stage. I saw Ryan in Swenson's Tiptoe earlier this year and now, after watching him shine in Heavenly Bodies, I am looking forward to his next performance.

Beautiful Souls

Heavenly Bodies is perfectly entwined with the second performance as the characters appear to be distantly related. The latter however is set well after the first and occurs in the cells of a Thai prison where brothers, David and Justin, and friend, Beth, await to hear whether their execution will go ahead for drug smuggling.

I had already seen both performances during rehearsals, so I knew what was coming with Beautiful Souls. However even with this insider knowledge, I still found the conversation that occurred on stage to be rather chilling and was unable to stop myself from shedding a few tears whilst these three young people came to terms with their impending death. By the end of the performance I was very moved regarding the unfair punishment that is handed down to drug smuggles in Thailand and my heart hurt for those that had seen the error of their ways, but were unable to life their lives with this new knowledge. I think the anguish that I felt and the passionate conversation that occurred in the car on the way home, highlights the brilliance of Beautiful Souls.

Before you rush out and buy your tickets, please note that as with any of Swenson's plays, Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls have been created to entertain, shock and push boundaries, and for this reason both productions are only available to those aged 13 years and above.

Madeleine Dale | 23 November 2015

Following on from the brilliance of Tiptoe, two more of Sven Swenson’s Sundial Plays (re)take the stage in a powerful and moving revival by local theatre collective Pentimento Productions. Interconnected works Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls follow the Cutler clan through World War Two and into the modern era, as they uphold the banner of most unfortunate family in Australian theatrical history.

First on the docket is Heavenly Bodies, a sensitive, softly-spoken conversation piece about acceptance and compassion. Rocked by the bombing of Singapore, ‘Cutty’ (Sam Ryan), a furloughed Aussie digger, and Laidie (Regan Lynch), a transgender woman working in a local bordello, find themselves unexpected compatriots and forge a heart-warming friendship. A great strength of character prevents this piece from becoming staid, with Ryan’s salt-of-the-earth fumbling a perfect foil for Lynch’s meticulous elegance.

This play is surprisingly uplifting – every time it approaches an opportunity to become a cautionary tale about transmisogynistic violence, it takes the more optimistic route, and the script affords Laidie a respect and dignity not always extended to transgender characters. Heavenly Bodies hands the past back to those too-frequently denied a place within it and challenges the present to do better.

While the two works are interconnected, they are cleaved cleanly in two by tone, period and staging. If Heavenly Bodies in an exercise in kindness, then Beautiful Souls is one in brutality. While the audience are ushered out of the Visy theatre, the previously lush set is replaced by three stark platforms, backed with wire doors. The stage is transformed into a Thai prison, where Bethany (Casey Woods), David (Zachary Boulton) and Justin (Peter Norton) await execution, while the audience are transformed into the play’s helpless captives.

There’s something almost post-modern about the set-up: the three characters are wholly separated by unseen concrete, trapped on their platforms like animals in cages, rattling invisible bars with their raw passion. It would be wrong to call this play enjoyable – indeed, it’s very difficult to watch. The script, with a heavy focus on realism over lyricism, is transformed in the hands of Wood, Boulton and Norton, whose palpable desperation and intensity bleed off the stage and into the stalls. Their performances are exhausting and distressing, in the best possible way.

Beautiful Souls offers harrowing introspection on a story normally viewed by the glare of flashbulbs. The voyeurism that often contaminates these stories is stripped away, leaving an uncomfortably intimate account of the individuals behind the tabloids, and a disquieting reminder of the transiency of life.

Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls are a tremendous double act. The cast pour themselves into these roles unreservedly, and their willingness to crack themselves open on stage gives the show its power. With another Sundial Play potentially in the works for 2016, there’s never been a better time to jump on the bandwagon of Queensland’s best song-cycle with theatre’s most unlucky fictional family.

Meredith Walker | 23 November 2015

Gold Matilda Award Winner, Sven Swenson is a masterful storyteller, so it is appropriate that there would be much justified anticipation for the playwright’s latest shows. Continuing on some years after his mid-2015 triumph, “Tiptoe”, the latest inflection of the Sundial series sees the action moved from Waterford to South East Asia. The two independent but intertwined real-time narratives “Heavenly Bodies” and “Beautiful Souls” give audiences further glimpse into the lives of that particular family over four generations and, in doing so, provide provocative portrait of human vulnerability.

A work of such contemplative theme requires a beautiful backdrop and Ray Milner’s design in “Heavenly Bodies” certainly fits the bill. The detailed staging of a Singaporean bordello room circa its 1942 fall, is lush in fabric, furniture and ornamentation, abundantly alive against the reality of the rubble and air-raid sirens of its surrounds.

The setting is foreign to true blue Australian solider Henry Cutler (Sam Ryan). Deeply in love and loyal to his pregnant wife Ruby when forced by his fellow officers to spend an hour in comfortable company, he is just looking for conversational consideration of his predicted future as colonial cannon fodder. This is where he meets Laidie, (Regan Lynch) a young transgender woman. While their dialogue starts awkwardly, this only serves to show how story doesn’t have to just reveal itself through narrative. Indeed, silence is a significant factor in their early moments, apart from Cutty’s endearing ockerisms of ‘strewth’ and ‘chinwag’, hinting at a lack of worldliness that belies his ultimately un-bigoted country-boy outlook. Far from being jarring, however, these only serve to enhance his appeal, leading to intermission audience discussion of his affinity and hope that he might survive to tell story of the intimate encounter, as promised, to his awaiting wife.

The show is revealing in more than just its themes. But its nudity is in keeping with theatre’s essential focus on humanity and the story’s effort to present people being at their most human and therefore most vulnerable. And Lynch certainly brings a bruised humanity to the glamourous Laidie, the transsexual prostitute who has fled from hometown Adelaide in aim to find her place in the world.

Ultimately, however, this is a show about words and ideas more than standout performances. As always, sensitivity and intelligence leap from Swenson’s script; his exquisite writing is at the story’s soul, lingering long after its expression often by a hint at narrative through threads of character conversation for audiences to piece together, perhaps from experience of the other works within the series.

The second story, set two generations forward in time in nearby Bangkok, features similar multilayered themes, however, is much more difficult to watch. The confrontational Act Two work features three characters on death row, in reflection of their fate as result of a drug transaction gone wrong. David (Zachary Boulton) and his intellectually disabled brother Justin (Peter Norton) are descendants from the Cutty of “Heavenly Bodies”. Joined by dare-devil Bethany (Casey Woods), they can communicate with each other only from within their single cells.

In contrast to the plush appeal of its predecessor story, “Beautiful Souls” is a sterile and cold aesthetic experience, sparse in its establishment of setting, with effective use of three raised platforms, simple chain fencing and ominous nooses. The design choices only serve to make the story more difficult to endure. As the performers pace in sometimes frenetic frustration, their confined desperation is palpable. However, amongst the physical performances, comes some welcomed humour from Norton, to alleviate but never allay the effect of its shocking themes.

Despite their differences in tone, “Heavenly Bodies” and “Beautiful Souls” both focus on ultimately nourishing themes through personal and intimate stories. The provocation of the works in combination is that they show a universality to the loneliness of fear and despair.

Any consideration of artistic merit should focus on two key questions: does the work have something to say and is it well-executed in its expression. In their perceptive exploration of humanity, “Heavenly Bodies” and “Beautiful Souls” are both of these things. Compelling in their mediation of loneliness and despair and harrowing enough to bring a tear to even the most jaded of eyes, the works intermingle as equally captivating pieces of theatre in examination of the power of the human spirit. The connection between and beyond the companion pieces makes them all the more compelling, sure to have audiences both wanting to revisit “Tiptoe” and looking forward to next year’s planned “Little Windows”.

Finn Kirkman | 21 November 2015

This remarkable double bill of hour-long works showcases the sublime writing skills of bold and innovative local playwright Sven Swenson.

Heavenly Bodies is set in a room in a brothel in World War II at the fall of Singapore, as Aussie digger Cutty Cutler (Sam Ryan) has a liaison with Laidie (Regan Lynch). As the bombs fall (kudos to Ryan Mahony's sound design, they are truly unsettling) and klaxons wail, the seemingly mismatched pair — the naive country boy who's never fired a gun and is faithful to his wife, and the worldly but lonely transgender sex worker — find a tender moment together. Swenson's dialogue is spot-on, and Cutty's country Australianisms a particular delight, and both actors turn in heartbreakingly honest, emotionally raw and real performances in this profoundly moving piece about acceptance, identity and human connection.

Beautiful Souls is set in a Thai prison, with Bethany (Casey Woods), David (Zachary Boulton) and his brain-damaged brother Justin (Peter Norton) locked up for drug-smuggling and awaiting hanging. It's an intense hour, and you can feel the grief and rage and frustration and fear pouring from Woods and Boulton, while Norton provides delicious stabs of dark humour in his relationship with his brother, which calls to mind Martin McDonagh's Katurian brothers in The Pillowman. The actors never get to look at one another — they're in separate cells — but the wonderful performances and the tight, sharp script tell this story of redemption. Incidentally, in a lovely flourish, the boys are decendants of Cutty and a photograph mentioned in the first play is a plot point in this one.

This double-header represents some of the best theatre happening in Brisbane and like all of Swenson's work is challenging, rewarding, no-holds-barred first-class drama.

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