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Review: The City at the Sydney Opera House Utzon Room (on Gadigal Land)

Review By Jerome Studdy

The City. An environment that almost all of us will find ourselves in at some point in our lives. No more than five minutes is required in any city to feel the multiplicity of human experience and the densely woven tapestry of stories, secrets, shoves, scuffles, stares, strife, and sonder. The City, presented in The Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House by Oliver Wakelin and Christie Koppe, aimed to express the overlap and connection of human beings across the city of Sydney. Unfortunately, what the audience experienced was something lacking in genuine human connection that felt cold and stale. The show had such potential, and so many wonderful elements, but what it lacked most was a spark. Something that made it exciting, or heart-warming, or scary, and it came close, but just didn’t make it.

The piece itself saw a cast of seven take to the stage and perform physical interpretations and stagings of the accompanying voice-over, narration, music, and sound. Actors jumped between a list of character archetypes (The Scientist, The Student, The Lawyer, The Lovers, The Arsonist, The Angler) and portrayed their inner dialogues in silent charades. As a concept, this has potential to be powerful and relatable; an overlap of universal experience, with exciting individual narratives, and glimpses into their orbits around one another. What resulted, however, was a long list of cliches, presented in poetic verse, that felt far removed from human emotion and experience. By presenting the inner dialogues of each character through poetry they became almost alien, not just to the audience but to one another. It’s not often that the voices in our head are examining the philosophy of our experience through detailed metaphors and literary references.

From a production perspective, the piece became further removed from the audience. The cast were encased in a square of footlights (chosen to accommodate the restrictions of the space, assumedly), that threw unfamiliar shadows across their faces. The “theatre blacks” costuming cheapened the affair, and the remaining costuming seemed to assume the audience were incapable of reading between the lines. Of particular irritation was the decision to dress The Scientist in a lab coat, when the narrative had her out on the beach performing field work.

Most importantly, and perhaps most dangerously, the production aimed to show a cross section of life in Sydney. Everything hinged on very laboured, post-colonial ideals of Australia. For a cross section of Sydney, it felt very outdated, and quite beige. Understandably, it’s impossible to capture every community and experience in a single piece of theatre, but this felt remarkably narrow.

As harsh as these criticisms are, the show did have some lovely elements. The portrayal of The Student’s anxiety was well considered and affective, some of the physical performance (those moments that moved beyond the obvious and the cliché to something more abstract and emotive) was delightful to watch, and the soundtrack was incredibly well crafted and considered. Perhaps what this show needs to elevate it towards what it hopes to achieve is a change of platform. The two halves of the show (physical performance and narrated soundtrack) did nothing to enhance one another. What impact would the soundtrack have if it were presented in a Vivid installation? Something that allowed the story to be fragmented or experienced in a unique order. Would the stories told feel more human if you were faced with mirrors and lights that forced you to move through a space amongst others and confront your own humanity? For a show that’s intended to pivot on human experience, it’s begging for more ways to relate to us humans.

Image Credit: Robert Catto


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