Review by Michelle Sutton
There was a buzz on Redfern St on Thursday the 11th of March. People walking their dogs and families making their way to dinner stopped to look through windows of 107 Projects to get a glimpse of the Night Cafe. I felt very privileged to be among the attendees of the opening night of a bold new immersive theatrical production based on the last years of Vincent van Gogh’s life, Vincent Ergo. The show is staged by Controlled Chaos Productions and written, directed and produced by wife and husband team Nita and Philip Wolf. This is the team’s debut theatre production, and is clearly a labour of love with careful thought and research poured into every detail. Nita was first inspired by the possibilities of immersive theatre 15 years ago after watching award-winning immersive production ‘Sleep No More’ In New York. She later had the idea of basing an immersive theatrical experience around the life of famous post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh however it was not until a few years ago when herself and Philip began seriously working on the project together. Nita and Philip’s nurturing direction and cohesive vision shine through, as the show manages to flow throughout different rooms and spaces without losing momentum or tension. I can only imagine how exciting but also meticulous rehearsals for the 80-minute show must have been, as the majority of the cast play more than once character and have to swiftly move across two storeys and a rooftop garden. All 10 cast members are committed to the playful, experiential nature of the show, creating an inviting and safe atmosphere. The set designer Irma Calabrese has taken on the mammoth job of bringing 1800s France to life in the creative space of 107 Projects Redfern. With credit to Roderick van Gelder for lighting design, the clinical lighting in the hospital space immediately made me queasy with its harsh and unforgiving glare. Charles Bengland’s contributions of scientific anatomical props for the room completed the eerie effect. The lighting in the French brothel space was warm and beckoning, in the inspired use of the bottom of the stairwell and red curtains. The entire creative team must be congratulated for the impressive work on the yellow house of Arle and for maintaining the feeling of exploring a different period of history throughout the rooms. Harry Taylor digs deep to portray the psychological torment of Vincent, and moves throughout the different stages of his later years seamlessly, changing from embodying Vincent’s shades of love, adoration and affection at one moment and then switching to aggression and despair the next. Natasha McDonald playing the character of Rachel is the formidable driving force of Vincent’s affections and obsession. McDonald’s performance is alluring and stoic, showing Rachel is by no means a damsel in distress. For the introverted or hesitant there is an option to simply observe the show which would still be a thrilling experience. Every precaution was taken to make the event covid-safe, with face masks to be worn throughout the night distributed to all guests. The space is also wheelchair accessible with a ramp and elevator inside to ensure all guests can visit every scene. Attendees of the show must be 15+ due to partial nudity and depiction of depression and suicide. Van Gogh’s mental health struggles were tackled with sympathy towards his pain, and satirical depictions of where medical and psychiatric understanding was at in the 1800s. The part of the show staged in the asylum setting had my heart racing but I won’t give too much away as the suspense is the best part. Nita and Philip’s talent as writers, directors and producers is an exciting discovery for theatre in Sydney. I cannot wait to see what fantastical creation they come up with next. They have created a hazy and volatile, seductive yet menacing, romantic and quirky world for guests to explore. Being immersed amongst the turmoil, tragedy and beauty of van Gogh’s life provides a fresh appreciation for his struggles. Guests are guaranteed to learn something new and experience something slightly different every night. Vincent Ergo runs until April 3rd and is sure to enthral all lovers of art, theatre and good surprises!