Theatre Review: Sex Magick (Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney) ★★★★

Sex Magick lives up to its title with a lot of flavours of sex and seemingly endless amounts of magic (both the practical, theatrical kind and the more ephemeral). Funny, frisky, and confronting, Sex Magick leaves you spent but very satisfied.

Ard Panicker (Raj Labade) is a former elite physiotherapist that’s been reduced to seeking work in a pseudo mystical health spa, giving yummy mummies rub downs with a veneer of spiritual awakening for their deadened soulless lives. Let’s be frank, he’s being hired because he’s brown and handsome, and fits the look the owner, Liraz (Catherine Văn-Davies), wants. Together, he and Liraz go on a psycho-sexual journey from Bondi to Kerala, southern India in search of truths. When their time with a tantric guru (Stephen Madsen) leads to some unexpected awakenings, both Ard and Liraz are opened up in more ways than one.

Catherine Văn-Davies, Raj Labade, Stephen Madsen and Mansoor Noor. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Writer-co-director Nicholas Brown has created something unique. Sex Magick feels like it could have been three plays, but by merging them together they have become richer. It is a wondrous assault on the senses. The anchor through it all is whip-smart wordplay and humour, gently leading the audience through layers of laughter to some very difficult topics. At times it is a riotous sex comedy. The abundance of nudity is played for both laughter and awe. It both mocks the West’s infatuation and co-option of Eastern spirituality, while celebrating its own cultural, spiritual, and sexual roots with trips on a literal “astral plane”, to jokes about “late-comers” at a tantric workshop. Beneath the playful script lurk topics of abuse, consent, betrayals, and cultural clashes. Although the wild ride that is Sex Magick threatens to go off the rails a bit in the second act, Brown steers things back. The result is long—the performance I saw ran past the estimated running time of 2hr 40min—but it was well worth it.

Raj Labade, Catherine Văn-Davies and Mansoor Noor. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Raj Labade has been getting praise for his brilliant breakout performance as Ard. Sexy and commanding, he is a leading man with frailties and terrific timing. Stephen Madsen gets to really show off his comedic chops in a trio of ridiculous roles, from the potentially bogus tantric guru, to a camp Wiccan devotee, and football player legend. The standout performance though—and it’s a high bar—is from Catherine Văn-Davies as Liraz. It’s a big, daring, multifaceted character that takes more than a few leaps and she serves it up with apparent ease. 

Catherine Văn-Davies and Raj Labade. Photo: Brett Boardman.

As I sat in Griffin’s small, black box space, I kept thinking “how did they do that?”. Scene changes were astonishing fast. People appear and disappear, quick-change costumes reveals, actors take on new roles in a flash of a blackout. It must be manic backstage to make all this work. Stunning set design by Mason Browne, lighting by Kelsey Lee and projections by Soloman Thomas, and a judicious use of haze and smoke, merge for a seamless experience. The fact a small theatre, with a limited budget like the Griffin, can pull off this level of production raises the bar for every theatre in Sydney; this is inventive, impressive work.

It’s refreshing to see a show about the many shades of sexuality be so relaxed with its own depiction of sex. Intimacy coordinator Chloë Dallimore had her work cut out for her, and this cast have such a sense of freedom with their bodies; stripping down for comedy and drama in a way that is sexy and liberating without ever being gratuitous. (We’ve all seen plays that relied on nudity just to sell tickets).

Raj Labade and Veshnu Narayanasamy. Photo: Brett Boardman.

Sex Magick plays with the tropes of South Asian spirituality and sexuality to deliver something deep and thrilling. This is exactly what a queer play during WorldPride should be: bold, fresh, sexual, and expansive.

By Chad Armstrong

Sex Magick plays at Griffin Theatre Company’s Stables Theatre in association with Sydney WorldPride 2023, from 17 Feb – 25 Mar. Click here for tickets and more information.

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