SHIT, by Patricia Cornelius

A Dee & Cornelius/Milke Production. Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Sydney, July 20

Patricia Cornelius gets right to the point, as the titles of recent plays attest. Savages (2013) is the one about men off the leash, and how a toxic mix of testosterone, grievances real and perceived, booze and group dynamics plays out on a cruise ship. Not well, as you might imagine. In SLUT (2008), a young girl is brutally labelled and shamed; in SHIT (2015), three women who have been treated as such pretty much from birth both fight their destiny and fulfil it.

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Nicci Wilks, Peta Brady and Sarah Ward in SHIT

Cornelius is, obviously, a provocateur. Note the capital letters. Note the bolshie challenge to an audience member who might want to ring up the box office for a ticket or tell a friend the name of the play they’re about to see. Not to mention the challenge to mainstream theatre companies, who by and large have decided to duck it.  You don’t see Cornelius on our big stages even though, as absolutely everyone points out, she has a mantelpiece groaning under the weight of prestigious awards.

There’s no mystery really. Cornelius is a superb playwright whose chief objective is to disrupt while Australian mainstream theatre is – to co-opt a term with a lot of currency these days – a safe space for middle-class audiences. Not a lot of horse-frightening goes on at companies with large overheads that depend hugely on box office and private sponsorship.

Cornelius wants to scare the shit out of you. She certainly did with Savages, which I saw at a schools performance with a full house of young men from a private secondary college. They were practically shell-shocked from what I could tell – in complete silence when not gasping involuntarily.

SHIT is equally confronting. Well, confronting for the kinds of people who usually go to the theatre and who usually don’t meet the likes of Billy (Nicci Wilks), Bobby (Sarah Ward) and Sam (Peta Brady), women with masculine names to go with their battle-hardened exteriors. The products of neglect and abuse, they’ve done whatever it takes to claim some place in the world. Their resilience is admirable in theory but you’d swap train carriages or cross the road to get away from them. These women are trouble and the damage is too extreme to fix.

Sam was only four and placed with a family where she understood without question that she would never really belong. What she did about it made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. Pugnacious Billy can never forget hearing someone say she had been forsaken, the temerity of which makes her shake with rage. Bobby recalls abundant physical contact that, unusually, appears to have been benign, or something approaching it. Kindness is a rare commodity.

Billy, Bobby and Sam are used to the ground constantly shifting under them so it’s no surprise they are mercurial women with hair-trigger tempers. Like poorly trained dogs they might lick you one minute and bite the next. Cornelius’s writing effortlessly straddles the divide. There is so much to like about these sharp, funny, incredibly vivid people but they are also untameable and therefore dangerous. And loud. God, are they loud. Sweary too, of course. “Fuck” and “cunt” get a heavy-duty workout.

Susie Dee’s highly physical production matches the restlessness of the characters and Cornelius’s shifts in place and time. Even when they are apparently still you can feel the jumpy energy coursing through Billy, Bobby and Sam. Marg Horwell’s set is a bleak wall with three openings, emblematic of the women’s cheerless past and descriptive of their inevitable future.

Wilks, Ward and Brady, who have been with the production since its earliest days, are all tremendous. Wilks is like a bantamweight boxer, all mouth, aggression, lean muscle and attitude; Ward’s fascinating Bobby is more complicated and more unknowable. Brady’s Sam hasn’t yet had all the longing and hope knocked out of her but it won’t be long before that’s sorted.

All this in just 60 uncompromising minutes. Cornelius doesn’t moralise, philosophise, offer solutions or platitudes, certainly doesn’t offer comfort and above all doesn’t judge. She just shows. We all should look.

Postscript: Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON independent theatre project first brought SHIT to mainstream attention, and for this it deserves much thanks. And now Cornelius is in the first cohort of Australian playwrights commissioned to write for MTC’s visionary Next Stage program, announced last month. Perhaps mainstage theatre is about to get a bit less safe.

SHIT ends at the Seymour Centre on July 29. Darwin Festival, August 22, 25, 26 and 27.

Adelaide Festival opening weekend

Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy, who have signed on as joint artistic directors for three Adelaide festivals (this year, 2018 and 2019), set the bar high on their first opening weekend and floated over it with ease. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say it looked easy. It can’t be underestimated how much work went into securing the Glyndebourne Saul, directed by Barrie Kosky, for an exclusive Adelaide season and to restage it with mostly new singers and musicians, so all hail to Armfield and Healy. And, of course, they had to pay for it. It’s a mammoth show.

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Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Saul was, of course, always going to be a hot ticket. The prospect of seeing Kosky’s vastly admired production of Handel’s oratorio saw opera-lovers poised over their keyboards months ago to pounce on tickets as soon as they were released. Those secured, one then had to be quick to get into Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. There were only two performances of a dance work that has shaken audience members to their core wherever it has been seen and seats quickly went.

Also on this first weekend, the Schaubühne Berlin Richard III had a particular pull for those who had seen its star, Lars Eidinger, as an unpredictable and entertaining Hamlet at the 2010 Sydney Festival, although the fame of the company was recommendation enough. There was also the revival of Armfield’s production of The Secret River (which unfortunately I couldn’t see), taken out of a theatre building and staged in the Anstey Hill quarry, reportedly to great advantage. There was more, but these were the most prominent events.

Saul which premiered at Glyndebourne Festival Opera in 2015, is everything one had been led to expect, only more so. More electrifyingly immediate in effect, more ravishing in design, more complex in its theatrical exploration of the text and more thrillingly performed. Saul is by turns celebratory, brutal, grotesque, tender and bleak. In Kosky’s hands it becomes an intensely human story of conflict and a proud leader brought low by jealousy.

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Christopher Purves (lying) as Saul, Christopher Lowery as David and Adrian Strooper as Jonathan in Saul at the Adelaide Festival

Baroque specialist Erin Helyard, artistic director of Sydney’s Pinchgut Opera, was in sparkling form as conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and managed to appear on stage as well as a striking chamber organ soloist (chorus master Brett Weymark, associate conductor for Saul, was on hand to pick up the baton when Helyard was otherwise engaged).

A much smaller work but no less affecting, Betroffenheit was created as a response to one man’s devastating loss, grief, guilt, despair and, ultimately, need to go on. Its first half is a wild, vivid and fantastical journey through anguish and addiction; the second a restrained, pure dance recapitulation of the material that brings a sense of resolution, or as much as might be possible.

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The cast of Crystal Pite and Jonathan Young’s Betroffenheit. Photo: Shane Reid

Writer and actor Jonathan Young is the man whose pain lies at the heart of Betroffenheit. His young daughter and two of her cousins died in a fire, and while the work doesn’t go into great detail about the tragedy, Young’s appearance as the central character makes Betroffenheit intensely personal even as its concerns could be those of anyone who has suffered as he did.

Pite is a choreographer whose movement, no matter how apparently abstract, has emotional force. The dancers, in particular Jermaine Spivey as Young’s inner voice, were spectacularly good as the glitzy, hopped-up demons seducing and assailing this broken man.

It’s no surprise that Pite has of late become much sought after in the classical world as well as the contemporary sphere. She is a tremendous artist.

I was much less taken with Richard III than I had hoped but two out of three and all that … Many thanks, by the way, to Armfield and Healy for programming in a way that made it possible to see Betroffenheit (5pm) and Richard III (8pm) on the same day. Not every festival director does this but it made sense to think about the large contingent of interstate visitors who wanted to see both pieces on Saturday after the Saul opening on Friday.

Lars Eidinger’s bovver-boy Richard isn’t short of confidence, that’s for sure. He’s happy to strip off to show Lady Anne the goods on offer, he barks and croons into a microphone like a low-rent nightclub performer who is unaware he’s not as good as he thinks he is, and he takes a piss in public just because he can. He wears close-fitting headgear that suggests a readiness to use himself as a battering ram; or alternatively advises he’s a seriously unwell man who binds his forehead to keep his brains from falling out.

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Lars Eidinger (front) as Richard III. Photo: Tony Lewis

There’s not much charm, to put it mildly, nor an overwhelming sense of menace. The lack makes Richard’s success as an arch-manipulator unconvincing. The words are there (mostly in German with English surtitles, occasionally in English) but why they work as Richard intends is a mystery.

Thomas Ostermeier’s Schaubühne Berlin production begins with a bang but as it unfolds, interval-less, for two and three-quarter hours the energy dissipates. On Saturday night Eidinger seemed to feel that he wasn’t winning the entire audience over as he would wish. Several times he ostentatiously looked across his shoulder at the surtitles as if to question why there wasn’t more of a reaction. (I have to assume he wasn’t checking that the surtitle operator was doing a good job of keeping up.) And when Eidinger urged the audience to shout demeaning phrases at Buckingham there was by no means a general rush to take up the offer.

Ostermeier’s ending was practical, in that it eliminated the battle at Bosworth Field and left us with a Richard so spooked by the ghosts of those he’d murdered that he went entirely mad, although such a result didn’t seem to follow necessarily from what had gone before. Nor did Richard’s final action, a re-run of the fate of Kevin Spacey’s Richard in the Old Vic version that toured widely. The impulse behind the image differed in the two productions, however, and I didn’t buy what Ostermeier was selling.

Saul and Richard III both end on March 9.

My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

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Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

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Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

Hidden Sydney and other current theatre

Poor old Kings Cross. It used to have a bit of glamour back in the day, what with its famous crims, flamboyant, unconventional characters and nightclubs that could attract international performers. Now a stroll up Darlinghurst Road of an evening is an exercise in swerving around backpackers and wondering how the small businesses manage to stay afloat.

But 40, 50, 60 years ago the place did have a bit of thrill about it, a louche charm that Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile enterprisingly tries to recapture. It’s what’s known as immersive theatre, which essentially means the audience is in the thick of the action and might play some part in it. You needn’t worry though; Hidden Sydney is very gentle in its co-option of patrons.

Up Mansion Lane, just off Ward Avenue in the Cross, audience members mill about in a makeshift box office and bar area before heading inside a building that once housed The Nevada, a famous brothel and gathering place for some of the city’s more colourful identities. It was obviously a pretty swanky place, although now rather down at heel. Still, with the lights kept low it’s possible to get some sense of the long-gone allure.

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Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield in Hidden Sydney. Photo: Jamie Williams

A small group – about 30 at a time at half-hour intervals – is led through rooms and corridors and up and down stairs, pausing here and there for vignettes of life at the margins of legality and respectability. Along the way you find yourself jammed into a Les Girls dressing room hearing some drag-queen confidences up close; a lounge where cheerful and candid advice is delivered about sex work; and a balcony where the inimitable eccentric Bea Miles touches patrons up for a dollar or two. If you don’t care for close contact with your fellow human beings this isn’t the place for you.

Some sections of the 75-minute show are more successful than others. The lengthy – or so it felt – drama relating to the disappearance of activist Juanita Nielsen doesn’t come up trumps and a bartender’s self-congratulatory story about drug-dealing isn’t revelatory. But much can be forgiven when a show includes Virginia Gay as Bea Miles, Ben Gerrard as a delightfully chatty drag performer and Christa Hughes as Judy Garland at The Silver Spade – remember that? – even if Hughes could afford to pull back the act a notch or three. Director Lucas Jervies has an extensive background in dance and it was an inspiration to celebrate the White Witch of Kings Cross, Rosaleen Norton, via a steamy pas de deux from Fiona Jopp and Thomas Gundry Greenfield. Luxury casting indeed if you know your dance world, and fabulously enticing even if you don’t.

Truth to tell the dance is as dangerous as Hidden Sydney gets. A little more edge wouldn’t go astray but it’s a fun idea – and it’s a shame the audience can’t linger too long at The Silver Spade, where Rob Mills, Grant Galea and Aaron Robuck preside smoothly. It’s the final stop in the show and the next group is inexorably on its way.

If you can see only one piece of theatre in Sydney in the next two weeks that would have to be The Drover’s Wife at Belvoir, written by and starring Leah Purcell. You might have to put your name down for returns, mind you, as it’s completely sold out except, at the time of writing, for one performance.

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Leah Purcell and Will McDonald in The Drover’s Wife. Photo: Brett Boardman

Henry Lawson’s short story provides the bones for Purcell’s play but she gives it very different flesh. Within the frame of an old-fashioned story of harsh colonial life there is a harrowing demonstration of how entrenched, brutal power works. The unforgiving landscape is as much an antagonist as the undeserving, appallingly vicious men who grab it for themselves. A woman has to be over-flowing with courage, resourcefulness and resilience to control the trouble constantly at her door. When an Indigenous man on the run turns up, the stark white-hat, black-hat scenario turns into something quite other. It becomes a mysterious and ultimately uplifting exploration of identity and connection that transcends the almost unbearably brutal day-to-day existence.

Over at the Old Fitz Theatre in Wooloomooloo there are two plays worth catching and you need only one evening in which to accomplish the feat if you choose the right night (not many left). The early show, James Fritz’s Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, sends a woman into a spin when she gradually learns via that most banal of things, the sex video put online, that her beloved son and her husband are not who she thought they were. It’s a taut, tense drama with a terrific central performance from Danielle King. The current late show at the Old Fitz is Threnody, a new work for six women by Michael McStay that is perceptive and often very amusing about a young woman’s journey from innocence to experience. Its observations about freedom, sex and the great wide world are delivered via a poetic text that packs a lot into 50 minutes. Threnody is perhaps more a curiosity than a stayer but all the women are terrific, particularly Josephine Starte as the inquisitive Virginia.

Hidden Sydney – The Glittering Mile ends October 9; The Drover’s Wife ends October 16; Four Minutes Twelve Seconds and Threnody both end October 8.

Brisbane Festival: En avant, marche!

NTGent and Les Ballets C de la B. Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, September 3.

It was a stroke of genius to build this knotty, sometimes exasperating, always fascinating piece about mortality around the playing of a brass band. Breath. That’s the fundamental thing – breathe in, breathe out. If that is happening, we are still alive.

Wim Opbrouck shambles into a room being set up for a band rehearsal and readies himself to make music. The man used to be a trombonist; now he is too sick for the kind of effort required (“death put a flower in my mouth”, he says; that would be cancer) but he can still make a noise. Cymbals, singing, humming, gargling, talking and the panting that comes from having danced: these are still at his disposal as he chooses not to go gentle into that good night.

It’s the oldest story in the world really, the one about dying, but En avant, marche!, from festival regulars Les Ballets C de la B and theatre company NTGent, is also a heart-swelling hymn to courage and resilience. To marching on.

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Wim Opbrouck, centre, with members of Brisbane Excelsior Band and, at rear left and right, En avant, marche! cast members Chris Thys and Griet Debacker. Photo: Phile Deprez

In each place En avant, marche! is performed, the production augments its stunning core of musician-singers and actors with a local band – here the wonderful Brisbane Excelsior Band – and the sense of community already embedded in the piece is brilliantly amplified. The room gleams with the shine of trumpets, saxophones, tubas, horns, euphoniums and trombones and is given gravitas by the wearing of formal uniforms.

At one point a few members are asked by Opbrouck to say what they do for a living. In the Brisbane Excelsior Band there are, not surprisingly, some music teachers. There are a couple of engineers. And surely it wasn’t fiction when on opening night one player said he was a funeral director. I do hope not. The rightness of it is absolute.

En avant, marche! throws comedy, dance, music and philosophy together in an anarchic mix that is occasionally baffling and, it must be said, sometimes alienating as a selection of European languages gets an outing. The temperature dips from time to time and the focus can be unclear, but hey, that’s life.

Always there is the music to hold on to, weaving in and out of the action under the serene direction of Steven Prengels. It is, for the most part, comfortingly familiar, consoling and uplifting. Included are selections from opera (Aida; the Miserere from Il trovatore; the luminous quartet from Fidelio, which is gently hummed). There is the nobility of Elgar’s Nimrod and Schubert’s exquisite love letter to music, An die Musik.

Most ravishing is Jupiter’s hymn from Holst’s The Planets. It ends En avant, marche! on a transcendent note. You might think of Holst’s title for the suite from which this comes, Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity, or else the English hymn written to Holst’s melody, I Vow to Thee My Country. Or both really: in En avant marche! laughter and death collide and the impermanence of life holds hands with the imperishability of great music. En avant.

En avant, marche! ends on September 7.

In praise of Sydney’s Ensemble theatre

A History of Falling Things, July 13; Betrayal, July 22

Tucked away in Sydney’s Kirribilli, in a secluded – and highly enviable – spot right on Sydney Harbour, the Ensemble quietly goes about the business it’s been devoted to for nearly six decades. You won’t often read about it in the mainstream press and while many fine actors can be seen there, they are only occasionally boldface names such as those so frequently encountered at Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir. Never mind. The Ensemble has its own character. In its small auditorium, steeply raked and arranged in a semi-circle around a small acting area, it’s common to see front-row patrons having to pull their feet in swiftly to prevent actors from tripping. The space is intimate and welcoming and the atmosphere comfortable.

The Ensemble describes itself as the “longest continuously running professional theatre in Australia”, having staged its first performances in 1958 with founding director Hayes Gordon, who ran the company for 27 years. The Ensemble is surely also the country’s most stable outfit. Sandra Bates succeeded Gordon and was at the helm for 30 years, retiring fully in January this year after sharing the artistic directorship with Mark Kilmurry for five years. Kilmurry is now solely in charge of the Ensemble’s direction as the company heads towards its 60th anniversary in 2018. (By comparison, Sydney Theatre Company is a whipper-snapper that will turn 40 in 2018.)

Ursula Mills and Matt Zeremes in Betrayal, photo by Clare Hawley-86

Ursula Mills and Matthew Zeremes in Betrayal. Photo: Clare Hawley

Remarkably, the Ensemble has survived without the benefit of any ongoing government funding. The Balnaves Foundation is its major partner and there is a small group of businesses and foundations which are supporting and strategic partners. Individuals donate a small percentage of Ensemble income. But essentially the Ensemble has to put on plays people want to see (and at times that suit them – the Ensemble has exceptionally welcome 11am weekday matinees sprinkled through its seasons). The tagline underneath the theatre’s name on its programs is this: theatre for everyone.

You would not be wrong to think that suggests a reliance on conventional dramas and light comedies, and certainly seasons have had their share of new David Williamsons and old Neil Simons (coming up next month: Barefoot in the Park), but there are also works that have greater resonance. Jane Carafella’s e-baby, a two-hander that deals with surrogacy, will be directed by Nadia Tass, stars Angie Milliken and opens in October. In recent years the Ensemble has brought to Sydney audiences the wonderful Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2012), David Auburn’s Proof and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (both 2014), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (April/May this year), Nina Raine’s Tribes (June this year) and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (playing now).

Betrayal starts at the end and works its way, backwards, to the beginning of an affair between Emma and Jerry. Emma is married to Robert; Jerry is Robert’s best friend. In the first scene, some years after the end of the affair, Emma meets Jerry for a drink to tell him her marriage is over and, inter alia, that she had to reveal the affair to Robert during an all-night argument. As we will discover, this is not exactly true. The Emma-Jerry affair is not the only act of betrayal in this enigmatic three-hander.

Mark Kilmurry’s production is perhaps best described as workmanlike. Pinter’s language in this play is characteristically unadorned; the complexities gather beneath the surface, or should. The intricacies of passion, friendship and gamesmanship are not fully mined here, although the surface is played entertainingly by Ursula Mills as Emma with Guy Edmonds as her husband and Matthew Zeremes as her lover. The real action, however, is in what Emma, Robert and Jerry – particularly Robert – think and know rather than say.

It was a little instructive in this respect to note that Betrayal is described on the Ensemble website as running for approximately 90 minutes without interval. At the performance I saw we were done and dusted within 75 minutes. Those famous Pinter pauses didn’t get a huge look-in.

In repertory with Betrayal is James Graham’s A History of Falling Things. It’s a slight, sweet rom-com with a twist: the two young people whose burgeoning romance we follow suffer from keraunothnetophobia, a particularly precise fear, that of falling man-made satellites. Naturally this makes it hard for them to leave the safety of their homes and the relationship is conducted chiefly via electronic means. But is that enough?

The Ensemble’s production is blessed with Sophie Hensser’s luminous performance as Jacqui and Eric Beecroft’s as the highly strung but likeable Robin (Nicole Buffoni is the sensitive director). Merridy Eastman, Brian Meeghan and Sam O’Sullivan give fine support. It’s a modest piece, to be sure, but heart-warming too as it gives a shot of normalcy to two characters who seem destined to live on the margins. There is a gentle message there.

Anna Gardiner designed the set for both History and Betrayal. In fact, given the interlocking schedules the set is essentially the same for both, with different moveable elements, and not entirely satisfactory for both. It’s a pity.

Still, I was glad to see both plays, and continue to be glad that the Ensemble exists. It has heart. Yes, in lieu of government subsidy it has to balance the books with a new Williamson or an Alan Ayckbourn (and absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ll be there for Relatively Speaking in November). But often enough it gently challenges its loyal audience, and one suspects Kilmurry may have more up his sleeve in years to come. He launches his second season on August 8.

A History of Falling Things and Betrayal both end on August 20.

About last week(s) … June 6-19

A recent holiday took me entirely away from all daily cares and the internet. There was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, nothing. I heartily recommend it. Now back to Sydney theatre …

Sydney Theatre Company’s magnificent production of All My Sons, directed with piercing clarity by Kip Williams, unfolds with dreadful inexorability and finality. You understand how it is all going to end from the moment it begins. The stage is dominated by a huge, dark house. Well, it’s not a house, it’s a cutout; a façade lacking any homely details. There’s a door that has not a skerrick of welcome in it and some mean windows picked out by artificial illumination.

You couldn’t call Alice Babidge’s design subtle but it lands its punches with savage precision. This is a place that hides things and then sucks the life out of them.

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Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

It’s not how Arthur Miller envisaged the setting. He wanted the audience to first encounter something normal and peaceful, which is what we saw in the very good Darlinghurst Theatre production that inaugurated Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse in late 2013. In Miller’s directions the fallen tree in the Keller family’s front yard would be the only visual clue to the anguish that unfolds in less than 24 hours and comes to its grim conclusion after night falls. It’s the kind of realism that reflects Miller’s debt to Ibsen’s social dramas.

But Miller was also drawing on classical Greek theatre in which personal tragedy had far-reaching implications for the whole society. Williams’s production is both of Miller’s time – the play was written in 1946 and premiered in 1947 and Babidge’s costumes reflect that – and timeless. The specific sin of Joe Keller is that he profited from selling shoddy aircraft parts that led to the deaths of young American World War II pilots and that he let another man take the blame. The broader, lasting sins are of denial of responsibility, of failure to be a decent member of his community and of a festering guilt that infects everyone. What kind of a world is made when people put their own interests before those of the group? When making money is a higher goal than being just and serving truth.

Joe and Kate Keller have – had – two sons. One, Larry, is listed as missing in action. The other, Chris, hopes to marry Larry’s fiancée Ann. If Kate accepts that, then she has to admit Larry is dead. Ann’s father is the man who took the rap for Joe and she and her brother George have shunned him ever since, believing him to be at fault. The shaky tower of lies and self-deceptions cannot survive Ann’s arrival at the Keller house to discuss her future with Chris.

Williams has gathered an exceptional cast. Every role, down to the smallest, resonates fully. Take, for instance, Bert LaBonté’s Jim Bayliss, the doctor who is neighbour to the Kellers. LaBonté puts a deceptively light underlay of irony beneath his smooth-as-silk exterior. He is a man who understands exactly what compromises he has made for a relatively easy life and what it costs to stick with them. Anita Hegh is super-luxury casting as Jim’s discontented wife Sue, as is Josh McConville as George. His whirlwind entry into the fray doesn’t come until after interval and his burning anger fuels the explosion that rips away all pretence.

STCAllMySons2-0895-Zan Wimberley

John Howard and Chris Ryan in All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Chris Ryan (Chris) and Eryn Jean Norvill (Ann) are very fine as the young couple trying to create a future for themselves but carrying distressing emotional burdens. Chris also went to war and has inevitably been changed; Ann has heavy knowledge that must be revealed if she is to move on. Both bring memorable, affecting delicacy and lucidity to the drama.

John Howard’s Joe is a triumph of bluster and defensiveness wrapped in a body that’s succumbing to the indignities of age. Robyn Nevin’s Kate is harrowing. Her every molecule vibrates with grief and fear. She puts up a reasonable front but she knows, as we do, that the reckoning is at hand. It is almost unbearably painful to watch.

Nick Enright’s A Man with Five Children has something of the flavour of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series but adds a fascinating degree of complexity by putting the documentary maker, Gerry, at the centre. Apted’s series selected a group of seven-year-old children and returned to them at seven-year intervals. Enright moves in more closely. Gerry revisits his children every year and becomes ever more entwined in their lives. Can he be both observer and participant? Do lives change because they are observed? What do you think? A Man with Five Children started life as a student workshop in 1998, anticipating the Australian version of Big Brother by three years. The subsequent explosion of so-called reality TV has made the play appear even more prescient.

Anthony Skuse’s production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company is engrossing, despite the play’s overlong first half. Five adult actors touchingly enact their characters as young children and skittish adolescents as well as their older selves, letting us see the children – and their hopes, mistakes, anxieties and gaucheries – within the grown men and women. Because Gerry (Jeremy Waters) goes back to his subjects so frequently there is the impression of lives unfolding on fast-forward, often precariously.

Jemwel Danao Taylor Wies Jeremy Waters A MAN WITH FIVE CHILDREN (c) Helen White

Jemwel Danao, Taylor Wiese and Jeremy Waters in A Man with Five Children at Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Photo: Helen White

And always there is the elephant in the room: does Gerry’s camera – Gerry – play a substantial role in defining how a life will be lived?

A Man with Five Children (it premiered professionally in 2002) also offers a broader snapshot of Australian society. When we first meet them Jessie (Chenoa Deemal) is an Indigenous girl with enormous promise, cheerful Roger (Jemwel Danao) was born in Australia of Asian descent, clever Susannah (Charlotte Hazzard) is a white European migrant, Zoe (Jody Kennedy) is a defensive working-class kid and Cameron (Taylor Wiese) is troubled and neglected. Through them Enright touches on national identity, multiculturalism, idealism and celebrity culture among much else.

As the children grow some of them find partners whose lives also become part of the texture and a complicating factor. There are some joys but many sorrows, not all of which are Gerry’s fault but a lot that are. Enright nevertheless doesn’t present Gerry as a monster; he is perhaps as much a victim as anyone. The play is beautifully performed by all and exceptionally moving.

After all that sturm und drang, a good laugh. Bell Shakespeare and Griffin joined forces to present Justin Fleming’s Molière adaptation The Literati (based on Les Femmes Savantes). I confess to having found it a touch too long and the text perhaps not entirely as sparkling as some have found it, but the performances are top-notch and Sophie Fletcher’s set is a miracle. Anyone who knows The Stables theatre is aware of its space restrictions. Fletcher has managed to give the impression of a very fancy house and thrown in a revolve to boot. That in itself is hilarious, gives rise to delicious comic business and facilitates one of the show’s finest gags, in which Jamie Oxenbould negotiates a conversation between the two characters he plays, young lover Clinton and Christopher, the father of Clinton’s beloved Juliette. Comedy gold.

Lee Lewis’s tremendously good production thriftily makes do with just five actors and doubles the fun. Gareth Davies has only to impersonate the vile, oleaginous poet Tristan Tosser but along with Oxenbould the others have two roles. The incomparable Kate Mulvany is Juliette’s uptight, bookish sister Amanda – her tussle with a chair is a particular highlight – and a minor functionary; divine Caroline Brazier is Juliette’s hideous mother Philomena and wise scholar Vadius; and Miranda Tapsell is as radiant as ever – she really does have the most eloquent face to be seen anywhere on the Sydney stage these days – as Juliette and seen-it-all housemaid Martina.

The piece is a send-up of literary pretension with a side serve of thwarted romance and can be greatly enjoyed if you don’t think about it too much. Aspects of it aren’t as sharply relevant to modern eyes and ears as Fleming’s earlier, fabulous Tartuffe was, but it does send the audience wafting out on a cloud of ineffable silliness. And that’s not a bad thing at all. No, not to be sneezed at these days.

A Man with Five Children, Eternity Playhouse, until June 26

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre, until July 9

The Literati, The Stables, until July 16