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.

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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

About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

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Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

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Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

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Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.

Zest and immediacy

Bell Shakespeare, Canberra Theatre Centre, June 15.

As Bell nears the end of its long run of Henry V, here’s what I wrote after its premiere in Canberra…

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war.

There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery.

These things are of course explicit in Shakespeare’s text and in others of his history plays. At the end of Henry IV Part II Lancaster predicts that “ere this year expire/ We bear our civil swords and native fire/ As far as France” and Henry V ends with the Chorus reminding us that in the near future Henry VI “lost France and made his England bleed”. But the elan of Henry V’s rhetoric and his stunning success at Agincourt often lead the way in the theatre. The brilliant “Once more unto the breach, dear friends” oratory at the Siege of Harfleur and the magical St Crispin’s day speech – “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” – are hard to resist.

Ryan does resist, adding prologue of excerpts from Richard II and Henry IV to beef up the point. No matter what the talk of peace there is always conflict, often on the most convoluted of pretexts. It was a joy to see the complicated Salic Law explained by Keith Agius’s Chorus, teacher clad in a knitted cardie and wielding a stick of chalk.

The Chorus has earlier famously called on the audience to use its “imaginary forces” to summon vast fields, large armies, prancing horses and bellicose monarchs. “For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,” he says. But Ryan – whose productions for his own company, Sport for Jove, are always marvelously lucid – clearly sees that getting through all that virtually impenetrable Salic Law business would be a mighty slog if we were left to our own devices. The blackboard diagrams are really rather useful.

Apart from Michael Sheasby as Henry, everyone in the terrific 10-strong cast plays multiple characters in the style of a boys’ and girls’ own adventure yarn. Anna Gardiner’s design gives them little more than shelves to become city walls, a tavern, a king’s receiving room and barricades on a battle field and it works wonderfully. Not to mention practical: there’s a huge national tour coming up. The air of improvisation gives the action zest and immediacy and there is none of that dread impression of a production created solely for the purpose of being able to be packed up quickly and thrown in the back of a truck.

Sheasby is a light-voiced Henry who at first sounds like an attractive but unseasoned actor thrown by chance into a part. By the time Henry is skulking around at night eavesdropping on the troops to see what they think of him, and then as he woos the French princess Katharine (played with much wit by Eloise Winestock), Sheasby has blossomed nicely. But his primary role is not Henry, by turns benevolent and blood-thirsty as the political needs dictate, it is a boy playing Henry. The sense of distance between performers and performed is always strong, particularly as from time to time they repeat key points or throw in a stage direction or two to reorient themselves in the text.

Despite the appearance of robust mucking up this is delicate work and it is beautifully choreographed, not just physically but also in the quicksilver changes of mood and beautifully judged musical accompaniment. Steve Francis composed the score and created the sound design; actor Drew Livingston, who was the amusingly dogged Fluellen among other roles, wrote vocal music of grace and beauty.

The inspiration for the setting comes from reports of plays and entertainments being put on in shelters during the Blitz, when war rained down relentlessly on the heads of non-combatants and was greeted with stoic resistance. Ryan uses the imagery potently and at one point deeply shockingly. There’s a lot more going on than plucky Brits outwitting Johnny Foreigner as Ryan seamlessly layers past and present.

This is not a production in which Shakespeare’s language reigns. Henry’s big speeches are dialed down and are just part of the messy flow of war. I think Ryan’s chief point is that the boys in the shelter aren’t yet old enough to be seduced by that “little touch of Harry in the night”, bestowed to bolster courage and commitment on the English soldiers. But the Blitz happened in the early 1940s. Perhaps the following year, or the one after, they’d be old enough to be sent to fight.

Ends in Canberra June 28, followed by an extensive national tour ending in Sydney November 15.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on June 17.

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

Angels in America, The Maids, Phedre, Othello

Angels in America, Belvoir, June 5 and 6; The Maids, Sydney Theatre Company, June 8; Phedre, Bell Shakespeare, June 12; Othello, Sport for Jove, June 14.

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

Catherine McClements and Edmund Lembke-Hogan in Phedre. Photo: Rush

THEATRE, from companies big and small, has been particularly rich in the first half of the year in Sydney. There were exceptional new works, old ones given a jolt and imports done proud; the diversity was such that you pitied those people who remain faithful to just one company. So far this has been a year to be promiscuous in one’s theatre-going and the rest of the year promises to be as tantalising.

In this first half a partial list of favourites would include Belvoir’s rough magic Peter Pan and, at Belvoir Downstairs, Nakkilah Lui’s devastating new play of suburban Aboriginal aspiration and despair, This Heaven; Sydney Theatre Company’s majestic Secret River, adapted from the Kate Grenville novel, and STC’s small and sweet Dance Better at Parties, which grew out of a work by Chunky Move dance company. At the Ensemble, Joanna Murray-Smith’s strong series of female portraits, Bombshells, and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein were graced by exceptional performances; Van Badham’s The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars at Griffin irrepressibly mixed ancient myth and modern sex comedy; and the American drama The MotherF**ker with the Hat, seen in the tiny TAP Gallery space, was given a staggeringly good production by independent outfit Workhorse Theatre Company.

The range of theatrical possibility was extended further if you add the visitors: there was a Sydney season for the madly uplifting School Dance, which came from Adelaide’s Windmill Theatre; Bojana Novakovic’s enchanting, and improvised, The Blind Date Project had small seasons in Melbourne and Brisbane before fetching up as a petite gem in this year’s Sydney Festival program; and the Sisters Grimm’s Little Mercy – provenance Melbourne – was outrageously, implacably, divinely irresistible. (I relegate to parentheses the National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors and the achingly beautiful gift of seeing Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy only because they are fully imported.)

A lot of the best theatre was small-scale and fighting well above its weight. Then came June, and with it the possibility of seeing – within the space of 10 days – a cluster of classics that would fascinate if you’d seen them in the span of an entire year. Or two.

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

I think I can get away with saying I believe the two-part Angels in America to be the greatest play written in English during my lifetime. (Waiting for Godot, which premiered a week or so after I was born, was written in French and first staged in that language. So.)

Sydney Theatre Company staged Angels in 1993, less than two years after its San Francisco premiere and a couple of months before its Broadway debut – a great act of percipience on the part of then artistic director Wayne Harrison. Michael Gow directed a piercingly spare production that did everything it needed to: it let this profoundly moving and intellectually searching piece speak for itself. The breadth, depth and reach of Angels is dazzling and Belvoir’s current production, directed by Eamon Flack, understands, as did Gow’s, the central necessities of Tony Kushner’s piece – cast it well, honour its multiplicity of emotions, tease out the many strands of its narrative and tone, clarify the complexity of its language and imagery, and stand back. In other words, don’t have a production that over-decorates a work that is already magnificently ornate.

Angels in America is concerned with but also transcends the questions of AIDS in the 1980s, the Cold War, Reaganite philosophy, climate change, gay politics, right-wing politics, ethics, religion, personal responsibility and much more. In that transcendence lies its connection with audiences today and anywhere. The ease with which Kushner interweaves realism and fantasy is breath-taking. I was reminded when seeing Angels, entirely engrossed, of something New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell wrote in a preface to one of his celebrated profiles of New York characters: “I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual.” And elsewhere he wrote: “You’ve got to get to the true facts.”

Belvoir’s cast is exemplary, led by Luke Mullins as the AIDS-inflicted Prior Walter, who has visions both profane and ecstatic. Marcus Graham has the part of his career as lawyer – and helper of Senator Joseph McCarthy – Roy Cohn (fun fact; his middle name was Marcus). Graham’s Cohn burns like a wildfire that is fuelled by his ambition and certitude, along with the disease he refuses to acknowledge by name. Amber McMahon’s lost-soul Harper, who is charged with one of the play’s most achingly potent images as she escapes the pull of New York, is exceptional. Mitchell Butel’s unwaveringly steady compass as an actor – he is always one of the clearest interpreters of any text in his enjoyably wide repertoire – makes the flexible conscience of Prior’s lover Louis explicable and even worthy of sympathy. And what a joy to see DeObia Oparei as Belize, a part he performed with such distinction for STC all those years ago. Only connect.

The true facts. Again this idea comes into play in Jean Genet’s The Maids, in which Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert play sisters. Claire and Solange act out “ceremonies” in their Mistress’s over-blown boudoir, escaping into cruel fantasies to blot out their sordid reality. They turn on themselves and each other, the interchangeable torturer and tortured holed up in the same prison. In a naturalistic play this blood relationship would test credulity. And yet on deeper levels – those of understanding, of equality of standing, of temperament, of spirit, of intelligence – they are quite clearly soul sisters.

Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton’s translation of Genet’s 1947 play is robust, mordantly funny and chilly, as is Andrews’s direction of his stars.

Blanchett impersonates her Mistress with raucous, savage glee but can be undercut in a micro-second, visibly deflating so that a great beauty becomes a plain nonentity in the blink of an eye. Huppert, tiny as a sparrow, does limber calisthenics while lying on her employer’s bed, and as she opens her legs wide a camera captures the view and conveys it to the audience. It’s a familiar Andrews choice, but so apt on several levels. Not only is surveillance a very real possibility in this sleek, contemporary household, but on a practical level it helps connect the audience in this slightly too-large theatre to the action. It’s a kind of voyeurism too, spying not only on two maids but on the women playing them.

Make no mistake. If The Maids were not starring Blanchett and Huppert it could easily have been slotted into STC’s Wharf 2 space. There is layer upon layer here. Not only are stratospherically famous actresses playing the part of role-playing maids, their Mistress, in a piece of casting announced late, is played by the gorgeous and very, very young Elizabeth Debicki. She is too tender in age to have established such complete dominion over her household help, but let’s not be too literal. Debicki has come to attention recently through her appearance in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby and adds another level of drop-dead glamour. Please don’t think this is a criticism. Far from it. There is something absolutely delicious about seeing a production in which there is an explicit invitation to examine one of its most important strands – the assumption of roles as a way of surviving – from a variety of angles. It keeps the viewer constantly on the qui vive, thinking and re-calibrating.

Debicki, by the way, may be just at the start of her career but she holds her own gallantly with Blanchett and Huppert, and looks so dewily beautiful you could cry. The camera comes in leeringly close to her and to Blanchett and Huppert, both of whom are ravishing in a different way. So much visual information to absorb along with the text. And if you can’t understand Huppert all of the time, too bad. She is an electric presence as she darts about, swings from the clothes racks, plays games of abasement, hitches a ride on a long train of a gown like a playful – or abject – child and so much more. Truth not facts …

French drama is given a second gripping outing with Bell Shakespeare’s Phedre having landed in Sydney after its Melbourne season. Racine’s 1677 drama based on Greek legend is given in Ted Hughes’s plain-speaking, supple translation and given a production that enthrals from beginning to end.

Director Peter Evans’s taste for stillness on stage and for clearly marking entrances and exits has never had a better fit than here. He takes the elegant formality that is a hallmark of classical French drama and converts it into an atmosphere of fear – the kind that makes one freeze with terror.

We are told Phedre has a fatal illness, but what’s really gnawing away at her is forbidden love. Phedre has conceived a passion for her stepson Hippolytus, who in turn loves where he is least allowed. The play opens with most of the players placed separately on Anna Cordingly’s wonderful stage upon a stage. The set resembles a disintegrating country house folly with its jagged hole in the ceiling and signs of decay all about. Kelly Ryall’s soundscape of barely discernible beats, fluttering voices, groans and bells adds to the foreboding.

The scene is static for quite some time as the play’s concerns unfold. The stillness, unusual in our theatre, brings its own tension. When the hell is someone going to do something? And then Phedre touches Hippolytus (a fine, unmannered Edmund Lembke-Hogan), and the tragedy is unleashed.

Catherine McClements’s rail-thin Phedre is, like Marcus Graham’s Roy Cohn, doubly burning up inside. The passion that’s devouring her will get her before the unnamed physical ailment can do its work, that much is evident. McClements gives an unsparing, towering performance. And speaking of towering, Phedre wears difficult, vertiginous shoes secured with gladiator-style straps that are their own form of bondage, as well as being a slightly too-young choice for the queen. I found that oddly touching.

Also tremendously good are Bert LaBonte as Theramene – his long description of Hippolytus’s death is mesmerising – and Marco Chiappi as Phedre’s husband Theseus. Abby Earl as Hippolytus’s secret love Aricia is, unfortunately, too inexperienced in this company. She certainly looks lovely enough to secure the prince but lacks texture and conviction in her delivery.

Similarly, in Sport for Jove’s Othello the casting of Isaro Kayitesi as Desdemona puts the young actress, not long out of training, at an unfair disadvantage. That aside – and one must admit it is a big aside – Othello is riveting. In the Seymour Centre’s small Reginald Theatre, Sport for Jove yet again finds a way of presenting Shakespeare without tricks, with no heavy-handed “concept”, but with force, clarity and a satisfying sense of purpose. It’s as if a light has been turned on. (The way the production always has a fresh surprise up its sleeve without distorting the text is definitively demonstrated by Anthony Gooley’s hilarious Rodorigo and the way in which he shows his devotion to Desdemona. Unmissable.)

Damien Ryan’s Iago is meticulously and persuasively thought out. In Ryan’s hands and under Matt Edgerton’s direction, Iago can’t be faulted for his logic: he’s been passed over and demeaned and he’s going to do something about that in his own good time. Ryan presents a man who is proud, intelligent, implacable and as creatively manipulative as any top politician. He could turn day into night with his arguments, and so he does.

Ivan Donato’s attractive Othello is more good-guy soldier than powerful military chief, which tends to minimise the tragedy of his downfall and give even more oxygen to Iago. And of course there’s always the problem of that handkerchief, the bit of fabric on which the denouement so precariously turns. But Sport for Jove makes a reasonable fist of keeping the stakes high here, anticipating how the drama will end with an inventive and relevant opening image.

I saw the production with a group of students and their attention was held, as was mine, for nearly three and a half hours with just one interval. Enough said.

Angels in America plays at Belvoir St Theatre until July 14 and then Sydney’s Theatre Royal from July 18-28. The Maids, Sydney Theatre, until July 20. Phedre, Sydney Opera House, until June 29. Othello, Seymour Centre, until June 29.