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.

About last week … April 2-8

In the week just gone I went again to The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake, this time to see Lana Jones as O/O. I’ll wait until I’ve seen Natasha Kusch – coming up at the Saturday matinee – before I embark on a full discussion of Stephen Baynes’s production and the key exponents. In the meantime I’d like to start a petition to free Rudy Hawkes. The AB senior artist has been fronting up night after night as either Prince Siegfried’s mate Benno or the wicked Baron von Rothbart. In fact, he is listed as dancing one or other of these roles at 18 of the 21 performances (they end on April 20 in Sydney). I do think that’s cruel and unusual punishment for such a senior dancer.

But thanks to the AB for putting up on its website and leaving up casting for the key roles for the whole season. It’s helpful. Queensland Ballet doesn’t do it, nor does West Australian Ballet.

Speaking of websites, the AB has given its site a big, big makeover. It was needed, although I feel it’s going to take some time to work out how to navigate its many tendrils. Some first thoughts: I’m not sure it’s terribly accurate to label the senior artists “rising stars”: several have been at that rank for quite a while and may stay there; in addition they dance principal roles regularly. And the soloists are rather unnecessarily dubbed “singular talents” and the coryphées “dancers to watch”. I do, however, direct you to the section Music at the Ballet. Therein (keep scrolling) you will find notes on “Iconic scores of The Australian Ballet”, written by yours truly.

And some more idle website thoughts. Having just been to Brisbane to see Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cast for which is studded with artistic director Li Cunxin’s recent Cuban hires, I thought I’d take a look at Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s website to see just who was left in Alicia Alonso’s company, so frequently denuded of talent as successive waves of dancers seek better conditions elsewhere. Ages ago BNC was still listing Yanela Piñera as a premier dancer (equivalent to a principal here) and Camilo Ramos as a principal (equivalent to a senior artist). And they are even still listed as being in Havana despite joining QB last year. Victor Estévez is also listed as a BNC premier dancer. The 22-year-old joined QB this year as a principal.

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Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish, Pippa Grandison, Glaston Toft as The Seekers. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Seekers bio-musical Georgy Girl arrived in Sydney last week with a thud. It features pretty much all The Seekers’ folk-pop hits, gorgeously sung by Pippa Grandison (playing Judith Durham) and Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish and Glaston Toft as, respectively, Keith Potger, Bruce Woodley and Athol Guy. The problem, as so many have said, is with the book by Patrick Edgeworth, Durham’s brother-in-law. It doesn’t so much craft a story as endlessly drop facts – plop, plop, plop – each with the same weight as the one before or after. Let’s put it this way, a book that spends as much time on Durham’s attack of appendicitis as on The Seekers’ extraordinary Sidney Myer Music Bowl homecoming concert in Melbourne in 1967 (crowd: 200,000) is not an effective one. The dialogue is laboured, the jokes cheesy, the choreography clichéd … why go on? Those songs, though. They are smashing and Grandison is special.

On Thursday night it was off to Belvoir to see Kit Brookman’s new play The Great Fire. The state-of-the-world family drama with lots of revelations and fingerpointing doesn’t break any new ground unfortunately. There are, however, several pluses. It’s directed by the ever-excellent Eamon Flack and has a tiny role for Peter Carroll to which he brings devastating truth.

On Friday Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre opened The Original Grease on Friday in the bijou Reginald Theatre in the Seymour Centre, where Squabbalogic is a resident company. Squabbalogic’s artistic director Jay James-Moody is a talented director and can do a lot with very little but in this instance he was over-stretched (and puzzlingly introduced a brief flash of nudity into proceedings, which seemed a sign of panic). It probably seemed an excellent idea to have performers close to the age of the characters but it was always going to be a big call to find 17 suitable triple-threat performers (for that is the size of The Original Grease cast) in the one place at the one time. Those onstage were mostly not long out of training and it showed, although it was worth giving it a go.

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The cast of Squabbalogic’s The Original Grease. Photo: Michael Francis

As I wrote in my review in The Australian on Monday, “The Original Grease is a piece of music-theatre archaeology that gives an insight into how something little became something big, sacrificed a lot of its rough-and-tumble energy and made a fortune.” And yes, you can see why the show would have been so embraced by Chicago in 1971 when it was made and in 2010 when the reconstruction appeared. I liked its scrappiness and sense of community, even though it’s messy and over-long. But with the best will in the world one couldn’t call this production evenly cast. I do, however, look forward to seeing Coral Mercer-Jones in something else. She was a knockout Rizzo.

Georgy Girl, State Theatre, Sydney, until May 27. Perth from July 8.

The Original Grease, Seymour Centre, Sydney, until May 7.

Sydney Theatre Awards 2015

AT the Sydney Theatre Awards no one need ever fear a journalist asking them “who are you wearing” or indeed have any need of a stylist. There is no red carpet at the Paddington RSL, there are no TV cameras. The proceedings could be described as low-key, or even a little bit daggy if you wish, but it is always such a happy night. Yes, theatre practitioners are in competition with one another for our awards – I’m one of the Sydney critics whose votes determine the winners – but there is great warmth and good will in the room. As Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack said on Monday night when the awards for 2015 were announced, this is the one occasion when the industry gets together.

It’s also an occasion on which the tables are turned, slightly, on the critics, as we troop onstage to introduce presenters, ask those present to remember colleagues who have died in the past year, announce special awards and pay tribute to all the theatre workers who never get awards but whose backroom toil is essential. We’re always frightfully nervous about getting up in front of a room of theatre professionals but they are very kind.

This year’s highlights included passionate state-of-the-arts speeches from Flack and from Griffin’s artistic director Lee Lewis; a fantastically funny version of My Favourite Things specially written for the occasion by Dash Kruck and performed by him; a gorgeously heartfelt acceptance speech from James Millar when he won best supporting actor in a musical for his Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; Esther Hannaford’s performance of I’ll Hold On from the Nick Enright-Max Lambert musical Miracle City that got the audience to its feet (Lambert was on piano); and the bright presence of the four little girls – Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgie Taplin and Bella Thomas – who shared the role of Matilda and received our Special Achievement Award.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was accepted by Christine Dunstan, a woman steeped in many aspects of theatre for more than 50 years since starting her working life as an assistant stage manager. She founded her production company CDP in 1993 and it has been particularly active in making high-quality theatre for children. (CDP won the 2015 Sydney Theatre Award for best production for children for The 52-Storey Treehouse.) CDP also takes productions to many regional Australian centres and tours productions internationally.

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Belvoir’s Ivanov: Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

2015 SYDNEY THEATRE AWARD WINNERS

BEST MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Ivanov (Belvoir)

BEST INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Of Mice and Men (Sport for Jove and Seymour Centre)

BEST DIRECTION OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eamon Flack (Ivanov)

BEST DIRECTION OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Iain Sinclair (Of Mice and Men)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eryn Jean Norvill (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Hugo Weaving (Endgame)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Kate Cole (Grounded)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Thomas Campbell (Misterman)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Blazey Best (Ivanov)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

John Howard (Ivanov)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Taylor Ferguson (Good Works)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Jeremy Waters, James Bell, Ben Wood in The Aliens (c) Rupert Reid

James Bell, centre. Photo: Rupert Reid

James Bell (The Aliens)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Nick Schlieper (Endgame)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Michael Hankin (Of Mice and Men)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Alice Babidge (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Angela White (Heathers)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Paul Jackson (Love and Information)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Hartley TA Kemp (Misterman)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

The Sweats (Love and Information)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Nate Edmondson (Misterman)

BEST NEW AUSTRALIAN WORK

The Bleeding Tree (Angus Cerini)

BEST NEWCOMER

Lauren McKenna (Heathers)

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

After Dinner (Sydney Theatre Company)

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MAINSTREAM MUSICAL

Matilda (The Royal Shakespeare Company, Louise Withers, Michael Coppel and Michael Watt)

BEST PRODUCTION OF AN INDEPENDENT MUSICAL

Violet (Blue Saint Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co)

BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL

Mitchell Butel (Violet)

JUDITH JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

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Amy Lepahmer. Photo: James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer (The Sound of Music)

JUDITH JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Hayden Tee (Les Miserables)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

Elise McCann (Matilda)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

James Millar (Matilda)

BEST MUSICAL DIRECTION

Lucy Bermingham (Violet)

BEST CABARET PRODUCTION

Josie Lane (Asian Provocateur)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR CHILDREN

The 52-Storey Treehouse (CDP)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

War Crimes (ATYP)

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin, Bella Thomas (Matilda)

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Molly Barwick with Elise McCann in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Christine Dunstan

The festive season

THE last crumbs of Christmas cake have scarcely been brushed from the lips, the last Champagne bottles are not yet in the recycling bin and New Year’s resolutions are still full of shiny potential. ‘Tis the season for rest, recreation, family and friends. Or, for those of us whose calendars are ruled not by the earth’s rotation or religious observance but by cultural activity, it’s festival time.

And I don’t just mean in my hometown Sydney, where the annual festival – this year celebrating its 40th birthday – starts on January 7 and runs until Australia Day. The Perth International Arts Festival, with new artistic director Wendy Martin at the helm, starts on February 12 and goes into early March, overlapping with the Adelaide Festival, starting on February 26 and ending March 14.

I include the New Zealand Festival too – February 26-March 20 – because it’s about as easy for an east coast resident to get to Wellington as Perth (less flying time; more queuing for airport security).

That’s the first quarter of the year accounted for, right there.

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Paul White in Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch’s Nelken, to be performed at the Adelaide Festival. Photo: Alexandros Sarakasidis

There is, of course, a great deal of non-festival activity in every big Australian city. In Sydney, for instance, Sydney Theatre Company ran King Lear through the Christmas period and it closes on January 9. Belvoir opened Jasper Jones today, January 6, Melbourne Theatre Company hosts the transfer of Queensland Theatre Company’s new musical Ladies in Black from January 16 and so on. These companies provide year-round nourishment but the festival experience is something else: concentrated, distinctive and heightened.

Yes, there can be an element of déjà vu as old favourites return (I’m thinking Batsheva Dance Company, choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkoui and director Robert Wilson, for instance) but there are, almost by definition, performances and performers one would never otherwise see: The Giants in Perth last year and the Berliner Ensemble with The Threepenny Opera in 2013; Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 (2013) and the heart-stoppingly wonderful Trisha Brown retrospective (2014) in Melbourne; and Semele Walk (2013) and The Black Rider (2005) in Sydney to name very, very few.

Go further back and there’s Robert Lepage’s Seven Streams of the River Ota, which I saw in Perth but it also went to Adelaide, in 1998, and in the same year Belvoir’s theatrical adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet (Sydney and Perth). All these things are big and mostly far-from-mainstream events that wouldn’t be likely to happen outside a festival. In 2016 the equivalents are Thalia Theater Hamburg’s Woyzeck in Sydney (Robert Wilson is a co-creator), William Kentridge’s Refuse the Hour in Perth and Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch and The James Plays Trilogy in Adelaide.

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Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, to be performed at the Sydney Festival. Photo: Anne Van Aerschot

The very small equally finds a festival footing. Leafing through some old programs I am reminded that in 2006 About an Hour, the powerfully affecting and effective (and very affordable) mini-festival within the Sydney Festival was deliciously devoted to contemporary dance from Australia and abroad, although there was one ring-in in the form of The Tiger Lillies, the anarchic British punk cabaret outfit who, as it happens, return to Sydney this year.

Events whack up against one another in fruitful or clashing combinations. There’s something about a festival that encourages viewers to take risks – risks our hometown arts organisations might perhaps eye a little enviously. But one has to remember that the festival material brought in from abroad comes to us well-honed, sometimes over years, and has survived the brutal winnowing process all new work goes through. So in some ways it’s not at all risky while having the potential to broaden the experience and perspective of viewers.

On a pragmatic level, this first-quarter cluster of festivals enables some sharing of events, although there are fewer double-ups than you might think. The cities are far-flung enough that only the truly dedicated audience member will travel to each, but are sufficiently in the same neck of the woods for an international artist wanting to maximise travel time. This year Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, The Tiger Lillies, theatre pieces The Object Lesson, The Events and Every Brilliant Thing, circus spectacular La Verità and new cabaret show Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid will be seen in more than one festival city. Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! was seen in several (non-festival) Australian cities leading up to the Sydney appearances.

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The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, Perth International Arts Festival. Photo: Martin Tulinius

A comparison of programs reveals some very tempting changes of repertoire in two cases. For instance, in Sydney The Tiger Lillies gives us The Very Worst of the Tiger Lillies while Perth is treated to The Tiger Lillies Perform Hamlet, a mind-boggling prospect. I don’t think I can get to it unfortunately, which is a huge, huge regret.

I will, though, move heaven, earth and frequent flyer points to get to Wellington for Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch where, from March 17-20, the company performs a double bill of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring. Bausch’s Rite is considered one of the very best of the more than 100 (and counting) choreographies to one of the greatest of dance scores.

But before that, on March 9, the company performs the full-length Nelken (Carnations) in Adelaide. As a bonus, it offer the rare chance to see one of Australia’s most inspiring contemporary dancers, Paul White, who has been a member of the company since 2012. There are two other Australians with Pina Bausch – Julie Shanahan, a member since 1988, and Michael Carter, who joined last year.

An incomplete list of things I’d like to see, in no particular order:

Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch (Adelaide, Wellington)

Alan Cumming Sings Sappy Songs! (Sydney)

Alan Cumminh Sappy

Actor and singer Alan Cumming 

Meow Meow’s Little Mermaid (Sydney and Perth festivals; also Melbourne and Auckland)

Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Fase, Four Movements to the Music of Steve Reich and Vortex Temporum (Sydney)

Woyzeck (Sydney)

The Rabbits (Sydney; premiered in Perth in 2015)

The Tiger Lillies (Sydney, Perth)

The James Plays Trilogy (Adelaide)

Apocrifu, by Sidi Larbi Cherkoui

Every Brilliant Thing (Perth, Wellington)

Simon Stone and Belvoir’s The Wild Duck (Perth

Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

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Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

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Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

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Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

Three premieres

The Aliens, Old Fitz Theatre, August 27; La Traviata, Belvoir Downstairs, September 1; Bull, Old Fitzroy Theatre, September 3

AMERICAN playwright Annie Baker has been mentioned, many times, in the same breath as Chekov and it’s a comparison that has merit. Baker, who is only 34, probes beneath the surface of apparently ordinary and often fragile lives to unearth the struggle and the wonder of life. Nothing much happens, unless you think that an intimate understanding of how people connect with one another counts as a lot.

I was able to see The Flick – first produced in 2013, winner of a Pulitzer Prize last year – when in New York earlier this year and found it profoundly moving. (Melbourne’s Red Stitch was smartly on the case, producing it last year with direction by Nadia Tass.) Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre staged Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation, set in a community adult drama class, in 2012, and now at the Old Fitz it’s possible to see The Aliens, written in 2010 (no one can accuse Baker of slacking) and given a luminous production by Outhouse Theatre Co.

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters) hang out in the cruddy garbage area at the back of a café and shoot the breeze about music, writing (Jasper is a Charles Bukowski aficionado) and relationships in a patchy, tentative, affectionate kind of way. Their conversation is all stops, starts and gaps but far from empty. Hurt, aspiration, bravado and need are often expressed as much in what is not said as what is.

When shy young café employee Evan (James Bell) ventures out the back to try to shoo them away – this is private property – KJ and Jasper stand firm. They are going nowhere, and for the tiniest moment you think The Aliens might fall into convention; that Evan will be bullied by these older, bigger, apparently more worldly men. But no. KJ and Jasper draw him into their little circle and supremely delicate connections are made. The performances are perfectly pitched. One does wonder why actors of the calibre of Wood and Waters are not seen more often and Bell is quite, quite magical.

Hugh O’Connor’s design is spot-on, with its crappy furniture and weeds poking through the cracks, and Craig Baldwin directs with a huge heart.

Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which is just finishing a short late-night season at the Old Fitz, is given its Australian premiere by Renaissance Productions with Rowan Greaves directing. It is a kind of companion piece to the same playwright’s Cock, which was so effectively staged at the Old Fitz earlier in the year. But unlike Cock it has only one idea, swiftly rendered in a four-hander that takes less than an hour to deliver the message that some people are natural victims who will be at the mercy of the amoral.

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Thomas (George Kemp) is the one destined to fail and Isobel (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Philippe Klaus) are his tormentors. As in Cock, three characters dominate the action with a fourth – here the corporate trio’s boss, played by Craig Ashley, entering late in the day – but the piece is not much more than a few brutal punches to the head turned into a rather longer fight than strictly necessary.

Sydney audiences will see Bartlett in a much more expansive mode when his King Charles III comes from London’s Almeida via Broadway during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 program. It’s wildly interesting in form and content – I saw it at the Almeida last year – as Bartlett projects forward to the earliest days of the reign of Prince Charles as British monarch. (King of Australia, too, undoubtedly.)

Also of interest in smaller-scale Sydney theatre is Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata, even if it’s not as revolutionary as one might have expected. Sisters Grimm – writer-director Declan Greene and writer-performer Ash Flanders – were inspired by Verdi’s 1853 opera as a piece of social criticism (the composer wanted it performed in modern dress but to get it on at Venice’s La Fenice had to make it a historical piece). But new work doesn’t always become what was originally intended. The political arguments flagged in the Creators’ Note in the program don’t make themselves felt strongly enough, but on the plus side it turns out you can do La Traviata in a theatre as small as Belvoir Downstairs and do it justice. In the course of a discussion about the value of art in a society that knows the cost-benefit ratio of everything, Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm have created a touching and memorable version of Verdi’s opera.

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

It’s wildly truncated and mostly lipsynched but the essence is there and it’s staged in a way that would cause no palpitations in, say, Germany, where regietheater (director’s theatre) reigns. Well, obviously it’s a hit-and-run version of the big thing, but it’s good. The countryside where Violetta and her lover Alfredo live is dotted with sheep, flower-entwined swings fall from the ceiling and Violetta’s gown is a cage. In Marg Horwell’s sets and costumes there are also jokey visual references to Lohengrin and Carmen. There’s quite a lot going on if you know your operas.

When the axe falls on Violetta’s happiness it is shown in devastating manner by Emma Maye Gibson, ever more desperately seeking approval from the audience, even to the point of standing on her head to sing (enter The Magic Flute). This is the courtesan as performer, but it’s also the performer as courtesan, touting for applause and money.

La Traviata is at its most original and thought-provoking here. The first third is an overlong satire on arts funding that, despite the warmth of Flanders, Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo, is more than the teensiest bit lame. Flanders does shout rather desperately in lieu of insights.

But the rest more than makes up for it. In the final third of the show the audience is invited to talk with the cast and each other and – surprisingly – the feeling is not the usual terror of audience participation but warmth and inclusion. Then opera singer Michael Lewis, the fourth cast member, comes to the fore, telling a deeply personal story about mortality before assuming the role of Violetta.

When it was announced last year as part of Belvoir’s 2015 season, La Traviata was proposed as a critique of current Australian arts politics. The word protest was used, although it’s hard to read this production as a call to arms. Instead it looks into the heart of the artist, the person who needs to perform and to be loved. What are the transactions required to achieve that?

Along the way La Traviata is also a love letter to the operatic art form, despite the pro forma sniping at the start (boring, long, elitist). Who better, indeed, than Sisters Grimm to understand the power of a theatre of grand emotions and extravagant gestures?

Bull ends September 12; The Aliens ends September 19; La Traviata ends September 20.

Reviews of The Aliens and La Traviata first appeared in The Australian on August 31 and September 3.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

Belvoir, Sydney, June 10

MOTHER Courage is one of the little people, born somewhere undesirable at the wrong time. A war she didn’t have anything to do with starting grinds on, stops for a bit and then starts up again. What’s a woman to do? Mother Courage goes on to the front foot. As a Yorkshireman might say, “where’s there’s muck there’s brass”. That’s a 20th-century saying but apparently there was a 17th-century English proverb that covered pretty much the same ground. Wherever there’s unpleasant work there is money to be made. Certainly where there is destruction on a grand scale many people will lose everything. But some people make a lot. Consider, for instance, KBR Inc, a former subsidiary of the well-connected company Halliburton, which received US government contracts worth nearly $US40 billion for work relating to the Iraq war. Mother Courage works on a rather less elevated level, hanging around the fringes of conflict with her wagon, selling a bit of this and a bit of that. She makes a living. (That phrase takes on some piquancy when used in relation to a war zone.)

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Brecht set his play during the cataclysmic Thirty Years War that occupied a substantial part of the first half of 17th-century Europe but its story is imperishable. Kingdoms and principalities may come and go but war is a sure thing and so are the profits that go with it. Brecht’s war isn’t the clash of bodies and armaments and a little touch of Harry in the night; it’s the one that runs parallel with it, the one that feeds off the fighting while feeding those who fight, and possibly keeps it all going longer than it might otherwise. Who can possibly say?

As John Willett writes in Brecht in Context (Methuen, 1984), “Brecht does that seemingly simple thing which his often mystifying theory of alienation is intended to make possible. He takes a new look at a familiar area, and by so doing he suggests to others how they too can look at it afresh.” In other words, we need to be able to see things doubly – in the light of deeply ingrained beliefs but also with a mind open to new and perhaps strange ways of perceiving. Things are rarely as cut and dried as black hats versus white hats.

Mother Courage – the character – brilliantly embodies the kind of duality that’s constantly shifting. For every good quality she displays there is evidence of its opposite. She is funny and grim, brave and cowardly, generous and venal, protective of her children while failing to protect them, open to a spot of romance and hard as a nut, and on it goes. Is she really courageous or a vulture opportunistically picking at whatever bones come her way?

Under Eamon Flack’s direction for Belvoir, Robyn Nevin shows you all this in a riveting performance that feels perfectly true to the intentions of the work and the process of conveying it. I came across the following when reading Eric Bentley’s The Theory of the Modern Stage (Penguin, 1968) and it resounded greatly. This is Brecht on his wife Helene Weigel, saying that she had learned to let attention “move away from her, the actress, to the content: to what was enacted … never did she set out to show her own greatness, but always the greatness of those whom she portrayed.” (Translation by John Berger and Anna Bostock.) Weigel was the first Mother Courage.

Flack has also been very astute in the selection of supporting actors. It’s true that Belvoir has an increasingly good record of looking beyond performers who match the predominately white audience, but here the casting has particular bite. (Most people don’t notice absence. It’s why for aeons there were female directors were incredibly scarce: male artistic directors just didn’t notice they weren’t there. People get used to seeing people who are like them and assuming all is right with the world. It’s not a state particularly conducive to creative thinking.) In Mother Courage the diversity of the actors’ appearances forces you to attend just that little bit more actively. A Kattrin whose work we are already familiar and therefore comfortable with? A young woman who looks rather like a young Nevin? Too easy. Newcomer Emele Ugavule was an inspired choice and she is unforgettable as Mother Courage’s daughter, her muteness explained in one terrible throwaway line that efficiently covers the kinds of things that happen to young women during wartime and demonstrates Mother Courage’s practical acceptance of it.

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

The production is a bare-bones one, clearly in a theatrical setting although not one with lots of bells and whistles. It is modest in its means and that modesty becomes it. It is particularly endearing, for instance, that while the evidence suggests Nevin’s exceptional gifts do not extend to singing and dancing, she does these things nevertheless. This play – this production – can incorporate gear shifts such as this that make one smile. (Paula Arundell, on the other hand, lends considerable vocal skills, along with a sizzling, gleeful presence, to the role of Yvette, another woman who uses what she has to get by.)

The ideas come through loud and clear in Michael Gow’s strong, clear translation and in the hands of all the actors. But then what? Horace Walpole comes to the rescue (as do my long-ago drama studies at the University of Newcastle). Walpole wrote that the world was a comedy to those who think and a tragedy to those who feel. Same thing, different outcomes. If you didn’t laugh you’d cry, and all that.

Mother Courage chooses to laugh, if you like. We can choose to cry, if we want. We can do both.

Mother Courage and Her Children has one of Western theatre’s indelible endings. There are no children left after a brief breakout of peace has been stamped out by a resumption of hostilities, but Mother Courage does not crack. She stands in front of her wagon, hoists up the shafts and starts pulling. In Nevin’s face I saw stoicism and determination mixed with dread, or at least that is what I believe I saw, which amounts to the same thing. The defiance is thrilling and terrifying. Who amongst us would have her guts in such circumstances?

Mother Courage and Her Children was written just before the start of World War II and first produced in 1941, in Zurich. Did Samuel Beckett, writing (in French) in 1948 learn something from this dogged expression of the will to endure? Certainly another of Western theatre’s indelible endings expresses a similar spirit.

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

Staying, going, surviving, whatever it takes. Would we do any better?