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.

Thomas Campbell - MISTERMAN 1

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).

Ivanov3

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

 

Miss Julie

Belvoir, Sydney, August 29

WHEN Simon Stone is attracted to a text, anything can happen. In this he is reminiscent of Barrie Kosky, whose ferocious intelligence and unswerving commitment to a highly personal vision has given us some of the country’s most memorable and challenging theatre and opera. It’s impossible to leave a Kosky production feeling indifferent. One may be unconvinced (Opera Australia’s Nabucco) or transported (the revelatory Vienna Schauspielhaus production of Poppea seen in Sydney in 2009), but not untouched. And so it is with Stone, although his work operates at a cooler temperature. On the transporting side there is The Wild Duck, “after Ibsen”, which he co-wrote with Chris Ryan and directed; and his adaptation (with Ryan, Thomas Henning and Mark Winter) and direction of Thyestes, “after Seneca”. It is one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past decade. On the unconvincing side of Stone’s ledger lies, for me, Miss Julie, written by Stone “after Strindberg”. I’ll come to my reasons later.

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

All those “after”s reflect one of Stone’s greatest interests – using an established theatre text as a jumping-off point, a choice that sets up an intricate and fluid set of expectations. These expectations will be coloured by one’s thoughts about translation, adaptation, appropriation, homage, “inspired by”, and what fidelity to an original source really means and whether it matters anyway. (A big argument right there!) You may ponder whether the piece you saw should still bear the title Ibsen or Strindberg or Seneca gave their play when Stone’s version looks and sounds so different. To which Stone may respond – and I’m just guessing here – that the piece feels the same at a fundamental level, and that’s the crucial point. (There’s probably a marketing issue here too. The Wild Duck is a great name with pretty good recognition in theatre circles; Little Eyolf not so much, hence 2009’s The Only Child, which was terrific.)

Delving down a little further, I’m interested in the degree to which audience members would be familiar with the texts just mentioned, and others like them. I think it would be fair to say few people, if any, would have read the source plays in their original language. Some keen theatre-goers may have boned up by reading a translation, but this is an area of deep subtlety. A small example: I have two translations of Miss Julie, dating from my long-gone university days. In Strindberg’s startlingly misogynistic introduction to the play he writes about “the half-woman, the man-hater”, and both my translations put it exactly that way. Warming to his theme, Strindberg says of this woman: “The type implies degeneration…” (Translation by Elizabeth Sprigge, 1955.) Or he says: “She is synonymous with corruption.” (Translation by Michael Meyer, 1964.) I think there’s a significant difference between the two assertions. The second is much more active, determined and implacable, and degeneration and corruption don’t mean the same thing anyway. It’s possible more modern translations may give other nuances. Of course Stone is not offering what we might call a straightforward translation of these plays, but what we know, or think we know, of them affects how we receive the Stone version, particularly if it’s still called The Wild Duck. Or Miss Julie.

I acknowledge there are probably many people who couldn’t care less how a production came to be or what it’s called, as long as they feel they’ve had a good night in the theatre. But for me, going to see a Stone production involves a great many micro-adjustments of perception and attitude; an intellectual balancing act. This is invariably stimulating, although there can be a concurrent diminution of emotional engagement, depending on the degree to which I feel the re-versioning is successful – a shorthand word for about a million things coming together to my satisfaction that may be completely different from your million things.

In Stone’s productions of Death of a Salesman and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof there was an intriguing use of what we might call translation. The words stayed the same – well, Stone initially chopped off the final scene of Salesman but had to reinstate it when Arthur Miller’s estate got cranky – but both were played with Australian accents. This was quite a provocative directorial decision, given the status of Miller and Tennessee Williams. Not only are they giants of 20th century American playwriting, they are taken to be writers of the American experience.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof worked for me (mostly) in a way Death of a Salesman did not. If you’re interested, I reviewed the Williams in March.

Stone’s version of Miss Julie, directed by Leticia Caceres, puts Strindberg’s drama of sex and class into a contemporary Australian setting. The unseen 19th century nobleman becomes an absent politician on the brink of the prime ministership. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his driver, doubling as a minder for Julie (Taylor Ferguson), who is left at home with the help while her father is away. Jean’s long-suffering girlfriend Christine (Blazey Best) is a housekeeper who cooks. Stone’s text absorbs a great deal of Strindberg’s detail: as the play opens Christine is seen in the kitchen cooking; Jean describes a party at which Julie forces him to dance with her; Julie has a boyfriend, to whom she metes out some physical punishment; the boss’s wine is commandeered; and so on in a multitude of ways. We even see for a time a pair of Julie’s shoes eye-catchingly placed against a wall of Robert Cousins’s clean, lean set – an echo of the master’s boots in Strindberg that, according to the original stage directions, are placed in a prominent position. They are there to remind us of the power imbalance.

Looked at in one light, Stone has carefully followed the original. In the overall arc of the drama, however, there are changes and emphases that shift the central concern of Strindberg’s play. I watched the Belvoir production as if with double vision: on one level seeing Strindberg’s play and on another failing to recognise Strindberg’s thesis.

Stone’s all-important decision was to make Julie just 16 rather than in her mid-20s. To underscore the unsuitability, to put it mildly, of what happens, Jean is no longer 30 but closer to 40. There’s plenty of rather grubby sexual warfare but Strindberg’s class-struggle theme can find little room to breathe here, swept away by the nasty little cat-and-mouse games (Jean and Julie alternating as feline and rodent) skittering around in front of us. It’s not easy to find a convincing way of presenting as tragedy contemporary class differences and aspirations, and Stone hasn’t found it here.

Julie is a clever, damaged, neglected, manipulative handful; Jean is an idiot who, as directed by Caceres, one simply cannot believe in. Would a rich and powerful politician hire a man so lacking in polish? Would such a man have ever been employed as a sommelier in “one of the best hotels in London” (now there’s a place that gets class divisions)? Where is the man who, in Strindberg, has educated himself towards becoming a gentleman? And would Julie’s father, so necessarily concerned for his reputation, have left her in Jean’s care? An older Julie and a wilier Jean would have made infinitely more sense to me.

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell in Miss Julie. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

My first thought was that Stone’s Jean is a fantasist; has to be. His behaviour in the second act supports that idea to a degree, although if he is a fantasist that casts doubt on anything he says or does, which is not useful in this play. Strindberg’s Jean, on the other hand, has prepared himself most carefully for his dreams of betterment. He’s a very astute man. Stone in some ways appears to align his Jean with Strindberg’s Julie and vice versa, but that only further muddies the picture.

In Stone’s writing Julie’s extreme youth makes her wild oscillations of behaviour explicable, but she is too immature to have meaningful control of her destiny. Her actions also eliminate another important idea in Strindberg, that of honour. She’s just a mixed-up kid, flailing around. And the ending, while theatrically effective, just doesn’t ring true. Julie might be running a bit wild, but this? I don’t accept it – although others obviously do, given the many highly laudatory reviews Miss Julie has received.

For Belvoir and Melbourne’s Malthouse next year Stone turns his hand to a subject I imagine few would have predicted. A version of Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy The Philadelphia Story, better known by many in its musical theatre form, High Society, will be “created by” Stone, who will also direct. The unusual “created by” tag suggests that not much of the original will remain and that jibes sent in Stone’s direction about authorship of revised classics have hit home. Belvoir’s season launch material promises a “radical new lens” on Barry’s play, a light entertainment involving a wealthy woman, her fiancé, her former husband and a newspaperman. To date Stone has mostly walked the dark side of the street, so the really radical thing would seem to be the promise of lots of fun and fabulousness. I look forward to it.

All of which is a very long way of saying Stone is someone who can make people care about what he does, argue about it, puzzle over it, attack it, defend it, love it, hate it, have an attitude towards it…

This makes him one of the current theatre’s most valuable assets.