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.

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.