Sydney Opera House, February 28

IN the guise of a sweet and playful romance, As You Like It drives its characters (and ourselves) to seek answers to life’s deepest questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my rightful place?

As the story begins the world is in disarray. A ruler has been usurped, an arrogant man refuses to fulfil his responsibilities towards his younger brother and a woman, Rosalind, is wrongfully banished from home. She escapes to the Forest of Arden where all is made well. Wrong-doers repent of their sins, lovers find their right match and order is restored.

Taking on the guise of a boy, Ganymede, Rosalind is the prime mover of events; the director, if you will, as well as a player in the comic roundelay.

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Peter Evans’s production for Bell Shakespeare skips rather too lightly through the thickets. The suggestion of a 1950s setting gives an opportunity for some very pretty frocks (by Kate Aubrey-Dunn) and finger-snapping tunes (Kelly Ryall) for the songs but confers no great insights. Michael Hankin’s set design – saggy canvas backdrop and a “forest” of flowers on hanging ropes – is almost perverse in its refusal to make theatrical magic. Jaques famously describes all the world as a stage, but in this As You Like It all the world appears to be gathered backstage.

And yet, there is, in Zahra Newman’s Rosalind, a shining tribute to powerful women that is extraordinarily potent in the light of today’s politics. She is an acute thinker, has courage, resourcefulness and is a person of action in thought and deed. Newman bounces about the stage with enlivening vim and vigour. She makes things happen.

Only the most cursory nod is made to her assumption of a male persona as Evans gives a wide berth to contemporary gender politics. Newman wears a suit that does nothing to disguise her womanliness. It’s a costume that allows her to exert control.

There are losses, and some may find them too great. Evans makes nothing of the difference in temperament and style of the rustic folk in the Forest of Arden and the escapees from court and Shakespeare’s boy-girl, girl-boy confusions are excised along with the attendant laughter and inherent complexity. But the gain is in the fierce concentration on Rosalind as a woman of wit and substance who will lead us to the heart of the matter as others flail about blindly or, in the case of John Bell’s brilliantly dry Jaques – an accountant type with notebook and pencil – privilege thinking over feeling.

It’s hard to believe it is 25 years since Bell founded his company, and that this is his last year as its leader (well, for the last little while co-artistic director with Evans). His command of the stage remains undimmed. There are few more delightful lines in As You Like It than Jaques’s “Let’s meet as little as we can,” which got a huge laugh. It reminded me of the best cartoon in the world, by Bob Mankoff for The New Yorker, in which a businessmen on a phone says in response to someone seeking to get into his diary: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never – is never good for you?”

Evans’s cast of 11 is attractive and funny (well, Gareth Davies finds it hard to make Touchstone amusing but he’s not Robinson Crusoe in that). Charlie Garber’s Orlando had women at the matinee I attended audibly sighing in sympathy with him and what a treat to see Tony Taylor (doubling Adam and Corin) back on stage.

Overwhelmingly, though, it’s Newman’s show.

Ends March 28. Canberra, April 7-18; Melbourne, April 23-May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 3.

School Dance, The Blind Date Project, The Peony Pavilion, The Secret River, Sydney Festival

School Dance, Sydney Theatre Company presents the Windmill Theatre production in association with the Sydney Festival. Also Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong, February 7-9; Melbourne Arts Centre, April 10-20; Brisbane Powerhouse, July 31-August 3

The Blind Date Project, Ride on Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Peony Pavilion, Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival. Also Perth International Arts Festival, February 25-March 2

AT the performance of School Dance that I attended – a weekday matinee early in the run – there were quite a few empty seats. Bad call on the part of theatre-lovers, because now Sydney Theatre Company’s website is noting very limited availability for the remaining performances. School Dance acknowledges and yes, celebrates teenage male awkwardness, longing and resilience in a piece that is acutely observed, sweet and funny, and uplifting without losing its honesty. Take three self-confessed losers, put them in a tacky school hall, throw in obstacles in the form of a hilariously huge bully and an unattainable girl, stir in some fantasy and off we go. (Not to forget some great 1980s music. It is worth the price of admission alone for the bike ride – leg-powered, not some fancy motorbike – to the Bonnie Tyler anthem Holding Out for a Hero.) Windmill Theatre had success with this last year in its home base of Adelaide so the show is beautifully worked in, featuring the multitudinous talents of Matthew Whittet (writer and actor), Jonathon Oxlade (designer and actor), Luke Smiles (composer and actor) and Amber McMahon (brilliant and indefatigable as all the female characters). Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography is delicious and Windmill’s artistic director Rosemary Myers brings it all home wittily and movingly.

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

As I left the theatre I heard a man of mature years exclaim that this was the best show he’d ever seen, and there was in his voice the shiny, excited quality of revelation. It’s good to see School Dance is off to Wollongong, Melbourne and Brisbane; early booking is clearly indicated.

The Blind Date Project could probably have run and run in terms of audience demand, although perhaps not in terms of the demand on its performers. Bojana Novakovic is Ana, a woman waiting at a bar for a blind date to turn up. The person who turns up – and it may not necessarily be a man – is different at each performance, and the identity of the actor who will play the blind date is unknown to Novakovic until they arrive bearing a bunch of flowers. The encounter is improvised, albeit with some direction received via mobile phone. Novakovic also clearly has some anchor points she uses. Still, it’s a greatly enjoyable highwire act and one that can take many different paths. The night I saw The Blind Date Project (a late-night show), Charlie Garber arrived fresh from playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at Belvoir, and he could not have been more darling. I gather not all dates ended quite as well for Ana.

I was delighted to see The Peony Pavilion having (boast, boast) seen the 18-hour full version of this 16th century opera at the 2000 Perth festival. Here it was the merest sliver at 2 ½ hours, but the central love story remained, and it was an opportunity to absorb and savour a style of singing, performance and orchestral playing entirely different from that of Western opera. Kunqu is highly stylised and formal in gesture, but not above throwing in some dazzling acrobatics and other popular entertainment forms. There was a lot lost in this production due to the extreme truncation of the piece, although the cuts weren’t a sop to Western audiences. Only a few of The Peony Pavilion’s 55 scenes are usually performed these days so it was great good fortune to have seen the full work. The Sydney Festival of 1999 was originally to have hosted The Peony Pavilion in its full pomp but visa difficulties delayed the production, and the following year Perth alone took it in Australia.

I imagine there won’t be another chance to see the entire Peony Pavilion again, but then I used to say that about Einstein on the Beach, a mere stripling of an opera that clocks in at about 4 ½ hours, which Melbourne hosted in 1992. And guess what’s coming back to Melbourne from July 31?

The Secret River confronts the fundamental torment on which modern Australia was founded. People were cut off from everything they knew and transported to the other side of the world to make the best, or worst, of it. They may as well have been in outer space given their chances of successful return, and in trying to make a new kind of home they took what wasn’t theirs. People sent here for what may have been petty thieving became government-sanctioned thieves on a grand scale. It was a brutal business.

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel, directed by Neil Armfield with Bangarra’s Stephen Page as his associate, is simultaneously monumental in scale and incredibly intimate. The stage, shared by the newcomers and the traditional owners, becomes the ground on which the idea of home, place and identity is argued and fought over. Well, we know how it turned out for the indigenous people, but that in no way diminishes the dramatic impetus nor the anguish.

We can never lose sight of what all this will mean for modern Australian history, but The Secret River tells the story through the eyes of just a handful of people, and therefore in an intensely human way. The story ebbs and flows between the two groups, an unstoppable tragedy in the making as Thames boatman William Thornhill sees his patch of land on the Hawkesbury as the path to reinvention.

STC says Secret River tickets are also scarce – a good start to the year for Andrew Upton, now flying solo as artistic director – so perhaps a trip to the Perth International Arts Festival is indicated for the very keen. I’m looking forward to the first few days of the Perth event, including, of course, the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson – a very eye-catching Perth exclusive.