In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

Naming names: looking back on 2014

I’VE avoided making neat lists of 10 of this and 10 of that in my survey of 2014, which is good when it comes to the individuals who made the deepest impression on me. I decided not to divide the names by art form or vocation. There are dancers, opera singers, actors, actresses, directors and playwrights here and it pleases me to put them side by side. Or more precisely, one after the other in alphabetical order. Included are Australians who live in Europe but were home to perform and non-Australians I saw here.

NOTABLE WOMEN:

Nicole Car (singer, Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia, Sydney, March): Car’s debut as Tatyana firmed up what we already knew. Car is a major, major talent. Her supple, warm soprano sounded as fresh, free and glowing at the extremes as it did throughout and her expression of text and character was most moving. That fact that she’s slim as a reed with a graceful, natural ease on stage does not hurt at all. She made her US debut as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro for Dallas Opera in October; next up she sings Marguerite in Faust in Sydney. An exciting prospect.

Misty Copeland (dancer, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane, September): Copeland, an African American, has become a powerful advocate for diversity in classical ballet and is on her way to becoming that rare beast – a ballet dancer recognised by the public at large. At 31 (she is now 32), she had waited a very long time to dance Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, and Brisbane had the privilege of seeing her role debut. Call it an out-of-hemisphere tryout if you want to, but I was thrilled to be at this history-making event. Copeland is the first African-American Odette in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history. Yes, the first. She had earned it, and she claimed it in Brisbane. She will dance the role for the first time in the US for Washington Ballet in April and then in her hometown, New York, for ABT in June. It will be a huge event, but we saw it first.

Lucinda Dunn (dancer, Manon, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April): Dunn retired from dance in April after an extraordinary 23 years with the company and more than a decade as a principal artist. She was a true prima, accomplished in every aspect of her art and with huge respect for her audience. Her farewell performance was in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, a cornerstone role for ballerinas. She looked as if she could dance for another 23 years, but she was 40 and in an art form that exacts a brutal toll on bodies. As much as balletomanes would have wished it otherwise, she had to choose a moment to call it quits.

Christine Goerke (singer, Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, February): The American dramatic soprano was electrifying in the SSO’s exceptional semi-staged production, pacing the stage like a lioness kept too long in too small a cage. Her opulent voice was transfixing and boldly rode the tsunami of sound produced by the stupendous orchestral forces conducted by David Robertson.

Caitlin Hulcup (singer, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): Gluck’s ravishing opera is rarely performed here and Pinchgut did it great honour. In the title role, mezzo Hulcup – an Australian who performs mainly in Europe – was heart-stoppingly good, singing with passion, glorious control and silvery beauty.

Lindy Hume (director, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): The City Recital Hall in Sydney where Pinchgut Opera performs each year is what it says – a hall. Hume’s direction of Iphigénie on Tony Assness’s powerfully conceived (and of necessity static) set was a model of dramatic clarity and restraint, giving the tempestuous emotions of the piece room to breathe.

Lauren Langlois (dancer, Keep Everything, Chunky Move, Sydney, July; and The Complexity of Belonging, Chunky Move, Melbourne, October): Langlois trained as a dancer and she’s very fine one. She also a knockout with text, as Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything and Anouk van Dijk and Falk Richter’s Complexity of Belonging proved. Her ability to combine the two disciplines in spectacular fashion had audiences shaking their heads in disbelief.

Meng Ningning (dancer, Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, July): There were many fine performances in Queensland Ballet’s audacious presentation of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet but the revelation was QB principal Meng, who was partnered with superstar Carlos Acosta for his two performances. Meng has always appeared to keep her emotions locked well within but Romeo and Juliet produced the key and the release was tremendous. Even when Meng was the excitable young girl of her first scene there were intimations of tragedy in those questioning eyes, and her long, silken limbs always seemed to be searching and reaching for the overwhelming feelings Juliet discovered could exist.

Joanna Murray-Smith (playwright, Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company, November): This is Murray-Smith in magisterial form. While rigorously maintaining the style and appearance of a naturalistic – even old-fashioned – bio-drama, Switzerland morphs into a psychological thriller and then what Dostoevsky called fantastic realism. It’s risky, surprising and very apt as Murray-Smith’s play takes on the qualities of Patricia Highsmith’s art, in form and atmospherics, and applies them to the writer’s life.

Hiromi Omura (singer, Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, March): Omura was a devastating Butterfly, singing with lyric beauty and spinto charge. She also unerringly charted Butterfly’s trajectory from radiant bride to the trusting wife who is discarded and utterly bereft. The expansive stage of rolling hills (Act I) and a crappy housing development (Act II) gave Omura a stunning canvas. I have never seen a Butterfly so convincingly transformed from submissive girl to a whirlwind of despair as her child is taken from her.

Pamela Rabe (actress, The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September): I was less enthusiastic about Eamon Flack’s production of the Tennessee Williams classic than were many others, but there is no dispute about Pamela Rabe as Amanda Wingfield, living on the edge of her nerves and trying vainly to keep up appearances. As always, Rabe is able to make one sympathise with a character who is in many ways monstrous. Amanda’s rage and disappointment were contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. But Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that was the case here.

Sue Smith (playwright, Kryptonite, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, September): Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. Lian and Dylan meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to survive. He’s a laidback Australian devoted to surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. There are so few plays that explore our regional issues and identity, and this is a beauty.

Christie Whelan-Browne (Britney Spears: The Cabaret, Sydney, August): The train wreck that was Britney Spears’s earlier life is well known. Whelan-Browne’s rendering of that life, lavishly illustrated by Spears songs, didn’t descend to ridicule. Yes, it was often funny, but at the same time exceptionally compassionate. An outstanding performance.

Doris Younane (Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney, March): I loved the whole Jump for Jordan cast (and the play) but Doris Younane was outstanding. She expressed with heart-rending anguish the plight of a migrant who has never felt Sydney was her home. How does one leave behind everything that has been dear – family, traditions, language, the sights, smells and sounds of home – and plant oneself in new and alien soil? This performance put you in that place.

NOTABLE MEN:

Declan Greene (playwright, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Greene takes two uneasy souls and exposes their every weakness and slender hopes. A man and a woman meet via a dating site. He is married and obsessively into pornography, she is a nurse with an out-of-control shopping habit. Both have a core of self-loathing covered with a thin layer of coping. He is the greater fantasist and she the more self-aware but they’re both in deep, deep trouble. I can’t stop thinking about this play and how acutely it expresses the inner lives of desperate people.

Chengwu Guo (The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December): Guo is something of a human flying machine and in The Nutcracker there were times when you’d swear he was suspended by invisible wires, such is his elevation and ability to hang in the air. Guo added the plushest of silent landings and pristine pirouettes for a performance of technical brilliance, but of course The Nutcracker isn’t just about the moves. Guo also showed he can be a Prince – always good news in the ballet world.

Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney, October): Mark O’Rowe’s double monologue is sometimes performed by a single actor; here the duty was divided. The play is in two equal and equally exhilarating parts – two sides of the one coin – so let’s consider Hawkins and Henry together. In Howie the Rookie Hawkins and Henry guided the audience through a toxic night in an insalubrious part of Dublin, taking us on a wild ride expressed in some of the most violent, vulgar and baroque language you’re likely to encounter. Both actors were scintillating.

Jay James-Moody (The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co, March): Jay James-Moody may be considered rather too young for Man in Chair, the narrator and orchestrator of this wacky, heartfelt homage to the light-hearted musical theatre of bygone eras. Nevertheless he succeeded brilliantly. While he was arguably too fresh to be the quintessential bitter and bitchy show queen that is Man in Chair, he brought unexpected and memorable poignancy to the part.

Simon Laherty (Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Sydney, March): Finally this wonderful piece came to Sydney. The story of the Elephant-headed god Ganesh’s quest to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis is typically explosive Back to Back subject matter as most of the company’s performers would have been considered extermination material by Hitler. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, but nevertheless Laherty made, as he has before, the deepest impression on me. His deliberate voice, grave demeanour and the clarity and poise of his interactions made an indelible mark.

Josh McConville (actor, Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, February): The thing is, I could hardly tell you what McConville looks like. He is a theatre chameleon, shape-shifting into whatever is required and so very good at it all. He’s played some pretty desperate men and perhaps his character in Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off could be described as such, but what fun to see McConville doing it for laughs. His stair work was exquisite.

Steven McRae (Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, July): The Australian-born principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet showed why he is one of the most admired Romeos on the stage today. The impulsive, passionate youth of this dance-drama could have been made for him, so natural was the fit. McRae has a slight, elegant figure but radiated huge amounts of energy, taking the stage like a whirlwind. His crystal-clear line, the way he hovered in the air for precious moments in a turn or jeté, his vibrant attack and heady speed were treasures in themselves but given point and purpose by the way these technical gifts created character.

Steve Rodgers (actor, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Who better to illuminate Declan Greene’s play than Rodgers? Although the unnamed character he played is deceptive and cunning, Rodgers willed us to find some empathy. There was much before us that was messy, humiliating and ugly; Rodgers didn’t shy from the darkness but also revealed the pitiable emptiness of the life.

Richard Roxburgh (Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company, November): Not a lot needs to be said here. Roxburgh’s Cyrano was darkly self-aware, exceptionally witty and heart-breaking. A superlative performance from one of the greats of our stage.

Damien Ryan (artistic director, Sport for Jove, Sydney): Ryan’s Sport for Jove productions always reveal fresh insights into classic texts, and this year’s Henry V, which he directed for Bell Shakespeare was perhaps his best. Which is saying a lot, because his All’s Well That End’s Well for Sport for Jove was magnificent.

Monday: Best of the best

Top 10 in dance for 2014

DANCE is my great passion but this year there wasn’t a huge amount to bowl me over.Certainly I saw plenty of fine dancing – when does one not? – but in classical ballet there were few new works of substance. Well, none actually. There were pleasing new versions of existing ballets, although they didn’t quite make it to the list. New versions of oft-told stories is business as usual for ballet.

In Sydney there were new contemporary works I failed to see because the seasons were so short – this city isn’t exactly dance central – but there were a couple of new (or newish) pieces that added some excitement. Happily I was able to travel a bit and that helped me see enough to constitute what I might consider a quorum for a list of notable productions. If I saw it in this country I’ve included it, which is why American Ballet Theatre and Trisha Brown Dance Company appear alongside the locals.

As in my earlier posts looking back on 2014, works are mentioned in the order in which I saw them. There is a supplementary international section at the end. I intend to do a separate post on the men and women of the year so if someone rather than something appears to be missing, they may well be mentioned tomorrow.

DANCE WORKS OF NOTE IN 2014

Am I, Shaun Parker & Company, Sydney Festival and Sydney Opera House (January): A strong addition to this meticulous choreographer’s body of work. It looked and sounded stunning. Nick Wales, who has worked many times with Parker, contributed a new score full of fascinating colours, rhythms and sonorities, played and sung by a group of seven musicians. Meticulous, elegant and sophisticated, Am I ambitiously took ideas from physics, astronomy, neurology, anthropology and other branches of science to chart the path of human development. We are the only creatures who can apprehend ourselves as conscious beings with a limited span. Having evolved to that point, our drive is to survive and replicate, to make love and war, and to think about things too much.

Gudirr Gudirr, Marrugeku, Sydney Festival (January): Dalisa Pigram is a passionate advocate for life in Australia’s north-west. She wove a memorable solo from themes relating to the area’s indigenous history, polyglot population, environmental beauties and present-day challenges. Simultaneously wiry and elastic, Pigram seamlessly incorporated shapes from indigenous dance, martial arts, animal imagery, gymnastics, the nightclub and the circus for a wholly individual effect. When she spoke in her traditional language, Yawuru, it became a liquid element in Sam Serruys’s score, which also included songs from Stephen Pigram.

Interplay, Sydney Dance Company (March): The triple bill of Rafael Bonachela’s 2 in D Minor, Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models and Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim! made a cracking evening. Bonachela’s take on Bach’s Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor was an intellectually challenging engagement between movement and music; the second new piece, Gideon Obarzanek’s L’Chaim!, had heart and joy; and the revival of Jacopo Godani’s Raw Models – well, that gave the libido a workout.

Chroma, The Australian Ballet (April): Wayne McGregor’s Chroma wasn’t as brilliantly danced as it can be when I saw it but it’s a tremendous work. In seven swiftly moving, grandly conceived scenes the choreographer captures on the dancer’s body some of the myriad neural impulses that make it move, think and feel. Undulation, distortion and hyper-extension are a big part of the movement language but we can also see fragments of the classical ideal shimmering through Chroma. The juxtapositions are absorbing: small and large, inner and outer, action and repose, contemporary and traditional, the body and the space it occupies. Also on this generous quadruple bill, Jiri Kylián’s Petite Mort. The AB always does Kylián well and in Petite Mort there is so much to love: men with fencing foils, intimations of darkness and some outstandingly sexy dancing with lots of little orgasmic shudders.

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre (June): The story of Lieutenant William Dawes and young indigenous woman Patyegarang in colonial Sydney should be better known. In the tumultuous first years of white settlement, as the British colonisers imposed themselves and their culture on what is now the glittering city of Sydney but was then the Eora nation, Dawes studied and recorded the local language. Patyegarang appears to have been his most important teacher. Stephen Page turned this rare and precious relationship into an impressionistic, meditative work.

The Arrangement, Australian Dance Artists (July): This little jewel could be seen by invitation only, and I was one of the lucky ones. Prime mover was artist Ken Unsworth, who may be in his ninth decade but has lost none of his zest for the complexities of human existence, often casting an absurdist eye on events. He made a cameo appearance at the beginning of The Arrangement to usher in a series of scenes connected not by any narrative but by themes of love, longing, the passage of time and the cycle of life. The mature ADA dancers were former London Contemporary Dance Theatre artists Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer and Sydney Dance Company alumni Susan Barling and Ross Philip. The Song Company sang texts by A.E. Houseman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W.H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke to Jonathan Cooper’s commissioned music, and it was all very fine indeed. Unsworth finances ADA productions entirely – a great labour of love.

Keep Everything, choreographed by Antony Hamilton for Chunky Move (August): There wasn’t much that was more fun than this. A stage strewn with trash, three incredibly virtuosic and multi-skilled performers, a race through the human story from pre-history to the stars and back again and plenty of stimulating ideas along the way.

American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane (September): Forget Swan Lake; the Three Masterpieces program was the one to see. Jerome Robbins’s Fancy Free was highly enjoyable, but the real treats were Twyla Tharp’s Bach Partita, which was recently revived by ABT after a 28-year hiatus, and Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas. Glorious works both.

Trisha Brown Dance Company, Melbourne Festival (October): Trisha Brown was a leading figure in the post-modern dance movement in New York and her influence runs deep. The survey of her work at the Melbourne Festival showed exactly why, but it was far from a history lesson or an academic exercise. Brown’s intellectually rigorous and highly technical dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, and her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. Yet the varied program demonstrated one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet (November): Peter Wright’s version of The Nutcracker is frequently said to be the most beautiful in existence, and there is a lot of competition. When I see Alexei Ratmansky’s newish production for American Ballet Theatre I’ll get back to you on who is the winner. But quibbles aside, this certainly is a sumptuous-looking production, even if it looks rather cramped on the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Even better, it touches the heart.

INTERNATIONAL NOTES:

A highlight of my New York visit early this year was finally getting to see the Jerome Robbins masterpiece Dances at a Gathering, a suite of dances to Chopin piano pieces that has no narrative but is full of connections between the dancers. To see it performed by the company for which it was made in 1969 was a dream come true.

On an all-Balanchine bill at New York City Ballet, Concerto Barocco (1941), was a revelation. Made to the music of Bach’s Double Violin Concerto in D Minor, Concerto Barocco is said to mark the first appearance of Balanchine dancers in practice clothes, something that would become a feature of many works. Here the women are all in white, with a little skirt. Eight women who form a kind of chorus of handmaidens, two principal women and one man move in unison, canon, mirror one another, and enter and leave in response to the music. Poetry and harmony reign and the detail is delicious: at one point the solo man is gently entangled in a thicket of the supporting women; at another he turns a simple promenade of his partner into courtly admiration. Just lovely.

 Tomorrow: The people who mattered

It’s a wrap

Trisha Brown Dance Company

Trisha Brown Dance Company. From All Angles: Pure Movement Program 1, October 23; Early Works, October 26 (afternoon); Pure Movement Program 2, October 26 (evening)

Chunky Move, Complexity of Belonging, October 9

Heiner Goebbels, When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing, October 26 (afternoon)

The Trouble with Harry, October 23 (afternoon)

TRISHA Brown’s dance-making is deeply concerned with the physics and geometry of the body and its relation to the space in which it moves, is intellectually rigorous and highly technical. Her purpose is not to mimic or evoke emotional states. And yet there is one quality above all that animates the work: intense, soul-filling joy.

A selection of Early Works – mostly from the 1970s, most performed in silence – held an audience spellbound on a beautiful Melbourne afternoon as the Brown company did balancing things with lengths of wood (various Sticks pieces), used one another as counterweights (Leaning Duets), were arranged and rearranged around the space without missing a beat (Group Primary with Movers) and, with a complete lack of showiness, revealed the virtuosity in the apparently simple (Accumulation, Spanish Dance). The dancers, who wore plain white trousers and tops, were barefoot, warm, sweet, composed and serene. The program lasted only an hour but time seemed to be suspended. It was an unforgettable, radiant experience that took us to the bedrock of Brown’s art.

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

An archival image of Spanish Dance. Photo: Babette Mangolte

The two Pure Movement programs, staged in Arts Centre Melbourne’s Playhouse, covered work from the 1970s to 2011. The wide range is deliberate, as TBDC is part way through an international celebration of Brown’s career and influence: the choreographer, who turns 78 shortly, announced her retirement about two years ago. While there are no narrative influences in the work, a key ingredient is the sensuality and sumptuousness of the body in motion and stasis, even in a work as muscular, angular, sculptural and stern as Newark (Niweweorce) (1987) – the only piece to appear on both programs. Presumably for practical reasons to do with international touring Donald Judd’s backdrops for Newark were not seen, although Robert Rauschenberg’s diaphanous set for Set and Reset came along for the ride (Brown really did mix it with the greats of contemporary art). When Newark was performed in New York early last year the drops were described in The New York Times as “rising and falling at different depths of the stage and so redefining the space, each in a single different primary color”. I was sorry not to experience this aspect of the piece.

I was more sorry, though, not to see Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981) twice or, indeed, on a continuous loop. It was on the first program and was a swirl of impulses and connections as four women and two men grouped, regrouped or went their own ways to music from Robert Ashley’s opera Atalanta. The complexities and incremental changes were mesmerising, as were repeated details such as Jamie Scott draping herself briefly across Olsi Gjeci’s back, or the two of them holding hands for just a moment. Scott, by the way, proved herself the heroine of the season by being quietly charismatic in everything she did: the solo If you couldn’t see me (1994) in which she never faces the audience; the glorious solo Accumulation (1971), in which gestures and movements build one upon the other until the body is fully and gorgeously engaged while the feet never leave the ground; as the instigator of Spanish Dance, a sexy quintet for women to the sound of Bob Dylan; and in just about everything else.

On a local note, it was splendid to see Rogues (2011), a duet made for and with Australian dancer and choreographer Lee Serle and TBDC dancer Neal Beasley, who was also outstanding in a variety of works. Brown was a Rolex mentor to Serle, who is now back home. He (tall) and Beasley (short) danced side by side, constantly in motion and constantly in sync with each other’s presence.

I had not seen Brown’s work in the flesh although have seen much that’s influenced by her, unfortunately often in a too-dry, overly introspective way. The juiciness of Brown’s dance and her dancers is a delight, as is the sense of connection with the audience, even in a conventional theatre setting. Brown’s retirement means her company is in the process of defining how her pioneering work will be preserved, a situation the companies of Merce Cunningham (seemingly successfully), Martha Graham (disastrously) and other ground-breakers have faced. This is a delicate matter for TBDC but it brought Melbourne Festival audiences a great boon.

The Brown retrospective ended the Melbourne Festival. First up in early October was Complexity of Belonging, a large-scale dance-theatre work from Chunky Move. It was fascinating and somewhat depresseing to see how Complexity of Belonging side-stepped the promise of its title to offer something rather shallow. Talk about first-world problems.

Chunky Move's Complexity of Belonging

Chunky Move’s Complexity of Belonging

The co-creators, Chunky Move artistic director Anouk Van Dijk and Falk Richter, director in residence at Berlin’s Schaubuhne, have worked together on four earlier projects, one of which was Trust, seen at the Perth International Arts Festival in 2011. It too was about a first-world problem, but one of great resonance. As I wrote at the time, “Made in 2009, Trust was born among the ruins of international finance and sees in that collapse a crisis at the individual level. The lack of honesty and transparency in big business is mirrored in personal relationships: mistrust is rife.” In this work movement emerged powerfully and persuasively as being as relevant to the thesis as the text. This was not the case with Complexity of Belonging, where it felt added on.

The wide Sumner stage at Melbourne’s Southbank Theatre, home to Melbourne Theatre Company, was dominated by a huge cyclorama with a photographic image of open sky and low-lying land (Robert Cousins designed the set). The Australian Outback, one imagines, even though Complexity of Belonging was quickly established as being entirely urban in nature, dealing with a set of well-off, articulate city-dwellers.

The program noted only that the image, Big Sky, was by Oliviu Lugojan-Ghenciu, whose website describes him as a London-based “architect and motion designer”. Intriguingly, all the early online results that come up with his name relate to a project he carried out in Australia a few years ago called GravityONE: A choreography for militarised airspace. Lugojan-Ghenciu calls it an architectural work and an animation, and the description for it starts this way: “The remote territories of the Australian Never Never are anything but empty. The history of these landscapes is one of nuclear testing, rocket launches and black military technologies.”

Complexity of Belonging went nowhere near such dark thoughts. Here the big sky was just a big sky. It was instantly legible shorthand for the vast, empty Australian interior and stood as a metaphor for the feelings of separation, loneliness and otherness expressed by the decidedly metropolitan characters. Except that it felt like an Australia viewed through a decidedly European lens that sees this place and its people as exotic, in a superficial way. You know, “Australia, it’s so far away.” Well, not if you live here.

Van Dijk and Richter write of their collaborations that the concept begins “from the same central question: what do we currently observe happening in our own relationships and in the broader social context?” In Complexity of Belonging the social context wasn’t at all broad. There was some talk about gay marriage not being legal in Australia, some observations about race (relatively mild), an unpleasant reference to the recent Malaysian Airlines disaster (the one in our hemisphere), digs at our “no worries, howya goin’” discourse, and a sentimental co-option of Aboriginal thought regarding the nature of time.

At 90 minutes Complexity of Belonging was overlong, but more pertinently I found it tedious. The Brisbane Festival is a co-presenter, so I assume it will be restaged there and potentially elsewhere. Will there be some rethinking? I do hope so.

My other Melbourne Festival events (this year the tally was shamefully low, but you can’t do everything) were Heiner Goebbels’s When the Mountain Changed Its Clothing and the new Lachlan Philpott drama The Trouble with Harry.

When the Mountain is monumental music-theatre in construction and intent, but fell short for me in practice. The 39 girls and young women of Vocal Theatre Carmina Slovenica were wondrous performers, singing complex music from a wide range of traditions while enacting rituals of discovery and growth. The score included Schonberg, Brahms, classical Indian (extraordinary), contemporary and central European vocal music; the text was taken from writings of, among others, Marina Abramovic, Gertrude Stein, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Ian McEwan. It was certainly eclectic.

I admired the concept and the skill greatly. The young women’s poise and virtuosity were a delight. But admiration failed to blossom into whole-hearted immersion in the performance. While spoken texts were delivered in English, song texts were not made available – a great lack, given the centrality of the music. I felt there was a huge part of the performance denied me.

Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry has been given a deeply absorbing premiere by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. It is a multilayered affair – a slice of Sydney history; a true-crime story; an elegy for an unconventional relationship hiding in plain sight within conventional society; and a pungent evocation of early 20th-century working-class life. Most of all it is a humane reclamation of Harry Crawford’s story. The closing images are heart-breaking.

Crawford (Maude Davey), born Eugenia Falleni, lived for many years as a married man and was convicted of the murder of his wife Annie (Caroline Lee). Naturally the trial was a sensation but Philpott’s interest lies far from there. He rescues Harry from the one-note notoriety and gives him a complex individuality. The robust poeticism of Philpott’s writing, matched by Alyson Campbell’s fluid direction, gives The Trouble with Harry a slightly hallucinatory quality, as does the decision to relay the sound to the audience via individual headsets. The effect is simultaneously highly personal and other-worldly.

The wonderful cast of six is completed by Elizabeth Nabben as Harry’s daughter Josephine; Daniel Last as Annie’s son, also named Harry; and Emma Palmer and Dion Mills as narrators and other characters. Very much recommended.

The Trouble with Harry continues at Northcote Town Hall until October 9.

Incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive

Director and choreographer Antony Hamilton. The Performance Space, Carriageworks, Sydney, August 13.

WITH a bit of Einstein on the Beach over here, a spot of 2001: A Space Odyssey over there, a suggestion of wonky 1950s sci-fi film, images of sleek robotics and a sliver or two of domestic life, Keep Everything is both an eclectic treasure trove of references and utterly and beguilingly itself.

With only three performers and a set consisting of bits and bobs of rubbish there’s a hand-made quality to Keep Everything entirely in keeping with the original impulse of choreographer Antony Hamilton: to take dance ideas he’d previously discarded and see where they went. Where they went was somewhere much more intriguing than you might expect from airing a few ideas that didn’t made the cut.

Lauren Langlois in Antony Hamilton's Keep Everything

Lauren Langlois and BenjaminHancock in Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything

Keep Everything is nothing less than a breathless (literally at many points) race through human history from the primordial swamp to a mechanistic future and back again. It may have a deceptively grungy air but is, in fact, incredibly virtuosic, highly expressive and tightly organised.

Often working with complex rhythms or durations that must be calibrated precisely to the micro-second the dancers – Benjamin Hancock, Lauren Langlois and Alisdair Macindoe – seamlessly evolve sounds and movements from primitive to futuristic via the quotidian stuff of everyday life: getting the dog to come in, having sex, giving birth, that sort of thing. The phrase “keep everything” takes on a multiplicity of meanings: Hamilton’s use of material; the junk strewn around that speaks of our over-stuffed material society; the need to hang on to other people; the desire to gather experiences and sensations; the need to keep making a noise, whether grunting, conversing, screaming or spewing strings of numbers. (The last sees Langlois and Macindoe in tremendous form – the Einstein moment.)

All this – and there’s a lot packed into a fast-flowing hour – happens to a whiz-bang sound design from Julian Hamilton and Kim Moyes (The Presets), Benjamin Cisterne’s exceptional lighting design and Robin Fox’s AV design. There’s a lot of serious talent on board.

Best of all, Keep Everything is effortlessly witty. Not always something you can count on in contemporary dance. I’m sure I heard Langlois whisper “this isn’t working” at one point, and I hope I did. It was funny because obviously everything was going like a rocket, and funny because it was like a little ghost bobbing up from a time when Hamilton was choreographing and decided not to use this scrap of an idea.

The moment passed quickly and I accept I may have been mistaken. I may have misheard. But I’ll take Hamilton’s advice and, you know, keep everything.

Keep Everything was Chunky Move’s 2012 Next Move commission. You can’t fault their taste.

Keep Everything finishes at Carriageworks on Saturday. Melbourne, August 20-24.

Dance in 2013

THE Australian dance-lover had plenty to enjoy in 2013, as long as there was a decent travel budget to hand. Paris Opera Ballet returned to Sydney, the Bolshoi had a season in Brisbane, The Australian Ballet premiered a new version of Cinderella by Alexei Ratmansky (Melbourne and Sydney only, although Adelaide sees it in 2014), Queensland Ballet had extended sell-out seasons under new artistic director Li Cunxin, West Australian Ballet brought Onegin into its repertoire and Sydney Dance Company got even more glamorous.

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello in Cinderella. Photo: Jeff Busby

Those were the big events of 2013. Unfortunately there were fewer small-scale gems, or at least few I was able to see. In the wide, brown land it’s not always possible to find oneself in the right city at the right time to catch up with the leading contemporary companies and independent artists, particularly when seasons can be cruelly short.

There was also a lot of déjà vu when it came to international visitors. Of course one would never knock back the chance to see Sylvie Guillem, or Akram Khan’s work, or Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, but the names bob up again and again. I acknowledge, however, that I travel around the country to see dance more than most people do. Perhaps I just get out too much.

What follows, therefore, isn’t necessarily a reflection of what was best (although much was terrific), but what was memorable.

The dancers:

The AB nabbed Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev for performances of Don Quixote in Melbourne. Vasiliev roared on like a comet and didn’t let up from the get-go. He’s no text-book classicist, but gee he’s fun to watch. Dancing the lead gypsy, resident AB firecracker Chengwu Guo threw in a cheeky backwards somersault just to remind the audience there were other men on stage. Later in the year, after dancing Basilio with boyish charm, Guo was promoted to senior artist. By year’s end he was a principal artist, promoted onstage after a high-flying appearance as James in La Sylphide. A very wise call on the part of AB artistic director David McAllister.

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chengwu Guo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Also at the AB, Daniel Gaudiello got more opening nights (Basilio, James, the Prince in Ratmansky’s Cinderella), and rightly so. QB’s Li Cunxin likes him too. Gaudiello was a guest artist in Brisbane for Giselle – making his role debut as Albrecht – and will appear in 2014’s Romeo and Juliet as Mercutio when QB stages the MacMillan production from late June.

Still with the AB, Leanne Stojmenov had the role of her career in Cinderella, and in The Four Temperaments and Dyad 1929 (part of the Vanguard program), evergreen principal Lucinda Dunn exuded wisdom and sensuousness in works that can look all too coolly intellectual. Also on that bill was Kylian’s Bella Figura, in which corps de ballet member Ingrid Gow had one of those break-out moments.

In Brisbane, it was adorable to see Alexander Idaszak, in his first year out of the Australian Ballet School, be given the chance to dance Albrecht and to do it with such composure (he’s already moving on, however, to Royal New Zealand Ballet, which also has a starry artistic director in Ethan Stiefel). Li showed faith in another newbie, Emilio Pavan, when he was cast as the Prince in The Nutcracker, an assignment he carried out with much promise. Li added Natasha Kusch to his already lustrous group of female principal artists, and she was astutely paired with former AB dancer and now Dutch National Ballet principal Remi Wortmeyer in Nutcracker. It was a sparkling partnership.

In Perth, new artistic director Aurelien Scannella has restructured the company, creating principal artist, soloist, demi-soloist and corps de ballet ranks. On the opening night of Onegin – secured for WAB by former artistic director Ivan Cavallari – WAB showed off its new principal, Jiri Jelinek, formerly with Stuttgart Ballet and National Ballet of Canada (he is now a guest principal with the latter). Senior women Jayne Smeulders and Fiona Evans, now principals, were completely different and very fine Tatianas, and Matthew Lehmann found himself promoted to the top rank after his Onegins.

POB’s Giselle performances gave us the luminous, diaphanous Dorothee Gilbert and the role debut of Myriam Ould-Braham, a dancer made for this role. Mathieu Ganio, aristocratic to the last molecule, partnered both but Ould-Braham’s sweet simplicity seemed to make him warmer and ever-so-slightly gentler. In the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream, a delight from beginning to end, Maria Alexandrova was exceptionally vibrant, witty and warm.

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The corps of Paris Opera Ballet, Giselle Act II. Photo: Sébastien Mathé

The AB managed to insinuate itself into David Hallberg’s very full diary for three performances of Cinderella in Sydney. The refinement, grace and noble partnering of the American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi principal artist were a perfect fit for Ratmansky’s ballet, and Hallberg even managed to make something of the Prince’s travels, one of the slightly less successful parts of Cinderella. Hallberg’s Cinderella was Amber Scott, whose other-worldly delicacy made her a lovely match for this prince among princes.

A special mention goes to Sydney Dance Company as a whole. It’s a spectacularly good-looking ensemble.

The dances:

As you’ll see from the above, there wasn’t a lot of surprising work on offer. From the tourists, the Bolshoi’s The Bright Stream and Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre’s down-and-dirty The Rite of Spring were outstanding. Locally, SDC’s Cacti, the exceptionally amusing work by Alexander Ekman, and the AB’s Surrealist Cinderella made most impact. Well, Cinders looked much better in Melbourne, but what can you do? I also was extremely taken by Dance Clan 3, Bangarra Dance Theatre’s studio showing of new work. This time four of the company’s women – Deborah Brown, Yolande Brown, Tara Gower, Jasmin Sheppard – took up the challenge, and did so most movingly. One of those terrific evenings when you have no idea what’s ahead. I didn’t get a lot of that this year.

The ideas:

I’ve said this quite a lot elsewhere, but I love the way SDC’s Rafael Bonachela is engaged with other artists from other forms. Les Illuminations brought together SDC, string players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conductor Roland Peelman, singer Katie Noonan and fashion designer Toni Maticevski to celebrate the centenary of Benjamin Britten. It was a standout, and a pity there were so few performances.

In Brisbane Queensland Ballet has taken advantage of the state government’s new Superstar Fund to lock in big-name guest artists for its mid-year Romeo and Juliet. Carlos Acosta, Tamara Rojo and Sydney-born Royal Ballet luminary Steven McRae come to town. Gaudiello will be back too – it’s so good to see this wonderful dancer getting more recognition.

Another big idea for QB is the institution of The Nutcracker as an annual Christmas event. Time will tell whether it will catch on indefinitely, but this year’s season did boffo box-office.

The Australian Ballet’s 2014 season announcement showed a small but potentially important programming shift. Instead of the usual and unvarying number of performances given to each program, regardless of audience appeal, the AB will now give shorter seasons of the contemporary rep. This is most noticeable in Sydney, where there will be nine performances of  the Ballet Imperial/Suite en Blanc double bill (May 2-17) and 10 of the Chroma/Sechs Tanze/Petite Mort/ New Baynes work bill (April 29-May 17). Note the overlapping dates – yes, programs in repertory!

As mentioned, WAB has introduced the kind of ranking system most usually seen in larger companies. Aurelien Scannella has forcefully talked about having more dancers (predecessor Cavallari got WAB a huge boost during his time). Can Scannella manage a further upwards trajectory in a city that has a huge appetite for big stuff but not so much for throwing money at the arts? And at a difficult time for the state’s finances? Worth keeping an eye on. As is QB’s obvious ambition to provide not just an alternative, but a competitor, to the AB.

The dance that turned into a play but was still full of dance:

One of the sweetest pleasures of 2013 was Gideon Obarzanek‘s Dance Better at Parties for Sydney Theatre Company, a play based on his dance work for Chunky Move that had its genesis nearly a decade ago when Obarzanek interviewed men about movement. The play, a two-hander for Steve Rodgers and Elizabeth Nabben, was simplicity itself. A bereaved man comes to a dance studio to learn how to dance, which may help him fit in socially, but really he is in desperate need of contact. To be touched. And the audience was touched too, very deeply.

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

Elizabeth Nabben and Steve Rodgers in Dance Better at Parties. Photo: Brett Boardman

The disappointments:

The big, big loss this year was the cancellation of Spring Dance, the festival inaugurated by the Sydney Opera House and now pulled out of the calendar. Yes, it was costly, but gave contemporary dance a highly visible platform from which to entice audiences. Fragments of it remained – Les Illuminations (see above) and Akram Khan’s iTMOi – “In the Mind of Igor” – which did not entirely convince me.

Freeze Frame, the collaboration between the Brisbane Festival and Debbie Allen, was well-meaning but lacked coherence in just about every department. Allen wrote, choreographed and directed. And appeared in it. There’s a hint right there.

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth, is entirely inadequate for ballet of any scale. The sets for Onegin had to be cut back and squashed in and the sightlines are terrible from many seats. Tough cheese though. It’s unlikely there will be another new theatre in Perth for a decade or more – the State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, home to Black Swan State Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, was opened in 2011. Poor old WAB is not well served at all.

What a shame that Australia’s smaller centres aren’t able to see the AB, QB and WAB regularly. Instead the gap is filled by touring Russian companies of extremely variable quality. This year I saw a Nutcracker from an outfit called Russian National Ballet Theatre, whose provenance is a little difficult to work out, although companies under that name have toured before. I paid nearly 100 bucks (no, let’s be fair, my sister paid) for no orchestra, a severely truncated story, classroom choreography and production values that were modest. I do understand that local companies wouldn’t be seen dead putting on productions of such a low standard and that it costs a great deal to do better, and that they already have full schedules. But if I had a magic wand …

The year’s most graceful tribute:

In July Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times, set out to describe the attributes of an American ballerina, and was even prepared to say how many women in US companies currently deserve to bear the title of ballerina. The number is not great: “at least 10” is what Macaulay was prepared to say. In reply, in the December/January edition of Pointe magazine, Gillian Murphy – a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre and principal guest artist with Royal New Zealand Ballet – gave her perspective. Along the way she had this to say about RNZB’s Lucy Green, a young Australian being given important roles with the company: “I am excited to watch a young dancer with extraordinary promise grow into a star.” Murphy praises Green’s dance attributes, then continues: “However, for me, it is her work ethic, her imagination and her sensitivity to others that really classify her as a ballerina in the making.” Murphy admires dancers who “encourage greatness in everyone around them”. Beautiful.

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

Lucy Green as Odette. Photo: Evan Li

 The Trans-Tasman Prize for Sang-Froid:

I’m including RNZB here again because I can. The month is July, a performance of Swan Lake, featuring Lucy Green as Odette-Odile, has not long finished, and RNZB staff and dancers past and present have gathered for a late-afternoon party to celebrate the company’s 60th anniversary. Wellington is shaken by an earthquake – a big one. Everyone dives to the floor, which is moving alarmingly. The tremors stop, we all get up and the party continues. Well, that’s one way to cut the speeches short.

Finally…

Many thanks to London-based writer and critic Ismene Brown, who gave unparalleled, necessary insight into the dance world’s biggest story in 2013, the Bolshoi crisis and its fallout. And moving right along, there’s Nikolai Tsiskaridze in St Petersburg. Follow her @ismeneb; ismeneb.com

Next up, what’s of interest in 2014?

Angels in America, The Maids, Phedre, Othello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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