About last week … April 2-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grease Company -- (pic Michael Francis

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

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

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

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

Sydney Theatre Awards 2015

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

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

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

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

Ivanov

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

2015 SYDNEY THEATRE AWARD WINNERS

BEST MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Ivanov (Belvoir)

BEST INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

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

BEST DIRECTION OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eamon Flack (Ivanov)

BEST DIRECTION OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Iain Sinclair (Of Mice and Men)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eryn Jean Norvill (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Hugo Weaving (Endgame)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Kate Cole (Grounded)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Thomas Campbell (Misterman)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Blazey Best (Ivanov)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

John Howard (Ivanov)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Taylor Ferguson (Good Works)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

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

James Bell, centre. Photo: Rupert Reid

James Bell (The Aliens)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Nick Schlieper (Endgame)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Michael Hankin (Of Mice and Men)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Alice Babidge (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Angela White (Heathers)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Paul Jackson (Love and Information)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Hartley TA Kemp (Misterman)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

The Sweats (Love and Information)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Nate Edmondson (Misterman)

BEST NEW AUSTRALIAN WORK

The Bleeding Tree (Angus Cerini)

BEST NEWCOMER

Lauren McKenna (Heathers)

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

After Dinner (Sydney Theatre Company)

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MAINSTREAM MUSICAL

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

BEST PRODUCTION OF AN INDEPENDENT MUSICAL

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

BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL

Mitchell Butel (Violet)

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

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Amy Lepahmer. Photo: James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer (The Sound of Music)

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

Hayden Tee (Les Miserables)

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

Elise McCann (Matilda)

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

James Millar (Matilda)

BEST MUSICAL DIRECTION

Lucy Bermingham (Violet)

BEST CABARET PRODUCTION

Josie Lane (Asian Provocateur)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR CHILDREN

The 52-Storey Treehouse (CDP)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

War Crimes (ATYP)

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

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

MOLLY_BARWICK_AND_ELISE_MCCANN_PIC_BY_JAMES_MORGAN

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

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Christine Dunstan

Tragedy sped up

Belvoir, September 23

Nikolai Ivanov sits on a sofa looking desolate as the Lebedevs’ party swirls around him. He’s heading towards 40, he has no money, his relations give him grief, he’s given up on his marriage and he’s drawn to a girl half his age. Oh, and his wife is dying and her doctor blames him for hastening things. Naturally this is a comedy.

As Ivanov (Ewen Leslie) tells Sasha (Airlie Dodds), the young woman who passionately and naively wants to save him from himself, “comedy is tragedy sped up”. True, he’s a wildly self-dramatising man but that doesn’t detract from the truth of what he’s saying. Everyone in this backwater is going hell for leather, trying to extract some purpose and meaning from life while flailing around and behaving ridiculously. It’s just that Ivanov’s skin is much thinner than everyone else’s and his capacity for self-disgust – well-earned, it must be said – much greater.

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Director and adapter Eamon Flack sets Ivanov, the playwright’s first completed full-length play, in something that resembles contemporary Russia, what with the photo of Vladimir Putin on the wall, but it’s also very much a version of Australia today. Not a flattering one, it must be said, but punchy and provocative. What do we value in life, what do we have to offer and does any of it matter anyway?

While Ivanov wrestles with his demons, family and friends take a less resistant line. His uncle Matvei Shabelsky (John Bell) could potentially be persuaded to marry widow Marfa Babakina (Blazey Best) in an exchange of valuables: access to his American passport for her; access to her pig-based fortune for him. Sasha’s brittle, try-hard mother, Zinaida Lebedev (Helen Thomson), is no pushover in the money-lending business and places a lot of store by appearances. Pavel Lebedev (John Howard) just goes along with whatever his wife wants. It’s easier.

Ivanov’s cousin Misha Borkin (Fayssal Bazzi) has flexible morals and is a buffoon likeable in limited doses. Even Sasha, in whose shining youth one can see some tiny hope for the future, babbles on about “active love”, a label to rival “conscious uncoupling” as a way of describing the complexities of intimacy.

They do little more than pontificate about money and politics, talk themselves up, gossip cruelly, sing a few songs and get a skin full should the occasion merit. Their uselessness is grotesque and very, very funny. The only people somewhat spared are Ivanov’s wife Anna (Zahra Newman), an intriguing woman “from another country” who shares outsider status with Doctor Yevgeny Lvov (Yalin Ozucelik), who is Turkish. Covertly (Anna) and overtly (Lvov) their judgment hangs over the group. It’s a big cast and a wonderful one, not forgetting the Lebedevs’ hired help, Gabriella, played by Belvoir assistant stage manager Mel Dyer in a performance of pure comedy gold.

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie. Photo: Brett Boardman

Leslie’s Ivanov is, of course, insanely attractive despite the flaws he describes so vividly and exhaustively and he is, of course, doomed. He goes in for some meta-theatrical posturing about Hamlet, which goes down exceptionally well given Leslie’s history with the Dane (Melbourne Theatre Company in 2011, Belvoir in 2013), and seems to be very much in love with the idea of being the lost soul. Ivanov is a man of poses – the thwarted intellectual, the failed man of action – but Leslie also makes one see the horror of such emptiness as well as its absurdity. “I am in disgrace with myself,” he says, and nothing could be more despairing. He stands outside himself, can see what he is and can do nothing to alter his course.

Needless to say Flack doesn’t allow a drop of sentimentality to intrude. Chekov tried a couple of endings for the play and Flack chooses the one that shows our man as the plaything of fate rather than creator of his own destiny. The joke’s on him.

Ivanov ends on November 1.

Where there’s muck there’s brass

Belvoir, Sydney, June 10

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

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Robyn Nevin in Mother Courage. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

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

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

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

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

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

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Emele Ugavule as Kattrin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

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

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

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

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

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

Vladimir: Well? Shall we go?

Estragon: Yes, let’s go.

They do not move.

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

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

Introductory remarks to 2014 in the rear-view mirror

EARLY next week I’ll be at the Vanguard in Sydney’s Newtown to see Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen’s cabaret show Under the Covers. That will bring my 2014 show total to 207, including a strong final burst of seven outings in my last viewing week of the year. It’s a relatively modest number by previous standards and by those of some of my colleagues, but not negligible. Within that there is a personal best: when in New York early this year I managed to see 20 shows in 12 days.

Obsessive? Perhaps, but the performing arts bring me great joy, illumination and nourishment and have done for more than four decades. More than that, putting in the hours, days, weeks, months and years is the only way one can attain knowledge and understanding. It’s incredibly valuable to see many different productions of great works and sometimes to have long-held ideas (or prejudices) shaken. It’s even more stimulating to be present at a new work that so thrills to the core and has so many ideas you want – and need – to see it again and again.

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America was one such work for me when I saw it in 1993 under Michael Gow’s direction at Sydney Theatre Company, and I did see it again and again – a second time at STC; Neil Armfield’s very different but equally moving version for Melbourne Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia the following year; on Broadway; the film version; and, just last year, Belvoir’s wonderful production directed by Eamon Flack.

Another work that enthralled me when I first encountered it was Thyestes in the 2010 adaptation of Seneca’s tragedy by Thomas Henning, Chris Ryan, Simon Stone and Mark Winter. I was incredibly lucky to get in. The word had spread like wildfire that Thyestes was extraordinary, I was in Melbourne for only a few days and Malthouse’s tiny Tower Theatre was besieged. The gods were with me, I took my seat, and as I write I relive the intensity of the experience – the gloom in the auditorium set against the unsparing white light of the acting area; the faces of the audience one could see on the other side of the narrow stage that bisected the theatre; Ryan singing Schubert; the jittery tension of waiting to see what fresh hell would be revealed when the shutters that hid the stage between scenes were raised again; the theatrical audacity and intellectual complexity of the ideas …

Did anything this year have that kind of impact? No, I can’t say it did. But genius is rare. The thing is, you don’t always get advance warning. You just have to be there. You have to see a lot of mediocre, adequate, good and excellent work to be in the race to see the exceptional and to be able to assess its worth. It’s not about the numbers themselves, it’s that everything one sees adds something to the information bank, even the most misguided of efforts, and helps create perspective and context.

I don’t think I’m alone in loving a list so, this being the traditional time of year for it,  I’m going to make lots. They will be on people as well as art forms – theatre, opera and music theatre, dance, whatever. They’ll appear, mostly daily, over the next two weeks and end with a kind of mega-list, taking in everything I’ve seen since my first serious theatre experience, a production of Oedipus Rex directed by Tyrone Guthrie I saw when I was 17. (It starred Ron Haddrick and Ruth Cracknell and was staged at the University of NSW’s Clancy Auditorium.) Well, obviously I’m not going to list the lot; just the best bits, as far as memory will allow.

I’ll also add a few thoughts about relevant arts issues as the spirit moves me.

Note: most of my theatre viewing is in Sydney, so there won’t be much joy from elsewhere in that sphere. I do get around a bit, but inevitably my lists will be very Sydney-oriented.

Tomorrow: Theatre

Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.

Macbeth and Cock in Brisbane

Macbeth, Queensland Theatre Company, The Playhouse, Brisbane, April 9. Cock, Melbourne Theatre Company and La Boite, The Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, April 9.

QUEENSLAND Theatre Company’s Macbeth isn’t set in a boardroom, or in Nazi Germany, or in the fiefdom of the Klingons. The unchanging set (Simone Romaniuk, who also designed the costumes) is a thicket of gnarled trees, Birnham Wood having already come to Dunsinane as Macbeth plays out his doomed tilt at a glory he hubristically hopes will last for generations. The men are dressed in simple battle attire, are always dirty and often bloodied. The witches are wild-haired, mud-caked creatures who slither out of the mire. Composer and sound designer Phil Slade’s opening volley of doom-laden thunder and David Walters’s shots of lightning support the louring stage picture. This is a dark and forbidding place for dark deeds.

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

Jason Klarwein and Veronica Neave in Macbeth. Photo: Rob Maccoll

QTC engaged Michael Attenborough, former artistic director of London’s Almeida Theatre, to direct the Scottish play and he does so with a very straight bat indeed. His Macbeth is reverent, respectful and ultra clear in the delivery of its language. No one could leave the theatre thinking Shakespeare is hard work. These are not qualities to be derided, to be sure, but they do render this Macbeth too tame and earnest. The whiff of a production suitable for high school students hangs over it.

Attenborough has a long pedigree when it comes to Shakespeare, having, among his many other eminent positions, been principal associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1990 to 2002. His Brisbane cast doesn’t lack Shakespeare credentials, but perhaps Attenborough felt those credentials were insufficiently deep. Whatever the reason, the excitement engendered by the sound and light show that introduces the play is swiftly damped down as soon as the actors begin to speak. Attenborough has them deliver the text deliberately and carefully, almost as if they were still in the rehearsal phase, teasing out exactly what each phrase means.

This makes for the utmost legibility, but at the expense of dramatic tension, individual character and intensity of feeling. What is really driving each character, how they feel, what is at stake emotionally and politically, is apprehended intellectually rather than viscerally. The savagery of this society, riven by civil war and prey to the influence of spirits and auguries, is made really quite polite. This is so even in the case of the semi-clad witches, who hiss and writhe theatrically but are over-choreographed (by Nerida Matthaei). They mostly look contrived, although it’s a nice touch to have them as hooded attendants at Macbeth’s feast where they accompany Banquo’s ghost.

In such an environment Jason Klarwein’s Macbeth has many separate moments of value but they don’t add up to a tightly woven portrait of raging, flailing ambition fatally undermined by a susceptibility to portents. Veronica Neave’s Lady Macbeth is perhaps more of a piece but is too coolly efficient – a terrifically organised headmistress type who isn’t about to reveal much about herself. Thus there is little sexual spark in the Macbeth ménage and her breakdown has a guarded quality. One was a little surprised that she would kill herself.

The highly experienced Eugene Gilfedder seemed the most at ease at the matinee performance I saw. Playing a trio of small roles – Duncan, Old Man, the Doctor – he effortlessly differentiated between them and his delivery of the text was the most naturally achieved.

Macbeth was a venture between QTC and Brisbane company Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe, which enabled it to put a larger than usual cast on stage, and the state government’s Super Star Fund supported Attenborough’s involvement. The result is a strong, clean, handsome production that has attracted big audiences and given them a very nice night’s entertainment.

NO one comes out of Cock particularly well. John (Tom Conroy) is a character described as giving the impression of being drawn with a pencil and is as wishy-washy as that suggests. M (Eamon Flack in the Brisbane season of this MTC/La Boite co-production; Angus Grant played the role in Melbourne) is the teensiest bit over-bearing and controlling. W (Sophie Ross) is the same, only more manipulative. M’s father, F (Tony Rickards), a late entrant into the action, rounds out an unlikely dinner party and uses the occasion to deliver a homily on sexual preference.

Those who come out of it least well, however, are director Leticia Caceres and designer Marg Horwell. Horwell’s soft-furnishings set made entirely of white cushions gives a clue: Cock is ultimately flaccid, or at least it is in this production.

Mike Bartlett’s compact play, written in 2009, is composed of a series of scenes in which John is deciding whether he wants to be with M, with whom he has lived for seven years, or W, who inducts him into heterosexual pleasures after John makes his first go at breaking away from M.

M treats John as a child, but W adores him and offers the prospect of children. What to do? John is a great vacillator and liar, but no matter. What he thinks – well, he doesn’t know what he thinks. Others are more than happy to do the thinking and acting for him. In this scenario F may be seen as a kind of referee, albeit one who loads the dice in favour of M. But he’s there to outline the rules as he sees them pertaining in this day and age.

M and F are acting out a battle of the sexes with a twist and John is the weapon that keeps changing hands. The exercise of power is M and F’s sport, and they are prepared to play very dirty. John’s situation is more fluid. He is in one sense putty in the hands of both M and F, twisting and turning between them. But he’s also the prize, and in that respect is the combatants’ Achilles heel.

The man with the pencil-drawn outline – no heavier than 2B one would suggest – is only a fragment of a character, as are the others. We hear of M’s career as a broker, W’s as a childcare assistant and F’s loneliness following the death of his wife, but these are little more than are labels enabling a couple of good quips or, in the case of F, a detail that obliquely bolsters his line of argument. We can’t see the information as part of the fabric of a complex character. Caceres seems to want more, however. You can feel the pull towards humanising the players – F’s slightly sad old-guy tracksuit, all the tumbling around on pillows, M’s air of domesticity – but it only dilutes the impact of the play.

Cock is, or can be, an act of provocation – cold, hard-edged, laugh-aloud funny and irritating. John is the empty vessel into which are poured ideas about sex, love, ownership, power and desire; M, W and F pour away. The irritant factor is important, and an unusual one in the theatre. The depiction of the feminine in the shape of W is intensely vexing. The out-of-left-field sermonising of F is awkward and frankly unbelievable in any realistic context. M is something of a cliche – the well-off guy who likes everything just so – and John is Mr Cellophane. But as the punches keep on coming and the ducking and weaving goes on, the ground shifts and the raygun of one’s irritation is continually redirected.

I freely admit to having been influenced in this view by seeing, in New York, James Macdonald’s sparer than spare, gladiatorial production. It was cold as ice and a bracingly savage dissection of sexual power play.

Macbeth ends April 13; Cock ends April 12.

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.