My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

STC Hay Fever3

Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

In praise of Sydney’s Ensemble theatre

A History of Falling Things, July 13; Betrayal, July 22

Tucked away in Sydney’s Kirribilli, in a secluded – and highly enviable – spot right on Sydney Harbour, the Ensemble quietly goes about the business it’s been devoted to for nearly six decades. You won’t often read about it in the mainstream press and while many fine actors can be seen there, they are only occasionally boldface names such as those so frequently encountered at Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir. Never mind. The Ensemble has its own character. In its small auditorium, steeply raked and arranged in a semi-circle around a small acting area, it’s common to see front-row patrons having to pull their feet in swiftly to prevent actors from tripping. The space is intimate and welcoming and the atmosphere comfortable.

The Ensemble describes itself as the “longest continuously running professional theatre in Australia”, having staged its first performances in 1958 with founding director Hayes Gordon, who ran the company for 27 years. The Ensemble is surely also the country’s most stable outfit. Sandra Bates succeeded Gordon and was at the helm for 30 years, retiring fully in January this year after sharing the artistic directorship with Mark Kilmurry for five years. Kilmurry is now solely in charge of the Ensemble’s direction as the company heads towards its 60th anniversary in 2018. (By comparison, Sydney Theatre Company is a whipper-snapper that will turn 40 in 2018.)

Ursula Mills and Matt Zeremes in Betrayal, photo by Clare Hawley-86

Ursula Mills and Matthew Zeremes in Betrayal. Photo: Clare Hawley

Remarkably, the Ensemble has survived without the benefit of any ongoing government funding. The Balnaves Foundation is its major partner and there is a small group of businesses and foundations which are supporting and strategic partners. Individuals donate a small percentage of Ensemble income. But essentially the Ensemble has to put on plays people want to see (and at times that suit them – the Ensemble has exceptionally welcome 11am weekday matinees sprinkled through its seasons). The tagline underneath the theatre’s name on its programs is this: theatre for everyone.

You would not be wrong to think that suggests a reliance on conventional dramas and light comedies, and certainly seasons have had their share of new David Williamsons and old Neil Simons (coming up next month: Barefoot in the Park), but there are also works that have greater resonance. Jane Carafella’s e-baby, a two-hander that deals with surrogacy, will be directed by Nadia Tass, stars Angie Milliken and opens in October. In recent years the Ensemble has brought to Sydney audiences the wonderful Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation (2012), David Auburn’s Proof and Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park (both 2014), David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People (April/May this year), Nina Raine’s Tribes (June this year) and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal (playing now).

Betrayal starts at the end and works its way, backwards, to the beginning of an affair between Emma and Jerry. Emma is married to Robert; Jerry is Robert’s best friend. In the first scene, some years after the end of the affair, Emma meets Jerry for a drink to tell him her marriage is over and, inter alia, that she had to reveal the affair to Robert during an all-night argument. As we will discover, this is not exactly true. The Emma-Jerry affair is not the only act of betrayal in this enigmatic three-hander.

Mark Kilmurry’s production is perhaps best described as workmanlike. Pinter’s language in this play is characteristically unadorned; the complexities gather beneath the surface, or should. The intricacies of passion, friendship and gamesmanship are not fully mined here, although the surface is played entertainingly by Ursula Mills as Emma with Guy Edmonds as her husband and Matthew Zeremes as her lover. The real action, however, is in what Emma, Robert and Jerry – particularly Robert – think and know rather than say.

It was a little instructive in this respect to note that Betrayal is described on the Ensemble website as running for approximately 90 minutes without interval. At the performance I saw we were done and dusted within 75 minutes. Those famous Pinter pauses didn’t get a huge look-in.

In repertory with Betrayal is James Graham’s A History of Falling Things. It’s a slight, sweet rom-com with a twist: the two young people whose burgeoning romance we follow suffer from keraunothnetophobia, a particularly precise fear, that of falling man-made satellites. Naturally this makes it hard for them to leave the safety of their homes and the relationship is conducted chiefly via electronic means. But is that enough?

The Ensemble’s production is blessed with Sophie Hensser’s luminous performance as Jacqui and Eric Beecroft’s as the highly strung but likeable Robin (Nicole Buffoni is the sensitive director). Merridy Eastman, Brian Meeghan and Sam O’Sullivan give fine support. It’s a modest piece, to be sure, but heart-warming too as it gives a shot of normalcy to two characters who seem destined to live on the margins. There is a gentle message there.

Anna Gardiner designed the set for both History and Betrayal. In fact, given the interlocking schedules the set is essentially the same for both, with different moveable elements, and not entirely satisfactory for both. It’s a pity.

Still, I was glad to see both plays, and continue to be glad that the Ensemble exists. It has heart. Yes, in lieu of government subsidy it has to balance the books with a new Williamson or an Alan Ayckbourn (and absolutely nothing wrong with that – I’ll be there for Relatively Speaking in November). But often enough it gently challenges its loyal audience, and one suspects Kilmurry may have more up his sleeve in years to come. He launches his second season on August 8.

A History of Falling Things and Betrayal both end on August 20.

Three premieres

The Aliens, Old Fitz Theatre, August 27; La Traviata, Belvoir Downstairs, September 1; Bull, Old Fitzroy Theatre, September 3

AMERICAN playwright Annie Baker has been mentioned, many times, in the same breath as Chekov and it’s a comparison that has merit. Baker, who is only 34, probes beneath the surface of apparently ordinary and often fragile lives to unearth the struggle and the wonder of life. Nothing much happens, unless you think that an intimate understanding of how people connect with one another counts as a lot.

I was able to see The Flick – first produced in 2013, winner of a Pulitzer Prize last year – when in New York earlier this year and found it profoundly moving. (Melbourne’s Red Stitch was smartly on the case, producing it last year with direction by Nadia Tass.) Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre staged Baker’s 2009 play Circle Mirror Transformation, set in a community adult drama class, in 2012, and now at the Old Fitz it’s possible to see The Aliens, written in 2010 (no one can accuse Baker of slacking) and given a luminous production by Outhouse Theatre Co.

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood in The Aliens. Photo: Rupert Reid

KJ (Ben Wood) and Jasper (Jeremy Waters) hang out in the cruddy garbage area at the back of a café and shoot the breeze about music, writing (Jasper is a Charles Bukowski aficionado) and relationships in a patchy, tentative, affectionate kind of way. Their conversation is all stops, starts and gaps but far from empty. Hurt, aspiration, bravado and need are often expressed as much in what is not said as what is.

When shy young café employee Evan (James Bell) ventures out the back to try to shoo them away – this is private property – KJ and Jasper stand firm. They are going nowhere, and for the tiniest moment you think The Aliens might fall into convention; that Evan will be bullied by these older, bigger, apparently more worldly men. But no. KJ and Jasper draw him into their little circle and supremely delicate connections are made. The performances are perfectly pitched. One does wonder why actors of the calibre of Wood and Waters are not seen more often and Bell is quite, quite magical.

Hugh O’Connor’s design is spot-on, with its crappy furniture and weeds poking through the cracks, and Craig Baldwin directs with a huge heart.

Mike Bartlett’s Bull, which is just finishing a short late-night season at the Old Fitz, is given its Australian premiere by Renaissance Productions with Rowan Greaves directing. It is a kind of companion piece to the same playwright’s Cock, which was so effectively staged at the Old Fitz earlier in the year. But unlike Cock it has only one idea, swiftly rendered in a four-hander that takes less than an hour to deliver the message that some people are natural victims who will be at the mercy of the amoral.

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Romy Bartz, George Kemp and Philippe Klaus in Bull. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Thomas (George Kemp) is the one destined to fail and Isobel (Romy Bartz) and Tony (Philippe Klaus) are his tormentors. As in Cock, three characters dominate the action with a fourth – here the corporate trio’s boss, played by Craig Ashley, entering late in the day – but the piece is not much more than a few brutal punches to the head turned into a rather longer fight than strictly necessary.

Sydney audiences will see Bartlett in a much more expansive mode when his King Charles III comes from London’s Almeida via Broadway during Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 program. It’s wildly interesting in form and content – I saw it at the Almeida last year – as Bartlett projects forward to the earliest days of the reign of Prince Charles as British monarch. (King of Australia, too, undoubtedly.)

Also of interest in smaller-scale Sydney theatre is Sisters Grimm’s La Traviata, even if it’s not as revolutionary as one might have expected. Sisters Grimm – writer-director Declan Greene and writer-performer Ash Flanders – were inspired by Verdi’s 1853 opera as a piece of social criticism (the composer wanted it performed in modern dress but to get it on at Venice’s La Fenice had to make it a historical piece). But new work doesn’t always become what was originally intended. The political arguments flagged in the Creators’ Note in the program don’t make themselves felt strongly enough, but on the plus side it turns out you can do La Traviata in a theatre as small as Belvoir Downstairs and do it justice. In the course of a discussion about the value of art in a society that knows the cost-benefit ratio of everything, Melbourne duo Sisters Grimm have created a touching and memorable version of Verdi’s opera.

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

Emma Maye Gibson in La Traviata. Photo: Patrick Boland

It’s wildly truncated and mostly lipsynched but the essence is there and it’s staged in a way that would cause no palpitations in, say, Germany, where regietheater (director’s theatre) reigns. Well, obviously it’s a hit-and-run version of the big thing, but it’s good. The countryside where Violetta and her lover Alfredo live is dotted with sheep, flower-entwined swings fall from the ceiling and Violetta’s gown is a cage. In Marg Horwell’s sets and costumes there are also jokey visual references to Lohengrin and Carmen. There’s quite a lot going on if you know your operas.

When the axe falls on Violetta’s happiness it is shown in devastating manner by Emma Maye Gibson, ever more desperately seeking approval from the audience, even to the point of standing on her head to sing (enter The Magic Flute). This is the courtesan as performer, but it’s also the performer as courtesan, touting for applause and money.

La Traviata is at its most original and thought-provoking here. The first third is an overlong satire on arts funding that, despite the warmth of Flanders, Gibson and Zindzi Okenyo, is more than the teensiest bit lame. Flanders does shout rather desperately in lieu of insights.

But the rest more than makes up for it. In the final third of the show the audience is invited to talk with the cast and each other and – surprisingly – the feeling is not the usual terror of audience participation but warmth and inclusion. Then opera singer Michael Lewis, the fourth cast member, comes to the fore, telling a deeply personal story about mortality before assuming the role of Violetta.

When it was announced last year as part of Belvoir’s 2015 season, La Traviata was proposed as a critique of current Australian arts politics. The word protest was used, although it’s hard to read this production as a call to arms. Instead it looks into the heart of the artist, the person who needs to perform and to be loved. What are the transactions required to achieve that?

Along the way La Traviata is also a love letter to the operatic art form, despite the pro forma sniping at the start (boring, long, elitist). Who better, indeed, than Sisters Grimm to understand the power of a theatre of grand emotions and extravagant gestures?

Bull ends September 12; The Aliens ends September 19; La Traviata ends September 20.

Reviews of The Aliens and La Traviata first appeared in The Australian on August 31 and September 3.

Current Sydney theatre

Blue/Orange, Ensemble, October 29; Emerald City, Griffin, November 10; A Christmas Carol, Belvoir, November 12; Daylight Saving, Eternity Playhouse, November 13; Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre, November 18.

WHY did quite a few commentators, myself included, feel we had to advertise our reservations about the prospect of A Christmas Carol? Or to liken ourselves to Scrooge when it comes to a Christmas cheer? I know I didn’t entirely trust that Belvoir wouldn’t do one of its out-there makeovers; perhaps others didn’t want to seem sentimental or – even worse – just a teensy bit unsophisticated.

Well, we learned our lesson. Don’t pre-judge. Don’t be mean. Don’t be cynical. A Christmas Carol is generous and open-hearted and asks the same of us. The adaptation by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, who also directs, is faithful to the Charles Dickens story and told clearly and honestly. It’s often very funny but doesn’t shy away from the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Scrooge and its staging is strong and simple – well, let’s say deceptively simple. The ideas are precise and powerful. There is an empty space in which Scrooge’s arid life is lived and recounted and changes are rung with a handful of props and a few trapdoors. And there is fabulously fake snow, dusting every seat in the house. Michael Hankin (set), Mel Page (costumes), Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) and Stefan Gregory (composition and sound design) can be very proud of this one.

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Above all there is a cast of cherishable actors whose collective radiance could warm Vladivostok in winter. Kate Box as the spirit of Christ Present is done up like a Christmas present wrapped by an excitable three-year-old, carolers sing sweetly from the stairs dressed in gaudy seasonal pullovers it would have taken Gran all year to knit, Steve Rodgers appears at one point as a Christmas tree, finished off with a major star on top, and Miranda Tapsell as Tiny Tim – well, the woman’s smile could power the national grid. Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato and Eden Falk are splendid in a range of roles and it goes without saying that Robert Menzies, so often seen as a man of much severity, is Scrooge to the life. As for Rodgers and Ursula Yovich as Bob and Mrs Cratchit, it’s the kind of casting that elevates roles that could be a touch dull into something profoundly moving.

The other absolute must in Sydney theatre is Sydney Theatre Company’s Cyrano de Bergerac – not for the staging, which has some problems, but for a clutch of indispensible performances. Top of the list, not surprisingly, is Richard Roxburgh in the title role. He gives Cyrano the kind of bone-deep melancholy that comes from a lifetime of deflecting jibes about his looks and disguising the pain with superior swordsmanship, wit and, above all, panache. Andrew Upton, who adapted and directed (from Marion Potts’s original translation), keeps Cyrano in the 17th century but oh, how it speaks to the 21st century’s obsession with appearance.

All in the large supporting cast are very good, particularly Eryn Jean Norvill as the luminous Roxane; the touching Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano’s friend Le Bret; the astonishingly versatile and charismatic Josh McConville as over-bearing nobleman De Guiche; and Chris Ryan as the guileless, luxuriantly follicled, not-quite-as-stupid-as-he-looks Christian, through whose shiny good looks Cyrano expresses his love for Roxane.

Electronic sound enhancement – amplification is too strong a word – is needed to combat the difficult Sydney Theatre acoustic. Even so, when Cyrano gets hectic it is not always easy to comprehend all the dialogue. Alice Babidge’s design (with Renee Mulder) has a handsome and effective theatre-within-a-theatre motif which makes a lot of sense but loses some of its power when actors are sent scampering up ladders to use a high, narrow balcony. But it’s Roxburgh’s night, and anyone who loves great acting will want to add this to memories of his Hamlet, Vanya and Estragon. (Not to mention rake Cleaver Greene, of course, a man who would have been entirely at home in certain 17th-century circles.)

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Also worth a look, if you can get in, is Lee Lewis’s revival of David Williamson’s Emerald City at Griffin. The play, which premiered in 1987, stands up very well. Scriptwriter Colin and his publisher wife Kate move from Melbourne to Sydney; he most eagerly, she most reluctantly. Melbourne is where ideas and values matter; in Sydney it’s all about money and the view. As time goes on, both find their ground shifting under them rather more alarmingly than they expected.

The Ken Done-designed production looks good and makes its points eloquently but it is not entirely satisfying, for good reason. During rehearsal Marcus Graham, originally cast as Colin, and Mitchell Butel, originally cast as brash entrepreneur Mike, asked to switch roles. Lewis agreed. Perhaps it may have worked but we won’t know, because Graham withdrew from Emerald City shortly before opening due to illness. The lateness of all this is illustrated by the fact that Graham’s photograph adorns the cover of the playscript one can buy at the theatre (excellent value – just $10 courtesy Currency Press).

Butel continued as Colin and Ben Winspear valiantly stepped into the breach to play Mike. Well, we can all play casting director, but I think Winspear – a very fine actor – would have been a more natural Colin than he is a Mike. Even three weeks in, which is when I saw it, he was pushing the bolshie externals too strongly. Butel is extraordinarily multi-faceted but I can see why Lewis initially wanted him as Mike. Or perhaps, given what must have been a quite testing rehearsal period, there wasn’t quite enough time for Butel to get absolutely pitch-perfect with his character. He’s very good, no doubt about it – funny, charming and fizzing with energy – but I wanted a deeper sense of his inner conflicts. Lucy Bell – who, as far as I know, was originally cast as Kate and stayed that way – absolutely nails it.

Nick Enright’s Daylight Saving, written only a couple of years after Emerald City, unfortunately has not aged as well as the Williamson. I remember enjoying it back in the day and found it entertaining enough now, but it feels too slight to merit its revival – not quite funny enough, or persuasive enough about human foibles. It’s done very competently under Adam Cook’s direction and I must say I was highly entertained by Belinda Giblin’s flawless turn as the slightly daffy but steely Bunty.

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

Finally, one for those who enjoy excellent acting wrapped in an argumentative play. Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange puts Dorian Nkono’s Christopher in the middle of a medical-philosophical turf war between aspiring resident psychiatrist Bruce (Ian Meadows) and his wily, manipulative supervisor Robert (Sean Taylor). Questions about correct diagnosis of mental illness, race and social services jostle with more personal matters for the two doctors: the exercise of power and the best way to manage career advancement. There’s a lot going on and much of it is fascinating and thought-provoking, but Penhall loses his grip in the second half, resorting to a frankly ludicrous crisis and consequently weakened conclusion. The three performances are terrific though, particularly Nkono’s depiction of a young man whose condition sends his equilibrium flying off in unpredictable directions but who nevertheless has great charm and knows how to use it.

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Blue/Orange to November 29, Daylight Saving to November 30, Emerald City to December 6, Cyrano de Bergerac to December 20; A Christmas Carol to December 24

Williamson, Fleming

Cruise Control, by David Williamson, Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, April 30

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming, bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, ATYP Selects, May 2

DAVID Williamson has been writing plays for more than 45 years and hasn’t lost his touch with the well-crafted one-liner that effortlessly extracts a happy burst of laughter from a full house. He can be very entertaining indeed. His latest work, Cruise Control, has a pretty good stock of zingers in a set-up guaranteed to supply copious opportunities for them.

Three couples on a cruise have failed to arrange private tables for dinner and are thrown together for the duration – over-sharing Americans (Kate Fitzpatrick and Henri Szeps), brash, confident Australians (Helen Dallimore, Peter Phelps) and a tricky English couple comprising nice put-upon wife and self-regarding, philandering husband (Michelle Doake, Felix Williamson). All steam ahead for culture clashes and a big splash of sexual intrigue, leavened with some gentle social commentary occasioned by the presence of warm and wise steward Charlie (Kenneth Moraleda).

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

Helen Dallimore and Felix Williamson in Cruise Control. Photo: Clare Hawley

There is no profundity here, but Williamson is a keen observer of human tics and foibles and the going is easy for the first half. Alas the second half sails into more turbulent waters and does so rather creakily with an over-explanatory and frankly unbelievable denouement.

Marissa Dale-Johnson’s design makes astute and evocative use of the small Ensemble space, the cast is strong and Williamson, who took on direction duties, acquits himself well in that regard. But perhaps another director might have been able to persuade the playwright to give that second act another couple of drafts. Not surprisingly, though, The Ensemble already has had need to extend the Sydney season by offering performances at Chatswood’s The Concourse after the Kirribilli run.

Justin Fleming’s His Mother’s Voice could also do with another draft or two but its subject is entrancing and already it’s a work of substance and resonance. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, fluidly moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son (the very composed 12-year-old Isaiah Powell when young, Harry Tseng when an adult) the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, played with understated grace and gleaming intelligence by Renee Lim, music is a universal language. The Chinese apparatchiks who harry her see Western music as the enemy of Chinese music; she sees the two as complementary.

Isaiah Powell in His Mother's Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

Isaiah Powell in His Mother’s Voice. Photo: Tessa Tran

When her piano is destroyed Yang Lia finds another, incredibly touching, way of continuing her son’s education in the greats of Western classical music.

The politics of the Cultural Revolution collide with international politics, and if at times some of the arguments on the Western side seem a little stilted, Fleming’s portrayal of the contradictions acceptable – necessary? – in Chinese thinking is fascinating.

Suzanne Millar choreographs the swirling action (she co-designed the sparse, cleverly flexible set with John Harrison) with admirable clarity and it was a particular pleasure to see so many actors of Asian heritage on stage. How frequently the theatre world talks about diversity, and how infrequently we actually see it.

His Mother’s Voice ends May 17.

Cruise Control ends at The Ensemble, Kirribilli, on June 14. Then Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Wollongong, June 18-21, followed by The Concourse, Chatswood, for three performances on June 24 and 25.

 

2013: a retrospective

Here’s my take on the year’s high points. As many have noted before me, “best” is a useless word when applied to the cornucopia available in the arts. Here are the people and productions that most inspired me.

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia's Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

Showgirls usher the gods to Valhalla in Opera Australia’s Das Rheingold. Photo: Jeff Busby

“A SHORT show is a good show,” we all carol (me and my fellow critics) as we enter the auditorium for yet another 70- to 90-minute piece of theatre, but put a 10-hour marathon before us and we can’t get enough. So I have lists for big things, small things, individuals, a few words on musical theatre and a couple of miscellaneous thoughts.

It was a strong year, particularly in Sydney theatre, so it was hard to keep the lists tight. Please don’t take anything I say here as an indication of who has taken out honours in the Sydney Theatre Awards, of which I am but one judge on a panel of nine. Argument was fierce and the passions diverse, let me tell you! But here goes from me, in alphabetical order …

Big:

Angels in America, Parts One and Two, Belvoir, Sydney: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. This is the best play to have been written in English in my lifetime. Belvoir’s production was very fine.

Cinderella, The Australian Ballet, choreography by Alexei Ratmansky. The amazing Surrealist-inspired set looked waaaay better in Melbourne than in Sydney, but this version of the beloved fairytale to the bittersweet music of Prokofiev as choreographed by the world’s leading classicist is a keeper. (Also wonderful to see Ratmansky’s The Bright Stream with the Bolshoi in Brisbane mid-year – amazing how that company managed to block out the hideous backstage dramas that still dog it.)

Life and Times, Nature Theater of Oklahoma, Melbourne Festival: The ums, ahs and pauses of an ordinary life rendered first as a dippy musical, then as a drawing-room mystery. You had to be there (for 10 hours indeed). Sublime, transcendent.

Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam: Scintillating Stravinsky Firebird suite and glorious Tchaikovsky fifth symphony. Magic.

The Ring, Opera Australia, Melbourne: not a flawless production, but one that felt right for this place and this time. Director Neil Armfield’s strength is finding the humanity in situations where it may seem to be missing in action and he did it here. Under last-minute mini-maestro Pietari Inkinen (only 33!!) the Melbourne Ring Orchestra put in a blinder. Bravi.

The Threepenny Opera, Berliner Ensemble, Perth International Arts Festival: Not a huge company, but a Robert Wilson production simply cannot be put into any category other than outsized. Stupendously performed, gorgeous to the eye, a knockout band in the pit, witty, sardonic … you get the idea.

Small:

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney: A devastating production (Sam Strong directed) of John Romeril’s devastating play. I saw the last scene with tears pouring down my face. A rare occurrence.

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera: Apparently the most popular opera of 1649. Worked pretty damn well in 2013.

Independent theatre x 3: I have to mention this trio of splendid plays and productions thereof. I was thrilled to have been able to see Jez Butterworth’s brilliant Jerusalem in Sydney, and done so persuasively by the New Theatre. Workhorse Theatre Company’s The Motherf**ker with the Hat was hold-on-to-your-hats exhilarating, and is getting a re-run in 2014 at the new Eternity Playhouse. Hooray. And in Siren Theatre Company’s Penelope (by Enda Walsh), all sorts of trouble arises when Odysseus’s arrival back home is imminent. As with Workhorse, Siren did a superb job in the tiny confines of the theatre at TAP Gallery.

Owen Wingrave, Sydney Chamber Opera: This young, tiny outfit did Benjamin Britten proud in his centenary year. Really memorable music-making.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Owen Wingrave

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

The Rite of Spring, Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre, Brisbane and Melbourne festivals: In the Rite of Spring centenary year, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s setting in a harsh, cold village was, not surprisingly, dark and threatening. His ending, however, stressed the renewal and healing that is to come. The score was played in Stravinsky’s four-hand version (on one piano); earlier in the year, in Sacre – The Rite of Spring (Raimund Hoghe for the Sydney Festival), we heard the score also played ravishingly by four hands, but on two pianos. Sacre was a difficult dance work for many; I admired it greatly.

School Dance, Windmill Theatre (seen at Sydney Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Festival): loved, loved, loved.

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Super Discount, Back to Back Theatre: Deeply provocative on all sorts of levels. Can’t wait for Ganesh versus the Third Reich to come to Sydney – finally – next year.

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company: Luke Mullins, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving were an immaculate quartet of players in one of the year’s most heart-piercing productions.

Individuals (performers):

David Hallberg (American Ballet Theatre and Bolshoi Ballet principal): Luminous in Alexei Ratmansky’s Cinderella for The Australian Ballet in Sydney. Prince of princes.

Peter Kowitz: Les in The Floating World (see above).

Ewen Leslie: A huge year on the Sydney stage as a desolate Brick in Belvoir’s contentious Australian-accented Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Player in Sydney Theatre Company’s terrific Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and most powerfully – and impressively – as Hamlet for Belvoir, stepping in at short notice when original Dane Toby Schmitz was called overseas for filming duty. A rare change to compare and contrast in one of the roles by which men are judged. Closely.

Catherine McClements, Phedre, Bell Shakespeare: A scarifying performance in a production that was, in my opinion, sorely underrated. Not by me though.

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

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

Amber McMahon: Harper in Angels in America for Belvoir, various roles in School Dance for Windmill, special in everything.

Sharon Millerchip, Bombshells, Ensemble Theatre: Dazzling in Joanna Murray-Smith’s ode to the many faces of womanhood.

Tim Minchin: Lucky old us to see him not once but twice on stage, as a show-stealing Judas in the arena Jesus Christ Superstar and Rosencrantz in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Dead. Or is that Guildenstern? Don’t ask Claudius or Gertrude to help you out.

Luke Mullins: Prior Walter in Angels in America, the quiet centre of Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired, Lucky in Waiting for Godot. Fantastic in all of them. What a year!

Bojana Novakovic, The Blind Date Project, Sydney Festival: I adored this little improvised show. Wish I could have seen Novakovic with many more of her blind dates.

Myriam Ould-Braham, Paris Opera Ballet: Made her debut as Giselle in Sydney in February, making us here the envy of many a Paris balletomane. She was divine, as was fellow etoile Dorothee Gilbert. Both were partnered by the supremely elegant Mathieu Ganio. A joy to see the company here again.

Steve Rodgers: Rodgers has long been one of my favourite actors – so simpatico, even when taking on a difficult subject matter in Griffin’s Dreams in White. And especially in Gideon Obarzanek’s Dance Better at Parties for STC.

Individuals (behind the scenes):

Rafael Bonachela, artistic director, Sydney Dance Company: He’s here, he’s there, he’s everywhere. Bonachela sees everything and is bringing lots of strong artistic collaborations back for his astoundingly beautiful dancers.

Li Cunxin, artistic director, Queensland Ballet: He’s taken the company back to the classics and people have voted with their wallets. All shows have been sold out and all shows have been extended. I think Brisbane likes him.

Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia: Got the Ring up. Respect.

Musical theatre:

It was an exceptionally patchy year for musical theatre in Sydney, although Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was really, really entertaining and super-well cast, and the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a blast. The new consortium of music-theatre people, Independent Music Theatre, holds out promise for better things next year, and the feisty little Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre continues to impress.

Miscellaneous:

Best new (only new) theatre in Sydney in 2013: Best is a word that certainly applies here. All hail Sydney City Council for getting the Eternity Playhouse happening. It is a truly beautiful 200-seat house, and an adornment to the city.

Best seat in the house: A11 at Belvoir. The lucky incumbent – male or female, it didn’t matter- got a kiss from Toby Schmitz or Ewen Leslie during Hamlet. Alas I was not one of them.

Clearest indication that critics don’t matter much: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, which got the kind of reviews cast members’ mothers would write, did poor business in Sydney. Those of us who wrote about it adored it. We had very little effect.

Doesn’t stop us though.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Seminar

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Belvoir Downstairs, August 27. Seminar, Ensemble Theatre, August 27 matinee.

THE Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has just got underway in front of a packed, albeit small, house. “If we keep this up they might move us upstairs,” quips one of the performers. Right on ladies!

The performers have good reason to think they could pull a bigger crowd than at Belvoir Downstairs, where capacity is just 83. Tickets sold out in a trice (people can waitlist on the day) and there’s a lot more room in the Upstairs theatre. Room for about 330, to be precise.

Baulkham Hills is simplicity itself – a bunch of stories, some songs, a little bit of dancing and a couple of comic segments – and has a setting to match.There’s plenty of high-level expertise in the design, lighting, video, music-making and so on, but the production gently and gracefully concentrates on its protagonists, four women who used to live in Africa and now live in Australia.

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It doesn’t sound like much of a basis for a gripping theatre piece, particularly as the women didn’t just provide the raw material but appear on stage as well. But gripping it is, and sobering, and humbling.

In Sierra Leone, Yarrie Bangura saw cruelty of almost unimaginable proportions. Aminata Conteh-Biger doesn’t like to be told she’s beautiful, which she is, because being attractive to men brought her hideous torment. We hear something of Yordanos Haile-Michael’s terrible youth, but she is a reticent, slightly tense figure who is undoubtedly keeping much back. Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe, vibrant and positive, was beaten again and again. Rape, slavery, violence and deprivation – these were everyday reality for these stupendously brave women.

Out of this difficult, sometimes harrowing material, Writer-director Ros Horin has created an optimistic, uplifting show. Key to its success is the vivid presence of the women. Each tells aspects of her story, but there are times when the narration is handed to one of the three professional actors – Nancy Denis, Tariro Mavondo and Effie Nkrumah – who help shape the performance. It’s a touching device, and a clever one. It softens the blows, a little.

The show sags somewhat late into the 105-minute span. The hair-dressing scene, although bringing some comic relief, feels like filler. The earlier exposition on the difference between African dance styles and a quiz about the continent are much stronger and could take expansion. All of it, though, without being in any way overtly political, puts faces and personalities to the statistics and humanises the refugee debate. A splendid achievement.

And you have to love a show in which a woman – the irrepressible Yarrie Bangura – comes up with this line:  “Oh my goodness, [I think] I’m in heaven. And that was Sydney Airport.”

SYDNEY’S second-most attractively sited theatrical venue, after the Opera House of course, is the Ensemble in Kirribilli and it’s always a great pleasure to go to this small theatre on the water’s edge. How it manages without government funding is a miracle and a tribute to its ability to read its loyal audience.

Next year it will present Clybourne Park, which has been seen in Melbourne but not staged in Sydney; ditto Other Desert Cities, which is Queensland Theatre Company’s current production (it ends at the weekend). David Auburn’s Proof, another drama with a Broadway provenance is on next year too.

Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, is the latest in the “as seen on Broadway” shows at the Ensemble and is given a lively, entertaining production, although one that can’t disguise the play’s too-numerous flaws. The set-up has, well, the air of a set-up. A group of ambitious young writers gathers at an apartment to drink in the (expensive) wisdom of Leonard, apparently an editor of note, a writer of despatches from the world’s hot-spots and once a novelist. I think I have that right – why Leonard keeps dashing off to Somalia or Sudan or wherever is a bit unclear.

Anyhoo, Leonard is a tough old tyrant who needs to read only half a sentence before he knows exactly how bad a piece of writing is. Or he can speed-read a couple of pages and discern genius. He’s vile to the students, who also have other interpersonal issues to get through. All of this is quite amusing, if unconvincing.

Arguments and situations are false and clunky, although Rebeck’s writing itself can be well-wrought and funny and the young characters have vim. It’s an easy 100 minutes. But as a serious discussion about the art of writing, the need to write, who is the arbiter of what is good and what is not and other assorted cultural dilemmas, Seminar unfortunately gets a fail.

On the plus side, director Anna Crawford has assembled an excellent cast, including William Zappa in robust form as Leonard. I very much enjoyed Matilda Ridgway’s wound-up Kate and Michelle Lim Davidson’s blithely calculating and sexy Izzy. Felix Gentle (Douglas) and Matthew  Zeremes (Martin) also give expertly pitched performances. A pity it’s not a better play.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a co-production with Racing Pulse Productions & Riverside in association with STARTTS ends September 17; Seminar ends September 14.