Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

Thomas Campbell - MISTERMAN 1

Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

Ivanov3

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

SOM5070_Production-Photography-by-James-Morgan_R-1024x681

Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

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.

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.

Goodnight, sweet prince

Hamlet, change of cast, Belvoir, Sydney, November 26

THEATRE critics don’t often revisit a production. They go to the opening, write, and move on. They must. Other plays, other companies relentlessly crowd the diary and then the season is over and the chance disappears. The critic has to make judgments swiftly, and very possibly on a performance that is not as good as it will become. But that’s the way it works. The review is a snapshot of that one occasion.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

By and large that’s fine. Few productions, within the four to six weeks of their run, will alter so fundamentally that another viewing will change critical opinion. It also must be remembered that critical opinion isn’t a singular, unified beast. It’s a collection of disparate views, often wildly differing.

Only infrequently, therefore, does a production make an ironclad case for being seen again. Simon Stone’s Hamlet for Belvoir came into this category through chance. The production opened on October 12 with Toby Schmitz playing the prince of Denmark, but he was released when shooting on a US TV series, Black Sails, in which he is involved, was brought forward. (Black Sails is described as a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) Series one doesn’t premiere until January 25 but early buzz was so good a second series was commissioned by cable channel Starz and it started filming this month.

One can’t help thinking of when Geoffrey Rush withdrew from Belvoir’s 2003 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot to take a role in some pirate film. Yes, that would be Pirates of the Caribbean. That went pretty well for Rush. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of an opportunity like that. But Godot hadn’t yet opened and John Gaden nobly stepped into the breach.

In the case of Hamlet Schmitz would need to leave two weeks before the scheduled closing date.

Quite a challenging situation, you would think, having to replace such a charismatic leading man, and in Hamlet to boot. Belvoir, however, hit the jackpot with the availability and willingness of Ewen Leslie to step in. Not only is Leslie one of the finest stage actors of his generation, he had played Hamlet in Melbourne in 2011, although this assignment was a very different one. Leslie would have to forget huge swaths of text and come to grips with a re-ordering of that which remained.

Stone’s Hamlet isn’t one for everyone, particularly those who don’t know the play, and while I would suggest this production isn’t one for the ages, its explosive energy and intensity of purpose make riveting theatre. Hamlet has been ruthlessly pared back – take out the interval and there’s not much more than two hours of drama – and is presented in black and white. This is literally so in design terms, with the first half set (such as it is; a wall of curtains and row of bog-standard chairs) a study in black and the second act performed in a bright white box in which only the grand piano from Act I remains. The first setting acts as a visual equivalent to the dark deeds that unhinge Hamlet and the second provides a bright canvas for all that blood. Grief and death are Stone’s preoccupations and he goes at them pell-mell.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said of Edmund Kean that seeing him act was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. It wasn’t entirely the compliment it sounds. The meaning, it seems, is that with Kean you didn’t get the whole picture. Nevertheless, that wonderful phrase conveys the crackle and electricity of performance and could justifiably be used to describe this Hamlet and its strictly limited palette. The wonderful Nathan Lovejoy gets to be both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Anthony Phelan is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and in one of the production’s most touching moments is assigned Horatio’s beautiful words, “Goodnight, sweet prince”; an audacious puppet show economically replaces the travelling players; and so on.

All these things were immediately legible on a first viewing. The second viewing brought into sharper focus the production’s intimacy and complicity with its audience. The auditorium lights are often high and several times Hamlet crosses the invisible barrier between stage and seating. Even if not physically doing that, he makes searching eye contact. The idea of a soliloquy as ideas spoken aloud is transformed into a feeling of being inside Hamlet’s head as he tries to think things through. Leslie is particularly direct and powerful in this. At the performance I saw, when he demanded, “Am I a coward?”, you could feel people restraining themselves from answering. Thus, when the final scene is filled with blood-soaked characters, some of them are, strictly speaking, not yet dead. But as the duel scene rapidly unfolds, it is not unreasonable to apprehend these last moments as flickers of Hamlet’s dying thoughts. He sees dead people and so do we.

Stone’s production is not in essence changed by the change of cast, but naturally there are differences between Schmitz and Leslie. Schmitz was witty and unpredictable, wearing his rage and grief like banners of war in high-definition colours. Even when he was wracked with sobs there was the sense he was very aware of his effect and of how events may unfold. Leslie’s torment is no less overtly expressed yet feels more private. Deep thinking and even deeper desolation are his lot.

While on the subject of spellbinding performances, the weekend brings not only the last chance to see Hamlet, but also Marshall Napier in All My Sons at the new Eternity Playhouse for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Napier is towering in a very fine, absolutely traditional staging of Arthur Miller’s domestic tragedy. There’s happily a little more time to see Paul Blackwell in John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) for Sydney Theatre Company. Blackwell is devastating as a physicist falling into the black hole of dementia.

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waiting for Godot runs until December 21, with as thrilling a quartet of performances as you could find anywhere from Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins. In the bewilderingly under-appreciated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – by audiences, that is; the crits were the kind you’d write for yourself but houses have been small – Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington are a riot.

What of roles for women, we ask? Things are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, although Harriet Dyer is harrowing in Machinal at Sydney Theatre Company and Toni Scanlan magnificent as Kate Keller in All My Sons.

Like Hamlet, All My Sons had a key cast change during the run when Meredith Penman could do only a couple of performances as Anne due to another commitment. I didn’t see the well-reviewed Penman but her replacement, Anna Houston, was superb.

Remember how a couple of years ago there was a hoo-ha about lack of opportunities for female directors in theatre? That situation seems to have shifted appreciably, which is good. But what about towering roles for women. Well, this year we’ve had The Maids for Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury for Sarah Peirse, and newcomer Taylor Ferguson was given the title role in Miss Julie, although I found the production misbegotten.

I thought the unforgettable women of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe were quite right when they made a joke about how they should have been in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre instead of the tiny Downstairs space. But they weren’t.

As for next year, well, Sydney will see a man playing Hedda Gabler – Ash Flanders at Belvoir. But he will be directed by a woman, Adena Jacobs.

Hamlet and All My Sons end December 1. Vere (Faith) and Machinal end December 7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closes December 8. Waiting for Godot ends December 21.

The Chocolate Frog and other plays

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney, October 9; Hamlet, Belvoir, Sydney, October 16; The Chocolate Frog, Parramatta Correctional Centre, October 22; Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, Melbourne Festival, October 25

 Hamlet: Denmark is a prison

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was invited to see a performance of Jim McNeil’s first play, The Chocolate Frog. It was a one-night-only affair at Parramatta Correctional Centre, now decommissioned as a prison but the place in which in 1970 McNeil, then serving a lengthy jail sentence for armed robbery, started writing drama.

The connection with the justice system went further than writer and venue. The performers themselves had criminal records, and after serving their sentences had come to acting through an unusual program. While casting extras for TV programs including various Underbelly series, former actor and now agent Grant Thompson met some people who had done time. It gave him the inspired idea of training former prisoners for film and television work.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

This story of reinvention will be told in a three-part TV series for Foxtel arts channel Studio, being made by Screentime and expected to be screened next year. Because the series has followed the process that led to the casting and performance of The Chocolate Frog I can’t give too much detail about the performers. We saw some of them deliver Shakespearean monologues before the play began, and we saw a tremendously involving performance of The Chocolate Frog. We heard a few stories, and when Thompson spoke he was on the verge of tears, so proud was he of his students’ achievements.

Theatre has touched these lives profoundly, and we in the audience were profoundly moved. I wish I could write more about one performer in particular but that would pre-empt the story to be told in Taking on … The Chocolate Frog. Let’s just say the filmmakers have riveting material to work with.

I saw The Chocolate Frog – prison slang for dog, or informer – shortly after Griffin’s The Floating World and Belvoir’s Hamlet, and shortly before Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker at the Melbourne Festival. All of them are plays of imprisonment, either physical or psychological or both. Simon Stone’s much-cut “I see dead people” Hamlet foregrounds the grief that unmoors the Prince and from which he can’t escape. In The Floating World Les Harding, former World War II Japanese prisoner of war, is sent mad by memory and guilt. Minsk 2011 describes the surreal ways in which reality is altered in a totalitarian society and is performed by actors who are either in exile or in danger of arrest but who still have the deepest attachment to their home.

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

Minsk 2011, a thrilling and challenging piece, had a very short festival season but The Floating World and Hamlet are still running in Sydney. I admired Hamlet very much and am thrilled I’ll be seeing it again when Ewen Leslie takes over the title role from Toby Schmitz. We don’t often get a chance to see important work through the prism of two very different actors.

As for The Floating World, it is a crucial piece of theatre. John Romeril’s 1975 play is as relevant as ever, it is given much honour by its cast in Sam Strong’s pitch-perfect production and it was an idea of genius to stage it now. Next year will be one of much soul-searching as the centenary of the start of World War I is commemorated. Peter Kowitz’s Les is devastating: I saw the final scene with tears pouring down my face. What horrors so many men have suffered.

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

I was reminded too that the Yirra Yaakin-Belvoir production of Robert J. Merritt’s The Cake Man was written in prison, in Sydney’s Long Bay, and was first staged in 1974 with Merritt allowed to attend the opening under guard. It deals with another kind of imprisonment – white imperialism. For so many of us, these plays are as close to the experience of oppression as we’ll ever get. How fortunate we are.

The Cake Man is being performed in Perth at present and comes to Sydney in two weeks.

The Floating World ends at The Stables, Kings Cross, on November 16. At Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from November 19.

Toby Schmitz gives his last performance as Hamlet at Belvoir on November 17, after which Ewen Leslie takes over. Hamlet ends on December 1.

The Cake Man, Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Perth until November 9. Belvoir, Sydney, November 14-December 8.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sydney Theatre, August 10

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!

Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Act II

I HAD forgotten to what degree Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pays homage to Waiting for Godot while going backstage at Hamlet, as ‘twere. As the court of Elsinore goes through its well known paces, shown to us only in flickers and fragments, the two courtiers are left to fretfully consider just why they have been tapped to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Like Vladimir and Estragon they puzzle and ruminate, waiting for something to happen, never entirely sure of their shifting ground. That’s ground in the metaphorical sense; in the physical sense they seem rooted to the spot, unable to escape from a claustrophobic set of arches and tunnels that, disconcertingly, look fake but through which others – but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – come and go. The two are like actors who have lost the plot, babbling away, unable to find the right spot in the script and move on.

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

With Stoppard’s intellect and wit on speed dial – the man was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937; naturally he sees the mordantly funny side of existential angst – one has to be in alert form to keep up on both sides of the spotlights. Simon Phillips directs with unflagging vigour and a keen sense of the absurd, rightly, I think, valuing energy and momentum over textual clarity at times. Well, there are so many words that if you miss one or two, there’ll be another bunch along in a moment. (There isn’t a lot missed, and to be honest a couple of the more abstruse jokes are never going to score big with an audience so best to get ‘em out and move right along.)

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a marvel of cunning, and not only because it uses the Sydney Theatre stage in a way we haven’t seen before. It is genuinely disconcerting as well as being playful and mysterious. What’s that funnel doing hanging above the stage? At the beginning we see it extrude some bare branches – shades of Godot! – and later there’s a kind of twisty, open-work ladder that trails off into the wings. All very sci-fi and theatrical. Tylesova has had great fun with the costumes too, memorably kitting out Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude as a mad version of Elizabeth I. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revels outrageously in its play-ness (more Godot!), giving a particularly juicy role to the impresario whose dogged band of mixed nuts is hired to perform for Gertrude and Claudius.  “We are actors. We are the opposite of people,” says the Player, impersonated with lofty self-regard by Ewen Leslie, employing the rich, thespian tones of a man exceptionally impressed with the timbre of his voice.

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

When it comes to words, however, Toby Schmitz’s febrile Guildenstern is your man, pouring out his thoughts and fears amusingly, obsessively, manically. (Even his hair is jumpy: Schmitz’s usually straight locks are hidden under a riot of curls.) Of course he has every reason to suspect all is not right. Tim Minchin’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is not quite so aware of the abyss yawning before them – why toenails don’t grow as swiftly as fingernails is more his speed – but intimations of mortality are everywhere. Schmitz and Minchin, Minchin and Schmitz. They are tremendously vivid and engaging and touching as well as being highly individual. Claudius and Gertrude keep mixing them up, to the point where the lads themselves become a tiny bit unsure about who they are. But that’s because no one else is really real. They are all opening their mouths, saying stuff and playing a part.

I’d like to think it’s fate that provides Sydney with the chance to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sydney Theatre Company), Hamlet (Belvoir) and Waiting for Godot (STC) in the same year. Indeed, in the same half of the year.  I don’t suppose STC’s Andrew Upton and Belvoir’s Ralph Myers cooked this up together, at least I hope they didn’t. Less fun that way.

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

That two of the three plays feature Schmitz is a bonus. What a shame the scheduling of Hamlet makes it impossible for Schmitz – he is the Dane – to play Lucky to Philip Quast’s Pozzo while Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh play Vladimir and Estragon. Or is it Estragon and Vladimir?

What brilliant casts we’re seeing in Sydney this year.

Postscript: The supporting cast for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a knockout, and includes, along with Heather Mitchell, John Gaden as Polonius and Christopher Stollery as Claudius. And a special nod to George Kemp as the player Alfred, put upon in more ways than one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continues at the Sydney Theatre until September 14.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney

Belvoir St Theatre, February 27

WHEN theatre practitioners talk about putting Australian voices on stage they tend to be talking about Australian plays and Australian content – what else would they mean? Well, at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre, artistic director Ralph Myers and resident director Simon Stone take it a step further by preferring to use the Australian accent on stage, no matter where the play may be set. There were no upper-class British elocutions to be heard in Myers’s production last year of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, no American cadences in Stone’s Death of a Salesman (he unwisely also deleted the epilogue and had to reinstate it, but that’s a separate matter).

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Now Stone offers Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without the perfume of southern accents. It’s a bold call, and not one that persuades unconditionally, but nevertheless the decision is all of a piece with a keen desire to make an audience see important texts anew. To hear them anew. No Tennessee Williams play was harmed in the making of this production. (We may also assume that when Stone puts Hamlet on the Belvoir stage later in the year he won’t ask Toby Schmitz to play the Dane in Elizabethan English.)

There’s a Brechtian element here. It is disconcerting to hear Willy Loman talk about upstate New York towns and sound exactly like Colin Friels. It is jolting when, in Private Lives, Elyot says women need to be struck regularly, like gongs, and to see and hear Schmitz as a present-day Sydney lad about town. And it is deeply dislocating to hear Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as if it were set on a big property somewhere in rural Australia.

Such a provocation is stimulating and challenging – if one gains more than one loses. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I give Stone the win. I’d like to see the production again and think I’d get more from it on another viewing, which is pretty much my criterion for a successful evening.

But still.

I think it’s relevant that on the night I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the sounds of the American South frequently trembled on actors’ lips before being suppressed. Those sounds, so soft and stretched and swirled in the mouth, are at one with the rhythms of the text and have an almost palpable sensuality along with intimations of decay. Think of the sentimental references to Brick’s alma mater Ole Miss; that’s as mushy a phrase as you can find. And “mendacity” – the key word in the play – begs to be heard drawn out into four distinct, deliberate, southern syllables.

No wonder the actors appeared to be attracted strongly to this way of speaking. Embedded in the very sounds are layers of meaning and yearning. Without the accent Williams’s words no longer seem quite as sumptuous, and with that slightly slack quality that makes one think of licentiousness.

Does that sound like stereotyping? Sure does, which is possibly one of the reasons Stone wanted to do away with such a rich element of the play. The ruthless excision of that element forces the audience out of an ole plantation, “I wish I was in Dixie” mentality. Interestingly, the new Broadway revival goes hell for leather in that direction it would seem. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of January 17 notes “it is saturated in Southern Gothic atmosphere” and that the sound design includes snatches of servants singing spirituals and work songs – “Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton”. Lordy indeed.

I can understand Stone wanting to run at speed from that kind of presentation for an Australian audience. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to be mined for its application to the here and now.

Need, greed, manipulation and the coruscating exercise of power within a rich dysfunctional family lie at the heart of the play. Big Daddy (Marshall Napier) is dying and doesn’t know it; older son Gooper (Alan Dukes) and his fecund wife Mae (Rebecca Massey) think they should take over; both Big Daddy and Big Mama (Lynette Curran) prefer formerly golden younger son Brick (Ewen Leslie); Brick is trying to drink his way out of a life he despises and his wife Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) will do anything to hang on to what she’s managed to claw for herself. Meet the family.

As they go around and around on Robert Cousins’s revolving set with its rainbow curtain of streamers, everyone except Brick vies for ascendency in the shadow of Big Daddy’s demise. McKenzie is a wonderfully angular Maggie, and her tense skittering about at the play’s opening shows exactly what kind of cat she is: fast, wily, hungry, not quite enough meat on her bones. Napier will be a fine Big Daddy once he gets off the book (he was a late inclusion in the cast due when Anthony Phelan fell ill and had to do some scenes script in hand on the night the media attended) and Curran’s Big Mama, by turns vivacious and clingy, is vividly conceived.

But it’s Leslie’s handsome, desperate, disintegrating Brick who is at the core of this production. In a way he’s the only one who no longer wants anything, except a drink. He hates the tawdriness of it all – the loss of his shiny youth, his football prowess, the way in which his intense connection with his friend Skipper, now dead, is cheapened by everyone. The family all talk about the nature of the friendship and no one seems to care too much about what it was, as long as Brick can get it up long enough to impregnate Maggie. Mendacity rules, as the final image of the production proves. You could weep for Brick’s utter desolation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at Belvoir St Theatre until April 7 and transfers to the Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 10-21, 2013.