About last week(s) … June 6-19

A recent holiday took me entirely away from all daily cares and the internet. There was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, nothing. I heartily recommend it. Now back to Sydney theatre …

Sydney Theatre Company’s magnificent production of All My Sons, directed with piercing clarity by Kip Williams, unfolds with dreadful inexorability and finality. You understand how it is all going to end from the moment it begins. The stage is dominated by a huge, dark house. Well, it’s not a house, it’s a cutout; a façade lacking any homely details. There’s a door that has not a skerrick of welcome in it and some mean windows picked out by artificial illumination.

You couldn’t call Alice Babidge’s design subtle but it lands its punches with savage precision. This is a place that hides things and then sucks the life out of them.

STCAllMySons-0275-Zan Wimberley

Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

It’s not how Arthur Miller envisaged the setting. He wanted the audience to first encounter something normal and peaceful, which is what we saw in the very good Darlinghurst Theatre production that inaugurated Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse in late 2013. In Miller’s directions the fallen tree in the Keller family’s front yard would be the only visual clue to the anguish that unfolds in less than 24 hours and comes to its grim conclusion after night falls. It’s the kind of realism that reflects Miller’s debt to Ibsen’s social dramas.

But Miller was also drawing on classical Greek theatre in which personal tragedy had far-reaching implications for the whole society. Williams’s production is both of Miller’s time – the play was written in 1946 and premiered in 1947 and Babidge’s costumes reflect that – and timeless. The specific sin of Joe Keller is that he profited from selling shoddy aircraft parts that led to the deaths of young American World War II pilots and that he let another man take the blame. The broader, lasting sins are of denial of responsibility, of failure to be a decent member of his community and of a festering guilt that infects everyone. What kind of a world is made when people put their own interests before those of the group? When making money is a higher goal than being just and serving truth.

Joe and Kate Keller have – had – two sons. One, Larry, is listed as missing in action. The other, Chris, hopes to marry Larry’s fiancée Ann. If Kate accepts that, then she has to admit Larry is dead. Ann’s father is the man who took the rap for Joe and she and her brother George have shunned him ever since, believing him to be at fault. The shaky tower of lies and self-deceptions cannot survive Ann’s arrival at the Keller house to discuss her future with Chris.

Williams has gathered an exceptional cast. Every role, down to the smallest, resonates fully. Take, for instance, Bert LaBonté’s Jim Bayliss, the doctor who is neighbour to the Kellers. LaBonté puts a deceptively light underlay of irony beneath his smooth-as-silk exterior. He is a man who understands exactly what compromises he has made for a relatively easy life and what it costs to stick with them. Anita Hegh is super-luxury casting as Jim’s discontented wife Sue, as is Josh McConville as George. His whirlwind entry into the fray doesn’t come until after interval and his burning anger fuels the explosion that rips away all pretence.

STCAllMySons2-0895-Zan Wimberley

John Howard and Chris Ryan in All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Chris Ryan (Chris) and Eryn Jean Norvill (Ann) are very fine as the young couple trying to create a future for themselves but carrying distressing emotional burdens. Chris also went to war and has inevitably been changed; Ann has heavy knowledge that must be revealed if she is to move on. Both bring memorable, affecting delicacy and lucidity to the drama.

John Howard’s Joe is a triumph of bluster and defensiveness wrapped in a body that’s succumbing to the indignities of age. Robyn Nevin’s Kate is harrowing. Her every molecule vibrates with grief and fear. She puts up a reasonable front but she knows, as we do, that the reckoning is at hand. It is almost unbearably painful to watch.

Nick Enright’s A Man with Five Children has something of the flavour of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series but adds a fascinating degree of complexity by putting the documentary maker, Gerry, at the centre. Apted’s series selected a group of seven-year-old children and returned to them at seven-year intervals. Enright moves in more closely. Gerry revisits his children every year and becomes ever more entwined in their lives. Can he be both observer and participant? Do lives change because they are observed? What do you think? A Man with Five Children started life as a student workshop in 1998, anticipating the Australian version of Big Brother by three years. The subsequent explosion of so-called reality TV has made the play appear even more prescient.

Anthony Skuse’s production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company is engrossing, despite the play’s overlong first half. Five adult actors touchingly enact their characters as young children and skittish adolescents as well as their older selves, letting us see the children – and their hopes, mistakes, anxieties and gaucheries – within the grown men and women. Because Gerry (Jeremy Waters) goes back to his subjects so frequently there is the impression of lives unfolding on fast-forward, often precariously.

Jemwel Danao Taylor Wies Jeremy Waters A MAN WITH FIVE CHILDREN (c) Helen White

Jemwel Danao, Taylor Wiese and Jeremy Waters in A Man with Five Children at Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Photo: Helen White

And always there is the elephant in the room: does Gerry’s camera – Gerry – play a substantial role in defining how a life will be lived?

A Man with Five Children (it premiered professionally in 2002) also offers a broader snapshot of Australian society. When we first meet them Jessie (Chenoa Deemal) is an Indigenous girl with enormous promise, cheerful Roger (Jemwel Danao) was born in Australia of Asian descent, clever Susannah (Charlotte Hazzard) is a white European migrant, Zoe (Jody Kennedy) is a defensive working-class kid and Cameron (Taylor Wiese) is troubled and neglected. Through them Enright touches on national identity, multiculturalism, idealism and celebrity culture among much else.

As the children grow some of them find partners whose lives also become part of the texture and a complicating factor. There are some joys but many sorrows, not all of which are Gerry’s fault but a lot that are. Enright nevertheless doesn’t present Gerry as a monster; he is perhaps as much a victim as anyone. The play is beautifully performed by all and exceptionally moving.

After all that sturm und drang, a good laugh. Bell Shakespeare and Griffin joined forces to present Justin Fleming’s Molière adaptation The Literati (based on Les Femmes Savantes). I confess to having found it a touch too long and the text perhaps not entirely as sparkling as some have found it, but the performances are top-notch and Sophie Fletcher’s set is a miracle. Anyone who knows The Stables theatre is aware of its space restrictions. Fletcher has managed to give the impression of a very fancy house and thrown in a revolve to boot. That in itself is hilarious, gives rise to delicious comic business and facilitates one of the show’s finest gags, in which Jamie Oxenbould negotiates a conversation between the two characters he plays, young lover Clinton and Christopher, the father of Clinton’s beloved Juliette. Comedy gold.

Lee Lewis’s tremendously good production thriftily makes do with just five actors and doubles the fun. Gareth Davies has only to impersonate the vile, oleaginous poet Tristan Tosser but along with Oxenbould the others have two roles. The incomparable Kate Mulvany is Juliette’s uptight, bookish sister Amanda – her tussle with a chair is a particular highlight – and a minor functionary; divine Caroline Brazier is Juliette’s hideous mother Philomena and wise scholar Vadius; and Miranda Tapsell is as radiant as ever – she really does have the most eloquent face to be seen anywhere on the Sydney stage these days – as Juliette and seen-it-all housemaid Martina.

The piece is a send-up of literary pretension with a side serve of thwarted romance and can be greatly enjoyed if you don’t think about it too much. Aspects of it aren’t as sharply relevant to modern eyes and ears as Fleming’s earlier, fabulous Tartuffe was, but it does send the audience wafting out on a cloud of ineffable silliness. And that’s not a bad thing at all. No, not to be sneezed at these days.

A Man with Five Children, Eternity Playhouse, until June 26

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre, until July 9

The Literati, The Stables, until July 16

Angels in America, The Maids, Phedre, Othello

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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