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.

School Dance, The Blind Date Project, The Peony Pavilion, The Secret River, Sydney Festival

School Dance, Sydney Theatre Company presents the Windmill Theatre production in association with the Sydney Festival. Also Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong, February 7-9; Melbourne Arts Centre, April 10-20; Brisbane Powerhouse, July 31-August 3

The Blind Date Project, Ride on Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Peony Pavilion, Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival. Also Perth International Arts Festival, February 25-March 2

AT the performance of School Dance that I attended – a weekday matinee early in the run – there were quite a few empty seats. Bad call on the part of theatre-lovers, because now Sydney Theatre Company’s website is noting very limited availability for the remaining performances. School Dance acknowledges and yes, celebrates teenage male awkwardness, longing and resilience in a piece that is acutely observed, sweet and funny, and uplifting without losing its honesty. Take three self-confessed losers, put them in a tacky school hall, throw in obstacles in the form of a hilariously huge bully and an unattainable girl, stir in some fantasy and off we go. (Not to forget some great 1980s music. It is worth the price of admission alone for the bike ride – leg-powered, not some fancy motorbike – to the Bonnie Tyler anthem Holding Out for a Hero.) Windmill Theatre had success with this last year in its home base of Adelaide so the show is beautifully worked in, featuring the multitudinous talents of Matthew Whittet (writer and actor), Jonathon Oxlade (designer and actor), Luke Smiles (composer and actor) and Amber McMahon (brilliant and indefatigable as all the female characters). Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography is delicious and Windmill’s artistic director Rosemary Myers brings it all home wittily and movingly.

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

As I left the theatre I heard a man of mature years exclaim that this was the best show he’d ever seen, and there was in his voice the shiny, excited quality of revelation. It’s good to see School Dance is off to Wollongong, Melbourne and Brisbane; early booking is clearly indicated.

The Blind Date Project could probably have run and run in terms of audience demand, although perhaps not in terms of the demand on its performers. Bojana Novakovic is Ana, a woman waiting at a bar for a blind date to turn up. The person who turns up – and it may not necessarily be a man – is different at each performance, and the identity of the actor who will play the blind date is unknown to Novakovic until they arrive bearing a bunch of flowers. The encounter is improvised, albeit with some direction received via mobile phone. Novakovic also clearly has some anchor points she uses. Still, it’s a greatly enjoyable highwire act and one that can take many different paths. The night I saw The Blind Date Project (a late-night show), Charlie Garber arrived fresh from playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at Belvoir, and he could not have been more darling. I gather not all dates ended quite as well for Ana.

I was delighted to see The Peony Pavilion having (boast, boast) seen the 18-hour full version of this 16th century opera at the 2000 Perth festival. Here it was the merest sliver at 2 ½ hours, but the central love story remained, and it was an opportunity to absorb and savour a style of singing, performance and orchestral playing entirely different from that of Western opera. Kunqu is highly stylised and formal in gesture, but not above throwing in some dazzling acrobatics and other popular entertainment forms. There was a lot lost in this production due to the extreme truncation of the piece, although the cuts weren’t a sop to Western audiences. Only a few of The Peony Pavilion’s 55 scenes are usually performed these days so it was great good fortune to have seen the full work. The Sydney Festival of 1999 was originally to have hosted The Peony Pavilion in its full pomp but visa difficulties delayed the production, and the following year Perth alone took it in Australia.

I imagine there won’t be another chance to see the entire Peony Pavilion again, but then I used to say that about Einstein on the Beach, a mere stripling of an opera that clocks in at about 4 ½ hours, which Melbourne hosted in 1992. And guess what’s coming back to Melbourne from July 31?

The Secret River confronts the fundamental torment on which modern Australia was founded. People were cut off from everything they knew and transported to the other side of the world to make the best, or worst, of it. They may as well have been in outer space given their chances of successful return, and in trying to make a new kind of home they took what wasn’t theirs. People sent here for what may have been petty thieving became government-sanctioned thieves on a grand scale. It was a brutal business.

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel, directed by Neil Armfield with Bangarra’s Stephen Page as his associate, is simultaneously monumental in scale and incredibly intimate. The stage, shared by the newcomers and the traditional owners, becomes the ground on which the idea of home, place and identity is argued and fought over. Well, we know how it turned out for the indigenous people, but that in no way diminishes the dramatic impetus nor the anguish.

We can never lose sight of what all this will mean for modern Australian history, but The Secret River tells the story through the eyes of just a handful of people, and therefore in an intensely human way. The story ebbs and flows between the two groups, an unstoppable tragedy in the making as Thames boatman William Thornhill sees his patch of land on the Hawkesbury as the path to reinvention.

STC says Secret River tickets are also scarce – a good start to the year for Andrew Upton, now flying solo as artistic director – so perhaps a trip to the Perth International Arts Festival is indicated for the very keen. I’m looking forward to the first few days of the Perth event, including, of course, the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson – a very eye-catching Perth exclusive.