About last week … April 16-22

Last week’s theatre was all about men in extremis, or at least it turned out that way for me. Not an uncommon situation in our theatres, you might say, although now there is increasing awareness that we need to see a wider range of experience on Australian stages. (Hello lobby group Women in Theatre and Screen! More power to your elbow.) King Charles III (the Almeida Theatre production presented by Sydney Theatre Company) fell into last week simply because I hadn’t had the chance to see it earlier in the season but it made an interesting companion to STC’s Disgraced and the new one-man chamber piece Lake Disappointment.

King Charles III begins with mourning for Queen Elizabeth II. At long last Charles is king, although not yet crowned. From his many decades as king in waiting he knows exactly what the role entails, and yet from the first moments of his rule he is troubled by the implications. Is he to have no real authority at all? And if that is so, what meaning does his life have?

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Robert Powell as Charles, Ben Righton as William and Jennifer Bryden as Kate. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Mike Bartlett’s audacious play overlays this contemporary dilemma with Shakespearean structure, style and themes in a way that is both illuminating and often very funny. As the constitutional crisis unfolds there are shades of Macbeth, Hamlet, Henry IV and King Lear and an appropriately Shakespearean mix of tragedy and comedy. Bartlett explores an intriguing political conflict with potentially explosive fallout as well as giving a trenchant view of family dynamics of a particularly complicated kind.

I first saw the play in London in 2014 from a bench seat in the small, vertiginous upper level at the Almeida, which has a cosy 325 seats and an enticingly intimate atmosphere. That was a substantially different experience from seeing it at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre, which has nearly 900 seats and a different layout and character. Obviously a very different audience too, although at the matinee I attended it was a highly engaged one. There was undoubtedly more laughter in Sydney, although Bartlett’s text frequently encourages it and this audience’s response was rarely gratuitous. (There were grumblings after opening night of much inappropriate hilarity.)

It was always going to be hard for Robert Powell, the Charles in this excellent touring cast, to erase memories of Tim Piggott-Smith, who originated the role. Powell’s Charles was less comprehending of what his actions presaged; Piggott-Smith’s struggle was titanic. Even so, Powell’s downfall was deeply moving. I was thrilled to be able to see his extraordinary play again.

That was Wednesday afternoon; in the evening Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott’s Lake Disappointment received its premiere at Carriageworks. Mullins is the sole performer, an unnamed man with a precarious grip on reality. When we first see him he is talking to us as he performs the menial but necessary tasks that fall to the body double of a big movie star – the second-unit stuff like holding a cup, picking up a briefcase, hands on a car wheel, that sort of thing. Or perhaps he’s telling us after the event, as he remembers it. It doesn’t matter. The man is an empty shell who happens to have a similar shape to the actor he serves, Kane, and to whom he has attached his identity, such as it is.

Luke Mullins. James Brown

Luke Mullins in Lake Disappointment. Photo: James Brown

Mullins is exceptional in his ability to make blankness and banality intriguing and the man’s disintegration moving. Even so, the elegant production, with direction by Janice Muller and design by Michael Hankin, ultimately feels almost too fragile. The play, like the man, evaporates.

Disgraced is excellently staged, beautifully performed and terrifically well-directed theatre that had the first-night audience happily discussing its incendiary themes. It’s also one of those highly conventional plays of serious intent that wins prizes (the Pulitzer) and gets a run on Broadway. Disgraced’s climactic arguments are explored at a dinner party and have exactly the well-rehearsed, incredibly articulate quality inherent in this set-up.

Still. The issues canvassed by playwright Ayad Akhtar are pertinent. Amir’s parents were born in India, he says, just before it became Pakistan. Not that that’s going to reassure anyone in these troublous times. Amir is a high-flying lawyer who is far from being attached to his Muslim heritage. His artist wife Emily, however, finds beauty and grace in Islamic art. Emily’s dealer, Isaac is Jewish and his wife, Jory, is African-American and an incredibly pragmatic and ambitious lawyer who works at the same firm as Amir. Starting positions everyone. A favour for his wife and his nephew, reluctantly entered into, throws Amir into a head-on collision with his heritage and the way he lives and feels. Yes, you can see the points being crossed off in the script but Disgraced does have legitimate points to make.

Clearly there was a lot of male angst in the theatre last week, but it was cheering to see excellent women directors at work in Sarah Goodes (Disgraced) and Lake Disappointment’s Muller. The week before Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, for STC, not only featured one of comedy’s cracking leading roles for a woman, delivered sensationally well by Heather Mitchell (see my review below), but was directed in rollicking fashion by Imara Savage. See, you only have to ask them …

Looking at another aspect of diversity in the theatre, it was salutary to read the biography of the exceptionally fine Sachin Joab, who has the leading role in Disgraced. The Melbourne-born actor’s theatre credits before this? None, or at least none that he lists here or on his website, although he mentions Stanley Kowalski and Richard III. From his training days perhaps. Why haven’t we seen him before?

Joab’s background includes a stint in Neighbours, which has proved one of Australia’s greatest acting nurseries (I give you Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, the Hemsworth brothers, Margo Robbie and so on and so forth) so his credentials are impeccable. Let me put it this way: some Sydney casting directors seem to fish in an unfairly small pool.

Bee

Mongrel Mouth’s The Bee and the Tree with Dianne Kay as Queen B and Moreblessing Maturure as Bette

Finally to another kind of extremis – environmental degradation – and a theatre company with a strong commitment to diversity. The Bee and the Tree is the first children’s show from Sydney company Mongrel Mouth, founded in 2014 to present site-specific, socio-political theatre. The Bee and the Tree asked its audience of very young children to help save a dying tree, the last one in existence. A difficult-to-understand song made for a slightly puzzling start but once the action got underway the children took part willingly and, by the end, with much gusto, showering the grey, drooping tree with coloured petals to bring it back to life. Director Duncan Maurice’s costume designs – Mongrel Mouth champions recycling – were all winners and included a gold-encased Sun, large drooping tree, metamorphosing Grub and, best of all, Bette the Bee, played with much charm by co-writer Moreblessing Matarure.

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.

In which I fail to stop my list at 10

THIS year I saw more than 200 performances and, over the past week or so, have written about the people, plays, operas, dance works and musicals that spoke to me most strongly. Now I cull the list to 14 – just because that’s how it turned out – and a supplementary, the last being something I haven’t previously mentioned.

There’s also the one that got away. And one that almost got away.

What struck me most about 2014 was how unlike 2013 it was. Last year there were plenty of kapow! events on stage – among them Opera Australia’s Ring cycle, Belvoir’s Angels in America, The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella, Melbourne Festival’s Life and Times from Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting for Godot, the Berliner Ensemble at the Perth Festival with The Threepenny Opera, Paris Opera Ballet’s Giselle in Sydney – while this year the pleasures tended to be on a smaller scale.

But while there may have been a shortage of big-bang events there were movements afoot of great moment, chief among them more visibility for women playwrights and directors and more indigenous and queer stories taken out of little theatres and put into big ones. These movements didn’t magically appear this year but they did get traction and the texture of our theatre is more interesting and relevant because of them.

My earlier lists were presented in alphabetical order. Not here. I start at the top and work down, although I know that tomorrow I’d probably shuffle a few things around. The non-traditional number can be put down to the multi-art form nature of the list.

MY TOP 14 AND A FEW RING-INS

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography (Declan Greene, directed by Lee Lewis), Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

Madama Butterfly (Puccini, directed by Alex Ollé, La Fura dels Baus), Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour

Iphigénie en Tauride (Gluck, directed by Lindy Hume), Pinchgut Opera

Trisha Brown: From All Angles (Trisha Brown), Melbourne Festival

Twelfth Night (Shakespeare, directed by Tim Carroll), Shakespeare’s Globe, New York

Three Masterpieces (Twyla Tharp, Alexei Ratmansky, Jerome Robbins), American Ballet Theatre at Queensland Performing Arts Centre

The Glass Menagerie (Tennessee Williams, directed by John Tiffany, movement by Steven Hoggett), American Repertory Theater, New York

King Charles III (Mike Bartlett, directed by Rupert Goold), Almeida Theatre, London

Henry V (Shakespeare, directed by Damien Ryan), Bell Shakespeare Company, Canberra

Pete the Sheep (adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the book by Jackie French & Bruce Whatley, directed by Jonathan Biggins, composer/lyricist Phil Scott), Monkey Baa Theatre

A Christmas Carol (adapted by Benedict Hardie & Anne-Louise Sarks from the novel by Charles Dickens, directed by Sarks), Belvoir

The Drowsy Chaperone (music by Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison, lyrics by Bob Martin & Don McKellar, directed by Jay James-Moody), Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co

Switzerland (Joanna Murray-Smith, directed by Sarah Goodes), Sydney Theatre Company

Keep Everything (Antony Hamilton), Chunky Move

The supplementary event:

Limbo (Strut & Fret, Underbelly Productions), Sydney Festival. This circus-cabaret didn’t fit into any of my categories so it bobs up from out of left field, which is entirely appropriate for such an outrageously sexy, something-for-everyone show. It was one of the most wildly enjoyable experiences of my quite lengthy viewing career so I went twice during the 2014 Sydney Festival and I’m going again – possibly twice – when Limbo returns to the festival next month.

The one that got away:

Roman Tragedies (Shakespeare, directed by Ivo van Hove) Adelaide Festival. Now this would have been the year’s biggie, had I been able to get to Adelaide. Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s marathon performance of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra was by all reports life-changing. I believe it, and missing it will remain one of the great regrets of my theatre-going life.

The one that almost got away:

Skylight (David Hare, directed by Stephen Daldry). My London trip ended a day before previews started for Skylight, Hare’s ravishing play in which the political becomes very personal indeed. It was written nearly 20 years ago and its arguments resound ever more loudly today. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were starring. Desolation. Until National Theatre Live came to the rescue in October. Bliss.

Love and information: international theatre in 2014

TWO pieces of 2015 theatre programming in Melbourne would have interested me anyway, but having seen the shows in New York early this year makes them irresistible. Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (Melbourne’s Malthouse, from June 12, Sydney Theatre Company from July 9) and Jonathan Tollins’s Buyer and Cellar (Melbourne Theatre Company, from October 30) are tours de force requiring actors of great agility, but in very different ways.

Buyer and Cellar is a love-in between an irrepressible, highly indiscreet man and an audience avid for what the Americans call dish. The actor – at MTC it will be the delectable Ash Flanders – plays an under-used actor, Alex, who finds unusual employment with Barbra Streisand. Babs! Could anything be more heavenly?!! Buyer and Cellar amusingly satisfies our seemingly insatiable appetite for celebrity culture but there are some darker threads too, woven through with the lightest of touches. Everything depends, of course, on the charm of the performer playing Alex, given that we’re in his company for 90 uninterrupted minutes. Michael Urie originated the part and became quite the celebrity himself in New York. Rather delicious really.

I am surprised to see on the Malthouse website that Love and Information will feature eight actors. The production I saw used 15 and they were all pretty busy, given that Churchill’s play has more than 100 characters. In an interval-less two hours it presents more than 50 short scenes, some lasting only seconds. You can imagine what it’s like backstage. Churchill touches acutely on the variety of ways in which communication happens and also what it contains. Information can be personal, scientific, mathematical, political, mediated, terrifying, baffling, consoling, right, wrong and so many other things. The production I saw at the Minetta Lane Theatre was first staged at London’s Royal Court in 2012 and was dazzlingly set in a stark white tiled cube that was completely blacked out at the end of each scene to allow nifty changes. I will be fascinated to see what solution Malthouse and STC’s designer, David Fleischer, comes up with.

Three New York highlights:

Shakespeare’s Globe in Twelfth Night and Richard III, both starring the protean Mark Rylance: In the first he was an Olivia in great emotional disarray but able to snap into razor-sharp acuity when needed. He operated at the highest level of artifice but the glittering surface was like a protective shield for the most delicate of emotions. Breathtaking. In Richard III, he was a ratty-looking, manipulative, weasely murderer protected, for the moment, by his powerful position and a psychopathic belief in himself. I will carry with me for a long time the scene in which Richard asks a lackey to put out the news that Lady Anne “is sick and like to die”. Anne – Joseph Timms – was standing beside Richard, who sat on his throne and jovially put his arm around his wife and squeezed her waist. The gesture would seem affectionate, if not for his words and if not for the rag doll-like quiescence with which Anne allowed herself to be cuddled, all the while standing upright, dazed, but still noble. Tremendous stuff.

American Repertory Theater’s The Glass Menagerie, starring Cherry Jones as Amanda Wingfield: This was a production you could see repeatedly and one it’s hard to imagine being bettered. [I wrote this for my blog long before seeing Belvoir’s recent production. I’ll stick by my view.] The director was John Tiffany, whose riveting Black Watch we saw at the Sydney Festival a few years back and Stephen Hoggett, who choreographed Black Watch, was movement director. In this production Tennessee Williams’s memory play was illuminated by so many delicate, resonant, surprising, beautiful and heart-breaking touches: Bob Crowley’s spare set of hexagonal platforms that floated in a dark sea, the skeletal fire escape stairs that diminished in size as they disappeared upwards, the one glass animal that represented Laura’s collection, the way in which Laura made her entrance and exit, the sudden pull of memory that drew Tom into the past, the tenderness and restraint of the scene between Laura and the Gentleman Caller … well, one could go on and on. The performances, all of them, were exquisite – Jones, Zachary Quinto as Tom, Celia Keenan-Bolger as Laura and Brian J. Smith as the Gentleman Caller suspended time and place.

Two London highlights:

Simon Russell Beale as King Lear: Sam Mendes’s production for the National Theatre wasn’t entirely transcendent but Simon Russell Beale is one of the greatest of all classical actors and he didn’t disappoint. The moments of poignancy as Lear realises he is losing his mind and has thrown away everything of value were devastating. I was sitting quite close to the stage and to see the depths of Lear’s folly, madness and final clarity of vision revealed so piercingly was an experience I won’t forget. And one has to give it to the National Theatre. A company that fields for Lear a retinue of about 25 convincingly riotous soldiers is a company prepared to go the extra mile to achieve a director’s vision. The cast numbered 51 in all.

King Charles III, a “future history” written by Mike Bartlett, at the Almeida, directed by Rupert Goold: Queen Elizabeth II has just died and the formality of Charles’s coronation will follow in due time. But he is already the monarch and must assume the responsibilities of the role immediately. What happens immediately is a clash between the King and his government over a bill to restrict the press. Charles refuses to give royal assent and stubbornly sets off a constitutional crisis that ricochets across the country. There’s a tank out the front of Buckingham Palace before you know it. Prince Harry wants out of the royal family, William is forced into a mediation role and Kate – well, there are exceptionally interesting developments there.

Bartlett treads a sure path between satire and tragedy while using Shakespearean forms and echoes to enrich and amuse. Much is in blank verse and there are references galore, albeit often glancing, to Hamlet, Richard II, Macbeth, Henry IV. This framework lets Bartlett switch from laughter to tears in an instant and to give deep context to the discussion about the role of the monarchy.

For Charles (superbly given life by Tim Piggott-Smith), if he is not able to follow his conscience on individual matters, does he have any power at all? Others have a longer view about the way in which the monarchy can wield influence. As you can imagine, seeing this play with a British audience was a bracing experience.

King Charles III transferred to the West End where it runs until the end of January.

Tomorrow: Opera and musical theatre

A baker’s dozen: 2014 theatre in review

OF the more than 200 shows I saw last year, about a third were plays. Dance, opera, musical theatre and cabaret make up the rest. Unfortunately symphonic and chamber music featured very lightly. Can’t do everything, which is why my theatre viewing in Sydney had many gaps, although I don’t believe I missed anything that would make my list. I hate that I see very little theatre in other cities. Would I have adored to see Miriam Margolyes in I’ll Eat You Last at Melbourne Theatre Company? Yes I would. I just couldn’t find a suitable date (and would, anyway, have had to throw myself on the mercy of MTC supremo Brett Sheehy to get in the house, so scarce were the tickets).

I went to Brisbane specifically to see two productions – the Michael Attenborough-directed Macbeth for Queensland Theatre Company and the La Boite-MTC production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, which I had seen in New York last year. I didn’t care for the Macbeth, which I found somewhat like a drama class, but it did boffo business for QTC and was a more plausible production than Sydney Theatre Company’s “let’s turn the auditorium around” staging. Cock – a provocative and incredibly infuriating, even irritating, play – was undermined for me by its design of a field of soft pillows that were thrown around. One thing this play is not is soft.

I went to this year’s Melbourne Festival primarily to see the Trisha Brown retrospective but thanks to a Thursday matinee was able to see Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry, staged by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. I liked it very much, although it doesn’t make my list. Something else I enjoyed greatly was MTC’s Rupert (also not on the list), shortly finishing a commercial season in Sydney. Well, the phrase “commercial season” is close to being an oxymoron when it comes to Sydney and what is quaintly called the straight theatre. There are few theatres, fewer of the right size, and the ones that are available are either hogged by return seasons of big musicals or, like the Theatre Royal, hovering uncertainly on the edge of redevelopment.

I saw many things in New York and London, and will talk about them tomorrow in my International list. There were a couple of beauties, including a superlative production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. I’ll be fascinated to see how Melbourne’s Malthouse copes with its complexities when it puts on its own production next year. First task: get a brilliantly accomplished, totally unflappable stage manager. But more on that tomorrow.

I’m going slightly off-piste here, but I loathe the system, now used virtually everywhere, of giving productions star ratings, as if the piece of theatre were a refrigerator either superbly or deficiently energy-efficient. If plentifully bestowed, stars are a boon to theatre managements as they tout their shows but they reduce the critic to another cog in the publicity machine. They say to the reader – always described as time-poor – don’t bother to absorb the nuances of the discussion; just count the stars and see them twinkle in the advertisements.

My list cannot be described as the “best” plays I saw in 2014. “Best” is a meaningless term. What can be said is that a piece of theatre touched one’s heart, soul and mind more powerfully and lastingly than did others. This is a very personal matter, which is why opinions can differ so greatly. Even in what might think are matters of execution – the appropriateness of a set design, say, or the technical skills of a performer or director – there can be widely divergent views. You should hear the discussions our group has when deciding the finalists and winners of the Sydney Theatre Awards (results announced on January 19).

I love a cracking production of a classic – last year’s Sydney Theatre Company Waiting for Godot, for instance – but am most deeply moved by work that expands and challenges what we think we know about our society. Theatre audiences are overwhelmingly white and comfortably off, but you have only to get on a train to Parramatta to see an infinitely more diverse Australia. And yes, there were plays this year that reflected that.

There are things on my list that didn’t get an incredibly flash production but their virtues shone through. One or two could use a few more drafts. I’ve included three non-Australian works that were graced with exceptional performances.

And one thing I noticed. There are loads of women writers and directors. This was not in any way planned but perhaps points to a breakthrough in which, you know, good people get to do good things. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Finally, there’s nothing more artificial than a list of 10. Yes, we have 10 fingers and 10 toes, so we like that number. Here it has no purpose.

Thirteen plays I loved in 2014, in the order in which I saw them:

Black Diggers, by Tom Wright. Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival (January)

Indigenous Australians signed up for World War I duty in the expectation they would find justice and acceptance on their return. How wrong they were. The rollicking theatriciality and fierce humour were uplifting; the story itself heartbreaking. It was a bit rough and ready on its premiere but who cares? In the centenary year of the declaration of war, it was outstandingly relevant. Wesley Enoch directed.

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre at Carriageworks (March)

At last Sydney got to see this potent, much-travelled work. The swastika was once a sacred Hindu symbol and the god Ganesh wants to wrest it from the Nazis. At the heart of the matter are questions of who has power and who has the right to tell certain stories, overlain with the certain knowledge that in Hitler’s world the men enacting this play would have faced extinction. It was hold-your-breath, edge-of-the-seat theatre. Bruce Gladwin directed.

Jump for Jordan, by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company (March)

This is such an Australian story. A woman born here of Jordanian parents is both a typical Aussie and someone who has to negotiate the treacherous territory between her parents’ world and her own. Abela’s play energetically dashes between realism, farce and surrealism, but most of all it captures so poignantly the pain migrants must face of leaving behind the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and customs that we call home. It had a terrific cast, in which Doris Younane, as the Jordanian-born mother, was very, very fine. Great set by Pip Runciman too, in which sand spilled into the living room of a suburban Sydney home. Iain Sinclair directed.

Pete the Sheep, based on the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge. Monkey Baa Theatre Company (April)

Perfect. Just perfect. Pete is a sheep-sheep in a world that reckons there’s only a place for sheep dogs. Pete and his owner beg to differ and they prevail triumphantly. Silly songs, an important lesson in diversity, and fantastic fun for the kids. And for me. Directed by Jonathan Biggins with songs by Phillip Scott.

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming. bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company at ATYP (May)

His Mother’s Voice could do with some reworking but its subject is entrancing. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, who was 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. 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 Miller directed.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, by Declan Greene. Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company (May)

The title is misleading in one respect because the play is not at all about pornography. But in its expression – so caressing in cadence and so ugly in import – the name brilliantly captures the bleak oppositions that drive Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. There have never been so many ways to communicate and so little connection. Never so many goodies to fill the home to overflowing yet so much emptiness. Never so much stimulation available at the tap of a keyboard and such a paucity of genuine satisfaction. This epidemic of unfulfilled desire and coruscating loneliness is dissected with laser accuracy. A man and a woman, both unnamed, meet via a dating site. He is married and obsessively into pornography, she is a nurse with an out-of-control shopping habit. Both have a core of self-loathing covered with a thin layer of coping. He is the greater fantasist and she the more self-aware but they’re both in deep, deep trouble. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs were devastatingly good. Lee Lewis directed.

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare Company (June)

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war. There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery. Inspired and inspirational.

Kryptonite, by Sue Smith. Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia (September)

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian and Dylan meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another. I found the part for Dylan (Tim Walter) a little underwritten, but Ursula Mills as Lian was stunning. I’d love to see it again. Geordie Brookman directed.

Children of the Sun, by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Andrew Upton. Sydney Theatre Company (September)

I found this so poignant. A well-meaning bourgeois Russian family fails to see revolution brewing all around them. Well, one of them can but no one takes any notice. There isn’t any malice in their lack of understanding about the society in which they live but that won’t help them in the end. I think we can all see a lesson there. Jacqueline McKenzie and Justine Clarke made me cry. Kip Williams directed.

Howie the Rookie, by Mark O’Rowe. Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy (October)

This was theatre as stripped back as it comes. The two 40-minute monologues that form Howie the Rookie were here performed by Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (they are sometimes done by one actor), who took us pell-mell into a particularly violent, mordantly funny and wildly alive part of Dublin. O’Rowe’s extravagant text was given a brilliantly restrained setting by Lisa Mimmocchi of no more than a pile of bottle tops and a couple of chairs. Toby Schmitz directed.

Is This Thing On?, by Zoe Coombs Marr. Belvoir (October)

One stand-up comedienne, five versions of herself at different ages, and a riotous night to be had by all. What could have been a madwoman’s breakfast was held together with awesome, anarchic energy by Susan Prior. Kit Brookman and Zoe Coombs Marr directed.

Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith. Sydney Theatre Company (November)

There’s a famous and famously reclusive novelist, an interloper and the spectre of the novelist’s most enduring character. The three collide in Joanna Murray-Smith’s audacious play, which starts innocuously enough as bio-drama, morphs into a psychological thriller and ends as fantastic realism. Sarah Pierse gets possibly the role of her career as Patricia Highsmith; Eamon Farren is the persistent young publisher’s emissary who wants the author to write another Tom Ripley novel. Sarah Goodes directs with a sure, elegant and witty touch. It runs until December 20.

A Christmas Carol, adapted from Charles Dickens by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks. Belvoir (November)

I adored everything about this. Michael Hankin’s set is spare but full of surprises, Mel Page’s costumes are festive and I had to suppress a desire to run onstage and hug every actor at the end. A Christmas Carol celebrates love and generosity. Amen to that. Anne-Louse Sarks directed. (Fittingly, it runs until Christmas Eve.)

Tomorrow: International theatre ( I promise it will be much shorter)

Macbeth and Cock in Brisbane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macbeth ends April 13; Cock ends April 12.