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.

Room of Regret, Life and Times: Episodes 1-4

Room of Regret, Theatre Works, St Kilda, October 27

Life and Times: Episodes 1-4, Melbourne Arts Centre, October 26

THE Rabble’s Room of Regret could have been expressly ordered by the Melbourne Festival to illustrate the essential unknowability of the critical process. As part of the festival’s investigation into the art of the critic I took part in a forum on criticism in the digital age and, predictably, at the end someone asked how could one trust reviews when there is such lack of agreement. It’s easy to laugh at the apparent naivety of the question but in fact it encapsulates the situation beautifully. Yes, there is glorious lack of agreement and no, you can’t trust opinion if you equate it with fact. We all have our own perceptions, influences, experiences and knowledge to bring to our reception of a performance, and by all, I mean all audience members, including critics.

Emily Milledge in The Rabble's Room of Regret. Photo: David Paterson

Emily Milledge in The Rabble’s Room of Regret. Photo: David Paterson

Room of Regret got a one-star review from Byron Bache in The Herald-Sun (“There are actors in it, but to name them would be to shame them…”) and one and a half stars from Cameron Woodhead in The Age (“… Emma Valente’s direction doesn’t rise to the occasion, leaving the actors running around shrieking …”). Artshub’s Mileta Rien (“haunting, thought-provoking, daring”) gave it five out of five and on The Guardian’s website Jane Howard went for four stars (“… an endlessly complex and intoxicating production…”).

On the ABC’s arts site Alison Croggon described the theatre-making as “bold, confident and often surreally striking”. All praise to the ABC for not succumbing to the idiotic star-rating system (The Age and The Guardian should be ashamed of themselves), although I must admit those glib little pronouncements help illustrate my point here. From one star to five: now that’s a reason all by itself to go to a show.

Room of Regret is a fractured version of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, created by The Rabble’s founders Emma Valente and Kate Davis. The novel is so highly perfumed as to be exceptionally hard-going these days. Even so, its ideas of transgression, performance, transformation, possession of body and soul and the elevation of beauty to an object of worship time-travel with ease to the 21st century. I can understand why Valente and Davis find the work so fascinating and admire the way in which they go about seeking theatrical images and language to capture its spirit. They are by no means entirely successful, but there is gallantry and purpose in their attempt and moments of great pleasure.

On entering the small foyer at Theatre Works in St Kilda the audience member is given a ticket with a coloured sticker to indicate which of four groups she or he must join. Take note of the “must”. It’s often suggested that traditional theatre, with its “stage here, audience there and fourth wall separation between the two”, imposes a strict and old-fashioned level of control over the passive audience. It’s certainly a tenacious model. American iconoclasts the Living Theatre were trying to smash through the boundaries as long ago as the 1960s and on occasion, if the stories are to be believed, actors had sex with members of the audience. Now that’s immersive theatre. (The Living Theatre closed its doors in New York in February this year, its founder Judith Malina heading to a retirement home.)

There is a strong level of control at Room of Regret too (some simulated sex between actors but none with the audience, I believe I can safely say, simulated or otherwise). You go with the group you are given, you accept the veil placed on your head, you sit where indicated, you go with a performer when beckoned (if you are one of those chosen, as I was) and sit down again when your private experience is over. Unless you are extremely confident, Room of Regret would not be an easy show to leave.  I hasten to say I had no desire to leave. I merely suggest that theatre such as Room of Regret quite understandably has its organisational structure, and it’s not terribly different to the old one but with the actors much closer than usual.

Speaking of control, I have never felt more oppressed in this regard than at a New York performance of Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a response to Macbeth with which Room of Regret has some similarities, albeit on a much smaller scale. There is the occupation of multiple spaces, the requirement that faces be covered, the impossibility for an audience member to see the whole piece from one perspective although a repeat visit may show an alternative perspective, the physical closeness of the performers and the suggestion that the performance space may also be regarded as an art installation. The Rabble, however, handles its audience in a far more respectful fashion than does Punchdrunk, or at least in my experience. There was a gentleness in their approach and touch that I found very sweet. Is that Melbourne versus New York? Perhaps.

The 90 minutes of Room of Regret unfold in a multi-roomed set (by Davis) delightfully strewn with golden petals; many of the production’s images are very striking indeed. The walls are flimsy plywood against which the audience sits, their backs sometimes pummelled by the action taking place on the other side. The walls make reasonable enough screens on which that action is transmitted via video to those unable to see it directly; text is often spoken into microphones to carry it around the whole space, although I found the sound system muddy, leading more to incomprehension than intrigue.

The actors dash from space to space, occasionally plucking a person from the audience for some quiet time or a dance. Key moments from The Picture of Dorian Grey are enacted, interpreted and often repeated. Text is taken from the novel and from other sources: Gertrude Stein, Amanda McBroom (she wrote the song The Rose, which gets an airing). Dorian is played by two actors (Pier Carthew and Alex McQueen) and Lord Henry Wotton by a woman (Mary Ellen Sassman).

As you can see, Valente, who directs, has plenty of ideas to offer, but unfortunately not quite the resources to make them into an experience that transcends its surface attractions. I found myself projecting on to the performance what Valente may be searching for rather than feeling a sense of intense communion with it. Partly that’s because technically Room of Regret is a bit rough while depending on technology to speak to the whole audience; partly it’s because the text is at times less poetically resonant than it aspires to be; a lot of it is because the five actors – the others are David Harrison as the artist Basil Hallward and Emily Milledge doubling as Sibyl Vane and a boy – have varying degrees of command. The men come out of it much better than the women.

There are critics who above all appreciated the drive, ambition and purpose of Valente and Davis’s vision. There are others for whom shortcomings obscured all else. I’m right there in the middle.

A PIECE of theatre you could leave without too much fuss was Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, and some people did exercise their right. How funny people are, and how bewildering. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that you’d do a bit of homework if you’d put down your money (or accepted an invitation) for a theatre marathon that got you seated at 2pm and finally released you out at 12.15am. You’d want to know a bit about what you were in for, no?

Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Life and Times. Photo: Anna Stocher Pressebild

Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s Life and Times. Photo: Anna Stocher Pressebild

You’d discover that Life and Times is verbatim theatre based on telephone calls with a member of the company, Kristin Worrall. She was asked just one thing: to talk about her life. Which she did, starting with first consciousness and digressing wherever and whenever, as we all do when trying to remember stuff. And the most cursory research would reveal that the verbatim text, delivered in performance by all members of the group, includes all the ums, all the ahs, all the likes, all the whatevers, all those little locutions that give us a moment to think or to prevaricate or to backtrack or change track or zone out for a bit, or to just give a sentence the right shape. Worrall, by the way, is in the core group of performers, playing flute and glockenspiel and occasionally jumping up to sing. How mind-blowing must it be for her?

Well, as I said earlier, we all see things differently so perhaps the walkouts did know a bit about Life and Times but it didn’t work out for them in the flesh. It certainly did for me. Life and Times: Episodes 1-4 was one of the great and glorious theatrical experiences of my very lengthy theatre-going life. In the hands of Nature Theater of Oklahoma the quotidian details of a life are made thrilling and important – made into a musical, in fact, in parts 1 and 2; an Agatha Christie-style thriller in parts 3 and 4 – as they describe discoveries, joys, humiliations and embarrassments common to us all. The triggers for one’s own memory are powerful and deeply, deeply affecting.

On one level this is an incredibly simple idea and yet it requires a high level of virtuosity in performance. The text is far from linear, there are all those interpolated sounds that are vital to the rhythm of the piece and the dance, while not difficult in itself, is extremely repetitive, until it is not. No wonder that, opera-style, sections have a prompter. Surprisingly no choreographer is credited, so presumably the movement is the work of cast and co-directors Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper, Nature Theater of Oklahoma’s founders. The moves are from eurythmics, rhythmic gymnastics and chorus line formations with a touch of marching band vibe and there’s also quite a lot of bobbing up and down. (In Part 2 the main performers, 10 in number, were augmented by a chorus of eight, found and rehearsed locally. They were great.)

I must acknowledge I didn’t quite understand the late appearance in Episode 4 of two creatures from outer space, but I was very tired by this point. I’d be so very happy to have another go at this delightfully mad, intensely absorbing and unique (how often can one assert that?) piece of theatre.

In September The New York Times reported seeing episodes 4.5 and 5 of Life and Times. The former is a half-hour animated film and episode 5 is a book given to each audience member. “The ideal time frame in which to peruse the book, we were told, was 44 minutes and 27 seconds,” wrote the NYT’s Charles Isherwood. And why these radical departures from earlier form? Apparently most of the telephone conversation that was to form the basis of the next instalments was lost in a technical glitch. But for Nature Theater of Oklahoma, another door simply opened.

Room of Regret ends on November 3.