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.

Jerusalem, Storm Boy

Jerusalem, New Theatre, Sydney, August 22. Storm Boy, Sydney Theatre Company and Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Wharf 1, Sydney. August 22 matinee.

JERUSALEM’S Rooster Byron is a raucous, irredeemable rebuke to polite society. He offends in every possible way. Squatting on council land in a wood on the fringes of an English town, Rooster is an unkempt lord of the revels who takes drink and drugs in heroic quantities and responsibility for nothing, speaks in eloquent profanities, fails to keep up with his most basic obligations as a father (absentee, naturally) and embraces anarchy as his right. He is, unsurprisingly, a magnet for some of the town’s more bolshie youth and a few older, less assured men.

This description, however, just scratches the surface, because Rooster is also something quite profound. He is an appalling disgrace, no doubt about it, but in an England sinking into conformism, mediocrity and irrelevance, he is also a figure of mythic grandeur.

New Theatre's Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

New Theatre’s Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

Rooster is about to be evicted from his rural glade by the local council, another victory for town planning and bourgeois morals. Even worse – and this is perhaps the real heart of Jez Butterworth’s extraordinary play – urban development is more than the “spread” it’s usually called. It’s a steamroller, crushing and smoothing all those rich local differences of history, language, accent and storytelling. Urbanisation is leaching England of its colour, individuality and vitality. No wonder Rooster chafes against the bit.

Jerusalem – the title comes, of course, from visionary poet William Blake – is set in the south-west of England on St George’s Day. There’s an annual local fair at which games and dances native to the area are celebrated, but one senses that these aren’t heartfelt traditions any more. They are like museum objects, brought out for the day and admired. Or mocked.

Against this backdrop Rooster’s cronies gather round to wassail and listen to the big fella rail against the council and tell improbable yarns relating to his background as an Evil Knievel-style entertainer, his virgin birth (a tale involving an unusual bullet) and his encounter with a giant, a story told and received as if it were entirely possible and reasonable.

Butterworth’s interweaving of the fantastical with sordid reality is exhilarating and exceptionally funny, but Jerusalem has a strong streak of melancholy, too. This mad idyll can’t last. Abattoir worker Davey has never left Wiltshire and never wanted to, but his blithe, brief description of his working week speaks volumes. Another young man, Lee, is about to move away, as far away as possible. There is Rooster’s son to remind Byron of his failings, there’s his spectacularly unsuccessful mate Ginger and there is a girl who has gone missing. Rooster will go down fighting, but go down he will.

Nicholas Eadie as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

Nicholas Eadie as Rooster Byron in Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

New Theatre’s production does Jerusalem proud. Under Helen Tonkin’s direction and in Tom Bannerman’s appropriately chaotic set, the large cast revels in the Shakespearean language and imagery of this large-spirited, wild and romantic piece. There’s good work from everyone, but Nicholas Eadie as Rooster and Jeremy Waters as Ginger are the necessary linchpins. Ginger, a DJ wannabe, is full of wiry energy and optimism, the latter tragically misplaced. Eadie’s paunchy Rooster is still cock of this seedy walk but he’s no fool. His ranting and raging are insufficient weapons against the bleak truths he has to acknowledge.

And the truth is that probably no, you wouldn’t want to live next door to Rooster. His time is over.

“IS this real, miss?” a sweet little girl whispered to me during Storm Boy as lights flashed and the sound of thunder reverberated through the theatre. Well, no, and yes. Alongside the pretend storm created by the production there was a much louder one in the auditorium as several hundred schoolchildren let themselves off the leash and roared. Their timing was astonishingly precise, it must be said, and their volume impressive. Fortissimo to the power of 1000.

One slightly older girl sitting just behind me really got into it, screaming and screaming and laughing. She didn’t seem to enjoy the rest of the play much, wriggling a lot and talking to her friends.

Here were two completely divergent responses. One child was taken into the world of make-believe, the other was stoutly resistant. The older girl irritated the hell out of me with her chatter, but she fascinated me too. Eyeing a group of girls from a different school, she noted to her friend that these students were allowed to wear mufti for their theatre outing rather than uniforms. “They must be from the city. Posh,” she said, in a way that managed to be simultaneously dismissive, definitive and very grown up.

Storm Boy at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Brett Boardman

Storm Boy at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Brett Boardman

Later, right near the end of the play, Fingerbone Bill talks about things looking as if they are always the same – the sand, the waves – but in reality they keep changing, eluding our efforts to hold on to them. It reminds us of the great cycle of life and renewal.

… in your heart you’ll always see the shape of those two big wings in the storm clouds. The flying wings of white with trailing black edges, spread across the sky. Because little fella, birds like Mr Percival … they never really die.

“Yes he does,” said my young neighbour like a shot, briskly and not untruthfully.

Did her cool-eyed, unsentimental view of the world affect my perception of Storm Boy? Possibly. Probably. I felt that the play, adapted from Colin Thiele’s book by Tom Holloway and directed by John Sheedy, was rather too spare and slow, even though it’s only about 70 minutes long. Although usually an easy mark when it comes to a sad bit, I didn’t get teary when Mr Percival was slain, although I very much enjoyed the puppet birds, expertly operated by Shaka Cook and Michael Smith.

For a completely different reaction to a different performance of Storm Boy, read the review by my friend and colleague Jo Litson on her blog, jolitson.com. No one ever sees the same show as someone else – that is one of theatre’s immutable givens and one of its endless fascinations.

Storm Boy ends September 8 in Sydney.  Barking Gecko Theatre Company presents Storm Boy at the State Theatre Centre of WA, Perth, from September 21-October 5.

Jerusalem ends September 14.