About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

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Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

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Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

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Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.

Sydney Opera House, February 28

IN the guise of a sweet and playful romance, As You Like It drives its characters (and ourselves) to seek answers to life’s deepest questions. Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my rightful place?

As the story begins the world is in disarray. A ruler has been usurped, an arrogant man refuses to fulfil his responsibilities towards his younger brother and a woman, Rosalind, is wrongfully banished from home. She escapes to the Forest of Arden where all is made well. Wrong-doers repent of their sins, lovers find their right match and order is restored.

Taking on the guise of a boy, Ganymede, Rosalind is the prime mover of events; the director, if you will, as well as a player in the comic roundelay.

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

John Bell, Gareth Davies, Kelly Paterniti and Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Peter Evans’s production for Bell Shakespeare skips rather too lightly through the thickets. The suggestion of a 1950s setting gives an opportunity for some very pretty frocks (by Kate Aubrey-Dunn) and finger-snapping tunes (Kelly Ryall) for the songs but confers no great insights. Michael Hankin’s set design – saggy canvas backdrop and a “forest” of flowers on hanging ropes – is almost perverse in its refusal to make theatrical magic. Jaques famously describes all the world as a stage, but in this As You Like It all the world appears to be gathered backstage.

And yet, there is, in Zahra Newman’s Rosalind, a shining tribute to powerful women that is extraordinarily potent in the light of today’s politics. She is an acute thinker, has courage, resourcefulness and is a person of action in thought and deed. Newman bounces about the stage with enlivening vim and vigour. She makes things happen.

Only the most cursory nod is made to her assumption of a male persona as Evans gives a wide berth to contemporary gender politics. Newman wears a suit that does nothing to disguise her womanliness. It’s a costume that allows her to exert control.

There are losses, and some may find them too great. Evans makes nothing of the difference in temperament and style of the rustic folk in the Forest of Arden and the escapees from court and Shakespeare’s boy-girl, girl-boy confusions are excised along with the attendant laughter and inherent complexity. But the gain is in the fierce concentration on Rosalind as a woman of wit and substance who will lead us to the heart of the matter as others flail about blindly or, in the case of John Bell’s brilliantly dry Jaques – an accountant type with notebook and pencil – privilege thinking over feeling.

It’s hard to believe it is 25 years since Bell founded his company, and that this is his last year as its leader (well, for the last little while co-artistic director with Evans). His command of the stage remains undimmed. There are few more delightful lines in As You Like It than Jaques’s “Let’s meet as little as we can,” which got a huge laugh. It reminded me of the best cartoon in the world, by Bob Mankoff for The New Yorker, in which a businessmen on a phone says in response to someone seeking to get into his diary: “No, Thursday’s out. How about never – is never good for you?”

Evans’s cast of 11 is attractive and funny (well, Gareth Davies finds it hard to make Touchstone amusing but he’s not Robinson Crusoe in that). Charlie Garber’s Orlando had women at the matinee I attended audibly sighing in sympathy with him and what a treat to see Tony Taylor (doubling Adam and Corin) back on stage.

Overwhelmingly, though, it’s Newman’s show.

Ends March 28. Canberra, April 7-18; Melbourne, April 23-May 10.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on March 3.

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.