My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

STC Hay Fever3

Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

Unfinished business

Belvoir, February 18

KILL the Messenger is as simple as theatre gets. There’s a bare space – designer Ralph Myers in particularly pared-back mode – and some projected photographs, five actors, a couple of props, 75 minutes and we’re done.

The rigour, almost at the level of ruthlessness, is thrilling. Playwright Nakkiah Lui requires your attention and she gets it not with tricks and trimmings but with theatre’s most basic tools: a story and actors to tell it in a way that excites the emotions and demands immersion in its ideas. There’s a touch of the slide-show theatre so eloquently developed by William Yang and elements of documentary theatre intertwined with fictionalised narrative, all handled with a tremendously sure touch.

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nakkiah Lui and her gran, Joan. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lui’s searing first play, This Heaven, was seen at Belvoir two years ago in the small Downstairs theatre and it was clear there was an important new theatrical voice in town. Kill the Messenger is in the bigger Upstairs space and it deserves the room.

An aside: Ralph Myers’s artistic directorship has been notable for the openings he has given to Indigenous theatre artists and to women. Obviously Lui ticks both those boxes at the same time, which is pleasing. Naturally the nay-sayers will want to call this political correctness. It’s not – it’s correcting the bias of god knows how many decades and it is good. And good not just because it’s righting a wrong, but because it’s producing great work. But back to the work at hand …

Kill the Messenger slips easily back and forth in time and between real life and imagined encounters as Lui examines how easily people – her people, Aboriginal people – can essentially be invisible in a white world. The politics are strong and well argued but there’s a deep pool of personal grief too. Lui’s grandmother, Joan, died after an ages-old bureaucratic arrangement meant no one took any responsibility for her rotting home. No care, either.

There is a heart-rending photograph of Joan after she fell through the floor of her termite-infested home. We’ve already seen her looking suitably grandmotherly, with soft white hair and dark specs. Now the skin around her eyes is angrily puffed and red. The glasses are gone, obviously, because who needs them in a hospital bed, and anyway, they would be too painful to wear. Lui rightly lets the image pretty much speak for itself.

It’s par for the course for young Indigenous playwrights to be called “angry” and ”raw”. They are clichés really, just like older Aboriginal men and women are always, but always, described as “dignified” in a way older white people rarely are. These things are intended as compliments, of course, but I’m not sure that the thinking behind them is particularly deep. Lui touches on this early in Kill the Messenger when she says: “You want this to feel raw and honest, like a real snippet of an experience; an Aboriginal experience … Here is my tale of black oppression”.

She is being truthful but ironic too. The audience, which generally speaking is overwhelmingly white, wants a story. Lui wants to engage in something truthful, which is why she says her play doesn’t have an ending. Which it obviously does have, at the 75-minute mark when we leave the theatre, and doesn’t have in the sense that the issues are in any way resolved. It’s an unfinished play because it’s unfinished business. There are lots of layers – Lui doesn’t have a law degree for nothing.

Kill the Messenger was created from the knowledge that Indigenous Australians suffer injustices and slights that others do not and they can have dire consequences, so in that sense there is anger. But there is also great sadness and frustration, and in this play a challenge to audience members to examine their own actions and perceptions. Kill the Messenger is far from a one-note outburst.

The play’s second strand involves a young man, Paul (Lasarus Ratuere), whose drug addiction made him unwelcome when he sought medical care. Because she never met him Lui dramatises his plight and creates an incredibly sympathetic portrait of a charming, vivid, damaged soul. His sister Harley (Katie Beckett) comes alive explosively as she struggles with her wayward sibling’s failings and also tries to get answers from Alex (Matthew Backer), an emergency department nurse whose situation is not as black and white as it may seem.

Sam O’Sullivan as Lui’s boyfriend Peter completes the fine cast – almost.

Lui’s boldest stroke is to put herself in the play, right at its centre. Sometimes she’s acting herself (she’s very good), often she talks directly to the audience and near the end she touchingly places herself in conversation with Paul, who we know from the play’s first moments is going to kill himself. Lui has great stage presence – she’s warm, direct, unaffected and game. As she comments after getting close and personal with O’Sullivan, she thought when she wrote Kill the Messenger that elfin Miranda Tapsell would be playing her. Very cute.

Lui is sharp, funny, passionate and compassionate. She knows how to shape a debate, when to get mad and when to stay calm, and not necessarily in the places you might expect. Kill the Messenger simultaneously draws you in and keeps you on your toes, which makes for stimulating and entertaining theatre. The writing and construction show no signs of strain, for which praise must go also to director Anthea Williams and dramaturg Jada Alberts.

And I love that Lui will get out there every night to tell and retell what happened to Joan and Paul. It’s as if she doesn’t quite trust us; that we might otherwise be able to tuck this away as fiction if she’s not there to bear witness.

Joan. Her name was Joan.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 20.

Ends March 8.

Noel and Gertie, The Removalists

Noel and Gertie, a CDP production, Glen St Theatre, Sydney, May 25.

The Removalists, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, May 29

NOEL Coward and Gertrude Lawrence met as child actors and immediately and lastingly took to one another. Sheridan Morley’s evocation of their bond, Noel and Gertie, was created in 1981 to be performed at a benefit, although its careful construction meant it had a later life in several theatre seasons in the 1980s in London. It’s a wisp of a piece: amusing, charming and deftly avoiding anything too personal – not that Morley was unacquainted with this subjects as he had written biographies of both. He chose, however, to concentrate on the glamour, wit and style of the pair as refracted through the theatah.

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Naturally this means lots of lovely songs, sensitively accompanied on grand piano by music director Vincent Colagiuri, and happy reminders of Coward’s stage works. Scenes from plays – Private Lives, of course; Blithe Spirit; Tonight at 8.30 – are stitched together neatly with the music and material from diaries and letters to paint a fond and rosy picture with just a tinge of melancholy. Coward and Lawrence’s youth when they started in the business is the excuse for a rollicking Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington, and Has Anybody Seen Our Ship? from Red Peppers, one of the 10 short plays that make up Tonight at 8.30, is cheerful, uplifting nonsense.

The show, however, leans more towards reflection. Parisian Pierrot, from the revue London Calling!, was written for Lawrence and is beautifully sung by Lucy Maunder, as are Sail Away and If Love Were All, which contains the phrase so often associated with Coward, “a talent to amuse”. It was much more than that, of course, although not necessarily recognised right away by the critical establishment. James Millar, as Coward, is given the lovely line that in the early days he was forced to accept “the bitter palliative of commercial success”. What a Noel-y thing to say.

Under Nancye Hayes’s light-touch direction Maunder is an enchanting Gertie, poised and soignee to just the right degree. Millar could find just a little more gloss for the Master but he has time, given the lengthy tour Noel and Gertie is about to embark on.

And just a few words on The Removalists …

THERE could be no greater contrast to Noel and Gertie than David Williamson’s The Removalists (1971), written in the playwright’s gritty early years (it was written in the same year as Don’s Party and the year after The Coming of Stork).

The Tamarama Rock Surfers production, directed by Leland Kean, is a beauty: tough, lean, as shocking today as it was four decades ago. Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan), fresh out of the academy, turns up for his first day of work to find he’s in a little suburban police outpost where if things are big, they need the attention of a bigger station, and if they are small, they’re probably too small to worry about.

Justin Stewart Cotta

Justin Stewart Cotta in The Removalists

The sergeant (Laurence Coy) is one of those incredibly passive-aggressive types who has the art of manipulation so well-honed it’s as natural as breathing. Or, in his case, as sitting down and deflecting work. Except when there might be a bit of advantage to be taken.

The Removalists is a NSW HSC drama text and the performance I attended was an early evening one for students. It was fascinating and heartening to see the group of mainly young men so attentive to the piece, and also taken aback by the casual sexism Williamson so deftly illuminates. I assume the students had already read the play so knew where it was all heading, but the way the Sarge patronised the women who had come for his help, made vile insinuations and put his hands everywhere had some in the audience literally gasping.

Terrific performances all round, by the way, with a special mention to Justin Stewart Cotta as Kenny, the over-bearing, boorish husband who knocks around his wife a bit and gets rather more back than anyone intended.

Noel and Gertie ends at Sydney’s Glen St Theatre on June 1. Then Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5-6; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11-15; Frankston Arts Centre, Frankston, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21-22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26-29; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan, July 2-7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, Dubbo, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, Orange, July 12-13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16-18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, July 23-27.

The Removalists ends June 15.