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.

The Chocolate Frog and other plays

The Floating World, Griffin, Sydney, October 9; Hamlet, Belvoir, Sydney, October 16; The Chocolate Frog, Parramatta Correctional Centre, October 22; Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker, Melbourne Festival, October 25

 Hamlet: Denmark is a prison

Rosencrantz: Then is the world one

Hamlet: A goodly one; in which there are many confines

wards and dungeons, Denmark being one of the worst

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was invited to see a performance of Jim McNeil’s first play, The Chocolate Frog. It was a one-night-only affair at Parramatta Correctional Centre, now decommissioned as a prison but the place in which in 1970 McNeil, then serving a lengthy jail sentence for armed robbery, started writing drama.

The connection with the justice system went further than writer and venue. The performers themselves had criminal records, and after serving their sentences had come to acting through an unusual program. While casting extras for TV programs including various Underbelly series, former actor and now agent Grant Thompson met some people who had done time. It gave him the inspired idea of training former prisoners for film and television work.

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir's Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

Toby Schmitz and Robyn Nevin in Belvoir’s Hamlet. Photo: Brett Boardman

This story of reinvention will be told in a three-part TV series for Foxtel arts channel Studio, being made by Screentime and expected to be screened next year. Because the series has followed the process that led to the casting and performance of The Chocolate Frog I can’t give too much detail about the performers. We saw some of them deliver Shakespearean monologues before the play began, and we saw a tremendously involving performance of The Chocolate Frog. We heard a few stories, and when Thompson spoke he was on the verge of tears, so proud was he of his students’ achievements.

Theatre has touched these lives profoundly, and we in the audience were profoundly moved. I wish I could write more about one performer in particular but that would pre-empt the story to be told in Taking on … The Chocolate Frog. Let’s just say the filmmakers have riveting material to work with.

I saw The Chocolate Frog – prison slang for dog, or informer – shortly after Griffin’s The Floating World and Belvoir’s Hamlet, and shortly before Belarus Free Theatre’s Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker at the Melbourne Festival. All of them are plays of imprisonment, either physical or psychological or both. Simon Stone’s much-cut “I see dead people” Hamlet foregrounds the grief that unmoors the Prince and from which he can’t escape. In The Floating World Les Harding, former World War II Japanese prisoner of war, is sent mad by memory and guilt. Minsk 2011 describes the surreal ways in which reality is altered in a totalitarian society and is performed by actors who are either in exile or in danger of arrest but who still have the deepest attachment to their home.

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

From Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker. Photo: Sarah Walker

Minsk 2011, a thrilling and challenging piece, had a very short festival season but The Floating World and Hamlet are still running in Sydney. I admired Hamlet very much and am thrilled I’ll be seeing it again when Ewen Leslie takes over the title role from Toby Schmitz. We don’t often get a chance to see important work through the prism of two very different actors.

As for The Floating World, it is a crucial piece of theatre. John Romeril’s 1975 play is as relevant as ever, it is given much honour by its cast in Sam Strong’s pitch-perfect production and it was an idea of genius to stage it now. Next year will be one of much soul-searching as the centenary of the start of World War I is commemorated. Peter Kowitz’s Les is devastating: I saw the final scene with tears pouring down my face. What horrors so many men have suffered.

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

Valerie Bader and Peter Kowitz in The Floating World. Photo: Brett Boardman

I was reminded too that the Yirra Yaakin-Belvoir production of Robert J. Merritt’s The Cake Man was written in prison, in Sydney’s Long Bay, and was first staged in 1974 with Merritt allowed to attend the opening under guard. It deals with another kind of imprisonment – white imperialism. For so many of us, these plays are as close to the experience of oppression as we’ll ever get. How fortunate we are.

The Cake Man is being performed in Perth at present and comes to Sydney in two weeks.

The Floating World ends at The Stables, Kings Cross, on November 16. At Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, from November 19.

Toby Schmitz gives his last performance as Hamlet at Belvoir on November 17, after which Ewen Leslie takes over. Hamlet ends on December 1.

The Cake Man, Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre, Perth until November 9. Belvoir, Sydney, November 14-December 8.