Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

Thomas Campbell - MISTERMAN 1

Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

Ivanov3

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

SOM5070_Production-Photography-by-James-Morgan_R-1024x681

Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

Ladies in Black

Queensland Theatre Company, Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, November 19

BY the end of Ladies in Black its sweet, gawky duckling of a heroine has been transformed into a soignée swan, and in just six weeks. Why, without her glasses and with her hair up, young Lisa Miles is quite a looker. Goodbye school, hello world. This is no superficial alteration: Lisa is on the brink of something momentous, a life where she gets to choose who and what she wants to be. If a beautiful, lusted-after dress is part of the picture after years of wearing garments made at home lovingly, but badly, by mum, well that’s OK.

The slender and charming novel that inspired Ladies in Black, Madeleine St John’s The Women in Black, is a comedy of manners and fable of empowerment. Published in 1993 but set in the late 1950s, it casts an amused eye on an Australia slowly emerging from its blokey, monocultural straitjacket. A young woman blossoms; another discovers literature and the attractions of an experienced European man; a long-married woman has a sexual awakening; and the sophistications of a recent arrival to these shores work their magic. There is one delectable discovery after another.

Kate Cole, Christen O,Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

The cast of Ladies in Black

In a version of Jane Austen’s famous two inches of ivory – her “four or five families in a country village”- The Women in Black (and thus Ladies in Black, which is a faithful adaptation) inhabits a deliberately limited world, viewed from a female perspective. Like Austen, St John is witty and acerbic while maintaining an aura of smooth politesse. (How about this seemingly throwaway word in The Women in Black? Men talking about their families “joined in with remarks about their own sons and even their daughters”. Even. It’s a killer.)

St John had long been an expat, living in England where she felt she belonged, but her evocation of Sydney in summer is vivid and not without affection as she expertly registers and skewers the social attitudes and restrictions that drove so many Australians like her to flee (she was at the University of Sydney at the same time as Clive James, Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes and other luminaries). She touches on inequality between the sexes, the limiting of women’s ambition and the galvanising effect of migration with a soupçon of the sexual revolution thrown in for spice – heavy issues all, but rendered with an airy hand. This is the fable part: pretty much everything turns out wonderfully well.

At the centre of the story is Lisa (née Lesley, a name she feels doesn’t quite suit her). She has just finished her exams for the Leaving certificate and secured a holiday job at Goode’s department store, the place to shop in Sydney. She is assigned to Ladies’ Cocktail (not the alcoholic beverage; frocks) and promised as an additional pair of hands to the cosmopolitan Magda in Model Gowns.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda

Lisa is a very clever girl and likely to win a Commonwealth Scholarship to university, although as her father points out, what does a girl need with a degree when she’ll shortly be looking after a husband and kiddies? She isn’t a natural rebel but knows her life has more promise than that. The excitingly stylish Magda, a New Australian, as we used to call them (“Continental” to her confrères at Goode’s), treats Lisa like an adult and introduces her to thrilling new ideas. It’s a tumultuous few weeks for all in the domestic sphere and of course at work, where the women are rushed off their feet just before Christmas.

Singer-songwriter Tim Finn came across a copy of The Women in Black at Brisbane Airport and thought it might make a good musical. He hadn’t written one before but seems to be a natural. His openhearted, immediately likeable songs (Finn wrote music and lyrics) are deliciously melodic and flow easily through Carolyn Burns’s lively, compact book. Occasionally the joins show, but Ladies in Black is in excellent shape for a musical having its first outing and succeeds where it really counts by creating warm, believable, engaging characters and by having a top-notch cast bring them to life. Relative unknown Sarah Morrison, who plays Lisa, is a tremendous asset. She is radiant.

Anyone expecting a 21st-century gloss on issues about which it’s difficult to laugh these days will be disappointed. Ladies in Black is about how it was then, bathed in a rosily nostalgic glow that is even equal to the task of laughing at bad husbands. The Bastard Song, sung with sturdy relish by a quartet of women, had the show’s opening-night audience hooting, loving lyrics that include: “He’s a bastard, a bastard, a standard issue bastard, a bastard, coming home half plastered, I don’t know how it’s lasted …” You get the idea.

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole, Lucy Maunder

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole and Lucy Maunder

There’s no room here for cynics, ironists or revolutionaries. Ladies in Black unashamedly plucks the heartstrings and may even cause a certain dampness in the ocular area. For Australian women of a certain age there is much to remember. “I can see the future and everything I’ve dreamed is waiting there for me,” goes the rousing final number, and Ladies in Black means every buoyant, life-affirming word of it.

Queensland Theatre Company, backed by Queensland Performing Arts Centre, threw a lot of resources into Ladies in Black. Set and costumes are by the go-to designer for big occasions, Gabriela Tylesova (the staging boasts three revolves to facilitate the many changes of scene), and director Simon Phillips, who knows a thing or two about musical theatre, is at the helm. There is plenty to admire but the production nevertheless has the feeling of falling somewhat between two stools: it could be done on a rather more intimate scale or, alternatively, would profit from a grander staging with a lot more bells and whistles. There’s no money pit like the musical theatre.

The former outcome is perhaps more likely than the latter but however it goes, Ladies in Black deserves to have an audience after these premiere seasons in Brisbane and, from January 16, in Melbourne.

Brisbane season ends December 6. Melbourne Theatre Company, January 16-February 27.

Further reading: Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John, by Helen Trinca. Text Publishing, 2013. (Co-Winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, 2014)