Naming names: looking back on 2014

I’VE avoided making neat lists of 10 of this and 10 of that in my survey of 2014, which is good when it comes to the individuals who made the deepest impression on me. I decided not to divide the names by art form or vocation. There are dancers, opera singers, actors, actresses, directors and playwrights here and it pleases me to put them side by side. Or more precisely, one after the other in alphabetical order. Included are Australians who live in Europe but were home to perform and non-Australians I saw here.

NOTABLE WOMEN:

Nicole Car (singer, Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia, Sydney, March): Car’s debut as Tatyana firmed up what we already knew. Car is a major, major talent. Her supple, warm soprano sounded as fresh, free and glowing at the extremes as it did throughout and her expression of text and character was most moving. That fact that she’s slim as a reed with a graceful, natural ease on stage does not hurt at all. She made her US debut as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro for Dallas Opera in October; next up she sings Marguerite in Faust in Sydney. An exciting prospect.

Misty Copeland (dancer, Swan Lake, American Ballet Theatre, Brisbane, September): Copeland, an African American, has become a powerful advocate for diversity in classical ballet and is on her way to becoming that rare beast – a ballet dancer recognised by the public at large. At 31 (she is now 32), she had waited a very long time to dance Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, and Brisbane had the privilege of seeing her role debut. Call it an out-of-hemisphere tryout if you want to, but I was thrilled to be at this history-making event. Copeland is the first African-American Odette in American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history. Yes, the first. She had earned it, and she claimed it in Brisbane. She will dance the role for the first time in the US for Washington Ballet in April and then in her hometown, New York, for ABT in June. It will be a huge event, but we saw it first.

Lucinda Dunn (dancer, Manon, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, April): Dunn retired from dance in April after an extraordinary 23 years with the company and more than a decade as a principal artist. She was a true prima, accomplished in every aspect of her art and with huge respect for her audience. Her farewell performance was in Kenneth MacMillan’s Manon, a cornerstone role for ballerinas. She looked as if she could dance for another 23 years, but she was 40 and in an art form that exacts a brutal toll on bodies. As much as balletomanes would have wished it otherwise, she had to choose a moment to call it quits.

Christine Goerke (singer, Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, February): The American dramatic soprano was electrifying in the SSO’s exceptional semi-staged production, pacing the stage like a lioness kept too long in too small a cage. Her opulent voice was transfixing and boldly rode the tsunami of sound produced by the stupendous orchestral forces conducted by David Robertson.

Caitlin Hulcup (singer, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): Gluck’s ravishing opera is rarely performed here and Pinchgut did it great honour. In the title role, mezzo Hulcup – an Australian who performs mainly in Europe – was heart-stoppingly good, singing with passion, glorious control and silvery beauty.

Lindy Hume (director, Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut 0pera, Sydney, December): The City Recital Hall in Sydney where Pinchgut Opera performs each year is what it says – a hall. Hume’s direction of Iphigénie on Tony Assness’s powerfully conceived (and of necessity static) set was a model of dramatic clarity and restraint, giving the tempestuous emotions of the piece room to breathe.

Lauren Langlois (dancer, Keep Everything, Chunky Move, Sydney, July; and The Complexity of Belonging, Chunky Move, Melbourne, October): Langlois trained as a dancer and she’s very fine one. She also a knockout with text, as Antony Hamilton’s Keep Everything and Anouk van Dijk and Falk Richter’s Complexity of Belonging proved. Her ability to combine the two disciplines in spectacular fashion had audiences shaking their heads in disbelief.

Meng Ningning (dancer, Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, July): There were many fine performances in Queensland Ballet’s audacious presentation of Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet but the revelation was QB principal Meng, who was partnered with superstar Carlos Acosta for his two performances. Meng has always appeared to keep her emotions locked well within but Romeo and Juliet produced the key and the release was tremendous. Even when Meng was the excitable young girl of her first scene there were intimations of tragedy in those questioning eyes, and her long, silken limbs always seemed to be searching and reaching for the overwhelming feelings Juliet discovered could exist.

Joanna Murray-Smith (playwright, Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company, November): This is Murray-Smith in magisterial form. While rigorously maintaining the style and appearance of a naturalistic – even old-fashioned – bio-drama, Switzerland morphs into a psychological thriller and then what Dostoevsky called fantastic realism. It’s risky, surprising and very apt as Murray-Smith’s play takes on the qualities of Patricia Highsmith’s art, in form and atmospherics, and applies them to the writer’s life.

Hiromi Omura (singer, Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, March): Omura was a devastating Butterfly, singing with lyric beauty and spinto charge. She also unerringly charted Butterfly’s trajectory from radiant bride to the trusting wife who is discarded and utterly bereft. The expansive stage of rolling hills (Act I) and a crappy housing development (Act II) gave Omura a stunning canvas. I have never seen a Butterfly so convincingly transformed from submissive girl to a whirlwind of despair as her child is taken from her.

Pamela Rabe (actress, The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September): I was less enthusiastic about Eamon Flack’s production of the Tennessee Williams classic than were many others, but there is no dispute about Pamela Rabe as Amanda Wingfield, living on the edge of her nerves and trying vainly to keep up appearances. As always, Rabe is able to make one sympathise with a character who is in many ways monstrous. Amanda’s rage and disappointment were contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. But Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that was the case here.

Sue Smith (playwright, Kryptonite, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney, September): Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. Lian and Dylan meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to survive. He’s a laidback Australian devoted to surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. There are so few plays that explore our regional issues and identity, and this is a beauty.

Christie Whelan-Browne (Britney Spears: The Cabaret, Sydney, August): The train wreck that was Britney Spears’s earlier life is well known. Whelan-Browne’s rendering of that life, lavishly illustrated by Spears songs, didn’t descend to ridicule. Yes, it was often funny, but at the same time exceptionally compassionate. An outstanding performance.

Doris Younane (Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney, March): I loved the whole Jump for Jordan cast (and the play) but Doris Younane was outstanding. She expressed with heart-rending anguish the plight of a migrant who has never felt Sydney was her home. How does one leave behind everything that has been dear – family, traditions, language, the sights, smells and sounds of home – and plant oneself in new and alien soil? This performance put you in that place.

NOTABLE MEN:

Declan Greene (playwright, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Greene takes two uneasy souls and exposes their every weakness and slender hopes. A man and a woman meet via a dating site. He is married and obsessively into pornography, she is a nurse with an out-of-control shopping habit. Both have a core of self-loathing covered with a thin layer of coping. He is the greater fantasist and she the more self-aware but they’re both in deep, deep trouble. I can’t stop thinking about this play and how acutely it expresses the inner lives of desperate people.

Chengwu Guo (The Nutcracker, The Australian Ballet, Sydney, December): Guo is something of a human flying machine and in The Nutcracker there were times when you’d swear he was suspended by invisible wires, such is his elevation and ability to hang in the air. Guo added the plushest of silent landings and pristine pirouettes for a performance of technical brilliance, but of course The Nutcracker isn’t just about the moves. Guo also showed he can be a Prince – always good news in the ballet world.

Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney, October): Mark O’Rowe’s double monologue is sometimes performed by a single actor; here the duty was divided. The play is in two equal and equally exhilarating parts – two sides of the one coin – so let’s consider Hawkins and Henry together. In Howie the Rookie Hawkins and Henry guided the audience through a toxic night in an insalubrious part of Dublin, taking us on a wild ride expressed in some of the most violent, vulgar and baroque language you’re likely to encounter. Both actors were scintillating.

Jay James-Moody (The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre in association with Hayes Theatre Co, March): Jay James-Moody may be considered rather too young for Man in Chair, the narrator and orchestrator of this wacky, heartfelt homage to the light-hearted musical theatre of bygone eras. Nevertheless he succeeded brilliantly. While he was arguably too fresh to be the quintessential bitter and bitchy show queen that is Man in Chair, he brought unexpected and memorable poignancy to the part.

Simon Laherty (Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Sydney, March): Finally this wonderful piece came to Sydney. The story of the Elephant-headed god Ganesh’s quest to reclaim the swastika from the Nazis is typically explosive Back to Back subject matter as most of the company’s performers would have been considered extermination material by Hitler. It’s a wonderful ensemble piece, but nevertheless Laherty made, as he has before, the deepest impression on me. His deliberate voice, grave demeanour and the clarity and poise of his interactions made an indelible mark.

Josh McConville (actor, Noises Off, Sydney Theatre Company, February): The thing is, I could hardly tell you what McConville looks like. He is a theatre chameleon, shape-shifting into whatever is required and so very good at it all. He’s played some pretty desperate men and perhaps his character in Michael Frayn’s farce Noises Off could be described as such, but what fun to see McConville doing it for laughs. His stair work was exquisite.

Steven McRae (Romeo and Juliet, Queensland Ballet, Brisbane, July): The Australian-born principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet showed why he is one of the most admired Romeos on the stage today. The impulsive, passionate youth of this dance-drama could have been made for him, so natural was the fit. McRae has a slight, elegant figure but radiated huge amounts of energy, taking the stage like a whirlwind. His crystal-clear line, the way he hovered in the air for precious moments in a turn or jeté, his vibrant attack and heady speed were treasures in themselves but given point and purpose by the way these technical gifts created character.

Steve Rodgers (actor, Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company, Sydney, May): Who better to illuminate Declan Greene’s play than Rodgers? Although the unnamed character he played is deceptive and cunning, Rodgers willed us to find some empathy. There was much before us that was messy, humiliating and ugly; Rodgers didn’t shy from the darkness but also revealed the pitiable emptiness of the life.

Richard Roxburgh (Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company, November): Not a lot needs to be said here. Roxburgh’s Cyrano was darkly self-aware, exceptionally witty and heart-breaking. A superlative performance from one of the greats of our stage.

Damien Ryan (artistic director, Sport for Jove, Sydney): Ryan’s Sport for Jove productions always reveal fresh insights into classic texts, and this year’s Henry V, which he directed for Bell Shakespeare was perhaps his best. Which is saying a lot, because his All’s Well That End’s Well for Sport for Jove was magnificent.

Monday: Best of the best

Super Discount

Back to Back Theatre, Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company, October 1

WHEN the members of Back to Back argue about who has the right to play certain characters, they enter one of the continuing and often fraught discussions in theatre. Blackface has long been consigned to the dustbin of history but are there enough roles for actors of colour? Is it right that a straight actor should play a gay character? What about the Donmar Warehouse’s all-female Julius Caesar, currently playing in New York: is that perfectly reasonable given that in Shakespeare’s time casts were exclusively male, so it’s sort of the same thing, turned around?

In Back to Back’s Super Discount, presented by Sydney Theatre Company, questions of this kind are posed in three fascinating, challenging dimensions.

But first to the premise. The company is still at rehearsal stage but actor Mark Deans is already all dressed up and ready to go as the superhero at the centre of a new show. Deans has his cape on and wears the look of someone who knows this is the way it should be. Others, however, are putting forward their claims to the role with much vehemence. The problem is, not all of them would seem entirely suitable, at least by the usual thespian standards.

David Woods, Simon Laherty and Scott Price in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

David Woods, Simon Laherty and Scott Price in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

I assume anyone who has got this far knows that Back to Back is a theatre company, based in Geelong, Victoria, in which most of the actors have an intellectual disability. It would be a grave mistake to categorise all the performers as if they were one type, however. Like everyone, each is an individual with different abilities and shortcomings. In Super Discount there’s heated argy-bargy about who is up to performing such a lead role and who has the right to do it, discussion in which Deans plays very little part. He has Down syndrome and says hardly anything during the course of the 70-minute piece. Which raises a second strand of thought. Who will advocate for Deans? Will anyone advocate for him? Does he need someone to advocate for him? Is special pleading required? What is justice?

A third layer is provided by David Woods, a conventionally abled actor who throws his weight around and shows in excruciating detail how he would act the role if he were Deans. Talk about throwing a bomb in the room. Seeing Woods wear the mask of disability is deeply distasteful from any perspective but it serves its purpose. The shallowness of his characterisation proves he is the least suitable potential superhero. He gets the part of the antihero instead.

Weaving in and out of the action are Brian Tilley, who does a nifty dance-off with Woods; Sarah Mainwaring, whose unsteady gait and shaky voice take on a singular poetry; Scott Price with his energetic and often very funny eruptions; and Simon Laherty, the grave, still centre of the piece. I keep seeing his long, beautiful, Modigliani face, hearing his deliberate voice and remembering the clarity and poise of his interaction with Deans.

No prizes for guessing who ends up playing the superhero in a final scene of pure, sweet joy.

Mark Deans and David Woods in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

Mark Deans and David Woods in Super Discount. Photo: Jeff Busby

The play is bookended with two lovely scenic elements. Super Discount opens with an entirely unexpected and utterly ravishing mini tornado rising and falling in the centre of the stage and ends with a rain of gold. (Director Bruce Gladwin also designed.) Disruption and transcendence jostle for position. Otherwise Super Discount is absolutely unsparing in demanding the audience’s attention. STC’s Wharf 1 is completely bare except for a few chairs and a table.

Back to Back is also merciless, and rightly so, in making its audience sift and weigh prejudices. It tests thinking about what acting is, and what theatre is, and what skills are required to do and to make theatre.

Interestingly, it also tests the skills one needs as an audience member. Passive listening – let’s call it sitting back and hearing – won’t do at Super Discount (great title). An intense act of listening is required, given the different types of vocal production from these actors. And before anyone thinks I’m being politically correct here, the same level of active engagement – exactly! – was required at STC’s The Maids if one was to get the full measure of Isabelle Huppert’s gloriously wacky, heavily accented performance.

Back to Back’s knotty, subversive theatre isn’t easy, but it is unforgettable. There’s just one more week in Sydney then on to Melbourne. There is talk of Back to Back’s hugely successful Ganesh versus the Third Reich (which premiered in 2011) coming to Sydney next year, to which I can only say, not before time. Meanwhile, after Super Discount in Melbourne Back to Back takes Ganesh to Tokyo (December 6-8) on the back of an extensive international schedule this year that has taken in the US, France, Germany and Canada. Is there another Australian theatre company that has toured so widely to such acclaim? Happy to hear from any candidates, but I think not.

Super Discount ends in Sydney on October 19 and runs at Melbourne’s Malthouse from November 13.