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.

February wrap

A quick look at what February brought in the theatre in Sydney, and beyond …

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

AT this year’s Perth International Arts Festival I was able to see, in one evening, the festival’s biggest and smallest pieces of theatre – The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, weighing in at about three hours and filling His Majesty’s Theatre, and Remor, an 11-minute piece for two performers, an audience of about 10 and taking place in a space smaller than many a garden shed. Fittingly, the Remor shed was indeed inside the Festival Gardens.

I don’t think it’s a festival unless I can see at least two performances in one day – I’d prefer to see three or four; just a personal quirk – so the Threepenny Opera/Remor day was a satisfying one. Remor was a wordless physical theatre in which a man and a woman, oblivious to one another, enacted the terrifying restlessness of someone locked away with no hope of release. It was rough, sweaty theatre.

The Threepenny Opera was the exact reverse: urbane, sophisticated, knowing, visually exquisite and performed with immense poise, clarity and wit. I loved that the actors weren’t much chop as singers but put their songs across as if they were; I loved that Macheath looked like a perverse version of matinee idol Leslie Howard, Peachum as if he were wearing a Noh mask and Tiger Brown as a ringer for Conrad Veidt in his Cabinet of Dr Caligari days; I adored the band playing that tremendous Kurt Weill music … Well, you get the picture. It was a brilliant piece of programming from Jonathan Holloway.

Back in Sydney, February offered theatre productions as diverse as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (Gaiety Theatre in association with Mardi Gras), George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (Sydney Theatre Company), Great Falls by Lee Blessing (The Ensemble) and This Heaven by Nakkiah Lui, at Belvoir Downstairs.

Torch Song Trilogy suffered from feeling and looking like a museum piece. Director Stephen Colyer didn’t find a way of bringing the politics and emotional tangles into the here and now, where they certainly still exist. Great Falls isn’t such a great play – too contrived in so many places – but under director Anna Crawford, Erica Lovell and Christopher Stollery give cracking performances which almost persuade you the play has more merit than it does.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is a play Sydney Theatre Company subscribers appear to have been hanging out for. An extension was announced before it even opened. The question of how one is to survive in an unequal world is evergreen, as is the question of who gets to judge whom. Sarah Giles’s production is a little too cool for my taste, with Lizzie Schebesta getting the rectitude of Vivie but not enough else. Helen Thomson is seen to great advantage as Mrs Warren, her ripeness a welcome contrast to the brittleness of the rest, but I don’t think I was supposed to side with her as strongly as I did.

Lui’s This Heaven is the work of a young writer with a supple voice and something to say. Under Lee Lewis’s direction it has emerged as a shattering piece of theatre. In its essentials the story is far from unique. There’s an Aboriginal man from out west in Sydney, an arrest, a death, the attempt to get justice, the failure to get it, the inevitable anger, and a chilling aftermath. The characters are engrossing and the action unfolds as precisely as in an ancient Greek tragedy.

Lui has the ability to see the reality of individuals – how their circumstances, their nature, their ambitions, their limitations shape them – and to show them as flawed and changeable without losing focus or seeming forced. Equally important is how resonant This Heaven is. It’s rooted firmly in a very specific story, but is not limited by it. The play isn’t perfect – there’s a somewhat uneasy start and one or two clunky moments – but it’s been given a superb production that deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. The performances from Jada Alberts, Joshua Anderson, Travis Cardona, Eden Falk and Tessa Rose are tremendously strong, with Cardona and Anderson just heartbreaking.

Great Falls continues at The Ensemble until March 9. This Heaven continues at Belvoir Downstairs until March 18. Mrs Warren’s Profession, until April 6 and July 4-20.

School Dance, The Blind Date Project, The Peony Pavilion, The Secret River, Sydney Festival

School Dance, Sydney Theatre Company presents the Windmill Theatre production in association with the Sydney Festival. Also Merrigong Theatre Company, Wollongong, February 7-9; Melbourne Arts Centre, April 10-20; Brisbane Powerhouse, July 31-August 3

The Blind Date Project, Ride on Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Peony Pavilion, Northern Kunqu Opera Theatre, Sydney Festival

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Festival. Also Perth International Arts Festival, February 25-March 2

AT the performance of School Dance that I attended – a weekday matinee early in the run – there were quite a few empty seats. Bad call on the part of theatre-lovers, because now Sydney Theatre Company’s website is noting very limited availability for the remaining performances. School Dance acknowledges and yes, celebrates teenage male awkwardness, longing and resilience in a piece that is acutely observed, sweet and funny, and uplifting without losing its honesty. Take three self-confessed losers, put them in a tacky school hall, throw in obstacles in the form of a hilariously huge bully and an unattainable girl, stir in some fantasy and off we go. (Not to forget some great 1980s music. It is worth the price of admission alone for the bike ride – leg-powered, not some fancy motorbike – to the Bonnie Tyler anthem Holding Out for a Hero.) Windmill Theatre had success with this last year in its home base of Adelaide so the show is beautifully worked in, featuring the multitudinous talents of Matthew Whittet (writer and actor), Jonathon Oxlade (designer and actor), Luke Smiles (composer and actor) and Amber McMahon (brilliant and indefatigable as all the female characters). Gabrielle Nankivell’s choreography is delicious and Windmill’s artistic director Rosemary Myers brings it all home wittily and movingly.

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

As I left the theatre I heard a man of mature years exclaim that this was the best show he’d ever seen, and there was in his voice the shiny, excited quality of revelation. It’s good to see School Dance is off to Wollongong, Melbourne and Brisbane; early booking is clearly indicated.

The Blind Date Project could probably have run and run in terms of audience demand, although perhaps not in terms of the demand on its performers. Bojana Novakovic is Ana, a woman waiting at a bar for a blind date to turn up. The person who turns up – and it may not necessarily be a man – is different at each performance, and the identity of the actor who will play the blind date is unknown to Novakovic until they arrive bearing a bunch of flowers. The encounter is improvised, albeit with some direction received via mobile phone. Novakovic also clearly has some anchor points she uses. Still, it’s a greatly enjoyable highwire act and one that can take many different paths. The night I saw The Blind Date Project (a late-night show), Charlie Garber arrived fresh from playing Captain Hook in Peter Pan at Belvoir, and he could not have been more darling. I gather not all dates ended quite as well for Ana.

I was delighted to see The Peony Pavilion having (boast, boast) seen the 18-hour full version of this 16th century opera at the 2000 Perth festival. Here it was the merest sliver at 2 ½ hours, but the central love story remained, and it was an opportunity to absorb and savour a style of singing, performance and orchestral playing entirely different from that of Western opera. Kunqu is highly stylised and formal in gesture, but not above throwing in some dazzling acrobatics and other popular entertainment forms. There was a lot lost in this production due to the extreme truncation of the piece, although the cuts weren’t a sop to Western audiences. Only a few of The Peony Pavilion’s 55 scenes are usually performed these days so it was great good fortune to have seen the full work. The Sydney Festival of 1999 was originally to have hosted The Peony Pavilion in its full pomp but visa difficulties delayed the production, and the following year Perth alone took it in Australia.

I imagine there won’t be another chance to see the entire Peony Pavilion again, but then I used to say that about Einstein on the Beach, a mere stripling of an opera that clocks in at about 4 ½ hours, which Melbourne hosted in 1992. And guess what’s coming back to Melbourne from July 31?

The Secret River confronts the fundamental torment on which modern Australia was founded. People were cut off from everything they knew and transported to the other side of the world to make the best, or worst, of it. They may as well have been in outer space given their chances of successful return, and in trying to make a new kind of home they took what wasn’t theirs. People sent here for what may have been petty thieving became government-sanctioned thieves on a grand scale. It was a brutal business.

Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel, directed by Neil Armfield with Bangarra’s Stephen Page as his associate, is simultaneously monumental in scale and incredibly intimate. The stage, shared by the newcomers and the traditional owners, becomes the ground on which the idea of home, place and identity is argued and fought over. Well, we know how it turned out for the indigenous people, but that in no way diminishes the dramatic impetus nor the anguish.

We can never lose sight of what all this will mean for modern Australian history, but The Secret River tells the story through the eyes of just a handful of people, and therefore in an intensely human way. The story ebbs and flows between the two groups, an unstoppable tragedy in the making as Thames boatman William Thornhill sees his patch of land on the Hawkesbury as the path to reinvention.

STC says Secret River tickets are also scarce – a good start to the year for Andrew Upton, now flying solo as artistic director – so perhaps a trip to the Perth International Arts Festival is indicated for the very keen. I’m looking forward to the first few days of the Perth event, including, of course, the Berliner Ensemble’s The Threepenny Opera, directed by Robert Wilson – a very eye-catching Perth exclusive.