A baker’s dozen: 2014 theatre in review

OF the more than 200 shows I saw last year, about a third were plays. Dance, opera, musical theatre and cabaret make up the rest. Unfortunately symphonic and chamber music featured very lightly. Can’t do everything, which is why my theatre viewing in Sydney had many gaps, although I don’t believe I missed anything that would make my list. I hate that I see very little theatre in other cities. Would I have adored to see Miriam Margolyes in I’ll Eat You Last at Melbourne Theatre Company? Yes I would. I just couldn’t find a suitable date (and would, anyway, have had to throw myself on the mercy of MTC supremo Brett Sheehy to get in the house, so scarce were the tickets).

I went to Brisbane specifically to see two productions – the Michael Attenborough-directed Macbeth for Queensland Theatre Company and the La Boite-MTC production of Mike Bartlett’s Cock, which I had seen in New York last year. I didn’t care for the Macbeth, which I found somewhat like a drama class, but it did boffo business for QTC and was a more plausible production than Sydney Theatre Company’s “let’s turn the auditorium around” staging. Cock – a provocative and incredibly infuriating, even irritating, play – was undermined for me by its design of a field of soft pillows that were thrown around. One thing this play is not is soft.

I went to this year’s Melbourne Festival primarily to see the Trisha Brown retrospective but thanks to a Thursday matinee was able to see Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble with Harry, staged by MKA: Theatre of New Writing. I liked it very much, although it doesn’t make my list. Something else I enjoyed greatly was MTC’s Rupert (also not on the list), shortly finishing a commercial season in Sydney. Well, the phrase “commercial season” is close to being an oxymoron when it comes to Sydney and what is quaintly called the straight theatre. There are few theatres, fewer of the right size, and the ones that are available are either hogged by return seasons of big musicals or, like the Theatre Royal, hovering uncertainly on the edge of redevelopment.

I saw many things in New York and London, and will talk about them tomorrow in my International list. There were a couple of beauties, including a superlative production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. I’ll be fascinated to see how Melbourne’s Malthouse copes with its complexities when it puts on its own production next year. First task: get a brilliantly accomplished, totally unflappable stage manager. But more on that tomorrow.

I’m going slightly off-piste here, but I loathe the system, now used virtually everywhere, of giving productions star ratings, as if the piece of theatre were a refrigerator either superbly or deficiently energy-efficient. If plentifully bestowed, stars are a boon to theatre managements as they tout their shows but they reduce the critic to another cog in the publicity machine. They say to the reader – always described as time-poor – don’t bother to absorb the nuances of the discussion; just count the stars and see them twinkle in the advertisements.

My list cannot be described as the “best” plays I saw in 2014. “Best” is a meaningless term. What can be said is that a piece of theatre touched one’s heart, soul and mind more powerfully and lastingly than did others. This is a very personal matter, which is why opinions can differ so greatly. Even in what might think are matters of execution – the appropriateness of a set design, say, or the technical skills of a performer or director – there can be widely divergent views. You should hear the discussions our group has when deciding the finalists and winners of the Sydney Theatre Awards (results announced on January 19).

I love a cracking production of a classic – last year’s Sydney Theatre Company Waiting for Godot, for instance – but am most deeply moved by work that expands and challenges what we think we know about our society. Theatre audiences are overwhelmingly white and comfortably off, but you have only to get on a train to Parramatta to see an infinitely more diverse Australia. And yes, there were plays this year that reflected that.

There are things on my list that didn’t get an incredibly flash production but their virtues shone through. One or two could use a few more drafts. I’ve included three non-Australian works that were graced with exceptional performances.

And one thing I noticed. There are loads of women writers and directors. This was not in any way planned but perhaps points to a breakthrough in which, you know, good people get to do good things. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Finally, there’s nothing more artificial than a list of 10. Yes, we have 10 fingers and 10 toes, so we like that number. Here it has no purpose.

Thirteen plays I loved in 2014, in the order in which I saw them:

Black Diggers, by Tom Wright. Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival (January)

Indigenous Australians signed up for World War I duty in the expectation they would find justice and acceptance on their return. How wrong they were. The rollicking theatriciality and fierce humour were uplifting; the story itself heartbreaking. It was a bit rough and ready on its premiere but who cares? In the centenary year of the declaration of war, it was outstandingly relevant. Wesley Enoch directed.

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre at Carriageworks (March)

At last Sydney got to see this potent, much-travelled work. The swastika was once a sacred Hindu symbol and the god Ganesh wants to wrest it from the Nazis. At the heart of the matter are questions of who has power and who has the right to tell certain stories, overlain with the certain knowledge that in Hitler’s world the men enacting this play would have faced extinction. It was hold-your-breath, edge-of-the-seat theatre. Bruce Gladwin directed.

Jump for Jordan, by Donna Abela, Griffin Theatre Company (March)

This is such an Australian story. A woman born here of Jordanian parents is both a typical Aussie and someone who has to negotiate the treacherous territory between her parents’ world and her own. Abela’s play energetically dashes between realism, farce and surrealism, but most of all it captures so poignantly the pain migrants must face of leaving behind the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and customs that we call home. It had a terrific cast, in which Doris Younane, as the Jordanian-born mother, was very, very fine. Great set by Pip Runciman too, in which sand spilled into the living room of a suburban Sydney home. Iain Sinclair directed.

Pete the Sheep, based on the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, adapted for the stage by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge. Monkey Baa Theatre Company (April)

Perfect. Just perfect. Pete is a sheep-sheep in a world that reckons there’s only a place for sheep dogs. Pete and his owner beg to differ and they prevail triumphantly. Silly songs, an important lesson in diversity, and fantastic fun for the kids. And for me. Directed by Jonathan Biggins with songs by Phillip Scott.

His Mother’s Voice, by Justin Fleming. bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company at ATYP (May)

His Mother’s Voice could do with some reworking but its subject is entrancing. The play is set mainly in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath and partly in Canberra, moving between time and place. A mother teaches her son the piano despite the risk, and then the reality, of being persecuted for being bourgeois. For Yang Jia, who was played with understated grace and gleaming intelligence by Renee Lim, music is a universal language. The Chinese apparatchiks who harry her see Western music as the enemy of Chinese music; she sees the two as complementary. When her piano is destroyed Yang Lia finds another, incredibly touching, way of continuing her son’s education in the greats of Western classical music. The politics of the Cultural Revolution collide with international politics, and if at times some of the arguments on the Western side seem a little stilted, Fleming’s portrayal of the contradictions acceptable – necessary? – in Chinese thinking is fascinating. Suzanne Miller directed.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, by Declan Greene. Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company (May)

The title is misleading in one respect because the play is not at all about pornography. But in its expression – so caressing in cadence and so ugly in import – the name brilliantly captures the bleak oppositions that drive Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. There have never been so many ways to communicate and so little connection. Never so many goodies to fill the home to overflowing yet so much emptiness. Never so much stimulation available at the tap of a keyboard and such a paucity of genuine satisfaction. This epidemic of unfulfilled desire and coruscating loneliness is dissected with laser accuracy. A man and a woman, both unnamed, 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. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs were devastatingly good. Lee Lewis directed.

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare Company (June)

IN an air raid shelter during the Blitz in London, some young people delve into bookshelves and pull out Shakespeare. Their stage is a room with a blackboard and some rackety shelves, their costumes nothing more than what they can put over their school uniforms. As sirens blare and bombs fall, they put on a play about war. There could be few productions of Henry V scrappier, less heroic or more affecting than this. Essentially a bunch of kids in a confined space put on accents and lark about, yet the simplicity and intimacy pierce the heart as surely as King Henry’s archers at Agincourt routed the French. Director Damien Ryan sees nothing worth exalting in Henry’s pursuit of conquest. He sees the damage and the never-ending trail of misery. Inspired and inspirational.

Kryptonite, by Sue Smith. Sydney Theatre Company and State Theatre Company of South Australia (September)

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. 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 keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another. I found the part for Dylan (Tim Walter) a little underwritten, but Ursula Mills as Lian was stunning. I’d love to see it again. Geordie Brookman directed.

Children of the Sun, by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Andrew Upton. Sydney Theatre Company (September)

I found this so poignant. A well-meaning bourgeois Russian family fails to see revolution brewing all around them. Well, one of them can but no one takes any notice. There isn’t any malice in their lack of understanding about the society in which they live but that won’t help them in the end. I think we can all see a lesson there. Jacqueline McKenzie and Justine Clarke made me cry. Kip Williams directed.

Howie the Rookie, by Mark O’Rowe. Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy (October)

This was theatre as stripped back as it comes. The two 40-minute monologues that form Howie the Rookie were here performed by Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry (they are sometimes done by one actor), who took us pell-mell into a particularly violent, mordantly funny and wildly alive part of Dublin. O’Rowe’s extravagant text was given a brilliantly restrained setting by Lisa Mimmocchi of no more than a pile of bottle tops and a couple of chairs. Toby Schmitz directed.

Is This Thing On?, by Zoe Coombs Marr. Belvoir (October)

One stand-up comedienne, five versions of herself at different ages, and a riotous night to be had by all. What could have been a madwoman’s breakfast was held together with awesome, anarchic energy by Susan Prior. Kit Brookman and Zoe Coombs Marr directed.

Switzerland, by Joanna Murray-Smith. Sydney Theatre Company (November)

There’s a famous and famously reclusive novelist, an interloper and the spectre of the novelist’s most enduring character. The three collide in Joanna Murray-Smith’s audacious play, which starts innocuously enough as bio-drama, morphs into a psychological thriller and ends as fantastic realism. Sarah Pierse gets possibly the role of her career as Patricia Highsmith; Eamon Farren is the persistent young publisher’s emissary who wants the author to write another Tom Ripley novel. Sarah Goodes directs with a sure, elegant and witty touch. It runs until December 20.

A Christmas Carol, adapted from Charles Dickens by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks. Belvoir (November)

I adored everything about this. Michael Hankin’s set is spare but full of surprises, Mel Page’s costumes are festive and I had to suppress a desire to run onstage and hug every actor at the end. A Christmas Carol celebrates love and generosity. Amen to that. Anne-Louse Sarks directed. (Fittingly, it runs until Christmas Eve.)

Tomorrow: International theatre ( I promise it will be much shorter)

Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.

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.

Goodnight, sweet prince

Hamlet, change of cast, Belvoir, Sydney, November 26

THEATRE critics don’t often revisit a production. They go to the opening, write, and move on. They must. Other plays, other companies relentlessly crowd the diary and then the season is over and the chance disappears. The critic has to make judgments swiftly, and very possibly on a performance that is not as good as it will become. But that’s the way it works. The review is a snapshot of that one occasion.

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

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

By and large that’s fine. Few productions, within the four to six weeks of their run, will alter so fundamentally that another viewing will change critical opinion. It also must be remembered that critical opinion isn’t a singular, unified beast. It’s a collection of disparate views, often wildly differing.

Only infrequently, therefore, does a production make an ironclad case for being seen again. Simon Stone’s Hamlet for Belvoir came into this category through chance. The production opened on October 12 with Toby Schmitz playing the prince of Denmark, but he was released when shooting on a US TV series, Black Sails, in which he is involved, was brought forward. (Black Sails is described as a prequel of sorts to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.) Series one doesn’t premiere until January 25 but early buzz was so good a second series was commissioned by cable channel Starz and it started filming this month.

One can’t help thinking of when Geoffrey Rush withdrew from Belvoir’s 2003 50th anniversary production of Waiting for Godot to take a role in some pirate film. Yes, that would be Pirates of the Caribbean. That went pretty well for Rush. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of an opportunity like that. But Godot hadn’t yet opened and John Gaden nobly stepped into the breach.

In the case of Hamlet Schmitz would need to leave two weeks before the scheduled closing date.

Quite a challenging situation, you would think, having to replace such a charismatic leading man, and in Hamlet to boot. Belvoir, however, hit the jackpot with the availability and willingness of Ewen Leslie to step in. Not only is Leslie one of the finest stage actors of his generation, he had played Hamlet in Melbourne in 2011, although this assignment was a very different one. Leslie would have to forget huge swaths of text and come to grips with a re-ordering of that which remained.

Stone’s Hamlet isn’t one for everyone, particularly those who don’t know the play, and while I would suggest this production isn’t one for the ages, its explosive energy and intensity of purpose make riveting theatre. Hamlet has been ruthlessly pared back – take out the interval and there’s not much more than two hours of drama – and is presented in black and white. This is literally so in design terms, with the first half set (such as it is; a wall of curtains and row of bog-standard chairs) a study in black and the second act performed in a bright white box in which only the grand piano from Act I remains. The first setting acts as a visual equivalent to the dark deeds that unhinge Hamlet and the second provides a bright canvas for all that blood. Grief and death are Stone’s preoccupations and he goes at them pell-mell.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge famously said of Edmund Kean that seeing him act was “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. It wasn’t entirely the compliment it sounds. The meaning, it seems, is that with Kean you didn’t get the whole picture. Nevertheless, that wonderful phrase conveys the crackle and electricity of performance and could justifiably be used to describe this Hamlet and its strictly limited palette. The wonderful Nathan Lovejoy gets to be both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Anthony Phelan is the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and in one of the production’s most touching moments is assigned Horatio’s beautiful words, “Goodnight, sweet prince”; an audacious puppet show economically replaces the travelling players; and so on.

All these things were immediately legible on a first viewing. The second viewing brought into sharper focus the production’s intimacy and complicity with its audience. The auditorium lights are often high and several times Hamlet crosses the invisible barrier between stage and seating. Even if not physically doing that, he makes searching eye contact. The idea of a soliloquy as ideas spoken aloud is transformed into a feeling of being inside Hamlet’s head as he tries to think things through. Leslie is particularly direct and powerful in this. At the performance I saw, when he demanded, “Am I a coward?”, you could feel people restraining themselves from answering. Thus, when the final scene is filled with blood-soaked characters, some of them are, strictly speaking, not yet dead. But as the duel scene rapidly unfolds, it is not unreasonable to apprehend these last moments as flickers of Hamlet’s dying thoughts. He sees dead people and so do we.

Stone’s production is not in essence changed by the change of cast, but naturally there are differences between Schmitz and Leslie. Schmitz was witty and unpredictable, wearing his rage and grief like banners of war in high-definition colours. Even when he was wracked with sobs there was the sense he was very aware of his effect and of how events may unfold. Leslie’s torment is no less overtly expressed yet feels more private. Deep thinking and even deeper desolation are his lot.

While on the subject of spellbinding performances, the weekend brings not only the last chance to see Hamlet, but also Marshall Napier in All My Sons at the new Eternity Playhouse for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Napier is towering in a very fine, absolutely traditional staging of Arthur Miller’s domestic tragedy. There’s happily a little more time to see Paul Blackwell in John Doyle’s Vere (Faith) for Sydney Theatre Company. Blackwell is devastating as a physicist falling into the black hole of dementia.

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marshal Napier and Toni Scanlan in All My Sons. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waiting for Godot runs until December 21, with as thrilling a quartet of performances as you could find anywhere from Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins. In the bewilderingly under-appreciated Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – by audiences, that is; the crits were the kind you’d write for yourself but houses have been small – Tony Sheldon and Matt Hetherington are a riot.

What of roles for women, we ask? Things are a bit thin on the ground at the moment, although Harriet Dyer is harrowing in Machinal at Sydney Theatre Company and Toni Scanlan magnificent as Kate Keller in All My Sons.

Like Hamlet, All My Sons had a key cast change during the run when Meredith Penman could do only a couple of performances as Anne due to another commitment. I didn’t see the well-reviewed Penman but her replacement, Anna Houston, was superb.

Remember how a couple of years ago there was a hoo-ha about lack of opportunities for female directors in theatre? That situation seems to have shifted appreciably, which is good. But what about towering roles for women. Well, this year we’ve had The Maids for Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury for Sarah Peirse, and newcomer Taylor Ferguson was given the title role in Miss Julie, although I found the production misbegotten.

I thought the unforgettable women of The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe were quite right when they made a joke about how they should have been in Belvoir’s Upstairs theatre instead of the tiny Downstairs space. But they weren’t.

As for next year, well, Sydney will see a man playing Hedda Gabler – Ash Flanders at Belvoir. But he will be directed by a woman, Adena Jacobs.

Hamlet and All My Sons end December 1. Vere (Faith) and Machinal end December 7. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels closes December 8. Waiting for Godot ends December 21.

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.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sydney Theatre, August 10

Have you not done tormenting me with your accursed time! It’s abominable! When! When! One day, is that not enough for you, one day he went dumb, one day I went blind, one day we’ll go deaf, one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you? They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more. On!

Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Act II

I HAD forgotten to what degree Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pays homage to Waiting for Godot while going backstage at Hamlet, as ‘twere. As the court of Elsinore goes through its well known paces, shown to us only in flickers and fragments, the two courtiers are left to fretfully consider just why they have been tapped to glean what afflicts Hamlet. Like Vladimir and Estragon they puzzle and ruminate, waiting for something to happen, never entirely sure of their shifting ground. That’s ground in the metaphorical sense; in the physical sense they seem rooted to the spot, unable to escape from a claustrophobic set of arches and tunnels that, disconcertingly, look fake but through which others – but not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – come and go. The two are like actors who have lost the plot, babbling away, unable to find the right spot in the script and move on.

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie, centre, and the players in Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

With Stoppard’s intellect and wit on speed dial – the man was born in Czechoslovakia in 1937; naturally he sees the mordantly funny side of existential angst – one has to be in alert form to keep up on both sides of the spotlights. Simon Phillips directs with unflagging vigour and a keen sense of the absurd, rightly, I think, valuing energy and momentum over textual clarity at times. Well, there are so many words that if you miss one or two, there’ll be another bunch along in a moment. (There isn’t a lot missed, and to be honest a couple of the more abstruse jokes are never going to score big with an audience so best to get ‘em out and move right along.)

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a marvel of cunning, and not only because it uses the Sydney Theatre stage in a way we haven’t seen before. It is genuinely disconcerting as well as being playful and mysterious. What’s that funnel doing hanging above the stage? At the beginning we see it extrude some bare branches – shades of Godot! – and later there’s a kind of twisty, open-work ladder that trails off into the wings. All very sci-fi and theatrical. Tylesova has had great fun with the costumes too, memorably kitting out Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude as a mad version of Elizabeth I. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern revels outrageously in its play-ness (more Godot!), giving a particularly juicy role to the impresario whose dogged band of mixed nuts is hired to perform for Gertrude and Claudius.  “We are actors. We are the opposite of people,” says the Player, impersonated with lofty self-regard by Ewen Leslie, employing the rich, thespian tones of a man exceptionally impressed with the timbre of his voice.

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

When it comes to words, however, Toby Schmitz’s febrile Guildenstern is your man, pouring out his thoughts and fears amusingly, obsessively, manically. (Even his hair is jumpy: Schmitz’s usually straight locks are hidden under a riot of curls.) Of course he has every reason to suspect all is not right. Tim Minchin’s Rosencrantz, on the other hand, is not quite so aware of the abyss yawning before them – why toenails don’t grow as swiftly as fingernails is more his speed – but intimations of mortality are everywhere. Schmitz and Minchin, Minchin and Schmitz. They are tremendously vivid and engaging and touching as well as being highly individual. Claudius and Gertrude keep mixing them up, to the point where the lads themselves become a tiny bit unsure about who they are. But that’s because no one else is really real. They are all opening their mouths, saying stuff and playing a part.

I’d like to think it’s fate that provides Sydney with the chance to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Sydney Theatre Company), Hamlet (Belvoir) and Waiting for Godot (STC) in the same year. Indeed, in the same half of the year.  I don’t suppose STC’s Andrew Upton and Belvoir’s Ralph Myers cooked this up together, at least I hope they didn’t. Less fun that way.

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz, Tim Minchin and George Kemp. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

That two of the three plays feature Schmitz is a bonus. What a shame the scheduling of Hamlet makes it impossible for Schmitz – he is the Dane – to play Lucky to Philip Quast’s Pozzo while Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh play Vladimir and Estragon. Or is it Estragon and Vladimir?

What brilliant casts we’re seeing in Sydney this year.

Postscript: The supporting cast for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a knockout, and includes, along with Heather Mitchell, John Gaden as Polonius and Christopher Stollery as Claudius. And a special nod to George Kemp as the player Alfred, put upon in more ways than one.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern continues at the Sydney Theatre until September 14.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney

Belvoir St Theatre, February 27

WHEN theatre practitioners talk about putting Australian voices on stage they tend to be talking about Australian plays and Australian content – what else would they mean? Well, at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre, artistic director Ralph Myers and resident director Simon Stone take it a step further by preferring to use the Australian accent on stage, no matter where the play may be set. There were no upper-class British elocutions to be heard in Myers’s production last year of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, no American cadences in Stone’s Death of a Salesman (he unwisely also deleted the epilogue and had to reinstate it, but that’s a separate matter).

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Ewen Leslie as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Belvoir, Sydney. Photograph: Heidrun Lohr

Now Stone offers Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof without the perfume of southern accents. It’s a bold call, and not one that persuades unconditionally, but nevertheless the decision is all of a piece with a keen desire to make an audience see important texts anew. To hear them anew. No Tennessee Williams play was harmed in the making of this production. (We may also assume that when Stone puts Hamlet on the Belvoir stage later in the year he won’t ask Toby Schmitz to play the Dane in Elizabethan English.)

There’s a Brechtian element here. It is disconcerting to hear Willy Loman talk about upstate New York towns and sound exactly like Colin Friels. It is jolting when, in Private Lives, Elyot says women need to be struck regularly, like gongs, and to see and hear Schmitz as a present-day Sydney lad about town. And it is deeply dislocating to hear Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as if it were set on a big property somewhere in rural Australia.

Such a provocation is stimulating and challenging – if one gains more than one loses. With Cat on a Hot Tin Roof I give Stone the win. I’d like to see the production again and think I’d get more from it on another viewing, which is pretty much my criterion for a successful evening.

But still.

I think it’s relevant that on the night I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof the sounds of the American South frequently trembled on actors’ lips before being suppressed. Those sounds, so soft and stretched and swirled in the mouth, are at one with the rhythms of the text and have an almost palpable sensuality along with intimations of decay. Think of the sentimental references to Brick’s alma mater Ole Miss; that’s as mushy a phrase as you can find. And “mendacity” – the key word in the play – begs to be heard drawn out into four distinct, deliberate, southern syllables.

No wonder the actors appeared to be attracted strongly to this way of speaking. Embedded in the very sounds are layers of meaning and yearning. Without the accent Williams’s words no longer seem quite as sumptuous, and with that slightly slack quality that makes one think of licentiousness.

Does that sound like stereotyping? Sure does, which is possibly one of the reasons Stone wanted to do away with such a rich element of the play. The ruthless excision of that element forces the audience out of an ole plantation, “I wish I was in Dixie” mentality. Interestingly, the new Broadway revival goes hell for leather in that direction it would seem. Ben Brantley’s New York Times review of January 17 notes “it is saturated in Southern Gothic atmosphere” and that the sound design includes snatches of servants singing spirituals and work songs – “Oh lordy, pick a bale of cotton”. Lordy indeed.

I can understand Stone wanting to run at speed from that kind of presentation for an Australian audience. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof has to be mined for its application to the here and now.

Need, greed, manipulation and the coruscating exercise of power within a rich dysfunctional family lie at the heart of the play. Big Daddy (Marshall Napier) is dying and doesn’t know it; older son Gooper (Alan Dukes) and his fecund wife Mae (Rebecca Massey) think they should take over; both Big Daddy and Big Mama (Lynette Curran) prefer formerly golden younger son Brick (Ewen Leslie); Brick is trying to drink his way out of a life he despises and his wife Maggie (Jacqueline McKenzie) will do anything to hang on to what she’s managed to claw for herself. Meet the family.

As they go around and around on Robert Cousins’s revolving set with its rainbow curtain of streamers, everyone except Brick vies for ascendency in the shadow of Big Daddy’s demise. McKenzie is a wonderfully angular Maggie, and her tense skittering about at the play’s opening shows exactly what kind of cat she is: fast, wily, hungry, not quite enough meat on her bones. Napier will be a fine Big Daddy once he gets off the book (he was a late inclusion in the cast due when Anthony Phelan fell ill and had to do some scenes script in hand on the night the media attended) and Curran’s Big Mama, by turns vivacious and clingy, is vividly conceived.

But it’s Leslie’s handsome, desperate, disintegrating Brick who is at the core of this production. In a way he’s the only one who no longer wants anything, except a drink. He hates the tawdriness of it all – the loss of his shiny youth, his football prowess, the way in which his intense connection with his friend Skipper, now dead, is cheapened by everyone. The family all talk about the nature of the friendship and no one seems to care too much about what it was, as long as Brick can get it up long enough to impregnate Maggie. Mendacity rules, as the final image of the production proves. You could weep for Brick’s utter desolation.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof continues at Belvoir St Theatre until April 7 and transfers to the Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 10-21, 2013.