My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

STC Hay Fever3

Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Seminar

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, Belvoir Downstairs, August 27. Seminar, Ensemble Theatre, August 27 matinee.

THE Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe has just got underway in front of a packed, albeit small, house. “If we keep this up they might move us upstairs,” quips one of the performers. Right on ladies!

The performers have good reason to think they could pull a bigger crowd than at Belvoir Downstairs, where capacity is just 83. Tickets sold out in a trice (people can waitlist on the day) and there’s a lot more room in the Upstairs theatre. Room for about 330, to be precise.

Baulkham Hills is simplicity itself – a bunch of stories, some songs, a little bit of dancing and a couple of comic segments – and has a setting to match.There’s plenty of high-level expertise in the design, lighting, video, music-making and so on, but the production gently and gracefully concentrates on its protagonists, four women who used to live in Africa and now live in Australia.

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Effie Nkrumah, Aminata Conteh-Biger and Tariro Mavondo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It doesn’t sound like much of a basis for a gripping theatre piece, particularly as the women didn’t just provide the raw material but appear on stage as well. But gripping it is, and sobering, and humbling.

In Sierra Leone, Yarrie Bangura saw cruelty of almost unimaginable proportions. Aminata Conteh-Biger doesn’t like to be told she’s beautiful, which she is, because being attractive to men brought her hideous torment. We hear something of Yordanos Haile-Michael’s terrible youth, but she is a reticent, slightly tense figure who is undoubtedly keeping much back. Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe, vibrant and positive, was beaten again and again. Rape, slavery, violence and deprivation – these were everyday reality for these stupendously brave women.

Out of this difficult, sometimes harrowing material, Writer-director Ros Horin has created an optimistic, uplifting show. Key to its success is the vivid presence of the women. Each tells aspects of her story, but there are times when the narration is handed to one of the three professional actors – Nancy Denis, Tariro Mavondo and Effie Nkrumah – who help shape the performance. It’s a touching device, and a clever one. It softens the blows, a little.

The show sags somewhat late into the 105-minute span. The hair-dressing scene, although bringing some comic relief, feels like filler. The earlier exposition on the difference between African dance styles and a quiz about the continent are much stronger and could take expansion. All of it, though, without being in any way overtly political, puts faces and personalities to the statistics and humanises the refugee debate. A splendid achievement.

And you have to love a show in which a woman – the irrepressible Yarrie Bangura – comes up with this line:  “Oh my goodness, [I think] I’m in heaven. And that was Sydney Airport.”

SYDNEY’S second-most attractively sited theatrical venue, after the Opera House of course, is the Ensemble in Kirribilli and it’s always a great pleasure to go to this small theatre on the water’s edge. How it manages without government funding is a miracle and a tribute to its ability to read its loyal audience.

Next year it will present Clybourne Park, which has been seen in Melbourne but not staged in Sydney; ditto Other Desert Cities, which is Queensland Theatre Company’s current production (it ends at the weekend). David Auburn’s Proof, another drama with a Broadway provenance is on next year too.

Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck, is the latest in the “as seen on Broadway” shows at the Ensemble and is given a lively, entertaining production, although one that can’t disguise the play’s too-numerous flaws. The set-up has, well, the air of a set-up. A group of ambitious young writers gathers at an apartment to drink in the (expensive) wisdom of Leonard, apparently an editor of note, a writer of despatches from the world’s hot-spots and once a novelist. I think I have that right – why Leonard keeps dashing off to Somalia or Sudan or wherever is a bit unclear.

Anyhoo, Leonard is a tough old tyrant who needs to read only half a sentence before he knows exactly how bad a piece of writing is. Or he can speed-read a couple of pages and discern genius. He’s vile to the students, who also have other interpersonal issues to get through. All of this is quite amusing, if unconvincing.

Arguments and situations are false and clunky, although Rebeck’s writing itself can be well-wrought and funny and the young characters have vim. It’s an easy 100 minutes. But as a serious discussion about the art of writing, the need to write, who is the arbiter of what is good and what is not and other assorted cultural dilemmas, Seminar unfortunately gets a fail.

On the plus side, director Anna Crawford has assembled an excellent cast, including William Zappa in robust form as Leonard. I very much enjoyed Matilda Ridgway’s wound-up Kate and Michelle Lim Davidson’s blithely calculating and sexy Izzy. Felix Gentle (Douglas) and Matthew  Zeremes (Martin) also give expertly pitched performances. A pity it’s not a better play.

The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, a co-production with Racing Pulse Productions & Riverside in association with STARTTS ends September 17; Seminar ends September 14.