The Playlist: 2016 at the theatre

As with previous years, ‘The Playlist’ is a musical summary of the year’s theatre-going. The rule is (mostly) simple: find a piece of music that encapsulates either the production or my response to it, or both as the case often is. The only catch is I cannot re-use a piece from a previous year, even if it is the same text (return seasons of a production are excused).
Thus follows The Playlist for 2016.

2016, the verdict

Event(s) of the Year
A Midsummer Night’s DreamShakespeare’s Globe
Golem – 1927, presented by STC
Fase, four movements to the music of Steve Reich – Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, Sydney Festival
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Theatre for A New Audience

Honourable Mention
Thomas Murray and the Upside Down RiverStone Soup & Griffin Independent
Inner Voices Don’t Look Away
The Literati – Bell Shakespeare & Griffin Theatre Company
Babes in the Woods Don’t Look Away

Dishonourable Mention (or The Shovel)
The Great Fire Belvoir
Twelfth NightBelvoir
Power Plays – STC

Best (New Australian) Play
Skylab, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra (National Play Festival)
The Turquoise Elephant, Stephen Carleton
Picnic at Hanging Rock, Tom Wright, after Joan Lindsay

Best Design (Set, Costume, Lighting, Sound, Other)
David Fleischer (set & costume) – The Golden Age
1927 (projections/lighting/set) – Golem
Andrew Bailey (‘set’) – Lungs
Zjarie Paige-Butterworth (costumes) – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Gabriella Tylesova (set & costume) – A Flea in Her Ear
Luke Smiles (motion laboratories) (soundtrack) – Girl Asleep

A Midsummer Night’s DreamShakespeare’s Globe (live web-stream)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Theatre for A New Audience (filmed)

The ‘Room Temperature’ Award
Things I Know To Be True STCSA & Frantic Assembly


Highly emusing: Don’t Look Away’s Babes in the Woods

An edited version of this piece was published on artsHub.

First produced in 2003 by Melbourne’s Playbox theatre company (now Malthouse), Tom Wright’s Babes in the Wood was a twenty-first century take on the colonial pantomime tradition, spiralling out of control into a hallucinogenic cornucopia of disreputability. Now, thirteen years later, Don’t Look Away – the company responsible for Inner Voices and The Legend of King O’Malley – have returned to the woods of the Old Fitz, and have brought us something approximating a sequel but also a more contemporary reinterpretation of the panto tradition and an interrogation of the milieu from which the Australian pantomime tradition sprang in the nineteenth century, as well as our own 2016 context. And even though it might look like it’s raided a Christmas warehouse for its set in the best possible way imaginable, it still packs a satirical punch and leaves you doubled over in laughter, appropriately heckling the performers and throwing cabbage. What’s not to love?


Dreamer: Windmill's Girl Asleep

At the Adelaide Festival in 2014, a new play by Matthew Whittet was premiered. Forming the third part in a trilogy for Windmill Theatre Co. (what is now known as the The Windmill Trilogy), the play was the story of fourteen year old Greta Driscoll, her dreaded fifteenth birthday party, and everything that happened on that night. The play was Girl Asleep, and it went on to become an internationally successful film. When it premiered in Adelaide, playing in rep with the rest of the trilogy, I missed it due to Hilary Bell’s gorgeous version of The Seagull, and the first instalment of the trilogy, Fugitive. But two-and-a-half years and numerous successful film festival campaigns later, Girl Asleep rocks onto Belvoir’s corner stage in all its 1970s glory, but I can’t help but wonder if it suffers from Whittet’s tendency to wallow in a conceit without properly exploring and/or developing its structure and the full extent of the world.


Matías Piñeiro and the Shakespeareada

About a month ago, I came across a review from the Locarno Film Festival about a film called Helena & Hermia. Loosely based on the eponymous characters in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was directed by Argentinean filmmaker Matías Piñeiro, and forms a continuation of his ‘Shakespeareada’ – an ongoing interrogation and recontextualising of stories taken out of Shakespeare’s plays (so far, only his Comedies), and placed in the suburban environments of Buenos Aires.
To date, Piñeiro’s ‘Shakespeareada’ consists of Rosalinda (2011), Viola (2012), The Princess of France (2014), and the just-released Helena & Hermia (2016). In both Viola and The Princess of France, the two of his films more readily available, the structure is essentially similar, albeit in slightly different augmentations: there is an extended sequence of material from the respective Shakespearean source-plays (in order, As You Like It; Twelfth Night; Love’s Labour’s Lost; and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), followed by a series of riffs, loops, fugues, and rhapsodies upon the material – both seen and unseen – by the characters.


The elephant in the room: Griffin’s The Turquoise Elephant

An edited version of this piece originally appeared on artsHub.

One of the first productions I saw at Griffin was Ian Meadows’ Between Two Waves, a finely-wrought and emotional play about the personal toll of climate change. Four years later, Stephen Carleton’s Griffin-award-winning The Turquoise Elephant, is a play about climate change, egos, and running out of time; it explodes onto Griffin’s tiny stage with as much verve, farce, panache and delicious wickedness as it can muster, and it is in may ways both the antithesis and dark mirror of Meadows’ play, as well as being a darkly comic piece of absurdist mastery in the vein of Ionesco.


No dreams here: STC’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favourite of all Shakespeare’s plays. You can read me bang on about it on numerous occasions on this blog. This will not be another one of them. This is the fourth Dream I’ve seen this year, and it was also the most eagerly awaited, and certainly one of the most anticipated shows of this year. But as is often the case, the greater the expectations, the harder the fall, and the more painful it is when it doesn’t work. And so it is with Kip Williams’ production for Sydney Theatre Company.
This production seems to owe a passing debt to Peter Brook’s seminal 1970 Royal Shakespeare Company production which toured the world (you know the one I mean). But where Brook was rebelling – and quite rightly – against the accumulated gossamer and Romantic notion of the Dream that had built up in theatrical tradition since the 1800s, this production almost seems to want to shock us. In seeking to draw out the darkness within Shakespeare’s play and to serve, in some respects, as a corrective to the accumulated detritus around The Dream both locally and abroad, Williams and his team create a psycho-sexual space for the play to sit in and in doing so, impose a stark and austere world of lumpy fairies, hooded figures, and semi-Lynchian images upon the text without too much consideration for the textual engine at work beneath it. In doing so, Williams removes the ability of the audience to dream, and thereby denies the production its power; by being all intellectual and deliberate and calculated about it, it can only come of as quite superficial.


Geeks bearing myths: Montague Basement’s Metamorphoses

After going from strength to strength in their first two years, Sydney-based collective Montague Basement have decided to speak of ‘forms changed into new entities.’ In their adaptation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, they have taken the fifteen books of epic Roman poetry and condensed them into seventy minutes of smart deconstructions and reversals; a smorgasbord of transformations and transgressions, a riot of godly shenanigans. “With sincere apologies to Ovid,” the disclaimer reads; you can almost see the “Not really” written in small letters underneath it. And while it works (and when it really does fly, it is marvelous), a lot of the references and parallels – the cleverness and intertextuality – comes from a familiarity with Ovid’s stories, something I don’t think we quite have as much of today as we’d like to think we do.


Rock this ground: Shakespeare’s Globe’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

This is celebrating Shakespeare in the truest possible way: come in, drink beer, shout at the stage, come and go as you please and get involved.
– Emma Rice

This morning I realised I’ve seen a dozen or so versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the past thirteen years, either on stage, on video, or in a cinema. Without a doubt it is Shakespeare’s most evergreen play, in that its magic, beauty, strangeness and wonder never fades, and can withstand whatever a production throws at it. When Emma Rice was announced as the third artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London last year, I was immediately excited to see what she would produce. Now, eighteen months later, as her first production at the Globe comes to a close, the BBC decided to live-stream the final performance of Rice’s Dream to all and sundry; playing at 6.30pm BST, I pulled an all-nighter and sat up in bed watching it at 3am Australian-time, watching the darkness encroach around the Globe as the sky grew light outside my window. If her first Dream is any indication, under Rice’s leadership the Globe is set to transcend the heavens of invention, if it hasn’t already done so straight off the bat.


The secret history: STC’s The Hanging

People disappear all the time.  Ask any policeman.  Better yet, ask a journalist…  Many of the lost will be found, eventually, dead or alive. Disappearances, after all, have explanations. Usually.
 – Diana Gabaldon, Cross Stitch

Since it first appeared in Joan Lindsay’s 1967 novel, the story of Picnic at Hanging Rock has been seared into our cultural conscience. Following Malthouse’s production earlier in the year – an adaptation of Lindsay’s novel, rather than of Peter Weir’s film – Sarah Goodes brings us Angela Betzien’s The Hanging, a contemporary take on the missing child story that has haunted us since the earliest days of white settlement. You can see it in the paintings of Frederick McCubbin, the claustrophobic vision of the untamed bush all around us, the impossibly high horizons and tiniest glimmers of sky too far away; you can see it in Picnic at Hanging Rock, Top of the Lake, and The Kettering Incident; in Hilary Bell’s Wolf Lullaby and The Splinter, in Jasper Jones, When The Rain Stops Falling; in the disappearances of the Beaumont children, Azaria Chamberlain and, more recently, Madeleine McCann. And while these events are in no way connected, they each capture our imaginations, and fuel our insecurities about possession, sexuality, colonialism, and our (lack of) control over nature.
Betzien’s play follows her recent plays Mortido and The Dark Room in the crime genre, and Children of the Black Skirt in her exploration of the Australian Gothic trope, and manages to combine the two genres within the frame of a crime thriller which owes several obvious debts to Picnic at Hanging Rock, as well as The Virgin Suicides, Heavenly Creatures, The Secret History, and The Catcher in the Rye. These nods do not detract from the story, nor the revelations and their ramifications, but act as a series of refracting mirrors, to bounce ideas and references off each other to create a new work that ripples with secrets, latent sexuality and its potency, as well as capitalising on the eeriness and terror of the Australian bush that has haunted our national psyche for centuries.


A dream Dream: Theatre for A New Audience’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is perhaps Shakespeare’s most perennially evergreen play, in that its magic, beauty, strangeness and wonder never fades, but grows richer and deeper and more strange with every consecutive production. While it was the first Shakespeare play I studied at school, it is still the one play of Shakespeare’s that I love wholeheartedly and completely, and this production not only proves why, but is perhaps the most mercurial, effervescent, and beguiling Dream I have seen.
This production, first staged at New York’s Theatre for A New Audience in 2014, is directed by Julie Taymor, perhaps most well known for The Lion King musical as much as for the circumstances surrounding her Spider-Man musical, Turn Off The Dark. Known for her wild inventiveness, kaleidoscopic approach to style and design, and her reluctance to conform to expectations, this Dream lives up to its name and positively flies. Towards the end of the production’s season, Taymor and her collaborators were given money through Ealing Studios to film the production and create a cinematic Dream which brought its stage incarnation to even more beguiling life. Enlisting the help of Rodrigo Prieto (who previously shot Taymor’s film Frida), Taymor filmed four performances from four angles each, then spent the intervening days filming pick-up shots – close-ups, cutaways, shots you wouldn’t necessarily be able to achieve with an audience during a performance. Working with some eighty hours of footage, Taymor and editor Barbara Tulliver spent several months creating this cinematic Dream, drawing us further into the world of fairies, dark magic, shadows, and desire.


Copping Flack: Belvoir’s Twelfth Night

Shakespeare’s festive comedies – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Twelfth Night – are bound within a series of strict societal rules, rules which govern behaviours, moods, actions and reactions, as well as language and plot. They also perform a very specific function, namely allowing the society’s capacity for anarchy or misrule to find a full expression in an environment where mischief-making can be corrected, apologised for, and in some cases, released. Punning on the notion of ‘will’ – the idea of desire and love (and/or lust), as much as autonomy, as well as being a euphemism for penis – Shakespeare somehow manages to create a play which, like Rosalind at the end of As You Like It, asks us to cherish what pleases us and forgive the rest.
Eamon Flack’s As You Like It, seen at Belvoir in 2011, took Shakespeare’s play and infused it with a wit, warmth, and fullness of life and expression that barely seemed to be contained within the two walls of the Belvoir stage, and later spilled over into the street outside. In creating that production, Flack and his collaborators “gave [themselves] the same task Shakespeare gave himself and his company” – that is, to (re)create the kind of experience that Shakespeare might have written to be performed on Shrove Tuesday at Richmond Palace in 1599, in the presence of Queen Elizabeth I. In that instance, As You Like It became “a show about a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation, performed for a bunch of city people visiting a pastoral realm of bucolic contemplation,” that is to say the theatre. I mention all this in prologue to ground Flack’s latest production of Shakespeare’s last great festive comedy – Twelfth Night, or What you will – also perhaps Shakespeare’s darkest, within a kind of self-critical feedback mirror.
In his director’s notes for Twelfth Night, Flack writes about the holy days and feast days when controlled anarchy (such as pageants and rough-theatre) was permitted. He also says that for Twelfth Night, he and his collaborators set themselves the task of “performing the play almost entirely as written[,] partly as a boast and partly as a warning, because some of the play is now archaic nonsense… [We] have taken the play on its own terms and plunged headlong into its strange poetry because the archaic oddity of the play is what makes it glorious.” Except that it’s not. Not really. Not much at all.


Fallen from the sky: Ensemble’s A History of Falling Things

This piece was originally written for artsHub.

A romantic-comedy about two keraunothnetophobes, James Graham’s A History of Falling Things is a gentle, humorous and ultimately moving play about overcoming your fears and venturing outside of your comfort zone (literally, in this case).
Robin and Jacqui are both keraunothnetophobes – that is, they both suffer the fear of things falling from the sky. When they both meet online in a chatroom for others like themselves, they find each other reaching out across the space between them, through their screens, and ultimately facing their fears.


Sport for Jove's Away

Michael Gow’s Away is something of a mainstay on the high school syllabus, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a student who hasn’t studied it (or at the very least, heard of it), sometime in the past fifteen years or so. Set in the late 1960s, it is a coming-of-age story on both a personal level as well as a cultural and societal level; the Vietnam War is in full-force, conscription is very much a reality, Indigenous Australians were constitutionally recognised, and the women’s rights movement was swiftly gaining momentum. Produced by Sport for Jove in the play’s thirtieth-anniversary year, Gow’s Away here feels old, starts to show its age and, despite some nuanced moments, ultimately fails to live up to its status as a classic.
Essentially a series of vignettes – although there is a narrative progression which runs throughout – Gow’s play follows three families over their Christmas holidays, and details in soft-focus their fears, loves, losses, dreams, and the hurdles they must overcome. Performed in the Seymour Centre’s vast York Theatre, something of Gow’s intimacy is lost even if the humanity at the heart of the story remains.


Nowra or never: Don’t Look Away’s Inner Voices

First produced in 1977 at the Nimrod (now Belvoir) Downstairs theatre, Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices was written in the middle of the ‘New Wave’ period of Australian playwriting. Loosely defined as the late-1960s to the early-1980s, the ‘New Wave’ had similar flourishes in all other sectors of the performing arts and society, including film, literature, and music, and sought to bring a distinctly Australian sensibility to their work, as well as an experimentalism borrowed from European theatre, in a bid to distinguish themselves from the inherent Britishness that had been previously maintained. By the late 1970s, “the visionary enthusiasm and common sense of purpose that had characterised the New Wave were wearing off,” as John McCallum writes in Belonging. Out of the growing sense of disillusionment with the lack of unifying cohesiveness amongst their output, came Stephen Sewell and Louis Nowra, whose work was more political, less noticeably Australian, and “more cinematic in dramaturgy.” It is from this context, that Inner Voices springs, and Nowra’s interests and influences are as eclectic as his exploitation of genre and style. 
While we may now be open to the definition of what constitutes an Australian play, in the early 1980s it was still a point of contention that a play set overseas was not inherently Australian. Looking at Nowra’s Inner Voices today – forty years after it first appeared, in something of a mainstage revival – we can see that it is very much an Australian play, irrespective of the fact it is set in eighteenth century Russia. “The first of Nowra’s plays to attract wide attention,” Inner Voices is the story of a young prince, Ivan, who has been locked away in a prison for years, knowing only his name. Following the death of his mother Catherine the Great, Ivan is installed as a puppet-tsar by opportunistic advisers who want power for themselves. But as Ivan’s taste for power and savagery grows, so too do the troubles enveloping his kingdom, until Ivan achieves a savage retribution and comes into his own world.


The karate kid: Belvoir & Stuck Pigs Squealing’s Back at the Dojo

The world according to Lally Katz is one populated with fortune tellers, Hungarian neighbours, golems, forgotten vaudeville troupes, the Apocalypse Bear, and the Hope Dolphin. It’s a world of magic, where things are not quite what they seem, where everything is a story in one way or another, and characters often find themselves returning to Earth sooner or later. After the success of Neighbourhood Watch and Stories I Want To Tell You In Person, and having read a number of her previous plays, the promise of a new play by Lally Katz was tantalising, and came with more than a few expectations. But even though the story is drawn from her own family mythology and features a character based on her father as a young man, it doesn’t quite feel like the play it should be, the play it wants to be, and as a result feels a little bit hollow, though not without heart.
Back at the Dojo – a co-production with Belvoir and Melbourne company Stuck Pigs Squealing, Katz’s former co-conspirators – is inspired by the story of her parents’ meeting. Drifting through 1960s America, Danny stumbles across a karate dojo in New Jersey and, like the other members of the dojo, finds his way again with the help of the strict but not unbending sensei, and a young woman called Lois. Set against this, in something of a stark contrast, is the other end of the story, that of Dan and Lois (now older and in contemporary suburban Australia), and their granddaughter who has decided to become Patti Smith. It’s a seemingly gloriously Katzian collage, drawn from real life, chance meetings, and the talents of her collaborators, but something is missing in both the script in a very basic narrative way, and in the production.


Shakespeare Make U LOL: The Listies & STC’s The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark

This is a revised version of a piece written for artsHub.

When I was twelve, my parents took me to see The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), and even though I didn’t get all the jokes and references, I fell in love with the craziness, the silliness, and the sheer fun that the show revelled in and celebrated. To this day, I still maintain that your first serious exposure to Shakespeare (sometimes as a child) is how you see him and his work throughout life. Over the past number of years, there have been various productions which have come close to embracing the same sort of silliness and irreverence which the Reduced Shakespeare Company ushered in, and it is always a delight to revel in each production’s new take on the Bard.
While the rest of the world tries to out-do each other in the Most Reverent Homage To Shakespeare’s Legacy award to celebrate Shakespeare’s 400th death-day, The Listies – along with their friends at Sydney Theatre Company – have mounted a production entitled Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark no less, which somehow manages to embrace Shakespeare’s play (and all its variants) and the kind of mindset often found in children aged five to ten, and pulls it off with enough fart jokes and theatrical magic (as well as a healthy dose of chaos) to make you feel like a kid again.


STC's All My Sons

Written when he was thirty, as a last attempt at playwriting after a string of plays failed to garner attention from producers or directors, All My Sons is the first of Arthur Millers’ four big plays (the others being Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and A View from the Bridge, which were all written consecutively). In it, we can see the seeds of what he would continue to explore in increasing depth and nuance throughout his career. And although you could perhaps pass All My Sons off as an ‘Ibsenesque’ play, it is in fact just as devastatingly meaty and dread-full as all his others, and grapples with issues of morality and ethics, consequences, responsibility, denial, guilt, and profiteering. And it seems just as relevant now as it did almost seventy years ago.
Directed by Kip Williams for Sydney Theatre Company, and staged within the cavernous Roslyn Packer Theatre, All My Sons is the story of the Keller family as they wait for their son Larry, currently Missing In Action after WWII, to come home. But as relationships form, old unhealed wounds and barely-suppressed secrets are torn open, and the lie under the floorboards of the Kellers’ stability and wealth is laid bare for all to see.


The price we pay: STCSA’s Things I Know To Be True

Alone on a Berlin train station, dumped by a boy she thought she loved, nineteen-year-old Rosie Price makes a list. A list of all the things she knows to be true. It surprises her how short the list is. And she knows that she has to go home, sooner rather than later. And this is where our story starts. With a phone call in the middle of the night – every parent’s nightmare – and also every child’s: who’s calling, who needs my help? With a body seemingly suspended in the inky black space of the theatre. With a bleary sleep-croaked ‘Hello?’
Over the course of the play, we meet the Price family (the name is significant, I think) – father Bob, mother Fran, and the (now adult) children Pip, Mark, Ben, and Rosie – who live on a property in Hallett Cove. As we get to know the family and their relationships with each other, so too their backyard grows – from the fence, to the paddocks and trees, the flower beds, rose bushes, and the ubiquitous shed – and something ordinary is created in front of our eyes in sometimes beautiful and extraordinary ways. Directed by Geordie Brookman and Scott Graham, Things I Know To Be True is the latest play from acclaimed playwright Andrew Bovell, and marks the first international co-production by State Theatre Company of South Australia, in this case with UK-based movement company Frantic Assembly. It’s a story about a family, about loving and letting go; about growing and discovering yourself, finding out who you are; about grieving and saying goodbye; about the very particular and universal rhythms of family, and how one family grows over the course of a year.


As the world falls down: Montague Basement’s Telescope

Following their production of Hamlet at the end of last year, I wrote that it had been “a pleasure to watch Montague Basement go from strength to strength in their productions, gaining confidence (and audacity), finding and sharpening their voice.” With 2016 already well-underway, this uncompromising collective are expanding the scale of their productions and drawing new collaborators into their fold. Following his well-received Kaleidoscope at the Mardi Gras festival in February, Charles O’Grady spreads his wings to bring Telescope to the Sight & Sound arts program in Leichhardt, and the result is a disarming and thoughtful production which asks questions we should be asking, and does not pretend to have all the answers.

Uncertainty is the normal state: Furies’ Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard’s reputation for virtuosic displays of linguistic and intellectual gymnastics has held its ground for the past fifty-odd years, and one of his earliest plays – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – is perhaps the first time we see his talent on display. Described variously as ‘Beckettian,’ ‘absurdist,’ or ‘absurdist existentialism,’ the play takes place in the wings of Hamlet, and asks what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (those relatively minor and interchangeable characters) are doing throughout the course of the play while they’re not on stage. By turns funny, strange, witty, and head-scratchingly dense, the play has become one of Stoppard’s enduring crowd-favourites, and is presented here by independent company Furies in a sparse-but-not-empty production.


Extremely loud and incredibly close: STC’s Disgraced

First produced in 2012, Ayad Akhtar’s Disgraced has the distinction of being the most produced play in the United States in the 2015-2016 theatre year. Set on the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, Akhtar’s play is the story of Amir, a high-flying lawyer at the top of his game who wants to be a partner in his prestigious firm. When he agrees to support an Imam accused on charges of funding terrorism, he finds his world and assumptions challenged, and rapidly slipping away from him. Following a long line of dinner-party plays where arguments and battle-lines are drawn, territories staked, and relationships forged, broken, destroyed, Akhtar is clear to demarcate his characters’ points of view, but it lacks the spark which would make this play a fierce critique of our current socio-political attitudes.


Well may we say 'God save the king': Almeida’s King Charles III

Hailed as a “modern masterpiece,” and “one of the great (political) plays of our time,” Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III arrives in Sydney following a UK tour, and acclaimed sell-out seasons in London, the West End, and Broadway. Produced by Almeida Theatre, the play is a “future history play” written in blank verse in the style and structure of one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and charts potential events following the death of Queen Elizabeth II. And while Bartlett’s play is full of interesting ideas and situations, and is elegantly realised, it ultimately fails to live up to the very high bar raised by its incessant word-of-mouth machine currently running in overdrive on the back of buses, taxis, bus shelters, and magazines across the city.


Comfy bloody country: Belvoir’s The Great Fire

Appropriating Chekhov’s own description of his play The Seagull, Belvoir’s latest offering – Kit Brookman’s The Great Fire – is billed as “a comedy; a family, ten actors, a landscape (view of the Adelaide Hills), a great deal of conversation about politics and life, Christmas, large hopes, five tons of love.” A self-professed “big new play about us – middle Australia in 2016,” Brookman’s play has much to commend in it (big cast, sprawl, decent running time), but although the Chekhovian associations seem apt in many cases, it ultimately proves to be self-defeating.
Set in a house in the Adelaide Hills, The Great Fire is the story of three generations of a family and the dream they tried to build for themselves, only to watch it change and drift away from them as their children grew up, moved away, while the world moved on. Now, this Christmas, the whole family returns (with a new generation on the way), but they’re at a crossroads – can the dream still be achieved?


A new Shakespeareience: Post-Haste Players’ Bard to the Bone

This review was originally written for artsHub.

To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (as well as his 452nd birthday), Post-Haste Players are doing something a little bit different. While others are falling over backwards trying to enunciate why Shakespeare is Shakespeare, why his plays still matter, what he might be doing if he was alive today, Post-Haste Players are celebrating his skill for creating new words and new stories with a show that would probably make the man himself laugh and roll in his grave (quite possibly with laughter), at the same time. Using their skills as improvisers and actors well-versed in the themes and patterns in Shakespeare’s plays, the Players are creating entirely new and improvised plays which may be Shakespearean, with the help of the audience. What ensues is, well, nothing short of madness.


Art and soul: Bontom’s Unfinished Works

Like all good plays ‘about’ an issue, Thomas de Angelis’ Unfinished Works is simultaneously about and not about art. While it also, certainly, covers being an artist, making art, and delves into issues of artistic integrity, honesty, and the entire history of Western art’s habit of celebrating Big Name Artists over the content or substance of their work, Unfinished Works is also a story about parents and children, about growing up and leaving the nest, about friendship, relationships, and about people connecting with each other.
Produced by Bontom and playing in the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre, Unfinished Works is about an artist, Frank Ralco, who has been commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art and has two weeks remaining in which to complete the piece. After a meeting with a builder-cum-property developer, and still unable to paint, Ralco forms a friendship with Isabel, an aspiring artist, and the two hatch a plan to test the power of their art, and change the course of their lives.


Garden-variety tragedy: STC & STCSA’s Machu Picchu

Sue Smith’s latest play Machu Picchu is, glibly, about “finding hope amidst the ruins” of a relationship. Following a car accident, husband and wife Paul and Gabby must navigate their way around the complications and learn to love each other despite their physical barriers, and try and cling onto the shred of hope they have left as good people to be able to lead good, fulfilling, ‘normal’ lives. Smith’s play is about the “garden variety tragedy,” as director Geordie Brookman writes in his director’s note – “the sort of life changing-event that could impact any one of us at any moment.” The only trouble is, the play isn’t terribly compelling, nor does it offer any particular insights into the human condition or make any credible argument as to how to live a ‘good’ life despite the setbacks, hardships, and tragedies.


Terror Firma: Malthouse’s Picnic at Hanging Rock

The story of Picnic at Hanging Rock is seared into our collective conscience, and has become a key part of our national mythology as both a thing of beauty and a force of terror. Written by Joan Lindsay in 1967, the story tells of a group of young women, students from Appleyard College, who have a picnic at Hanging Rock on St Valentine’s Day, 1900, and inexplicably vanish during an afternoon expedition. Filmed by Peter Weir in 1975, the story was fast-tracked into our cultural imagination, and has become an iconic story that plays upon our insecurities about possession, sexuality, colonialism, and mankind’s control over nature. Now, in the hands of playwright Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton, Melbourne’s Malthouse theatre brings Lindsay’s novel to the professional stage for the first time, and capitalises on the story’s eeriness and terror, as well as its latent sexuality and potency.


Star-crossed: Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Alongside A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet is surely one of Shakespeare’s most well-known plays. Even if we’ve never seen or studied the play, we know its story from the plot of countless films, books, artworks, pieces of music created over the centuries. In his first production since assuming the reigns of Bell Shakespeare, Peter Evans goes back to the Bard and gives us a Romeo and Juliet that might be clothed in period costume but act and behave like contemporary teenagers. And like Baz Luhrmann’s hyperactive reimagining set in the fictional Verona Beach, Evans’ production is for the most part strong and accomplished.


Mean green mother from outer space: Luckiest Productions & Hayes Theatre’s Little Shop of Horrors

Filmed in two days and one night, Roger Corman’s 1960 B-movie The Little Shop of Horrors made inventive use of comedy, horror, and science-fiction elements in a pastiche which has since gained a cult following. Premiering in 1982, Little Shop of Horrors – Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s perennial musical based on Corman’s film – is a mainstay of the amateur and community musical circuit, as well as spawning the 1986 film-musical directed by Frank Oz. Now, it receives a thrilling twenty-first century revival the hands of Dean Bryant and the team that previously brought Sweet Charity to life in Sydney in 2014.


Room temperature: STC’s Arcadia

This is a revised version of a piece written for artsHub.

VALENTINE: Heat goes to cold. It’s a one-way street. Your tea will end up at room temperature. What's happening to your tea is happening to everything everywhere. The sun and the stars. It’ll take a while but we're all going to end up at room temperature.

Known for his wit and wordplay as much as his intellectual rigour (and occasional density), Tom Stoppard’s plays are a marriage of big ideas, drama, and the occasional gimmick, but they never fail to dazzle in one way or another. No matter how dense or impenetrable the science or intellectual debate behind his work is, you generally leave one of his plays “wondering whether you have just been educated or entertained, in the end allowing for the likelihood of both,” as William W. Demastes wrote. Arcadia, written in 1993, is without a doubt Stoppard’s most perfectly constructed play – on a technical level as much as a narrative one – and has led to it, not undeservingly, labelled “the greatest play of our age.” Described by Stoppard himself as “all sex and love and romance and jokes,” Arcadia is at once fiercely intellectual (in typical Stoppard fashion), but it also has a strong emotional counterweight, and manages to combine both of these – through the constant juxtaposition of two time periods, two-hundred-odd years apart – with flair, wit, lightness and, ultimately, poignancy. Presented here by Sydney Theatre Company, Richard Cottrell’s Arcadia certainly looks handsome, but like Mr Noakes’ improved Newcomen steam engine, it doesn’t quite reflect the sum of the energy and care that has gone into it, and “repays eleven pence in the shilling at most.”


Family matters: Tooth and Sinew’s Year of the Family

Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson, more widely known for The Wonderful World of Dissocia and Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness, was a key component of the ‘in yer face’ theatre movement which flourished in Britain in the 1990s. While the movement was perhaps misnamed – ‘in yer face’ did not so much seek to repel or alienate audiences, but rather explore the boundaries of what could (or couldn’t) be portrayed in a theatre, and to confront and challenge audiences – Neilson’s work still carries the hallmarks of that movement; but now, twenty-odd years later, what might have been deliberately shocking at the time (1994) now seems rather odd and not-quite-as-shocking, although Tooth and Sinew’s production is an assured, handsome, and strangely moving one.

Party animals: Belvoir’s The Blind Giant is Dancing

First produced thirty-three years ago, Stephen Sewell’s The Blind Giant is Dancing is often hailed as a modern Australian classic. And while it wears its passion and vehemence on its sleeve, it requires a good amount of assumed knowledge of the political context from which it was written; and even though party politics and factional in-fighting still continues to this day (it is something that will never quite go away), even though we now have ICAC, self-inflated housing bubbles, and besieged working class, and leadership which leaves a lot to be desired (to paraphrase Belvoir’s blurb), the ins and outs of Blind Giant’s political intrigue and machinations are a little too distant for us to fully grasp with clarity, and the result is a confusing, muddied, and long three hours.


Nowt more outcastin’: STC’s The Golden Age

Early on in her study of Louis Nowra’s work, Veronica Kelly remarks upon the fact all of Nowra’s work seems to be focused around outcasts or outsiders, the experience of being an outsider, as well as the physical and psychological landscapes the characters find themselves in. Written in 1985 and revised in 1989, The Golden Age is perhaps Nowra’s most pertinent and, certainly, his most epic play to date. It is also a play that is not afraid to ask the big challenging questions, even if it knows it does not – cannot – hold all the answers itself. Inspired by a possibly-apocryphal story about a group of people found in the Tasmanian wilderness in the late 1930s who were descended from convict runaways and social outcasts from a hundred years earlier, Nowra’s play follows this ‘lost tribe’ out of the bush and the myriad repercussion their arrival brings for them and the two young men who stumbled across their camp. Directed here by Kip Williams for Sydney Theatre Company, this ‘thirtieth anniversary’ production of The Golden Age straddles war and peace, and ranges from Tasmania to Berlin and ancient Greece, with skill, integrity, humanity, and passion. In Williams’ hands, Nowra’s play bursts onto the stage in an earthy, exuberant, and intensely moving way that defies you to see its true age, and demands we hold it in its rightful place in Australia’s dramatic and cultural legacy.


Earth cry: Stone Soup & Griffin Independent’s Thomas Murray and the Upside Down River

The thing I love most about the Stables theatre is the size of its stage. No other theatre in Sydney that I can think of has a stage quite like it – in size, shape, or layout – and I am constantly amazed at how malleable it is; no two productions ever feel quite the same – sometimes the space feels bigger, sometimes smaller, sometimes grander or more intimate, sometimes even a different shape, as directors, designers, and theatre-makers call upon our imaginations to inhabit and make total the world presented on stage. As you enter the theatre from the stairs, the first thing you notice is the dusty light, a golden glow like the sun, like lamp-light, like candles and canvas; the floor – that precious little diamond space – is covered in planks of timber, time-worn and much-loved, creams and greens and reds and browns and greys, all slotted together in a jigsaw of a stage, like a patchwork quilt, a farm seen from the air. To one side, a ladder and chair; to another, a tyre swing; behind it, a canvas backcloth. And as the lights dim, a figure enters, breathing heavily, covered in dust and mud and dirt, and the space begins to hum with a resonance I have not quite seen in that space for a little while. And it is beautiful.


Not quite fantastick: Wooden Horse & Hayes Theatre Co’s The Fantasticks

This review was originally written for artsHub.

Written in 1960, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Fantasticks is a period piece. But in the Wooden Horse/Hayes Theatre Co production directed by Helen Dallimore, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s musical is brought forward in a clever and, for the most-part, considered staging which exudes a quirky kind of charm. Sitting somewhere between Romeo & Juliet and a Tim Burton film (think, Big Fish), with a dash of a twisted Elizabethan revenge drama, The Fantasticks is the story of two single fathers (Laurence Coy and Garry Scale) who want their children (Jonathan Hickey and Bobbie-Jean Harding) to fall in love, so pretend they’re in the midst of a bitter feud, and build a wall between their two houses. Unable to determine how to end the feud, they enlist the help of El Gallo, a Pirandellian narrator-cum-stage manager, who concocts a diversion to ensure everything ends well. Or does it?


You gotta get brave: Belvoir's Jasper Jones

A darling of the Australian literary landscape ever since it was published in 2009, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones is the story of fourteen year old Charlie Bucktin who lives in small-town Western Australia, and dreams of writing the Great Australian Novel. But when Jasper Jones appears at his window one night, Charlie knows something’s happened. Something terrible has happened that night, and the two boys take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of it. With a beautiful warmth of spirit and a keenly-observed ear for humour, Silvey’s story does not shy away from the darker side of small town life, and manages to bring the politics of the Sixties into this coming-of-age novel in a way that does not feel forced or abbreviated. Following its premiere in Perth in 2014 by Barking Gecko Theatre Company, Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Jasper Jones now opens at Belvoir as the first production for 2016 – and indeed for Eamon Flack’s artistic directorship – and in many respects, there could not be a better show to kick-start the year.


2016, the year in preview

In Sydney’s theatres this year, there are many shows to look forwards to – Griffin has the 2015 Griffin Award winner The Turquoise Elephant, Phillip Kavanagh’s Replay, and Finegan Kruckemeyer’s Those Who Fall In Love Like Anchors Dropped Upon The Ocean Floor; Belvoir has a season of general munificence, including Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Jasper Jones, Kit Brookman’s The Great Fire, Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife, Twelfth Night, and the conclusion of Matthew Whittet’s Windmill trilogy in Girl, Asleep; STC has Arcadia, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Golden Age, Almeida’s King Charles III, and 1927’s Golem, as well as Angela Betzien's The Hanging; Bell Shakespeare has Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and another Molière adaptation in The Literati, a co-production with Griffin. There’s a cracker year at Opera Australia with John Bell’s production of Carmen, and Julie Andrews’ My Fair Lady; Sport for Jove’s No End of Blame, Away, and Three Sisters; a new Andrew Bovell play; and (fingers crossed) Squabbalogic’s original musical-theatre take on The Dismissal.