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clockwise from top left - Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie, The Wild Duck; Robyn Nevin, Neighbourhood Watch; Lucy Guerin Inc, Human Interest Story; John Gaden, Maeve Dermody, The Seagull clockwise from top left - Toby Schmitz, Ewen Leslie, The Wild Duck; Robyn Nevin, Neighbourhood Watch; Lucy Guerin Inc, Human Interest Story; John Gaden, Maeve Dermody, The Seagull
photos WILK
BEYOND THE APPEAL OF THE SELECTED PLAYS AND ARTISTS, THEATRE COMPANY SUBSCRIPTION BROCHURES DON’T USUALLY PROVIDE EXCITING READING, BUT THE 2011 BATCH IS EXCEPTIONAL ON SEVERAL COUNTS. SAMPLING THE BROCHURES FOR BELVOIR, SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY, GRIFFIN THEATRE COMPANY AND MALTHOUSE, REVEALS SIGNIFICANT TRENDS WITH REGARD TO THE CLASSICS, NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS, WOMEN AND INDIGENOUS ARTISTS, OTHER FORMS OF PERFORMANCE AND ADD-ONS TO ATTRACT AUDIENCES TO THE THEATRE. INDIVIDUALLY THE BROCHURES ARE TELLING IN TERMS OF DESIGN, ATTITUDE, THE AMOUNT OF INFORMATION AND THE EXPRESSION OF THEMATIC CONCERNS—SOME ARE ACTUALLY A GOOD READ.

belvoir

Belvoir’s 2011 booklet-brochure design is strikingly spare, exuding a certain European seriousness and stylishness, its string of performer portraits suggesting that actors share a common stage and the productions a collective strength. The notes are equally spare but are convivial, energetic and purposeful. As well, there’s a very marked sense of newness—new title (Belvoir instead of Company B Belvoir), new artistic director (Ralph Myers), new logo (chair+boot=horsey; that’s the magic of theatre), new roles—resident director (Simon Stone, associate director Eamon Flack and an associate artist, composer Stefan Gregory)—and upstairs and downstairs programs as part of a continuum. The very openness of the design underlines the freshness of the venture.

The notes are pithy and sometimes drolly ironic. For Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, to be directed by Stone, they read: “At the core of [Ibsen’s] work is the idea that anything less than total honesty and an exhaustive conscience will sow the seeds for future tragedy—which makes Ibsen the ideal dramatist for contemporary Australia.” The Business, based on Maxim Gorky’s Vassa Zheleznova and transposed to an Australian setting, “relates to one of the great Australian themes: how we hauled ourselves out of our working class past and set out on the road to a relaxed and comfortable future.” For Shakespeare’s As You Like It, to be directed by Eamon Flack, the note reads, “At its heart is a heroically foolhardy attempt to begin society all over again, which makes this a perfect end to the first year of the new Belvoir.” Myers’ earnestly impassioned introduction is likewise tempered with a photo from the rear of him holding a copy of Bluff Your Way in Theatre.

Classics make up a large part of the program; these days they’re bound to be challenging interpretations in the hands of Simon Stone and Benedict Andrews. The latter will direct Chekhov’s The Seagull with a very strong cast: Emily Barclay, Gareth Davies, Judy Davis, Maeve Dermody and John Gaden. Neil Armfield is to direct Ray Lawler’s The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, with Robyn Nevin, Yael Stone, Helen Thomson and Dan Wyllie, while The Business will be directed by Cristabel Sved who has adapted the Gorky text with Australian playwright Jonathan Gavin.

Other new writing includes Melbourne playwright Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch, “a comedy about hope, death and pets,” directed by Simon Stone and featuring Robyn Nevin. Duncan Graham’s The Cut is to be directed by Sarah John; Susanna Dowling will take on four short works by Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Peter Goldsworthy and Guy De Maupassant grouped as The Kiss; and Leticia Caceres is to direct Brendan Cowell in Brisbane playwright Angela Betzien’s utterly chilling award-winner, The Dark Room.

Given the concerns loudly voiced earlier this year about limited opportunities for female artists at Belvoir, the allocation of directorial roles to Sved in the upstairs theatre and downstairs to John, Dowling and Caceres will doubtless be welcomed. As well, Kylie Farmer (seen in The Sapphires) will direct Roxanne McDonald in David Milroy’s Windmill Baby, an account of Aboriginal life on a pastoral station half a century ago with tragic dimensions. The other Indigenous work in the Belvoir program is Ilbijerri Theatre Company’s Jack Charles V The Crown, coming after its successful Melbourne International Arts Festival premiere (see review).

Belvoir has adopted Malthouse’s well established policy of including dance and contemporary performance works in its program, encouraging audiences to take a broader view of the performing arts and acknowledging the the changing nature of theatre itself. Version 1.0 and Post appeared at Belvoir Street this year and next year Melbourne’s collective “anti-institution,” The Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm, make their Sydney debut with Gareth Davies’ And They Called Him Mr Glamour—”a pathetically hilarious tale of a man, alone on stage, desperately seeking the audience’s attention.” (The team also appear in the 2011 Queensland Theatre Company season with the large-scale work I Feel Awful.) Belvoir also now offers dance to its patrons in the form of Lucy Guerin Inc’s spooky account of the impact of mass media triviality, Human Interest Story (RT99).

sydney theatre company

Sydney Theatre Company’s vivid brochure is the antithesis of Belvoir’s. STC continues in the vein of its 2010 publicity in which every show had its own design, but this year each is more vivid, more richly coloured, suggesting a theatrical cornucopia. Even more than this, it’s a publication that offers plenty of reading: a lively and thoughtful introduction from artistic directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, detailed notes about each play, testimonials, something from John Birmingham about the nature of Sydney and a page for your own notes.

In line with Blanchett and Upton’s determination to develop a cultural precinct for Sydney from Walsh Bay to the Botanic Gardens, there are engaging hand-drawn maps of the area indicating venues, eateries, walking and transport routes, including discount offers for STC subscribers.

The artistic directors write of their selection of plays from the 20th century, “We feel theatre gives you a chance to lead many lives, to experience many more moments than those (too few) allotted to us by fate. At the theatre we are outside looking in; sometimes in awe, sometimes in terror, always further. This year’s throw is loaded with the force of history. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century it seems timely to have a think about the 20th...Two World Wars, two A-Bombs, various forms of Fascism and an array of failed revolutions. Oddly for such a dark century there is a farcical quality to much of the work that emerged from it, a pitch black comedy that cuts through, delving beneath the hysteria, the fanaticism and the g-force change-rate that characterises the Age of Extremes (as Eric Hobsbawm christened it).”

As for the purpose of the selection, “The 20th century never looked crazier. The past never looked so close and snapping as it always is at our hurrying heels. Hurrying on to the future we are. A future that we convince ourselves will be better than the past we have either erased, ignored or sentimentalised. No, let’s face it. Let’s stop and take a bit of time and wonder who, what, where and why?”

The highlight of the season should be Botho Strauss’ epic, Gross und Klein (Big and Little, which was seen in productions in Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney in the 80s) with Blanchett as Lotte who wanders through an opaque, ungiving and increasingly bizarre world—either Lotte or society is disintegrating. The English language version is by leading UK playwright Martin Crimp, who shares not a little stylistically and thematically with Strauss, and the director is France’s Luc Bondy, a figure usually associated with major opera productions and one who should ably manage, like Blanchett, the work’s huge demands.

Among other 20th century classics are Andrew Upton’s adaptation (already successfully staged in London) of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, Raimondo Cortese’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, directed by Michael Kantor with performers Paul Capsis and Eddie Perfect in a Malthouse co-production, Joe Orton’s Loot (director Richard Cotterill), and Harold Pinter’s rarely seen No Man’s Land, perfectly cast with John Gaden and Peter Carroll and to be directed by Michael Gow in a Queensland Theatre Company-STC co-production. I saw the premiere production in London in 1975 with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson and can still recall the play’s disturbing power, emanating from its variation on the ‘unwelcome guest’ trope intensified by the faltering memories of the aged antagonists. The Malthouse production of Brecht’s Baal and a new production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding to be directed by Iain Sinclair with a cast that includes Lynette Curran and Leah Purcell, complete the substantial set of classics in the 2011 program.

New writing in the program includes the much-anticipated premiere of Zebra, an STC commission by Ross Mueller, one of the current handful of Australia’s brightest playwriting talents. Set in New York, it’s described as “a fast-paced, mid-life crisis comedy...ruminating on who we are post-GFC. What has plummeting from the dizzy heights of prosperity done to us as a society and as individuals? How has humiliating failure altered our self-image? Will Australia’s obsessive love affair with all things American end acrimoniously in the wake of the fall?” Zebra features Bryan Brown and Colin Friels; as with No Man’s Land, another interesting male pairing.

Also much-anticipated is Bloodland, the Indigenous component of STC’s 2011 program. From a concept by Stephen Page, story by Kathy Marika, Stephen Page and Wayne Blair, script by Wayne Blair and direction by Page, Bloodland will be performed in Indigenous language and pidgin “incorporat[ing] spiritual and physical languages, ceremonial traditional dances and mimicry of modern western culture, filtered through Aboriginal tradition.” The cast will comprise “both traditional Yolgnu people and well-known actors, to compose a new Australian work that dramatises the bitter tug-of-war taking place in a community which, despite being wracked by pain and division, hums with hope.”

In their introduction, the STC artistic directors emphasise the season’s many great roles for women; this is evident in directing as well as acting. Lee Lewis directs Zebra, Pamela Rabe takes on Sarah Ruhl’s In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play and Sarah Goodes stages Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness while in the Education Program Naomi Edwards stages her adaptation of Hamlet, Sarah Giles directs Matt Cameron’s Ruby Moon and Roslyn Oades revives her innovative Stories of Love and Hate, originally produced by Urban Theatre Projects.

There’ll be a welcome return visit by Belgium’s provocatively experimental Ontroerend Goed (Once and for all we’re gonna tell you who we are so shut up and listen, RT93; RT89) and the 2011 Next Stage program will be announced shortly.

griffin theatre company

Griffin Theatre Company’s relatively small ouput is exceeded by its influence in pinpointing talent and developing plays that will go on to have long lives. Its achievement is celebrated with a return season of Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues which was developed by former artistic director Ros Horin and premiered in 1996, later becoming the screenplay for the Ray Lawrence feature film Lantana (2001). The play will be directed by Griffin’s new artistic director Sam Strong.

Also on the program is Lachlan Philpott’s Silent Disco (a Griffin, Hothouse and ATYP co-production, directed by Lee Lewis), focused on the problematic youth world “of Speds and Bitches—fuelled by Red Bull and iPods.” The script, “with its incendiary language and defiant theatricality,” won the 2009 Griffin Award. And No More Shall We Part, by Tom Holloway, the most exciting of Australia’s younger playwrights, will receive its Sydney premiere, directed by Strong, after winning the 2010 AWGIE for Best Play and the 2010 Louis Esson Prize for Drama. The play focuses on a couple parting after a lifetime together. Local writing comes in the shape of Jane Bodie’s This Year’s Ashes, directed by Shannon Murphy, tracking the fate of a young woman in a “reluctant romantic comedy about Sydney, grief and cricket.”

Strong writes of his 2011 program, “Coming in for special attention this year is the need to connect with other people that drives us into relationships (and for that matter the theatre).” The theme is extended to Griffin Studio which will bring together writers Ian Meadows and Kate Mulvany and directors Shannon Murphy and Paige Rattray to focus, as part of their duties dramaturgical and otherwise, on the development of Museum of Broken Relationships for production in 2012. The team will invite the Griffin audience to contribute to objects and/or stories about relationships past, thus “playing a part in Australia’s very first narrative museum.” It’s an interesting way in the Facebook era to engage with an audience who’ll doubtless come looking to see if they’ve made it onto the stage.

The Griffin brochure, with its distinctive criss-crossing of text on the cover and woven through its pages—a reminder of the company’s preoccupation with words—sticks to the facts. There are no wry references to matters political or philosophical or what the director thinks Australian society needs—the plays will speak for themselves.

malthouse

The Malthouse Season 1 brochure is attractively produced as an elegant, dark green notebook with floral endpapers and the frontispiece announcement “This is a beginning, Like all beginnings.” Marion Potts is the new artistic director of Malthouse.

Rarely sighted classics are strongly represented. Potts will direct the late Jacobean tragedy by John Ford, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, with music by Andrée Greenwell; Eamon Flack directs Robert Menzies in Samuel Beckett’s The End (a co-production with Belvoir); and Bertolt Brecht’s early work, Baal, will be directed by Simon Stone in a new translation by Stone and Tom Wright. Former artistic director Michael Kantor will direct a major new work by Lally Katz, A Golem Story: “if God has turned his back on the world, who has the right to take His place?

The company’s continued commitment to dance is more than evident in the Malthouse component of the 2011 Dance Massive festival—Chunky Move’s new work Connected, Narelle Benjamin’s In Glass (see review), BalletLab’s Amplification (see review) and Gideon Obarzanek’s Faker (see review).

Pamela Rabe will direct Australian playwright Vanessa Bates’ Porn.Cake , described by Playwriting Australia’s Chris Mead as “politely ferocious and charmingly obscene.” And there’s also a return season of the much praised, Moth, a Malthouse/Arena collaboration (RT97). And that’s just Season 1.

a good read

Yes, they’re brochures not books, but they are very telling, about a period of theatre in transition, one engaging with a larger performative and cultural framework, offering more opportunities to women and Indigenous artists, hard-nosed in their treatment of classics and the nurturing of new talent (never enough room), and alert to the need to engage audiences in extra-theatrical ways (talks, post-show music etc). As well, compared with a decade ago, even five years back, current programming is rich with co-productions that ensure we see works that might never have travelled beyond their points of origin or indeed had second lives, or more. There’s also a great sense of communality, of sharing and overlap between companies of directors, writers, designers and actors and with this a growing sense of an Australian theatre both richly local and national. That’s worth reading about.

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 34-35

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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