photo Hugh Stewart
Theatre can be both visceral and cerebral. Each dimension can thrill, at best when they meet. But one of the first things we ask of a play before we see it is, ‘What’s it about?’ The answer can determine whether we go to see (hear, feel) a play or not. The answer to ‘What is it about?’ is invariably a theme, an idea, a story (the precis of a story in a promotional brochure is in effect a theme, often a recognisable trope), but themes are of course only realised in performance and often in surprising, even aberrant ways, or new ones are thrown up. So it is with theatre programs.
The art of programming
On the issue of programming and themes, Robyn Nevin is firm: “I don’t approach programming with a need to establish any kind of theme. I never do that. I’m not interested. But things do emerge.” Whatever its provenance, the 2007 STC program is rich with fascinating connections (between artists, plays, forms, companies and cultures).
I ask what drives Nevin’s programming: chance, recommendations, plays she’s long wanted to do? She responds, “On the one hand it’s predictable and consistent but it’s always corrupted by whatever happens in the 9 months of the preparation of the program. Actually, it’s not a finite period, you don’t start on day one and have an oucome at the end. It’s ongoing, it rolls over, and 2008 and 2009 are now in their embryonic planning phase. People are pretty much what drives me.
“There is a wishlist that is never completed and that predictably includes all the great classics. It’s very interesting now because I’m being approached by young directors who are wanting to direct classics that I’d like to do for personal reasons...and one hands them over.” I ask if that includes a rare outing for Patrick White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962), to be directed by Benedict Andrews.
“I wanted to direct The Season at Sarsaparilla because I’d been in the 1976 Jim Sharman production (Old Tote Theatre Company). It’s very interesting when you’ve had that experience inside something, you take a lot away with you, impressions and memories, and then over time they become questioned and you feel a need to approach the play from a different perspective, from outside. That’s been my engagement with a lot of plays I’ve known as a young actor, but I haven’t necessarily had the opportunity to do them again. It frequently happens that I give them over to other directors who coincidentally also want to direct them. Benedict Andrews studied Patrick White at Flinders University and feels a strong connection with the play. He hasn’t arrived at a way to do it, but all his ideas are very vivid, as you’d expect, and it’s great for those young eyes and that sensibility to be looking at a play from that era. And it feels to me as if he’ll take over the White baton from Neil Armfield as Neil did from Jim. I lived through that history so it’s interesting to see another generation approaching it.”
The Actors Company
Another rarely performed classic is Tales from the Vienna Woods (1931), Odon von Horvath’s acerbic anticipation of the rise of fascism in everyday Viennese life. It’s not a play Nevin has wanted to direct but she was eager for Jean Pierre Mignon to do it with the Actors Company: “He’s come in from the cold. He just disappeared. For years I’ve wanted to work with him because I loved seeing his work in Melbourne, his ‘shabby classic’ repertoire [at Anthill] and then I worked with him on Chekhov’s The Seagull at the STC in the 80s. I always remember the hydrangea flowerpots on either side of the stage in Stephen Curtis’ fantastic design of a house that is reduced and reduced .... those vivid blue hydrangeas seemed to speak of Australian suburbia. The reason I wanted Mignon to work with the Actors Company is because like all the directors I’ve chosen for the company he’ll work in a particular and appropriate way with the notion of ensemble. He’s very excited about coming back, and he’s about to do a Moliere with the company this year.”
In 2006 the STC Actors Company are working with Nevin, Barrie Kosky (The Lost Echo, see RT 76) and Mignon. In 2007 they will benefit from collaborations with leading UK ensemble directors, Annabel Arden, a founding director of Theatre Complicité, and Cheek by Jowl’s Edward Dick. Nevin says, “It’s the particular processes they bring and the background from which they’ve emerged that I find interesting, applicable and exciting. I wish I was going to be in the rehearsal room with them.” Both directors represent a generation of British theatre with strong visual and physical theatrical interests. Arden will direct husband Stephen Jeffreys’ The Art of War.
Jeffreys provides a link with the American dimension of Nevin’s program. Through a connection with actor John Malkovich (who played King Charles II in the Jeffreys’ scripted film The Libertine), his work has been programmed by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. Steppenwolf also premiered Don Delilo’s Love Lies Bleeding which also appears in the 2007 STC program.
The Art of War, Nevin explains, “is part of an international trilogy. Jeffreys wrote the first play in the trilogy in America. He had 2 more planned and he gave me an option to choose one of them. He wrote the plays The Libertine and The Clink, which is about a standup comic who gets caught up in the political intrigues of Elizabeth I’s court politics. He has extraordinary ideas and he can write with so many voices from so many eras. He’s linguistically sophisticated and extremely funny—an elegant, understated English wit.”
The play’s title derives from Sun Tzu’s 2,500 year-old treatise on military strategy which has recently been adapted as a business manual. Jeffreys extends the treatise’s application to life and relationships. Nevin says, “The Art of War is set in Australia and Jeffreys is keen to connect it with the region. He was fascinated with John Howard’s visit to China in recent months to discuss the provision of natural gas. Annabel is meeting the ensemble while they’re performing Lost Echo.”
Edward Dick will direct The Actors Company in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of Shakespeare’s plays that has many times leant itself to remarkable interpretations, especially where its darkness is allowed as much licence as its lighter side.
Nevin herself will appear in Delilo’s Love Lies Bleeding with Max Cullen. It’s a powerful play about the experience of dying. Emerging director Lee White, who has completed a Masters at NIDA, performed in New York, directed for the STC education program and assisted Nevin on Boy Meets Girl (2005), gets her first mainstage production with this play. Delilo is of course better known as a leading American novelist. He’s an adroit playwright and, for a novelist, has a great ear.
Another American connection comes in the form of American film actor and theatre director Philip Seymour Hoffman who is to direct Australian playwright Andrew Upton’s Riflemind, about the reunion of an ageing internationally famous rock band with Hugo Weaving in the lead role. Hoffman is co-artistic director of New York City’s LAByrinth Theater Company. Cate Blanchett, is to direct Scots playwright David Harrower’s Blackbird (RT71, p10-11), a taut hyperrealist drama about the consequences of the sexual abuse of a minor. I recall that Blanchett was acclaimed for her performance in David Mamet’s Oleanna, the playwright’s reaction to the sexual harassment issue. Nevin says that Blanchett, “sent me [Blackbird] with a very strong letter. Perhaps she made the connection with Oleanna. It’s what I was saying earlier about being inside something, something controversial and so powerfully expressed, to be inside that is a very memorable experience, the muscle memory plus the intellectual experience.”
The other American work is the musical, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It’s a Melbourne Theatre Company import in the absence of an Australian musical. Nevin explains, “I approached James Lapine [American director, librettist and Stephen Sondheim collaborator] and asked him to work on a new musical because I want to develop Australian musicals. I programmed Urinetown this year and Spelling Bee next because the musicals I’ve commissioned are not ready to produce. The American musicals are good models and very contemporary. Unfortunately Lapine couldn’t come. Simon Philips will bring his celebrated production of Spelling Bee to Sydney.”
The American theatre connection looks good to me. Although we are never short of American film and television product we rarely get to see what American theatre is creating. Nevin thinks this programming development “may be controversial, but I look forward to the controversy. I’ve worked to establish these relationships. It’s hard to spread your reach overseas...I’ve done the English one and now I’ve shifted to America, but it takes a while. These conversations, face to face, take place over a number of years before anything comes to fruition. And I’m building other relations in America.”
The 2007 program sweeps through Australian history from post WWI (Michael Cove’s new play, Troupers about entertainers communicating with the dead to earn a quid in 1919) to Patrick White’s mid-century Australia, the first theatrical exploration of our suburbia, to David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971), epitomising the contradictions of the 1970s, to Stephen Jeffrey’s The Art of War, about Australia now, and, in the Wharf2Loud program, Brendan Cowell’s Self-esteem, about an Australia of the encroaching future with a fully corporatised federal government.
Themes, connections, resonances
The program reveals a loose set of themes awaiting their realisation: the serious concerns of the moment (euthanasia, sexual abuse, proto-facism, war and its incursion into everyday life) that theatre must tackle; an impressionistic but doubtless telling portrayal of a century of Australian life; and artistic collaboration itself, realised in the interplay of Australian, British and American artists, especially in the life of the Actors Company.
I ask Nevin if she’s had fun putting the 2007 program together? “I can never really apply the word ‘fun’ to the process of getting a program together. That’s not to say it isn’t exciting and satisfying. But how it’s going to go, with the Actors Company and with this audience base, it’s a complete unknown, a huge risk. It’s not an artistic risk. I don’t see that at all. But it’s the likeability factor. Will the audience like coming back to see these actors grow and playing unlikely roles and ‘married’ to particular directors. I don’t know if they’ll engage with that and take it on. But artistically it’s obvious and sensible and practical. But there’s also diversity and that’s part of our responsibility. It is one of the hard things about running a state theatre company. It’s joyous, but if you were an auteur or working in most other kinds of theatre, you’d do what you want.”
Even with its mix of freedom (Nevin’s hard won achievement in creating an ensemble, such a rarity in theatre in this country) and obligation, the 2007 STC program looks enticingly intelligent, urgent and, yes, entertaining—entertainingly urgent and intelligent.
Sydney Theatre Company, www.sydneytheatre.com.au
RealTime issue #75 Oct-Nov 2006 pg. 41
© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org