Robyn Nevin plays Mother Courage

Robyn Nevin has had a long, illustrious stage career, but 2015 could be one of her most memorable years yet.

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

She started it as the ruthless Mrs Venable in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer for Sydney Theatre Company, earning rave reviews, and will end the year there playing the Fool to Geoffrey Rush’s King Lear in a production directed by Neil Armfield.

Currently, she is preparing to play Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s great anti-war play Mother Courage and her Children for Belvoir, directed by in-coming artistic director Eamon Flack, who helmed Belvoir’s superb 2013 production of Angels in America in which Nevin also performed.

“It’s a wonderful year. I’m one very grateful woman,” says Nevin, now 72, during a break in rehearsals.

Best known as one of our leading stage actors, Nevin has found a whole new fan base since playing the posh, bigoted Margaret in the ABC-TV comedy Upper Middle Bogan.

She looks set to boost her screen profile still further with her performance in Brendan Cowell’s new film Ruben Guthrie, a black comedy based on his play, which opened the Sydney Film Festival this week before its general cinema release on July 16.

Ruben is a hard-living advertising executive who tries to get sober when he nearly kills himself jumping off a roof while pissed. Nevin plays his well-heeled mother, who keeps pushing him to go back on the bottle, because she finds him more fun when he drinks.

“It’s a great role. She’s fantastic,” says Nevin enthusiastically.

“She was a hard character to understand because I’m a great believer in Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step program. I know people who’ve been saved by those programs. I value them very highly. She’s got one fabulous line where she says, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s very impressive, do you, one day at a time?’ She’s just a brute, a wonderful character. I loved it. I had a wonderful time doing that film and Brendan was wonderful directing it. It’s a quintessentially Sydney story in its outlook and tone and visually. In a way, it’s a wonderful celebration of Sydney and a terrible indictment of it at the same time.”

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Anna Fierling – or Mother Courage as she is known – is yet another formidable character in Nevin’s armory (joining the likes of Miss Docker in Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul and Ana in Lally Katz’s Neigbourhood Watch). A refugee with three children and a cart, from which she sells food, liquor and other provisions, she buys and sells her way through a pointless, religious war, putting profit above all else. During the play, her three children are all killed.

Brecht wrote it in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Nevin directed the play for STC in 2006, choosing it as the first production for her newly formed ensemble, the STC Actors’ Company, with Pamela Rabe in the title role. Since then, it’s been on her bucket list of roles.

“I didn’t feel it was finished business although it was a very successful production. I loved getting to know the play and so I just thought, ‘yes, that’s a role I could one day have a go at,’” she says.

She programmed it at STC, she says, because she considers it “a great ensemble piece. It’s a very powerful piece of theatre. It’s arresting and gripping and entertaining and it’s a challenge for a company. Brecht has written it in such a way that there are 12 scenes and each scene requires a complex transition, which needs to be made slick and easy.

“In a small space, that takes a lot of time and effort and everyone is involved in that. I think audiences love watching a production unfold with ease and skill in a deft kind of way and Eamon is brilliant at that. But it’s taken an awful lot of time and it does require trust in each other. We all have to work very carefully in concert with each other, which I like about the piece itself. I like being part of a team. I’m addicted to the notion of an ensemble. I think they work, I think they’re very valuable and everybody gets better as a result of being in an ensemble production because so much is required of everyone.”

Asked whether she ever considered playing the role herself in the STC production, she gives the idea short shrift.

“I couldn’t possibly have considered playing it because I couldn’t give myself the lead role in the first play (by the STC Actors Company). The commentary from the media would have been too much for me to handle at that stage. They would have just thought it was personal vanity and I was not ambitious in that way at all. I gave opportunities to other people and rarely took the best opportunities for myself. And that was an occasion where I thought it would just look like hubris for me to lead the company in the first, inaugural production of the Actors’ Company so I directed it instead.”

Flack’s production for Belvoir features a new translation by Australian playwright Michael Gow and new songs by Stefan Gregory.

Brecht originally set the play in the 17th century during the Thirty Year War, but the Belvoir production has a contemporary setting. Nevin describes Gow’s translation as “ short, sharp and to the point. It’s got a directness, which I like. The lyrics are wonderful; the songs are fantastic….. It’s completely new compositions, it’s absolutely wonderful (music) by Stefan Gregory. He last did the entire musical score for Suddenly Last Summer. That was brilliant too.

“I don’t know how to describe (the Belvoir) production but it’s a thrill to be in it so I think it will be thrilling to see.”

An example of Brecht’s epic theatre, he wrote it to engage the audience intellectually rather than emotionally and apparently rewrote the role of Mother Courage when audiences sympathised too much with her.

Robyn Nevin rehearses Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin with Anthony Phelan in rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Nevin says she doesn’t spend time wondering how audiences will relate to the character.

“I just play one moment at a time and one action at a time. I play the action of the scenes; the meaning will be determined by the audience. I can’t preoccupy myself with what sort of person she is. She is defined by her actions so if I play the actions then the audience will judge as they will judge. But if you want to know what I think…..” she adds with a huge laugh.

She then cites a horrendous scene, which they have just been rehearsing, in which Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin returns having been brutally raped. Her mother tells her that she is lucky she’s not better looking or it could have been worse.

“That’s the tough job that Brecht gives the actors to do. He makes them say things that shock the audience horribly, (telling) a girl who’s just been raped that she probably would have been raped over and over if she’d been attractive enough. That’s actually what the woman is saying, and it’s hard to say, but that’s her way of dealing with it,” says Nevin.

“But in a minute she talks about Kattrin is a very different way, which shows her concern but is in no way sentimental, never sentimental. Over the course of the play she’s tough, she’s pragmatic, she’s only concerned about survival through trade even as her three children are killed.

“Brecht wrote that but he can’t stop that well of emotion, he can’t separate an audience from their humanity. (But) in a way the play is saying, ‘what good is humanity during war?’

“One of the songs really speaks to this quite clearly. It’s the Song of Solomon. One by one they describe the qualities of the great men of history and each one of them died for their good qualities: their wisdom, their courage. So what’s the point of being brave, of being wise, of telling the truth, of fearing God? So you’re playing characters who crush their better qualities in order to survive.”

Funnily enough, it’s King Lear that Nevin has been having nightmares about during Mother Courage rehearsals, rather than the Brecht.

“I’ve already had my Lear nightmare in which we were about to go on stage and I didn’t know a word, not a word. I was asking for a script and no one had one because they all knew theirs and they’d left it at home. Just terrifying! Then we went on stage and Geoffrey lay back and didn’t say a word and I thought, ‘well if he’s not going to speak, I’m not going to speak.’ It was just awful.”

Nevin laughs. “I should be having nightmares about Mother Courage, I’m already having nightmares about Lear.”

Accepting the offer to play the Fool was “a hard decision”, she says. “I don’t even know where to begin with the Fool but the thought of being in a (rehearsal) room with Neil doing a Shakespeare was exciting because I haven’t done a Shakespeare with Neil. I’ve done very few Shakespeares so that’s very exciting.”

Mother Courage and Her Children plays at Belvoir St Theatre, June 6 – July 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

King Lear plays at Sydney Theatre, November 24 – January 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 31

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2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Once in Royal David’s City

Belvoir St Theatre, February 12

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Helen Morse and Brendan Cowell. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Michael Gow’s new play Once in Royal David’s City is full of big ideas yet intimate at the same time, a piece that plays with form, and throbs with love and anger.

Theatre director Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell) is feeling somewhat adrift and in search of meaning after the death of his father (Anthony Phelan). Pulling out of a production of The Importance of Being Earnest, he plans to spend Christmas with his mother Jeannie (Helen Morse) at a friend’s beachside house.

When she suddenly collapses, Will dupes himself into believing that it’s not that serious. In fact, she is dying of pancreatic cancer. Faced with the awful truth, Will sits by her hospital bed talking to her.

Locating the play right from the start as taking place in a theatre, Will sometimes addresses the audience directly and introduces scenes in Brechtian fashion.

Through his interactions with an eclectic range of characters – a school teacher who wants him to lecture on Brecht, his mother’s best friend, a woman consumed by grief and a Bible-basher who both visit his mother in hospital, a teenage boy fleeing family arguments over the Christmas Dinner table – Gow takes on a host of weighty subjects: Brecht and political theatre, Marxism, rampant consumerism, capitalist exploitation, the power of church music, mortality, grief and love among them.

Eamon Flack directs a clean, clear, eloquent production on Nick Schlieper’s pristine, open set that makes the Belvoir stage look bigger than I’ve ever seen it. A circular, white curtain around the space covers quick scene changes, while the cast performs harmonised Christmas carols (music by Alan John).

Flack draws excellent performances from his impressive cast, which also includes Helen Buday, Maggie Dence, Harry Greenwood, Lech Mackiewicz and Tara Morice.

Will is a huge role and Cowell pulls it off magnificently with a raw, compelling performance that captures Will’s pain and his rage at the world. Morse is radiant as Jeannie, seeming to fade into bird-like frailty before our eyes when illness hits.

I’m not sure that all the different elements of the play come together completely. A couple of scenes seem to add little, while Will’s final school lecture feels like an all-too-obvious device for Gow to vent without really shocking us into fresh insight – though he makes his points.

However, much of it is extremely moving (there is plenty of robust humour too), particularly the scenes between Cowell and Morse. The encounter between Will and the teenage skateboarder (Greenwood) is also unexpectedly poignant, while Phelan is terribly touching as an awkward, gentle godbotherer with a surprising insight into the gospels.

Once in Royal David’s City runs at Belvoir St until March 23. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 16

Miss Julie: review

Belvoir St Theatre, August 28

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Known for his contemporary rewrites of classical plays, Simon Stone’s radical 2011 adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was devastatingly good and has enjoyed considerable success in Europe.

His adaptation of Miss Julie, which is billed as being “by Simon Stone after August Strindberg”, is less persuasive – though powerfully performed.

Written in 1888, Strindberg’s drama about class and sexual power – examined through the story of the daughter of a Swedish count sleeping with one of his servants – was deemed so shocking it was banned in Sweden for years.

Updating the action to present-day Sydney, Stone retains the key elements of Strindberg’s plot but where the original play unfolded over one claustrophobic act, Stone adds an interval and sets the second act ­in a motel.

He has also changed the original ending, which had Miss Julie taking the “honourable” way out (Strindberg’s word in his foreword) and leaving the stage with a razor given her by Jean to commit suicide.

Miss Julie’s father is now a high-profile politician in the running to become Prime Minister. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his chauffeur and security guard with a gun on his hip. As in the original, Jean’s fiancée Christine (Blazey Best) is the housekeeper and cook.

Though class certainly exists in Australia – no matter how much we might like to deny it – it doesn’t trap people in the same way that it did in Strindberg’s day. And though rich people employ servants, the situation doesn’t resonate with the same widespread recognition.

So, in order to up the ante Stone has made Miss Julie 16 instead of 25, while Jean who was 30 in the original is here closer to 40.

After being discovered in a car with a boy and drugs, Julie has been grounded. Her absent father has charged Jean and Christine with looking after her. On this particular night, Jean has had to physically drag her out of a party. Now here she is in skimpy baby doll PJs (costumes by Tess Schofield) insisting he stay with her while she eats pizza.

Directed by Leticia Caceres, this Belvoir production is impressively staged. Set designer Robert Cousins creates a gleaming white, minimalist kitchen for the first act where Christine stands beneath a portrait of Julie cooking a risotto as the audience enters the auditorium, while second act takes place in a non-descript motel.

The sharp, strident chords of music by The Sweats that open and close the play help establish an unsettling mood.

The age difference between Jean and Julie certainly brings a different edge to the play. Watching him allow her to seduce him and then plan to use her as a way to a better life does feel shockingly grubby – wince-makingly so when 20-year old Taylor Ferguson (who looks convincingly younger) takes retainers out of her mouth before she kisses him.

The central problem of the adaptation is that it never feels believable that the Jean of Stone’s version would work for such a family. Cowell gives a very convincing portrayal of a gruff, lumbering, mono-tonal, Aussie bloke desperate to join “the secret club” as he puts it. But you can more readily imagine him working for a heavyweight in the Cross than for a leading politician.

Surely a wealthy businessman turned politician would employ someone more personable? And would he really leave such a thuggish man to look after his daughter?

Strindberg’s Jean was the son of a labourer but has “educated himself towards becoming a gentleman” and “has a sense of beauty” (Strindberg’s foreword again). He also has some charisma. Cowell’s Jean is such a charmless character it’s hard to believe Julie would fall for him – even as a means of escape or to get back at her father.

As for him being a former sommelier in London, it beggars belief. Cowell even pronounces the word wrong – which rings true for the character, but not for someone who really has worked as one.

Though the second act verges on soap opera, the production is powerfully performed. Cowell is a visceral, dangerous presence, while Best gives a fine performance as the mature, practical, pragmatic Christine who is prepared to stand by her man.

Ferguson makes a remarkable stage debut as the troubled Julie: a poor little rich girl, on the verge of womanhood, fast discovering her sexual power. Imperious one minute, throwing a childish tantrum the next, she captures the depth of the character’s loneliness and her sense of abandonment in a brave performance.

But where Strindberg’s Miss Julie willfully degrades herself, “trying to behave like the common people” as Jean puts it when she attends the servants’ party and insists he dance with her in front of everyone, here you feel Julie is so young and lost she just needs someone to love her and doesn’t quite realise what she is unleashing.

Ferguson’s raw, exposed emotion at the end certainly left me feeling churned up but the adaptation itself doesn’t totally convince.

There is plenty to be examined around the idea of class and ambition in contemporary Sydney but transposing Strindberg’s play from 19th century Sweden isn’t the most effective way of addressing it, while making Julie 16 subtly changes what Strindberg was saying about strong women who use sex for power.

Miss Julie runs at Belvoir St Theatre until October 8

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 1

Brendan Cowell: interview

Brendan Cowell. Photo: Gary Heery

Brendan Cowell. Photo: Gary Heery

Brendan Cowell has spent much of this year living in London, where exciting opportunities are beginning to open up for him as a writer.

Cowell wrote two episodes of The Slap, the acclaimed ABC drama series based on Christos Tsiolkas’s novel, which was nominated for both a BAFTA and an Emmy Award.

“Being nominated for the BAFTA and the Emmy really helps me over there,” says Cowell. “I’ve walked into a lot of rooms, I’ve got a great agent and I can kind of go and see anyone in TV. That was definitely a great door-opener, writing for (The Slap).

“I’ve got a few balls in the air in London now, which is really exciting and that’s where I’m putting a lot of my attention,” adds Cowell, revealing that he is “in development on a show for Channel Four” – a network he says he has “always wanted to work with.”

In June, his 2001 play Happy New, about two brothers whose abusive mother kept them in a chicken coop, had a well-received season in the West End, which has also helped raise his profile in London.

Not surprisingly, Cowell will soon be returning to the UK. But he couldn’t resist coming back to Sydney to perform in Belvoir’s production of Miss Julie, newly adapted by Simon Stone from August Strindberg’s 1888 play and directed by Leticia Caceres.

Earlier this year, Cowell took over from Ewen Leslie in Stone’s award-winning adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck when it went to the Vienna and Holland Festivals – an experience he relished.

There has been much debate in recent months about the number of adaptations on Australian stages, with 28-year old auteur director Stone portrayed as the ‘face’ of adaptations.

Some worry that adaptations are being staged at the expense of original work and though the stats don’t bear this out – Alison Croggon analysed the data in an interesting article for ABC Arts Online at www.abc.net.au/arts/blog/Alison-Croggon/playwright-versus-director-130731/default.htm – there is still consternation among some playwrights at the prevalence of the practice.

Chatting during a lunch break after two weeks of rehearsal for Miss Julie, Cowell is generous with his time, prepared to have his say on a range of issues from the adaptations debate to the differences between Australian and British theatre, as well as discussing the various projects he has on the go as an actor, director and writer.

For his part, Cowell has no problem with Stone putting his own contemporary spin on classic plays like The Wild Duck, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (at Melbourne Theatre Company until September 25) or Miss Julie.

“I think you have to,” he says. “If we were going to do the original it’s really hard to make it work as an actor. They all speak in these long speeches (and) the dreams and the metaphors are very obvious and grandiose. It would be hard to create the tension. And let’s think what class and gender mean now in Sydney. But (Stone) has been incredibly loyal to the structure and I think what Strindberg was really getting at. Strindberg was very angry at that time. Some could say he had deep-seated issues with women of power.

“In the last two weeks Leticia and the cast – because Simon has been in Melbourne doing The Cherry Orchard – have really mined that, especially in the second act. We have really gone into it to find out exactly what Strindberg was furious about and what he was trying to discuss and that’s been really enjoyable.”

Explaining their process, Cowell says that Stone provided a draft adaptation. “We’ve gone in and looked at the original and looked at his (version) and improvised and thrown in a lot of raw material. We’ve videoed it and he’s then come back with (a new version). He’s so clever. He’s managed to encompass everything we found but in his own way so it now has the one voice. So this funny little process is working. None of us have really worked like this but with every production you find the (right) process in the room.”

Later, he says: “we are basically developing a new Australian play as we go along.”

Miss Julie is a claustrophobic exploration of sex, gender, privilege and class. Cowell plays Jean, an ambitious servant who sleeps with his employer’s daughter and then encourages her to commit suicide to escape her predicament when she won’t flee with him and help him realise his dream of running a classy hotel.

In Strindberg’s original, Miss Julie is the daughter of a Swedish count. In Stone’s contemporary adaptation her father is a politician.

“I’m not sure how much I’m meant to give away but, yeah, I’d say he is a kind of (Tony) Abbott-ish figure and you know how many faux pas he had made about women in the past five to ten years,” says Cowell.

“Miss Julie is his daughter, a motherless daughter and a somewhat fatherless daughter, and she’s been put on a media ban because she was caught in a bit of a scandal six months ago in a car with drugs and a boy, which is not going to do him any favours. I’m her father’s driver. I probably fly his helicopter. I’m his right hand man, I’m his bodyguard, and he’s put me and my fiancée in charge of the girl and she’s not allowed out of my sight. So I’m taking her to an after party and watching her and then driving her home.”

For a contemporary Australian adaptation, class isn’t quite the same button-pusher that it was in late 19th century Sweden.

“We do have a class system in Australia but it’s a little more invisible than say in England or in Sweden in the late 19th century,” says Cowell. “I think we’ve had to look at what really is the taboo in this play. So we’ve made Julie just 16 and Jean would be 37 or 38. His fiancée is 39 and wants a baby. So the characters are still very much trapped but by that age thing, which is a big issue in Australia now I think.

“There are lots of women in their late 30s who want to move forward with their life and men their age dating women young enough to be their daughters. And you have women doing the same with much younger men and it can make people very angry. It isn’t Blackbird, it isn’t Lolita, this play, but the age is definitely the main taboo that we are looking at to make it quite potent. It will be interesting to see how men and women react when they come to see it.”

When Stone directed Arthur Miller’s Death of Salesman for Belvoir last year, he changed the ending, cutting the final scene, Requiem. Instead the play ended with Willy gassing himself in his car on stage. When word reached Miller’s estate they were not impressed and insisted that the original ending be reinstated. Stone had no option but to comply but was unrepentant, saying in an interview with The Australian that if the play were not under copyright he would restore his own ending.

Whether he changes the ending of Miss Julie remains to be seen but in a passing reference, Cowell reveals that Stone has considered it.

“The whole play is about entrapment,” says Cowell. “By the end of the play whatever happens – and our ending may or may not be different to the original – these characters remain in their endless cycle of life because of the way they are trapped by society.”

Asked about the heated debate regarding adaptations versus new plays, Cowell is characteristically forthright.

“Simon makes a couple of plays a year in Sydney. He is not Australian Theatre. And you know I think it’s great that he is doing it. Everyone should have their work and their manifesto as to what theatre should be. What Australia needs to learn is how to argue well. We need to relish argument instead of taking things personally. I think that’s why I like being in England and Europe because they can’t wait for someone to disagree with them so they can consider their own view on things whereas we end up saying: ‘f**k you, you’re wrong.’

“Even though we can tweet about xenophobia, I still think the artists and the lefties fail to be able to rigorously argue without making things personal and that was a great opportunity, I think, to discover what Australian theatre is and what it can be but instead it became mud-slinging and that’s what’s sad. We should be better than that.”

Cowell’s career continues to develop apace on several fronts as an actor, novelist, playwright, screenwriter and director.

As an actor, he is still probably best known in Australia as Tom in Love My Way but his credits range from playing Hamlet for Bell Shakespeare to True West for Sydney Theatre Company directed by Philip Seymour Hoffmann to the movies Beneath Hill 60 and Save Your Legs!, which he wrote and performed in. Recently he played a Hebrew warrior in five episodes of The Borgias.

He is now keen to get his teeth into film directing. He had a taste of it recently when he wrote and directed an 80-minute telemovie for the ABC called The Outlaw Michael Howe, to screen later this year. “It may or may not get a cinema release,” says Cowell.

“It all happened very quickly. I was offered the job five days before the shoot and then I wrote a script, cast it and then all of a sudden I was out in Tasmania. It was an incredible experience. I want to make my play Ruben Guthrie into a movie so it was great to get up there and learn what the job is in a lot of ways and to tell the untold story of this incredible man who was conveniently written out of history because he intimidated the government so much.”

Howe was a notorious bushranger who gathered a small army around him, took on the corrupt government, and terrorised Van Diemen’s Land between 1812 and 1818.

“They had an Aboriginal girl with them so they learned how to live and hide and burn the land,” says Cowell. “He also started having relations with a white woman who was a convict but ended up becoming a settler through marrying a wealthy marine officer who was the richest man in Van Diemen’s Land. So I’ve treated it as a tragic love story of a man who I guess resembles what Australia could be. He’s got this beautiful Aboriginal girl who’s teaching him the ways (of the land) and this white girl who is saying, ‘we can have it all.’ So he has the truth or the greed and, of course, he tries to have both.”

Damon Herriman plays Howe. The cast also includes Rarriwuy Hick, Mirrah Foulkes, Darren Gilshenan, Matt Day and Damon Gameau. “So I managed to get all my friends together to go and make a film and they are all brilliant in it,” says Cowell.

As for Ruben Guthrie, he has written a screenplay based on his acclaimed 2008 play – a sharp-edged black comedy about alcohol addiction and binge drinking – and says the project is now in the financing stage.

Meanwhile, he is looking forward to returning to London to continue work on the project for Channel Four. He clearly enjoys living in London and says that having his play Happy New at the Trafalgar Studios earlier this year was very exciting.

“It was fantastic,” he says. “It was quite surreal to see my second play, which is really a dirty, strange piece of theatre (all of my friends say it is my best play) in the Trafalgar Studios in the posh part of town. The director Robert Shaw really stuck by it over six years to get it in there, after it had a run at the Old Red Lion. It’s so hard to get a play on in London as an Australian playwright. There really is a wall up. They don’t want our work there, they will take work from anywhere else.”

Asked why he thinks that is, Cowell says he doesn’t know but suspects there’s “a colonial aspect to it”. However, he’s adamant that Australian playwrights offer something different to British playwrights.

“What we can give them is something they can’t create – and that’s what a lot of the reviews said about Happy New: this is an urgent, ugly, gruesome, raw, emotional piece of theatre that is so whack and uses language in a brutal way, god bless Australia.

“I see so much British theatre and I come out so impressed but so unmoved at the same time. It’s almost like watching great chess players in a park. It’s like, ‘how did you do that?” but quickly at the bar you are thinking about something else. I find Australian theatre affects me – maybe because it’s my life on stage, my country on stage, but it affects me more than anything because I think our actors and designers are a little more imaginative and little more exposed and messier. We can play complex drama brilliantly and we are ready for the full assault. It is always refreshing to come back and see the actors on stage here. It’s marvellous and I think we’ve got some great directors and designers as well.

“But I was really chuffed to walk into London and see my play on the West End. It definitely helps next time I want to present a work there.”

Miss Julie plays at Belvoir St Theatre, August 24 – October 6

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on August 11