2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

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Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz: interview

Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz discuss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and other future projects including the Australian tour of Matilda the Musical and the new musical Minchin is writing.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

In 1996, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz performed together in a University of Western Australia (UWA) student production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the 1966 play that made Tom Stoppard’s name.

Schmitz was initially cast in one of the lead roles but during rehearsals broke up with the director, who he’d been dating, and promptly found himself demoted to the much smaller part of Hamlet. Minchin played the meatier role of The Player and helped his brother write the music.

Seventeen years on, they about to co-star in the play for Sydney Theatre Company, this time with Minchin as Rosencrantz and Schmitz as Guildenstern: a casting coup that has triggered such demand for tickets, the production has extended before opening.

The excitement at such a double act is hardly surprising. Minchin is now a superstar comedy-musician whose hilarious satirical songs have won him an international cult following and who is regularly hailed “a genius”.

Based in London with his wife and two young children, he recently received rave reviews for his rock star turn as Judas in the UK arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar alongside Mel C and Ben Forster. He has also been winning serious plaudits as the composer/lyricist of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical, currently doing a roaring business in the West End and on Broadway, and headed for Australia in 2015 – more of which later.

Schmitz, meanwhile, is one of Australia’s most in-demand actors. In October, he plays Hamlet for Belvoir then jets off to Cape Town to film a second season of US television series Black Sails: a pirate drama prequel to Treasure Island, which premieres early next year.

He is also a successful playwright whose comedy I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for Tamarama Rock Surfers (TRS) last year and whose latest play Empire: Terror on the High Seas opens at Bondi Pavilion for TRS next month.

Friends since they met as teenagers at a youth theatre company in Perth, an interview with the two of them is a lively affair with thoughtful, intelligent conversation punctuated by sharp wit and much easy banter.

“We arm-wrestled and I lost,” deadpans Minchin when asked how they decided who should play who in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Stoppard’s play was just one of many productions they collaborated on at the UWA drama society, during which time they also performed as a cabaret duo.

In 2004, after Schmitz had graduated from NIDA and Minchin had moved to Melbourne to kick-start a career in music and cabaret, they co-wrote a show with Travis Cotton called This Blasted Earth, which had a short season at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre.

“It was a musical about putting on a terrible musical,” says Minchin. “The first half was the terrible musical and the second half was the cast saying: ‘I can’t believe we are in this terrible show.’ I think I came away with $50 for my songs and three months of work.”

To date, it hasn’t been revived. “Travis and Tim and I talk about it. It wouldn’t take too much work to re-mould it for 2013,” says Schmitz.

“If we didn’t have anything else to do we would probably do it,” says Minchin. “If we had spare time on an island together it would be fun.”

Spare time, however, is the last thing on their hands right now.

It was Luke Cowling, a co-director of the UWA production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who suggested around four years ago that they revisit the play with the two of them co-starring.

“But then he had a baby, blah, blah, blah and it kind of ground to a half. But my manager Michael knew it was a good idea and wasn’t going to let it go so he set up a meeting with these guys (STC),” says Minchin.

The play is an absurdist tragicomedy in which the two hapless courtiers of the title – minor characters in Shakespeare’s play – find themselves in the spotlight, trapped in a confusing, existential world where most of the drama is happening elsewhere as the plot of Hamlet unfolds predominantly offstage.

On the page, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem somewhat interchangeable. They finish each other’s sentences, are mistaken for each other by other people, and even muddle their own names up.

In the stage directions at the start of Act One in which Rosencrantz is tossing a coin that improbably keeps coming up Heads, Stoppard writes that Rosencrantz “betrays no surprise at all – he feel none. However, he is nice enough to felt a little embarrassed at taking so much money off his friend. Let that be his character note.

“Guildenstern is well alive to the oddity of it. He is not worried about the money, but it is worried by the implications; aware but not going to panic abut it – let that be his character note.”

Schmitz and Minchin chuckle at the casual brilliance of Stoppard’s succinct character notes.

“At the beginning you think, ‘I wish you’d given us just a tiny bit more here Tom!” says Schmitz. “But the genius is that you realise he has given you just enough. It’s your job to take one word and riff on it for four pages or hark back to a moment an act ago.”

“We bang on about his incredible genius to be able to write this play at the age he wrote it – you know, almost in a Shakespearean way, how could he have the knowledge?” agrees Minchin.

“But there’s an incredible maturity in how he used that knowledge and I reckon that’s very apparent in the stage directions: ‘Let that be your character note.’ What 29 -year old writes that? The effortless authority at age 29 – I would have wanted to punch him!”

“It becomes quite quickly apparent in performance or on reading out loud even that Stoppard has delineated two quite different personalities,” says Schmitz. “And then in the third act when things start to fall apart for them, lines are crossed and the characters are blurred a little more but I think it’s very clever in its delineation.”

“For the first half of the first act Rosencrantz does a lot of listening,” adds Minchin. “Guildenstern has a lot more text throughout the play. Rosencrantz does a lot more reacting and responding so that when his rants come they are really exceptions to the rule.”

The STC production is directed by Simon Phillips and designed by Gabriela Tylesova who produced the extraordinary sets and costumes for Phillips’ production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Love Never Dies.

Schmitz was at NIDA with Tylesova and says that even then the students were excited by her special talent – “and it’s not that common among the acting fraternity to go and be interested in any other department at acting school.”

He describes her design as “a vision of Elizabethan England” though Minchin qualifies that as being “not so much Elizabethan England as a traditional, Elizabethan-style Hamlet.

“The set is a minimalist, post-modern set, so it’s a Beckettian, Stoppardian non-specific set with entrances and exits designed to have their own weight because of our (Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s) inability to enter and exit. So the entrances are foreboding and the stage disappears in a converging line into infinity.

“There’s a nod to Godot because the play was a nod to Godot so the set design is very minimal but the costumes make it very clear that it’s a traditional Hamlet. You need that to anchor the play. If you reinterpret what are meant to be the foundations then your house crumbles a bit.”

Not surprisingly, Schmitz and Minchin are relishing Stoppard’s famously dazzling word play.

At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game akin to verbal tennis where they have to keep lobbing questions at each other.

“In that questions game, everything they say is utterly related to the characters and the text as well as relating to a rhythm and a toying and a playfulness,” says Minchin. “It’s scary, man. He’s the monster as they say in jazz. The monster.”

Phillips has gathered an exceptionally fine company of actors for the supporting roles, among them Ewen Leslie as The Player, John Gaden, Christopher Stollery and Heather Mitchell: “an embarrassingly fabulous cast” says Schmitz.

“It’s thrilling when the court (characters) come on. It’s seismic. You can do nothing but be slightly rattled and a rabbit in the headlights – which is exactly the effect you want.”

“I think it’s very difficult to do a brilliant production of a Stoppard play,” adds Schmitz. “You need a sparkling cast, great direction and great resources.

“And you need time too,” says Minchin.

“That’s right, like a Shakespeare you need time to plumb and realise that a lot of it is bottomless but you just have to pull up somewhere and say, ‘OK we’re going to have to make a decision.’ Like all brilliant plays, it just continues to reveal itself,” says Schmitz who first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at age 12.

Schmitz played Dadaist Tristram Tzara in STC’s 2009 production of Travesties – his only other experience of performing Stoppard – while for Minchin it’s his first on-stage encounter with the playwright.

However, he has met the playwright a couple of times at awards nights. “The first time I met him it was just me going, ‘oh my god?’” he says. “And the second time he’d become aware of who I was – which is the most profoundly satisfying thing from someone. You want to meet your idols but actually you don’t want to meet them. What you want is for them to meet you.

“He’s so youthful in his curiosity that he had gone ‘OK, that guy wrote Matilda’ so he’d gone away and discovered I do other things.”

Schmitz has also met Stoppard – though it was only the briefest of encounters. “It was during a writers’ festival and a bunch of young playwrights were being herded into a back room at the Opera House to meet him,” says Schmitz. “Someone had told him I’d written a play called I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard. He said, ‘I’m just glad it’s not called I just want to sleep during Tom Stoppard.’ I didn’t even name the play, it was my Dad’s title.”

The chance to see Minchin on stage in Jesus Christ Superstar and now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is something for Sydneysiders to cherish because we’re not likely to see him in another musical or play any time soon given his hectic schedule.

However, we will be seeing Matilda the Musical. Ever since the show premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, Australian producers have been vying for the rights.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel and featuring songs by Minchin, the RSC production transferred to the West End in November 2011 where it won rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical. In April this year it opened on Broadway, again to ecstatic reviews and 12 Tony nominations (though it was pipped to the post for Best Musical by Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots).

At last, a deal has been done for the RSC to present it in Australia in 2015 in association with a local producer, reveals Minchin.

“We actually know who the local producer is going to be (but) it’s still embargoed. I only found out (on Tuesday),” he says. “The plan is for it to open in Melbourne in September 2015.”

Meanwhile, Minchin is busy writing a new musical. “It’s still embargoed even though I’ve been working on it for six months,” he says. “But it’s a very interesting, arty but much-loved early ‘90s film we are adapting for the stage: very conceptual, somewhat Stoppardian. It will be more complex and dark (than Matilda). Even though I am working on it with Matthew Warchus, who was the architect and director of Matilda, we are going to try and start it quietly.”

Minchin is also working on an animated musical film for DreamWorks about animals in the Australian outback and when that is done will put a new solo show together.

Schmitz also has a lot happening. Rehearsals for Belvoir’s Hamlet (his second stab at playing the Prince of Denmark after taking on the role for Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre in 2010) begin while he is still performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which will make for “an interesting double play”, as he puts it.

At the end of August, TRS will premiere his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas about a serial killer aboard a luxury cruise liner in the 1920s featuring a cast of 20.

“The first half is my take on an Agatha Christie and the second half descends into something far more gothic and horror,” says Schmitz. “It’s a spectacle. It’s huge and it’s really ambitious. Leland Kean (artistic director of TRS, who is directing) has always done my stuff well and the cast is really talented and stupidly good-looking, I realise.”

Schmitz wrote his first play at NIDA. He won the 2002 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award for Lucky and was shortlisted for the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award for Chicks Will Dig You in 2003. His 2007 play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth has toured widely and I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for TRS last year.

“I’ve never had any interest from any (mainstage) theatre company in putting on any of my plays, ever – and this is play number 12. And I’ve had some really popular ones and critically acclaimed and even relatively economically successful ones,” says Schmitz. “But it got to the point a few years ago where I said to Leland Kean, ‘I’m just trying to get a mainstage company to put one on’ – hence I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard (with) four middle class people and a couch.

“And he said, ‘for your own soul, write one as if it was going on independently as a commercial thing like The 39 Steps or The Mousetrap or something. Don’t worry about the budget.’ I don’t think he was expecting 20 characters or an ocean liner.”

Given the number of projects they both have on the go, is there no end to their talents?

“I hope not,” fires back Schmitz.

“Is there no end to your ego is really the question,” quips Minchin.

But in the end, they agree, it all comes back to a love of words – and music, in Minchin’s case.

“It’s not multi-skilling,” says Minchin. “It’s a love of language and expressing ideas, wanting to perform other people’s great work and wanting to perform your own. That explains everything I do pretty much.”

“Yes it’s just another way of generating your own material,” says Schmitz. “We’ve both been doing that since before we can really remember.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at the Sydney Theatre from August 6 to September 14. Bookings: 9250 1777 or http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au