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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Jerusalem: review

New Theatre, Newtown, August 22

Nicholas Eadie in Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

Nicholas Eadie in Jerusalem. Photo: Matthias Engesser

When Jez Butterworth’s ecstatically acclaimed play Jerusalem was about to close in London’s West End at the beginning of last year, people queued for up to 24 hours through the cold winter night to get tickets.

An instant hit when it opened at the Royal Court in 2009, Jerusalem is intrinsically English in both its idiom and themes – essentially the changing face of rural England as sterile, urban sprawl encroaches on its “green and pleasant land” ­ – so much so, that some wondered whether it would translate elsewhere.

But it did rip-roaring business on Broadway in 2011 where it won rave reviews and a Tony Award for its leading actor Mark Rylance to add to his Olivier – and it deserves to do the same here in this cracking production at the New Theatre directed by Helen Tonkin.

In managing to secure the rights, the New is presenting the Australian premiere – and what a gift it is to finally have the chance to see this wonderful play.

From the opening moments you know it is something quite special. Sweeping you up in its rowdy, booze-and-drug-fuelled embrace, it doesn’t set you back down again until its defiant but poignant ending.

Butterworth’s writing is exhilarating. Exuding a muscular musicality, hilariously funny, slacker dialogue rubs shoulders with fantastical stories that pulse with a sense of pagan mythology. Meanwhile the play teems with ideas about change, misfits, storytelling and small communities.

Set in Wiltshire, Johnny “Rooster” Byron is a gypsy who has lived for decades in a caravan in the woods on the outskirts of a village. Once renowned as a daredevil bike rider, his reputation these days revolves chiefly around being banned from every pub in the vicinity. But he is still a magnet for various young locals and hangers-on who gather around him for drunken parties and the drugs he deals.

The play takes place on St George’s Day, which coincides with the local country fair at which the May Queen will be crowned to celebrate the start of spring.

It opens with a girl in fairy wings fashioned from twigs, who appears on stage and starts to sing Hubert Parry’s famous English hymn Jerusalem, which sets Blake’s poem to music.

As she reaches the words “among these dark Satanic Mills”, the sounds of a wild, drunken party erupt offstage. Then as day dawns, two council officials arrive with a notice to evict Rooster from his camp following complaints from a nearby housing estate.

Once they’ve left, a bleary-eyed Rooster emerges followed by various hung-over youngsters and the middle-aged Ginger, who is infuriated that no-one told him about last night’s party.

Rooster is a magnificent, richly conceived character. On the one hand, he’s a drunken lay-about, drug dealer and irresponsible father. Portrayed by Butterworth as a latter-day lord of misrule and Falstaffian figure, he starts the day in typically English fashion by pouring milk into the bottom of a mug – but then instead of tea adds vodka and speed.

And yet he has an undeniable charisma, grandeur and defiant dignity about him, particularly when he is spinning his fantastical, spellbinding stories that can’t be true and yet somehow can’t be totally dismissed: stories about his immaculate conception via a ricocheting bullet, for example, or the Druid giant he met on the A14 who told him he built Stonehenge.

As Rooster holds court over his unruly gang, it’s like a subverted version of the Forest of Arden in As You Like It – just one of many Shakespearean resonances in the play, along with echoes of mythologies like Robin Hood and George and the Dragon.

Butterworth creates a wonderfully vivid bunch of characters around Rooster. There’s Ginger, a somewhat pathetic loser who insists he’s a DJ but is actually an unemployed plasterer who rarely spins a disc; Wesley, the local publican and a reluctant Morris dancer who arrives clad in full regalia to the merriment of all; Davey, who works at the abattoir and has never left Wiltshire, nor has any desire to do so (“I leave Wiltshire, my ears pop”); Lee, who is booked to fly to Australia the next day and so might just make his escape; the whimsical professor dressed here like a hunting and fishing country sort; and three teenage girls, including 15-year old Phaedre who has been missing for a week.

Backed by walls of corrugated plastic, Tom Bannerman’s set with its rancid carpet, battered chairs, smashed-up television, umpteen bottles and other detritus, instantly evokes the feel and stale smell of the morning after the night before in Rooster’s camp. Jennifer Ham’s costumes, Blake Garner’s lighting and Alistair Wallace’s sound complete the picture.

In this grungy space, Tonkin’s production unfolds with an anarchic energy that keeps you riveted for the entire two-hours-and-forty-minute running time (including two intervals).

Jeremy Waters and Nicholas Eadie. Photo: Matthias Engesser

Jeremy Waters and Nicholas Eadie. Photo: Matthias Engesser

Nicholas Eadie is in commanding form as Rooster, looking decidedly worse for wear with paunchy girth and grizzled grey hair but still boastful, strutting and defiant, while knowing all too well that his time is up. You understand why the people living nearby want him gone, and yet with his beguiling tales, he also manages to make you feel that he belongs there and that his uprooting is a sad sign of philistine times.

Jeremy Waters is outstanding as the weasly Ginger who longs for acceptance, while the rest of the cast (Alex Norton, Pete Nettell, Brynn Loosemore, Peter McAllum, Emma Harris, Anna Chase, Luke Carson, Tara Clark, Claire Wall, Lucy McNabb and Todd Backhouse) turn in solid, authentic performances.

Jerusalem is bold, raucous and darkly funny, erupting at one point into violence. But it is also elegiac with moments of rough poetry and surprising tenderness, notably when Rooster’s son appears.

For a non-professional, independent company like the New Theatre to tackle such a big play is hugely ambitious – but they pull it off and deserve full houses.

Jerusalem runs at the New Theatre until September 14