King Charles III

Roslyn Packer Theatre, April 2

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Robert Powell as Charles and Tim Treloar as the Prime Minister, Mr Evans. Photo: Prudence Upton

Queen Elizabeth II is dead. Long live King Charles III – or maybe not.

Unlike the Queen, who never meddled in affairs of State, Charles hasn’t even made it to his coronation when he astonishes the Prime Minister by refusing to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press. With neither Charles nor Parliament prepared to budge, a constitutional crisis looms. Before long there’s unrest on the street and a tank parked outside Buckingham Palace.

So begins Mike Bartlett’s fascinating play 2014 King Charles III. Directed by Rupert Goold for London’s Almeida Theatre, it has had hugely successful seasons in the West End and on Broadway. Now a British company led by Robert Powell as Charles, which has been touring the play around the UK, is in Sydney with a finely honed production.

Set in the near future, King Charles III has the ring of one of Shakespeare’s history plays with Charles as a tragic figure: a principled man with a conscience but also a yen to hold more sway than a mere figurehead.

The Duchess of Cambridge, meanwhile, is well aware of the monarchy as a brand, its strength measured in column inches.

There are numerous Shakespearean echoes through the play with references to Lear, Henry IV, Macbeth Richard II and Hamlet. Bartlett has even written most of it in blank verse (apart from scenes featuring Prince Harry and his commoner girlfriend Jess, a Republican arts student from a working class background) using the iambic pentameter as Shakespeare did.

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Lucy Phelps as Jess and Rupert Glaves as Prince Harry. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

It’s a clever, daring concept, which Bartlett has pulled off with considerable skill and wit. The language is actually very accessible, so much so you almost forget that it’s verse at times, while the inclusion of contemporary words and phrases is often very funny.

Though there’s certainly a comic frisson in first meeting the Royal characters – Charles, Camilla, William, Kate, Harry and a certain family ghost proffering conflicting prophecies – the play is by no means a parody. The characters are presented as real and Bartlett canvasses serious issues regarding the role and value (if any) of the Royal Family, the power of the media, and the impact of a rapidly changing society on the mindset of its people.

However, a small section of the opening night audience seemed determined to see the play in superficial terms and laugh at everything, upsetting the rhythm and tension of certain scenes.

What the play doesn’t generate is a great deal of emotional connection. Charles’ fate is unexpectedly moving and Harry’s misgivings and confusion about his role in life are touchingly understandable but mostly it’s a cerebral affair.

Designer Tom Scutt sets the action on a raised dais surrounded by a bare brick wall with darkened doors and a frieze of blurry faces suggesting the populace beyond the palace walls. Using minimal props, Goold stages the action with elegant simplicity. Stylised touches such as the choral singing and the use of Guy Fawkes masks in a street riot are strikingly effective. Only the scenes with the ghost feel unconvincingly staged.

Jocelyn Pook’s score adds plenty of atmosphere, and captures a sense of past and present with music ranging from the opening Requiem to pulsing minimalist chords.

Powell is marvellous as Charles, portraying a dignified but conflicted man driven by an uneasy mix of idealism and frustration after his long wait to become king. As the play unfolds, he also displays a slightly manic attachment to the power of the monarch, while his sense of betrayal is keenly felt.

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Robert Powell as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Will and Kate. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton do a wonderful job of capturing the clean-cut, photogenic glamour of Kate and Will, before revealing a steely strategic nous.

In a comic sub-plot reminiscent of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, Harry is portrayed as a disconsolate, troubled figure unsure of his role in life. Dressed in hoodie and jeans, Rupert Glaves conveys a surly passion and vulnerability as he contemplates life with a commoner, rather than the affable ease that the real ginger-headed Prince projects, while Lucy Phelps is a spirited Jess.

Carolyn Pickles is very funny as Camilla, urging her man to stand firm while displaying little understanding of what is unfolding. Tim Treloar is excellent as the Welsh Prime Minister, who is not a million miles from former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, while Giles Taylor exudes a born-to-the-manor confidence as the Tory opposition leader.

King Charles III is excitingly adventurous theatre in the way is plays with form. It also ignites healthy debate. With the Republican issue still unresolved in Australia, the foyer was full of heated discussions afterwards.

King Charles III plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 30. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 10

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Buckingham Palace drama is no fringe show

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Robert Powell as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

To cut or not to cut a fringe? Without being too superficial about it, you can’t play the Duchess of Cambridge – Kate Middleton as was –without taking her lustrous locks into account, even if you aren’t attempting an impersonation.

“It’s amazing really to make the front cover of most newspapers just for the very fact that you’ve had a hair cut. When her fringe was cut (in September) suddenly that was massive news,” says Jennifer Bryden who plays Kate in King Charles III, the phenomenally popular, award-winning play by British playwright Mike Bartlett.

In fact, Bryden won’t be sporting bangs when the British production arrives at Sydney Theatre Company later this month.

“I wanted to. I angled for it but because we weren’t doing impersonations they felt that actually having long dark hair was enough. So I’ve kept mine long and we put it in hot rollers,” she says.

Ben Righton who plays William has a much healthier head of hair than the Duke of Cambridge with his receding thatch.

“He was slightly dreading the fact that they were going to suggest shaving a bald patch,” says Bryden with a laugh.

King Charles III premiered at London’s 325-seat Almeida Theatre in 2014. Directed by Rupert Goold, it quickly became the hottest ticket in town and transferred to the West End. When a Broadway season was confirmed, a second company was formed to take the play on a UK tour. Led by Robert Powell as Charles, that company is en route to Sydney.

Described as “a future history play”, Queen Elizabeth II is dead and Charles finally ascends the throne, Camilla at his side. But when he refuses to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press, he triggers a constitutional storm. With civil war brewing, there are suddenly tanks outside Buckingham Palace.

Praised by New York critics as “flat-out brilliant” and “breathtakingly audacious”, Bartlett’s Buckingham Palace drama about a monarchy in crisis is written in iambic pentameter, giving the play a Shakespearean feel infused with a dash of Fleet Street.

Righton says he was “blown away” when he read the script. “That kind of writing does a lot of the work for you because it tells you which words to stress. It forces you into a style of talking. What is brilliant about Mike’s script is it refers to all kinds of modern things but in verse. I love it. It pushes the play along at a wonderful pace,” he says.

Will and Kate are among the most photographed people on earth but both Righton and Bryden decided to focus on the script itself rather than taking a forensic look at the young Royals when preparing for their audition.

“That turned out to be the right decision. Something we were told early on in rehearsals is that this wasn’t about impersonating. We were to approach the text as we would any text and approach the character as we would any other character. And only then, at the end, were we allowed to add suggestions of mannerisms that we had observed in real life,” says Bryden.

“They were never after imitations,” agrees Righton. “It’s like an alternative reality this play, a ‘what if’ Charles were to take the throne.”

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton in KCIII Tour. Credit Richard Hubert Smith

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton as Kate and Will in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

When it came to observing mannerisms, Righton noted that the Duke of Cambridge speaks in a “breathy” way, fiddles with his hands a lot and often has them in his pockets. “He’s left-handed. I’m right-handed so I’ve had to teach myself to be left-handed,” says the actor.

“If you look at Will for any length of time he’s – I’m trying to find a nice way of putting this – but he’s quite bland. He’s very straightforward and polite and he smiles a lot so there’s not a lot to go on. He’s a blank canvas.

“Because he’s been photographed since he was born you feel you know so much about him but you realise that we don’t. They’ve done a very good job of keeping his life private and what makes the bloke tick is very hard to find out anywhere. I know two people who went to school with him and I tried to get them to tell me a bit about him but they were very loyal and haven’t said a word. I can’t get anything out of them,” says Righton.

Bryden believes that the way Kate dresses has a strong influence over the way we perceive her. “I am lucky with the silhouettes of the costumes she wears and the heels. Once I was in costume that really helped.

“It’s amazing what the power of the imagination does,” adds Bryden. “In real life I don’t think any of us look particularly like the members of the Royal Family. There are similar shapes, colourings and heights but that’s about it. But actually once we’ve got the costumes on and the characters are introduced in the first scene, the power of the imagination lies with the audience to see the person they are used to seeing in the public eye.”

Beneath the fashionable outfits and flowing hair, there’s a backbone to Bartlett’s Kate that comes as a surprise. Portrayed as a shrewd political operator, who supports and motivates William, she has been compared to Lady Macbeth.

“She definitely wears the royal trousers…. In our play she’s a very commanding figure,” says Righton with a chuckle.

Careful not to give too much away, Bryden says: “She is the key operator, the person who makes the changes in the action of the play. She’s the one person within the Royal Family who can look at what’s going on objectively because everyone else is too tied up with their own family drama. Because Kate is new to all this, she is the one with the outside eye.”

Before she had any idea that she would be auditioning for the play, Bryden saw King Charles III in the West End from a seat in the gods with a friend of hers.

“It was so fascinating in the interval hearing all the discussions. So often everyone just makes and a beeline for the bar and it’s about what they’ve been doing that day. Here, everyone was talking (about the play), whether it was politics or family or actors playing real people or the monarchy. It was amazing. My friend said, ‘you should play that part one day,'” says Bryden.

None of the Royal Family has been to see the play. However, Tim Piggott-Smith who played Charles in the original production, received a letter from a member of the staff at Clarence House, Charles’s official London residence, pointing out that Charles doesn’t wear a wedding ring.

“I think everyone has taken that as a bit of a nod that they’re watching and hopefully approve,” says Bryden.“I’m sure they know all about it but I don’t think they would ever come and see it.”

King Charles III, Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 31 – April 30. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 13

2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over the 167 productions (theatre, musicals, dance, opera and cabaret) I saw in 2015, there was some terrific mainstage theatre but it was in the independent sector this year that many of my real highlights occurred. There were some outstanding performances across both, including a number of unforgettable solo turns.

As for musicals, the commercial scene was generally much more impressive than last year, thanks to a couple of exceptional productions, while independent musical theatre continued to thrive led by the invaluable Hayes Theatre Co. Not only did the Hayes shine a light on many little known shows and talented, emerging performers but it also provided the opportunity for several impressive directorial debuts.

So, here goes with my personal highlights for the year.

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

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“When I Grow Up” in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

 Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly took the irreverent genius of Roald Dahl and made it sing on stage in Matilda The Musical, one of the most original and exciting new musicals in ages. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is an inspired piece of theatre and the Australian cast did it proud, thrilling adults and “maggots” alike. James Millar was a hoot as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull and Elise McCann was a quietly radiant Miss Honey, while the four young girls who played Matilda – Molly Barwick, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin – did a fine job, as did all the children in the cast.

Les Misérables

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne season and stormed the barricades once more. Stellar turns by Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert gave the production a profound emotional power and Kerrie Anne Greenland made a powerhouse professional debut as Eponine.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the film of The Sound of Music is indelibly imprinted in most people’s mind. But Amy Lehpamer made the role her own with a sensational performance that confirms she is, without question, one of the stars of Australian musical theatre.

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and child cast in The Sound of Music (c) James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and the child cast in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

Lehpamer has been riding a wave for a while now, and showing what an incredibly versatile performer she is. This year alone she has played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (one of the few good things in a horribly glib production, with Craig McLachlan giving a shamelessly indulgent performance as the hammiest, least sexy Frank N Furter I’ve ever seen), followed by the glamorous Tracy Lord in High Society and now Maria in The Sound of Music. Coming after lovely performances as Christine Colgate in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Lehpamer shows she has got the lot.

This revival of The Sound of Music is a scaled-back version of one first seen at London’s Palladium in 2006 and while some of the sets look less than lavish – the hills are hardly rolling in the opening scene – it’s still a lovely production. Jacqui Dark’s humane portrayal of the Mother Abbess and soaring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is another highlight.

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

Once again, some fabulous indie musicals emanated from the Hayes. Leader of the pack for me, by a whisker, was Violet, closely followed by Heathers, Dogfight and High Society, while Man of La Mancha was a high in a patchy year for Squabbalogic.

Violet

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Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Mitchell Butel made a brilliant directorial debut at the helm of Violet. He displayed a sure, sensitive touch, keeping the action flowing, the different time frames clear, and the focus where it needed to be.

He also drew truthful, beautifully delineated performances from a well-chosen cast led by Samantha Dodemaide, who glowed as Violet, a young woman who crosses the US by bus hoping that a televangelist will heal a disfiguring scar on her face. Everything about the production was spot-on ensuring that the sweet, gently charming musical knocked you for six emotionally without ever becoming corny.

Heathers the Musical

 Trevor Ashley also directed his first musical this year at the Hayes, and showed that he too has got what it takes. His high-energy production of Heathers the Musical leapt off the stage at you and he pitched the dark, camp comedy just right. Jaz Flowers brought a surprising depth to Veronica while belting the hell out of her songs, Lucy Maunder was very funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler and there were impressive debuts from Stephen Madsen as the psychopathic, James Dean-like J.D. and Lauren McKenna as the bullied Martha and loopy, New Age teacher Ms Fleming.

Dogfight

 Like Violet, Dogfight is a sweet, tender little musical though it spins around a vile prank, causing some to find the show misogynistic. Director Neil Gooding handled this sensitively, clearly showing why the young marines are so full of pumped-up machismo. Hilary Cole as the gauche young waitress Rose and Luigi Lucente as Eddie, the marine who tricks her then falls for her, moved me to tears.

High Society

High Society got a mixed response but I very much liked Helen Dallimore’s production ingeniously staged by Lauren Peters in the tiny Hayes. Daryl Wallis’s jazz quartet arrangements worked a treat, Amy Lehpamer shone as Tracy, while Virginia Gay gave one of the musical theatre performances of the year as Liz, the newspaper photographer quietly in love with her colleague Mike (Bobby Fox). Her performance was full of lovely, surprising little details, her comic timing was immaculate and she knew exactly how to deliver Cole Porter’s songs.

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Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Man of La Mancha

Jay James-Moody’s inventive, low-tech staging of Man of La Mancha was a highlight of Squabbalogic’s 2015 season. Set entirely in a prison dungeon (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay), the gritting reimagining brought new life and emotion to the somewhat hoary old musical. Having the cast play various musical instruments also worked well. At the heart of the production, Tony Sheldon’s Cervantes was dignified, frail and very moving.

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

 The Norwegian Epic, a cruise liner sailing around the Mediterranean, is known for its entertainment and is currently staging terrific productions of Priscilla and Burn the Floor in its 750-seat theatre. Priscilla stars several Australians among its international cast. Rohan Seinor is sublime as Bernadette bringing enormous warmth, humanity and wit to the role, while Joe Dinn anchors the show as an endearing Tick. I must declare that I went to see my son Tom Sharah, who is a very sassy Miss Understanding. Staged by Australians (director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, costume designer Tim Chappel) it’s a sparkling production – Priscilla, Queen of the Ocean!

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh in After Dinner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company began the year with a pitch-perfect production of Andrew Bovell’s excruciatingly funny yet tender comedy After Dinner, set in a 1980s pub bistro. Alicia Clements’ set was spot-on down to the icky carpet and yellowing tiles on the wall, while her costumes were 1980s fashion at its hilarious worst. Imara Savage directed a superb cast who had you laughing uproariously yet feeling for the sad, loner characters.

The Present

2015 was Andrew Upton’s last year as artistic director of STC (though he has programmed the 2016 season, which incoming artistic director Jonathan Church will caretake). The Present was a wonderful parting gift. Adapted by Upton from Chekhov’s early, sprawling play Platonov but set in the mid-1990s with the main protagonists now in their mid-40s rather than their 20s, the blistering production was awash with yearning, regret and frustration – as well as plenty of gun shots. Helmed by Irish director John Crowley, there were superb performances all round from the top-notch ensemble cast, which included Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh giving the performance of his career.

Endgame

 Upton also directed an engrossing production of Beckett’s bleak but surprisingly funny absurdist play Endgame for STC. Staged on an imposing, monumental set by Nick Schlieper that reeked of foreboding (beautifully lit by Schlieper too), Hugo Weaving gave a masterful performance as Hamm, mesmerising with the dynamic range of his voice. Dark and difficult but thrilling stuff.

Suddenly Last Summer

Also at STC, Kip Williams directed a highly inventive production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which synthesised live performance and video more completely than we have seen previously on the Sydney stage. Not everyone was convinced but after a slow start, I found the production worked its magic to deliver an intense telling of the surreal, dreamlike play. Among a strong cast, Eryn Jean Norvill was exquisite as Catharine who is administered the “truth drug” to reveal the details of her cousin’s terrible death.

Ivanov

Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack got the balance between comedy and despair just right when he directed his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, set in contemporary Russia. Ewen Leslie was compelling as the self-loathing Ivanov but all the cast gave a very human account of people struggling to get by in a society obsessed with self and money. They sang with great vitality too in a production full of music.

My Zinc Bed

Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s incoming artistic director, helmed an elegant production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, an intriguing play of ideas centring on addiction and driven by Hare’s heightened use of language. Sean Taylor was magnificent as the suave, Mephistophelian Victor, hinting at the emptiness within.

The Tempest

For his final production as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago, John Bell directed a lyrical production of The Tempest, staging the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and deft lightness. Matthew Backer was spellbinding as the spirit Ariel, his singing evoking the magic in the isle.

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

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Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

 Iain Sinclair directed a beautiful, understated production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Sport for Jove that felt utterly truthful. Andrew Henry as the simple-minded Lennie, a gentle giant unaware of his own strength, and Anthony Gooley as his loyal friend George broke your heart. The off-stage shooting of the dog reduced some to tears too.

The Aliens

In Annie Baker’s The Aliens, about a couple of slackers in their 30s who take a younger man under their wing, not much seems to happen but plenty bubbles away beneath the surface. Craig Baldwin’s direction, Hugh O’Connor’s design and the performances by Ben Wood, Jeremy Waters and James Bell made for a deeply affecting piece of theatre.

The Aliens was just one of several memorable productions staged at the Old Fitz. It was great to see the tiny pub theatre in Woolloomooloo flying high again under Red Line Productions. There was a focus on male issues and casts in their 2015 program, which they have acknowledged and plan to address in 2016, as has Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the wake of debate about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre.

Cock

Red Line Productions presented a taut production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively named play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman. Shane Bosher’s production, staged on a gleaming white stage, crackled with tension, with Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway turning in particularly fine performances.

The Dapto Chaser

Mary Rachel Brown’s keenly observed play The Dapto Chaser, presented as part of Griffin Independent, is an unflinching, extremely funny yet poignant look at the world of greyhound racing through the story of one struggling family. Glynn Nicholas’s production felt utterly authentic and the way the family’s dog Boy Named Sue was evoked through mime and panting noises was just brilliant.

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

Thomas Campbell gave a tour de force performance as the disturbed evangelistic Thomas Magill in Enda Walsh’s demanding play Misterman in a superb production directed by Kate Gaul at the Old Fitz.

Kate Cole was remarkable in the Red Stitch Actors Theatre production of Grounded by George Brant, playing a ‘top gun’ fighter pilot who finds herself flying drones after she has a child and struggling to deal with the schism between operating in a war zone one moment then driving home to family life. Extraordinary theatre.

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin turned in a riveting performance as Stella Goldschlag, a blonde Jewish woman living in Berlin during World War II who worked for the Gestapo, in Gail Louw’s unsettling, provocative play Blonde Poison directed by Jennifer Hagan at the Old Fitz.

Amanda Muggleton charmed audiences at the Ensemble with an exuberant, generous, comic performance in Roger Hall’s highly entertaining play The Book Club about a bored housewife looking to spice up her life. Muggleton was in her element as she conjured all the women in the book group as well as other characters.

Ben Gerrard also slipped effortlessly between a number of characters and accents as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived the Nazis, giving a lovely subtle performance in Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife directed by Shaun Rennie at the Old Fitz.

Jeanette Cronin gave a very lively impression of Bette Davis in Queen Bette, which she devised with director/producer Peter Mountford, capturing her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence while taking us through her life at the Old 505 Theatre.

Irish actor Olwen Fouréré gave an astonishingly expressive performance, physically and vocally, in Riverrun, her adaptation of James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult Finnegan’s Wake with its own language, at Sydney Theatre Company.

CABARET

My pick of the cabaret shows I saw this year are:

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

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Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

An outrageously funny, sweet, ballsy and, yes, provocative, piece by a little dynamo-of-a-performer who is, as she puts it, of an “Asian persuasion”. Taking us through her life and career, Lane was hysterically funny but had serious points to make about prejudice and narrow-minded casting.

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

A cleverly written and structured piece (co-written by Scott and director Terence O’Connell) taking us through the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of British composer Lionel Bart. Scott embodied the Cockney Bart brilliantly and gee did his fingers fly across the piano keys.

Tim Freedman’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout Me

Looking suitably shambolic, Freedman took us into the mind and musical world of the enigmatic, self-destructive Harry Nilsson. Co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell, the show felt convincingly conversational in tone, while Freedman deployed his own innate charm in a winning bio-cabaret.

OPERA

 Faust

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Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Faust. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

 Sir David McVicar’s production is impressive in its own right but it was the central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes that made the Opera Australia production so exciting.

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression with her radiant performance as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – confirmed her extraordinary talent. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing had a sweet, luscious beauty and was full of emotion. She is also a strong actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. Towards the end of 2015, Car made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Micaela in Carmen, followed by a return to Tatyana, receiving rave reviews. A rising star indeed.

Other memorable productions in OA’s 2015 season included the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s Don Carlos with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo; and McVicar’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna and Nicole Car as the Countess.

DANCE

Frame of Mind

Only six companies in the world have been allowed to perform William Forsythe’s sublime contemporary dance classic Quintett – and Sydney Dance Company showed why they are one of the chosen few. Paired with a moving new work by Rafael Bonachela called Frame of Mind, this thrilling double bill was contemporary dance at its most exhilarating.

The Sleeping Beauty

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jeff Busby_0

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

 Lavishly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, The Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is breathtakingly beautiful.

Created by artistic director David McAllister, it’s a very traditional production with McAllister retaining key passages of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and devised linking material in a similar classical style.

The storytelling is crystal clear, with elements incorporated from other versions, but the production feels a bit safe at times with room for more dramatic tension between the forces of good and evil. Visually though, it’s a triumph. Tylesova’s sumptuous sets feature baroque and rococo elements, while her costumes use an intoxicating range of colour and feature some of the prettiest tutus imaginable. Lana Jones as Aurora, Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Amber Scott as the Lilac Fairy all shone at the Sydney opening, while Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo lit up the stage as the Bluebird and Princess Florine.

 Conform

 At Sydney Dance Company’s showcase of emerging choreographers New Breed, Kristina Chan’s Conform was an exciting highlight. A punchy piece about masculinity, it has its own distinctive choreographic voice and plenty to say. Chan is already a thrilling dancer. I can’t wait to see her next choreographic venture.

Departures

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Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Ross Philip and Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Australian Dance Artists (Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Norman Hall) collaborated again with eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth on a new production called Departures. Part-performance, part-installation, with live music, it was a fascinating ride into a strange world full of stunning visual imagery and evocative choreography. Magical.

RISING STARS

Amy Lehpamer (see The Sound of Music), Nicole Car (see Faust) and Kristina Chan (see above) are all rising stars with talent to burn. Add to that list Australian Ballet dancer Benedicte Bemet. Few were surprised when Bemet won the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Still only 21 and a coryphée, she is already dancing lead roles for the Australian Ballet like Clara in The Nutcracker. She made her debut recently as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and apparently the audience went wild, giving her a standing ovation after the Rose Adagio and at the final curtain. I predict a big future.

That’s it folks! There are so many other things I enjoyed during 2015 – too many to include here. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of happy theatre-going in 2016.

 

Bull

Old Fitz Theatre, September 5

Philippe Klaus, George Kemp and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Philippe Klaus, George Kemp and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Bull, by British playwright Mike Bartlett, is considered a companion piece to his much-admired play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman, which also had a production at the Old Fitz earlier this year (see review on the blog).

Bull is a less subtle play. Running a tight 55-minutes, it is a savage black comedy about bullying, going straight for the jugular from the opening moments.

Set in a London office, three young employees – Isobel (Romy Bartz), Tony (Philippe Klaus) and Thomas (George Kemp) – are waiting for an interview with their boss (Craig Ashley), knowing that one of them is to lose their job due to cost cutting.

The steely, power-dressed Isobel and more laid-back but equally manipulative Tony are determined that it won’t be them, working together to ritually humiliate and undermine Thomas. It’s the law of the jungle and though Thomas tries to fight back, he’s no match for them. He’s one of life’s loner-losers no matter how much he tries not to be.

The verbal viciousness is breath-taking at times, the outcome mercilessly inevitable.

Directing the play for Ronaissance Production in association with Red Line Productions, Rowan Greaves has the actors go full-bore from the start. The play might perhaps have built tension had they played cat-and-mouse a little more initially, pretending some semblance of nicety before they go in for the kill. Instead, the play feels like a full-on assault.

George Kemp, Philippe Klaus and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

George Kemp, Philippe Klaus and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

The actors are all terrific. Bartz is chillingly cold and utterly remorseless as the main aggressor Isobel, staring at Thomas with withering condescension. As the private school educated Tony, Klaus is the good cop to her bad cop, less obviously aggressive but just as ruthlessly nasty in a slightly more insidious way, performing with an arrogant insouciance.

Kemp is also excellent as the hapless, floundering Thomas, his body language reflecting his growing desperation, as he is gradually undone.

In London, the play was performed in a boxing ring. Here, given that it’s a late-night production, it is staged on the set of The Aliens – but really very little is needed in the way of props or staging with the focus on the verbal cut-and-thrust.

Bull is a short, sharp, brutal play and though it isn’t as fascinating or thought-provoking a drama as Cock it’s still packs a punch.

One of Britain’s leading contemporary playwrights, Bartlett won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Play for his epic drama King Charles III, which comes to Sydney next year as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 season. And it’s the original Almeida Theatre production from London that we’ll see, arriving here direct from Broadway. In the interim, it’s worth catching Bull as a little taster of Bartlett’s considerable way with words.

Bull plays at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo until September 12. Bookings: http://www.oldfitz.com/bull

Cock

Old Fitzroy Theatre, February 8

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley. Photo: Tim Levy

Matt Minto and Michael Whalley. Photo: Tim Levy

Finally, Sydney has the chance to see the acclaimed, provocatively titled Cock by British playwright Mike Bartlett – and this terrific production from Red Line Productions (the new caretakers of the Old Fitz), presented as part of the Mardi Gras Festival, shows why the play has generated such a buzz on both sides of the Atlantic.

After premiering in 2009 in London in the Royal Court’s tiny Upstairs Theatre, the play had an Off-Broadway season (where the New York Times reviewed it as the Cockfight Play while many other publications included an asterisk or two in the title).

Cock explores a love triangle between two men and a woman. Only one of them is named – the indecisive John, who is torn between two lovers. The others are simply referred to in the script as M and W (for man and woman).

John (Michael Whalley) has been in a relationship with M (Matt Minto) since coming out. They’ve now hit something of a seven-year itch and for John, anyway, the relationship is not what it was. Then to his surprise, he finds himself drawn to W (Matilda Ridgway), a lonely 28-year old divorcee who he meets at the bus stop on his way to work and ends up in bed with.

John doesn’t have a strongly developed sense of himself. Where the dominant M constantly puts him down, chipping away at his sense of self-worth, John finds a more positive reflection of himself in W’s eyes. She is gentle and nurturing and confident that they would be good for each other. She makes John feel that he could amount to something and she offers him the chance to have a family. Unexpectedly, the sex is pretty good too.

M is angry, outraged, seeing the affair not just as a personal betrayal but as an inexplicable affront to their identity and lifestyle as gay men.

John dithers. He doesn’t know who and what he wants. He’d prefer not to have to decide. But M and W are both prepared to fight for him. M gets John to invite W to a dinner party and ropes in his father (Brian Meegan) to help plead his cause. It’s an excruciating affair for all concerned. But John is cornered and is forced to make a decision.

Cock is a tight, tense piece running for 80 minutes. In many ways it’s like a dance that becomes an emotional tug-of-war before escalating into an all-out fight.

Bartlett’s writing is wittily astringent, full of staccato phrases and unfinished sentences along with short, sharp scenes.

The original production was staged in the round as if in a wooden cockfighting ring. It’s impossible to replicate that in the tiny Old Fitz but director Shane Bosher has managed to create a similar vibe by having a row of chairs along the back wall and down the two sides of the stage, which has been painted a gleaming white. The rest of the audience sits in the usual banks of seating.

I saw the play from a seat on the stage and at such close proximity, under Michele Bauer’s bright lighting, you felt voyeuristically close to the action, quite literally in the room with the characters. You were also very aware of the audience watching on from the darkness as they would have been of you sitting right there in the light.

Bosher directs and choreographs his actors with a wonderful sense of spatial awareness. The way he positions them on stage seems to heighten the tensions between them. He keeps things moving at a nifty pace, using short, snap blackouts to punctuate the scenes.

Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway. Photo: Tim Levy

Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway. Photo: Tim Levy

As in the original production, there are no props. A sex scene between John and W is performed fully clothed with Whalley and Ridgway standing close to each but without touching. Instead they circle other and gaze into each other’s eyes, their bodies and expressive faces speaking reams. It feels sexy and real.

Both are perfectly cast. Looking at the Whippet-thin Whalley, you know exactly what W means when she describes him as being like a pencil drawing that hasn’t been coloured in. And though John’s indecision should have you wanting to shake him, Whalley somehow manages to keep him sympathetic.

Ridgway is a wonderful mixture of vulnerability and determination. Though it’s not really clear what W sees in John beyond recognising a similar loneliness in him, Ridgway convinces you to accept W’s attraction and need.

Minto also gives a strong performance as M, all blustering anger and up-tight, savage invective delivered with a sure sense of comedy. Occasionally his performance feels a little overdone but he complements the other two extremely well.

Meegan stepped into the breach at the very last minute (when an indisposed Nick Eadie withdrew after a couple of previews) and so still had script in hand when I saw the production, but he hardly referred to it and was already giving a finely judged performance.

Cock in an engrossing play that has you thinking about identity, about knowing and defining yourself, about sexuality, about clear-cut sexual definitions and something more fluid, about desire, possession and power. It’s a cracker of a play and a great little indie production. Definitely worth checking out.

Cock runs at the Old Fitz until March 6