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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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….

Helpmann Awards

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nathaniel Dean, Ursula Yovich, Rory Potter and Trevor Jamieson in The Secret River. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Sydney Theatre Company’s stage adaptation of The Secret River was the big winner at the 2013 Helpmann Awards, receiving six awards from 11 nominations including Best Play, Best Direction of a Play (Neil Armfield) and Best New Australian Work.

Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s award-winning novel was a popular choice at last night’s ceremony at the Sydney Opera House, hosted by Eddie Perfect and Christie Whelan Browne.

However, the musical category has caused a fair amount of discussion on social media, with some believing that South Pacific was unjustly snubbed.

King Kong – the new musical from Global Creatures – had been portrayed in some sections of the media as the main rival to The Secret River in terms of its potential to sweep the awards.

But it was Legally Blonde that took out the main awards in the musicals category, winning five from eight nominations including Best Musical (over South Pacific, The Addams Family and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Best Direction and Best Choreography in a Musical (Jerry Mitchell) and performing awards for Lucy Durack and Helen Dallimore.

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Rob Mills and Lucy Durack in Legally Blonde. Photo: Jeff Busby

Tellingly, King Kong was not nominated for Best Musical or Best Direction of a Musical – and rightly so, I would suggest, for a show that most critics agree needs more work on its book.

However, King Kong picked up four design awards (though Marius de Vries’ original music lost out to Iain Grandage’s for The Secret River.)

The show was also given a special award for Outstanding Theatrical Achievement for the design, creation and operation of King Kong – the creature. Apparently there was genuine discussion at one point as to whether King Kong himself could actually be nominated as best performer. He is certainly truly extraordinary but since he is a puppet, common sense prevailed.

Technically King Kong was not eligible for consideration at this year’s awards since it had its opening night on June 15 after the cut-off date of May 31. However, the rules allow for late inclusions in “exceptional circumstances” and given the relatively weak field of musicals over the last year, the decision to include it was presumably made to bolster the field.

For my money, Bartlett Sher’s production of South Pacific – presented by Opera Australia in association with John Frost – was the best musical of the year. Of course, that’s a subjective view, however, it did win Best Musical at the Sydney Theatre Awards over Legally Blonde, Love Never Dies and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

There’s also the question of whether a revival should be judged against a new musical, let alone a new Australian musical, and whether we should be giving Best Musical awards anyway to shows that are carbon copies of overseas productions, regardless of how well we perform them. (We could still give awards for performances in a musical).

Among the four nominees for Best Musical this year, only John Frost’s Forum (seen in Melbourne) was a new production created in Australia.

The Helpmann Awards have always been a curious beast. Trying to create live entertainment awards with a national reach in such a vast country where few voters have seen all the nominations in any given category is always going to be a challenge with the inevitable oddities and anomalies occurring as a result. (People can only vote in a category if they have seen at least two nominations.)

There is probably more chance of voters having seen all the nominations in the musicals category than any other as most of them tour nationally – as Legally Blonde and South Pacific did.

There seemed to be a few curious omissions among the nominations this year. With no disrespect to any of the nominated performers, it seemed strange, for example, that none of the cast of South Pacific were nominated despite the production being up for Best Musical.

Such oversights have happened before (remember when Cate Blanchett failed to gain a nomination for her stellar performance in A Streetcar Named Desire).

For me there were one or two others this year but it is inappropriate to name names when, again, these things are so subjective.

Partly I’m sure that this is the result of trying to ensure a broad geographical spread of nominations (though there are always complaints that Sydney and Melbourne are over-represented) and partly because it is the producers who put forward the nominations in the first place, paying a $50 fee per entry.

You can’t help thinking that there must be at least some element of strategy as to who and what a producer nominates in order to raise the profile of a show or a performer.

I have also always found it odd that the Helpmanns give awards for Best International Contemporary Concert. This year Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band Wrecking Ball won over Coldplay, Barry Gibb and Tedeschi Trucks Band & Trombone Shorty. Doubtless the producing team and their staff work extremely hard to make these tours happen but surely the Helpmann Awards should be about honouring and supporting Australian entertainment.

Among other major awards, Geoffrey Rush won Best Male Actor in a Musical for Forum, Colin Friels won Best Male Actor in a Play for Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman, Alison Bell (who had two nominations in the one category) won Best Female Actor in a Play for Hedda Gabler at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, Opera Australia’s Salome won four opera awards, while Bangarra Dance Theatre collected two.

With 43 categories, it was a loooong night running around four hours. The entertainment helped maintain interest notably Tim Minchin singing “When I Grow Up” from Matilda the Musical, and performances by the casts of Grease and Hot Shoe Shuffle, among others.

For a full list of awards go to: www.helpmannawards.com.au

Disclaimer: Jo Litson is one of the industry voters for the Helpmann Awards.