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

Swings

“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

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

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.

Gay

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

JosieLane

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.

 

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The Present

Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 8

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun on stage, then eventually it must be used. In his latest Chekhov adaptation, The Present, Andrew Upton wastes no time, starting the tragicomedy with a bang.

In fact, Upton has the characters pull the trigger several times before the play’s dramatic conclusion – just some of the fireworks, emotional and literal, that punctuate and power this blisteringly brilliant Sydney Theatre Company production.

Upton has adapted a number of classic Russian plays with considerable success – Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, Maxim Gorky’s Philistines and Children of the Sun, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard – but The Present is arguably his best yet.

Written around 1878, Chekhov’s sprawling, untitled first play – often called Platonov after its central character – would run around five hours in its original form but Upton has condensed it to a gripping three hours including interval.

He has updated the action from pre-revolutionary Russia to the mid-1990s, post-Perestroika, another period of great change and disillusionment. Instead of the main protagonists being 20-something as Chekhov had them, they are in their 40s, intensifying their feelings of yearning, regret and frustration.

The play is set in the country house of Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett), the widow of an older, powerful General, where a group of friends and acquaintances gather to celebrate her 40th birthday. Among them are local doctor Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), Anna’s stepson, the slightly nerdy, awkward Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his brittle new wife Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), a doctor who has recently returned from working overseas.

Anna has also invited two powerful landowners (David Downer and Martin Jacobs) hoping one of them might marry her, securing her land and fortune.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

At the heart of the play is Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), who has not fulfilled his brilliant promise as a young intellectual and is now a womanising schoolteacher.

Mikhail brings his sweet but gauche wife (Susan Prior) and baby son. However, his roving eye soon alights on Sophia, a former flame, and Nikolai’s gorgeous girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford) – though it’s clear his heart belongs to Anna.

Irish director John Crowley helms a superbly paced production on Alice Babidge’s impressive, almost-naturalistic set, which moves from a verandah outside the dacha to a small balloon-festooned summerhouse to a night scene in swirling mist, and back to the dacha for the morning after, this time inside. It’s brilliantly lit by Nick Schlieper with a powerful sound design by Stefan Gregory who uses music by The Clash and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart to punctuate scenes.

Together Upton, Crowley and the magnificent cast nail the Chekhovian balance between laughter and tears as the characters struggle to deal with life in the here-and-now.

The first of the four acts is a slow burn as the guests arrive. Tensions and animosities simmer beneath the desultory chat, with conversations cutting across each other, all of which is performed with a convincingly spontaneous feel. Then, in the aftermath of lunch, the play suddenly explodes into shattering life.

Roxburgh gives one of the performances of his career as Mikhail, capturing his wit and charisma but also his world-weary vulnerability and self-loathing. Blanchett is equally virtuosic as Anna, moving from bored containment to drunken abandon. Both draw on deep, uninhibited emotional reserves and the chemistry between them is electric.

But it’s a genuine ensemble piece with superb performances from the entire 13-strong cast (which also includes Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland and Andrew Buchanan). As Upton prepares to leave STC at the end of the year, The Present is a thrilling parting gift.

The Present plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until September 19. It is sold out but $20 Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online at http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 16

Sydney Theatre Company brings Chekhov into The Present

A week into rehearsals, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Jacqueline McKenzie discuss The Present – Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Anna Bamford are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Anna Bamford and Chris Ryan are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Cate Blanchett is widely regarded as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. We’ve been incredibly lucky to see her give unforgettable performances in a number of Sydney Theatre Company productions over the last few years including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Maids, Gross und Klein and Uncle Vanya.

But with the family relocating to the US when her husband Andrew Upton’s contract as artistic director of STC concludes at the end of this year (after eight years, five of them shared with Blanchett), the chances are we could be about to see her on a Sydney stage for the last time in a while.

Blanchett co-stars with Richard Roxburgh in The Present, adapted by Upton from Anton Chekhov’s sprawling first play Platonov. Directed by John Crowley, the production plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from August 4. The season is all but sold out but a final limited release of tickets will go on sale on Thursday July 9.

Blanchett and Roxburgh wowed audiences and critics alike when they performed together in Upton’s 2010 adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Sydney, Washington and New York. As you’d expect, their reunion has made The Present one of the hottest tickets in the STC’s 2015 season.

The rest of the 13-strong ensemble is pretty extraordinary too, among them Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz, Anna Bamford, Chris Ryan and Susan Prior who recently won an AACTA Award for The Rover.

“It’s a great bunch,” says Blanchett.

“It is an incredible cast. Looking around the table and listening to the voices when we were doing our first read-through, it was just absolutely stunning,” says McKenzie.

“But if you had seen (Blanchett and Roxburgh in) Uncle Vanya and their amazing chemistry and work together, as an actor you want to be a part of that. So that’s really how you can collect such an amazing group of people because we all want to be in amongst it. It’s Andrew’s writing too. He’s an extraordinary adaptor,” adds McKenzie who performed in Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun for STC in 2014.

“So you’ve got Chekhov, you’ve got Upton, you’ve got the Rox and you’ve got the Blanchett – and then you’ll get anyone.”

Chekhov’s first play – commonly known as Platonov after its central character – was an unstructured epic, which would have run for more than five hours if staged in its original state. The manuscript was discovered and published 16 years after his death. There have been various adaptations over the years including Michael Frayn’s Wild Honey.

 “You couldn’t do it (as written). It was a mad thing. That’s why it ended up in a Chekhovian sock drawer and he never pulled it out again,” says Roxburgh.

“The play was a broken thing, a play without a name,” says Blanchett. “Andrew has taken the fragments as a starting point, really, the characters and the basic situations.

“We’ve got this box set of rather crusty old sepia Chekhovs done by the BBC in the 70s. It’s quite useful to see just the bare bones of the storytelling. It’s very, very English (depicting) Russians as eccentrics but I went back and looked at Platonov the other night and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly the women don’t make any sense. What Andrew has done is really teased out not only the relationships but the states of being that all the various women represent in the piece.”

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov, once considered a great intellectual but now a disillusioned, wittily acerbic provincial schoolteacher, though still something of a Lothario. Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna, the widow of a much older General who she married in her 20s, and McKenzie plays Sophia, a former flame of Platonov’s who is now married to Anna Petrovna’s stepson.

Set in a country summerhouse where a group of old friends gather for Anna Petrovna’s 40th birthday party, the play is awash with yearning, shattered dreams and vodka.

Blanchett says that they are still discussing whether Anna Petrovna is also a former flame of Platonov’s.

“There is a sense that they are soulmates. Anna Petrovna is not at the centre of it but she’s the catalyst for the collision of desire and longing that happens around her 40th birthday.”

Upton has a fascination with late 19th century and early 20th century Russian drama and has adapted several plays of the era: Gorky’s Philistines and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard for London’s National Theatre, along with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, Gorky’s Children of the Sun and a revised version of The White Guard for STC.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC's Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC’s Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

His acclaimed adaptations are sparklingly colloquial, muscular and very funny but underpinned with melancholy, and speak very clearly to us today.

Upton has updated Platonov to the mid-1990s, to Russia post-Perestroika, and has the characters in their 40s rather than their 20s as in the original.

“What I like about the updating – Andrew’s updated it to 1995 I think we’ve settled on – is that when Chekhov was writing there was the sense of Russia in transition but it was quite a dangerous time politically and morally. Setting it in the mid 1990s, Russia is once again in that similar state of transition. With the wisdom of hindsight you see that there was a real chance for change,” says Blanchett.

“What is beautiful about it is that it really mirrors the state the characters are in. There’s still that opportunity to change. When you’re in your 40s, as we know, life’s not over.”

“It becomes so much more make and break than in your 20s when you’ve got the whole world laid out in front of you,” says McKenzie.

“It has that depth of meaning when someone is approaching the middle of their life,” agrees Blanchett. “Had the characters been in their 20s, there’s a self-centredeness to it whereas there’s a desperate futility and sadness about it. Suddenly the play has a purpose and an energy and an ache inside it.”

“It has a much darker depth to it, doesn’t it? It’s really fabulous,” says Roxburgh.

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC's Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Upton’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, set in the 1950s and directed by Tamas Ascher, got the tightrope balance between laughter and tears just right. The highly physical production verged on slapstick at times with pratfalls, pillow fights and drunken dancing. Blanchett’s elegant Yelena cooled her sudden ardour by standing in front of an open fridge. Hugo Weaving’s Astrov did a boisterous, drunken jig then fell backwards through a window. But for all the laughter you never lost sight of their misery.

The Present has “a different spirit”, says Roxburgh. “I think the fact that it has a contemporary setting gives it a different quality. What is I would say is that what is incredibly manifest is this energy in the storytelling. There’s a fantastic energy to it that gets pushed and pushed.

“It’s people in extremis. Things unfold that push people to their various breaking points and that can be terrible and hilariously funny, so it does explore all those things. But it’s by no means slapstick. It feels very real. It is people in extremis. To my mind that’s the definition of great theatre.

“But it is hilariously funny. I was rolling about laughing when I read it, which is not what you expect when you read an adaptation of Chekhov. But it’s never silly. It really feels like Chekhov, but not as you’ve ever got him.”

“The dialogue is fantastic,” says McKenzie. “It’s very witty, very fast. It’s like throwing little darts across the room. I’m laughing on stage. I have to stop.”

“John Crowley has a terrific way of putting it, which is that it seems like all of the scenes are not the scenes you’re supposed to be seeing,” says Roxburgh. “They are the grabbed moments in between. There’s a dinner, there’s a lunch, but you don’t see those, you see everything around that, the accidental moments or the catastrophic conclusion of the lunch. It’s a kind of string of all these broken, wrong moments.”

“Those points of genuine contact are like a life raft,” says Blanchett. “They happen occasionally when people do connect in the play. I was reading one of Chekhov’s short stories the other night, I think it was The House with the Mezzanine. It’s a brilliant story and it was describing a painter who was having a conversation with someone he was lodging with and he said that this lodger had the student’s predilection for turning a conversation into an argument. And that’s why this feels like a young play. Conversations very quickly turn into argument, sometimes fierce and sometimes frivolous. But there’s that cut-and-thrust in the play. My character is constantly saying: ‘can everyone just stop being mean!’”

“The crafting of the writing is very finessed,” says Roxburgh. “There’s a lot of overlap in it, which I reckon had Chekhov lived into these times he would have used because his sense of rhythm was so beautiful. It obviously wasn’t a thing of the time but the overlapping dialogue just creates this constant feeling of the shadow play of life. It feels just like we are with one another.”

The three actors speak very highly of Crowley, who has directed in London and on Broadway. McKenzie says that during the first week he got them all to research different aspects of Russian culture and politics from Russian oligarchs to Perestroika.

“I got post-Soviet country houses, where this is set. But it was fantastic because we all came together and shared our findings. It was so great because normally you all do your research yourself. I’ve got a six-year old now and my situation isn’t as free to sit in a library for hours obsessing, which is what I used to do.”

Working with Crowley “is about discovery”, says McKenzie. “What happens with actors a lot of the time is that things happen osmotically. He allows that to happen at the different paces that people work at. It’s just very generous. I tell you, I trust him. I really do. I don’t feel any agenda other than to find the best play.”

“And he seems to have great taste as well,” says Roxburgh “I saw his production of The Pillowman in London. It was a beautiful, very classy piece of work.”

Blanchett and Upton met Crowley when they were living in London. “We’ve been talking about working together for a long time. We’ve been trying to lure him here but dates and situations didn’t work so it’s great that it has now,” says Blanchett.

Asked if it’s hard to return to a rehearsal room when you have a young baby, Blanchett responds with an emphatic “yes!”.

She and Upton adopted baby Edith from the US earlier this year and have said that they and their three sons are “besotted”.

“I feel a bit sleep deprived,” she admits. “But you have to work with whatever state you’re in and turn it into a positive. Sometimes it can be good to be a bit tired in a rehearsal room because your defences are down, your guard is down.”

“You seemed to be working very well this morning in your mad aria!” chuckles Roxburgh.

“But Chekhov is excruciating (to rehearse),” rejoins Blanchett. “The couple of times I’ve had the fortune to work on Chekhov it’s really difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind. That’s why it was so wonderful touring Vanya because by the time we got to New York and we’d done three seasons of it, it had gone to another level. When you work on great writing – and what Andrew has written is really great – it’s difficult to get there but the longer you live with it, the richer it becomes, the more it feeds you and the more the company can bring to it.”

“I’m not finding it excruciating,” says Roxburgh cheerily. “I’m having great fun.”

The Present plays at the Rosyln Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre), August 4 – September 19. A final limited release of tickets will go on sale to the public at 9am on Thursday July 9. Bookings can be made at www.sydneytheatre.com.au, by phoning 02 9250 1777 or in person at the Wharf box office.

 STC also has its Suncorp Twenties program, which makes a limited number of $20 tickets available to each production, even if a season is otherwise sold out. Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online, in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 5

2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

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

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

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

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

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

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

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

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

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

The Drowsy Chaperone

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

Miracle City

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

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

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

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

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

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

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

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

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

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

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

The King and I

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

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

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

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

Once

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

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

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

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

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

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

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

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

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

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

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

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

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

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

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

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

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

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

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

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

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

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

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

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

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

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

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

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

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

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

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

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

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

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

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

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

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

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

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

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….

Richard Roxburgh interview

Richard Roxburgh chats about Waiting for Godot, Cyrano de Bergerac and Rake.

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

In a case of life imitating art, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving spent the first seven days of rehearsal not only waiting for Godot but waiting for Hungarian director Tamas Ascher.

As in Beckett’s play, he never appeared. Ascher couldn’t make the trip to Australia because of a back injury so Andrew Upton ended up directing the Sydney Theatre Company’s superb production, now playing, in which Roxburgh plays Estragon to Weaving’s Vladimir.

“For the first week it was ‘waiting for Tamas’ so the overlaps between rehearsals and the play (meant) there were all these hilarious moments,” says Roxburgh. “I wonder if it’s ever happened before, the director not turning up.”

It was while Ascher was directing Roxburgh and Weaving in STC’s acclaimed production of Uncle Vanya, which toured to the Lincoln Center Festival in New York, that the idea of doing Godot was born.

“We were rehearsing the scene between Astrov (Weaving) and Vanya (Roxburgh) when Vanya has disgraced himself with the pistol and he’s whinging about his life. It’s one of those unfortunately funny moments. We shared a cigarette as we sat there moping and Tamas just burst out laughing and said, ‘It’s Estragon and Vladimir,’” recalls Roxburgh.

“That’s where the whole idea came from so it was strange to do it without Tamas. I suppose for the first week we were (second-guessing what Ascher might have done). We know Tamas well enough and Anna Lengyel his translator was in the room. She’s a dramatist in her own right and incredibly intimate with his work and methods and style and modes of thinking. But then when it become clear that Tamas wasn’t coming, Andrew had to step up and make decisions so that became another part of the process.”

Roxburgh has never seen Beckett’s landmark, absurdist play but is thrilled to be performing in a production of it – particularly with Weaving.

“It’s obviously one of those plays that you know and I’d always hoped I would find the right environment to do it in and so when it cropped up it was perfect. Hugo and I have such a great chemistry and such great fun together,” he says. “There’s a reliability to that relationship that feels like it could be fleshed out in different ways.”

The two leading Australian actors have known each other a long time. “I essentially became an actor because of seeing Hugo,” says Roxburgh.

“I saw him play Toby Belch in his third year touring production of Twelfth Night when he was at NIDA. It toured to Canberra where I was at university and seeing what he did in that (inspired me). I can remember the production. There were some really fine actors in his year but his Toby Belch was just this landmark of a thing. It was so full of the joy of performance and not without subtlety that I just thought, ‘God, whatever that is I would love to have a piece of that in my life.’

“That really stuck with me. I think the first time we worked together was when I ended up casting him as Warburton, the homeless priest character in a production of That Eye, the Sky that I did in the Sydney Festival years ago. Then we cast him in the first episode of (ABC-TV series) Rake. Then we did Vanya, so we’ve always been in touch.”

Roxburgh says that during Godot rehearsals it wasn’t the play’s bleakness or abstraction that he found tricky but the way Beckett is “dealing with an entirely invented world in a way that doesn’t conform to the ordinary rules of society. Conversation, emotional logic, all of those thing that we kind of adhere to and that you operate within in a normal play aren’t there or if they are they are interspersed so it’s like you get refracted elements of those things throughout. That’s really a bitch to get hold of. It doesn’t conform to the usual rules. There’s no kind of essential narrative logic or emotional logic running through it so getting it into your head is hard. People always say ‘how do actors learn lines?’ Normally you think ‘that’s nonsensical, that’s just what we do’ but in this case it was so hard.”

Although the play is bleak and steeped in what Roxburgh describes as “a kind of apocalyptic sadness”, it is also very funny, with the STC production finding a great deal of humour.

“(Beckett) was pulling a lot from the energy and the dynamism of vaudeville, from the Marx Brothers and Buster Keaton. All of that energy is in the play as well,” says Roxburgh. “I’m sure there have been incredibly bleak, depressing versions of this play but that’s not the version we are doing.”

Next year, Roxburgh plays Cyrano de Bergerac for the STC (November 11 – December 20); something he suggested to the company.

“It’s a beautiful story that I absolutely love. I’ve always wanted to do it so I talked to them about it,” he says. “I thought Jeremy Sims did a really beautiful Cyrano here (at STC in 1999 directed by Marion Potts) as a kind of chamber piece, which I couldn’t have imagined prior to seeing it but I thought it was really great. But we are going to do a large-scale thing, which I think is great for the gallantry and the fun and the majesty of it.”

Meanwhile, Roxburgh returns to our television screens in February as Cleaver Greene, the brilliant but incorrigible, womanising, self-destructive criminal barrister in the third series of Rake – the award-winning ABC comedy-drama series, which he co-created, produces and stars in.

A US remake starring Greg Kinnear as the barrister, now called Keegan Deane, and Miranda Otto as his ex-wife will begin screening in January.

Roxburgh says that he wasn’t interested in playing the role in the US. “There would have been a great reason to do it financially but I suppose I felt that I have done my Cleaver and if I did one that I had to compromise on or that I didn’t feel I had as much creative control over, I would have hated it. And so in the end we thought it was much safer to say that we get somebody fantastic in America to do it – and I think Greg Kinnear is fantastic. I can’t think of anyone better to do Cleaver over there.”

Asked why the character has been renamed, Roxburgh grins. “That was at my insistence. I just thought, ‘he can’t have Cleaver’. Cleaver is named after the mayor of the town I grew up in – Cleaver Bunton, who was the mayor of Albury. There’s something about that that’s terribly personal and that was part of the fun of the original imagining of the thing.”

Filming for Rake in Australia wrapped just a couple of weeks before rehearsals for Godot began. Roxburgh admits he would have liked to have had a break after “the intensity” of Rake. “But luckily my character in Godot has to look hideous and aged and exhausted and spent so it’s perfect!” he quips.

“But I do need to have time off (after Godot) to get my batteries back in order. It was very hard this year (shooting Rake). We didn’t have (co-creator/writer) Peter Duncan. He and Andrew Knight wrote the scripts but Peter was working on the American one so he was over there. So on a day-to-day basis the ten phone calls I would have had with him in the previous series saying, ‘rewrite this, this doesn’t work, I can’t say that, this doesn’t make sense’ couldn’t be had so we had to find a way of getting through that this time, which made it exponentially more tricky. Thank god for (director) Jessica Hobbs who was really extraordinary and stepped up to do a lot of that work.

“But it was tricky because we knew where the bar had to be and we knew we couldn’t do something sub-optimal. And you know when it’s right. You can feel it, you can hear it, so when it wasn’t you just couldn’t let that go. It actually made this season so much harder but I think it’s worked. I think it’s paid off and it’s absolutely beautiful this season.”

Roxburgh confirms that the forthcoming Australian series will be the last.

“I do think you could continue to take Cleaver on all kinds of magical mystery tours,” he says. “I feel like he’s this character you could put in a jungle in Borneo and see what would happen and there would be fun to be had with that. But we were always determined to leave it with grace and dignity and leave people wanting more rather than less. It got to a point where we were having to massage story lines because they were too similar to ones we had already done.

“And also I suppose I want to see what else I’ve got,” says Roxburgh. “Having said that, I’m going to miss Cleaver terribly because I absolutely love that character. There’s so much of my clown in Cleaver and I will miss him.”

Waiting for Godot plays at Sydney Theatre December 21. Bookings: 9250 1777. Read my review here: https://jolitson.com/2013/11/25/waiting-for-godot/

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 3

Waiting for Godot

Sydney Theatre, November 16

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s just three years since Ian McKellen and Roger Rees toured here in a British production of Waiting for Godot that played up the vaudevillian theatricality in Samuel Beckett’s extraordinary, absurdist drama, with Vladimir and Estragon relating to each other like a well-oiled comedy duo.

Now comes a Sydney Theatre Company production starring Richard Roxburgh as Estragon and Hugo Weaving as Vladimir that undoes you emotionally in a far more profound way. The comedy is still there, beautifully so ­– though less self-consciously vaudevillian – but beneath both the humour and the existential bleakness is great tenderness, humanity, pathos and a disarming sense of caring.

Even the oppressed Lucky (Luke Mullins) gently wipes the face of his tyrannical master Pozzo (Philip Quast), having helped him to his feet at they prepare to depart in Act Two. It’s an incredibly touching moment that takes you completely by surprise and has you suddenly re-evaluating their relationship.

The production was to have been helmed by Hungarian director Tamas Ascher, who directed Roxburgh and Weaving in the STC’s acclaimed 2012 Uncle Vanya. When an injury left him unable to fly, Andrew Upton stepped into the breach, with Ascher’s assistant Anna Lengyel as his associate, and directs a production of great clarity that is light on its feet yet terribly moving.

Zsolt Khell’s stark set resembles a charred, empty theatre, open to the back wall, within a false proscenium studded with broken and missing light bulbs. The famous tree is a thin streak of trunk with a single branch that arches heavenwards, disappearing from view.

It is beautifully lit by Nick Schlieper, who bathes the stage in a sudden snap of blue light as night descends, while Alice Babidge’s costumes are suitably tattered and worn.

Weaving and Roxburgh are like two sad but resilient clowns who have made their way together, for better or worse. Roxburgh’s boyish Gogo is the more lost, despairing and occasionally angry, tugging plaintively at his ill-fitting boots and looking to Didi for comfort and food, yet he is playfully funny too.

Weaving’s Didi is jauntier and more in control, rolling the words around his mouth as he enunciates crisply like an old theatrical pro, the one who seems to remember more of the past, including the fact that they are to meet the enigmatic Godot.

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Luke Mullins, Richard Roxburgh and Philip Quast. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Quast and Mullins are more than their match as Pozzo and Lucky who appear in both acts, helping to alleviate the endless waiting.

Mincing onto the stage, his back arched dramatically as if promenading amongst high society, Quast is superb as the pompous, grandiose Pozzo: a big, corpulent figure compared to his scrawny servant. With his rich, resonant voice, Quast’s Pozzo is like a ringmaster in the first act, brutally in control. In the second act, now blind, he staggers on like a wounded bull, his authority undone.

With long, straggly white hair, Mullins is a ghostly yet feral presence and knocks you for six with his explosive, tortured outpouring of Lucky’s famous “thinking” monologue.

On opening night Rory Potter completed the exemplary cast as the boy who arrives, twice, to say that Godot won’t be coming.

In this thrilling, incredibly special production, you experience afresh Beckett’s iconic, exquisitely written play about everything and nothing. It really does seem to encompass the whole of life. Unforgettable.

Waiting for Godot runs at the Sydney Theatre until December 21. Bookings: 9250 1777 or sydneytheatre.com.au

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on November 24