2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

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

MUSICAL THEATRE

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

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

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

Gypsy

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

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

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

Squabbalogic

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

Jesus Christ Superstar

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

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THEATRE

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

Among my own personal highlights were:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

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

OPERA AND BALLET

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

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

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

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

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

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

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

And now, bring on 2014….

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The Maids review

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Isabelle Huppert and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The starry line-up of Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Maids is one of the most glittering pieces of casting seen on the Sydney stage for a while.

The vehicle that brings them together, meanwhile, is a dark, challenging, existential play.

Written in 1947 by French playwright Jean Genet, The Maids was inspired by a notorious, real-life case in 1933 when two sisters working as servants in Le Mans brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter. Discovered naked in bed together with the murder weapons, they immediately confessed.

In the play, two maids play a sadistic, sexualised, ritual game in which they act out the roles of servant and dominating employer and fantasise about killing their mistress. Reality and fantasy slip and slide in a play with layer upon layer of role-playing.

On this particular day, Claire (Blanchett) is playing the role of the mistress, while her older sister Solange (Huppert) plays Claire. An alarm clock from the kitchen sits on the bedside table to warn them of the impending arrival of their mistress (Debicki).

Director Benedict Andrews uses a muscular, new translation by himself and Andrew Upton, which feels contemporary yet true to the play, while the glossy, stylised production features several of his directorial signatures: glass walls and cameras feeding live footage onto a large screen.

Designer Alice Babidge transforms the stage into an opulent boudoir with a long rack of elegant couture, a bed, dressing table and hundreds of flowers in vases all over the room, with fake flowers underlining the theme of artifice.

The walls act as mirrors but through them we glimpse camera operators. The video (designed by Sean Bacon) gives us close-ups of the actors and brief scenes from a bathroom behind the main room but also picks out details like a knocked-over vase or rubber gloves lying on the bed. At times it’s distracting but overall it works, enhancing the intimacy of the play in the large theatre and the sense of voyeurism.

Andrews does a great job of mining the dark humour in the play and genuinely jolts you at times (think spit, profanities and toilet scenes).

The three actors respond to his vision with deeply committed, heightened performances.

Blanchett is remarkable, mercurial and fearless as she swans around histrionically in the guise of the mistress, then slumps back into Claire’s slutty, bitter anger and despair at her dead-end life. Holding nothing back, she seems genuinely spent at the curtain call.

The petite Huppert is more wry, playful and laissez-faire as Solange in a highly physical performance that sees her doing pull-ups from the clothes rack, pumping her legs on the bed and moving in a jerky, girlish fashion. However, her strong French accent has you straining to understand her at times, particularly when she speaks quickly. In a wordy play where the language and what they say is so important, it’s problematic.

Though both Blanchett and Huppert are individually terrific, the relationship between the two maids as co-dependent sisters doesn’t feel entirely believable.

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett.  Photo: Lisa Tomaetti

Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomaetti

In the smaller role of the mistress, the statuesque Debicki (a 22-year old newcomer fresh from playing Jordan Baker in Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby) holds her own. Flouncing in like a celebrity used to the glare of the paparazzi flashbulbs, she captures the character’s skittish, careless, preening, self-regarding behaviour as she gushes over the maids one minute and barely knows one from the other the next.

The mistress is play-acting herself: playing at being the authoritative mistress as well as the devoted, suffering wife whose husband has been arrested. Debicki feels very young for the role and pushes close to farce as the mistress dashes off to see her husband but it’s a mesmerising performance by an actor we will doubtless be seeing a great deal more of.

But for all the passion on stage, I watched the production dispassionately, almost forensically without being sucked into the play. I felt totally disconnected from it. Perhaps that’s what Andrews wants; Genet certainly doesn’t invite an emotional response but I suspect it’s partly the theatre too, which feels very large for such an intimate piece.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating production of an intriguing play with some very fine acting.

Sydney Theatre until July 20

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 16 

Elizabeth Debicki interview

 

Elizabeth Debicki

Elizabeth Debicki

The last few weeks have been a complete whirlwind for Elizabeth Debicki, the 22- year old Australian actor who is being hailed as the breakout star of Baz Luhrmann’s much-anticipated, much-scrutinised film The Great Gatsby.

She’s walked the red carpet for the movie’s gala opening at the Cannes Film Festival and at the lavish Sydney premiere. She’s wined and dined with the rich and famous at several exclusive events including a Prada dinner hosted by US Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

In between all that she’s been rehearsing a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids for Sydney Theatre Company with Cate Blanchett and French film star Isabelle Huppert.

It’s enough to go to a girl’s head, but Debicki seems unaffected by all the glitz, glamour and media attention.

“Someone asked me, ‘how do you stay grounded?’ Well, it’s a bit bizarre but I feel very normal. I just feel busy and tired. And happy,” she says.

“I’m happy that the film has come out and is doing so well and I’m happy to be working at STC on this play. I think that’s one of the best things to keep you grounded after a whirlwind press junket ­– waking up and coming to a theatre rehearsal and standing at the foot of (the play) and saying, ‘I’m not sure how to do this.’ That will keep you grounded,” she says.

“Someone asked me if I’ve been recognised (on the street). The answer is no. I don’t look anything like myself in this film. So life is pretty normal. I’m just working here everyday.”

“Here” is the Wharf Theatre where she is rehearsing Genet’s dark, elliptical play about two maids who act out a ritual fantasy of murdering their mistress.

We meet during a break in rehearsals. She’s dressed in ripped jeans and striped T-shirt without a skerrick of makeup but she still looks glowingly elegant. Much has been made of her creamy, luminous beauty, which has a similar quality to Cate Blanchett’s, with inevitable comparisons being made between the two actresses.

Debicki shrugs the idea off as if flicking at a fly. “Oh, it’s very flattering but I think people just have to have something to liken you to,” she says amiably.

Genet’s 1947 play was inspired by the notorious, true-life story of French servants Christine and Lea Papin, two quiet sisters who in 1933 brutally murdered their mistress and her daughter, attacking them with a kitchen knife and a hammer and gouging their eyes out.

The Sydney Theatre Company production will use a new translation by Benedict Andrews, who also directs, and Andrew Upton.

Elizabeth Debicki during rehearsals for The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Elizabeth Debicki during rehearsals for The Maids. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Debicki plays the mistress. Starting rehearsals with Blanchett and Huppert was, she says, “daunting and thrilling. ‘Surreal’ is my buzzword in my life (at the moment). It’s an accurate way to describe it. It’s very strange when you meet somebody that you’re admired for so long you are a bit in awe of that person.

“I definitely was, and I still am everyday as I watch them work. And I did spend the first few days feeling quite – not out of my depth because nobody made me feel that – but I was sitting there pinching myself. I kept looking at Cate and Isabelle because I’d watched their films forever. I’d met Cate in person before when I came to talk about the play with her and Andrew. That was surreal. We had a cup of coffee and it was like, ‘I’m having coffee with Cate Blanchett.’

“But I’d never met Isabelle and I’ve loved her work for so long so to be actually working with her is kind of electric. I still can’t believe it when we are playing the scene together that I have the honour of working with someone with that talent.”

Andrews has no doubt she belongs in their company and predicts that her “brave, thrilling turn” as the mistress will be “an unforgettable Sydney debut of a serious new actress.

“Elizabeth is an astonishing talent. The real deal,” he says. “It’s a treat to watch her share the stage with Cate and Isabelle – two of the greatest living stage actresses. I love watching her soak it all in and learning on her feet. She’s commanding, seemingly fearless, hyper-inventive, deliciously playful and fiercely intelligent.”

For her part, Debicki describes Andrews’ direction as “wonderful and relentless – which is a good combination. It keeps me on my toes. I remember something Cate said: that his rehearsal room was really muscular, and it is. It’s incredibly physical. It’s relentless (but) not in a bad way. The play is like that too, it demands a lot of the actors. There are so many things happening on so many layers and levels and they are firing off all at once.

“One day in rehearsal you could be working on one level and then you think, ‘oh good, I’ve got that’, then you come in the next day and there’s another whole level. It’s just an every-expanding monster.

“It’s all about roles, the maids playing the role of the mistress and (one of them) playing the other maid. But the mistress is playing the role of mistress as well as playing the abandoned mother and devoted woman so there is so much role-playing. When we first started work on it I found it so dense I didn’t know where to place things but I think I’ve almost let myself not know now.”

Debicki was born in Paris to a Polish father and Australian mother, both of them classically trained dancers. They moved to Melbourne when she was five, where her mother still runs a dancing school.

She trained as a dancer but by age 16 was too tall to become a ballerina – she is a statuesque 1.9 metres – so turned her attention to acting. She graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts in 2010 and a few months later was cast in The Gift by Joanna Murray-Smith at Melbourne Theatre Company. She also landed a bit part in Stephan Elliott’s film A Few Best Men.

During The Gift, she put down an audition tape for the role of Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby. “I think by then they had been trying to cast Jordan for a while,” she says.

The LA casting agent was impressed and Debicki was flown to Los Angeles to audition for Luhrmann during a crazy four-day trip.

Jordan Baker is a professional golfer, who lives a reckless, glamorous lifestyle. “It was the most fun I’ve ever had playing a character – though Mistress is getting pretty close,” says Debicki. “I think Jordan is a fabulous role. She just a party girl. To be perfectly honest I just had a really good time. There’s something really liberating about playing someone who is so reckless, with real commitment issues. She’s so careless. I’ve said it before but I just inhabited her bold ‘whateverness’. That was how I survived such a massive shoot. But she was great. I got amazing costumes, amazing jewellery, great wig. I kind of just had a great time.”

Debicki, who admits she’s never been sporty, had a golfing instructor for the role.

“There’s one (golf) swing in the whole movie. It was probably my most nervous day of shooting,” she says. “I had the instructor on the side of the camera telling me how to do it. I was so determined to get it perfect. This was a massive character trait – she’s a professional golfer and there are so many people around the world who play golf so if they watch the movie and go, ‘that’s a terrible swing’, I’d be mortified. So I tried really hard but I don’t think I’d ever play golf again. It’s so dull ­­– though conceptually I understand that it’s a beautiful game.”

Reviews for The Great Gatsby may be mixed but Debicki, who has landed raves, has nothing but praise for Luhrmann and the film. “I think it’s beautiful. I’m so proud of it,” she says.

Having moved to Sydney for the filming, Debicki been based there off and on for the past 18 months but says she’ll go where the work is.

“I’m actually really good at doing that,” she says. “It just suits my personality. I get bored when I’m in the same place. I like building a nest somewhere then dismantling it and moving on. I’m too much of a traveller I guess. I like to be in new places.”

Doubtless she has been inundated with works offers but right now she has her sights set firmly on The Maids.

“I’ve got really wonderful agents in America already that I’ve had since I signed up to the movie,” she says. “Certainly a movie like this does help (your profile) obviously, but I’m really focussing on getting through this play. It’s quite consuming at the moment. Then I can take the blinkers off and see what the future holds.”

The Maids, Sydney Theatre, June 4 – July 20. 

An edited version of this story appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on June 2.