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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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