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Sunday 30 December 2012

BEST of 2012 as dissected by me

Here we are, hours away from the end of 2012 and it seems to me it's time to review the theatre on offer in Sydney over the year, what made us thankful to be there and what made us think we may never return to the theatre again.

The good news is that the list of good shows I saw far outweighed the bad. Sure, there were lots of shows that sat in the middle- but only a few that jumped out as real porkers that bled to death on stage in front of a live audience.

So let's start with what were the winners (in my eyes)...

Now the interesting thing is apart from Griffin and a downstairs show with Belvoir as collaborators, no professional theatre company in their own right featured on the Top 5 final list (a few commendations but no finalists). Isn't that interesting? Here's what I say to that. Stop spending huge amounts of money on going to see the big players (Belvoir and STC in particular). Search out quality independent companies like the New Theatre, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Sport for Jove, check out what's happening in places like Riverside, the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, the Old 505, even the Seymour Centre. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised that a) they seem to care about engaging their audience, b) are a far more cost effective night of entertainment and c) program shows that showcase talents of other artists apart from the same old, same old that you see in the capital T theatres and they breathe new life into devised, local or alternative works. The days when the stamp of Belvoir or Sydney Theatre Company offered quality assurance are gone. Don't let branding fool you. Take the risk of stepping outside the (subscription) box and go further afield and discover the terrific works away from the mainstream.

Rightio- special commendations: 'I'm Your Man', devised and directed by Roslyn Oades, played downstairs Belvoir at the start of the year and was a lovely blend of recorded verbatim set in a boxing gym with players who embodied those roles; Belvoir and the Hayloft Project's 'Thyestes' at Carriageworks also shook up the scene. Loved it or hated it, it was as controversial as it was powerful and played with the contemporary idea of theatre in a way we've not seen in a long time; STC & Filter Company's 'Water' was another interesting piece that used the technical devices available to complement character and narrative and was engaging to boot; 'A History of Everything' showing at STC earlier this year and in conjunction with theatre group Ontroerend Goed, was another great piece that took you through the pace of the modern world before reeling it back in time, space and rhythm to reveal the birth of the universe in a moving and thoughtful way; STC also brought us 'Sex with Strangers', a terrific realist piece that was an intimate as it was charming; Griffin's 'The Boys' also packed a punch in revealing misogyny at its most brutal and Josh McConville was outstanding; and finally O'Punkskys' 'The Seafarer' at Darlinghurst Theatre was a top interpretation of Conor McPherson's play by a company who relish in the integrity of the writer and showcase this on the stage.

So, that being done, here's the TOP FIVE shows of 2012 as I see it.

5. Griffin's 'Between Two Waves' makes it into the fifth spot on the leader board. Although a little rocky in preview, what was there was Ian Meadow's writing, great performances and direction. Meadows can write and his play, with another draft, is going to develop into something even better than what it is already. The intrigue, style and structure of 'Between Two Waves' allows Meadows to develop gentle layers that draw us into the tragedy of the character who does not know how to express love or receive it but who so desperate needs to reconcile what is preventing him from doing this. It was a great play and Meadows smartly played the role he wrote for himself with vulnerability and belief, thanks to some solid direction from Sam Strong.

4. New Theatre's 'The Venetian Twins' slips into the number four spot for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the incredible design employed in their shows is better than anything I've seen in Sydney for some time. The set is a character in the New Theatre's shows. Unlike some design which can compete with the action or dull it, the designers employed by the New bring a sophisticated edge to the work and reminds us as audience that design matters as evidenced in Sean Minahan's set for 'The Venetian Twins'. The New also tracks down outstanding leads and ensemble players to bring quirky, fresh work to the stage or take contemporary works that ask the audience to play with the ideas or the notion of the actor/audience relationship so that we become a character as well. The New cleverly reinvented itself when on the brink of closure to allow the community to be part of their season, as artist or audience and there is a feeling that whatever you see there will guarantee you will not be disappointed. I didn't see 'Here Lies Henry' but am genuinely sorry I missed it but if it was anything like 'The Venetian Twins' in its integrity, it would have been a winner.

3. Old 505's 'Sidekicks' jumps into the number three spot. Stephen Vagg's play was not only a witty spitfire examination of the support players in romantic comedies, it was brave enough to cast two actors, Dan Ilic and Emily Rose Brennan, who could clearly identify and express those roles in the most endearing and comedic way possible. This play took me by surprise (as did the crack house of the Old 505) but it was one of the highlights of the independent season and made me fervantly wish that more local works and writers were given the opportunity to stage their work with artists as good as those involved in this show. Kudos to director Louise Alston for bringing out the best in actors and writing.

2. I drove out to the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre at Penrith to see Lachlan Philpott's play 'Truck Stop' and I am so pleased I made the effort. Philpott is one of those local writers who can tap into the youth culture of today and give it a theatrical voice that makes you realise the pressures and influences that shape the identity and future of our young people in a powerful and provocative way. He has the ability to weave research into his work but not rely on verbatim to execute it. Instead Philpott encapsulates voices into honest, real and shocking narrative and characters whilst creating tension and it makes him a playwright with a big future.This was a very good play and the cast and director, Katrina Douglas, were outstanding in connecting with Philpott's words and characters.

And finally...

1. 'Medea'. Playing in downstairs Belvoir and in collaboration with ATYP, this rewritten version of Euripides' work by Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany was an outright winner. Perhaps it was because it gave us a new perspective of an old play we had never seen before. Perhaps it was the writing combined with thoroughly honest direction of Sarks in treating the play with respect. But I think it was because writers and director worked so well in giving the young actors Joseph Kelly and Rory Potter ownership of their characters and situation that this play was the most profoundly moving theatrical piece of the year. 'Medea' packed a punch in every way and I can say that if you didn't see this, you have missed something very special indeed.

In summary I guess the other interesting thing I note about the top 5, quite subconciously initially, was that they were all written by Australians. Of course, of the bottom 5, which will follow in tomorrow's post, three of those were also written by Australians so it's not all roses. But here's the thing. We have an incredible amount of local talent and if we don't allow funding and expression of our local voice, the reality is that we lose out on the cultural, social, political and aesthetic history of our own writing as embodied in the theatrical space. We yearn for pieces that underpin what was happening in the now and want to see them staged to understand ourselves, who we are and where we came from. You only need to read some the writers of the 60's and 70's to see the changing world of the time. If writing resonate works of the now don't happen with more frequency and funding, what will represent the theatrical the voices of today? Action is transient. Words last for generations.

So kudos to all who made the list. You are the champions of 2012 and thank you for bringing these works to the stage and for all of those responsible for being a part of it.


Since I published this post, I have been contacted by Elly Clough at Belvoir who wishes to convey the following in regards to the production of 'Medea':

"I just wanted to clarify the credit for Medea on your Best of the Year post. Your comment ‘Now the interesting thing is apart from Griffin and a downstairs show with Belvoir as collaborators’ is a little misleading. The Downstairs productions are Belvoir productions, as of 2011 all the productions were brought in-house and are considered no less Belvoir productions than the Upstairs shows.

Belvoir commissioned and produced Medea. It was presented in association with ATYP as they assisted with casting and provided an assistant director.

We would be grateful if you could clarify the credit in the post."

And so consider it communicated to you all. Whilst I saw the show as a joint project between Belvoir and ATYP, clearly Belvoir want you to know it was a Belvoir show in association with ATYP. I'm not sure I completely get the distinction but in the interests of fairplay, I have published Belvoir's 'clarification'.

End scene.

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