This year in Sydney, theatre definitely stepped up its game, particularly in the big funded companies like Belvoir and STC who had been clawing back after some pretty dismal years of programming and artistic choices prior to 2013. Maybe it was their declining subscriber base that spoke loudest or perhaps it was the stiff competition from independent companies that made them actually try to engage in what audiences might want to pay good money to see. Whatever the case, it’s made my job much harder- how do I pick just five best shows in a strong year of theatre and did I see five shows that I could categorically call the worst?
So what I’m doing this year is combining it all into one post and reviewing the big boys and the independent scene and what they did well or didn’t quite crack.
Sydney Theatre Company had a very good year indeed. I did not see everything- I missed about four or five shows as it would have necessitated taking out a small mortgage in order to afford the full subscription to Sydney’s most consistently expensive theatre experience. But this was a year I didn’t begrudge them my hard-earned cash (although don’t buy program vouchers people- I’ve been burnt by pre-buying them to discover that many programs were already supplied).
‘The Secret River’ was an outstanding start to the year and even after Colin Moody’s anti-Armfield tweets, the show was a powerful statement in dramatizing Australian racial conflict of ownership, relationships and hardships. Bovell is a playwriting master and what was delivered on stage and in design was a beautiful rendition of that vision and Grenville’s original novel.
‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ was another home run, just for the Schmitz wig, the camaraderie of Schmitz and Minchin, Ewen Leslie’s terrific ‘player’ work with an energetic and comedic ensemble and another incredible design effort from Gabriela Tylesova. Director Simon Phillips took Stoppard’s clever witty words and gave them the warmth and playfulness they needed.
The first half of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was by far the best thing I saw all year. Although not sustained, it was the only thing I went back to see twice. It made Shakespeare sexy without needing sex, if you know what I mean. Its power was in its youthful precariousness and physical embodiment of hedonism and privilege on a rotating stage that for once was used with filmic ease and enhanced every action in the play.
‘Waiting for Godot’ was a bold programming choice after Sydney experienced Sir Ian McKellen last year in the travelling production but sceptics were silenced by the strong and skilled production at STC. Hard going but it was worth every painfully absurd, existential minute.
The only thing I saw at STC this year where I thought they had missed the mark was ‘The Maids’. Thankfully Elizabeth Debicki and Cate Blanchett pulled it out of the fire when it was just the two of them on stage but Isabelle Huppert was a questionable choice as she dragged the play into a stumbling tower of ham-acting. When her character yelled out ‘this is rubbish’, you heard many murmurings of agreement in the audience. I was one of them. Yet it wasn’t all bad and so I couldn’t name it the worst thing I’d seen all year.
I thought Belvoir had two really impressive main stage shows this year (well three if you count both parts) with Angels in America and Miss Julie. Angels kept true to its era and ideas and reminded us all that a play may be 30 years old but is still current when performed with integrity and passion (a lesson Belvoir have struggled with of recent years) and Miss Julie gave us the best modernisation we’ve seen of works there for some time. Both plays found the sticking point in making us uncomfortably engaged in the dilemma of destructive choices and consequences. I found Hamlet intriguing in its dissociative style and allowed a new perspective in regards to Hamlet being a man of action and a ‘purveyor’ of death. I appreciated it but I didn’t love it. Same can be said of ‘Persona’. Whilst at times it seemed to teeter on gratuitous, there were some really interesting ideas bouncing around and the leads were very strong in delivering the play’s difficult narrative and style.
‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ was Belvoir’s only offering that I saw (and I only saw half the plays on offer throughout 2013) that made me cringe with how Belvoir via Simon Stone shuffle women into predominantly disposable and aggressive archetypes. Women are either parasitical or power-hungry nags. It’s not giving dimensions to women- it’s stereotyping powerful female characters, removing any hint of realism and downgrading and dismissing intentions and struggles. And I will state it here…I don’t know how I feel about taking one of the canon of female characters, Hedda Gabler, and having her played by a man in drag next year. Whilst I love what the Sisters Grimm have done in subverting their characters, style, content and casting, if the rest of Hedda Gabler is not being subverted in Belvoir’s 2014 season and Ash Flanders is playing Hedda as ‘straight drag’, what are we really saying to women? We’d rather see men take on your roles? Thank you, you’re redundant? This may be one of the strongest female characters ever written but you ladies can’t play it like a man? I’m putting it on record I have an issue with it. But more of that in a later post on the upcoming 2014 season. As for Cat, there was still enough in the play to make me appreciate parts of it and so it also misses the worst of theatre pile.
Griffin Theatre Company had a solid year. The Floating World was probably the best of it but because I caught it during the first preview it hadn’t quite found its feet to cement itself at the top for me but I understand its potential and that it may have climbed its way up later in the season.
On to some of the Independent Companies (and we have a plethora of them so do avail yourself of seeing more independent theatre in 2014 if you’ve only ventured into the mainstream before now), The Ensemble was a pleasant surprise. Whilst generally programming quite harmless pieces and a few classics, all of which had their strengths and downfalls, it was their production of Frankenstein that was one of the highlights of the year. Director Mark Kilmurry created an intimate tale from Nick Dear’s epic version and then cast the brilliant Lee Jones as the creature. It does give me hope that his Richard III in the 2014 season might be a version I can enjoy. I think Kilmurry is at his best when he can strip away the realistic exterior and style of plays and focus on specific ideas, characters and symbols and it’s a breath of fresh air for the Ensemble.
The New Theatre in Newtown has received much praise for its production of Jerusalem but my pick was Alice Livingstone’s direction of Top Girls. I loved the strong female ensemble and I enjoyed seeing Caryl Churchill’s writing back on the Sydney stage. Now if Belvoir had scheduled ‘Cloud Nine’ for Ash Flanders in drag, that would have made sense.
Sport for Jove is another quality independent company on the scene. Whilst I think you’re in safe hands with all of their shows, their recent production of ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, directed by founding member Damien Ryan was one of their best. It’s still playing. You really should see it.
The Tamarama Rock Surfers have had a mixed bag of a year. Whilst their production of The Removalists was one of the best I’ve ever seen and artistic director Leland Kean gave us more dimensions to Williamson’s female characters than we’ve seen before, with a standout performance by Caroline Brazier, it could not make up for the terrifyingly bad Empire: Terror on the High Seas that no doubt sent Kean into some serious soul-searching post-production. It was, by far, the worst thing I saw all year and even though the other reviewers politely praised its attempt, that ship had sunk before it sailed. Written by Toby Schmitz, he gave a strong case in reminding us that although the name might put bums on seats, it will not necessary create a work of any quality. Dadaist it may have tried to be but by also including a melodramatic and rather absurd narrative in trying to give a semblance of continuity in its form, the mesh of ideas and styles imploded and vomited on its audience. Needless to say, my invitation to review back at Rock Surfers may be a long time coming.
Squabbalogic are doing great things with contemporary musicals with impressive production values and talent. Their recent production of ‘Carrie’ was a clear example of this in action. The Tap Gallery and Old 505 keep producing interesting, new and experimental work and I’m sorry I didn’t catch ‘Penelope’ and the ‘Motherf**ker with a Hat’ at the Tap due to other commitments. I’m especially sorry I didn’t get to see the Eternity Theatre’s ‘All My Sons’ as I’ve heard nothing but praise from reliable sources about all three shows. I did see many things at King St Theatre and it’s still a place that’s struggling to create interesting and engaging theatre and so I hope it has a better 2014.
So the real winner this year was the audience and thus I’m naming Sydney Theatre Company as the best (and priciest) all-rounder in 2013. I’m calling Sport for Jove as best Independent Company and I think almost everyone who's producing theatre picked up their game this year. Worst, as called, was the Rock Surfers ‘Empire’ but it was one play from the season and I think they may have been far more burned from the experience than I was.
I don’t know how this compares with your list but if 2013 is anything to go by, getting your loved one some theatre tickets for Christmas might be a great gift. So stay tuned for my upcoming review of what I think we’re going to see in 2014 and have a great break (a leg) season.