In the last dying hours of 2014 it seems opportune to reflect on some of the best outings to the theatre over the year and those on the other side of the coin that made me want to go out the stage door and have a good cry for the state of theatre in Sydney.
This year I was joined by two other very able writers to review the plethora of choices on offer and even then, we couldn’t get to all of it. However, this post will only cover the shows I saw. That means I have to omit shows I’ve heard great things about that fell off my radar due to other commitments, like Belvoir’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ or STC’s “Switzerland’, of which I heard resounding praise. It also means that my other writers, Hayley and Rhiona, might have seen brilliant or diabolical shows that they reviewed but unless I saw it, it won’t rate a mention. And without further delay, here we go.
Without a doubt, the winner this year was one company- Sport for Jove. Most recently for their production of ‘The Crucible’ but across the year their versions of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ and the one I was most impressed with, Ibsen's ‘A Doll’s House’ cements SFJ as Sydney’s most reliable, creative and leading independent theatre company. Whatever they program, see it.
On the back of that, when Damien Ryan joined forces with Bell Shakespeare to direct ‘Henry V’, he gave us one of Bell’s best renditions of the play we could have hoped to see. Bell’s ‘Tartuffe’ was also a winner with Kate Mulvany and Sean O’Shea stealing the show.
For cutting edge theatre, Perth Theatre Company’s ‘It’s Dark Outside’ with their use of puppetry, projection and integration of live action delivering a conceptual and metaphorical playbuilt show around Alzheimer’s was not only highly creative but also incredibly moving. STC, The Border Project and Ontroerend Goed brought us ‘Fight Night’ earlier in the year and for a piece of interactive theatre that made us realize as audience our profound influence on the outcome of events as well as how easy we are to manipulate was not only fascinating but great entertainment.
As far as musical theatre goes, Squabbalogic’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ was a force to be reckoned with. James Jay Moody’s direction and performance was thoroughly likeable and shows like this have certainly reinvigorated the new Hayes Theatre, formally known as the Darlinghurst Theatre, and made musical theatre trendy all over again to the more discerning theatre-goer. Musical Theatre got another gift at the end of the year with the New Theatre’s ‘Sweeney Todd’. Produced on the budget of a smell of an oily rag and the goodwill of all involved, it gave the New its biggest success all year and showcased some incredible talent on the scene.
It has to be there. This year I made a deliberate effort to avoid it if at all possible. If it was panned by even the kindest of critics or friends, I tried to stay away. Honestly, when time is precious, three hours of wrist slashing theatre is the last thing I want, even if it makes good copy. But try as I may, I stumbled upon shows that unfortunately find themselves in this category.
David Williamson gets two mentions here and given his frequency in programming this year, he should be lucky to just get the two. But in fairness, if Bryan Brown hadn’t been in STC’s ‘Travelling North’, it probably wouldn’t have made it here. Watching Brown act is like trying to have a conversation with google maps. Robotic, wooden, clichéd and comatose is what Brown delivers and that’s in his brighter moments. The Ensemble didn’t fare much better with Williamson’s ‘Cruise Control’ but the writing was so ordinary that they were already limited in what they could do with it. But the death scene was like the icing on the cake of contrived staging to convey contrived writing.
The Genesian Theatre’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ took a sledgehammer to Jane Austen with some poor casting and direction and STC’s ‘Mojo’ found itself in trouble having to replace Sam Haft at the last minute and it never got its mojo happening on stage after that.
But it was Belvoir who managed to kick out some corkers this year, starting with the experimental ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’. Conceptually it was a really interesting idea. As a piece of theatre it died more times than its cast. If the clean up of the stage takes ten minutes to do in a one hour show, rethink your vision. But its issues were bigger than that. It committed the crime of being extremely boring and if not for the audience stacked with friends and family of each night’s temporary cast, punters would have stayed away in their droves. I wish I had.
Controversially, I hated their downstairs production of ‘Oedipus’ almost as much, if not more. Yet it was a critic favourite, which just goes to show that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Whilst applauding the bravery of its cast, I found this cringe worthy from start to finish and I hope to never see Peter Carroll’s tackle ever again. But it was their ‘Hedda Gabler’ that seemed to unite audience everywhere to ask the same question. Why? Why make the choice to take a play with a clear message and through-line and then butcher it to have nothing to say at all? Why cast Ash Flanders and then limit everything that makes him unique? It pre-empts Oedipus plucking out his eyes because that’s how most people felt after watching this show, and that’s if they stayed till the end, which most of the audience didn’t quite manage to do.
So that’s how I’m calling it for 2014. How does it stack up with your list? And what do you think will be the must see shows of 2015 and those that already have an aura of stink surrounding them?
Bring it on 2015 and Happy New Year to you all.