Dinner and a Show’s Year in Review: 2013
2013 has been a full year for the Sydney theatre scene, and so here is rundown of the most memorable productions (at least the ones we saw).
Belvoir’s 2013 upstairs season has been interesting. Under Simon Stone as Resident Director, Belvoir has largely been responsible for contemporizing classics – Hamlet, Miss Julie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The concept itself is welcomed if we wish to keep plays relevant. However, it requires a deft creative hand and a thorough textual analysis in order to be successful. Certainly Stone possesses the former, but not the latter. Stone habitually changes the text to suit his initial creative vision, without much thought to a complete justification as regards the original text. For example, the choice to change Southern accents to Australian ones in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof made little sense considering the Southern lyricism imbedded in Tennessee’s dialogue, especially when the setting of the play was not re-contextualized (remaining a Southern one). Similarly, the choice to significantly compress ‘slower textual revelations’ into a montage-esque ending in Hamlet made certain that audiences did not have time to listen to, or enjoy Shakespeare for what it is. It is true that Miss Julie benefited from contemporizing more than the others, but it was not without its problems in the translation.
However, without a doubt the raspberry award goes to Persona, a less than impressive start to Adena Jacobs’ Belvoir stint. Puzzlingly, critics hailed this an innovative ‘theatrical response’. Yet audiences, consistently, came out confused or found it unnecessarily abrasive. ‘Theatrical responses’ (whatever that means) aside, Jacobs was unable to find the ‘theatrical equivalent’ to Bergman’s cinematic techniques, taking the lazy way out with full frontal nudity in an attempt to unsettle the audience. Nevertheless, to end on a high note, the early production of Ralph Myer’s Peter Pan made for delightful viewing and a superb set design/directorial vision. Myer’s talent as a set designer must be acknowledged singularly, and it is hoped that he will also have more involvement in the directorial side next year.
Meanwhile across town, under the artistic direction of Andrew Upton, the Sydney Theatre Company has continued to maintain its reputation as the city’s premiere theatre maker. The season was punctuated by a collection of solid productions and quality performances typified by Mrs Warren’s Profession, Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Benedict Andrew’s outing with The Maids stuck out as the only show this year to go really wrong, of which the less said the better, while Simon Philips’ brilliantly executed and rollicking rendition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arguably stands out as the top production from the wharf in 2013. It’s true there is little that can be broadly faulted with the season however one does get the feeling that these are all very safe staging’s and adaptations – no one at the STC seems willing to take a risk and push the envelope. The one exception of course was Kip Williams’ Romeo and Juliet: a visually spectacular production with a firm interpretation of the text, it possessed a stunning set and clever choreography that made the audience sit up and pay attention. Unfortunately its second act paled in comparison to the first and, just as Belvoir found the need to muck with the ending of Hamlet, so too here did similar issues prevent it from becoming what could have been the show of the year.
Also part of the wharf season was Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Fury, a contemporary exploration of racism in Australia that became so much more than a political opinion piece. Fury sits as the most polished piece of new Australian writing to be staged this year. Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland will be performed next year with the STC and if it’s anything like Fury it should prove to be another success. Of course in Sydney, the independent theatre scene tends to feature the majority of new writings. It is often difficult to find original pieces of truly exceptional writing to rival the canonical works, and generally most pieces this year have seemed a draft or two away from reaching their true potential. An exception was Robert Allan’s gentle tale of trauma and recovery – An Ordinary Person. Produced by the Sydney Independent Theatre Company, this work was easily the stand out piece of new writing to appear on the independent stages, as well as being one of SITCO’s best shows this year.
Elsewhere in the Independent scene the production of the year has to go to Butcher of Distinction, directed by James Dalton and performed by Heath Ivey-Law, Liam Nunan and Paul Hooper. At the Old 505 Theatre, Dalton did an excellent job of directing and utilizing the intimate space. The play itself, written by Rob Hayes, is very new, receiving its first performance in England in 2011. Nevertheless, this production presented an excellent opportunity to see a fresh piece of theatre, skilfully performed, which shocked and delighted audiences.
This year also saw a number of notable performances in both the professional and independent scenes. Honourable mention goes to Charlie Garber as the periwigged Captain Cook in Belvoir’s Peter Pan. Excitingly though, it seems to have been a year for the younger female actresses. The towering Elizabeth Debecki produced a fantastic interpretation of the narcissistic ‘bitch-from-hell’ Mistress in STC’s the Maids – this was certainly impressive considering her age and caliber of the co-stars she shared the stage with. At the TAP Gallery, Amy Scott-Smith is again to be congratulated on a well observed, deeply emotional portrayal of Electra. So too did Taylor Ferguson in Miss Julie make a wonderful stage debut as the title character, bringing to life Strindberg’s Lolita. All three women demonstrated nuance in performance, and they can be certain that this did not go unnoticed. A surprise came from Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who was hardly recognizable as the Black-beard inspired principal player. On at NIDA was George Banders’ as Bentley in Rooted. His was a finely tuned, comedic whiplash performance mixed in with a large serving of Michael Crawford. Look out for him in the future. And last but not least was Lisa Chappell as Maddie in On/Off. Wickedly funny and surprisingly human, Chappell continued to impress in the two-hander.
So that was the year that was. The 2014 seasons from both professional companies and a number of the larger independent groups have now been released and next year should prove to be just as interesting as this one.