A stage version of Shakespeare in Love is coming to Melbourne Theatre Company

Written by
Ben Neutze

There’s no individual who has had a bigger influence on modern theatre than ye olde William Shakespeare. So it makes sense that he’s a central character in Melbourne Theatre Company’s biggest show next year.

MTC has just revealed its full 2019 line-up, and the big-ticket item is a new production of Shakespeare in Love, directed by Simon Phillips (Muriel’s Wedding the Musical, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical, Love Never Dies).

It’s based on the 1998 Academy Award-winning Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes film, which imagines an affair between Shakespeare and Viola de Lesseps, a woman who disguises herself as a man to audition for Shakespeare’s theatre. The film was previously adapted for the stage in 2014, when it premiered in a lavish production on London’s West End.

The MTC production will use the same music and script, adapted from Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s screenplay, but will be otherwise entirely made by a local creative team. You can expect it to look a million bucks, with costumes and sets designed by the great Gabriela Tylesova.

“It will be a brand-new vision for the work, and I’m very excited about where Simon may be taking that,” says MTC artistic director Brett Sheehy.

According to Sheehy, the production came to MTC through Phillips, who was approached by its original producers, Disney Theatrical, to create a new version of the show. It’s intended that the MTC version will be able to tour around the world.

But although there’s a big international show at the centre of MTC’s 2019 line-up, half the productions in this year's season are written by Australians – the highest proportion Sheehy has ever programmed. Of the 12 shows next year, six are by Australian writers.

Last year, MTC launched the $4.6 million Next Stage program for local writers to develop work. It might seem like a lot of money, but Sheehy says local audiences are hungry for local work. In fact, all of MTC’s biggest recent hits have been written by Australians; as the world becomes globalised, it seems we’re looking for shows that speak directly to where we are.

“I think one of the most powerful things theatre can do is tell the stories of our tribe, which are the Australian stories,” he says. “We gather around a metaphorical campfire – i.e. a stage – to tell stories to each other about ourselves and the world around us.”

The first of the plays commissioned through the program, Anchuli Felicia King’s Golden Shield, will premiere in 2019. There are also new productions of Louis Nowra’s Così and Tom Holloway’s adaptation of Storm Boy. See the company’s full line-up below.

Melbourne Theatre Company season 2019

The Lady in the Van (Feb 2-Mar 6)
By Alan Bennett
Director: Dean Bryant

Acting legend (and Harry Potter’s Professor Sprout) Miriam Margolyes will star in this play based on the true story of a woman who one day parked her van outside writer Alan Bennett’s London home and stayed there for 15 years. Maggie Smith played the role in the original London production and in a 2015 film adapted from the play.

“Quite baldly, we were looking for a great work for Miriam,” Sheehy says. “We loved working with her on I’ll Eat You Last, and we wanted maybe a slightly bigger vehicle for her this time. This is the work she said she’d love to do.”

The Lady in the Van. Photograh: Helen Maybanks.

Arbus & West (Feb 22-Mar 30)
By Stephen Sewell
Director: Sarah Goodes

This play imagines what transpired during a real-life meeting between photographer Diane Arbus (to be played by Diana Glenn) and bombshell actress/queen of the double-entendre Mae West (Melita Jurisic). It’s penned by veteran playwright Stephen Sewell and will have its world premiere directed by MTC’s Helpmann Award-winning resident director, Sarah Goodes.

Arbus & West. Photograph: Justin Ridler.

A View from the Bridge (Mar 9-Apr 18)
By Arthur Miller
Director: Iain Sinclair

Iain Sinclair last year directed a production of A View from the Bridge in Sydney’s intimate Old Fitz Theatre. It swept the independent theatre categories at the Sydney Theatre Awards thanks to its gripping take on the dark tale set in an Italian-American neighbourhood in the shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Sinclair is making a new production for MTC, but he’s bringing Ivan Donato down from the Sydney production to star as Eddie Carbone.

Così (Apr 30-Jun 8)
By Louis Nowra
Director: Sarah Goodes

Louis Nowra’s Così, telling the story of a young director who stages an opera starring the patients of a mental health facility, is one of the best known Australian plays of all time. But it’s somehow never had a production at a state theatre company. MTC is bringing it to the mainstage with a little help from co-producer Sydney Theatre Company and a cast led by Cleverman's Hunter Page-Lochard as Lewis, as well as Esther Hannaford, Katherine Tonkin and Rahel Romahn.

Cosi. Photograph: Michelle Tran.

The Violent Outburst That Drew Me to You (May 2-18)
By Finegan Kruckemeyer
Director: Prue Clark

This play about two angry young teens is MTC’s families and education show for the year. It’s by the prolific Australian writer Finegan Kruckemeyer, who is one of the country’s strongest advocates for theatre for young people.

Heisenberg (May 17-Jun 29)
By Simon Stephens
Director: Tom Healey

Melbourne has seen Simon Stephens’ Birdland and his record-smashing adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. But this 2015 play takes a step away from those large-scale works to tell an intimate story of a 42-year-old woman (played by Offspring star Kat Stewart) who falls for a much older Englishman (Peter Kowitz).

“After the scale and epicness of Curious Incident, this very intimate, bittersweet romantic comedy seemed kind of out of left field,” Sheehy says. “I loved it, sent it to Kat Stewart, and there was this immediate email straight back to me saying ‘yes’.”

Heisenberg. Photograph: Justin Ridler.

Storm Boy (Jun 17-Jul 20)
By Colin Thiele
Adapted by Tom Holloway
Director: Sam Strong

This adaptation of the classic Australian novel about a boy and his pelican previously played at Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf Theatre. Now Queensland Theatre’s artistic director, Sam Strong, is reimagining it for MTC’s much larger Sumner Theatre.

“I loved the STC production,” Sheehy says. “I did think it was – and I’m not using this word pejoratively – but it was a ‘boutique’ rendering. Sam has a slightly more epic vision for what that work could be.”

Shakespeare in Love (Jul 15-Aug 14)
Based on the screenplay by Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard
Adapted by Lee Hall
Director: Simon Phillips

MTC’s new production of Shakespeare in Love will feature Alijan Abella (Aladdin) and Adam Murphy (The Drowsy Chaperone).

Simon Phillips said, “This is a real treat. Shakespeare in Love is far and away my favourite romantic comedy – unsurprisingly, given that it combines the work of two of my favourite playwrights: William Shakespeare and Tom Stoppard.”

Golden Shield (Aug 12-Sep 14)
By Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Sarah Goodes

This is the first play to come out of MTC’s Next Stage program and also the mainstage debut of Anchuli Felicia King. King is set for a massive year in 2019 – both in Australia and overseas – but we can’t tell you much more about her plans at this point. Golden Shield is a legal thriller about China’s infamous, epic firewall.

“I love its international sweep – I love that we span times and continents,” Sheehy says. “We move from Silicon Valley in the US to ministerial halls and corporate boardrooms in Beijing, then we’re back to America in a courtroom in Texas.”

Golden Shield. Photograph: Isamu Sawa

Black is the New White (Oct 2-Nov 6)
By Nakkiah Lui
Director: Paige Rattray

Nakkiah Lui’s subversive family rom-com, about a young Indigenous lawyer introducing her white boyfriend (shock horror!) to her family, premiered at Sydney Theatre Company in 2017 and has toured significantly since then. It’ll make its Melbourne debut at MTC during Melbourne Festival.

“What Nakkiah does is so entertaining but simultaneously subversive,” Sheehy says. “I think it’s unique, what she’s doing. I love the courage and sweep of this work. I love how it turns the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner trope on its head, and I love the possibility of audiences seeing their Australia in a new light.”

“I just didn’t want Melbourne not to see it when these other cities have.”

Photograph 51 (Nov 1-Dec 14)
By Anna Ziegler
Director: Pamela Rabe

Nicole Kidman starred in the West End premiere of this play about scientist Rosalind Franklin, who played an integral role in the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA but is often overlooked. Nadine Garner will play the role in this Australian premiere production.

“This play finally celebrates [Franklin] and brings her to the attention of the world,” Sheehy says. “I think it’s a fantastic, heartbreaking, but really important story.”

Kiss of the Spider Woman (Nov 18-Dec 28)
Book by Terrence McNally
Score by Kander and Ebb
Director: Dean Bryant

This musical from Kander and Ebb (the songwriting team behind Cabaret and Chicago) has never before had a professional mainstage production in Australia. Sheehy says he’s reversing that “unconscionable neglect” with this new production starring Australia’s own Broadway and West End star (she played the leading role in Chicago on Broadway), Caroline O’Connor.

It’s based on Manuel Puig’s 1976 novel set inside a South American prison where two men are sharing a cell. One is a Marxist revolutionary, and the other is a gay window dresser who escapes into a fantasy world of movies starring the fabulous diva Aurora. That’s where O’Connor comes in.

The cast also includes Adam Jon Fiorentino, Natalie Gamsu, and Bert LaBonté (The Book of Mormon).

Kiss of the Spider Woman. Photograph: Justin Ridler.

Can't wait until 2019? Check out our hit-list of the best theatre in Melbourne this month and our hints for scoring cheap tickets.

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