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Melbourne theatre in 2019: all the shows we're looking forward to

Come from Away 2018 Broadway cast photo credit: Matthew Murphy
Photograph: Matthew Murphy

The only thing more fun than best-of lists for the year just gone are best-of lists for the year ahead. Of course, these are more prone to error, more susceptible to the bloating of expectation and good old-fashioned hype; they’re also more likely to miss the smaller, unexpected gems that give Melbourne theatre the majority of its thrills. Still, at the risk of egg on our collective faces, here’s a run down of things we are hoping to delight us in 2019.

Big shows/Massive hype

There are several shows coming to Melbourne this year that will ride a crest of buzz and expectation, with ecstatic reviews and a tonnage of pre-bookings to back them up. Tony Award-winning musical Come From Away, which focuses on the planes that were diverted to Canada during the 9/11 attacks on New York, opens at the Comedy Theatre in July. Muriel’s Wedding comes from a triumphant season in Sydney to Her Majesty’s Theatre in March. Biggest of all, though, is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is expected to keep the lights on at the Princess Theatre for many months (possibly even years) to come. Shows almost never get bigger than this.

International playwrights/Local productions

The year starts off with some major new productions of internationally acclaimed work, from Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van at MTC, to Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations starring none other than Ellen Burstyn at the Comedy. Red Stitch are premiering a new Caryl Churchill play, Escaped Alone, which is nothing short of miraculous. Our tip for a galvanising night of international theatre is the Malthouse’s opening show, Underground Railroad Game, a play about race that put a firecracker up the arses of its US audiences and will no doubt have plenty of uncomfortable things to say to us.

Underground Railroad Game. Photograph: Cade Martin

Indigenous playwrights smashing it

This year saw the entrenching of our First Nations playwrights in the mainstream of theatrical success, and 2019 only looks to build on this. Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine’s Barbara and the Camp Dogs has already made its mark in this state, making the shortlist for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama. It’s a cracker of a play, and hits the Malthouse in February. MTC have programmed Nakkiah Lui’s play Black is the New White in October. Given her triumph with Blackie Blackie Brown, which also returns, this should prove a riot.

The familiar made unfamiliar

Two iconic national stories are set to receive contemporary makeovers from our major theatres. Cloudstreet is returning under the direction of Matthew Lutton to Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre, which premiered Neil Armfield’s production in this city back in 1999. Given his heroic, astonishing adaptation of Away a couple of years ago, this should be a complete reimagining. Sam Strong flexes his Aussie muscles, and obviously hopes to recreate the magic that brought us Jasper Jones, with his MTC production of Storm Boy. Bet on some changes and some reframing.

The familiar made unfamiliar, part 2

Coming off the increasingly wonky tendency to adapt the unadaptable, Lutton follows his intriguing if unfulfilling Melancholia with another adaptation even trickier than the last, Stanislaw Lem’s classic sci-fi masterpiece Solaris. Declan Greene dares the even more fiendish proposition of adapting the Kenneth Cook chiller Wake in Fright with the inestimable Zahra Newman. They might come a cropper, but they should still prove a satisfying rubbernecking prospect. A more certain bet is MTC’s final show of the year, Kiss of the Spider Woman starring Caroline O’Connor. It’s a surprisingly effective and affecting show, and should close their season nicely.

Wake in Fright. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Opera with ambition

Among the usual fare of Mozart and Verdi, we have some truly ambitious programming from our major opera companies. Melbourne has seen a slate of Wagner in recent years, and 2019 builds on this: Melbourne Opera are mounting The Flying Dutchman with the extraordinary Anthony Negus conducting at the Regent in February; Victorian Opera are doing his final masterpiece Parsifal at the Palais, also in Feb. Most exciting of all, though, is Opera Australia’s production of Rossini’s Il Viaggio A Reims. Rare, fascinating and thrillingly staged, this is one of the year’s must sees.

Dance is alive and well and living in Melbourne

Dance Massive kicks off this city’s love of movement, and this year there are two major players in the mix: former Chunky Move Artistic Director Anouk van Dijk brings us Common Ground, which sounds like a chess game for martial artists; and Stephanie Lake brings us an invocation of death, grief and ritual with Skeleton Tree. The Australian Ballet has a new work by Graham Murphy, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, which will prove either the enduring or waning genius of the man.

The rest, or the unknown

This is potentially the best of the year: the stuff we can’t possibly know or predict; the things that haven’t been fully conceived or manifested; the shows that can’t appear on lists because they’re just around the corner and the artists can’t quite articulate what they’re going for yet. In that case, it’s best to focus on venues – like Theatre Works, or Arts House, or fortyfivedownstairs – or follow artists like Stephen Nicolazzo, Michele Lee and Jean Tong. These hotbeds of creativity are bound to wow us in the coming year, probably far more than the expected wowing we are primed for. Bring it on, we say.

Need to start saving your culture dosh? Check out our tips for scoring cheap theatre tickets and head to one of these killer exhibitions.

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