Picking highlights for the coming year is always a crapshoot: the things you expect to be brilliant are often bound to disappoint, and the things that look naff or downright weird on paper turn out to be revelatory. Still, we beat on in the hope we might get something right. In that spirit, here are our expected highlights for the 2020 theatrical year. Just don’t hold us to them.
Melbourne Theatre Company have opened their season with a British play starring Jane Turner before, back with Jumpy in 2015, but there’s reason to believe this one might actually be good. Turner is not playing the lead; that honour goes to the fabulous Nikki Shiels. Here she plays Judy, a contemporary woman who decides not to just decorate her life as a ’50s housewife, but to literally become one – cue day after day of baking, cleaning and Tupperware. As her friends and family start to realise she is serious about this descent into a rosy mid-century romanticism, the tensions rise between the cold realities of the present and the safe sureties of the past.
Another play from the rapier-sharp Michele Lee is always something to look forward to, and this one for Red Stitch sounds like a cracker. Set outside the Coles on Smith Street, and taking place over the course of a single day, this work plucks three generations of women from three different cultural backgrounds and smashes them together. Knowing this writer’s tendency to push at the boundaries of identity, this should prove as hilarious as it is uncomfortable.
Anyone who saw Zahra Newman in Malthouse’s extraordinary Wake in Fright this year will know that this ticket is a sure thing; we’d frankly watch her read yesterday’s tweets. From one descent into horror to another, this idiosyncratic adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy of deadly ambition and regicide sees Newman team up with New York’s Scott Shepherd, in a version that looks nothing remotely like a traditional telling of the tale. Rather more like a horrific subterranean domestic horror show. Sign us up!
Opera Australia have a couple of tempting things on offer next year, including a production of Wagner’s Lohengrin that is exclusive to Melbourne, but nothing is quite as exciting as their production of Fiddler on the Roof. We can hear the sigh of your ambivalence, and – given there was a perfectly acceptable production of this perennial musical staring Anthony Warlow a few years ago – we understand it. But this production is different: it is performed entirely in Yiddish (even the songs) and was a recent smash on Broadway. Trust us, this is not to be missed.
Surely there isn’t anyone left in Melbourne who doesn’t know how exciting director Stephen Nicolazzo is; his work for his own company Little Ones Theatre is central to the city’s aesthetic. But he’s also had brilliant success working with Red Stitch (his The Moors and Suddenly Last Summer were both stunning). So there’s no reason to think his take on Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending tale won’t be the play to see next year. We know it will look fabulous, we know the acting will be grand, and we know it’s in this company’s new digs at Cromwell Road. That’s literally all we need to know.
Of course, Nicolazzo’s big show next year is the adaptation for Malthouse of Christos Tsiolkas’s seminal debut novel Loaded, which was made into the no-holes-barred 1998 film Head On. The director is teaming up with Tsiolkas himself and with playwright Dan Giovannoni (who adapted Tsiolkas’s Merciless Gods for the stage, under Nicolazzo’s direction, a couple of years ago), in what should prove as brutal and explicit as that original shot across the bow of mainstream culture. Is gayness and Greekness and nihilism enough to shock us, these days? We shall see.
A terrific little chamber musical that proved an unlikely hit on Broadway, this adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s deeply moving graphic novel about her father’s coming out and subsequent suicide (all while the author was dealing with her own lesbianism) is a surprisingly sweet and empathic wonder. Hilarious and heartbreaking, it should prove a hit with MTC’s subscriber base, but also appeal to an audience raised on episodes of Crazy Ex Girlfriend. It’s worth it solely for the song 'I’m Changing My Major (to Joan)'.
Victorian Opera have a couple of highly intriguing productions next year – including a mounting of the Who’s Tommy and a remounting of the Margaret Fulton musical Margaret Fulton: the Musical – but it’s their one-night-only multi-media performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt that most piques our interest. It was a massive hit in the 1920s, receiving several performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but was soon banned by the Nazis and subsequently fell into obscurity. Our very own Simone Young returns to Melbourne to conduct, ahead of her appointment as chief conductor at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Australian Ballet’s major show of 2019 was supposed to be Graham Murphy’s The Happy Prince, but due to illness it was postponed to next year. This is slightly awkward for Australian Ballet, because their Joffrey Ballet co-production of choreographer Yuri Possokhov’s Anna Karenina should be the singular drawcard. Needless to say, both of these productions are likely to be magnificent, so in 2020 maybe this company shall just have to deal with an embarrassment of riches.
There are two things we know we don’t know, coming up next year; one of them is major and the other is minor (if majorly sentimental). The Production Company is signing off for good – in a sudden-death announcement that left nobody who loves musicals in this city happy – but they haven’t told us exactly which show is bringing down the curtain. We await the news with certain dread.
The other is the major news, the termination of two festivals that came to define Melbourne in various ways: White Night and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. They are being combined to form a new Winter Arts Festival (even if there is still no official name), helmed by Hannah Fox and Gideon Obarzanek, and it remains to be seen if this is disastrous or inspired. Literally nothing is known about it, so we shall have to wait and see. The new decade is not entirely a blank, but at this point our dance card is far from full.