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Harry Potter and the Cursed Child
Photograph: Matt Murphy

The best on Melbourne stages in 2019: our top 10

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Like all art forms, theatre is an ecosystem: it needs large-scale commercial works to provide the oxygen and the moss from which edgier, independent fare can flourish. This year in Melbourne, we saw a strange hybrid growth in works that were ostensibly mainstream but sprang from the independent sector, and blockbuster shows with outsider sensibilities. Here’s our top ten, in a year that could have had a top 50.

10. 33 Variations

An independent production that should by rights have slotted easily into the programming of Melbourne Theatre Company, Cameron Lukey and Neil Gooding’s production of Moisés Kaufman’s play about genius and mediocrity was superbly directed by Gary Abrahams, with a top-notch cast led by a towering Ellen Burstyn.

9. Pomona

Again directed by Gary Abrahams (surely a director who deserves to run a major state company) for Red Stitch, this nasty, grubby little gem from UK playwright Alistair McDowall envisaged a world only mildly more gruesome and soulless than our own. Shining a misty light into Stygian hellscapes, it was an uncompromising vision of the city as cage and endgame.

8. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Commercial theatre at its colossal best, the much-awaited theatrical behemoth from the Potterverse turned out to be as exciting, as tricksy (how the hell do they do that phone booth thing?) and as emotionally engaging as Melbourne could have hoped for. Top-dollar theatre that is actually worth every one of those dollars.

7. Wake in Fright

Such a strange prospect on paper, this adaptation by Declan Greene of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel of the pathological xenophobia driving Australian culture – performed entirely by the extraordinary Zahra Newman – was a sickening, brutal experience; an example of an actor’s lived experience illuminating a horrific national truth.

6. Golden Shield

A thrilling legal drama of great scope and immediacy, this play introduced Melbourne audiences to the preternaturally talented Anchuli Felicia King, a local playwright who is already making waves internationally. Her follow up, White Pearl, is even better, so here’s hoping we get to see it soon. Either way, this is a dramatist to watch.

5. Escaped Alone

Ovid’s interpretation of the Phaethon myth unleashed our now ubiquitous doom culture, but Caryl Churchill lent the end of times a devastating (if hilarious) immediacy in her 2016 play, which received its Australian premiere this year at Red Stitch. Flawless performances led by the inimitable Julie Forsyth made this journey into the belly of the whale quite unforgettable.

4. Il Viaggio a Reims

Who said art needed to mean something? The silliest show of the year was also the most fabulous, as mise-en-scène carried all meaning in Damiano Michieletto’s gorgeously witty and wacky take on Rossini’s overstuffed divertissement. So many vocal highlights, so much to look at, this was the most memorable production in a very strong year for Opera Australia.

3. A View From the Bridge

Arthur Miller’s final masterpiece is everywhere at the moment, but it would be hard to imagine a better interpretation than Iain Sinclair’s sparse and gripping take for MTC. With stunningly assured performances and a single chair for a set, this production left the play with nowhere to hide. The result was like watching a lit fuse make its way to the inevitable explosion.

2. Grand Finale

Hofesh Shechter Company have had a long association with Melbourne, but none of their previous outings seemed to speak so directly to the city’s current mood. Raw, raging group movement that would arrest into brief moments of beauty and joy, this was dance as call to action. Mesmerising.

1. Underground Railroad Game

Ars Nova’s brilliant and brutal excoriation of race relations in America for Malthouse set the bar early in the year, and it proved too high to clear. An examination of slavery’s effect on personal relationships in a classroom setting, this was theatre as profound provocation, stunningly designed and performed. Australia isn’t ready yet to produce a work of this complexity on the subject of race, perhaps because our wounds are too raw. But when we do, we’ll look back on this searingly honest, courageous production and thank it for showing us the way.

Still not done with 2019? Here are the best shows to see in December and our hints for scoring cheap theatre tickets.

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