Talking about his 2018 season, Belvoir artistic director Eamon Flack constantly veers towards the slightly bleak bigger picture in Australia and abroad: housing affordability and the lie of the Australian Dream; American politics; refugees on Nauru and Manus Island; environmental catastrophe...
But the season itself will be full of “upbeat theatrical gestures”, he says. “I think the more you can pump out joy right now, the better. It’s so bleak otherwise, really. So much of this season is built around joyful, defiant tellings of stories that are very close to us.”
The epitome of this, he suggests, will be his production of A Taste of Honey, written by British midlander Shelagh Delaney when she was 18 and popularised by Tony Richardson’s 1961 film adaptation (now considered a cornerstone of the British New Wave).
“It premiered the same year as Look Back in Anger – which has revealed itself over time as a self-involved, misogynistic masterpiece; but here was this vibrant alternative, which actually was far more prescient about the future, and far more ‘alive’,” says Flack. “That’s the play I’m more interested in.”
Delaney’s original play was a mix of vaudeville and kitchen sink realism that put a band on stage – which Flack will take full advantage of. “I love an upbeat theatrical gesture,” he says.
Flack will also pump out joy in his production of Sami in Paradise – a take on Nikolai Erdman’s 1928 comedy The Suicide (which some theatre goers might remember from Simon Stone’s 2010 production in Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre). It concerns an unemployed young man called Semyon who tries and fails to learn the tuba, decides to take his own life, and suddenly finds his suicide the subject of a bidding war and other attempts at exploitation by self-serving friends, neighbours and passers-by.
Flack has been wanting to tackle Erdman’s Stalinist-era farce for a long time, and sees in it a kind of tonic for our times. “It celebrates, comically, the irrepressible desire that people have for some goddamn dignity – which is literally what wakes Semyon up in the middle of the night, at the beginning of the play.”
He also sees it as a sort of parable of statelessness, and says this production will transpose the tale from Stalinist Russia to the equally oppressive ‘regime’ endured by millions of refugees globally, for whom being without home has become a permanent state.
Flack will co-devise a new version of the play in the room with a handpicked troupe of favourite actors – Paula Arundell, Fayssal Bazzi, Yalin Ozucelik, Hazem Shammas – and one newcomer, Vaishnavi Suryaprakash.
The other obvious harbinger of happiness in the season is Richard Carroll’s production of the 1961 musical film adaptation Calamity Jane, with Virginia Gay stepping into Doris Day’s shoes to play the gunslinging gal-about-town of Deadwood. The show premiered to critical acclaim at the Hayes Theatre in March 2017, where we described it as “a quickfire, self-aware, fourth-wall-breaking beast; a madcap staging that veers from droll to camp to slapstick and back again. And it’s the most you’ll laugh during any musical currently playing in Australia.”
New Australian writing on Belvoir’s stage in 218 includes Alana Valentine’s The Sugar House, Jimi Bani’s My Name is Jimi, and Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female (the latter two productions transferring from Queensland Theatre and Brisbane’s La Boite, respectively).
In terms of canonical theatre, Belvoir will present Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 political thriller An Enemy of the People, and August Strindberg’s 1900 marriage drama The Dance of Death.
An Enemy of the People will be directed by Anne-Louise Sarks and star 2017 Helpmann Award-winner Kate Mulvany (Richard 3) as a scientist trying to stick to her beliefs and stay uncorrupted in the face the political and economic realities of her town.
“It’s a play about how ideology trumps facts and how lies increasingly overwhelm public interest,” says Flack. “It’s so terribly a play for this moment.”
The Dance of Death will be directed by Judy Davis (who delivered a major hit for Belvoir in 2016 with her production of Brian Friel’s Faith Healer), and star her husband Colin Friels alongside Pamela Rabe and Toby Schmitz. This one comes with a warning: as the play that inspired Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, this is considered the ‘marriage battle play’ to beat all marriage battle plays. As Flack says, “It’s husband and wife tearing each other apart on stage for two hours. It’s a fantastic play – terrifying and hilarious.”
Davis pitched it to Belvoir, and Flack describes it as a “no-brainer. The idea of Colin, Pam and Toby together on stage is irresistible.”
The final piece of the 2018 mainstage puzzle is a stage adaptation of Peter Carey’s Miles Franklin Award-winning 1981 novel Bliss, about an ad executive who reawakens after a near-death experience to find himself in a suburban hell. Belvoir’s co-production with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre will be directed by artistic director Matthew Lutton and written by Belvoir’s associate artist Tom Wright.
Lutton and Wright have developed a reputation for reimagining literary texts for the stage: most recently, they had huge success with their 2016 adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic at Hanging Rock (returning to Malthouse for an encore season in 2018), and just closed a critically acclaimed season of The Real and Imagined History of the Elephant Man at Malthouse.
“That book is such a glorious, playful fantasia, about the lie of the Australian Dream,” says Flack. “That story has been told three times now by baby boomers: firstly as the novel, then as a film [by Ray Lawrence, in 1985] and then as an opera [directed by Neil Armfield]. But I feel like it’s a story for our generation to tell now.”
For the full Belvoir 2018 season see www.belvoir.com.au.