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News / Theatre & Performance

A follow-up to Counting and Cracking is the centrepiece of Belvoir's 2020 season

The Jungle and the Sea Belvoir 2020 supplied
Photograph: Daniel Boud

It only premiered in January, but we already feel confident in declaring Belvoir’s Counting and Cracking a landmark moment in Australian theatre. The Sydney Festival show, set against the backdrop of the Civil War in Sri Lanka (and in Australia, many years later), was a complete sell out and extra seating banks had to be opened up at Sydney Town Hall. Last month, it picked up seven Helpmann Awards, including Best Production of a Play, beating out international mega-hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

So it makes sense that Belvoir would want to keep that ball rolling, which is why artistic director Eamon Flack is collaborating again with Sri Lankan-Australian playwright S Shakthidharan on a follow-up of sorts to Counting and Cracking. The pair are adapting parts of Antigone and Mahābhārata into a new play called The Jungle and the Sea, set in 1996 and 2003 at pivotal moments during the Sri Lankan Civil War. The play, which features a cast of ten, isn’t a direct sequel but does reunite many of the original Counting and Cracking crew, including Helpmann winners Prakash Belawadi and Vaishnavi Suryaprakash.

It’s just one of the ten plays announced as part of the company’s 2020 season, which Flack says is a slightly left-of-centre response to the world as it currently stands.

“With all those idiotic giants bumbling around on the world stage – and the sense of exhaustion that everybody feels with that – a lot of these shows are taking place in the home,” Flack says. “There’s this question on the home scale of how to escape certain traps or lay the foundations for a different approach or way of life. That turns up all through the season.”

As well as the domestic focus, there’s a stack of new writing and new Australian plays. In fact, there are only three stories that are more than a decade old, and only one play you’d consider a classic.

“It’s been our experience over the last few years that, as a whole, the classics always feel slightly beside the point or slightly behind the eight-ball,” Flack says. “It just feels like there’s so much confusion and uncertainty right now that we can’t depend on approximations to really offer people something.”

So if not the classics, then what stories is Belvoir telling? Here’s what’s planned.

Every Brilliant Thing (Jan 10-26)
By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahue
Director: Kate Champion

Belvoir is kicking off 2020 with one of its biggest hits of this year: Duncan Macmillan’s bittersweet, uplifting monologue about a child who starts keeping a list of all the brilliant things in the world in an attempt to ward off their mother’s depression. There’s one major difference this time around: instead of Kate Mulvany, the show will be performed by Steve Rodgers. Rodgers was the co-director of the original season and actually stepped into the role for the final week of the Sydney season when Mulvany scored a role alongside Al Pacino in American TV series The Hunt.

“Stevie is so beautiful in the role and so truthful in it,” Flack says. “The responses to it when Stevie took over; there was that same sense of people being wowed and touched by it. It’s a pretty magnificent idea.”

Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam (Feb 6-Mar 8)
By Peter Goldsworthy, adapted by Steve Rodgers
Director: Darren Yap

Peter Goldsworthy’s novella about an apparently ideal family dealing with unexpected illness was adapted for the stage by the National Theatre of Parramatta in 2018, and picked up hugely positive reviews.

“It opened and we had so many people say, ‘Have you seen this? You should see it, you should put it on’. We had a look at it and it was an immediate, definite yes,” Flack says. “It’s very beautiful and quite challenging – in the way that Peter Goldsworthy’s stuff is often very human – but with this great moral conundrum at the centre of it.”

The production will be directed by Darren Yap and reunites several of the original cast members: Valerie Bader, Liam Nunan, Emma Jackson and Mark Lee.

Dance Nation (Mar 14-Apr 12)
By Clare Barron
Director: Imara Savage

Clare Barron’s comedy is one of the biggest hits to come out of the US in recent years, and it’s easy to understand why. It features a cast of adults of various ages playing a group of teenage girls preparing for a dance competition. The dog-eat-dog world of competitive teenage dance is exposed and becomes a metaphor for something much bigger.

“Between Mr Burns, Hir, The Wolves and Dance Nation, we’ve had a good time with contemporary American writing because America is bonkers at the moment,” Flack says. “There’s some really innovative writing coming along from mostly women and mostly younger women writers. They’ve been trying to hold on to that great, exuberant American optimism in the face of insanity, and it’s producing great writing.”

Imara Savage, whose brilliant production of Mr Burns was one of Belvoir’s finest moments in recent years, returns with a starry cast of performers from all stages of their careers: Mitchell Butel, Emma Harvie, Chika Ikogwe, Yvette Lee, Rebecca Massey, Amber McMahon, Louisa Mignone, Tara Morice and Tim Overton.

Dance Nation. Photograph: Daniel Boud.

A Room of One’s Own (Apr 18-May 17)
By Virginia Woolf, adapted by Carissa Licciardello & Tom Wright
Director: Carissa Licciardello

This isn’t the first time Virginia Woolf’s lecture-turned-essay-turned-literary sensation has been adapted for the stage, but its subject – the need for women to carve out space to exist and express themselves – feels particularly pertinent in the 21st century.

One of Sydney’s finest actors, Anita Hegh, will be performing this solo show, adapted by Carissa Licciardello. Flack compares the text to the way that Hannah Gadsby’s two most recent shows combine personal experience and narrative with analysis of a particular issue to thrilling theatrical effect.

“Underneath it, you feel the need to escape the danger of the situation at work, which makes it intellectually and dramatically exciting,” Flack says. “You can feel her not just wanting to make sense and understand something, but she’s thinking and writing for her life, and scouring her consciousness to push back the madness that the world is putting on her as a woman… Anita Hegh is able to find not just the clarity of language and ideas – she’s extraordinary at it – but also the horror beneath an intellectual idea, or the fear, or the sense of a new horizon.”

Escaped Alone (May 23-Jun 21)
By Caryl Churchill
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks

We rarely get to see the work of British playwright Caryl Churchill on our stages, but it’s always provocative, beautifully wrought and inquisitive. Which is why it’s great news that Belvoir has the Sydney premiere of her latest play, which starts with a group of older women chatting over tea in the backyard, before breaking open into something much more strange, questioning our very place in the universe.

“She probably is the greatest living playwright in the world, and this is such a great distillation of what makes her brilliant,” Flack says. “But also, there are four – well, more than four – incredible women actors, waiting for great roles, and it was a no-brainer when we started to list who we could cast in it.”

And who has Belvoir got lined up? A powerhouse quartet of some of our finest: Judi Farr, Kris McQuade, Heather Mitchell and Helen Morse.

Escaped Alone. Photograph: Daniel Boud.

The Jungle and the Sea (Jul 4-26)
Written and directed by S Shakthidharan & Eamon Flack

This new play by the team behind the award-winning Counting and Cracking adapts two great pillars of classical literature – Antigone and Mahābhārata – to tell a story about a mother who, during the Sri Lankan Civil War, keeps suffering loss after loss. While it’s not a sequel to Counting and Cracking, it picks up on several of the themes and continues the collaboration between Flack and Shakthidharan.

“Shakthi and I had breakfast and asked: what next?” Flack says. “He had an idea for something that was going to take a couple of years, but I said: ‘I think we should do something next year, I don’t think we should wait. It took us six years to get Counting and Cracking together, let’s find a way to do something now and not let it dissipate.’”

Many members of the international cast of Counting and Cracking are returning, but a new collaborator is the Lingalayam Dance Company, who will inject plenty of Sri Lankan dance and movement into the play.

Miss Peony (Aug 1-Sep 6)
By Michelle Law
Director: Sarah Giles

Michelle Law’s brilliantly funny Single Asian Female was an enormous hit for Belvoir in 2018, drawing an audience largely made up of people who had never been to a show by the company.

“People were coming once, coming back a second time with their friends, and coming back a third time with their mums and dads,” Flack says. “Michelle knows her audience so incredibly well. She knows how to set up a premise and pay it off so terrifically.”

So what’s the premise of her new play? A young Chinese woman living in Australia is visited by her long-dead grandmother, who decides to enter her granddaughter into a local Chinese beauty pageant. It’s a comedy, obviously, and Law will star alongside George Zhao.

My Brilliant Career (Sep 12-Oct 18)
By Miles Franklin, adapted by Kendall Feaver
Director: Kate Champion

Miles Franklin’s 1901 novel might be best known for Gillian Armstrong’s 1979 period drama starring a young Judy Davis and Sam Neill, but this is the first time the story of Sybylla Melvyn has come to the stage. This new version is adapted by local playwright Kendall Feaver (who was behind Griffin Theatre’s fabulous The Almighty Sometimes) and will star Nikki Shiels in the central role – as a young woman living in the country in the early 20th century, determined to make her mark – alongside Sydney theatre favourite Helen Thomson.

“Why didn’t we think of this sooner? It’s the story of a young girl looking around going, ‘Fuck this, there’s got to be different way.’ Nothing’s changed in 120 years,” Flack says. “Miles Franklin has been kind of boxed into the award in her name, and it’s nice to unleash her on her own terms.”

My Brilliant Career. Photograph: Daniel Boud.

Cursed! (Oct 24-Nov 15)
By Kodie Bedford
Director: Jason Klarwein

Kodie Bedford has been writing for TV and film for quite a while now – including an episode of the ABC’s critically-acclaimed Mystery Road – but this is her debut play. It was written while Bedford was undertaking Belvoir’s Balnaves Fellowship, a writers’ residency program for Indigenous writers. It’s a comedy about a “mixed-up family” who are pulled back together when their grandmother is dying.

“Kodie has got great screen credits, but this was a real education for her, and while she was here, she wrote this draft,” Flack says. “Everyone agreed that it was the funniest first draft we’d all read. She’s not interested in niceties or quibbles; there’s a great rough sense of going ‘fuck that, this is funny.’

Chenoa Deemal stars alongside Sacha Horler, who plays the mother at the centre of all this chaos.

“Kodie wanted to kind of change the idea of what an Indigenous play is supposed to be as well,” Flack says. “She’s writing about a white woman and an Indigenous daughter and a Vietnamese half-sister and Maltese half-brother, which is Kodie’s own story. She’s writing about class and mental health, and how finding the funny in that is the only way through it.”

Summerfolk (How Good is Australia?) (Nov 21-Dec 20)
By Maxim Gorky, adapted by Eamon Flack
Directed by Eamon Flack

When Belvoir does a classic, it’s got to be one that speaks pretty clearly to the here and now. And Flack is so confident his take on Maxim Gorky’s 1904 play will speak to the here and now, he’s given it a pretty topical subtitle: “How Good is Australia?”

“This play wasn’t on the table until after the last election, and then it came onto the table very, very quickly,” Flack says. “I think a lot of people are really confused about the dissonance between what we claim to believe as a country and what we choose to put our stock in, and that’s literally what Gorky is writing about.”

The play features a group of people (comfortable Aussies taking a seaside retreat in Flack’s version) who have become so addicted to the comfort of their lifestyle that they fail to recognise that their world is fundamentally changing. Flack previously directed a small-scale production of the play a decade ago – as his directorial debut – but will helm a cast of 13 this time around, including Mandela Mathia, Richard Pyros, Pamela Rabe, Toby Truslove and Sophie Wilde.

Summerfolk. Photograph: Daniel Boud.

Can't wait until 2020? See our hit list of the best theatre in Sydney this month and our tips for scoring cheap tickets.

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