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Belvoir will transform Sydney Town Hall for its biggest show ever

Written by
Ben Neutze

Belvoir has been one of the country’s leading theatre companies since it was founded in 1984, constantly punching well above its weight and sending killer shows out across Sydney and into the world. But in 2019, Belvoir is going somewhere it’s never been before with its biggest production to date.

Counting & Cracking is an epic new play that will have its premiere as part of next year’s Sydney Festival. It brings together 16 actors from five countries to tell a story of Australia today. The company is moving out from its Surry Hills home for January to take over Sydney Town Hall, transforming it into a Sri Lankan town hall.

“I don’t know that there’s ever been a story about Australia as a migrant nation put on a mainstage of this scale before,” says Eamon Flack, Belvoir’s artistic director. “There’s been a lot of discussion recently about how much the country has changed. The population of the country is 5 million bigger than it was a generation ago, and that’s largely been driven by migration.”

The play is penned by S. Shakthidharan, an Australian artist with Sri Lankan heritage who has been working with migrant communities across Sydney for more than a decade. The play is predominately set in Sydney but tells the story of one family across four generations, stretching across the world to Colombo.

Belvoir has been working with Shakthi on the play for five years, and Flack says it required much of that time to get together a group of producing partners who could help get the play up on its feet. It’s a massive investment for the company, but Flack insists it’s worth going all-in on a play that looks to the future. Most of Belvoir’s biggest hits in recent years have been new Australian plays.

“This is absolutely our attempt in one huge leap to establish a new pillar in Australia’s cultural life,” he says.

In fact, all of Belvoir’s 2019 season is quite forward-facing. Every play is from the last five years apart from Bertolt Brecht’s Life of Galileo, which will be given a refresh by Tom Wright, who adapted Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui this year for Sydney Theatre Company’s five-star production.

Flack says the play, which will star Colin Friels as the scientist up against institutions trying to silence him, serves as “an invigorating guide for how to navigate the age of Trump/Brexit/Putin.”

“I think you’re deluded if you think you’re important enough to change things,” he says of his role as an artist and artistic director in difficult socio-political times. “But I also think that it’s kind of reprehensible to not join in on a bigger attempt to not only remain hopeful, but a bigger attempt to defy the cynicism.”

And there are certainly plenty of defiantly joyous and optimistic moments in his 2019 season, including a life-affirming one-woman performance from Kate Mulvany and a brand new original, fully fledged musical. See the full line-up below.

Belvoir 2019 season

Counting & Cracking (Jan 11-Feb 2)
Sydney Town Hall
By S. Shakthidharan
Director: Eamon Flack

S. Shakthidharan's play crosses continents and features 16 cast members, including Nicholas Brown, Rarriwuy Hick, Shiv Palekar and Hazem Shammas.

Counting & Cracking

The Wolves (Feb 2-Mar 2)
By Sarah DeLappe
Director: Jessica Arthur

This production, about a soccer team of teenage girls, had its debut at the intimate Old Fitz Theatre earlier this year (read our review of that season). The play, by Sarah DeLappe, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017, and this production features Puberty Blues and Black Mirror star Brenna Harding.

“I just absolutely loved seeing nine young women absolutely own a stage and I felt they should be given a bigger stage,” Flack says.

Every Brilliant Thing (Mar 9-31)
By Duncan Macmillan
Director: Kate Champion

Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing started with sold out runs at three consecutive Edinburgh Festivals and was eventually filmed for broadcast by HBO. It’s a solo performance about a person who, as a child, started compiling a list of every brilliant thing in life, in an attempt to bring their mother out of depression. It’s now 20 years later and they're still compiling the list.

Belvoir will be transformed into a properly in-the-round theatre, with seating banks on all sides. The play has previously been performed by men but Kate Mulvany will take on this solo performance at Belvoir, involving the audience at every step.

“It requires somebody to be able to think on their feet very much as they work with an audience,” Flack says. “But also Kate has very deep, personal reasons for wanting to tell this story.”

Every Brilliant Thing

Barbara and the Camp Dogs (Apr 4-28)
By Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine
Director: Leticia Cáceres

This rocking play with music was a big hit when it premiered at Belvoir at the end of 2017 (read our four-star review of that initial season), so it was a no-brainer to bring it back to be seen by an even bigger audience. Belvoir will again be transformed into a sticky pub and Ursula Yovich and Elaine Crombie will reprise their roles.

Winyanboga Yurringa (May 4-26)
By Andrea James
Director: Anthea Williams

In 1981, a groundbreaking miniseries called Women of the Sun aired on SBS, telling the story of four Aboriginal women living in Australia between the 1820s and 1980s. Andrea James’ new play was inspired by the series and acts as a kind of fifth chapter, adding another generation to the fold. In her play, six Aboriginal women separated by time gather on the banks of a river and reflect on their lives.

Winyanboga Yurringa

Things I Know to be True (Jun 8-Jul 21)
By Andrew Bovell
Director: Neil Armfield

This Andrew Bovell family saga – following a year in the life of the Prices – premiered in Adelaide in 2016. The initial staging was a co-production between the State Theatre Company of South Australia and UK company Frantic Assembly. It involved non-naturalistic physical movement, but Belvoir has a new vision for the play.

This will mark the first production former Belvoir artistic director Neil Armfield has directed for the company since 2011. Bovell and Flack both agreed Armfield, who directed Bovell’s adaptation of The Secret River, was the perfect choice.

Life of Galileo (Aug 3-Sep 15)
By Bertolt Brecht
Adapted by Tom Wright
Director: Eamon Flack

“We’ve just watched Australian politics devour itself for the 11th year in a row because a small group of people in power refuse to accept a set of facts,” Flack says. “The story of truth battling against the absolute arrogance of those who think they know better is not going away fast.”

Bertolt Brecht wrote this play in 1938, after he fled Nazi Germany. Colin Friels will star as the persecuted scientist speaking truth to power.

“It’s easy at the moment to feel despondent, and this play is a report from a time when despondency was a life and death thing to feel,” Flack says. “It really is a direct report from the worst moment in living history. So there’s great value in being reminded of what it takes to shake that off and continue to commit to a set of fundamental ideas about truth and human relations.”

Life of Galileo

Fangirls (Oct 12-Nov 10)
By Yve Blake
Director: Paige Rattray

“You’re always wary of making predictions about a show or about an artist, but Yve Blake is a bit of a mad genius, quite possibly,” Flack says of the writer of this new musical.

Not only has Blake written the script, music and lyrics for the show, she’ll star as Edna, a young girl who’s obsessed with one particular member of a boyband. When she discovers that he’s coming to her town, she hatches a plan to make a connection with him.

Flack says he’s hoping the play will capture the kinds of teenage girls it’s written about, an audience that isn’t always front and centre at Belvoir. He hopes they’ll be able to see themselves on stage.

“We saw in Single Asian Female how palpably meaningful it is to that particular audience [to see themselves on stage]. It’s like a light being turned on in a dark room, and that’s absolutely what Yve wants it to be. But she wants it to be a hit – she wants it to be a show for everybody and to entertain people.”

Packer & Sons (Nov 16-Dec 22)
By Tommy Murphy
Director: Eamon Flack

“The Packer dynasty has been at the centre of Sydney life and, in many ways, Australian life for a century,” Flack says. “In that time they helped to forge the country’s cultural idea of itself and sat at the centre of that for a very long time.”

Tommy Murphy’s new play will trace the Packer family’s evolution, focusing on the moments when power has transitioned between different generations of the Packer family. The cast includes John Howard, John Gaden, Josh McConville and Brandon McClelland.

Can't wait until 2019? See our hit list of the best theatre in Sydney this month and our tips for scoring cheap tickets.

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