In 2018, Sydney stages have been burning up with talented writers, performers, directors and creative teams. We’ve seen culture-defining new Australian works, plays that ask big and tricky questions, and a collectively thoughtful exploration of identity, place and belonging in a nation that’s still figuring itself out. Plus, that rare gift: cracking comedies.
You’ll notice that two companies had a particularly strong year: Sydney Theatre Company, in its first full season under artistic director Kip Williams, and Griffin Theatre Company, the tiny, beloved Kings Cross institution for Australian works, led by artistic director Lee Lewis. This year, they made work that was surprising, challenging and invigorating. Lucky us!
Here are the ten best things we saw this year – and a few honourable mentions, because why wouldn't we spread the love?
10. In the Heights
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda turned the world upside down with Hamilton, he wrote In The Heights. This high-energy slice of life musical about the New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights received a smart and big-hearted production at the Hayes Theatre this year, and it was so good it’s coming back as part of Sydney Festival – and moving to one of our most prestigious stages: the Opera House's Concert Hall. With a cast of triple threats from mostly Latinx backgrounds, an infectious pastiche score that blends hip-hop and rap with salsa and Broadway standards, this production is a joyous force of nature.
Honourable mention: The Hayes Theatre examined two other tight-knit communities with charming results: the loves and lives of the staff in a 1930s Budapest parfumerie in Erin James’ delightful She Loves Me, and the gritty melancholy of 1930s outsider Sydney in Darlinghurst Nights, directed by Lee Lewis.
Australian playwright Kendall Feaver premiered The Almighty Sometimes, a staggering debut about mental health, medication and family, in the UK, where it won a prestigious playwriting award. The Australian production featured a vulnerable leading performance from Brenna Harding under direction from Lee Lewis, encouraging us to look closely at the ways we talk about and manage our mental health.
Honourable mention: Griffin Theatre Co took another uncompromising look at a social crisis – the rising number of homeless older women – in Brooke Robinson’s challenging Good Cook. Friendly. Clean.
Poet and rapper Omar Musa made his first venture into performance this year with Since Ali Died. Directed by Anthea Williams, this supple solo piece uses Muhammad Ali as an anchor to explore Musa’s own life and the notions of legacy, love, family and race while living in a nation that often leans closer to white supremacy than it does racial tolerance. With rap, spoken word and poetry, this beautifully-crafted work will return early next year as part of Sydney Festival.
Zahra Newman, fresh out of musical comedy The Book of Mormon, shattered hearts nightly in Random, Debbie Tucker Green’s short play about a family broken apart by violence. Newman, under the skilled, gentle direction of Leticia Cáceres, played all four members of the family with chameleonic range. A dazzling showcase for an actor; a beautifully constructed work of theatre.
Honourable mention: Other plays we loved that tackled violence, its patterns and its rippling effects on family and communities were a revival of Brecht’s anti-fascist The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui starring Hugo Weaving, and Lethal Indifference, a one-woman play about domestic violence starring Emily Barclay.
6. Dark Emu
Bruce Pascoe's 2014 book, Dark Emu, pulled together a wealth of information to blow apart the hunter-gatherer myth of Indigenous Australia and prove that agriculture existed here long before European settlement. It seems an unlikely subject for a piece of contemporary dance, but Bangarra's big show of 2018 was a thoughtful, moving response to the book, and absolutely gorgeous to look at.
Director Alexander Berlage made a splash with his very first musical: he took Broadway flop Cry-Baby, found the anarchic spirit infused in its source text, and gave the musical a much-needed subversive transfusion. The show, which played at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre, was a riot of satire, sight gags, and big, big voices. If you missed it, you missed out.
Honourable mention: Musicals that took a queer look at history and gave us plenty to laugh about: The View UpStairs, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and The Book of Mormon. For sheer spectacle, we loved Opera Australia's digital production of Aida, and are still thinking about Tina Arena's singing in Evita.
4. Top Girls
Director Imara Savage and playwright Caryl Churchill are on the same page. This production of Churchill’s feminist masterwork was a pitch-perfect examination of the historic oppression of women by class and social structures. Featuring some of Australia’s most ferocious leading women, this take on female ambition and sacrifice was arresting from curtain up to curtain call.
Honourable mention: We loved performance work this year that centred women and gave them back their voices, like Savage’s new take on Shaw’s Saint Joan, with new words for Joan written by Emme Hoy, and The Howling Girls, Adena Jacobs’ experimental opera about women losing the ability to speak. STC also gave us wonderful portraits of uncompromising – if somewhat prickly – women in A Cheery Soul and Still Point Turning.
Nick Coyle’s bite is stronger than his bark. This comedy about how we diminish ourselves when we’re falling in love has surprising heft long after you’ve left the theatre, sides sore from laughing. It stars a monstrous protagonist (performed with primal relentlessness by Claire Lovering) and a milquetoast dude in brand management, and takes us inside an improv class, through a migraine, and deep inside the beige compromise of heteronormativity.
Honourable mention: Queer and anarchic theatre was all over Sydney’s small stages. We got a kick out of Christopher Bryant’s Home Invasion at the Old 505, and Kill Climate Deniers, David Finnigan’s savagely political comedy, also at Griffin.
Kate Mulvany isn’t just one of Sydney’s most in-demand actors, she’s also a talented playwright. Her two-part, generation-spanning take on Ruth Park’s classic Surry Hills trilogy became an instant, epic Australian classic the moment it opened at the Roslyn Packer Theatre this year. Directed with sweeping romance and drama by Kip Williams, the play takes a matrilineal approach to Sydney history, showing us three generations of Kilker women, their families, and the community around them. Featuring some of Australia’s best performers and drawing on the firecracker wit of one of our literary greats, this is a theatre marathon we want to experience again.
Nakkiah Lui has changed the shape of Australian theatre. Blackie Blackie Brown, her latest play, tackled topics most white Australians are too afraid to look at directly – reparations, racism and revenge – and put them front and centre while borrowing elements from blaxploitation, superhero films and thrillers. It packs an emotional punch (plus a lot of actual punches), but wraps it all up in comedy. The end effect is startling. Directed by Declan Greene and starring Megan Wilding and Ash Flanders, the play was blessed with an embarrassment of riches, talent-wise. But more importantly than that, it cemented Lui as a playwright that speaks directly to Australian audiences, untangling thorny, hurtful elements of our past and present, and who asks us to reckon with it all together, in the community ritual of theatre. She makes the artform better.
Not done with 2018 just yet? There's still plenty of theatre to see this December, and make sure you snatch up tickets for these Sydney Festival highlights.