When Sydney theatre is good, it’s very good. To reach that level, you need both an independent and a subsidised scene firing on all cylinders; you need daring new works that attempt to define and examine us – and sometimes the world is on fire, and you just need something to make you feel better (or at least just feel).
There are four plays that scored elusive five-star reviews on this list, and they make up our top four – consider them a tier of equal moments where we sat in the dark and felt something that caused within us a profound shift. There are also a bunch of debut plays – Sydney has been so lucky to host some excellent new writing onstage this year – and some new takes on old work that made us sit up straight and lean forward in our seats.
Here are the ten best things we saw this year (and a few honourable mentions, because we have a lot of love to give).
Tony Kushner is best known for his epic play Angels in America, but he maintains that this musical about a Caroline Thibodeaux, a maid in 1960s Louisiana, was his favourite thing he’s ever written. With a soul-flecked score by Jeanine Tesori and elegant storytelling that delves into the slow and often parallel processes of internal and systemic change, Mitchell Butel’s production at the Hayes Theatre was lovingly rendered. It’s a great script and score, but the real magic of this production was Elenoa Rokobaro’s performance as Caroline. She could just shatter your heart.
Honourable mention: The return production of Billy Elliot tugged at our hearts too, with its warm vibe and very good cast. And speaking of return productions, the Australian tour of Chicago brought sizzling dance and good old showbiz charm back to Sydney just when we needed it. Opera Australia’s anarchic take on Il Viaggio a Reims was best-in-show when it came to opera, with glorious singing, plenty of laughs and a hugely inventive staging.
9. White Pearl
Anchuli Felicia King’s play turns a sharp eye towards intra-cultural racism and “alternative” start-up culture. In a smart, breathlessly funny production by director Priscilla Jackman and featuring a killer ensemble cast (we want to see more of them on Sydney stages, thanks!), the play is a ticking time bomb. Just when you start to worry it might careen off the rails, King and Jackman reveal their talent: they are in full control of this story of a company in freefall.
Honourable mention: Speaking of toxic companies, director Alexander Berlage deftly tackled Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a workplace drama that unfolds into a study of authorship, narratives and how we build the world.
This musical, based on a book by controversial figure Bret Easton Ellis, flopped on Broadway. But at the Hayes Theatre, under director Alexander Berlage, this glorified story of violence became a critique of violence. With an '80s lens, dazzling choreography and a mirrored set that almost never stopped revolving, this show was one hell of a ride. Drenched in queer history, camp and black comedy, it sounded stunning, looked great and haunts us still.
Honourable mention: What a cracker year for musicals! Yve Blake blew us all away with pop-musical Fangirls; Kate Gaul made Gilbert & Sullvan queer with her take on HMS Pinafore, and indie musical darlings Squabbalogic presented an early workshop version of their musical about Whitlam-era #auspol, The Dismissal, that is going to blow some minds when it makes its full production debut.
Take an Oscar Wilde fairytale about love, loss and sacrifice and turn it into one of the loveliest, most generous expressions of love between two women that we’ve ever seen? Seems fake, but Stephen Nicolazzo made magic with his production of The Happy Prince for Griffin Theatre Co. With Janine Watson as a golden statue and Catherine Văn-Davies as a roller-skating swallow, this small, short jewel of a show gave us the queer revolution from joy to sorrow, ending in a state of grace.
Honourable mention: We had warm-fuzzies after these shows, too: the boy-meets-fox romance First Love is the Revolution, the animals-bite-back Trevor, and Skyduck, the scrappiest '90s spy parody to ever steal hearts.
Sometimes you just need to sit in a tiny room for seven hours and commune with the theatre gods over a gay fantasia on national themes. Director Dino Dimitriadis took Tony Kushner’s epic play – one of the best of last century – and made it human again; at the Old Fitz, you could almost reach out and touch the characters. Queer love, queer rage, queer hope in the face of hopelessness: it was all there, defiant, generous and inclusive. It was an essential marathon of healing.
Honourable mention: STC took us back in time with Mary Stuart. Powerhouse actors Helen Thomson and Caroline Brazier were perfect, and this new adaptation by Kate Mulvany (directed with a strong, clear hand by Lee Lewis) brought new care and honour to the women at its centre.
5. City of Gold
Actor Meyne Wyatt made his playwriting debut with City of Gold (and starred in it!) and it’s a hell of a play: a coiled snake that lures you in and then catches you with a deadly strike. A close look at an Indigenous family in white supremacist Australia, there’s a heart-stopping monologue in the second act that feels like a Shakespearean howl of grief and rage, but it’s also extraordinarily loving. The characters at the centre of this play are gorgeously drawn and finely observed (Shari Sebbens turned in a remarkable performance), and makes this play a contender for one of the best in a beloved Australia playwriting genre: a study of a nation through the lens of family.
Honourable mention: Tommy Murphy took the challenges and complexities of one of Australia’s most notorious families in Packer & Sons, and made a work that examines power, patriarchy and the sins of the father.
4. Prima Facie
Playwright Suzie Miller used to practise criminal law, and in Prima Facie she put the Australian legal system on blast for all the ways it lets down women who have experienced sexual assault, and all the trauma associated with reporting the crime. With Sheridan Harbridge alone onstage as a lawyer whose trust in the system erodes when she, sadly, has an assault to report, this play crackled with writing that felt honest, urgent and smartly structured: you had no choice but to bear witness to the truth.
Honourable mention: Systemic, social challenges popped up in Tuesday, an inventive satire of social alienation, and The Weekend, Henrietta Baird’s swift, clever monologue about a woman against the world.
It’s rare that you see performances like these. Paige Rattray found new depths in Martin McDonagh’s black comedy about a warring mother and daughter, and then Noni Hazlehurst and Yael Stone carved themselves up and caved themselves in for their roles; their performances were so visceral you could feel them in your own body. Excellent supporting actors and wonderfully detailed set and costume work joined with those lead performances to create an atmosphere that had audiences gasping with shock at twists and turns in a play that’s more than 20 years old – together, we saw Mag and Maureen in new, clearer light.
Honourable mention: Things got twisted in the best possible way in the ahead-of-its-time musical Herringbone, starring Jay James-Moody as a boy, a vaudeville ghost and a whole array of bizarre and wonderful characters, and Adena Jacobs, the great avant-garde theatre-maker, dug deep into the horror of Titus Andronicus for Bell Shakespeare.
The three-plus hours of John, staged entirely inside an off-kilter bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Virginia, just flew by. A play of tiny moments built into a symphony of feeling, American playwright Annie Baker’s script covers life, death, ghosts and so much more besides. It’s about the little blessed absurdities and hundred heartbreaks of tying individuals lives together and trying to make sense of the knot. Directed by Craig Baldwin, who has tackled a few of Baker’s plays now and cracked this one wide open, this was a communion with the ritual of theatre, a meditation. We left this one falling in love with theatre all over again.
Honourable mention: Actor Megan Wilding made her playwriting debut with A Little Piece of Ash – and then she both directed and acted in its premiere production. Usually this is a recipe for disaster, but Wilding’s play, about loss and love, was in possession of a warm and lovely clarity.
You don’t expect to see one of the best plays of the year in January, but what a way to kick things off. Counting and Cracking transformed Sydney’s Town Hall into a Sri Lankan town hall and spun a family epic that traveled from Colombo to Pendle Hill and back again, a recursion of times and places. S Shakthidharan’s first play has a beautiful, solid structure to it – we move through time swiftly, but he keeps us grounded, compass pointed directly at the heart. With dialogue that hits the ear and rings true, a DIY, play-making approach to prop, design and theatre-craft, and a big cast stacked with talent, the play tackled community, culture, history, belonging and family – and even with that much ambition on its plate, it still soared.
Not done with 2019 just yet? There's still plenty of theatre to see this December, and make sure you snatch up tickets for these Sydney Festival highlights.