From a queer love story set against the backdrop of First Contact, to a comedy about assisted dying, Griffin Theatre Company’s 2022 season is “all about exciting, unexpected clashes”.
This curatorial concept – 'unexpected clashes' – could be a case of art imitating life, given the turbulent times the Griffin team experienced in 2020 and 2021. Cancellation after cancellation built up an “inevitable, growing bottleneck of works”, Griffin's artistic director Declan Greene tells Time Out. Of course, Griffin has not been the only theatre company in Sydney forced to figure out how to salvage a season amidst a pandemic. However, as Greene explains, there’s a lot more at stake when every show on the bill is a brand new Australian play: “Every single play we produce, it's a very important milestone in the career of a playwright. We feel like we have to take very seriously the act of making sure these plays still go on."
Greene left behind an established career as a theatre maker, director and playwright in Melbourne to relocate to Sydney for his first artistic directorship. However, since taking the reins of the company from Lee Lewis in 2020, Greene has only had the opportunity to stage three shows at Griffin’s home venue, the historic and intimate SBW Stables Theatre just off Kings Cross. A few weeks into his tenure, Covid abruptly closed theatres down. When stages did reopen in November of 2020, capacity restrictions meant that only “around 20 people” would be allowed to sit in the audience at the company's own small capacity theatre, so two shows decamped over to the roomier Seymour Centre. For another production, Greene took theatre capacities out of the equation altogether. The outdoor production, Green Park, became a sell-out phenomenon, and those of us who weren’t lucky enough to snag a ticket the first time will be delighted to know that it’s coming back for Sydney Festival.
Greene acknowledges that he is steering the Griffin ship at a time of unique challenge, as a company dedicated to new homegrown plays. “A few years ago, all the bigger companies across Australia were really interested in doing adaptations of canonical plays. And there was really cool work that came out of that period. But it became very easy for a company like Griffin at that time to position its identity, because we're an Australian writing company. But when other theatre companies are commissioning and putting on a lot more new Australian writing right now, which is fantastic and excellent. It does mean that Griffin has to position itself a little bit differently now.
“I'm very interested in how a theatre company like Griffin fits into this landscape as the place that helps artists take their first steps in working outside the independent context. I think that we should be that intermediary between larger spaces like Belvoir and STC. In my mind at least, that's the really important and crucial function.”
A playwright and theatre maker himself, Greene has a poignant and personal drive to help get every play that Griffin supports seen by audiences. As the team took stock of the shows they had on their hands for 2022, two lockdowns later, a theme emerged. “The principle for the season in general, what emerged as a tangent, were these weird, unexpected but delightful combinations of subject matter and treatment,” says Greene.
“I'm fascinated by the fact that these playwrights are all kind of grappling with really big, weighty subject matter. But in this entirely surprising and unexpected kind of way, I find it very exciting.”
The shows to look out for from Griffin Theatre in 2022
Green Park by Elias Jamieson Brown (Jan 19-30)
The action takes place outside, in the actual Green Park of Darlinghurst. This psychosexual drama had our reviewer awarding it four stars when it debuted earlier in 2021. Making a special return for Sydney Festival, Green Park sees the meeting of two men, one younger, one older, who’ve connected through a hook-up app – but neither of them is what they seem.
Orange Thrower by Kirsty Marillier (Feb 18-Mar 19)
A fresh twist on the Australian coming-of-age story, this play is a joyful comedy, a curious mystery and a poignant love letter to South African women, all squeezed into one. Set in the sweltering outer suburbs of Perth, Orange Thrower is the award-winning debut play from the multi-talented Kirsty Marillier, whose work on the script began backstage while she was acting in the Australian production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. A co-production with Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta, this show is directed with zest by musician, performer and director Zindzi Okenyo.
Ghosting The Party by Melissa Bubnic (May 6-Jun 4)
Coming home from her sister’s funeral, Grace decides that at 87 years old, her time has come. She’s done with it all and is ready to leave the party – and she wants her daughter’s help. Greene says this pitch-black comedy about assisted dying is “extremely, breathtakingly, horrifyingly funny.” Ghosting the Party comes from Melissa Bubnic, the internationally-renowned writer of Boys Will Be Boys and Beached, with Griffin’s associate artist Andrea James in the director’s chair.
Golden Blood by Merlynn Tong (Jun 24-Jul 23)
Writer/actor Merlynn Tong stars in this self-penned two-hander that’s set on the neon streets of Singapore. Packed with all the action of a big-screen thriller, this play is actually based on a semi-true story. An orphaned teenage girl is left alone within the four walls of a decaying penthouse in the heart of Singapore in the care of her estranged brother, an underworld gangster.
“What's truly amazing about it is that you would never guess, and I would never say, because it’s not my place, what parts are true and what parts are not. It's pretty incredible,” says Greene.
Whitefella Yella Tree by Dylan Van Den Berg (Aug 12-Sep 10)
Two teenage boys meet under a lemon tree. After a rough start, they fall madly and deeply in love. If history had played out a little differently, they might have stood a chance. But it’s the early 19th century, strangers from a far distant land are on the march and the Country they stand together on is about to be declared ‘Australia’. “This is Dylan's mainstage debut. And over the last couple of years he's accrued this wild series of playwriting awards,” says Greene. Those include the Griffin Award, the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award, and the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. “It’s this beautiful and very tender love story about two queer Indigenous teenage boys at the time of first contact.” Whitefella Yella Tree stars Helpmann Award-winner Guy Simon (First Love is the Revolution, Wakefield).
End Of. by Ash Flanders (Oct 13-29)
An awarded writer, actor, and “elder millennial shaman”, Ash Flanders has done it all. But he’s never quite been vulnerable like this on a stage before. “I've seen everything Ash has done in the last 15 years. He's from Melbourne, as is the director, Stephen Nicolazzo. They're two of my absolute favourite theatremakers,” says Greene. “I've never seen him do anything like this show before. It's a much more vulnerable proposition for him. He's writing about, I guess what you would consider in his life as a low point, where he had to get this job as a legal transcriptionist to make ends meet. And then in the process, sort of pulling apart his life, asking questions about who he is, why he does what he does… and then realising, it's kind of all about his mother.”
Blaque Showgirls by Nakkiah Lui (Nov 11-Dec 17)
A twisted reinvention of the so-bad-it’s-good cinematic masterpiece Showgirls, the razor-edged pen of Time Out Future Shaper Nakkiah Lui (Black is the New White) delivers her trademark mix of wit, social commentary and balls-to-the-wall silliness with a throughline of Indigenous pride. This is far from the first time Greene has worked with Lui. The pair collaborated on Lui’s Aboriginal superhero comedy Blackie Blackie Brown at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. If Blaque Showgirls sounds familiar to you, that’s because it also premiered at Malthouse, in 2016. Under the direction of Shari Sebbens (Superheros), Lui will be giving the script a refresh with some current political touchstones – however, its ability to reframe an infamously bad movie to talk about authenticity and cultural appropriation, especially when it comes to First Nations art, is just as biting as ever.