Some of the biggest hits on Sydney stages in recent years have been Australian stories: think The Secret River, The Drover’s Wife, Jasper Jones, The Boys... Theatre nuts might love a classic (read: Ibsen, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare) but Sydney audiences do not at all mind seeing themselves on stage.
Sydney Theatre Company will be banking on that in 2018, with a program that presents eight new Australian plays out of a total of 16 – and we will be front and centre.
The crowning jewel is a classic Australian tale – and one that hasn’t perhaps got as much attention as it deserves: Ruth Park’s epic three-novel, three-decade saga of the Darcy family: The Harp in the South. Comprising three novels (Missus, The Harp in the South and Poor Man's Orange), the series follows a family of Irish immigrants as they move from country NSW to inner-city Sydney, experiencing love and loss and hardship, and does for Surry Hills what Dickens did for London.
In 2018, STC artistic director Kip Williams will direct a new stage adaptation of Park’s trilogy by playwright and actress Kate Mulvany (acclaimed for her adaptation of Craig Silvey’s novel Jasper Jones, and award-winning for her leading role in Bell Shakespeare’s Richard 3). A cast of 18 will bring the tale to life over 5-and-a-half hours, and two nights of theatre (or one day of it, if you’re like us). If you only know Ruth Park via Playing Beatie Bow (a childhood favourite of Kip Williams, also) then get ready to fall in love with the Darcy family.
"There are so few instances where we get to sit in the same space as a character and watch them grow up," says Williams. "Here we'll get to see these sisters, Roie and Dolour, go from being young girls who are sort of fumbling their way through the experiences of life, all the way through to adulthood. It's an amazing journey – against the big-picture canvas of Sydney, and an interrogation of our cultural identity."
The other Australian classic for 2018 – also directed by Williams – is Patrick White’s groundbreaking modernist play of 1963, A Cheery Soul. Unpopular at the time but treasured now (and one of White’s favourite plays), the play revolves around Mrs Docker: the officious elderly busybody of her 1960s suburban neighbourhood. Robyn Nevin played the role twice in her career, and here the baton will be passed to Sarah Peirse (excellent in The Golden Age and Switzerland at STC).
A whopping six of the Australian works in STC’s season are new Australian works – five written by young women, and focusing primarily on women:
Lethal Indifference by Anna Barnes
Black is the New White by Nakkiah Lui (returning for an encore season, following its 2017 premiere – and upsizing to the Roslyn Packer Theatre)
Going Down by Michele Lee
Still Point Turning: The Catherine McGregor Story by Priscilla Jackman
Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death by Nakkiah Lui
The sixth work, The Long Forgotten Dream by Howard Lawrence Sumner, represents the first professional production by a previously unproduced playwright – and it says something about the calibre of the play that veteran director Neil Armfield signed on to direct its premiere, and Wayne Blair signed on to star as Jeremiah Tucker: a man grappling with his daughter over the future of his grandfather’s bones.
The other key component of the 2018 program is a quartet of ‘timely classics’: canonical works that take on a special resonance in the current socio-political climate:
Top Girls (1982) by Caryl Churchill
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui (1941) by Bertolt Brecht
Saint Joan (1923) by George Bernard Shaw
Accidental Death of an Anarchist (1970) by Dario Fo
“These four works have a very political framework,” says Williams. “They all look at the intersection of power and gender, and the construction of authority.”
These four works also promise the big ‘star moments’ of the 2018 season – including Yael Stone and Hugo Weaving.
For Top Girls, Caryl Churchill’s feminist response to the era that gave us Thatcher and the Material Girl, consummate comedian Helen Thompson (recently in Hir at Belvoir) will star as ball-breaking career woman Marlene, who famously celebrates her promotion with a dinner party at which powerful women from history are her guests – including Pope Joan and Isabella Bird.
For the Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Hugo Weaving (Macbeth) will play one of the great stage roles: the charismatic Chicago gangster Arturo Ui. Brecht’s play offered an allegory for Hitler and Nazi Germany, and Williams describes it as “a play about the construction of political identity and a political movement – through language, mythologising, violence, fear.” This new adaptation by Tom Wright “probes at the psychology of that individual, and asks why someone hankers for attention and hunger for control.”
Saint Joan, by George Bernard Shaw, will be directed by STC resident Imara Savage (who directed Mr Burns for Belvoir in 2017, and The Testament of Mary and Dinner for STC) – and star Aussie expat Yael Stone (Orange is the New Black) as the famously persecuted teen leader.
Dario Fo’s farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist will be brought to the stage by an all-female cast, in a new production helmed by Sarah Giles – with Amber McMahon as the ‘madman’, and Jane Turner (Kath & Kim) as the police officer.
If you’re after new international work, it’s slim pickings at STC in 2018 – but the pickings are gold: The Children, by Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica), which received raves after its London premiere in late 2016. Starring Pamela Rabe (currently in Ghosts at Belvoir), Sarah Peirse and William Zappa, the intimate drama tilts at climate change with a chamber-piece about three friends grappling with the weight of their past deeds – and their future legacy.
“It’s an amazing piece of writing,” says Williams, who saw it in London. “It’s funny but also deeply moving – I walked out and burst into tears and called my mum.”