With winter in the rear-view mirror and spring around the corner, consider August your month of reprieve before the burst of energy that September always brings: Sydney Fringe Festival takes over the inner west, art starts moving outdoors, and the theatre companies launch their 2018 seasons. You’ve been warned.
In the meantime, it’s cosy in the theatre – and you’ll find two of the year’s most exciting shows in there: John Bell taking centre stage in West End hit The Father, and the Australian premiere of Taylor Mac’s family drama Hir (currently one of the most performed plays in America).
August also sees the return to Sydney of Julie Andrews’ 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady. Since it opened here last September, the show has played Brisbane and Melbourne and scored a Helpmann Award for leading lady Anna O’Byrne. Our Melbourne critic gave it 5 stars, our Sydney critic gave it 3 stars – make up your own mind when it opens this month at the Capitol Theatre.
Dame Nellie Melba was Australia’s original opera diva and the first Aussie to make it big on the classical international stages (she was such a big deal in the UK that Julian Fellowes created a scene for her within a pivotal episode of Downton Abbey, starring Kiri Te Kanawa). Helpmann and Green Room Award-winning soprano Emma Matthews will play the Dame in the premiere of this new musical, which follows the Dame’s life journey from a humble Melbourne childhood to love, stardom and tragedy of operatic proportions. This essential Australian story is being brought to the stage by local duo Nicholas Christo and Johannes Luebbers, and a director so Australian he directed the closing ceremony of the 2006 Commonwealth Games:Wayne Harrison. The supporting cast features Annie Aitken, Caitlin Berry, Blake Erickson, Adam Rennie and Samuel Skuthorp.
Below is our 3-star 2016 review of My Fair Lady at Sydney Opera House, with a slightly different cast. My Fair Lady made Julie Andrews a star when it opened on Broadway in 1956, beginning a juggernaut career for the future Mary Poppins and Maria von Trapp. For its 60th anniversary, Andrews has moved to the director’s chair for a nostalgic production at the Sydney Opera House. The show has an oddly beloved, enduring place in our collective Western consciousness. Based on George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion (though it’s far less bleak), My Fair Lady is perhaps the most popular adaptation of the story, where a young working-class woman is transformed into a ‘lady’ by two older gentlemen, as part of a wager. Andrews’ revival comes with an extra gimmick: her production faithfully recreates each detail of the original run (then directed by Moss Hart) from sets to costumes and beyond. Old designs and designer assistants were tracked down and studied to make a show that looks just like any given night of its record-breaking 2,717-night run on Broadway in the 1950s – with the exception of fresh choreography by Tony-award winner Christopher Gattelli, which is inspired by Hanya Holm’s original work. Unlike other adaptations of Pygmalion that embrace contemporary culture and suggest that these class or makeover experiments also change the men for the better (e.g. She’s All That or the swiftly cancelled but not without promise TV series Selfie) this replica My Fair Lady remains a pro
Main stage and middle range theatre
A lot can happen in two minutes. In Michele Lee’s award-winning play, two minutes is the amount of time Yvette (Hsiao-Ling Tang) is allotted by her boss to clean the office of an executive at Golden Fields, a rice-focused agribusiness. Nisha (Kristy Best) works late a lot, so she’s often around for Yvette’s speedy cleaning sessions. The two women are a classic odd couple: Yvette is a Chinese-born single mother with a string of failed businesses to her name and a daughter staring down jail time. Nisha is a young second-generation Australian with a high-powered job and a hipster boyfriend (seriously, the guy drives a food truck). It's a contentious relationship fractured along class lines and exacerbated by mutual stubbornness; they scuffle over bin etiquette and are dismissive of each other’s standards of cleanliness. But over time, something shifts. Nisha is in the middle of brokering a deal that she believes will advance her career and her standing in the eyes of her boss: getting Golden Fields rice onto supermarket shelves in India. The rice in her nightly Chinese takeaway dinner remains largely untouched as she declares herself a farmer, chases her contacts in West Bengal, and flirts with a colleague. Yvette wipes down the desk, empties the bin, vacuums. And then Nisha starts asking Yvette for advice. This uneasy, shifting relationship forms the core of Lee’s play. The two actors flip in and out of various bit parts – Yvette’s daughter, and her employer; Nisha’s boyfri
New York performance artist Taylor Mac uses the pronoun ‘judy’ (in place of he/his/him) and produces revolutionary and riotously queer work (like a 24-hour non-stop history of popular music). Hir is probably judy's most conventional play, at least in form: it’s a rebellious, dark-as-hell take on the kitchen-sink family melodrama. Young and straight-laced soldier Isaac has returned home from war to take care of his sick dad, but he’s walked into an entirely new battleground. His younger sibling has come out as trans and his mother has found her own ways to push back at the stiff gender structures that have dictated her life – at the expense of her housebound husband, who has had a stroke. What do you do when the gender binary explodes in your face? This play may not have all the answers, but it assaults the audience with uncomfortable, essential, and frequently hilarious questions. Anthea Williams (Belvoir’s associate director for new works) directs Heather Thomson, Kurt Pimblett, Greg Stone, and Michael Whalley in a relentless play that Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman called “a dizzying theatrical Tilt-a-Whirl.”
Damien Ryan (actor, director and artistic director of Shakespeare experts Sport For Jove) makes his STC debut directing John Bell in this international mega-hit: a discombobulating tour through a mind unravelling in dementia, by French writer Florian Zeller (adapted by Christopher Hampton). In their 4-star review of the 2015 West End production, Time Out London wrote: "Florian Zeller’s brilliant play – here translated with venomous flare by Christopher Hampton – uses its structure to mimic the state of a mind deteriorating through dementia. Each scene is an elliptical extended snapshot – it seems to evoke a memory, but quickly the absurdist contradictions crowd in."
Independent theatre and/or less than $50
“Punch me.” It’s sometimes a question, occasionally a plea and frequently an order, but it’s a common refrain. Dry Land, written by Ruby Rae Spiegel when she was just 21 years old, is an astonishing playwriting debut: substantial, essential, and unsettling. Amy (Patricia Pemberton), a disaffected Cool Florida Teen is the one asking. She’s pregnant. Telling her mother is not an option, and with no fake ID or credit card, safe options for terminating the pregnancy – such as having a doctor perform the necessary procedure – are out the question. What she does have is Ester (Sarah Rae Anne Meacham). They’re on the swim team together (we spend most of our time in the locker room) but socially they’re worlds apart: Ester isn’t ‘cool’. To be Amy’s chosen confidante is intoxicating, and Ester – who has issues of her own – readily agrees to help with the problem. She’s the one landing the punches and fetching Amy Gatorade, grateful for the chance to be included. This shared secret is the basis for an intimate, but also volatile, friendship. Amy and Ester have clear affection for each other but are embarrassed by it; when they are alone together, each one’s world seems to begin and end with the other, but outside of that bubble their connection becomes untenable, or at least it does to Amy. If you were an adolescent woman, you might recognise that turbulence, and Spiegel’s writing is full of this sense-memory construction of human relationships; it’s all ineffably real, as though
You may not have heard the term before, but “dignity of risk” crops up again and again in childcare, aged care, disability services, and mental health practice. The concept is a simple one: that the right to take reasonable risks is essential to human life; that risk allows a person self-esteem, agency, and dignity. This concept is the basis for Australian Theatre for Young People’s new show, created in collaboration with Shopfront’s Harness Ensemble. Dignity of Risk is a devised (created in the rehearsal room) performance that uses dance, movement, verbatim dialogue and short scenes to explore the ways that social perceptions and misconceptions can place a barrier between ourselves and the world. The ensemble of actors (Mathew Coslovi, Holly Craig, Teneile English, Caspar Hardaker, Riana Shakirra Head-Toussaint, Steve Konstantopoulos, Wendi Lanham, Briana Lowe, Sharleen Ndlovu, Jake Pafumi, and Dinda Timperon) work together to chart the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, appearance, disability, mental health, and speech that form their public identities – for better and worse. Drawing from their own memories, they share with us their experiences of fear and prejudice, suicidal ideation and daily microaggressions – but also their successes, their self-love, and their love for others. No actor on stage is ever reduced to a single story, or to any disability, class status, mental illness, or ‘label’ they may otherwise wear – this is not a study in identity politics
Sarah Kane only wrote a handful of plays in her short life, but they have made a huge impact on the British and global theatre scene. Her astonishingly – often brutally – intense style has left audiences reeling. 4:48 Psychosis, about the darkness of depression, might be the hardest of her plays to take in. It’s a fragmentary and poetic exploration of major depression, poking at treatment and the self, and mired in despair. It’s a deeply personal play and it stumped critics when it opened in London in 2000, a year after Kane died by suicide; as legendary critic Michael Billington wrote, “How on earth do you award aesthetic points to a 75-minute suicide note?” Anthony Skuse, a mainstay of the independent scene who treats all his subjects with compassion, will lead the three person cast: Lucy Heffernan, Ella Prince, and Zoe Trilbach-Harrison. Take note: talk of suicide and suicidal ideation features heavily in this play.
Michael Keegan-Dolan is no stranger to re-casting choreographic classics as contemporary Irish dance theatre: his company Fabulous Beast had international hits with productions of Giselle (2003) and Rite of Spring (2009). In 2016 he took on one of ballet's most enduring stories, Swan Lake, transposing the story to the contemporary midlands of Ireland, and swapping out Tchaikovsky's score for folk music (performed live by Dublin-based band Slow Moving Clouds). Keegan-Dolan's Loch na hEala puts contemporary social issues alongside ancient mythology, to tell a story of love between a suicidal young man and a young woman cursed by the Catholic priest who abused her.
When Marcia Hines tells you to clap, you clap. Velvet, the disco-fuelled circus/burlesque cabaret, is your invitation to a party where it’s cool to participate. There’s no room for being self-conscious about clapping along or moving to the beat in your seat when the tunes are classic and camp, beautiful people are performing amazing tricks with their bodies, and it’s really, really hard not to smile a big, face-cracking smile. We meet a wide-eyed young man (Tom Oliver): shirt tucked in, hair neatly combed, wearing a tie. He’s just arrived in the big city, a ‘Boogie Wonderland’ full of self-possessed sexy citizens. A contortionist porter with a cheeky grin (Mirko Köckenberger) manages his bags; a glamorous aerialist (Emma Goh) pushes past him, luxuriating in the music. There’s an irresistible hula boy (Craig Reed) and a dark stranger with a studded leather jacket (Stephen Williams) who – literally – flies through the air above us all. When the boy meets his fairy godmother, his diva guide in this new world of self-discovery, everything clicks into place. It’s Marcia Hines in all her full-throated, buttery-voiced glory. A benevolent, larger than life, sequin-clad figure, she sings the house down at least four times and is a source of strength and comfort for our young man. Like most circus cabarets, Velvet consists of a series of numbers and routines held together by some kind of storyline. Shows in this genre live and die on the strength of that narrative: a variety show
This 1946 chamber opera (the first of Britten's work in the pared back genre) is a tough pill to swallow, though it has moments of lyrical beauty. Taking inspiration from an episode of Ancient Roman history that has acquired near-mythic status (over centuries of reproduction in art, literature, theatre and music) The Rape of Lucretia gives an account of how the 'virtuous' wife of Roman general Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus is raped by his ally, the Etruscan prince Sextus Tarquinius. In the real world, it's an incident that led to the founding of the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of a Roman Republic. Britten's opera concludes with Lucretia's suicide followed by a hymn about forgiveness. Kip Williams directs; Opera Australia soprano Anna Dowsley sings Lucretia, alongside Nathan Lay, Celeste Lazarenko, Andrew Goodwin, Jeremy Kleeman, Simon Lobelson, Jane Sheldon, and Jessica O'Donoghue.