Every year, just before Christmas, a group of Sydney’s print and online theatre critics assemble to mull over the best productions and performances of the year. The aim is to pick the recipients of the annual Sydney Theatre Awards and usually, it’s a compact and convivial meeting.
Not so this time. This year’s confab was a marathon, three hours of occasionally tense deliberation over a seven-page list of nominees that rumbled on via email into the following day.
As it stands now, the list had been culled to just over 100 productions, actors, directors, writers and designers for consideration in 26 categories. Sydney’s stages were awash with fine productions and performances this year and even paring down the list to a manageable four or five nominations in each category has involved clashes of opinion. As for choosing a winner …
For example, what comes out on top in a Best Production category including The Sydney Theatre Company’s gracefully epic staging ofThe Secret Riverdirected by Neil Armfield, Belvoir’s Angels in America, directed by Eamon Flack, and Sam Strong’s riveting staging of John Romeril’s The Floating World at Griffin. In their various ways, all were exceptional theatre.
Which was better? Simon Phillips’s fluent, surprising and beautifully acted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, or Andrew Upton’s fluent, surprising and beautifully acted Waiting for Godot? Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin’s chemistry bubbled in Rosencrantz. But was it any less bubbly than that between Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh inGodot? Both productions featured exceptional stage designs, too.
Who to pick for best performer having been privileged to witness? Luke Mullins as the AIDS-stricken Prior Walter and Marcus Graham as the closeted Roy Cohn in Angels? Or Cate Blanchett in The Maids? Or Catherine McClements in Bell Shakespeare’s Phedra? Or Harriet Dyer in Machinal?
All this in a year in which we were wowed by John Bell’s mould-breaking Falstaff in Henry 4, by Andrew McFarlane in Griffin Theatre’s Dreams in White, and by Bojana Novakovic’s off-the-cuff performances in The Blind Date Project. I could go on. In fact, I have to. Karen Sibbing’s brilliant performance at Belvoir in the stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona didn’t even get a look-in. Neither did Steve Rodgers for exceptional work in Dreams in White and in the STC’s Dance Better at Parties.
The awards for supporting players are similarly well-stocked. Elizabeth Debicki’s rampaging turn in The Maids turned heads. Mitchell Butel shone in Angels in America. Amber McMahon was scintillatingly funny in Windmill Theatre’s School Dance, which, now I come to think about it, was also one of the best shows of the year.
The independent theatre scene threw up a wealth of potential nominees in all categories. Not many (critics included) saw Melbourne company Black Lung’s Doku Rai when it played a brief season at Carriageworks, but it was a stunner, a powerful and blackly comic evocation of life and death in East Timor. That will have to remain a personal highlight.
The New Theatre delivered two terrific shows this year, both of them modern British classics; Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls. The tiny TAP Gallery in Darlinghurst has seen a quantum leap in quality with fine productions of Stephen Adly Guirgis’The Motherf*cker with the Hat (directed by Adam Cook) and Enda Walsh’s Penelope (directed by Kate Gaul).
Tamarama Rock Surfers had an uneven year but their occupancy of the Bondi Pavilion is starting to bear fruit and Leland Kean’s production of David Williamson’s The Removalists was pitched right on middle stump. Sport for Jove rounded off the year magnificently with a hearty and heartfelt Cyrano de Bergerac performed outdoors at Bella Vista Farm in the Hills District.
The musical theatre category was somewhat simpler to sort through, given that it has not been a strong year. The Addams Family? Nothing doing. Grease, Hot Shoe Shuffle and The Lion King hit the benchmarks required of them, nothing more. The best night of musical theatre I had all year was courtesy of independent company Squabbalogic’s punchy production of the legendary Broadway clunker Carrie – The Musical.But it will be the experienced troupers of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Tony Sheldon, Matt Hetherington, Amy Lepamer and Katrina Retallick) who are likely to scoop the STA prize pool – a bottle of decent wine and a framed certificate.
The technical and craft categories of the Awards are likewise packed. Stage designs by Michael Hankin (Angels in America), Gabriela Tylesova (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), Stephen Curtis (The Secret River), Tom Bannerman (Jersusalem and Penelope) and the team of Alice Babidge and Sean Bacon (The Maids) contributed powerfully to each production’s success.
Come the night, it doesn’t much matter who collects the prizes, however. After all this agonising, the Sydney Theatre Awards always default to a relaxed celebration of season 2013. This year, the real winners have been the theatregoing public.
The Sydney Theatre Awards will take place at the Paddington RSL, January 20.