Melbourne’s theatrical year started with a rush. Two shows were extended at the long-time home of fresh talent, La Mama, while at the Melbourne Theatre Company the commercial appeal of Geoffrey Rush and a cohort of stars saw an extended season of The Drowsy Chaperone sell out. But the good times have not lasted long.
Hannie Rayson’s cliche-riddled The Swimming Club at the MTC raises questions about the continued relevance of the prize-winning author of Life after George. The Malthouse’s first show of the year, Melissa Reeves’ Furious Mattress, is likely to renew debate about the company’s ability to present new, text-based drama rather than rely on its forte of rock’n’roll-infused pantomime.
Taken together, the two shows illustrate the difficulty in presenting new Australian work. They also mark the different rates of evolution at Melbourne’s main-stage companies. The Malthouse has announced that Bell Shakespeare’s associate director, Marion Potts, is taking over from Michael Kantor at the end of the year. Kantor can be proud of the way his administration has revived the moribund Playbox Southbank complex since 2005, introducing sophisticated programming that features modern dance shows and co-productions with Victorian Opera.
But Furious Mattress is not one of his company’s better productions. Kantor’s experience was with auteur-driven theatre best illustrated by Barrie Kosky, rather than the traditional well-made play. Reeves’ script tells a simple tale of exorcism that turns fatal. Despite outstanding performances, almost nothing happens in the long first half. The action introduced by director Tim Maddock after the interval adds no new complexity, instead resorting to theatrical tricks to energise the evening.
In a program note, Reeves says she sought to embrace the story as "common and familiar". It is hard to think of anything more alien from the lives of most secular theatregoers than extreme exorcism. Instead of illustrating the near universal human capacity for viciousness, as she claims, the play shows the pitfalls associated with the intolerance of religious sects, better suited to the hysteria of medieval witch hunts. It is possible that Reeves became too close to her material and no one at the Malthouse pointed out how one-dimensional her play had become.
But Potts could rectify this. Although the Malthouse says her appointment is based on evolution rather than revolution, her experience of directing authors as diverse as Shakespeare and Edward Albee is very different from Kantor’s. There is no evidence of a pop soundtrack in her productions of Othello and Hamlet.
While Potts represents regime change at the Malthouse, there is only speculation about when it will happen at the MTC, where Simon Phillips has been artistic director since 1998. There is constant speculation about when he will step down, especially since the international success of Priscilla — The Musical, which he directed. His MTC legacy is a proud one, and the success of The Drowsy Chaperone is likely to mean the company is well on the way to another profitable season.
But Phillips’ populist programming is looking thin this year, with an over-reliance on such crowd favourites as Rayson, David Williamson and Joanna Murray-Smith. By contrast, at the MTC’s sister company, the much bigger Sydney Theatre Company, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton have taken a different course, refusing to program Williamson in the hope of attracting a new, younger audience.
The evidence this year is that it is working. While Phillips surrounded Rush with such big names as Robyn Nevin and Shane Jacobson in the fairy-floss light Chaperone (even though both had little to work with), the STC’s big hit for 2010 is Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Sales exceed $2 million, based on the casting of Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving.
The MTC is going to have to follow the STC eventually in ending its reliance on Williamson’s populism as the writing legend ages, while it is uncertain how much longer Rayson can be relied on. It is curious, that she was mentioned as Williamson’s possible successor in the 1980s, but her career has proved too uneven. More worryingly, her last three plays suggest her inspiration is running low.
Two Brothers was a scandal-inspired success in Melbourne during the Howard years because of the implication that it was based on the Costello brothers, but it did less well in Sydney. The Glass Soldier in 2007 was a leaden plod through one man’s biography and The Swimming Club is so thin that audiences might be better served staying home to watch Packed to the Rafters.
The worry for the MTC’s board is that Phillips’ legacy will be of little help to his eventual successor. There are few recent signs of new talent emerging, either writers or directors. The company’s response when told last November that it must use more women in backstage roles, especially directing, was to seek extra funding. It is the same with the development program at the Lawler Studio, which is also dependent on new grants in only its first year.
The company seems flush with profits and subscribers, now more than 20,000. But examined more closely, the formula that has worked for the past decade needs reinvigorating, especially in artistic terms.
That is what the MTC board must grapple with as it considers the near certainty that Phillips will be leaving soon, taking his golden touch with him