Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton continue their reign over Australia’s theatre community with the launch of Sydney Theatre Company’s dynamic 2011 mainstage season. The powerhouse couple sat down with Garrett Bithell.
Formidable partnership … Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett, Artistic Directors of Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti
It’s quite something kicking back on a sofa with Cate Blanchett and her husband Andrew Upton. It’s the Friday before they unleash Sydney Theatre Company’s 2011 mainstage season – their third as Co-Artistic Directors – and we’re in the office they share at the Company’s Walsh Bay headquarters.
Blanchett and Upton, who have been married since 1997 and have three sons together, clearly have an extraordinary relationship. Over our 45-minute interview conversation, it becomes obvious that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s almost unheard of to have a husband-and-wife team running a theatre company, but theirs is a formidable partnership. Joking and sparring, they seem to intuitively know what the other person is thinking at every moment, and habitually finish each other’s sentences – sometimes even before the first word is uttered.
But they’re also very different individuals. Upton, a playwright by trade, is the big-thinker, the hopeless optimist. Blanchett is the realist – the one who takes Upton’s gusty ideas and pins them to something more concrete. She is also fiercely intelligent, brutally funny, and much more earthy and direct than her public image suggests.
Their collective passion for the theatre is immense. Don’t forget that Blanchett is an actor who was trained at a theatre school, NIDA, and theatre is her first love. Upton is a seminal playwright and director. Their appointment at STC was an incredibly significant turning point for the arts in Sydney, and indeed Australia. Although she would deny it, Blanchett’s palpable pulling power has woken a sleeping giant in terms of audiences, and the STC is now easily the most powerful theatre company in the country. As Ralph Myers, Neil Armfield’s replacement over at Company B Belvoir, told Time Out recently, "They’re like this tree that provides shelter for all the other little shrubs to grow under".
While this year’s mainstage season has exhibited a strong emphasis on great American drama and the family, for 2011 Blanchett and Upton have programmed 12 works that share themes of isolation and the struggle of the individual. There is also a distinctly European flavour – the crown jewel of the season is an international co-production of Botho Strauss’s Gross und Klein (Big and Small), directed by one of Europe’s most revered and innovative directors, Luc Bondy, that will feature Blanchett in the central role of Lotte and tour to Austria, France, Britain and Germany.
"I’m utterly daunted," Blanchett says of playing Lotte. "But I’ve long admired Luc as a director – I mean he’s one of the great directors this world has produced, and I think it’s a sad thing in a way that his work is not known here. He’s a very powerful, often provocative and controversial, director of opera and theatre, and the fact that he’s directed all of Botho’s works except for this play – I think that’s a really exciting thing."
While other theatre companies around town summarily reject the value of staging plays from overseas, or bringing in overseas directors, Blanchett takes a different view. "It’s really great for Australian actors – and therefore Australian audiences – to have an outsider’s eye. Because inadvertently, even though we try to throw the doors wide open, the usual suspects start appearing in the company. When you’ve got someone who’s got no knowledge of that, it shakes things up."
Another common thread of 2011 is a focus on great female roles. As well as Blanchett, Miranda Otto, Jacqueline McKenzie, Leah Purcell, Anita Hegh, Belinda McClory and Helen Thompson will all take to the stage. "That was a conversation initiated – if we’re going to point the finger – by Cate," Upton tells. "We just thought it would be nice to get some of the great female actresses back – and there are a lot of them this year. It’s fantastic."
The season also features two new Australian works, Ross Mueller’s ZEBRA! and a co-production with Bangarra Dance Theatre, Bloodland. Ireland’s Abbey Theatre will bring their production of Mark O’Rowe’s hit Terminus, and Upton will remount his version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, which received five-star reviews when it played at London’s National Theatre earlier this year.
With Ralph Myers keen to make his mark at Company B Belvoir, and Sam Strong replacing Nick Marchand at Griffin, it’s an incredibly exciting time for theatre in Sydney. "Look, we love this job, and it’s been enormously challenging," Blanchett says. "But I’m particularly excited about this year because there is so much turnover in the companies. Belvoir has got a great season, and I’m really excited about Griffin’s season, and so you think, ‘let’s go! I really want to be in this city.’ I think it adds an extra frisson to the work that you do, when there’s fresh blood. I’m really excited for audiences.
"Now it’s just a case of making sure people come to the party. We think the food’s nice but we won’t know until people taste it."
Indeed according to Upton, running a theatre company with his wife is a natural progression of their relationship. In fact they have signed on for another three years. "It’s already a conversation between us," he muses. "It’s just a matter of opening it up. It is like a party – and in partnerships you often host parties."
"I think Andrew has the big ideas," Blanchett adds. "He gets the balls rolling, and then I say, ‘let’s not push that one too far just yet’. He’s the big thinker, and then I make sure the invitations get sent out on time."
"I choose the date, and Cate does the rest," Upton laughs.
Our conversation eventually moves to theatre and its relationship with new forms of technology, particularly in the wake of the recent debate about whether we should be allowing audience members to Tweet mid-show.
"I think it’s totally unacceptable!" Upton laughs. "The real connection, if you really want to get connected to someone, is sitting next to a complete stranger and laughing or empathising together with what’s one stage. It’s a funny one – I wouldn’t go for it myself. Theatre is a forum, but I think a forum is a place where you engage."
"And you first have to experience before you can dissect," Blanchett says. "Next it will be, should you tweet while you’re having sex? I would find that slightly offensive."
"That’s the different between sex and porn – tweeting," Upton chuckles. "And the difference between theatre and film – tweeting!"
Blanchett is about to start rehearsals for Uncle Vanya, which is the last production of the 2010 season, and a nice segue into the European focus of next year. Directed by Tamas Ascher, the cast is like a theatre-lover’s wet dream, with Blanchett sharing the stage with Hugo Weaving, John Bell – of Bell Shakespeare – and Richard Roxburgh.
"It always feels like the first day of school," she reveals. "And you think, ‘oh god, I think I’ve forgotten how to act’. But then you find your way together."
If Blanchett at all feels the weight of audiences’ expectations – her turn as Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire last year created an almost indecent groundswell of anticipation – she’s a master of hiding it. "I don’t think about it too much to be honest," she says softly. "In the end you just have to trick yourself in a way. I always think no one will come."
To book tickets for Sydney Theatre Company’s 2011 mainstage season, and to view the complete brochure online, go to sydneytheatre.com.au.