How is ustralian theatre going to shape up and how should it?
All sorts of changes and consolidations are possible with Neil Armfield leaving Belvoir Street in Sydney and Michael Kantor resigning from the Malthouse. It’s possible that, locally, the Malthouse could return to more traditional and script-oriented productions and with Armfield concentrating on overseas work we will see less of the flexible style of the man who can do everything from Keating to Exit the King.
The 2010 season’s announcements of the theatre companies show them scurrying to shore up their defences, to push their strengths and buttress their weak points.
The Sydney Theatre Company is giving us more of the de facto national theatre company showcasing and starry casting that we’ve seen under the Blanchett/Upton aegis. Liv Ullmann’s production of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire was one example of this and Long Day’s Journey into Night with William Hurt and Robyn Nevin and Uncle Vanya with Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving and Cate Blanchett next year look like being in the same tradition.
The STC has decided finally to bite the bullet in the case of the long-neglected Joanna Murray-Smith with Honour, starring Wendy Hughes. And it is still attempting to reconcile the mainstream and the cutting-edge. Philip Seymour Hoffman, for example, is coming to Australia not to act but to direct Sam Shepard’s True West, with Aboriginal actor Wayne Blair.
There’s also the associate director Tom Wright’s adaptation of Voltaire’s Optimism, which some people here found distinctly underwhelming.
Not to be outdone, the Melbourne Theatre Company has the Broadway musical The Drowsy Chaperone with those improbable stars for such a venture, Geoffrey Rush and Robyn Nevin.
But it seems to be positioning itself in the middle with mainstream offerings such as Wendy Hughes in Almodovar’s All About My Mother and also covering neglected areas. The company is presenting David Williamson’s Let the Sunshine, spurned by Sydney, with Jackie Weaver, but it’s also for the first time presenting a play by Daniel Keene and one by Marius Von Mayenburg.
At a time when the question of female directors being marginalised has been raised, Kate Cherry, of Perth’s Black Swan Theatre Company, is looking strong and her premiere production of the new Hannie Rayson play The Swimming Club will be seen at the MTC.
The MTC season gives us Pamela Rabe in Mamet’s lesbian production Boston Marriage, a one-woman Joanna Murray-Smith play, Songs for Nobodies, starring Bernadette Robinson, while reflecting recent theatre highlights elsewhere. Ewan Leslie from the STC’s Wars of the Roses is to play Richard III in Simon Phillips’ production of the play.
Both companies will be watching the appointments at Belvoir and the Malthouse that could shift the balance of Australian theatre.
Is director Benedict Andrews likely to be tempted by Belvoir Street? Could Barrie Kosky, the great ringmaster of Australian theatrical high jinks (and potent influence on Kantor and Wright and hence on both the STC and the Malthouse) have a greater role in Melbourne theatre — perhaps spending part of the year at the Malthouse? Could Wright be tempted to come back to Melbourne?
If Red Stitch has taken over from the Malthouse as the place for new plays, would it be logical for the Malthouse board to redress the balance by reflecting this? Could it try to poach the head of Red Stitch, David Whiteley?
Of course, these vacancies encourage thoughts of what we want from the theatre. There’s no simple answer to this because we tend to want opposite things at the same time, if not in theory then in practice.
We want our companies to provide us with first-rate examples of what the theatre can do and we also want dynamic innovation.
At the Melbourne festival, I saw the Deutsches Schauspielhaus Hamburg production of Simon Stephens’ Pornography. People jumped on chairs and ran around the stage, shouting and screaming. In theory, it represented everything I hate but I liked it. Why? Because the acting was in such hushed counterpoint to the general carry-on.
It was the lack of this tension that made me loathe Andrews’ production of A Season at Sarsaparilla, with Peter Carroll in drag and Big Brother-style cameras. Let alone the gigantism and frigid expressionism of his production of Von Mayenburg’s El Dorado at the Malthouse. Both looked like dramatic perversity for its own sake.
On the other hand, The War of the Roses was the most brilliant and bracing attempt to animate Shakespeare by an Australian director in years. And you could forgive Andrews the awful bits, not just because Blanchett was superb as Richard II but because the whole thing was so imaginatively conceived, even when it was perverse.
I didn’t think that was true in the same way of Kosky’s production of Euripides’ The Women of Troy — which I desperately wanted to like, but which reduced the tragedy of exile to a decorative horror show.
Of course, both Andrews and Kosky are, whether you like them or not, theatrical wizards and would have high claims if they could be tempted to either Belvoir or the Malthouse.
I know, in general, what I want and what I’d like to see reflected in these appointments. I want the play attended to with subtlety and then dynamically brought alive, not stood on its head for the sake of it.
Armfield, for example, directing Rush in Exit the King, or the sweeping authority of the MTC’s August: Osage County. I want the terse and taut harmonies of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling. Or the kind of writing for the theatre we saw in Steve Sewell’s Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America — indeed, in all of Sewell’s brilliant work.
I want Cherry directing Rayson or the American masters. (I remember the way the quietness of her direction released the hysteria of Edward Albee’s The Goat, just as I recall the unfussed classicism with which she did Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with John Stanton.)
Sometimes, of course, the kind of production I like doesn’t work, or not fully.
The STC Streetcar, now thrilling New York, shows Ullmann extracting a marvellous Stanley in minor key from Joel Edgerton, but the grand piano of Blanchett’s Blanche, however enthralling to watch, doesn’t give us Williams’ character.
Australian theatre should not disappear down a rabbit hole of self-regarding progressivism. This has happened more often than it should at the Malthouse and at the fringes of the STC.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Benedict Andrews, even on a bad day, has more imagination than all sorts of hacks turning out traditional productions for our main companies. And with the theatre, good intentions and sound principles are no guarantee of quality. The Brendan Cowell Hamlet last year, although traditional, was a fizzer. And if Andrews sometimes nods, well, so does Armfield.
We need our serious theatre done as expertly as we do the top level of commercial theatre. Wicked was a vast international entertainment franchise but no one who saw it could doubt the Australian talent could rise to the occasion.
I think that is what we so often don’t feel with Australian theatre, even if there are striking exceptions such as Osage. That the dismaying disparity between the MTC doing Chekhov and the Royal Shakespeare Company doing Chekhov, or a bit of complacent postmodern song and dance at the Malthouse compared with the Lithuanians doing their Meyerhold-inflected Romeo and Juliet at last year’s Melbourne festival shouldn’t exist.
Anyone might long to see Sam Mendes’ double bill of The Winter’s Tale that went from London to New York. Why can’t we match it? There’s no reason why we couldn’t do Long Day’s Journey (with Helen Morse and John Stanton) as well as any Americans. If we can do Wicked, we can do anything. The appointments we make to our theatre companies should reflect this faith.