It has been a busy year on Melbourne’s theatre scene. As always, much continues to haunt me – good and bad – and even more manages to flee from the mind.
On our main stages, the Melbourne Theatre Company had the worst year I can remember. (One of the few saving graces was Neil Armfield’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, itself a Belvoir production.)
It was programmed by a committee of artists – Robyn Nevin, Aidan Fennessy and Pamela Rabe – whose brief allowed them to program themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we ended up with unedifying vanity projects. This is no way to program a theatre season. Theatre artists can be blind to their own weaknesses, and giving them licence to indulge themselves at public expense was a terrible misjudgement that incoming artistic director Brett Sheehy looks set to rectify with a curatorial approach to the 2013 season (which is packed with new blood and intriguing fare).
Aidan Fennessy can be an indifferent playwright and worse director. Playing both roles sullied National Interest, his take on the Balibo Five. The play had its points, though how you get an actress as fine as Julia Blake to give such an unconvincing performance is beyond me. Rabe’s turn in the spotlight – the screwball comedy His Girl Friday – was a relief by comparison, but not without its longueurs.
The biggest flop, however, was without question Robyn Nevin in Queen Lear. Director Rachel McDonald’s lack of experience at theatre of this scope doomed the whole enterprise. It was a salutary reminder (as was Anne-Louise Sarks’ production of Kate Mulvany’s The Seed) of how deeply counterproductive it is – and what disastrous art we can get – when unthinking feminism meets a rigid and underfunded culture of theatrical production.
Both of these young women, as directors, needed more support, more creative freedom and more experience. Women directors with the required experience do exist. They were overlooked.
This is an attack on ill-considered Australian conformity and the theatre world’s obsession with bright young things, not on the imperatives of feminism per se.
It could hardly be the latter when much of the best theatre I saw in 2012 was deeply informed by feminist aesthetics: Jenny Kemp’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the MTC; Adena Jacobs’ magnificent stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona at Theatreworks, which proved as unerringly theatrical as the great master’s film is cinematic; Marion Potts directing Jane Griffiths in Dorothy Porter’s Wild Surmise over at the Malthouse; The Rabble’s anarchic, gender-bending take on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando at the Melbourne Festival; Zoey Dawson’s all-female Romeo & Juliet on the independent scene.
The Malthouse provided a stark contrast to the MTC. Marion Potts might be producing less work per season, but the quality and ambition of the theatre being presented more than compensates. Highlights from 2012 included Daniel Schlusser directing Thomas Bernhard’s black screed against the theatre, The Histrionic (featuring a tour de force from Bille Brown); the understated naturalism of Simon Stone’s The Wild Duck; Potts’ bilingual production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding; and the operatic vision of doomed child stars in Declan Green’s Pompeii L.A, directed by Matthew Lutton.
My one serious reservation about the company’s work is its Helium season. This is, on balance, a disimprovement on the Tower seasons it replaces.
The Arts Centre has revivified and diversified its theatre programming in 2012. It has hosted an impressive range of children’s theatre, the Canadian master Robert Lepage’s 9-hour melodrama Lipsynch, experimental plays from Japan with human and android actors, and will see the year out with a bang by bringing us the National Theatre’s production of War Horse from London – the first New Year’s Eve gala opening Melbourne has seen since the musical of Billy Elliot.
Among 2012’s commercial musicals, we won’t soon forget the ebullient camp of Simon Phillips’ A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (with Geoffrey Rush heading a star-studded cast), nor the sweeping passions of Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in South Pacific. The Production Company continued its devotion to the Broadway repertoire with a season that included The Producers and Chess, while Cat Stevens’ colossal, self-funded vanity project Moonshadow showed how difficult creating new music theatre can be (and was completely outdone by the charming, small and independently produced Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert at Theatreworks).
On the independent scene, Theatreworks itself is making a great leap forward under the directorship of Dan Clarke, who has turned a sadly under-utilised venue into an independent theatre hub of great vigour and vision. That effort was matched by the ingenuity of Emily Sexton, artistic director of the Next Wave Festival, who discovered inventive ways to bring audiences to experimental (and often category-defying) work from younger emerging artists.
Red Stitch continues to program local and international fare, typically well-directed and performed at a high level of histrionic skill: Alexei Kaye Campbell’s The Pride, Tom Holloway’s Beyond the Neck and David Grieg’s Midsummer stood out.
La Mama is always a bit of a raffle, but Robots vs Art, NOA, and The Unspoken Word Is Joe were all the sort of vivid and viable new Australian theatre that might not see the light of day without it. And North Melbourne Arts House again proved itself one of our more progressive and interesting indie venues with a weird and wonderful range of hybrid and international fare, including Black Lung’s Doku Rai, a piece performed in conjunction with East Timorese artists.
MKA has also consolidated its reputation as a dynamic writer’s theatre. It produces challenging new work at fair quality and volume, and keeps attracting talented collaborators. (My MKA highlight was Alfian bin Sa’at’s sex.violence.blood.gore – a seriously kinky bit of political theatre that could never have been performed the same way in the playwright’s native Singapore.) The Owl and Pussycat in Richmond, too, has become home to some rangy, independent theatre.
Giving a complete picture of the independent theatre scene in Melbourne is impossible, really. It’s too diverse and complex and creative for any one pair of eyes to take it all in. That’s a boon to audiences in the know, and leaves this critic, at year’s end, in a state of exhausted gratitude.