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THE AGE- 'Year in review'

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See article in its original context here by Cameron Woodhead for The Age.

Year in review: Melbourne theatre companies reveal stage culture in all its complexity

Melbourne was in the grip of festival fever during a bustling year on the theatre scene. The big ones – the Melbourne Festival, the Comedy Festival and the Fringe – have been joined by solidly established mid-sized affairs such as Midsumma, Next Wave and the Cabaret Festival, and there was   a flowering of mini- and even micro-festivals, too numerous to mention, thrown up by the indie scene.

Unfortunately, Josephine Ridge’s second Melbourne Festival was relatively lacklustre,  at least as far as international acts were concerned, with nothing of the wow-factor of previous years. Local contributions, though, have never been stronger: Roslyn Oades’ cross-generational verbatim-theatre from the extremes of adult life, Hello Goodbye & Happy Birthday; Big hArt’s Hipbone Sticking Out, a riotous and compelling response to Aboriginal deaths in custody; and Lachlan Philpott’s The Trouble With Harry, a densely poetic play based on a queer Australian story, were among the highlights.

Big musical revivals came  thick and fast. Grease and the 40th anniversary production of The Rocky Horror Show were followed by Wicked and a chocolate-box production of The King and I starring Lisa McCune, but it was the much-anticipated return Les Miserables that proved most dashing. The winning Irish love story, Once, was the only Broadway musical to premiere on the commercial stage, and is well worth seeing.

At Melbourne Theatre Company there’s a growing air of confidence, as Brett Sheehy continues to transform its culture into something more dynamic and responsive. This year opened with a crisp, entertaining production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, and ended with the irrepressible Miriam Margolyes in I’ll Eat You Last.

Between those successes, Australian work fared well. It was a pleasure to watch Robyn Nevin sink her teeth into the comic tour-de-force Lally Katz wrote for her inNeighbourhood Watch. Brendan Cowell’s The Sublime, an unpalatable but engrossing three-hander concerning professional footballers and sexual assault, caused controversy, but was unquestionably powerful theatre. And Damien Millar’s Marlin was enriching children’s theatre.

Then there were the shows that made you appreciate the good stuff, from the thoroughly whelming (The SpeechmakerThe Effect) to the truly underwhelming: Gale Edwards misdirecting Ibsen’s Ghosts into stentorian melodrama; an undercooked production of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, which, to be fair, had to replace a leading actor mid-rehearsal when Steve Bisley pulled out; and, worst of all, Complexity of Belonging, a shallow dance/theatre work woven from an embarrassment of First World problems.

As with the MTC, the Malthouse season began and ended with a bang. Simon Stone’s The Government Inspector more than salvaged another egg-on-his-face moment, after issues with the copyright to Philadelphia Story forced a last-minute change of plan – and perhaps only a shemozzle of that kind could have inspired such a deliciously madcap backstage farce.

More recently, Sisters Grimm’s Calpurnia Descending was one of the most original offerings to grace our main stages in some time. A sardonic homage to the ageing diva genre, the show combined talented cross-gendered performances with a propulsive fusion of theatrical and screen culture. It smelled like the future.

If queer theatre is going from strength to strength, so too is theatre created by women. The Rabble’s Frankenstein feminised Mary Shelley’s gothic legend to playful, monstrous effect, while Peta Brady’s Ugly Mugs delved into the dangers of sex work in a piece that swung between innocence and experience.

Otherwise the Malthouse program seemed a bit thin on the ground and some ambitious shows failed to live up to their potential. Serious male miscasting took the shine off Patrick White’s Night on Bald Mountain, and a production of The Good Person of Szechuan seemed literally to enact common insults thrown at avant-garde theatre.

At Bell Shakespeare, Peter Evans directed a sublime cast in a brilliant vision of The Dream, and we got a Henry V which, though set in a bomb shelter during the Blitz, seemed psychologically geared to the age of terror.

One intriguing theme that cropped up this year was the experiences of military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, given full play in a trio of works within a month of each other. Daniel Keene’s The Long Way Home, a rare collaboration between the Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force, allowed returned servicemen and actors to share the stage, juxtaposing the tense realities of war and its aftermath with satire on military culture. And two of the best shows at Red Stitch, Grounded and Glory Dazed, took on a female drone pilot and a ravaged veteran of Afghanistan, respectively.

But my favourite Red Stitch offering was Nadia Tass’s production of Annie Baker’s The Flick, which received pitch-perfect performances in the musty ambience of an underground theaterette.

On the independent scene, the second Neon Festival at the MTC remains a crucial innovation, despite not repeating the glories of the first. Of its five contributions, only Angus Cerini’s Resplendence and Nicola Gunn’s Green Screen forged towards something new and vital.

Fortyfivedownstairs, the venue founded by Mary Lou Jelbart and Julian Burnside in 2002, had an astonishing year, hosting many of my 2014 highlights: The Kin Collective staging Martin McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy, featuring a staggering performance from Noni Hazelhurst; Maria Mercedes’ star turn as Maria Callas in Master Class; the one-off resurrection of The Keene/Taylor Theatre Project for Dreamers, with Helen Morse; the grotesque clowning of The Long Pigs; and Maude Davey’s burlesque My Life In The Nude.

Theatre Works had a more uneven program, but the best of it broke new ground: Clare Watson’s clever post-dramatic grudge match I Heart John McEnroe was a delight, as was Gary Abrahams’ brooding adaptation of the Zola novel, Therese Raquin.

Other memorable shows included Ridiculusmus’s strange and daring The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland at Arts House, and the fearlessly histrionic feminist revision of Richard II, from MKA at the Fringe.

All up, it was a year that revealed the full scope of our diverse and complex theatre culture, which seems more energised and artistically interconnected than ever.

 

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