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2019 looking back, The Year in Review

2019 was a challenging year for myself with a health issue intruding on my ability to see as much theatre as I usually do. Of what I did see here is my summary of the year.

Griffin Theatre at the SBW Stables in the first part of the year produced some work that was of great import for our cultural discussion and maturing.
Two Sydney Festival offerings:

  1. A re-presentation of a political ‘feminist’ hit called LOVE AND ANGER, written and starring Betty Grumble.
  2. SINCE ALI DIED, performance piece created and performed by Omar Musa – a re-presentation dealing with minorities trying to ‘fit’ into the Australian ethos.


  3. PRIME FACIE, a play by Suzie Millar, about the law and women in it, with a stunning solo performance from Sheridan Harbridge – a great one. Directed by Lee Lewis, hands off, trusting the writer. Harrowing and true. Ms Millar, once upon a time a lawyer – she knows of what she ‘speaks’ with this one.
  4. CITY OF GOLD, a new Australian play by Meyne Wyatt dealing with contemporary Indigenous issues that was searing in its coverage. Mr Wyatt, brilliantly incandescent playing the central lead supported by Shari Sebbens and Matthew Cooper as his siblings. Unbearable courage by Actor and writer, Meyne Wyatt – he, like Ms Millar above, knows of what he speaks from first hand and relentless daily experience – what a life of luxiourous ignorance I have had. Directed, by Lee Lewis, with a hands-off approach – trust ing the writer, again.

Most of the rest of the year was not so good to sit through. SPLINTER – no, no, NO! FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION – terrific acting, unclear play – what was it saying? Should I care? – an extended time on those seats at the SBW Stables that told us nothing worth taking away. iT became boring. Is entertainment enough in the world we live in? No, no, no!

As part of the Sydney Festival I thought highly of THE WEEKEND, by Henrietta Baird: another solo work inhabited by Shakira Clanton, Directed by Liza-Mare Syron. A tense journey into a contemporary indigenous world, told boldly and bravely. This is from the Moogahlin Performing Arts Company – an Indigenous company based in Sydney in its second decade of survival. Check out THE VISITORS, coming up in 2020 Sydney Festival – I hope it fits the bill.

As well, Paul Capsis and Jethro Woodward with the Fitzroy Youth Orchestra giving a brilliant contemporary song fest as part of the Sydney Festival in the Spiegel Tent. Not my kind of music but when a ‘genius’ delivers it one does suspend one’s prejudices and sits in awe and gratefulness.

I went to the Opera this year. I saved up and spent some dollars to indulge myself in the greatest and most difficult of the Performing art forms with a friend who adores it as well. Opera Australia. The only success was SALOME, a revival of Gale Edwards’ stunning production (which she was prevented from re-staging, much like her production of LA BOHEME which is regularly trotted out – almost annually, without her watchful eye and standard demand). SALOME had a committed and stunning performance from soprano Lise Lindstrom. World class production. Just why Ms Edwards is not engaged by OA is a kind of scandal, I reckon.What’s the answer Mr Terracini and the OA Board? Please explain. Is it that she is a demanding ‘woman’? Looking at the Directors that OA engages it seems there are a few there that are, anecdotally demanding! The rest of the work that I attended was woeful. ANNA BOLENA, over produced with powerfully inadequate LED screens distracting one from the Singing – the only reason to present ANNA BOLENA – the beautiful music, the ‘belle canto’. The new Australian opera WHITELY, the usual arresting score by Elena Kats-Chernin, a huge disappointment because of a libretto of startling banality in concept from a usually clever writer, Justin Fleming – as I said in my blog: “a Dud”. Explain Director David Freeman? Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini? While the theatre version of WEST SIDE STORY, (not the Handa Opera version) was hampered with casting of a considerable number of young performers barely able to sing, dance or act this phenomenal work – most of the company were actually making their professional debut on a stage! Not good enough. Striving for competence instead of cresting the wave of assuredness. It is hard to spoil this work, and it still glimmered greatness despite the OA production hindering its qualities – which are very, very demanding.

Belvoir was a great consistently disappointing house to visit.

  1. A diminished minimalist presentation of the great Epic by Bertolt Brecht: LIFE OF GALILEO, made palatable only by a performance of great clarity from Colin Friels, and a naughty scene stealing collection of characters by Peter Carroll, and add a valiant Sonia Todd in a variety of gender bending roles.
  2. A terrifyingly boring production by Neil Armfield of a truly great play, an Australian Tragedy, THINGS I WANT TO BE TRUE, by Andrew Bovell. A production content to seduce the audience with melodrama, farce and sentimentality instead of confronting it with difficult cultural truths. Happy to keep us as a nation juvenile and immature – manipulated into weeping copiously – how cathartic -having been served recognisable performing caricatures, of the type we saw in the early 70’s with say, THE LEGEND OF KING O’MALLEY, or even earlier with the adaption of Stele Rudd’s DAD AND DAVE! After seeing this: I mean, how good is Australia? Hey? Eh?
  3. PACKER AND SONS, a new Australian play by Tommy Murphy, that was very, very interesting that had, unfortunately, its initial dynamics of fierce energy and trajectory “bogged” down by over detailed research in the middle of the play – the Intel stuff – which was already well known, that needed to be truncated for the sake of sustaining the dramatic arc in the storytelling (a consistent trait of Mr Murphy’s work process – loosen it up, I reckon. Some poetic licence, please). A dark macho play – only men on stage – of the Australian Male psyche, using the Packer Family as a case exemplar to examine the ugly origin of our existing corporate and social culture where the ethical boundaries have shifted so far that they hardly exist – especially, if you get money and power, if you do so. Might it explain Mr Morrison’s raison d’être? Frank and Kerry brilliantly envisioned by actor John Howard and gob-smackingly inhabited by Josh McConville, as young Kerry and tragic James. Nearly a great play. A relief for the Belvoir audience. 
  4. Directed by Eamon Flack, most assuredly.

I didn’t get to see COUNTING AND CRACKING – couldn’t afford it. FANGIRLS – couldn’t get in when I finally tried to after relentless urging from friends. I had already seen BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS, twice. I saw THE WOLVES at the Old Fitz – not a play you need to see more than once and absolutely squirmed through the sickeningly manipulative EVERY BRILLIANT THING – maybe my own state of health closed me down to receiving it without anything but horror!? I see EVERY BRILLIANT THING is back in 2020, as well as JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUNBEAM, awful, awful guff for any but the sentimental one’s amongst us. Oh, horror, horror, horror! A certain family in The Shire will have a terrific time with this play, if they think to include the arts as part of their remiss.

2019 registered the sadness of the constant misfiring at the Sydney Theatre Company (STC): a misconceived and control-freak production by Kipp Williams of one of the great plays of the last century: CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF – just do the play, please. Opening with Maggie the Cat singing Broadway style CRY ME A RIVER. Really? Tennessee Williams is regarded as a kind of Genius by most theatre goers. Arguably, this play one of his greats. Why did you think you could improve on it? Thank god for Hugo Weaving as Big Daddy, despite the distressing tragedy of having to watch Mr Weaving patiently wait for the intrusive Directorial gestures to complete themselves so that he could get on with acting the character to tell the story. The over-the-top Sound Design with that wall of Lighting that blared and blinded us, as it underlined the dramaturgical matters for us ‘dummies’ in the audience who otherwise, I assume Kipp Williams thought, would not get it. (And by the way, how much did it cost the company to build and use that Lighting effect? – probably, I have mused, the salary for several actors that could have been engaged in other plays. Directorial effects at the expense of employing actors. Yes? No? This ‘crime’ was repeated by Mr Williams as he explored his third production of that “great” (?) play, LORD OF THE FLIES (he had directed it elsewhere, previously) – a cacophony of noise and distracting casting decisions (remember last year’s production of THE CHEERY SOUL, oh my!) It seemed he had learnt not much with his other productions of this text. The only survivors on stage in this catsatrophe were, for my money, Mia Wasikowska (in her first stage performance ever – what a talent she is, then) and that continuing marvel Rahel Romahn, who continues to produce the ‘goods’ over and over again (COSI, for instance). All those young actors in that production blindly trusting their Director – having to reproduce that production night after night would have taught them resilience if nothing else.
To follow at the STC we had curated by Mr Williams THE TORRENTS – a play looked forward to but unfortunately tackled in a production that flourished in the amateur values of the 1950’s, the time it was written; THE REAL THING, a middle-of-the road Stoppard with Stoppardian ‘apprentices’ learning how to do it – one of the most challenging writers to investigate. In summary it was a severe undercasting serving one of Stoppard’s lesser achievements; and then a revival of the ‘antique’ COSI, a horribly dated work from the pen of Louis Nowra. One of the hopes of the present theatre, Sarah Goodes, valiantly doing what she could do to rescue this time spent in the theatre – a valiant, but in vain, effort by this talented Director.
The STC year ended the 2019 season with a revival of THE BEAUTY QUEEN OF LEENANE, by Martin McDonagh. The best production that this company has given us, all round, for years. Paige Rattray in her best work yet, treated the play with respect and love – no mucking about with auteur gestures – just delivering all the black marks written on the white pages, and employing Design creatives such as Renee Mulder and four actors who, under her coaxing, delivered thrilling performances: Noni Hazelhurst, Yael Stone,, Hamish Michael and Shiv Palekar. A perfect old-fashioned storytelling technique mixed with horror, suspense and black, black comedy – you can trust Mr McDonagh to deliver the goods if you follow his ‘recipe’.

Mr Williams does know how to do it – remember his straight forward success with last year’s HARP IN THE SOUTH? Solving the writer’s play, if it is any good – and why else would you choose to do it if it wasn’t good to start with – is a very, very, difficult thing to achieve. Mr Williams is undoubtedly gifted but is in need of a ‘mentor’ to advise him in his choices, I reckon – who can he trust? Mmm, next year’s THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY. adapted by Mr Williams with a female Dorian is giving me much anticipatory anxiety.

Had a startling time at the OLD FITZ with Alice Birch’s play ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE. Directed by Shane Anthony who untangled this challenging script with a crisp insight and discipline on that tiny, tiny stage. A marvellous play. Mostly well acted.
Of course there was KRAPP’S LAST TAPE, by Samuel Beckett, brought to life through the meticulous talent of Gale Edwards guiding Jonathan Biggins to flirt with greatness as Krapp. A jewel in the 2019 season of plays.

At the Old 505 in Eliza St Newtown, saw new Australian work, ARE YOU LISTENING NOW, by Xavier Coy. A promising writer well worth catching. Also, saw AN INTERVENTION by hot English writer, Mike Bartlett. Directed by Erin Taylor with two unexpected wonderful performances by Jessica Belle-Keough and Bardiya McKinnon. (Mr McKinnon also scored well in LOVE IS THE FIRST REVOLUTION*** at the Griffin.)

I enjoyed JOHN, by Annie Baker, in the Reginald at the Seymour Centre. Directed, by Craig Baldwin with two outstanding performances from Belinda Giblin and Maggie Blinco. Ms Blinco has had an especially exciting bloom this year as she also made an impression in her work as Dawn in the Kings Cross Theatre’s production of OMAR AND DAWN, by James Elazzi.

I had a special night at The Reginald at the Seymour Centre with American writer Branden Jacob-Jenkins and his clever writing in GLORIA. This play was Directed well by Alexander Berlage.

Mr Berlage scored great kudos for his production of AMERICAN PSYCHO at the Hayes Theatre. Dazzling work on a shallow piece of writing. Supporting musical theatre performer, Blake Appelqvist, made another good impression after his earlier musical presentation in DORIAN GRAY NAKED – A New Musical, by Melvyn Morrow at the short-lived Limelight on Oxford. CAROLINE, OR CHANGE, a musical by Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori, made its debut bow in Sydney and proved to be a very interesting event – despite the difficulty of doing it under relatively straightened disciplines – a musical play that one has at last had the opportunity to see. The Siren Theatre Company’s spin on a presentation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Victorian operetta, H.M.S. PINAFORE, led by Kate Gaul, was cheeky beyond cheeky, with Tom Campbell creating a series of characters/contributions that were outstanding in their comic twinkles whilst accompanied with a gorgeous singing voice as well.

To finish, I loved the experience of Cirque De Soleil’s KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities – an astonishing night that was, for me, a return to form for that company. Also, SCHOOL OF ROCK, the unlikely product of Andrew Lloyd Webber with a remarkable performance by Brent Hill, supported by Amy Lehpalmer. I, unabashedly, loved it.

I should like to say that my greatest joy is in going to the cinema. I think I will write some comment on those experiences this coming year. Move over David.

Absolutely blessed to see THE FAVOURITE (perfectly cast and daringly Written and Directed). US, so superior to GET OUT – both, however, outstanding cinematic offers. JOKER, with a magnificent inhabiting – physically, psychologically – of character by Joaquin Phoenix – came to love the simplistic writer/director’s political statement. I almost forgot to write about ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, which hangs about my consciousness as I try to estimate the impact of Tarantino’s writing and ‘deliberate’ Direction – it is a ‘mystery’, a ‘mystery’ worth cogitating about. I get careless about the quality of Leonardo Di Caprio’s acting and don’t often remark about it, one takes it’s quality for granted, as he is so consistent. Truly, his performance as the cowboy star on the career skid is absolutely remarkable – he appears to be so nonchalant and does not indulge in any gesture of histrionics to draw attention to his characterisation. He should be studied by any actor seeking clues on what is great work (WOLF OF WALL STREET, is another example) – though it is so subtle that one mayn’t be able to see what he is doing. The contrast of acting styles are so brilliantly contrasted when one puts the self-consciously celebration of performance by Joaquin Phoenix in JOKER beside that of Leonardo’s in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. Another actor who has caught my attention is Juliet Binoche, her mesmerising talent that continues to grow and grow in subtlety from film to film, this year: WHO YOU THINK I AM and THE TRUTH, try to block out HIGH LIFE – torture by the hour. Annette Bening, of course, I never miss anything she is in.

THE NIGHTINGALE, fearless storytelling and Direction from Jennifer Kent, with a company of actors not afraid to be ugly and/or horrifying, an extraordinary film frame by frame – a trifle too long, one could take out a superfluous 15 minutes with no damage done, I reckon. JUDY AND PUNCH ,Mia Wasikowska continuing to confirm her gifts with Damon Harriman having a champion year. THE KING – saw it twice in the one week – an underrated film, I reckon, swamped by all the other quality films that came at us in the late year releases, great writing and tremendous performances by all – Timothee Chalamet, Ben Mendelssohn, Robert Pattinson and especially Lily-Rose Depp as Princess Katherine. PAIN AND GLORY, Almodovar back in form as writer and director with one of his great collaborators, Antonio Banderas – a marvellous performance.

Adored THE IRISHMAN, MARRIAGE STORY, THE REPORT, THE TWO POPES, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (both its actors and the Director have astonishing bravado), and believe it or not THE GENTLEMEN – was I surprised? What a great time (stupid and outrageously self-consciously clever that was no more than a demonstration of enthralling macho-ego – tongue firmly in the cheek – leaving the overrated KNIVES OUT for dead as a thriller. Great performances from the three ‘Old Guys’ in THE IRISHMAN (Pacino, Pesci, De Niro) and the other two ‘Old Guys’ (Hopkins and Pryce) in THE TWO POPES’. These five veteran actors demonstrating how continuous work can burnish talents to such effortless (in appearance) style and truth.

What of Adam Driver in MARRIAGE STORY, THE REPORT and in the latest STAR WARS offer – now, there is a range of work/skill that should knock your socks off in awe! Certainly, Scarlett Johansson recovers her status in my eyes as an artist for she has never been better when challenged, as she is playing opposite Mr Driver – well you’d have to lift your game, wouldn’t you, just so as not to look stupid? – but then the casting of Laura Dern, Alan Alda and everyone else in that film was a near perfect score by Noah Baumbach. Sorry, I couldn’t get on board LITTLE WOMEN – I was so detached from the experience trying to find some character, no matter the quality of the acting, that I could empathise with – spoilt conceited individuals, all, except perhaps, Marmee. Hated KNIVES OUT (tedious slow conceit), FORD V’S FERRARI (What was Christian Bale doing? Matt Damon redeeming himself in the last ten minutes.) and PALM BEACH – bourgeois pulp.

Documentary at the cinema: APOLLO 11 (Todd Douglas Miller), PAVAROTTI (Ron Howard), MARADONNA (Asif Kapadia) – all enthralling

So enjoyed a big screen OUT OF AFRICA and some of the Hitchcock repertoire. Indulged in DVD watching – discovering the genius of Cecil B. Demille (and Claudette Colbert), John Ford (and, ahem, John Wayne), Howard Hawks (what a spread of genre making?!) George Cukor (one of my ancient favourites), George Stevens, David Lean, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Ida Lupino, and, of course Alfred Hitchcock (from his silents to the later works. Watched maybe 15 films in chronological order to analyse his instincts in contrast to his ‘learning’.)

Just beginning to truly appreciate the Silent Movie and the acting style it demanded – WINGS< SUNSHINE< CITY LIGHTS - relating it to the 'new' physical work demanded by the best contemporary film makers where the story is been told with the camera forcing us to 'read' the actor, cathartically 'inventing' the narrative that is held in the internal 'life' of the performer by the ruthless stare of the lens of the camera to catch the subtlest clue of facial or physical gesture, they becoming the offer we have to deal with, as there is less and less dialogue 'telling' us unequivocally, what is happening. The audience no longer engaged at looking or viewing, being 'spoon-fed' but now are having to "READ" the images up on the big screen. To become active participators not indulged 'dummies'. To have to imagine and therefore to "act" with the performers. Thrilling! If you haven’t watched SUCCESSION, you’re a dope. And THE CROWN is still worth the effort. 2019 down. 2020 up and rising.