Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club theatre and opera highlights 2012 [December 21]

It’s not a new analogy but it’s still an apt one: the Melbourne performing arts scene is like a complex ecosystem, interlinked and interdependent and always interesting. After seeing approximately sixty-five shows in the past ten months I am happy to report that – from this audience member’s perspective at least – the local theatrical ecosystem is in rude good health. There has been an astonishing array of engaging work on offer in Melbourne this year for anyone interested in live performing bodies.

Theatre-makers have been able to fill venues ranging from cavernous spaces like the State Theatre to tiny nooks like La Mama, presenting everything from cabaret in temporary tardises like The Spiegeltent to pop-up operas in people’s lounge-rooms.

And they have offered us an ever-increasing variety of styles of theatre; from circus and physical theatre to new adaptations of classics and original ‘well-made’ plays; from productions with mass audience participation to events with audiences of just a couple of people at a time; from Broadway-style musical theatre to classical operas both old and new.

The best thing I saw all year would have to be the Robert Le Page marathon in the Melbourne Festival. ‘Lipsynch’ was nine hours of theatre performed in one day. If you’re a fan of excellent TV drama, it might be useful to compare the experience of watching ‘Lipsynch’ to spending a day and an evening gulping down nine straight episodes of ‘The Wire’ or ‘Mad Men’ on DVD. This renowned Canadian theatre director worked with his multi-talented cast to create a gripping narrative linking 9 lives over 7 decades, at the heart of which is a story about an opera singer who adopts a child. I was sorry when it ended (though my aching back wasn’t).

Other highlights: this was the first full year’s work from the Malthouse Theatre’s new Artistic Director, Marion Potts, and I simply loved her production of ‘Wild Surmise’, an ingenious adaptation of a verse novel by Melbourne poet Dorothy Porter seen earlier this month.

At Red Stitch Theatre in St Kilda I thoroughly enjoyed a production of the new English comedy drama ‘The Kitchen Sink’ by Tom Wells. It was a lovely combination of entertaining, moving, easy-to-watch, funny and sentimental, and yet also thought-provoking on the subjects of the persistence of class and on how much we all fear and resist change.

At Footscray Community Arts Centre I felt very lucky to have a chance to see ‘Bindjareb Pinjarra’, a West Australian production produced under the auspices of Victoria’s Ilbijerri indigenous theatre company. This – would you believe – was a comedy about an indigenous massacre in the 1800’s. It wasn’t preachy and it wasn’t worthy; it was funny and sad and asking all the right questions about the past and ongoing discrimination against indigenous Australians.

The best production I saw at the Melbourne Theatre Company this year was ‘National Interest’ by Melbourne writer and director Aiden Fenessy. This play about the Balibo Five was based on the story of Tony Stewart, one of five TV newsmen killed by Indonesian militiamen during the 1975 invasion of East Timor. Julia Blake gave a stunning performance as Tony’s mother June Stewart and Fenessy posed the very important questions – what is the value of finding out the truth, and of hanging onto the truth, be it in our own personal memory stores or in the stories our governments tell us?

I also enjoyed a couple of fantastic new Australian operas. At the Arts Centre as part of the Comedy Festival we saw the hilarious ‘Contact!’ by Melbourne composer Angus Grant about a feral suburban netball team, and the very dark ‘Midnight Son’ by Louis Nowra and Gordon Kerry, a Victorian Opera production based on the true story of a murderous love triangle.

The best show I saw at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival was ‘Tina C: Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ at The Malthouse Theatre. Tina C is a drag character created by British actor and comedian Christopher Green. Tina is tall, slim, pretty, with flicky blonde hair, long legs and a sweet country-and-western voice and at times it’s almost impossible to believe she’s actually a he. She’s faux-naïf and self-obsessed, and her greatest talent is pointing out hypocrisy, double standards, and unconscious racism towards indigenous Australians.

Opera Australia finished the year on a high note (excuse the awful pun) with two fantastic productions; ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and ‘Salome’. The two sopranos performing these crazy-lady roles – Emma Mathews as Lucia and Cheryl Barker as Salome – totally stole the shows.

At the Meat Market I had to admire Back to Back’s production of ‘Hell House’ even though it was appalling theatre. This cutting-edge Geelong-based ensemble works with actors with a disability and they faithfully staged a dreadful community theatre show that is used as a religious propaganda tool in the American mid-west to scare teenagers away from so-called ‘sinful’ activities such as drinking alcohol, having abortions and succumbing to a ‘gay lifestyle’ (!). Importantly, though, you didn’t just watch the show. After each performance Back to Back held a forum with a panel of expert guests to discuss some of the religious, moral and theatrical issues raised by the Hell House phenomenon.

I love the idea of theatre provoking a conversation. Melbourne has become a town of public conversations. We’re talking at Festivals, at the Wheeler Centre, at universities, at Melbourne Conversations – we just can’t get enough of hearing intelligent debate and discussion about ideas – and I think it’s one of the best things about living in this city.

Finally, a few lowlights (fortunately there were not very many):

– ‘Yes Prime Minister’ (re-named No Prime Minister) at the Comedy Theatre – dull and dark and dated.

– ‘The Heretic’ (part of the MTC season) – a play about a climate change skeptic with a lame melodramatic plot which will only fuel the insane conspiracy theories that persist about the causes of global warming.

– A live music gig at The Melbourne Zoo – WAY too loud! I spent the evening worrying about the animals’ eardrums. TURN IT DOWN GUYS.

Happy Christmas everyone – see you in a foyer (or pop-up theatre) some time next year.

Here’s the full list of productions i attended (in rough order) in 2012:

THEATRE

Yes Prime Minister (Comedy Theatre)

Tribes (MTC)

Good People (Red Stitch)

The Wild Duck (Malthouse)

The Seed (MTC)

A Limited Season (Mark Nichols)

Stripped (La Mama)

Odyssey (Melb Uni)

Red (MTC)

The Histrionic (Malthouse)

Boy Girl Wall (Malthouse)

Australia Day (MTC)

Far Away (45 Downstairs)

Ici (Williamstown Festival)

Laramie Project Revisited (Arts Centre)

The Heretic (MTC)

Macbeth (Bell Shakespeare)

The Wild Duck (Malthouse)

National Interest (MTC)

Tying Knots (La Mama)

Bindjarreb Pinjarra (FCAC/Ilbijerri)

Helicopter (MTC)

Blood Wedding (Malthouse)

Hell House (Back to BackTheatre)

His Girl Friday (MTC)

The Kitchen Sink (Red Stitch)

Doku Rai (Meat Market)

Top Girls (MTC)

Angela’s Kitchen (Malthouse)

Walking Mark Rothko (La Mama)

Michael James Manaia (45 Downstairs)

An Enemy of the People (Melbourne Festival)

Suit Yourself (Mark Nicholls)

Music (MTC)

Wild Surmise (Malthouse)

Trade Union Choir I’ll be There (Trades Hall)

OPERA/MUSIC THEATRE

Crossed Wires (Toff in Town)

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

South Pacific

Cape Town Opera (Arts Centre)

Midnight Son (Vic Opera)

Marriage of Figaro (Vic Opera)

Cosi Fan Tutte (Melb Opera)

Merry Widow (OA)

Barber of Seville (OA)

Magic Flute (OA)

The Book of Daniel (Vic Opera)

La Boheme (Melbourne Opera)

The Rake’s Progress (Vic Opera)

The Box (Chambermade)

Contact! (Arts Centre)

Master Peter’s Puppet Show/What Next (Vic Opera)

Lucia di Lammermoor (OA)

Salome (OA)

DANCE/PHYSICAL THEATRE/CIRCUS

Circa (Malthouse)

Circus Oz (Birrarung Marr)

Bangarra (Terrain)

Briwyant (Malthouse)

Forsythe Company (Melbourne Festival)

COMEDY

Van Park (Chapel off Chapel)

Carry a Big Stick: Tim Ferguson (Comedy Festival)

Die Roten Punkte (Spiegeltent)

Tina C: Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (Comedy Festival)

Plus One (Comedy Festival)

Flight of the Conchords

Bondarama (Chapel off Chapel)