Exit 2011 ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 30, 2011

Exit 2011

Was that 2011? I'm thinking of the Venerable Bede's story, in which one of King Edwin's thanes compares the life of a man (with the Anglo-Saxons it was always a man) to the swift flight of a sparrow through a banqueting hall on a dark winter's day. The past year has seemed the mere flip of a wing. Yet somehow I reviewed around 86 shows this year - quite a lot more than last year, when I reviewed 66, and almost as much as 2010, when I did 90. So much for my vows to cut down on theatre: the totting up of the books exposes my vain strivings, and reveals me for the hopeless addict I am.

Back to Back Theatre's Ganesh Vs The Third Reich. Photo: Jeff Busby

Officially, 2011 can stand as the year my brain broke. I'm always a bit beat at this time of year, heaving up on the littorals like a storm-ravaged longship, but this December has been the full-on maritime disaster. The captain of my soul would have been advised to take a holiday mid-year, but instead pushed on, seeking ever receding deadlines, ever more strained metaphors. And lo! Something went pop. Ms TN is presently in convalescent mode, stubbornly ignoring the inconvenient tasks that scar my diary even now with the excuse that I will tackle them next year. But the obligatory end of year mop-up demands attention before 2011 vanishes altogether down the memory hole. So here it is: my top shows of 2011, with links to my reviews. It turns out there are 13, not 10, so triskaidekaphobics beware. Not all the best shows I saw were in Melbourne, either. I'm no good at round numbers or neat summaries.

2010 was something of a high water mark for me: it was as if a number of energies simultaneously caught fire and delivered a concentrated year of brilliant, memorable theatre. Perhaps inevitably, 2011 has had a feeling of being on the shoulder of a peak, perhaps reinforced by a sense that main stage theatre here is in significant transition. Certainly it's been hard to look towards Sydney and not feel that Sydney main stage theatre has it all over us.

Some notable moves happened this year: Simon Phillips did his final show as MTC artistic director, bowing out to a triumvirate who will program 2012 until Brett Sheehy takes over in 2013. Less epoch-marking, but perhaps of deeper interest, is MTC associate director Peter Evans's move to Bell Shakespeare. He replaces Marion Potts, who took over at the Malthouse at the beginning of this year. 

Potts's first year at the Malthouse was clearly transitional, in general a solid continuation of the policies under Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong, with a few indicators of what might happen in 2012, when the Malthouse program is beginning to reveal Potts's authority. Her first production, the ambitious 'Tis Pity She's a Whore, was disappointing; her final show for the year, Meow Meow's Little Match Girl, a triumph. In between were some pearlers, including Simon Stone's Baal, which broke all commenting records on this blog; Michael Kantor's gorgeously elegant collaboration with Lally Katz, A Golem Story, and Tamara Saulwick's exquisite sound poem, Pin Drop.

The MTC began its season ominously with David Williamson's Don Parties On, followed by Raimondo Cortese's turgid The Dream Life of Butterflies, signalling what was in general a pretty indifferent year, especially in tackling new Australian drama. The exception in the Australian batch was Robert Reid's lively intellectual farce, The Joy of Text. Peter Evans's final show as AD, Clybourne Park, was one of this season's best; but the true highlight - Debbie Tucker Green's Random, featuring a revelatory Zahra Newman - was hidden in the MTC's educational program.

It's a truism that independent theatre here is our strong point. Perhaps the most notable emergence this year is MKA Theatre, a new, brash writers' theatre that programmed a punishing schedule of readings and productions this year, culminating in The Economist, a show that made them tabloid news. Everyone's favourite underground group, Four Larks, hit the mark with Undine, and are the Malthouse's resident company next year. And Chamber Made Opera made significant waves with its ingenious living room operas, finishing with Daniel Schlusser's Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Any More.

Anyway, enough of the chin-stroking. It's all about lists, innit? Here's mine, in chronological order, of the Exceptional Shows I Saw In 2011.

Out of Context: For Pina: Alain Platel's Les Ballets C de la B, Perth Festival
The End, Samuel Beckett, Robert Menzies directed by Eamon Flack. Belvoir St @ The Malthouse Theatre. 
The Wild Duck, directed by Simon Stone, Belvoir St (coming to Malthouse next year)
NOW NOW NOW, Luke George, Dance Massive
Random, Debbie Tucker Green, directed by Leticia Caceres, MTC
Dwelling Structure: An Opera in 8 Time-Use Episodes, by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, Chamber Made Opera
Moth, by Declan Green, directed by Chris Kohn, Malthouse Theatre
Namatjira, Scott Rankin, Big hArt, Malthouse Theatre
The Doll House, Ibsen via Daniel Schlusser, Fortyfive Downstairs
Julius Caesar, directed by Peter Evans, Bell Shakespeare
The Maginayar Seduction, directed by Roysten Abel, Melbourne Festival
Political Mother, Hofesh Shechter Company, Melbourne Festival
Ganesh Vs The Third Reich, Back to Back, Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne Festival


Cameron Woodhead said...

I'm with you on the brain-breaking (I saw 183 shows in 2011), and agree with most of your picks. But I do feel obliged to point out that it's a bit silly to quote the Venerable Bede and say "with the Anglo-Saxons it was always a man". One of the leading figures in Bede's Ecclesiastical History is the formidable St Hilda of Whitby, an incredibly influential abbess whose advice was sought by kings. She also hosted the Synod of Whitby, which reconciled doctrinal differences between Celtic and Roman Christianity. In the circs, I'll blame mental fatigue rather than ignorance.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, Cameron, you're quite correct. Those Anglo-Saxons were outstanding anti-patriarchs.

Alan Skinner said...

I really have to get out more.

Thank you, Alison for the comments and reviews. I'll make a point of following up on MKA in particular.

And thank you for the recent interview with Stoppard.

Ah, St Hilda - a veritable beacon amidst a mountain of ... men.

MY word verification looks rather obscene. 'pulshist'. And I hadn't even written anything.

Anonymous said...

Rawcus' Small Odyssey's must go on a highlights list... Tom Holloway's 'And No More Shall We Part' for heart breaks..? Whiteleys 'Incredible Blue'...? (despite Cam's weird review). But Ba(n)al - surely all that nudity and sodium lighting didn't deceive.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Alan. And I think you must find a use for that word.

Yes, Small Odysseys is certainly worthy of mention. But the real point of lists is that everyone argues about what is left out. As for Baal - no one can say it didn't cause a response, and I'm argued out on that one.

Stitzy said...

Thanks for a terrific reflection on the year Alison.

One small correction, 'Random' was directed by Leticia Caceres (who was also responsible, with Angela Betzien et al, for one of my highlights this year 'The Dark Room' at Belvoir *again longingly looking northwards*). Tanja Beer did the design on 'Random'.

Happy New Year!

Alison Croggon said...

Many apologies - I'll fix up right away! Cameron is right on one point: I do need a holiday.