2010: or Why I Love Living In Melbourne ~ theatre notes

Thursday, December 16, 2010

2010: or Why I Love Living In Melbourne

It's that time of year again. Mechanical Santas litter the pavements, cheering on the shopping with catatonic hohohos, and those of us who should know better are threatening the bank balance with imminent annihilation. And Ms TN is posed at her desk in strenuous attitudes of thought, magisterially weighing up the annals of 2010.

I think that all Melburnian theatre geeks agree that 2010 has been an exceptional year. Despite my stern resolution a year ago to focus more on my own work and cut down my theatre going to sane levels, I actually reviewed many more shows in 2010 - 90 as opposed to 66 - and probably saw in toto close to 100. This demonstrates two things: that (a) I should not make resolutions for fear of looking like an idjit, and (b) how much was on our stages that I felt I couldn't afford to miss. And even given my disastrous lack of anti-theatre discipline, there was a disproportionate number of works that I regretted not seeing. There was way more happening in this town than one person could satisfactorily write about.

Looking over 2010, I listed 37 shows that I thought top notch. (Those wondering about the bases for these judgments can read, as well as the reviews themselves, something I prepared earlier on my process of critiquing). On the other hand, the number of (reviewed) shows that made my toes curl was very low - it amounted to five. The remainder are shows that are merely good; that is, most of the shows that don't turn up on either list were not mediocre.

This is actually fairly startling. It was enough to pull me up and make me wonder if I'm going soft in my old age: but further thoughtful scrolling through the list only made me add a couple more titles to my initial list. There is, naturally, a certain amount of self-selection here - I am much more likely to be wooed from my couch by work I anticipate will excite me. Yet high expectations can be the more easily disappointed.

I think that, as much as anything, this year's theatre reflects how high the bar has been lifted. We expect our theatre, no matter how small the venue or lean the budget, to be intelligent, deeply felt, well produced and well performed. And we especially expect it to be well designed: I've commented often on Australian sound design culture, but equally lighting and stage design are consistently good. This abundance of talent and achievement hasn't apparated out of nowhere. I've been keeping a close eye on Melbourne for six years now - that is, since I started this blog - and I've watched with fascination how a tsunami of change has thundered through the theatre culture, transforming the landscape out of sight.

So this post will be Part One of a longer meditation. Part Two - which, if my plans don't go astray, will be up in the next few days - will take a wider view: I want to think about what has happened in theatre culture - mainly in Melbourne, but with an eye to the rest of the country - over the past few years. The end of the decade seems a good time to ruminate on this change, and not only because it's numerologically satisfying. As of next year, as Ben Eltham usefully outlined in Crikey last week, there is a change of guard in almost every major company in Australia. It seems timely to take stock.

To return to 2010. Working out a Top Ten list felt particularly arbitrary this year. And so, after a bit of debate with myself, I decided not to do one at all. I could come up with a Top Ten, of course, but - like summing up a show in three and a half stars - to do so distorts what's been brilliant about seeing theatre in Melbourne this year. What's more interesting is to consider the range, depth and quality of work that has been on offer. So this is the list labelled "shows I loved in 2010": a Top 37. I liked these shows for all sorts of different reasons, as you will find if you click the links to the reviews, but all of them made me think theatre was the place to be.

You'll notice I've included Daniel Keene's plays, which I didn't review because I'm married to the playwright. I thought both productions excellent; and given the responses they elicited from others, it would be absurd to exclude them.

In alphabetical order:

66A Church Road, by Daniel Kitson. Victorian Arts Centre.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, adapted by Janice Muller and Meredith Penman. Malthouse Theatre.

Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room), directed and written by Gary Abrahams, from a novel by James Baldwin. Courthouse Theatre, La Mama.

Bare Witness, by Mari Lourey, directed by Nadja Kostich. La Mama Theatre, Fortyfive Downstairs.

Bromance, directed Alisdair Macindoe, choregraphed by Alisdair Macindoe and Adam Synnott. Next Wave Festival.

Creditors by August Strindberg, directed by David Bell. Red Stitch.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, adapted by Judith Armstrong, directed by Alex Menglet. Stork Theatre.

Elektra by Sophokles, translated by Anne Carson, directed by Adena Jacobs. Fraught Outfit @ The Dog Theatre.

Elizabeth: Almost By Chance a Woman, by Dario Fo, directed by Michael Kantor. Malthouse Theatre.

Fatboy, by by John Clancy, directed by Marcelle Schmitz. Red Stitch.

Hole in the Wall by by Halcyon Mcleod, directed by Hallie Shellam. Next Wave Festival.

Human Interest Story, choreographed by Lucy Guerin. Malthouse Theatre & Perth International Festival.

Life Without Me, by Daniel Keene, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, directed by Benedict Andrews. Belvoir St Theatre.

Moth, by Declan Greene, directed by Chris Kohn. Arena Theatre and Malthouse Theatre.

Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Four Larks.

PropogandA by Acrobat, North Melbourne Arts House.

Richard III, by Shakespeare, directed by Simon Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company.

Sappho... in 9 fragments, by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, directed by Marion Potts. Malthouse Theatre.

Stifters Dinge, by Heiner Goebbels. Melbourne Festival.

The Beckett Trilogy, by Samuel Beckett, Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett. Melbourne Festival.

Irony is not Enough: Essay on my Life as Catherine Deneuve, by Anne Carson. Fragment 31.

Maybe Forever, choreographed and performed by Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher. Malthouse Theatre.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, by Suzanne Andrade. 1927 @ Malthouse Theatre.

The Bedroom Project by The Rabble.

The Nest by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Benedict Hardie and Anne Louise Sarks, directed by Sarks. The Hayloft Project.

The Nightwatchman, by Daniel Keene, directed by Matt Scholten. If Theatre @ Theatre Works.

The Tell Tale Heart, adapted by Barrie Kosky after Edgar Allan Poe, remounted by Michael Kantor. Malthouse Theatre.

The Raft, by Bill Viola. (Yes, I know this isn't theatre, but visual art. Still, one of my performance high points this year. And it's still on view). Melbourne Festival.

The Trial, by Louise Fox, directed by Matt Lutton, after Franz Kafka. ThinIce and Malthouse Theatre.

The Ugly One, by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare, directed by Lee Lewis. Bell Shakespeare.

Thyestes, after Seneca, directed by Simon Stone. The Hayloft Project and Malthouse Theatre.

This Kind of Ruckus, by Version 1.0, Victorian Arts Centre.

Triple Bill of Wild Delight, Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, La Mama Theatre.

Vertical Road, by Akram Khan, Akram Khan Company. Melbourne Festival.

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), by Nigel Jamieson. Malthouse Theatre.

Schadenfreude: there is some. Below were the shows that caused me pain in 2010. It's striking that (a) there were so few and (b) so many were from the MTC. Although, to be fair, the MTC was absolutely happening mid-year, when The Ugly One and Richard III - both among the best shows I've seen there - were running simultaneously; and the worst experience I had in the theatre this year was actually courtesy of an independent company. I didn't review it, since there is no satisfaction in sticking the knife into a work that is already manifestly sinking, and so will keep schtumm on its identity. Although I will say that I thought my colleague Cameron Woodhead - who wrote a scathing review of this particular debacle - was being kind.

Dead Man's Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

The Grenade by Tony McNamara, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

King Lear, by Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Bell Shakespeare.

Madagascar, by RT Rogers, directed by Sam Strong. Melbourne Theatre Company.

The Swimming Club, by Hannie Rayson, directed by Kate Cherry. Melbourne Theatre Company.

So that was 2010. What a year! And it's been a bit dizzying for Ms TN on other levels, too.

On a personal note, I calculated this week that I have written approximately 200,000 words for publication over the past 12 months. A swathe of that was for this blog, as well as reviews and features for The Australian. I also wrote several scholarly-type essays for journals such as Overland or Theatre Forum, and various think pieces for other blogs around town - The Drum, the Wheeler Centre, Overland, and others. In between all that, I wrote a novel, Black Spring (which looks likely to be published in Australia next year); a piece of music theatre, Night Songs, with Daniel Keene for Bell Shakespeare; and I started on a libretto for Sydney composer Michael Smetanin on the poet Mayakovsky. This perhaps accounts for my recent raggedness.

Partly in response to that raggedness, I've resigned as Melbourne theatre critic for The Australian, as of the end of this year. I've wholly enjoyed working for the Oz, which has reason to be proud of its arts coverage, and hope to continue my relationship with them as occasional feature and profile writer. I've resigned also because of conflicts of interest brought about by my writing for the theatre again - something I thought was well over when, three years ago, I was offered the job - which make being a daily print critic problematic. I don't see these issues being a problem on the blog, where I have always written as an artist first and an improper critic second, and where my interests are declared here and here for anyone who cares to look.

More importantly, resigning as Australian Melbourne Theatre Critic will permit me to rethink the blog, which has, by default, been operating under the matrix of being a daily print reviewer. This rethink is a necessity: I have a slew of new and interesting commitments next year. Many are looking rather literary: I'll be doing a regular column for Overland; and I'm part of the editorial advisory board for the new-look Meanjin, under editor Sally Heath. Also, I planned out a new epic fantasy I want to write. And there's that Mayakovsky libretto, which I had better finish before my composer has conniptions.

Nevertheless, while Melbourne theatre keeps on being so exciting, I can't imagine stopping the blog. It's too much fun, and way too rewarding in every sense except the pecuniary (which appeals to my Quixotic nature). Over the past 12 months, my stat counter tells me that there have been just under 220,000 unique visitors here, around 60,000 of them return visits, and that's a lot of reasons to keep going. All the same, my body is reminding me firmly that I have to be sane about my output. I have been about as exhausted this past month as I have been in my life, and I assure you, I'm an expert on all the varieties of weariness. But I will definitely be here to see what happens next year.

All that remains is to thank all of you - artists, companies, readers and commenters - who have made this blog so lively with tickets, time, thoughtfulness, encouragement, brickbats and, above all, the art that makes it all happen. You've made my life very rich indeed, and I'm deeply grateful.

Pictures: from top: Thyestes, The Hayloft Project; The Trial, Malthouse & ThinIce; Bare Witness, Fortyfive Downstairs; Fatboy, Red Stitch; Richard III, MTC; 66A Church Rd, Daniel Kitson; Stifters Dinge, Melbourne Festival.


Matthew said...

Thank you for yet another year of insight, Ms C; the paper and its readers will miss you, I'm sure. Looking forward to the second part of this rumination, as well as to seeing what you come up with in 2011.

David Williams said...

call me evil, but I want to know what the worst show was! I've trawled through Cameron's blog in hope of finding it, and have 2 candidates, but it's always fun to be sure!

Alison Croggon said...

Thank you, Mr Clayfield! I look forward to more conversations in the coming year!

David, you are an evil man. I don't believe Cameron's review is on his blog, although he did write about it for the Age. I would feel bad about naming the show, although I guess not doing so might make a number of other innocent companies paranoid. (Also, I left at half time.) And the painfulness was as much about seeing so much misguided hard work, as it was about what I was enduring in the audience.

Cameron Woodhead said...

It took me ages to solve this mystery. I'd repressed the show utterly. Thanks guys, now I'm going to have to re-repress it. Anyway, I've dredged the unedited review from the darkness, for the evil people.

Wheeler Centre said...

Thanks for your piece this year, Alison. It really elevated discussion around the lecture. Joining our unconference into Critical Failure was a highlight of our year.

Alison Croggon said...

I hope it was the right one, Cameron. We'll have to confer in private, at the risk of waking more repressed memories...

And thanks, Wheeler Centre. You've been a shining addition to the local landscape!

richardwatts said...

Cheers, Alison - here's to an equally stimulating, entrancing and good theatre-filled 2011!

Anonymous said...

Ahh, schadenfreude. The promise of which being what sustained me through productions such as The Grenade (well, that, and the fact that I paid for it).

Your post reminds me that I have summations to do as well, though there's at least two reviews to come before that - busy, busy, busy.

As for this mysterious show that no one seems to want to mention - could I just say to any insiders that a certain Mr. Assange has been released from prison? Just a hint.

Anonymous said...

This hedging is unmannerly. Surely it's the Shakespeare pyjama party from June? Good ideas, hard work, perplexedly awful result.

Great list--would add--off the top of my head--Habitat from Mutations Theatre and Orpheus from 4Larks.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Andrew - I should have remembered the toxic seduction of schadenfreude mixed with curiosity. Silly me. But I shall continue unseemly.

Yes, those are two of the shows I regretted missing.

Anonymous said...

And Jenny Kemp's Madeleine - That one was well worth the list.