Wednesday, December 11, 2019


Theatre highlights of 2019 - A  personal selection

Comment by Peter Wilkins

On a train returning from Melbourne, I decided to write about my five top picks for 2019, as Alanna Maclean and I have done in the past. As it happened, this year  Alanna and I will be looking forward to 2020 and what theatrical events audiences may expect from our perspective. So, I have decided to post my train article on Canberra Critics Circle as an archival record of the year that was – 2019.

Canberra audiences have been well served in 2019 by a variety of theatrical productions both locally and from interstate. Major venues such as the Canberra Theatre, Street Theatre and The Q Theatre in Queanbeyan have played host to major companies such as the Sydney Theatre Company, the Melbourne Theatre Company and Belvoir Theatre as well as production companies such as GDB Productions that brought Canberra the effervescent and evergreen West Side Story. Rising indigenous playwright, Nakkiah Lui’s political satire, How To Rule The World delighted Canberra audiences and popular Bell Shakespeare Company offered audiences an effusive and sparkling Much Ado About Nothing. The State Theatre Company of South Australia also returned to Canberra with a revival of The 39 Steps. The Street Theatre continued to offer a range of original and experimental works for the discerning theatregoer while The Q Theatre in Queanbeyan continued to attract audiences to touring productions by such companies as HIT Productions. Audiences have been fortunate enough to attend professional productions of the calibre of Belvoir Theatre’s Prima Facie, a one woman performance about the legal profession performed by Sally Harbridge under the direction of Lee Lewis or Simon Phillips’s sumptuous MTC production of Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love.
The cast of Mockingbird Theatre’s The Laramie Project and
The Laramie Project – Ten Years Later.

In the absence of a professional theatre company, Canberrans have been well served by some fine local productions, staged by established companies such as Canberra Repertory Society, Free Rain Theatre, Canberra Philharmonic Society and Dramatic Productions. Experimental Theatre by emerging writers from Canberra and interstate have been staged in the Ralph Indie Season at the Ralph Wilson Theatre at the Ainslie Gorman Arts Centre.
It is no phenomenon that the theatrical landscape of the ACT should be dominated by musicals. This is endemic of the paucity of major new Australian dramas. Musicals, such as Canberran Philharmonic Society’s Beauty and the Beast, Dramatic Production’s Pro-am The Producers and Queanbeyan Players’ Oliver do worthy justice to the mainstage musical. Canberra Repertory Society and Everyman Theatre have achieved a very high standard with intimate productions of The World Goes Round and Assassins respectively. It is an economic reality that companies struggling to gain audiences or increase their box office will often resort to quality musical productions in preference to dramas. Tempo Theatre with its traditional repertoire of standard thrillers and farces caters for its target audience of family and friends while Ickle Pickle Productions serves its niche children’s theatre audience with its annual holiday fare.
Everyman Theatre's Assassins by Stephen Sondheim

In deciding on my top 5 theatre picks for 2019, I can only comment on the productions that I have seen this year, conscious of the fact that productions such as local playwright David Atfield’s professional production of his play Exclusion at the Street Theatre has been universally applauded  and recognized as an excellent example of new Australian writing, dealing with the important themes of homosexuality, politics and social acceptance. Atfield gives voice to a section of society that in spite of recent advances remains marginalized in the mainstream of social and sexual politics.
The Street Theatre production of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis

The Street Theatre has also produced an outstanding interpretation of Franz Kaflk’s classic work about the public service clerk who turns into a cockroach. Director, Adam Broinowsiki with designer Imogen Keen and actors Christopher Samuel Carroll, Ruth Pieloor, Stefanie Lakkas, Dylan van den Berg and P.J. Williams has created an absorbing interpretation that incorporates the essential flavor of provincial Russia with the expressive power of physical theatre to produce a highly stylized comment on the corrupt influence of bureaucracy and class distinction. Rarely performed the Street Theatre production provided a thought-provoking and frightening and relevant commentary on  the burdensome subjection to political and social authority .
Lakespeare's production of Twelfth Night

Following on from its highly successful Shakespeare by the Lakes season of Much Ado About Nothing, Lakespeare delighted audiences with its latest open air production of Shakespeare’s delightful comedy Twelfth Night. Directed by experienced Bell Shakespeare actor Christopher Stollery with sumptuous costuming by Victoria Hopkins, the pro-am production provided a feast of Summer entertainment on the Patrick White Lawns by the National Library and in other open air venues to large audiences enjoying the festive atmosphere. Inspired by Joseph Papp’s open air Shakespesare in New York, Stollery’s Twelfth Night featured an excellent local cast who relished the flamboyant nature of the production of Shakespeare’s hilarious, yet sobering drama of love’s frailty.
Daryl Somers and Jeremy Benson in Dramatic Productions
Production of The Producers at Gungahlin Theatre

Dramatic Productions has forged a notable reputation for producing high quality musicals at the Gungahlin Theatre. This year producer Richard Block engaged professional musical theatre performer and first time director Rachel Beck who cast Daryl Somers as failed Broadway producer Max Bialystock As his gawky nervous accountant Jeremy Benson is a very talented newcomer to th Canberra musical thaetre scene and Demi Smith turns in a captivating performance as the ditzy sexy secretary Ulla in this hilarious and lively spoof on the vicissitudes of Broadway’s fickle fortunes. Splendid casting fun-filled direction and snappy, clever choreography made The Producers another musical hit of the year.
In complete contrast was Mockingbird Theatre’s courageous and powerfully staged production of The Laramie Project and its sequel The Laramie Project Ten Years Later. This verbatim theatre drama, directed by Chris Baldock and featuring some of Canberra’s finest actors staged both plays on alternative nights to regrettably small audiences. Although of the highest quality and attaining the true purpose of transforming theatre audiences, more attracted by more appealing entertainment than an account of the horrific gay murder of university student Mark Shepherd. An unsavoury, though significant theatrical palate risks the admonition of all but the most discerning and socially aware theatregoer. Mockingbird Theatre is to be applauded for not only courageously producing these two plays but for achieving such excellent standards.
It would seem that laughter is the best medicine and theatre that makes us laugh and think the best antidote to the absurdities of our time. Each year the Sydney Theatre Company production of the Wharf Review, created by that indefatigable team of satirists, Jonathan Biggins, Phillip Scott and Drew Forsythe titillates and tantalizes their partisan Canberra audience with sketches satirizing everything and everyone from Brexit to Trump and Scomo to Alan Jones with a highly uncustomary traverse beyond out shored to admonish Aung San Suu Kyi. With Forsythe, Simon Burke, Lena Cruz and Helen Dallimore switching roles and gender in a feast of diverse sketches, The Wharf Revue once again lauded the role of biting satire in a nation’s theatrical diet.  
There is much that I have not mentioned here. Intimate venue Smith’s Alternative has provided opportunities for local artists such as Nigel Palfreman and Christopher Samuel Carroll to present their work to Canberra audiences. What emerges is a rich feast of theatrical offerings from the amateur to the professional. In the absence of a professional State theatre company, audiences in Canberra are fortunate to have access to both professional companies from interstate as well as theatre of a professional standard from local productions. The Laramie Project and Laramie Ten Years Later and Metamorphosis , as well as The World Goes Round and Assassins  could all claim the title of professional theatre.
So, does Canberra warrant its own professional theatre company? Are there sufficient artists in Canberra to populate a professional theatre company? Could former Canberrans return to comprise a professional theatre company equal to any in the country. Perhaps. This is a decision for arts minister Gordon Ramsay and his artsACT department to consider. Several attempts have been made to create a state style theatre company in Canberra, and each has met with failure for one reason or another. It is time to revisit the notion of Canberra’s own professional theatre company with funds committed to a small company with which to begin and with excellent artists to establish a company worthy of a national reputation.  As well as the newly created Echo Theatre, Pigeonhouse Theatre and the Street Theatre’s professional programme already aspire to the title of a professional theatre company.
Maybe one day the dream may become a reality.