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Belvoir’s 2017 season looks to the future with new plays (and Mr Burns)

Belvoir’s artistic director Eamon Flack says he’s pleased that his program for 2017 is “not just another self-gazing, white, middle-class season.”

“Working in a time when there’s great uncertainty across the sector as a whole, that always hits the notion of diversity hard first,” Flack says. “And I think we came up with a season that manages to present a more varied world. That was always a fundamental goal of being artistic director, and I hope we’ve managed to stick with that.”

Flack’s season kicks off with the Sydney premiere of Future D. Fidel’s Prize Fighter, which opened in Brisbane last year to rave reviews and Helpmann Award nominations for Best Play and Best New Australian Work. It tells the story of a Congolese refugee who escapes the horrors of a civil war to come to Australia.

While Prize Fighter is playing in the Upstairs Theatre, Katie Beckett’s play Which Way Home plays the Downstairs Theatre, exploring the relationship between a young indigenous woman and her father.

Flack says that while his 2016 season involved a lot of reflecting on our past, the 2017 season is looking to the future.

“I’m very aware that the world is a little bit shitty right now,” he says, “and I wanted to do something that didn’t succumb to cynicism or a sense of despair.

“It’s been quite easy in the last few years for people to want to take things deeply seriously. I wanted to create a season that didn’t shy away from some seriousness, but didn’t take itself too seriously.”

Central to that philosophy are two recent American plays — Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play and Taylor Mac’s Hir.

“The notion of having these two really bold, extravagant American vaudevilles about everything going to pieces, on a civilisation scale, seemed quite marvellous really,” Flack says. “And I would much rather sing and dance about the end of the world than be vaguely poetic about it.”

Flack’s season also features three brand new plays, by Tommy Murphy, Lally Katz, and Alana Valentine and Ursula Yovich, and two classics. Toby Schmitz returns to the company to perform in Aphra Behn’s often neglected 17th century comedy, The Rover, while Flack is reuniting the creative team from his acclaimed production of The Glass Menagerie for Ibsen’s Ghosts, starring Pamela Rabe.

“To some extent it’s a continuation of the sort of naturalistic theatrical poetry we began to explore with Glass Menagerie,” Flack says of the production. “I think it will end up being very different, formally, but that notion of working from within a play that seems fusty, but actually has a radical element to it, will be familiar.”

Belvoir is also bringing back two of its most popular, sold-out new Australian plays of the last two years, Jasper Jones and The Dog/The Cat, to ensure audiences who missed out are able to see the work.

The 2017 line-up marks Flack’s second season as artistic director. He says that while the pressure of the first was a “rude shock”, this new season is more clear-sighted.

“I’d been dreaming for such a long time of being artistic director, and suddenly you have it in your hands and you have no idea what to do with it. And it took me a while to begin to get a sense of what you can do. You know when you’re a child and you think ‘when I’m an adult, I’m going to eat ice cream all the time’, but you can’t. You have to live with what’s available to you and find a way to make that something special.

“Who knows if I’ve got it right yet. But I feel really happy about the season.”

See Belvoir’s descriptions of the plays below.

BELVOIR SEASON 2017

PRIZE FIGHTER

By Future D. Fidel
Director – Todd MacDonald
January 6 to 22 (Upstairs Theatre)

When Prize Fighter opened in Brisbane in 2015, The Australian said ‘Umm, did that just happen? Could it be that Brisbane has just witnessed the world premiere of the most perfectly structured, brilliantly produced and best-acted new play seen in this town in, well, living memory probably?’ and Belvoir and Sydney Festival are thrilled to bring this powerful new Australian story to Sydney.

Future D. Fidel’s Prize Fighter tells a story similar to his own, of Isa, a Congolese boy who comes to Australia as a refugee escaping a brutal civil war and unspeakable horrors. Settling in Brisbane, he finds a passion and discipline in boxing.

Photo by Dylan Evans
Photo by Dylan Evans

WHICH WAY HOME

By Katie Beckett
Director – Rachael Maza
January 11 to 29 (Downstairs Theatre)

Which Way Home is Katie Beckett’s first play to be produced, directed by Rachael Maza for ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, Belvoir and Sydney Festival. Beckett is also the 2015 winner of The Balnaves Foundation Playwright’s Award.

Tash is on a road trip, going back to country with her dad. He is getting older and the time is right for the trip, and maybe there are a few things she is getting away from too. Tash and her dad are really close. After her mother died, Tash was raised by her dad, away from country and in a mostly white suburb, where they forged a tight bond. Which Way Home is a work of fiction, but Beckett was also raised by her much-loved father after the death of her mother.

TOM BALLARD – BOUNDLESS PLAINS TO SHARE

By Tom Ballard
Director – Scott Edgar
January 13 to 15 (Upstairs Theatre – late night)

Boundless Plains to Share is a comedy lecture about the history, cost and future of ‘border protection’ and just what the national anthem is on about with those ‘boundless plains to share’.

JASPER JONES

By Kate Mulvany, based on the novel by Craig Silvey
Director – Anne-Louise Sarks
January 25 to February 19 (Upstairs Theatre)

Belvoir opened its 2016 Season with the sold-out smash-hit Jasper Jones. It’s returning for 2017.

Charlie’s 13 and smart. Perhaps too smart. But when blamed-for-everything Jasper Jones appears at his window one night, Charlie’s out of his depth. Jasper has stumbled upon a terrible crime in the scrub nearby, and he knows he’s the first suspect – that goes with the colour of his skin. He needs every ounce of Charlie’s bookish brain if the truth is to emerge before the town turns on Jasper.

MARK COLVIN’S KIDNEY

By Tommy Murphy
Director – David Berthold
February 25 to April 2 (Upstairs Theatre)

Australian woman Mary-Ellen Field was a successful business advisor in London when she was accused of being an alcoholic and leaking private information to the press, destroying her career in the process.

Several years later when it’s discovered that journalists and investigators from Rupert Murdoch’s News International have been hacking the phones of celebrities and other people of interest, Mary-Ellen sets out to prove that this was the source of the leaked information.

Mary-Ellen eventually becomes friends with veteran Australian journalist Mark Colvin, who is covering the story. When she learns of Mark’s medical condition, she decides to donate a kidney. Sarah Peirse stars as the idiosyncratic Mary-Ellen.

THE DOG/THE CAT

By Brendan Cowell (The Dog) and Lally Katz (The Cat)
Director – Ralph Myers
April 13 to 30 (Upstairs Theatre)

The Dog / The Cat is a delicious theatrical treat; a romantic comedy with real heart and genuine charm. After four extension weeks in Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre in 2015, the company is bringing it to the Upstairs stage for everyone to get in on the magic.

GURU OF CHAI

By Jacob Rajan & Justin Lewis
Director – Justin Lewis
May 16 to June 4 (Downstairs Theatre)

Our Guru (Jacob Rajan) is a buck-toothed chameleon, channeling 17 characters and leaping to multiple locations, delivering a serpentine romantic thriller while dispensing dubious spiritual wisdom. He is by turns charming, loathsome and absurdly profound. Laughter, heartbreak and enlightenment abound.

Loosely based on the Indian fairytale Punchkin, Guru of Chai tells the story of a tea-seller whose life is changed forever when an abandoned girl stops a busy train station with the beauty of her singing.

MR BURNS, A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

By Anne Washburn
Director – Imara Savage
May 19 to June 25 (Upstairs Theatre)

A catastrophe has brought the civilised world to an end. Survivors huddle around a fire, pondering the world without electricity, and the things they will never see again. To console themselves, they piece together an episode of The Simpsons, clinging to one of the few memories they all share.

Fast forward seven years and we’re in a post-apocalyptic society. A troupe of players wander the land, providing connection with a mythic past – by playing out the classic Simpsons episodes: Springfield has become a Golden Age.

Fast forward a generation. A feudal world of sorts has sprung from the ruins, and at its core is an intense religion of musical theatre, featuring a pantheon of strangely recognisable four fingered, yellow gods.

Musical theatre performers Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill star.

THE ROVER

By Aphra Behn
Director – Eamon Flack
July 1 to August 6 (Upstairs Theatre)

Aphra Behn is widely considered the first woman to make a successful career from playwriting. When The Rover premiered in 1677, it was an absolute sensation.The play fell out of favour for a few centuries, considered a little too coarse for polite society, but was rediscovered in the 1980s and is now considered one of the great ‘battle of the sexes’ comedies.

Toby Schmitz stars as the eponymous rover.

Photo by Daniel Boud
Photo by Daniel Boud

HIR

By Taylor Mac
Director – Anthea Williams
August 12 to September 10 (Upstairs Theatre)

Hir is the smash-hit new play from American playwright and performance artist Taylor Mac, best known for judys exuberant and outlandish drag performances.

Hir follows directly from a long history of American playwriting about the family in disarray, and while it is bitingly contemporary it sits firmly in this milieu of naturalism in extremis. A ghoulish vaudeville of the declining American middle-class. Helen Thomson and Greg Stone star.

GHOSTS

By Henrik Ibsen
Director – Eamon Flack
August 12 to September 10 (Upstairs Theatre)

For Ghosts, Eamon Flack has reunited his creative team from his highly acclaimed and award-winning 2014 production of The Glass Menagerie: set designer Michael Hankin, costume designer Mel Page, and composer and sound designer Stefan Gregory. They are also rejoined by Pamela Rabe as Helene Alving, a ferocious mother trying to create a better future for her son. In this revival of Ibsen’s revered play, Flack will bring a similar beauty and freshness that he brought to The Glass Menagerie.

THE BOOKBINDER

By Ralph McCubbin Howell
Director – Hannah Smith
September 26 to October 8 (Downstairs Theatre)

Ralph McCubbin Howell is a bookbinder. He’s looking for a new apprentice. His previous apprentices have not lasted long. See the best bookbinders are illiterate, otherwise they might get lost in a good book, or even worse, a bad one.

Blending narrative, shadow puppetry and music, The Bookbinder is a magical gem of a show that has enchanted audiences all over the world. It’s especially scheduled for the September school holidays.

ATLANTIS

By Lally Katz
Director – Rosemary Myers
October 28 to November 26 (Upstairs Theatre)

Lally is on a journey that many women will recognise. She’s seeking a more innocent and hopeful time in her life by going back the land of her childhood. Her personal relationships are disastrous, her career is in a shambles, she’s fast running out of money and everyone she encounters seems to be a charlatan or a shyster.

Something is pulling her back to Miami. Is it a mythical city under the waves?

Paula Arundell, Lucia Mastrantone & Amber McMahon star.

BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS

By Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine
Director – Leticia Caceres
December 2 to 24 (Upstairs Theatre)

Meet Barbara (Ursula Yovich) and her band the Camp Dogs. Barbara’s been trying to make it in Sydney but maybe this just isn’t her town. In all the relentless demands of city life, where’s the sense of belonging she craves? It’s time to take a break with her cousin René (Casey Donovan).

Yovich has partnered with playwright Alana Valentine to create a down and dirty rock gig filled with theatricality.

Photo by Daniel Boud
Photo by Daniel Boud
Featured image: Mitchell Butel in Mr Burns, A Post-Electric Play. Photograph by Daniel Boud

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