Best theatre of 2018: Jason Whittaker’s Sydney picks

From opera to musical theatre and drama classic and contemporary, I’m genre agnostic when it comes to picking the best theatrical experiences of 2018.

The standout Sydney stage shows spoke to the moment in distinctive ways, from #metoo to race relations, mental health, environmentalism … and the pitfalls of bricking yourself into a pyramid.

In arbitrary but discriminating order, here’s the countdown of performances that moved me most this year …

10. AIDA (Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House)

It was glitzy, gaudy and gauche. And damn good fun. Opera Australia’s new high-tech Aida, a dance of dazzling digital set design, offered a great gimmick but also a clarity in storytelling so often missing in the presentation of opera. And musically, under the flamboyant baton of Andrea Battistoni with an international cast, Verdi’s masterpiece has never sounded better. (Jason Whittaker’s review.)

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9. THE ALMIGHTY SOMETIMES (Griffin Theatre)

The Almighty Sometimes was the best bit of brand-new Australian writing in Sydney this year. Equal parts tender and thrilling, with a quite extraordinary performance from 22-year-old Brenna Harding, Kendall Feaver’s unflinching examination of mental health and antipsychotics was poetic and brutally authentic. There were no easy solutions, which is exactly how it should have been.

8. IN THE HEIGHTS (Blue Saint Productions, Hayes Theatre)

Before there was Hamilton there was In The Heights, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s wildly contemporary hip hop love letter to the neighbourhood that raised him. The tiny Hayes Theatre felt as stifling as summer in Manhattan and alive to the rhythmic sounds of its Latino underclass. And never let it be said the performing talent pool is too shallow for diversity: the cast here knocked it out of the park. The good news? It remounts at the Sydney Opera House in January. (Jason Whittaker’s review.)

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7. THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI (Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Sydney Theatre Company boss Kip Williams created theatrical magic as director in three epic productions this year, starting with Tom Wright’s wickedly contemporary adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Ui. It was a long and knotty 135 minutes of theatre, but rarely not captivating thanks to Williams’ astute direction and terrific cast. You couldn’t take your eyes off Hugo Weaving even if you wanted to. (Rozanna Lilley’s review.)

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6. THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Two plays, really, with the first better than the second. Once again, Kip Williams crafted indelible moments in Kate Mulvany’s phonebook-sized script, based on Ruth Park’s triad treatise. In a six-hour experience as uneven as life, with moments of truly masterful stagecraft, Williams’ fine players took us on an uncomfortably, celebratorily Australian journey. (Jason Whittaker’s review.)

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5. THE CHILDREN (Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House)

A quietly terrifying play about cross-generational responsibility, Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children arrived from London and New York with critical praise and was perhaps taken for granted in Sydney. But this was superb storytelling, directed with such precision here by Sarah Goodes, with Sarah Peirse and Pamela Rabe delivering the goods as meditative nuclear physicists. (Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s review.)

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4. SAINT JOAN (Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre)

George Bernard Shaw’s take on the French fatale is not exactly the feminist document of our times. But Imara Savage’s 90-minute collage certainly was, finally giving Joan her voice against the battery of men who don’t believe her. With monochromatically stark design and stunning distillation, and a fiercely intelligent performance from rising screen star Sarah Snook, this was breathtaking theatre. (Jason Whittaker’s review.)

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3. THE FLICK (Outhouse Theatre Co, Seymour Centre)

American writer Annie Baker has her detractors. And when I first saw The Flick, a talky, tiny three-hander, via Red Stitch in Melbourne the power of the piece was a little lost on me. But this production, from the enterprising Outhouse Theatre Co, made every one of those excruciatingly long silences count. Through patient direction (Craig Baldwin) and finespun performances, it’s the modern American melodrama of our times.

2. TOP GIRLS (Sydney Theatre Company, Sydney Opera House)

Amid what feels like a dearth of new Australian plays speaking to the current moment, it was a British classic that said it best. Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls remains a masterpiece. Through the clear eyes of director Imara Savage, and her endlessly watchable cast, the ladies in impossibly puffy shoulder pads lament the lot of women, through history and now, with raging clarity. (Kath Kenny’s review.)

1. CALAMITY JANE (One Eyed Man Productions, Belvoir St Theatre)

It hangs around like a delicious smell, this precious thing, from concert version to Hayes Theatre hit to national touring sensation. Tucked neatly into Belvoir’s corner space this year, Calamity Jane swung open the barn doors again with a cocky assuredness rare in Australia’s short-run theatrical seasons. Gutturally funny, deeply heartfelt, smartly subversive and musically stirring. With the fabulous Virginia Gay spellbinding at the centre of it all. I could watch it again and again. (Jason Whittaker’s review.)

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Most honourable mentions: Blackie Blackie Brown and The Cheery Soul (Sydney Theatre Company), Mother and Random (Belvoir St Theatre), Marjorie Prime (Ensemble Theatre), Torch Song Trilogy (Darlinghurst Theatre), The Rolling Stone (Outhouse Theatre Co), The Nose (Opera Australia), The Book Of Mormon (Lyric Theatre).

2 responses to “Best theatre of 2018: Jason Whittaker’s Sydney picks

    1. THE FLICK was an independent production. CALAMITY JANE and IN THE HEIGHTS were produced by independents. Griffin Theatre isn’t particularly mainstream. I saw theatre this year at Old Fitz, Seymour Centre, Carriageworks and at Belvoir’s 25A season. Which productions do you think I missed …?

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