Live Performance Australia’s 16th annual Helpmann Awards ceremony was held at the Lyric Theatre at the Star last night, and it was one that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The award might as well have been renamed for 2016 as “The Matildas” (unfortunately that’s a name already taken by Brisbane’s theatre awards).
See the full list of Helpmann winners here.
Matilda picked up an astonishing 13 awards from its 13 nominations. In fact, the musical won in every single category for which it was even eligible. The only other musical to pick up an award was Queensland Theatre Company’s Ladies in Black, which won Best New Australian Work (a category for which Matilda was not eligible).
It was clear inside the Lyric Theatre that the Matilda cheer squad (presumably the cast and family and friends) were in the dress circle, with the loudest cheers emanating from up the back. As it became clear that Matilda was going to sweep the entire field, the enthusiasm in the stalls started to die down a little (the ceremony did run just over three hours with no breaks).
While nobody begrudged the musical or its composer Tim Minchin’s success, there was plenty of chatter about how disconcerting it was to see so many awards go to international creatives whose work on the original UK production was largely recreated by local associates. When director Matthew Warchus spoke about how he oversaw the production via Skype in his acceptance speech, there was some pretty dissatisfied murmuring in the auditorium.
The musical even picked up awards for set, costume, lighting and sound design, beating out Australian creatives in all those categories. Did Matilda genuinely have the best set, costume, lighting or sound seen on Australian stages in the last 12 months? I’d argue not, but presumably the production was seen by more Helpmann voters than any other nominees in those categories.
The eight Matildas, who jointly won the award for Best Female Actor in a Musical all went home soon after the ceremony — it ended at 10.45pm — but Minchin stuck around at the after party late into the night, mingling with old Australian theatre friends. It’s a fleeting visit to Australia for Minchin, whose new musical Groundhog Day is currently in previews in London while his animated film Larrikins is in production in the US. He’s previously spoken at length about his desire to create more work at home in Australia with local talent, so hopefully it won’t be too long before he returns.
SYDNEY’S TINY GRIFFIN THEATRE PUNCHES ABOVE ITS WEIGHT
While a commercial musical juggernaut dominated the musical theatre categories, it was Sydney’s long-standing theatre for new Australian writing Griffin which performed best in the theatre categories. Angus Cerini’s brilliant play The Bleeding Tree won Best Play, Best Director (Lee Lewis) and Best Female Actor (Paula Arundell).
Lewis and Arundell both delivered the best speeches of the night. Lewis spoke about the importance of new Australian plays to tackle the most pressing subjects in Australian society, like The Bleeding Tree‘s extraordinary and tough treatment of domestic violence, while Arundell spoke about the resilience and generosity of the arts industry as a whole.
The elation throughout the audience at Griffin’s success was clear. Only a few months ago, Griffin was saying that it would face closure if it didn’t maintain its operational funding from the Australia Council (it thankfully did so). This came after Griffin had already suffered a major, severely limiting funding cut. Hopefully Griffin’s wins will see more support flow back to this invaluable little Kings Cross theatre, which has done as much for advancing the Australian theatrical voice as any company.
BRISBANE BAROQUE’S SECOND YEAR OF SUCCESS
The troubled Brisbane Baroque festival picked up the award for Best Opera for the second year in a row for its production of Agrippina, as well as three other awards. Shannon Pigram, the business and personal partner of executive director of Brisbane Baroque Jarrod Carland, accepted the Best Opera award on behalf of his partner who has been in hospital for several months.
It’s a bittersweet victory for Brisbane Baroque, a festival which has been met with great acclaim and strong audiences but been in apparent financial trouble. The team behind the festival is the same team as the recently cancelled Sydney Sings festival.
STEPHEN PAGE AND BANGARRA HONOURED
Stephen Page has been artistic director of Bangarra Dance Theatre for 25 years and was last night honoured with the J.C. Williamson Award. His son, Cleverman actor Hunter Page-Lochard, delivered a beautiful speech, reminding why Page is one of Australia’s greatest cultural leaders of the last two decades. The audience gave Page an instantaneous and passionate standing ovation.
Bangarra had further success, picking up three awards for its piece Sheoak, including Best Ballet or Dance Work.
The wins come just months after the death of Stephen’s brother, and Bangarra’s illustrious music director David Page. Many winners paid tribute to David, including all those from Bangarra, Tim Minchin and Michael Lynch.