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Malthouse Theatre: Audiences want exciting, sexy and flexi

It’s season launch time for most of the state theatre companies around the country as a raft of newly appointed artistic directors (Sam Strong at Queensland Theatre, Eamon Flack at Sydney’s Belvoir, Kip Williams in the interim post at Sydney Theatre Company) have been laying down their visions and declaring their intentions for the year ahead.

So too at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, where artistic director Matthew Lutton might have been in residence for more than a year, but the recently announced 2017 season is the first he’s put together from scratch in collaboration with the company’s hands-on executive producer of three years, Sarah Neal.

The current 2016 season was composed by Lutton with outgoing artistic director Marion Potts and Neal, but Lutton and Neal have been let loose in 2017 revealing an eye for the provocative and the provocatively entertaining.

No one has expected naturalistic plays at Malthouse Theatre for a long time, but the 2017 season appears to have injected an ‘edge of your seat’ element to Malthouse Theatre shows. We saw it this year in Lutton’s direction of the creepy adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock, (which plays at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre under new artistic director David Greig next year), and in his ambitious and multi-layered Edward II.

The combination of ambitious and intriguing is evident in 2017’s international presentations Complicite’s The Encounter (UK), Little Emperors (China/AUS) and Kim Noble’s You’re Not Alone (UK); in Malthouse Theatre’s revival of the classic Australian play and crowd pleaser Away by Michael Gow (co-produced with STC) and the wild comedy trio of Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott in Wild Bore; and in its Victorian Opera co-production of Tom Waits’ Black Rider: The Casting of Magic Bullets. Then there’s theatre star Pamela Rabe in Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, and of course Lutton directing Tom Wright’s adaptation of the story of the elephant man.

Both this year’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and next August’s The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man reveal Lutton’s theatrical predilections, and are perhaps the taste of things to come.

“We are never going to do naturalistic, kitchen-sink drama,” says Neal emphatically.

“We are keen to push the Gothic and the horror genre,” says Lutton of projects under consideration for commissioning by local writers.

That chill that ran through the theatre when Lutton plunged his Picnic at Hanging Rock production into extended moments of total darkness provided a jolt  — a literal jolt– we rarely experience in the theatre anymore. These days jaw dropping, breath-inhaling and partner-grabbing reactions to stories are mostly done at home in front of a screen.

Lutton acknowledges that we are living in the “golden age” of television writing and production but this does not diminish the power of theatre.

“I think theatre influences television and television has influenced theatre, though some theatre is a retaliation against TV and the much faster rate of information it can deliver.”

He points to the work of writer Declan Greene (whose play The Homosexuals, or Faggots is in next year’s season) and who uses a rapid paced language similar to screenwriting but says the approach of performer/writer Nicola Gunn (her one-woman, choreographed Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster (at Malthouse Theatre next March) is the very opposite. He says his own direction of Edward II took a kind of “Scandinavian television” approach in that the story started small and domestic in a bedroom and then opens out into the story of a crumbling monarchy.

But don’t expect television naturalism any time soon at the company’s Southbank theatres.

“We are never going to do naturalistic, kitchen-sink drama,” says Neal emphatically, who says her and Lutton’s working relationship is based on “complementary, but distinct skill sets”.

“We are both political animals. We are interested in what this company’s role is in participating and contributing to the discussion of both local and global issues,” she says.

“It’s disruptive,” adds Lutton. “You disrupt assumptions, complacency, the status quo; and I hope we can inspire new thinking.”

“But it has to be really exciting and sexy,” rejoins Neal, proving that at Malthouse Theatre the policy is that provocation can go hand in glove with entertainment.

As part of that philosophy the company is introducing a new “flexi season pass” where audience members can buy tickets for a play for up to a 40 per cent discount.

Malthouse Theatre is the first mainstage theatre company in Victoria to offer its audiences a season pass without locked-in dates.

“Everyone used to think the subscriber model was dying but it hasn’t,” says Neal. “But what we found is that people don’t want to be locked into a date months in advance. All audiences have to do is nominate five of the shows in the 2017 season and when the show is a fortnight away, we will send ‘Season Pass’ subscribers a reminder, to nominate the preferred day of the show.”

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