Despite great uncertainty across the performing arts sector in 2016, there was still plenty of excellent performance in Australia.
Over the course of the year, I saw performance in New York, Perth, Adelaide (Mother’s Ruin is brilliant, and a must-see for Sydney Festival), Brisbane (a wonderfully fun staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Melbourne (Lilith: the Jungle Girl was maybe the most exciting piece of theatre I saw all year, and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour was riveting), and Wollongong (Circa’s Landscape With Monsters was an absolute gem).
But here are my picks from all the performance I’ve seen in Sydney, in no particular order.
New Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director Kip Williams’ production of All My Sons was an intense, gorgeously acted, and emotionally and politically resonant revival. Anchored by some stunning performances (it’s the best performance I’ve seen from Robyn Nevin in the last few years) this production was absolutely shattering, and a perfect example of how to bring a classic text to life for today’s audience.
Honourable mentions: Belvoir’s production of Faith Healer was also blessed with some stunning performances, from Alison Whyte, Pip Miller and Colin Friels. Melbournians can catch the production at MTC from March next year.
This production of Patricia Cornelius’s wonderful short play had just one performance at Festival Fatale, a two-day festival celebrating the work of female artists. But it was much better than you could reasonably expect a one-off performance to be, and beautifully performed by an ensemble of five young women (Jessica Keogh, Julia Dray, Danielle Stamoulos, Maryann Wright and Bobbie-Jean Henning).
Honourable mentions: Darlinghurst Theatre Company also presented a very good production of Patricia Cornelius’s Savages. Everybody should produce more Patricia Cornelius plays, please.
This production of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’ 1995 opera, The Eighth Wonder was a superbly realised piece of outdoor opera. Performing this piece on the steps of the Sydney Opera House as a silent opera is one of Lyndon Terracini’s best ideas as Artistic Director of Opera Australia, and offered a rare opportunity for an Australian opera to get a major revival.
Honourable mentions: John Bell’s production of Carmen was also a worthy addition to Opera Australia’s repertoire, while the company injected plenty of life into a revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s 1995 production of The Barber of Seville.
Ensemble Theatre’s production of this nuanced and complex family drama all about how we communicate and connect was perfectly cast. Ana Maria Belo’s performance as Sylvia was one of the strongest of the year, drawing on her own experiences with deafness.
I love when theatre makes me laugh — I mean, really laugh — and this year there were quite a few promising comedies which didn’t quite live up to their potential. But one production which was an absolute joy from beginning to end was Imara Savage’s smart and endlessly funny production of Hay Fever for Sydney Theatre Company. It featured some excellent performances (Harriet Dyer is a genius) and a superb set from Alicia Clements.
After opening the Hayes Theatre in 2014 with his production of Sweet Charity, director Dean Bryant returned to the intimate theatre for a new production of Little Shop of Horrors, which went on to tour around the country. It featured two towering performances — Brent Hill, whose technical skill as Seymour (and another role of sorts…) was astonishing, and Esther Hannaford, who was heart-breaking as Audrey. Throw in a great design, a magnificent man-eating plant and some very stylish choreography, and you’ve got an unbeatable night of musical theatre.
Honourable mentions: Although Mack and Mabel has a dud book, Trevor Ashley directed a lovely production of it which overcame some of its flaws, while Mitchell Butel worked his magic on Spring Awakening with a group of talented young actors. And Anthony Warlow was stunning in Fiddler on the Roof.
For me, this was the surprise package of the year. I was already a fan of Jimmy Barnes and knew him to be a great performer, but I certainly wasn’t expecting him to deliver a brilliantly-structured and very moving cabaret. Telling the story of his life, interwoven with songs from his career and family, it was a very special show.
Honourable mentions: There were quite a few other exciting cabarets during the year. Candy Bowers’ Australian Booty was a little messy but incisive and a hell of a lot of fun, while cabaret stalwarts Gillian Cosgriff, Trevor Ashley and Cath Alcorn all delivered the goods in their shows this year.
Leah Purcell’s violent, unflinching and revolutionary take on Henry Lawson’s short story of the same name was perhaps the best new Australian play to premiere in Sydney this year. It’s certainly the most important — Purcell took a chapter of our history from which Indigenous people are often erased, and told a tale of the pioneering era from an Indigenous perspective. It deserves to be seen all around the country.
This piece from the Powerhouse Youth Theatre was very affecting, telling the stories of Indigenous people and asylum seekers, and asking why Australia just doesn’t care about their suffering. It spoke honestly and directly to its audience. Brilliant work.
This Is How We Die was my Sydney Festival highlight and a show that was so unique and special to me I didn’t even want to write about it. I’m certainly not going to say anymore than what’s in my review.
Samuel D. Hunter’s play about Charlie, a 600-pound man who is eating himself to death is a huge-hearted work and one of my favourite plays to come out of America in the last decade. And it’s a fiendishly difficult piece of realism to get right, executed to near-perfection by director Shane Anthony in this Old Fitz production so intimate you felt you were right inside Charlie’s cramped Idaho apartment.
Honourable mentions: The Old Fitz turned out some other strong productions this year, including Charlie Garber and Gareth Davies’ very fun and funny Masterclass 2: Flames of the Forge, and a revival of Louis Nowra’s flawed but powerful debut Inner Voices.