This is what theatre is about.
But before I get to that allow me to praise Coopers. Yes, Coopers beer. I was going to do this anyway but now they are the venue partner of Malthouse there is more of a reason. This isn’t to say I’m drinking while I write this; I am, but let’s not say it. It is too easy for a beer, and what a beer, to sponsor a sporting event or numerous sporting events but it takes daring and awareness to sponsor a theatre company especially one with as much theatrical integrity and artistic coherence as Malthouse.
If God cried tears of joy they would taste like Coopers.
The 2014 season at Malthouse has everything that audiences have come to expect. Not that the season is routine or that the plays are catering to the crowd, the plays are audacious and there were certainly some very pleasant surprises , but rather, and bear with me as I try to avoid the cliché, confidence in the Malthouse brand to deliver unique and engaging content is always well founded. The season has plays that audiences have been talking about and are now presented here as well as original plays developed by Malthouse and its creative streams.
‘The Philadelphia Story’ is Simon Stone’s (re)telling of the play by Philip Barry which was adapted for film and starred Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant and James Stewart. Simon Stone is known for his adventurous and assured renditions of classic plays such as ‘The Wild Duck’ and ‘The Cherry Orchard’. Let’s look at the media mentioned: Ibsen, a classic Hollywood film, Chekhov and Stone. And here the dialogue begins. This play, in this version, tells a tabloid fable of celebrity extra-fidelity with expectations of Stone’s characteristic awareness and wit.
Pardon the capitalisation but THE RABBLE is Malthouse’s Company in Residence and for 2014 they bring an exciting production of ‘Frankenstein’ where they position the familiar gothic tale of Viktor Frankenstein’s struggle with his inability to create life in a matriarchal world that privileges female fertility. Kate Davis and Emma Valente have created this theatrical monster that recontextualises ‘Frankenstein’s very structure and achieves a narrative alchemy of paradigms.
Carrying on the Gothic tradition is Patrick White’s ‘Night on Bald Mountain’. By carrying on the tradition I mean this is White holding a conversation with tradition and using the language of gothic to make a uniquely Australian statement. Matthew Lutton, who directed ‘The Bloody Chamber’, directs a cast that includes Peter Carroll and Julie Forsyth in this production of a classic piece of theatre. And, dear reader, I can hear your objections now. ‘You claimed that this season was daring and yet here they are doing a Patrick White play. How dare you?’ or some such vitriol you spit at your most humble of reviewers. It is daring because not only is there the challenge in the text to the audience but there is also the challenge that the author set himself in writing the first Australian tragedy.
You want challenging? ‘Ugly Mugs’ is an exploration of violence experienced by sex workers. The title comes from a trade paper for sex workers that details problematic clients. See, that right there is the issue. ‘Ugly Mugs’ is the title of an information sheet for sex workers warning of perpetrators of violence that keep wanting more. Directed by Marion Potts this play, written and performed by Peta Brady looks at the cultural acceptance of brutality. And while it is possible to protest the acceptance not one of us believe that it doesn’t happen and through this statement our inaction can be seen as complicity.
It’s hard to find a segue between ‘Ugly Mugs’ and the next play so while I ponder that have I mentioned Coopers? Coopers is what bottled dreams taste like.
Roald Dahl’s ‘The Witches’ is a production by Griffin Theatre Company. This production was a result of NIDA and was picked up by Malthouse. This shows a couple of the core concepts that I see behind Malthouse. Firstly, there is the presentation of great storytelling regardless of age (perceived or actual), background, whether fiction or not it is all about the story. Another concept here is that Malthouse gives audiences an opportunity to see productions that it wouldn’t have a chance to see otherwise. And on an entirely different level, this one is for the kids no matter how old they are.
‘The Good Person of Sezchuan’ is a play by Bertolt Brecht (translation by Tom Wright) directed by Meng Jinghui, one of China’s leading theatre practitioners. Jinghui has a reputation for bringing a unique vision to classic theatre (or the theatre of the classic) and the opportunity to see this director is special enough but to see him work with a text by Brecht offers a fascinating opportunity. (On a side note has anyone called Simon Stone the Meng Jinghui of Australia? No, well I daren’t either I’m just asking.)
Alirio Zavarche writes and performs ‘The Book of Loco’ which won the Adelaide Fringe Festival ‘Best Theatre Production’ award for 2013. Again, this is one of those productions that I wouldn’t have had a chance to see; although I would like to travel as much as some but that’s a story for another time. ‘The Book of Loco’ presents a comic take on the fear and trembling inherent in waiting room situations. “Beckett, Kafka and Brecht walk into an airport terminal…”
‘Walking into the Bigness’ tells the story of Richard Frankland, activist, investigator for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, musician and film maker. Frankland takes to the stage as musician while a cast that includes Paul Ashcroft and Luisa Hastings Edge performs the script written by Richard Frankland with Wayne Blair.
In collaboration with Victorian Opera Malthouse presents a new opera based on Tim Winton’s ‘The Riders’. This production is about two respective streams coming together spectacularly. The score was written by Iain Grandage, winner of Green Room and Helpmann awards for theatrical scores while the libretto was written by Alison Croggon, author, poet and librettist. To complement this pairing the opera is conducted by Richard Mills (the artistic director of Victorian Opera) and directed by Marion Potts (the artistic director of Malthouse). This is the theatrical equivalent of a supergroup.
‘Hello, Goodbye & Happy Birthday’ is verbatim theatre devised by Roslyn Oades, Malthouse Theatre;s 2013 female director in residence. Oades was inspired by a day where she attended an 18th birthday and an 80th birthday on the same day. This celebratory Alpha and Omega led to Oades collecting material from those nearly 18 and those nearly 80 which she will present through documentary theatre. This style of theatre is notable because it is a performance of authenticity where connections are made through very human revelations which are in turn shaped through performance.
The torch song for the season is ‘Calpurnia Descending’ created by Sisters Grimm and co-produced with Sydney Theatre Company. If you haven’t seen a Sisters Grimm production before it might be difficult to describe, at least while retaining any kind of political correctness and without descending into the vilest name calling with utmost respect. Instead, I will talk about this subversive production which finds two of Australia’s leading male actresses performing a story of fame, broken fame and all the sleazy trash that comes with it: ‘Sunset Back Alley’.
Malthouse Theatre season 2014 shows absolute faith in theatre and the audience. Each play has something to offer that will add to the theatrical geography of Melbourne and to the theatre literacy of the audience. Perhaps it isn’t for everyone but these bold artistic choices are thrilling to watch and it all depends on what you as an audience member wants in your theatre. For me this level of engagement with thrilling theatrical risk and diverse stories is exactly what theatre is about.