World Standards

flowerchildrenWe audience members spend little time on this question but, believe me, our theatre practitioners sure do. Are we up to it? Do our shows deserve international runs? Could we hold our own on Broadway or the West End? No matter how often you tell them, they still don’t believe you. Yes, yes and yes!

Some productions of ours do get international runs. STC took the Cate Blanchett/Hugo Weaving Hedda Gabler to New York with some success. Personally, I preferred the extraordinary and effortlessly updated production from Thomas Ostermeier, which played here for the Melbourne International Festival in 2011.

But then STC’s Uncle Vanya, again with Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, was such a triumph it could have travelled to Moscow and won accolades. If Americans or Englishmen can take on Russian and Norwegian playwrights and feel at home, why can’t we?

We do exist in a strange land, physically and metaphorically. The bulk of our state companies’ repertoire leans heavily on new plays from America and Britain, or at least ones that have opened and succeeded there. Even our smaller and nominally more radical companies, such as Red Stitch, rarely trial new works that haven’t at least played overseas. They’ll cry foul at this statement, but it’s true. They will stage new work, but rarely.

The result is often a raft of shit in a sea of boredom. I name this year’s Other Desert Cities as a case in point. This play by Jon Robin Baitz arrived at MTC with much fanfare, but betrayed its playwright’s television background immediately. Some interesting, if unchallenging, insights into memoir writing aside, this foray into a comfortable middle-class family dealing with its formulaic past was the kind of work we would hardly bother about if it came from a local writer. Slap an impressive set and some admittedly fine actors on it, and you have ‘a sure-fire hit’.

And Red Stitch comes in for a hammering for staging Straight, a bland and uninspiring look at male sexuality that wouldn’t have looked out of place in 1979. Two men dare each other to make a porno? Hilarious. Why did they choose this play at all? Oh, that’s right. It played in London. It was the sort of production I’d expect from amateurs during Midsumma.

These two productions I’ve singled out weren’t terrible. I actually rather enjoyed them. But they aren’t going to help my argument that Australia produces world standard theatre that wouldn’t look out of place on Broadway and the West End. They are lazy and provincial programming, and say nothing about our character. So, what did in 2013?

Back to Back produced another glorious play in Super Discount, a truly local production that questioned our relationship to disability with an intellectual rigour that is as rare as welcomed on the main stages of Melbourne. This company’s last show Ganesh vs the Third Reich did travel to New York to much acclaim, and it wouldn’t shame Australian theatre to tour this show either.

Patricia Cornelius gave us a serious and lyrical follow-up to her extraordinary Do Not Go Gentle of 2012 with the robust and muscular Savages. Some brave stylistic choices paid off handsomely, and this play about the violence inherent in Australian masculinity pulled none of its punches. It was another triumph for the increasingly vital 45 Downstairs.

King Kong, despite some serious wobbles in Act 1, should do quite well in New York, if it ever opens there. An example of a 5-star puppet lifting a 2-star musical to spectacular heights, it wouldn’t look out of place next to Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, which admittedly isn’t saying much. It has virtually nothing Australian going for it, but it is locally produced and shows off some masterful technical skills.

But my favourite local production of the year was actually a revival of a small show that originally played in a dingy theatre in St Kilda. Tackling a very American subject with wit and warmth was Flowerchildren: The Mamas and the Papas Story. Expertly written by Peter Fitzpatrick, and gloriously sung by the four leads, this locally made jukebox musical really deserved a Broadway slot, even if it’s unlikely to make one. The tepid Jersey Boys was a massive hit, and this one seems to have fallen through the cracks. Go figure.

Having sampled some extraordinary work on Broadway this year, and not seeing anything local to reach the heights of Mark Rylance in Twelfth Night, it’s tempting to fall into the trap of feeling inadequate when it comes to home-grown work. Hideous flashbacks to Simon Stone’s Cherry Orchard surely can’t help.

But then I remember Caroline O’Connor as Mamma Rose in Gypsy and Alison White in the superb dramatisation of Angela Carter’s Bloody Chamber. David Williamson’s Rupert ushered in a rare moment of brilliance in an otherwise declining talent, and featured a remarkable performance from Sean O’Shea. Gillian Jones brought her unique gifts to the stage in Solomon and Marion. All in all, a respectable showing.

Australian theatre does need to show more courage and programming flair if it’s to stand proudly alongside the world’s best, but it is certainly capable of the standard. I wish it well in 2014.

World Standards was written by Tim Byrne

Image: Flowerchildren: The Mamas and the Papas Story