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I rarely see shows I dislike. My time is running out and I choose my shows carefully. I subscribe to Belvoir and Sydney Theatre Company as well as Sydney Dance Company. They generally deliver with some exceptions (I have never been unhappy after seeing a Sydney Dance Company production).
Likewise the Hayes Theatre has delivered with brilliant musicals on a small stage, meaning the producers and directors have to find ways to overcome the difficulties this produces and almost always to great effect. I am a Life Member of New Theatre in Newtown which recently celebrated its 85th year of consecutive productions. They once were the only place that staged Australian theatre and also staged plays by Left-wing writers, which were never staged by mainstream companies.
Now we have Griffin Theatre, which only presents Australian plays. There are small theatres everywhere that continually stage great challenging theatre. At the same time we have a shortage of lyric theatres where big shows, mainly musicals, can be staged.
This means that Melbourne will get to stage Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which is predicted to run for at least five years. It has just opened on Broadway and has been running for almost two years in London where it is near impossible to get a ticket. And who knows when we will get to see Hamilton and Dear Evan Hansen.
I will travel to Melbourne to see Harry Potter, most will not be able to afford the costs associated. This is a real pity as it is just the show that would introduce young people to the joys of theatre-going. It is doubtful that a play (or a book) will ever change a person's mind about something but it will definitely create a discussion about the issues raised.
When working on a play, the company does lots of research as they look to find ways of presenting the work. I really disliked Modern History at school. I found questions such as "What were the 15 reasons that caused World War I?" inane and stupid. When I directed Oh, What a Lovely War at Randwick Boys High and Oh, What a Lovely War Mate! at New Theatre, my research taught me so much about the war that I made sure I visited the war sites in Belgium and France and felt while there that I understood what had happened.
My understanding of the Depression was expanded greatly when I directed On The Wallaby twice and the shearers' strikes of the 19th century gave cause to a much greater appreciation of collective bargaining when I directed Reedy River, also twice. It also gave me a lesson on traditional Australian folk songs and naturally the history of the shearers leading to the strike in 1891.
Even though I choose carefully what I see and I try to see shows I have not seen previously — and with a very limited budget and time constraints — I mainly get to see great theatre. I have recently seen two brilliant productions of brilliant shows from the Sydney Theatre Company: Top Girls by Caryl Churchill is the first.
This is the third production of this play I have seen, and the best. The director Imara Savage was able to overcome the difficulties presented by the opening scene — the dinner party attended by different women from history discussing women's problems from then which seem to be very close to their problems now. The rest of the show hurls us into the present time of the show, which was written as a response to Maggie Thatcher.
The central character has to work out how she copes with the needs of the women moving in to the workforce against the needs of family. Churchill employs a style that has her characters speak over each other which poses a problem for the director and cast to ensure that that naturalism does not stop the messages of the play from coming through. This production overcame all the problems created by the brilliant writer.
On my last trip to London, I had the joy of seeing the latest work from Ms Churchill Pigs and Dogs which, in less than 15 minutes, looked at colonisation and its effects on homosexuality in Africa and England. Brilliant.
Bertolt Brecht is a German writer who was banned in his home country as his plays were a commentary on the political happenings. His style of theatre was called the theatre of alienation and audiences rarely had the pleasure of liking any of his characters. He is often considered the best playwright of last century with his plays being a scathing commentary on the state.
The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is an attack on Hitler dressed up as a story of corruption by gangsters of politicians. For years, New Theatre was the only one presenting his plays, but from the late 1960s his plays started to be produced by mainstream companies. The last Aturo Ui I saw was the brilliant John Bell.
This production, translated to a very modern idiom by Tom Wright, stars Hugo Weaving as the low-life gangster who uses political corruption to improve himself to become nothing more than a spiv exercising his corrupt powers to take over everything.
Director Kip Williams filmed the play in real time so we were seeing the play on screen as it played out. While this certainly further alienated the audience it helped with getting the focus on characters in a large cast. There were references to Australian politics and without saying so there were references to both Hitler and Trump. A fine production.
The biggest show in New York and London over the past few years has been Hamilton, the hip hop look at American History. Before that writer Lin-Manuel Miranda had an award-winning hit with In The Heights, which was set in Washington Heights, a poor Hispanic borough in Manhattan.
The story is about the effects of change on the community as things get harder and people move on. I saw the London production, which was presented on a big stage. I did wonder how they could possibly do it at the Hayes but not only did they do it but they did it much better. This was a much better production than what I had seen in London and while I had barely liked that production I loved the Hayes production with rap/hip hop and salsa.
The shows I did not like were Going Down at the Sydney Theatre Company, as it was overwritten and acted, and Sami in Paradise at Belvoir. This was based on The Suicide by Nikolai Erdman and looked at people in a refugee camp. What a pity this didn't work, the idea was great but the delivery was all over the place. I do not believe, usually, that plays written by a collective work and no writer should direct their own play. The real pity with both these plays was they had the largest diverse casts I have seen.
Frank Barnes is retired
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