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The world may be a mad, crazy mess, but rather than wallow in it, Belvoir Artistic Director Eamon Flack has programmed a 2018 season that he hopes looks to the positive and the playful, that celebrates the things that are good and gets angry at the things that aren’t, but with a view to doing something about them.
“There are serious themes in there – about change, about what we want to leave behind and what we want to hold on to. But more than anything it is playfulness – the best human instinct of them all – jazz-like, upbeat, free-spirited – which is the tune,” he writes in the 2018 subscription brochure.
Hsiao-Ling Tang and Alex Lee will perform in Single Asian Female. Photographs courtesy of Belvoir
Speaking to Limelight, Flack says: “Theatre has always been good at that thing of going, ‘this is terrible but it’s also ridiculous and a bit funny’ or ‘this is terrible but rather than tying ourselves in knots about it, let’s just get angry and effective about it.’”
“This year I just kind of went ‘I refuse to waste great talent on Donald Trump and I refuse to waste good public money on terrorism. So, what are the things that we want to fight for as opposed to fight against?’ And once I shifted the question that way, [the season] unrolled really beautifully. Because then you start thinking about these fantastic artists and what they’ve got to offer, and these extraordinary stories about people who are derided or hated by politics and society, and how we can put those people front and centre,” says Flack.
Four of the nine plays in the mainstage season are Australian, while two of the classics have been given fresh adaptations. “We’ve got a really beautiful, strong load of Australian work in our season this year and a great variety of Australian work. I’m really happy about that,” says Flack.
The season begins in January with My Name is Jimi, a Queensland Theatre production, presented in association with Sydney Festival. Torres Strait Islander actor Jimi Bani is joined on stage by his mother and grandmother, two of his brothers and his son for an evening of music, dance and storytelling.
“One of our most beautiful First Nation actors Jimi Bani also happens to be the ninth chief of Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait and so this is him and his family in a very beautiful theatrical gathering inviting us into their world,” says Flack. “But behind it is this big story about how knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. It’s gorgeous.”
The second play, Single Asian Female by Michelle Law, also originated in Brisbane and is another examination of family. “We’ve got a lot of that this year because there are many ways of being a family right now,” says Flack.
Law is a writer, comedian and actor, and the sister of Benjamin Law, who has drawn on their family for his SBS comedy series The Family Law. Single Asian Female, which also takes inspiration from their family, is Michelle Law’s first stage play. Set in Nambour on the Sunshine Coast, it explores identity, racial stereotyping and sexuality and received a five-star review in The Guardian when it premiered in February this year.
“This play was a huge hit for La Boite – and a huge hit because it’s just so funny and generous and warm. It also puts a Chinese-Australian family at the centre of the story and that’s not something that’s happened at Belvoir before actually. William Yang’s work has been on our stage but this will be the first time that that stage has been given over to a Chinese-Australian story, which is great,” says Flack. Claire Christian directs.
Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Yalin Ozucelik and Hazem Shammas will perform in The Suicide.
In April, Flack directs Sami in Paradise, a new take on The Suicide, the 1928 comedy by Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman in which a young unemployed man takes up the tuba hoping it will solve all his problems. When that fails, he contemplates suicide, only for his neighbour to try to make money out of him killing himself. Simon Stone directed a loose adaptation of it at Belvoir Downstairs in 2010.
“I’ve been dying to do the play for 12 or 15 years now. In this particular version of it, I want it to be a celebration of the defiance and resilience and zest for life of people who live stateless in the world,” says Flack. “So, we are shifting it from Soviet Russia to those huge camps where people flee with their suitcase and end up living for the next decade in a temporary camp that ends up becoming a town of 70,000 people. The love of life that exists inside that world is what this is a celebration of.”
“We will stick pretty closely to the original play. We will just relocate it. What was shocking and surprising was how easily the repression under Stalin could translate to the repressiveness of the international stateless and refugee regime today. We are also being careful to say this is not a show about Nauru or Manus, which I think are not funny. This is a comedy and a celebration.” Yalin Ozucelik, will play the central character – “a role that Geoffrey Rush had always wanted to play when he was a younger man,” adds Flack.
Next comes The Sugar House, a new Australian play by Alana Valentine set in the Sydney suburb of Pyrmont. It centres on the high-achieving Narelle, a lawyer from a working-class background, who keeps being drawn back to Pyrmont, where her grandmother June lived. Life used to revolve around the sugar factory, but that has long gone. The play stars Kris McQuade, who gave an unforgettable performance as Dolly Pickles in Cloudstreet for Belvoir, along with Sacha Horler and Josh McConville.
“This is [about] three generations of women, but also a portrait of how Australia went from working-class to middle-class and how our middle-class top soil is still so thin and our politics are driven by how scared we are of losing the gains of our middle-class life. It’s another family story and a deeply Sydney story,” says Flack. Sarah Goodes directs.
Mark Leonard Winter and Amber McMahon will perform in Bliss.
In June, Belvoir presents an adaptation of Peter Carey’s novel Bliss, which has previously been turned into a 1985 film directed by Ray Lawrence and a 2010 opera by Brett Dean. This new stage version, co-produced with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, is written by Tom Wright and directed by Matthew Lutton. Mark Leonard Winter plays Harry Joy, who dies briefly on the front lawn. When he is revived, the world has changed and it seems to him that his family and friends are all avaricious monsters. And so, Harry flees with a hippy called Honey Barbara.
“It’s one of those stories that we seem to need to keep revisiting. And this is the first time that this particular story will be told by a new generation,” says Flack. “It’s about the Australian dream and I think, particularly for many people of my generation, it feels like that dream is coming apart and that’s what that story is about.”
Genevieve Lemon plays the mother Helen in A Taste of Honey.
In July, Flack directs A Taste of Honey, a seminal English play written by Shelagh Delaney when she was just 18. First produced by Joan Littlewood in 1958, it centres on Jo, a pregnant teenager whose father is long gone and whose mother has just abandoned her to marry a younger man. On top of that, the African sailor who got her pregnant has gone back to sea. Just when it looks like Jo has found her feet, forming a family with a young gay man, her mother comes crashing back into her life. A so-called “kitchen sink drama”, it also features a jazz trio.
“I love it. I’ve been wanting to do it for a few years,” says Flack. “Part of what I love about it is it sprung from the mad, glorious mind of an 18-year old who had been to the theatre once. But also, I love the way that the snotty-nosed damp tenement life is off-set by a jazz band and the vaudeville zing of it. In that sense, I think that we can consign Look Back in Anger, which was written [around the same time], to the dustbin and hopefully replace it with this far more vibrant, far more open, young woman’s view of life." Genevieve Lemon plays Jo’s mother Helen.
Virginia Gay reprises her acclaimed performance in Calamity Jane
When Flack saw the Hayes Theatre Co production of Calamity Jane, directed by Richard Carroll and starring Virginia Gay, earlier this year, he fell in love with it and decided to stage a revival of it.
“I couldn’t help myself!” he says with a laugh. “That performance from Virginia Gay, the mad inventiveness of the whole thing, the utter joy of it, I couldn’t say no to it. Not many musicals are just going to roll out onto the Belvoir stage completely naturally but this one will. I adored it.” Limelight agreed, saying in a four-and-star review: “thanks to a stellar turn from Virginia Gay in the title role, a brilliant no-weak-links supporting cast and inspired, side-splitting direction from Richard Carroll, this tiny jewel of a production hits every note square between the eyes and comes with enough energy and heart to drive the Pony Express all the way ‘cross Injun territory and back again.”
In October, Anne-Louise Sarks directs a new version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People updated by Melissa Reeves. Kate Mulvany plays Dr Stockmann, originally written for a man, who discovers that the spa water for which the town is famed is toxic. When she tries to speak out about it, she is shunned by the community.
Kate Mulvany will star in An Enemy of the People
“This is very exciting. We fought hard for this show to be able to happen. Kate and Annie-Lou loved the idea so I just had to make it work. Kate’s performance as Richard 3 will be remembered for ever, I think, and I wanted to offer her something that could take her further. In this role, the particular combination of being a true believer and a fighter suits Kate to a tee,” says Flack.
“The play is a political thriller in many ways and the question is, ‘will this single individual beat the powers of corporate and political corruption to save a town?' And it feels like it is the question on everyone’s lips right now in America and Australia. It’s also a play about whether truth and fact can trump money and political compromise. It’s an ideal play for now.”
Ibsen wrote An Enemy of the People in response to the public outcry that greeted his play Ghosts – which is currently being staged by Belvoir. Pamela Rabe, who stars in Ghosts, will also perform in the final mainstage play of Belvoir’s 2018 season: Strindberg’s wonderfully venomous play The Dance of Death about a toxic marriage. Directed by Judy Davis, it also features Colin Friels and Toby Schmitz.
Belvoir will also stage four additional productions outside the main season: My Urrwai created and performed by Ghenoa Gela and Random by Debbie Tucker Green, performed by Zahra Newman, both in the Downstairs Theatre; along with Mother by Daniel Keene featuring Noni Hazelhurst, and Belvoir Ha Ha, a late-night comedy programme featuring Mel Buttle, Anne Edmonds and Cal Wilson in the Upstairs Theatre.
Casting his eye back over the season Flack is a happy man. “I’m really pleased with it,” he says. “I think it’s a very human, very generous, very open season. It’s kind of very much for everyone. It’s not just for people who have a high interest in art. It’s very much about us, for us, about who we are and what our world is.”