Sydney’s Belvoir is the latest theatre company to announce its 2017 season, which includes the return of two sell-out Belvoir productions, three new Australian plays, two classics and two wildly inventive American plays. “Our 2016 season has been very much about reflecting our past, both for Belvoir and in a wider cultural sense,” says Artistic Director Eamon Flack. “With the 2017 season we are taking an imaginative leap into the future. In this season, characters dream big in the midst of disaster and confusion. They fight passionately for a brighter future. This is a season of plays that unleashes the possibility that maybe the 21st century won’t be an unmitigated disaster.”
Gideon Mzembe and Pacharo Mzemba in Prize Fighter. Photo by Dylan Evans
It opens in January with Prize Fighter, a La Boite Theatre Company and Brisbane Festival production, which premiered in 2015 to rave reviews, presented in association with the Sydney Festival. Written by Future D. Fidel and set in a boxing ring, it draws on Fidel’s own experience to tell the story of a Congolese boy who comes to Australia as a refugee to escape war and unspeakable horror and finds a new passion and discipline as a boxer. Harrowingly graphic in parts, The Australian review described it as “gobsmacking, literally and metaphorically”.
In another co-production with Sydney Festival, Belvoir presents Which Way Home from Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre Company, directed by Rachael Maza. Playing in the Downstairs Theatre, Which Way Home is written by Katie Beckett, an actor and writer who won the 2015 Balnaves Foundation Playwrights Award. Beckett plays Tash, a young Indigenous woman who takes her beloved father – who has raised her in a mostly white suburb – on a road trip back to country. Given recent debate about Indigenous fathers, fired by a Bill Leak cartoon in The Australian, Which Way Home offers a positive perspective on an Indigenous father-child relationship.
Mitchell Butel as Mr Burns. Photo by Daniel Boud
Two of the most audacious, inventive plays in the season are American. Both came out of New York’s Playwrights Horizons in recent years. Anne Washburn’s anarchic dark comedy Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play is set in a post-apocalyptic world where, in the first act, a group of survivors re-enact an episode of The Simpsons. Mr Burns, of course, is the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and Homer’s boss in Matt Groenig’s animated series about a dysfunctional all-American family. The episode being remembered is Cape Feare, which parodied Martin Scorsese’s 1991 film Cape Fear, itself a remake of a 1962 film. The play fast-forwards seven years in the second act, while the third act is set 75 years later when musical theatre has become a religion in a feudal world. When Mr Burns premiered in 2013, it received both rave reviews and passionately negative ones, but enjoyed a sell-out season. Praising it as “downright brilliant”, The New York Times said it will “leave you dizzy with the scope and dazzle of its ideas”. Imara Savage directs a cast including Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill.
The other US play is Hir by Taylor Mac, a playwright, actor, director and outlandish drag performance artist who has performed in Australia several times. The uproarious black comedy takes the genre of dysfunctional family drama to new places. Isaac returns home from serving in Afghanistan to find that his father has had a stroke and that his mother is exacting revenge by feeding him oestrogen and dressing him as a wild drag clown, while his sister Maxine is now a transgender boy Max. The Belvoir production is directed by Anthea Williams with a cast including Greg Stone and Helen Thomson. Stone will doubtless be an invaluable touchstone in the rehearsal room as his daughter Georgie is transgender (which the family discussed on a recent episode of the ABC’s Australian Story called About a Girl). Belvoir will be putting out a national casting call to find a transgender boy to play Max.
Helen Thomson will play the mother in Hir. Photo by Daniel Boud
Belvoir’s 2016 season opened with a sell-out run of Kate Mulvany’s Jasper Jones, adapted from Craig Silvey’s novel. Such was the demand for tickets that Anne-Louise Sarks’ gorgeous, heart-warming production returns this January. The Dog/The Cat will also have a return season. The delightful double bill featuring quirky romantic comedies by Brendan Cowell and Lally Katz, was so popular when it premiered in the Downstairs Theatre in 2015 that it was extended by four weeks. In April, it has a two-week return season in the larger Upstairs Theatre.
The 2017 season will include another new play by the prolific Katz (who also has a new play in Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2017 season) called Atlantis. Katz performed her charming, autobiographical solo show Stories I Want to Tell You in Person Downstairs at Belvoir in 2013, and in 2016 Belvoir staged her play Back at the Dojo, which drew on her father’s and mother’s story. In Atlantis, she takes us on another personal journey back to Miami where she grew up, looking for hope and answers at a time when her life is something of a shambles. A cast of five women including Paula Arundell, Lucia Mastrantone and Amber McMahon, plays a myriad characters including Katz herself in an exploration of the struggles faced by women today. Rosemary Myers, Artistic Director of Windmill Theatre Company directs.
Sarah Peirse plays Mary-Ellen Field in Mark Colvin’s Kidney. Photo by Daniel Boud
In another new Australian play, Mark Colvin’s Kidney, Tommy Murphy tells the extraordinary story of Mary-Ellen Field and veteran journalist Mark Colvin. Field was a successful business advisor in London when she was accused of being an alcoholic and leaking private information to the press, which destroyed her career. When the News International phone hacking scandal made headlines several years later, Field set out to prove that this was the source of the leaks. Colvin interviewed her and an unlikely friendship was forged. When Field learned about Colvin’s serious medical condition, she insisted on donating one of her kidneys to him. Murphy spent time with both Field and Colvin while researching the play. It will be directed by David Berthold, who directed Murphy’s acclaimed play Holding the Man, with 2016 Helpmann Award winner Sarah Peirse as Field.
Ursula Yovich stars in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photo by Daniel Boud
The third new Australian play, Barbara and the Camp Dogs, was written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine, and features songs by Yovich, Valentine and Adam Ventoura. Directed by Leticia Cáceres, Yovich plays Barbara who has been trying to make it in Sydney with her band the Camp Dogs. When things aren’t happening for her, she decides to leave the city and have a break with her cousin René played by Casey Donovan. Belvoir describe the musical play as “a down and dirty rock gig filled with theatricality”.
Toby Schmitz returns to the Belvoir stage for the first time since playing Hamlet for Simon Stone in 2013. Asked what he’d like to do, he suggested The Rover, a raucous, raunchy, outrageous play about the battle of the sexes written in 1677 by Aphra Behn, who is considered the first professional female playwright. Since 2014, Schmitz has been playing a pirate in the television series Black Sails. In The Rover he plays an equally swashbuckling character called Willmore, inspired by a notorious 17th century playboy called John Wilmot. Willmore finally meets his match in the beguiling, witty Hellena, played by Nikki Shiels. Pity she’s a nun. Meanwhile a courtesan is bent on revenge after his romantic betrayal. Flack directs.
Toby Schmitz will star in The Rover with Nikki Shiels. Photo by Daniel Boud
Flack also reunites with the design team behind his 2014 sell-out production of The Glass Menagerie to stage a production of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Pamela Rabe plays Helene Alving, a ferocious mother trying to create a better future for her son. The cast also includes Tom Conroy, Taylor Ferguson and Robert Menzies.
Making up the season are late-night stand-up gigs by Tom Ballard, and two productions from New Zealand, both in the Downstairs Theatre. In Guru of Chai, Jacob Rajan plays 17 characters to tell the story of a tea-seller whose life is changed when he hears an abandoned girl singing at a train station. Based on the Indian fairytale Punchkin, Guru of Chai is an Indian Ink Theatre Company production. From Trick of the Light comes The Bookbinder by Ralph McCubbin Howell, an award-winning family show, which blends narration, shadow puppetry and magic to tell the spellbinding story of a bookbinder looking for an apprentice.
Flack sees the 2017 season as “optimistic and wildly entertaining” promising “more joy, more play, more panache, more love, more wild leaps of imagination, more possibility and more life.”