In 1970, John Bell, Richard Wherrett and Ken Horler founded the Nimrod Theatre Company dedicated to developing Australian work, converting a small building in Nimrod Street, Kings Cross that had previously been a stables, a taxi garage, and a gymnasium into a performance space. Fifty years later, the SBW Stables Theatre, as it is now known, is the home of Griffin Theatre Company, established in 1979, which is also dedicated to Australian writing.
Griffin’s 2020 season celebrates the 50th anniversary of the historic theatre with a season of five mainstage plays, the first of which is by David Williamson who is also celebrating his 50th year as a playwright next year. However, the season is not about the past, though it does include a revival of a 2002 play by Alma de Groen.
“The 2020 season is not a looking back but a looking forward. Our playwrights have questions for you, challenges for you, laughter to share with you and hope and visions of the future to offer you,” said Griffin’s Artistic Director Lee Lewis.
Andrew McFarlane. Photograph © Brett Boardman
The 2020 season opens with Family Values by David Williamson. The black comedy centres on a celebrated judge on the brink of retirement “who can’t understand why his kids can’t just sit down and have a nice glass of champagne on his birthday,” says Lewis. “But the politics of the kids are complicated. There’s the born-again Christian minster that’s his son, there’s the left-wing activist daughter who turns up with a refugee on the run from Manus Island, and there’s the other daughter who works for Border Force and her girlfriend, soon to be partner, who is a Captain of one of the Border Force cutters. So, this all collides in real time.”
“He is doing a classic David in that he is putting all the problems of the country on stage,” says Lewis with a laugh. “It’s a particular type of work that he does that no one else can do, and he can speak to a generation in a way that a lot of other writers can’t. So that’s the reason to do it, he’s got something to say. So, we are in full David Williamson comedy territory at the beginning of the year with some politics in there.”
Lewis, who directed a revival of Williamson’s Emerald City for Griffin in 2014, and the premiere of his play Rupert for Melbourne Theatre Company in 2013, directs with Andrew McFarlane as the judge and Jamie Oxenbould as his son.
Christian Byers. Photograph © Brett Boardman
“It’s about a group of young people, 19 and 20-year-olds. One of them is struggling to come to terms with the death of his brother and it’s really simple – his friends try to help him out of that grief. It’s Matt [playwright Matthew Whittet] exercising his belief in community and friendship to actually help us through our hardest times.”
“We read this play at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning and honest to God, by 9.30 I was just weeping. It’s beautiful, sad and then beautiful again. We need a Kleenex sponsorship for this one. The reason I’m interested in it is despite it having a layer about young suicide in there, it’s very hopeful without it being saccharine hopeful. [Whittet] has got a real belief in the capacity to survive.”
Lewis directs a cast of five including Christian Byers and Nikita Waldron.
WHEREVER SHE WANDERS
Emily Havea will perform in Wherever She Wanders. Photograph © Brett Boardman
In 2018, Griffin had a huge success when Lewis directed Kendall Feaver’s first play The Almighty Sometimes. Born in Sydney, Feaver is currently based in the UK where The Almighty Sometimes has also been a big hit.
In 2020, Lewis will direct Feaver’s second play, Wherever She Wanders, set in an Australian university where student and aspiring journalist Nikki Gonçalves – to be played by Emily Havea – finds herself on a collision course with Jo Mulligan, the first female Master of the oldest college on campus, when she makes a complaint about sexual abuse.
Lewis admits she rarely considers directing someone’s second play having previously directed their first. “I don’t expect playwrights to come back with their second play being significantly different to warrant, or to be able to survive another production at Griffin. I don’t want audiences to say the first one was better, it’s the second album problem in the same space. But I read this and it’s a very different story and something that other companies were going, ‘oh I don’t know that we want to get into this’ and I was like, ‘okay, then it’s ours’, which is lovely,” she says.
“On the surface, it’s about the rape culture in the university college system. That’s the topic area that she’s working in, but really it’s about the battle between young and old feminists for how to move the conversation about sexuality, identity and sexual relations forward. It’s a very complex relationship between a young feminist who is a student at the college, who brings a complaint to the Dean about sexual aggression and sexual assault, and how the Dean deals with that, and the conversation between the two women about how that institutionally should or shouldn’t be dealt with,” says Lewis.
Dubs Yunupingu will perform in Superheroes. Photograph © Brett Boardman
Mark Rogers won the 2019 Griffin Theatre Award and the 2019 Patrick White Award for Superheroes, a chamber piece for three actors, with which Shari Sebbens will make her directorial debut.
Superheroes features two women living on opposite sides of the world. In Thirroul, Emily is dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. In Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jana goes out to get the groceries and finds herself caught up in the European refugee crisis when she encounters an angry young man on the bus. The man appears in both stories.
“It’s actually a slippery little work, I’ll be interested to see how Shari manages it across time and space but it’s one of those one-night-on-earth stories,” says Lewis. “There’s a beautiful sleight of hand at the end where [Rogers] manages to bring it together. You’ve just got to love it when a playwright is cleverer than you. Again, Mark is one of those writers who is writing quite hopefully. I find it interesting that that is possible at the moment.”
Sebbens directed the Patrick White Award reading and loved the play. Her cast includes Aleks Mikic and Dubs Yunupingu.
Vanessa Downing. Photograph © Brett Boardman
The last mainstage play of the year is a revival of Alma de Groen’s drama Wicked Sisters, which Griffin staged in 2002 directed by Kate Gaul. Born in New Zealand where she now lives, de Groen lived in Australia for many years, and was the first playwright to win the Patrick White Literary Award for her contribution to Australian theatre in 1998.
“I love her writing and it amazes me that people aren’t reviving it more. She was huge in the 80s and 90s. Richard Wherrett produced five of her works at Sydney Theatre Company. My super favourite, which is way too big for Griffin, is The Woman in the Window and I came to Wicked Sisters via The Woman in the Window,” says Lewis.
The play tells the story of four women in their 50s. Meridee was married to Alec Hobbes, one of the world’s great brains who was a social Darwinist and artificial intelligence researcher. He is now dead but his computer is still working on an algorithm that the university wants; an algorithm about the inevitability of human extinction based on humanity’s choice systems.
Griffin describes the play as “a ruthlessly hilarious and sharp-fanged battle of ideas around sex, survival, competition, ambition, ageing, adultery and betrayal.”
Lewis believes that Wicked Sisters now feels more timely than when de Groen wrote it. “She was just ahead of her time as a writer,” says Lewis, comparing her to Margaret Atwood. “She was talking about extinction events in 2002 [when] only climate scientists were talking about that… It’s a period piece so we’re travelling back to 2002, that strange post-millennium place, but I think the way we perform women and the way we watch women on stage has changed significantly since then so I am really interested to see how this plays out now.”
Nadia Tass directs a cast that includes Di Adams, Vanessa Downing and Deborah Galanos.
Suzie Miller’s play Prima Facie, starring Sheridan Harbridge, which has just had a sell-out season at Griffin will return next year with a Sydney season at the Seymour Centre. The Batch Festival will return in April, Deborah Oswald will perform her solo show Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?, Oliver Twist will perform his show Fear, Phil Spencer will perform No Standing. No Dancing, and Betty Grumble and Emma Maye Gibson will perform Enemies of Grooviness – Eat Shit.