With the year drawing to a close, we look back over the theatre that wowed our critics in 2019. With so much on offer, it was tough reducing our lists, but this is what we picked.

JO LITSON – EDITOR

Counting and Cracking (Belvoir and Co-Curious)

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash and Sukania Venugopal in Counting and Cracking. Photograph © Brett Boardman

For years, there have been calls for more diversity on stage in Australian theatre. Here was a thrilling example. Written by S. Shakthidharan, the epic, wildly ambitious, three-and-a-half-hour play featured a cast of 17 performers speaking in six different languages – a device that was ingeniously and seamlessly handled on stage by director Eamon Flack. Moving between Sri Lanka and Australia, between 1956 and 2004, the fascinating play tells a compelling, complex story of Sri Lankan history, and reflects on a section of Australian society rarely portrayed onstage. Political, personal, provocative and illuminating, it was groundbreaking theatre.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Melbourne)

The cast of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Photograph © Matt Murphy

Muggles recognise magical theatre when they see it and this dazzlingly staged five-and-a-half-hour two-part play is miraculously spellbinding. In fact, the cliffhanger at the end of the first part leaves you with your jaw on the floor, and desperate to return. In a gift to Harry Potter fans, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tells a brand new story yet uses the tricks of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world to include some of the beloved characters and key moments from the novels in the intricate plot. Genius! Instead of incorporating high-tech effects to create the magic, the production uses good old-fashion theatre magic, with swirling cloaks a clever motif. Seeing both parts isn’t cheap but if you are a Harry Potter fan you won’t regret a cent of it.

White Pearl (National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Theatre Company)

Vaishnavi Suryaprakash, Shirong Wu, Catherine Van-Davies and Merlynn Tong in White Pearl. Photograph © Philip Erbacher

Thai-Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King is another young writer who is giving Australian theatre a jolly good shake. She’s still only 25 but, gee, can she write in what is already a very distinctive voice. White Pearl is a fresh, daring, blisteringly funny, fearless satire. Set in Singapore, the day has begun badly at a cosmetic start-up company called Clearday and is clearly only going to get worse for the female staff of six who hail from different parts of Asia. As the roller-coaster plot twists and turns, King addresses umpteen issues, ideas and prejudices in a breathless, taut 90-minutes. A razor-sharp little diamond.

HONOURABLE MENTIONS

Prima Facie, Suzie Miller’s play about sexual assault and the law with an astonishing performance by Sheridan Harbridge for Griffin Theatre Company; Sydney Theatre Company’s perfectly cast production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, superbly directed by Paige Rattray (see bel0w); Annie Baker’s quirky, intriguing play John produced by Outhouse Theatre Co and Seymour Centre (see below).

ANGUS MCPHERSON – DEPUTY EDITOR 

Every Brilliant Thing (Belvoir)

Every Brilliant Thing, Belvoir St Theatre, Kate MulvanyKate Mulvany in Belvoir’s Every Brilliant Thing. Photo © Brett Boardman

Kate Mulvany delivered a raw, moving performance in Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing in this effectively spare production directed by Kate Champion, with co-director Steve Rodgers, who took over the run from Mulvany and will reprise it for Belvoir in 2020. The play is about making a list of all the ‘brilliant things’ that make life worth living, and it draws the audience itself into the action in a number of clever ways. Mulvany deftly told the story of a childhood overshadowed by a parent’s depression with warmth, humour and ultimately hope.

John (Outhouse Theatre Co & Seymour Centre)

Maggie Blinco, Belinda Giblin and Shuang Hu. Photograph © Clare Hawley

This unsettling 2015 play by Annie Baker was given an affectionate, finely judged production by Outhouse Theatre Co at the Seymour Centre in September. On a gorgeous set by Jeremy Allen, which brought to life a quaintly cluttered B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, James Bell, Shuang Hu, Belinda Giblin and Maggie Blinco delivered spot on performances that leaned into the exquisite awkwardness and off-beat tension of the piece. It’s a quirky, slow burn of a play, but in the hands of director Craig Baldwin and his team it was utterly gripping. “It’s an intriguing play full of magic yet pervaded by sadness,” wrote Jo Litson in her review. “And its elusive nature is part of its fascination.”

Beauty Queen of Leenane (Sydney Theatre Company)

Yael Stone and Noni Hazlehurst. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Yael Stone and Noni Hazlehurst captured the toxic co-dependency of playwright Martin McDonagh’s mother-daughter relationship with steely grit, humour and humanity in this brilliant production directed by Paige Rattray. There was a wonderful sense of festering and decay that pervaded every moment, offset by the beauty of the countryside captured in Renée Mulder’s lush green set, spritzed with Irish mist. “The Beauty Queen of Leenane is savagely funny, horrifying at times, and desperately sad,” Jo Litson wrote. “You know that McDonagh is using time-honoured theatrical devices to tighten the fateful plot, but Rattray directs the play with such intelligence and empathy, and draws such mesmerising performances from the cast, that the play doesn’t release you from its grip for one second until its devastating end.”

JUSTINE NGUYEN – STAFF WRITER

The Iliad Out Loud (Sport for Jove and Sydney Festival)

The Iliad Out LoudZappa in The Iliad Out Loud. Photo © Jamie Williams

It’s easy to forget shows that open at the beginning of the year, but William Zappa’s brilliant adaptation of Homer’s The Iliad burns brightly in the memory. Programmed as part of Sydney Festival, audiences had the option to see it in three parts over three days, or over the course of one day. I chose the second option and I’m glad I did – being completely immersed in Homer’s world of drama, both epic and intimate, was a unique experience I’ll cherish for a long time. Zappa and fellow cast members Socratis Otto, Heather Mitchell and Blazey Best slipped in and out of the large cast of characters with astonishing facility and flair, while Zappa’s adaptation was fleet, witty and incredibly moving. The best way I can find to describe the experience is to compare it to being told a fantastic story around the campfire. The Iliad Out Loud will play at the Adelaide Festival next year – do what you can to see it.

Mary Stuart (Sydney Theatre Company)

Helen Thomson and Caroline Brazier in Sydney Theatre Company’s Mary Stuart. Photo © Brett Boardman

Kate Mulvany’s powerful, haunting adaptation put the spotlight on two characters ironically more talked about than talking in Friedrich Schiller’s original – Mary, Queen of Scots and Queen Elizabeth I. Superbly directed by Lee Lewis in a stark, sombre production (with truly unnerving sound design by Max Lyandvert), Caroline Brazier and Helen Thomson turned in career-best performances as Mary and Elizabeth respectively. What a joy to see these actors sink their teeth into Mulvany’s rich and ultimately very profound reimagination, delivering truthful, detailed performances that raise the bar very high indeed. They both offered up moments of greatness that suspended time. There were several moments of greatness that suspended time. An unforgettable experience that breathed urgent new life into a classic play.

Things I Know To Be True (Belvoir)

Helen Thomson and Tony Martin. Photograph © Heidrun Löhr

 Andrew Bovell’s portrait of one year in the life of the Price family was one of the great treasures of Belvoir’s 2019 season. A play brimful of compassion, wisdom and good humour, what could be dismissed as a typical domestic drama with stock characters – the harried mother, the gruff, emotionally repressed father, the woman who prioritises an affair above her young children – were given much depth by the playwright and a uniformly strong cast, none more impressive than Helen Thomson as the tough-as-nails matriarch, Fran. With her trademark comic timing, the actor showed us a pragmatic, no-nonsense woman careful to keep her doubts about the choices she’s made tamped down and hidden away from those she loves. As her husband Bob, Tony Martin gave a subtle, moving performance of a man who registers more than understands that life, and the certainties, both big and small, he’s so far taken for granted, are inexorably slipping through his fingers. An exquisite portrait of the family unit in all its complexities.

CLIVE PAGET – EDITOR AT LARGE, NEW YORK

The Lehman Trilogy (Park Avenue Armory, New York)

Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley & Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy. Photo © Stephanie Berger

When Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy on September 15, 2008, it was a disaster for more than just its clients. Lehman’s criminally negligent involvement in the speculative subprime mortgage market pitched a whole raft of equally culpable financial institutions over the edge, precipitating the GFC. The Lehman Trilogy is a quite brilliant piece of theatre that not only makes you understand the GFC, it actually makes you care about the family behind the name. Sam Mendes’ virtuosic staging at my favorite theatre venue – New York’s enterprising Park Avenue Armory – was played out by just three magnificent British actors: Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley. As plays about The American Dream go it ranks alongside the finest works of Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tony Kushner.

Ink (Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway)

Jonny Lee Miller as Larry Lamb and Bertie Carvel as Rupert Murdoch in Ink. Photo © Joan Marcus

Rupert Murdoch has dominated international media since his 1969 takeover of The Sun, then a failing leftish broadsheet in the stable of the overextended International Publication Corporation. The paper’s remarkable rise under editor Larry Lamb to become the undisputed daily of choice for the common man is the subject of James Graham’s gripping play, but Ink is also about a great deal more, not least of which are the consequences of a race to the journalistic bottom that are still with us today. Rupert Goold’s fluid staging boasted remarkable performances from Bertie Carvel and Jonny Lee Miller.  Carvel’s rapaciously reptilian Murdoch captured the anti-establishment opportunism, endless insecurities and unexpected sexual prurience of the man who would go on to “launch a thousand tits” on an unsuspecting British public. Miller turned in a bravura performance as a man increasingly compromised by his ruthless quest to make a winner out of “Rupert’s shit sheet” while pummelling the opposition for having looked down on him for decades.

Judgement Day (Park Avenue Armory, New York)

Luke Kirby as Thomas Hudetz and Cricket Brown as the Inspector. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Richard Jones’ bravura production of Ödön von Horváth’s 1937 dark morality tale about the consequences of failing to do one’s duty, the complexity of truth, and the fickleness of mob mentality certainly resonates in any era in which the slippery slope of falsehood predominates, and the individual often appears too afraid of being turned on by the group to admit truths that appear self-evident. The play examines the consequences of a train tragedy when the blame falls on a stationmaster momentarily distracted by a kiss from the innkeeper’s daughter. Failing to set the relevant signal in time, an express train ploughs into another wagon killing 18 people. The working out of the pair’s mounting guilt forms the meat of a play whose backdrop is a prurient community that lauds, despises and condemns each of the protagonists in turn. The staging is hugely ambitious, utilising the full expanse of the Park Avenue Armory’s cavernous Drill Hall and with a visceral sound design visceral that floors the audience like a punch in the gut.

FROM OUR CRITICS AROUND THE COUNTRY…

Shakespeare in Love (Melbourne Theatre Company)

Claire van der Boom and Michael Wahr. Photo © Jeff Busby

“Lee Hall’s adaptation has finally made its way to Melbourne, in this lavish, well-cast production that will swell theatre-lovers’ hearts with joy.” – Patricia Maunder

Animal Farm (State Theatre Company South Australia)

“An imaginative, expertly crafted retelling of a classic tale and an exceptional piece of theatre.” – Gordon Forester

City of Gold (Queensland Theatre)

City of Gold is fast-paced and full of contrasts, a perfect tempest of heartbreak and rage, guilt and grief. This is contemporary Australian theatre at its finest – urgent, honest, and unmissable.” – Elise Lawrence