Malthouse Theatre has announced its 2019 season, with Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel Cloudstreet returning to the stage – some 20 years after its premiere – in a brand new production directed by Malthouse Artistic Director Matthew Lutton.

“A story like Cloudstreet, I think the more you tell it the more it reveals about who you are at the current moment,” Lutton tells Limelight. “Tim’s characters are just incredible, I think they’re characters that you see yourself in, they’re beautiful. You just fall in love with them.”

Cloudstreet, MalthouseCloudstreet. Photo © Zan Wimberley

The theatrical adaptation of Winton’s novel opened in Sydney in 1998, directed by Neil Armfield and produced by Company B and Black Swan State Theatre as part of the Sydney Festival. The five and a half hour play went on to tour internationally and took out the Helpmann for Best Play in 2002.

Lutton won’t be making huge changes when the play opens at Malthouse in May, though he says that performing it over two nights will create a slightly different structure. “I guess I’m interested in bringing out some of the more haunted aspects of the house, so we’re looking at a new opening that looks at the Indigenous orphanage being positioned at the beginning of the story,” he explains. “I’m working with an actor with a disability to play Fish and that will shift some of the performance text. They’re small tweaks, but often small adjustments to it can have a big impact.”

The cast of Cloudstreet, a co-production with Black Swan, will include Natasha Herbert, Bert LaBonté, Guy Simon, Greg Stone and Alison Whyte.

“I really love trying to find in these stories [a way to reduce] the nostalgia by looking for the darkness in them – it doesn’t mean you strip out the humour and the love, but there’s absolutely a dark haunting at the core of this story.”

Ideas of haunting and horror permeate Malthouse’s 2019 season – there are several shows “about screaming in the dark as an audience,” Lutton explains. “And they’re about being able to identify things that scare you.”

Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard in The Underground Railway Game. Photo © Cade Martin

The season opens at the end of January with a work from the USA, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott R Sheppard’s The Underground Railway Game. “It’s a piece that couldn’t be done by anyone except this American company, I think, it’s probably the most provocative piece about race I’ve seen,” Lutton says. “It’s just Scott and Jennifer and they start as primary school teachers, teaching the audience about American slavery as a game, and then it sort of shifts into their relationships as teachers and the way that that history of slavery has impacted every social dynamic and relationship. It’s quite confronting. But it’s incredibly spectacular, theatrically. They welcome you into their classroom and it starts very welcoming and then quite rapidly descends into something far more R-rated,” he says.

In February Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine’s Barbara and the Camp Dogs, which premiered at Sydney’s Belvoir last year, comes to Malthouse. “I think Ursula’s a real virtuosic performer,” Lutton says. “She’s just extraordinary that she’s the songwriter, the playwright, performer, and I find the story that she tells – the road trip that she and her sister go on – incredibly moving.”

The cast features Yovich alongside Troy Brady and Elaine Crombie, in the Belvoir production directed by Leticia Cáceres. “What I love is that Leticia’s production is very immersive – the fact that you turn the hall into a sticky carpet pub thing.”

The Beckett Theatre will be home to The Temple in May, with five performers, Aljin Abella, Ash Flanders, Mish Grigor, Nicola Gunn and Marcus McKenzie joining guest director Gavin Quinn from Ireland’s Pan Pan Theatre. “They’re making this incredible comedy together which is about The Temple, which is a cult. You come to the cult basically for self improvement, and the idea for all of them is that for self-improvement, you become someone else,” Lutton says. “I haven’t wet myself so much in a rehearsal room laughing. I think it’s a brilliant new comedy.”

Zahra Newman stars in Wake in Fright. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Laughter will turn to fear in June with a new adaptation, by Declan Greene, of Kenneth Cook’s novel Wake in Fright (which was made into a film in 1971 and a television miniseries last year). The play will star Zahra Newman, fresh from her run as Nabulungi in The Book of Mormon – though the two shows couldn’t be more different. “It’s almost like an ecstatic conjuring – it’s just her, in the dark, by herself,” Lutton says. “It’s got a constant sound score that [Greene] is creating with Friendships, which is an electronica duo.”

“It’s a piece for voice and electronics really,” Lutton explains. “That will conjure the entire Yabba, the entire town that the protagonist goes into, and Zahra will play every role. But it’s also a big piece about tumbling into toxic masculinity. This town is just a cycle and that’s what’s so terrifying – it’s very hard to know how, once you get in the vortex, how to get out.”

Continuing the horror theme, but with a science fiction bent, is Solaris, a new play adapted from Stanisław Lem’s novel by David Greig. “It’s like a sci-fi Ibsen in space,” Lutton says of the play. “It’s four characters on a space station, it’s very contained.”

Lem’s novel – which has been fodder for no less than three film adaptation and a radio play – sees a psychologist arrive aboard a space station above the planet Solaris, which is exerting a mysterious influence on the space station’s inhabitants. “There’s a child running around the space station that no one knows how it got there,” Lutton says. “And he – or she in our version – when she wakes up, her lover that suicided ten years ago is sitting in the room.”

“It’s all set in the station and we’re very deliberately talking about it being a sci-fi without technology,” he explains. “I’m actually more interested in old horror techniques, lights on lights off, things changing rapidly, at a scary pace, to create tension.”

Greig is writing the play from Scotland. “We’re co-producing it with the Royal Lyceum and a company in London, so it’s got a team that comes from the UK and Australia,” Lutton says. “It’s a space station, hence it’s an international collaboration.”

Critic, poet and novelist Alison Croggon’s new work My Dearworthy Darling will premiere in August. “It’s one of the best pieces of new writing I’ve read in the last year. She takes a premise of looking at a contemporary woman who is tumbling through this contemporary relationship that’s full of gas-lighting and paranoia, and trying to extricate herself from this relationship, and at the same time she’s looking at a mystic in the medieval period whose visions are being condemned as madness. And as those two figures start to collide in time, they start to connect.”

My Dearworthy Darling will be directed and designed by THE RABBLE and star Jennifer Vuletic. “It’s a very ambitious work that needs to be medieval and contemporary simultaneously, it actually blurs both periods, like a dream,” Lutton says. “It’s a big virtuosic role where she has to channel both times.”

Linda Cropper in Australian Realness. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Zoey Dawson’s new work Australian Realness, which hits the Merlyn Theatre in August, will skewer ideas about class. “She starts the play in the 1990s in Australia and it introduces us to a very cliché, middle-class bourgeois family,” says Lutton. “And then you find out that they are renting out their back shed to a bogan family that sort of resembles the characters from The Castle – and the actors have to play both roles.”

“In a classic Zoe Dawson fashion it literally explodes out of the theatre – we have to open the back doors of our theatre and go down to the streets,” Lutton says. “It starts as a wild comedy but becomes quite a big critique by the end of it.”

Malthouse’s 2019 season will also feature two special events – Anouk van Dijk’s dance work Common Ground in March and a return season of Nakkiah Lui’s Blackie Blackie Brown in August. “Our audiences in Melbourne couldn’t get enough of it, so we extended it and it sold out again,” Lutton says. “I think there is just such a hunger to see Nakkiah’s story told.”

Meow Meow. Photo © Magnus Hastings

Meow Meow finishes off the Malthouse season in November with Apocalypse Meow: Crisis is Born – her new Christmas show. “She’s pulling apart the Christmas ritual and rituals that we cling to and what happens when they stop working,” Lutton says. “So as with all Meow’s shows, they’re spectacular but they often have a mournful heart inside them.”

“We couldn’t really think of a better way to end the year.”


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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine