The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Twelfth Night starring Geoffrey Rush top and tail a topical programme.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2018 season begins with the Australian premiere of the National Theatre’s hugely popular, award-winning production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and ends with Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night starring Geoffrey Rush as Malvolio. The other 11 productions include a mix of new Australian plays, contemporary international hits and classics, all chosen for the zesty way they speak to the times.

Geoffrey Rush will play Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Photograph © Justin Ridler

“If I take a bird’s eye view of the whole programme, I suppose one of the things I was really keen to do was to look for works, which have genuine contemporary relevance,” says MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy.

“You could say almost any play is relevant if it’s got emotion and drama but what I was looking for, quite specifically, was that every production in the programme, even the classics, needed to say something to a 21st-century audience in Australia.”

“That was also part of the reason behind the Next Stage writing initiative – to put on stage the best possible Australian stories speaking to us about our here and now, and about our own lives. Obviously, it’s a global world and we’re all connected.”

Launched in June this year, the Next Stage Writer’s Program is a five-year initiative, with an investment of $4.6 million, to provide 50 opportunities for Australian writers consisting of commissions and residencies, some of which are already underway, with plays likely to be seen in subscription seasons in two or three years time.

The MTC’s 2018 season begins in January with something of a coup having secured the Australian premiere of the National Theatre production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Presented with Arts Centre Melbourne, the season will be an Australian exclusive. Simon Stephens’ stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel, directed by Marianne Elliott (War Horse), premiered at the National Theatre in 2012 then transferred to the West End where it won seven Olivier Awards. It opened on Broadway in 2014 and ran there for nearly two years, winning five Tony Awards including Best Play. Productions are now touring the US and the UK. The UK production goes to Europe and then comes to Melbourne.

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher in The Curious Incident. Photograph © BrinkhoffM+ògenberg

The Curious Incident tells the story of 15-year old Christopher John Francis Boone, a mathematical genius who has an autism spectrum disorder. When he is discovered standing beside his neighbour’s dead dog, which has been speared with a garden fork, he finds himself under suspicion, so he sets out to solve the mystery of who the real killer is.

Elliott’s production uses the conceit that we are watching a school play based on the notes Christopher takes, and stages it on Bunny Christie’s clever, witty design of glowing geometric grids, which creates a physical manifestation of Christopher’s mind.

Sheehy first saw the play in 2013 and immediately began talking to the National (who he was already working with to bring their production of One Man, Two Guvnors to Australia). “It’s taken all this time to have the planets align,” he says. “I’ve seen it five times now overseas, I just keep going back, and I think it’s one of the great theatrical achievements of the past decade.”

In February, Sarah Goodes directs The Children by British playwright Lucy Kirkwood, whose play Chimerica had a season at Sydney Theatre Company this year. Described by The Guardian as “a genuinely disturbing play”, The Children is set on the English coast where two retired nuclear physicists are living a quiet life, with a Geiger counter on hand. Then an old colleague arrives with a challenge for the future.

“There has been a natural disaster which has led to a Fukushima-style nuclear catastrophe,” explains Sheehy. “All the politics in the play are around responsibility for nuclear material, and also the big responsibility for the environment and the kind of world we leave our children. But it’s a wonderfully intimate relationship story as well.” The Children stars Sarah Peirse, Pamela Rabe and William Zappa.

Eryn Jean Norvill will perform in Abigail’s Party. Photograph © Justin Ridler

Mike Leigh’s satirical social comedy of manners Abigail’s Party premiered in 1977. Now considered a cult classic, it is set in the English suburbs and skewers middle-class aspirations and marital misery through its brutally funny depiction of an excruciating party. “With the growing consumerism and the expanding middle class over the past ten years, the word ‘aspirational’ is now used to describe a whole class of First World people wanting more and more and climbing a social ladder,” says Sheehy. “I think [Abigail’s Party] resonates in some ways even more [than it did in the 1970s] because in my view consumerism is out of control.” The production, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo, will retain its 70s setting. The cast includes Eryn Jean Norvill and Daniel Frederiksen.

Also from the UK comes Wild by Mike Bartlett (King Charles III, Cock) – a darkly comic twist on the story of American whistle blower Edward Snowden. “The issue of America’s wholesale and unapproved collection of the world’s meta-data and all the questions it raises around privacy and privacy if our security is threatened, I think are incredibly relevant and important to look at,” says Sheehy.

“Bartlett has used Edward Snowden as the spring board but he’s fictionalised it. The character is called Andrew but it does begin in a Moscow hotel room with an interrogation. We’re not sure who the interrogators are – one of them may be a representative of WikiLeaks, one of them may be from MI6, or the CIA, but the question it asks is if you betray your country even for the right reasons are you a traitor or a hero? – which is something Snowden is still grappling with five years on now.” Wild is directed by MTC Associate Director Dean Bryant with a cast including Anna Lisa Phillips.

Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius is writing an adaptation of Federico García Lorca’s classic tragedy The House of Bernarda Alba, relocating it from a Spanish village to outback Western Australia. MTC Associate Director Leticia Cáceres directs a cast that includes Peta Brady, Julie Forsyth, Bessie Holland and Melita Jurisic.

In one of Sheehy’s very early conversations with Cáceres, shortly after his appointment as MTC AD, she told him that Cornelius was thinking about adapting Lorca’s play, so he decided to commission her to do it. Cáceres describes it as “the perfect vehicle to explore the politics of gender and the female body. We’ve dreamed up a non-conventional Alba, one of that sizzles under the harsh Australian sun.”

Cornelius is the author of many tough, highly acclaimed plays including SHIT, Slut and Savages. She is one of the writers commissioned by MTC as part of its Next Stage programme to write a new play for the Company. “I love her work so much but it has never been performed by any of the state theatre companies – and she is one of the finest writers in the national, so there’s a kind of craziness to that,” says Sheehy. “We know the reasons why – her work can be tough, uncompromising, confronting, all those things but we just feel at MTC that’s it’s absolutely time, hence The House of Bernarda Alba and the second commission.”

Ailenne Huynh, Lisa McCune and Callan Colley perform in Gloria. Photograph © James Hartley & Jo Duck

In June, Lee Lewis directs Gloria by American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set in the office of a Manhattan magazine, Gloria is a dowdy copy editor who is not much liked. “She’s horrendously teased, the butt of jokes around the office,” says Sheehy. “She decides to have a party to which she invites all her office colleagues and they deliberately boycott it out of cruelty and for fun. As a result of that, a very tragic event happens. And then we pick up a little later when those who were witness to the tragic event, or involved, are looking at very possible way they can monetise it, with zero thought for Gloria, zero thought for the people who were badly affected by what happened.”

“It’s such a comment on contemporary society and people rushing to do reality TV shows and trying to make money from everything. It skewers the media and rampant avarice and exploitation. It’s also incredibly funny – it’s a dark comedy – though the event in the centre of the play is truly shocking.” Lisa McCune stars.

Dean Bryant has gathered a fabulous cast for a production of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband. Led by Gina Riley and William McInnes, it also includes Simon Gleeson, Brent Hill, Christie Whelan Browne, Michelle Lim Davidson and Zindzi Okenyo. “It will be an absolute romp, I think,” says Sheehy who considers it one of Wilde’s best plays along with The Importance of Being Earnest. “It deals with all the Wildean things like infidelity and gossip, but on a more serious note, it also looks at insider trading, extraordinary hypocrisy, political corruption and blackmail so I think it’s incredibly relevant to 2018.”

Marta Dusseldorp plays Nora in A Doll’s House, Part 2. Photograph © Justin Ridler

In another coup, Sheehy has managed to secure the rights to Lucas Hnath’s 2017 play A Doll’s House, Part 2, which is a smash hit on Broadway, where it was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play, while Laurie Metcalf won a Tony for her portrayal of Nora. The role will be played in Australia by Marta Dusseldorp, with Sarah Goodes directing.

In 1879, when Nora Helmer slammed the door behind her at the end of Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House, leaving her family, it caused shockwaves. Hnath’s play picks up on Nora’s story 15 years later, beginning with a knock on that same door. Now a successful feminist writer, Nora has returned wanting a divorce.

“Within the first three lines, it’s so winning. It’s very funny and you immediately understand you are in a complete fresh new work. It doesn’t require any knowledge of Ibsen’s play at all,” says Sheehy.

In October, Peter Houghton directs the premiere of Aidan Fennessy’s latest play The Architect, a story about two unlikely companions. Helen is seriously ill. When her partner John goes on a brief overseas trip she hires a charming but dodgy young man to move in and be her carer. “They develop this beautiful platonic relationship and deep love. It’s gorgeous,” says Sheehy. “That’s the emotional underpinning for this exploration of what rights and control we have over our own lives.” Linda Cropper will play Helen.

Albert Belz’s Astroman is a new Australian play set in 1980s Geelong, which centres on an Indigenous family. Jimmy is incredibly brilliant but so bored at school that he is getting into trouble. Then he forms a friendship with the local gaming arcade owner and proves to be so proficient at fixing algorithms in the gaming machines, and even developing new games, that a new future beckons – but that would mean leaving his adored mother and brother. Sarah Goodes directs a cast that includes Elaine Crombie, Kamil Ellis, Tony Nikolakopoulos and Calen Tassone.

“There are some emotional similarities between Astroman and Jasper Jones and the film Stand By Me,” says Sheehy. “This really is a beautiful coming-of-age story.”

Emina Ashman and Jing-Xuan Chan appear in Hungry Ghosts. Photograph © Justin Ridler

The play for the 2018 education season is a new work by Jean Tong called Hungry Ghosts. An extract from it was read at the MTC’s 2017 Cybec Electric play reading series, which featured the work of nine Asian Australian playwrights. Tong’s piece got such a strong response that Sheehy commissioned a full play. “It’s about otherness,” he says. “The central character is a queer Chinese Malaysian Australian woman who is wrestling with her place in the world and her identity. She is being bombarded with things that relate to her homeland such as the MH370 flight disappearance and the multi-million dollar corruption scandal in Malaysia of the past five years or so. For me, it’s a great thrill to have a brand new writer who we can champion,” says Sheehy.

The world premiere Neon Next commission is Working with Children by Nicola Gunn, which takes on the sometimes hypocritical lives of teachers, artists and regulators in a technologically inventive production. Gunn will also direct and perform.

The 2018 season ends on a high with a production of Twelfth Night directed by Simon Phillips, designed by Gabriela Tylesova and starring Geoffrey Rush as Malvolio. “Obviously, we are thrilled to have Geoffrey in the programme and have him team up with Simon again after The Drowsy Chaperone and The Importance of being Earnest,” says Sheehy. The cast also includes Brent Hill, Richard Piper, Christie Whelan Browne and Frank Woodley.

“The play still has all these contemporary resonances with sexual identity and gender politics and puritans. We are delighted that it finishes the year and plays through Christmas, given that it is Twelfth Night and was set by Shakespeare around Christmas.”

The FUll Season