In shaping a season, Melbourne Theatre Company Artistic Director Brett Sheehy looks first and foremost for plays that will feel relevant to today’s audience – and with the company’s Next Stage Writer’s Program, now in its third year, bearing fruit, he is confident that the 2020 program is full of themes that will strike home.
MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy with Executive Director Virginia Lovett. Photograph supplied
“Everything we put on stage should be relevant to our audiences’ lives in what will be the third decade of the 21st century, so [I’ve looked for] plays that draw on contemporary themes and events happening in the world around us, that [help us] understand them with a bit more clarity and humanity. So, if there’s anything in the program, if there’s because there’s something in it that I thought is relevant to our lives now,” says Sheehy.
Half of next year’s season is Australian, with four new commissions from Next Stage, a new play about Evonne Goolagong for which the Sumner Theatre will be turned into a tennis court, and a David Williamson classic. “We’ve now got something around 25 writers [involved with Next Stage] which is an incredible amount, and six of them are resident writers so they are hot-desking in here, and just having that kind of energy around the place is fantastic,” says Sheehy. “But also, being able to tell these terrific new Australian stories, and such a number of them, is incredibly exciting.”
The season also features the hotly anticipated Australian premiere of a Tony Award-winning musical, a Shakespeare from the same creative team that thrilled audiences with Twelfth Night, and contemporary writing from the West End, Broadway and Canada.
HOME, I’M DARLING
The season begin in January with Home, I’m Darling by UK playwright Laura Wade, which won the 2019 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. The play puts our love of nostalgia under the microscope. Johnny and Judy are a pair of retro-enthusiasts who decide to live a completely authentic 1950s lifestyle. She leaves her career in finance to become a stay-at-home housewife, while he goes off to work each day. “They try to hold together this kind of perfectly constructed life – much to the chagrin of Judy’s mother, who is your hippie feminist. The frisson between the 50s and the 2020s throws up a lot of humour and slowly it starts to crystallise for us the true values of then compared to the true values of today, and how much has changed, particularly in terms of women and feminism,” says Sheehy.
Sarah Goodes directs a cast that includes Nikki Shiels and Jane Turner.
TORCH THE PLACE
Torch the Place. Photograph © Justin Ridler
Benjamin Law makes his playwriting debut with the first of the Next Stage commissions. Torch the Place is a poignant modern comedy about finding clarity in the middle of life’s clutter.
“When we embarked on Next Stage and Benjamin said he’d be interested in being a part of it, we were just thrilled to bits, because he’s such a polymath and I so enjoy his TV writing, I love his prose writing, I love his column writing and social commentary. This is a wonderful comedy but dealing with really serious issues. The central character is a mother who can’t let anything go, from grudges to household objects. In short, she’s a hoarder. When her kids return home for her 60th, it’s not just a celebration but an intervention. “The plays explores why she is the way she is and what is she trying to hold onto,” says Sheehy.
Dean Bryant directs a cast that includes Fiona Choi, Michelle Lim Davidson and Diana Lin.
In March, comes a revival of David Williamson’s much-loved social satire Emerald City, set in Sydney where fame, fortune and waterfront real estate can all too easily compromise moral ideals. Sam Strong directs a co-production between MTC and Queensland Theatre to celebrate Williamson’s 50th year as a playwright. The cast includes Ray Chong Nee, Marg Downey, Nadine Garner, Jason Klarwein and Rhys Muldoon.
The second Next Stage commission programmed in 2020 is Berlin by prolific, established Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, who spent time in the German city researching the play. “It’s so huge thematically. It really looks at Berlin through the eyes of these two young millennials who meet in a bar, one a German woman and the other a non-German, probably Australian, man. They both have very disparate family histories but both of their family histories are anchored in Berlin. It looks at Berlin from Nazism to the present time, and at really, really significant issues of a whole nation atoning for the past. [It also includes] Angela Merkel’s incredibly generous and welcoming refugee policies, and the impact of that on Europe. All of these huge issues are dealt with through just one night,” says Sheehy, who describes the play as a thriller in a similar terrain to Murray-Smith’s Switzerland about crime writer Patricia Highsmith.
Iain Sinclair, who had a huge success at MTC earlier this year with A View from the Bridge directs a cast that includes Grace Cummings.
SLAP. BANG. KISS
The third Next Stage commission is SLAP. BANG. KISS. by Dan Giovannoni, which plays as part of MTC’s Families and Education Program. Directed by Prue Clark, the rollercoaster drama explores themes of hope, identity and activism. Three young people kick-start a series of unexpected events: a video of a 16-year-old Immi hitting a solider during a military occupation goes viral, an impassioned speech for victims of a school shooting makes international news, while two boys attempt to break the world record for the longest kiss in the car park of a Wangaratta Woolies. The play asks what it means to ‘go viral’ and whether young people really can change the world.
SEXUAL MISCONDUCT OF THE MIDDLE CLASSES
Dan Spielman stars in the Australian premiere of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes by Canadian writer Hannah Moscovitch, a story about the dangers of desire, which takes a teacher-student affair and turns it on its head. Jon is a prize-winning novelist who wants more out of life. His third marriage is headed the way of his first two. Teaching a creative writing course at university, he finds himself embarking on an affair with a student called Annie who is bright, imaginative and a fan of his work.
“Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes is an exciting and dangerous new work. The time could not be more ripe to present a play that so deftly navigates privilege, truth and empowerment,” says Petra Kalive who directs the play for MTC.
THE HEARTBREAK CHOIR
The Heartbreak Choir. Photograph © Justin Ridler
The fourth Next Stage commission, opening in June, is The Heartbreak Choir by Aidan Fennessy whose play The Architect was premiered by MTC in 2018. In a small country hamlet, the local choir was always the heartbeat of the town, but a devastating event split the community in two and now choir leader Barbara and her friends must start a new choir. And things aren’t easy.
“I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but there is an event which has been headline news in the past six months in Australia,” says Sheehy. “A major event has happened, the choir becomes fractured and the play looks at the slow possibility of a community coming back together through the power of song – and the playlist will be gorgeous with Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone and more. What Aidan Fennessey did with The Architect was take a hotly debated issue here in Victoria – the idea of assisted dying. This is the sister play to that, because the woman who was the central character in The Architect was Helen and during the play she was trying to contact her sister Barbara, who lives up in the country. This is now Barbara’s story. So again, this is a dark event but from that springs this tremendous joy and reconciliation and humanity.”
Peter Houghton, who directed The Architect, directs The Heartbreak Choir with a cast including William McInnes, Genevieve Morris, Ruva Ngwenya and Louise Siversen.
Fun Home. Photograph © Justin Ridler
In September, the Tony Award-winning musical Fun Home with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron, based on Alison Bechdel’s best-selling graphic novel, has its Australian premiere in a co-production between MTC and Sydney Theatre Company.
“Kip [Williams, Artistic Director of STC] and I wanted to find a really significant work that we could co-produce and of all the new musicals I’ve seen over the past five to ten years this one is an absolute standout,” says Sheehy. “When the flagship or state companies do musicals, I love it when there are quite specific contemporary resonances in the works. This one fits the bill beautifully, following this amazing woman with her own [sexual] coming out, with the history of her relationship with her father, and with what happens to her father.”
The musical uses three actors at different ages to play the central role of Alison as she tries to solve the mystery of her father, who is now dead, while looking back on her relationship with him as she was growing up. “Fun Home…. uses the ineffability of music and the artifice of theatre to conjure a fourth dimension, that element of the unknowable that exists in all of us,” said Bren Brantley in The New York Times, describing it as a “beautiful heartbreaker of a musical”.
Dean Bryant directs a cast that includes Ryan Gonzalez, Lucy Maunder, Lisa McCune, Maggie McKenna, Adam Murphy and Chloé Zuel.
In August, Sarah Goodes directs Sam Shepard’s contemporary classic True West, a searing portrait of two brothers inextricably linked, whose savage relationship embodies the fallibility of the American dream. Josh McConville stars.
AS YOU LIKE IT
As You Like It. Photograph © Justin Ridler
Christie Whelan Browne and Bert LaBonté star in a glittering new production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Director Simon Phillips reunites with composers Kate Miller-Heide and Keir Nuttall after their delightful collaboration on Twelfth Night in 2018.
GIRLS & BOYS
In November, comes the Australian premiere of Boys & Girls by Dennis Kelly (who wrote the book for Matilda The Musical). The devastating one-woman show, which will be directed by Kate Champion and stars Robin McLeavy, charts the disintegration of a relationship.
“It begins as a comedy. A young woman tells us about meeting her husband-to-be in a budget airline cue. They fall in love, they marry, they have these two gorgeous kids and we as the audience are loving sharing their lives with them and being inside their world with them. And then suddenly, this appalling event occurs and the repercussions are tectonic. The play calls into question really who and how we love, how we raise our children and how well we really know those closest to us,” says Sheehy.
SUNSHINE SUPER GIRL
The 2020 season concludes with Sunshine Super Girl, written and directed by Andrea James, which tells the story of Australian tennis hero Evonne Goolagong. The Sumner Theatre will be transformed into a tennis court with special on-stage, court-side seating.
“As a young, black girl growing up in a wheat belt town in 1960s Australia, Evonne Goolagong beat the odds to become a household name. Evonne’s story is brimming with drama, politics, humour, sacrifice and sheer talent. Her joy and grace on the court was infectious, and the stage is the perfect place to celebrate her immense achievements and greatest struggles, both on and off the court,” says James. “I’m looking forward to working with brilliant Wiradjuri choreographer Vicki Van Hout to bring world class physicality to the stage, where Evonne’s incredible story will literally be played out on a tennis court.”