This weekend, Queensland Theatre had four productions either in performance or rehearsal around the country. Tom Holloway’s adaptation of Storm Boy, co-produced by QT, Melbourne Theatre Company and Dead Puppet Society, closed last night after playing to large family audiences in Brisbane and Melbourne. Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play L’Appartement, which also marks her directorial debut, is playing to sell-out crowds in Brisbane.
Another new play, Meyne Wyatt’s City of Gold, which QT co-produced with Griffin Theatre Company, is playing to great acclaim in Sydney after premiering in Brisbane, while Yve Blake’s new musical Fangirls, co-produced by QT and Belvoir in association with Australian Theatre for Young People, is currently rehearsing in Sydney prior to its world premiere in Brisbane next month.
Sam Strong and Trent Dalton. Photograph © Luke Marsden
“In terms of the national footprint of [QT over] the last few years as well, we have worked really hard to get the work of Queenslanders and Queensland Theatre around the rest of the country,” says Artistic Director Sam Strong.
“If you look at our 2020 launch day as a snapshot, on that day we will have four things going on around the country. We are launching eight more plays, including four more world premieres [so that] snapshot of the company’s reach and leadership and influence is something that I am incredibly proud of.”
The 2020 season marks QT’s 50th season. It is also Strong’s fourth and final year as Artistic Director. “In some ways, when you are faced with that kind of milestone it can be incapacitating but I suppose what I’m proud of is that the season continues those points of difference of Queensland Theatre that we’ve established over the last few years [and] that have come to define the company,” Strong tells Limelight.
In terms of ticket sales, 2019 has been the third year of successive growth for the company under Strong’s leadership. During his directorship, he has championed the telling of new stories. “This  will be our third successive year where at least 50 percent of the program is world premieres and I think that commitment to new work has really set Queensland Theatre apart over the past few years, and is why we talk about ourselves now as a kind of national home for new stories,” he says.
In a media statement, Strong said: “In the four years, including 2020, we will have staged 15 world premieres, including 12 commissions reaching the stage. That’s a theatre company reflecting contemporary Australia back to itself more than ever before and more than any other. This has included established names and new plays by David Williamson, Joanna Murray-Smith, Sue Smith and Melissa Bubnic. It has also included at least seven mainstage debuts, three first nations writers, two Asian-Australian writers, one Islamic-Australian writer and one transgender writer.”
Strong is also proud of the fact that the 2020 season will be the fourth consecutive year where the company has honoured its commitment to gender parity among writers and directors.
Several of the plays in the 2020 season have specific Queensland connections, with 50 percent of them set in Queensland. “In a way that literal setting is less important for me than what the plays pertain to,” says Strong, “but what you’ve got is the quintessential Brisbane novel in Boy Swallows Universe, we’ve got two very Queensland takes on classics in a Torres Strait Island Othello and a Phaedra set in an imagined future in Queensland, and a play like The Holidays which takes a very specific Queensland beach holiday but extrapolates it out to universal themes about grief and letting go.”
THE 2020 SEASON
The season opens with David Williamson’s 1987 satirical comedy Emerald City, directed by Strong. Set in Sydney in the hedonistic late 1980s, it explores the compromise of personal ideals for fame, fortune and plum real estate.
“As we were contemplating the various forms that our celebration of 50th year would take it came to our attention that it was also the 50th anniversary of David Williamson’s professional life as a playwright,” says Strong. “David has been intimately connected with the company. Most recently his play Nearer the Gods, which opened our new theatre, the Bille Brown Theatre, became the highest selling new Australian play the company has ever produced. So, we have a very close association with David and we are very keen to celebrate David’s anniversary. Emerald City for me is one of David’s finest comedies, if not the finest. It’s actually a play I’ve had my eye on for a long time. It’s not just incredibly funny and well observed, and it’s not just a portrait of a city and a culture at a particular time. I think it reaches through those specifics to something universal, and that’s about ideas around the compromise of your personal morality or ideals,” says Strong, who directs a cast including Jason Klarwein, Rhys Muldoon, Nadine Garner and Ray Chong Nee.
Commissioned by QT, Triple X is by Glace Chase, an Australian writer based in New York. Described by QT as a “deliciously naughty anti-romance”, Triple X offers a dissection of gender and sexuality in the 2020s. Scotty is living the dream. He has a multimillion dollar loft in downtown Manhattan, a high-flying Wall Street job, and a perfect, filthy rich fiancée. But then he meets trans performance artist Dexie and discovers he wants more.
A self-described “trans-queen”, Chase is famous for running Dream Queen Tours of Greenwich Village, which combine a walking tour, a pub crawl and a comedy show. She has won two Griffin Awards and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award. Paige Rattray directs the premiere of Triple X with a cast including Chase herself, Christen O’Leary and Josh McConville.
Jason Klarwein directs a production of Shakespeare’s tragedy set in the Torres Strait in 1942 during the Second World War, with Jimi Bani as Othello. The Imperial Japanese Navy is headed for Australia and Captain Othello and his battalion of the Far North Queensland Regiment are all that stands in their way. Away from the battlefield, Othello has secretly married the daughter of a wealthy cane farmer and an envious, spurned suitor has joined forced with a resentful officer to bring him down. The production unites QT with the creative team behind one of the company’s defining works, My Name is Jimi.
Bridget Boyle directs the world premiere of The Holidays by David Megarrity, which won the 2018-19 Queensland Premier’s Drama Award. The play transports audiences to a quintessential Queensland beach getaway for a touching meditation on mortality. QT describes the play as “a disarming and lyrical chronicle about family, for families”. Boyle directed QT’s award-winning production The Longest Minute. Her cast for The Holidays includes Bryan Probets.
The Children by acclaimed UK playwright Lucy Kirkwood, is an intensive, slow-burning drama set after a nuclear disaster. Hazel and Robin are two retired nuclear scientists living in a cottage on the English coast where they are struggling to live as normal a life as possible, with a Geiger counter at the ready. When an old colleague turns up at their door they are forced to face some uncomfortable truths. The play was performed in 2018 in a co-production between Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies. Zoe Tuffin directs the QT production with a cast including Christine Amor and Toni Scanlan.
BOY SWALLOWS UNIVERSE
As announced in May, Trent Dalton’s smash hit, award-winning Australian novel Boy Swallows Universe is set for the stage with a new adaptation by Tim McGarry to be directed by Strong. Produced by QT and Brisbane Festival, it will premiere in August.
The bestselling book is so popular that the theatre adaptation obviously comes with high expectations. Asked if he feels nervous about guiding it to the stage, Strong says: “There is always a kind of duty of care that comes with [translating] cherished literature into other forms. It is a very delicate process. My approach to that is ‘how can we tell the story of Boy Swallows Universe in a way that is uniquely theatrical?’ Fortunately, I’ve got quite a bit of form of directing adaptations of contemporary Australian novels, particularly coming-of-age novels in Storm Boy and Jasper Jones so it’s a form that I’m very passionate about.”
“But I think what’s interesting to me in Boy Swallows Universe, is something that it has in common with City of Gold – both of those works have an authentic personal experience at their core, they are speaking to something that in some ways those authors have experienced no matter how much they have fictionalised and distanced it. And I think that what is interesting about Australian stories at the moment is that Australian audiences have an appetite for authenticity on stage. You are seeing audiences respond more and more to experiences where they recognise something very honest, candid and open, and we are thrilled to be part of that trend at Queensland Theatre across time and in 2020.”
QT presents Lee Lewis’s acclaimed Griffin Theatre Company production of Suzie Miller’s one-woman play Prima Facie, which won the 2018 Griffin Award and got rave reviews when it premiered in Sydney in May this year, starring Sheridan Harbridge. The play tells the story of Tessa, a ruthlessly successful criminal lawyer who loves to win. Frequently called on to defend men accused of sexually assaulting women, she puts her emotions and feminism to one side and goes in for the kill. Then she finds herself on the other side of the equation when she is raped by a man she has been dating. Before becoming a playwright, Miller worked as a human rights lawyer, and her knowledge of the system gives the play a stinging authenticity, and raises serious questions about a flawed legal system that need answering in a post-#MeToo world.
The 2020 QT season ends with the premiere of a brand new take on the ancient classical tragedy Phaedra, transplanting it to Queensland in the not-too-distant future where the state has seceded from the rest of Australia. In the satirical farce, written by Katherine Lyall-Watson, First Lady Phaedra and President Theseus are following in the footsteps of US President Donald Trump and building a mighty wall along Queensland’s southern border to keep the “filthy” Newies from their gates. When Theseus takes the Broncos on a morale-boosting tour, Phaedra is left to run the country. Created by QT’s resident company, Brisbane’s feminist collective, Belloo Creative, Caroline Dunphy directs a cast that includes Angie Milliken.