“I had a conversation with a colleague of mine about 18 months ago about this idea that a society’s memory only really extends to the experience of our grandparents and as history starts to go back beyond that point in time, we start to forget about the lessons of the past,” says Kip Williams, Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company, announcing the company’s 2020 season. “It really resonated with me because it speaks to the importance of storytelling in our culture and how stories can be the receptacle of those lessons but are also opportunities to investigate the problems of the past which are re-emerging today. Thinking about the social and political climate of the mid-20th century, it feels like a lot of those social issues and political crises are beginning to rear their heads. So, a lot of the stories we’ve put into the 2020 season are directly speaking to today through the lens of the past, whilst there are also a number of stories that are brand new and of today as well.”
Marta Dusseldorp for Sydney Theatre Company’s Deep Blue Sea. Photo © Rene Vaile
Reflecting Williams’ interest in looking at the past to understand the present is season opener Deep Blue Sea, Terence Rattigan’s 1952 classic. A devastating study of a lonely, socially repressed woman caught up in a tempestuous affair, the play is thought to have been sparked by the suicide of Rattigan’s secret lover, Kenny Morgan. Directed by Paige Rattray, Marta Dusseldorp returns to the company to take on Hester Collyer, joined by Fayssal Bazzi as her lover Freddie and beloved cabaret artist Paul Capsis as former doctor Mr Miller.
“Rattigan is one of the great writers of the mid-20th century and in many ways, as a queer writer he is railing against the times in which he’s living and in doing so has created one of the great heroines of the 20th century,” says Williams. “What has drawn Marta Dusseldorp and director Paige Rattray to that play is how contemporary [Hester’s] experience is within this story. Her struggle for autonomy, her struggle for independence, feels like such a contemporary narrative and I think it’s because Rattigan was an outsider in the 1950s, reflecting so critically on his times, that this play feels so very modern.”
Another classic play to hit the stage in 2020 is Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, one that Williams himself will tackle. Though Sydney audiences have been treated to Iain Sinclair’s superb production at the Old Fitz and Ensemble theatres recently, STC’s staging boasts serious star power. Rose Byrne, who last appeared with the company in 2016 with Speed-the-Plow, returns to play Beatrice, with her real-life partner Bobby Cannavale taking on the role of Eddie Carbone. Cannavale is an acclaimed American film and theatre actor, best known for his roles on television series Will & Grace, Boardwalk Empire, Vinyl and Mr Robot, and films including Blue Jasmine and I, Tonya. He has been twice nominated for a Tony Award.
Bobby Cannavale and Rose Byrne for STC’s A View from the Bridge. Photo © Rene Vaile
“Rose and Bobby and I have been talking for a couple of years about finding a play that the two of them could be in together and it took until about 12 months ago for Bobby to say ‘hey, what about A View from the Bridge‘?” Williams recounts. “None of us could believe we hadn’t thought of that from the get-go – the idea of seeing Rose Byrne play Beatrice is worth the price of admission itself but I think if you had to cast any actor in the world as Eddie Carbone you’d be hard pressed to go past Bobby Cannavale. He is basically born to play that role.
“It’s such an incredible role because Miller is one of the great dramatists of the 20th century and certainly this play explores interesting ideas about the American Dream and capitalism and the family, but unlike some of his other plays, Eddie is a more complex and morally ambiguous character and I think in the hands of Bobby, he’s going to be brought to life in such a searing, thrilling way.”
Williams will also be responsible for a radical reimagining of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, which he is adapting and restaging as a one-woman show starring Eryn Jean Norvill. Wilde’s dazzling 1890 novel is one the director has long cherished and thought of bringing to the stage.
“It wasn’t until earlier this year when I was having a conversation with a visual artist about the type of social climate we’re living in and in particular our society’s obsession with youth, constructing self-identity, the kind of narcissistic threads of our society, that Dorian Gray returned to my mind as the perfect story to be investigating today,” he explains. “I think that that narrative premise of a beautiful person making a Faustian wish for eternal youth whilst their portrait grows more and more grotesque, is a fable that reflects back to us the exact state of things today.”
Of the decision to ask Norvill to take on every character from the novel, Williams reflects on their fruitful past collaborations as well as his overall vision for the piece. “I think we first started working together around 2012 on a production of Romeo and Juliet where we reimagined the narrative around Juliet’s experience. We’ve done many productions with each other ever since, including a production of Suddenly Last Summer which incorporated a large amount of live video into the staging. That production was a bit of a touchstone for me artistically and for our collaboration, so I’m going to be deploying that similar formal device which will allow EJ to perform every role within the piece.
Eryn Jean Norvill for STC’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Photo © Rene Vaile
“Part of that thinking is about this idea of seeing one performer construct all of these different identities and I also think the camera will allow us to explore these ideas of self-image and of portraiture, of narcissism and without wanting to say too much more, the kind of wit and playfulness of Wilde’s writing will be reflected in the theatrical game of seeing this one performer take on every single character from the novel.”
A season highlight for many will be Fun Home, the acclaimed, smash-hit musical based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. A co-production with Melbourne Theatre Company, it will be directed by MTC Associate Director Dean Bryant and features a brilliant ensemble cast comprising Lisa McCune, Maggie McKenna (who originated the title role of Muriel in STC and Global Creatures’ Muriel’s Wedding the Musical in 2017), Ryan Gonzalez, Lucy Maunder, Adam Murphy and Chloe Zuel. A multiple Tony Award winner and a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, Fun Home is a touching story about sexual identity, repression and the search for truth.
“Brett [Sheehy, MTC’s Artistic Director] and I always look to try and find a show to do together and both of us have loved Fun Home for many years and both independently been very keen to do it,” says Williams. “When the rights finally became available for a brand-new Australian production, it felt like the perfect opportunity for our two companies to partner together, particularly in the hands of director Dean Bryant who has delivered some of the truly gorgeous productions of music theatre. I’m thinking of Sweet Charity and Little Shop of Horrors, which were both extraordinary.
“I think this particular musical has to be seen in Australia because it’s so original and unique. Alison Bechdel is such an important artist of our time and this personal story of hers speaks to contemporary living on so many levels.”
Wayne Blair and Hugo Weaving for STC’s Wonnangatta. Photo © Rene Vaile
Taking a closer look at our own history is the world premiere of Angus Cerini’s new play Wonnangatta. Based on an unsolved double murder mystery that took place in Victoria’s Wonnangatta Valley in 1917 and 1918, it stars Wayne Blair and Hugo Weaving as two men who set off on a journey across the harsh terrain in search of answers. The new play, described as a gothic fable, will be directed by Jessica Arthur.
“Angus had written The Bleeding Tree for Griffin and following a sell-out season in 2015, STC then presented it at the Wharf [in 2017],” says Williams. “I truly think it’s one of the greatest pieces of new Australian writing to have been on our stages in the past few years and so I began a conversation with Angus about writing a new play for STC. He came back to me with a pitch for a play about the Wonnangatta murders… and [I] felt like it sat perfectly within the imaginative landscape of Angus’ writing. I kind of feel like watching an Angus Cerini play is akin to gathering around a campfire and being told the most thrilling and spine-tingling ghost story with imagery that lingers in your mind. In the hands of the two performers we have, I think it’s going to be an absolute gem of an evening.”
A work that has particular resonance for Williams is Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s The 7 Stages of Grieving, a one-woman show about Indigenous grief and the struggle for reconciliation.
“I first saw it at STC when I was a teenager,” he recalls. “My mother took me to see it and Ursula Yovich was performing the piece and it was one that changed my life. It redefined the way I understood my country’s history. Ursula’s performance has stayed with me ever since –I’ve been lucky enough to work with her on a number of occasions since then and every time I go into a rehearsal room with Ursula, I talk to her about that experience of sitting in the dark for an hour and having her tell this story. It’s such an important play and next year will mark its 25-year history. Every year we like to do an Australian classic and it felt like it was a perfect time to revisit it.”
Elaine Crombie for STC’s The 7 Stages of Grieving. Photo © Rene Vaile
The 7 Stages of Grieving will be performed by Elaine Crombie and directed by Richard Wherrett fellow Shari Sebbens. The play marks both Sebbens’ directorial debut and her company debut as a director. “I think she will have a directorial career that is as prolific and impressive as her acting career has been to date,” Williams said. “Her partnering with Elaine is thrilling, as is the the fact that Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch have given them permission to add some material to the end of the script that reflects upon what’s transpired in the past 25 years since the play opened.”
Another work that speaks to Williams’ interest in cultural memory is Home, I’m Darling, a new play by British playwright Laura Wade. Directed by Jessica Arthur and starring Andrea Demetriades, it tracks one woman’s futile attempt to repair her marriage by becoming a 50s-style domestic goddess.
“Every year there’s a play where if I’m in the foyer or if I’m on the street, I’ll have people come up to me or email me saying ‘you have to read this play, you have to program this play’. That was Home, I’m Darling,” says Williams. “It’s no surprise that it won the Olivier award for Best New Comedy. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing and felt like it sat within the season beautifully because it encapsulates that tension that’s at play within our society at the moment, between a society that’s racing towards an exciting new future whilst also desperately clinging to the past because it’s terrified of the future.”
Andrea Demetriades for STC’s Home, I’m Darling. Photo © Rene Vaile
“I think the main character, Judy, embodies that societal resistance to change that is so prevalent at the moment and Laura Wade examines that with such wit and insight. She unpacks the problems of nostalgia and reveals how important it is how far we’ve come, but how much further there is still to go. It’s simultaneously so deeply entertaining but so very insightful and thought provoking about who we are today.”
The Writer is another play that Williams praises for its adept handling of contemporary concerns. By British playwright Ella Hickson, it will receive its Australian premiere in a production by Jessica Arthur, who is reunited with actor Emily Barclay after their acclaimed collaboration in 2018’s Lethal Indifference. The Writer is a metatheatrical work about a feminist playwright who becomes increasingly frustrated by the male gatekeepers of her industry.
“I was lucky enough to see the original production in 2018 and was left breathless by it,” says Kip. “I think it’s one of the most original pieces of writing that I’ve encountered in the past few years. It certainly feels like Ella Hickson is picking up the baton from Caryl Churchill in terms of being a writer who is able to synthesise form and content in the most radically original way. It’s like a Russian doll, this play, there are stories nestled within each other that continue to open up and reveal the further you move within it.
“At its core it talks about the power of storytelling and who holds that power, and also what happens to a writer when they become successful and are [in danger] of being incorporated into a capitalist paradigm. It asks important questions about who gets to speak and why they get to speak and how that affects our very being.”
Josh McConville and Glace Chase for STC’s Triple X. Photo © Rene Vaile
Another new play to hit the stage in 2020 is a co-production with Queensland Theatre, Triple X. By two-time Griffin Award-winner Glace Chase, the work was commissioned by QT and developed at STC through its Rough Draft Program. Directed by Paige Rattray, its cast includes Chase, Josh McConville and Contessa Treffone.
“Glace has taken two very conventional forms – she’s taken the well-made play and she’s taken the romantic comedy – and turned those on their heads by infusing them with a radical content and that’s a love story between a Wall Street banker and a charismatic trans drag performer,” Williams says. “It’s laugh-out-loud funny, shocking and provocative and and on the cutting edge of social commentary. But it’s also deeply moving and when we did the reading of it at the end of the Rough Draft week, people were in tears because it is ultimately about the power of love and the idea that love transcends the rules and expectations of a conservative society.”
Helen Thomson and Catherine Van-Davies for STC’s No Pay? No Way! Photo © Rene Vaile
February’s No Pay? No Way! is yet another new work to look forward to, an adaptation by Marieke Hardy of Dario Fo’s 1974 farce Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay! Directed by Sarah Giles, whose production of Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist for STC last year was widely acclaimed, it stars an ensemble cast that includes Helen Thomson, Sarah Giles, Catherine Van-Davies, Glenn Hazeldine and Rahel Romahn.
British playwright Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living is the season’s other comic offering, a play which tracks one family’s explosive Christmas lunch and their respective neuroses. Directed by Susanna Dowling in her company debut, the ensemble cast includes Heather Mitchell as a highly-strung matriarch and Michelle Lim Davidson as the partner of one her children.
Finally, the annual Wharf Revue will have its last hurrah in October after two decades at STC, reuniting performers Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott. With Mandy Bishop, the all-singing, all-dancing foursome will be tackling all the hot button issues of 2020 with their usual irreverence.