A swathe of new Aussie works, an adaptation of The Harp in the South, and Hugo Weaving as Brecht’s Arturo Ui.
Sydney Theatre Company has announced its 2018 season, with a line-up that puts new Australian voices in the spotlight. Featuring a swathe of new plays by Australian writers Anna Barnes, Priscilla Jackman, Michele Lee, Nakkiah Lui, Kate Mulvany and H Lawrence Sumner, the season will also include Lucy Kirkwood’s latest play as well as Hugo Weaving in the role of Arturo Ui.
“I’ve aimed to put together works that reflect our city and our community,” said STC Artistic Director Kip Williams in the company’s press release. “The writing comes from some of the world’s greatest playwrights, who give lively and expressive shape to timely questions around political leadership, social responsibility, gender equality and race relations.”
Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director Kip Williams. Photo © James Green
This will be the first season Williams has programmed as Artistic Director and he is keen to put his stamp on it as a champion of new writing. “I’m really excited that of the 16 shows on the slate, 11 of them are Australian plays, and then when you include our adaptation actually 13 are written by Australian writers, and of those, three came out of our Rough Drafts programme,” he tells Limelight.
The season kicks off in February with STC’s Resident Director Imara Savage directing British playwright Caryl Churchill’s 1982 Top Girls. “I think it’s no secret that I’m a big Caryl Churchill fan,” Williams says. “Imara and I talked a lot about Churchill because I knew from the outset that I wanted to do one of her shows in my first season, and we very much landed on Top Girls not only because it’s one of her most extraordinary plays – and there are so many great roles within it – but especially because of the themes of the work. It explores leadership and power and gender and the intersection of the three, with undertones of questions of family and responsibility. For Imara and myself it felt like – particularly in the wake of Clinton’s loss – this was a great play to be revisiting.”
Paula Arundell and Helen Thomson. Photo © Rene Vaile
Helen Thomson will play the central role of Marlene. “It starts with this big dinner party that Marlene is hosting in celebration of how her work is going and in true, kind of, inventive Churchillian form, it’s populated by iconic women from throughout history,” explains Williams. “So there’s an amazing ensemble around Helen – Paula Arundel, Kate Box, Heather Mitchell, Michelle Lim Davidson, Claire Lovering and Contessa Treffone. It goes from quite a comic, dinner party piece into something that’s very powerful and familial.”
Emily Barclay. Photo © Rene Vaile
Also opening in February will be the first of the trio of plays in 2018 to have emerged from Rough Drafts, STC’s creative development programme: Lethal Indifference by Anna Barnes, who won STC’s Patrick White Playwrights’ Award in 2012. “She’s actually a long-term collaborator of mine,” says Williams, who received the play in his inbox about 18 months ago. “She’d been writing a new play and she didn’t know if it was any good or not, and would I read it? I was completely spellbound,” he says, immediately taking it to STC’s Literary Manager Polly Rowe, who suggested they develop it straight away.
“It’s this one-woman show, which is based on Anna’s experiences of working in a legal centre for family violence,” Williams explains. “Its arc is about one particular case that she worked on, but it also traverses a lot of Anna’s personal experiences both in the workforce and in her own life – the sort of insidious experiences of sexism and misogyny that exist. And in true Anna form she does it with a sort of dark sardonic wit that’s very, very funny.”
Emily Barclay will star in Lethal Indifference, which will be directed by Jessica Arthur – who will be a permanent resident artist next year as an STC Directing Associate.
Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn), Melodie Reynolds-Diarra and Shari Sebbens in Black is the New White. Photo © Rene Vaile
Williams describes Nakkiah Lui’s family comedy Black is the New White – which will encore in at the end of February before touring to Queensland Theatre, Canberra, Wollongong and Parramatta – as the “smash hit of 2017.”
“It sold out, our audience just wouldn’t stop writing to us about how much they loved it,” says Williams. “And it’s a personal favourite of mine from 2017 too. It’s just a game changer, really, in terms of the ideas of the piece, in terms of the form, in terms of Australian comedy,” says Williams of Lui’s play, which garnered four and a half stars from Limelight. “Nakkiah is one of the most important voices really not only in theatre but culturally in Australia at the moment.”
While Black is the New White premiered in the Wharf 1 Theatre, this encore season will see it performed in the larger space of the Roslyn Packer, with the original cast, directed by Paige Rattray.
Hugo Weaving. Photo © Rene Vaile
The first play Williams will direct for the year will be Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which will star Hugo Weaving in the title role, in a new adaptation by Tom Wright. “Hugo and I have been talking for a couple of years about working with each other again,” Williams says. “And this play has always been inside the gamut of our conversation, largely because the role is one that pushes and pulls actors in a way unlike others. It’s an incredible character – dark, funny, irrational, power hungry.”
Brecht’s play chronicles the rise of Chicago racketeer Arturo Ui, exploring themes of power and the construction of political identity and mythology. “Brecht wrote it as a sort of parable of the rise of a Hitler-like figure and people can draw whatever parallels they like in the contemporary political climate, but it’s going to be a big, bold night of theatre,” Williams says.
Catherine Davies in Michele Lee’s Going Down. Photo © Rene Vaile
March will see the premiere of another brand new Australian play, Michele Lee’s Going Down, a co-production with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre. “Going Down is a sort of semi-autobiographical tale for Michele, it details the quandaries of a writer who’s just released a novel and it’s flopped,” explains Williams. “Everybody has expected it to be a kind of feminist call to arms, or to talk about her family’s migrant experience, and it hasn’t done any of those things, it actually talks about her sex life – and nobody wants to hear about it.”
Williams describes Going Down – which will be directed by Letitia Cáceres – as in the vein of Lena Dunham’s Girls or Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s Broad City. “This is a very millennial comedy piece, at least in its initial stages, but it evolves in a way that becomes something formally much more inventive. It starts to take on a kind of surreal tone,” he says. “Ultimately it is about an individual coming to terms with the differences between how they see themselves and how other people expect them to be – so she has to come to terms with her mother’s migrant experience, she has to come to terms with what her professional expectations are, and ultimately she has to come to terms with her own kind of deep crippling envy of her rival who continues to succeed.”
Pamela Rabe in The Children. Photo © Rene Vaile
Next up is the Australian premiere of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children – whose play Chimerica Williams directed for STC this year. “You would probably expect – as I did when I went to see this at the Royal Court at the end of last year – off the back of Chimerica, that it was going to be a big sprawling epic with many characters and many scenes and a sort of thriller plotline,” Williams says. “That’s not what The Children is – it’s sort of the inverse of that.”
The Guardian described the Royal Court production as “a post-apocalyptic play that is genuinely disturbing”. “It’s a contained domestic setting, a beautiful, beautiful chamber piece with three amazing characters at the centre of it,” says Williams.“There’s been a natural disaster which has damaged the nuclear power station and created an exclusion zone and one friend shows up to a couple’s house and calls upon them to take a very risky action in returning to that power station. And within that is a very personal story of the deep history of these lives, love and loss and regret and responsibility and it’s an amazing acting piece.”
The three roles will be played by Pamela Rabe, Sarah Peirse and William Zappa, directed by STC Resident Director Sarah Goodes in a co-production with Melbourne Theatre Company.
For Williams, the piece was incredibly affecting in London. “I walked out of the theatre and burst into tears and had to call my parents after seeing it,” he says. “It’s just one of those incredibly powerful pieces of theatre. And it’s being heralded as her best play yet. Some people are even saying it’s the play of the decade.”
Catherine McGregor and Heather Mitchell. Photo © Rene Vaile
The second play on the season to have emerged from STC’s Rough Drafts is Still Turning Point: The Catherine McGregor Story, written by Priscilla Jackson based on interviews with Australian soldier, cricket commentator, author and speechwriter Catherine McGregor. “It’s a work that we have been developing for about a year and a half, two years, very much in concert with Catherine McGregor herself,” said Williams. “It tells the story of her life, from childhood through to the present day, using the struggle that she’d had with her gender identity as a kind of spine of that narrative and her ultimate triumph over that struggle to transition to become Catherine – but also encompassing the kind of extraordinary life that she’s lived: her time as a high-ranking officer in the military, her work as both a Liberal and Labor political strategist, her time as a cricket commentator and writer.”
“It’s an amazing life, it’s also a very personal story of overcoming tragedy and a very, very powerful and moving one,” Williams says. “And one that we’re very, very proud to be telling, particularly in this current climate. We need to be telling these stories.”
Priscilla Jackson will direct, with Heather Mitchell starring as Catherine McGregor.
Blackie Blackie Brown: Traditional Owner of Death. Illustration © Emily Johnson
Nakkiah Lui’s second play in STC’s 2018 season, Blackie Blackie Brown: The Traditional Owner of Death, comes to Wharf 2 in May, in a co-production with Malthouse Theatre. “Where do you begin with this piece? Everything Nakkiah does is completely game changing, rule-breaking, totally unique and innovative,” says Williams.
Dubbed a “no-holds-barred gore-fest” the play begins with archeologist Dr Jacqueline Brown discovering the skull of her great-great-grandmother while doing an Indigenous cultural survey for a building site. The skull conjures her ancestor’s spirit, intent on revenge. “She’d been murdered at the hands of a white settler and she calls upon Jacqueline to murder the 400 descendants of this man,” explains Williams. “So she blesses her with super powers, which turn her into the action hero Blackie Blackie Brown. The comic twist within it all is that this is a two-hander – so one person [Megan Wilding] plays Blackie Blackie Brown and one person [Ash Flanders] plays the 400 descendants who are continually murdered in extreme fashions. So it’s very funny, bold but also politically searing work about probing our relationship to our history really, particularly our treatment of the Indigenous people of Australia, the First Nations.”
The play will feature visuals created by animation house Oh Yeah Wow based on images by Emily Johnson. Declan Greene directs.
Yael Stone. Photo © Rene Vaile
George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan will hit the Roslyn Packer Theatre in June, directed by Imara Savage. For Savage and Williams, the story of Joan of Arc – an iconic symbol of political protest – seemed particularly timely as protest has become a more prominent feature in political discourse. “She is one of the most interrogated figures from history, perhaps the most famous woman from the middle ages, but there’s a lot of conjecture around her and what’s extraordinary about George Bernard Shaw’s play is that the majority of the text is drawn directly from the records of her trials,” said Williams. “And Imara’s got a fabulous idea of how to frame the entire production through this woman on trial. And she’s cast it in a way where Yael Stone – who’s going to be playing the role – is surrounded by this mass of men.”
Wayne Blair. Photo © Rene Vaile
July will see the third new show in the season from the Rough Draft programme premiering in the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre. It was the first play Williams chose for 2018. “There aren’t too many times when a play like this comes across your desk, where you feel like you might be reading an instant Australian classic,” he says. “But such is the case with H Lawrence Sumner’s The Long Forgotten Dream.”
Lawrence was inspired by the recent movement internationally of repatriating Indigenous remains from museums and universities. “But at its heart it is a story about family,” says Williams. “It’s about a father and daughter relationship – and the father and the daughter have very different perspectives on what it means to be repatriating their ancestor and how they want it done. I suppose the only thing that can attest to how remarkable it is, other than that, is that Neil Armfield read it and said “Yep, I want to direct it” and Wayne Blair said “Yep, I want to act in it”. There aren’t too many unproduced playwrights who can lay claim to having Neil direct their first play.”
Guy Simon, Contessa Treffone, Rose Riley. Photo © Rene Vaile
Perhaps the biggest event on the STC 2018 season, however, will be a blockbuster two-part adaptation of Ruth Park’s trilogy of novels The Harp in the South, which has been adapted for the stage by Kate Mulvany. “This is really, very exciting,” says Williams, who will be directing. “Ruth Park is one of the most beloved and celebrated Australian writers and her series The Harp in the South, kind of did for Sydney and did for Surry Hills what Dickens did for London. It brought to life the lives of battlers and the kind of colourful carnival of characters that inhabit our culture and made them heroes. And this story that Kate has brought to our stage does just that.”
“It’s going to be an epic,” he says of the plays, which will be performed over two nights in the Roslyn Packer Theatre. “In Kate’s adaptation you actually get to watch these characters grow from childhood through to adulthood.”
Williams will be joined by the design team he worked with on Chimerica, and The Harp in the South will feature an original score by composer Iain Grandage. The 18-strong cast will include Guy Simon, Contessa Treffone, Rose Riley, Anita Hegh, Tara Morice, Tony Cogin, Helen Thomson and Benedict Hardie.
Amber McMahon and Jane Turner. Photo © Rene Vaile
September will hit a lighter note with Dario Fo’s 1970 farce Accidental Death of an Anarchist, in a new adaptation by Francis Greenslade and Sarah Giles. “I wanted a big night of comedy in the season,” said Williams. “And I went to Sarah Giles who I think is one of the best comedy directors in the country and said, how do you feel about doing Accidental Death of an Anarchist?”
The play focuses on a mysterious death and a Madman with a penchant for impersonation who runs rings around the corrupt police. For Giles the first issue was who would play the Madman. “She said ‘I think the best person in the country to play the mad man is Amber McMahon’,” explains Williams. “And she said, ‘Not only that, I think that we should do the whole cast with female actors playing the roles in drag.’”
With the enthusiastic endorsement of the Fo estate, Giles has assembled a cast that includes Jane Turner, Bessie Hollande and Sacha Horler. “It’s going to be a big, funny, farcical night,” said Williams.
Alongside the main season, 2018 will see the return of The Listies’ kids’ comedy The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark in July (“kids haven’t stopped talking about it, including my nephews,” says Williams) and the Wharf Revue in November-December, which in 2018 won’t be on the Wharf due to renovations. The annual sketch show has undergone a slight line-up change on previous years. Comedian (and Limelight music reviewer) Phillip Scott won’t be appearing in this year’s Wharf Revue, with Revue stalwarts Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe to be joined by three extra cast members.
“They’re going to be fresh young faces that Drew and Jonathan are committed to mentoring through to be the next generation of satirists here at STC,” explained Williams at a media briefing on the season.
Sarah Peirse. Photo © Rene Vaile
Williams will direct the final show of the main season, Patrick White’s Australian classic A Cheery Soul, which was the first play produced under the banner of the Sydney Theatre Company in 1979. “It’s one of those plays in true Patrick White form that holds a mirror up to us in a way few other texts in our culture do,” says Williams. “He had a sense of the Australian idiom and suburban existence like no other.”
The show was directed by Jim Sharman in 1979 and Neil Armfield in 2001 – both productions starring Robyn Nevin. “It has an incredible role at its centre, Miss Docker [Sarah Peirse], who’s a kind of eternal busybody, whose charity and attempts to try and fix things drive everybody wild,” Williams says. “It’s a very, very funny piece. It’s almost got that sense of the Australian grotesque à la Barry Humphries, but at the same time it’s a very kind of poetic piece that asks big questions about what it means to be Australian and what it means to have an urban existence here – what community means in Australia.”
As Williams’ first season, 2018 is in many ways a statement of how he intends to move forward with the company. “First and foremost I’m very committed to Australian writing in my time as Artistic Director,” he says. “So I was very focused on not only crafting a season that had Australian stories at its centre but was also a season that was about introducing us to some new Australian voices.”