Marina Prior, Helen Morse and John Bell star in a line-up ranging from oddball comedies to dark, demented dramas.

The world premieres of four new Australian plays; John Bell’s first performance in a contemporary drama for 26 years; a roll-call of big name actors including Marina Prior, Helen Morse, Julia Blake, Nancye Hayes, Colin Friels, Simon Burke and Catherine McClements; a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company brokered with Artistic Director Jonathan Church before his unexpected departure; and a healthy representation of women writers and directors: these are some of the defining features of Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2017 season.

Joel Jackson and Christie Whelan Browne star in Born Yesterday. Photo courtesy of MTC

Featuring 11 mainstage production and a new work for its Education Program, the 2017 season kicks off in period style with Garson Kanin’s 1940s Broadway classic Born Yesterday, directed by recently appointed Associate Director Dean Bryant. In the screwball romance, a wealthy junk dealer hires a journalist to educate his showgirl mistress Billie Dawn when her ignorance threatens his corrupt dealings with a Congressman. “Dean was incredibly passionate about it and I’ve always remembered Richard [Wherrett’s] production at STC with Jacki Weaver as Billie Dawn. That production has stayed with me for 25 years,” says MTC Artistic Director Brett Sheehy. “Not to be formulaic, but for the first show of the season at MTC, either a comedy or a musical works terrifically well so I was keen to start the season with a glittering comedy.” Born Yesterday stars Christie Whelan Browne and Joel Jackson, who played the title role in the television mini-series Peter Allen: Not The Boy Next Door, in his professional stage debut.

The mainstage season features three new Australian plays: Three Little Words by Joanna Murray-Smith, Minnie & Liraz by Lally Katz, and Vivid White by Eddie Perfect. The Education Program also includes the world premiere of a work called Melbourne Talam by Rashma N. Kalsie about three young people from India searching for belonging in Australia.

A couple of years ago, MTC analysed audience figures for the three categories of work – Australian plays, international plays and classics – over its 63-year history. “By a country mile the Australian works came out on top in terms of audience attendances… and that was a revelation to me,” says Sheehy. “It gives you confidence to know that the riskiest work you are doing, the world premieres, is the work that the audience in this city is most hungry for.”

Catherine McClements stars in Three Little Words. Photo courtesy of MTC

Sarah Goodes, MTC’s other new Associate Director, helms Murray-Smith’s Three Little Words, which was an MTC commission. Goodes directed Murray-Smith’s previous play Switzerland, a psychological thriller about writer Patricia Highsmith, for STC in 2014. The production so impressed Sheehy that he programmed it in MTC’s 2016 season, where it is currently playing until October 29. Three Little Words is an acerbic comedy of manners in which the close, 20-year friendship between a lesbian couple and a straight couple is upended when the latter announce that they are breaking up. “It looks at the seismic fault-lines in relationships but also in friendships,” says Sheehy. “It’s coincidentally very timely with the plebiscite for same-sex marriage on our doorstep. That’s not a political issue in the play but it does open up lots of issues about family and love. Joanna taps into a vein of Australian society so beautifully, cleverly, humorously and incisively in my view.” The cast includes Catherine McClements.

Billed as “an hilarious oddball story of kindly Jewish grandparents and raw ambition”, Katz’s Minnie & Liraz is set in a Melbourne retirement village with a fiercely competitive bridge club. Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks (who directed Katz in her 2013 one-woman show Stories I Want To Tell You In Person at Belvoir and Malthouse), the cast features Virginia Gay, Nancye Hayes and Rhys McConnochie among others. “It’s terrifically funny as Lally can be, and it has that Katzian eccentric twist to it,” says Sheehy.

Virginia Gay, Nancye Hayes, Sue Jones and John Leary perform in Minnie & Liraz. Photo courtesy of MTC

Vivid White is Eddie Perfect’s second play and was commissioned by MTC, as was his first play The Beast – one of Sheehy’s first commissions. “It is set in an apocalyptic world, which is falling apart. I won’t tell you what’s happening but it’s not North Korea and it’s not ISIS and it’s not climate change – it’s something else altogether,” says Sheehy. “But against this background of complete catastrophe, the most important thing to the characters on stage is outbidding your buddy at auction for that goddamn important dream house. It’s the perfect [satire] in this property-obsessed society that we live in. Eddie skewers the 30-something aspirationals better than anyone in the country in my view.” The play is interspersed with modern-day Weill-esque songs. Bryant directs a cast that includes musical theatre performers Verity Hunt-Ballard, star of Mary Poppins and Bryant’s award-winning Sweet Charity, and Brent Hill, who recently played Seymour in Bryant’s Little Shop of Horrors.

The season also includes the Australian premiere of John, the latest work by American playwright Annie Baker who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play The Flick. Goodes directs a cast including legendary actors Julia Blake and Helen Morse. In John, a young couple arrive at a bed and breakfast in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the historic site of a terrible Civil War battle, run by an eccentric old lady with a creepy collection of dolls – which may or may not be possessed. Sheehy recalls that within a week of confirming Goodes’ appointment as Associate Director, she sent him an email saying how passionate she was about the play. He had already read it and had also fallen in love with it. “So I was able to shoot straight back saying, ‘I know it really well and I was hoping for a director who would kill to do it,’” he recalls.

Helen Morse, Ursula Mills and Julia Blake perform in John. Photo courtesy of MTC

Colin Friels stars in a Belvoir production of Faith Healer by Irish playwright Brian Friels, directed by his wife Judy Davis, which opens in Sydney this October. Former MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips, who directed a highly acclaimed production of Richard III in 2010 followed by Hamlet in 2011, both starring Ewen Leslie, directs Macbeth, with a cast to be announced early in 2017. Sam Strong, the Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company and a former Associate Director at MTC, directs a co-production with QTC of Michael Frayn’s backstage comedy Noises Off – which Sheehy considers “the best farce of the 20th century” – starring Simon Burke. Lee Lewis directs Marina Prior and Simon Gleeson (Les Misérables) in Noel Coward’s exquisite comedy of bad manners Hay Fever, while Marion Potts directs the Australian premiere of Di and Viv and Rose, a witty, warm-hearted comedy exploring female friendship by British playwright Amelia Bullmore, which premiered at the Hampstead Theatre in 2013 then transferred to the West End in 2015.

Marina Prior performs in Hay Fever. Photo courtesy of MTC

Completing the season is The Father by Florian Zeller, which won France’s 2014 Molière Award for Best Play, in an acclaimed translation by British playwright Christopher Hampton. A savagely honest study of dementia, John Bell plays the elderly Andre whose mind is failing. “Jonathan Church and I had both seen the first English language production at the Tricycle in London and as soon as he got the job at STC, we sat down and talked about doing a production together and The Father was the top of the list,” says Sheehy. Damien Ryan directs Bell in what Sheehy reckons is Bell’s first contemporary play since performing in William Nicholson’s play Shadowlands about CS Lewis for STC in 1991. “We see everything through Andre’s eyes and we are kind of confounded and discombobulated with him as his life unravels around him. I do think there are echoes of King Lear – he faces losing his most adoring daughter, his own kind of private kingdom and his sanity. I think what John is going to bring to it is astonishing and I can’t wait to see it,” says Sheehy.

John Bell plays a man with dementia in The Father. Photo courtesy of MTC

Totting up the figures, Sheehy was delighted to discover that of the 12 plays MTC is staging next year, seven are being directed by women and five were written by women. He puts this down to the Women Directors’ Program, which he established when he joined the Company in 2013, in response to headlines about the paucity of female writers and directors on Australian stages. “We’ve now broadened it out into a Women in Theatre Program, which is not just directors but writers, designers and dramaturgs as well. I think something like 30 or 40 women will have been through this process with us by the end of the year… and it’s borne fruit in spades in my view,” says Sheehy citing the recent appointments of Clare Watson as Artistic Director of Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company and Nadja Kostich as the Artistic Director of Melbourne’s St Martins Youth Arts Centre, who both participated in the MTC programme.

“It just shows with a little bit of focus and commitment, companies can embark on journeys that can change the landscape,” says Sheehy. “I can absolutely guarantee that I didn’t even know what the numbers [of women] were until the [2017 season] was locked in. I’m thrilled that just on the basis of merit and excellence, we have put together a programme that has fallen out this way.”