The best of performing arts in 2017

Richard Watts

From opera and contemporary dance to comedy and drama, here are the productions that thrilled and impressed us this year.
The best of performing arts in 2017

Poached Eggs and Asparagus' Party Ghost. Photo credit: Rob Blackburn Photography.

Between them, ArtsHub’s team of critics and reviewers saw and considered 522 productions, performances, concerts and screenings in 2017. As Performing Arts Editor, I myself saw 165 productions in six states, missing only the Northern and Australian Capital Territories. Apologies – I’ll endeavor to include you on my itinerary next year.

As the year draws to a close, here are some of the productions we consider the most outstanding of 2017.

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Brisbane’s Suzannah Conway found much to admire in Queensland Theatre’s Ingmar Bergman production, Scenes from a Marriage, describing it as ‘really well done, if harrowing,’ but says the best show she saw all year was Under Siege as part of Brisbane Festival. ‘An astonishing piece of choreography and amazing dancers. Brilliantly staged,’ she explains. While Suzannah didn’t review the Brisbane season, another of our reviewers, Charlene Li, caught the production in its Melbourne Festival season where she described it as ‘simply one-of-a-kind; a superbly crafted gem that surpasses even the highest expectations,’ Li awarded Under Siege five stars. You can read her review of the production here. 

In Sydney, Diana Carroll nominated Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly at the Capitol Theatre as the best work she saw the year. ‘This was a visually stunning Opera Australia production with superb performances from Karah Son and Diego Torre in the lead roles,’ Carroll says. ‘A fine example of operatic staging, displaying an enviable clarity of purpose and strength of artistic vision. Bravo!’

Sydney’s Lynne Lancaster nominates Calamity Jane at the Hayes Theatre as her stand-out show of the year. In her review she said it ‘set the theatre alight’. This week she adds that, ‘The joyous intimate atmosphere, the exuberant ensemble playing and Virginia Gay's stellar, charismatic performance,' are all still fresh in her memory.

For another of our Sydney reviewers, Glen Falkenstein, it was A View From The Bridge at the Old Fitz that topped his list of productions for the year.

‘Proving less is often more, Red Line Productions’ staging of Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge, one of many stand-out adaptations from the company, managed to hit all the right notes in a breathless retelling,’ Falkenstein explains.

‘Reimagining the decades-old tale, still as relevant today as ever, with little more than a chair, the mere inches between some audience members and the players offered a first-rate view of several consummately staged performances. The various talents brought the story to devastating life, resonating powerfully within the small space of the Old Fitz Theatre. This was a production not to be missed.’

In Hobart, Kath Melbourne nominates Lucy Guerin Inc’s The Dark Chorus at the Theatre Royal as part of Dark Mofo as the year’s most outstanding production. ‘An exquisite, detailed, macabre and transfixing work performed by talented and unique dancers,’ Melbourne says.

In Melbourne itself, our fine music critic David Barmby said that ‘without a doubt,’ his highlight for the year was Double Manual – Peter de Jager plays Xenakis. Presented by Melbourne Festival and the Melbourne Recital Centre, this performance was ‘an Olympian tour-de-force of virtuosity, a remarkable event and achievement.’ Revisiting this week, Barmby had just one word to add: ‘Gobsmacking,’ he said.

And in Perth, Nerida Dickinson found it almost impossible to choose just a single work. ‘Co3 pushed dancers and audience to a high level of contemporary dance performance in The Zone,’ she notes, choosing it as her stand-out dance work of the year. In terms of drama, Black Swan’s Let The Right One In proved that ‘main stage work can be thrilling and exciting,’ Dickinson says, resulting in a production that was ‘entertaining, fascinating and a visual feast’. As well as praising Proximity Festival, the immersive work Ecosexual Bathhouse presented by Pony Express, and Spare Parts Puppet Theatre’s The Arrival, she was also adamant that Perth company The Last Great Hunt deserved praise, for works ranging from the genre-defying The Advisors to the new play, Bali. ‘The Last Great Hunt are responsible for so many of this year's Good Things, which is worth mentioning, in itself,’ she says.

Richard Watts’ 10 outstanding shows of 2017

10. Party Ghost by new indie circus company Poached Eggs and Asparagus is one of the most perfectly formed debut productions it’s ever been my pleasure to see. Circus arts, theatre, death and drag might seem an unlikely combination but here those diverse art forms have been judiciously blended. The result is a show that’s playful, provocative, camp and macabre – an outstanding production from a boldy original new circus company. 

9. Scottish comedian Richard Gadd’s Monkey See Monkey Do was for some, an awkward fit at Melbourne International Comedy Festival. More than one critic complained that they didn’t laugh for most of the hour-long show or that it in their eyes, it wasn’t ‘really a comedy’. But comedy takes many forms, as this compelling production so powerfully demonstrates. A meta-theatrical exploration of fragile masculinity, anxiety and shame, Gadd’s Barry-nominated show compellingly demonstrated the versatility of comedy as an art form – and also showed that some people are still uncomfortable with comedy that breaks the rules.

8. Some works win you over immediately. Others seduce you. Others still you have to surrender to. The latter was, appropriately, the case with Bunny, a work inspired by bondage culture. Hypnotic and sublime, this was not a work for everyone. Some colleagues adored it, others found it confronting, even triggering. I found it to be ‘an intimate exploration of trust and acquiescence, artistry and sensuality, queerness and play; thrilling, exquisite and compelling.’

7. While there was much that impressed at this year’s Adelaide Festival (some, for instance, such as our reviewer David Finch, loved Saul) for me the stand-out work was a small gem of show performed by a single actor, backed up by an overhead projector, a series of hand-drawn cartoons, and a compelling family history. Written and performed by Danny Braverman, Wot? No Fish!! Was ‘intimate, enchanting, disarming and delightful and a highlight of this year's Adelaide Festival,’ as I noted in my review in March.

6. Richard III is my favourite of Shakespeare’s plays, but I’ve never been moved to tears before by a production of it. Bell Shakespeare’s magnificent Richard 3 did that and more, in a superb production directed by Peter Evans and starring Kate Mulvany is one of the best performances of the year. Mulvany, who was also dramaturg on the production, was mercurial and monstrous as Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain but also gave us empathy for and insight into the character, thanks a deeply truthful and personal performance. ‘I reveal a lot more in this show than I’ve ever revealed before, physically and emotionally. And that makes me really proud that my body may not be able to do certain things but it can indeed take on the backbone – literally – of Richard 3,’ Mulvany told us earlier this year. Our Sydney reviewer Glen Falkenstein was also enamoured of the production; you can read his review of Richard 3 here.

5. Empathy has been a key theme explored in the performing arts this year, at a time when the world has never needed compassion and understanding more. The Melbourne Festival production All the Sex I’ve Ever Had was a generous celebration of empathy and experience, in which a palpable sense of community was generated in the auditorium as the work progressed. ‘Great art reminds us of what it means to be human,’ I noted in my review in October. ‘This work delivers that in spades.’

4. The mesmerising outcome of a collaboration between choreographers Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin, Indonesian noise duo Senyawa and the dancers from Dancenorth, I first saw Attractor early in the year, in its premiere at Asia TOPA. This hypnotic dance work has gone on to impress at Womadelaide and Brisbane Festival, and will soon be seen at Perth Festival, where I hope to see it again. An ecstatic celebration, a skilled blending of creative voices, a triumph.

3. The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family at Perth Festival was ‘a quiet, compelling masterpiece,’ as I wrote in my review back in February. Prior to seeing Richard Nelson’s magnificent theatrical trilogy I’d never seen realism done with such subtly, such truthful finesse, and such impact. Three plays performed back to back over a single day; the American family in miniature; a work about class, politics and feminism that was fresh and electrifying and never once didactic or hectoring; the best stage drama I’ve witnessed in 2017.

2. A 24-Decade History of Popular Music performed by Taylor Mac and friends was an epic, life-affirming celebration of queerness in the midst of the marriage equality postal survey. At a time when my community most needed succour and hope, Taylor gave it to us in spades – and so much more besides. Reviewing it for ArtsHub, I described this production as ‘transformational, life-affirming [and] epic,’ and adding ‘Mac’s Melbourne Festival performances are sure to take on legendary status, akin to Adelaide Festival’s famed all-night production of The Mahabharata in a quarry … events like these are why arts festivals exist.’ Ambitious, extravagant and utterly human: truly a production for the ages.

1. In top place, Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up swansong Nanette remains the single most perfect and important piece of art I saw this year; a work that weaponised comedy by turning the art form against itself, ratchetting up the tension by depriving us of punch lines and in doing so letting us not just see but experience the damage inflicted by sexist and homophobic abuse, and by guilt and shame. Yes there were laughs, but there were far more tears. Nannette is not just brilliant – it’s important, deeply moving, and above all, impeccably crafted.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts