Performing arts highlights of 2019

The outstanding productions of the year, as selected by our Performing Arts Editor Richard Watts and some of our keenest reviewers.
Performing arts highlights of 2019 Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Photo credit: Brett Boardman

ArtsHub

Friday 20 December, 2019

As another year draws to a close, it’s once again time to reflect on the many productions performed across Australia’s varied stages over the last 12 months. From commercial musicals and mainstage theatre to the best of the small to medium and independent sectors, there’s been a dizzying array of work to see and appreciate this year.

Here, some of ArtsHub’s regular reviewers and our Performing Arts Editor nominate their outstanding shows of the year.

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Lutenist Jakob Lindberg. Image via www.musicamano.com

DAVID BARMBY – THE BLUE MOUNTAINS

Lutenist Jakob Lindberg ‘performed the most beautiful thing I’ve heard’ at this year’s Four Winds Easter Festival, Barmby told us over the phone, as apocalyptic bushfires raged close to his Blue Mountains home. ‘A Scottish piece that actually doesn’t have a title, nor composer.’ In his review of House Concert 1 at Four Winds in April this year, Barmby wrote: ‘A Scottish solo lute composition from 1600, the manuscript discovered in an Edinburgh library by Jakob Lindberg, was a further highlight that crowned the recital. Without a title or any indication of who composed it, here was a work that spoke of an untamed landscape and bracing air. It was a work that proved that the greatest beauty can come from the smallest things.

North by Northwest. Photo credit: Jeff Busby

DIANA CARROLL  ADELAIDE

For me, it was hard to beat the first show of the year. The Adelaide Festival Centre opened 2019 with North by Northwest, the stage adaptation of the 1959 Hitchcock film classic. This production by playwright Carolyn Burns and director Simon Phillips captured the best of the film, enhanced it with the magic of modern technology, and then wrapped it in sophisticated stagecraft. Sterling performances by Matt Day as Roger O. (‘It stands for nothing’) Thornhill, Amber McMahon as Eve Kendall, and British actress Abigail McKern as Thornhill’s marvellous mother made this a delightful night at the theatre.

Ian Wilkes, Katherine Gurr and Andrew Searle in Co:3 Australia's The Line. Photo credit: Daniel Carson.

NERIDA DICKINSON PERTH

Broad Encounters' travelling road show of A Midnight Visit stopped by Fringe World to saturate the gloriously dilapidated Old Perth Girls School building with the spirit of Edgar Allan Poe, featuring successful site-adaptation for the immersive work. CO:3’s The Line filled the Heath Ledger Theatre’s main stage with an exciting collaboration of contemporary dance and live music, local talent delivering uncomfortable truths about hidden history – “the line” drawn on a map, excluding Aboriginal people from the central Perth area. Laura Boynes used the same venue in Wonder Woman, seating the audience on stage and using the auditorium as a whimsical set before closing the curtains to create a cubby house atmosphere, enhancing her personal showcase with intimate choreography. Embodying the closeness of its eponymous girls’ soccer team, Red Ryder Productions brought a strong ensemble of young performers to the Blue Room Theatre with The Wolves, scoring a result greater than the sum of its parts. The Last Great Hunt celebrated 10 years of The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik: Deep Sea Explorer, Alvin’s sweetly-sad puppet returning to the Blue Room Theatre, creator Tim Watts reflecting on his anxiety about climate change creating the watery near-future tale in 2009, watching its increasing relevance through its decade of successful touring and the poignancy of performing its anniversary performance during a time of global climate strikes.

Photo credit: Steven Godbee

LYNNE LANCASTER – SYDNEY

I am very lucky and have been to an embarrassment of riches this year, so it is very hard to choose. However, I think I will have to go for the amazing Australian Chamber Orchestra and Circa in English Baroque at the City Recital Hall in May. It was a glorious combination of superb Baroque music ranging from Handel and Purcell to Corelli, Dowland and others. Sopranos Jane Sheldon and Lauren Stephenson were sensational. The Circa members' acrobatics held us spellbound with their death-defying, seemingly impossible feats.

The Mares. Photo credit: Amy Brown

KATH MELBOURNE HOBART

The Mares was a theatrical golden unicorn that comes along so rarely and leaves the audience stunned and believing in the power of theatre all over again. The sold out extended season of the world premiere of The Mares (produced by Tasmanian Theatre  Company as part of Ten Days on the Island) was an absolute highlight of the year for me and was the recipient of my first 5 star review. Exploring gendered violence, myth making and destinies, it brought to life new complex characters on Tasmania’s stages and pushed its actors to dig deep. Gosh it was good.

Hannah Gadsby. Image supplied.

JINGHUA QIAN – REVIEWS EDITOR, melbourne

The unmissable show of the year for me was Black Is the New White, Nakkiah Lui’s irreverent, rapid-fire ensemble comedy that left me mildly dehydrated from prolonged cackling and snorting. But the other major highlight of 2019 was a spate of incredible solo shows, each unique, powerful, and memorable.

Krishna Istha’s Beast offered a delightful blend of oddball stand-up and queer theory-inflected conceptual performance art during Midsumma, and the London-based performer’s spot in trans extravaganza Gender Euphoria later in the year was one of the highlights of that show for me. Then at Yirramboi Festival, Joel Bray’s Daddy left a sticky impression with an immersive dance theatre piece that was both innovative in form and weighty in drama, while Sandy Greenwood’s Matriarch dazzled me with her expert characterisation of four Gumbaynggirr women as she snaked through different timelines to trace her inheritance.

Omar Musa’s Since Ali Died reminded me of how completely enchanting spoken word can be, as he explored masculinity, injustice, and Queanbeyan migrant boyhood through poetry and hip-hop, while Jacob Boehme’s Blood on the Dance Floor hummed with emotion that was somehow both raw and meticulously controlled. And finally, Hannah Gadsby’s Douglas was piercing and tender – both a return to form with the incorporation of art history, and a continued challenge to the stand-up genre and our extractive expectations.

Nils Mönkemeyer. Photo credit: Irène Zandel Kopie.

GILLIAN WILLS BRISBANE

Queensland Symphony Orchestra’s The Great Symphony: Simone Young Returns at QPAC featured Gillian Wills’ stand-out performance of the year. ‘“Violas should be seen and not heard,” is a comment attributed to the late conductor Malcolm Sargent. Yet, in Nils Mönkemeyer’s winning performance of Bartok’s Viola Concerto with its folksy tunes and off kilter rhythms, his dancerly, hair-flying moves captured the eye as much as his stunning, at times big fat tone and superlative skill enchanted the ear. It was easy to picture him as an energised, toe-tapping fiddler entertaining a rapt crowd in a rural setting. Conductor Simone Young’s superb direction ensured Mönkemeyer was at liberty to shape his solos as he wished and engage in fiery musical combat with the orchestra,’ Wills said.

RICHARD WATTS’ TEN OUTSTANDING SHOWS OF 2019

I had a relatively quiet year in 2019 compared to recent years, as a result of taking long service leave in August-September. Consequently I missed quite a few productions – including all of Junction Arts Festival, Brisbane Festival and Melbourne Fringe – though I did manage to squeeze in some great theatre during a holiday in Ireland, including Druid’s The Beacon (in which an artist rumoured to have murdered her husband puts herself and her life on show), Brokentalkers’ The Examination (a powerful look at mental health in the prison system) and Fishamble’s The Alternative (set in a parallel universe in which Ireland never became a republic).

I saw a total of 123 productions this year, compared to 177 works in 2018 (my exhausting record to date). Of those 123 works, here are the ten most powerful, refined and memorable productions I saw in 2019, in the order in which I saw them.

Photo credit: Prudence Upton

SWAN LAKE/LOCH NA HEALA

Irish choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan's contemporary take on Swan Lake melded ancient myth and modern crisis to powerful effect. Coupling the legend of the Children of Lir with the spectre of the church’s abuse of children, and adding working class anxieties to the narrative as well as crippling grief made for a heady but potent mix. The choreography ranged from flickering and fearful to the achingly tender, accompanied by a beautiful live score by Slow Moving Clouds, while the work’s climax was simply sublime. A highlight of Wendy Martin’s final Perth Festival.

Photo credit: Pia Johnson

BARBARA AND THE CAMP DOGS

By turns hilarious and furious, this rigorous, heart-wrenching, unforgettable Belvoir production at Malthouse Theatre was arguably the most urgent production of the year. As the damaged but unbroken Barbara, co-writer Ursula Yovich was simply magnificent while the production as a whole felt vital, truthful and utterly of the moment. I wept, I roared with laughter, I was transfixed.

Photo credit: Ben Walter

MR BURNS: A POST-ELECTRIC PLAY

Indicative of the skill and ambition of Melbourne’s independent theatre sector, Lightning Jar Theatre’s production of Anne Washburn’s play about the importance of storytelling was simply unmissable. The play itself is a complex beast but John Kachoyan’s incisive direction ensured that each act sang with its own unique voice, sometimes tense, at other times comedic or liturgical. The ensemble were superb, with Dylan Watson especially memorable; Richard Vabre’s lighting was masterful and Sophie Woodward’s set and costume designs a triumph. Little wonder the season sold out so quickly it had to be restaged later in the year!

Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD PARTS ONE & TWO

I’m not ashamed to admit I went into this epic commercial production rather cynically – it’s not like we needed a sequel to the Harry Potter franchise, let alone a play told over two, expensive parts. I emerged grinning with delight. As noted in my review (one of the ten-most read stories published on ArtsHub this year) the production features multiple moments of genuine theatrical magic and passages of surprising drama and poignancy. It’s not a perfect production by any means – Imogen Heap’s score feels intrusive and the plot is overly-focused on established elements of the Potter-verse rather than driving the narrative forward into new territory – but the production as a whole is a triumph. Here’s hoping it inspires a life-long love of theatre in many of the young people attending its exclusive run at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre.

Photo credit: Brett Boardman

COUNTING AND CRACKING

Sri Lankan-Australian playwright S. Shakthidharan’s masterful Counting and Cracking (a Belvoir/Co-Curious co-production presented with Sydney and Adelaide Festivals) was epic on every level – dramatically, technically and socio-politically. In the words of our Sydney reviewer Judith Greenaway, ‘Given the number of languages spoken in Counting and Cracking, it’s not surprising that English fails to describe how wonderful this show is.’ Despite running for over three hours, with two intervals, the production never dragged, thanks to Eamon Flack’s assured, incisive direction and the generational structure of Shakthi’s tale. By turns playful and heartbreaking, tense and joyful, Counting and Cracking is the most important Australian play of the year – I only hope it gets another life at another festival or theatre company soon.

Photo credit: John Fisher

OUT OF CHAOS…

Gravity and Other Myths are one of Australia’s most exciting circus companies, and in the Adelaide Festival commission Out of Chaos, the company found the sweet spot between the intimacy and ambition of previous works, resulting in an outstanding production. Imaginative, expressionistic, thrilling and aesthetically refined, it’s the company’s strongest work to date, demonstrating a considered and potent consolidation of their aesthetic while hinting that their best is yet to come.

Photo credit: Pia Johnson

A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE

Iain Sinclair’s operatic direction in this pared-back production of Arthur Miller’s classic play resulted in one of the best MTC shows of the year. Zoe Terakes excelled in ‘a star-making performance’ (to quote our Melbourne reviewer Reuben Liversidge) while Christina Smith’s spartan stage design, coupled with Niklas Pajanti’s haunting lighting, created a sparse, claustrophobic world in which the protagonists were trapped like flies in amber. Tense, thrilling and masterful.

CASSIE WORKMAN – GIANTESS

This one-woman show was so good I saw it twice – once at Melbourne International Comedy Festival and later in the year at the Brisbane Powerhouse. An allegorical fairy tale about trans identity, Giantess saw Workman blend stand-up comedy with live music and projected cartoons into a seamless whole. The end result felt like an atmospheric and deeply moving picture book brought to life, packed with wry humour and pointed insights. Poetic, reflective, powerful and deeply personal, Giantess is a remarkable show from a uniquely gifted comedian. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

Photo credit: Jeff Busby

COME FROM AWAY

A unique mainstage musical, Come From Away is a story about the days after September 11, when thousands of plane passengers were grounded at Gander, a small Newfoundland airport. Simply but powerfully staged, it’s a show with tremendous heart; uplifting, moving and a much-needed reminder of the power of friendship, mutual support and community.

Photo credit: Mark Gambino

COLOSSUS

Choreographed by Stephanie Lake and originally created for the 2018 Melbourne Fringe, Colossus was remounted for the 2019 Melbourne International Arts Festival, and what a delight it was. Featuring some 50 dancers on the small Fairfax Studio stage at Arts Centre Melbourne, this exquisite work explores everything from subsumed individuality and the frightening power of the mob to the sound of the body in motion – hissing breath, snapped fingers, pounding feet. Athletic and multi-sensory, courageous and profound, it can soon be seen at Sydney Festival in January and Perth Festival in February – don’t miss it.

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