Year interrupted: a wrap of Melbourne’s theatre

Melbourne theatre faced another wave of disruption and distress in 2021. You could be forgiven for finding it a difficult one to get your head around. Stages that had come to life after the sacrifices of 2020 suddenly withered again, as the virus mutated into more infectious strains, the vaccine rollout dragged on, and Melburnians gritted their teeth through the ordeal of having the most extended lockdown in the world.

Artemis Ioannides and Keegan Joyce in the labyrinth of Because The Night.Credit:Pia Johnson

Indeed, COVID-19 had such a bitter second act in store for us that the vigour and optimism with which the year started seems now like a half-remembered dream. And yet, the months of freedom bought by the social sacrifice of 2020 were not taken for granted. There were homecomings and new beginnings amid all the precarity, and artists seized the opportunity to venture into fresh terrain.

One success story was the Outdoor Stage at the Malthouse. Al fresco performance is always risky business with Melbourne’s climate, but the novelty paid off. The season of comedy, cabaret and music was eagerly embraced by audiences hungry for live performance and was headlined by Eddie Perfect with a new show, Introspective, featuring a blend of old favourites and songs from the musicals – Beetlejuice and King Kong – he’s composed on Broadway.

The Malthouse also took an ambitious gamble on Because The Night, transforming the entire theatre complex into an elaborate maze of performance for an immersive experience based loosely on Hamlet. It was a glorious labyrinth to explore – backroom bars and opulent boudoirs, a sawmill and even a video game arcade – and represented the epitome of the design brilliance for which the Malthouse is known, even if the script tended towards soap opera and undermined any real attempt at tragedy.

Such ambition went wanting at the MTC, which largely drip-fed us productions postponed from 2020. As a result, some shows seemed tone-deaf to the cultural moment, while others were excellent, especially given the adversity encountered in bringing them to the stage.

Artwork for Joanna Murray-Smith’s Berlin.Credit:Currency Press

Among the latter were the scintillating foray into the world of literary journalism in The Lifespan of a Fact with Nadine Garner, the moodily erotic premiere of Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Berlin, and the long-awaited Simon Phillips’ production of As You Like It, which entertained post-lockdown with its crisp comedy, original music, and ornately costumed spectacle. (It was a decidedly conservative interpretation of Shakespeare’s play, though, so it will be interesting to see how much incoming artistic director Anne-Louise Sarks is willing to shake things up as the company looks forward.)

Commercial theatre was even harder hit. Jubilation attended the revival of Come From Away in January. The spirited folk musical – fittingly, about a community coming together in a crisis – possessed an exultant energy, as did (of all things) a production of The Wedding Singer mid-year.

That our musical theatre talent was so energised and ready to be back made what happened next harder to bear. Cruel closures and delays plagued many of the biggest blockbusters. Disney’s Frozen was forced to shut its doors before the opening night review made it to press, and the dazzling confection of the Moulin Rouge musical was frustrated until November.

As for arts festivals, the biggest fell hardest there, too. After its postponement last year, the cancellation of the RISING festival proved a huge loss to cultural fabric of the city.

Some moving images projected on to Hamer Hall, part of the RISING festivalCredit:Eddie Jim

This was supposed to be the replacement for both White Night and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. It should have been massive. It closed after a day, although not before a few weeks of Seasons – a welcoming hub of Indigenous storytelling and culture in the Royal Botanic Gardens – and one performance of This – an avant-garde mess with an admittedly tight opening (the show began, in one of the strangest sights I’ve witnessed at the theatre, with Brian Lipson giving an indignant monologue dressed as a fish’s arsehole).

Still, it’s impossible to say from the small sample of work produced whether RISING will be able to cover the bases of the two very different festivals it has supplanted, or whether it’s a mistake. Time will tell. And after its postponement last year, the cancellation of the RISING festival proved a huge loss to the cultural fabric of the city.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival was forced into being little more than a necessary placeholder – a smattering of digital offerings with some special events, including a virtual reality exhibition from Taiwan, revived post-lockdown.

Independent theatre was in some ways luckier, with greater agility and intimacy used to deliver some of the strongest acting on offer. Izabella Yena’s fierce, bruising solo performance in Kerosene at Theatre Works was a tour de force, as was Nicci Wilks’ pathetic and precise incarnation of the titular Runt in Patricia Cornelius’ new play.

Izabella Yena in Kerosene at Theatre Works.

It also helped to balance out some of the more serious losses – the closure of Circus Oz after 44 years, or the temporary shutdown of 45downstairs – the industry is facing.

Bucking the trend, an attractive new live entertainment venue opened to cabaret fanfare at the Brunswick Ballroom. Melbourne theatregoers had cause to celebrate this month at the grand opening of the rebuilt La Mama Theatre, destroyed by fire in 2018.

With over 400 artists participating, the La Mama War-Rak/Banksia Festival strutted its stuff at a summer street party packed with music, speeches, and live art happenings that included a phoenix (what else?) moonwalking across the roof.

A restored and improved La Mama will surely galvanise Melbourne’s theatre scene, and the delight among its close-knit community was palpable.

The newly rebuilt La Mama theatre in Carlton.Credit:Scott McNaughton

None of it would have been possible without extensive grassroots support, but just as important was the Victorian government’s bold decision to grant $1million to attract philanthropy for the rebuilding project. That’s precisely the kind of visionary investment in the arts that will be required as theatre recovers.

As 2022 looms, it’s best to be circumspect with predictions. No one can say what travails the pandemic has yet to unleash upon us, and theatregoers know better than anyone what is likely to follow when hubris makes an entrance. What does seem clear is that Melbourne’s rich theatre culture is more precious – and we must make a greater effort to conserve it – at a time when performance is so challenging to stage.

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