Time Out Melbourne

Overseas hits, classics... and some new surprises that push the limits of storytelling

It's been a busy year for Brett Sheehy, outgoing artistic director of the Melbourne Festival and incoming artistic director at the MTC. In July he launched his last Festival program, and now, not three months later, he's launching his first MTC program.

On the surface, his new program doesn't look like a vastly different direction for the MTC. There are a half dozen of the latest plays to make it big in New York and London, a new David Williamson, a new Joanna Murray Smith, and a couple of classics, one each from Arthur Miller and Anton Chekhov. But there are also some surprises, as well as some interesting new initiatives that could lead to the company considerably expanding its artistic ambitions over the coming years.

"We’re not the Melbourne Text-based Theatre Company," declares Sheehy. "Theatre is now, around the world, not just a spoken-word, well-made play on the stage. Storytelling will always be what we do, but you can tell stories in so many ways."

Still, one of the most interesting aspects to the program does related to a well-made play. It's Sheehy's decision to pair up with the Arts Centre Melbourne in order to bring the original and very expensive West End production of Richard Bean's comedy smash One Man, Two Guvnors to Melbourne, a partnership that Sheehy describes as a first for the MTC.

Another interesting development, at the opposite end of the commercial spectrum, is the Neon program, which partly replaces the current Lawler Studio season. Essentially, the MTC will invite five of Melbourne's best-known independent companies into the Lawler theatre and give them a free hand to produce whatever work they life, without any curatorial limits. " They just have to have a show. Any show. If they don't, I've got egg on my face. But they're five great companies, and I trust them completely."

Sheehy is calling the season a festival of independent theatre, an attempt to blur the divide between establishment companies like the MTC and the rest of the theatre landscape. The five companies lined up include, The Daniel Schlusser Ensemble, The Hayloft Project, The Rabble, Sisters Grimm and Fraught Outfit. The seasons runs from May to July 2013. According to the MTC, of the company's net government grant, state and federal, they're dropping a quarter of it into this program. "And we're taking zero box office," says Sheehy. "We don't get a cent back. I hope that given that complete hands-off approach, something extraordinary will happen." 

And there is some reason for hope. Sheehy points to his time as literary manager at the STC where a similar program was trialled. "In 1988 every state theatre company was given a chunk of money for the bicentenary," he recalls. "What the STC did was say to a bunch of young artists, 'Ok, here's a space. You go and make three productions, and you can do whatever you like.' Those artists were Baz Luhrmann, Catherine Martin, and Bill Marron. What we were able to do in terms that space was just thrilling."

In this vein, Sheehy wants to emphasise the MTC's role as an organisation with the resources to nurture and develop new productions capable of touring internationally, much like the STC has done in recent years.

"There’s a wish for more work from Melbourne to go out into the world," he says. "I would love the MTC’s name to be on a marquee at Vienna Festival or the Edinburgh Festival. I want that to happen. It may take me a couple of years to get there because we have to create the work from the ground up."

Although none of the scripts he has commissioned over the last 12 months have yet come to fruition, he has left open a slot in the programming calendar in anticipation. They're calling the slot Zeitgeist.

"One of the things that has always annoyed me about state theatre companies," says Sheehy, "is the damn launch times for the coming year's season, which is a year and half out from the last show. Stuff happens in the interim. Like commissions that suddenly come through. Or something amazing from overseas or interstate that suddenly comes to light that Melbourne just has to see."

The MTC's relationship with new writing should come into closer focus with the appointment of Chris Mead as a dedicated literary manager, someone whose sole responsibility is sourcing, nurturing and developing new Australian writing. "He'll never be lost in the rehearsal room for six weeks, or thinking about his other job," declares Sheehy. "All he'll be thinking about is dramaturgy, text and playwrights."

This focus will also allow the MTC to develop a policy for nurturing women playwrights. In Sheehy's view, the problem is that not enough of Australia's great female writers are writing for the theatre. "They're working for television, fiction, poetry. Maybe those genres feel cooler to your average 25 year-old. It's our job to get them into this milieu and have them writing for the stage as well."

A similar policy for female directors will be developed by Leticia Cáceres, one of the MTC's new associate artistic directors. It is, however, worth pointing out that the problem of gender inequality is not only limited to writing and directing, but across all the creative streams. So while Sheehy boasts that the main-stage season has three plays written by women and four directed by women, there are no female composers or sound designers, no female lighting designers and only one female set designer in the current program, although there are more creative roles still to be announced.

"I've got a lot of work to do," he admits, "but I'll be frank: my immediate focus is writers and directors."

But Sheehy does want to stress that he is against quotas, which he sees as too often a knee-jerk reaction to the blowtorch of media scrutiny.

"Finally," he insists, "the barometer of what's on stage has to be excellence."

So let's turn now to what's on stage ...

The Other Place

26 Jan-2 Mar

by Sharr White
directed by Nadia Tass
starring Catherine McClements, Philip Quast

A drama of marriage and medicine. Dr Juliana Smithton is on the edge of breakdown. Her husband is filing for divorce, her daughter is eloping and her health is not looking good. Where did everything start to go wrong? It was long ago, in the Other Place.

According to Sheehy, "I asked Nadia Tass, who probably hasn't worked with the MTC for more than a decade, 'What is the one play in the world that you really want to do?' And she said, 'I want to do The Other Place.' She'll bring her cinematic vision to a work that really cries out for that kind of treatment."

Interestingly, Paul Grabowsky, who succeeded Brett Sheehy as artistic director of the Adelaide Festival is providing a new score for the work.


8 Feb-23 Mar
Fairfax Studio

by Nick Payne
directed by Leticia Cáceres
starring Alison Bell

Described as a play about quantum multiverse theory, love and honey. Roland knows a lot about bees and Marianne knows a lot about physics. When they meet, the possibilities are infinite, inexplicable and even miraculous.

According to Sheehy, “Not since I first read Caryl Churchill  who in the 1980s was for me the person most thrillingly breaking with conventional form – have I been so excited by a writer as I am with Nick Payne. I get chills when, four minutes in, it suddenly changes gears. Literally groundbreaking in terms of structure and form."

Other Desert Cities

2 Mar-17 Apr

by Jon Robin Baitz
directed by Sam Strong
starring Robyn Nevin

This new play by a popular American playwright premiered early last year before entering on a successful Broadway season. Set in the sun-drenched ease of Palm Springs, Polly and Lyman Wyeth, the latter a former Senator, are preparing for their first family Christmas in years. Their daughter shatters the hopeful mood when she announces she’s written a memoir about her childhood.

According to Sheehy, "One of the things that interest me most about human behaviour is our presumption and how we think we know people, judging them on one meeting." 

True Minds

25 Apr-8 Jun

by Joanna Murray Smith
directed by Peter Houghton
Starring Louise Siversen

Joanna Murray Smith returns to the MTC after the success of 2011's The Gift.

Being introduced to your fiancé’s family is a harrowing time for any young woman, especially if your future mother-in-law is a hero of the conservative party and your own rabidly leftist parents turn up, or your alcoholic ex-boyfriend.

According to Sheehy, "Just a gorgeous rom-com. I laughed more during the initial read through of this than I have during any Australian play that I can remember, ever. And I say that measuredly."

One Man, Two Guvnors

17 May-22 Jun

by Richard Bean
based on Goldoni's The Servant of Two Masters 
directed by Nicholas Hytner
starring Owain Arthur, Edward Bennett, Amy Booth-Steel, Nick Cavalierie, Colin Mace, Mark Monero, Kellie Shirley, Leon Williams, Rosie Wyatt

Francis Henshall has recently been sacked from his skiffle band and is in urgent need of a secure source of income. And if two jobs should happen to come his way, shouldn’t that mean his income will be twice as secure? So Francis enlists as the minder of Roscoe Crabbe, a vicious London bovver boy, and also as the gofer for a chinless wonder going by the name of Stanley Stubbers. Two guvnors, two pay days, two meal tickets. As long as they don’t meet.

Celebrating the best of British comedy, this production of Richard Bean’s multi-award-winning play comes direct from the West End. 

Solomon & Marion

7 Jun- 20 Jul

 by Lara Foot
directed by Pamela Rabe
starring Pacharo Mzembe and Jacki Weaver

Australian premiere of a 2011 South African hit. Solomon, a young black man, and Marion, an ageing English woman, are thrown together during preparations for the South African World Cup finals.

Jacki Weaver's first return to the MTC after her Oscar triumph.

The Crucible

22 Jun-3 Aug

by Arthur Miller
directed by Sam Strong
starring Anita Hegh and David Wenham

The God-fearing citizens of Salem are on their guard – no one is beyond suspicion. As investigations into witchcraft reach their highest pitch, a condemning finger is pointed at Elizabeth, the blameless wife of John Proctor. But Proctor finds he cannot save her without unearthing his own black sin.

According to Sheehy, "I know how keen Sam is to have everything on stage be meaningful to us in our own time and place." 

Cherry Orchard

10 Aug-25 Sep

by Simon Stone, after Anton Chekhov
directed by Simon Stone
starring Pamela Rabe

Spoilt and sentimental, Ranevskaya returns to her large estate seeking refuge from a failed love affair and impending bankruptcy. Fortunately, her former labourer Lopakhin, now a successful property developer, has a plan. Will she yield to the path of modernity, or stand strong?

According to Sheehy, "You'll notice the writing is credited to Simon Stone, after Chekhov. He'll be working on it in the same way that he worked on Wild Duck."


24 Aug-28 Sep

by David Williamson
directed by Lee Lewis

Australia’s best-known playwright returns to MTC, targeting the greatest media scandal of modern times, the News of the World phone-hacking scandal and subsequent Leveson Inquiry.

A world premiere, this enthralling political fantasia sees Rupert forging his destiny, and making our history, in what promises to be one of the most discussed plays of the decade.

According to Sheehy, "It's totally new territory for Williamson. He and I sat down to chat, it was New Year's Eve, actually, and I asked, 'What's the thing you're most passionate about in the world at the moment?' and he said, 'What do you mean?' and I said, 'Well, at dinner parties, where's all the heat in the conversation?' And he said, 'Oh. My. God. Media and politics. News of the World.'"


3 Oct-23 Nov

For 2013,the MTC are embracing the energy of uncertainty by leaving open a slot in their main-stage program, making possible the announcement of a new project next year.

According to Sheehy, "We finally have our own theatres, and if you own your own building and you own your own spaces but you can't do what you want to when you want to, then what's the point?"

The Mountaintop

1 Nov-21 Dec

by Katori Hall
directed by Alkinos Tsilimidos
starring Zahra Newman

Martin Luther King is at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on the day of his assassination. He's exhausted. He rings down for room service, and the maid comes up with his coffee. What unfolds from that meeting is nothign less than a history of America.

Tsilimidos returns to the MTC after his success with 2012's Rothko piece, Red.

According to Sheehy, "It's magic realism, which is so rare in theatre."

The Book of Everything

27 Nov-22 Dec

by Guus Kuijer
adapted by Richard Tulloch
directed by Neil Armfield
starring Matthew Whittet

Nine year-old Thomas can see things no one else can: tropical fish in the Amsterdam canals, a hailstorm of frogs and even Jesus himself. He also sees his family’s unhappiness and a pain that lingers long after the war. All this – good and bad – he carefully records in his magical Book of Everything.

Presented with Belvoir and Kim Carpenter's Theatre of Image.

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Updated on 4 Jan 2014.

By Andrew Furhmann   |  


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