After another year spent exploring the network of darkened caverns stretched north to south – Melbourne's theatres large and small – it's finally time to head back to the surface and take stock of all we've seen: the inaugural Time Out Melbourne performing arts review.
The usual provisos apply, of course: try as we might, we can't see everything, and even if we could, we couldn't possibly give it all due mention. The best we can do here is mention those few especially glittery gems that flashed out beneath the critic's caving lamp, and perhaps hint obliquely at one or two of those productions whose memory, like the glow worm's "uneffectual fire", already begins to pale. So, onwards, upwards!
The good news is that as far as highlights go, you've still got time. There's one on right now at La Mama and it'll be playing through until December 18. It's called Strands, and it's the latest piece from writer/performer Peta Brady. Exploiting some relatively familiar dramatic territory, Brady and director Sue Jones have crafted an astonishingly moving production. The combination of absolutely committed performances from Wilhelmina Stracke and Brady, who play two sisters cleaning out their deceased grandmother's house, and a highly lyrical but very sharp text makes the simple premise sing out with all kinds of haunting resonances.
At the Malthouse, rewinding to February, The End, a Belvoir production of the Samual Beckett novella, directed by Eamon Flack, with a brilliant performance by Robert Menzies, was a powerful opening to the year. Later, BalletLab's Amplification, a remount staged for the Dance Massive festival, proved a high-octane revelation for those who hadn't seen it the first time around. Another highlight, also part of Dance Massive, was Connected, or at least the first section of Connected, where Gideon Obarzanek's choreography was fused with the sculptural work of Reuben Margolin.
Over at the MTC, in a year which saw two blockbusters from the departing artistic director, a Pulitzer winning Broadway musical, a barbeque stopper from Joanna Murray Smith, and the first essay into playwriting for one of the country's most popular authors, the highlight for the year was actually from local playwright Robert Reid and his pointy little comedy The Joy of Text. It was also another fine year in the MTC's Lawlor studio. The Time Out favourite, Raimondo Cortese's The Dream Life of Butterflies, certainly divided the critics.
In general it was a solid year for independent theatre in Melbourne – but the break out company was without doubt MKA – a self-described theatre of new writing based in Richmond, but popping up in venues around town. A more accurate description might be a theatre of working-all-the-bloody-time: they managed multiple seasons of play readings, and two seasons of produced plays, all without a regular venue. Their final production for the year, The Economist, was a standout example of theatrical risk taking.
Also doing well were Four Larks, with their only production for the year, Undine, putting them in line for a much anticipated residency at the Malthouse in 2012. Others to impress included: 5Pound Theatre, whose inaugural season featured a very fine production of Miss Julie; a new group called the Millinery, with a solid production of Look Back in Anger; Hoy Polloy with Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Over the Somme; and Winterfall Theatre with Caryl Churchill's A Number.
Among the more established independents, Red Stitch were again well worth braving the Chapel Street traffic for. Their production of Annie Baker's The Aliens was particularly memorable - a subdued but affecting journey into the American fringe. Plays such as Howie the Rookie and Joanna Murray Smith's Day One. A Hotel, Evening, were excellent entertainment, while Elfriede Jelinek's The Princess Dramas pushed the company out of their comfort zone toward an extreme anti-naturalism. Meanwhile, at the other end of Punt Road, fortyfivedownstairs continued to carve a handy niche for itself in a year dominated by their production of the Arnold Zable classic, Cafe Scheherazade.
The blitzkrieg seasons at Arts House were dazzling but brief, as usual, but all too brief. The spectacular Small Odysseys from Rawcus Theatre made the deepest impression on audiences, while Sydney group Post kept them in stitches with Who's the Best?
The two major festivals, the Fringe and the Melbourne, were slightly underwhelming this year, although both provided a number of high points. For my money, the Fringe Festival was stolen by Elbow Room's after all this, an endearing yet complex and closely built dramatisation of the human tendency to imagine an afterlife. Nicola Gunn's restaging of At the Sans Hotel was also well worth seeing again.
As for the Melbourne Festival, there was one standout show, which indeed stood out among all theatre experiences this year: it was Back to Back Theatre's remarkable Ganesh Versus the Third Reich.
This was theatre at its best, working on half a dozen emotional levels, inspiring shame, faith, laughter, awe, disquiet and respect. We can only hope for more like it next year.
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