Who What Why

Our Artistic Director's rundown of the 2020 season.


This had a short and wonderful season last year, leaving our stage before everyone had the chance to see it. If you’ve experienced it already, invite someone else along. It’s a real gift, this play: heartfelt, generous, original. Stevie Rodgers took over from Kate Mulvany last year, and his spirit matches the play perfectly. If you missed it last time, here’s your chance. Or just see it again – truly a show that’s never the same twice.


Peter Goldsworthy is one of our great, complex writers – unafraid of a moral conundrum, driven by an urge to discover where the limits of our humanity lie, but never obnoxious or manipulative. Stevie Rodgers is one of the great splendours of Australian theatre. He’s all heart and straightforwardness. It makes him the perfect adaptor for Goldsworthy’s story of a family dealing with illness. The production comes to Belvoir from Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta, where it garnered tears and accolades in its premiere last year. This is the fifth year in a row we’ve brought a show to Belvoir from what’s known in the biz as the small-to-medium sector – that big varied group of vital, coal-face companies whose funding has been ripped from them time and again but who persevere nonetheless. Australian storytelling is better for them. This show is honest and beautiful. It’s an honour to bring it to Belvoir.


Every season for the last few years we’ve presented a new American play (Mr Burns, Hir, The Wolves). This hasn’t been by plan – it’s just that America, perhaps because of its turmoil, is turning out some startlingly original writing about modern life. These plays harness America’s energy at its best – its confidence, its inventiveness, its chutzpah. And interestingly, for a country struggling with the middle-age of its nationhood, these plays feel young. Dance Nation is no exception. Clare Barron really is young – she was in her mid-20s when she wrote this. It’s energetic, defiant, with a feminist carnival spirit to it, and above all else it’s wonderfully playful. Which makes it a very Belvoir kind of modern American play. It’ll surprise you, maybe even catch you a little off guard. Bring your granddaughters. Especially if they’re a bit radical-minded…


What an electrifying piece of writing. Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay is ostensibly the record of her attempt to understand why there are so few women writers in history. Her search for an answer becomes a personal odyssey from one male dominated institution to another, and a dance with the ghosts of women past; it yields an astonishing self-portrait. I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s up there with Hamlet for its scouring of the human mind. It’s also shockingly contemporary. Shocking because Woolf’s evocation of the maddening experience of living in a patriarchy sounds… just the same as now, almost a hundred years later. I shouldn’t have favourites but the thought of Virginia Woolf voiced by Anita Hegh gives me goosebumps.


Caryl Churchill just might be the greatest living playwright in the world today. No other writer has remained so contemporary for so long, or reinvented the possibilities of playwriting so often. Top Girls, Serious Money, Cloud Nine are the big hits – and how often is a hit as formally bold as those three? – but who else comes close to the political complexity of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire or Mad Forest? For the last fifteen years or so Churchill has been writing a series of astounding miniatures on subjects that most playwrights struggle to even attempt: genetic modification, ideological collapse, nature in revolt. She’s over eighty now and she’s still writing like no one else. Escaped Alone is the best of her later works, and one of her essential plays. It’s short – about an hour long; and not much ‘happens’ – four women sit in the backyard and pass time. But as they talk, they reveal the vastness of their lives, and breaking through their conversation are Mrs J’s visions of the 21st century – apocalyptic, spectral but somehow utterly recognisable – the things we know in our bones about the world we are creating. It’s as though the Oracle of Delphi has possessed the lollipop lady. It’s the perfect excuse to put four of the greats of Australian theatre on stage together: Helen Morse, Judi Farr, Kris McQuade and Heather Mitchell.


Shakthi and I felt like we really began something with Counting and  Cracking – the energy of that group of actors, the hunger from audiences for these unexpected, overdue stories. This time we’re working on a slightly smaller scale (although still big for Belvoir), and we’re drawing on two of the great stories of all time – Sophocles’ Antigone, and the Gandhari story from the Mahabharata. The idea to draw on both stories came about by fate, really (which is appropriate to the material). Shakthi and I knew we wanted to collaborate again, and soon; we each brought these different stories to the table and discovered they illuminated each other. Shakthi has a remarkable sense of the way that stories can get people through profound loss and uncertainty. The show is a collaboration with the Homebush-based Lingalayam Dance Company, run by the world-renowned Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher and choreographer Anandavalli. We’ve tempted her back on stage to work alongside this brilliant international cast. And I mean brilliant. Five of the remarkable cast of Counting and Cracking, plus Anandavalli and the terrific New Zealand actor Jacob Rajan. It’s a hell of a company.


Comparisons are odious and Michelle Law has her own kind of brilliance, but she does put me in mind of Nora Ephron: that same ability to set up a comic premise and make it pay off again and again without putting a hair out of place; that same sharp eye for human foibles; that same delight in pointing out hypocrisy. Michelle has a special peccadillo of her own: she’s fascinated by humiliation – by how funny it can be, the way it suddenly reveals some truth or other. All her writing so far is driven by this fascination: her SBS series Homecoming Queens, her play Single Asian Female. Miss Peony takes this a step further, eking out the humiliation of not being a sufficiently Chinese, or a sufficiently Australian, Chinese-Australian. It’s funny – sometimes painfully so – but it’s also tender and it becomes kind of a collective dis-burdening. You can feel the relief of her audience as they laugh: Yes! That’s how I feel too! Which makes her a true artist: willing to humiliate herself so her audience can laugh away their own humiliations.


Like Ariel in the cloven pine, Miles Franklin has become bound by the award which was named for her; the time is right to set her free to speak for herself again. And what a voice. The opening paragraphs of My Brilliant Career are blunt, grinning, awkward, and magnificent. They heralded an alternative path for Australian storytelling that is as vital today as it was in 1902. Franklin was barely 20 when her novel was published, and reading it now you get the sense that it’s not so much an act of fiction as a mighty effort by young Stella ‘Miles’ Franklin to reimagine the possibilities of her own life. By giving her narrator, Sybylla, free reign to rewrite the old marriage plot of the 19th-century novel, Franklin was giving herself the chance to break out of the confines of Edwardian womanhood. In other words, this book is a magic spell and an act of liberation, and it’s time has come again. Nikki Shiels looks a little like a young Franklin, but we’ve cast her because she’s a force of nature. So is the writer of the adaptation, Kendall Feaver, who cleaned up a bunch of playwriting awards for The Almighty Sometimes, which was at Griffin Theatre in 2018. The director is Kate Champion. That’s four brilliant women joining forces – I’m excited.


Let’s start with that exclamation mark on the end of the title: this show isn’t afraid of a big gesture. It’s the first play by Jaru/Gija writer Kodie Bedford, who has been the Balnaves Fellow at Belvoir for the last year. You could say her play is larger than life but, the fact is, it’s practically a documentary of Kodie’s family. Much of the play really happened (well, in some form or another…) – it just so happens that in some families real life is as madcap as a stage comedy. And this play is, frankly, piss funny. But the genius of it is that the comedy springs from some pretty hard realities. We’re not great in Australia at talking about class and we’re not great at talking about mental illness. Kodie’s fine to talk about both. She’s shameless about it. She sees that atrocious things can be funny. Sometimes have to be funny. It’s a liberated, liberating play. I love it because it’s about having to find new ways to love when the people you call family are so broken that normal love won’t do.


If you’ll pardon me saying it, a large part of Australia are off their face on comfort. We’re addicted. Summerfolk is about an entire class of people who don’t know how to begin to deal with a changing world. Even the characters who know that history is ticking away like a bomb don’t know how to wean themselves off the sunshine and self-regard. But it’s also funny – full of love, excess, hope, all those things that make Russian dramas so great. This will be the first time I’ve ever done a play twice: Summerfolk was one of the first things I ever directed 11 years ago. I’ve always wanted to do it again, and the election of the Morrison government tipped the scales. This is the perfect play for a society that picked its overenthusiastic neighbour as the Prime Minister because he promised he wouldn’t actually do anything. Perfect because it’s a play about how to live together (or not), how to work towards a better society (or not), how to cope with change (or not), and it felt to me that Australia chose the “or not” last May. Well, good luck to us all…