By Adam Rafferty
The first season in three years (expected) to be unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2023 is full of new beginnings, not the least, the first to be programmed by Artistic Director Anne-Louise Sarks. For the company’s 70th anniversary year, they’re returning the brand to its full name again too. MTC is no more, long live the Melbourne Theatre Company.
The season showcases no less than five brand new Australian works, including one of those most rare and thrilling beasts, the new Australian musical. These will be bolstered by the long awaited arrival of the original Australian production of Prima Facie (of recent times made famous by the UK’s National Theatre production starring Jodie Comer); three Australian premieres of bold and exciting new international plays; a world-first staging of two Caryl Churchill one-act plays back to back; a new staging of Samuel Beckett’s classic Happy Days with Judith Lucy in the unique role of Winnie ; and one classic play with music to complete the surfeit of riches.
There’s a lot to be excited about, particularly the long-awaited Sunday by Anthony Weigh, cancelled from the 2021 season by Lockdown Six. Described as an audacious fantasy inspired by the stories and myths that surround Heide Museum of Modern Art founder Sunday Reed, who was muse and mentor to a circle of artists including Sidney Nolan. Starring Matt Day and Nikki Shiels as Reed, it promises to deliver an unforgettable story.
Next comes Prima Facie, starring Sheridan Harbridge in a must-see powerhouse performance. If you haven’t already heard about this play, written by former lawyer Suzie Miller, then trust me, you need to get your tickets now before it inevitably sells out, just as it has done in Sydney and Brisbane.
For her first show as Melbourne Theatre Company Artistic Director, Sarks has chosen to work with dual-Helpmann Award-winner Kate Mulvany on a play by American writer Theresa Rebeck (she of Spike Heels, Seminar and TV’s Smash). It’s about Belle Epoch actress Sarah Bernhardt in one of her most famous performances, playing the titular role of Hamlet in a prose adaptation she commissioned from Edmond Rostand. It sounds like the recipe for theatrical magic.
May will bring around Happy Days, Beckett’s absurdist tragicomedy, with the star pull of Judith Lucy in her Melbourne Theatre Company debut. No doubt, audiences will thrill to seeing Lucy in this ever-sinking, tour-de-force role, directed by Petra Kalive.
I Wanna Be Yours, is the Education production of the year, a 2019 debut play from London Laureate and poetry slam champion Zia Ahmed. It’s a modern-day romance about a couple with different backgrounds finding love and holding onto it with everything they’ve got as circumstances pull them apart.
The other play in this year’s season that has been waiting to set foot on stage since its 2021 lockdown cancellation is Jacky by award-winning playwright Declan Furber Gillick. An MTC NEXT STAGE commission, it’s a play about family, community and culture, examining the personal cost of navigating it all in contemporary Australia. Starring Guy Simon and Greg Stone, it promises to be whip-smart, disarming and original.
A co-production with Sydney Theatre Company, Is God Is is an American play by Aleshea Harris, winner of the Obie Award for Playwriting and the American Playwrighting Foundation’s Relentless Award, which apparently packs an almighty wallop. Focused on twin sisters who bear the scars of their deadbeat dad’s brutal attack when they were children, it takes vengeance to levels that would make the Greek tragedians proud.
If there was a prize for the production with the greatest pedigree in this season it would have to go to Bloom, the new musical with music by Katie Weston and book & lyrics by none other than Working Dog’s Tom Gleisner. Set in an aged care home, it stars Anne Edmonds, Frankie J. Holden and John O’May, with direction by Dean Bryant. Prepare your funny bones for this big-hearted, uplifting and joyful new show.
Sarks negotiated with Caryl Churchill to direct two of her short plays as one evening’s entertainment. Escaped Alone is a visionary play about afternoon tea and the apocalypse, that will star Helen Morse, while Alison Bell will lead the micro-meditation on grief and possibility that is What If If Only.
Another NEXT STAGE commission is Patricia Cornelius’ My Sister Jill (adapted from her own novel), a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of 1950s and 60s suburban Melbourne, that unpacks the shadow of war and the trauma it leaves behind.
Arts Centre Melbourne’s Fairfax Studio will be transformed into a run-down South Philadelphia bar, circa March 1959 in Lady Day at Emmerson’s Bar & Grill. The one and only Billie Holiday – known widely as Lady Day – will be played by the extraordinarily talented Zahra Newman, conjuring up one of her final shows, as she weaves anecdotes from her life amongst a selection of her most loved hits accompanied by a jazz trio. Directed by Mitchell Butel and made famous by Audra McDonald’s 2014 Tony Award winning performance, this co-production with State Theatre Company South Australia and Belvoir St Theatre is one not to miss.
Winding up the year is the perfectly timed NEXT STAGE commission, A Very Jewish Christmas Carol, by writers in residence, Elise Esther Hearst and Phillip Kavanagh after Dickens. Inspired by their own backgrounds, this playful retelling of the seasonal time-travelling classic is a celebration of fun, family and faith, directed by Sarah Giles and starring Evelyn Krape and Bert LaBonté.
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