December 01, 1997

State Theatre 1998 Season


Murray Bramwell

Perhaps it was the threatening storm clouds, perhaps it was the  funeral-chic black worn by many of those in attendance. Maybe it was because it has been such a long time coming. Whatever the reason, the announcement of the 1998 State Theatre season, now formally in conjunction with the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust, seemed a skittery and desultory affair.

Arrayed on the lawns adjacent to the Back Stage Bar and Grill, a mixed crowd of theatre workers, administrators, sponsors, dignitaries and media gathered to hear word of State Theatre’s New Plans. 1997 has been a long time in politics and an even longer time in the performing arts. Since Executive Producer Chris Westwood got on her bike way back in March there has been, for the company, something of an hiatus before newly appointed Artistic Director Rodney Fisher formally took the helm in October.

Nature, we are told, abhors a vacuum. But it’s nothing compared with the abhorrence of funding bodies. It is enough to rekindle the most fevered domino theories when we have an ailing flagship suddenly surrounded by companies, little Pintas and Ninas, defunded by the Australia Council – Junction, Red Shed, Carousel and- bejaysus !- even State’s own junior partner, Magpie. Add to that, staff turnovers and the contractual obligations of the Australian Playhouse concept and State’s year has seemed very much a holding operation. In fact the four productions – Don’s

Party ,Gulls, Gary‘s House,  and A Hard God– stood up well. I have already lamented in these columns, the axing- apparently for financial reasons- of the fifth selection, Away, a play both accessible and theatrically satisfying which could have strongly cemented the company’s claim on its existing audience, maybe recalling some back to the fold.

There have been numerous difficulties for State in the past several years. Some have said that it was tied to a noble but self-limiting concept with its Playhouse idea. Others pointed to the sheer difficulty of creating mainstage theatre with shrinking budgets for an increasingly cash-strapped Adelaide audience, as well as facing competition for that audience from a profusion of other sports, leisure and cultural activities. Add to all that, direct competition in its own building with another theatre impresario- the Festival Centre Trust itself- and you have a lot of grief.

As from next year, we are told by Andrew Bleby from the Trust and Rodney Fisher from State – World Theatre is no more and State Theatre is… well, anyway -Welcome to Theatre 1998 !  A joint venture which is an odd mix of compromise and accident. The World theatre program is made up of various entrepreneurial initiatives the Trust has on the go – such as the apparently on-going deal with Max Stafford-Clark’s Out of Stock Company in the UK and Performing Lines, the touring program for state companies which sees work from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth playing here.

It is this program which has showcased a great deal new Australian material. It remains a grim irony of the Australian Playhouse that much of the most vibrant material – Black Swan’s Corrugation Road, Griffin’s Wolf Lullaby and Good Works from Playbox – was, under the rules for Performing Lines, ineligible for inclusion in a State Theatre program.

The result, evident particularly last year, was two programs constantly overlapping and banging into each other’s schedule and a splitting of audience loyalty with two separate subscriber lists. In effect we ended up with an Australian Playhouse and a Half plus some choice items from around the traps. Anything, from the point of view of planners, would have to be better than that.

So a truce of a kind has been struck and for Theatre 1998 a list of eleven plays has been announced. First up is a State co-production with Playbox and the Festival, directed by Michael Kantor- Natural Life , an adaptation as “melodrama, pantomime and kitsch Australiana” of Marcus Clarke’s 19th century saga of Rufus Dawes.

And now, let’s look at the Festival Trust’s imports. In May we have Rodney Fisher directing – for the Sydney and Queensland Companies- Terrence McNally’s Broadway hit, Master Class , based on the final years of opera star Maria Callas. This time, though,  Robyn Nevin is replaced by Amanda Muggleton.

Also among the Trust  imports are the Belvoir Company B production of John Harding’s Up the Road , about a Canberra-based Aboriginal administrator returning to Flat Creek Mission where he grew up. Directed by Neil Armfield it features Badley Byquar, Wayne Freer and Margaret Harvey. From Melbourne comes the New York comedy Sylvia. Written by A.R.Gurney it is about the tribulations of owning a dog. And from Griffin Theatre Company in Sydney comes Speaking in Tongues, described as a neo-noir thriller, it is from playwright Andrew Bovell and directed by Ros Horin. Again from Sydney is The Herbal Bed a new play from the UK by Peter Whelan. Directed by Marion Potts it is based on recorded events – that Shakespeare’s daughter was accused of adultery and witchcraft.

For State Rodney Fisher will preside over four productions beginning – straight after the Festival- with The Department, David Williamson’s early satire of life in a tertiary technical college. We began this year with Don’s Party and last year with The Club so the formula for the Oz Playhouse still seems remarkably intact. But mid year we have a return to a locally built Shakespeare. Macbeth in the Space with design by Jennie Tate. The Scottish play has not always fared well in revivals so this will be a production to look forward to.

The remaining two Fisher projects are literary ones, both featuring actor Lech Mackiewicz. The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s account of the experiences of idiot savant Myshkin, will play in the Space. And in the Playhouse, Timothy Daly’s fine play Kafka Dances , based on the remarkable letters between Franz Kafka and his fiance Felice Bauer, will open at the Playhouse in November.

Well-regarded director, Rosalba Clemente also returns to State in 1998 – for a new production of Brad Fraser’s Eighties hit Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love. It is a strong play but not a new one and pitching it to the young fry (by the way where’s Magpie in all this?) as “Seinfeld meets Tarantino’ has more than a whiff of desperation about it.

After making some rather stilted exclamations of affection for Adelaide, Rodney Fisher quoted to the launch gathering a speech on the necessity for a vigorous theatre in South Australia. It was from Don Dunstan back in 1972 and Fisher identified his own role in the formative days of the State Theatre Company. Looking back a quarter century the Artistic Director was no doubt looking for a lever to propel his current endeavour. But he, like us all, must be wondering what the prognosis is for State at present. With pressures for better box office, more sponsorship, a fair go for local theatre workers and a notably more censorious public mood, 1973 now seems not so much a Golden Age as a visit to another planet.

1998 is a year for rebuilding theatre at all levels in Adelaide and State has an important leadership role in that. It won’t be easy with reduced resources and the stringencies of financial management. The marketing team will have to pitch hard but not too hard. At the launch, as we pick up  our rather self-consciously jokey showbags of sponsors’ knicknacks, we would do well to remember that the battle will be won, not by hyperbole or self-irony, but by the honesty and quality of the work on stage. This 1998 Theatre program, understandably inclusive, offers something for everyone. I only hope that it isn’t so geared for damage control that it ends up being not quite enough for anyone.

The Adelaide Review, No171, December 1997, pp.33-4.

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