November 01, 2002

State Occasions

State Theatre Company 2003 Season
Previewed by Murray Bramwell

The cat is out of the bag. Well, seven cats actually. While the Latin band plays, the Queen’s Theatre is up to its tiara in subscribers, theatre artists and the rest of the State Theatre faithful – all gathered to hear Artistic Director, Rosalba Clemente announce the company’s season for 2003.

Since taking charge of the company three years ago, Clemente has worked hard to rebuild and re-energise the team at State Theatre. Inheriting debt and disarray from profligate and quixotic predecessors, she and General Manager Atul Joshi have brought State back into the black, won back subscriber commitment and kept on task in hiring local talent wherever possible.

The result is that State is a tight and dedicated outfit, in every aspect of the company from management and marketing to the creatives. In a spirit of conspicuous democracy, they get plenty of acknowledgment from their director who includes them variously and frequently in the company’s promotion. And they, in turn, seem to be loyal to a person. It’s pretty clear they would follow Rosalba through fire and high water if called upon to do so.

Which is just as well, because the expectations on State Theatre are ever-increasing as professional theatre activity in Adelaide decreases. The once thriving list of second tier companies is greatly diminished and ten years or more of scrimping has taken its toll all round. Theatre is expensive to make and the pressure has always been to somehow make straw into gold. In Adelaide as in other cities, there has been a loss of diversity and the limited available funding necessarily fosters short term thinking and cautious pragmatism.

These are not easy times in which to be imaginative. When asked once why American theatre was mediocre, the New York director Harold Clurman observed that it was because the country was mediocre. There is something in that idea. There is an anxiety and inwardness in our society at present that seems only to be getting worse and we have been marching to the drum of dry economics far too long for our own good.

So it is not surprising that, in her opening address, Rosalba Clemente might go to the delectable confines of the kitchen for her metaphors. Reminiscing about the culinary rivalry of favourite aunts she commends their gusto and creativity . And, she adds, “as food nourishes the body, [so] art feeds our hunger for the invisibles of faith, optimism, humour and generosity . The sublime nature of humankind is made visible to us through art.”

These sacramental notions are hardly new or original but they are reflective not only of Clemente’s idealistic view of her theatre but her willingness to declare it in the most earnest terms. There is also an earthy straight-forwardness which is evident in a program which strongly favours comedy and familiarity as a tonic to shredded nerves, and perhaps echoes the currently widespread suspicion of anything deemed to be too cerebral.

First up in the program is an American classic, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Set in Massachusetts during the Salem witch trials the play was, of course written as a riposte to events much closer at hand, the McCarthy hearings of the late 1940s. This is State’s contribution to Come Out in mid-March and the production, directed by Clemente with designer Cath Cantlon, is a joint venture with Urban Myth Theatre Company who are contributing five young performers who will work with the estimable Edwin Hodgeman, Barbara West and Geoff Revell.

Two other American works also feature in the season. Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is being dusted off for more rounds of Humiliate the Host and Get the Guest. Directed by Marion Potts it is a sure-fire vehicle for Clemente in the role of Martha. Other cast details are not yet available. And Proof, David Auburn’s hit play from New York, is also a solid choice. A strong play with just enough brainy maths to be intriguing, it is offers a range of performing opportunities, not least the coveted role of Catherine, played famously by Gwyneth Paltrow and Mary-Louise Parker as well as Rachel Griffiths in Melbourne earlier this year. In Adelaide the part will be played by Amber McMahon, a recent graduate from the Flinders Drama Centre, already well-known for her offbeat comedy.

And speaking of comedy, the Gothic farce The Mystery of Irma Vep by Charles Ludlam is an opportunity for Paul Blackwell to team up again with Keith Robinson for some schlock laughs directed by former Castanet Clubster Warren Coleman and designer Dean Hills. Blackwell, deservedly an audience favourite, also features in Scott Witt’s adaptation of Moliere’s Scapin, a co-production with Queensland Theatre Company that also lists Justin Moore, Caroline Mignone and, Michael Habib, notable for his work with this year’s Dealer’s Choice.

New works are always a matter of pride for theatre companies but they can also be their undoing. State Theatre’s On Site Theatre Laboratory has been an important developing ground for productions. Last year Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day emerged from that process to widespread acclaim and Robert Dessaix’s Night Letters is still bubbling away under a bunsen burner somewhere.

In 2003 the acerbic talents of Fiona Sprott, author of such successfully unfurling titles as Often I Find When I am Naked and Partly It’s About Love, Partly It’s About Massacre, will be directed by Chris Drummond. The new work features Colleen Cross and Rory Walker and is an off the shoulder, lower case number called drowning in my ocean of You. It is being sponsored by Dramatic Women, the same group of enterprising dames who passed around their famous hats to support this year’s Scenes from an Execution. This patronage, like that of Maureen Ritchie for the On Site project, is proof of the generosity of individuals from within the Adelaide audience and tangible acknowledgment of Rosalba Clemente’s own commitment.

The other Australian work being introduced in 2003 is a co-production with Playbox of the latest offering from Stephen Sewell, one of the most challenging and vexing of our leading playwrights. He has produced great works for the Australian stage and has been uncompromising in the process. It is a robust sign that Clemente has programmed Sewell’s response to September 11, the hugely titled Myth, Propaganda and Disaster in Nazi Germany and Contemporary America. Aubrey Mellor will direct, the design is by Shaun Gurton and the lighting, as for the entire season, will be managed by resident designer Mark Shelton.

And, as they used to say in telemarketing, there’s more. Subscribers to the full season also get discount offers for Flying Blind, the touring work from Legs on the Wall, which plays here in October.

“State Occasions” The Adelaide Review, No.230, November, 2002, pp.21-2.

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