November 01, 2008

Scripting the Season

Murray Bramwell reports on Adam Cook’s State Theatre Company program for 2009.

One of the things Adam Cook likes to do is spruik his company and never more so than at the time of the new season’s launch. He is good at it, and he pays attention to detail – the graphics, layout, pics and page size of the brochure and, of course, the signature pea-green stylings and snappy slogans. They are all part of the package. This year’s pitch was What’s the Big Idea ? In 2007 it was Excess All Areas. For 2009 it is a slightly precarious pun on carpe diem – Seize the Play. This time the focus is on the writer – and the nostalgic image of the Remington typewriter helps conjure Adam Cook’s theme.

He is a very literary fellow himself. He once wrote a thesis on Sylvia Plath, he reads widely and reflectively, his admiration for the repertoire – whether Chekhov or Shakespeare, Pinter or Crimp – is genuine and well-informed. At the season launch in the Dunstan Playhouse he talks aphoristically about what writing does – “Life says: ‘she did this’, literature says: ‘she did this because …’” and “A writer talks about what everyone knows, but don’t know they know.”.

2009 is Cook’s fifth season and he has both the confidence of the incumbent and expresses the strategic concerns of an artistic director who has recently had his contract extended to the end of 2012. He is buoyant about the prospect, but looking beyond the company – and Adelaide – for alliances and renewal. Over coffee he describes to me a long dinner discussion he’d had with Andrew Upton from the Sydney Theatre Company. Upton’s play Riflemind, in its recent London season, featuring Hugo Weaving and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, received a spray from hostile UK critics and Cook reports their conversation shifting to
“thoughts about resilience and maintaining self-esteem”. They also talked about exploring joint ventures, generational change and the fact that, no longer freelances, they were now “forty-something” artistic directors – Cook in Adelaide, Upton in Sydney, Michael Kantor at the Malthouse in Melbourne and Michael Gow in Brisbane.

Always taking his cue from the décor in use in the Dunstan Playhouse at the time of the October launch, this year Adam Cook is relaxing on Mrs Alving’s rather staid settee from State’s current production of Ibsen’s Ghosts. Part Oprah, part Kochie, part Don Lane, Cook is talk show host for the 09 season and his first guest on is Dennis Olsen, set to play the eponymous lead in Anna Goldsworthy and Peter Goldsworthy’s adaptation of Maestro. Having just racked up 200,000 in sales, Maestro is a novel both admired and widely known and its themes of music, culture, history and friendship – and the conflicts they bring – promise to make the book’s transfer to the stage a very satisfying one. It will be directed by Martin Laud Gray, who also presented Honk if You Are Jesus, State’s previous Goldsworthy hit from the 2006 Adelaide Festival.

In a departure, for next year’s lineup, Cook has selected Metro Street, a new musical written by Matthew Robinson, which played in the 2006 Adelaide Cabaret Festival in a concert version. Directed by Geordie Brookman, it features popular actor and singer Cameron Goodall, as well as music theatre legend Nancye Hayes. Director Catherine Fitzgerald will direct Shelagh Stephenson’s The Memory of Water, a play about three sisters brought together for their mother’s funeral which includes the excellent actors, Ulli Birve and Eugenia Fragos. Michael Hill makes a welcome return to direct Caroline Mignone and Ksenja Logos in Alan Ayckbourn’s Things We Do for Love and Geordie Brookman will direct Knives in Hens, an offbeat play by Scottish playwright David Harrower, set in what Cook describes as “ a pre-industrial parallel universe.” It will feature the ubiquitous Cameron Goodall and is co-produced by the Malthouse.

Cook himself will direct two productions. The first, Mnemonic, conceived by Simon McBurney and devised by UK/French outfit Complicite, is a special project for him. He describes it as a forensic love story which includes a variety of threads including the story of a 5000 year old frozen man. Designed by Brian Thomson, who is presently in London working on the premiere of Priscilla- Queen of the Desert, Cook explains the set as consisting of a black box, concrete floor and a broken chair. He compares its challenges to this year’s Attempts on her Life . “I want to do one of these sort of plays each year, if I can swing it. It’s not going to frighten the horses, but it will extend us.”

And to finish the year, not a comedy this time, but King Lear, directed by Adam Cook, and featuring the highly-regarded John Gaden, returning to a role he last performed on the Playhouse stage 20 years ago.

“Scripting the season” The Adelaide Review, No.345, November, 2008, p.27.

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