What a strange phase the world of theatre – the world of artistic activity – is going through at the moment. Robyn Nevin wrote to me recently, in response to a query about this time of the virus, ‘Who knows what the future will be? I don’t. I think live performance is a fundamental need which nought can replace. Masks will be worn by the audience and no more sweaty intertwined actors… I dunno, it’s such a troubled world.’
Hearing Robyn talk about these things is a reminder of her achievements in the theatre. I remember a 1995 production she directed of Summer of The Seventeenth Doll with Geneviève Picot as Olive and Frankie J Holden as Roo, which was better than I ever expect to see again. It was superior to the by no means negligible production Neil Armfield mounted which had Nevin as the mother who sits outside because she likes to get the smell of the gutter. But people have been brooding recently about the great theatre they have seen in days of yore given that it’s not a very reliable prospect in the near future.
I remember the staggering performance Nevin gave in Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch in 2014 directed by Simon Stone. It was not a great play but it was a good enough play to support about as good a performance as you could hope to see, magnificently variegated and twitching with the indelible experience of life. I remember her too in Simon Philips’ 2009 production of August: Osage County in which she played the mother and Jane Menelaus played the most powerful of the daughters in performances which left the subsequent film, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts in those roles, for dead. And it should never be forgotten what Robyn Nevin achieved with the Sydney Theatre Company which she made a concerted attempt to turn into a world class company. Cate Blanchett as Hedda Gabler went to New York and so did her subsequent portrayal of Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire which would never have happened if Nevin had not nourished such an impassioned desire to have Australian theatre of the absolutely first rank.
Recently people have been musing over live theatre they have treasured in print. No one who experienced Neil Armfield’s productions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne first in 2013 and again in 2016 could be in any doubt about the magnificence of the work and the concerted ambition of what Armfield was doing to capture it.
It’s natural that the mind reaches back to festivals for greatest hits of theatre in the mind’s eye. I don’t expect to see greater theatre than the 2004 production of Strindberg’s Dance of Death with Ian McKellen and Frances De La Tour which was at the Sydney Festival. The play, which is cannibalistic in the intensity with which it recreates a marriage, is the ultimate prototype of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And McKellen and De La Tour did it with an absolutely savage snap and zest. Indeed De La Tour – she’s in the film of Alan Bennet’s The History Boys – with her dazzling comic timing was said to be better than Helen Mirren in New York in 2001. McKellen’s 2007 King Lear in Melbourne directed by Trevor Nunn with its sustained snarl and its greater overwhelming piteousness was the sort of thing we treasure the theatre for.
At the moment we don’t know what is looming. The Adelaide Festival looks like having no international component which is almost a contradiction in terms, but we should be grateful for what we can get. Melbourne has sometimes, in its smallest venues, shown theatre of the greatest power. If Nevin bettered Streep in Osage so did Helen Morse in the 2018 forty-fivedownstairs production of Tony Kushner’s marathon Angels in America with a performance of towering authority.
In the meantime, we just have to be grateful for what we can get. It’s terrific that an actress as fine as Nikki Shiels is to do Kendall Feaver’s adaptation of Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career at Belvoir in November and Feaver is precisely the kind of playwright we need.
In the meantime, there’s always TV. The miniseries of Le Carre’s Little Drummer Girl is superior to the novel and there’s the quite droll Staged with Michael Sheen and David Tennant playing versions of themselves and proceeding to rehearse Six Characters in Search of an Author, via Zoom, during lockdown.
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