Best stage performances of 2019
It’s that time again, when we critics squint through our yellowing files and magisterially proclaim the Best Shows of the Year. It’s as traditional as Christmas pudding, the Queen’s speech and family quarrels, and just as problematic.
Sorting out which is “best” in a year of extraordinarily varied performances feels reductive. It’s much worse than comparing apples with oranges: it’s comparing apples, oranges, mangoes, rambutan and artichokes. And that only includes the fruit that I personally ate.
Caveats aside, I decided to write down a list of the performances that this year reminded me what art can be, performances that gave me what I needed to face the ongoing psychic shocks of living. Shows that, in their many different ways, gave me courage and hope, that inspired me with their honesty, delight and beauty. Shows that didn’t lie, shows in which the world was refracted through the consciousness of the artists who made them and revealed it as it is, in all its splendour and terror and banality. It ended up being quite a long list.
Trimming that list down felt cruelly arbitrary. But it reminded me that I saw many brilliant shows this year – so many, in fact, that the gloom that currently surrounds the arts suddenly felt over-egged. It isn’t. Artists in Australia are facing their worst crises in decades. But despite everything, amazing art is being made. It might well be that, as Edgar says at the end of King Lear, many people feel it’s time to “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”.
The other thing I noticed is how much of the most vital, inventive and exciting work being made deals with the fallout of the present moment: the wounds of colonialism, in particular, with its weapons of misogyny, racism and other bigotries. A good example is The Nature of Why, which I saw at the Perth Festival in February. Choreographed for the British Paraorchestra by Caroline Bowditch, an Australian performer and the new executive director of Arts Access Victoria, it was one of my most joyous experiences of 2019.
A chaotically ordered promenade, it was constructed around a lively, powerful score by Will Gregory and an impromptu lecture on curiosity by Richard Feynman. This show was a model of accessibility, with assistive listening, audio description, tactile tour and Auslan interpretation for every performance. It was enormously moving to be there, among all these strangers united in curiosity and pleasure through Gregory’s glorious music. For the space of an hour – a magical space – it was a reminder of possibility.
Likewise, Love and Shit, a darkly vital diptych about the underclass by Patricia Cornelius and directed by her long-term collaborator Susie Dee at fortyfivedownstairs, were a reminder that performance is a relationship, not a product, and that in a time when every definition of value involves a dollar sign, theatre’s communal making of meaning can embody new possibilities.
Both of Cornelius’s productions went on to wow international audiences at the Venice Biennale. Uncomfortable plays that refused comfortable judgements, they revealed a compassion for their characters that implicated all of us in a common humanity.
Hofesh Shechter’s Grand Finale, which toured the major arts festival circuit during the year, was a knockout. It felt like a bruising reprise of his previous work, which is a deep questioning of how militarised nationalism shapes and distorts the human body. There was his signature punishing electronic percussion, the razor-sharp chorus work, the exhilarating stage dynamic. But here it felt deeper, more complex, more urgent.
Another dance highlight was Marrugeku’s exploration of how the violence of colonisation writes itself into our bodies and psyches, Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry, for Dance Massive. I was struck by how the intelligence of the dance – co-choreographed by Burkinabe–Belgian Serge Aimé Coulibaly and Marrugeku co-artistic director Dalisa Pigram, with input from the dancers – kept everything on a knife edge of tension. The movement ultimately expresses a defiant gathering of energy, a translation of trauma into collective strength, the last cry of its title.
Despite some high-profile disappointments – Cloudstreet, for one – Malthouse Theatre had an exceptionally good 2019. Shows such as Underground Railroad Game, Barbara and the Camp Dogs, The Temple and Apocalypse Meow: Crisis Is Born were all standouts. But Declan Greene’s adaptation of Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel Wake in Fright as a one-woman show starring Zahra Newman was something else.
This was gripping theatre that opened up the brutalised masculinity of colonial Australia: the spiritual emptiness of a civilisation that squats on the edges of a country it barely understands, clutching the rags of an alienated culture that doesn’t help it to understand itself.
Back to Back Theatre’s The Shadow Whose Prey the Hunter Becomes showcased the increasing sophistication of this always inventive company. Setting itself up as a disorderly public meeting in Geelong, with the disabled performers purportedly here to inform a neurotypical public about its ignorance of unearned privilege, this show interrogated the relationships between language and reality via a series of often comic and sometimes disturbing divagations.
As the five activists squabbled, we were made privy to how hierarchies organise themselves, and also how they are undermined, both within the disability community and, by extension, outside it. It was a slyly devastating show, driven and grounded by a steely sense of commitment.
A champagne highlight late this year was a theatrical sound poem, Earshot, remounted at Footscray Community Arts Centre for the Due West Arts Festival after an acclaimed season in 2017. A collage of overheard dialogues created by Kate Hunter, it was performed by Hunter and Josephine Lange with music by Jem Savage. It made its music from everyday speech, and its skilful artifice opened up the reality of things, making me feel a tenderness for the mundane details of ordinary life.
A student production at the Victorian College of the Arts was a rare treat: a chance to see one of the United States’ most significant playwrights, Pulitzer prize-winning Suzan-Lori Parks, who is almost never produced in Australia. Fucking A, a take-no-prisoners Brechtian version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, was given a superb production, directed by Candy Bowers. Most of all, it reminded me how free writing can be, and how sheer exhilaration rises in your soul when a production picks that freedom up and runs with it.
At the other end of the scale was the spectacle of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a massive production that pulled together all the talent money can buy and, for once, justified its hype. Mostly, it was a huge relief that the producers didn’t commission a musical. To pull off this spectacle by exploiting old-fashioned conventions – theatrical smoke, some brilliant black puppetry and magic, a simple, flexible but immensely sophisticated design, and high-quality performances – was remarkable.
For me, this show conjured the moment I first opened Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and read “Mr and Mrs Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” Although the theatre production was a new story, it felt much closer to the books than the films do, as if it freshly touched some original nerve of enchantment.
THEATRE The Choir of Man
Arts Centre Melbourne, December 28—January 12
VISUAL ART Annual Summer Group Show
Despard Gallery, Hobart, until February 2
VISUAL ART Wonderment
Queenscliff Gallery and Workshop, Victoria, until February 23
CIRCUS Cirque du Soleil: Kurios
Northshore Hamilton, Brisbane, January 10—February 23
MUSIC Festival of Small Halls
Venues throughout Tasmania and NSW, January 4—February 2
MULTIMEDIA Kate Mitchell: All Auras Touch
Carriageworks, Sydney, January 8—March 1
FESTIVAL Semaphore Greek Festival
Venues throughout Semaphore, Adelaide, January 18-19
FESTIVAL MONA FOMA
Venues throughout Launceston and Hobart, January 11-20
FESTIVAL Sydney Festival
Venues throughout Sydney, January 8-26
FESTIVAL The Taste of Tasmania
Princes Wharf, Hobart, December 28—January 3
MUSIC FOMO 2020
Brisbane Showgrounds, January 4
Elder Park, Adelaide, January 5
Belvoir Amphitheatre, Perth, January 10
Parramatta Park, Sydney, January 11
Melbourne Showgrounds, January 12
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 21, 2019 as "Truth is out there". Subscribe here.