2014 in Theatre. The best plays I saw last year.

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I keep telling people we’re in an exciting time for Australian Theatre here in Sydney, and for the most part I’m met with incredulity, and a gentle smile at my enthusiasm for which everyone is generally grateful, even if a little dubious. For a theatre critic who deliberately doesn’t see everything, and preferences marginal, indie and underground theatre over the monied main stream, It stands to reason that my observations, while generously received are taken with what appears to be patient surprise at my enthusiasm.

However, 2014 has shown again, that some of the best Sydney theatre is happening in the margins, universities and in passionate indie productions that are experimenting with space, time, writing and directorial style. While it is true that I sit through a lot of theatre that one might argue is… less than perfect,  more often than not I am presented with some electrical charge, something interesting and exciting the tiny theatre company have decided to experiment with, because very few of the productions I see exist under the dictatorial constraints of filling a theatre with people who want you to first justify them missing tonight’s episode of The Walking Dead. I see theatre made by theatre lovers with theatre lovers sitting next to me – and I mean REAL theater lovers – those strange folk who make theatre outside of the lure of filthy lucre.

Theater, like everything else, is compromised when it is forced to pay bills, and on this first day of 2015 I charge and raise my glass to the theatre makers working without money and the theatre attendees who buy a ticket for what can amount to a lucky dip of a night out.

But on to my best and most special of 2014. I make no apologies or explanations for the theatre on this list. These are the experinces that touched me the deepest, that moved me, excited me, and most of all gave me an exquisite connection with the sublime in a perfect moment.

These are my fave’s of 2014 in no particular order:

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Outstanding Direction

Dino Dimitriadis (Construction of the Human Heart)

James Dalton (Cough / Kill the PM)

Sascha Hall (Of Monopoly and Women)

Fiona Hallenan-Barker (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea)

Michael Dean (Phaedra)

Adena Jacobs (Hedda Gabler)

(Special mention here goes to Saro Lusty-Cavallari who is one of the most exciting new directors I saw this year)

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Amazing New Writing

Emily Calder – (Cough)

Pamela Proestos – (Of Monopoly and Women)

Mark Wilson – (Unsex Me)

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Best (familiar) writing

Ross Meuller (Construction of the Human Heart)

Anthony Neilson (Stitching)

Howard Barker (Scenes from an Execution)

Alison Lyssa (Pinball)

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Great Female Performance

Karli Evans – (Danny and the Deep Blue Sea)

Lucy Miller – (Scenes from an Execution)

Gabrielle Scawthorn – (Stop Kiss)

Georgia Coverdale  – (Three Sisters)

Susie Lindman – (Winter)

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Great Male Performance

Mark Wilson (Unsex Me)

Jeremy Waters (Scenes from an Execution / Harvest)

David Woodland (Wittenberg)

Vincent Andriano (Frankenstein)

James Jay-Moody (The Drowsy Chaperone)

Incredible Sets

Benjamin Brockman (Wittenberg)

Debbie Smith (Also director of Frankenstien)

Lauren Peters (The Drowsy Chaperone)

Andrea Espinoza (Scenes from an Execution)

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Costumes and Makeup

Peter Henson for Armedeus at the Genesian

Susan Carveth for Frankenstein at the Genesian

Christie Bennett for Scenes from an Execution

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Lighting

It’s no secret from my reviews that I am a huge fan of Ben Brockman’s lighting. The contribution his lighting has made this year to plays such as, Cough, Mr Kolpert, My Name is Truda Vitz, Scenes from an Execution, Wittenberg, Four Dogs and a Bone, Kill the PM, River and November Spawned a Monster cannot be underestimated and particularly when partnered with a director like James Dalton or a designer like Isabella Andronos, his contributions to the theatrical experience move into something more complex, more of an individual creative voice. To watch a play with Ben Brockman lighting in 2014 is to see light as a new character – something for which I was enormously grateful.

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Great Musicals / Dance (of which I saw very few, because it’s not really my thing)

The Drowsy Chaperone – Squabbalogic

The Legend of King O’Malley – Don’t Look Away

Reflect – Sue Peacock

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Best Play’s I saw in 2014

Phaedra

What can I say? This play was one of my stand out moments in theatre in 2014 and gave me one of my best nights of the year. A simple production, bravely and flawlessly executed, in a disarmingly intimate space is precisely why we go to theatre. Everything about this production excited me, from the innovative directional style (it looked like two plays happening together) through to the focused energy in every performance, I was entirely swept away, forced to face my own foolishness in the enormity of what took place just centimeters from my face. Phaedra reminded us that ‘entertainment’ is the natural bi-product of an immersing, engaging theatre experience, and usually it is when a drive to entertain comes to the fore, the thrill of theatre is lost.

Scenes from an Execution

Words, words words, it was the very great production of Howard Barkers thrilling words that sent me on a joy ride it took weeks to come down from with Tooth and Sinew’s Scenes from an Execution. I still speak about this play in hushed tones almost twelve months later. It wasn’t flawlessly executed like Phaedra, but it was held with such enormous enthusiasm by its marvelous cast, led by the stand out female performance of the year for me, Lucy Miller – who still haunts my dreams. (I’ve been lucky enough to see her on so many stages this year) But a great performance is only that, unless it is surrounded by equally strong, performers such as Lynden Jones, Mark Lee, Nicole Wineberg and the great Jeremy Waters who all bring something particular and confident to this very difficult play. For me, to see such a hard play produced so well (huge congrats to Richard Hilliar for his marvelous direction here) is a rare and precious gift.

Unsex Me

Without a doubt the stand out Shakespearean performance of 2014 in Sydney was Mark Wilson’s deconstructed Lady Macbeth in his one hour monologue, Unsex Me, performed as part of the GLBT festival (mardigras) at the PACT centre for performing arts. Shocking, divisive, and exciting writing combine with the most courageous performance of the year to pose unapologetically complex questions about the nature of sexuality, how we view gender and what horrors go into forming sexual identity in the first place. Unsex Me was a viscerally challenging piece, intelligent and demanding a great deal from the audience, even as it was laced with great humour. It is always my favourite theatre experience when I (as an audience) am trusted to extend toward the work, and no one did this with more assiduity and fearlessness than Mark Wilson. I love this piece more and more as time goes on.

Honorable mention

The Chairs – One of the best times I had all year was at the SUDS production of The Chairs at The Sydney Fringe, an experiment that worked spectacularly well. Clemence Williams brings three relationships, a lesbian couple, a gay couple and a heterosexual couple together to perform as the titular couple. However each couple performs in their own space, only 3-4 minutes apart. The audience are free to walk between the staging’s, held by performers who remained committed to their roles, despite the constant movements and disruption around them. These sorts of things are more often attempted than successfully executed, but this time it worked perfectly, revealing so many more interesting things about Ionesco’s play. The Chairs was one of those wonderful theatre experiences of a descending horror as I realised the play was over and I would have to return to the real world.

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