Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


New beaut theatre

  • 01 July 2006

Australian theatre is one of the great heartbreaks of Australian cultural life—when it’s bad it’s so very bad. It was Ingmar Bergman who said that if you thought life was going too fast, go to church, go to the theatre. Well, if Australian theatre is getting better at the moment, it is because it has taken stock of its own existence in a world where it can sometimes seem irrelevant or incapable of equalling the ‘best practice’ of Australian film or television. It has decided to give the public what it wants by showing off its stars.

When Sigrid Thornton (with Marcus Graham) did The Blue Room for the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC), and subsequently at Her Majesty’s in Perth, she broke all records. It makes sense that famous faces from film and TV should be seen on our stages, not least when they are legitimate sources of national pride because they are fine performers.

So the spate of ‘star’ productions at the MTC—featuring Geoffrey Rush, Guy Pearce, David Wenham, Wendy Hughes and Phillip Quast—has been a step up. Fame is not necessarily a testament to talent, but it is harder to miscast a star, and there is also pressure to ensure that the supporting cast is good.

Cabaret may be an exception that proves the rule, though the worst thing that can be said about Lisa McCune as Sally Bowles is that there are other people in the cast who are much better.

When Christopher Isherwood saw the great Julie Harris in John Van Druten’s adaptation, I am a Camera, he said she was more like the original of Sally Bowles than anything he had got on the page. Sam Mendes’ production is restlessly energised, with sexual decadence less an insinuation than a rich rank aroma in the auditorium. There are lightning changes of mood and a good deal of cheek without losing a sense of how portentous this pantomime world is. It is, at one point, a world with a swastika on its bare bottom, but it gets away with this because the enormity of what’s happening is never allowed to recede.

A good number of people will have seen The Goat, even though it played in MTC’s small theatre, the Fairfax. This may have had more to do with Wendy Hughes’ casting as the wife and mother than with either the abiding reputation of the author of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?