Barrie Kosky’s staggering production of Handel’s oratorio Saul and Leah Purcell’s powerful play The Drover’s Wife were the most awarded productions at this year’s Helpmann Awards, with Saul taking home six awards from seven nominations and The Drover’s Wife winning four of its six nominations.

Barrie Kosky’s production of Saul. Photograph © Tony Lewis

The Helpmann Awards celebrate artistic excellence and distinguished achievement in live performance across Australia. This year, 42 awards were presented at a ceremony at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre, along with the JC Williamson Award for outstanding contribution to the Australian live performance industry, which went to Richard Tognetti, and the Sue Nattrass Award for exceptional service to the Australian live performance industry, awarded to Rob Brookman. A special award was also presented to Ross Cunningham for his work as Chair of the Helpmann Awards Administration Committee.

Saul premiered at Glyndebourne in 2015 and was the rapturously received centrepiece of the 2017 Adelaide Festival where it was presented in association with the State Opera of South Australia, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Festival Centre. The production received five star reviews from Limelight at both the premiere and in Adelaide. The widely acclaimed production was named Best Opera, and also won awards for Best Direction of an Opera (Kosky), Best Music Direction (Erin Helyard), Best Male Performer in an Opera (Christopher Purves), Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera (Kanen Breen), and Best Lighting (Joachim Klein). Kosky, who is Artistic Director of the Komische Oper in Berlin, is currently in Bayreuth where his production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg opens on July 25 – making history as the first Jewish director to work at Bayreuth.

Other awards in the opera category went to Lise Lindstrom for her portrayal of Brünnhilde in Opera Australia’s remount of its Ring Cycle directed by Neil Armfield, and Lorina Gore for her performance in Opera Australia’s King Roger.

Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Photograph © Ian Douglas

In the Classical Music categories, Best Chamber and/or Instrumental Ensemble Concert went to the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, which toured Australia in April. The Academy’s Music Director, virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, also won Best Individual Classical Music Performance. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, starring Nina Stemme and Stuart Skelton was named Best Symphony Orchestra Concert.

Dominating the theatre categories, The Drover’s Wife is a radical retelling of Henry Lawson’s short story, with Purcell moving two Indigenous characters to the heart of her adaptation. The play premiered at Belvoir in 2016 and has previously won four Sydney Theatre Awards, the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Literature, as well as the Book of the Year and the Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards. The Helpmanns named it Best Play and Best New Australian Work. It also won awards for Best Direction of a Play (Leticia Cáceres) and Best Male Actor in a Play (Mark Coles Smith).

Leah Purcell and Mark Coles Smith in The Drover’s Wife. Photograph © Brett Boardman

Kate Mulvany won Best Female Actor in a Play for her unforgettable, cross-gender portrayal of Richard 3 for Bell Shakespeare, while awards for supporting performances in a play went to Amber McMahon for Windmill Theatre Company’s Girl Asleep, and Guy Simon for Melbourne Theatre Company’s Jasper Jones (adapted for the stage by Mulvany). Jasper Jones also won Best Scenic Design (Anna Cordingley).

Best Ballet went to French company Ballet Preljocaj’s Snow White, presented at Brisbane Festival. Attractor for Dancenorth and Lucy Guerin Inc won Best Dance Production, while Guerin and Gideon Obarzanek also won Best Choreography in a Ballet, Dance or Physical Theatre Production for Attractor.

The Australian Ballet only picked up one award, with Kevin Jackson named Best Male Dancer for Nijinsky, while Lilian Steiner won Best Female Dancer for Guerin’s Split.

The Book of Mormon. Photograph © Jeff Busby

Awards in the Musicals category were spread between four shows. Best Musical went to The Book of Mormon, which also won Best Direction of a Musical (Trey Parker and Casey Nicholaw). British performer Callum Francis was named Best Male Actor in a Musical for his performance as Lola in Kinky Boots, which also won for its choreography by Jerry Mitchell. Anna O’Byrne won Best Female Actor in a Musical for her portrayal of Eliza Doolittle in Dame Julie Andrews’ 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady, while Robyn Nevin took home Best Female Actor in a Supporting Role as Mrs Higgins. American performer Michael James Scott won Best Male Actor in a Supporting Role as the genii in Disney’s Aladdin, which also won Best Costume Design (Gregg Barnes).

The awards ceremony included performances from all four winning musicals as well as Beautiful: The Carole King Musical opening in September with Esther Hannaford in the title role. Grinspoons’ Phil Jamieson and the cast of Greenday’s musical American Idiot performed 21 Guns. The Sydney Children’s Choir performed Sally Whitwell’s Lux Aeterna for the In Memoriam. Australian Dance Theatre performed a tribute to the late choreographer Tanja Liedtke, who died tragically in 2007 when she was knocked by a garbage truck not long before she was due to take over as Artistic Director of Sydney Dance Company. The night ended with Marcia Hines rocking the house with a number from the disco-circus-cabaret show Velvet.

The Helpmann Awards 2017 will be given encore screenings on Foxtel Arts on July 25 at 12pm and 9.30pm and throughout the week. It will also screen on the ABC on July 30 at 9.30pm.


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