Season highlights include new productions of The Elephant Man and The Black Rider plus Complicite’s immersive The Encounter.

Matthew Lutton, the Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, has announced a season for 2017, which he hopes will “spark debate and interrogation. I think it is one of my most outspoken and fearless seasons,” he says. “I feel really excited by how political and provocative a lot of the work is, but at the same time it is really full of entertainment. It has a lot of big debates it wants to start but often does that by using satire, humour, entertainment and anarchy so I think it’s got a lot of energy as well.”

As usual, Lutton didn’t set out with any particular theme in mind but undertook conversations with artists in Melbourne and around the country about the urgent stories and new writing they wanted to see on stage. “Once we started to line up the local work and the international guests, that’s when a few of the themes started to appear, which helped us curate the season. I think a lot of next year is about individuals who want to rebel against the establishment and really push back on the status quo. There are also a lot of stories about the empathy we can offer to others, often in unexpected places. We also celebrate the matriarchy,” he says.

Mark Leonard Winter will star in The Elephant Man. Photo by Zan Wimberley

Following the success of Picnic at Hanging Rock this year, Lutton and writer Tom Wright will reunite for a new adaptation of The Elephant Man, based on the moving true story of Joseph Merrick, which has inspired many previous theatrical adaptations as well as a film by David Lynch. Deformed and derided, he survived circus ‘freak shows’ before a young doctor offered him asylum at the London Hospital in 1872. “There’s something in the idea of a figure who is considered so monstrous the world can’t imagine a place for him – and then with the extraordinary compassion and care that is offered to him when he is in an asylum, he is able to look out at the world with optimism and hope and generosity. I get very excited by the potential of the story to be about how far we can offer compassion.”

Mark Leonard Winter, who won two Helpmann Awards in 2016 as Best Male Actor in both a leading role and supporting role will play Merrick. “I think he’s an extraordinary performer who is so watchable, so dangerous, and takes so many risks on stage,” says Lutton. “This is an amazing opportunity for him to play a much gentler, softer character so it will be Mark engaging with quite a different energy.” Lutton says that the play will retain the story’s Victorian era setting. “But we are imagining a production where Mark plays Joseph and then there is a chorus of women around him who are able to be in the story or step out of it and comment from a contemporary perspective. They will speak directly to the audience and be able to unpack what it means to be looking back at this story.”

Kanen Breen will play Wilhelm in The Black Rider. Photo by Zan Wimberley

Lutton will also direct The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, in a co-production between Malthouse and Victorian Opera. Created in 1993 by singer/songwriter Tom Waits and beat poet William S. Burroughs, it was originally directed by Robert Wilson. Based on the German folktale that inspired Carl Maria von Weber’s 19th century opera Der Freischutz, The Black Rider tells the tale of Wilhelm, a young legal clerk who strikes a Faustian pact with the devil for magic bullets that never miss their mark in order to marry his true love, a huntsman’s daughter. The cast includes Paul Capsis, Meow Meow as the devil and Kanen Breen as Wilhelm. “Wilhelm needs to begin in quite a strong operatic voice and then descend into a cacophony of dirty, wild vocals and Kanen can do all of that,” says Lutton. “Tom Waits’ songs are just so dirty and anarchic and it’s a really macabre story. It’s very exciting to be directing such a debauched work!”

Lutton has directed three operas before – The Flying Dutchman for New Zealand Opera, Elektra for West Australian Opera and a new opera called Make No Noise for the Bavarian State Opera – “but never one that has crossed the line between opera and musicals,” he says. Working with designer Zoe Atkinson, he says they will be creating “a vaudeville carnival world” for the piece.

The season opens with The Encounter from renowned UK theatre company Complicité. Inspired by Petru Popescu’s book Amazon Beaming about his encounter with the Mayoruna ‘cat people’, the immersive one-man show leads audiences into the Amazon using a state-of-the-art audio system, with every audience wearing a headset. “It is an experience unlike anything I have had before,” says Lutton.

Heather Mitchell and Natasha Herbert will perform in Away. Photo by Zan Wimberley

The season includes five new Australian plays. The first, in February, is Little Emperors by Lachlan Philpott, to be directed by experimental Chinese director Wang Chong. It looks at the impact of China’s one-child policy, which officially ended on January 1, 2016 after nearly 40 years. “Little Emperors is one of our new plays with characters and stories we are not seeing much of on our stages. It is the story of a family spread between Beijing and Melbourne and is performed in Mandarin and English,” says Lutton.

The Homosexuals, or Faggots by Declan Greene (of queer theatre outfit Sisters Grimm) follows in a co-production with Griffin Theatre Company directed by Lee Lewis. Delving into the absurdity of Australian politics, bi-partisan hypocrisy and homosexuality, Lutton describes is as “outrageously funny material with a sharp wit or jab underneath. There’s a strand going through the season of works that are political and use a lot of humour and satire to make their argument. Homosexuals does that, as does Wild Bore.”

Wild Bore brings together an international trio of outrageous, political comedy performers: Zoe Coombs Marr from Australia, Ursula Martinez from the UK and Adrienne Truscott from the US, who team up to mount a sardonic attack on critics who refuse to understand the work they are critiquing. “They use the responses they have had to their own work to unpack how we critique the world. I think it will be anything but boring,” says Lutton. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by UK playwright Alice Birch is another political work, a revolutionary, feminist play, which captures the fury of modern womanhood in the 21st century. “It’s one of the best pieces of writing that we’ve read in a long time. I think it’s a magnificent protest and it doesn’t hold back,” says Lutton. Janice Muller directs.

Malthouse partners with Sydney Theatre Company to present Michael Gow’s Away, a much-loved Australian classic, which premiered in 1986. “It’s very well-known but I think there’s an opportunity for a production that looks at the harder questions of the play. I think there’s a much darker version [to be staged] and I think it’s timely to be looking at it again,” says Lutton. Pamela Rabe stars in The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín, a provocative depiction of the Virgin Mary, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks. The disciples say her son Jesus was the son of God. She says that’s a lie. “It brings together two themes of the season – rebelling and challenging the status quo, and empathy,” says Lutton. “Tóibín has written a Mary who sees her son as a victim of fundamentalism. She feels these men have manipulated his story, while her story is the mother lamenting and feeling guilty that she wasn’t able to save her son. It’s a really humanising view and proposition, rethinking a woman who has been turned into an icon.” 

Pamela Rabe plays The Virgin Mary in The Testament of Mary. Photo by Zan Wimberley

The season also includes the world premiere of Heart is a Wasteland from acclaimed Indigenous storytellers John and Margaret Harvey about a country singer and a wanderer, whose love story unfolds over a four-day road trip from South Australia to Alice Springs. It stars Ursula Yovich and Aaron Pedersen. The world premiere of ANTI GRAVITY unites choreographer Anouk van Dijk, Artistic Director of Chunky Move, and visual artist Ho Tzu Nyen, and is performed by six dancers who” transform from heavenly creatures to terrestrial warriors”. Following a brief season in 2015, Nicola Gunn returns with Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster, the story of a man, a woman, a duck and an ethical dilemma, choreographed by Jo Lloyd. Kim Noble, an artist, comedian and documentary theatre maker from the UK, performs his black comedy You’re Not Alone, which uses narration and video to take audiences through a series of hilarious, frequently excruciating social experiments.

Summing up, Lutton says: “We invite Melburnians in 2017 to debate their established views and how they could revolt against the status quo, and offer stories that inspire compassion and empathy amongst the murk of the 21st century.”



Contribute to Limelight and support independent arts journalism.