Upton leaves Sydney theatre-goers with a thoughtful and well-constructed programme.
To sum up Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 Season in a few words is near impossible. Even when asking the man who’s responsible for it all, Andrew Upton, for three words to describe it all he fails and produces seven! But, given its usual breadth of offer, it’s fair enough and his impromptu strapline of “strong dramatic offerings and great comic masterpieces” is exactly what it is.
Delving through the programme there aren’t the obvious Hollywood draw cards or star turns – although there are many audience favourites – but his choices feel very safe and well considered. “When I started planning the season I knew someone would be taking the Company on and so one of my key priorities was to ensure a smooth handover.”
Upton explains that it is a season that was deliberately conceived as one to inherit. “It will allow Jonathan [Church] a chance to find his way within the Company, and the artists that have worked here, whilst still giving our audiences good solid theatre too. That way, I think everyone can slowly get to know each other.”
Whilst he is keen to point out that there will always be exciting artistic risks taken within productions, “that’s just the sort of company we are”, he’s clear in explaining that it would be the wrong time to take big programming risks. “There’s a reliability about what we are offering – which may seem like a dull word but I think it’s really important one in relation to 2016. No one is trying to shoot off into the void!”
Lisa McCune stars in Machu Picchu © James Green
And there is no doubt, after working closely with them for eight years now, Upton knows STC’s audiences incredibly well. “I think there are some really simple, clear choices for the audience to make, ones they know will be great.” He predicts All My Sons and Disgraced will be favourites, but he’s sure there will be strong support for the pieces of new Australian writing too, The Hanging and Machu Picchu, and Arcadia which he sites as one of the greatest plays of the 20th century.
Robyn Nevin and John Howard star in All My Sons © James Green
There are also some great reinventions in the mix. “Midsummer Night’s Dream is going to get a really good going over. There’s really no reason to do that play unless you can find a new way into it! And when it comes to Shakespeare audiences know that ours will be modern and tangy.”
Despite the relatively conservative programme, he expects one of the surprises will be The Golden Age. “I think people might have forgotten what a great play it is. I think it’s one of the most significant Australian Plays and it will be great to see it come back as I think it will really ‘talk’ to us now.”
The other two shows that are likely to hit the spot light are Speed-the-Plow and The Flea in Her Ear, with Upton directing the former and adapting the latter. Given he’s leaving Australia in 2016, he’s grateful that the Company has managed to make it possible for him to do both, something he says involved quite a bit of planning as well as a little luck!
Rose Byrne returns to STC in Speed-the-Plow © Rebecca Lorrimer
“Speed-the-Plow is a great American comedy, a satirical drama, and I’m really looking forward to tackling it. And as for Flea in Her Ear, well I expect that will be one that people will have heard of but can’t quite recall, or won’t have seen before, so hopefully that will get them along!”
Initially Simon Phillips, who’s set to direct Flea in Her Ear, and he had been tempted to bring the show up to date. “We discussed it a lot but in the end decided that the setting is so texturally beautiful – it’s the Paris of Toulouse Lautrec and Belle Epoque, voluptuous as well as a bit dirty too – and that gives us and the designer so much to work with that and we thought we would be crazy to change it!”
Aside from its period, one of the things he says that drew him to the play was all the doubling that’s referred to within it and he says he plans to double up lots of the roles too. “All the elements that we are going to play on will create a reality that’s super plastic – escalating the comedy, so that it becomes hysterical and the reality escapes. That’s what a great farce is all about and it is definitely what I see as the hallmark of this one!”
As well as his own productions, the season, as Upton describes it, “will have a sense of being built inside the Company”. STC’s resident directors, Kip Williams and Sarah Goodes are doing three and two shows respectively and he has invited others who have worked with the Company before, including Imara Savage and Simon Phillips, back. “The audience know their ‘voice’.”
Kip Williams directs A Midsummer Night’s Dream © James Green
Speaking of his time as AD, it’s clear that STC has a very special place in his heart. His approach to every aspect of the Company has undoubtedly helped shape the special culture within it, although it’s something he modestly brushes aside. “I’ve always loved this company and its culture, so I’m not going to claim to have made that, but I am very proud that we’ve maintained a good, open-minded, theatre-making culture.”
When he took over the company eight years ago he acknowledges that there were certain things that Robyn Nevin had put in place that he was lucky to inherit, along with Cate Blanchett for the first five years. “International conversations had begun and Cate and I were really able to consolidate and develop that. And I think the reason we have been able to attract someone to now take on the company from overseas is because the international reputation now is so good.”
Whilst Jonathan Church’s appointment has been widely applauded and welcomed, the decision to bring in someone who was not Australian wasn’t seen as right by some, and it’s something that Upton is acutely aware of. “Many have asked why we need someone for overseas, but what’s great about it – in the same way we celebrate Barrie Kosky running the Komische Oper Berlin – is that you get someone with a slightly different perspective, someone who will reach out to the community.”
Although Upton says he doesn’t know Church well he knows what he has achieved and programmed at Chichester’s Festival Theatre. “It’s clear he’s a supportive artistic director. I have no doubt that he’ll listen, take advice and rely on the team here, as well as Australian theatre makers generally, to create seasons, as well as his own work, that really talk to Australia.”
As encapsulated by this season, that sort of ‘talk’ is exactly what Upton has perfected throughout his tenure. There will be many that hope his final word isn’t a firm goodbye.