It’s the worst kept secret of the 2010 theatre season and it’s doing the rounds of Sydney foyers quicker than a tray of opening night hors d’oeuvres; Joanna Murray-Smith will finally get a show on at the Sydney Theatre Company after years in the wilderness.
Now that Robyn Nevin has left the building, new Artistic Directors Andrew Upton and Cate Blanchett have brought Murray-Smith back into the fold, ending one of the most public stand-offs in recent Australian theatre history.
The first sign that the playwright was getting a better reception in Sydney was when she was seen at the recent opening of A Streetcar Named Desire which stars Blanchett.
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For the STC, who are set to launch their program on Friday, programming Murray-Smith was always going to be one of the hardest secrets to keep under wraps.
This time of year is when theatres around the country get invitations out and finalise marketing collateral in time to swoon journalists, sponsors and the paying public in a string of launches announcing the programme for the following year.
Like the AFL draft system, it’s a time when punters get to see who’s hot, who’s not and it’s also the time when foyer chatter reaches an all time high.
Murray-Smith’s programming has almost generated as much chatter as the STC’s refusal to enter a co-production with the Melbourne Theatre Company for the Pulitzer prize-winning hit show August: Osage County that starred Nevin earlier this year. They will instead produce their own version for 2010.
But it’s Murray-Smith’s inclusion that has sparked much more interest. The daughter of former Overland editor Stephen Murray-Smith has for a long time been a favourite with companies in London and New York as well as with the Melbourne Theatre Company — but her plays haven’t been produced by the STC for nearly a decade.
The terse relationship between Nevin and Murray-Smith was well known and in 2006 hit an all-time low when the playwright wrote to the STC board saying that the then Artistic Director was “sabotaging” her career.
“It really makes me sad that when I’m overseas I’m regarded as an Australian playwright, but I can’t get my plays on in Sydney,” said Murray-Smith in an interview with The Age a year after she wrote to the board.
But still, Nevin refused to program Murray-Smith and denied sabotaging her career despite the popular playwright being widely regarded as the box-office successor to David Williamson.
And much like Williamson, Murray-Smith divides critics wildly — and no more so than in the acerbic world of the Melbourne arts scene. It was just last year that Peter Craven and Alison Croggon, theatre reviewer for The Australian, were at each other in a war of words over Murray-Smith’s plays.
The dismay didn’t really travel to Sydney, a city oblivious to the fits of the Melbourne arts scene, but it left some battle lines in the sand and made Murray-Smith’s absence from any STC programming a little more pronounced.
But Murray-Smith can now breathe a sigh of relief as she can now stand on the deck of the STC’s wharf headquarters knowing she will be seen in Sydney once more. And that will be some very good news for the box office.
Nicholas Pickard is a theatre critic based in Sydney.