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Cate Blanchett was snubbed! Not a complete surprise, granted, given she wasn’t even nominated. But still outrageous! (Clearly best dressed though, according to most gossip blogs.)

Best new Australian work? Cabaret performer iOTA’s Sydney Festival show Smoke & Mirrors, a one-man/woman enterprise obviously less ambitious than Bliss, Opera Australia’s crowning achievement from earlier this year. (Neil Armfield — our finest theatrical director? — won for Bliss, but OA’s Peter Grimes was apparently a better opera. Confused?)

Says critic Deborah Jones in The Australian: “It is bizarre that they’re in the same category to start with, and even more bizarre that voters considered [Smoke & Mirrors] a more accomplished work than Bliss.” So there.

Still, apparently iOTA was just fabulous. The singularly-named sensation went to Edinburgh and The Guardian raved: “…a remarkable presence both seductive and repellent, jaunty and regretful, malevolent and desperately sad.” The show deserves the spotlight, doesn’t it?

Avenue Q took out the acting gongs — Mitchell Butel (male lead), Michala Banas (female lead), Luke Joslin (male support) and Christina O’ Neil (female support) — for musical performance. Rightly so, too — this was a cracking show; imported but cleverly directed by Jonathan Biggins (who also won). But Jersey Boys — a long-running Melbourne hit before its recent Sydney opening — won best musical. Huh?

“Such contradictions do not appear to enhance the awards’ authority,” The Age snipes today. Well, indeed.

(They were both great shows, but better than Melbourne Theatre Company’s The Drowsy Chaperone? At least this was a relatively original production. Geoffry Rush — I can’t think of a better word than ‘adorable’ to describe his performance — was better than Butel, wasn’t he? Granted, he didn’t do much singing…)

MTC’s Richard III won best play — can we agree on that at least? What a thrilling production this was at the hands of departing company artistic director Simon Phillips (best director, play); inspired design and outstanding performances (Ewen Leslie’s (pictured) exhaustingly ruthless wannabe king won him best actor; Alison Whyte won best female support) made everyone a fan of Shakespeare again.

MTC also won for August: Osage County (set design), while the cross-town Malthouse is celebrating a win for Julie Forsyth in her rather restrained role in Happy Days (she’s buried in a mound for the duration, as only Samuel Beckett can). So the MTC is clearly a better company than Our Cate’s Sydney Theatre Company (the southern papers say so). Such a snub for Cate, who the New York Times gushed was “remaking the world in her image” in her celebrated turn as Blanche Dubois in Streetcar, which played Sydney before touring stateside. Other capital city companies, meanwhile, didn’t even get a look-in. They never do.

Was there a better performance than Pink though? No idea, myself, but she won best international concert. And Wil Anderson is our best comedian. Just what they’re doing at the country’s theatrical night-of-nights is anyone’s guess.

But that’s the Helpmann Awards for you, held at the Sydney Opera House with the necessary razzle and dazzle (amid some embarrassing technical mishaps) last night. There’s a full list of winners here. A bit all over the place, really; a grossly subjective and geographically-challenged absurdity to decide the best of the best on stages across the country.

How can cabaret be compared to opera? How can critics ever hope to compare performances in different shows and different cities?

So the criticism rains — snobby arts critics know little else, after all. But isn’t that as futile as the awards themselves? Any artistic awards, really.

The Helpmanns award some really good shows, and cast a bright spotlight on many others. They get it wrong a lot of the time, many will argue. But there’s a red carpet. And booze. And stars like Our Cate. And in September — footy finals, and all — we’re actually talking about pursuits nonathletic.

Sounds like a win all round, to me.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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