Take a snapshot of the 2010 year in Melbourne theatre. It’s unlikely to look very much the same again.

Melbourne Theatre Company’s muse has quit, Marion Potts has already programmed her first season at the Malthouse Theatre, and Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini (he joined in July) is starting to gnaw his teeth into the library. New local theatre groups are seizing main stages and capturing more attention. There’s a diversity and vibrancy about the space, even at the ‘mainstream’ end.

From there, we saw plays from Shakespeare to Beckett and Mamet; centuries-old operas to brand-new local works. And in a year that saw independent producers and smaller shows shine, a brassy all-American musical was perhaps the most stirring and enjoyable night out. Even if snotty broadsheet critics would never admit it.

So we present the inaugural Curtain Call Best Stuff on a Melbourne Stage Awards for 2010. And let the debate begin in the comments stream below…

Best Melbourne Theatre Company play of 2010: Richard III

Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company): Sumner Theatre
Richard III (Melbourne Theatre Company): Sumner Theatre

Let’s deal with our state-subsidised company first. It was a year, inevitably, of hits and misses — though mercifully free of any real stinkers (the Lisa McCune vehicle Dead Man’s Cell Phone was most odious, but I think it’s a better play than MTC delivered). A couple of social satires only grazed the skin — Tony McNamara’s The Grenade and David Williamson’s Let The Sunshine — and I didn’t like All About My Mother nearly as much as everyone else seemed to (but then, I liked the compelling four-person soliloquy Madagascar more than most).

Four shows stood out. Back in February, The Drowsy Chaperone — the very model of a modern major musical — was irresistible. Geoffrey Rush in the lead was a giddy joy. David Mamet has written better plays, but Boston Marriage is a pretty bloody good one; his refined portrait of post-modern relationships in pre-modern times featured wonderful performances from Pamela Rabe and Margaret Mills as the bodice-ripping romancers. To close out the year, Bernadette Robinson’s tour de force Songs For Nobodies was simply astonishing (it’s still playing, in fact; beg for or steal a ticket).

And the best? Richard III, for all the reasons cited by those who’ve already bestowed multiple awards on it. It was breathtaking and brilliant Shakespeare. And it gave us the most imaginative direction of the year from Simon Phillips and the best performance all year from the exhaustive Ewen Leslie. Their reteaming for Hamlet this season is unmissable.

Best mainstage play (elsewhere) of 2010: Opening Night

Opening Night (Melbourne International Arts Festival): The Playhouse
Opening Night (Melbourne International Arts Festival): The Playhouse

The Malthouse Theatre remains the home of quality, stimulating large and small-scale theatre in Melbourne. The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes might well have been the finest play Melbourne saw in 2010 — but I was silly enough not to get a ticket. I did see the The Trial, a relentlessly creepy production featuring another memorable performance from Leslie; Intimacy, a gently affecting slice-of-life from the Ranter’s Theatre troupe; The Tell-Tale Heart, a sinister and strangely beautiful adaption (by Barrie Kosky) of Edgar Allan Poe’s allegory; the maddeningly uncomfortable experience, to begin the year, of Furious Mattress; and I’m still not sure what to make of Elizabeth: Almost By Chance A Woman.

I’m certainly not sure what to make of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot (though my appreciation of it has improved since watching the TV documentation of the staging of the production in London, Theatreland). But what a joy to see the knighted one, Ian McKellen, and his fellow players on the Comedy Theatre stage. Elsewhere, at TheatreWorks by the bay, Daniel Keene’s The Nightwatchman was a lovely piece of familial drama (and better than his over-hyped Life Without Me at the MTC).

The Melbourne International Arts Festival boasted a global repertoire of performance, from the ridiculous (an electro-pop opera based on the journal of Charles Darwin, anyone?) to the really sublime. Like Opening Night, a multi-media, warts-and-all retelling of the 1977 cult film classic. The Toneelgroep Amsterdam piece, from celebrated director Ivo Van Hove, managed to be overlong (some 140 interval-free minutes), overwrought and somehow captivating for every moment. Elsie de Brauw — Curtain Call spoke to her in October — offered a searing portrait of time catching up.

Best opera of 2010: Rigoletto

Melbourne opera-goers are spoilt with three companies performing across the year. The Victorian Opera continues to produce impressive works from opera’s alternative canon. My issues with Benjamin Britten aside, The Turn Of The Screw was a dramatically staged work. Malthouse co-pro The Threepenny Opera was a flawed (there was something a little pantomime about Michael Kantor’s garish version) but fun production since adopted by the Sydney Theatre Company for its 2011 season. The Melbourne Opera ensemble, meanwhile, punched above its weight — its Madame Butterfly in November was outstanding.

Opera Australia brought three new productions south: an especially bleak nightmare of Puccini’s Tosca from Opera North in the UK (it was an easy production to dislike and an easy decision for OA to leave it in the cupboard in future years); Bellini’s La sonnambula (I didn’t catch this; Lloyd Bradford Syke in Sydney loved it); and the world premiere (in Sydney, at least, before landing in Melbourne) of the Peter Carey-inspired, Neil Armfield-directed Bliss. Much has been said about this new work; for mine, it deserves recognition as a remarkable achievement for the company (it’s already played overseas) but a fairly inaccessible score made it a trial for opera novices.

Baz Luhrmann’s Bollywood-themed A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a favourite of many; Armfield’s The Marriage Of Figaro had the requisite froth and bubble; Strauss’ operetta Fledermaus was damn good fun. But, still, nothing had the imagination or resonance of a production now two decades old — the Elijah Moshinsky-helmed Rigoletto. Part costume epic, part psychological thriller, with heartbreaking performances from Michael Lewis as the tortured clown and the gorgeous Emma Matthews as his love-struck daughter. For the life of me I can’t imagine how Verdi could be done any better.

Best musical of 2010: Hairspray

<em>Hairspray</em>: Princess Theatre
Hairspray: Princess Theatre

There were plenty of them, and they were all in Melbourne, from the timeless classics (West Side Story) to the best-left-unrevived (Fame). The independent Production Company gave us three pitch-perfect if unspectacular shows at the State Theatre: The King And I, Sugar and Todd McKenney’s The Boy From Oz. MTC delivered the smartest musical this year in The Drowsy Chaperone.

Nobody quite charmed as much as Mary Poppins. This was the theatrical blockbuster of the year: an all-star cast (and a find of rare talent in Verity Hunt-Ballard), dazzling design and a ladleful of sugar that makes a not-entirely-convincing narrative (altered from the film version) go down. But then along came Tracy Turnblad (the indomitable Jaz Flowers, in the musical performance of the year). Maybe it was because I was sitting in the second row of the Princess Theatre, but Hairspray was a stupefying experience. It’s a much more potent story than Mary‘s, exhaustingly energetic, and the hi-tech design — an Australian invention of David Atkins — is unlike anything local audiences have seen before. Easily the most fun had in any theatre this year.

*More year-end reviews from Sydney and Brisbane to follow…

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