Curtain raiser: the best Australian stage shows to look forward to in 2021

Tentative or tenacious, the country’s big companies are approaching next year with varying degrees of optimism

It’s a matter of mining local talent and keeping fingers crossed for Australia’s major performing arts companies as they launch their optimistic 2021 subscription seasons.

With reports by many companies that the majority of their 2020 subscribers wrote off their upfront investment in tickets as donations in what has been a dire year for the industry, there has been a general feeling of goodwill as the glossy brochures and the virtual launches rolled out over the past few weeks.

Equal doses of good luck and good hand hygiene will be needed to bring subscribers back in the next two months.

Here’s a broad but by no means exhaustive wrap of what Australia’s major performing arts companies are hoping to stage in 2021.


With international border restrictions still in place, virtually all major performing arts companies are turning to homegrown talent for their 2021 seasons.

Opera Australia appears to be the exception, with a lengthy list of overseas artists for its productions of Verdi’s Ernani, Puccini’s Tosca and Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle.

And that’s just the summer season – the remainder of the 2021 program has yet to be announced.

Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin sings Lehar’s The Merry Widow in Opera Australia’s 2021 opening production
Soprano Julie Lea Goodwin sings Lehar’s The Merry Widow in Opera Australia’s 2021 opening production. Photograph: Prudence Upton/Opera Australia

But the company opens the year with an all-Australian Graeme Murphy-directed production of Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow, featuring soprano Julie Lea Goodwin and tenor Alexander Lewis.

The Australian Ballet opens 2021 with a triple bill in Sydney titled New York Dialects, consisting of two classics from George Balanchine – Serenade and The Four Temperaments – and a new work by the US choreographer Pam Tanowitz.

In late April David Hallberg will mark his debut as the company’s artistic director in Sydney with Counterpointe, re-staging the marriage scene in Marius Petipa’s Raymonda. The double bill also includes William Forsythe’s Artifact Suite.

New York Dialects will play in Melbourne in early June.

Leon Tolstoy’s tragic tale of ill-fated love gets the full Russian treatment with the Yuri Possokhov-choreographed Anna Karenina in Melbourne and Adelaide mid-year, and maintaining the love hurts theme, the company takes John Cranko’s Romeo and Juliet to Melbourne in late August and then Sydney from early November.

The Australian Ballet wraps up its season with a long-lost comedy from the creator of Swan Lake, Petipa’s Harlequinade, in Melbourne from mid-September and in Sydney throughout December.

Robyn Hendricks in the Yuri Possokhov-choreographed Anna Karenina.
Robyn Hendricks in the Yuri Possokhov-choreographed Anna Karenina. Photograph: Pierre Toussaint/Australian Ballet

While the Australian Chamber Orchestra considers Sydney its spiritual home, its tradition of cross-country coverage resumes in 2021.

The ACO will perform in Sydney, Melbourne, Canberra, Newcastle, Wollongong, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, with four world premieres and four Australian premieres including River, a music and cinematic collaboration with the Bafta-nominated Sherpa director, Jennifer Peedom.

In a pandemic-proof move, the ACO will also debut a paid digital subscription comprising eight 50-minute concert films premiering throughout the year on a new videostreaming platform.


The Sydney Theatre Company is only feeling confident enough to announce the first five months of its 2021 subscription season, opening with Kate Mulvany’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s Playing Beattie Bow. The production marks the return of the company to its Wharf home, in the precinct where the novel and play are set, in the crowded and chaotic atmosphere of The Rocks of the 1870s.

Dysfunctional family life in America’s south is explored in the Australian premiere of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Appropriate, from mid-March. Starring Sam Worthington and Lucy Bell, the play has been credited as doing for Arkansas what August: Osage County did for Oklahoma.

No sooner had Home I’m Darling, the tale of a British couple willingly stuck in the 1950s, packed up from its Melbourne Theatre Company premiere last year, the Covid-19 lockdown hit. The Sydney debut has been on ice for a year, scheduled to open on 6 April. Also thawing out is The Wharf Revue: Good Night and Good Luck, but at this stage, the ticket allocation for the 17 February to the 20 March season is already fully booked, due to social distancing measures at the Sydney Opera House’s Drama Theatre.

The STC season concludes with the Broadway musical Fun Home. Described as a “beautiful heartbreaker of a musical”, it collected three Tony awards including best musical and best original score, and was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer prize for drama.

Mandy McElhinney and Lucy Bell star in the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Appropriate
Mandy McElhinney and Lucy Bell star in the Branden Jacobs-Jenkins play Appropriate. Photograph: STC

Belvoir is venturing to plan as far as September 2021, kicking off with the 2020 Sydney theatre award winner for best musical, Fangirls, on 30 January.

Boyband-mad teenage girls make way for Stop Girl in March, a new drama from the Walkley award-winning ABC foreign correspondent Sally Sara.

In early May, Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own returns, with Anita Hegh reprising her highly acclaimed role.

Another classic follows, Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, directed by Belvoir’s artistic director, Eamon Flack, opening on 29 May.

Michelle Law in her new comedy Miss Peony
Michelle Law in her new comedy Miss Peony which debuts at Belvoir in July. Photograph: Daniel Boud/Belvoir

A new comedy from Michelle Law, who wrote Single Asian Female, debuts in early July. Miss Peony is described as a “slightly unhinged comedy” expanding on the theme of cross-cultural angst, as a young woman reaches for the crown in a Chinese-Australian beauty pageant.

Belvoir wraps up the first stage of its 2021 season on 7 August with a new work by the Palawa playwright Nathan Maynard. His At What Cost?, set in his native Tasmania, centres around an Indigenous family man confronted with blow-ins seeking to claim Palawa as their mob.

2021 will mark the debut season for Griffin’s new artistic director, Declan Green.

Perhaps in anticipation Sydney may not be quite back to normal, the company’s first production of the year, opening on 5 February, will be held outdoors at Darlinghurst’s Green Park. The playwright Elias Jamieson Brown will be encouraging the voyeuristic urges in his audience as he equips them with headphones to observe how things go between two men in the process of negotiating a Grindr hookup.

A Gunaikurnai woman meets an opportunistic dingo in a territorial showdown in Dogged from 30 April, followed by a delve into rape culture on university campuses in Kendall Feaver’s Wherever She Wanders in early July.

Kirsty Marillier wrote and will star in her Rodney Seaborn playwrights award-winning work Orange Thrower in mid-August, and Merlynn Tong will do the same in her semi-autobiographical work Golden Blood, which wraps up the 2021 Griffin season in December.

Sydney Dance Company reprieves Rafael Bonachela’s ab [intra]
Sydney Dance Company reprieves Rafael Bonachela’s ab [intra] in Sydney in September. Photograph: Pedro Greig/Sydney Dance Company

The much-anticipated collaboration between Sydney Dance Company’s artistic director, Rafael Bonachela, and the composer Bryce Dessner, Impermanence, was cancelled just days before its 2020 opening night. It finally makes it on to the stage from 16 February, with the Australian String Quartet performing Dessner’s work live.

The company will then tour regional Victoria and New South Wales from May to July with Impermanence, before taking the production to Hobart’s Theatre Royal for three performances in late July and a single performance in Alice Spring’s Araluen Arts Centre on 14 August.

The SDC will return to Sydney in September for another season of Bonachela’s ab [intra].

In November the longstanding SDC/Carriageworks/Balnaves Foundation collaborative project, New Breed returns, showcasing the works of emerging choreographers.

Bangarra took its production Spirit to Toronto in 2019
Bangarra took its production Spirit to Toronto in 2019. Photograph: Lisa Tomasetti/Bangarra

Bangarra Dance Theatre is going no further than January in revealing its plans for 2021. The company will come out of a 10-month hibernation on 21 January for its outdoor Sydney festival production. Spirit: A Retrospective 2021 at Barangaroo Headland will draw on the company’s body of work spanning three decades.

The Sydney Symphony launches its 2021 season with the chief conductor designate, Simone Young, and the Australian violinist Ray Chen performing his Tchaikovsky violin concerto – the work that put him on the international stage after winning the Queen Elisabeth competition in 2009.

Donald Runnicles
Donald Runnicles conducts Schubert and Mahler with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in May. Photograph: Robert Catto/Sydney Symphony

With the Sydney Opera House concert hall undergoing renovations, the orchestra will divide its major performances between the Sydney Town Hall and Angel Place Recital Hall for the entire 2021 season.

The famous town hall organ with come to the fore in late February, with David Drury performing Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony. That program also features possibly the most unusual premiere of the year, Water, composed by the Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

The orchestra will premiere 18 works in 2021 – 15 of which are Australian – and draw on Australian artists as the Covid-19 outlook remains uncertain. More than 30 of its own musicians will take the stage as soloists and chamber musicians.


A cautious Melbourne Theatre Company has only announced the first two mainstage productions for 2021.

Joanna Murray-Smith’s MTC-commissioned Berlin, starring Grace Cummings and Michael Wahr, was to have premiered this year.

The Australian premiere of the Canadian playwright Hannah Moscovitch’s Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, starring Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena, was also originally programmed for 2020.

The company plans to launch is MTC Digital Theatre early in the new year, allowing audiences to stream stage productions on-demand, and will announce the remaining 2021 program in March.

Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena
Dan Spielman and Izabella Yena star in the Australian premiere of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes. Photograph: Jo Duck/Melbourne Theatre Company

Equally cautious is the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, which has only announced the first half of its 2021 season.

With Paul Grabowsky as the orchestra’s 2021 composer in residence, his work Wata, featuring artists from north-eastern Arnhem Land, will be one of the first concerts of the season.

Meow Meow at the Barbican Theatre in 2018
Meow Meow at the Barbican Theatre in 2018. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Stepping away from the conventional, the orchestra will present collaborations with the Perth indie rock band Birds of Tokyo, the Melbourne funk ensemble the Bamboos and the cabaret artist Meow Meow.

Like the Sydney Symphony, the MSO will throw the spotlight on its own musicians as featured soloists, with orchestral highlights expected to Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, Dvořák’s New World Symphony, Schumann’s Cello and Violin concertos, and Brahms’ Symphony No 2.

As Victoria emerged from its second lockdown three days earlier than expected, La Mama Theatre announced it would start public performances on 5 December. But neither La Mama or the Malthouse have committed yet to a 2021 subscription season.


Queensland’s undoubted highlight of the year will be the October/November production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, robbed of its November 2020 opening by Covid. Directed by Chen Shi Zeng, the fully digital version of the opera will be a collaboration between multiple companies, including Opera Australia, Opera Queensland and the Queensland Performing Arts Centre.

Other highlights for the QSO will be the return of pianist Piers Lane with Franz Liszt’s first piano concerto in March, and the June premiere of a new work by the didgeridoo artist William Barton.

Didgeridoo player William Barton soloed at the Bob Hawke memorial service in June 2019
Didgeridoo player William Barton soloed at the Bob Hawke memorial service in June 2019. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The celebrated French conductor Ludovic Morlot will be the only international artist in the QSO’s 2021 season, conducting a late 19th century/early 20th century program of works in November and Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in December, featuring Emma Pearson as soloist.

The Queensland Ballet will open its 2021 season with a 60th anniversary gala, followed by the Greg Horseman production of The Sleeping Beauty.

Another Horseman production, the children’s ballet Peter and the Wolf, will receive a fresh treatment and the company’s Bespoke series, showcasing contemporary Australian choreographers, will return.

In November a Queensland Ballet/West Australian Ballet co-production will put Bram Stoker’s Dracula on the stage, with choreography by Krzysztof Pastor.

The Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet’s co-production of Dracula
The Queensland Ballet and West Australian Ballet’s co-production of Dracula. Photograph: David Kelly/Queensland Ballet

Lee Lewis took up the reins at Queensland Theatre in January. Two months later the 2020 season was in tatters.

The company will open its 2021 season with Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Our Town.

In March a new work by the Australian-born, New York-based writer and comedian Glace Chase, Triple X, promises to deliver “the most eye-popping sex scenes in recent theatre history”.

The director Damien Ryan will transport Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew into the 1920s in May, followed by a deep dive into toxic corporate culture and casual racism with a new work, White Pearl, by Anchuli Felicia King.

Suzie Miller’s one-woman show exposing the shortcomings of a patriarchal justice system, Prima Facie, will open mid-July, followed by the world premiere of the stage adaptation of the Trent Dalton novel Boy Swallows Universe.

This year Steve Pirie won the Queensland premier’s drama award with Return to Dirst. The work, starring Pirie, will debut in October.

Queensland Theatre will conclude 2021 with a subscriber-only cabaret, Robyn Archer: An Australian Songbook.

Adelaide and Perth

February 2021 is as far as the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra is prepared to confirm, with the ASO featuring the pianist Ben Folds in a 6 February concert that is already sold out.

The West Australian Symphony Orchestra has released its entire 2021 season, kick-starting the year on a contemporary note, also with Folds in concert and with Perth’s alternative rock band Birds of Tokyo.

A highlight of the 2021 season promises to be a new work by composer Deborah Cheetham. A war requiem, Eumeralla will feature two choirs, orchestra and the platform of the requiem mass.

WASO will continue its Harry Potter in Concert series, with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in concert in March and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in October.

Ben Folds in concert
Ben Folds in concert in Madison, the US, in October 2019. Photograph: Daniel DeSlover/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Perth’s state theatre company Black Swan opens the 2021 season with an outdoor Australian makeover of the Chekhov classic The Cherry Orchard in Perth’s Sunset Heritage Precinct (vodka essential).

The suburban coming-of-age Playthings, written and directed by Scott McArdle, opens in the Studio Underground on 29 April, followed by Marrugeku’s exploration of colonisation and its lasting legacy Le Dernier Appel/The Last Cry.

Black Swan will mark Naidoc Week in July with the multi-disciplinary Maali festival and the world premiere of York, a work spanning 200 years set in and around an abandoned hospital on Ballardong Nyoongar country.

The actor Luke Hewitt will take on the solo show Every Brilliant Thing in August, and in October the Guardian Australia columnist Van Badham delivers her unique satirical response to George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Black Swan’s first production was Twelfth Night in 1991. To mark the company’s 30th anniversary, the company is asking its audience to vote for their favourite Shakespeare play to conclude the 2021 season. Matt Edgerton will direct the winning choice.

George Shevtsov in The Cherry Orchard
George Shevtsov in The Cherry Orchard. Photograph: Richard Jefferson/Perth festival

The State Theatre of South Australia has announced a full 2021 subscription season, opening with the stage adaptation of Martin McKenna’s memoir of his Irish childhood, The Boy Who Talked to Dogs.

Jonathan Biggins once more channels a well-known former prime minister in The Gospel According to Paul in April. Also rising from the 2020 ashes is Euphoria, a new work described by the company as an “Antipodean Under Milkwood”. Written by Emily Steel, it’s based on conversations recalled by the Welsh-born playwright with rural South Australians over the years.

Carrying forward the small-town Australia theme is The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race in June, although Melanie Tait’s work was in fact based on a real-life small-town tiff in Robertson, NSW.

The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman’s 1995 play The 7 Stages of Grieving (updated) opens in Adelaide in July, before making way for the world premiere of Hibernation, an apocalyptic take on a drastic solution to climate change, written by Finegan Kruckemeyer, followed by the Edward Albee classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The STCSA will end the season befittingly with Eureka Day, a comedy set in California about a subject that will be on everyone’s lips in 2021: Vaccination.

• This story was edited on 11 December 2020 to correctly identify the presenter of a Ben Folds concert in Perth as the West Australian Symphony Orchestra and note that WASO has released its full program for 2021


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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