Who’s afraid of Australian theatre? Why our plays aren’t treated like classics

There’s no shortage of great Australian plays. But when it comes to restagings, local work is consistently overlooked in favour of Miller, Chekov, Albee and Shakespeare

No mainstage theatre company season is complete without a classic show. They work; audiences flock to them out of some mix of familiarity and deference. Schools book in droves to expose their students to some of the most hallowed theatrical texts in the modern canon. They’re as much of a sure thing as theatre can offer.

Generally, there is a classic playwright that theatre companies across Australia – through some sort of cultural osmosis – seem drawn to. In 2019 it was Arthur Miller: the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Melbourne Theatre Company programmed their own productions of A View from the Bridge, while Queensland Theatre staged Death of a Salesman. In 2021, Black Swan State Theatre Company and Belvoir both staged their own adaptations of Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard.

The playwright of choice in 2022 seems to be Edward Albee, specifically his play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? First staged on Broadway in 1962, the State Theatre Company of South Australia reimagined it as an exploration of race in Australia earlier this year, which then headed to Sydney festival and Queensland Theatre. The play has also been reimagined through a queer lens three times this year alone: at Belvoir’s 25A in a sold-out season by Four One One Productions; at Melbourne’s Rising festival and Sydney festival by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon; and Patrick Livesey’s Woolf, which won an award at Midsumma festival.

Then there are the two separate production of The Phantom of The Opera, staged by Opera Australia in Melbourne and Sydney this year; two overlapping productions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; the constant sea of Shakespeare productions, and the usual stream of musicals from Broadway and the West End. In all this constant reinterrogation, restaging and reimaginings, Australian classics are notably absent. But this problem has hung over the country for a long time.

Josh Piterman and Amy Manford in The Phantom of the Opera at the Sydney Opera House in August.
Josh Piterman and Amy Manford in a production of The Phantom of the Opera at the Sydney Opera House in August. Photograph: James D Morgan/Getty Images

“The difficulty is that the history of theatrical production in Australia is profoundly muddled with the history of colonial rule,” says theatre historian Julian Meyrick, author of Australia in 50 Plays. “For a long time, most of the theatre that happened here came from either Britain or America, so our sense of what is ‘classic’ is elided with British and American drama.”

There are several intangible factors in what makes a play “classic”; one of them, Meyrick says, is repeatability. “It’s very hard to argue that a play is a classic if it has only been done once,” he says. “The kind of rhythm that we’re talking about are plays that are revived over a long period of time. Years. Possibly even decades.

“On the whole, Australian drama only tends to do [repeat productions] with British and American plays – it doesn’t tend to do it with its own plays. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, maybe – but that remains an exception.”

The flurry of interest in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not new; Belvoir, Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre Company each staged a production of it in 2007. And while there are undoubtedly great Australian playwrights whose works are revered – say, Andrew Bovell, Louis Nowra and David Williamson – their plays, or plays from Australian writers of a similar pedigree, are rarely revisited, let alone all in the same year; they simply do not receive the same attention as the likes of Albee or Miller.

Australian playwright David Williamson.
Australian playwright David Williamson. Photograph: Jessica Hromas/The Guardian

There is, of course, no shortage of great Australian plays; in fact, the majority of shows staged by flagship theatre companies in the last four to five years have been new works by Australia writers. And while it is too soon to tell if these plays will be staged with the rhythm that Meyrick says is crucial to becoming a “classic”, it does raise questions as to the ecology that Australian playwrights are working within. Can they ever reach the hallowed ground on which someone like Albee walks?

Not without continual reflection, reinvention and reinterrogation, says Meyrick.

“When I was the literary adviser for Melbourne Theatre Company, I would go to see what British and American companies were doing. Roughly, a third was new work, a third would be what we would call classic, like Shakespeare or Chekhov, and then a third would be revivals from their own body of drama. In Britain, it would be Look Back in Anger. In America, it would be A Raisin in the Sun. And if you look at Australia, the number of plays in that category is very small. And that, I think, is a shame.”

This isn’t to say that global drama, regardless of where it comes from, doesn’t have a place on our stages: A Raisin in the Sun recently premiered in Australian at Sydney Theatre Company under the director of Wesley Enoch. Enoch believes the lauded US work has a lot to teach Australians about race.

Director and playwright Wesley Enoch says an overseas classic works best when Australian artists make it their own.
Director and playwright Wesley Enoch says an overseas classic works best when Australian artists make it their own. Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

“A classic is something you can do at any period of time, but you choose to do it because it’s going to shine a light on a very particular cultural or social aspect of the current moment,” says Enoch, whose plays The 7 Stages of Grieving (co-written with Deborah Mailman) and The Sunshine Club have both been restaged nationally.

“When we look at race relations in America – especially post-Trump America – A Raisin in the Sun talks about a period of time close to 70 years ago where the idea of aspiration shifts and changes. And with the value of hindsight, we can put that into the context of where we are today in Australia.”

But, Enoch says, an overseas classic works best when Australian artists make it their own: “I think that often we get caught up in the idea that a classic can only sit in that kind of colonial view of what the arts are. But in recent years, we’ve been able to do wonderful kind of crossover productions that are rambunctious, entertaining and about us, and have a big classical form.”

Bert LaBonté, Adolphus Waylee and Zahra Newman in Sydney Theatre Company’s 2022 production of A Raisin in the Sun.
Bert LaBonté, Adolphus Waylee and Zahra Newman in Sydney Theatre Company’s 2022 production of A Raisin in the Sun. Photograph: Joseph Mayers/Joseph Mayers Photography

Nat Randall and Anna Breckon’s play Set Piece is one of the queer reimaginings of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: focused on two lesbian couples, one older and in a long-term relationship, the other younger and married.

“We were interested in the intergenerational relations of two couples – and how this could be reconfigured in a lesbian dynamic,” says Randall. “What are the differences that might occur? How are these relationships distinct?”

Set Piece, by Anna Breckon and Nat Randall, loosely inspired by Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Set Piece, by Anna Breckon and Nat Randall, is a queer reimagining of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Photograph: Robert Catto, Photographer/Robert Catto/robertcatto.com

The success of Set Piece as an adaptation of a classic comes from its refusal to defer to Albee’s text; Randal and Breckon drew on multiple sources to create something new.

“Set Piece draws on pulp, on soap on low cultural objects – the classic is not something I have an attachment to as an idea,” says Breckon.

“We don’t view the multiplicity of texts historically as high or low. Our view is kind of seeing all of these texts and performance styles on the same plane,” says Randall.

Breckon and Randall are artists that start conversations between artists and audience, theatre and film, form and content, old and new. But the lack of Australian plays given such treatment robs our nation of partaking in a similar conversation with our own canon.

“The practical reality of programming is that if you do one play in one slot, you can’t do another. So, there are very limited slots for producing any play – regardless of whether it’s a classic or new drama,” says Meyrick.

“Australia has fantastic drama. A lot of it. And it should revive it much more often than it does. I have no problem with British or American drama. I have great respect for it, I think it’s fantastic. But I worry sometimes that it’s become an easy out for our programs – rather than getting to know our own drama … Because you can only really get a sense of the new when you are also getting a sense of the old. A sense of the future if you’re getting a sense of the past.”

Enoch agrees. “Theatre is not a great place to build celebrity,” he laughs. “Sometimes there are plays where you just go ‘this is just a fantastic piece of work, just amazing, but why isn’t it a classic?’ And it’s because it hasn’t been able to cross over. Take Dorothy Hewett – that writing is incredibly robust and dangerous in the way that it talks about the 70s and 80s. But we don’t talk about it because we’re so busy forgetting our history. Or someone like Angela Betzien … when will she be ‘classicised’?”

If the many adaptations of Woolf can teach us anything, it’s that things left unsaid can prove toxic. There are so many stories about Australia that aren’t being told, or retold, on our stages. If they were made classic, we might just be all the better for it.

“On every level, Australian drama is different,” Meyrick says. “The process of reviving an older play for a contemporary audience is certainly not an easy choice. But there are a set of concerns and problems to do with the history, the geography or the social structure of the country that are very particular to Australia and, therefore, particular to Australian dramatists. And you are just not going to find them in the same way in British and American plays. That is the truth.”

Australian plays, it seems, will only become classics if we give them the repeat productions they deserve. If we make them. And make them. And make them. And make them. Again and again and again.

Anthony Nocera

The GuardianTramp

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