Syd­ney sto­ries on stage

You can jour­ney to far­away places at the theatre, but some­times your own back­yard is the most fas­ci­nat­ing des­ti­na­tion. These three cur­rent shows go to the heart of Syd­ney. By Ben Neutze

Time Out (Sydney) - - SYDNET STORIES ON STAGE -

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Mu­si­cal

WHEN STEPHAN EL­LIOTT was mak­ing The Ad­ven­tures of Priscilla, Queen of the

Desert in the early 1990s, the writer-di­rec­tor came un­der sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure to in­clude shots of the Opera House and the Har­bour Bridge. It was thought that a film open­ing in Syd­ney should have pic­tures of the city’s most recog­nis­able icons, but El­liott had other ideas. In­stead, he showed Ersk­ineville’s tra­di­tional home for drag, the Im­pe­rial Ho­tel.

“I knew what the post­card shots were, but this was about a sub­cul­ture – an un­der­belly, and some­thing that no­body has seen,” he says.

If that part of Syd­ney’s un­der­belly was largely undis­cov­ered when the film was re­leased in 1994, it’s cer­tainly on the global radar now.

Priscilla went on to win the Academy Award for Best Cos­tume De­sign and was turned into a flashy stage mu­si­cal packed with disco clas­sics in 2006. That show has now been seen all across the planet, in­clud­ing on Broad­way and the West End. And yes, the cur­tain has risen on tens of thou­sands of per­for­mances around the world to re­veal a gi­ant sparkling Har­bour Bridge.

While Priscilla is a fish-out-of-wa­ter story about two drag queens and a trans­gen­der woman en­coun­ter­ing Aus­tralia’s out­back, it has plenty to say about the home they’ve found in Syd­ney. After a par­tic­u­larly vi­o­lent and ho­mo­pho­bic en­counter with coun­try folk, Ber­nadette says: “It’s funny. We all sit around mind­lessly slag­ging off that vile stink-hole of a city. But in its own strange way, it takes care of us. I don’t know if that ugly wall of sub­ur­bia’s been put there to stop them get­ting in, or us get­ting out.”

Al­though El­liott says the city will al­ways re­main a place where “the freaks will al­ways find them­selves,” it’s changed a lot since

Priscilla. Its once vi­brant drag scene has been sig­nif­i­cantly di­luted as LGBTQIA peo­ple have be­come more com­fort­able in main­stream, straight spa­ces. “All of the gay bars in Syd­ney have shut; there’s only a hand­ful left,” El­liott says. “But if you’re not a cool bar with a gay clien­tele, then you’re not a cool bar.” That main­stream­ing of queer cul­ture is some­thing El­liott had to deal with when he was in­volved in bring­ing the film to the stage back in 2006. He re­mem­bers fiery con­fronta­tions with other cre­atives to keep the story’s queer and sub­ver­sive edge: “I re­ally fought them on the show, be­cause I said: ‘I know ex­actly what’s go­ing to hap­pen – it’s go­ing to turn into The

Lion King.’” But what is it about Syd­ney that fos­tered this en­vi­ron­ment of ac­cep­tance, par­tic­u­larly where gay men are con­cerned? There’s the world-fa­mous Syd­ney Gay and

Les­bian Mardi Gras, which cel­e­brates its 40th an­niver­sary this year, but El­liott has a cu­ri­ous the­ory that goes back much fur­ther – all the way to Aus­tralia’s coloni­sa­tion.

“A bunch of men were put on boats, full of testos­terone… They were shipped off to the other side of the world where there were no women, and what do you think hap­pened? And then for en­ter­tain­ment… What did they do when they didn’t have women for plays? Our fore­fa­thers, the first white peo­ple who ar­rived here, were in drag very early.” Capi­tol Theatre, 13 Camp­bell St, Hay­mar­ket 2000. 02 9320 5000. priscil­lath­e­mu­si­cal.com.au. $49.90-$175.90. May 15-Jul 15.

Good Cook. Friendly. Clean.

THERE ARE FEW cities in the world more dif­fi­cult to find a place to live in than Syd­ney, where it’s not un­usual to hear of peo­ple spend­ing two thirds of their in­come on rent and strug­gling to find a share­house. Prop­erty prices have shot up around 75 per cent in the last five years and the cost of rent­ing has seen a sim­i­larly eye-wa­ter­ing in­crease, forc­ing hordes of peo­ple into dif­fi­cult liv­ing sit­u­a­tions. Brooke Robin­son’s new play Good

Cook. Friendly. Clean. stars Tara Morice (best known as Fran in the film Strictly Ball­room) as San­dra, a sin­gle woman in her fifties who finds her­self un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously evicted by her mil­len­nial house­mates. She’s re­cently dealt with med­i­cal prob­lems that have left her with very lit­tle money. The play fol­lows her mis­sion to sell her­self as a po­ten­tial new house­mate to mil­len­ni­als con­fused by the fact that an older woman wants to join their home. “What re­ally at­tracted me to the writ­ing was the comic el­e­ment ap­proach­ing these re­ally dire cir­cum­stances,” Morice says. “San­dra gets treated ap­pallingly but with ev­ery hit she seems to just keep ris­ing above it. There’s her ma­nia to keep pos­i­tive and keep her out­ward per­sona as one that’ll mean peo­ple want to move in with her. She can’t let any­thing slide.”

The hous­ing cri­sis might be seen as a young per­son’s prob­lem, but Robin­son’s play re­veals a harsher truth. Many Aus­tralian or­gan­i­sa­tions pro­vid­ing ser­vices to home­less peo­ple have re­ported sharp in­creases in the num­ber of women over 50 seek­ing their help, and an Aus­tralian re­port last year re­vealed the num­ber of older women forced to couch surf or sleep in their cars had dou­bled in just four years. “It’s quite con­fronting, be­cause I think what we’ve re­ally lost a lot of in west­ern so­ci­ety is the sense of com­mu­nity,” Morice says. “Prob­a­bly the big­gest fear one has is about be­ing lonely when you get older, and be­ing iso­lated.”

The play also sees the ac­tor re­turn to Grif­fin Theatre’s his­toric SBW Sta­bles stage, a space she’s loved ever since she came to the theatre as a child and it was the ground­break­ing Nim­rod Theatre Com­pany. Morice, who started her ca­reer work­ing with Baz Luhrmann in the late 1980s, had the chance to work at the Sta­bles theatre sev­eral times dur­ing the ’90s and dis­cov­ered the quirks of work­ing in a 1840s build­ing never in­tended to house per­for­mances. “If you needed to go to the toi­let dur­ing the show you’d have to go into a bucket in the dress­ing room. The only other op­tion was the fire­door at the back, but if it shut you’d get locked out.”

De­spite the fact that it’s been ren­o­vated and the dress­ing room now has a toi­let, the theatre hasn’t grown at all and still seats just 120 peo­ple around two sides of a kite-shaped stage. Morice wouldn’t have it any other way. “Some­body was say­ing the other day: it’d be great if Grif­fin had a big­ger stage. I ac­tu­ally thought, no, the whole point of work­ing here is, in a strange sense, it’s quite filmic be­cause you’re so close to the au­di­ence here and the ac­tors are forced to be truth­ful.” SBW Sta­bles Theatre, 13 Craigend St, Dar­linghurst 2011. 02 9332 1052. www.griffinthe­atre.com.au. $38-$60. May 5-Jun 16.

The play fol­lows an older woman try­ing to sell her­self as a house mate to mil­len­ni­als

The Sugar House

The streets of Pyr­mont have a story to tell. As you walk around the quiet but densely pop­u­lated penin­sula, chic new high-rise apart­ment blocks dom­i­nate the sky­line. But on street level, there are hints of the sub­urb’s in­dus­trial past around ev­ery cor­ner. If you step out to Wa­ter­front Park you can even see three huge rusted steel balls that were once used in the CSR sugar re­fin­ery to smash sug­ar­cane and cre­ate cheap build­ing ma­te­rial. They’ve been re­fash­ioned into a so­phis­ti­cated wa­ter­front sculp­ture.

Syd­ney play­wright Alana Valen­tine’s grand­fa­ther once worked in that sugar re­fin­ery, which op­er­ated in Pyr­mont from the 1870s to 1995 and was an es­sen­tial part of the lo­cal econ­omy. It’s that con­nec­tion to the sub­urb that in­spired her to set her new play in the place she calls Aus­tralia’s “cru­cible of ur­ban re­de­vel­op­ment”. “It’s been the site of all of those con­fronta­tions be­tween the old work­ing class and the new mon­eyed re­de­vel­op­ment,” she says. One of the most sur­pris­ing con­fronta­tions came on Au­gust 23, 1992, when lo­cals erected bar­ri­ers and de­clared the “Pyr­mont Re­pub­lic” in protest to the rapid re­de­vel­op­ment of the area. They even is­sued free pass­ports to vis­i­tors pass­ing through.

“Pyr­mont is the per­fect metaphor – the play is re­ally ask­ing: what does Aus­tralia’s mid­dle class owe to its work­ing-class past? Well the past is still re­ally vis­i­ble in the sub­urb here.” The

Sugar House fol­lows three gen­er­a­tions of the one fam­ily liv­ing and work­ing in the sub­urb for 40 years. The grand­mother of the fam­ily, June, is played by Kris McQuade, for whom Valen­tine wrote the role. The fam­ily’s liveli­hood has been in the sugar re­fin­ery for decades, but they’re also tied up in crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity. June lives with the con­stant fear that her chil­dren and grand­chil­dren will end up in prison or even ex­e­cuted. The first act of the play takes place in 1967, when Ron­ald Ryan be­came the last man to be ex­e­cuted in Aus­tralia; the sec­ond is in 1985, when cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment is abol­ished; and the third is in 2007. Valen­tine says the play is in part about the fear that many work­ing-class peo­ple have that they’ll be crim­i­nalised.

“I look at my fam­ily and I look at my grand­mother and the things that she was ter­ri­fied of. I would think ‘that’s not a real fear’, but I didn’t grow up with the things that she did... She didn’t care what I did with my life as long as I didn’t end up in gaol.”

Valen­tine is best known for her award­win­ning ver­ba­tim plays, crafted from em­bed­ding her­self in var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties and in­ter­view­ing the in­di­vid­u­als within them. Un­usu­ally for Valen­tine, the di­a­logue in The

Sugar House isn’t drawn from any in­ter­views. “A lot of play­wrights start with their own story and go to other peo­ple’s. I’ve re­ally done the op­po­site, and it now feels like I can turn the spot­light and my own pro­cesses on my­self and be re­ally ruth­less.” Most im­por­tantly, the play forced Valen­tine to con­front her own place as a writer, as well as her per­cep­tion of Pyr­mont’s evo­lu­tion.

“I re­ally be­lieve that at the heart of a great play is a ques­tion that can’t be an­swered. I’ve writ­ten a lot about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween tra­di­tion and change and what the value of tra­di­tion is but what the se­duc­tion of change is. There’s ab­so­lutely no an­swer: change is in­evitable and great but tra­di­tion isn’t al­ways bad, wrong and stupid.” Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills 2010. 02 9699 3444. belvoir.com.au. $37-$72. May 5-Jun 3.

“At the heart of a great play is a ques­tion that can’t be an­swered”

Play­wright Brooke Robin­son

Stephan El­liott with Priscilla cast mem­bers

Play­wright Alana Valen­tine

Tara Morice

Kirs McQuade in TheSu­garHouse

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