Melbourne's Best Theatre Of 2017

21 December 2017 | 2:57 pm | Maxim Boon

The Music's Arts Editor takes a look back over the standout shows of the past 12 months.

When it comes to the arts, Melbourne is unusually well catered for. But even by its perennially sky-high standards, 2017 delivered the city a particularly stellar glut of theatrical triumphs.

The most consistently superb season of the year came courtesy of Matthew Lutton and his second selection as artistic director of Malthouse Theatre. Thematically, this year's line-up pulled no punches; the politics of sexuality, gender, disability, class, and race were all dissected, unravelled and reassembled in myriad ways.

Amongst the year's highlights, Janice Muller's wonderfully unhinged staging of Alice Birch's ferocious feminist instigation, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. This show dared to take an already eccentric text to its most extreme vector, in a production that wrenched apart a dense stratum of ideas in ways both brilliant and brutal.

In Wild Bore, the cabaret-comedy supergroup of Zoe Coombes Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott took to task the complex and often off-kilter relationship between critics and creators, via a hilarious selection of scathing review quotes, razor-edged responses, and bare-naked butts.

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Perhaps the best Malthouse shows of the year came from Lutton himself. Adding to his already impressive portfolio, an ingeniously epic staging of Michael Gow's Aussie classic Away, a newly developed biopic of Joseph Merrick in The Real And Imagined History Of The Elephant Man, featuring an ovation-worthy performance by Daniel Monks in the title role, and a white-knuckle, blood-soaked new production of Tom Waits and William S Burrough's ghoulish folk fantasy Black Rider, The Casting of Magic Bullets, for Victorian Opera.

Director Anne-Louise Sarks also had a superb year, helming two of the best shows to grace any Australian stage in 2017. Her debut for Bell Shakespeare - a staging of the Bard's notoriously difficult "problem play," The Merchant of Venice -  not only managed to find some tangible relevance in an infamously out of touch, anti-semitic narrative, but also uncovered an elusive lyricism in its tangled collection of romantic sub-plots. Collaborating with one of our greatest actors, Pamela Rabe, on Colm Toibin's novella turned monologue, The Testament of Mary, for Malthouse Theatre, Sarks revealed her expert lightness of touch. Using a delicate equilibrium of restraint and dynamism she is able to conjure an emotional world truly breathtaking nuance and subtlety that still feels full of power and urgency. 

Another director whose name every theatre lover should commit to memory is Stephen Nicolazzo. Two very different, yet equally wonderful productions - The Moors at Red Stitch Actors Theatre, and a new adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas' Merciless Gods - showcased theatre craft at its most masterful. Nicolazzo is somehow capable of simultaneously summoning the savage and sublime, revealing wrought, raging truths, and dark, sexual impulses, wrapped in the smoothest satin. With his first major company engagement due next year, in a new production of Abigail's Party for Melbourne Theatre Company, the future looks extremely bright for this star on the rise.

Melbourne's independent theatre scene can always be relied on to produce excellent work, and 2017 certainly didn't disappoint. At Fortyfivedownstairs, Ben Gerrard left audience's spellbound with his depiction of controversial transsexual trailblazer Charlotte von Mahlsdorf (and around 30 other characters) in Doug Wright's I am my own wife. Later in the year at that same venue, Dirty Pretty Theatre and Cameron Lukey's staging of Tony Kushner's crushingly powerful Angels in America, directed by Gary Abrahams, proved that great theatre doesn't need extravagant budgets when you have a stellar cast and a powerful story.

But by far the most important - dare I say life-changing - event of the year was delivered by Jonathan Holloway and the Melbourne Festival, and a presentation of Taylor Mac's magnum opus, A 24 Decade History of Popular Music. Performed over four 6-hour shows, this chronicle of American culture, revealed through Mac's uniquely queering prism, used a scaffold of song to sweep aside the absolving misrememberings of established histories to confront and challenge a conservative, heteronormative status quo. For 24 hours at the Forum in the heart of Melbourne, I felt connected to something so much greater than myself; something powerful and important and galvanising. Simply put, this is a show I will still be thinking about, and talking about for decades to come. A truly once in a lifetime experience for which I feel extremely thankful.