Four established female playwrights. One emerging male playwright. Three world premieres. One Australian premiere. One revival.
Griffin’s 2019 season features new plays by leading playwrights Mary Rachel Brown and Suzie Miller, a first-time revival of Hilary Bell’s psychological thriller Splinter, a whimsical interspecies romance by London-based Australian writer Rita Kalnejais, and the first play by Meyne Wyatt, who made his professional debut as an actor on the Griffin stage in 2011.
Set in Wyatt’s hometown, Kalgoorlie, WA, City of Gold is a story ripped from the headlines, in part inspired by the late Elijah Doughty, the Kalgoorlie teenager killed in 2016 when the motorcycle he was riding was hit by a pursuing ute.
“It was one of the things that prompted me to write in the first place,” Wyatt says. “I am related to Elijah and I want to make sure that he and young men like him – and he was a boy really – aren’t forgotten. It is time for people to reassess the relationship between Australia and Indigenous Australia.”
Wyatt will also play the principal character, an actor, Breythe, who struggles with being typecast in an industry with its own ideas of authenticity.
“For first-time playwrights, it’s always a bit semi-autobiographical,” Wyatt says. “Just under three years ago, my father passed, and from then on I’ve thought about writing a story about my experience with grief.
“At the same time, I found that there was a lot of work being offered to me that I thought was a bit repetitive for me as an actor. When it starts to be the same thing over and over, you want to challenge yourself and go onto other things. I think every actor goes through that process.”
At the other end of the scale of experience is Hilary Bell, whose Wolf Lullaby debuted on the Griffin stage in 1996.
Lewis’ decision to revive Splinter, which was originally commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company (as The Splinter) and played there in 2012, is groundbreaking, says Bell.
“Plays like Splinter aren’t brand-spanking new and they are not old enough to be regarded as classics, either, and these are the plays that fall through the cracks and there are thousands of them,” says Bell. “So I’m thrilled.”
Lewis sees the Griffin season as a chance for artists to speak directly to influencers.
“We have a lot of lawyers sitting in the Griffin audiences. These are people who love language. I say to the writers, you are writing for the people who are making decisions. You are talking directly to the people who shape our legal system, so don’t waste an opportunity.”
Dead Cat Bounce (February 22-April 6)
Written by Mary Rachel Brown (The Dapto Chaser) and directed by Mitchell Butel, Dead Cat Bounce is a “grown-up love story” says Lewis. “It’s what happens when you are in love and there is real baggage.”
The winner of the 2016 Lysicrates Prize (under the working title Approximate Balance), Dead Cat Bounce probes the always tender spot that lies between romance and addiction in the story of a young woman, Matilda (played by Kate Cheel) and Gabe, 20 years older and wrestling with the demons of depression, alcoholism and writer’s angst.
It’s a very different play to the one the Lysicrates audience voted for, Lewis says. “It won the prize and then it became a commission. But when you commission a play it can evolve into something very different. Mary has taken it to a place I really like. It’s a complex conversation around alcohol and Australian culture and what that means over time. And it’s funny because it’s Mary, and it’s also really moving because it’s Mary.”
Prima Facie (May 17-June 22)
The winner of the 2018 Griffin Award, lawyer and writer Suzie Miller’s drama brings Kate Mulvany back to the Griffin stage for an unflinching indictment of the Australian legal system’s failure to provide women with justice in rape, sexual assault or harassment cases.
“Essentially, this is Suzie putting forward the argument that we need an entirely new system,” Lewis says. “I don’t know of another playwright in the country who could do that. I think she is slightly petrified at the thought of taking on the legal fraternity. But she realises if she doesn’t do it, no one else can.”
Miller is no stranger to the Griffin stage. Her plays Caress/Ache and Sunset Strip have played there in recent years. But this will be different, Lewis asserts. “Suzie, Kate and I have committed to doing something. In a way, it’s the last story any of us wants to tell, but it’s one that has to be told. So the three of us are joining hands and leaping in together in the hope of bringing about enough provocation to create a meaningful dialogue around change.”
From her first read of the play, Mulvany knew she wanted to be involved. “I knew we had an exceptional new work to add to our canon of Australian writing,” she says. “Suzie has written a bold, brave and brilliant look at what it is to be a woman, a victim and a survivor. I’m honoured to be the voice for a play that speaks for so many.”
Mulvany’s presence is essential, Lewis adds. “I think it is a celebration of Kate becoming one of this country’s great female creators. As a writer, an actor and an advocate of big ideas, she moves across so many different platforms and the audience has a trust in her unlike any other actor in the country.”
City of Gold (July 26-August 31)
“Meyne is writing one of the most confronting portraits of what it is to be a young black man in Australia that I have ever read,” says Lewis. “It is scary and funny and it is an international work. It needs to be not only made, but sent around the world.”
Wyatt says City of Gold will be confronting for many.
“Kalgoorlie has always had an issue with racism and I think there are some things I’ve had to become desensitised to that other people would think, ‘whoah, that’s really full-on’. But these things happen to me and my family on a daily basis, and I’m sure it will ring true for a lot of Indigenous people.”
Splinter (September 6-October 12)
Hilary Bell’s play is a nerve-jangling study of a relationship in crisis, centred on a five-year-old child who, after going missing for nine months, is returned to her parents.
Her whereabouts during that time remain a mystery. The mechanism of her return is unexplained.
Griffin hasn’t staged a thriller since 2015, when it presented Aidan Fennessy’s The House on the Lake.
“That play brought in a whole new audience – people who just love thrillers,” Lewis says. “It’s just like in the literature world, there are people who only buy thrillers and there’s such a turn of the screw in this play. I got the chills when I read it again.”
Lewis will direct Simon Gleeson (Les Miserables) and Lucy Bell.
“I love the mystery of it, and I love the shifting sands nature of it where you don’t know as an audience what is real, what to believe,” says Lucy Bell. “I find it truly terrifying. I don’t read horror and I don’t watch horror films. But I do love being deeply shaken and being asked to look at my fears, and this play does that for me.”
First Love is the Revolution (November 1-December 14)
Lewis came across ex-pat Australian writer Rita Kalnejais’ whimsical yet bloody story a couple of years ago, she says.
“It’s the story of a young boy who captures a fox because he wanted to make a fox fur for his mum in the hope that she would come back,” Lewis explains. “And it’s the story of the young fox who is under pressure from her mum to make her first kill. She makes a terrible job of it and the young mole that she mauls takes three days to die but he’s quite happy about it because he manages to dig his own grave!”
An actor-turned playwright, Kalnejais had early success in Australia with her second full-length play Babyteeth in 2012. First Love is the Revolution played at the Soho Theatre in 2015 to considerable acclaim and Kalnejais is now a significant emerging voice in the UK, part of a new wave of Australian writers getting their work onto British stages.
Lewis, who will direct the play’s Australian premiere, has a theory about that.
“The reason Australian plays are so successful is because the world is changing and the Australian way of looking at things as being asymmetrical and inexplicable is becoming really useful in the rest of the world.
“In Britain they used to be able to believe in institutions and symmetry and beauty, but a lot of that is falling away under Brexit and with all these inexplicable things happening, the traditional forms are not reflecting the awful mangle that everyday life is.
“But Australian playwrights have always written in that awful mangle and our plays are starting to become very useful.”
Griffin’s 2019 also features short seasons of some of the best work from the independent sector.
Omar Musa’s Since Ali Died, a highlight of the inaugural Batch Festival, returns in January, this time under the Sydney Festival umbrella. Batch Festival is back in April.
Betty Grumble’s acclaimed cabaret Love and Anger plays from January 21-26.
Ayeesha Ash and Emele Ugavule, AKA Blackbirds, bring Exhale to the space in April, and Melbourne’s Little Ones Theatre return with a queer retelling of Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince in June.
And Glittery Clittery, the winner of the Best Cabaret award at the Adelaide 2018 Fringe, makes its Sydney debut in July.
For more information on Griffin’s 2019 season, visit griffintheatre.com.au