Sport for Jove celebrates its first decade this year with Rose Riot, Damien Ryan’s epic, two-part adaptation of Shakespeare’s Wars of the Roses history cycle.
Audrey Journal looks back at some of the outstanding productions mounted by the company, which made its name out west and outdoors, its reputation with critically-acclaimed productions, and its mark on Sydney’s independent scene tackling plays of scale.
As You Like It (2009)
The first show produced by Damien Ryan and his new company was A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2008-09. Mounted in the Roxborough Park Rose Garden in Baulkham Hills, it featured a cast of 25 actors, musicians and crew, several of whom maintain a working relationship with the company today. By 2009, SFJ had outgrown the Rose Garden, formed a partnership with The National Trust of Australia (NSW) to create the Leura Shakespeare Festival, and made a move on metropolitan audiences with its productions of As You Like It and a revamped A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden. As You Like It struck a particular chord: here was a picnic blanket Shakespeare production that was accessible yet serious, playful and respectful of the language.
The Libertine (2011)
SFJ moved indoors for Sydney’s first indie staging of British writer Stephen Jeffreys’ The Libertine, the story of John Wilmot, second Earl of Rochester, the infamous boozer, pornographer, and sometime playwright. Staged in the old Darlinghurst Theatre company premises in Potts Point, The Libertine was a critical hit, winning Best Independent Production at the Sydney Theatre Awards (Anthony Gooley and Danielle King also collected Best Actor awards) and the Time Out People’s Choice Award for Best Production that year.
The Taming of the Shrew (2011)
Reimagining Shakespeare’s Padua as an Italian film studio in the 1930s, this production of the Shrew cemented Sport for Jove’s Bella Vista seasons into the must-see category. Ryan sounded all the subplots thoroughly and funny business came at you from deep in every frame. James Lugton and Danielle King were outstanding as Petruchio and Kate: the former playful and utterly unpredictable; the latter blazing with indignation, amazement, and eventually, admiration. The Shrew is a hard play to love these days but Ryan sent everyone home happy, imparting a feminist twist to the end of the play with a filmed sequence that put Kate firmly in the pilot’s seat.
Cyrano de Bergerac (2013)
For its first non-Shakespeare outdoor production, Damien Ryan and Sport for Jove turned to Edmond Rostand’s sprawling verse play Cyrano de Bergerac, the story of a militantly individual soldier-poet with an outsized nose and a lust for life. As well as directing this mammoth exercise, Ryan wrote his own translation, sticking faithfully to Rostand’s five-act structure and rhyme scheme while transposing the tale from the Paris of the 1640s into the Belle Époque of the early twentieth century. Yalin Ozucelik was outstanding in the title role, creating a character of wonderful depth and unstoppable energy. The company picked up a swag of Sydney Theatre Awards for Cyrano in 2013, alongside awards for its productions of Othello and The Comedy of Errors.
All’s Well That Ends Well (2014)
Shakespeare’s seldom-performed All’s Well has long been relegated to the “problem” basket for its darkness and what some see as the implausibility in a smart young woman’s pursuit of a man who shows nothing but disdain for her. This staging directed by Ryan managed to make the tale almost credible and completely involving. Francesca Savige made Helena’s stalking and trapping of her perfidious mate into a hard-fought quest for honour and completeness. Edmund Lembke-Hogan’s portrayal of her love interest, Bertram, maintained interest in this most callow of royal whelps. The ensemble shone: James Lugton as the one-armed Lafew; Sam Haft as the clown Lavatch, and a very funny George Banders as the cowardly Parolles.
Of Mice and Men (2015)
Staged in the Seymour Centre on a fine set by Michael Hankin, John Steinbeck’s story of itinerant farmhands trudging California’s dirt roads away from trouble and toward an unreachable dream, came alive in a lucid staging directed by Iain Sinclair. It featured an exceptional ensemble cast led by Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley as Lennie and George (Christopher Stollery, Laurence Coy, Tom Stokes, John McNeill and Andre de Vanny were also in the mix) who turned this old warhorse into something quite shattering. The production won Best Production, Best Director and Best Stage Design in the independent theatre categories at the Sydney Theatre Awards in 2016.
Staged in the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre, this production collapsed the millennia separating Sophocles and the civil war in modern day Syria. Co-directed by Ryan and Terry Karabelas, the play retained its Sophoclean chorus (led by Fiona Press) in a production that seamlessly blended contemporary naturalism with unison speech and action. Andrea Demetriades’ Antigone (“the inbred girl who spoils everyone’s day”) was a compelling study in passion and vulnerability. William Zappa’s Creon was memorably complex. Lighting designer Matt Cox’s dusty Mediterranean glare and a live soundtrack of gongs, cymbals and drums played by Thomas Royce-Hampton further enhanced a gripping production, one that made the distant past speak clearly to the present. Melanie Liertz bombed city stage design was astonishing in such a small theatre. Antigone picked up seven Sydney Theatre Awards.
Sport for Jove presents Rose Riot at Bella Vista Farm Park from December 16-30, before heading to Leura in January.