Ian Dickson

Platée 

by
03 December 2021

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s setting of Adrien-Joseph Le Valois d’Orville’s adaptation of Jacques Autreau’s then unpublished and unperformed play Platée must be considered one of the most tactless entertainments ever presented to celebrate a royal wedding. The story of the ugly, vain water nymph who is used as a pawn to salvage the rocky marriage of Jupiter and Juno was certainly not the usual bland extravaganza to be expected at such an occasion. It probably didn’t help that the Dauphin Louis’s bride, Maria-Theresa of Spain, was not considered conventionally attractive.

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There were divas before Nellie Melba and, given that nowadays any young woman who can hold her career together for a few years while screeching into a microphone has the title bestowed on her, there have been many genuine and ersatz ones since. But Dame Nellie (1861–1931) remains the ne plus ultra, the gold standard of opera divas. Essential attributes include an instantly recognisable voice, an unshakeable faith in one’s ability, and position in the world, and an equally unshakeable determination that no rival will intrude upon one’s limelight. Nellie Mitchell showed these traits from an early age.

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Happy Days 

Red Line Productions
by
15 June 2021

Towards the end of the first act of Happy Days, Samuel Beckett spells out clearly the question that is at the heart of his work and that of the playwrights loosely grouped under the title ‘absurdist’. His protagonist, Winnie, buried up to her waist in earth, is describing the conversation of a couple who, wandering by, have caught sight of her. The man turns to his female companion. ‘What’s she doing? he says – What’s the idea? he says – stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground – coarse fellow – What does it mean? he says – What’s it meant to mean? … Do you hear me? he says – I do, she says, God help me … And you, she says, what’s the idea of you, what are you meant to mean?’

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Fun Home 

Melbourne Theatre Company/Sydney Theatre Company
by
04 May 2021

Fun Home is not your average musical. Based on Alison Bechdel’s hugely influential 2006 graphic novel of the same name – which contrasts her coming out as a lesbian with her gay father’s closeted, unhappy, and ultimately self-destructive life – Hello, Dolly! it ain’t. But in the clear-eyed, compassionate, and understanding hands of playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori, it became a multi-award-winning, much-performed success.

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On 8 November 2015, a year after his death, a celebration was held for Mike Nichols in the IAC building in New York. The audience included the likes of Anna Wintour, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Stoppard, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Meryl Streep. Seventy-six years earlier, less than a mile away, seven-year-old Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky walked down the SS Bremen’s gangplank into America and a new life. The transformation of the angry, bewildered immigrant Peschkowski into the outwardly charming, debonair, outrageously talented Nichols is at the heart of Mark Harris’s comprehensive, compulsively entertaining biography.

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Appropriate 

Sydney Theatre Company
by
25 March 2021

Picasso is supposed to have claimed that ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. The young American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does something slightly different. He, as it were, appropriates, taking well-known theatrical styles and adapting them to his own use. He gets old theatrical forms – the minstrel show in Neighbors (2010) or nineteenth-century melodrama in An Octoroon (2014), which this writer was fortunate enough to catch in New York, and explodes them to blisteringly funny effect. With Appropriate (first produced in 2013), he adopts that well-worn saga, the dysfunctional southern American family.

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Jali 

Griffin Theatre
by
17 March 2021

Jali is a West African term for a storyteller – someone who can use words, music, or dance to make sense of the world for themselves and their audience. The young stand-up comic Oliver Twist, in his first theatrical piece, is proving himself to be very much a chronicler in that tradition.

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Yielding to temptation 

Sydney Theatre Company
by
30 November 2020

The advance publicity for Kip Williams’s production of Oscar Wilde’s novella The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) makes much of Wilde’s aphorism ‘The only way of get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.’ In the past, Williams has found the fashionable mix of video and live performance pioneered by the Belgian director Ivo van Hove seductive. He has used it brilliantly in his production of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer and less so in Bertolt Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. But with his assault on Wilde’s famous work, he has yielded to it with a vengeance.

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To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

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It is a truth, maybe not universally acknowledged but a truth nonetheless, that epiphanies tend to happen earlier rather than later in one’s life. Soul-shattering, life-changing experiences occur more regularly when the soul is tender enough to be shattered and the life malleable enough to be changed.

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