February 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Andrew Upton goes solo

By Luke Slattery

It’s a new era for Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic director

Andrew Upton has spent much of the past six years as the other half. Though he and Cate Blanchett began their tenure as joint artistic directors of the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008, there is little doubt that Upton, a noted, though not as yet world-shaking, playwright, works in his wife’s mighty shadow.

Blanchett’s lead role in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine will likely see her win Best Actress at this year’s Academy Awards. In Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, there is a scene in which Blanchett’s character, Galadriel, morphs from ethereal elf queen to mistress of all that is seen and unseen. She appears to grow to treetop height. Her voice deepens. Electric currents snake around her. That scene pretty much encapsulates the trajectory of Blanchett’s screen career. Upton, who has written and adapted works for the theatre, opera and screen, is on the same quest, even if he doesn’t quite have the same magic.

This year sees Upton flying solo as STC artistic director. The first play of his – and the possessive pronoun does need stressing – season is David Williamson’s Travelling North, which premiered on 14 January with Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte as two middle-aged tree-changers. (Whyte replaced Greta Scacchi, who withdrew shortly before the preview performances due to a back injury.) When we meet, rehearsals are under way at STC’s home base, the Wharf in Walsh Bay. It’s one of the harbour’s sweetest spots: Luna Park and the Sydney Harbour Bridge are both in full view. An office party is happening at the complex’s bar. All of Sydney, it seems, is winding down and getting messy. But not Upton. He’s gearing up.

He comes from rehearsals with a light in his eye, buoyed by the critical and commercial success of STC’s Waiting for Godot, now in its final week. Tamás Ascher was to have directed Samuel Beckett’s best-known work, but when injury forced the Hungarian to cancel, Upton shouldered the burden. With Richard Roxburgh and Hugo Weaving in the main roles of absurdist hobos Vladimir and Estragon, the production was never likely to fail, yet the acclaim is cheering.

Godot was the last work of the 2013 season devised by Upton and Blanchett, and it’s clear that the year’s success had a lot to do with the luxury of their six-year tenure and the space it allowed for planning. Godot was the result of a “long conversation” with Weaving and Roxburgh, Upton says. It likewise took him and Blanchett two years to shoehorn Tim Minchin into Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, opposite Toby Schmitz. The stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River, written by Andrew Bovell and directed by Neil Armfield, was five years in the planning, a lengthy gestation demanded by the “difficulty of the material and the size of the project. But we wanted to explore … the breadth of this company. And
we did.”

He and Blanchett looked likely to spend much of their professional lives abroad before the STC offer gave them the opportunity to make a creative impact and raise their sons in Australia. The STC work has deepened his sense of the “rich talent in this country”, Upton says. “We have great designers and great actors. But to be honest we’re still developing the [play] writing tradition.”

Asked for a little more explanation on this point, he responds at first with diffidence. He does not, he insists, want to cause offence; instead he nimbly moves himself into his own firing line. “You look at the acting world and see people like Cate and Geoffrey Rush, and you don’t see a lot of writers, including myself, in that array. I look at the flawed imaginings I make as a writer for the theatre.”

Though Upton has won plaudits for adaptations of works such as Philistines, Hedda Gabler and The Cherry Orchard, his original plays The Hanging Man and Riflemind have been less enthusiastically received, particularly in London. He suggests writers should again belong to the theatre. Not only should the world be a stage but the stage should be their world. “I think Shakespeare was a theatre maker,” he explains. “He probably had a go at acting, probably told people where to stand occasionally, probably solved particular stage problems. He had a full engagement with the practice. The more recent tradition of the writer delivering the script and the company honouring the words is something that doesn’t necessarily make for great theatre writers. The tradition you want is, ‘Let’s get this show on the road.’”

There are no airs with Andrew Upton. His face is framed by a scruffy beard and a thinning thatch of hair, and the jeans, sneakers and checked shirt convey a genial, sleeves-rolled-up attitude to the work of theatre ringmaster. Upton responds keenly to the aesthetics of his metier and can sound a little finicky. Yet there’s a robust sense of storytelling’s social power beneath it all, particularly in a young country full of stories and, paradoxically, silences. There are stories waiting to be told.

“You don’t tell stories to tell lies,” he says. “You tell stories to tell truths. And if big lies exist in society, its narrative shuts down and, a little like Bluebeard’s Castle, there are fewer and fewer rooms you can go into freely. I think there are closed doors in the Australian – particularly the white Australian – narrative. And it takes all sorts of energies to open them.”

Luke Slattery

Luke Slattery is a Sydney journalist and writer. His most recent book is Reclaiming Epicurus.

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