Opinion: David O’Brien’s 2023 Top Ten

Top 10 2023Sociopolitical theatre/dance loomed large in mind through nationally and locally produced work in 2023. Something there’s not been much of for some time.

The year of the referendum to include Indigenous Australians in the constitution saw Australian Dance Theatre and Bangarra Dance Theatre and Marrugeku present three profoundly significant works. Works exploring historic experiences of dispossession and struggle on the individual and collective level.


Then there’s extraordinary productions by Theatre Republic, Lina Limosani and Famous Last Words tackling the personal-is-political thing from a grand baroque historical context to the nitty gritty of strata corporation politics.


So here’s the Top 10! (My version is as many as I like.) Get into it!


11) Music for Other Worlds – Alex Frayne and Paul Grabowsky/Adelaide Festival. Adelaide’s most renowned photographer’s works were screened to on-the-spot jazz improvisation by the great pianist Paul Grabowsky. A unique, stunning experience, as Frayne’s meticulous photo essays merged and flowed in six phrases. Grabowsky responded to them in the moment. The ear saw as much as the eyes heard. This work opened up a new angle on visual and musical narrative more particular to the language of film.


10) The River That Ran Up Hill – Slingsby/Big Dream Festival. Edgell Junior’s story of surviving Vanuatu’s Category 5 Cyclone Pam in 2015 was a significant work of community building and awareness. Relying on the magic inherent in simple stripped back design, direct storytelling and very clever lighting effects. Andy Packer and Clara Solly-Slades’ production addressed a big environmental issue in a beautiful and profound way.


9) Tracker – Austrian Dance Theatre/Adelaide Festival. A very personal work. The story of ADT’s Daniel Riley’s Great Great Uncle Alec ‘Tracker’ Riley. A personal history delving into an indigenous man’s life between two worlds. White Australia. Black Australia. Where does identity and loyalty lie? To the land you are made of and from, or the white boss benefiting from your knowledge of your land he has taken? A sharply focused work on the nexus of being skilfully coopted by an occupying force.


8) Jurrungu Ngan-ga (Straight Talk) - Marrugeku/Adelaide Festival. Australia’s history since colonisation has been that of an island prison camp. Choreographer Dalisa Pigram and Director Rachael Swain’s production explored this very central historical fact with direct brutality in context of indigenous experience. An explosive, unapologetic and gripping expose.


7) Yuldea – Bangarra Dance Theatre. A Great Victorian Desert/South Australian story told, at last, from perspective and firsthand experience of indigenous people who lived and suffered decades of decimation by industrialisation and impact of the Maralinga atomic bomb tests. Frances Rings’ production focused every creative element of the work on the dancers’ bodies. They were the land, the people, the spirituality, the history as never seen or understood by White Australia before.


6) Bàrbaros - Lina Limosani. Nightmare baroque, come Gothic dive into the darkest heart of human civilisation since primeval slime crawled onto land and evolved/devolved into a multi millennia parade of subjugations and oppressions. Starkest, most brutal and enthrallingly beautiful choreographic work tackling barbarism at its dark human core.


5) Future Present – Theatre Republic. In its second iteration, the one night only project in which short new works on a theme are written, directed, rehearsed, designed, teched and performed in mere days (if not shorter than that) once again proved its incredible value. Democracy was the theme. From inner battles of family needs a female Minister mother and wife is forced to confront, what a name means in body corporate strata politics in securing a home to risking, or not, family connection when international politics is a source of danger. Pressure cooker stuff all round producing work tackling democracy from unique ‘never considered that’ angles. Showed off acting smarts at the sharp end of the scale. Last year’s event provided Emily Steel inspiration for her work The Garden. This is a very important, hugely valuable project.


4) Night, Mother – Holden Street Theatre Company. Powerful, profoundly shattering, deeply troubling and insightful production. When a down and out divorced daughter tells her mother she will kill herself in hours, what can be said or done? Martha Lott, Kathryn Fisher and director Peter Goers went where they probably didn’t want, but had to in delivering a deeply truthful work, not a mawkish apologia.


3) The Garden – Theatre Republic. Brilliant, thought provoking, darkly funny and very uncomfortable check-your-privilege work from playwright Emily Steel. Australia has a refugee perception problem, and Steel’s work tackled it head on, utilising innate judgemental preconceptions and self-satisfied moral superiority of middle Australia with gleefully deadly comic effect through Elizabeth Hay and Rashidi Edward’s performances.


2) Looped – Holden Street Theatre Company. Debut new company smash hit production, directed with sublime panache by Peter Goers and rolling with utterly pace perfect performances from Martha Lott, Chris Asimos and Robert Cusenza. A work which ever so steadily inched towards three significant words uttered by Lotts’s stunning characterisation of Tallulah Bankhead, on which premise the whole drama is turned on its head.


1) Proud – Famous Last Words. Understanding, and successfully communicating what this far right Proud Boys thing infiltrating Australian male circles is, was a tour de force achievement from Director/playwright James Watson and actor Henry Cooper. Watson’s writing had gravitas and down to earth sensibility needed to explore and explain, at the most basic human level, a dangerously unsettling movement. Cooper’s performance kept it real, simple, allowing us to see how easy the allure of belonging when in a disenfranchised state of being such extremes become.


Hot New Artist to Watch – James Watson


One years’ worth of work by Director/writer James Watson with company Famous Last Words pretty much convinced myself and Adelaide Critics Circle colleagues he was worthy of our 2023 Emerging Artist Award. But this year’s work comes off the back of a very long period of training. Most significantly, studying the playwright’s craft under Stephen Sewell, Australia’s most significant writer of political theatre at NIDA, after graduating from Flinders Drama Centre.

Watson’s writing and deft directorial calls on four projects proved remarkable demonstration of a maturity coming into its own. Follow everything he does. He is unafraid to walk outside the box.


David O’Brien