“I felt really galvanised by the way audiences have embraced Melbourne Theatre Company this year,” says Anne-Louise Sarks, the artistic director and co-CEO of the long-running company. “It was such a bold, ambitious program that celebrated new Australian stories.
There is much to celebrate as her inaugural year kicked off with historical drama Sunday (inspired by the life and loves of Heide Museum of Modern Art co-founder Sunday Reed), which broke the in-house record for a best-selling new Australian work, only for the record to be broken again by the mid-year musical comedy Bloom.
The 2024 season will double down on new Australian works with seven (out of 12) works by Australian writers, another new record for Melbourne Theatre Company.
Save 20% when you buy two or more Broadsheet books. Order now to make sure they arrive in time for Christmas.SHOP NOW
“It’s part of a mission to make sure Australian works are entrenched in the canon,” says Sarks. “We can give them longer life, which is not something that has often happened previously. Australian works usually have a moment and then disappear. So I’m really committed to making sure that they reach as many audiences as possible.”
We asked Sarks picks out five upcoming productions to pencil in the calendar.
A Streetcar Named Desire
Tennessee Williams’s era-defining 1947 drama is one of four Pulitzer Prize-winning works in the 2024 season. Starring Sunday lead Nikki Shiels, who won recent acclaim in The Picture of Dorian Gray, the new production of Streetcar will arrive mid-year with Sarks herself directing. The play’s original Broadway production and 1951 film adaptation both starred Marlon Brando, helping to forge the actor’s reputation early on.
“It’s a classic that many people will know, or at least have heard of,” says Sarks. “It was written in a society grappling with change after the second world war, trying to redefine gender expectations and social norms. I feel like there’s a real resonance with that and where we are right now. That’s going to be a really exciting piece to dig into.”
One of two commissioned works this year, 37 (its name comes from the jersey number of retired footy legend Adam Goodes), is written by Trawlwoolway–Palawa/Pakana playwright Nathan Maynard. It centres on a local footy team and dramatises the sport through up to 10 actors on stage at a time. Sarks says to expect not just sweat and physical comedy, but a broader thoughtfulness.
“It’s about a local AFL team who just cannot seem to get their hands on a trophy,” says Sarks. “So they bring in two cousins called the Marngrook cousins. Marngrook is the game that evolved into what Australian rules football is now. They lift the team but it brings a whole lot of issues to the fore. And then the team watches Adam Goodes do that incredible war cry and dance on the field in 2015, and all the tensions that are being held at bay come to the fore.”
Another Pulitzer winner, Suzan-Lori Parks’s landmark 2001 play is an intimate, mood-shifting fable about two brothers grappling with their shared history. Australian actor Bert LaBonté will make his Melbourne Theatre Company debut as a director to guide this modern classic, which is being performed in Australia for the first time ever.
“It really was a revolutionary piece of writing at that moment in time,” Sarks says of the play’s genesis. “It had a revival in Broadway earlier this year and won the Tony for best revival. I can’t speak enough about the quality of that text: it’s a play that playwrights use to teach other playwrights how to craft a script. It jumps from vaudevillian comedy to something almost Greek and intense, with two brothers trying to make sense of their past. It’s full of card play: one of the brothers is an expert card hustler, and the other brother wants to pick up the skill. So there are a lot of dazzling card tricks in this production.”
How’s this for a hook? Justine Clarke plays Julia Gillard. Yes, the dramatic actor turned children’s musician has already earned rave reviews in Sydney and Canberra for Julia, a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company and Canberra Theatre Centre. This is no one-note impersonation: Clarke isn’t stylised to look like Gillard, but instead adjusts her voice and posture throughout the play to gradually, gently transform into the character. As Sarks puts it, the actor makes the building blocks of the transformation visible to the audience, which is even harder to pull off.
“It’s such an exceptional performance,” says Sarks. “It accumulates very slowly. She is gradually morphing into Julia Gillard and then [it culminates] in the  misogyny speech. I was really struck watching a story about our recent history and the chance to wrestle with that. That feels like something audiences don’t have the opportunity to do very often. [The play is] very clever because, yes, it’s about Julia Gillard, but it’s also about us and that moment in history. And about how far we’ve come, or actually how much further we have to go.”
My Brilliant Career
Another production directed by Sarks is a new musical adaptation of this 1901 Miles Franklin novel, also made into a classic 1979 film. Singer, actor and musician Kala Gare takes on the feisty lead role of Sybylla Melvyn, who feels stifled by 1890s Australian society but cuts loose against an anachronistic soundtrack of modern pop and pub rock.
“I think every generation explores what this story means for their own moment in time,” says Sarks. “Sybylla is the young woman trying to figure out how to balance her ambition for this brilliant career she sees for herself as an artist, with the expectations of her family and those around her to be a wife and have children. The musical … is the perfect form to get inside the chaos and messiness of a young woman who’s conflicted and confused but also full of gusto.”
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Melbourne Theatre Company.