Whether it’s helping to tear down the canon or providing a platform for marginalised voices, Belvoir has been nurturing the work of Australian playwrights for 30 years. Based at Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney’s Surry Hills, the company stages around 14 productions a year across its main theatre and other smaller spaces.
When leading set designer Ralph Myers became artistic director in 2011, he decided to place more focus on work from homegrown writers and dramaturgs, alongside classic Australian pieces and canonical work. The result is a uniquely Australian repertoire that seems to both challenge and delight its audiences in equal measure.
‘Ralph felt very strongly that if we’re not supporting new Australian writers, no one else is going to do it,’ says Brenna Hobson, executive director at Belvoir. ‘He felt slightly awkward about Australian actors pretending to be Americans, for example, and what implications that has. As a city, we’re already quite well served with international productions. But there were things that we could be doing that would really be helpful to the theatre scene.’
Belvoir’s latest production, the irreverently titled Oedipus Schmoedipus, sees ‘post’, Zoë Coombs Marr’s collaborative ensemble, deconstruct famous death scenes from the predominantly white, male theatrical legacy. Whether its Shakespeare or Sophocles, Wedekind or Wilde, no stage icons are safe from being ‘dismembered’ and recycled into something new.
Audience reception has ranged from adoration to outrage, thanks to Marr’s liberal use of gore and violence. ‘We don’t deliberately set out to be controversial, but we don’t run away from it,’ says Hobson.
And whilst radical work can be alienating for some, Belvoir’s vocal subscribers and supporters have come to expect a challenge. ‘I think subscribers want to feel as though you’re not wasting their time, and you’re not being lazy or complacent. But actually there’s a high tolerance for work that they don’t necessarily love or may find difficult to confront.’
Programming a variety of work, as well as staging it in the right context, Hobon says, is also key to maintaining the subscriber base: Oedipus Schmoedipus’ run in early 2014 played during Sydney Festival, an event known for its staging of bold and radical work, and will be followed by Once in Royal David’s City in February, a new play by the well-established Michael Gow.
‘In Oedipus Schmoedipus they spend a lot of time pulling down the legacy of the canon,’ Hobson continues, ‘and yet Michael is destined to be part of it. Being able to put those two things next to each other is very exciting.’
Belvoir has a long history of staging Indigenous work, and commits to presenting two plays a year by Indigenous Australian artists and companies. ‘It’s fantastic seeing the Indigenous companies and artists we’ve worked with in the past really taking over the world,’ says Hobson. ‘One example is ILBIJERRI Theatre Company’s production Jack Charles v The Crown, which will play at London’s Barbican in February.’
‘But I think one of the things that Australian theatre in general has struggled with, and certainly we’ve struggled with, is getting broader than that, and working with artists from western Sydney, which is much more culturally diverse than the inner city,’ continues Hobson. ‘We had a production called The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe last year by a fantastic group of African women who’ve moved to Australia, some as refugees, some not. There are examples like that which we’re really proud of, but we’re working on getting it through programming more broadly. We certainly haven’t got all the answers.’
Indeed, Belvoir is building up season upon season of new and distinctly Australian work, but this hasn’t narrowed its international horizons when it comes to touring. Prior to Myers’ appointment, the company toured once every few years – it now takes productions abroad at least twice a year, and is a major player on the festival scene. Countries include the US, South Korea, Norway, the Netherlands and the UK.
Though Hobson is tight-lipped about what’s coming up this year, she is enthusiastic about the prospect of exporting Belvoir’s best to international audiences once again in 2014. ‘The response we have when touring internationally has been fantastic. One of the fascinating things is that it has a really strong role in terms of cultural diplomacy – people don’t necessarily know that Australians aren’t all bronzed beachgoers. Opening up a different side of our culture is important.’