The New Millennium

Words by Andrew Fuhrmann – April 2015

The new millennium begins with the kick and glitter of cabaret as Sharman returns to the National Institute for the Dramatic Arts for Berlin to Broadway with Kurt Weill. The production stars a young Amie McKenna, among others, with sets designed by future Belvoir artistic director Ralph Myers and choreography by Shaun Parker.

Kabarett Junction follows in 2002. Opening in a cosy new bar above a pizza parlour in Bondi, Sharman’s show brings the music of Lou Reed and Randy Newman together with Weimar classics by Brecht and Weill. There are anthems aplenty—from “Walk on the Wild Side” to “Mack the Knife”—but this isn’t cabaret that settles for crowd-pleasing covers and comic sketches. Sharman also deals in danger and dissonance, social satire and sympathy for outsiders and misfits. Amie McKenna – today known to cabaret aficionados as the inimitable Ava Torch – once again stars, along with venue founder David Hawkins. Musical direction is by Alan John.

Should we be surprised that a director who has worked on the biggest stages in the world should so often returns to these intimate, sticky-carpet venues?

“It has never mattered to me whether I’m working on a musical in the West End or a little play in the theatre upstairs at the Royal Court or a production at NIDA,” says Sharman. “I always deal with them in the same way. If it’s a big opera, of course, you’re conscious that there are more people involved and that there’s more running around required, but the basic approach is never any different. I don’t care if a show runs for eleven years or three performances, I see them all as equally important.”

This is perhaps the side of Sharman which theatre historian Julian Meyrick calls the “diligent autodidact”. He has that natural scepticism of established hierarchies typical of the self-taught.

In 2004, Sharman directs Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, that violent and absurd farce which is so much like a collision between Noises Off and Rocky Horror. Here Sharman works again with Brian Thomson and Nigel Levings, with clothes** by Alice Lau.

Soon after, a new work by Stephen Sewell called Three Furies comes to the attention of Brett Sheehy, at the time artistic director of the Sydney Festival. It’s an ambitious portrait of English painter Francis Bacon and his stormy relationship with George Dyer, the rough-and-tumble young man who was for many years Bacon’s muse.

Impressed by the originality of the piece and determined to present it at the Festival, Sheehy passes it on to Sharman.

“Reading it,” recalls Sharman, “I was drawn back to London in the 1970s and Bacon’s searching, seductive yet forensic gaze. The subject was dark and familiar, but its treatment was original and intriguing.”

Sharman’s connection with Sewell goes back to the Lighthouse days of the early eighties, when the young Sewell was brought in as one of three resident scribes, the other two being Patrick White and Louis Nowra. Sewell shares with Sharman – and indeed with White and the Nowra – a native hostility to theatre which glories only in the outward seeming of things. He is a writer who, like Francis Bacon in his paintings, is never afraid of showing the audience an ugly, inward truth, of spilling the guts of a difficult matter and revelling in the outrage of it.

For Three Furies, Sharman introduces Sewell to composer Basil Hogios and a unique cabaret event is born. The 2005 Sydney Festival season wins Sharman a Helpmann Award for best direction and the production is revived for the 2006 Perth and Adelaide Festivals.

The production also marks 35 years since Sharman and Thomson first worked together as director and designer. And how apt that Francis Bacon should be their dark angel of remembrance; in 1970 it was Magritte and Warhol. Their shared aesthetic project has always been guided by the best lights of contemporary visual art.

Later in 2006, Sharman and Thomson return to another of their landmarks, Benjamin Britten’s Death in Venice, which is revived for Opera Australia. This time Britten specialist Richard Hickox is at the podium while Philip Langridge sings Aschenbach and with baritone Peter Coleman-Wright as his alter ego.

In 2008 Sharman publishes his memoir, Blood & Tinsel, through Miegunyah Press, Melbourne University Press’ prestige imprint. Not only is the narrative arc of Sharman’s story irresistible – from country sideshows to the lights of the West End and back again – but the book also serves as an invaluable document of period, showing just how far the Australian theatre scene has changed since the 1960s.

To close out the first decade of the new millennium, in 2009 Sharman directs a very youthful, very modern new production of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte for Opera Australia. Sharman and his designers create a seductive world of shifting colours, abstract shapes and quicksilver transformations, the perfect match to Mozart’s dash and fizz. Brisbane-born conductor Simon Hewett leads the orchestra.

There’s something recognisably Australian about the production in the brashness and lightness of it, but amid the bursts of confetti and sunbeds there’s also a clear attempt to engage the opera’s often obscured spiritual aspect.

For Sharman, the way to make an old story live is to tell it in a new way. Here Cosi Fan Tutte is not a comedy of love and love’s betrayal; it is rather a meditation on the inevitability of change in all things. That is, it’s not so much morality but mortality which Sharman is interested in.

And of course, this has been his approach all along: to do new works like the classics and the classics like new works. With all things fluid and nothing permanent, least of all on the stage, all that a theatre-maker can do is try to speak to his or her culture its own terms.

And how much of our culture today is a virtual culture? More and more, Jim Sharman is working with new media art forms – with digital technologies both immersive and interactive.

This begins in earnest in 2011 when he establishes Sunday Pictures. The company’s first project, Andy X, premieres in 2012, described as a forty minute screen séance with Andy Warhol.

Directed by Sharman, it’s an online, epiphanic combination of cabaret and super-bright pop art portraiture, reflecting on Warhol’s life and legacy, his invention of a post-industrial sublime and the significance of his art of surfaces and slippages today.

Stephen Sewell writes the screenplay and Basil Hogios the music. Akos Armont stars as Warhol and Sheridan Harbridge is Judy Garland. Sharman also works closely with cinematographer Bonnie Elliott and young designer Justin Nardella to develop the work’s highly-stylised technicolour aesthetic. It’s a project which collides new and old, not only referencing the history of pop art and avant garde assemblages, but also the work of visionary film directors such as Kubrick and Hitchcock.

Most recently, Jim Sharman has returned again to NIDA and to Shakespeare’s The Tempest in what is being described as a form of Jacobean science fiction. And so, what’s past is prologue, whereof what is to come – the labyrinthine ways of loving and dreaming will again, under the influence of an auspicious star, be remade for a new generation.