Theatre / “Arms and the Man”, by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Ed Wightman. At Theatre 3 until June 2. Reviewed by LEN POWER
WHEN “CityNews” catches up with theatre director Adam Spreadbury-Maher, he’s just about to get on a plane from Melbourne to attend the West End premiere of Queanbeyan playwright Tommy Murphy’s play, “Strangers in Between”, after enjoying an animated liquid lunch with his newest leading lady.
That’s Amanda Muggleton, one of Australia’s true divas, mistress of the one-woman play and a household name throughout the country for her roles in “Prisoner”, “Shirley Valentine” and “The Book Club”.
She’s shining again in Spreadbury-Maher’s production of Terrence McNally’s famous play, “Masterclass”, coming soon to The Playhouse.
In Canberra’s theatre circles, his too is a household name. An ANU honours graduate in operatic voice and drama, he left town in 2005 with a swag of Critics Circle awards and a Gold CAT under his belt, headed for London and by 2011 had scored a Laurence Olivier Award. He is now director of the King’s Head Theatre (once a pub) and the Hope Theatre, both thriving hubs of contemporary theatre.
A suitable pair to revisit a play that looks at the 20th century’s most dramatic diva, Maria Callas, superstar of La Scala and The Met, mistress of Aristotle Onassis and, in her waning years, invited to conduct masterclasses at the Juilliard School in New York.
Even though he won’t be here when the show hits Canberra, Spreadbury-Maher waxes sentimental as he thinks of his formative years in Canberra, studying at St Edmunds with Murphy, training, carving out an audience for new work and enjoying the patronage of Canberra theatrical mother-hens, most particularly the late Stella Wilkie, after whom he has named an annual directing award in London. The nurturing effect of such support cannot be overestimated, he says.
Spreadbury-Maher is very definite that his “Masterclass” will be very different from the Rodney Fisher one in which Muggleton played Callas, winning both Helpmann and Green Room Awards.
“Previous productions have set the play in a plush environment, like Carnegie or even Llewellyn Hall, with a beautiful aesthetic and everything perfect including beautiful seats – and a big gap between the stage and the audience,” he says.
None of that for him.
“My work in the past year has been looking at immersion projects, exploring the idea of the audience being more complicit in the play, so in my production the students come off the stage into the audience,” he says.
He did it with his stage version of “Trainspotting” and now he’s doing it with “Masterclass”, which opened in late 2017 in Subiaco, Perth, and is now in Melbourne.
So how did the formidable Muggleton respond to this immersion?
Enthusiastically, he reports. She and entrepreneur Andrew Kay came to see the premiere of “Trainspotting” at the Adelaide Fringe last year, got talking about a possible tour of “The Book Club” to the King’s Head and ended up planning something quite different.
Spreadbury-Maher sums up the conversation: “I said: ‘Well, let’s figure out a way’, and Andrew said: ‘I want to do a new production of “Masterclass”… I said: ‘I need to do it in immersion so that Callas’ fall from the international stage to slumming it in a teaching studio shows up more tragically and dramatically’.”
Muggleton agreed, and now goes into the auditorium. “It’s quite transformative, it’s not Carnegie Hall, it’s more like the back rooms of the School of Music, with carpet tiles and the odd one missing,” he says.
Unsurprisingly Spreadbury-Maher, like the critics, has been bowled over by the performances she turns in.
“Amanda plays the full spectrum, she’s one-minute bitchy, one-minute lovely, the next minute cutting and the next minute vulnerable… only a handful of actors can do this,” he says.
One thing that really hits the spot for him is that veteran musical director Dobbs Franks takes the stage as Callas’ pianist, Manny.
“He’s a wonderful musical director… I trained as an opera singer and this play is the marriage of two of my artistic passions,” he says.
Franks is now in his 80s and this hits the spot with Spreadbury-Maher, who says: “I work with a lot of older performers and there’s a problem about ageism in the arts, but to have a colleague with such a wealth of experience is extraordinary.”
There’s more music in his show than is usual, and his cast of young singers, Jessica Boyd, Rocco Speranza and Kala Gare, have been well able to respond.
“Fingers crossed for it coming to London, we’re working on it,” he says.
“Masterclass”, The Playhouse, February 22-24. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.