This is a story about a venue as well as a show. The venue is Paramatta's Riverside Theatre, which was under-utilised for many years after it opened just over twenty years ago. It's a lovely audience-friendly venue, designed by Andrew Andersons - who has also given Sydney its sublime Recital Hall in Angel Place; lively Sydney Opera House lower concourse; and most recently, the Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay. As a regular audience member, Andersons loves all classic forms of the performing arts and, in his travels, has inspected hundreds of theatres around the world. He found inspiration for the tucked-away site for the Recital Hall of Martin Place in the ancient sector of Barcelona, with a tiny corner entrance you tended to stumble upon only if you were lucky enough to turn by chance down one of that city's maze of cobbled streets. He faced exactly that design predicament with the location of the Recital Hall and, thus inspired, turned a problem to advantage. Andersons has a particular fondness for the intimacy and dynamic actor-audience relationship of 18th and 19th century theatres with cake-like rounded tiers leaning over the acting space - though his own versions are stripped of tizz. He put a wooden floor into the Sydney Theatre so audiences might stamp their feet if so inspired.
Riverside was built with sort-of good intentions, largely vote grabbing; but without a supporting programming vision. Your classic white elephant. But hey, Parramatta is the middle of Sydney - and not without both discerning and curious citizens within reach. So the idea of a smart good-sized venue set in the middle of the Sydney metropolis made sense. Parramatta Council, perplexed with what to actually do with the venue are now highly supportive of the current pro-active management.
Not until Robert Love took over Directorship of the venue about seven years ago that life blood slowly began to flow. No longer merely a house for hire, Love began his own programing of what were sometimes quite high-risk events: the UK's comic group, The Goodies for example. At one point, the Sydney Theatre Company's Wharf Revue was invited in for a season. The material was very inner-city. But Love is adventurous, patient and persistent by nature - and these days the Wharf Revue is a packed-to-the-rafters annual season highlight.
Three years ago, Camilla Roundtree came on board as Producer of Riverside Productions and, working with Love, the venue has really started to cook. Seasons are short. But a steady stream of many of the best smaller shows from around Australia find their way to Riverside: most recently, the Sydney Theatre Company's excellent show about The Goons, Yin Tong. Cabaret is strong with Phil Scott and Judi Connelli/Suzanne Johnston presenting recent seasons.
Booking in Matt Cameron's imaginative play, Ruby Moon, was a particularly good example of the theatre's strong commitment to younger audiences. There is also a stand-alone Music Notes series which this year has taken in the likes of North Africa's Dhafer Youssef with a music theatre repertoire scheduled for regular Sunday On Broadway concerts. The Australian Ballet is currently presenting a triple bill, Pacific Opera's The Barber of Seville plays soon and further on, the SBS Youth Orchestra.
So you get the drift: short, in-out seasons, of a wide range of work. The emphasis is strongly towards new Australian-made material, and the work of established and promising independent companies. Once you become aware of the burgeoning Riverside phenomenon, then it's no harder than dipping into the program online and making a note in your diary. Among the other positives are ticket prices, much lower for shows that might also play seasons in the city. If you're a family pack, the whole parking, baby-sitter, meal-out deal comes in at a significant discount to a night wrestling with the CBD.
So that's the advert. The latest news is evolution to a new stage of work produced from scratch by the Riverside team. Just completing a return season has been Studio Theatre's King Lear - co-produced and premiering at Riverside. It has already enjoyed one successful tour and is now off again, travelling from Newcastle to Lismore via Taree and other northern NSW towns. Characterful of this company's work is a pared-down simplicity. Rowntree says her own priority as a producer is on work the brings to the fore the core relationships between text, actor and audience. That's also what we get here.
This Lear is not huge in any way. Heavily trimmed, it remains focused on core themes. To those who know the work, it is honest if a little over-simplified. For newcomers, including schoolies (for many this year it is a set text), the work is accessible and true in spirit. It's worth seeing for Patrick Dickson as Lear: his work commands respect and is always of interest. Vanessa Downing's, understatedly mean Goneril, displays yet again her admirable finesse. While all hold their parts, there are also some particularly fine moments from Ksenja Logos (Fool and other roles), Ben Agar (Edgar) and Daniel Mitchell (the eye-gouged Gloucester).
So keep an eye out for this Lear if it is travelling your way. For Sydney readers who don't happen to live in the Eastern Suburbs, check out the increasingly dynamic Riverside program. For those of you who seriously panic once the car you are in crosses a major bridge, perhaps start paying a bit more attention to the Sydney Opera House's Studio program which is also varied, bold and not too expensive. That said, you can always travel to Riverside by ferry. It takes a while, but the trip is great. Great views of harbour suburbs, the final kilometres of mangroves - very African Queen!
Which reminds of something utterly irrelevant. I once had a friend phone me up and offer me his latest impression. 'Who am I?' he demanded. 'Quentin Crisp', I nervously ventured. It was his Katherine Hepburn apparently. That was my Rivercat flashback...lol
Riverside Theatres and Studio Company present
by William Shakespeare
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Corner Church and Market Streets, Parramatta
Dates: Wednesday 8 – Friday 10 August
Times: Wed 8, Thurs 9 & Fri 10 at 11:00am; Fri 10 at 7:30pm
Tickets: Adults $47, Conc $42, Under 30 is $32, Under 16 $27
Fri/Sat evenings, Adults $50, Concessions $45, 30 and under $35, 16 and under $30
Bookings: Riverside Box Office 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au
National Tour Dates:
Bathurst Bathurst Memorial Entertainment Centre | Thursday 2 – Saturday 4 August
Parramatta Riverside Theatres | Wednesday 8 – Friday 10 August
Newcastle Civic Theatre | Tuesday 14 – Saturday 25 August
Gosford Laycock Street Theatre | Wednesday 29 – Thursday 30 August
Taree Manning Entertainment Centre | Tuesday 4 September
Coffs Harbour Jetty Memorial Theatre | Thursday 6 – Friday 7 September
Lismore Star Court Theatre – NORPA | Friday 8 September