The Lysicrates PrizeLeft – Lysicrates Monument, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Photo – Jaime Plaza

The Lysicrates Prize, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Sydney philanthropists, John and Patricia Azarias. It invokes an ancient Greek tradition from the Festival of Dionysos: the audience watches the first act of three shortlisted plays and votes to choose the winner.

It seemed an unlikely audience to be voting on a national playwriting award. The audience did not resemble a normal theatre going audience – mostly well heeled sponsors, members of the public that won tickets on the Alan Jones radio show, and a lot of current and former politicians and public officials.

It may have been their liking for a vote that attracted so many state and federal politicians from both sides, or it may have been the persuasive skills of the Azarias’s. As Senator the Hon. Mitch Fifield commented in his award presentation, delivered in front of the Lysicrates Monument in Sydney’s Botanic Gardens (recently restored thanks to the Lysicrates Foundation): “When John Azarias invites you, it’s not an invitation”.

I was a little dubious to begin with about the credibility of the outcome. But then I heard Griffin Theatre Company Artistic Director Lee Lewis speak to this very different audience about the value of producing contemporary Australian plays that address contemporary Australian concerns, using contemporary Australian voices. She spoke passionately and inspiringly about how the Griffin is the only company in Australia whose mission is to produce only new Australian work. And then I realised the genius of the Azarias’s in promoting the value of this work to this audience, particularly given the current state of arts funding.

Out of twenty scripts submitted by established playwrights, three excellent new works were selected. They were each given a one week rehearsal with a professional director and cast.  

The first was Saint Leo, written by Campion Decent. This madcap comedy about how to take control of one’s own death – part Gilbert and Sullivan, part Vicar of Dibley – was directed by Helen Dallimore and performed by Paula Arundell, Simon Burke, Tamlyn Henderson and Rowan Witt.

Mary Rachel Brown’s Approximate Balance was performed by Linda Cropper, Lena Cruz, John Gaden and Richard Sydenham and directed by Mitchell Butel. It is a drama about the brutalising experience of parents dealing with their delinquent adult son’s addiction. Brown has a light comic touch, however, that balances the tragedy of the material.

The final piece was The Good Wolf by Elise Hearst, directed by Ben Winspear and performed by Natalie Gamsu, Deborah Kennedy, Michelle Lim and Hamish Michael. A terrifically funny play about a girl’s search for her grandfather, it is jam packed with Jewish shtick.   

I felt sure the audience would be charmed by the humour and energy of The Good Wolf and vote it the winner – they certainly seemed very entertained by it – but instead they chose the dramatic and powerful Approximate Balance.

Audience members that I asked about their choices talked about the strength of the narrative structure of Approximate Balance, how the subject matter is something that affects many families, and commented that they really wanted to know what happened in the second act.

As Lee Leslie said in her introduction: “Audiences know a good play when they see one”. And she was right. All three plays were strong, but the audience made an excellent choice.


For more information, go to www.lysicratesfoundation.org.au



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