Keith Gallasch on Benedict Andrews

Benedict Andrews has proven himself to be the most consistently interesting and challenging theatre director in Australia. His totality of vision creates immersive theatrical worlds that seamlessly merge passion, intelligence and a heightened visual sensibility.

Most satisfying is the rigour with which Andrews and his collaborators generate design, media and character motifs which evolve and mutate with a frightening logic (the drinking in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? becomes a flood of ice and spilled liquids underlining emotional abjection; the glass wall between performers and audience in Eldorado fluctuates between windows on the home and a world at war—one nightmarishly unspecified).

Marked physicality—whether realised as utter stillness (Cate Blanchett as Richard II in The War of the Roses) or panicky desperation (everyone in Moving Target)—is characteristic of the director’s work, again with a strong pictorial, even choreographic awareness.

A sense of immediate contemporaneity is also evident, not least in plays chosen from the past. In Andrews’ production of The Season at Sarsaparilla 1960s Australia is meticulously evoked but as if seen through the eyes of Reality TV’s Big Brother, with cameras installed within the set to provide close-ups both amusing and chilling. The director’s account of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure for Company B takes this surveillance motif even further. The sense of a shared present is also evident in Andrews’ engagement with violence—whether in his realisations of the psychotically closed worlds of Mr Kolpert or Fireface or the unidentified wars offstage in Eldorado or The City or the explicit ones in The War of the Roses.

Facilely criticised in some quarters for being party to a “director’s theatre”, in “Directors + playwrights: the living & the dead,” Andrews took exception to an attack on young directors by playwright Louis Nowra: “I work with living writers and dead ones. I do not breathe some sigh of relief as Louis Nowra might imagine when working on a classical text as if I were suddenly free to dance on the playwright’s grave. Each project is demanding and all consuming and I enter it with questions and fantasies I want to explore with the community of people I work with and the audience who will watch our work.”

Benedict Andrews was born in Adelaide in 1972, graduated with First Class Honours in Bachelor of Arts from Flinders University Drama Centre, directed locally, including a stint as artistic director of Magpie2 for the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Magpie, formerly a Theatre in Education company, was now boldly targetting the 18-25 year-old demographic but Andrews had barely made his nonetheless palpable mark before Australia Council funding was withdrawn (Murray Bramwell, “A future or a blown youth?”, RT 23, p9, not yet available online).

In 1996 Andrews wrote for RealTime (RT 16, p6, not available online) about the experience of seeing works by Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch, Peter Stein and Robert Lepage, as well as Polish and Japanese performance, at the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe. In 1998 he was awarded the Gloria Payten & Gloria Dawn Fellowship which he used to travel to Europe as well as New York. His New York report for RealTime (“Looking for Elsewhere”, RT 30, p34) included a vivid account of the hard-edged performance style of the work of Richard Maxwell—perhaps an influence. What Andrews’ writing revealed was a young Australian theatre director’s welcome and rare openness to new forms and diverse performance languages.

Andrews went on at various times to work as assistant director to Neil Armfield, Michael Gow and Jim Sharman and was appointed resident director of the Sydney Theatre Company 2000-2003. Since then he has created productions for Malthouse, Sydney Theatre Company and Company B. He directs annually in Australia and at Berlin’s Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz (reviews of Andrews’ Berlin productions of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and David Harrowers’ Blackbird can be accessed below) and presently lives in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Andrews will direct King Lear at the National Theatre of Iceland in Reykjavik in December this year and the Monteverdi opera The Return of Ulysses for the Young Vic and English National Opera in London in 2011. His production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Australia is now scheduled for 2012. According to an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, Andrews also has film projects in mind and is to have his poems published in Blast magazine.

In the same interview, Andrews said of Measure for Measure, “I want to stage it like a psycho-sexual thriller, like a David Lynch film…the play is very much concerned with desire and law and strange doubled realities, with another reality seeping through another reality” (June 2, www.smh.com.au/entertainment). Our review of Measure for Measure will appear in the July 12 RealTime online edition and in the RT 98 print edition.

A substantial list of reviews of Andrews’ productions appears below along with an interview and two examples of the director’s writing. One of these is an introduction to the work of Christoph Marthaler, a European opera and theatre director greatly admired by Andrews and written in anticipation of the staging of Marthaler’s Seemannslieder for the 2007 Sydney Festival.

Benedict Andrews has created many memorable works, not all of them perfect but sharing a boldness of vision and a recognisable evolving personality. His productions of Marivaux’s La Dispute (in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s far from funny version of the comedy), Mr Kolpert, Fireface, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Caryl Churchill’s Far Away seem as vivid in my recollections as when I saw them. But it’s The Wars of the Roses and, above all, The Season at Sarsaparilla that have made the deepest mark, for the scale and fidelity of their vision. The hugely popular production of the Patrick White play and its critical success laid to rest the “directors’ theatre” debate. As James Waites has argued, it revealed the work to a be a classic of Australian playwrighting and the production worthy of an international audience.

There’s much more that could be said of Benedict Andrews—about the influence of contemporary performance, of media culture, of German theatre (via English engagement with German plays but also directly and in collaboration with German artists) and the evolution of a very particular design sensibility (working with a small, recurrent group of designers), at first glance very European, but as in The Season at Sarsaparilla, totally and radically responsive to our sense of the past as viewed through the present.

Keith Gallasch, 2010

This article originally appeared in RealTime Online June 28 and is reproduced with the permission of the writer and the publisher, Open City; www.realtimearts.net