“I think what has evolved from the program is a really powerful through-line about community and resilience,” State Theatre artistic director Mitchell Butel says of his 2022 season, launched last night.

After losing much of Butel’s first season to the wave of pandemic shutdowns in 2020, the company found itself in the enviable position of a 2021 run largely unscathed by the Delta variant – unlike so many of its interstate counterparts. Putting aside any survivor’s guilt, Butel says it’s been a “really transformative time” for the company.

“[2021] also brought to us, bizarrely, a raft of really young and diverse audiences in a way the company hasn’t seen before; I think in a way, because of the change of circumstances, people haven’t been able to travel as much or they’ve had a different focus.”

While a second attempt at Seven Stages of Grieving, due to open in late July after being postponed in 2020, was cancelled due to border closures (“I’m not finished what that show,” Butel adds), the 2022 program will revisit Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female after initial plans to bring a La Boite Theatre production to Adelaide in 2020 were scuppered.

“This time I’m thrilled that we’ve got Nescha Jelk directing a whole new South Australian production for us that will feature Juanita Navas-Nguyen,” Butel says of the Adelaide-based actor who will also appear in the company’s upcoming productions of Eureka Day (November) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (January).

The 2022 season comes front-loaded with productions cherry-picked from London’s West End, with Butel himself directing Justine Clarke in the Australian premiere of Dennis Kelly’s biting one-hander Girls & Boys, to be presented during the Adelaide Festival.

Tuuli Narkle as tennis star Evonne Goolagong Cawley in Sunshine Super Girl.

The company will also embark on one of its biggest undertakings in recent years with Girl from the North Country, set to debut at Sydney Festival in January before making its way to Adelaide. Set in Dust Bowl-era Minnesota and drawing on a set of old favourites and deep cuts from Bob Dylan’s songbook, Irish playwright’s Conor McPherson’s rootsy musical will feature locally built sets and a cast that includes State Theatre regulars James Smith and Elizabeth Hay alongside stars Lisa McCune and Helen Dallimore.

Sitting centre-court in next year’s program is Andrea James’ Sunshine Super Girl, a playful tribute to the life and career of Evonne Goolagong Cawley.

“It’s such a beautiful piece,” Butel says of the play, which was staged in traverse with audience members on either side of a tennis court when it opened at Sydney Festival in January.

“Finding an appropriate venue was an initial concern, but after they did it at Sydney Festival, and I saw it, I thought, ‘I think this could go in the [Dunstan] Playhouse’. So there will still be court-side seating, with three or four rows onstage on the other side of the court, but the primary audience will be in the Playhouse.

“It’s super fun, [partly] because the way tennis matches unfold has a dimension of physical theatre to it, but it’s also a beautiful depiction of community. I knew the Evonne Goolagong Cawley story, but it’s a real study of a community wanting someone to do really well.”

Next year’s reimagined classic will take the form of an Elena Carapetis-penned redux of Antigone, which Butel says has been dragged into a contemporary context of unrest and resistance.

“She’s not only adapted one of the greatest and oldest plays in Western drama, she’s smashed it, thrown it at the wall, stepped all over it and mutated it back into this thing that still honours Sophocles’ play, but is an incredible kaleidoscope of women sticking it to the man,” he says.

“It’s a really fantastically form-breaking, wild night in the theatre. I’m expecting many letters of complaint and shock ­– and of congratulations as well.”

Along with Caleb Lewis’s Cathedral in May and Angela Betzien’s Catherine McClements-starring classroom dark comedy Chalkface in August, such new productions form the spine of the season.

Mitchell Butel will play the lead role in Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart.

“The fact that we’ve got three Australian premieres of new works, for me that’s one of the most exciting things about my job, to shepherd new works into being, new works that will hang around for a while.”

Butel will close out the year playing the lead role in Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 play The Normal Heart. “I saw it at the Sydney Theatre Company in 1989 – I remember being shook to the core; it’s a landmark work both of the gay canon and the American canon.”

Like Russell T Davies’ recent TV series It’s A Sin, it’s a period of recent history that carries renewed poignancy today: “I just thought it would be a really interesting way of looking at what’s happened to the world in terms of a different kind of pandemic – but this was a pandemic that was largely ignored by the government and FDA for some time.”

But importantly, Butel says, it will also be an “electric night at the theatre”, in a time when making plans still carries a measure of defiance about it.

“There will always be drama,” Butel says, “but let’s have something to look forward to. If there’s nothing in the calendar, what’s the point of continuing?”

Full details of the 2022 season can be found on the State Theatre website. It also includes two Stateside productions: Yes, by feminist theatre-makers The Rabble, and Kill Climate Deniers, by Kinetik Collective (read more about that work in this recent InReview interview with Kinetik’s co-founders).

Note: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is set to be rescheduled for January after being postponed last month – keep an eye on the State Theatre website for updates.

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