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The year after Kip Williams graduated from the National Institute of Dramatic Art, in 2010, he was taken into Sydney Theatre Company as assistant director to Andrew Upton on The White Guard. The next year, at age 25, he was doing his first show for STC as a resident director, orchestrating Dylan Thomas’s play for voices, Under Milk Wood.
Then came a visceral production of Macbeth that turned the tables on the audience and, earlier this year, a version of Suddenly, Last Summer that won Williams the Helpmann Award for best director.
Williams, 29, has the look of a bearded cherub. Deeply thoughtful about theatre and music, he has been quietly making his name as a director, while seeming to avoid the publicity hoopla some of his contemporaries attract. When we catch up with him, he has been assisting his STC colleague Sarah Goodes on her Orlando, and is just about to start rehearsals with Sydney Chamber Opera on the searing contemporary work An Index of Metals.
He speaks eloquently about theatre and opera, with an understanding that the component parts of music and drama become one in performance.
“Opera is a form of theatre and you can treat theatre as a form of opera,” Williams says. We’re sitting in a park at Sydney’s Elizabeth Bay, the grey sky reflecting off the harbour and the sound of cockatoos periodically interrupting the conversation. “One of the reasons I love directing opera is that the rhythm of the piece — especially when you are working with extraordinary dramatists like Mozart and Britten — is already set for you. It’s something you have to chew upon and respond to.
“In relation to theatre, I am very drawn to plays and playwrights who write in a highly rhythmic and musical way: Shakespeare, Caryl Churchill, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams. Their scripts are like operatic scores and I direct them in a similar way.”
Given Williams’s family background and preoccupations, it should be no surprise he has made his career in the theatre. His mother, Clytie, is a specialist in childhood education, and his father James once took a break from his law career to join the chorus of Opera Australia. James Williams’s mother, Wendy Playfair, was a well-known radio and television actress.
Putting on shows was part of Kip Williams’s childhood. (“The role of director sort of fell upon me in an unspoken, organic manner,” he says.) He was the drama captain at Cranbrook School, and with his friend Sam Reid, now a film actor, he started a theatre company called Set. He chuckles sheepishly at the memory. “Oh, just because of the naffness of your own childhood,” he says. “We mostly just devised new works ourselves. At one point there was talk of us doing Hamlet, but that never eventuated.”
Beckett was a formative influence, especially those heady ideas about existentialism and of theatre being “extraordinary gestures in space”. Neil Armfield’s 2003 Waiting for Godot at Belvoir was life-changing, and Williams and Reid staged their version of Rough for Theatre I at school. Later, at NIDA, Williams did Not I and broke all the rules, having a cast of 20 where Beckett stipulated a sole speaking actress and a silent auditor. (“It would have been shut down, were it a professional production,” he says.)
Williams was discovering his theatre craft while being trained in the rigorous discipline of church music. For six years from the age of nine until his voice broke, Williams sang in the choir at St Mark’s Darling Point. The experience not only gave him a thorough study of music, it taught him the rhythms and cadence of the liturgy, something he has taken with him into the theatre. “Cadence is hugely important in storytelling,” he says. “In a micro way, from how somebody sits down in a chair, to a macro way, or how one scene relates to another scene.”
Williams’s work with STC has included Under Milk Wood, Churchill’s Love and Information (first seen at the Malthouse) and a Macbeth with Hugo Weaving that had the audience sitting on the stage, staring into the void of the auditorium. (“Intelligent, passionate and quite thrilling” is how The Australian’s John McCallum described it.)
His production of Suddenly, Last Summer excited plenty of comment during its run last February, not least because of its extensive use of live video. The actors — including Robyn Nevin as the imperious Mrs Venable — were filmed on stage but were hidden for the first half-hour, their images projected on to a screen.
One could ask whether live theatre should be mediated in this way, and Williams admits he “self-flagellated” over the idea. His carefully choreographed live and projected action reached a crescendo in the scene of Catherine’s terrifying testimony, when the camera came into extreme close-up on her face. “The use of video was not a supplementary way of simply meditating on voyeurism, for example,” Williams says. “It was a spatial mechanism that sought to put the audience inside the heightened nightmare of that play.”
Suddenly, Last Summer won Williams the Helpmann Award — the other nominees included his STC colleagues, Goodes and Upton — but the awards ceremony cast him uncomfortably into the spotlight. The night before, his maternal grandmother had died, and Williams was not sure he even wanted to attend the celebration. It took all he had to keep it together when his name was called.
Williams returns to Sydney Chamber Opera this month, after earlier excursions with Peter Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse, and a staged version of Bach’s cantata Ich Habe Genug, paired with a modern Nunc Dimittis by SCO’s Jack Symonds.
An Index of Metals is a video opera for soprano, ensemble and electronics that Italian composer Fausto Romitelli intended would induce a “trance of light and sound”. Among the director’s challenges is to find a stage language for a piece that has no linear narrative, and that sounds a bit like Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire crossed with Radiohead. Jane Sheldon will sing the soprano part, with Ensemble Offspring providing the music.
“We found in rehearsals that even if Jane was to make the smallest gesture, to match the eruptive quality of a particular moment, it would be over the top,” Williams says. “It would undermine what is, at the core, a deeply tragic expression of the state of being.”
Williams has not yet worked with one of the major opera companies — he assisted Jim Sharman on Cosi fan tutte for Opera Australia in 2009 — but it can only be a matter of time. Otherwise, he is busy in the theatre next year, directing Miss Julie for Melbourne Theatre Company, and with three shows on his slate at STC. First up is Louis Nowra’s 1985 play The Golden Age, about a lost community discovered in remote Tasmania.
Williams was among those mentioned as a possible successor to Upton as artistic director at STC, a job that went to Englishman Jonathan Church. He says he would love to head a theatre company one day, but he appears to be in no hurry. Such has been his success that audiences may wish for him to keep working on the stage, not behind the scenes.
“Anyone who aspires to be on stage or make work for an audience has a certain level of ego within them: you think your voice is important enough to be listened to,” Williams says. “The primary factor … is that you are communicating, and wanting to have a conversation with people.”
Sydney Chamber Opera presents An Index of Metals, Carriageworks, Sydney, November 16 to 19.
Image: Kip Williams: ‘I am very drawn to playwrights who write in a highly rhythmic and musical way.’ Picture: Jane Dempster Source: News Limited