In more ways than one, this year has taken on the aura of a transitional time and if the Auckland theatre season seemed a little humdrum there were plenty of indications the theatre community is building towards a spectacular new dawn.
Q Theatre is finally poised to make the leap from dream to reality, Silo has found a solid foundation in symbiosis with the Herald Theatre, the Auckland Festival has unveiled a sensational theatre programme for March and the Basement Theatre could be revitalised by the purchase of an air-conditioning unit.
The liveliest theatre of the year came from the burgeoning constellation of independent companies which are under-resourced, chronically under-funded and often under-appreciated. They somehow manage to deliver passionate, idiosyncratic theatre that demonstrates a love of the craft and a commitment to the highest professional standards.
Paul Gittins, a veteran of the independent sector, directed two of the year's most interesting shows. In Finding Murdoch, playwright Margot McRae scrutinised an obscure piece of sporting trivia that threw up a revealing portrait of the national psyche. Former All Black Keith Murdoch's sphinx-like refusal to talk about the incident that defined his career was given a mythical quality that seemed to illuminate the enigma of the Kiwi bloke.
With his production of True West, Gittins presented a wonderful showcase for the consummate artistry of American writer Sam Shepard.
In a similar way, the Peripeteia company provided a valuable opportunity for young theatre practitioners to engage with the work of Shakespeare (The Tempest) and Chekhov (Three Sisters). Their intimate, energetic productions played a vital role in keeping alive the shamefully neglected classics.
The absence of a fully professional Shakespeare production this year should be regarded as an embarrassment that has impoverished the cultural life of our city.
The independent companies were also prominent in developing and presenting original work - most notably with the Rebel Alliance which provided a platform for two promising young playwrights, with Sophie Dingemans' Grace demonstrating how family history can produce compelling theatre. And a revival of Michael Downey's The Orderly delivered a hilarious and moving account of a hospital orderly connecting with the ancient roots of English culture.
At a grass-roots level, the Auckland City Council should be congratulated for supporting the Wesley Theatre Project's Our Street which saw recent immigrant communities passionately engaging with live theatre as a means of telling their own stories. Initiatives like this represent a crucial investment in the multicultural future of theatre in Auckland.
The two major companies, Auckland Theatre Company and Silo, were both at their best with thoughtful reinterpretations of 20th century classics: Colin McColl captured the poetic quality of Tennessee Williams' vision with a sumptuous production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that featured a superb cast and dazzling production design by Tony Rabbit. By contrast, Michael Hurst's grungy take on Threepenny Opera, a co-production between Silo and the Large
Company, confirmed the continuing relevance of Brecht's incisive and highly entertaining political satire.
Auckland's impressive pool of talented actors gave numerous memorable performances and my list of standouts would include Michael Lawrence as Keith Murdoch, which will probably stand as the quintessential portrait of Kiwi bloke-hood. Lawrence also hit home with his hilarious interpretation of a rebellious meat-head attempting to become a screenwriter in Sam Shepard's True West.
Toni Potter was superb in one of Tennessee Williams' finest roles - her gutsy, articulate and witty Maggie the Cat offered an optimistic interpretation of an outsider's struggle to overcome the self-indulgent degeneracy of an aristocratic family.
Peter Elliott's under-utilised comedic skills were given a great workout in Threepenny Opera where he seemed to be having the time of his life playing the beggar king Peachum.
On the international scene, two touring productions exemplified the extreme poles of live theatre. Phantom of the Opera brilliantly validated the enthralling magic of a mega-budget spectacle, while Steven Berkoff demonstrated how a single actor on a bare stage can conjure up a whole world by drawing on the power of the audience's imagination.