Seven-hour epic set to close Griffin’s theatre before major facelift

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Three plays by Australian playwright Louis Nowra, The Lewis Trilogy, will be performed back to back by an ensemble of eight actors including Paul Capsis and Thomas Campbell, to close Griffin Theatre’s SBW Stables Theatre ahead of major renovations.

Declan Greene and Louis Nowra at Griffin Theatre’s home, the SBW Stables Theatre.Credit: Steven Siewert

Griffin Theatre artistic director Declan Greene, who will direct all three, agonised over choosing what should see out the 50-year-old, 105-seat theatre in its current configuration.

“We thought we should be closing with something really ambitious because that felt like the spirit of this building,” he says. So, the Griffin team asked themselves: “What’s Australia’s Angels in America? What’s Australia’s War of the Roses?”

“Australian playwrights don’t have the opportunity often to write these giant, state-of-a-nation epics,” Greene says. “We slowly realised that we do [have one], and it’s The Lewis Trilogy.”

Nowra says: “It’s probably one of the most ambitious things in theatre I’ve heard of, for a long while. I feel honoured that they’re going out doing the trilogy.”

Nowra’s semi-autobiographical Lewis Trilogy was written between 1992 and 2017 and is set between 1962 and 2017. The first play is Summer of the Aliens, in whose original production the playwright starred as the narrator, about Lewis at the age of 14, growing up in a housing commission flat. It has not been seen on Australian main stages since the 1990s.

The second is Cosi, about a 20-year-old Lewis mounting a theatre production in a mental institution. The play has become an Australian classic, endlessly remounted and a fixture of the school curriculum, and was turned into a film starring Ben Mendelsohn, Toni Collette and David Wenham in 1996.

This Much Is True, the final play, was written 25 years after the first two. In it, a middle-aged, divorced Lewis becomes a part of a community of fringe dwellers, including a meth chemist and a drag queen, whose lives converge at a pub.

“These are not mainstream people, but they’re not outsiders,” explains Nowra. “They’re running parallel to mainstream society, whether it’s the housing commission, the mental institution, or the hotel in the last play. They don’t care about mainstream society; they have their own values. And that’s what I wanted to get across without moralism or anything.”

Putting on each play back to back over the course of a day has never been attempted before. The full repertoire of the trilogy will play on Saturdays and Sundays over seven hours, including an interval and a dinner break, while one play will be on per night Wednesday to Friday.

“To imagine Lewis over a period of about three or four decades, that’s going to be very interesting for me,” Nowra says.

“I’m interested to see how Lewis changes the community he’s with, and how he’s changed from a young boy to a much older man, but he still seems to be attracted to these people outside the mainstream, who mean everything to him. And he finds happiness with these people.”

Greene adds that there’s resonance between the plays’ themes of community and connection, and the experience of watching epic theatre: “There’s something really interesting in what happens when you’re sitting in a little room with 105 people over seven hours. You will feel like you’re doing something together.”

The announcement of the final plays at the Stables comes a day ahead of the launch of Griffin’s full 2024 season on Tuesday night. When the Stables closes, Griffin will perform their program at other Sydney venues.

Griffin’s major redevelopment is expected to cost $10 million, including $5 million from the NSW government’s Creative Capital program, with the remaining amount raised through philanthropy. The plans involve knocking down the house next door to create 40 per cent more space, to be used to add 35 more seats, wheelchair access, and a rehearsal room, while expanding backstage and the foyer, to create a multi-use performance space.

“The stage isn’t getting much bigger or anything like that,” says Greene. “It’s still going to be a really intimate space.”

But before the redevelopment gets under way, the theatre will be seen off with the ambitious The Lewis Trilogy.

“These three plays really encapsulate the best of what Australian playwriting can be,” Greene says. “I hope that, after this, lots of other people put the trilogy on.”

The Lewis Trilogy is at Griffin Theatre from February 10 to April 21.

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