Matthew Lutton vividly remembers the thrill of his first theatre experience. He was 15, sitting in the Regal Theatre in Perth, and completely mesmerised by Slava’s Snowshow.
“It was the first show I saw twice,” says Lutton. “I remember sitting in that theatre with snow plummeting at me and they played Carmina Burana. It was thrilling just to be part of that experience. ”
For those who have seen a Matthew Lutton production, it would come as no surprise that his inauguration to the world of theatre would begin with a Russian spectacle full of clowns, snowstorms, bubbles, and a giant, wispy cobweb. In less then a decade, the 28-year-old director has established a reputation for taking big theatrical risks in form and content.
“I actually go to the theatre to see exactly the type of mechanics of story telling that television doesn’t use,” says Lutton. “I don’t really enjoy going and seeing well-plotted, five-act structured plays.”
We’re sitting in a café at the Malthouse Theatre in South Melbourne, where Lutton is having a break from the rehearsal of his play On the Misconception of Oedipus. Lutton, who relocated to Melbourne from Perth to become the Malthouse’s first associate artist (direction), has just half-an-hour for his lunch and this interview before a lengthy workshopping session with the cast.
Intended as a prequel, Misconception (which opened last week), looks at the events that came before the horrific denouement described by Sophocles, specifically the decision of Oedipus’s parents, Jocasta and Laius, to have a child.
Devised by Lutton, writer Tom Wright and designer Zoe Atkinson, the work is divided into three very different parts, the first of which is staged almost like a group-therapy session. Playing the role of the therapist, the audience listens to each of the characters as they wrestle with their psychology and belief systems.
“This is a piece that deeply looks at way the Freud has stolen Oedipus and used it as a physiological archetype to the point where they are now almost completely intertwined,” says Lutton. “But it also draws on our current obsession with talking and psychoanalysing everything. And how words like ‘repression’ and ‘desire’ are words we use daily, even over breakfast.”
Misconception is not Lutton’s first introduction to ancient Greek tragedy. In 2009, he directed Antigone – the title character was played by Kate Mulvany – for the Perth International Arts Festival. Lutton says he has always been attracted to tragedian playwrights, for their rich explorations into themes of love, violence, transgression and transformation.
“The play is a big discussion about fate and free will, because when Sophocles and Seneca were writing there was a deep belief that the gods would intervene and bring about justice. That this act of incest and patricide would be brought to light by the gods, and the guilty would be punished. But we’re sort of saying ‘well, we don’t really live in a world of gods any more. So if this happens, who strikes you down’?”
This philosophical question, which has preoccupied Lutton for some time, gives you a glimpse into the obsessive processes the director uses to filter down his ideas. Lutton doesn’t just read the script and apply a formula, he actually gets inside it, tackling each subject thoroughly and thoughtfully.
This incisive intellect and creative energy is one of the main reasons Marion Potts, artistic director of the Malthouse, chose Lutton as her associate.
“I had seen a number of Matt’s productions and had been impressed by the theatricality of his imagination and his remarkable execution of challenging ideas,” says Potts. “He is a director of great sensitivity and sound instincts. Some people are true theatre animals and he is one of them.”
As Potts suggests, what sets Lutton apart from other directors of his generation is a unique way of seeing the world. Possibly this is a result of his colourful childhood, when listening to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique was not a chore, but a daily ritual.
“My grandmother was a big influence on me and my memories of music predate memories of theatre,” says Lutton. “She would take me to the symphony orchestra when I was very young, and I was always surrounded by music. I knew about Stravinsky long before I knew about theatre.”
This interest in music inspired Lutton to take up the flute and the piano, which earned him a music scholarship at the prestigious Hale School in Perth.
When he was just 17, Lutton set up his own theatre company, Thin Ice, with the ambition of staging a performance at The Blue Room Theatre in Perth – Melbourne’s equivalent of La Mama. Although its first production – a physical theatre piece that Lutton wrote and directed – was a sellout, it was the interpretation of Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna (awarded best fringe production) that cemented its enviable reputation as a company to watch.
“It was a complete playground,” says Lutton. “And it was at that time of trying to work out what type of theatre I liked to make. So, subconsciously, I ended up trying many different approaches.”
In 2003, when Lutton was in the middle of a theatre arts degree at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, he joined the Black Swan State Theatre Company as director of the emerging artists’ BSX program. He says the experience was invaluable.
“I remember programming a theatre piece called Mountain Language, which takes seven minutes to read. I staged it as a 50-minute piece and filled it out with 25 people doing non-speaking roles,” says Lutton. “I basically would take shows that were tiny and add all this other stuff to them so they were oversaturated. In reflection, I think that was a great opportunity to work with actors, and I had 25 people left to be silent on stage. But I learnt and the next year I did The Visit, which has lots of actors.”
This intense passion for making theatre earned Lutton a Young West Australian of the Year award in 2005. And, a couple of years later, he was the youngest person to be invited onto the Australian Council’s theatre board.
In 2008, after working as an assistant director to Jean-Pierre Mignon and Neil Armfield, Lutton chanced upon the catalyst for his career. One day, during rehearsals of the Malthouse’s production of Tartuffe, director Michael Kantor was rushed to hospital. Lutton, who was 23, was asked to take over.
“I was fortunate because I’d done maybe three assisting jobs prior, and in all those jobs, I had never really loved the plays … But I loved Tartuffe. So when it all came together, I thought ‘I can do this’. I have enough enthusiasm, my imagination is fine by this material, that there is enough for me to run a rehearsal room.”
With mentoring from Armfield, Lutton’s production received positive reviews, including from Kantor, who recovered not long after.
This brave show of leadership is a quality that is echoed by those who work with Lutton. Playwright Tom Wright says Lutton has directorial qualities that are rarely found in Australian theatre.
“It’s very rare when you’re a writer to be treated like a craftsman. But Matt has always treated me like I have a certain set of skills … he understands the business of stage craft,” explains Wright.
“His also not afraid to keep experimenting and taking risks. He continues trying new forms, and I think this is fantastic because in Australia it’s very easy to become safe, and do safe plays. But Matt is always prepared to put himself on the line and show people that this is the kind of artist I am.”
Lutton is the first to admit he hasn’t always got it right. Last year’s production of Die Winterreise, starring Paul Capsis, received less-than-favourable reviews.
Cameron Woodhead, senior theatre critic for The Age, gave the performance half a star and described it as a “shocking waste of resources and talent; the show is much less than the sum of its parts”.
Lutton says he never read Woodhead’s review, but can admit that he had been too ambitious in parts.
“I was trying out a whole new range of ideas and a whole lot of new theatrical languages and it didn’t work … It was really humiliating and upsetting to present it very publicly and realise that and have to see it through. It makes you not want to do it ever again.”
Despite the loss of confidence, Lutton’s sheer determination and fearless work ethic pushed him into creating the unforgiving and challenging Richard Strauss opera Elektra, which was heralded as one of the highlights of the Perth International Arts Festival.
Even Woodhead admitted his opinions had been proved wrong: “Lutton is indeed gifted, and his Elektra leaves an indelible impression on the senses.”
Over the next 12 months, Lutton’s schedule is pretty packed; he’s opening the Declan Greene’s Pompeii, L.A. in November, and next year is billed to direct Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.
Yet, despite the hefty workload, Lutton is still committed to finding a script that will trigger the lightbulb moment that every director hopes for.
“I’m on an endless hunt for subject and content,” Lutton says. “I read the biographies of composers of the 19th century, running around, knocking on the doors of poets and saying ‘do you have something I can set and turn into an opera?’. And I feel like that. I need material to make things with, so I run around trying to find a play, or a collection of songs, or an opera, or a book that I can turn into a performance. It’s just endless hunting.”
We hope, for our sake, he never stops looking.
» On the Misconception of Oedipus, at the Malthouse Theatre, Aug 10 - 26