Robyn Nevin is delighted. She has just been told the Patrick White play The Season At Sarsaparilla, one of the headline acts of next year’s Sydney Theatre Company season, opens the same night as the Mardi Gras parade.

Considering the play features cross-gender casting, with Peter Carroll dressed in a pink chenille dressing gown as a suburban 1950s housewife, Nevin lets out a great laugh at the unintended, but entirely appropriate, timing of the play’s opening.

Isn’t that fantastic? the artistic director of the STC lets out with a whoop. I didn’t know that, but you have to say that is very appropriate, and the actors will love that.

Peter Carroll will be thrilled, and maybe we should have him on his own float this year in his pink chenille. He is playing Girlie Pogson, the same role I played in 1973, a middle-aged housewife living in this tight, mean little suburban street, and there is a huge level of sexual frustration.

It is by Patrick White, the famous gay writer, and he would love to think we were playing with his play as it is set in the 1950s, the relaxed and comfortable era we are persuaded to look back on by our current government. Actually, I don’t think the words gay and lesbian were allowed to have any meaning in those days.

Nevin is excited by the upcoming season of the White play but, as she talks, it is obvious she is passionate about the entire 2007 STC season, which consists of 11 plays and involves two recent Oscar-winning talents -“ Philip Seymour Hoffman and Cate Blanchett -“ taking on directing duties. It is one of the most vibrant seasons the STC has put together in recent years.

It includes premieres of Riflemind, Troupers, The Art Of War and Love-Lies-Bleeding, the Sydney premiere of the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and a revival of the Williamson classic Don’s Party.

Among the star line-up are Hugo Weaving, Deborah Mailman, Marina Prior, Rhys Muldoon, Barry Otto and Robyn Nevin herself.

It is the coup of securing this year’s Best Actor Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman to direct Andrew Upton’s Riflemind which Nevin is clearly proud of.

I am thrilled to bits, she says. He has a very impressive CV in terms of theatre experience, and he has been co-artistic director of New York’s LAByrinth Theatre Company since 2001. I had seen his work and, when I approached him, he was so open to the idea. We spoke about American plays and then when I sent him Andrew’s play, he loved it.

But Nevin laughs as she recalls her meeting with Hoffman in the days before his triumph at this year’s Academy Awards.

It was four days before the Awards and you couldn’t =imagine meeting anyone more modest about the whole Oscar pizzazz. Capote wasn’t out here yet when I went to meet him, so I hadn’t seen it and couldn’t say anything about it, but he was not offended at all and couldn’t have cared less.

But I did feel a bit odd as the whole world was waiting for him to win and there I was, hadn’t seen the bloody film, and was having a cup of tea with him, asking him to come work for me. But he is a lovely man and with great integrity.

Blanchett, who makes her directing debut next month with the Pinter play A Kind Of Alaska, will next year tackle the controversial Blackbird, a tale dealing with a pre-teen’s sexual relationship with an adult.

Nevin says she had no hesitations about allowing Blanchett to test the waters as a director, as the late Richard Wherrett had allowed her the same opportunity 20 years ago.

That risk was taken with me when Richard gave me a gig when I said I wanted to be a director. Richard threw me in the deep end with Heartbreak House, and you only learn by doing it. You can’t practise directing in private -“ you have to do it in public with people.

Cate’s body of work as an actress means she knows the language of theatre. I know she has that kind of sensibility where she is interested in the whole play, not just her point of view. A lot of actors don’t want to also be directors, but Cate does. I understand that.

Details on the Sydney Theatre’s Company 2007 season are available at its website or on 9250 7777.

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