Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club news and reviews, December 6th [December 7]

Sad news this week with the death of Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, one of Australia’s most generous philanthropists and a great contributor to culture in Victoria. There are few significant arts institutions in Melbourne which haven’t benefited from her largesse in recent decades.

As an Arts Centre Melbourne Arts Angel, Dame Elisabeth was a generous supporter of the Arts Centre for many years. She made a gift in 1987 of four tapestries designed by Mary MacQueen and woven by the Australian Tapestry Workshop which remain in place outside the ANZ Pavilion in the Theatres Building under Arts Centre Melbourne’s spire.

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch had a great love of music, especially anything composed by Mozart, and she was an invaluable contributor to the Recital Centre. In February this year the Recital Centre held a 103rd birthday celebration for Dame Elizabeth (which was also a 3rd birthday celebration for the venue). At that event she was named a ‘Freewoman of the City’ by Lord Mayor Robert Doyle (the last ‘Freeman of the City’ was Nelson Mandela in 1990).

She also supported The Australian Ballet, the Australian Opera, the Victorian College of the Arts and several community theatre companies. Many of her grandchildren have been great contributors to the Melbourne arts scene too, both financially and creatively. Her grandson Michael Kantor is a former Artistic Director of the Malthouse Theatre, and her granddaughter Julie Kantor is on the board of the Recital Centre and has also been a generous contributor to the arts in Victoria. Other grandchildren have been vital supporters of the environment movement in Australia.

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch will be sadly missed.

There was another significant passing in the Victorian arts scene this week with the end of [Theatrenotes,]( the wonderful non-profit website established by Melbourne critic and author Alison Croggon. Alison has been a prolific contributor to the conversation about theatre in Melbourne via her performing arts reviews and her website has been a vital space for critics and theatre-makers to reflect on their work. Alison has decided to close the site down after reaching a point of complete exhaustion. She did the maths and realized she’d written 180,000 words in the past 12 months, and that it was unsustainable.

Fair enough, but nevertheless I will be very sorry to see Theatrenotes go. Hopefully other similar sites will spring up to fill the gap.

But now to my Culture Club theatre and opera reviews and I have some weird coincidences to report. In the last few weeks I’ve seen two new Australian plays featuring characters who are English Literature academics, both with terminal illnesses and with wives who are having affairs, and also two operas each starring a crazy murderous soprano.

‘Music’ is an Melbourne Theatre Company production at the Fairfax Studio of the Arts Centre, a new play by Australian playwright Barry Oakley. He was a prolific playwright in the 1970s and a theatre critic and novelist in the 1980s but hadn’t written a play for a long time before this new one.

‘Music’ is a four-hander about an English literature academic called Jack who gets a terminal diagnosis from his old friend and doctor, Max. Jack is married to a musician called Margie and he has an estranged brother, a Catholic priest called Peter. And over the course of the next few weeks all of these characters have to grapple with a veritable landslide of family secrets that emerge in the wake of Jack’s diagnosis.

Music is a big part of this story, as you might guess from the title. Margie is a fine concert pianist and Jack is constructing a kind of classical music soundtrack to the last days of his life. At times this works beautifully and is very affecting but at other times it becomes a bit silly. For example, when Jack’s time is up he does a kind of dying-soprano crawl towards a CD player in order to have the right music playing as he’s dying and rather than being moving it seems histrionic and not very believable.

There are some lovely scenes in this production, particularly between Jack and his brother Peter, played by Rob Menzies. You get a great sense of their family history together, and of their father’s influence on their lives, and the resentments and rivalries that build between up siblings, even when they love each other. And there are also some quite memorable moments between Jack and his wife Margie (Janet Andrewartha) when he’s trying to win back her love in the last weeks of his life.

This play reminded me a little of Hannie Rayson’s very excellent ‘Life After George’ (written in 2000) and in fact Jack is played by Richard Piper, the same actor who played George in the original Rayson production. Both characters are larger-than-life, grumpy, charismatic academics but I’d have to say that ‘Music’ is not quite as deft as the Rayson play. There were quite a few moments where the audience giggled uncomfortably when I suspect we were meant to be deeply moved, and it’s hard to say how much of this is because of the writing and how much is a result of the direction.

I think it needed one more draft and maybe a few less dramatic plot developments, because after a while it started to feel too loaded up with sad – (and yet almost predictable) family secrets.

‘Music’ is on at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre until December 22nd.

Meanwhile opening at the Malthouse Theatre in exactly the same week was a two-hander adaptation of a verse novel by the late Melbourne poet Dorothy Porter called ‘Wild Surmise’ which also had a university academic in it whose wife was having an affair. I LOVED this production.

The story centres on the main character, an astronomer called Alex who is obsessed with Europa, a moon of the planet Jupiter. She is also obsessed with another astronomer, a woman called Phoebe, and her infatuation with Phoebe temporarily over-rides her love for her husband Daniel, who is the Melbourne University English lecturer with a serious coffee habit and who, like Jack in ‘Music’, gets a terminal diagnosis.

This production had some superb acting by Jane Montgomery Griffiths (who also did the adaptation) and Humphrey Bower as Alex and Daniel. The play was directed by Malthouse Artistic Director Marion Potts and she made great use of an ingenious mirrored set. Sometimes the characters were performing behind a glass wall and interacting with each others’ mirror images rather than with the actual human being – an excellent visual metaphor for the awful emotional distance that can grow between couples who start out loving each other very much.

But above all it’s the language of this play that draws you in. Porter was one of our best Australian poets and a lot of people will remember another of her verse novels, ‘The Monkey’s Mask’ which was a bit of a best-seller. Porter had a way of writing poetry that is both incredibly accessible but also full of fresh, vivid metaphors that fizz and spark in your brain like fireworks. She’s both very dark and very funny so that you’re wincing at the same time as you’re laughing. If this show has a return season and if you missed it the first time round, do go and see it.

‘Wild Surmise’ was on at the Malthouse until December 2nd.

The other coincidence I mentioned was with two Opera Australia productions on at the Arts Centre at the moment as part of their Melbourne spring season – both about women who go crazy from love and whose obsessive love ends in a murder.

There’s a great quote from George Bernard Shaw who described opera in this way: ‘when a soprano and a tenor want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone’. Donizetti’s [‘Lucia di Lammermoor’]( is no exception. It’s one of the most popular operas in the repertoire and one that Dame Joan Sutherland triumphed in. There’s a Romeo and Juliette-style plot about Lucia of the Lammermmoor family in Scotland who falls in love with the wrong guy, Edgardo, the dispossessed heir to the Ravenswood Estate. Lucia’s brother Enrico has stolen the estate from him and Enrico wants her to marry another man.

When he gets his way and Lucia is forced to marry Arturo instead of her beloved Edgardo she goes completely crazy and stabs her new husband to death.

In Lucia’s mad scene the soprano has to tackle the vocal equivalent of winning the Tour de France. It’s an incredibly difficult role with astonishing vocal pyrotechnics sung very, very high and it goes on for a long time. And although this is not one of my favourite operas (Donizetti’s music is a bit light for my tastes) this performance by Australian soprano Emma Matthews just floored me.

She performed the mad scene absolutely note perfect – in fact she made it look easy – even while she was crawling under a table and lying on top of a table and running around the stage clutching a giant white sheet and dripping with blood. It was an astonishing and very moving performance.

The production is quite severe in its set design. Avoiding the naturalistic approach with fake boggy Scottish moors, the set designer has given us huge movable backdrops of cloudy grey skies. The chorus dressed in various shades of grey and brown and give a deliberately static performances, often just standing quietly together in unforgiving clusters, not moving much other than to turn away from poor Lucia in her moments of greatest distress.

All the principal cast members are very strong in this performance, especially baritone Giorgio Caoduro as Enrico, but Emma Matthews steals the show. The nigh I saw it she received a well-deserved standing ovation at the end and a rumble of foot-stamping from Orchestra Victoria – high praise indeed.

‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ is on at the Arts Centre until December 15th.

And finally, the other crazy soprano you can see at the Arts Centre at the moment is [Salome](, from the opera of the same name by Richard Strauss.

In this one-act opera it’s not about a soprano who is prevented from making love to a tenor by a baritone but a soprano who wants to make love to a baritone but can’t because she gets a tenor to kill him!

The story of Salome is drawn from Oscar Wilde’s theatrical adaptation of the Biblical tale of St John the Baptist who was be-headed by King Herod. And in this operatic version Herod is forced into it by a promise he made to the ‘femme fatale’ Salome. She is his stepdaughter and also his grand-niece and he fancies her in a very creepy way but she in turn fancies John the Baptist and when she is rejected by the prophet she takes revenge by persuading Herod to kill him.

Audiences found this opera very shocking when it was first produced at the beginning of the 20th century. Some sopranos back then even refused to do Salome’s famously seductive ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ because they though it was too sexual. In this production the director Gale Edwards has employed several female circus artists to do some of the dances – including an acrobatic rope dance and a very suggestive pole dance – and at various times Salome comes out dressed as 21st century sex symbols such as Marilyn Monroe.

I’m not sure about this strategy of using popular culture icons, it seemed a little bit obvious to me, a bit post-modern in an old-fashioned way (if that’s possible). Otherwise this is a great production. There is a startling set with a long dinner table way up the back of the stage at which the Jewish elders sit and argue, and a filthy dungeon under the front of the stage from which the voice of John the Baptist, or Jokanaan, emerges.

In the role of Salome is Australian soprano Cheryl Barker. I haven’t heard her for quite a while – she’s been working overseas for much of the past decade – and her voice has grown enormously. She sounds like a full-scaleWagnerian soprano now and she looks fantastic in the role, voluptuous and quite convincing when she’s trying to seduce the various men around her.

And as for the music – simply sublime.

Richard Strauss – now that’s much more to my tastes.

‘Salome’ is on at the Arts Centre until December 15th.