Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

January 10

Taking a Hole-Punch to the Truth

In 1996 Harper’s Magazine commissioned an essay by David Foster Wallace, ‘Shipping Out’, in which he famously described his holiday on the 7NC Luxury Cruise ship in the Caribbean:

‘I have seen fluorescent luggage and fluorescent sunglasses and fluorescent pince-nez and over twenty different makes of rubber thong. I have heard steel drums and eaten conch fritters and watched a woman in silver lame projectile vomit inside a glass elevator. I have pointed rhythmically at the ceiling to the two-hour beat of the same disco music I hated pointed at the ceiling to in 1977…’

In 2012 I wrote David Foster Wallace a posthumous postcard in response to his essay:

Dear David Foster Wallace,

I have lugged a heavy heart over the Snowy Mountains, breathless with grief, and later planned how to turn my personal lovelorn anguish into profitable literary activity.

I have enticed my aging mother into a small canoe, observed as her face turned the colour of talcum powder while we paddled towards an ever-receding East Timorese island and later pondered how to convert her distress into a witty ‘bad travel’ column.

I have visited a cyclone-wrecked Queensland coastal town and gathered quotes illustrative of the resilience of the human spirit while sitting in the local doctor’s surgery nursing a bladder infection and feeling anything but resilient.

I have lain awake and alone in a Balinese beachside bamboo hut, sipping from duty free bottles of vodka in an effort to banish insomnia, while concocting a solo travel tale of meditative, curative relaxation.

I have camped at an indigenous eco-tourism resort in the Kimberley and schemed how to convert my trip into a feature article powerful enough to prevent a nearby indigenous heritage trail from being obliterated by an oil and gas refinery.

I have trundled around the southwest corner of Western Australia with teenage stepchildren mentally re-writing our family holiday, editing out their moods and inserting instead an angle about a pilgrimage to the corners of places.

I have tiptoed across the luminescent sand of a dry lake bed at sunset, trying to avoid stepping on sixty thousand year old human remains, memorizing the exact phrases uttered by our loquacious tour guide so I could create a caricature of him that would make my readers giggle.

In my efforts to create memorable stories that make people want to pack a bag, join an airport queue and catch a plane to wherever I’ve just been, I have taken the truth and applied a hole-punch to it. I have gathered the facts and ‘told them slant’.

I have observed my suit-case-wheeling self as if through the mirrored window of a border police interview room, looking for signs and symptoms, tics and traits that will serve my story well – whichever story I’m fixing to tell.

Heartbroken writer. Nerdy writer. City-stressed writer. Nature-loving writer. Mother-loving writer. Amateur-paleontologist writer. Fictional portraits, all of them, painted with a palette of facts. Avatars of myself uniquely designed to make my readers want to do what I’ve done, see what I’ve seen.

I have not made stuff up. Yes I have left stuff out, yes I have re-ordered stuff, but I have not told lies.

I have acknowledged the blur, fashioned the narrative, created the patterns and connections that may have ‘seemed at the time to be absent from the events the words describe’.

But have I failed you, David Foster Wallace?

I read your essay ‘Shipping Out’ – your anti-‘essaymercial’ essay about all the un-fun supposedly-fun things you’d never do again on a cruise ship – and I feel ashamed.

When you describe the employee who receives a bollocking from the bosses when you won’t allow him to carry your bag up the port hallway of Deck 10, or the banal conversations you overhear at your dinner table night after night, or your ‘dickering over trinkets with malnourished children’, I feel reproached.

Surely this is Truth with a capital T. Surely this is writing in which ‘the writer has reckoned with the self’ .

Surely because you tell us about the ugliness that you found beneath the sparkling veneer of beauty, your writing is more authentic than my carefully-constructed travel articles published in newspaper lift-outs.

Surely because you tell us how miserable you were in an environment where happiness is practically mandatory, surely your writer’s voice is less artfully, less archly-fashioned than mine.

Or not.

Here’s the thing. Any personal narrative non fiction writing requires us as writers to construct what Vivian Gornick, author of ‘The Situation and the Story’ calls a persona. This persona ‘selects (what) to observe and what to ignore’ and illuminates not just ‘the situation’ but also ‘the story’, the ‘insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say’.

Writing travel articles for mainstream media outlets like daily broadsheets and their online equivalents usually involves three mandatory tasks: finding a personal angle on the travel experience, targeting a specific readership, and accentuating the positives.

Those three tasks involve editing stuff out.

The long lists you wrote at the beginning of your essay, David Foster Wallace, lists of what you observed on that hell-ship, created the illusion that you were showing and telling us Everything with a capital E. And surely if you have told us Everything you have told us the Truth with a capital T.
But you weren’t telling us Everything.

Because you had come to tell us about the fear and lure of death, a ‘story’ about existential despair in a ‘situation’ where you were meant to be re-discovering the allure of life. Your chosen persona was the unhappy camper. Your travel writer’s hole-punch was hard at work, just as mine has been, only in reverse: you were taking out the good bits and leaving us with the disappointments, the dislocation, the dystopia.

And you were paid to write this essay, just as I have been paid for my travel articles, and just as the writer you criticise in your essay, Frank Conroy from the Iowa Writers Workshop, was paid for his article written about the same trip you took – an article, in his case, about the pleasures of cruising.
Your editors at Harper’s probably knew you were an agoraphobic aqua-phobic shark-phobic misanthropic vulnerable lonely guy when they commissioned you to write a piece about being in an environment where all of those fears and vulnerabilities would be exposed.

They got the product they paid for.

So perhaps none of us are lacking in sincerity. Perhaps we are all producing stories according to the dictates of house style and who is to say which of us is the MOST truthful, the most authentic?

Perhaps behind every first-person narrated travel story lies a ghost story – the story behind the ‘story behind the situation’ – peopled by an infinite number of ghostly versions of ourselves and of those we write about, all of us trapped in every different millisecond of our journeys, in every possible persona, embodying every fleeting mood or anxiety or transcendent moment of pleasure that we experience on that cruise shop or in that Timorese canoe or on that cyclone-ravaged beach, all of us ghost-travellers waiting for our version of events to be recognized and acknowledged and written down as The Truth.

Waiting in vain, because for most stories, one persona is enough.

But why does the Truth still matter? Why can the question of authenticity cause us to feel shame when we’re writing non fiction? Why do I need to reassure myself that while I’ve edited stuff in and out in my travel articles, I haven’t made stuff up?

One view has it that only ‘by remaining faithful to the contingencies and peculiarities of your own experience and the vagaries of your own nature (do) you stand a chance of conveying something universal.’

But is it simply that we know that no one trusts and no one likes a phony?

Another David – David Shields – has given the notion of truth in non fiction a real bollocking in his book ‘Reality Hunger’. In a section entitled ‘reality’ Shields has inserted this quote:

‘That person over there? He’s doing one thing, thinking something else. Life is never false, and acting can be. Any person who comes in here as a customer is not phony, whereas if a guy comes in posing as a customer, there might be something phony about it, and the reason it’s phony is that he’s really thinking, How am I doing? Do they like me?’

In the end, David Foster Wallace, are we all just hoping that our readers will like us? And that if they like us, we will like ourselves?

Having a lovely time, wish you were still here.

All the best,

Sian.

…………………………………………….

Dear Sian,

Many thanks for your postcard. These days it seems practically everybody is interested in writing about me but very few bother to write to me. And almost nobody sends postcards any more.

It’s early morning here but I have decided to skip the Buffet’n’Bainmarie Breakfast (it’s the same stuff every morning) and stay in my cabin to respond to the thoughts you outlined in your correspondence.

To be honest, I’m surprised by how hung up you seem to be on this idea of ‘authenticity’. Surely post-modernism put an end to that particular fetish, along with those other antiquated concepts you referred to, ‘truth’ and ‘sincerity’.

But I noticed (because now I can see Everything) that in your travels you recently visited the Musee Quai Branly in Paris, a museum dedicated to exhibiting the material artefacts of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures. I also noticed (because now I can feel Everything) how uncomfortable you felt in that environment, how you were simultaneously entranced by the exoticism of the exhibits, seduced by the romance of Otherness embodied by the collection, emotionally persuaded by the framing of these cultures as somehow irreducibly authentic, at the same time as you were critical of the commodification of authenticity the collection represented. I heard you and your friend (because now I can hear Everything) deriding the ‘authentic’ products in the museum shop – a veritable smorgasbord of woven, dotted, carved, strung, beaded baubles and bling – as ‘exo-merch’.

I also observed you when you visited that Balinese fishing village (the one where you drank yourself to sleep, remember?) and saw how worried you were about whether the publication of your travel article would help to wash away the ‘authentic’ lifestyle of those people as effectively as the rising tides of climate change that you wrote about in your piece. I heard the internal monologue in which you debated with yourself about whether the business your article might bring to the village would be ‘good’ for the locals or whether this was a fiction you told yourself to salve your conscience – a case of attitudinal in-authenticity, aka bad faith.

You must have noticed that although the post-modernists switched off authenticity’s life-support system, the tourism industry continues to apply mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Tourism councils continue to set ‘Authenticity Guidelines’ and the like for their members who are in the business of business. This is because the business people understand that the tourists with the cameras slung around their necks still crave this stuff like infants crave their mother’s milk. Those tourists still project their appetite for something that tastes like authenticity onto the people, places and things they’re photographing. And most travel editors, understanding this appetite as keenly as the business people who fill their publication’s advertising slots, still privilege the features that deliver textual ‘exo-merch’ to their readers.

There are limits, though. As you pointed out, my Harpers editor was willing to indulge my penchant for making long lists of the ways in which I suffered on this ship on my first visit. That was more the exception than the rule. Although vivid descriptions of the colourful lifestyles of The Other are generally pleasing to travel editors, ‘authentic’ descriptions of an author‘s mental suffering are not usually warmly welcomed by the editors of colourful lifestyle magazines. I remember (because now I can read Everything) the email your editor sent you when you pitched her your travel article about mountain climbing as a cure for grief. She agreed to publish the article but only if you would ‘take out a few of the over the top grief references!’ She knew that there was a limit to her readers’ appetite for your ‘authentic’ feelings of sadness and loss, and that above all they would want to know that you had triumphed over those feelings.

Do you recall, on the visit to Queensland’s Mission Beach that you referred to in your postcard, how you marveled at the giant concrete cassowary that greeted you as you drove into town? Do you remember how you told your friend that it was an example of a ‘shire promotional grotesque’, a type of illusionistic tourist attraction for which the state of Queensland is famous? And how you related the story of the first time you’d visited Mission Beach when the bus driver had persuaded some thrilled Japanese backpackers that the concrete cassowary was life-size and that the real things were man-eaters? Do you remember lecturing your friend about how the history of illusionism extends back to the wall paintings of Pompei, where real structures vanished behind trompe l’oeil murals, but how in this instance the idea of the real (emu-sized) cassowary vanishes behind the more exotic giant creature artificially constructed for the tourist’s imagination?

Perhaps the traveller’s so-called appetite for ‘authenticity’ is more akin to our appetite for the Giant Cassowary and the Big Pineapple – it’s an appetite for the mystification or for the aggrandisement of reality. We want to be sold a fantasy; we want the ‘drag’ version of life; we want to have access to what Andy Warhol once described as an ‘archive of the ideal’.10

The book you mention by the other David – David Shields – has been described by its author as a manifesto for ‘reality’. Because I am on a pleasure cruiser and there is pressure here to keep things pleasant, I will try not to dwell on the unpleasant fact that Shields once referred to my ‘authorial presence’ as ‘that heavy breathing’.11

‘Reality Hunger’ is a book whose back page blurb promises that it seeks to ‘tear up the old culture in search of something new and more authentic’; what a confusing and contradictory image, given how we have usually equated ‘old’ cultures with ‘authentic’ cultures (as you saw in the Musee Quai Branly in Paris). Shields’ book cites the example of the inclusion of ‘larger and larger chunks of “reality”’ in television as evidence for our appetite for the real, the authentic. 12

But surely reality television shows like ‘Big Brother’ are to real life what the giant concrete cassowary is to a real cassowary – an artificially-constructed overblown edifice designed to offer viewers a delicious cocktail: the illusion of reality mixed with the pleasure of masquerade.

I am also trying not to dwell on my unpleasant suspicion that, judging from the material you quoted in your postcard, you suspect I might be a phony.

According to several dictionaries I’ve consulted (I have a lot of time on hands here) the term first appeared at the turn of the 19th century. It came from the word ‘fawney’, which referred to gilt rings that swindlers would shine up and sell as genuine gold rings to unsuspecting buyers. The word came to be used for anything that was fake or not genuine. 13 Given the admissions you made in your postcard about how prettily you have shined up your own travel experiences for your editors, perhaps we’re both equally vulnerable to the accusation of phoniness. You’ve been polishing brass and I’ve been tarnishing gold. I’d say we’re square.

As for ‘liking ourselves’, I wish you luck in that endeavour. It’s a battle I lost some time ago.

I will close now because Petra the cleaner is knocking at my door and I need to vacate so she can shine up my cabin for me.

Please write again. All distractions are welcome. As the brochure for this cruise promises, here we do Absolutely Nothing.

Regards,

David Foster Wallace.

1. Wallace, DF 1996, ‘Shipping out: on the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise’, Harper’s Magazine, vol. 292 p. 33

2. Shields, D 2010, Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, Alfred A Knopf, New York, p.63

3. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 65

4. Wallace, ‘Shipping Out’, p. 34

5. Monson, A 2010, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir, Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, p. 13.

6. Gornick, V 2001, The Situation and the Story, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p. 13

7. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 492

8. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 53

9. Ross, A 1989, No Respect: Intellectuals and Pop Culture, Tourledge, New York, p. 165

10. Powell, C 2011Interview with David Shields in HTMLGIANT (http://htmlgiant.com/author-spotlight/the-david-shields-interview-paperback-edition/)

11. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 3

12. Harper, D 2012, Online Etymology Dictionary,Sponsored Words, accessed 15.03.2013 (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=phony)

(An earlier draft of this essay was published in ‘Newswrite’, the magazine of the NSW Writers Centre, in January 2013.)

December 21

Culture Club theatre and opera highlights 2012

It’s not a new analogy but it’s still an apt one: the Melbourne performing arts scene is like a complex ecosystem, interlinked and interdependent and always interesting. After seeing approximately sixty-five shows in the past ten months I am happy to report that – from this audience member’s perspective at least – the local theatrical ecosystem is in rude good health. There has been an astonishing array of engaging work on offer in Melbourne this year for anyone interested in live performing bodies.

Theatre-makers have been able to fill venues ranging from cavernous spaces like the State Theatre to tiny nooks like La Mama, presenting everything from cabaret in temporary tardises like The Spiegeltent to pop-up operas in people’s lounge-rooms.

And they have offered us an ever-increasing variety of styles of theatre; from circus and physical theatre to new adaptations of classics and original ‘well-made’ plays; from productions with mass audience participation to events with audiences of just a couple of people at a time; from Broadway-style musical theatre to classical operas both old and new.

The best thing I saw all year would have to be the Robert Le Page marathon in the Melbourne Festival. ‘Lipsynch’ was nine hours of theatre performed in one day. If you’re a fan of excellent TV drama, it might be useful to compare the experience of watching ‘Lipsynch’ to spending a day and an evening gulping down nine straight episodes of ‘The Wire’ or ‘Mad Men’ on DVD. This renowned Canadian theatre director worked with his multi-talented cast to create a gripping narrative linking 9 lives over 7 decades, at the heart of which is a story about an opera singer who adopts a child. I was sorry when it ended (though my aching back wasn’t).

Other highlights: this was the first full year’s work from the Malthouse Theatre’s new Artistic Director, Marion Potts, and I simply loved her production of ‘Wild Surmise’, an ingenious adaptation of a verse novel by Melbourne poet Dorothy Porter seen earlier this month.

At Red Stitch Theatre in St Kilda I thoroughly enjoyed a production of the new English comedy drama ‘The Kitchen Sink’ by Tom Wells. It was a lovely combination of entertaining, moving, easy-to-watch, funny and sentimental, and yet also thought-provoking on the subjects of the persistence of class and on how much we all fear and resist change.

At Footscray Community Arts Centre I felt very lucky to have a chance to see ‘Bindjareb Pinjarra’, a West Australian production produced under the auspices of Victoria’s Ilbijerri indigenous theatre company. This – would you believe – was a comedy about an indigenous massacre in the 1800’s. It wasn’t preachy and it wasn’t worthy; it was funny and sad and asking all the right questions about the past and ongoing discrimination against indigenous Australians.

The best production I saw at the Melbourne Theatre Company this year was ‘National Interest’ by Melbourne writer and director Aiden Fenessy. This play about the Balibo Five was based on the story of Tony Stewart, one of five TV newsmen killed by Indonesian militiamen during the 1975 invasion of East Timor. Julia Blake gave a stunning performance as Tony’s mother June Stewart and Fenessy posed the very important questions – what is the value of finding out the truth, and of hanging onto the truth, be it in our own personal memory stores or in the stories our governments tell us?

I also enjoyed a couple of fantastic new Australian operas. At the Arts Centre as part of the Comedy Festival we saw the hilarious ‘Contact!’ by Melbourne composer Angus Grant about a feral suburban netball team, and the very dark ‘Midnight Son’ by Louis Nowra and Gordon Kerry, a Victorian Opera production based on the true story of a murderous love triangle.

The best show I saw at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival was ‘Tina C: Sorry seems to be the hardest word’ at The Malthouse Theatre. Tina C is a drag character created by British actor and comedian Christopher Green. Tina is tall, slim, pretty, with flicky blonde hair, long legs and a sweet country-and-western voice and at times it’s almost impossible to believe she’s actually a he. She’s faux-naïf and self-obsessed, and her greatest talent is pointing out hypocrisy, double standards, and unconscious racism towards indigenous Australians.

Opera Australia finished the year on a high note (excuse the awful pun) with two fantastic productions; ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and ‘Salome’. The two sopranos performing these crazy-lady roles – Emma Mathews as Lucia and Cheryl Barker as Salome – totally stole the shows.

At the Meat Market I had to admire Back to Back’s production of ‘Hell House’ even though it was appalling theatre. This cutting-edge Geelong-based ensemble works with actors with a disability and they faithfully staged a dreadful community theatre show that is used as a religious propaganda tool in the American mid-west to scare teenagers away from so-called ‘sinful’ activities such as drinking alcohol, having abortions and succumbing to a ‘gay lifestyle’ (!). Importantly, though, you didn’t just watch the show. After each performance Back to Back held a forum with a panel of expert guests to discuss some of the religious, moral and theatrical issues raised by the Hell House phenomenon.

I love the idea of theatre provoking a conversation. Melbourne has become a town of public conversations. We’re talking at Festivals, at the Wheeler Centre, at universities, at Melbourne Conversations – we just can’t get enough of hearing intelligent debate and discussion about ideas – and I think it’s one of the best things about living in this city.

Finally, a few lowlights (fortunately there were not very many):

– ‘Yes Prime Minister’ (re-named No Prime Minister) at the Comedy Theatre – dull and dark and dated.

– ‘The Heretic’ (part of the MTC season) – a play about a climate change skeptic with a lame melodramatic plot which will only fuel the insane conspiracy theories that persist about the causes of global warming.

– A live music gig at The Melbourne Zoo – WAY too loud! I spent the evening worrying about the animals’ eardrums. TURN IT DOWN GUYS.

Happy Christmas everyone – see you in a foyer (or pop-up theatre) some time next year.

Here’s the full list of productions i attended (in rough order) in 2012:

THEATRE

Yes Prime Minister (Comedy Theatre)

Tribes (MTC)

Good People (Red Stitch)

The Wild Duck (Malthouse)

The Seed (MTC)

A Limited Season (Mark Nichols)

Stripped (La Mama)

Odyssey (Melb Uni)

Red (MTC)

The Histrionic (Malthouse)

Boy Girl Wall (Malthouse)

Australia Day (MTC)

Far Away (45 Downstairs)

Ici (Williamstown Festival)

Laramie Project Revisited (Arts Centre)

The Heretic (MTC)

Macbeth (Bell Shakespeare)

The Wild Duck (Malthouse)

National Interest (MTC)

Tying Knots (La Mama)

Bindjarreb Pinjarra (FCAC/Ilbijerri)

Helicopter (MTC)

Blood Wedding (Malthouse)

Hell House (Back to BackTheatre)

His Girl Friday (MTC)

The Kitchen Sink (Red Stitch)

Doku Rai (Meat Market)

Top Girls (MTC)

Angela’s Kitchen (Malthouse)

Walking Mark Rothko (La Mama)

Michael James Manaia (45 Downstairs)

An Enemy of the People (Melbourne Festival)

Suit Yourself (Mark Nicholls)

Music (MTC)

Wild Surmise (Malthouse)

Trade Union Choir I’ll be There (Trades Hall)

OPERA/MUSIC THEATRE

Crossed Wires (Toff in Town)

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

South Pacific

Cape Town Opera (Arts Centre)

Midnight Son (Vic Opera)

Marriage of Figaro (Vic Opera)

Cosi Fan Tutte (Melb Opera)

Merry Widow (OA)

Barber of Seville (OA)

Magic Flute (OA)

The Book of Daniel (Vic Opera)

La Boheme (Melbourne Opera)

The Rake’s Progress (Vic Opera)

The Box (Chambermade)

Contact! (Arts Centre)

Master Peter’s Puppet Show/What Next (Vic Opera)

Lucia di Lammermoor (OA)

Salome (OA)

DANCE/PHYSICAL THEATRE/CIRCUS

Circa (Malthouse)

Circus Oz (Birrarung Marr)

Bangarra (Terrain)

Briwyant (Malthouse)

Forsythe Company (Melbourne Festival)

COMEDY

Van Park (Chapel off Chapel)

Carry a Big Stick: Tim Ferguson (Comedy Festival)

Die Roten Punkte (Spiegeltent)

Tina C: Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word (Comedy Festival)

Plus One (Comedy Festival)

Flight of the Conchords

Bondarama (Chapel off Chapel)

December 11

Gorging in the Dordogne

Is it when the melted Rocamadour goat’s cheese arrives at our table the night before we begin walking? Or is it when the champignon shop owner in Autoire invites me to stick my nose in a giant jar of dried forest mushrooms? Or is it when I’m feasting on wild berries that hang over a dry-stone wall just outside Meyssac?

I can’t recall exactly when it dawns on me that our ‘walking tour’ through the hilltop villages of the Dordogne is actually an ‘eating tour’ but as you can tell, it is not an unhappy revelation.

The seven-day hike through south west France has been organized by Scottish company Macs Adventures; they plan our itinerary, book our hotels and transfer our luggage. All my companion and I have to do is follow the maps they’ve provided and hike from one officially designated ‘Plus Beaux (Most Beautiful) Villages de France’ to the next.

Our 120 km circular route will take us through the departements of Correze, Dordogne and Lot. I can swim a few laps but my walking fitness is an unknown quantity and ‘Lot’ seems an apt description for the 20 kilometres we’ll have to cover most days. Last stop will be Rocamadour, the spectacular medieval town after which the melted cheese is named.

We begin in the tiny village of Sarrazac. The Hotel de Bonne Famille overlooks a church whose muffled evening bells eventually drag us from our sunny balcony to dinner. The village seems deserted but by seven o’clock the hotel dining room is filled with travellers.

Meals have been pre-paid and the courses just keep coming: almond-flaked trout with buttery sauce; walnut-crumbed Rocamadour cheese and fig salad; pear tart with a strawberry jus followed by lemon sorbet flecked with grated rind, all washed down with a 2009 merlot. If only my French was good enough to order a wheelbarrow to get me up those hills tomorrow.

On the first morning we hike past steep paddocks of slow-munching cows before arriving in the near-deserted village of L’Hopital St Jean, site of a former leper colony. Two elderly women grip our elbows in the narrow main street and point to a tall stone tower above our heads, explaining patiently that in ancient times a fire would be lit at the top of the tower to guide religious pilgrims home.

In Collonges La Rouge the traditional grey stone buildings of Correzes are replaced by startling red sandstone dwellings, stained by iron oxide. In this 8th century National Heritage-listed village local artisans sell everything from silver jewelry to fresh sorbets. We stop to wipe off the sweat and enjoy a mid-afternoon glass of champagne in the sun before staggering to the hotel in Meyssac.

Our room in the nautical-themed Relais de Quercy overlooks an enticing swimming pool. The pool is closed for autumn, though, so we console ourselves with another four course dinner: a mixed plate of grated carrot, egg-onion-and-nutmeg tart and steamed beetroot with mustard sauce, followed by roast duck with baked potatoes and creamed spinach, and then more sorbet. A giant platter of mixed cheeses is carted from table to table – soft and hard, blue and white, wet and dry. The diners next to us look grief-stricken when the platter is unceremoniously lifted from in front of them and brought to us. I’d offer them a glass of our Cabernet-Syrah des Larmes (of Tears) but we’ve finished it all.

The route out of Meyssac takes us through sun-dappled forests and raked fields of walnut trees. I stuff my pockets with stray nuts that have fallen on the road and help myself to the blackberries that are draped over moss-covered fences.

Today’s hike is billed as 17 kilometres but after 18 kms we’re still a long way from our destination. My legs eventually rebel so we cheat and hitchhike the rest of the way. Our female driver explains that the empty cars parked beside the quiet roads belong to locals who are searching for forest mushrooms. Seems I’m not the only one obsessed with food gathering round here.

Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne (beautiful place on the Dordogne river) is eponymous and luckily we’ve organized a rest day in this 9th century town. At the back of the Hotel les Charmilles a narrow branch of the river rushes past a paved terrace where we sip on Kir Royales (champagne with berry liqueur). At dinner we choose a red wine called ‘Mille et une Pierres’ (a thousand and one stones) in honour of the stony paths we’ve conquered.

Our rest day begins with a late morning visit to the 11th century Abbaye Church, which is all that remains of the former Benedictine Abbey of St Peter. Above the southern portal stonemasons have carved an intricate depiction of the Second Coming, complete with angels blowing trumpets into Christ’s armpits.

The afternoon is one long languid picnic beside the Dordogne. If an icy dip works for the footballers’ aching muscles, it should work for us. Elderly locals stare as we brave the water, carefully avoiding the boats that drift past us in the glinting sunshine. At dusk we dine just across the river at the café Les Flots Bleus (The Blue Torrents) where the highlight is dessert; apple spring rolls with salted caramel ice cream. I can’t think of a better way to replace all that sweat.

Since the hitchhiking worked out so well we decide to cheat again. The next morning we order a taxi to take us to the top of the first big climb. Ambling downhill through the forest, we leave a trail of crumbs on the carpet of autumn leaves as we munch on super-sized meringues. We pass the ruins of ancient bread ovens and cross stone bridges over a stream that has been converted into a fish farm. Nature is one big food factory around here.

Mid-afternoon we ford another shallow stream and join the winding road that leads to our next stop, Le Port de Gagnac. Our accommodation at the Hostellerie Belle Rive, overlooking the River Cere, is full of antique furniture including a set of blacksmith’s bellows converted into a coffee table. The waitress brings us two different vegetable soups presented in one double-scoop serving plate. I guess that makes this a five-course meal then.

The following morning we cadge a lift with the elderly driver who is ferrying our luggage to the next village. Monsieur has an elaborate comb-over and plays us loud waltz music on his car cassette player while describing the twice-weekly dances he and his wife attend. He drops us at the entrance to the Chateau de Castelnau-Bretenoux. This 12th century castle was lovingly restored in the early 1900’s by an eccentric French opera singer with a bizarre collection of giant antique wardrobes.

We trek on through vineyards and orchards, stopping to buy vials of fragrant dried mushrooms in a specialist champignon shop in Autoire. On the hike into Loubressac we scale a small cliff and look back with amazement across the winding valley we’ve just traversed.

Day six we visit the astonishing Gouffre de Padirac, a 40 km complex of underground limestone caves. First opened to the public in 1899, the gouffre (chasm) now receives about 350,000 visitors each year. We take the lift down through a jagged, gaping hole in the earth and travel by boat along a subterranean river, past giant backlit stalactites and stalagmites. They all look like melting sorbet ice creams to me.

Our final day’s walk takes us along the steep Alzou canyon, a tributary of the Dordogne River. Rocamadour looms up like an architectural mirage clinging to the cliff at the gorge’s end. The main street of the lower town is full of tourist shops but rising above them at improbable angles are a series of seven sanctuaries carved into the sheer rock face. Fuelled by our last block of chocolate we climb the 223 stone steps up to the church of Notre Dame, destination of pilgrims and penitents for the past ten centuries.

The taxi back to the hotel is a no-brainer. We still have one more four-course meal to get through.

December 7

Culture Club news and reviews, December 6th

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,](http://theatrenotes.blogspot.com.au/) 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’](http://www.opera-australia.org.au/whatson/events/detail?prodid=66457) 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](https://www.opera-australia.org.au/whatson/events/detail?prodid=66466), 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.

November 29

Psychopaths rule, okay?

The man on the radio is talking about psychopaths. He’s asking me to ask myself if I know any. I start to worry. How would I know? Would they have to be stalking the streets, killing people? Or could they be carefully hiding their psychopathy from me?

The man on the radio says that not all psychopaths are multiple murderers in the mode of Hannibal Lecter. The main criterion seems to be guilt, or rather, lack of it. The psychopath feels none. That’s why, if he or she does murder someone, they’re likely to do it again. They haven’t experienced the kind of remorse that might prevent the rest of us from becoming repeat offenders. Psychopaths can lie and cheat and wound and exploit, and not lose a wink of sleep.

I’m reassured. Most of the people I know seem to be suffering from a surfeit, rather than a lack, of guilt. But the psychological profile is strangely familiar. Where have I met someone like that before?

Ah, I remember now. It was in a theatre at the Arts Centre. He was wearing a leather jockstrap, knee-high boots and a mask. He’d just raped a woman and then murdered her father. His name was Don Giovanni, and he seemed pretty happy for a guy who’d broken a handful of the Ten Commandments. He had a nice baritone voice, too. Fortunately he got his come-uppance by the end of the evening, but the Don went to hell expressing absolutely no remorse about ravishing Donna Anna and topping the Commendatore.

The man on the radio says that if you work in the corporate sector, it helps to be a psychopath. He describes it as ‘adaptive’. That way, when you have to sack thousands of people, or close branches, or knife the guy who’s competing for the job you want, you don’t have any second thoughts. I noticed that a major bank was sponsoring that performance of ‘Don Giovanni’. Perhaps they thought they’d found a kindred soul in the licentious young nobleman.

I start thinking about other areas of life where a bit of psychopathy might come in handy. I guess you couldn’t be a top-level footballer if, every time you prepared for a specky, you worried about hurting the guy whose back was about to become your launching pad. Media shock-jocks couldn’t afford to care about hurting people’s feelings, either. They have to be prepared to publicly humiliate their talk-back callers and then cut them off without a right of reply. They have to be comfortable publicly endorsing products which they might believe, in their heart of hearts, are a total rip-off.

The man on my radio station offers a few more details. ‘A psychopath’, he says, ‘is an intelligent person characterised by poverty of emotions, who has no sense of shame, is manipulative and who shows irresponsible behaviour’. Once again, it’s sounding strangely familiar. I’m reminded of a few folk who’ve spent quite a bit of their working lives in Canberra. Smart, slippery folk who don’t seem to mind telling a few porkies when the need arises.

‘The psychopath’, says the expert, demonstrates a ‘shrewdness and an agility of mind. It is impossible for him to take even a slight interest in the tragedy or the joy or the striving of humanity. Beauty and ugliness, goodness and evil, love, horror and humour have no actual meaning, no power to move him. He is also lacking in the ability to see that others are moved.’

Suddenly it all makes sense. It’s not their fault. Those shock jocks and snake-oil salesmen and slippery Canberra folk can’t be held responsible. They’re probably suffering from a clinical disorder, and in need of urgent treatment.

(first published as a column in The Age newspaper )

November 2

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 1st November

In the last couple of weeks I’ve been to see two theatre shows that could both be described as spoofs. Which got me wondering about the role of spoofs in culture: what is the point of a spoof? What should the balance be between critiquing or mocking the original cultural product or genre, and doing a fond piss-take? When does something become worthy of a spoof? And when does the spoof itself become spoof-able?

There are a couple of different definitions of spoof: it can be a hoax, but more often it’s ‘a humorous imitation of something; a gentle satire, a light parody.’ There have been a bazillion movie spoofs – practically every genre of movie has spawned its own – for example the Carry On films, many of the Monty Python films, the Austin Powers movies, the Scary Movie movies, are all spoofs.

Then there are the mockumentaries like ‘This is Spinal Tap’, ‘Best in Show’ and ‘A Mighty Wind’. But no target is immune – Gilbert and Sullivan operettas could be seen as spoofs of grand operas. People have also done spoofs of Shakespeare plays, for example the cut-down versions, and of course the internet is overflowing with spoofs. The South Korean ‘Gangnam Style’ song which recently became the most watched video in YouTube was a parody of life in the self-consciously trendy Gangnam district, and it has spawned its own swag of spoof versions of the PSY video. There’ve also been spoof videos in response to the outrageous success of the Gotye song ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.

In some ways a spoof can be seen as a compliment – if you’re famous and successful enough to inspire a spoof, you’ve hit the big-time. I see spoofs as a type of egalitarian impulse in culture, mocking the things that have perhaps become too powerful and threaten to overwhelm or stifle other cultural products. Some would argue they’re also mechanisms for refreshing culture; when something has become so successful or ubiquitous that it has ossified, the generators of spoofs come along to create something entirely new from the old cultural product.

So the first show I reviewed on 774’s Culture Club this week was the Stephen Sondheim musical ‘A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum’ at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Exhibition Street. The advertising material is not serving this show well. There are billboards all round town featuring goofy toga shots of the show’s star, Geoffrey Rush, which seem kind of dated. But in fact it’s a hilarious night at the theatre. This is what you might call a farce musical and I suspect the advertising campaign is like a parody of the kind of advertising campaign the show might have had when it was first performed fifty years ago.

Sondheim wrote this Tony Award-winning musical in 1962 and it was based on the plays of Titus Maccius Plautus (even that name sounds like it’s a spoof, or stolen from one – ‘Life of Brian’ perhaps?). The plot involves a slave, Pseudolus (played by Geoffrey Rush), who promises to procure the beautiful girl his master is in love with, in exchange for his freedom. All the characters names are puns – Pseudolus is a pseudo, a liar, who says whatever he needs to in order to get the outcome he’s after, leading to all sorts of crossed wires (see below * ).

The show is full of caricatures, including: the greedy slave-trading pimp who owns the girl in question; the dirty old man who wants to sleep with her; Domina, the bossy wife of the dirty old man; and Philia, the beautiful ‘dumb blonde’. In the light of the national debate about misogyny at the moment, these two female characters at times stray dangerously close to Benny Hill territory. Somehow, though, you forgive the show these stereotypes because every character is a stereotype and everyone’s being mocked – men as much as women – and in fact the stereotypes themselves are being mocked. The whole thing is so absurd and self-knowing that you’re never in danger of thinking you should take any of it seriously.

Geoffrey Rush is simply brilliant in this production. He is the centrifugal force around which the whole thing whirls, a natural clown with perfect comic timing, and he never loses energy for an instant. He even sings well and it would be worth seeing this show just to see him in full thespian flight. But Rush is also surrounded by a bunch of really good Australian comedians including Magda Szubanski, Shane Bourne, Gerry Connolly and Mitchell Butel. You’d think there might be a risk that these performers might try to steal the show but they keep themselves in check, partly as a result of the breathlessly slick direction by Simon Phillips, the outgoing director of the Melbourne Theatre Company.

There is an ingenious cartoon-like set and the band sits way up on top of it at the back of the stage. Everyone looks like they’re having a really good time which communicates itself to the audience. Highly recommended.

‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’ is on at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Exhibition Street until the end of January.

(By the way, Mr Sondheim is coming to town – the composer and lyricist will be in conversation with ABC Classic FM presenter Christopher Lawrence on Friday 23rd November at 2 pm at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Tickets are available from Ticketek and there’ll be some musical performances too.)

The second show I reviewed on 774’s Culture Club this week was ‘Bond-a-rama’ at Chapel off Chapel, another spoof but this time a local product. This is an original musical about the James Bond movie franchise which has been written by Melbourne actors Michael Ward and Stephen Hall, who also perform in it, and directed by theatre-sports whiz Russell Fletcher. It’s a much more modest show than the Sondheim musical but also really enjoyable.

In case you’ve been living on Mars for the last half a century, a quick reminder that the James Bond movies have been an outrageously successful cinematic franchise, based on Ian Fleming novels about the spy code-named ‘007’ who works for British spy agency M16. The films have starred actors including Roger Moore, Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Pierce Brosnan, and a new one, ‘Sky Fall’, opens in our cinemas any minute now.

So the conceit of this ‘Bond-a-rama’ show is that the cast of four (three men and one woman) has been given a mission – to reference every single Bond movie ever made in the space of an hour and fifteen minutes. It’s a neat way to spoof the ubiquitous ‘mission’ plot of the Bond movies themselves.

And there are lots of classic spoof pleasures in this show, including the ‘spot-which- movie’ game – for example, which Bond movie begins with James Bond skiing down a mountain with two bad guys on his tail? This is the opening scene of ‘Bond-a-rama’ and I don’t want to give away how they simulate three guys skiing down a mountain in the small theatre space of Chapel off Chapel but it’s hilarious. Then we have a Bond spoof theme song, which manages to combine about five Bond movie songs in one, called ‘Die Tomorrow’s Death Yesterday Again’, sung by the very talented Emily Taheny who plays almost all the female characters in this show. There are sub-spoofs too, including a parody of TV dance shows like ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

One of the highlights of this show is Stephen Hall’s impersonations of various Bond actors. He does a perfect vocal imitation of Sean Connery’s gentle Scottish accent, but he also sneaks in a bunch of other impressions just for the hell of it including comedians Nick Gianopoulos, Shane Bourne and Julian Clary.

Some of the songs are funnier than others and it’s a complicated show technically so occasionally the timing of lighting or video images or music wasn’t quite spot on.
And one question I had was whether this show sometimes tipped a little too far into insulting the originals, rather than being fond parodies of them. There were quite a few moments where characters stepped out of character and literally talked about how ‘crappy’ some of the Bond films were, which sort of stopped the fun for a minute and didn’t make any interesting satirical point about the originals.

But ‘Bond-a-rama’ is a good night’s entertainment from a talented bunch of local writers and performers – also highly recommended.

‘Bond-a-rama’ is on at Chapel off Chapel until November 9th

( * Speaking of Crossed Wires, that’s the name of an Opera Sessions show i’ll be performing in on the afternoons of November 10th and 11th at The Toff In Town – would love you to come along. Tickets via Moshtix)

October 19

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 18th October.

This week I stepped off a flight home from Paris and into the theatre for the Melbourne International Arts Festival (well almost – I did have a nap in between). I’m planning to do a longer post soon about my adventures in Divonne les Bains, France performing in the Festival d’Australie, but for now i’ll focus on the Melbourne Festival shows i’ve seen this week.

The first show I saw was ‘I Don’t Believe in Outer Space’ by the William Forsythe Company at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre. This is a new dance theatre work by award-winning American choreographer and director Bill Forsythe whose work has been seen in Australia several times before, at both the Adelaide Festival and the Melbourne Festival.

He is known for working very closely with his dancers/actors. I include ‘actors’ because they all speak on stage and have to do much more than ‘just’ dance. For example during the creative process with a new piece Forsythe often sends them off to do homework, tasks like ‘blindfold yourself and move around your home and come back and report to me how it felt’. As a result the dancers are more intensely engaged than in any other contemporary dance company I’ve seen. There’s none of that glazed-eyes, just-look-at-my-body thing – they’re fully present the whole time.

I LOVED this show. It was a wonderful welcome home present for me. Forsythe recently turned sixty and he says this work was in response to that event, and it’s certainly full of intimations of mortality. But it’s also full of comedy so I spent half the show laughing. There are nutty scenes that re-occur, like the one in which a female dancer describes a visit from the neighbour from hell, a man who flirts menacingly with her, who won’t leave, and who she doesn’t know how to handle.

Meanwhile the stage is covered with small black plastic balls that look like rocks or perhaps bits of shattered meteor, so a part of you is wondering whether this neighbour story is a reference to our fear of menacing visitors from outer space – or is it Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf re-told – or is it about social anxiety? There are so many possible layers, as with most of the best art.

Forsythe is also very playful with music, so another recurring theme is that the dancers keep finding ways to slip the lyrics of ‘I Will Survive’ into whatever scene they’re involved in. Sometimes the lyrics delivered dead straight like a poetry recitation, sometimes they’re spoken with a thick Japanese accent, but every time they take you by surprise and leave you wondering about the deadly serious way in which popular music can impact on our emotional lives.

And the text they’ve used – the script, if you like – has some very beautiful poetic writing. There’s lots of repetitive spoken material about objects and the spaces between them and their movements – falling, coming together, moving apart – which could also be a reference to what an audience sees human bodies doing on stage in a dance work.

At the same time, the dance language Forsythe is employing is very clear and specific and incredibly athletic. so there are all the pleasures of seeing the human body doing astonishing things. I sat in the front row and literally had those black plastic balls rolling off the stage and into my lap and I could see every sinew of every muscle moving on Forsythe’s multicultural body of dancers.

So it’s playful and it’s chaotic (or it looks chaotic, although it’s clearly highly choreographed) and in the end it is also deeply moving. The final scene involves one dancer pointing to another dancer’s body parts and slowly listing all the bits that will no longer be moving or expressing or present after death, which left me in tears. A beautiful work.

‘I Don’t Believe in Outer Space’ by the William Forsythe Company was on at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre until Monday this week.

The second show I’ve seen is ‘Michael James Manaia’, a one man play from New Zealand being performend at 45 Downstairs as part of the Melbourne Festival.

This is a play written a couple of decades ago which reportedly had a big impact in New Zealand. It’s a fictional story about a Maori man called Mick who goes to fight in Vietnam and when he comes home there’s a high personal cost to that war experience.

This play feels like a real immersion in Maori culture from the first to the last. We begin with what seems to be a ritualized prayer spoken in Maori and we end with a ritualized washing by the solo actor, Te Kohe Tuhaka, and there is a lot of Maori spoken in the text. It reminded me of the fact that we’ve had a number of really great one-person shows by Australian indigenous actors over the last couple of decades, including Leah Purcell, Kutcha Edwards and Ningali Lawford. Many of them have been autobiographical and you find yourself wondering how much of this New Zealand play is drawn from the playwright Bob Broughton’s own life, because the program notes tell us he spent 17 years in the NZ army.

In some ways this is very traditional story-telling. There’s a chronological description of the character’s life story, from his childhood growing up in the Pa (traditional Maori family ‘village’) with his beloved brother, his authoritarian Maori father and his English mother, to his experiences in the jungles of Vietnam, and then his marriage and the tragedies that followed (which I won’t be giving away!)

The actor, Te Kohe Tuhaka, has an extraordinary stage presence. It’s a very physical show – he’s leaping and jumping all over the stage, onto and off raised platforms, crawling under low platforms, doing ritualised Haka-style dance movements – and he has the most mobile face I think I’ve ever seen. It’s a virtuoso performance, although at times I would have liked to have had some more quiet moments, with less frenzied physical activity and less high intensity emoting. Sometimes less is more…

But if you’re interested in New Zealand culture, in particular Maori culture, and in the history of the Vietnam War, and if you like good theatrical solo story-telling, then this play is definitely worth seeing. Warning though – there are some pretty graphic sexual references and some ‘language’ – but we’re all pretty used to that now aren’t we?

‘Michael James Manaia’ is on at 45 Downstairs as part of the Melbourne Festival until Sunday October 28th.

September 20

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, September 20th.

Three shows to review this week – two one-man plays and a musical.

‘Walking Mark Rothko’ is on at La Mama theatre in Carlton as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival and it’s performed and written by Adam Cass.

This play is billed as ‘adventurous theatre’ and it’s best to go along being prepared to be nudged out of your comfort zone. Not only is there no ‘fourth wall’ between the stage and the audience, but the performer Adam Cass, or ‘Orange’, as his character is called, speaks directly to the audience the whole time and invites us to get involved in the performance – if we’re willing.

Adam Cass has written at least half a dozen plays in the last five years. He’s worked with Red Stitch Theatre and he will soon have a show at the Sydney Opera House, so he’s definitely a talent to watch at the moment. And it seems he enjoys destabilizing the relationship between the performer and the audience.

Orange has a problem – he can’t feel emotions. He can feel physical pain and in fact he makes himself endure agonising foot pain, perhaps just to remind himself what pain feels like. But he can’t feel happy or sad or in love so he has to simulate these things. For example, he’s written a script which he invites a woman from the audience to get up and read with him, in which he asks her to hop into bed with him so that he can try and feel something. This is a very funny scene, especially on opening night when the girl who got up from the audience was a really lovely performer. Orange also has a dominating mother who he talks about constantly, and you wonder whether some of his emotional problems stem from the relationship with her (cherchez la mere… ).

There’s an interesting challenge for the solo performer with a show like this – what if you get a real exhibitionist in the audience who is willing to get up, and perhaps even try to take over?

There’s no clear or didactic ‘message’ or even story in this show, but it does make you think about empathy and numbness, about the impact of our increasingly digital virtual lives on how much we ‘feel’. It made me think about the current debate about ‘trolling’ by people willing to be extremely rude and bullying on Twitter and on comments pages of websites – are we somehow numbing ourselves to others feelings?

At times this production felt a bit slow. For example Cass sang one whole section of the play as improvised opera, which was a lovely idea, because opera is so full of overblown highly dramatised feelings (was Orange hoping that telling a story in this style would help him to feel something about the story?) but it went on too long.

So overall – a challenging and provocative work, not entirely successful, but very interesting theatre.

‘Walking Mark Rothko’ is on at La Mama Theatre in Carlton until September 30th.

‘Angela’s Kitchen’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre, performed and co-written by Paul Capsis, directed and co-written by Julian Meyrick.

This is a one man autobiographical show by Capsis who is well known as a cabaret artist. He’s an incredible singer – a star – and I have long been a huge fan of his work so I went along to see this show with very high expectations.

But I have to say I was a little disappointed.

Capsis tells us the story of his Maltese grandparents’ migration to Australia and about his very close relationship with his beloved grandmother Angela. We learn that his grandfather was a frightening and forbidding figure. We ‘meet’ his mother and his aunt briefly, we see a graphic of the family tree, and we hear a few snatches of some traditional Maltese songs. And when Capsis goes into character as one of his family members – his grandmother or his aunt or even as the leader of the bingo nights his grandmother loves so much – he is riveting. He has always been a very good comic character actor.

But this story is mostly told from the first person perspective – in other words, Paul Capsis telling us Paul’s story in Paul’s own words – and when he is just ‘playing’ himself, he seems much less confident and charismatic than when he is in character. That is one of the reasons I didn’t fall in love with this show. For me, Capsis works best in character.

The other reasons are that I’m not sure the co-writers ever clearly decided exactly what the heart of this story was. Is it a story about migration and his grandmother’s survival in a foreign land? Is it a story about Paul Capsis himself, and how he ‘survived’ his own childhood? We’re given what seems to be a lot of personal information about the family but not quite enough personal information about Paul and about what’s been ‘at stake’ for him in telling this story.

And finally – there’s not enough singing! Surely that’s one of Capsis’ strengths, perhaps even one of his survival strategies, and yet there are very few songs in this show.

I have always loved this style of one-person autobiographical verbatim theatre and there have been many brilliant examples of it produced in Australia over the past couple of decades. Perhaps it would have worked better, though, to have written this story entirely from the perspective, and in the voices, of those family members/‘characters’ who Capsis introduces us to.

‘Angela’s Kitchen’ is on at the Malthouse Theatre in Southbank until September 23rd

Finally to ‘South Pacific’, a new Australian production of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, starring Lisa McCune and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.

This musical has been one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most successful works. It was made into a film which many of you will have seen and there are lots of ‘hits’ in it, including ‘Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair’, ‘There Aint Nothing Like a Dame’ and ‘Bali Hai’. There’s also an exotic plot set during WW2 involving a handsome and mysterious Frenchman and a plucky nurse from Little Rock in the US of A. And most astonishingly there is a great anti-racism message running throughout it all – that love is colour-blind – so it’s a wonderful musical and with one exception I thought this was a wonderful production.

What works well?

The choreography is stunning – acrobatic, sexy, with few cliches.
Lisa McCune is show-stoppingly good in the role of Nurse Nellie from Little Rock – intensely charismatic and totally convincing.
Kate Ceberano is a revelation as Bloody Mary – she’s a really good actor and of course her voice is like brandy cream.
Eddie Perfect is funny and dirty.
And Daniel Koek as Lieutenant Joseph Cable has an exquisite music theatre voice and his acting is great.

BUT:

I think Teddy Tahu Rhodes has been mis-cast. (Pause for communal gasp of shock/horror)

Rhodes is an absolute star of opera. He has a strong rich baritone voice, he usually looks good on stage, and although his acting has never been his greatest strength, he gets away with that in opera because it’s so formalized in its performance style, and he almost never has to speak.

But his speaking parts in this musical were NOT good. He has a silly French accent (which made people around me giggle a bit, even in the most serious moments) and he sometimes looked physically uncomfortable on stage, as if he was not quite sure where to put his long frame.

At times it was almost as if he was in a different show to the other performers – in an opera by Delibes or Bizet perhaps, rather than an American musical.

Nevertheless I highly recommend this show. We have so many great music theatre performers in Australia, it’s a joy to see them getting their teeth into these roles

‘South Pacific’ is on at the Princess Theatre in Spring St.

I’m off to France to perform myself for the next few weeks so i won’t be in the Culture Club for a month, but I’ l be back in time for the Melbourne Festival. Can’t wait.

September 17

World’s (third) Most Livable Country?

(First published as a column in The Age newspaper)

Only third-best. That’s what the newspaper said. According to a UN report
Australia was only the third-best country on the planet in which to live.
Norway took the gold, Sweden took the silver, and we had to make do with
the bronze medal. I was mystified. Was there more crime in Australia? Did
Scandinavians enjoy each others company more than we did? Was real estate
cheaper? Did they produce better music? Or was it their flair for design?
The newspaper article offered no explanation, so I decided to investigate.
On the long flight north I tried to recall what I knew about these
far-away countries. Norway had fjords, herrings and the midnight sun.
Sweden had ABBA, IKEA and lots of blondes. I would blend right in.

The first place on my itinerary was a small Norwegian town called
Stavanger. Down at the harbour I hopped on a boat that was heading up a
fjord. On the way we passed dozens of little islands and on
each island there was a tiny rust-red house. I met a Norwegian man on the
boat called Tryggv and we talked for a while about the lack of vowels in
his name. I offered him one of mine because two only confuses people but
he graciously declined. Then he told me that practically everyone in his
country owns their own island cottage. When they get sick of their fellow
Norwegians they row out to their island and sit on
their front porch, drinking beer and enjoying the solitude.

Back at the Stavanger harbour I farewelled Tryggv and continued on my
journey. Further north I passed through a village called Hell. It was
surrounded by rolling green fields and clear blue lakes so I stopped
worrying about the afterlife.

In the town of Trondheim I met a man called Thor with an encyclopedic knowledge of Australian rock music between 1978 and 2004. So we drank vodka and he told me all about what Nick Cave, Steve Kilby, Mark Seymour, Peter Garrett, Renee Geyer, James Reyne and Jo Camilleri were doing with themselves these days. Thor has been known to fly all the way from the Arctic Circle to Oslo to hear visiting Australian bands. He works in primary schools, looking after Norwegian children with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Thor told me that his girlfriend thinks he has special insight into these children’s problems, what with his Aussie rock thing and all.

I said goodbye to Thor and headed for Sweden. First stop was a town called
Borlange. The world-famous Swedish tenor Jussi Bjorling was born there. A
big statue of Jussi dominates the central mall, his mouth wide open, frozen
in mid-aria. In the mall I met a man with thick spectacles called Ingemar
who told me that Borlange was the crime capital of Sweden. Someone was
kicked to death by a gang of youths a few years back, right under Jussi
Bjorling’s nose. Ingemar has a record store in the mall. He doesn’t sell
many of Jussi’s records but the kids who don’t want to join the local
gangs spend a lot of time hanging out in Ingemar’s store. He often sells
them CDs for less than he paid for them. His friends once dressed up the
Jussi Bjorling statue in one of Ingemar’s T-shirts. They put a pair of
thick spectacles on its face and a sash around its waist, with the word
‘Ingemar Rocks!’ written on the sash in big black letters. Ingemar’s
friends reckon he’s more important in Borlange these days than the
world-famous tenor ever was.

Last stop on my itinerary was Stockholm. At the hotel I was given a map of
the city. It was a miracle of modern design. It folded neatly together like
a piano accordion and for a while I just sat in my hotel room, opening and
closing it for the sheer pleasure of the experience. Finally I ventured out
to stroll the footpaths of Stockholm, admiring the many bicycles propped up
on their little metal stands. No locks, no chains, no security at all. I
met a blonde man called Lars who told me nobody steals bicycles in Sweden.
He gave me a dink on the back of his bike to a bar called Ostagagotan.

I could be here for some time.

September 12

Did you lose something?

(First published as a column in The Age and Sydney Morning Herald newspapers)

Every telephone pole bears a tragic tale. I can’t even enjoy a simple walk to the beach without having my heart-strings tugged. Right alongside the cheery notices for garage sales there are endless stories of grief and loss.

– Missing Dog: Reward $500. Female Labrador, ‘Cindy’, wool coat, creamy white. Much loved pet and friend. Call this number.
– Have you seen Boots? We miss him. Ginger male, bell and name-tag. Reward offered. Call this mobile.
– Lost – male, de-sexed, four years old. No tags – choker chain. Answers to Wiggs. Please phone.

And every poster sticky-taped to the pole features a fuzzy photo of the beloved pet, perched happily on the living room couch or the matrimonial bed, head cocked to the side or paw lifted in a cute pose. Boots is looking very relaxed, sprawled on a couple of pillows. He’s obviously just had a nice saucer of milk. Cindy is so blurry she could be a small horse. Wiggs is my favourite, a terrier with a look of great intelligence. I bet he could collect the newspaper AND untangle it from that infernal plastic wrapping. But where is he now?

All over this city, pets are disappearing from their homes, leaving their owners bereft. Lost, stolen, or taking a holiday? Maybe Boots has a cousin called Socks in the next suburb and has decided to pay an extended visit.

I stroll towards the strand and on the way I see a woman walking a dog which looks just like Wiggs. Should I make a citizen’s arrest? I could call out ‘wiiiigggs!’ and see if he comes running to me but people might think I’m hawking hairpieces. Besides, this woman doesn’t look like a dog-napper. She looks like she could afford to buy her own brand new latest-model terrier without resorting to theft.

I bet most families in Melbourne have lost a beloved pooch or moggy at some time or another. It happened to our family. When I was young we had a corgi called Buffy. He was old and grumpy and inclined to snap at young children. Still, we loved him. Then one day Buffy disappeared. We searched the neighbourhood but there was no sign of him anywhere, not even a sad, stiff body by the side of the road. My parents told me he’d probably been stolen but it never made sense to me. Who would want a pre-loved snappy old corgi with eczema? Twenty-five years later, part of me still mourns for poor Buffy and longs for the mystery to be solved.

You probably think I’m over-reacting to those rain-soaked posters on telephone poles. The problem is, we get the first act of the drama but we rarely find out what happens in the final scene. Maybe these stories have happy endings. Just like garage sale notices, no one ever thinks to come around and remove lost pet posters when they’re out of date. Maybe there’s a tearful reunion going on right now as Cindy comes bounding down the street in slow motion, creamy white coat rippling in the wind, and jumps into the out-stretched arms of her ecstatic owner. Maybe Boots’ folks came home one day and found him sitting in his usual place beside the front gate, catching a few rays and reminiscing about the good times he’d had with Socks.

I think the local council should pass a new by-law. They could call it the ‘Domestic Pet Tragedy Narrative Closure By-law’. If you stick up a notice advising of a disappearance, then you must advise us of the resolution to this drama, whether it’s good news or bad.
And for those of us with unresolved cases, I guess we just have to learn to live with our losses and try to avoid resorting to cat or dog-napping to fill the gap in our sad, empty lives.

(Stop barking, Wiggs, they’ll hear you.)