Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

March 17

From Sicily to Stonnington

I’m heading to Italy in April for a couple of weeks to visit northern Sicily and the Amalfi Coast, so this blog may go quiet for a little while. Ma ritornero!

In the meantime, you might like to consider coming along to the next City of Stonnington forum that i’ll be hosting on Thursday April 30th, 7 pm at the Malvern Town Hall. The topic is ‘Sustainability’ – and I can’t think of anything more important in these environmentally frightening times.

And if you’re looking for an intensely moving night out at the theatre in Melbourne, check out ‘The Year of Magical Thinking‘, a one-woman play by American writer Joan Didion performed by Robin Nevin for the Melbourne Theatre Company (until April 11th).

Better still – read the autobiographical book of the same name which inspired the play – it won a Pulitzer Prize. (Published by Random House)

February 26

Latin Lover on Lingua Franca

This Saturday (28th February) the Lingua Franca program on ABC Radio National will feature an interview I did recently with Lorna Robinson, the author of ‘Ad Nauseam: A Miscellany of Latin Words and Phrases’ (pub. Simon and Schuster). She’s a passionate advocate of learning Latin as a way of gaining a deeper understanding and love of language, and has been teaching it to all comers in English parks and gardens. The program goes to air at 3:45pm, but will also be available as a podcast after the broadcast.

On the evening of Thursday 12th March I will be hosting a public forum for the City of Stonnington on ‘Creativity and Innovation in the Fashion Industry‘ at the Malvern Town Hall. Guests will include Just Jeans founder Craig Kimberley, Kate Hannaford from Moth Design and fashion industry insider Ko Kellock. The forum will also be available as a podcast after the event.

Keep an eye out for my forthcoming essay on the topic of shyness, which will be published in Meanjin literary journal in the June 2009 edition.

And I have been invited to be a guest speaker at the Byron Bay Writers Festival which will take place from 7th – 9th August this year. Full program details will be available from June 5th.

January 23

From Frankston to Baltimore

‘Frankston Lights’ is a new musical written by Bobby McHugh (with additional songs by Maddy and Memphis Kelly) and directed by Kaarin Fairfax, premiering this week in The Cube performance space at the Frankston Arts Centre. With their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, the creators have crafted a musical in the fine tradition of a-show-all-about-being-in-a-show. In this instance, it’s a Frankston ‘follies’ show, desperately in need of a juvenile male lead, but (temporarily) thwarted by an evil producer with a grudge against the family of (clearly) The Most Talented Juvenile Lead in the Southern ‘Burbs!

As community theatre it works beautifully – it’s about a specific place, it’s full of in-jokes about that place, and it has used the wide-ranging skills of a bunch young performers from that place. (Have you ever heard a pretty French woman try and pronounce ‘mullet’? Hint – it rhymes with creme brule) There’s a team of young hip hop dancers who almost steal the show, some sweet singing from the talented Kelly gals, and the juvenile male lead is indeed Most Talented. Final performance is this Sunday night, 8 pm.

Speaking of place, this has been the summer of ‘The Wire’, the astonishingly well-written HBO series set in Baltimore. Night after night i have been drawn back to the TV to find out what will happen next in the lives of the police, politicians and drug-pushers on the streets of this fictionalised city. The stories are complex and interwoven, the number of key characters is vast, much of the language is pure dialect, and there are more gruesome murders per episode than this squeamish viewer has ever been able to stomach before – and yet it is irresistible. It is an insightful study of how criminal underclasses are formed and become self-sustaining, through the creeping corruption and blind ideological rigidities of local and national politics. But mostly it is quality screen entertainment. Warning – don’t get too emotionally involved with any of the potentially redeemable crims. They usually come to a bad end.

Available on DVD from an increasing number of retail outlets (if you want to avoid joining the criminal underclass of DVD burners, lenders and borrowers).

Having praised HBO’s latest screen gem, nothing could possibly be as diverting as the televised inauguration of US President Barack Obama this week. Can it be true? Or is this an elaborate hoax by the creators of ‘The West Wing’, who will soon reveal that the handsome young Kenyan-American is merely the latest incarnation of the Jed Bartlett-style fictional liberal President, played by a really really really good English actor with an ear for accents?
i hope not.

December 11

Australia versus Shane Warne – who wins?

Team A – Oscar award-winning credentials, celebrity cast, massive budget, humungous publicity campaign, and a story that draws on the dust-laden history of this wide brown land.

Team B – Green Room award-winning credentials, celebrity subject, meagre budget, modest publicity campaign (helped along by surprise endorsement from celebrity subject) and a story that draws on the dirt-laden history of this wide brown land’s best ever bowler.

For my money, Team B – ‘Shane Warne the Musical’ – wins hands down.

Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy ‘Australia’, the movie-cum-tourism campaign – to be honest, I found it completely fascinating. Baz Luhrmann has an astonishing gift for collecting images, narrative fragments and audio ear-worms from a vast range of sources and creating a kaleidoscopic cultural product which sets off little penny-bangers in your head.

For example, most of the actors he has cast have starred in at least one iconic Australian film, including Jack Thompson (Sunday Too Far Away), Bruce Spence (Stork), Max Cullen (Sunday Too Far Away), John Jarratt (Wolf Creek), David Gulpilil (Storm Boy) and Arthur Dignam, who played the dodgy priest in Fred Schepisi’s ‘The Devil’s Playground’.

Dignam once again plays a priest in Luhrmann’s ‘Australia’, and there is a scene in which this priest is taking a group of young Aboriginal boys away in a small boat to an island mission. Nullah, the boy who has been informally adopted by Nicole Kidman’s character, is standing on the back of the boat with the priest looming over him, and as you watch his face crease with fear, suddenly the whole claustrophobic, sexually-abusive world of ‘The Devil’s Playground’ explodes in your memory. That’s just one small example – but these moments of recognition, of drawing on authentic moments from other texts, happen about once every three minutes, so by the end of almost three hours in the cinema, my head was aching with an overload of imitation, mimicry, borrowing, stealing, post-modern referencing, re-using and recycling – call it what you will.

The script is pretty naff, and the central premise – that we’ll engage with the tragedy of the stolen generation if it’s a story about an Aboriginal kid who has been stolen away from a white woman – is dubious, to say the least. But it looks amazing, and if you don’t mind running the risk of laughing out loud at inappropriate moments (as I did, often), go and see it.

But you MUST NOT MISS ‘Shane Warne the Musical’!

If you enjoyed ‘Keating the Opera’, you will enjoy Eddie Perfect’s new show about the hapless Australian spin bowler who we love to love/hate. Eddie plays Shane and is definitely the star of the show, but the cast members are all excellent, including Rosemarie Harris who plays Warne’s ex-wife Simone, Sally Bourne who plays his mum, and Mike McLeish (Keating) who plays a range of supporting characters. They’re directed by Neil Armfield (who directed ‘Keating’) and even Shane himself likes the show!

The lyrics are as funny as they are clever, the story is told as sympathetically as possible (given what a balls-up Warnie seemed to make of everything other than cricket – excuse the pun) and the ever-changing musical styles in this show range from a gospel song about beer to a Bollywood dance dnumber about corruption in cricket – and everything in between. It’s on at the Atheneum Theatre until at least January 11th 2009, and it’s heading to Perth in March.

November 28

Flying Sheep and Talking Washing Machines

As a tragic fan of Handel, I’ve been looking forward to Opera Australia’s 2008 production of Orlando which opened at The Arts Centre last night – and I was not disappointed. Soprano Emma Matthews was a suitably glamourous Angelica, and her voice is simply perfect for this Baroque repertoire – creamy, agile and powerful enough to carry to the top balcony of the vast State Theatre. Mezzo soprano Dominica Matthews (any relation?) was also in fine form as Orlando, the unrequited lover torn between love and war. I almost believed she WAS a man, especially when she allowed herself to sound less than beautiful in attacking certain key phrases in the second half of the opera, when Orlando is going stark raving bonkers. But when beauty and clarity of vocal line was required, she always delivered.

The real star of this production, though, was the set design. Delightfully playfully post-modern, it encompassed a huge, fragmenting map of the world (which also served as a series of ‘doorways’ worthy of a Feydeau farce), a giant telex machine, an even more giant desk lamp, and innumerable life-sized plastic sheep which rolled across the stage, leant up against a desk and even flew through the air. Bravo to set and costume designers Kimm Kovac and Andrew Hays for imagining it all – and then finding a way to make it happen. Orlando is on until December 13th.

And at the Carlton Courthouse this week i’ve seen the La Mama production of Cynthia Troupe’s new play Care Instructions. Part Beckett, part Gertrude Stein, part C.S Lewis, it features a talking frontloader (courtesy of video footage of a Liz Jones monologue projected onto the door of the washing machine – hilarious) and three women in large laundry bags, reciting, dancing, singing and laughing their way through a text about – oh i dunno – washing, worrying, wondering, wishing, and that spiteful spindle from Sleeping Beauty. Clever, funny, absurd, and yet also somehow strongly feminist (for this audience member, anyway) – a great combination.

If you’re reading the A2 section of The Age tomorrow (Saturday 29th November), keep an eye out for the print version of my Lingua Franca essay about platitudes.

And only twelve more sleeps till the opening of Shane Warne The Musical, directed by Neil Armfield and written by (and starring) the amazing Eddie Perfect! Be there or be out for a duck.

November 19

Platitudes, Playing Perth and a World Heritage Park

You might like to check out my latest Radio National program – a voice-piece for Lingua Franca broadcast this week – an essay in defence of platitudes. There is a transcript available on the RN website and for a while you can also listen to the program online.

I had a very enjoyable, if somewhat rain-drenched, week of gigs with Paul Kelly at The Quarry in Perth recently. (click here for a review of the A-Z shows in The Australian newspaper). The Quarry is a stunningly beautiful outdoor venue and will be well-used in the forthcoming Perth International Arts Festival, February/March 2009. If you’re flying Qantas early next year, keep an eye out for an article i’m writing about the Perth Festival for ‘The Australian Way’ inflight magazine.

Also just back from visiting Mildura and Mungo National Park in southern New South Wales. We took a tour of the park with Graham Clark, a traditional owner who runs Harry Nanya Tours, who told us all about the history of the lake as one of the oldest sites of human occupation, dating back around 60,000 years. You can still see ancient Aboriginal middens revealed by the winds blowing across the dry lake bed to the Walls of China, a crescent of white sand dunes which turns a lurid shade of orange/pink at sunset. Amazing place.

October 10

Melbourne Festival Fare and Forthcoming Gigs

As the 2008 Melbourne Festival draws to a close, it’s worth mentioning some highlights – and some lowlights.

Turkish ney-player (a long wooden flute-like instrument) Kudsi Erguner performed at the BMW Edge with an ensemble of virtuoso musicians in a concert called Sufi Invocations. The highlight for me was hearing the two male vocalists (or ‘nightingales’, as Erguner described them) whose voices, both individually and in unison, made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It reminded me of being in Istanbul and hearing the Moslem prayer-calls echoing over the city, with those distorted, elongated vowels and ornamented scales dipping up and down between the extreme top and the very bottom of their vocal range. Soothing and exquisite.

Oddly enough, it also reminded in moments of Liza Lim’s opera The Navigator, which played to bemused audiences in the Playhouse of The Arts centre. She, too, employed virtuoso singers, operatically trained in this instance, but required to distort their vowels in extraordinary ways to deliver Patricia Sykes’ text. Frankly, i didn’t think Barrie Kosky’s dildo-ridden direction worked, but it wasn’t entirely his fault. The text lacked drama and a coherent narrative, and i suspect this musical work should have been presented as a concert performance rather than a staged theatrical production. I am a huge fan of the Elision Ensemble, and of Liza Lim’s ground-breaking compositions, but i found it hard to enjoy this show.

STO Union’s two-person work ‘7 Important Things’ was a nostalgic and vaguely therapeutic narration of one man’s life story. Aided and abetted by Canadian director Nadia Ross, George Acheson re-lives his experiences growing up a baby-boomer in an era of failed utopianism. Ross is playful with the form – there’s everything from TV-style chat show moments to mask-work and silent disco-dancing in this show – but it felt, in the end, rather slight.

Speaking of Canadians, Book of Longing, a new work by American composer Phillip Glass based on the poetry of Leonard Cohen, was a moving and loving homage to the Canadian songwriter and artist. Four excellent musical theatre-style vocalists delivered the songs with clear-as-a-bell diction, allowing us to relish the craft of Cohen’s sad, sexy, witty poetry. Can’t wait for Cohen’s Australian tour (late Jan, early Feb 2009 – supported by Paul Kelly!)

Wendy Houston’s Desert Island Dances put the ‘playful’ back into ‘post-modern’ with a funny, low-key and self-refllexive one-woman dance work about… about… oh, everything, really. There was a chalk board on which the English performer traced an imaginary graph of her audience’s emotional response to the show, a giant wooden box with wheels in which she rolled around the small stage, and lots of talking. I loved this performance, and i’d love to see anything else she does, quite frankly.

And what a treat to see Melbourne playwright and director Jenny Kemp’s latest work, Kitten, which premiered at the Malthouse Theatre. Three women play the one character, ‘Kitten’, who is having some kind of frightening manic episode, following the drowning death of her lover. Natasha Herbert and Margaret Mills, both longtime collaborators with Kemp, were simply astonishing in the way they captured the breath-taking charisma of someone in that state. A more accessible play, in some ways, than many of Kemp’s previous works, Kitten left me in tears, and yet also elated. Definitely a Festival highlight.

Forthcoming SP gigs – I’ll be performing with Paul Kelly in Perth for his A – Z gigs at The Quarry (November 4 – 7). I’ll be singing and playing clarinet, and Dan Kelly will be playing along on guitar as well.

October 3

Heavenly Handel, Fringe Festival and Bogan Pride

I went to my first Melbourne Symphony concert in a while last night, and I was very happy to see an almost full house at the Hamer Hall. Must have something to do with the enduring popularity of Handel’s ‘Water Music’ which made up the second half of the bill. The first half featured the astonishing Australian counter-tenor David Hansen peforming three Handel arias with the physical confidence of an Olympic athlete. The Baroque ornamentation he applied to these operatic numbers was the equivalent of a gold-medal-winning pentathlon performance, and the crowd roared with approval as he took his bows. The orchestra sounded incredibly youthful under the bouncing baton of Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie. They’re performing the Handel program twice more this week and it will be broadcast at a later date on ABC Classic FM.

Meanwhile the Melbourne Fringe Festival has begun, and last night saw the launch of ‘Jacky Jacky in the Box’, a performance art installation presented by Ilbijerri Theatre. Five indigenous performers, all called ‘Jacky’, sit inside three glass museum cabinets in the Atrium of Federation Square. Curious passers-by can read their family histories displayed on printed signs in front of the boxes, and learn about the complex and often tragic circumstances that led to each ‘Jacky’ being denied their indigenous cultural heritage. It’s cheeky, it’s confronting, and it makes a very clear point about the way in which Aboriginal Australians have been treated as less than human for most of the past two centuries.

And at the Supper Room of the North Melbourne Town Hall i saw a work-in-progress called ‘The Lonely Instrument’, an alternately chilling and hilarious re-telling of Angela Carter’s radio play ‘Vampirella’, all mixed up with characters and recipes straight out of the Country Women’s Association Cookery Book. There’s a shadow-puppetry play, an afternoon tea ritual with lamingtons and shortbread, and the scariest cake competition judges you’ll ever meet. Keep an eye out for the finished product, due for completion in 2009. For more information, email: lonelyinstrument@gmail.com

And don’t forget to tune into SBS Television at 9 pm on Monday nights for the next six weeks to see the new Australian comedy series ‘Bogan Pride‘, featuring the marvellous Caroline Lee playing a lesbian leader of a young Christian girls friendly society.

September 22

From Theatre to Film; from Film to Theatre

What a year for Australian film. I saw ‘Blessed’ this week, the film version of a Melbourne Workers Theatre production called ‘Who’s Afraid of the Working Class’ which i vividly remember seeing at the Trades Hall in Carlton about a decade ago. Director Ana Kokkinos and writer Andrew Bovell have done a remarkable job of sewing together four different short plays into one complex, layered and deeply affecting screenplay. And as with the original theatre production, the film invites us to look more closely – and more sympathetically – at the lives of people who have very little control over those lives. Single mothers struggling with loneliness and dependency, guilt and anger, fear and poverty, and with their own children – simultaneously bewildered and resourceful, defenceless and resilient, full of hate and full of love. These are three dimensional characters performed – in the main – by actors with an astonishing array of emotional tools at their disposal. And like those other stand-out Australian films of 2009 – ‘Samson and Delilah’, ‘Mary and Max’ and ‘Balibo’ – this film makes us feel the vulnerability of youth as keenly as we felt our own vulnerability when we were young – perhaps even more so. Take a hankie, in fact take a bag full of hankies, but take yourself to the cinema to see ‘Blessed’.

And speaking of children in peril, at the Malthouse Theatre last week I saw ‘One Night The Moon‘, a theatre adaptation of a musical film made for ABC TV about nine years ago. Directed by Wesley Enoch, the musical play tells the story of a young girl who wanders away from her parent’s farmhouse in search of the man in the moon and, as a result of racial prejudice, is lost forever. Based on the true story of indigenous ‘blacktracker’ Tracker Riley who was prevented from searching for a lost child by the child’s racist grandfather, the theatre adaptation swerves wildly between the sublime and the prosaic. The opening moments of the show are the best ten minutes i’ve spent in a Melbourne theatre for at least a year, thanks to some superbly imaginative multimedia design, and the members of the musical ensemble who perform on stage throughout the show are wonderfully multi-talented. At times, though, the dialogue and the lyrics descend into a kind of kitchen-sink drama that drags the whole thing down. I would still recommend you see this production, because most of the songs are great and Mark Seymour (who plays the white farmer) gives a powerful performance as a man mentally and physically locked up by his own fear and ignorance. But once again, if Tiny Tots in Trouble Tend To Tug aT your hearT-sTrings, don’t forget the hankies.

On October 1st I’ll be hosting the Ian Potter Foundation Music Commissions awards night at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Two new Fellowships will be awarded to Australian composers, and there’ll be a special recital from musicians Michael Kieran-Harvey, Merlyn Quaife and Vanessa Tomlinson of works by previous award-winners.

On Saturday October 17th i’ll be a guest speaker on a panel addressing ideas about ‘memory’ for the Meanjin journal. The discussion is part of the World Matters Festival 2009, being held at Edendale Community Farm, Gastons Lane, Eltham. Bookings: (03) 9439 8700

September 13

Tropical Talents and Marvellous Mentors

Just back from the Northern Territory where i caught several gigs on the last weekend of the Darwin
Festival
. Being able to boogie in the humid night air at the Darwin Botanic Gardens sure beats scurrying around chilly, wet Melbourne in October to attend the Melbourne Festival. (How about moving it to March, gals?)

One of the highlights was a concert called ‘Drums and Lions’, a collaboration between Maltese-Australian guitarist/percussionist Nicky Bomba and Ethiopian musician Dereb Desalegn. Bomba explained that it all started as a quest to find the roots of reggae in Ethiopia (he never did), but it ended with a firm musical friendship which had the crowd jigging and sweating and calling out for more at the Star Shell. Desalegn sings in his native Amharic language and plays a traditional one-stringed instrument called the masenko, but this is no world-musicky folk outfit. They rock!
They’ve recorded an album via Transmitter Records, also called ‘Drums and Lions’, and i highly recommend it as a cure for the post-winter blues.

The other gig to rave about was a double bill with charismatic East Timorese singer/songwriter Ego Lemos (lead singer of Cinco do Oriente) and Yolngu singer/songwriter Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. Gurrumul’s self-titled solo album has been garnering music industry nominations and winning awards left, right and centre (keep an eye out for him at the Aria awards in October, if he doesn’t take home a major prize i’ll eat my sombrero). The sell-out crowd had the religious fervour of a bunch of Elvis fans, so passionate were they about this blind musician and his songs in language. He’s a former member of Yothu Yindi, a current member of the Saltwater Band, and he’s going to be the next big indigenous musical star in this country (or i’ll eat another sombrero).

Gurrumul will be performing with the Black Armband at the forthcoming Melbourne Festival, and also doing a couple of solo gigs – book now or you’ll be sorry. (And keep an eye out for my profile of Gurrumul in a forthcoming edition of The Age ‘EG’.) Ego Lemos is rumoured to be performing in Melbourne on September 25th – more info anon.

Last week i hosted another business forum for the City of Stonnington, this time on the topic of mentoring. The three guest speakers (David Southwick, Fay Jamieson and Shane Hills) spoke persuasively about how asking for help – and/or offering it – can make the difference between a successful small business and a failure. Click to hear a podcast of our conversation.