Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

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February 27

Tribute to an indigenous cultural hero

Sad news today of the passing of the man who has been leading the fight to protect James Price Point and the Goolarabooloo and Lurujarri Heritage Trail, in the footsteps of his grandfather, Paddy Roe.

I wrote this piece about him in 2010, and it was published in The Age. (I have removed his name, out of respect for indigenous tradition, and replaced it with Mr R.)

Mr R steps backwards out of the fluorescent glare of the beachside fish and chip bar and lights a cigarette. He’s late, but he’s here. While we wait for our chips to fry, Mr R’s wife, Margie, tells me about her work with young indigenous offenders in the Kimberley. The petrol sniffing’s coming back, she reckons. She’s not sure why. It eased off for a few years, but now some of the community kids are back to stealing fuel from parked cars.

Margie shakes her head in frustration and stares over the wooden railing towards the glittering black water of Cable Beach. She blames the parents. They’re not teaching the kids, not about hygiene, not about whitefella laws and not even about blackfella lore, she says. So the kids have nothing. Her husband sucks hard on his cigarette and nods: ‘‘THAT’S what I’m talking about.’’

You might have seen Mr R on your TV in June, an Aboriginal man sitting alone on a jagged red rock in the middle of a deserted beach on Western Australia’s Dampier Peninsula. The Four Corners helicopter circled slowly around him, capturing a cliched but somehow affecting portrait of solitude. Mr R has been leading a campaign from his home town of Broome to prevent Woodside Energy from building a gas processing plant on his traditional land at James Price Point and closing off up to 80 square kilometres of Goolarabooloo country to anyone but plant workers.

The plan could also bring an end to Mr R’s annual pilgrimage along the Lurujarri Heritage Trail. His grandfather Paddy Roe, a Goolarabooloo traditional custodian, initiated the trail in 1987 to try to bring his people back to their country. Paddy passed away in 2001, but each July a swelling group of traditional owners, Broome locals and southern visitors follows Mr R’s footprints along the dunes towards the point, listening to his stories of the Goolarabooloo song cycle, camping in the same places traditional owners have camped for thousands of years.

Mr R wants to take my partner and me up to see his country, maybe catch some fresh fish, but he’s in the eye of a perfect storm of commitments. He has come to Cable Beach straight from the local court, where he has been trying to keep some Aboriginal boys out of jail.

Tomorrow he will have back-to-back meetings with lawyers and traditional law men to try to block Woodside’s bid for his land. And then there is next week’s Heritage Trail to prepare for, food and drink to be supplied for nearly 100 this year. Margie will use up her annual leave to cook for the walkers.

So tonight we’re perched on wooden benches watching the tide come up on the moonlit beach, sharing our chips and calamari and trying to make sense of this complicated battle. Mr R’s fired up. He is taking the Kimberley Land Council to court, and is still enjoying the memory of delivering the legal documents to the bewildered office staff. His language is all Old Testament vengeance, but as a campaigner he’s as slick as a fish.

‘‘My grandfather told me those stories of that land,’’ Mr R says as he waves a wilted chip in the air. ‘‘That’s my responsibility now. It’s heavy, but it’s mine. And that Wayne Bergmann, he’s been talking to the wrong people.’’

Bergmann, executive director of the Kimberley Land Council, is a man who swallows a lot when on camera. The recent Four Corners program portrayed him as a patsy, a small-town Aboriginal lawyer being manipulated by WA Premier Colin Barnett, and caught between his ambition to be a player in this big-boys’ game and a genuine desire to help his people. Woodside is promising jobs and money for the local indigenous community if the project goes ahead.

But it is hard to understand how Bergmann could have left Mr R out of the picture when the land council boss signed an agreement last year with Woodside and the state government on behalf of local native title claimants. ‘‘My name’s on the original native title claim.’’ Mr R’s words are almost drowned out by the sound of the shutters coming down on the fish and chip bar. ‘‘First name on the claim, lodged back in 1994 — Mr R, grandson of Paddy Roe. He chose me when I was three months old and he taught me the stories and he’s still buried up there on his land.’’

Mr R lights another cigarette. His Sydney barrister is planning to walk the Lurujarri Heritage Trail this year with his wife and daughter. Could be a shock to the system. No mobile phone cover, no internet, no tents. Just the clearest night sky in the country, according to experts; you can see the stars setting all the way down to the horizon.

Later in the week my partner and I do make it up to James Price Point. We pause at the creeks and estuaries along the way where local families go fishing and mud-crabbing on weekends, and wander among the dunes, poking through ancient middens. We swim in tidal rock pools, then watch as the water mysteriously disappears, leaving rippled wet sand where we’d just been swimming freestyle.

Finally, we park close to the edge of the burnt red cliffs overlooking the beach and spot the rock where Mr R posed for the Four Corners helicopter camera. Picking our way over the jagged remains of a petrified forest, we scan the horizon, hoping to see calving whales — almost 1000 humpbacks were recorded in the area last year — but no luck today. Black kites circle slowly in the warm updrafts above the cliffs as our host points north and south to where four giant jetties would be built if the gas plant goes ahead.

It’s after nine now, and Mr R’s looking tired. Fish and chips dispatched, I need to use the ladies’. The public lavatories are locked so I stride past the waitresses in the noisy cafe, and when I get back, Margie follows my lead. She takes a while to return and when she does, her face has changed, shut down.

‘‘They didn’t want to let me use the toilets,’’ she says. ‘‘What do they expect me to do? It’s their fish and chips we were eating!’’ I’m embarrassed as Margie hugs us goodbye. Mr R holds out a stiff arm to shake our hands. He’s already thinking about tomorrow.

February 24

‘Shy – a memoir’: an excerpt

‘Shy. It’s such a shy word; a timid little word that begs to remain unnoticed. Only three letters long and it begins with an exhortation to silence: ‘shhh’.

Reserved is something different. Tall men with jutting jaws. Prime Ministers can be reserved, but never shy. And quiet implies choice; you could be loud but you prefer not to, instead perhaps watching purposefully, critically from the sidelines. Strong, silent types are quiet.

Restrained carries itself with dignity; with an implication of control. Even introvert has a whiff of clinical authority about it. Myers and Briggs have awarded these people an impressive three-syllable label. And most introverts probably don’t mind the label. They have proven themselves useful in the workplace; they make a positive contribution to group dynamics; they don’t usually embarrass themselves in public.

But with the word shy there’s no authority, no control. It’s a blushing, hunching word; a nervous, knock-kneed, wallflower word. A word for children, not grown-ups, because surely grown-ups grow out of shyness. Don’t they?…

…Apparently the correct term for this thing is social anxiety, a term that has been leached of the redeeming sweetness of ye olde worlde shyness. Jane Austen’s heroines could be shy but still lovable: young ladies of fine character, excellent marriage material.

A socially anxious person, on the other hand, is best avoided. Anxiety can be contagious, leaping from person to person like static electricity. I know because I’ve observed myself passing it along on countless occasions.

Social anxiety may lack the poetry of shyness but, once you put the symptoms together, it’s hard to argue with the diagnosis. If you’re feeling shy you’re worried about something. If you’re a persistent worrier, you’re anxious. If you’re anxious, your mind enters into a pact with your body, sending it forth into the world with an armoury of self-protective physical responses. Danger! The adrenaline, the sweating, the rapid breathing, all preparing your body to run. Ensuring your hands will shake but your legs will move faster when you need to take off.

Except that you’re never sure why you needed to take off so fast in the first place…’

‘Shy – a memoir’ will be published by Text Publishing on May 28th.

February 7

Performing arts reviews February 7th

It’s been a mixed bag of shows in Melbourne for the beginning of 2014. Have to admit I haven’t come away from the theatre feeling elated yet. I have, on the other hand, had to deal with some motion sickness.

The MTC 2014 season has opened with a production of Noel Coward’s 1930 play ‘Private Lives’, and whilst there are some things to like about this show, I found myself wondering whether it was still earning its place on the theatre mainstage in the twenty-first century.

The first half of this MTC production, directed by Sam Strong, is dominated by a complex revolving set which moves so fast and so often I felt a bit giddy at times (lord knows how the actors were coping). One side is the interior of a hotel in the French seaside town of Deauville, the other a pair of hotel balconies on which much of the action takes place. In adjoining rooms are newlyweds Elyot-and-Sybil and Amanda-and-Victor, who spend an awful lot of time bantering about the earlier failed marriage of Amanda and Elyot. When the former couple spy each other on their respective balconies, they realise they’re still in love and decide to abandon their new spouses and run away to Paris together.

This comedy of manners is replete with witticisms, but almost a century after the play first hit the stage, much of the dialogue feels archaic and, to be honest, trivial. There is a momentary interest in observing the lives of the idol rich in Europe, people whose most taxing decisions appear to be about whether to have champagne or a martini before din-dins, but after a while I stopped caring. And the cavalier conversations about domestic violence (Elyot and Amanda like a bit of fisticuffs) were full of terrible clangers, seen from a twenty-first century perspective.

Most annoying, however, was the interpolation of dodgy contemporary pop songs in the musical accompaniment to the show. Watching Amanda (Nadine Garner) doing a frantic foxtrot to a Michael Jackson song was deeply discomforting.

Leon Ford as Elyot Chase was the strongest cast member, finding a balance between the inevitable archness of Coward’s character sketches and the stereotype of the uptight Englishman. And Julie Forsyth’s beautiful clowning as the French maid Louise was a highlight of this production. I’ve never seen Gallic contempt portrayed with such deftness and so many pratfalls. Lucy Durack (Sybil Chase) is a music theatre performer and employed an acting style more appropriate for that theatrical form than for farce.

I dunno. There was plenty of laughter coming from the rest of the audience, so maybe I’m the lone curmudgeon here. Froth and bubbles just doesn’t seem that relevant to me in the theatre these days.

‘Private Lives’ is on at the MTC’s Sumner Theatre in Southbank until March 8th.

At the Arts Centre this week I saw the Diavolo dance company from Los Angeles perform ‘Architecture in Motion’, consisting of two works – Transit Space and Trajectoire. Directed by French choreographer Jacques Heim, the company employs a range of acrobatic, gymnastic and circus manoeuvres as muscular additions to a more traditional ‘contemporary’ dance language.

Transit Space borrows from the competitive masculine cultures of skateboarding and hip hop and is set on and around a series of slides styled on the ramps you might find in a skate park. The dancers leap and strut in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of movement as they push the giant silver slides around the stage. It looks dangerous, and perhaps it is, although the performers also look astonishingly comfortable as they defy gravity over and over. At times you feel like you could be watching a break-dancing competition, and at other times you could be inside a Cirque de Soleil tent. At all times, though, the athleticism is overlaid by a physical grace that gives the work an assured artistic depth.

In Trajectoire the set is once again a central focus of the performance. The dancers move under, over and around a giant rocking ship-like structure, negotiating the ever-changing balance of this contraption with brilliant timing and immense physical strength. At times I had to fight off a slight sensation of motion sickness just watching them, so who knows how the dancers themselves cope with the earth moving constantly under their feet. I was full of admiration for the dancers and the imaginative choreography in this work.

On the other hand, the sound design in this show leaves a bit to be desired. In Transit Space there is a way-too-loud and at times rather trite recorded commentary over the top of a way-too-loud and slightly bombastic musical accompaniment. The aphoristic commentary on the Alienation of our Modern Lifestyles is completely unnecessary, and distracts us from what the very clear dance language is trying to communicate. And in Trajectoire, once again the music slips over into Cirque de Soleil-style bombast a few too many times, trying to TELL US how we should be feeling. Less is more…

But I’m happy to recommend this production to anyone interested in the beauty and courage of the human body. Diavolo perform at the Arts Centre until February 9th.

And finally, last night I saw ‘Evolution Revolution and the Mail Order Bride’ at the Fortyfivedownstairs theatre in Flinders Lane. This production is written and performed by Zulya Kamalova, a Tartarstani-Australian singer-songwriter who is best known for her work with the band The Children of the Underground.

Kamalova worked with director Maude Davey to create this work whose premise, according to the writer, ‘is that the suppression of the Feminine leads to crisis – political, environmental, social or moral’. Kamalova plays three characters – Inessa Armand, a Soviet Russian revolutionary feminist; Eva, a Russian mail-order bride who marries an older Australian man; and Maya, a ‘wild shaman woman’.

The three characters’ stories are interwoven and performed around a deliberately shambolic set in which domestic objects are piled up at the back of the stage, and the performance is accompanied by a quartet of extraordinarily talented multi-instrumentalists including violinist and composer Errki Veltheim, cellist Charlotte Jacke, brass player Donald Stewart and keyboard player Justin Marshall.

Kamalova is a charismatic performer with a pure, flexible voice capable of carrying off practically any musical style. Her first major outing as an actor, however, was a little tentative at times, leading to a few moments of low energy and flagging audience attention. The most successful character was Eva the mail-order bride, a strutting, pouting, vulnerable blonde who is barely resigned to her status as a sexual object. At times, though, the ‘message’ being conveyed about women’s powerlessness tended to swerve from mild didacticism to obscure mysticism.

I suspect Kamalova’s performances will grow in confidence as the season progresses. It is a brave and admirable professional move from one of this country’s most talented musical performers.

‘Evolution Revolution…’ is on at Fortyfivedownstairs until February 16th.

January 16

The Self-Sabotaging Writer’s Blues

A tragic-comic list has been doing the rounds recently on Twitter. Entitled ‘The Creative Process’, it’s a seven-stage description of how writers often feel when they embark upon a new project:
‘1. This is awesome 2. This is tricky 3. This is shit 4. I am shit 5. Everything I do is shit 6. AARRGGHH 7. Booze.’

This humorous tweet describes a state of mind I usually describe to my writing students as ‘The Self-Sabotaging Writer’s Blues’. For the lucky ones it is a temporary crisis of confidence that is quickly overcome. For others, it can lead to the abandonment of a writing project. So how do writers find their way through the thicket of anxieties?

The first thing to acknowledge is that these fears can be useful. Writing is tricky. Not everything in a first draft is going to be worth salvaging in the second. Sometimes what we write really is ‘s**t’. Our self-critical voice can help us to refine our writing until it is of a publishable standard. And there is always consolation to be found in the Thomas Mann quote: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’

There is also consolation in knowing that even the most successful authors often still struggle with this stuff in the midst of their brilliant careers. At the State Library of Victoria last year award-winning writer Christos Tsiolkas described the inner critic who sometimes gets in the way of his writing:

‘There’s this voice on my shoulder that says, “Are you good enough? Are you a fraud? Are you deserving to be… a writer?” (But as well as) that voice… there’s the other one that goes, “you’re a bloody genius.” Equally wrong. I think.’

The self-sabotaging blues can also prevent us from coming up with a new writing project idea. In an essay for The Millions online magazine, novelist Toni Jordan (Addition, The Fall Girl) described the paralysis that overtook her after she finished her second novel:

‘I wrote nothing for more than a year… This was the bleakest stretch I could remember… I called my long-time publisher (and said) “my career is over… I’ll never get another idea.”’

Fortunately her publisher didn’t take her seriously (“that’s what you said after your first book”), an idea eventually emerged, and Toni Jordan’s third novel, Nine Days, was published in 2012.

Deborah Robertson, author of the novels Careless and Sweet Old World, says it’s important to ‘learn to tell the difference between genuine self-criticism and the demands of the ego. Being overly concerned with yourself, rather than the work in front of you, is a failure to take the work of writing seriously. Writing demands a certain moral toughness and stamina and it helps to be very clear with yourself about your reasons for writing.’

So what exactly are these paralyzing thoughts produced by our inner critic, and how can they be combatted? My writing students can easily fill a whiteboard with these nasty little saboteurs, but the three most common are:

– I have nothing original to say with my writing
– I’m too old to become a successful writer (or too young)
– No one will want to read or publish this stuff because it’s no good

Writer and academic Professor Ross Gibson recently addressed the first one in a keynote speech to the Creative Manouevres writing conference in Canberra. ‘How do you stop yourself being oppressed by everything that has gone before?’ he asked his audience. ‘How do you trick yourself into writing?’ The answer, he says, is to start by letting go of the myth of originality and acknowledging that everything you write has come from something else.

Gibson pointed to Bob Dylan’s songwriting process, as described in Dylan’s memoir, Chronicles: Volume One. Dylan unashamedly re-worked other people’s songs and stories until, Gibson says, ‘the stuff that was already re-working (him) started to push through’.

‘Stop worrying about getting it right’, Gibson advised, ‘because there are so many things to say.’ He quoted from a 1921 essay by T.S. Eliot, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which the poet argued that the process of artistic creation ‘is a continual surrender (of oneself) to something which is more valuable.’

As for being too old to be a writer: two words – Elizabeth Jolley. The award-winning WA writer didn’t publish her first novel until she was 53, but went on to write fourteen more. One way to positively re-frame the ageing process is to think of it as a process of gathering stories. The more stories you’ve gathered, the more you have to tell in your non-fiction, or to recycle in your fiction.

As for being too young: two more words – Tim Winton. His first novel, An Open Swimmer, was published when Winton was only 21 and his eleventh, Eyrie, in 2013.

The third anxiety on that list is perhaps the hardest to counter. Unless you are an established literary star, there are no guarantees that anyone will want to publish or read your work. Deborah Robertson says, ‘In order to tolerate the doubt and the nagging internal voices and just get the words down on the page, it helps to remind myself… that THIS IS AS BAD AS THE WRITING IS EVER GOING TO BE! It will be my job in subsequent drafts to make it better, but by then… I’ll be dealing with words in front of me rather than phantoms in my head.’

You could also try using this fear to take more risks with your writing. A mentor once advised me to ‘write as if no one is ever going to read this stuff’. It was a perfect example of ‘tricking yourself’ into writing and allowed me to write with new courage because I had lowered the stakes, at least temporarily.

If tricks won’t work, try these practical strategies to move past your anxieties:

– Set yourself achievable word targets each day (or week).
– Use the Pomodoro system for time organisation: write (anything) for 25 minutes, then give yourself permission to stop for 5 minutes, before writing some more.
– Try doing ‘scaffolding writing’, where you write about the writing you are trying to do.
– Spend 15 minutes reading a few pages of writing by one of your favourite authors, then go straight to your desk and write.
– Write with the thought that it’s ‘not about you’, but that your work is going to help or entertain or inspire or delight someone else.
– Write down the names of three books you are really glad the writer finished because they have had a positive impact on your life.
– Write a letter of congratulations to yourself that you can’t read again until you have finished your first draft, acknowledging the hurdles you’ve overcome and the reasons you should feel proud of yourself.
– Keep going because if you don’t finish the project, you may ultimately feel worse about yourself than if you keep writing in spite of the vicious taunts of your inner critic.

(This article was published in Newswrite magazine in February 2014)

December 6

Culture Club reviews December 6th

I’ve had another really great month at the theatre in Melbourne. There have been so many good shows to see, and here is a report-back on just a few of them:

‘Public’ is a new theatre work – or perhaps I should say an ‘audio performance work’ – created by local writer and director Tamara Saulwick. It was performed recently in the food court of Highpoint Shopping Centre, as part of the annual Big West Festival in the western suburbs of Melbourne. ‘Public’ is one of the most interesting, unusual and complex shows I’ve seen all year.

This is not the first time theatre has been performed in a mall-type environment in Melbourne. You might remember that about eight years ago the Back to Back Theatre company performed a fantastic show called ‘Small Metal Objects’ in the Flinders St. Station forecourt. As with ‘Public’ the audience members were wearing headphones so we could hear the miked-up performers interacting. (‘Small Metal Objects’ has been touring the world ever since, it was so successful). For that show, audience members were seated in ranked theatre seating. For ‘Public’, though, we were not told where to sit. Instead we were just given our headphones and told to go and find a spot amongst all the oblivious eaters in the food court.

About twenty of us headed out into the throng to find our places. I sat down on a bench next to a big Muslim family – mum and aunty and four or five kids, all enjoying their Friday evening meal at the food court – and put my headphones on. As you can imagine, it was a busy time down there. The place was filled with people eating – young couples and groups of schoolkids and grandparents with grandchildren and cleaners emptying bins and sweeping up dropped food – everyone munching on their KFC chicken and Donut King donuts and Subway stuff (all the fast food franchises are there, including the sushi outlet that had been in the news that very day for allegedly having maggots in their food). Gradually the music in our headphones gave way to the sound of people talking. Our first task was to try and work out who was speaking, from amongst all the people around us.

The voices in our headphones came and went in little snatches of conversation and narrative, and every now and then we would be sent a photo (via smartphone) of the performers were trying to locate in the crowd. Eventually I figured out, for example, that the young guy in the red hoodie who was moving almost in slow-motion around the space was one of the performers. He was all miked up so that when he scrunched up his plastic food bag it sounded like a volcano erupting.

For the next hour we played this game, listening to the voices in our headphones, almost as if we were eavesdropping on people’s real conversations, and figuring out who was performing these dialogues and monologues.

There were four actors, at times interacting, at other times not. One woman was telling us about meeting a guy through an internet chat room, and stalking him in that online environment to try and find out all about his life (or his pretend lives). At other times we heard the sounds of radio stations scrolling randomly through our headphones. One of the female actors did a karaoke performance of the pop song ‘I Feel Love’ in the middle of the mall, and towards the end of the performance the four of them played Truth or Dare, asking each other incredibly personal questions.

About half way through the performance I lent my headphones to one of the young Muslim girls sitting near me who was intensely curious about what was going on, and I had to snatch the headphones back when the actors started talking about sex.

So what’s it all about, Alfie?

I think this was a really great example of the form matching the content in contemporary theatre. The technology was used in a meaningful way, rather than just because, you know, you COULD use it, or because it might be ‘cool’. For me this was a piece about the increasingly blurred boundaries between our private lives and our public lives in the digital age. It made me think about about how these days we are bombarded with snippets of information (or personal narrative) from others’ lives – through Facebook or Twitter or text messaging or reality TV or talk radio or from eavesdropping on the tram or in the crowded mall – and about how we try to make sense of those stories and that information in relation to our own lives.

Where exactly is the line between voyeurism (or spying or stalking), and taking a healthy interest in other people’s lives? What do we make of the thrill (and perhaps the guilt) we might experience when we overhear or find out intimate information about the lives of strangers? It was also about the isolation and anonymity of being in crowded public places, and yet how we can make community (and art) even in a space as aurally assaulting as a shopping centre food court. Thought-provoking, insightful, original theatrical work.

As I was leaving the little Muslim girl to whom I’d lent my headphones rushed up to me and said ‘thanks, that was a great movie!’ And I thought – maybe she’s never been to see any theatre before – maybe she doesn’t know that this IS theatre – maybe this was her first theatre experience, and she didn’t even know it. And I felt glad to have been part of that experience.

You can find out more about ‘Public’, and Tamara Saulwick’s other work, via her [website](http://tamarasaulwick.com/public).

‘Public’ was on at the Highpoint Shopping Centre food court till December 1st.

‘The Mountaintop’ is a play about Martin Luther King by American playwright Katori Hall, currently being performed as part of the MTC 2013 season at the Fairfax Studio of the Arts Centre.

I am always full of admiration for writers who are willing to use real people, especially iconic figures like Martin Luther King, in their fictional works. It’s an audacious act because you will inevitably find people in the audience who don’t think your version of those characters is close enough to reality, and who might take offence. But Katori Hall has gone right on in there with a story about the man who has a national holiday named after him in the USA, the slain civil rights leader who famously told everyone ‘I have a dream’ of justice and equality for African Americans.

In this play it’s the night before Martin Luther King’s murder. He is holed up in a motel room, trying to work on his speech for the following day, and battling a bunch of demons, including the fear that someone might be trying to harm him. Into this motel room walks a maid, Camae (Zahra Newman), who is apparently on her first night’s work at this motel and who is beautiful and funny and clever and flirtatious. King (Bert LaBonte) bots a cigarette off her and over the next 90 minutes she challenges him about a whole range of political matters. Most of the play is one long dialogue between these two characters and Camae turns out to be so much more than a motel maid on her first night at work.

This is one of those plays where I can’t reveal very much about the plot without totally spoiling the experience for people who haven’t yet seen it. Let me just say that there’s a lot in this play that reminds me of the Garden of Gethsemane story, with a martyr facing his fears on the night before his greatest fear will be realised.

I really enjoyed this production and I was not alone. The actors received a standing ovation the night I saw it, and I’ve heard that they’ve had many more since then. It’s hard to know how much the audience is applauding the performers and how much they’re also expressing their admiration of Martin Luther King, because the play finishes with a wonderfully rousing and optimistic speech from King.

It seemed to me that Katori Hall has drawn on a whole lot of different strands of contemporary African American culture in constructing this play. The language is very colloquial and very faithful to the era in which the play is set (the 1960’s) and yet at times I felt like I was watching an episode of Oprah, or that I was in an episode of the Bill Cosby Show. There is a confessional, comedic, self-deprecating AND also self-boosting communication style in the conversation between the two characters, and plenty of Biblical allusions, as you would expect from a play about a preacher man.

And at one point there’s a video montage of a whole lot of highly influential African Americans of recent decades, people who’ve had great success in public life, including Oprah Winfrey and Condoleeza Rice and Barack Obama – leaders and heroes – and it makes you realise how far America has come since the sixties, in terms of realising the aspirations of black America. And yet how far they still have to go.

‘The Mountaintop’ is on at the Fairfax Studio of the Arts Centre until December 18th.

Closer to home, I’ve seen an Australian play with some themes in common with ‘The Mountaintop’, in terms of the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in multi-racial communities. ‘Beautiful One Day’ is a play about Palm Island (located off the coast of Queensland near Townvsille) and is a co-production between the Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Belvoir and Version 1.0, presented by Arts House at the North Melbourne Town Hall.

As most people know, because there’s been a lot of focus on it in the media and in literature in recent years, there was an Aboriginal death in custody on Palm Island in 2004 which led to numerous investigations and court cases, and the police officer accused of causing that death was eventually judged to be not guilty. Chloe Hooper wrote an award-winning non fiction book about the case called ‘The Tall Man’, and now Melbourne’s indigenous theatre company has tackled the subject, although with a wider lens on the Palm Island community.

The six performers are also the devisors of this work. They helped to write it after spending time on Palm Island, meeting with lots of locals and hearing their personal stories, so it’s a ‘docu-drama’ style play. One of the women is in fact the niece of the man who died in police custody in 2004 and whose death sparked riots and the burning down of the local police station. There are two other people with close ties to Palm Island in the cast, including Rachael Maza, a well-known indigenous actor based in Melbourne, whose father Bob Maza’s family came from Palm Island. So it’s a deeply personal work for these artists.

This is acknowledged right up front, because the play opens with simple story-telling as the performers directly address the audience and tell us their memories of Palm Island. We also hear excerpts of transcripts of official documents from the white Inspectors who used to run this community of mostly displaced indigenous people. One of the most affecting moments in the play for me was when one actor recited a long, long list of all the things that were forbidden for indigenous Palm Islanders, everything from going out after curfew, to kissing your girlfriend or wife, to the clothes you weren’t allowed to wear. I can’t remember them all now, the list was so outrageously long, but it could easily have been a list of activities prohibited in a concentration camp, it was so barbaric. Maybe a better analogy is South African apartheid, which of course was abhorred here in Australia, even as the Palm Islanders were living in similar conditions to black South Africans.

In the middle section of the play there are some re-enactments of the scenes surrounding the Doomadgee death in custody and the court cases that followed, including some verbatim speeches given by the Palm Island mayor and some of the angry young men of the island after that death. Gradually a picture is built up of a community seething with intergenerational rage at the injustices they’ve had to deal with.

Most of the performances are very good, particularly considering that several of the actors have never acted in theatre before, and there is a beautiful interweaving of screen images and sound design with a very simple black set.

The play ends on an astonishingly positive note with video screens showing interviews with some of the island’s elders, in which they talk about how they’ve survived this inhuman regime, and their hopes for the future of their community – all intensely moving.

This is REALLY IMPORTANT THEATRE. These are stories that need to be told and re-told and remembered and regretted, so that this stuff can’t happen again. If it has another season, go see it.

‘Beautiful One Day’ was on at Arts House in North Melbourne until December 1st.

I’ve also been to see ‘Arden vs Arden’ at the Northcote Town Hall, a new production from The Hayloft Project. This production was partially funded by a Pozible crowd-funding campaign, where the company solicited financial support via that website and received more than $2000 in donations, They’re an unfunded independent theatre company so presumably it’s a good short-term option for them to get new work made.

This is a most curious production. The director and writer Benedict Hardie has taken an anonymously-written English play from Elizabethan times (1592) which dramatised a then-recent and true story: the murder of a businessman called Thomas Arden by his wife and her lover. Hardie has re-written the first half of the play, bringing it into contemporary Australia, changing the gender and sexual orientation of some characters, but mostly keeping the very complicated plot.

The second half of the play, however, reverts to the original text, so suddenly we’re listening to the language of Shakepeare’s times. (In fact some have wondered if this work was actually written by Shakespeare, but I doubt it because judging from the second half, the writing is not actually all that marvellous.)

This is a thoroughly enjoyable play to watch. The first half is hilarious, with witty, nutty writing, lots of laugh-out-loud moments and some contemporary references (even the new Liberal Government and their stop-the-boats policy get a mention). The plot is intriguing, in part because Thomas Arden is The Man Who Will Not Die. His wife Alice, her lover Mosby and assorted other characters ALL want to kill this man, and they make many attempts, but they keep failing. He won’t eat the poisoned food, he fights off the masked attackers, and he just keeps escaping death – until he doesn’t, at which point there is a LOT of fake blood on the stage.

If anything, the wit and fun of the first half (the re-written half) make the second (original) half seem rather plodding in comparison. Then again the original wasn’t written as a comedy, so it’s a bit like the straight man having to get up on stage after the funny man has performed. But the acting is uniformly excellent from the big, young cast of 11 performers.

This show is just the latest in a long run of adaptations and re-writes seen on Melbourne stages this year. I’m not quite sure why this one was chosen, perhaps more for curiosity value than anything else, but it definitely works. It’s also important to note that this is probably the last Hayloft Project play we’ll see in Melbourne for a while because the company is re-locating to Sydney next year.

‘Arden vs Arden’ is on at the Northcote Town Hall until December 8th.

Also worth mentioning: the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlists were announced last week. I was one of the judges of the Drama award and it was interesting to note that, like the Arden work, two of the short-listed plays were adapted from or inspired by another text (‘The Secret River’ and ‘Medea’) and two were inspired by true stories (‘The Secret River’ and ‘Savages’). The winners will be announced in late January 2014.

November 7

Culture Club reviews November 7th

The Melbourne theatre scene has been relatively quiet since I posted my last reviews. I think everyone collapsed in a heap on their couches after the Melbourne Festival ended. But there is never a time when there’s NO theatre happening in this town, and I’ve been to see three very different shows in the last couple of weeks:

‘In a Forest, Dark and Deep’ is a two-hander play by American playwright Neil LaBute who is probably best known here in Melbourne for his play ‘Fat Pig’ which had a couple of seasons at Chapel off Chapel this year. He’s a playwright with a very dark view of humanity who often writes about social dysfunction and in particular about love gone wrong.

‘In A Forest’ has been produced by a small local company called Winterfall theatre who’ve been around for about three years now, and it’s directed by Denis Moore, a very experienced actor and director whose face you’d recognize from many theatre, film and TV roles. The venue is the tiny Husk Theatre in Clifton Hill (my first ever visit) which looks remarkably like La Mama theatre on the inside. It’s a cosy space with a small stage area, just the right size for this production, because the play could be described as a ‘kitchen sink drama’ and all the action takes place in a small claustrophobic bedsit-type room.

The plot in brief: a middle-aged woman called Betty is alone in this cottage in a forest on a dark and stormy night when her brother Bobby arrives at the door. It turns out she has asked Bobby for his help, but things are not great between these two. They immediately start bickering about their shared past, and meanwhile Bobby is trying to find out what’s going on here at the cottage. Betty says she needs help to pack up a whole lot of stuff left by the previous tenant, but Betty’s story keeps changing.

Over the course of the next hour and a half Bobby tries to unravel is sister’s stories in order to get to the truth. I don’t want to give too much away but we audience members are a bit like Bobby – in the dark, trying to work out what, if anything, Betty tells us is fact and what is fiction. It’s like walking on quicksand and when the truth is finally revealed, it is worse than anything we might have imagined.

So this is a play about a tragic family relationship, about two very damaged people who need each other, and who love each other, but who can’t find a functional way to relate to each other. It’s also about class, because Betty has got herself an education and moved up the social ladder, while Bobby has stayed firmly working class. But he bitterly resents the differences between them now. And it’s also about morality, and how we decide what kind of behaviour is acceptable in the people we love. For example, Bobby keeps trying to lay down the law about how Betty should behave, according to simple Christian values, but every time he uncovers a new layer of lies from his sister, he has to re-configure his moral code until he totally loses sight of what’s right and wrong in a very dramatic way.

It’s kind of gruelling but also gripping, and very well-directed by Denis Moore, And while both performers handle this intense material very well, I have to take my hat off to Chris Connelly in particular, who plays Bobby. It’s a beautiful performance. You totally believe in this lost character, this guy who at one point describes himself by saying ‘I have a truck; I don’t ask questions’, when in fact he spends the whole night asking his sister questions. It’s a very physical performance, and you can feel the threatening energy stored up in that body.

If you think you can handle a ‘dark night of the soul’, check out ‘In a Forest, Dark and Deep’ at The Husk Theatre in Clifton Hill. It’s on until Saturday November 23rd.

And for something COMPLETELY different I’ve been to see ‘Miss Jugoslavia and the Barefoot Orchestra’, a show written, directed and performed by Tania Bosak (with the help of her Barefoot Orchestra) at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane.

Tania Bosak is a musician who grew up in Australia with Yugoslavian parents, including her father Rudy Bosak who was also a musician. This show is in part a tribute to her father and his extraordinary story. Back in the 1960s when Yugoslavia still existed and was still ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, as we used to say, Rudy was a piano accordionist and a member of a internationally touring musical ensemble, of which 12 members out of 80 were secret informers for the state!

There was to be a tour of Belgium and Rudy was interrogated as a potential defection risk, but did manage to go on the tour. And after the final performance in Belgium, he did defect, and went into hiding for months until he was granted asylum and migrated to Australia back in 1962.

Tania Bosak has created a show which is part musical, part physical theatre, part concert, part circus, which she performs with her own Balkan jazz ensemble of seven talented local musicians. And just a suggestion: do read the program notes before the shows starts because there’s no clear story to this show, and no English. It’s all songs and actions, and all the songs are in Croatian.

There is a fantastic raw energy to this show. Tania Bosak often stands up on a table in the middle of the stage, holding a conductor’s baton and wearing a sexy ringmaster’s outfit, from where she manically conducts the band. Then she launches into a song in Croatian, then jumps down from the table and plays the drums or the piano accordion. In fact all the musicians appear to be multi-instrumentalists in this group, and you find yourself wondering which instrument they’re going to pick up next.

Although there is no clear story, there are constantly shifting moods in this work, from joyful celebratory moments to mournful dirges to breath-taking virtuoso solos from each of the musicians. There are lots of little references to Rudy’s story but they are quite fragmented. For example, at one point the guitarist Jon Delaney seems to be doing an audition, with everyone else standing behind him scribbling in notebooks and watching him critically. At other points the tuba and bass player Dan Witton walks across the back of the stage with a big jangling set of keys, trying hopelessly to get out through a locked door. Every now and then the band members pass secret notes between themselves, a reference I guess to the secret service informers.

I loved this show. I was already a fan of Balkan jazz and if this was just a concert I’d have been quite happy, but it was so much more than that. So if you don’t mind not being told a clear story and not being spoken to in English, then go and see it, if you can get a ticket (I think it’s almost sold out). ‘Miss Jugoslavia and the Barefoot Orchestra’ is on at 45 Downstairs until Sunday November 10th

And finally I’ve been to see a new show called ‘Good Greek Girl’, written and performed by local poet Koraly Dimitriades. It’s part of the Explorations season of works-in-development at La Mama theatre in Carlton, so you go to these shows knowing that the work is in its very early stages, not a finished product. (The performer in this instance moved between performing with and without a script during the show.) It’s almost a one-woman show, in that Koraly Dimitriades is the only actor, but she’s accompanied by local bass player and composer Nick Tsiavos.

A bit of background to this project: Koraly Dimitriades wrote a book of poems called ‘Love and Fuck Poems’ which she self-published and this collection has apparently become the best-selling poetry book at Readings Bookstore this year. Then she made a series of short films based on the poems, and now she is creating this theatre show which incorporates the poems, the films, live music and live dramatic performance. Fragments of the films are screened onto a big sheet hanging at the back of the stage during the performance, and the show does come with a warning that there’s plenty of ‘R-rated’ material in it.

Even though I was keeping in mind the fact that this was a work in development, I really struggled to enjoy this show. There is a loose narrative buried somewhere under the layers of poetry about a sexually dysfunctional marriage that comes to an unhappy end. Presumably it’s an autobiographical story, because the ‘character’ in the poems is a young Greek Cypriot Australian woman, as Koraly Dimitriades is herself.

And there are some very graphic descriptions of the young woman’s sexual encounters and her struggles with the idea of being a ‘good Greek girl’ when she’s in a failing marriage and dealing with acute anxiety about her own sexual impulses. But both the material and the form of this show seemed very under-processed to me. If you want to share the details of your relationship break-up with the world through your art-form, there needs to be some art applied. You usually need to have at least some level of distance from the material so you can craft it into something universally interesting, and so it’s not just raw, unprocessed, confessionalism.

The material in the films at times almost seems to be part of a send-up, because there are so many visual clichés; a distressed bride in her bridal dress wandering around a cemetery, for example. The way the film material is integrated into the live performance is kind of odd and repetitive, with the performer often kneeling in front of the screen clutching melodramatically at her head, sometimes speaking along with the lines her own on-screen image delivers, sometimes speaking to herself on screen, sometimes just yelling.

What this show needs is first of all a dramaturg, to help shape the textual material into a performance text, and then, secondly, a director, someone who can help to shape the performance and encourage Koraly Dimitriades to offer her audience some more variation in the way that performance is delivered.

One of the best aspects of the show for me was the performance by Nick Tsiavos on bass. He’s a beautiful musician and he improvised underneath much of the spoken text. Otherwise, though, it’s hard to recommend this show in its current form. ‘Good Greek Girl’ is on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until Thursday 7th November.

November 3

The Two Of Them: an unusual friendship

After Olga Tennison, 80, met psychologist Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, 47, in 2007 she made the first of several six-figure donations to autism research. A year later the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre (OTARC) opened at Latrobe University. Here’s how it happened:

Olga: I have a grandson with Asperger Syndrome and I wanted to try to do something for autism. When Nicholas was quite new I looked at him and thought ‘this is not right’. He was having medical check-ups because he was premature and the doctor would say ‘he’ll catch up’. But they don’t catch up and they often regress. He was twelve when he was diagnosed, which was far too late.

Before I met Cheryl I thought she would probably be a large lady with a tight bun who would be very intolerant of poor little me not knowing much about anything. But there was this lissome creature sitting in front of me and as soon as she started to talk about autism she seemed to know what had to be done. Cheryl had been going to the health centres, alerting the nursing sisters what to look for in the babies so they could tell the mothers ‘there is a possibility your child is autistic’ and give the baby to an expert for a diagnosis.

Cheryl talked to me for three hours and oh boy, her intelligence, her competence, everything about her was incredible. She had so much energy I thought she might jump out of her skin. I immediately wrote out a cheque and that’s how it all started.

When I was young I did radio and television plays for the ABC. I even had a nom de plume, ‘Elizabeth Lang’. I met my husband Patrick Tennison in Brisbane in the theatre company. He was a journalist and he went to Sydney to work for the Sun but he came back for me and we got engaged. He died twenty-five years ago.

I love penguins and masks and whenever Cheryl goes away traveling for work she always brings me back little bells in the shape of penguins and masks. I say to her, ‘You mustn’t do that’ but I love those things.

If I see something in the paper about the possible causes of autism I will ring her and let her know. Sometimes even I know it’s nonsense, like babies’ bottles warmed in the microwave. I feel she should know about it because people might ask her about it.

It’s an unlikely relationship but we are completely honest with one another. We joke around. Sometimes we call OTARC the RACV or the RSPCA. One day she picked me up to take me to a Latrobe event and in the car I tried to find out what it was about. She told me she wasn’t sure but when I got there they asked if I would be an Honorary Grandmother at the Autism Early Learning and Care Centre at Latrobe. Cheryl didn’t tell me beforehand and that was the one time when the relationship sort of broke down. Afterwards we were alright, though, because I understood why she had done it. She thought I might say no.

One day at the Centre I saw this woman with two autistic children. Neither of them had been able to speak and just as I was leaving she came over to me. Her face lit up and she said ‘I have to tell you this morning my elder son turned to me and said ‘I love you mummy’ and that’s the first thing he’s ever said’. This is what Cheryl is helping to achieve. She has a delightful family and I would very much like to be around when Cheryl’s own two children grow up, but unfortunately I wont be.

Cheryl: I’m originally from Sri Lanka, which used to be called Serendipity, and there has been so much serendipity in my relationship with Olga. The first time we met it was just another meeting in my diary. I had no idea what she wanted. I drove to Autism Victoria and the first thing I thought was – she’s so tiny! I’ve always been the shortest, stuck at the end of photographs, so I was shocked by how tiny and exquisite she was. After a couple of hours of talking about autism Olga wanted to write out a cheque in my name. I said ‘You can’t do that, I could go to the Bahamas!’ and she said ‘Oh but I know you won’t’.

The most alarming thing is that she has never once said ‘I want you to use the money this way’. She has given her money away with no ties to it and that’s an incredible trust she has placed in me and the other people at the Centre at Latrobe. I find it empowering but also weighty because you want to do the best to honour her gift. She wants no accolades and she gets mad with me when I try and make a fuss of her. She says, ‘All I’ve done is scratch my name across a couple of pieces of paper’.

The last cheque she gave me was at a gathering of Latrobe University dignitaries. She handed me a parcel and said ‘There’s something in there for you’. I took an envelope out of the parcel and it was another six figure donation and a note that said ‘Enjoy the Bahamas’.

Olga lives a very frugal life. Practically all she has is a phone, a TV and a set top box, and she can’t understand why it’s at the bottom of the TV, not the top. She knows all the op shops around where she lives and she dresses with great style. At our last AGM she wore a plastic raincoat that was white with blue dots, matching Wellingtons and a matching umbrella.

She hates to cook so she eats frugally as well. I worry about whether she looks after herself. Her husband died twenty-five years ago and sometimes I think she’s lonely, living alone. She has a strong faith and walks to and from her church, where she’s a sacristan, every day in all weather. I live ten minutes away and I always say, ‘if you ever need anything’ but she never asks. She is painfully practical and doesn’t like any excess. We don’t talk about politics. She’s quite conservative and I’m not, and there are people she can’t stand in the Labor Party, but we steer away from it. It doesn’t come into our friendship at all.

Since the Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre opened in June 2008 we’ve been able to set up the first early assessment clinic in Australia, where we can identify younger and younger children with autism. It’s so important because when they are diagnosed early you can intervene when the brain is at its most malleable. You can bring that child back into the social loop so they have some access to other people.

I often take Olga to events at Latrobe and we’re always the last ones to leave those dinners. We’re both chatterers. She engages with everybody, including the waiting staff. Until she had her second child Olga was an actress on radio and TV and she speaks beautifully. When she was at our house on Xmas Eve we were talking about how fast my daughter speaks and she said to my daughter, ‘You need to enunciate. Do you know the poem The Walrus and the Carpenter by Lewis Carroll?’ Then she launched into it with such amazing elocution and characterisation, we were riveted. We listened from beginning to end – and it’s a very long poem – and then she said to my daughter, ‘You see?’ May she go on forever.

October 29

‘The night seemed to be lucky’: letter from Gallipolli

On January 12th 1916 my great uncle Tom Jones – a World War One soldier – sent a letter to his family back home in Australia. Tom was serving in the 23rd Battalion and had recently been evacuated from Gallipolli. In his letter – an astonishing example of what the psychologists would call ‘positive re-framing’ of a situation – he writes that he expects his large loving family is wondering whether he’s ‘still in the land of the living’.

Just seven months later Tom was killed in action at Pozieres.

‘Dear Mother, Father, sisters, brothers,

I suppose ere this you will be wondering whether i am still in the land of the living. The reason for the long interval between letters is that we have been forbidden to write by the Military Authorities. Lots of things have happened between this and the last letter, the chief feature being the complete evacuation of Gallipolli – you will no doubt have read it in the Daily News before this reaches you.

The whole thing was a very big success being carried out, i think, without a casualty. Our company was the third last to leave, and by this time it left us with a very thin line of defence. The morning of the day we left we had some very heavy shelling of the trenches we were occupying, but luckily no one was hit. It certainly puts a bit of fear into you when you hear the big things flying towards you, and more so when they are landing two yards away. i saw a shell land in the middle of a platoon of men but luckily for them it never exploded. It just shows you the fortunes of some people.

In the evening we were ordered to put sox over our boots to have absolute quietness and about nine o’clock we started for the beach, then we were put onto lighters and transferred to a transport ship. The night seemed to be lucky as the gun we called “Beachy Bill’, which was the dread of the beach, hardly fired a shot.

We sailed away with very glad hearts and arrived at Lemnos the following morning. Lemnos is about four hours run from Gallipolli and has a population of 15,000 mostly of Greek nationality. The country is very rocky and mountainous, the villages are very scattered and i suppose antiquated. The methods of the people takes one back to the biblical times but of course makes the place very interesting. The sower sowing his seed by hand, the shepherd minding his flock (dressed in goat skin and crook in hand). Hand spinning cotton and large windmills are all to be seen.

The biggest novelty was a hot bath which was the first for many months, at a place called Thurmos. Here they have hot sulpha springs. You go down underground into a room which holds about 30. The floor is of marble and from each wall water runs out into basins from which you dip and throw over yourself. I can tell you it was great after such a long spell from the water. The worst part was that we had to do 16 miles march to get there from the Town. We received the billys etc while we were there and they were greatly appreciated.

On the whole we spent a very Merry Xmas. New Years Eve was spent kicking up plenty of row, the boats in the harbour doing their share in it. That is another thing that is well worth seeing, the boats in the harbour; to see about a dozen or so Hospital ships lit up of a night is well worth seeing. We were here 21 days altogether and I think most of us enjoyed our sojourn.

We are now at Tel-El-Kebir, about 60 miles from Cairo. The trip from Lemnos to Alexandria took about 40 hours and we had to wear lifebelts the whole time in case of submarines. At night we had no lights at all and had to crawl about the best way we could. We were transferred from the boat into cattle trucks and had a pretty cold run for about 8 hours. I don’t think much of the place although we have only been here for a couple of days. As (we) are well away from everywhere but i suppose we will knock out a bit of sports amongst us. I am hoping that (brother) Theo’s crowd are here and am having a look around to see if they are.

I received the parcel with the vest today also lots of letters. I think i receive most of the things that are sent. Tell Walters and Uncle Will that i received their letters and very much appreciate their thoughtfulness. Tell (sister) Gladys that i congratulate her upon her engagement and hope to be there at the next event.

Well they have just come in for letters so will have to close this epistle and will write again at my earliest.

Lots of love to all
from your affectionate son
Tom.’

October 26

Culture Club reviews October 24th

I’ve been to see a huge number of Melbourne Festival shows and concerts in the last two weeks, everything from 80’s-style ska music to an indigenous re-telling of King Lear to a work involving a teenage girl, a blackboard and a box of chalk.

Often in the past Melbourne Festival directors have issued what could almost be described as manifestos for their Festivals, outlining the themes, provocations, aims, etc. But it doesn’t seem as if the current Artistic Director Josephine Ridge has tried to do that, so it’s been interesting trying to identify some themes that have emerged organically within the program. A lot of the theatre programming has been quite discomforting, rather than comforting, for audiences. I found that there were some shows I could scarcely enjoy at the time but they stayed with me for days afterwards, and I’m still thinking about them.

So for me some of the themes bubbling up this year involved beasts and ‘bestiality’; the relationships between animals and humans and the ‘animal’ behaviour of humans; the fraught emotional lives of children and teenagers; and in terms of humour, an emphasis on irony, an undercutting of the deeply serious with an attitude of profound un-seriousness, including a willingness to make fun of art itself, which is surely a sign of a healthy artistic culture.
You could argue that these themes reflect our current social anxieties about the relationships between humans and animals, and about children’s safety and wellbeing, and perhaps they also reflect our desire to laugh in the face of the serious and frightening challenges facing humanity.
Or, you know, not.

‘Life and Times’ is the first episode of a four-part theatrical marathon created by the New York based-company Nature Theatre of Oklahoma, founded by Pavol Liska and Kelly Copper. I’m still trying to figure this show out. I can’t quite decide whether it’s all an elaborate piss-take of musical theatre, or whether it’s actually doing something very profound – or both! The show’s creators conducted a series of recorded phone interviews with a number of people (Americans) for which they simply asked the question, ‘Can you tell me your life story?’ They then transcribed those stories, including every um, ah, you know, like, every digression and back-track and mispronunciation, every interesting and banal bit of the story, and set them to music. Then a cast of ten performers sings those fragmented life stories accompanied by a live ban, and often whilst doing a series of elaborate synchronised dance moves. So you literally have people singing the words ‘um’ and ‘ah’ in lovely four-part harmony at times. It’s a verbatim life-telling project converted into a kind of people’s opera.

And you hear about all the little triumphs and tragedies of a western childhood; the friends who had more toys than you did; the friend’s father who you witnessed bullying the friend’s mother when you went for sleep-over; the aunts you liked and the ones you didn’t like; the time you wet your pants in primary school because the mean teacher wouldn’t let you go to the toilet. Sometimes the music mirrors the text, so for example when one character talks about the groovy clothes her friend’s mum wore, the music suddenly gets all groovy, and when there’s a drama like the pants-wetting, the music becomes very (melo)dramatic. Mostly, though, it consists of very simple melodies sung in a very simple way, at times almost as if the performers are speaking on pitch rather than singing with trained voices.

So is this show a celebration of the ordinary? A privileging of the vernacular? Ordinary lives, ordinary language, ordinary-looking people, ordinary performances, rather than highly skilled ones (they dance but they’re not highly trained dancers, although they all seem to be good actors, and most of them are multi-skilled musicians).

At times it is actually very moving, in that you could really feel the way those childhood disappointments had stayed with people and helped to make them the adults they’d become. At other times it’s just totally hilarious and the whole audience was laughing.

The show I saw on Tuesday night was just the first part but there are three more parts – more stories as the interviewees grow older – and on the weekend you can go and see all four parts in the one day and night if you choose. I decided after the first show I wouldn’t want to see all four in a row. I loved so much of this show but I thought, at three and quarter hours, the first one was too long and it would have been better to lose an hour’s worth of material to tighten it up.

The company is named after an imaginary theatre company in an unfinished novel by Kafka and the founders say they’re influenced by artists such as Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, the artists who used items of the everyday for their art. I suspect we’ll see elements of their work filtering through the Melbourne theatre scene in the next few years. The project felt very fresh and in some ways very innovative.

‘Life and Times – the full four part marathon – is on this Saturday October 26th at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre.

‘The Shadow King’ is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear directed by Michael Kantor at The Malthouse Theatre. This project has been a long time in the making – four years, according to the director – and it began from a conversation between Michael Kantor (former Malthouse Theatre Artistic Director) and indigenous actor Tom E Lewis (star of the classic Australian film ‘The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith’) when they talked about the common themes of land ownership and dispossession in King Lear and within indigenous communities. Lear is also a play about jealousy and greed, money and bad family business, all of which often come into play in the debates within indigenous communities over land ownership, according to Tom E. Lewis.

The project became very much a collaborative venture between Kantor, Lewis (who plays Lear) and the rest of the indigenous cast. Together they re-wrote the script, using some original text but translating (or re-writing) much of it into an indigenous Kriol spoken in the NT. It’s close enough to modern-day English that we can understand it all, but still distinctly different, much like Shakespeare’s English. In the original plot, as we know, the ageing King Lear decides to give away all his land and wealth to two of his three daughters and then it all goes pear-shaped. The Shadow King team have changed elements of the plot in significant ways. For example the bad guy, the ‘illegitimate’ Edmund (played by Jimi Bani), is trying to seduce both of Lear’s ‘bad’ sisters, one of whom is a single mum with about five children.

There is so much to like about this production, including wonderful performances by most of the cast members. Jimi Bani (who played Eddie Mabo in the TV adaptation of the Mabo story) is riveting as the seductive, physically-threatening bad guy Edmund. The three women who play Lear’s daughters (Rariwuy Hick, Jada Albert, Natasha Wanganeen) are all confident, subtle performers. And Tom E Lewis is a charismatic actor who easily engages and holds your attention every time he’s on stage. The use of Kriol language is an important and respectful gesture of reclaiming indigenous culture and although it takes your ears a little while to adjust, as it does with Shakespearean English, most of the time it works.

The set consists of a red earth floor at the front of the stage and a huge rotating contraption at the rear that the actors move around on. At times it becomes a giant mining earth-mover, at other times a jail, or the front of a house. Projections of grainy film footage taken on indigenous communities (Murray Lui, Natasha Gadd, Rhys Graham) often form the backdrop to the set, complete with skinny dogs and people wandering around, so it looks like the characters in the play are moving in and out of houses in actual communities. At times this production reminded of a production called ‘Jandamarra’ which I saw in WA a few years ago (starring Jimi Bani) which also involved years of respectful consultation with the indigenous community and an ambitious cross-cultural project.

For me, though, the individual elements in The Shadow King didn’t quite cohere into a satisfying whole. The movements of the big set contraption were unwieldy at times, and it was physically awkward for the performers to jump up and down from. At times the grinding sound of movable bits of the set interrupted the emotional mood of a scene. Kantor has used a live band who perform on the side of the stage, featuring indigenous rock veteran Bart Willoughby, and every now and then King Lear sings a relatively well known indigenous pop song. There are some by Jimmy Chi, for example, who wrote ‘Bran Nue Dae’, and some of Bart’s hits from ‘No Fixed Address’ days, but the familiar songs seem out of place in this Otherworld that’s been created, dragging us back into the prosaic everyday.

At times the choices made in mixing the occasional slabs of text from Shakespeare’s King Lear with the newly-inserted original Kriol material seem to have no internal logic, so it can be a bit jarring. It might have been more effective to have completely abandoned Shakespeare’s text (and possibly the characters’ names) and just gone with a wholesale re-write of the original.

Lear’s slow descent into madness didn’t quite work for me either. Tom E. Lewis went too far, too fast in portraying that chaos, so he was limited in where he could go with it after a while, and seemed to stay on the same emotional plane. It’s such a complex journey Lear takes as his world disintegrates around him, and it’s primarily a director’s job to shape that journey for the actor, and therefore for the audience. I wasn’t really moved by Lear’s plight until the very end when the ‘good’ daughter Cordelia dies in his arms. At times, it felt like there were too many cooks, or too many cultural and political agendas being served, or (dare I say it) too much goodwill, and not enough hard-nosed decision-making from the creative team, leading to an (in some ways) ground-breaking production, but not an awe-inspiring one. In short, a bit of a missed opportunity.

‘The Shadow King’ is on at The Malthouse Theatre until Sunday October 27.

‘Teenage Riot’ and ‘All that is Wrong’ are the first and second parts of a trilogy of works from Belgian theatremakers Ontroerend Goed, performed in the Fairfax Studio of the Arts Centre. This company specialises in working with teenagers, and the director and writer Alexander Devriendt seems to have a very good grasp of the kind of world western teenagers are living in right now; a world of constant digital communication, of compulsive selfies, of frequent exposure to adult sexual behaviour, of limited privacy and of disturbing levels of self-harm. And all of this material emerges during these two shows.

The first show, ‘Teenage Riot’, is mostly performed inside a small box-like room that sits on stage. Inside the room is a group of teenagers, one of whom has a camera that is relaying images to the audience via projections onto the outside of the box. So there’s a claustrophobic feel to this show from the beginning. There are intense close-ups of those young faces and some puppetry involving small objects inside the box, including some very disturbing scenes in which a small girl is being sexually preyed upon by an adult man. At times the performers come outside the box and sit on top of it, talking about how to stay thin – or actually how to starve themselves – they or stand with their backs to us, talking into the camera’s lens, confessing their fears.

So there’s a very interesting and unpredictable use of space and technology in this show that in some ways mimics how teenagers move in and out of public and private spaces, trying to separate themselves from adults and create their own worlds. There are references to cutting, graphic depictions of teen sexuality, and of the bullying and exclusion of some kids, there are conversations between parents overheard by teens, and often the camera stays in close on those anxious young faces as the teens react to this stuff. We’re reminded of the vulnerability and the knowingness that exist simultaneously in teenagers. I found this show quite hard to watch but in the end incredibly moving.

I had a similar reaction to the second Ontroerend Goed show that was performed later in the week. All That Is Wrong involves two performers, but it’s almost a ‘one-girl’ show. It is written and performed by an 18 year old actor called Anna Ryckwaert and directed once again by Alexander Devriendt. Anna spends just over an hour telling us all about herself, not by speaking, but by using simple words and phrases that she writes on a giant blackboard in white chalk. She starts simply with her age, her family members, a bit about what she likes and doesn’t like, and very gradually it builds up to a huge sprawling list of all the things she believes in and all the things she thinks are wrong with the world – like hunger, poverty, war, guns, Starbucks, terrorism, climate change – you name it, practicallyeverything that all of us have ever worried about goes onto this blackboard. Sometimes the words are rubbed out or moved around, with the help of her assistant, a young man called Zach.

So it becomes a textual redaction of the contents of her young mind. The show draws on the aesthetics of graffiti, of advertising signage, of social media and of protest signs, and even though we hardly hear her spoken voice, we get a real sense of this young woman’s ‘voice’ through her writing. We also get a strong sense of how overwhelming these ‘wrong things’ are for young people (I vivdly remember that feeling myself) but there is an almost positive ending with Anna’s final message to us – and to her future self – ‘I Will Write’.

In some ways this production is not hugely engaging as theatre, in fact it is more like performance art in many ways, so at time I found myself wanting something to ‘happen’. But still, by the end I was very moved and have been thinking about it ever since. Anne presents each member of the audience with a photocopied photo of the writing on her blackboard at the end to take away with us. I have stuck it on my wall as a reminder.

October 11

Culture Club reviews October 10th

I’ve seen three brand new Australian works in the last couple of weeks, including two new operas and a new Australian play.

‘The Beast’ is a new comedy written by Eddie Perfect (who wrote ‘Shane Warne The Musical’) and produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company. The plot in brief: a group of three male friends are stranded on a boat after a cyclone and something terrible happens on that boat but for most of the play we’re not sure what. Move forward a year and they’ve all moved to the country with their partners for a tree-change. One of them, though, is clearly still traumatised by whatever happened on that boat. The three couples decide to have a dinner party for which they will buy and slaughter a fatted calf. Not just any old fatted calf, but a free-range organic gluten-free GM-free totally ethical extremely cute fatted calf. Mayhem ensues.

At times this play is wincingly hilarious. Perfect has a keen, mean eye for the pretentiousness, faddishness and self-satisfaction of contemporary middle class Australian life. He sends us up mercilessly. At times this play reminded me of ‘Kath and Kim’ except that it wasn’t the outer suburban Aussies being targeted, it was the inner suburban and/or tree- and sea-changing Aussies, and Perfect is harder on his targets, less fond of us than the ‘Kath and Kim’ team are of their targets.

There are lots of memorable one-liners in ‘The Beast’. In one scene a couple is talking about raising chickens and selling their own eggs – by bicycle – and one says, ‘Things taste better when they’re delivered by bike’. In another scene one of the characters has been bragging about good his home grown organic carrots are and someone says to him ‘You’re a guy who likes what carrots make you look like more than you like carrots. Can’t you just grow carrots and shut up about them?’

It’s also a play about the ridiculous competitive dynamic that can develop within groups of men. There is one alpha male on this friendship circle and two men who are intimidated by him and their attempts to assert their status are almost unbearably funny. The female characters are just as awful as the male ones, including one bossy alpha female, one totally passive bullied one and a third one who’s a drunk (and is also the most likeable character of the lot). In fact it’s quite hard to like any of these characters but that’s not the point. We’re there to laugh at them, not like them.

There are a couple of ways in which I think this play doesn’t quite reach its full potential. The structure is a bit wobbly towards the end. There are few false ending moments. We know there needs to be the ‘reveal’ of what happened on the stranded boat but it takes a while to get there. So the text could be pared back a bit I think. In some ways, too, I found myself wishing Perfect had gone even a little bit further with the vicious satire. Sometimes it felt like he went right to the brink of allowing something really appalling to be said or to happen, and then pulled back. Some of the MTC’s more traditional audience members might think the opposite; that he’s gone too far. I suspect the company has been a bit worried about how their subscribers would handle this play. They have been generously offering free tickets to drama students to encourage more young people to come along.

I thought the direction by Iain Sinclair was brilliant. He has pushed every laugh to the limit, and although I won’t name anyone in particular in the cast of seven, they were uniformly excellent. They’re all fantastic comic performers and the play felt really well-rehearsed, so that the comic timing worked beautifully. I laughed my socks off and I’m definitely happy to recommend ‘The Beast’, on at Southbank Theatre until 9th November.

On a very different note, I’ve also been to see ‘Turbulence’, a brand new work from Chambermade Opera. It’s part of their ongoing living room series of new Australian works. I’ve seen other productions in this series performed in modernist mansions beside the Yarra River, in luxury apartments in South Melbourne, and in grand old homes in the eastern suburbs, but this one is being performed in the living room of a very modest Northcote apartment. The venue happens to suit the subject matter of the opera very well. The room is long and narrow and crowded, so it’s not hard to believe that we the audience are sitting inside an aeroplane which is about to experience (you guessed it) turbulence.

Having said that, this is not a simulated flight ‘reality’ kind of theatre show. It’s actually incredibly abstract and at times quite bewildering. To briefly describe it for you, the audience of about 25 people is led up some stairs and into the living room and seated in tight rows by a group of what look like flight attendants. We’re given hot towels and then a series of small fans start whirring (all miked up) and the amplified sound they make as they power up is just like a plane taking off. Then there’s an ongoing loud rumble of noise, and from the back row where I was sitting, it seemed like nothing else was happening for quite a long time.

Eventually I realised that someone seated in the front row was making strange noises, and that she was one of the performers, the singer Deborah Kayser. Unfortunately it was hard to hear from the back row, so there is bit of a sound design problem with this production. Her clicks and hisses and growls eventually turn into musical notes and eventually into sung text. Then another performer stands up from amongst the audience and she’s the actor Anneli Bjorasen. She begins speaking lines of poetic text in dialogue with Deborah Kayser’s sung text. There are also sound effects in the mix, including the sound of a fretful baby, snippets of radio broadcasts in foreign languages, and snippets of other music, so it all combines into a dense multi-layered and engaging soundscape.

But it is all very abstract. You have to give up looking for a clear narrative or expecting something to ‘happen’ or waiting for everything to suddenly ‘make sense’, and instead just sit back and enjoy the ride (pardon the pun). Towards the end of the performance there’s a loud bang and some smoke effects, but the night i saw it the audience wasn’t sure whether the opera had actually finished and had to be prompted to applaud.

The composer of ‘Turbulence’ is Juliana Hodkinson, the libretto is by Cynthia Troup, and it has been directed by Chambermade’s outgoing Artistic Director David Young. The work could almost be described as performance art, it is so still most of the time. The highlight of this production for me is Deborah Kayser’s voice. This singer is a bit of national cultural treasure, one of our pre-eminent female performers of contemporary composition, with an astonishing vocal technique. It’s not a huge operatic voice, but there it is incredibly flexible and there is a lovely clarity to the sound. Towards the end of ‘Turbulence’ there is a ‘duet’ between Deborah and a pre-recorded electronic keyboard melody and it’s quite mesmerising.

The text of the libretto is printed in the program and it is wonderfully poetic, all about giving birth and experiencing motherhood and the love of a child, but you may struggle to hear it in the space.

If you’re interested in the cutting edge of opera (or music drama, perhaps) and you enjoy experiencing performances in unusual spaces, it’s worth checking out ‘Turbulence’. But if you like a hummable melody and a linear narrative and a dying consumptive soprano at the end of your operas, this one might not be for you. ‘Turbulence’ is on until Saturday October 12th, then will be performed in a living room in Mount Macedon on November 2nd and 3rd .

And finally, I’ve also been to see ‘The Magic Pudding’, a new Australian children’s opera commissioned by Victorian Opera based on the famous Norman Lindsay children’s book. It has just finished its premiere season at the Malthouse but it’s doing a regional tour to Wodonga, Mildura, Shepparton, Ballarat and Warragul from 22nd October to 12th November. The shows has been composed by Calvin Bowman and the libretto is by Anna Goldsworthy, the musician and author of the very popular memoir ‘Piano Lessons’.

There is lots to love about this production, including the nostalgia hit, for those of us who grew up on the Norman Lindsay book. And it’s fairly faithful to the book, as far as I can tell. The story is all about Albert the grumpy magic pudding who never gets any smaller, no matter how much you eat, and the pudding thieves who keep trying to steal Albert from his owners, the koala Bunyip Bluegum, the penguin Sam Sawnoff and Bill Barnacle the sailor.

Albert is a puppet in this production and spends most of his time attached to the feet of the young performer who sings the Albert role, Jeremy Kleeman. This was one of the most successful elements of the production, I thought. You are very happy to believe that this puppet is a pudding with a well-rounded character. I also loved the fact that there’s a children’s chorus in the production, although I think more use could have made of them. This could be tricky, though, because when the production has its regional tour it will be picking up local children’s choirs to perform in each different place, so I guess it had to be kept simple.

I loved the design of this show, both set and costumes. The singers look like they’ve stepped straight out of the pages of the book, and the backdrop is a painted backlit scene of lovely old gum trees. And the direction by Cameron Menzies is great. He’s a director with a natural comedic sensibility and he’s given the performers lots of little dance moves to keep the energy up. At times that was necessary because the language in the original book was quite complex and wordy, and Anna Goldsworthy seems to have been quite faithful to the original text. So it’s not always easy to follow the words, especially when you add the distorting effect of the operatic voice into the mix. Some children might struggle to know what’s going on at times. Goldsworthy could have taken some more liberties and simplified some of the writing.

Another less successful element for me was having a ‘narrator’ character, a cockatoo who has to both speak and sing her lines, played by Kirilie Blythman. I’m not sure a narrator was necessary in the text, and although the performer has a lovely singing voice, her speaking style was a bit declamatory and unengaging for my tastes. This character introduces whole opera, and she needs to drag us straight in so we care about what’s going to happen.

Overall, though, this production is a lovely way to introduce young children to opera as an engaging theatrical form.