Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Blog

August 6

Working with Words

I recently answered a series of questions for the Wheeler Centre about working as a writer:

What was the first piece of writing you had published?

The first few articles I had published were in the Melbourne University magazine Farrago. I wrote some profiles and arts reviews and also a personal column that was published anonymously because I was embarrassed about the subject matter. An editor picked that one up and published it in a high school textbook – the first time I was paid for my writing. Priceless encouragement. (And no I won’t tell you what it was about.)

What’s the best part of your job?

Variety. I have a low boredom threshold and being a freelancer in a range of areas (writing, teaching, broadcasting, singing, editing, event hosting, etc.) means that if I get tired of one thing, there’s always something else I can do until I feel refreshed.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Insecurity of income – although I have got better at tolerating that uncertainty over the years. It’s worth it at the moment for the freedom.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

Being contacted by an editor who said she might be interested in the book I’m currently writing (the first one I actually believe I’ll finish). It’s been a painful process and it was good to be offered hope that all that work might see the light of day.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

American essayist Ander Monson has some insightful things to say about writing. In his essay ‘Voir Dire’ he wrote, ‘How often is something actually at stake in essays, in memoirs, in most of the non fiction I read…? How often is there actual risk involved…?’ Whenever I feel anxious about being too self-revealing in my writing I remind myself of those questions.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself or your work?

I once received some very negative emails in response to a critical column I wrote about the former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. I was shocked but those correspondents were right. I’ve now written a piece about how my thinking changed after receiving those emails. Writing is so ridiculously self-reflexive sometimes, isn’t it?

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

More music. More more more more more music. When I’m not rehearsing or performing music I feel like a limb is missing.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

As a long-time teacher of creative writing I am entirely biased. You can definitely have an influence on the quality of someone’s writing by encouraging them to develop new skills and to be more self-critical with their own writing. The RMIT writing courses (where I teach) have helped to produce some breathtakingly good published writers.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Take risks with your writing. Show your writing to others and take their criticisms seriously. Write every day.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

Both. I am doing a PhD and I buy most of my academic texts online (still hard copies) but I buy my novels in independent bookshops like Readings. I don’t yet own an e-reader (always a late adopter).

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why? And what would you talk about?

Can I pass on this one? I’m happy for imaginary people to stay within the pages of a book. I’d prefer to have dinner with some flesh and blood writers. New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones, maybe. He seems like a compassionate bloke. We could talk about the fact that he has the same name as my maternal grandfather.

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

I am a passionate devotee of Margaret Atwood’s writing, both fiction and non fiction. I envy the deft way she mixes humour and political critique with suspenseful narratives. I find it hard to imagine the literary landscape of the 20th century without her books. As the weather gets weirder and weirder (with climate change) I think often about her book Oryx and Crake. If only we could clone and transplant her imagination into the minds of the world’s political leaders.

July 24

Why Royal Babies Transcend Politics

– because ever since forever we’ve been looking at other people, trying to figure out how best to be human

– because the other people who are the easiest ones to look at are often the famous (fictional or factual) people whose lives are displayed for our viewing

– because since forever there’ve been famous royals putting themselves on display for us with their blood that may or may not be blue

– because deep down we actually like the magical-thinking idea that because people are royal and may (or may not) have blue blood they are therefore more interesting to look at and better able to help us figure out how best to be human

– because for a little while there was that blonde one with the shy smile and the ducking way with the homicidal cameras who got under our skin in spite of her blue-blood-by-way-of-marriage status and who everyone wanted to look at

– because royals have babies in order to perpetuate their (possibly) blue blooded royal lines

– because when they have babies we can wonder what it might be like to have a royal baby and whether it’s just like having a red-blooded baby in the end

– because when royals bring out their babies for public display we see that their babies look just like our babies

– because when we see those babies who look just like our babies we respond to them as if they’re just normal babies and we can’t help getting that strange soggy feeling in our solar plexus that comes with the viewing of babies

– because when we see their royal babies we think of our dear friend who has just had a baby or who is just about to have a baby or who had a baby who couldn’t keep breathing or who tried really hard to have a baby but couldn’t, and the solar plexus thing gets even soggier

– because in the end, whether you’re a royalist or a republican, babies are just babies, whatever the colour (real or imagined) of their blood.

– Oh that poor baby.

July 19

Culture Club reviews July 18th

I have four theatre productions to review this month, beginning with two adaptations. ‘The Dragon’ opened at the Malthouse theatre on July 3rd and this show (I think you could almost call it a musical) is based on a satirical play written in 1944 by the Russian playwright Evgeny Shwarz, and adapted by Australian actor and writer Toby Schmitz. So it’s a Schwarz’n’Schmitz production. ‘The Dragon’ features the guys from the local comedy trio Tripod who play a Greek chorus of animals commenting on the action.

The plot in brief: the knight Lancelot arrives in a small town looking for a beer and a bit of action with the ladieees. Instead Lancelot finds that the town is being terrorised by a Dragon who demands the annual sacrifice of a beautiful woman. Lancelot promptly falls in love with Elsa, the scheduled next female sacrifice, and decides to slay the Dragon in order to save Elsa and free the town.

The trouble is, there are people in power in this town, including the local Mayor, who have no interest in changing the way things are. Everyone understands the rules, just about everyone obeys them, and everyone gets on with their lives accepting the limitations imposed on them by the rule of the Dragon (and of the dodgy Mayor). Lancelot has to try and persuade these people that change is possible and desirable and that courage is a valuable commodity. You can see how this would have resonated in Soviet Russia in the 1940’s.

The Tripod guys sing hilarious little songs all the way through the show, commenting on what’s happening, so there are plenty of laughs in it. They also play the Dragon, or at least the three different heads of the Dragon, none of whom has a brilliant grasp of the English language, so there is a lot of very clever wordplay here for those who love language.

I really enjoyed this show but I do have some reservations. The almost manic pace of the comedy tended to undermine the underlying serious political commentary in this play. Partly that was to do with the writing in Toby Schmitz’ English adaptation, and partly with the casting and direction.
Jimi Bani, the actor who played Eddie Mabo in the TV adaptation of that story, plays Lancelot, and he’s a charismatic performer and a natural comedian. It’s not until the final scenes, though, that I actually felt moved by his heroic quest. Kim Gyngell, another very fine comedic actor, plays the pompous Mayor and the production is directed by Marion Potts, the Artistic Director of the Malthouse.

Given the contemporary political context of what’s been happening in Egypt and Syria and practically all over the Middle East in recent years, places where people have been trying to get rid of their own political dragons and suffering terribly as a result, there was something almost too enjoyable about this show for my taste.

I would happily recommend it as a great night out at the theatre, but as I say, the message gets a bit lost because the medium is delivering us a bit too much fun.

‘The Dragon’ is on at the Malthouse in Southbank until July 26th.

I’ve also been to see ‘Wake In Fright’ at the La Mama Courthouse in Carlton. Most film buffs would be aware of the 1971 film version of this Kenneth Cook novel. It’s one of the most memorable Australian films ever made, a true Australian gothic horror movie, so this new theatre adaptation had a lot to live up to.

The novel has been adapted by Bob Pavlich and directed by Renee Palmer and as you probably remember, it’s the story of a gormless city-bred schoolteacher, John Grant, who gets stuck teaching in a small Australian outback town. When the holidays come he tries to make his way back to Sydney where a girl he fancies is waiting for him.

But on the journey John Grant is waylaid in another small outback town called Bundenyabba and it all goes pear-shaped. He is preyed upon by the locals, he loses all his money in a game of two-up, and he’s taken on a nightmare roo-shooting trip in the middle a drunken night. Worse things then happen and he becomes completely trapped in this claustrophobic beer-swilling town.
The actor who plays John Grant, James Harvy, is a good actor and well cast. He has a very open face with big, vulnerable eyes and he looks completely out of place surrounded by the muscley roughnecks who play the blokes of Bundenyabba. In fact most of the male actors in this production are quite strong performers.

There were, however, a few problems with this production. The set design involves a floor of red dirt, which signals the outback setting of the story very neatly, and a series of small tables which alternate as the local bar, people’s kitchens and even the ute that takes the men roo-hunting. But the lay-out of the space wasn’t ideal for that small venue. The audience were sitting on the side of the narrow rectangle rather than at one end, which meant that the stage was foreshortened and at times there were lots of actors crowding into a small space. That may have been useful in adding to a sense of claustrophobia but at times it felt like an unnecessarily awkward use of the venue.

The two female actors weren’t quite as strong as the rest of the cast so there was an unevenness there, which is a real shame because it’s such a ‘masculine’ play. We needed a strong contrast with the ‘Other ‘ of the female characters, the barmaids and the ‘town bike’ and various other feminine stereotypes. At times the women also sing and narrate the action (a device which didn’t quite work), sometimes both at once, and their voices simply weren’t projected well enough to carry in that space.

The biggest problem for this audience member was that there was a live musician playing distorted electric guitar all the way through the show. This became incredibly distracting (not to mention musically clichéd, with ominous rumblings when the action was scary, etc.) and to be honest, I think they could lose the guitar.

‘Wake In Fright’ is on at La Mama Courthouse in Carlton until July 28th.

The third production I’ve seen is ‘The Crucible’, a new MTC production of this classic American play by Arthur Miller about the Salem witch hunts of 1692. The play is also, metaphorically, about the McCarthyist era in the USA in the 1950’s when left wing writers and film-makers were targeted and banned for their supposed communist leanings.

This is one of my favourite plays of all time, with its brilliantly paced suspenseful writing, a psychological drama as well as political drama, and it just keeps resonating through the decades.
I enjoyed this production, with reservations. It received some less than positive reviews from other local critics, including a scarifying one in Crikey.com which sparked a bit of Twitter debate about what makes a fair review.

The plot in brief: a group of young women in Salem claim to have been be-witched and their claims spark a cascading series of trials of people accused of witchcraft and dealings with the Devil. At the centre of this drama is John Proctor, a married man who has had a dalliance with one of the young women claiming to have been bewitched, and when his own wife is accused of being a witch, Proctor tries to prove that the girls are faking their symptoms.

This production has been directed by Sam Strong, one of the new Associate Artistic Directors at the MTC this year, and has a stellar cast, including David Wenham (surely one of the most popular actors in the country) as John Proctor, as well as John McTernan, Brian Lipson, Greg Stone, all fine actors with many years experience in the theatre. I found their performances very moving.
One of the criticisms in the Crikey.com review was that the audience laughed all the way through the performance because it was so bad. I was there on opening night and that was not my experience of the play. Yes, there was laughter at times, including from me, but mostly it was laughter of discomfort at the absolute absurdity of the situation, particularly during the Kafka-esque scenes with the trial judges. Their completely nutty and ultimately lethal logic made you laugh with horror and disbelief.

But there is a problem with the design in this production. The set was very modern, all plain white walls and floors with small enclosed spaces for the actors to perform in, a non-realistic set that invited you to imagine this story being set in much more modern times. Once again, maybe the designers were trying to convey the claustrophobia of the events being narrated.
But in stark contrast the costumes and hair-dos were painfully authentic to the late 1600’s, so there was a weird disjunction there that made the costumes and hairdos a bit laughable. I got over it after a while and was caught up in the drama and the good acting, but for others maybe it was just too distracting.

Nevertheless I do recommend you see this production, especially if you haven’t seen ‘The Crucible’ before. It’s on at the MTC Southbank Theatre til August 3rd.

I’ve also seen another MTC production, ‘Solomon and Marion’, at the Fairfax Studio in the Arts Centre. This is a very traditional two-hander play by South African playwright Lara Foot, written quite recently in 2007. It is loosely based on the true story of the murder of two young white South African men in 2006, one of whom was known to the playwright because she had worked with him in the theatre. So it’s a very personal project for Lara Foot.

In Foot’s version of this story the mother of a young man who has been murdered is living alone and isolated on a rural property, waiting to die. One day she is visited by a young black man, the grandson of a woman who used to work for her, and Solomon says he has come to help her. The play is about the developing relationship between these two very different individuals and how that friendship helps both of them. There is a secret revealed at the end of the play, which I won’t reveal now of course.

The set design is great, with a sloping stage entirely covered in sand, making everything feel slightly askew and as if the natural environment is gradually taking over from the white man’s built environment.

At one point I think the female protaganist, Marion (played by Gillian Jones) refers to the writing of the South African-born, now Adelaide-based novelist J M Coetzee. (He wrote ‘Disgrace’, a novel with some plot similarities to this play, and which was later turned into a film starring John Malkovich.) Lara Foot also refers to Coetzee in the program notes. She clearly finds his pessimistic views on race relations in South African very depressing and she admits that she wanted to write a more optimistic story, one that leaves you thinking reconciliation is possible in post-apartheid South Africa.

I think that having that very clear agenda for the play works to its detriment. It all starts to feel a bit obvious after a while, like you know what’s going to happen and you know you’re going to get a happy ending. It begins to undermine any possibility of real moral and emotional complexity in the story. At the climax of the play Marion does a monologue which just doesn’t ring true to me. She reacts to the surprising news she gets in a way that I simply didn’t believe. It’s nothing to do with the acting, which is very fine from both Gillian Jones and from Pacharo Mzembe, who plays Solomon.

If you like a well-shaped, mostly well-written, well-directed (by Pamela Rabe), slow-paced play with a slightly predictable happy ending, this one will be for you, but it didn’t entirely float my boat.

‘Solomon and Marion’ is on at the Fairfax Studio until July 20th.

Little note to end on: at 2:30 pm on Sunday July 28th I’ll be performing in a concert of Australian music at the Benalla Art Gallery called ‘Sea Chronicles’, singing a song cycle (with a string quartet) by Australian composer Paul Stanhope. Feel free to come along if you’re in the area.

June 21

Culture Club reviews June 21st

‘King Kong’ opened at the Regent Theatre last week, the world premiere of a new and spectacular musical theatre production. It was interesting timing to be reviewing this show in the light of Senator Cory Bernardi’s reported comments about the imminent threat of state sanctioned bestiality if gay marriage is legalized. Is King Kong a story about latent bestiality? (sigh) Or is it a story about the human exploitation of nature and the dire consequences of that?

The first thing I want to say is – I DO recommend that you go to this show. It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen in the theatre and the ticket price will be worth it just for the astonishment factor. The technical team from local company Global Creatures have done a superb job. I do, however, have some serious reservations about this new musical directed by Daniel Kramer.

The plot would be familiar to many of you from the various screen versions of the story (the musical is based on the novel of the original 1933 screen play). A documentary-maker and entrepreneur called Carl Denham finds a pretty young blonde, Ann Darrow, and takes her on a ship to Skull Island in the hopes of making a movie about beauty and the beast with the mythical giant beast that inhabits this island. Although he doesn’t get to make his movie Denham does capture the beast (a giant gorilla he calls King Kong) and takes him back to New York, where he turns him into a freak show. Then it all goes pear-shaped. The book for this new musical has been written by Craig Lucas and the original music is composed by Marius de Vries.

Aesthetically and stylistically this production is a bit all over the shop. If you were generous, you’d called it post-modern, in the way that it borrows bits and pieces from a whole lot of different popular cultural forms and historical moments. If you were less than generous, you’d say it lacked coherence. At times it looks like an R’n’B video clip direct from MTV, with bevies of pornographic blondes dancing in high heels and suspenders. At other times it looks as if it has borrowed scenes from a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. It’s a bit Eurovision-tacky and occasionally it looks like something that Cirque de Soleil might have produced.

Often the stage is incredibly busy, with so much happening that you don’t know where to look. It is something of a relief when all the singin’ and dancin’ stops and the love story at the heart of this show (between human and beast) kicks back in.

The music is a mix of different styles, with fragments of dubstep, quotes from 1930’s-style jazz and elements of classical choral music. Although Marius de Vries is credited as the composer, the show also ‘features songs and original compositions by’ a range of other artists, and the combination doesn’t always work to best advantage. (If you have sensitive hearing I recommend you take ear-plugs because at times the volume is thunderously loud.)

Esther Hannaford, who plays the blonde femme fatale Ann Darrow, is wonderful in the role. She has a natural, vulnerable and empathic stage presence which works beautifully in the scenes where King Kong is falling in love with her and when she is trying to protect him from harm. Some of these scenes literally brought me to tears. Hannaford has a very flexible voice and can sing in practically any style. At times, though, I wondered what her true style really is. Mimicry is admirable but we also look for something unique in a voice, don’t we? Perhaps the ‘Full Moon Lullaby’ she sings to King Kong comes closest to revealing that voice.

Adam Lyon who plays Carl Denham is also very good. His voice reminded me a bit of Eddie Perfect’s voice, a powerful instrument with great flexibility and range. But there are some rather odd minor characters who pop up, including Richard Piper’s ship’s captain, played as a kind of cartoon kilt-wearing dreadlocked Scot. The visuals set him up as a humorous character but the gag essentially goes nowhere.

To be honest, until the giant gorilla arrived I wasn’t entirely engaged in this production. And when he did I nearly fell off my chair. This is theatre spectacle at its best.

Without giving too much away, the six metre high creature has been brilliantly anthropomorphised so that his limbs look more like those of a human body builder than a gorilla. The face is unbelievably expressive, given that its movements are controlled by computers. And the puppetry that controls the rest of his body is as good as anything we saw recently in the English production of ‘Warhorse’ at the Arts Centre.

The black-clad puppeteers (directed by Peter Wilson) leap and scurry around the stage with great agility, present yet not present, in a strangely balletic choreography of precise timing (I hate to imagine what could happen if the timing ever went awry). When the giant creature is suffering you entirely suspend your disbelief and suffer along with him.

The lighting design is one of the stars of this show and it is absolutely critical to pulling off the thrills and suspense that go with the King Kong story. The digital wall of lights at the back of the stage make you feel at times as if you’re in the middle of a thrilling 3D video game.

There was not exactly an overwhelming response at the end of the show from the audience on the night I saw it. I’m not sure whether that was because they had reservations about the show or because the ending is inevitably so sad. To applaud raucously would have felt almost as inappropriate as applauding at the end of a funeral.

King Kong the musical is on at the Regent Theatre until at least October.

I have also been to see ‘The Penelopiad’, a Stork Theatre production at the La Mama Courthouse. This play is an adaptation of a feminist re-reading of history by the Canadian author Margaret Atwood (one of my favourite writers) and it centres on a character who would be well-known to those of you interested in the classics. Penelope is the long-suffering wife of the Greek hero Odysseus (of the Iliad and the Odyssey fame; hence The Penelopiad) and once again, it was very interesting timing to be watching this play, given the swirling currents of misogyny in Australian public life in recent weeks. So much of what Penelope talks about in this play is still so current, when it comes to the relative power of men and women.

Penelope is known traditionally as the archetypal ‘good wife’ – the faithful wife – the one who stayed home waiting for TWO DECADES for her husband to return, fending off other suitors, raising their child, while Odysseus was off conquering Troy and having affairs with sirens and fighting minotaurs. Penelope is a princess, the daughter of a Naiad (a goddess of the sea) and her father tried to drown her at birth. In this version of the story she’s given to Odysseus as a child bride after he cheats in a race whose prize was Penelope.

Much of the play is a monologue by Penelope, performed by Carolyn Bock, but there is also a Greek chorus of three young women who play all many different characters, including Penelope’s maids, Odysseus himself, Penelope’s suitors, and the beautiful Helen of Troy.

In case you’re wondering if this a dry didactic political play, it most definitely is NOT. The Penelopiad is incredibly witty, written in contemporary language with songs and visual gags and shadow puppetry and choreography, all delivered wih that classic Margaret Atwood sharp, droll humour. There are lots of laugh-out-loud moments of clowning and plenty of jokes at Odysseus’ expense, about how his legs are really short and how he loves to talk about himself all the time and how he’s the ruler of this island, Ithaca, which has nothing but goats on it. Carolyn Bock is quite riveting as the white-faced Penelope. She moves like a trained dancer and is a natural comedienne, and the three other women in this show are give very fine performances.

In spite of the humour, this play is also a tragedy. As we know from Homer’s original tales, when Odysseus finally comes home from all of his travels, he has Penelope’s only allies – her maidservants – put to death. The story is told from the perspective of Penelope after her own death when she is wandering around in the afterlife feeling guilty about not having protected those women from male violence.

I have to say, in the wake of the much-publicised sexist comments about the Australian Prime Minister and the high profile media stories about rape and violence towards women that we’ve been pummelled with in the last couple of weeks, there was something incredibly cathartic about watching this play and seeing these (unfortunately) timeless themes reflected back at us in the theatre.

‘The Penelopiad’ is highly recommended and can be seen at the La Mama Courthouse in Carlton until July 7th.

And very briefly, last night I saw ‘Shane Warne The Musical’, a semi-staged version of this show at the Hamer Hall. It was hard not to compare this production to the original fully-staged one that toured the country a few years ago, and some of the voices in the new production were not quite as strong as last time around. The sound quality at the Hamer Hall was strangely muted so at times it was hard to catch all of the hilarious lyrics. (Could have been a factor of where I was sitting, though, in the corner of the stalls underneath a balcony.)

But cabaret artist Eddie Perfect, who wrote the musical, once again stars as the hapless Australian cricketing hero and if you didn’t see the original, it is worth seeing this show just to see Eddie strutting his stuff as ‘our Shane’. Somehow he manages to be both fond and critical of this guy who publicly cheated on his wife, harassed women with ‘sexting’ and (according to Eddie’s version) may be struggling to find meaning in his life now that he’s no longer playing test cricket.

Tonight (June 21st) is your last chance to see ‘Shane Warne the Musical’ in this Melbourne season.

June 6

Letter to an old friend

Today i went to the funeral of an old friend of mine. Deborah Cass was a brilliant woman and an unofficial mentor. This is an edited version (for reasons of privacy) of a letter i sent her a month ago, knowing how ill she was. I am so very glad she got to read it.

Dear Deborah,

I have been meaning to write this letter for a while now. Years, really. It’s a letter of gratitude to someone who has had an intermittent but incredibly positive influence on my life.

At university you were a glamorous feminist role model for me. You were like royalty, except that we were all republicans. At political club meetings you were always quietly offering the wise advice of someone who had been around politics for a long time and understood how it worked. You always asserted – and were given – equal status to the inevitably noisier boys. You were smarter than most of those boys but you didn’t need to work hard to prove it. And of course you were also beautiful and sexy and cool, none of which should matter, but all of which usually do matter, somehow.

As a Farrago editor you gave me some of my first and most enjoyable opportunities to be published in print, experiences that have had a profound impact on my professional life. (There was a deeply personal article i wrote) that you were happy to let me publish anonymously – otherwise I wouldn’t have dared. Then you passed on to me an inquiry from a publisher who wanted to re-print that piece in a school textbook – my first professional publication – and the first official recognition that I could write well enough to be paid for my work. Priceless.

Somehow our paths kept crossing over the years. The Victorian Trade Union Choir, where your obvious enjoyment of that nutty mob made me feel proud to have brought them together. RMIT, where I always left our occasional coffee dates with something important to think about – either to do with writing, or work, or relationships.

I vividly remember our conversation about my qualms about (working with my then partner) and your quiet reminder that I needed to preserve my separate independent professional reputation. And I was always full of admiration for your determination to keep working on your book, in spite of the pain you were enduring.

In fact my admiration for you has only deepened and strengthened over the decades. You are brave on so many levels. Your endurance has been Herculean. Or perhaps Amazonian? Your ability to preserve your dignity in the face of whatever challenge came your way has been the best role modelling I could have had from a friend.

And in the past year, when we were both (dealing with the loss of something) we had valued deeply, it was an incredible comfort to me to be able to speak freely, angrily, philosophically, politically, unguardedly about what I had been going through with (a friend) who was going through something just as painful.

So for all those reasons, and for all the ways you have made a difference in my life, I thank you, Deborah. It is a pleasure – and privilege – to be your friend. If there is anything at all I can do for you right now, or in the future, please let me know.

Lots of love

Sian

May 23

Culture Club reviews, May 23rd

It’s been another excellent fortnight in the theatre for me, I’m very happy to report.

Last week I went to see ‘Nixon in China’, an opera written by the American composer John Adams in 1987, and produced in this instance by the Victorian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Now you might well be wondering – how do you make an opera out of a US President’s official visit to communist China – where’s the theatre in that?

In fact lots of operas have centred on some kind of political drama, either factual or fictional (I can think of several operas by Handel and Verdi, for example). Perhaps it’s simply that we’re not used to those operatic dramas being based on events that have taken place within living memory. The drama often comes from the larger-than-life characters at the centre of these stories, and also from the resonant historical significance of the events.

This is only the second time Adams’ opera has been performed in Australia. The first was at the Adelaide Festival in 1992 and although I didn’t see it, I heard rave reports about how good it was. It’s taken 21 years for a new production to be staged here and I’m very glad I got to see it this time.
The story is quite simple and is based on the known facts: in 1972 US President Richard Nixon and his wife made the first ever US Presidential visit to communist China, an event that signaled a huge change in relations between the two superpowers and the opening up of dialogue after a quarter century of frostiness.

The opera opens with President Nixon (baritone Barry Ryan) and his wife Pat (soprano Tiffany Speight) arriving on the air force plane, accompanied by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and being greeted by Chou En Lai, Mao Tse Tung’s loyal lieutenant. Soon we meet Mao, an ailing but still charismatic figure whose every word is noted down by a trio of female secretaries. And eventually we meet the formidable Madame Mao (Eva Jinhee Kong), the instigator of the infamous cultural revolution in China.

The drama comes from the power play between the two men, both trying to ‘keep it nice’ but also to assert their status and demonstrate that their political worldview is the correct one. It also comes from a series of dream-like scenes when, for example, Nixon slips into moments of fear and paranoia about the forces gathering against him back home.

One of the best things about this opera, and about this production in particular, is the role of the chorus. In many scenes there are ranks of Chinese people wearing their uniform Chairman Mao suits, singing propagandistic lines based on Mao’s own words – and in this instance, singing with astonishing precision, perfectly reflecting the kind of control that the communist regime had (or wanted to have) over the Chinese comrades back then.

A lot of the the music is in this opera very difficult to sing. There are a endless repetitive arpeggios with minor variations and some of the arias are insanely virtuosic including one by Madame Mao about the Little Red Book. (It’s worth checking it out on YouTube, it will make your hair stand on end.) Eva Jinhee Kong was absolutely note perfect the night I attended. But all the principals were strong. Barry Ryan as Nixon was a great combination of bluff, bluster and vulnerability.

The set and lighting design is spectacular (Richard Roberts and Matt Scott) with liberal use of the communist colour red, of course (excuse the pun); startling washes of red and orange light, long red curtains, contrasting with the grey of the uniforms worn by the chorus of citizens.

This production has been directed by Roger Hodgman, the former Artistic Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, and he has chosen not to make the obvious choices in directing. Hodgman has given the production a slightly dream-like quality rather than trying to be like a political documentary, and that works particularly well in the last section of the opera where the characters are all lost in their own worlds, wondering and worrying about the future.

I can highly recommend this production and with only one night left to see it, you’d have to go tonight. ‘Nixon in China’ is on at the Arts Centre.

And for something completely different, I saw a brand new Australian play this week at 45 Downstairs. It is called ‘True Love Travels on a Gravel Road’ and has been written by Jane Miller who has been writing plays for about eight years now. She has won several awards already including a development award which allowed her to keep working on this play.

The opening lines of this show totally sucked me in: a young woman called Maggie walks on stage and says to the audience, ‘None of this is my fault, I wasn’t even there.’ Immediately you need to know – what wasn’t her fault? And actually, was it? Gradually the thing that ‘wasn’t her fault’ is revealed during the course of the play.

Maggie (Emily Goddard) is a young woman living in an Australian country town but dreaming of going to Graceland in Memphis, Tenessee. Maggie is not very happily married, she has an unhealthy obsession with the movies of Elvis Presley, and she’s having a fling with a local lad called Jake (Glenn van Oosterom) who everyone else in the town thinks has a few roos loose in the top paddock. Jake is not very worldly and you just know it’s going to get him into terrible trouble.

This is primarily a comedy (or perhaps, in the end, a tragi-comedy) and there are certainly plenty of laughs in it. Miller offers us tight, nutty scripting and great characterization. Maggie’s Mum Glenda (Elizabeth McColl), for example, is a woman who is constantly complaining about her lot in life but she has such a dry wit that you have to laugh with her, not at her, whenever she complains.

The language of the dialogue captures something essential about life in this Australian country town, where the local chemist turns out to be Maggie’s hitherto invisible father, and a resident tough guy called Richard can procure guns for people at the drop of a hat. This is a clue to the drama that unfolds, but I don’t want to give it away. Let’s just say that it’s one of the funniest depictions of a hostage scene that I’ve ever come across.

At times this play is reminiscent of some of the Working Dog screenplays – The Castle, The Dish, for example – peopled with quirky Aussie battler types who you can’t help falling a little bit in love with.

All the cast members are highly skilled comic actors but not clownish, if you know what I mean. These performers also give us quite subtle moments of tragedy and vulnerability when it’s required. And there is very tight, detailed direction from Beng Oh, who has been working on the development of this play with playwright Jane Miller for several years now.

For a thoroughly enjoyable night of home-grown comedy-drama, go see ‘True Love Travels on a Gravel Road’ at 45 Downstairs (on until June 2nd).

And finally, on Tuesday night I went to the opening of ‘One Man Two Guvnors’, a Melbourne Theatre Company/Arts Centre co-production of a British play by Richard Bean. The play is an adaptation of a work by Carlo Goldoni called ‘The Servant of Two Masters’, written in 1743.

Goldoni wrote a staggering 260 plays during his lifetime, including 16 plays for one season alone, so no wonder Richard Bean thought he might be onto something good when he decided to update this play to Brighton, England in the early 1960’s.

One of the lovely things about this show is the live music. When you first take your seat there is already a live skiffle band playing on stage, complete with washboard, upright bass and guitars, played by a quartet of musicians who look like they’re about 14 years old (or maybe it’s just those clean-cut 1960’s hairstyles – think early Beatles). The band comes and goes in between acts and set changes throughout the show, playing in a slightly different musical style each time.

The plot – briefly: our hero Francis, a not-very-bright Welshman, finds himself in Brighton in 1963 working for two different bosses. One is a former boarding school boy (now a ruling class prat) called Stanley Stubbers. The other is a woman called Rachel who is disguised as a bloke. In fact she is pretending to her own twin brother, who was in fact recently murdered by her lover, who is in fact the other guvnor, Stanley Stubbers (are you still with me?)

There are layers of complex plot twists here. Rachel’s dead brother was meant to be marrying a not-very-bright lass called Pauline Clench, but Pauline wants to marry a bloke called Alan Dangle (don’t you love the names? Clench, Dangle, Stubbers – they almost sound like Dickens characters).

The comedy is mostly based on poor Francis juggling these two different bosses without them finding out about each other, and without him realising that one is a woman or that they are lovers. There are plenty of hilarious running jokes throughout the show; our hero Francis is desperately hungry and always trying to find (or steal) himself some food; there’s an aged waiter who’s always about to spill or drop everything he touches; and lots of physical clowning especially, from Olwain Arthur who plays Francis – a really astonishing comic actor, in quite an old-fashioned way.

There are elements of old style English music hall in this show, as well as farce, and lots of classic stereotypes with the characterisation, like the Slow Welshman and the Slippery Lawyer who’s always quoting Latin. There’s even some audience participation so if you’re sitting anywhere near the front – beware! You may end up on the stage.

This show comes from the National Theatre of Great Britain, the same mob who’ve been filming some of their best productions and screening them at places like the Nova and Palace cinemas in Melbourne. They also produced ‘War Horse’ which was recently seen here at the Arts Centre, and like War Horse, this show was a huge hit over in England, hence the decision to bring it out to Melbourne. I have to say I did find myself wondering why the MTC would be involved in this as a co-production. It would have worked perfectly well as a commercial theatre production, I suspect.

But it is certainly a very enjoyable night’s theatre. There is nothing ground-breaking here, but lots and lots of laughs.

‘One Man Two Guvnors’ is on at the Arts Centre until June 22nd

May 10

Culture Club reviews, May 9th

It has been six weeks since our last Culture Club session on 774 ABC Melbourne so I’ve seen a lot of shows that I didn’t get a chance to review on air yesterday, but here’s the gen on just a few of them.

‘No Child’, a one-woman show at Theatreworks in St Kilda, is having a return season. It was here for the Melbourne Festival last year and the season was a total sell-out, so Theatreworks has brought it back for another run. It is on the VCE syllabus this year so there will be lots of school students watching it.

In ‘No Child’ the American writer and actor Nilaja Sun not only plays herself but she also plays 15 other characters in the space of about an hour and half, and it’s one of the best solo performances I’ve ever seen in the theatre.

Nilaja tells the story of going to work with a bunch of very difficult students at a New York public high school, mostly African American and Latino kids from incredibly poor families, who have driven away all their other teachers. Nilaja’s job is to get them to learn and perform a play in six weeks time, a play called ‘Our Country’s Good’ about convicts in colonial Australia.

In other words, ‘Mission Impossible’. But of course it’s not impossible, just incredibly difficult.

The play is narrated by the character of the elderly school janitor who has been cleaning the corridors and watching these kids come and go for fifty years. So you get a real sense of the history of social injustice that has produced this kind of educational ghetto for the kids.

Nilaja also plays the school principal, three of the teachers who take on this class, and half a dozen of the students, and it’s a real lesson in the craft of acting. She finds small gestures to signal to us within a split second which character she’s playing. There’s a Latino boy who’s always tugging at his shirt, for example, and a frightened Asian teacher who walks with an apologetic shuffle, and for each of these characters Nilaja has found a different voice, and all of those voices have their particular idiosyncrasies.

It’s a classic ‘hero’s journey’ story structure. The main character is assigned her ‘mission impossible’; she tries her hardest; it looks like she’s going to fail; but in the end she overcomes all the hurdles and she triumphs.

It’s not all good news because not all of those students will survive their tough beginnings, but there is enough good news to allow you to walk out of the theatre feeling like there is reason to be hopeful about the world.

I had a brief chat to the actor/writer after the opening night during which she was struggling to remember names, and she told me that that always happens after she’s done a performance. Part of her brain shuts down for a while, probably because that brain has been working SO hard to retain all those different characters and their lines.

If you can get a ticket, go and see it because I’m sure it’s going to sell out again.

‘No Child’ is on at Theatreworks in Acland St. St Kilda till May 26th.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’ is a commercial theatre production that has been on at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne for the last month. Many of you will remember the film of this American play starring Morgan Freeman and Jessica Tandy (1989). This production has two equally stellar actors in it: Angela Lansbury as Miss Daisy and James Earl Jones as her driver Hoke Coleburn.

Angela Lansbury is possibly best known as the star of ‘Murder She Wrote’, the longest running detective drama series on TV ever, but she has been acting in film, TV and theatre for over fifty years. James Earl Jones was the voice of Darth Vader, no less, but he has also been winning awards for his stage and film performances for fifty years, including roles in many Shakespeare productions.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’ was written in 1987 by American playwright Alfred Uhry, and it’s ostensibly about the friendship between a wealthy Jewish woman who lives in Atlanta in the American south, and her African American chauffeur. Apparently the Daisy character was drawn from the playwright’s Jewish grandmother. The plot is very much based on the classic ‘odd couple’ premise, but of course it turns out to be about much more than that. It’s a story about race and class, religion and prejudice, and about growing old.

I confess I went along to see this production feeling slightly cynical. It’s my own prejudice – I often assume that commercial theatre productions are going to be less challenging, or less nuanced, or are going to rely more on ‘star power’ or whizz-bang sets than less mainstream productions. But I LOVED this play.

These two actors must both be in their eighties, an age when most of us are struggling to stay out of a nursing home, but they are both at the peak of their acting powers. At the beginning of the play the characters are a couple of decades younger than the actors, and Daisy and Hoke age several decades until they’re older than Lansbury and Jones, and these performances are real studies in the craft of acting. They use subtle changes in the way they walk, or in how heavily they lean on their walking sticks, so to convey the creeping slowness of old age.

There’s quite a history lesson in this play. We witness these characters living through the growth of the civil rights movement, the rise of Martin Luther King and the bombing of the local synagogue (based on an actual event) Above all, though, I think this is a play about compassion. The Hoke Coleburn character has immense empathy for Miss Daisy’s struggle to retain her dignity as she ages, and the final scene, set in a nursing home, is one of the most affecting and memorable things I’ve ever seen in the theatre.

Of course there has to be a car in this play – a whole lot of cars, actually, because Miss Daisy keeps updating them – but you shouldn’t expect a high-tech Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-style vehicle. Instead there’s a very cute pretend car made of a bench, a chair and a portable steering wheel, and really what more do you need? It’s all pretend anyway.

‘Driving Miss Daisy’ is on at the Comedy Theatre till May 12th, then it goes on to Adelaide.

‘True Minds’ is the latest work by Melbourne playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, and it’s a Melbourne Theatre Company production at the MTC’s Southbank Theatres. This play is very much in the tradition of farce. It’s a romantic comedy which gets more and more complicated as it goes along, with the degree of difficulty facing the main character being ramped up higher and higher.

Joanna Murray-Smith is one of our most successful contemporary Australian playwrights. Her plays have been programmed regularly by state theatre companies, she has had them produced in New York, and she has an established audience for her work, much in the way David Williamson does. Murray-Smith generally writes plays that are concerned with what you might call social and political frictions.

And superficially that’s what ‘True Minds’ is about, too. It revolves around a writer who has produced a best-seller that argues men will only marry women who their mothers approve of – a kind of marital oedipal complex theory. The problem is, the writer Daisy Grayson wants to marry the son of a high-profile and rather fierce right-wing political commentator – a female Andrew Bolt, perhaps – and she needs to pass the mother-in-law test herself if she’s going to get what she wants. There’s a dinner party planned at her place, for Daisy to meet her future mother-in-law for the first time.

So then the layers of difficulty start layering up. Enter Daisy’s ex-boyfriend, a bad boy who’s just come out of rehab and needs somewhere to stay. Then enter Daisy’s father, the left-wing equivalent of the mother-in-law, and the two commentators are fierce political enemies. Then enter Daisy’s mother, a new age hippy who is having an affair with a man about thirty years younger than her. And finally, the fiancé’s flight is delayed so Daisy is having to deal with all of this stuff on her own.

The production has been directed by Peter Houghton, who has directed some fantastic farces in the past. It’s almost his speciality. To be honest, though, I don’t think he’s quite pulled it off with this one, and in part it is because of problems with the text. There is SO much busy, busy stage action going on ALL the time that it becomes quite distracting – quite exhausting, even – to watch. There’s lots of mucking about with food, which is meant to be a running joke, but it becomes slightly tedious. Everything seems to happen at the same high pitch of emotional mania, which leaves you with nowhere go to, and some scenes, such as the one where the mother–in-law somehow ends up lying on top of Daisy’s father, having simulated sex, just go on a bit too long, so the comedy dies.

The other problem is that all the characters are unlikable.I don’t usually subscribe to the theory that we have to like or identify with the characters in a play in order to enjoy it, but these people are all SO annoying – so self-righteous or insensitive or just plain stupid – that, in the end, you want them all to go away.

Plenty of people in the audience were laughing hard the night I saw ‘True Minds’ so I suspect I could be in the minority of MTC-goers with these negative views. Genevieve Morris, who plays Daisy’s hippy mother, is quite funny and the play feels like a TV sit-com, a very popular form of story-telling. And there are plenty of topical issues peppering the dialogue to press your buttons: gay marriage, private vs public education, climate change denial, childcare – you get the drift. But I found it all a bit predictable and a bit over-wrought.

‘True Minds’ is on at MTC Southbank Theatres till June 8th.

Finally, ‘Partenope’ is an Opera Australia production that has just finished its season at the Arts Centre.

Now there are a few things that people often find difficult about opera, especially when they first start going to see it. The first is the plots, which can often be deeply implausible and very confusing. Another is the tradition of ‘pants roles’, where women are playing male roles. Sometimes men are playing male roles but singing with women’s voices (counter-tenors) and sometimes women are playing men who are actually women!

This baroque opera by Handel has all of those things: a confusing and improbable plot, and lots of gender-bending roles, which is perhaps one of the reasons why it’s not performed as often as other Handel operas.

It’s meant to be a serious opera about love and war and romantic betrayal, but the director of this Opera Australia production, Christopher Alden, has taken huge liberties with the original plot and the libretto, and the result is absolutely brilliant and incredibly funny.

The basic plot: Partenope is a powerful woman with three suitors, all trying to win her hand. Enter a fourth suitor, Eurimene, who is actually a woman dressed as a man, and she has come to try to win back her former lover, Arsace, who is one of Partenope’s suitors, and the one who Partenope is actually in love with. (Are you still with me?)

When Partenope rejects another one of her suitors, Emilio, he declares war on her. Emilio is captured, there’s a challenge to a duel, and it all gets very complicated and, frankly, very silly.
But in this production the director has managed to turn it into a very sexy and naughty satirical comedy. He has set it in the 1930’s and drawn very heavily from the artistic movements of the time, so we see huge black and white photographs in the style of Man Ray, surreal Dali-esque touches with the props and costumes, and a series of different sets in a classic art deco style, including a long swooping staircase which the suitors spend a lot of time going and up and down, and sitting chatting and smoking pipes.

Soprano Emma Matthews plays Partenope as a sexually liberated beauty with a crimped bob, and there are some quite graphic but very funny scenes of simulated sex, all while these singers are performing incredibly technically difficult arias and ensembles. The principals are all very strong but one of the stand-out performers is tenor Kanen Breen who plays the rejected suitor Emilio. Kanen Breen is not only a brilliant comic actor but he’s also a former dancer and in the last act he does a walloping great big aria whilst doing a complicated yoga routine, including the splits, backwards rolls, and virtually standing on his head. It is one of the most astonishing things I’ve ever seen on the opera stage. There is another scene where Emilio has been locked in a toilet and is trying to get out, and Kanen Breen sings an aria with his head poking out from a small window above the dunny door. Hilarious.

The libretto is in English and has been updated to a very colloquial style. Even the F word makes an appearance. So add into the mix some sublime singing from all the principal singers (there is no chorus) and overall it made for a really entertaining three and half hours at the opera.

Just briefly – this week I had the pleasure of seeing the premiere screening of the documentary ‘Alias Ruby Blade’ at the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival at ACMI. It tells the story of Kirsty Sword Gusmao’s political activism on behalf of the East Timorese independence movement, and of her relationship with (and eventual marriage to) independence leader (now Prime Minister) Xanana Gusmao. The film is a brilliant and subtle mix of the personal and the political, and it manages to give you a concise history of East Timor’s struggle for freedom in an accessible and moving tale of romantic love. Go and see it if you get a chance.

Next Culture Club reviews will be on May 23rd.

April 6

The Sounds of Silence

To the girl standing right in front of me at the Byron Bay Blues Festival last week:

Because you have only lived in that creamy clear skin for two decades I don’t expect you to know that it was not polite of you and your friend to push your way through the crowd of people who had been standing on their tired mud-caked feet for over an hour in order to be close to the front when Paul Simon sauntered on stage –

Because not one grey strand has yet pushed its way through your long blonde locks I don’t expect you to have noticed that the first middle-aged woman whose ribs copped your elbow had no hair under her rainbow-coloured scarf since the life-giving hair-killing chemo offered her half a chance to see half of Simon and Garfunkel at least one more time –

Because you and your friend were busy looking at your mobile phones as you shoved through the thinning-haired crowd I don’t expect you to have seen the yearning look on the face of the middle-aged man you passed whose biceps sported the tattooed names of his two daughters who he thought might look a little bit like you two but he couldn’t know for sure because they hadn’t spoken to him since he left their mother in a small town in Tasmania, accompanied only by a black dog that he hasn’t been able to shake no matter how hard he’s partied in the last decade –

Because you were busy shouting at your friend with the tattoo of butterflies on the back of her neck as you pushed through the crowd I don’t expect you to have realised that another middle-aged woman’s ribs felt your elbow as she was singing along – word-perfect – to ‘Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes’ and trying to remember the name of the boy who had given her Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album for her twenty-first birthday and kissed her on the neck and who, by her twenty-second birthday, had disappeared under a train –

Because you were sending a text on your mobile phone when Paul Simon sang ‘Homeless’ I don’t expect you to have realised how heavily you landed on the toes of the middle-aged man beside you while he was remembering how it felt to be thrown out of his parents’ home at the age of seventeen because he was in love with a boy with green-flecked eyes who didn’t believe in a punitive God either –

Because you were standing right in front of me I don’t expect you will have noticed the frown on my face or my fists clenching as I tried in vain to listen to Paul Simon singing ‘The Sounds Of Silence’ and to see the funny side of the fact that you were shouting at your friend about the text you had just received on your mobile phone and had no idea what the sounds of silence might sound like –

Because you were shouting into your mobile phone at the person who’d just sent you the text I don’t expect you will have noticed that I was listening hard and trying to work out whether my lover had chosen one of the ‘Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover’ when he left me just a few years before I turned fifty –

Because, just a couple of verses after Paul Simon had started singing ‘You Can Call Me Al’, you turned to me with a big smile and shouted ‘Has he sung ‘Call Me Al’ yet?’ and because I shouted back ‘He’s singing it now but if you won’t bloody shut up you won’t hear it’ and because you were so shocked you even forgot to check your mobile phone for a few seconds and because I desperately wanted to either slap you across the face or grab you and hug you tight until you could feel something real, not virtual, from someone right next to you, and because instead I poked my tongue out at you as if I was an idiot child rather than a middle-aged woman – I apologise.

Because you are young I don’t expect you to have realised how foolish and yet how relieved that tongue-poke made me feel.

But I expect one day you will.

(A version of this column, entitled ‘Slip Slidin’ Away’, was published in The Big Issue magazine on April 26th)

March 29

Culture Club reviews, March 2013

Things have started happening in threes. Last month I reviewed three plays in which the lead female character was struggling with memory loss. This time I‘ve been to see three shows that have swimming pools as part of their set. In fact the only show I’ve seen recently without a swimming pool is the latest Shakespeare offering from the Bell Shakespeare company – Henry IV – and this production is simply brilliant.

The plot (briefly): young Prince Hal is a lay-about and a prankster who has been hanging around with a dodgy overweight old character called Falstaff who is leading him astray. Falstaff is a compulsive liar but charming in a sleazy way and he is something of a surrogate father figure for young Hal whose dad, the King, is all caught up with civil wars and being a hard man. It’s a fraught relationship between father and son – every interaction they have is filled with mutual disappointment. So the play is in part about the Prince Hal reluctantly coming to terms with his future as a leader of the nation; aka growing up.

Co-director (with Damien Ryan) John Bell plays Falstaff with fake fat stuffed down his shirt and blackened teeth and long lank scraggly hair. Bell inhabits this character with intense physicality – his Falstaff reminded me of the Australian actor Bob Hornery, actually. As well as being a play about the fraught relationships between fathers and sons, Henry IV is also a play about old men coming to terms with the loss of their youth and power and Bell’s Falstaff conveys this with great poignancy.

By the look of the set and costumes Bell and Ryan have ‘updated’ Henry IV to the ‘80s. The back of the set is made of dozens of stacked milk crates and young Hal is living in what looks like a converted warehouse complete with rundown couches and a drum kit and guitar in the corner. Stephen Curtis is the set designer and although I’m sometimes a bit dubious about attempts to set Shakespeare plays in very specific modern times (and I’ve been critical of some Bell Shakespeare productions in the past for this very reason) in this instance it works. There are lots of subtle references to what England was like in the 80’s, including the rise of the ‘lager lout’ and an ugly kind of nationalism, combined with great nostalgia for England’s glorious past. The 80’s setting also allows for some humorous touches involving English coppers and their batons, and a couple of women who the English would no doubt call ‘slappers’.

It’s a uniformly strong cast. Matthew Moore is wonderful as Prince Hal – all spiky hair and boyish vulnerability – but there are a number of supporting cast members who play four or five different characters and you just have to marvel at their virtuoso transformations.

If you have a chance over Easter, do go and see this production. It’s a surprisingly accessible, entertaining and moving psychological drama. ‘Henry IV’ is on at the Arts Centre until March 30th.

So – to the swimming pool shows!

The first is a play called ‘Penelope’ by contemporary Irish playwright Enda Walsh. It’s a Red Stitch Theatre production being performed at Theatreworks in St Kilda, and the set is literally the inside of a huge tiled in-ground swimming pool. There is no water in it, but there is quite a lot of blood. And inside this swimming pool, surrounded by piles of outdoor furniture, a bar table loaded with grog, and a giant barbecue, are four men – four suitors of the lovely Penelope. For those who remember their classics, Penelope is the longsuffering wife of Ulysses. She’s been waiting a couple of decades for her husband to get back from his endless odyssey and meanwhile the men have been lining up to woo her. The four men in the pool are her last surviving suitors and it’s a life or death situation – if Penelope doesn’t accept one of them before Ulysses gets back, they’re all dead men.

This is a very dark play. Do you remember ‘Lord of the Flies’, the William Golding novel about the five boys stuck on an island who try to govern themselves but who turn quite nasty? At times this play seems to be a grown-up version of that scenario. The men are all desperate and all jostling for advantage in some way. One in particular, Quinn, is a vicious bully who might just be responsible for the river of blood that trails across the set. Then there’s the meek one, Burns, who is the target of the worst bullying but who seems to have the most humanity left in him.

This play also reminded me at times of the US TV show ‘Breaking Bad’ – a story which asks – just how bad can humans be, once they allow their moral compass to start wavering? In contrast to the bad stuff happening between the men, though, there is a cheery musical backdrop of lounge music including Tijuana Brass hits, which only adds to your disquiet as you stare at that trail of blood.

This is a hard play to watch. At times nothing much is happening. The men are just arguing inanely about the taste of barbecued sausages or about who should make the next speech into the microphone to try and win over Penelope. She only appears twice, through a distant window, and she never speaks, so she is more of a symbolic figure than a real woman, something that everyone is desperate to have, something they are crawling over each other to win, but will it be worth it in the end? That’s the question you end up asking yourself.

Towards the end of this play there’s a brief, sudden, hilarious change of mode when the men in the pool present a theatre show for Penelope. It’s a play-within-a-play, much like the ones Shakespeare loved to write into his plays, called ‘Love in Six Acts’. The four men present a series of mimed performances of classic love scenes from famous texts such as ‘The Titanic’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. It comes as a great relief to have a laugh for a moment, but there is a twist at the end which brings you right back down to earth.

The cast for this production is not entirely even. The stand-out performer for me was James Wardlaw who plays Fitz, a bookworm and an accidental poet. About half way through the play he makes a speech to Penelope which, on the night i saw it, was so exquisitely delivered that you could have heard a pin drop in the theatre.

I found this play intellectually stimulating but hard to watch and hard to enjoy. ‘Penelope’, a Red Stitch production at Theatreworks, is on until April 13th.

The next theatrical swimming pool I saw was in the set of ‘Other Desert Cities’, an MTC production at the Sumner theatre at Southbank. The play is written by American playwright Jon Robin Baitz who was also was the writer and creator of the US TV series ‘Brothers and Sisters’. I haven’t watched the series yet but I have heard rave reports about it.

This is the third MTC play I’ve seen this year since Brett Sheehy took over and he hasn’t put a foot wrong yet. He has employed a bunch of young directors – including Sam Strong, who directed this play – and there is a real freshness to these MTC productions this year.

‘Other Desert Cities’ is set in Palm Springs in the home of retired Republican Senator Lyman Wyeth and his wife Polly. There is a lovely pool in their back yard (with water in it this time) around which this not so lovely family loves to argue. And the main thing they’re arguing about during the course of the play is the latest book by their daughter Brooke. She is a writer who had great success with her first book but who has struggled since then to produce another. What she has finally produced is a memoir about their family, and in particular about the death of her beloved elder brother. So now all the skeletons in the family closet are threatening to jump out and ruin the Wyeth family’s well-defended public reputation.

The plot of this play is loosely based on several real-life stories, including Ronald Reagan’s daughter Patti’s memoir and also the true story of Diana Oughton, an American politician’s daughter who was a member of an underground revolutionary group and who died in an explosion when she was holding a pipe-bomb.

This is a play in the long tradition of excellent American family dramas (think Tennesee Williams and Eugene O’Neill) about a group of people feuding over who has the right to tell their family’s story. Whose version of their family life is the true version? It touches on a whole lot of very interesting questions about the ethics of memoir-writing. At times it’s like watching a war happening in slow motion. There are shifting alliances between family members, attempts at peace and reconciliation, and these characters use language like the American military uses drones – as deadly weapons. It’s exhilarating to watch but also devastating – a portrait of a group of family members who, deep down, desperately love each other but who are so consumed by the griefs of the past, they just can’t forgive each other.

The acting is wonderful. Robin Nevin plays Polly Wyeth, a real tough nut who at one point says ‘families get terrorized by their weakest member’. She has been trying to bully weakness out of her children for decades. John Gaden plays Lyman Wyeth in a beautiful, understated performance of a nice guy trying to broker peace between his wife and children. Sacha Horler plays the daughter Brooke as a wounded eternal child, Ian Meadows is the peace-making youngest son Trip Wyeth, and Sue Jones is Polly’s vengeful alcoholic sister Silda. And there is a brilliant twist at the end of this play that shifts everything. I can highly recommend this production. ‘Other Desert Cities’ is on at MTC’s Sumner theatre at Southbank until April 17th.

Finally – a bit of a cheat with the ‘swimming pool in the set’ thing – I’ve been to see ‘I, Animal’, an immersive ‘show’ at the Melbourne Zoo (where there are lots of pools for the animals to take a dip in). This show has been going all summer and has just been extended until late May. I had heard good reports about it so I was quite excited about going.

It is billed as ‘a world-first interactive experience – part multi-media tour, part theatrical experience, part animal encounter – that has been designed for adults only at Melbourne Zoo’. I know that the Zoo was specifically trying to draw in a younger adult demographic with this show – people in their 20’s and 30’s who maybe haven’t been back to the Zoo in many years and wouldn’t otherwise go, unless they had children to take along.

I have to say I DIDN’T love ‘I, Animal’. It’s going to be a little hard to talk about it without giving too much away – and the Zoo people emphasise the element of surprise with this event – but I felt way outside the target demographic and in the end I decided I would rather have just had a visit to the zoo.

You set off as part of a small group inside the Zoo around dusk, when all the other visitors have gone home, and you carry around with you a little digital device a bit like an iphone, called a Zoe (Zoo, Zoe, get it?) and the voice coming from the Zoe tells you what to do and where to go. First problem: the Zoe voice sounds like one of those annoying recorded voices that ‘talk’ to you when you’re trying to get through to your hopeless phone service provider or you urgently need to buy a Citylink pass – that fake warm-and-caring robot voice.

I managed to talk myself out of that particular irritation but then the Zoe kept trying to make me interact with it when I would much rather have been looking at the amazing animals. It demanded that you answer very personal questions about your family history and emotional life and that you draw pictures on it and watch video footage (only some of which is interesting) and at one point it plays a song which is like something you might hear on the children’s TV show ‘Playschool’. Later it feeds images and information back to you, based on the questions you answered earlier, and for some people this could be quite inappropriate and even upsetting. Again, it’s hard to explain without giving too much away, but the interactive narrative is fraught with problems and makes a lot of assumptions about what the participants are like and often it will be getting that very very wrong.

On the upside I got to see a lot of interesting primates, including the little kapuchin monkeys and the big gorillas, and they were fascinating to watch. It was nice to be there at dusk with the sky fading and the birds tweeting, although I got bitten by mozzies so if you do go, don’t forget the Aerogard.

Technological interactivity can sometimes seem like a bit of a gimmick and that’s how it felt to me with this show. ‘I, Animal’ is on at the Melbourne Zoo and has been extended until May 26th

I also want to mention two free literary events i’m hosting in April:

I will be ‘In Conversation’ with Christos Tsiolkas, the author of ‘The Slap’, talking about his forthcoming new novel ‘Barracuda’ at the State Library on Thursday April 11th. See the State Library of Victoria website for bookings.

I will also be hosting a panel discussion about the inaugural Stella Award and about Australian women’s writing on Thursday 18th April. This one is at the Wheeler Centre – see their website for bookings

And finally, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival opened this week and runs till April 21st. Last night I saw Andrew Marlton’s show ‘Cartoobs and other Typos’ at the Victoria Hotel. Andrew is FirstDogontheMoon, the cartoonist for Crikey.com, and it’s a hilarious show. I’ll be doing a proper review in the next Culture Club but go and see it if you can.

I’m off to the Byron Bay Blues Festival now.

Have a great Easter.

March 8

Culture Club reviews, February 2013

Due to unforeseen circumstances I was unable to deliver my Culture Club reviews live-to-air on 774 ABC Melbourne last month, but nevertheless here they are. (And I’ll definitely be on the wireless again on the afternoon of Thursday 28th March)

In the last month I’ve been to see two different MTC productions in which the lead female character is dealing with dramatic cognitive deterioration. Given the dire predictions of increasing rates of age-related pathologies such as dementia, and given the preponderance of older people amongst the MTC’s subscription base, these plays are playing to exactly the right audience at exactly the right time.

The first MTC production, ‘The Other Place’ by American playwright Sharr White, appears at the beginning to be a fairly traditional ‘well-made play’. The main characters are a middle-class married couple, Juliana and Ian, who are on the verge of divorce. They are estranged from their only child but there is still hope a reconciliation might be possible. Juliana, a geneticist, has made a scientific breakthrough and is in the middle of presenting her findings to a medical convention when something strange starts happening in her head. Many rapid scene changes ensue, include flashbacks to conversations in a doctor’s surgery and to strained phone calls with her daughter and son-in-law. At first we believe everything we are seeing through Juliana’s eyes. Gradually, though, our faith begins to falter as more and more things don’t add up. Is she getting divorced? Has she really spoken with her daughter? Does the son-in-law even exist? Juliana, it turns out, is an unreliable narrator.

‘The Other Place’ is a play about a mind in the process of disintegration and White conveys Juliana’s confusion with an ingeniously jumpy narrative structure. Catherine McClements plays Juliana as a tightly wound neurotic to whom we gradually warm as her bewildering aggression melts into vulnerability. Ian the long-suffering husband, played by David Roberts, is a character drawn with less complexity – he’s almost a fall guy to Juliana’s larger-than-life personality – and there were a couple of moments when his reactions to his wife’s condition seemed a tad melodramatic.

This could be an issue of direction. Film director-turned-theatre-director Nadia Tass occasionally takes the clichéd option with scenes of great emotional weight, when ‘less’ could have been ‘more’. Heidi Arena plays a number of different female characters, including the couple’s daughter, a doctor, and a ‘stranger’ who has to deal with Juliana when her confusion is most acute. Arena’s acting was uniformly superb.

This was a fresh and emotionally engaging production of a deftly-written play dealing with the universal subject of human suffering and I confess I shed quite a few tears in the dark. We should all cross our fingers that we don’t wind up in ‘the other place’. The season ended at the Playhouse of The Arts Centre on March 2nd.

The second MTC production I saw recently was ‘Constellations’, another play in which the lead female character has something going very wrong inside her head. Once again, the narrative has been deliberately fragmented but British playwright Nick Payne has taken this technique much further than Sharr White. The two characters, Marianne (Alison Bell) and Roland (Leon Ford), are trapped in a perpetual ‘ground hog day’ universe in which scenes and conversations are replayed over and over, each time with slight variations of mood or tone or attitude or text. We are offered multiple alternative endings to situations, meetings, arguments, relationships and medical diagnoses. As I describe it I realize it could sound like an intensely annoying night out at the theatre but – on the contrary – it was entirely exhilarating.

Once again, the lead female character is a scientist – in this instance, a theoretical physicist – so Marianne understands the so-called ‘multiverse’ theory that posits the co-existence of an infinite number of alternative ‘quantum universes’. Nick Payne has played with this idea by creating for Marianne an infinite number of alternative pathways for her relationship with Leon and for her serious medical condition.

There is something operatic about the way the text weaves back and forth in this play with often only minor variations, like a Donizetti aria. Minor variations can be harder to learn than new text (or music) and I take my hat off to Alison Bell and Leon Ford, whose performances were astonishingly detailed and utterly convincing, even when scenes varied only slightly. These actors were truly virtuosic and credit must go to director Leiticia Caceres for plotting the emotional path through the textual maze. Poignant, funny, and hyper-real – see it if you can. ‘Constellations’ is on at the Fairfax Studio of the Arts Centre until March 23rd.

There must be something in the air in Melbourne because the third theatre production I saw recently also includes a female character who is struggling with her memory. Red Stitch Theatre is presenting ‘4000 Miles’ by American playwright Amy Herzog, a four-hander about an elderly woman and her grandson temporarily sharing a small apartment in New York. Vera (Julia Blake) is proud but lonely so when Leo (Tim Ross) arrives out of the blue her initial resistance to sharing her space soon fades. Leo’s traveling light, at the end of a long cycling trip, but he’s carrying a ton of emotional baggage following the death of a close friend and the end of a romance.

The play explores what it means to be ‘family’ and what makes a ‘community’ and is a subtle critique of how contemporary capitalist western societies have become emotionally atomised as individuals pursue their desire for self-actualisation, oblivious to the loneliness and poverty all around them.

Julia Blake is one of my favourite Australian actors. Her consistently excellent performances should be an inspiration to anyone hoping for a long career in the performing arts. Her Vera is simultaneously a frail and anxious elderly citizen and a cheeky, open-minded old broad. And Tim Ross (who I last saw doing a wonderful performance in Red Stitch’s ‘The Kitchen Sink’) is a perfect match for her, with a relaxed, under-stated portrayal of a self-absorbed, damaged young man.

I confess I didn’t entirely love the play. Occasionally the poignancy of the story was undermined by swerves into soap opera territory, most often when Leo’s girlfriends appeared in the apartment. But the story kept me interested to the end, and the efficient set (the living room of Vera’s apartment) constantly drew our attention back to the odd couple sharing confidences on the worn lounge setting. ‘4000 Miles’ is on at the Red Stitch Theatre venue in St Kilda until March 9th.