Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

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February 27

A Year of Reading: 2012

Each year I keep a list of the books I’ve read. Some years, for example when I’m reviewing books regularly, the length of the list defies belief. In other years, when life’s curve balls distract me from reading or when I’m getting my narrative jollies from going to the theatre, the list is shorter. Last year was one of those ‘other’ years. I’m hoping I can get back to reading at least one book a week in 2013. Here are some brief thoughts about just a few of the books that I enjoyed in 2012.

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

No wonder Eugenides won a Pulitzer Prize for this novel. ‘Middlesex’ feels like three books in one – a transgressive historical romance, a gender-bending coming-of-age tale, and a portrait of a migrant enclave in late twentieth century America. The main character is a hermaphrodite and somehow Eugenides manages to create poetry from descriptions of the faulty mechanics of indeterminate genitalia. He reminds me of Jonathan Franzen but with less anger and cynicism, more helpless human compassion. Simply brilliant.

Sweet Old World – Deborah Robertson

I’ve been a fan of Deborah Robertson’s fiction since I read her award-winning novel ‘Careless’ and this year I discovered she is also an exquisite non fiction writer. Did you catch her autobiographical essay in the Father’s Days edition of Fairfax’s Good Weekend magazine last year? It’s worth searching it out. ‘Sweet Old World’ is her latest novel and it tackles the unusual – perhaps even taboo – topic of the grief that can result from male childlessness. There is a romance embedded within this tale but the book itself is not ‘a romance’ and the ending could come as something as a shock to those readers used to the Cinderella model of narrative closure. As ever, beautiful writing from this sensitive story-teller.

A Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

One of those books which contains so many lightly-delivered but profoundly insightful observations about human behaviour that you fold over every second page to make sure you can go back and read them again. This is a mystery, a love story and a philosophical tract whose ending will have you consulting fellow readers to make sure you’ve ‘read it right’. Barnes at his best.

Stravinsky’s Lunch – Drusilla Modejeska

I finally caught up with Modjeska’s book about a group of Australian female artists in preparation for hosting a public forum at which she was to be a guest. Her research is impeccable and her feminist approach to the subject matter is simultaneously gentle, humorous and uncompromising. This book should be a must-read for any woman considering trying to have a lifelong and successful creative career AND bring up children within a nuclear family. (Good luck with that.)

The Mountain – Drusilla Modjeska

This first work of fiction from Modjeska is not without flaws: a slightly over-complicated plot and too many characters who we sometimes struggle to fit into the jigsaw puzzle of inter-relationships. But Modjeska’s portrayal of a community of European and indigenous friends in late colonial Papua New Guinea taught me more about the recent history of our neighbour nation, and about Australia’s role in its perhaps precipitate de-colonisation process, than any text I’ve yet read. Love, politics, cultural appropriation, authenticity; these themes are all tackled with great courage and impeccable research, and you get the strong sense that the author lived through events very similar to the ones she describes.

The Wrong Boy – Suzy Zail

Declaration time – Suzy Zail is a friend of mine. She’s also a prolific and courageous writer whose memoir ‘The Tattooed Flower’ told the stoy of her father’s incarceration in one of Hitler’s death camps. Zail re-visits the Holocaust in ‘The Wrong Boy’, this time with a young adult novel about a Jewish girl who falls in love with a German boy. Somehow this plot device never seems controversial and that is because Zail has created believable characters

Other books i read and can happily recommend:

Adelaide – Kerryn Goldsworthy

Her Father’s Daughter – Alice Pung

True North – Brenda Niall

After Words – Paul Keating

A Visit From the Good Squad – Jennifer Egan

Reality Hunger – David Shields

The Engagement – Chloe Hooper

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

February 7

Getting Away With It

I’ve found it. The epigram of our age. The dictum of our decade. It wasn’t broadcast in a rousing speech by a visionary political leader. It wasn’t published in the opinion page of a respected broadsheet. It was sandwiched between a poster advertising the forthcoming Rod Stewart national tour, and another one publicising a Starsky and Hutch theme night at a local club. It was pasted onto a fence surrounding an abandoned building site, and I just happened to catch a glimpse of it as my tram sailed past. The words loomed up in stark black ink:

“Get Away With It”.

Everywhere you look, there are people trying to get away with something. They’re cutting corners, finding loopholes, devising scams, sneaking around, crossing their fingers and hoping that no one will notice what they’re up to. Authors are creating entirely fictional versions of their own lives and selling them to an unsuspecting reading public as the heart-rending, true stories of their struggles against injustice. Corrupt cops are doing shady little deals with the criminals they’re meant to be prosecuting, leaving the law-breakers free to rip us off at their leisure.

Cheating athletes are popping pills or sticking needles in themselves to help them run faster or jump higher or pedal further than the next athlete, who is then using needles and popping pills in a crazy domino effect of self-abuse, in order to win. And when they’re caught out, they’re running away from the drug-testers and challenging the results and shooting the messengers, in their desperate attempts to keep getting away with it.

Wealthy corporations are relocating their headquarters to foreign countries in order to avoid paying award wages, or maintain decent conditions, or provide compensation to the victims of their dangerous products. They’re changing their names and divesting themselves of troublesome subsidiaries and hiding behind their ‘responsibilities to shareholders’ in order to avoid taking corporate responsibility for the damage they’ve done.

Meanwhile, the richest people in the country are avoiding paying billions of dollars worth of tax every year. They’re hiding their profits and exaggerating their losses and over-stating their expense claims, so they can get away with contributing less than they should to health care and public education and environmental protection and all the other things that our taxes pay for.

And no wonder they think they have a right to get away with it. While all these people have been busy avoiding tax and skipping the country and popping pills and confusing fact with fiction, their national leaders have been busy re-writing history, or denying the relevance of history, or creating history, whilst telling porky pies about desperate people in sinking boats trying to murder their own children.

One of the things I’ve always quite liked about my fellow Australians is our reluctance to be dobbers. Footballers avoid dobbing in their opponents at the tribunal, workers avoid dobbing in their workmates for taking the occasional sickie, and none of us dobs on each other for over-staying the time limit on our parking meters. Much as I hate it when people cheat on water restrictions or fail to clean up after their dogs in the local park, I could never bring myself to dob them in. It would feel petty, intrusive and embarrassingly self-righteous.

But maybe all this small-time dobbing-avoidance is quietly corrupting us. Maybe our discomfort with dobbing has nothing to do with being kind to our all-too-human neighbours. Maybe we’re hoping that if we ignore their illegal garden watering, they won’t say anything about our million dollar tax dodge.

I don’t know what the solution is. The people who crow the loudest about the deterioration in public morals, the absence of ‘values’ education, and the importance of politeness and civility in our community, are often the same people who are the medal-winning champions of ‘getting away with it’.

On closer inspection, the billboard poster which so beautifully summed up this twenty-first century malaise turned out to be an ad for a new clothing store. ‘Get away with it’ was a fashion statement, not an election slogan. Can I suggest an alternative adage for our times: ‘Don’t Even Think About It’.

(NB. This column was first published in The Age in 2004. Some things never change)

February 1

Culture Club reviews 774 ABC Melbourne January 31st

This week I returned to the Culture Club on 774 ABC Melbourne for the first time for 2013 and it was great to have three excellent theatrical experiences to report on. In the last few weeks I’ve been to see a couple of international spectaculars and a local independent production of a rarely seen play by Tennessee Williams.

1) ‘War Horse’ opened at the Arts Centre a month ago now so many of you may have seen it already. Or you may have seen Steven Spielberg’s movie version, which by all accounts was not so brilliant. The original stage version is a puppetry show based on a book written in 1982 by Michael Morpurgo. It is about a farm boy named Albert and his horse Joey who get caught up in World War One. Calling it just ‘a puppetry show’, though, doesn’t do justice to this wonderful production.

The life-sized puppet horses, created by South African’s famous Handspring Puppet Company, are operated by two or three or sometimes even four people and very soon after the show begins you forget that these are big machines made out of wood and metal. The suspension of disbelief kicks in and you totally believe they are horses – and not just horses, but horses who you relate to as you might relate to a human – anthropomorphized horses, with strong individual personalities, senses of humour, likes and dislikes. It’s an astonishing feat of animation.

The story is told in quite a sentimental way and the characters are almost caricatures – the Greedy Uncle, the Drunken Gambling Father, the Long-Suffering Mother, the Lonely Son – but it is beautifully acted and in the end you just go along with the sentimentality. And in the background to the stories of these individual characters is the huge, terrible story of a war which is ugly and stupid and in which people who could very well have been friends in peace time are instead trying to kill each other. I found it a very emotional experience watching the daily nightmare of life in the trenches of France brought to life on the stage.

There is also a lot of lovely music in this show composed by John Tams and Adrian Sutton, including a lot of harmony singing to give us some respite from the drama of what’s happening to Albert and his poor horse Joey. I don’t want to give away too much of the story but it’s both a love story between a boy and his horse and a coming of age story for the fearful boy.

There is a huge cast – 21 actors and another 12 people maninuplating the puppets – and the stagecraft is simply brilliant. You will rarely see such skill in creating vivid realistic dramatic scenes using basically just lights and props and puppets. So there are many good reasons why this show has been such a success since it first premiered in London back in 2007 with the National Theatre of Great Britain. By all accounts its success has enabled that company to put on a lot of other more risky ventures – a bit like the way the publishers of the Harry Potter books were able to afford to publish less profitable books because of the rivers of gold that came from J K Rowling’s efforts.

The night I saw ‘War Horse’ it received a standing ovation and my mother reckoned it was possibly the best piece of theatre she’d ever seen – high praise indeed. ‘War Horse’ is on at Arts Centre till March 10th after which it will travel to Sydney and Brisbane.

2) ‘Ovo’ is the latest circus spectacular from Canadian company Cirque de Soleil, under the Big Top at Melbourne’s Docklands till March 24.

I have to confess that I went to this show not expecting to love it. Judging by my previous experience of seeing Cirque de Soleil material, it wasn’t an aesthetic that appealed to my tastes. I found it a bit too slick, a bit too shiny, and a bit too impersonal. Yes it’s a hugely successful cultural export product with Cirque de Soleil shows currently touring all over Europe, the USA, Canada, Brazil, South Africa. In fact there may not be a continent on the planet in which a Cirque de Soleil production is currently being performed.

Most of their shows have these slightly mysterious and exotic-sounding one word titles like Kooza, Dralion, Corteo, Alegria and Amaluna – it’s a classic branding technique. They employ about five thousand people around the world (although they are reportedly just about to cut nearly 10% of their workforce, mostly from their headquarters in Canada) and they sell huge amounts of merchandise with every show. So it’s culturally much closer to Disneyland than to Circus Oz.

This new show Ovo is centred around a giant egg – the ‘ovo’ – which at the beginning of proceedings is lost by a clown character called the Foreigner. Meanwhile he is falling in love with another clown character, Ladybug, and he spends most of the show pursuing Ladybug and trying to find his egg. These clown antics provide fun, loose narratives to hang the acrobatics on.

As expected, I didn’t love the aesthetics. Most of the acts were accompanied by a kind of bland world music ‘lite’, and with the performers dressed in brightly- coloured insect-themed costumes it was all very shiny and slick and very culturally non specific. When you compare it to a Circus Oz show, what works best love about the local product is the way the Australian character comes through in each production, whereas I suspect Cirque de Soleil is deliberately blurring and blanding cultural boundaries so their product can appeal to any audience anywhere on the globe.

Having said that, I would be prepared to go down on my hands and knees and sing a hymn of praise to the Cirque de Soleil performers and their astonishing physical feats.These people can do stuff you would never imagine the human body can do, defying gravity, defying fear, defying reason!

There are so many different and amazing acts it’s hard to know which ones to mention. Total respect to the group of women (the ‘ants’) who lay on their backs and held up a bunch of other women on the balls of their feet while those women juggled rolling cylinders in the air. Hallelujah for the many different flying acts, for the contortionists, the slack wire walker and my personal favourit, the trampoline acts.

The set is amazing – giant flowers open and close, complex trapeze gear is set up and pulled down with lightning speed. So I reckon most people will love ‘Ovo’ if they can afford to see it (tickets are not cheap, starting from around $75 all the way up to $275 I believe, though I had trouble getting through to ticket bookings site yesterday so you need to check for yourself).‘Ovo’ from Cirque de Soleil is on under the Big Top at Docklands till March 24.

3) ‘Vieux Carre’ (pron. voo carray) is a play by American playwright Tennessee Williams produced by Itch Productions and on at 45 Downstairs till Feb 3rd as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival

Most people will know of Tennessee Williams’ most famous play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, turned into a movie starring Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh and more recently turned into an opera that we saw performed in Melbourne a couple of years ago. ‘Streetcar’ is set in a community of genteel poverty in New Orleans and this later Williams play treads similar territory. It is also set in the French quarter of New Orleans, in a rundown boarding house full of lost, tragic characters. Apparently ‘Vieux Carre’ is a highly autobiographical play which Williams started writing when he first went to live in New Orleans in the late 1930’s but didn’t finish until forty years later in mid 1970’s. This is probably in part because the main character and narrator the Writer (presumably the Tennessee Williams character) is overtly gay (as are several other characters) and no doubt it was unacceptable to write so openly about homosexuality back in the 1930’s.

The play has always had a mixed reception, with some critics hating it, others loving it, and I have to say that while I think there are problems with the text, particularly toward the end, I was totally caught up in the story and the performances in this new production. The boarding house in Vieux Carre is full of outsiders, including two elderly genteel ladies who are living in poverty – virtually starving to death – and a New York society girl who we discover late in the piece has a very tragic reason for being stuck in this house with her drug-addicted violent lover (don’t want to give it away). There is also a tubercular gay artist who refuses to accept that he’s dying and a crazy landlady who sometimes believes that our hero, the young writer, is her long lost son.

Tennessee Williams had such an incredible ear for dialogue – a piercing mix of comedy and tragedy, of nuttiness and profound poetry – so I just loved listening to the language in this production, performed with more than passable southern American accents (credit to the vocal coaches Les Cartwright and Jarrod Benson). You really came to care about the characters and how they could possibly survive, given all that had been taken from them or how shunned they were by the mainstream of society. And as with ‘Streetcar’, there is a constant undertow of sexual desire and repression throughout the narrative.

The play involves 14 characters played by 10 actors and it is a very strong and even cast. Perhaps the women’s acting stood out slightly more than the men’s performances, especially Kelly Nash who plays the landlady Mrs Wire with great poignancy and Samantha Murray who plays Jane Sparks, the fragile New Yorker lost in New Orleans. There is excellent direction by Alice Bishop, who I noticed in the program notes also did the costume design and co-produced the show. There is also great live music from blues musician Bob McGowan on guitar, sound designer and musician Nat Grant and from one of the actors who double on keyboards, Josh Blau.

And the choice of 45 Downstairs for this production was inspired. There is often a slightly claustrophobic feeling in this basement space which matched the atmosphere of the boarding house. Alexandra Hiller’s ingenious set design used a very small space to create a rambling structure with an upstairs and downstairs, three different bedrooms, a kitchen and porch, and even a basement – just magic.

This is the first show I’ve seen by Itch Productions, established in 2008, and I will definitely be interested to see what they do next. ‘Vieux Carre’ is at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane till Feb 3rd in the Midsumma Festival.

January 22

Tectonics – will the earth move for you?

In 2010 the earth’s crust moved three centimetres under an Icelandic icecap. The ensuing volcanic eruption spewed ash hundreds of metres into the air, closing airspace over twenty countries and disrupting a multitude of travel plans: a small tectonic movement with dramatic consequences.

One year later a brilliant young Israeli conductor took over as Music Director of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. A passionate supporter of experimental music, Ilan Volkov had a keen understanding of how small shifts can signal radical changes. How in 1952, for example, John Cage’s ‘silent’ work 4’33” re-defined the word ‘music’. And in Volkov’s role as curator of the Tectonics Festival, he has been trying to re-define the role of the symphony orchestra in the twenty-first century.

The first Tectonics Festival (Reykjavik 2013) emerged from Volkov’s dual roles as symphonic conductor and experimental music promoter. He co-owns a small Tel Aviv club where, in between orchestral engagements, he showcases cutting edge improvising musicians such as Oren Ambarchi, Stephen O’Malley and Jon Rose.

Volkov has also been curious to find out if ‘an orchestra, the 19th century beast, (can) be more radical and experimental.’ The only way to find out was to bring his two musical worlds together. ‘Hence the tectonics idea,’ Volkov says, ‘of two plates crashing into each other.’

Adelaide will host Volkov’s fifth Tectonics Festival, the result of a pioneering partnership between the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and the Adelaide Festival. Simon Lord, Director of Artistic Planning with the ASO, first met Volkov a decade ago when they both worked for the Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

‘At 26 he was the youngest ever chief conductor to be appointed to a BBC orchestra. The players fell in love with him’, says Lord. ‘He was like a whirlwind in Glasgow. Such incredible energy, always questioning why we were doing things in certain ways and suggesting new genres of concert-giving.’

Two years ago Lord introduced Volkov to Adelaide Festival Artistic Director David Sefton. As a consequence of their meeting, the decision was taken that the Adelaide Festival would host the first Australian incarnation of Tectonics. Sefton says he likes ‘the way Ilan doesn’t differentiate between contemporary classical music and music in general. It’s similar to the approach I took with the Meltdown festival in London, having a high profile artist curating the program and asking, “What are you allowed to do with an orchestra?”’

One answer to that question will be revealed when Australian electric guitarist Oren Ambarchi performs with the double bass and brass sections of the ASO and the Speak Percussion ensemble. The work will be amplified, largely improvised, and conducted by Ilan Volkov using a series of hand signals.

Ambarchi’s approach to the tectonics metaphor is a physical one: ‘I like to use lots of low end, sub-harmonic frequencies when I play. It can make the space resonate; shake the room in a seismic way.’

With fellow guitarist Stephen O’Malley, Ambarchi will also perform a piece by American composer Alvin Lucier that premiered at Glasgow’s 2013 Tectonics Festival. Lucier is perhaps best known for his 1965 work Music for Solo Performer, for which he attached electrodes to his scalp and used percussion instruments to ‘play’ the alpha waves generated by his brain.

Ambarchi explains, ‘Ilan asked Lucier if he’d like to write something specifically for the two of us, and he agreed. Lucier has been doing beautiful, innovative things since the sixties. His work is so simple, almost like a scientific experiment with sound, but the results are mysterious and mystical. They’re also ego-less, in that he sets it up for something to happen without interfering too much. A lot of composers seem to need to express themselves all the time, but it’s not always necessary.’

The mystical qualities of Lucier’s work will resonate with Ilan Volkov’s unofficial theme for Adelaide’s Tectonics Festival.

‘I’m interested in how composers in the 20th century and today have been exploring the idea of rituals,’ says Volkov. ‘Both Iannis Xenakis and Giacinto Scelsi are working with an almost pagan ritualism. Scelsi’s pieces have a way of concentrating on one note so that it feels like ancient music, with a very powerful force. Lucier also has a ritualistic way of doing music, distilling sound until the listener is in a state of trance. It’s not an outward pouring of happiness, more a kind of spiritual search.’

Volkov has programmed two works by the late Australian composer David Ahern, including After Mallarme, written in 1966 when Ahern was only nineteen.

‘Ahern was an amazing pioneer. He worked with Stockhausen but he died young and had no one to champion his music, so he is rarely played in Australia.’

The program also includes a new commission by Elena Kats-Chernin for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra with improvising soloist Jon Rose. Simon Lord admits the orchestra could be challenged by some of the contemporary works.

‘Some of the techniques are going to be quite new to them, even quite shocking. I don’t think this orchestra has played a huge amount of Xenakis, for example, so it’s going to be quite a journey for some players. But they’re professionals, they will approach it as they’d approach a Beethoven symphony.’

Simon Lord acknowledges that without the partnership between the ASO and the Adelaide Festival, the orchestra wouldn’t have been able to present such a challenging program.
‘With a festival audience you can present new cutting edge work and sometimes you can even be allowed to ‘fail’. You don’t know what will happen with a world premiere. Some great composers have written works that have ‘failed’ in their first performance, but it’s one of the things orchestras need to be allowed to do.’

Ilan Volkov agrees. ‘There is a lot of risk-taking in the program. It will be demanding, but you can’t worry about the audience getting tired. People can come in and out if they want, but it will always be changing. We’ll have strong, beguiling and magical performers, mixing acoustic, amplified, electronic, orchestral, visual and vocal performances, so you’ll get an amazing and emotional experience of what music can be.’

(this article was published on the InDaily news website on February 1st 2014 and in Limelight magazine in March 2014)

Booking Details:

Tectonics – Curated by Ilan Volkov

Program One
Sun 9 Mar 2.30pm–7pm
Grainger Studio, Hindley Street

Program Two
Mon 10 Mar 2.30pm-11pm Queen’s Theatre, Playhouse Lane

Two days $45-$79 | One Day $30-$49 – adelaidefestival.com.au or BASS 131 246

January 10

Taking a Hole-Punch to the Truth

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

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

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

Dear David Foster Wallace,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But have I failed you, David Foster Wallace?

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.

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

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

Those three tasks involve editing stuff out.

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

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

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

They got the product they paid for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a lovely time, wish you were still here.

All the best,

Sian.

…………………………………………….

Dear Sian,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regards,

David Foster Wallace.

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

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

3. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 65

4. Wallace, ‘Shipping Out’, p. 34

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

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

7. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 492

8. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 53

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

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

11. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 3

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

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

December 21

Culture Club theatre and opera highlights 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THEATRE

Yes Prime Minister (Comedy Theatre)

Tribes (MTC)

Good People (Red Stitch)

The Wild Duck (Malthouse)

The Seed (MTC)

A Limited Season (Mark Nichols)

Stripped (La Mama)

Odyssey (Melb Uni)

Red (MTC)

The Histrionic (Malthouse)

Boy Girl Wall (Malthouse)

Australia Day (MTC)

Far Away (45 Downstairs)

Ici (Williamstown Festival)

Laramie Project Revisited (Arts Centre)

The Heretic (MTC)

Macbeth (Bell Shakespeare)

The Wild Duck (Malthouse)

National Interest (MTC)

Tying Knots (La Mama)

Bindjarreb Pinjarra (FCAC/Ilbijerri)

Helicopter (MTC)

Blood Wedding (Malthouse)

Hell House (Back to BackTheatre)

His Girl Friday (MTC)

The Kitchen Sink (Red Stitch)

Doku Rai (Meat Market)

Top Girls (MTC)

Angela’s Kitchen (Malthouse)

Walking Mark Rothko (La Mama)

Michael James Manaia (45 Downstairs)

An Enemy of the People (Melbourne Festival)

Suit Yourself (Mark Nicholls)

Music (MTC)

Wild Surmise (Malthouse)

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

OPERA/MUSIC THEATRE

Crossed Wires (Toff in Town)

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum

South Pacific

Cape Town Opera (Arts Centre)

Midnight Son (Vic Opera)

Marriage of Figaro (Vic Opera)

Cosi Fan Tutte (Melb Opera)

Merry Widow (OA)

Barber of Seville (OA)

Magic Flute (OA)

The Book of Daniel (Vic Opera)

La Boheme (Melbourne Opera)

The Rake’s Progress (Vic Opera)

The Box (Chambermade)

Contact! (Arts Centre)

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

Lucia di Lammermoor (OA)

Salome (OA)

DANCE/PHYSICAL THEATRE/CIRCUS

Circa (Malthouse)

Circus Oz (Birrarung Marr)

Bangarra (Terrain)

Briwyant (Malthouse)

Forsythe Company (Melbourne Festival)

COMEDY

Van Park (Chapel off Chapel)

Carry a Big Stick: Tim Ferguson (Comedy Festival)

Die Roten Punkte (Spiegeltent)

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

Plus One (Comedy Festival)

Flight of the Conchords

Bondarama (Chapel off Chapel)

December 11

Gorging in the Dordogne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 7

Culture Club news and reviews, December 6th

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

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

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

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

Dame Elisabeth Murdoch will be sadly missed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a great quote from George Bernard Shaw who described opera in this way: ‘when a soprano and a tenor want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone’. Donizetti’s [‘Lucia di Lammermoor’](http://www.opera-australia.org.au/whatson/events/detail?prodid=66457) is no exception. It’s one of the most popular operas in the repertoire and one that Dame Joan Sutherland triumphed in. There’s a Romeo and Juliette-style plot about Lucia of the Lammermmoor family in Scotland who falls in love with the wrong guy, Edgardo, the dispossessed heir to the Ravenswood Estate. Lucia’s brother Enrico has stolen the estate from him and Enrico wants her to marry another man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And finally, the other crazy soprano you can see at the Arts Centre at the moment is [Salome](https://www.opera-australia.org.au/whatson/events/detail?prodid=66466), from the opera of the same name by Richard Strauss.

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

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

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

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

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

And as for the music – simply sublime.

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

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

November 29

Psychopaths rule, okay?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(first published as a column in The Age newspaper )

November 2

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, 1st November

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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