Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


November 3

The Two Of Them: an unusual friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 29

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

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

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

‘Dear Mother, Father, sisters, brothers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of love to all
from your affectionate son

October 26

Culture Club reviews October 24th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 11

Culture Club reviews October 10th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 14

Culture Club reviews September 12th

I’ve been to see three new ‘Australian’ plays in the last month. Although two of them are loosely based on real events they were all very different and to be honest, with one of them, it’s a bit doubtful whether it can actually be called an Australian play.

The first play is ‘Savages’, by Melbourne playwright Patricia Cornelius, which was on at 45 Downstairs in Flinders Lane. It was one of the best new plays I’ve seen in a long time – totally exhilarating.

Patricia Cornelius may not be a household name but in fact she has won many awards for her plays, including two AWGIE awards and several Premier’s Literary awards. She’s a political playwright in the broadest sense. She was a founding member of the Melbourne Workers Theatre and she is deeply interested in power; who gets to wield it, and to what end. The director of this new show, Susie Dee, is someone Cornelius has worked with quite a bit in the past, and you can see that they have a very similar vision of what makes good theatre.

This new play is also about power, although not in any simplistic way. Patricia Cornelius has taken as her jumping off point the awful true story of the death of Australian woman Diane Brimble on board a cruise ship in gruesome circumstances (there were date rape drugs involved), a story that was all over the local media a few years ago. The playwright has backtracked to ask – how could a situation like that come to be?

She has created four fictional male characters, a bunch of mates who go on a cruise trip together, each of them looking for some kind of escape from their everyday lives and also, perhaps, for some kind of reward for enduring their own lives. And although the story ends before the men have even approached the imagined female character, by the end of the play you have an intimate understanding of how a situation like that could have come to pass, and perhaps even some empathy for the four men.

The writing in this play is a combination of the highly poetic and the profoundly colloquial. At times it’s like listening to a choir, except that they’re speaking rather than singing. At times there are rhymes and repetition, sometimes the characters speak in unison, and it’s always writing with great rhythm. At times the performances are quite naturalistic, and at other times they’re highly choreographed, almost like physical theatre.

Cornelius has taken a forensic approach to the study of masculinity, exploring the kind of upbringings and attitudes and cultural values that might lead a group of men to think it’s okay to consider ‘date- raping’ a woman. One description of this play that I read said it was about bereft men, men who feel like they haven’t had their due. Cornelius also uses the word stifled in the program notes. These four men feel as if they’ve been ‘dudded’ in their lives – with love, with their marriages, parenting, work, their dreams – and someone has to be held to account.

The changing dynamics between the four very different characters are fascinating. One of them is called Runt and that’s exactly what he is, the runt of the pack, the one who is bullied and blamed. At times this play reminded me of the novel ‘Lord of the Flies’, in the way that brutal pack mentality is played out. ‘Wake in Fright’ also came to mind, as did and Kate Grenville’s novel ‘Dark Places’, in terms of adding to your understanding of how men can do unimaginable things to women.

The set design is simple but effective; a raked wooden stage that looks a bit like the deck of a cruise ship, with a tiny hole in the ground which is the cramped cabin the men have to share. There is also great sound design by Kelly Ryall, and the ensemble cast of four actors are all very strong; like a well-oiled machine when they’re working together on the stage.

‘Savages’ was simply brilliant and if it has a return season (as I hope it will soon) you should get down there to see it.

The second so-called Australian play I’ve been to see is ‘The Cherry Orchard’, billed as being ‘by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov’ . This is an MTC production on at Southbank Theatre until September 25th.

I really enjoyed this production and had a great night at the theatre, but I do think it was a bit cheeky of Simon Stone to claim authorship of this famous early twentieth century play by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, to be honest. It’s an adaptation, sure, or perhaps a free translation, but when you retain the main characters, the plot, and much of the dialogue, I don’t think you can claim ownership of someone else’s play.

Simon Stone has also directed this production and he has updated the setting to – well we’re not quite sure where but it could be modern day Russia, or it could be outer suburban Australia. There’s a McMansion with a big backyard that people sit around in, and a blow-up plastic pool, but the story is essentially the same: a wealthy but dissolute family have run through all their money and are going to have to sell off the family estate, including their beloved cherry orchard, to pay off their debts. And there’s a local businessman (a nouveau riche bloke we’d say in Australia) who wants to help them out, to find a way for them to keep the orchard, but because they can’t actually face the reality of what’s happening to their family, they ignore his offers until its too late.

The good news is that this new production has retained the sweet, sly, sympathetic humour of Chekhov. There are so many moments when you’re not sure whether you want to laugh or cry, because the characters are so nutty and so vulnerable. And the cast is incredibly strong. Toby Truslove is a stand out. He plays Trofimov, the eternal student and the butt of everyone’s jokes, but also a philosopher and idealist. He’s the unrequited lover who’s always making up really bad love songs to Dunyasha, the girl who will never love him in return, and it’s a beautiful, funny performance. And Rob Menzies is wonderful as Gayev, the hopeless brother who in this production keeps retreating to his toy train set to avoid the reality of his crumbling world.

It’s interesting how the themes of this play just keep resonating, long after the world that it originally portrayed has disappeared. It was all about the end of the aristocracy in pre-Revolutionary Russia, the people who the communists swept away, but the human behaviour that the play examines remains the same: people who are unwilling to accept and adapt to change, people who feel they’re entitled to privilege, people seduced by the idea of wealth and power.

The Cherry Orchard’ – ‘by Simon Stone after Anton Chekhov’ – is on at Southbank Theatre until September 25th.

And finally I’ve been to see ‘Rupert’, the new play about Rupert Murdoch by one of Australia’s most successful playwrights, David Williamson, which is on at the Arts Centre until 28th September.

Let me say straight up, I did NOT enjoy this play. Those were three of the longest hours I’ve spent in the theatre. But I know plenty of people will disagree with me about this because there was tons of laughter in the theatre and Williamson has a rock solid fan base. He’s written many of Australia’s most successful plays and screenplays, including Don’s Party, The Removalists, The Club, Gallipolli, and The Year of Living Dangerously. But I don’t think ‘Rupert’ will go down in history as one of his finest.

It starts promisingly when Rupert comes on stage with his mobile phone and starts bossing the audience around and sending off bragging tweets. Immediately you believe in the actor, Sean O’Shea, who is playing the older Rupert in this production. Rupert tells us that this is HIS version of events, that he’s telling his own story, the whole story, of the ‘real’ Rupert. Gradually we’re introduced to some of the key characters including Rupert’s mother Dame Elizabeth Murdoch, his three wives, his business allies and competitors, and eventually his children. So most members of the cast are required to play many different characters, except for Guy Edmonds who plays young(er) Rupert. Often the two Ruperts are on stage together and sometimes they are in dialogue with each other. But this huge cast of characters is part of the problem for me; Williamson has tried to tell us too much about Murdoch’s life and times, and has ended up not really telling us anything we didn’t already know.

There’s a great book I use in teaching creative writing called ‘The Situation and the Story’ by Vivian Gornick which argues that it’s not enough just to tell people about a ‘situation’; to create a really fine piece of writing you have to be very clear about the ‘story’ that you’re telling from within that situation. And for me, this is where ‘Rupert’ the play falls down. There are so many potentially interesting stories to explore in the life of this powerful man; the moral cost of a naked appetite for power; the process of political corruption that can take place when newspaper proprietors get pally with politicians; the personal cost of putting business before everything else. There is definitely room for a creative critique of this man whose business practices have had such a profound impact on so many lives. But it seems as if Williamson hasn’t decided what story he wants to tell us so he had ended up trying to do it all but doing none of it well.

Instead we get a lot of character impersonations, very briefly sketched, and lots of one-liners that depend on the audience being in the know about the details of Murdoch’s personal life and infamous career. There are lots of rapid costume changes and quirky props but in the second half of the play in particular the playwright has tried to cram so much history into the plot it just about busts apart from the pressure.

As I said, Sean O’Shea is great as the older Rupert, but I wasn’t convinced by Guy Edmonds as the younger Rupert. There is a lot of hamming it up for the audience, and a lot of physical comedy just for the sake of a quick gag, which I think the director should have kept a tighter rein on. The rest of the cast are total troupers and seem to be having a lot of fun but at moments it was like watching a university revue.

‘Rupert’ is on at the Arts Centre until 28th September.

Don’t forget the Melbourne Fringe Festival starts next week on the 18th – hope you can get out and see some fresh Melbourne talent treading the boards.

And finally, a special mention for the return season of the Victorian Trade Union Choir production ‘I’ll Be There’ at La Mama Theatre at the end of this month. I saw it last year at Trades Hall and though i confess to being totally biased (i founded the choir) it’s totally delightful.

August 16

Culture Club reviews August 15th

Mein Kampf’ is a play that opened at La Mama theatre in Carlton last week. I have to admit that when I saw the title of this production, I quailed a little, given that this is also the title of Adolf Hitler’s deeply anti-Semitic autobiography. Of course it literally just means ‘My Struggle’ in German, and as it turned out, Hitler is one of the main characters in this comedy.

The play was written in 1987 by a Jewish Hungarian playwright called George Tabori. and apparently it’s partly autobiographical. It’s also a farce and mostly complete fantasy. Some important background information here is that Tabori’s father died in Auschwitz, and one of the questions I thought about as I watched this play was – how different might my response have been if I didn’t have that background information, or if Tabori wasn’t Jewish? (By the way a Hungarian friend of mine tells me ‘tabor’ means ‘camp’ in Hungarian and ‘tabori’ means ‘from the camp’)

The play did very well when it was first produced in Vienna in 1987. Remember that at this time an ex-Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, had just been elected Austrian President so an interesting context for a story like to appear. In 2011 it was also made into a film, which had mixed reviews.

So the plot in brief: an old Jewish man called Schlomo Herzl is living in poverty in Vienna some time early in the 20th century, trying to write his autobiography, which he calls ‘Mein Kampf’ – my struggle. Schlomo is sharing a room in his boarding house with someone who may or may not be God, a character named Lobkowitz, who insists on being called Boss. One day a belligerent young man enters their home, and it’s Hitler, come to Vienna to try to get into art school. Schlomo Herzel, who is above all a kind man, takes young Hitler under his wing and tries to help him. He feeds and clothes him and supports him through his many moments of rage and paranoia and hypochondria. He trims Hitler’s moustache and combs his hair and in spite of the worst behaviour from this young man, Schlomo keeps believing he can bring out the best in him if he just keeps applying kindness.

Meanwhile there’s a beautiful young Austrian woman called Gretchen who seems to be in love with old Schlomo. When she visits him she strips naked and wanders around his dingy basement home holding a pet chicken. At some point a glamorous women all dressed in black called Frau Death knocks on the door and says she’s come for Hitler. Schlomo distracts her while Hitler’s on the toilet and sends her away, to protect Hitler. If this was a pantomime, of course, we’d all be yelling ‘he’s over there!’

So the whole story is absurd but underlying the manic dialogue and the fast-paced comedy is deep tragedy. Perhaps there’s a question being posed here about whether it was human naivety that allowed Hitler to get as far as he did with his diabolical plans.

The production has had excellent direction by Beng Oh and there are some really strong performances in this production. It’s broad physical comedy, with lots of visual gags, everyone just goes for it. Mark Wilson plays Shlomo and is quite convincing as an old Jewish guy, and you almost fall in love with this Zelig character. (Shlomo claims to have been present at a whole lot of memorable historical moments but actually he’s a fabricator, a fabulist, and a poet – at one point he says ‘ the purpose of poetry is to chat up death and stall for time’). Glen Van Oosterom as Hitler is both very funny and deeply unlikeable, as he should be. Hitler’s megalomania comes out in this version of the character when he says he ‘wants the world be flat, not round, so he can push people off the edges’.

But this play won’t be for everyone. The dialogue is hilarious but relentless, there’s plenty of toilet humour and some full frontal nudity, and towards the end of the play there’s a scene involving the slow disembowelling of a dead chicken (or maybe it’s a turkey) which is a chilling visual reminder of the clinical way the Nazis disposed of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. It will turn your stomach, as it should.

But if you’re up for it, go and see ‘Mein Kampf.’ It’s on at La Mama theatre in Carlton until August 25th

I’ve also been to see, Prompter, a new theatre production that’s part of the Arts House (North Melbourne) 2013 program.

I went along to this show with high hopes because theoretically it was right up my alley – a play billed as being about the media, the impact of technology and digital media on story-telling and politics – all the stuff journalists deal with on a daily basis. I’d have to say, though, I was disappointed.

This production was co-written by Sam Fox and Patrick Pittman, directed by Sam Fox, and produced by a Perth-based company called Hydra Poesis. It’s certainly ambitious, involving multi-lingual actors, live dance performances, hand-held cameras simultaneously broadcasting performers in the space, and other performers beamed in via the internet from locations all around the world. There are giant screens and small screens and smoke effects and sound effects, all contained within the cavernous echoing space of the Meat Market.

The ‘plot’: a reporter is apparently doing a live cross from a small island in the South Pacific called San Supice (I think), where something terrible is happening but the reporter is not quite sure what. People are fleeing their homes, there’s been some kind of natural disaster or political drama, and this freelance reporter, Charles Boyd (played by Brendan Ewing) is trying to cover the situation with very limited information, so the story keeps changing. What he’s describing could be something like the earthquake in Haiti or the invasion of East Timor, with people fleeing in terror and becoming instant refugees in their own country.

A little later we’re introduced to another character, a woman who has gone to St Supice to try and help out after the ‘disaster’. She’s an aid worker who’s being grilled by another journo about her motivations for being there. So there’s an interesting debate here about the purpose and the effect of the intervention of first world aid workers in these kinds of situations, about and the choices they make when they leave their loved ones behind. There are questions raised about empathy and desensitisation to tragedy, and if this play is about storytelling, then there are potentially a couple of very interesting story-lines there.

The problem is, the stories get buried under all the other busy business that’s going on. The dance performances didn’t seeme to add very much to the whole, and the monologues beamed in via the internet are very hard to hear in that echoing space. In fact sound is a big problem with this production in general in this space, and I was left thinking, how much time was spent considering the audience in putting this show together?

I don’t mean that it should be made easy or comfortable for us, but I think there was some dramaturgy missing that could cut back on the busy business with technology and make sure there is more clarity in what is being attempted here. The company clearly wants to challenge the traditional relationship between performers and audience, and in the program notes they talk about the play beginning from the idea of ‘alienation’, so perhaps they wanted us to feel confused and disoriented and discomforted. I’m not sure they intend to alienate the audience quite as much as they actually do.

Brendan Ewing is very good as the journo Charles Boyd. His ‘fixer’ (the local journo who helps him find out what’s going on on St Supice) is played by French actor Jule Japhet Chiari and her character was convincing but her voice as so soft that we missed many of her lines. In the end, it felt like a long hour and half at the theatre.

There is material online about the production if you want to find out more about it –

Prompter is on at the Meat Market in North Melbourne until August 18th

Couple of Festival previews for you: the Melbourne Fringe Festival program is out and the Festival runs from September 18th to October 6th. With 3400 artists performing comedy, theatre, circus and cabaret in more than 100 venues, it could be a nightmare trying to decide what to see.

So here are a few tips to get you started :

– A musical comedy show called ‘The Beyond with Leslie Squid’ about a psychic, on at the Frringe Hub upstairs at Errols’ in Errol St North Melbourne. I’ve read some screenplay material by the co-writer and director of this show, Stayci Taylor, and she is VERY FUNNY.

– A new Chambermade Opera production of an opera for solo voice about the experience of flying called ‘Turbulence’. This is one of the company’s ongoing living room operas and it will literally be performed in the living room of someone’s apartment. ‘Turbulence’ features virtuosos soprano Deborah Kayser and will challenge your preconceptions about what is ‘opera’.

– A ‘radical reinterpretation’ of Shakespeare’s play ‘As You Like It’ by Van Badham, who recently adapted Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for the Malthouse Theatre. This show, called ‘How It Is, or As You Like It’ is on at La Mama Courthouse in Carlton.

– A comedy show called ‘Come Heckle Christ’ which (I’m pretty sure) is by the winner of last year’s Best Comedy Award at the Melbourne Fringe, Josh Ladgrove. It’s an improvised performance where you get to ask Jesus Christ all those questions you’ve always wanted to, but never had the chance. ‘Come Heckle Christ’ will be on at the Imperial Hotel.

And the 2013 [Melbourne International Arts Festival]( program has just been launched. The Festival runs from October 11th to October 27th and here’s what I reckon looks good:

– Into the Bloodstream, a new show from singer/songwriter Archie Roach at the Arts Centre. This show is an autobiographical presentation of Archei’s work directed by Rachel Maza from Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre and will feature a huge number of other fantastic musicians and performers as special guests.

– Singer/songewriter Gurrumul Yunupingu will be performing in the Myer Music Bowl with the Philharmonia Australia orchestra for one night only. If you haven’t yet seen him performing live, do.

– French pianists and sisters Katia and Marielle Labeque are performing a program of Debussy, Ravel and Bernstein at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

– The highly-regarded local theatre company the Daniel Schlusser Ensemble is doing a production called ‘M and M’, based on Bulgakov’s classic story ‘The Master and Margarita’ at Theatreworks in St Kilda.

– The Hofesh Schecter Company from the UK is returning for their third Festival. Israeli-born choreographer Hofesh Schecter has a world premiere work in the program called ‘Sun’ at the Playhouse of the Arts Centre.

– There’s a new play by Eddie Perfect for the Melbourne Theatre Company called ‘The Beast’. Eddie was last seen on stage playing Shane Warne in his musical about the hapless cricketer. ‘The Beast’ is apparently about a bunch of tree-changers confronted with the task of killing a cow.

– There is a Kids Weekend on October 19th and 20th with theatre, puppetry, music, a book market, kids flicks, a pop-up veggie space all targeted at children of various ages.

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 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 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.