Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews December 6th [December 6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s it all about, Alfie?

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

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

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

You can find out more about ‘Public’, and Tamara Saulwick’s other work, via her [website](

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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