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Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


December 6

Culture Club reviews December 6th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what’s it all about, Alfie?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 7

Culture Club reviews November 7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 3

The Two Of Them: an unusual friendship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 29

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

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

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

‘Dear Mother, Father, sisters, brothers,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lots of love to all
from your affectionate son

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.