Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher


May 23

Culture Club reviews, May 23rd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 10

Culture Club reviews, May 9th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next Culture Club reviews will be on May 23rd.

April 6

The Sounds of Silence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I expect one day you will.

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

March 29

Culture Club reviews, March 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

So – to the swimming pool shows!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great Easter.

March 8

Culture Club reviews, February 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 27

A Year of Reading: 2012

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

Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

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

Sweet Old World – Deborah Robertson

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

A Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

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

Stravinsky’s Lunch – Drusilla Modejeska

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

The Mountain – Drusilla Modjeska

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

The Wrong Boy – Suzy Zail

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

Other books i read and can happily recommend:

Adelaide – Kerryn Goldsworthy

Her Father’s Daughter – Alice Pung

True North – Brenda Niall

After Words – Paul Keating

A Visit From the Good Squad – Jennifer Egan

Reality Hunger – David Shields

The Engagement – Chloe Hooper

The Marriage Plot – Jeffrey Eugenides

February 7

Getting Away With It

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

“Get Away With It”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 1

Culture Club reviews 774 ABC Melbourne January 31st

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 22

Tectonics – will the earth move for you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Booking Details:

Tectonics – Curated by Ilan Volkov

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

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

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

January 10

Taking a Hole-Punch to the Truth

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

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

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

Dear David Foster Wallace,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But have I failed you, David Foster Wallace?

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

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

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

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

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

Or not.

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

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

Those three tasks involve editing stuff out.

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

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

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

They got the product they paid for.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a lovely time, wish you were still here.

All the best,



Dear Sian,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


David Foster Wallace.

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

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

3. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 65

4. Wallace, ‘Shipping Out’, p. 34

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

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

7. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 492

8. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 53

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

10. Powell, C 2011Interview with David Shields in HTMLGIANT (

11. Shields, Reality Hunger, p. 3

12. Harper, D 2012, Online Etymology Dictionary,Sponsored Words, accessed 15.03.2013 (

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