On 12 February 1014 Jim walked into the water at Coogee Beech … forever. This is a collection of pictures, thoughts and songs, from and for Jim. To loose you is a deep and everlasting sadness. This is a testament to the man we all loved and admired.
11 Mar 2014 / Life Stories
The reason I am here today is to hopefully, shed a little bit of light on what made Jim – JIM.
And when I was thinking about what I would say today, it occurred to
me that I could probably use every adjective in the English language to describe him, and I’d still leave something out.
So under that kind of pressure, I’ll do my best.
Jim was one of 4 kids – and we all grew up in Papua New Guinea. Our parents were both Australian – our dad was a nurse – which was quite unusual for a man in the 1950’s, and our mum was a fiery redhead who came from good convict stock.
In 1954 dad went to PNG as a Medical Officer. Mum who was 8 months pregnant with Jim, and our brother David (who was about 2) followed soon after. For the last part of their journey, mum and David travelled by canoe to Buka Island and Jim was born in a small jungle hospital a few weeks later.
Our father worked in remote areas providing basic healthcare to people living in tiny villages in the middle of nowhere. Our first houses were a bit rough, no running water, no electricity and the walls were made of woven bamboo. We would stay for two or three years in each place and then move on to the next one. Jim and David did all their early schooling via correspondence and short wave radio
We lived in a wild and untouched paradise. Populated by ancient tribes and fierce warriors – It was vibrant and beautiful and dangerous. It was a place of bright colours and dark magic. Everything about it was extreme.
But the thing about growing up in another country, is that sooner or later, you realize it’s not yours. In a very gradual way, you become aware that it is not your place. That your family has a different culture and that you come from somewhere else.
At the age of 12 Jim returned to Australia to go to boarding school – and from that point forward he straddled two very different worlds – modern Australia and ancient PNG.
And I think that’s what made him so observant. Why he paid such close attention to what lies behind the obvious and why so often, he could get to the very heart of the matter.
For Jim, the most lasting and significant aspect of growing up in PNG was his sense of ‘the tribe’, of the ‘village’, of being part of a community that supports and sustains itself. And that was how he felt about the theatre. He often said it was the one place he truly felt at home.
In 1975, Jim was 19 and a pot smoking uni student, working as an asst stage manager at the New Arts theatre in Glebe. I had just turned 11 and I came to Sydney from boarding school to spend a week with him. This was the first time Jim was in charge of looking after me, and for my birthday, he was taking me to see the show he was working on – The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Now I knew that he lived in a rickety old terrace house with some other students and a dancer or two – and I knew that I would be sleeping rough on the floor and I knew that he was a bit of a hippy – but what I didn’t know was that I was going to be offered my very first joint (which I declined), or that I would be eating the weirdest food I had ever seen, but what I really didn’t know, was that I was about to be transported into a world filled with transvestites and aliens.
But that was life with Jim. He was my window to the world and he showed me just how weird and wonderful that world can be. He showed me just how broad the spectrum really is and, I think he would be very pleased to see the motley crew that’s turned up today.
From jungle drums to the bright lights of the big city and into its’ darker corners too, Jim embraced it all, with open arms, open eyes and an open heart. He gave everything he had and expected everyone else to do the same. There were no half measures and no compromises. He never lacked for courage, and his proud, warrior nature led to many conflicts.
Perhaps he had too many principles – perhaps he defended them too passionately?
But then, Jim was passionate about everything. He loved spectacle, he loved people who took risks, he loved living on the edge, with danger breathing down his neck and he appreciated anything that was beautiful.
He was a bright light with a bit of a dark soul. But that’s what made him interesting. Thank you.
James Arthur Waites
“I promised myself I would try to live an interesting life.”
- James Waites 25, August, 2013
Please join the family and friends of James in celebration of his ever passionate, vibrant and interesting life.
The Theatre Bar at the End of the Wharf
Sydney Theatre Company
Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay, NSW, 2000
Sunday 9 March, 2014
‘Let’s keep on dancing and playing the tune.’
James Arthur Waites (06.03.1955 – 12.02.2014)
Arts journalist and writer, mentor to many in the arts community and theatre critic James Waites passed away at Coogee Beach on the morning of the 12th February, aged 58.
James had been suffering from long-term illnesses and had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. With his health in terminal decline, he made the considered decision for his last swim to be at Coogee while he was still in a position to do so.
Jim Waites will be remembered by all who knew him as a deeply compassionate individual who was a Son of Josette and Tom, much-loved brother of David, Frances (dec.) and Tricia, beloved uncle to Kirsten, Christopher and Aiden’ and favourite nephew and cousin to Waites, Heffernan, Jenkins and Craig families.He was a colleague, lover, mentor, teacher and friend of many.
Details of a memorial service will be available on this site and elsewhere from Friday 21st February 2014.
The Australian Arts community have acknowledged his passing on Facebook, Twitter, blogs and print press. Selected links are included at the end of the brief and potted biography that follows. Read the rest of this entry »
Tags: Augusta Supple, Breet Monaghan, Coogee Beach, Currency House, James Waites, Jim Sharman, Les Miserables, memorial, National Times, Parkinsons Disease, Rex Cramphorn, STC, Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Theatre, Whitney Fitzsimmonds, William Yang
We bloggeroos are a fickle lot – I am getting close to Dame Nellie Melba’s record in the number of times I have declared my imminent/immolate retirement – and then along comes a play/production that can’t be allowed to pass by without comment. I have put aside my Library work for a day, at high risk (not really) coz I saw playwright Melissa Bubnic’s Beached the other night – in the last week of its run. And unlike some other reviewers, I thought it was a classy and engaging gig. On the encounter alone I was impressed enuf to feel I had to put fingers to keyboard. Then I read Kevin Jackson’s forensic demolition job. We had different reactions and I felt that would be an interesting subject to explore. We are a happy bunch of bloggers, Sydney onliners – and often refer to each other’s work in a spirit of goodwill and mutual respect. Encouraging readers to go elsewhere if they are interested in a different (even opposing) response.
PR BLURB: “Arty is huge. Ginormous. Morbidly and grossly obese, he’s in need of a gastric bypass to save his life. At over 400 kilos, he’s the world’s fattest teenager. Arty is also being followed by a reality TV crew. Will he lose the kilos needed to have the op? Will he survive to eat another cream puff? Will Louise, his Pathways-to-Work ofﬁcer, transform his life in ways he never imagined?Unapologetically satiric, Beached is also the moving story of a man imprisoned in his own body. It lays bare the mercenary nature of reality TV, and turns the microscope on society’s insatiable appetite for human misery.Beached won the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award and was shortlisted for the 2011 Grifﬁn Award. It pairs the razor sharp wit of Melissa Bubnic with the imaginative direction of Shannon Murphy (This Year’s Ashes, Porn.Cake).”
Playwright: Melissa Bubnic; Director: Shannon Murphy; Set and Costume Designer: James Browne; Lighting and AV Designer: Verity Hampson; Sound and AV Designer: Steve Toulmin; Dramaturg: Kit Brookman; Assistant Director: Liz Arday
CAST: Gia Carides, Arka Das, Blake Davis & Kate Mulvany
There’s the PR pitch and a list of the talent involved from Griffin’s own website. Mr Jackson clearly loathed pretty much everything about this play and production, and he goes about saying why (as he always does) with the eye of a specialist in forensics. I have no doubt he meant every word (he never squibs), and I respect Mr Jackson for that. His review of Beached makes for quite a thrilling read. Just how many ways can one theatregoer hate a work? Go here and see! Different responses should be encouraged: no single reviewer is ever entirely right (except in the minds of the most feeble); and a range of views stimulates a richer public conversation.
First up, in reviewing a play, we must remember that each performance is a unique work of art, merely bearing a similarity to the performance the night before, and other evenings yet to come. Then there’s the matter of what each of us brings to the encounter. Meaning: say Mr Jackson and I were there on the same night. It is still possible that our responses would differ.
There is one other factor which, in this case in particular, I think we should consider. And it’s by chance. Mr Jackson, I believe, was there on Opening Night – usually my spot. And it is he who usually slips a week or so later – as I did this time. I have pushed my Library work to one side for couple more days to make mostly one simple but I think important point. Bubnic’s text is, in my view, unusually sophisticated and calls for much more in terms of staging than your average chatty realist new Australian play. For director Shannon Murphy this is her strong suit. Without bringing attention to herself as some kind of heavenly blessed auteur, she can wrangle quite demanding stagings into shape, going well beyond ensuring the words are enunciated ‘brightly’ by her cast.
It would be sad to see this play slip past, recorded as underwhelming, just because however many weeks of rehearsal it got, or number of ‘previews’, it was not ready in time for the reviewers on opening night. It’s happened before. Exhibit A – Phil Motherwell’s Dreamers of the Absolute. Phil who? you say. Dreamers what? you ask. My point exactly. Exhibit B: when are we going to see a fully fleshed out revival of Louis Nowra’s Visions which, under-prepared and under-resourced, brought the fledgling Paris Theatre Company to its knees before the company could even stand up. It was NOT the script’s fault! It just asked for more than the director and cast could deliver on time.
I wouldn’t let off any script/production so lightly. But what I saw a few weeks into the run was a production and performances that had caught up with what the script appeared to call on. It was exciting to see Bubnic’s many unusual authorial demands succeed. How does one present a 400-kilogram character on stage? How do we present his predicament seriously and keep the work entertaining. In the case of Bubnic the writer – a very quick and witty language surface. Once the cast is across this stuff, as they were by the time I got to the show, one could only admire the deftness fleetingly. If Bondi Beach were a comedy act, our heads were up out of the water on occasions for barely a breath, before we were hit by another zinger. Not all one-liners I might add. Just a writer at work who in her bones knows what options and complexities the stage can offer to tingle those in the audience with working minds. And as mentioned above, no-one better to deliver on this front than director Shannon Murphy. She is a ‘mistress’ technician. Her productions are characterised by their 3D clarity.
Even the casting puts you on notice. These are unlikely choices – in particular your average-kid kinda guy, Blake Davies, as ‘Fatso’ (Arthur Arthur). The gap between him (out of the fat-suit in a fantasy dance sequence) and the character entombed in a costume that looks more like a Big Mac than flesh forces you to fill that space with thought. Something a German dude called Brecht once tried. Similarly Gia Carides as the doting mother is accused of being too broad. I thought it took a special sophistication (and a whole load of experience) to get that Westie Bogan mother so right. Remember Bubnic has packaged her core topic (dependency) in the fancy of the Reality TV show. Carides’ ‘enabling’ mother may not have been there to see in all her complexity on opening night. But I saw what I thought was a very fine performance – in particular how what looked on stage as ‘broad’, at the same time appeared convincing , even subtle and tender on the screen. Similarly, Kate Mulvany, particularly as the Centrelink staffer, brought comedy to the stage and at the same time producing a torn and confused mascara-smeared empathy on the screens.
I probably should have said this earlier. While the action is set in Arthur’s bedroom (well he is an immoveable mass - a ‘beached whale’), the TV show comes to him. Encroaching on all sides of Arthur’s place in the world, is a clunky moveable rig of lighting gear. It is this device (conceit?), this staging coup d’etat, that allows actors not called for in a scene to work the live camera feeds. It goes to the place where Benedict Andrews’ cameras in The Maids never even attempted. And what’s really shocking is the fourth and final actor: Arka Das, playing the TV producer is not white. His family origins are likely embedded in the several-thousand-year history of what we like to call the ‘Indian sub-continent’ or London East Enders might call a ‘paki’. There is no reason why he should be ‘white’. The script says nothing about the colour of this character’s skin. No reason for him to be ‘white’ other than is what we are used to. A brilliant example of what Lee Lewis (recently appointed Artistic Director of the Griffin Theatre) meant when she took on Australia’s theatre culture in her Platform Paper “Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australia“. Das is as good as anyone else on stage. And the gap that opens up between us and the colour of his skin proffers further terrain for our minds to climb over on a sub-textual mountain range called ‘Being and Otherness’.
I am not giving the play or the production ten out of ten. Mainly because it ends with a whimper when it really needs a bang. I would have exploded that human burger and splattered most of the audience in chicken gizzards if I had been Bubnic the writer-terrorist. Sadly, an unrealistic proposition however appealing. But there’s no dodging the bullet: a play is only as good as its ending. It’s oh so easy to set stuff up. But it’s all about how you bring the doggie home. That said, I write this review as an act of encouragement to Bubnic (keep writing!) and Murphy (keep on directing!). I can see why Mr Jackson responded differently. I respect him for that, and find what he wrote interesting. It certainly helped me tease out a lot of what were mere half-thoughts in my own mind – and put those amorphous shapes to the test of argument. As above!!
Go here – for Chris Hook’s review in the Daily Telegraph. He thinks what I think – just makes it more simple.
Go here – for a review of the Melbourne production
The script of Beached is a particularly idiosyncratic ; and if this work was not ready for opening night, it may well have come across as rather so-so. It could very well have improved with age. What I saw was a very smart script. The way playwright Bubnic found a way to tell her story on stage, I thought, was impressive. A high degree of craft was involved stylistically and structurally. And the surface – the dialogue was smart and glittering with unobtrusive wit – as well as true to its cause. If it had not been smart and glittering on opening night, I can quite understand why a good number of people were under-impressed. And considered the play a bit loopy and ungainly rather than, as I found it, bold and fresh.
It is of course the responsibility of the director to have the production ready for opening night. But few shows ever are and it’s the adrenalin of a first showing which often masks ill-preparedness. So maybe with the degree of difficulty required, director Shannon Murphy may not have quite got it there on time. Seeing now, weeks in, it’s clearly very well directed. And that Shannon Murphy was precisely the right person to take on this ply’s challenges.
Secondly: as mentioned in the official blurb above, Arthur’s life as a fat person and his upcoming operation is the subject of a reality TV show. So we have two screens monitoring the live action. A device put to much better use than in Benedict Andrews’ The Maids. And (here I utterly disagree with Mr Jackson, I thought Zoe Carides mother was absolutely on the money, and her ‘to camera’ sequences were particularly good.
and then as that wears off the feeble bones of the work are laid bare
There is a meta-narrative under-pinning (over-riding) many theatre blogs which is the wailing and gnashing of teeth about not getting to enough shows, worse still trying to find the time to write about them meaningfully. The diva, Alison Croggon, who tried the hardest most often suffered the most. Me, to get around the problem, I have mainly just skipped a lot of shows, ushering in disappointment from fans, and privately great waves of guilt (more so given the generous support I get from all of the main theatre company publicists). We are in a situation now in our city/society where the print media contribution has become so minimal it is almost not worth mentioning. So it is left to the mostly unwaged bloggers, giving of their time to an often take-it-for-granted readership and a feeling-neglected theatre profession who desperately yearn for their work to be acknowledged. We bloggers are a troubled lot and I don’t think even the broader theatre industry quite realises what is currently at stake.
I HAVE TAKEN UP AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHY – A FEW IN THIS POST FROM MY LOCAL AREA
Exhibit A! I have said it in the past: paintings and novels can lie around for years unacknowledged before being ‘discovered’. But in theatre-land, while an old script may be lying around somewhere, the actual artistic event which this script serves – the production – is gone. Long gone – lost in the mists of time and irretrievable. Without criticism (especially good quality criticism) no meaningful record survives.Alison Croggon, tearing out her hair on a pre-dawn basis under the weight of demand did her superhuman best for many years before giving up. Lucky for her, her readers, and for those looking back to this time in the future, Ms Croggon got hired pretty much the next day by ABC online. In Sydney we have a group of on-liners (a nicer word for blogger?) who together (as a mob) make a contribution that approaches Croggon’s Melbourne-based achievement. But it mostly comes without financial reward and, in a city as expensive as Sydney, the current arrangement cannot last. What we are seeing at the moment is the publication of a bunch of newbies (admittedly some very bright newbies) submitting reviews to online publications for no more than a couple of freebie tix. But once they have cut their teeth, are moving on to greener (aka ‘waged’) writing pastures. Employed by a big theatre company or industry body to run its own blog – basically PR, hardly a balanced view. Or getting into ‘PR’ itself, or ‘marketing’ or ‘philanthropy’. No single reviewer born of the current circumstances is likely to hang around long enough to offer quality product and/or attain a merit-worthy following born of years of experience and a thousand mistakes.As one of the more experienced ‘not-for-profit’ reviewers based in Sydney, I am currently facing my ‘Alison’ moment. The way I have set up my site, I simply cannot sustain it for much longer. In fact it’s kinda over. It’s not just because the pieces themselves take so much time: one of my bigger pieces might take three days. My slow rate of delivery also does not work for the blog reader. When they click on my site after yesterday’s curious reading, they want more. An impossible task for the sole trader. This one anyway.
Okay I am particularly slow. But that’s because I like to try and get to the ‘bottom of things’. On a good morning after a good show the night before perhaps the ‘top of things’!
Here’s my situation and what I plan to do about it. I said a little while back I had to take some time out to get overdue National Library work done. I haven’t got very far – there’s still a backlog. So this time-problem remains for at least a couple more months. I’ve still got a pile of ‘Timed Summaries’ to type up. And then there’s the backlog of interviews to get stuck into. I am not complaining: I LOVE this work. But I can’t do both jobs well at the same time, and only one pays the rent.
Here it is straight up. Writing lengthy, closely argued, time and brain-devouring reviews for free is not how I wish to spend the rest of my writing life. For charity, I’d rather throw a blanket over someone sleeping rough or toss them a few bucks. Yes I do like the intellectual challenge of writing these long pieces, and I wont stop. But I am going to redesign this site so it can carry other forms of writing – exactly what shape that writing takes is still in its foetal stage. No doubt I will draw on the best suppositories of knowledge I can access: including my famously unreliable memory. Some circumstances have changed which suggest I can make better use of this web-site. Plus these photos are a bit of a hint. Also the ones I have put up on Facebook about growing up in New Guinea.
Between 1983 and the launch of this site a few years back, I wrote a lot for various high-life and low-life print media outlets: theatre reviews, other features and interviews, and think-pieces relating to theatre and theatre practice. And on other topics ranging from travel to architecture, to the latest fashion in eyewear. I have edited parts of, and whole magazines. I have lectured at a couple of universities. My flat contains mostly a collection of boxes stuffed with cuttings and publications begging to be put into some form of order. A reason to bother has recently come my way.
Some of you know, as of July 2013, my website has been included in the National Library’s online cyber collection – called Pandora - and will be updated once or twice a year. In a lightbulb moment, after such flattering news, I realised this presents me a reason to bother sorting through my clippings. And posting them in an archive folder linked this site. So, if I am not posting something new, I can put up something from the past. Possibly with some notes added now on how I think the piece reads now, however many years later.
How am I going to do it? Probably start a whole new site, differently formatted and designed – to hold more than one single thread. I have got as far as purchasing the domain name – jameswaites.com.au. To do this I need help. And that is available to me in November when my ex Brett (who helped in setting up this site from his base in faraway Milan) has some time to help out. I will move across the content on this site – jameswaites.com – and start all over again. It should be lot easier than redesigning this site, especially since it’s so intertwined with ilatech.org (the ‘patch’ this site after being ‘Trojan-Horsed’ by a video-store in China a couple of years back). It was a life-saving measure at the time, thank you Larry; but it also adds an unnecessary layer of complexity.Especially for people searching.
I hope to spread my wings a bit on the new site – meaning not just stick to big theatre items or even gross und klein theatre items. There is other stuff I want to write about. It’s like this, I have got to a point in my own personal time-line where there are more years gone than yet to come. I promised myself I would try to live an interesting life, even if that meant never earning much money. Admittedly, I was from an early age drawn to the life and characters inhabiting the ‘other side of the tracks’. But then how many other people can say they have dined alone, on more than one occasion, with reclusive novelist Patrick White and his boyfriend Emanuel Lascaris.
The deal with the devil was that this might give me something interesting to write about . ‘So where is that writing?’ the devil laughs.
And now another nudge. If you are still with me (lolling half-asleep in James’s very own Garden of Olives/Eden), you may well prefer to know (as opposed to not know) the latest. And it is to put to rest any unnecessary concern or confusion down the track that I want you to know. I would keep it quiet, but it’s going to get out and so I want to make my situation clear. Everyone knows I have a thick medical file. So much so I have for a long time expected that if I wrote about some of what I have encountered in my years on this planet, it would be difficult to get around saying something about illness and injury, about recovery and well-being.
After a several year-long battle to get over what I got to call ‘the incident on the train’ (which took a lot longer than expected), I enjoyed last summer almost daily at Coogee Beach, in the water, in union with my million-year-old chromosomal origins. Well into autumn, it just got more beautiful and more healing as the early days of global warming kicked in. I was so delighted with my progress I made the mistake of declaring on the Facebook (aka ‘the Illustrated Buble‘) that I was healed. At last I’d got my life back! We had a warm winter. Then, at some point a few weeks, a bout of cold windy wet weather set in. And, to my utter shock and dismay, the straw-man that is little me got blown down – again. Back to the chronic pain – but more of it and worse. How was I going to rebuild the mental detachment I had previously discovered the hard way was vital to cope now I had brought the defences down. Pain and suffering you learn are two very different things.
So what a smack across the face with God’s handbag it was when I was this time diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Don’t freak out just yet – there is quite a bit of silver lining.
Now I know why so many things have been going wrong for me, and hitherto not made sense – even the difficulty of getting over the train thing. A person can live with this neural disease for quite some time before it starts to manifest in the more obvious symtoms of trembling hands and/or a stutter and/or a stooped walk and/or forgetfulness. Where was I? Oh yes – this is my message and why I am outing myself. It’s like coming out Gay or left-handed to one’s folks. What I want you all to know, medical advances being what they are these days, is that the medication I am on makes me feel great. Certainly better than I have for a long time. I can’t use chopsticks, my handwriting is akin to that of a five-year-olds, I clap with one hand while the left one just waits to be smacked (so no I don’t hate your show). But also I feel good in myself. The pain disorder has retreated once again. And as of this last week I am back to doing a few, very modest, yoga postures, and as of yesterday back in the water. This time, at last, Clover’s Piece de Resistance – the Prince Alfred Park swimming pool (see top photo). Just a bit of walking in the deep water and then a few modest laps. But gosh given the early spring weather we are currently and as a Piscean – how truly aqueous and astrological. And a fresh opportunity closer to home to stay as fit and mobile as I can for as long as I can.
Meanwhile I am grateful for the diagnosis, and the forewarning it brings. Thus I can sort out my priorities and get on with them (hence much of the above). One of two things is going to happen. 1. Medical science is advancing at such a rate, by the time I would otherwise be getting into trouble, a magic bullet may exist. That’s the medical gossip anyway. They are already inserting mirror-balls and even Priscilla buses into the brains of some sufferers further down the track than me. If not, well we all have to end our time on this planet one way or the other – and the way is rarely of our own choosing.
My main point is this (said KRudd poking his finger through the TV and into my face): what I want you all to know is that my well-being is going to improve for a period of time before it’s starts getting worse. How long – who knows. No one can answer that – not even Godot. It is way too soon for anyone, even me, to start getting upset. I am outing myself here also because, having informed a few intimates, most of them confessed they had noticed odd signs but did not know how to ask or what to say, and were ‘very worried’ about me. So if you’ve seen me bent and slow struggling in the street against the wind (like some drag Miss Docker), no I am not jazzed-up to the hilt on methadone or absinthe or gone quietly mad or gripped by Abbott-fever. I am fine and right now, a month into the right medication, getting better everyday. Want to know more? Google Michael J Fox Foundation.
Meanwhile from me: here’s a bunch of haiku-sized responses to some of the shows I have recently seen. Eamon Flack did a great job with the massive Angels in America - with the help of a perfect cast including a super-spectacular Robyn Nevin in several Meryl Streep roles. Persona also at Belvoir was very interesting – certainly a refreshing change in terms of tone and timbre to what’s currently fashionable. At STC, a truly fun-filled brain-fracked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with an all-star cast, niftily directed by Simon Phillips (welcome to Sydney – do come back). And Storm Boy- my apologies I took my new medication at the wrong time and I pretty much woke up at the curtain call. There was kid hanging onto a dead bird? What prefaced that situation I am not sure. But it must have been good since one of my besties – who collects children’s books – was sobbing as she exited the theatre.See you soon in a foyer near you. If not here sooner – then definitely around November sometime. I may not be able to resist commenting on the Simon Stone Hamlet starring Mr Toby Schmitz up the street from me at Belvoir! It’s being promoted as a ‘cure-all’!! Could be just what I am looking for!! ‘Let’s keep on dancing and playing the tune.’
ALL PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI
Hello friends. I was asked if I would write a review of The Maids for the Australian Book Review. I may have the chance contribute an occasional few over the year to this a nicely respectable and somewhat upmarket site. It was not easy to come to an apt response to this latest imaginative and edgy production by Benedict Andrews, given the limited word count (800 words) – a discipline from which I had been liberated (for better or worse) since I launched this mostly theatre review blog. Here I am, for ABR, responding to a readership possibly quite different to my blog-reader regulars. No mucking around, I played my evaluative role very straight – ie: no wandering off topic. NO slacker style. I over-ran my word limit so there were a few cuts made - judicious I thought. A couple of bloopers (my fault for not properly checking the proof) have made their way through to the print version, but corrected here for this online version: so please go to this link to read my
I put quite a bit of thinking into it and finding the right words. Please note -just as Claire and Solange alternate identities as well roles. so do I . I have fixed the add-on pars here (and photos) .There are a couple of occasions in the ABR when I confuse Blanchett’s Claire with Huppert’s Solange. Just mentioned are the roles each plays. While we are at it, I want to post a link to Lloyd Bradford Syke’s review at Crikey online. Not only does he get the casting right and agrees with me on several points. But he adds something missing from my review which has been weighing on my conscience since I posted it. For all our reservations about the production (and Syke is tougher than me on director Benedict Andrews), he gives over some paragraphs to the acting - the excellent, verging on brilliant performances by all three actors: Cate Blanchett, Isobel Huppert and Elizabeth Debicki. To come in so hard on some aspects of the production and not acknowledge its areas of achievement is both insulting to such high-calibre actors and poor criticism (if that’s how writing about this work online can fairly be described). So I encourage you to go to Syke’s review – not just for the ‘negative’ points we agree on, but also take a look at his paragraphs on acting – which with, in hindsight I whole-heartedly concur. When a friend in the profession kindly pointed out my mixing up of names, he reminded that my blog has one eye on the historical record. That’s true, so a good reason to get the casting right. But also fill in the yawning gap: regarding references to the performances. In whatever circumstances wee were lucky to have three such fine actors all on stage in Sydney together.
One paragraph I cut from the ABR review before I presented it to them, for want of space had to do with the casting. Say if you are stuck with the inevitability of Cate Blanchett, Isabelle Huppert and newcomer Elizabeth Debicki. We have a situation here on stage that many have commented on: the ‘maids’ did not look anything like sisters (Blanchett and Huppert), and further credibility is diminished in the fact that we have one sister (Blanchett) speaking Australian. And the other (Huppert) not only in English with a heavy french accent, but also so fast, many of her lines were lost – on the opening night audience at least. We also have a beautiful blonde (Blanchett) and Huppert with dark hair and rather plain looking (I don’t quite know how that is achieved given Huppert is one of France’s more visually spell-binding screen actresses?)
That we have a problem - and a suitable solution – arrives when young Elizabeth Debicki flaunts in midway through the action. For a newcomer, up against two superstars it’s dazzling to watch her maintain total power. Blonde and beautiful and with an Aussie accent I think ‘Debicki could easily be Blanchett’s sister’. If six inches taller.
So here was my thought. Why wouldn’t you cast Debicki and Blanchett as the sisters. And Huppert as Madame. She’s on stage for less time, but you could hardly say the role of Madame is less significant. More importantly, her different’ look’ would make more sense. More so her French accent, which could be genuine or ‘fake’ (put-on to delineate superiority), would transform itself into a very big positive.
That’s all for now. I hope you do go read my review for ABR link above. And can I say in passing. Just as this posting is way over due, so is my review of Angels In America – which in a single word is ‘fabulous’. Want more? ‘Perfectly cast’ and ‘very well directed’ by Eamon Flack.
Why the delays? My National Library work at the moment – the typing part – is taking up pretty much all my time. As my source of income (and fascinating work it is) I am way overdue with a pile of stuff. Some good news (I hope), quite soon my website is going to be redesigned with more options for me as post host and for you as reader. More stuff, a wider range of subject areas, more often, in various categories and formats. So don’t give up on me just now. Keep an eye out – this site will probably flip over to its new look in about a month. That’s the plan – will report in on progress here and on FBook.
As every mood or odd behaviour is given a name (diagnosis) these days and a pill to match, there must surely be something coming down the line for the panic and guilt of theatre (reviewers) onliners who just cannot keep up with the number of shows worth substantial comment. There are about six shows I’ve seen of late I would like to write about but will never get to. And a pair of big ones in the writing pipeline: Angels In America at Belvoir which I have seen and is very good; and The Maids at the STC which I saw last night. Also good in a mightily different way.
But to my purpose. No matter what burdens and excitements an online reviewer might face, his or her world simply has to stop to make way for the very rare moments when greatness is witnessed. Especially on this site, which concentrates on value (in the long and short term) rather than a quick thumbs up or thumbs formula. Consequently, I have a duty to and the honour of acknowledging John Bell’s extraordinary rendition of Falstaff in the recent Bell Shakespeare production of Henry IV. It’s a condensed version of Part One and Part Two (separate plays) and for modern audiences it’s a good idea and in this version works well. The production as a whole is good and lively in the way one might expect of a production John Bell also directs, with support in detail from Sport For Jove’s Damian Ryan. I’ve rarely loved Bell’s directing as much as his best performances. And when it comes to acting he has two speeds: 1. respectable and 2. mind-blowingly brilliant. Of the latter that I have seen that immediately come to mind are his original Arturo Ui, his Cyrano, his Kosky Lear, Astrov in Mellor’s Uncle Vanya in the dying days of Nimrod, Prospero on Armfield’s Tempest. Oh and a gloomy, abrupt, daunting Sebryakov in Tamas Ascher’s recent STC production of Uncle Vanya, with its all-star cast and overseas tour.
This Falstaff has received little fanfare – maybe I have not been paying attention. In the fair world it should be the talk of the town. In earlier decades it would have been.. Even I only heard about this career high point in time to catch the last performance. It is a dark broody, funny exasperating, physically ruined but mentally superior, perfectly articulated Falstaff. You only have to look at a few photos of other attempts to pick up the Santa-Clause belly-wobbling ho-ho jollity favoured by tradition. Bell knows his Shakespeare to his bones: not just the works themselves, but he has a deep intuitive feel for the sensibility, intent, mood and mind of the greatest ever of playwrights.
Falstaff is traditionally played as a bloated piece of fun – and that’s just too simplistic. He is vital to our understanding of Hal’s journey from boy to man, prince to king. Bell sets himself apart from above-mentioned theatre-lite cliche. He knows that to truly pull off the study of Hal’s shift from youthful self-indulgence to sobriety and respect (now king) for the the traditions he previously mocked, Shakespeare relies on Falstaff crucially as mirror and a foil. Casting out of court his great fun-buddy, cohort, and father substitute, Henry V does so resoundingly in very few words at the coronation, is one of the most important scenes in he play. (Images above include some from productions of Verdi’s opera and famous paintings, but they all reinforce the point - that Falstaff is too often portrayed as Santa Claus).
In this version, Falstaff’s downfall is as cutting as politics gets. And we feel its brutality because of the very complex, heartfelt, beloved and flawed Falstaff Bell has created. Pathos, bathos, hilarity, dignity, as gross as it is elegantly drawn.
As is the case of many a Bell Shakespeare production, and these days I dont see them all, the casting is uneven – and it shows in the performances. I don’t like being unkind to young actors who may yet blossom, but Matthew Moore barely makes a mark as Hal. It’s good but lacking in largesse. So sadly, much of what Bell delivers falls flat due to lack of reception. That’s a pity and may be why more has not been said/written about Bell’s performance. I don’t mean to pick on Moore, it’s not his fault. But you have to ask where is the fire in thee belly. Who can forget Joel Edgerton in the part for Bell Shakespeare (both Henry IV plays in full)? Most of the younger actors in this production produce underwhelming results, More senior actors meet standards commensurate with their age and experience. And as a whole, the evening is pretty good.
This isn’t a full review, it’s just a chance taken to put on the record a performance by John Bell at his greatest. I feel grateful to have seen it. and it will stay with me among other treasure in my small chest of great theatre encounters.
Meanwhile here’s to the great master John Bell. A big tick for bringing to life yet another of theatre-writing’s great characters!
For more on John Bell’s acting career go to this essay by Louis Nowra published in The Monthly in 2011 – it’s a very discerning evaluation.
06 Jun 2013 / CINEMA
I found a friend in a fairly high place at the Sydney Film Festival who encouraged me to come along this year – without the expectation of of a lot of writing in response. But how can I not alert readers to the achievement of Mystery Road: written, directed plus cinematography by Ivan Sen. It’s not easy to put into only a few words what makes this film so good. So far as boxes go – it’s an outback crime thriller. But Sen adds layers of complexity (without weighing the film down) by drawing on his Aboriginal origins. Aaron Pedersen – as Jay Swan – gives a beautifully balanced (emotionally) performance as the youngish Aboriginal police officer just back to his sprawling dirty home town after training up in the big smoke to ‘detective’ status. Like so many what break through the ‘white’ ceiling, Jay is neither particularly welcome back among his white police comrades nor his Aboriginal friends and family in and around town.
This does not stop him from setting out to solve a recent murder. Which quickly reveals other deaths – connected to a racket where bored and alienated town girls trade sex for drugs with truckies on the look out for a comfort stop on their long haul. Pulling their mega-rigs to the side of the highway for a quickie or taking a night off in a cheap local hotel. These black girls are, allegedly, worthless. And treated accordingly.
With due respect to Pedersen and an illustrious support cast that includes David Field, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Zoe Carides – and many other familiar faces, the star of the show is the town. Its ordinariness reeks of a repressed culture of hate that suggests its not the only town like this in southern Queensland, nor indeed across semi-rural Australia. Despite the rough men and the rifles and the drugs and the pig dogs, this film is so much more subtle (and curiously funny at the most unexpected moments) compared to its predecessors which go back as far as Wake In Fright, and include more recently Snowtown, Wolf Creek and Samson and Delilah.
Teenage boys would love the film for all it offers this demographic, meanwhile unaware (consciously) that they are taking in themes about race, gender and identity. And what it means to be a man in this country today. Meanwhile for movie buffs – this is a fabulous mainstreamer up their with Japanese Story. Good structure, a story not only engaging but elegantly told, fine performances, beautiful camera (from Sen) – including some great geometric aerials of the town from above. (A device that gives breathing space to this otherwise highly-charged movie, plus reminding us of just how aesthetically shitty many Australian country towns are. No criticism of the good people of Winton in southern Queensland who opened their town to the shoot.)
Enuf for now. I just want to get this up and out. It’s been a long time since I’ve attended a Sydney Film Festival. And this one, the 60th, has got of to a very impressive start.
ALL PHOTOS BY LISA TOMASETTI
Fury, currently playing at the STC Wharf One is both an impressive achievement and an interesting slap across the face for me – or at least someone I used to be. On the former – the achievement, read more below. But let’s just set this up. As part of my journey as a reviewer, over many years now, I have probably spent as much time lying on the couch looking for answers from the ceiling, as I have spent on seeing shows or writing about them. I have built into me now a set of ‘foundations’ and ‘principles’ from which emerges my reading of any new production. It’s my own self-help guide constructed mostly out of trying to rectify mistakes. Near the top of the list: early on I realised that the call for objectivity from a critic was utter bunkum. The more realistic path, wherever possible, was to attempt to show your hand. Never to assume that one’s owns views are superior, but that in explaining how one came to these conclusions one might create some interesting reading.
This should mean that even a reader who disagrees with what you have to say can come away from your review stimulated by that experience. You may move some to a position closer to your own, or you may not. That is not the point. The point is that reviewing is a highly ‘subjective’ act. The question is not ‘what’ but ‘why’: why do we prefer one production-script-performance over another? It is in part a delusional exercise because one can never really know. For example: what is taste and its role in one’s critical tool kit? Or sensibility? Or what we had for dinner before the show? Hence the hours on the couch. In the very least we must attempt to reman alert, keep an eye out for our blind spots even though we will never come to know all of them.
Joanna Murray-Smith’s Fury takes me to the heart of one of my most frequently exposed built-in blind spots. From my earliest writing I have had little interest in the problems of the ‘well-off’. To the point where it took Mozart to convince me open my mind to the work of other art and artists supported by royal courts across Europe in that time. To this extent I fit into the generational mould of the parents in Murray-Smith’s Fury. Okay, I have not done quite as well as they have financially over the ensuing decades. But back in my university days I was similarly influenced by the view that ‘direct action’ was needed and possibly justifiable to bring down the ‘establishment’. It was a global movement, most intensely embodied in groups like Italy’s Red Brigade and Germany’s spin-off, the Baader-Meinhof group. It was the birth of modern ‘terrorism’: it drove the Black Panther movement in the USA and the IRA in Ireland. Direct action rarely went to such extremes in Australia (although there was the ‘Hilton Bombing’ in Sydney).
I think I baulked sat the idea of bystanders as ‘collateral damage. But I do remember sitting around a table of university comrades smoking marijuana ($30 an ounce back then) and supping red wine from a flagon, discussing who we might blow up if we were terrorists. My suggestion, a young woman of roughly our age, who reeked of privilege – otherwise sinless apart from being her father’s daughter. In 2013 she is now Australia’s richest woman/person (worth over 20 billion dollars – four times wealthier then her closest competitor Frank Lowy). How good was that for a pick, way back then, if you were out to shape the course of history. Or simply eliminate a creepy person from her position of influence in today’s Australia. On the up side, had I ‘enacted’, we may never have enjoyed the Dallas-like shenanigans that followed the employment (initially hired by Gina) of a Filipina maid named Rose (or the musical starring Paul Capsis that begs to be written by someone – one day I hope).
PS: to this day I say jokingly (perhaps not jokingly): ‘If I wasn’t a pacifist I would be a terrorist.’
Okay money can’t buy happiness in its entirety, but it can minimise a lot of the pain poorer people are born to suffer. Fury is a play about problems in a well-off family. I have become less strident with the years (which is common) and I’ve known for some time that the life of any type or class of person can rightly merit the attention of a playwright. And many rich people do a lot of good with their money. And I am sorry I had not yet come to that view in my early days as a reviewer in my 20s when I savaged so much presented in Richard Wherrett’s era as artistic director of the STC. That said, I may still come to the same evaluations now. Because it’s not that so many of these plays (by David Williamson and others) were about a well-off class people, but that the characters in these stories in the end were so often let off the hook. Infidelities to one side, the institution of marriage upheld, and the family returned to the dining table ready to break bread and enjoy one of father’s better wines from his cellar. As audience members we had been teased and mildly provoked. Acknowledging our imperfections, we drove home to our lives unchanged, our foibles more-or-less ‘endorsed’. Resolutions utterly at odds with the brutal endings being produced by the best filmmakers from Germany and France and Italy at the time: Schlondorff”s version of Heinrich Boll’s novel The Lost Honour of Katerina Bloom a favourite for me on the topic of the ‘down’ side of terrorism. The more recent Spanish film El Lobo, ‘The Wolf’, based on a true 1970s story also captures the gripping taste of the terror.
Joanna Murray does NOT let her family off the hook in Fury. She presents good lovely educated tasteful people – and they are all those things. But one can never presume seemingly good people have led entirely good lives. Her study does not lack compassion but nor does it wimp out.
I won’t go into the plot (it’s not for spoiling – with its artfully constructed narrative line). But let’s just say Mum and Dad are shocked to discover their perfectly brought-up son has done something wrong. Utterly, and seemingly inexplicably, at odds with everything the family believes in and, up until now, presumably these values have been absorbed by their son while growing up? The parents are not impressed and they let it be known. No matter how drunk, influenced by others, or just plain silly a mood he was in – there was no excuse. Emotionally the boy is shunned. Meanwhile the parents look elsewhere for others to blame.
Well then – as we find out. How about what Mum did when she was about the same age? When all that comes out, Dad comforts his wife. ‘They were different times.’ ‘That was part of the era.’ In the end this unfair protection racket put up against the sins of the son in favour off the mother’s fails to hold up. No walking away from the ending of Fury free and easy. There were loud painful gasps of what felt like self-identification in the withering closing scenes of the play. I certainly felt them in my stomach. This is a play worthy of high praise, not only for taking on the bourgeois mould and unpacking it. But to do so, it needed the skill of a surgeon. I gather director Andrew Upton did encourage Murray-Smith to trim off a little of the play’s flesh before opening. If so, it was a job well done because the passage of the play remains taut, and the bones that hold it together at a structural level are there for us to see. For playwriting craft, it is as close to Ibsen as I have encountered in a long time. In preparation for something I have to say at the end, let’s also remember director Andrew Upton might be new to directing, but his metier is playwriting; and and more often than not in the area of script doctoring – which to me includes his translations into English of, now, a good number of other language classics. I have not seen a lot of Joanna Murray-Smith’s work, and of that I have seen I was aware that I had to take into account my built-in prejudice against plays about the sufferings of the well off. That acknowledged, I still remained ‘iffy’ about some of her work. Quite clearly not this time. This is the world she knows, was brought up in – and it’s mostly best for writers stay as close to that as they can. But taking the bourgeois model, placing it there up on stage before us, and then exquisitely dismantling it, scene by scene, makes this not only a great play. But a breakthrough moment for Murray-Smith.
I could say a lot more about Fury, but I have already spent days in trying to get right the little that is here. I am presuming readers here on my site seek out other opinions as well. Please go elsewhere for more detail and likely different. So just a few other brief – not unimportant – acknowledgements. Andrew Upton does a fantastic job directing this play. Everyone knows I have got a bit sick of the recent fashion for multi-skilling. And as a writer and translater he did not have enough directing experience to pull off directing Bulgakov’e large-scale The White Guard, a play he had translated for the National in London, where in the hands of a more experienced director it was well received. Fury is a better choice. The cast is smaller, the drama is – while at times explosive – well contained. It’s in Wharf One not the huge Sydney Theatre across the road. And most importantly, it’s a play that requires a director with the thinking power to match that of Joanna Murray-Smith. What this play has to offer its audiences rings out loud and clear, nothing messy, under-realised or over-stated. I feel a huge personal relief to put those words into print, because Andrew Upton has been on the receiving end of some tough words from me. To his credit, he has remained professionally respectful, indeed welcoming and cheery when our paths have crossed. Here is a job by Upton very well done.
One last comment. It’s a good cast all round, but one particular performance stands out. Of course one can never go past the work of Robert Menzies, who plays the father. But it is the performance of Sarah Peirse I want to privilege. New Zealand born and bred, she is well known there for her work. I first encountered Peirse in Neil Armfield’s production of David Hare’s Gethsemane – where she certainly caught my eye – ‘classy’ I thought. Her next Sydney encounter, also at Belvoir, was in the dreadful Business. That production offered her nothing to work with and I would not be surprised if it was an experience she would rather forget. Now here, in Fury, she is offered a fabulous role and it plays to her strengths. Peirse, whatever else she has in her bag of tricks, appears naturally sophisticated, stylish, worldly-wise and in full command of her body as an instrument. There are little things she does with her hands and her head, and the way she begins a sentence which in a less-skilled actress might appear as ‘ticks’. But in Pierse, guided by years of experience, she knows not to rely on her best moves to keep her afloat, but more judiciously picks the moments when we realise only Sarah Pierse can get away with that (something similar could be said of Judy Davis at times). I know I might have been going a bit actress crazy of late. Most recently putting Helen Thomson up on a pedestal. For credibility’s sake, let’s call that the pedestal for ‘a young actress’. So for Sarah Pierse we need another pedestal – for an actress ‘at the height of her powers’.
As you can tell, I had a good time at Fury. I was fully engaged as well as impressed. And I loved how it forced me back into the cauldron of my working principles – reminding me that judgement is always driven by hidden forces. We can never know them all, but we must do our best as critics – to continually ask not ‘what’ so much as ‘why’. The STC is having a great year. It’s been a long time coming, but not for want of effort. Looking ahead, I would be very surprised if there is not going to be more good stuff for us from the STC this year.
The ‘something I have to say’ referred to near the top has to do with the editing of Tom Holloway’s Forget Me Not. It’s a play and production that merits a fulsome response. Separately and together, both have very many virtues. I am a big Tom Holloway fan. And I know it’s not fair to leave a comment like this hanging. Where is the ‘why’? But I did wonder about the trimming of that script – was too much taken out? Unlike the excellent editing of Fury, it felt like bits of Forget Me Not were missing. And I know it was trimmed at some point in the development process. My feeling was that the gifted Colin Moody was not given enough material to work with – whether they were cuts from his own role or that of his long lost mother. I don’t know when I will get to that play/production – I may not – but if I can I will.