I started this piece as a round up of the 2012 Sydney Festival and then got side-tracked with some money-earning and other responsibilities. Mean-time I didn’t stop seeing shows and other outings so I will try and do a catch up piece. First some paragraphs I wrote not long after the Festival closed on 29 January – and now its 11 March!
Last night (meaning two weeks ago) I was in a big room at Carriageworks, part of a salubrious crowd saying goodbye to Lindy Hume who has just completed her third and final Sydney Festival. I think it’s been her best, and also one of the best. The Australian content theatre-wise was particularly good. The farewell speeches were heartfelt, and off she goes now to make opera happen in Queensland. I took the opportunity, being in the same building, of slipping away to catch a second encounter with director Simon Stone’s Thyestes. I knew this time to watch for the second package of the twelve or so scenes being played backwards (so that the climactic scene where Thyestes eats his own kids in spaghetti bog comes at the end). And this time I knew from the beginning which actor was Thyestes. I still didn’t get it all, but I was again amazingly impressed by the boldness of the performances, and the overall vision for the piece. I have a feeling, when we look back over this phase in the history of theatre-making, that this Thyestes will be remembered as a landmark – up there with Rex Cramphorn’s Performance Syndicate Tempest and Jim Sharman’s A Cheery Soul. These earlier productions were more more complete, and Thyestes is a bit too clever for its own good. But that said, this Thyestes shares the bravery of those other two productions, and I am guessing will help to define its own era. It is as much a success as its companion piece Baal (built on similar principles) was not. Meaning: what really sets Thyestes apart from Baal is the boldness of the acting and the lack of ‘pretence’ in the conception while being equally inventive. This is the closest to ‘living’ as I have encountered ‘acting’ in Australia – particularly the scenes between Mark Winter and Chris Ryan. Seeing it for the second time, I could not but help to wonder at the trust the performers had in each other – and the distance they were prepared to go to create extreme theatrical moments.
In the past week or so I also got back to Urban Theatre Projects Buried City (Upstairs at Belvoir) and (Downstairs at Belvoir) I’m Your Man, the boxing play created by Roslyn Oades. I’ve written about them before. And I was correct on both counts. Buried City wasn’t ready when I first saw it, and by the time I saw it again it had indeed grown up into being a very classy piece of theatre-making. The script is quite wonderful in its detail but dauntingly (and deliberately) horizontal – which calls for intense communication by the cast to work. As for I’m Your Man, I mark that off as the most perfectly made piece of theatre making (from the shows I saw) at this Sydney Festival with Kate Champion’s larger, I guess more ambitious work, Never Did Me Any Harm, a very close second. That’s a lot of good new Australian work – all pushing formal boundaries and pursuing different, attention grabbing styles.
Plus I was given a special treat from my dear friend Virginia Gordon: two tickets to see the screening of the musical West Side Story – accompanied by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This was a precious cultural artifact for me. It was one of the first films I ever saw, sometime in my late primary school years (at the Port Moresby Drive-In) where I found out something rather curious about myself. Meaning: as I watched this movie unfold I realised I was identifying with both Tony and Maria. I had not seen the film since then and so here was wonderful gift from Virginia to return to an important childhood moment.
Nowadays I think I see myself (if only) in the Rita Moreno role.
What a film, no wonder it took out ten Academy Awards. And how exquisite to re-experience with score with a live orchestra – especially one as good as the Sydney Symphony is nowadays. Composer Leonard Bernstein was by temperament ‘over-the-top’ and that particularly suited this assignment, plus lyrics by Sondheim at the beginning of his brilliant career when he still allowed himself a sprinkle of overt sentimentality. Plus you have dance – in the form of New York jazz ballet – peaking as a style. Then the beautiful Natalie Wood as Maria. Even Paul Bass, who created the ‘graffiti’ credits at the end is worth mentioning. There are plenty of reasons why this film won those ten Academy Awards. And why I loved it as a kid. I may have plenty of other short-comings, but I think I can say without being full of myself that I did know from an early age what made a work of art good (especially performing arts – film as an offshoot of live performance).
On some of the outstations we lived in – in PNG – there was occasionally outdoor cinema quite literally screened on a stretched bed-sheet strung between two trees. This I particularly remember being part of our life in Kerema in the Gulf District. We’d be smeared with mosquito repellent and sit on the grass, while our parents enjoyed cane chairs. But being quite young, about six at this stage, all I remember were the fabulously melodramatic serials that played before the feature – I was likely asleep thereafter. I particularly remember enjoying SOS Coastguard and The Drums of Fu Manchu. I’ve just Googled to get the names right – and of course nowadays there is footage on YouTube. I can see in these clipswhere I get my taste for ‘intensity’ from. Plus all the extravagant PNG wildlife and the dress-codes of the citizens especially in party mode.
And even better!
Back to West Side Story. At the age of nine our family moved from our ‘outstation’ life (the smaller towns of Sohano, Saidor, Madang, Kerema, Daru) to the big smoke of Port Moresby I remember us kids being amazed (not sure exactly when this was) at the smoothness of the ride in the car from the airport into town – on bitumen. Like floating. We oohed and aahed in wonderment. Also the car seats were covered in a kind of smelly clear plastic – some of you may remember that era of the Holden. All we had known previously were mightily dinged-up Land Rovers with two gear sticks (and the Track Grip shown in a photo I posted recently) skidding and bouncing along rough dirt tracks, in either the wet or dry season. What I am trying to get to here is the notion of the evolution of personal taste (good or bad). Because I know for a fact that the first movie I saw in an indoor cinema was in Port Moreseby on that visit. It was The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston and, at the age of about nine, I thought it was banal crap. Apart from the separating of the Red Sea – that bit worked for me somewhat. No more or less corny than the serials but, as a package, I just didn’t buy it – and (even though I didn’t know a word for it) I thought Charlton Heston ‘pompous’.
West Side Story came later, after we had been fully relocated to Port Moresby, and I was a few years older. To see it again, now - close to 50 years later – and for it to re-awaken memories was a Proustian/Freudian experience. If I can say this, it wasn’t just the sexuality issues that pinged in some particular area of my brain. Also whatever one calls taste or discernment or judgement, the fledgling skills necessary for a life of critical commentary. I knew at that time as a child I was actually watching a very good film. And effectively, a live theatre show put on see-through plastic (aka celluloid).
Back to the present and new words. Two weeks ago the Shit On Your Play blog was news for obvious reasons – it featured in a feature (sic) on blogging in the debut edition of a new online newspaper. I think I’ve missed the chance to say something about all this – quite a few others have had a go. Namely all thee of our senior female bloggists: Alison Croggon’s Theatre Notes, Augusta Supple and Jana Perkovic at Guerrilla Semiotics. I also missed the forum at Belvoir last weekend, where some of those engaged in the debate were invited to speak. I had wanted to go and had intended to go, but the Mardi Gras weekend, which I had been doing everything to avoid, suddenly caught up with me and friends took me out – also because MG usually falls on or very close to my birthday. So hedonism usurped intellectual advancement. I am curious to know what was said and I will put here the one or two points I might have made if I had attended.
Bernard Shaw once observed that there are times when the theatre critic should assist in pulling down an old and frayed theatre culture (to make was for the new). And other times when they should be helping in the building up of the work of a new emerging generation. Having done the ‘pulling down’ thing when I was at the National Times in the 1980s, I know what it is like to take a lot ‘heat’. Personally I don’t think now is the time to rip into contemporary theatre practice. For all its strengths and weaknesses, I see the present as a very exciting one. A time when a very capable and inventive new generation are finding their way. They are to be guided, not mocked. And I think the gun is already loaded if you choose to call your blog – Shit On Your Play. It’s not even exact: surely the author means ‘shit on your production’ because that is her modus operandi. It’s not being brave, it’s being poisonous. And it’s all about ‘moi’! The drama teacher from an elite school. As I have said many times: it’s of little import whether a critic likes or dislikes a show: it’s the quality of the reasoning which follows that counts. To make the equation: ‘I like it therefore it is good’ or ‘I disliked it therefore it’s bad’ is presumptuous to the point of folly. It’s vanity. There are likely many people in the audience at the same performance who see more and better: what they lack, and this is the critic’s singular strength, is the ability to put their version of events into good words.
One other point, and I have come to this after many years of thought. It’s derived from the way I cringe when I am introduced to someone as ‘a critic’. The word seems so loaded with negativity, as if the critic is meant to be an expert in ‘all things wrong’. I have weaseled my way out of this, and I think it is sound intellectually, by countering with the argument that the critic’s most important job is to be the first person to say, not ‘no’, but ‘YES’! It takes a lot more guts and courage to put your reputation on the line by being the first person to stand up at the stalls and shout ‘bravo’ to a young actor’s professional debut, or announce in your writing why you think what you just saw was a breakthrough production by an emerging director.
Further, to mock Buried City the way Jane Simmons (author of Shit on your Play) does, exposes the faults in the framework she uses to construct her reviews. Sure, a lot of other people didn’t care for the production either, or thought it was incomplete in its realisation. But no-one with any real knowledge of theatre practice in Sydney would be so dismissive of any work produced by Urban Theatre Projects. Or of Benedict Andrews for that matter in her review of The Seagull. Like it or love it – who cares! Why do you like it or love it? Tell us that. Anyone can swan around in a classroom at an elite school, being impressive to pimply teenagers. Dumping on any show is also quite easy. Trying to find a new way to make theatre – which is happening right now in this city by a highly talented emerging generation of theatre makers – deserves encouragement and guidance. Not from a starting position (as indicated by the blog’s title) of pontificating contempt.
I had a lot more I wanted to say here, I’ve seen a lot of new stuff and been engaged in some quite interesting activities these past two weeks. So I will try and get back here soon, knowing that my working hours right now are meant to be devoted to my job at the National Library.