• 18 Apr 2013 /  News

    Hi kids,

    this is a note to say I will be off this site for a little while as I have to catch up with some National Library work (and earn some money).

    But there is good news. I am pretty sure I haven’t said anything about this before. A different unit (I work in Oral History) at the National Library called Pandora holds a collection of cyber works (writings on the internet). They have requested if they can include my website in their cyber collection. They sweep the internet annually to pick up new work and the first time for me will be June 2013.

    The National Library of Australia

    That’s all very nice and good. But it also offers me another opportunity. It will be complicated initially and arduous – and I will need to find the right tech savvy people to help me do this. But what Pandora offers is a chance to transform the best of my clippings into a form that can be posted on my website in a new folder called something like Archives.  In time, what survives barely now as a pile of oddly shaped bits of rotting paper can be turned into a body of work online. This is a big deal for me. Not only is my current work kept foRever in a safe and respected institution, I can now also  do something with my earlier scribbles.

    Despite the hard work this involves (and not sure how it will be done), this transforms posting on my website from a chore to a great opportunity: a whole lot of my work from over the years into one place. While Pandora will only collect annually, once I get the technology sorted and find the right geek/s to help me, I will be able to post some of my early work in those quiet weeks where I have nothing new to post. A blog is a hungry animal – people expect more and fast and short. I haven’t succumbed to that formula. I don’t gives marks out of ten and I rarely help sell tickets, I don’t rush and I use as mant=y words as I feel like. What I am trying to do with this site as well asthee odd interesting read, is give inspiration to the emerging generation – connecting them where I can with the past, and second leave a record that will be of use to readers in decades down the track. Once this new project is up and running, you will get more posts to read more often. Furthermore I can comment on  these old pieces  - what I  think of them now. Any context I might be able to add. Did I get something wrong, place the post in some contcxt.

    That’s it for now. A review will get posted if something important comes up. But meanwhile for a few weeks I better get on with typing up my Oral History Unit Timed Summaries. The hard part of the job.











  • 14 Apr 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    Not since the 2009 Sydney Festival presented Tamas Ascher’s Ivanov (with his Budapest-based ensemble company Katona József Theatre) has this city seen such a meticulously honed comedy. Though at least two locals works should be respected in this context. John Bell’s  2007 two-man version of The Government Inspector starring William Zappa and Darren Gilshenan, and Richard Cottrell’s 2009 production for the Sydney Theatre Company of  Tom Stoppard’s Travesties with a stellar cast including Toby Schmitz, Jonathan Biggins, Blazey Best, Rebecca Massey, and again William Zappa.

    Owain Arthur


    One Man Two Guvnors is a bold (indeed brilliant) reworking by Richard Bean of the plot of Carlo Goldoni’s 1743 Commedia dell’Arte masterpiece, Servant of Two Masters. When I say reworking, I mean the elaborate comedy featuring pace, identity confusion, sight gags, witty double entendres, audience interaction and stereotypical characters are maintained. The difference here is re-setting almost the same story in the ‘swingin’ 1960′s seaside resort town of Brighton. The ‘stereotypical’ characters, in this version are drawn from a long British comic tradition going as far back as the Restoration, especially the  Carry On movie series, and more recently On the Buses, George and Mildred, Fawlty Towers, Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em and Are You Being Served. There is even a nod and a wink to this tradition (along with other Stoppardian cultural plundring) in Travesties. No other country produces anything else like it, with Australia specialising in a more laconic self-deprecating style. And America’s love of laughing at other people, especially those less ‘advanced’ (The Gods Must Be Crazy II on tele last night).

    Amy Booth-Steel, Colin Mace and Owain Arthur

    I am not going to go on at length about this production but to simply say it  is dazzlingly perfect. With triple the challenge of keeping us engaged because, unlike Ivanov, it is almost entirely devoid of ‘serious’ content – what we might call a ‘serious  theme’. We are here to be drawn into a world fancy and fantasy and kept there to the very end by means of consummate technical execution. The production, I should say up early, was created/directed by the National Theatre’s top honcho Nicholas Hytner with the assistance of Physical Comedy Director, Cal McCrystal.

    Edward Bennett and Mark Jackson

    I can praise the technical accomplishment with confidence  because I saw a screening of a live performance of the National’s original production some time late last year in the same Sydney Theatre. So this time I could sit back and see how all the so many pieces of this Swiss clock were put together. To my delight, a couple of the biggest gags I had forgotten and swooped on me in seagull chip-stealing surprise.On the subject of technique. I can’t say how often we miss the mark in doing plays like this in this country. To give us our due, no other nation in the world would be likely to succeed with an attempt at Dimboola or The Hills Family Show. We do ‘messy’ very well. But ‘messy’ is death to this genre of British entertainment.

    Joshua Lacey, Owain Arthur and Edward Bennett

    Kellie Shirley and Rosie Wyatt

    I recommend this production to anyone who wants a good time. But more so to anyone in the business who thinks one day they may direct or act in a British comedy of this sort. Or even to anyone who has an interest in witnessing an example of theatre-making to perfection. I love the idea that a work for the stage can be so technically impressive, albeit steeped in tradition, entirely engage and need not carry a ‘message’. That low art can be elevated, through sheer execution, to high art. I know the tickets are not cheap, but if you are an emerging theatre maker I urge you to find a way to a performance  if you can. It’s like seeing, just once, Nureyev dance or Sutherland sing. That may be a slight exaggeration – or to might not. It depends to what extent you read this work to be a celebration of a special and very demanding theatrical genre. Like Butoh.

    Amy Booth-Steel

    Another lovely touch are the music interludes, mostly a look-a-like 60s pop band – but some of the actors get a chance at the microphone as well.

    Edward Bennett

    For the record the star of the show is Owain Arthur, in perfect collusion with Edward Bennett, Amy Booth-Steel, Sabrina Carter, Peter Caulfield, Nick Cavaliere, Alicia Davies, Richie Hart, Mark Jackson, Colin Mace, Oliver Seymour Marsh, Mark Monero, Alan Pearson, Kellie Shirley, Seun Shote, Billy Stookes, Philip Murray Warson, Russell Wilcox, Leon Williams, Matthew Woodyatt, Rosie Wyatt. This revival has been spiffily redirected by Adam Penford. The team: Designer – Mark Thompson. Lighting Designer – Mark Henderson. Music (including songs) – Grant Olding. Sound Designer – Paul Arditti. Fight Director – Kate Waters.

    Owain Arthur with full cast

    Another feature of this production I want to mention is its sustainability. It’s played at the National on the South Bank, on the West End, Broadway, and even in Adelaide before arriving in Sydney. It has more stops to go including Melbourne next. The work is hugely demanding physically, especially for Owain Arthur who is rarely off stage, and for most part at full speed and high tilt. Yet what I saw here in Sydney earlier this week was as fresh and alive as the version I saw in the screen from London many months ago. Pretty much every ‘improvised moment’ is pre-set.  How the cast keep up this illusion deserves a gold medal. No slumming it for the colonials.

  • 03 Apr 2013 /  OPERA, Reviews



    Opening Night – Photo by James Morgan

    When I read Kevin Jackson’s review of Carmen on the Water I thought to myself: what else is there to say? I agree with all his major points, and cannot improve on his translation of those thoughts into words on the page. What he regards as good and important is good and important to me too. Quibbles over some minor matters in the middle about electronic sound –  I hold a different view. As to his views on the varying vocal strengths and weaknesses, especially among some of the lead men, I probably agree. But I decline to go there officially (as have mentioned before) for lack the  art-of-aural expertise. Above all else, it is Mr Jackson’s ravishing praise for Gale Edwards as a director that I whole-heartedly support. And about which I want to say a bit more at the end. In the main – re:  Edwards and her core design team – and the significance of their achievement in taking on this work in this particular way. It’s not against anything Mr Jackson has to say. It’s just that here I take a different tack from Mr Jackson, my own little bit. But I believe my comments will be make more sense after you have had a good read of his review.

    Carmen costume design by Julie Lynch.

    Carmen costume design by Julie Lynch.

    Apart from that, my only contribution to this re-posted post is decorative. The repressed magazine designer in me – also a person who simply loves good pictures –  has added some images of the show in the modest belief they can capture information that cannot always be stuck to the page in words. So here is Mr Jackson’s review with images added by me.


    Posted: 30 Mar 2013 12:52 AM PDT

    Choreography by Kelley Abbey

    Opera Australia presents Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, CARMEN by Georges Bizet.

    All costumes designed by Julie Lynch

    Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) presents its second season, following on from last year’s LA TRAVIATA, with Gale Edwards’ spectacular production of CARMEN by Georges Bizet (1875).

    In the open balmy air of a late Sydney summer, on a stage suspended over the Sydney Harbour foreshore, at the site of the colony’s first farm: Farm Cove (how startled would the ghosts of that first settlement and the indigenous population be tonight?) surrounded by the contemporary skyline of the city of Sydney, with the glowing sails/shells of the Sydney Opera House to one side, in the background, with the passing of harbour ferries and other flotilla, reflecting off the moon struck/lit surface of the harbour waters.

    In keeping with CARMEN’S military theme, HOSH marshalls a veritable army of artists, performers and technical crew, … Regiments include 154 performers kitted out in 284 costumes; 490 staff and crew, together with 50 volunteers. Their arsenal of weaponry includes 1320 metres of LED lighting and two 24-tonne cranes reaching 26 metres in height. While the top brass principals are bunkered down in dressing rooms beneath the stage, the enlisted men and women of the chorus occupy 16 shipping containers set up like barracks beneath the audience seating. At musical HQ, the orchestra pit has been expanded and reinforced to keep the troops happy under the vigilant baton of their musical general.

    Escamillo: another outstanding costume drawing by Julie Lynch

    A spectacle of an opera, indeed. An epic effort of organisation on a scale of shocking dimension and organisational ‘nightmare’ harnessed under the aegis of Ms Edwards. It is a success on almost all value systems.

    SPECTACULAR is the word.

    Brian Thomson’s bull ring

    Brian Thomson has designed a massive abstracted red ringed ‘bull ring’ with a black surfaced (historically, black and red, is, almost, this designer’s signature) raked floor, tipping the cast towards the audience. We see the back side (and, so,back-to-front) huge signage of the name of the opera CARMEN, covered from our point of view, by ladders and platform scaffolding, on which the chorus can look down and participate in the action. The dark outline of a bull sits waiting for its cue to ignite in red neon-like splendour. A centre piece of the upstage of the arena can open hydraulically into a kind of vomitorium, for the entrance and exit of the cigarette girls and patrons of the bullring. Practical, large scale properties – a tank and truck of the era of the Franco war in Spain are craned-in, spectacularly, from opposite sides in act one; as is a large shipping container for the act three warehouse. To capture all of this and support the emotions of the story, the lighting by John Rayment is dramatically bold, matched by costume designer, Julie Lynch, with iconic character splashes of colour:  e.g. blue for the ‘good girl’, Micaela; red for the ‘bad girl’, Carmen and “realisms” of the soldiers uniforms, etc. Clear design solutions for such an epic visual scale problem.

    Installing the Carmen Letters 


     All these photos by James Morgan

    To make this operatic piece work at this location, location, location – imaginative staging is demanded. Ms Edwards triumphs in the first three acts with deft and brilliant organisation of the massive ‘crowd’ scenes. But, even more fortuitously, her skill creates dramatic focus and power in the intimate character scenes as well. In the open air with all of the visual dimension of a Sydney night in one of the most glamorous locations in the world, simply with two actors/singers tied to each other, each at one end of a taut rope, Ms Edwards burns into our concentrated memory retinas the great duet between Carmen and Don Jose in act one – it is one example of unforgettable visual staging and powerful storytelling, that she conjures for us throughout the night. Assisting the impact of the work is the Choreography of Kelley Abbey. The opportunity to use the uncurtained space with the densely atmospheric scoring in Bizet’s music preludes and entra-acts are not wasted by these two artists, but seized excitedly, and a thrilling, and sexually propelling blood pump is given to the performance with dynamic dances and dancers (Mr Bonachela-eat your heart out - DE NOVO!!! ). Even the chorus is managed to move as one – a miracle. That that this does not carry through to the last act after the stunning solo of the flaming red ‘skirt’ (Kate Wormald) with the arrival of the bull fight’s crowd, flags and all is, sadly, anti-climatic (perhaps time became a problem?) Fortunately the music is compensation.

    Rinat Shaham sings, dances and moves as one dreams Carmen to be. A great, daring, sexually explosive performance. Dmytro Popov as the hapless, mummy’s boy, psychopathic killer, Don Jose, grew and grew musically through the opera to great account. Nicole Car sang ‘goody two shoes’ Micaela, beautifully – it is, to my ear, the least interesting music. Andrew Jones was a disappointing Escamillo, for whilst looking the part, he did not have the vocal excitements that the role has to give. He could not either with precision or power match his fellow’s powers. Musically the performance dimmed. I also enjoyed Samuel Dundas as Morales, and Adrian Tamburini as Zuniga, both these men, singing and physically emanating immense sexual power.

    The orchestra hidden beneath the stage, conducted by Brian Castles-Onion, gave a wonderful sound, communicated to us, as were the singers by the electronic wizardry of Tony David Cray. Mr Cray must be worth his weight in gold to Opera Australia for the sound was accomplished, indeed – it matches his work that I heard last year in DIE TOTE STADT. I don’t much like the use of electronically amplified sound – there is no real choice, of course, for work on this scale, and, as I have said, well done here – but when the chorus in act four sing the supporting noise in the ring, contrasting to the drama of the final bloody duet on the stage between Don Jose and Carmen, it did not work at all dramatically. The sound is, though softened, still projected at us, and one is not required to endow the moment with a scintilla of our emotional life. Dramatically, the opera performance begins to go off the boil in this production’s final act, and one is not moved, one simply watches – distanced. The sexual empathy of the deaths of Don Jose and Carmen indicated in the pulsing of Bizet’s score and in the action of the libretto, is not posible. It sounds all too mechanical – too, ironically, dead.

    Rinat Shaham as Carmen – Photo by James Morgan 

    (Diversion: It is my observation that the musical theatre has lost its appealing power as a result of a dependence on the electronic amplification of the singers and the orchestra, (the disaffection from musical theatre began for me with the electronic presentation of the orchestra with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s PROMISES, PROMISES (1968) – remember, that orchestra were in a covered pit too? although, there was a plastic bubble, center-pit, so that the conductor’s head and shoulders could be seen by us!) At the musical theatre today the music is projected AT us.Washing unremittingly, over us, whether we want to hear it or not. No effort is necessary from the audience to engage in any concentrated way. It lands on us unflinchingly. I love it when the performers ‘unplug’ (remember that moment in the Barbara Cook concert at the Lyric Theatre, a few years ago, when, after a long night ofelectronically assisted singing she unplugged for the encores – what a difference in temperature in the audience – how we listened, how we joined Ms Cook in the performance – the contract for listening was changed – it was amazing), and I have noticed when this does occur, all of us audience participants do, lean in to the music, and make a contributive effort to hear the communication. We are invited to work with the unassisted singer/orchestra and real theatrical exchange happens. A Shared Experience.)

    My first introduction to CARMEN was listening to an old 78rpm recording of my dad’s with Lawrence Tibbett, singing on one side of the record, the Toreador Song, from CARMEN, and on the other side, the Te Deum at the end of act one of TOSCA – thrilling. I played it over and over again. I remember the CARMEN JONES (1954) movie musical version with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte (sexy film I remember. I was young and probably didn’t know what sexy was, of course! , but I was , strangely, moved) and, perhaps my first full scale opera version of CARMEN was at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1982 with, the only thing I can really recall, the Josef Svoboda design! – I do remember being disappointed. The film based on the Hemingway novel THE SUN ALSO RISES (1957) with Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and Ava Gardener and the Pedro Almodovar film, MATADOR (1986) have always evoked the CARMEN story. Bizet’s L’ARLESIENNE SUITE has always thrilled me. THE PEARL FISHERS, except for that duet, always a bit boring. CARMEN in contrast, always a popular choice. That Georges Bizet died at the age of 36 in 1875, on the 33rd performance of this opera is, surely, one of the great tragedies of operatic history.

    Rinat Shaham as Carmen – this time in power red – Photo by James Morgan 

    In the essay in the Handa Production program, Philip Sametz tells us:

    “To put Bizet’s death in perspective, had Verdi died at 36 his final opera would have been LUISA MILLER (1849). No RIGOLETTO, no LA TRAVIATA, no IL TROVATORE – no OTELLO ! At that age Wagner had just completed LOHENGRIN. CARMEN was Bizet’s first masterpiece, and his last work. Even at this remove, it is tempting to speculate on what he might have created with the new-found brilliance that calls out to us from every bar of the score.”

    Nicole Car as Micaela & Dmytro Popov as Don Jose

    The international ABC of the Opera repertoire, box office money makers: A for AIDA; B for LA BOHEME; C for CARMEN. Gale Edwards has for Opera Australia given a cash cow, and, by the way, an acclaimed artistic success, with her recent and present version of LA BOHEME. Now with CARMEN another exemplary artistic success – box office too, it seems, looking around me,  no empty seats on the night I went! And, as well, last year, a critically stunning success for one of the world’s most difficult operatic works, Strauss’ SALOME. Dr Haruhisa Handa, the founding Chairman of The International Foundation for Arts and Culture (IFAC), the major sponsor of this work,  and the Opera Australia Board led by Ziggy Switkowski, with Lyndon Terracini as Artistic Director, must be congratulated for the vision and trusting faith that they have had in this great Australian artist. A for AIDA is the only one of the magic three that Ms Edwards has not yet done for the company, it must be next, I guess. One would be foolish not follow through – for the company and the audience.

    To marshall all this company for this HANDA OPERA ON SYDNEY HARBOUR production of CARMEN, from the smallest contribution to the larger contributions, and succeed, requires an artist of great vision, will, know how, and tenacity. A personality and passion driven by the muses of the theatre.

    Gale Edwards, deserves congratulations.Bravo.

    Brian Thomson and Gale Edwards with the set model and Julie  Lynch’s costume drawing


    As Mr Jackson points out Carman along with La Traviata is one of the world’s most popular operas. And without taking anything away from them artistically as complete works of art, it is easy to not pay attention to the actual stories being told. So popular are the tunes. And what we think is our familiarity with the the stories.Gale Edwards is right, the themes in Carmen are progressive even for today – regarding the status women – and the call to arms for those with the opportunity and strength of character to take on patriarchal dominance. In a very wise artistic decision, Edwards moves the time-setting forward from the 1870s to the time of the Franco’s Spain – let’s just say roughly 1940s. Not only are we closer to the story historically, it offers immense freedoms to the designers and choreographer to apply a very fresh and appealing look.

    What we get from set designer Brian Thomson is the best of his personal aesthetic writ large. Mr Jackson talks of the ‘simple’ bull-ring. The red lettering of the name CARMEN 13-metres high is a shout of feminist power cross the harbour addressed to the citizens of Sydney in general. From the audience’s perspective we get the name in reverse (a classic Thomson device) but also a wall of scaffolding that can easily carry at any one time a great number of the production’s 150 approx performers. And the outline of a bull which comes to life at just the right moment. I also really liked how the  back wall (the scaffolding and the letters) not only served to bounce a lot of the sound back to the audience. And equally, how this year the set blocked any view of the Opera House. That’s a big statement to make. That the SOH, in these circumstances, serves as an unhelpful distraction.And that An Opera Australia production can stand on its own two feet (is that four with the bull?) without having to bow and scrape to the Utzon masterpiece.

    Andrew Jones as toreador Escamillo – Photo by James Morgan

    From designer Julie Lynch a much more sexy Modernist look; and the same goes for Kelley Abbey’s fabulous choreography. From lighting designer, John Rayment you get one of the country’s best (in great modesty) ‘serving’ the work of the other creators. You can see from the pictures that the lighting is incredibly spectacular, but it never serves itself. First and foremost, Rayment brings the work of Edwards, Thomson. Lynch and Abbey life. And when i say life – this is a show brimming with passion and life-force without ever stooping to the banal or obvious.

    Chorus – Photo by James Morgan

    Where I differ from Mr Jackson, is that I loved the sound. That’s mainly because (too many rock concerts when young) I rarely find the sound levels in the Joan Sutherland (Opera) Theatre at the SOH big enough to hold my concentration, and I end up spending most of the time studying the directing and acting. Which is fine but I also want to acknowledge this production’s sound designer, Tony David Cray. Some traditionalists my baulk or have quibbles. It’s like moving from test to  one-day cricket. But for me the amplified sound is not just louder. The clarity is also extraordinary and I was drawn much closer to the the listening bit of opera making – probably its most important feature.

    Clearly great progress has clearly been made in ‘sound’ department  of live stage production. Well I can’t imagine Madonna or U2 settling for anything but better than the best.  I mean – when you think of the conditions – outside, wind, the noises fom the harbour and the city. Also placing the subtitles on the lower rim of the slanted platform stage is a plus, easier to read and you miss less of what’s happening on stage. As for the seating, eating, drinking and bathroom areas, lessons were clearly learnt from last year. In 2012 Ross Wallace did a fabulous job in very difficult circumstances. This year Eamon D’Arcy has been able to make improvements. Like the bathrooms with black & white tiled floors even.

    Dmytro Popov as Don Jose & Rinat Sharam as Carmen

    What I am leading to is this. Even if Carman has strong anti-authoritarian feminist themes, much is gained in the telling of this tale outside like this –  ’writ large’. Not all operas could cope with the expansion. But in this instance, I think Carmen is better told big! It’s not just a story about two men and two women – it’s about the society in which they are trapped. And with size the society becomes a much stronger character in its own right.  I think Carmen is improved played outside like this  - at this size (and quality). The large groups of dancers or soldiers are not just there to fill up space or supply a bit of ‘fun’. They give the characters a much more vivid social context. Opera Australia isn’t slumming it here, trying to pull in a few extra bucks, or offering those untutored in the elegance of attending an opera in the Joan Sutherland Theatre a way in. Just as Slumdog Millionaire took movie-making to a new level in the way it used size and numbers to a purpose. So too here. I don’t think every opera would survive the transition, so I look forward to finding out what the choice is for next year. I also think Opera Australia has found the perfect team. Edwards-Thomson-Lynch in particular are definitely a highly prized unit.  And you would pushed to find another team of three in the world who could pull off with such finesse a production of the size and artistic flair as this.

    Photo by James Morgan

  • 24 Mar 2013 /  FESTIVALS, News


    I love this image

    The photograph above is significant and to many provocative. Why? Because the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras – its best-known name – has had other titles over its thirty-five years. This is the brand image for 2013 and it does not include either the word ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian” – not even in small print. Argument has broken out within the community about dropping those key words without proper consultation with members. The full name is used in official correspondence at the moment and in anything that involves the law. But not in public – ie anything likely to put off retired Miami tourists whose ‘cruise’ ship happens to be town that day. Too complicated to explain here. But it’s just one of many kerfuffles this special Sydney event has endured and survived over its 35 years. And there will be an EGM soon to sort this out.

    Nowadays it’s called ‘branding’.

    All that behind-the-scenes stuff aside, the 2013 poster is composed of several references alluding to concerns and interests of Sydney’s ‘homosexuals’ today. That’s not the right word either because nowadays the inclusive philosophy of Mardi Gras has now spread to embrace anyone who identifies GLQBT and/or I (meaning: Gay, Lesbian, Queer, Bisexual, Transexual/Transgender/Transvestite and/or Intersex). Don’t laugh this is serious business – and feelings run very deep and very high over the pro’s and cons of this alphabet soup. Never mentioned is that there are likely also to be as many ways to be straight  (recently popularly known as ‘breeders’ – until non-straight couples started  appropriating the word – having their own kids by way of various advanced medical technologies (and a hopefully whole lot of love). Gone are the days when straying from the heterosexual norm  could be umbrellaed under the provoctive and usefully elusive term ‘Polymorphous Perversity’. Technically my preferred option, but I can’t see Events NSW (now a sponsor) finding that one easy to swallow. Blaring along Sydney streets in rows of big banners. If only…’POLYMORPHOUS PERVERSITY’ repetitively – like a visual mantra.

    Mattthew Toomey’s cheeky contribution to the current ‘name change’ debate.

    Despite the missing words of ‘gay’ and ‘lesbian’, this year’s poster image suggests multiple topical references including the right to marriage and parenthood, challenges faced growing up not straight; and the baby blanket is composed of posters from the last 35 years of Sydney’s G&L Mardi Gras. The blanket also happens to reference a segment of the AIDS Quilt (officially the Names Project). The AIDS Quilt started out as a community project in San Francisco designed to help people grieve. It is composed of small hand-made quilted segments made by a loved one or loved ones, each honouring a single person lost to AIDS. In my view, the AIDS Quilt is one of the is one of  most important works of art ever – what with its powerful content, sheer tragic beauty, and the involvement of so many hands. Many countries took up the idea of a Names Project  including grieving Australians. Here’s a link to more about the  USA Quilt and its origins. And another one – even more interesting with a recent  engagement with the latest digital wizbangery.

    AIDS Quilt display Washington

    Aids Quilt Project – Australia

    The Sydney’s Mardi Gras story begins with a rather dinky night-time ‘street party’ held on 24 June 1978 in Oxford Street after a day of traditional protest for homosexual rights. It didn’t have an official name. Though when Ron Austin put his idea to Margie McMahon, another member of the Glebe-based community support group CAMP (Campaign Against Moral Persecution), she said: ‘Oh you mean a Mardi Gras”. It was a very simple idea and the name stuck. This above is the confirmed undeniable origin – so don’t let other claimants fool you. The protest movement at the time  - post-Vietnam War  - was a passion, almost a way of life for many back then. But support for Gay Liberation was inhibited by the fact that in joining a march in daylight you were possibly coming out ‘gay’ (to your family and employer) and, at that time, homosexual acts between consenting males of any age was illegal. Without going into to much detail, Ron Austin suggested an extra event to follow a day-time city street protest. The idea was to dress up a bit, play some loud music from speakers on the back of a truck – and  travel down Oxford Street (the Gay Mile already established) calling for gays in the bars to come  out and join in the fun – safe in the dark! They did and by the time that lead truck got to Hyde Park there were many hundreds more involved.

    Conflict with police at that point escalated and the participants defied police by heading up William Street. In the main street of Kings Cross they were blocked off at both ends by a new shift of police and the party, having already turned into a protest, now escalated to a riot. There were arrests and the whole event blew up in the faces of both the revellers and police. Many were thrown into jail for the night. And thrown out the next day by a magistrate. Meanwhile the Sydney Morning Herald’s Monday edition printed the names and addresses of all arrested. Their cover blown, families ripped up and indeed jobs were lost. Ironically, if conflict had not happened there would probably have never been another Mardi Gras Parade/Protest – which did occur around the same time the next year. And  interestingly, Ron Austin’s ‘non-political’ event turned out to be the most political in Australia’s gay and lesbian history.

    Just so you know a few of the photos in this post I have collected  randomly over the month or emailed a few requests during MGras 2013. Others I dug out of Google. Everyone involved at whaever position they hold from CEO to roadside Parade viewer has a different experience. So this is basically the story of MY Mardi Gras 2013 – below is a photo Cindy Pastel (aka Richie Finger) probably my personal favourite Sydney alphabet soup persona. Whose life story was turned into Priscilla the film and the musical. With virtually no money from the pocketsful of cash going to her/him.

    I Love Cindy Pastel! – backstage at Bob Downe’s Celebrity Roast

    Here she is again below with Bobe Downe (aka Mark Trevorrow) – my next other favourite (in gay world you can a have more than one) – trading identities. Not just a hilarious shot, but also a very good example of why we need a single word (or very short phrase) to encompass the many variations of non-straight gender and sexual identity.

    Cindy as Bob & Bob as Cindy!

    I was close enough to Sydney  Gay world in 1978 to hear about the party/riot the next day, though I was not personally involved. In the past decade I hnbve been barely involved in any way. However, just over a year ago I was invited by the National Library to undertake an Oral History of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. It is proving to be a much more interesting project than I imagined (me thinking all the main players are dead – and indeed many are). But there are others still with us and they can tell their stories and speak up for the those who are lost. For example Ron Smith spoke about not only his time in the MGras Workshop but also his dear friend Doris Fish, an original Synthetic. She had relocated to San Francisco  - but came back once a year to help in the workshop. And prepare her own special once-in-a year outfit

    Doris Fish in San Francisco Gay Pride march – still carrying the Aussie flag

    The journey of Mardi Gras over 35 years is a fabulous story which cuts open the history Sydney like a watermelon. And I will post more stories down the track as my Library project evolves. But just to make just one point: if it were not for the experience gained  in being involved in running the Mardi GrasParade, over so many years, there would never  have been such a well organised Sydney 2000 Olympics. And to this very day, mega-event managements frpm all over the world look to employ people with G&L MGras experience.

    Despite having lived in Sydney for the past 35 years and more, I haven’t been close to the organisation for quite sometime. I was a personal friend of  Peter Tully and David McDiarmid who were among the group who pushed for the date to be moved from winter to summer (less clothing and thus a chance for more flesh and more fun); and, moreover, set up a decent workshop where big ideas could come to life; also with Workshop staff help available for community troupes to go bigger and better if they wanted to. Tully and McDiarmid – sometime partners and life-long pals – were greatly influenced by trips to the uptown New York nightclub – the Paradise Garage. One of the first places to put together party drugs, dressing up  and dancing to dawn. Peter’s art work named Urban Tribalwear was also influenced by trips to big parades in the Caribbean and even PNG. David, more overtly political, darker sensibility, and outliving Peter by several years was hugely drawn to Festivals of the Day of the Dead in Mexico – and drew on some of that imagery in his Parade float creations.


    Peter Tully (far right)  with his Tribe

    The Tully look.

    The Mardi Gras Parade was solid gold content for photographer William Yang. Here (below) are three classic W Yang shots from the height of  the  Tully/McDiarmid era. 

    Disempowering the enemy: taking back ownership of derogatory terms.

    Peter Tully (centre) with friends – Australian wild-life costume

    Revd Fred Nile’s Head on aPlate – a la Salome – carried by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Probably the most significant float ever.

    The decision to move from winter to summer escalated involvement and a more celebratory atmosphere. But there was also a loss. It caused a few of the ‘protest’ hardliners to pull way, especially almost all the lesbians who re-hitched their wagon to the burgeoning Woman’s Liberation movement. Hitherto homosexual rights protests had been a remarkable example of coalition politics.

    Mardi Gras, including management, and Parade & Parade participants remained almost exclusively male until the late 1980s, when a female member of the workshop, Cath Phillips, eventually found herself on the Board and a year later successfully ran for President. Over the next few years women were drawn back into the event at all levels. And it has remained a ‘coalition’partnership ever since. The highlight to this very day in terms of the Parade  has been the participation of Dykes on Bikes. Who now annually start or are near the start of every Parade. What a throbbing, powerfully sexual kick start: I don’t know, this year it felt like about at least a hundred. Usually with girlfriend or best friend sharing the ride. The noise of the bikes and then the roar of the crowd has to be heard to be believed.

    Dykes on Bikes 2013

    The is much more to the story of the first decade, including the impact of the AIDS pandemic. For the National Library I am basically working in chronological order and currently up to around the mid-late 1980s. There have been some fantastic stories told – and now safely stored. A couple of years ago I interviewed Rose Jackson (born Barry) for the National Library – she got sacked from the Old Tote theatre com[any when her sex-change hormones started to kick in. But she went on and made a great career for herself as a costumier and performer at The Purple Onion in Kensington and later Capriccios on Oxford Street. I think hers is  my favourite Library interview ever. I was asked to speak at her funeral and wrote the  SMH obituary.

    The photo of Rose we chose for her SMH obituary – what a lady!

    While we are at it, another big loss this year was Carmen Rupe. She lived near me in her last years and would travel around on one of these medical scooters – flowing with coloured ribbons and banners (a touch of Isadora) and always flowers in her hair. A one woman year-round Mardi Gras. I took Carmen as my date to Richard Wherrett’s funeral (another story altogether). Half way through the ceremony she passed out, her head fell into her huge breasts and  she started to snore. She turned a few rather severely disapproving heads, but I thought Richard looking down from above would have found her ‘performance’ amusing.

    Celebrated New Zealand emigre hooker/role model Carmen Rupe also passed way this year. She was honoured in this year’s Parade.

    One last comment before I sign off.  I noticed that Mardi Gras’ current CEO, Michael Rolik, was going to resign about a year ago and so I sought an interview with him before he disappeared into the wilderness. As it turns out, Rolik has stayed on. But meanwhile I have been given a brief insight into how Mardi Gras is run today. This year, after more than a decade of non-active involvement I took in as much as could of Festival, Parade and Party. There was much I was sorry to miss especially the conference day - Queer Thinking – which had some very interesting material and people involved. From past experiences 0f Mardi Gras Festivals, the events I attended this year  rose well above my expectations. But all that for another post. I think this is enough for one reading (and it’s been sitting around two weeks unfinished). I promise you more to come. I just have to  change horse in mid-stream and write about opera. Let me tell you – got the money go see Carmen on the water – FABULOUS!!


  • 12 Mar 2013 /  News, Other Art Forms



    6:00PM-9:00PM. Licensed Bar

    To be opened by

    Jon Lewis, Artist & Professor Ross Steele AM, Officier de la Légion d’Honneur.

    Master of Ceremonies: Edwina Blush


    I have been promising Roger Foley (Ellis D Fogg) and my readers to expand in my one-page notice of this event for more than a couple of weeks. I have a bunch of support material which says a lot. So I think I will put all that up first and then see what else is needed. As I mentioned last time (perhaps on Facebook) the late 1960s and the 1970s were an extraordinary era for Sydney. And hugely influential to me. So much grass roots creativity, so many old rules broken and very wild ideas about art and living flying in every direction. Roger Foley loved lights and he’s made an international career out of playing with them. He was there at the beginning which lets say is the closing era of the Push (grog) and the birth of the hippy aesthetic (marijuana and LSD), perhaps most significantly marked in time with the opening of The Yellow House in Macleay St Potts Point – a living museum merging communal art and life creation. Original participants including Fogg, Martin Sharp, Richard Neville and filmmaker Albie Thoms. Thoms died last year – a very important figure in the creative story of Sydney. A book - My Generation - by Thoms  has been posthumously released and I think this festival of memories is in part in honour to Thoms’ contribution and legacy.


    My Life and Loves

     Roger Foley-Fogg aka Ellis D Fogg

    psychedelic exhibition – free admission


     art, posters, odd objects, books, costumes, films and a bizarre-bazaar

    everything is for sale

     Friday March 15th to Easter Monday April 1st

    12PM Noon to 5:00PM Thurs Fri Sat Sun and Monday, April Fools Day

    107 Redfern Street, Redfern, 107 Projects Lounge Room Gallery,

    good cheap food nearby – bring a takeaway and have it in our Lounge Room. 

    An early work by Ellis D Fogg


    The exhibition will be accompanied by live events and films from the 60s – bookings below 

    hear what it was like and talk to people who were there.

    Fri 15 – 6:30PM – The Ides of March, meet JIM ANDERSON of the London Oz Obscenity Trial with the sly wit and smooth sexy songs of EDWINA BLUSH

    Sat 16 – 6:30PM, WORLD PREMIER OATS – Once Around The Sun, with Co-Director David Huggett. The long awaited film of the Ourimbah Pop Festival.

    Sun 17 – 6:30PM GRETEL/MADAM LASH Sylvia & The Synthetics DANNY ABOOD, ADULTS ONLY.

    Fri 22, – 6:30PM meet JOHNNY ALLENNimbin Aquarius Festival + special guestJEANNIE LEWIS

    Sat 23 – 6:30PM – meet JIM ANDERSON with EDWINA BLUSH

    Sun 24 – 6:30PM – UBU Films – tribute to Albie Thoms “MARINETTI” EXPANDED with David Perry.

    Easter Fri 29 – 6:30PM meet  JOHNNY ALLEN “Nimbin ,Cabaret Conspiracy, Paris  Theatre”

    Easter Sat 30 – 6:30PM – meet JIM ANDERSON  with EDWINA BLUSH

    Easter Sun 31 – To Be Arranged

    Easter Mon 1st April 6:30PM April fools Day, A tribute to BLACK and WHITEFREEDOM on the 50th anniversary of OZ Magazine, Australia. SLAVERY TO STAR TREK introduced by HERE (CORRECTION REQUIRED) Francesca Emerson-Foley, closing party with licensed Bar and supper.

     TICKETS for evening shows, $20 and Cons with cards $15  Season Ticket all shows and grand opening $110, email request to fogg@fogg.com.au  –  Ticket price includes “meet the artists informal party”, exhibition viewing and a light supper.BOOKINGShttp://www.trybooking.com and search for foggENQUIRIES: 0409 229 282 and e: fogg@fogg.com.au

    Here is some other info for you to peruse and perhaps get  a better idea of who and what we are talking about.

    Roger Foley (Ellis D Fogg0 

    Ellis D Fogg is the pseudonym of Roger Foley (born 24 January 1942) who the National Film and Sound Archive have described as Australia’s “most innovative lighting designer and lumino kinetic sculptor.” The term Lumino Kinetic Art was first used in 1966 by Frank Popper, Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Paris.[1]

    Early life
    Foley was born in Cairns, Queensland and attended Newington College (1957–1959).[2] In the late 1960s he started designing rock concerts and psychedelic light shows. His experimental light shows through to the 1970s were precursors to present multi-media installation.

    Yellow House
    He was one of a group of artists who worked and exhibited at the Yellow House Artist Collective in Potts Point. The Yellow House was founded by artist Martin Sharp and between 1970 and 1973 was a piece of living art and a mecca to pop art. The canvas was the house itself and almost every wall, floor and ceiling became part of the gallery. Many well-known artists, including George Gittoes, Brett Whiteley, Peter Kingston, Albie Thoms and Greg Weight, helped to create the multi-media performance art space that may have been Australia’s first 24 hour-a-day happening.[3] Current work While continuing as an artist Foley is a producer of light shows and architectural theming for festivals and events. He was part of the Yellow House Retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1992 and was a finalist in the Blake Prize for Religious Art in 2003 and 2007.



    The house at 59 Macleay St is a “Queen Anne” terrace, one of ten designed and built in the late 1890′s by architect Maurice Halligan. Its design was in many ways a wide departure from the ordinary style of terrace adopted across Sydney in that era, differentiated by distinctive gables and balconies set back behind roman arches. (Theatre lovers – note the reference below to Hair)

    Yellow House some years later. The building is still there with a cafe on the street.

    During the 1950s, No. 59 Macleay Street was a haven for many of Australia’s best-known artists. It was the scene for the emergence and acceptance of an important phase of contemporary art within Sydney. The property’s resident owner, writer Frank Clune, author of dozens of popular books on history and travel, started this artistic link. In 1959 the Terry Clune Galleries opened on the premises, exhibiting Sydney’s emerging abstract and modernist artists — John Olsen, Robert Hughes (now New York based art critic for ‘Time’ magazine), the late Robert Klippel, Stan Rapotec and others. During this period the Clune family house was also home to a number of artists, including Russell Drysdale who lived there for a short time.

    The building’s most colourful and famous period began in late 1969. Martin Sharp was frustrated by the traditional gallery scene, so he approached the owners to make use of the disused Clune Galleries space. Sharp had returned to Australia in early 1969 after spending several years in London. During his period in the UK he created posters and illustrations for the infamous Oz magazine (working with his friend Richard Neville) as well as designing the famous covers for Cream’s albums Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire. Sharp took up residency in the old Clune Galleries. Thelma Clune, the gallery director, had decided to sell the building, but was in no hurry to do so, so Martin was able to use the space to present his first exhibition after his return home. This was followed by ”The Incredible Shrinking Exhibition”, which comprised photographs of the first show re-exhibited in small gem-like mirror frames.

    These two exhibitions laid the foundations for The Yellow House. The project was inspired by an unrealised dream of Vincent Van Gogh, who had mentioned the idea in a letter to his brother Theo. Van Gogh envisaged setting up his house in Arles as a centre for artists to live, work and exhibit. During the late 1960s Conceptual Art had emerged as a major new movement, and novel combinations of music, theatre, film, slides, lightshows and live performances of music and/or dance — “total environment installations” or “happenings” — had. Public awareness of conceptual art in Australia was given a major boost by the French artist Christo, who came to Australia in late 1969 and created his famous “Wrapped Coast” at Little Bay.

    Vincent van Gogh – The Yellow House

    Sharp produced a catalogue and coordinated the setting up of artists’ spaces to be prepared for the Spring show of 1970. In many repsects, the creation of The Yellow House was the culmination of much of the activity on the Sydney “Underground” scene of the late ’60s. Sharp’s contact with the UBU film/lightshow collective led to several UBU members — Albie Thoms, Aggy Read, Phil Noyce — becoming closely involved in the Yellow House. The opening attracted considerable media attention. Sydney’s Sunday Mirror called it ..”the wildest, most way out happening of the week..”, and commented that “…the guests wore really wild gear, and many looked as though they had come from a performance of Hair … ” — which had opened a few weeks earlier at the nearby Metro Theatre in Kings Cross.

    The Yellow House was an innovative ‘multimedia’ space, perhaps the first permanent “happening” in Australia. It included artworks by Sharp, Brett Whiteley and others, a special sound system created by Aggy Read, films by Read and Philip Noyce, “Lumino Kinetic” lighting presentations by Ellis D. Fogg, tapdancing by Little Nell (aka Laura Campbell, who later played Columbia in The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and photography by Greg Weight. Other well-known names associated with the Yellow House included painters Tim Lewis, George Gittoesand Bruce Goold (now one of the group of artists who contribute designs to the famous Mambo clothing company), and film-makers Albie ThomsPeter Weir and Jim Sharman.

    The rooms were transformed into a range of environments, many reflecting the influence of the Surrealists. One was an homage to Magritte, another a bonsai room created by Brett Whiteley. The Stone Room contained everyday objects made to look like stone. The exterior was painted yellow and the building became known as “The Yellow House” as a tribute to Van Gogh. The House took on roles which extended beyond a simple exhibition space and it increasingly became known for its music and performances by people such as Little Nell, Bruce Goold and George Gittoes; films were screened and classes in film-making and folk music were organised by Albie Thoms. As well as exhibiting there, Greg Weight photographed the interiors of the House extensively, documenting this exciting moment in Australia’s art history. Weight’s photographs record the wondrous environments of the Yellow House, such as The Stone Room, but are also artworks in themselves, tributes to what Sharp claimed to be “probably one of the greatest pieces of conceptual art ever achieved”.

    The Yellow House continued in operation for most of 1971, but during the latter part of the year financial problems and artistic tensions led to the departure of Sharp, Gittoes and Thoms. The House continued as a performance space for some time after, presenting acts like The Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band and Lindsay Bourke, but without a clear artistic direction it became little different from other performance venues and it closed towards the end of the year.

    The Yellow House was a milestone in the history of contemporary art in Australia and its importance was recognised by a retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1990, coinciding with the centenary of Van Gogh’s death in Auvers, France on the 29th July 1890. Today The property is a private boarding house.

    References / Links




    Real Wild Child CD-ROM (Mushroom Pictures – Pacific Advanced Media – Powerhouse Museum – ABC, 1998)



    TALES FROM THE FOGG - by Roger Foley-Fogg

    MARCH 14, 15, 16, 17,  22, 23, 24, Easter Weekend March 29, 30, 31 and  April 1

    at 107 Projects 107 Redfern Street, REDFERN. 

    Noon to 5:00PM each day

    AND different performances each night see :  http://www.talesfromthefogg.net

     A personal psychedelic exhibition and opportunity to purchase:

    Costumes and fetish wear clothes by Madam Lash. Clothes by Linda Jackson

    My collection of fantasy shoes include some with 8 inch heels, 

    Paintings and posters by Martin Sharp, Jim Anderson, Maggie Walsh and many others. 

    Rock and Roll and psychedelic posters from the 60s

    funky 60s theatre lights

    My photographs from The Spirit of the Gija series taken while working with indigenous desert Aborigines in the Kimberley.

    photo montages from The Spirit of India series by me

    Lumino Kinetic Artworks inspired by Indian culture by me.

    Same as above with more dertail nsd some groovy photos

    GRAND OPENING – with licensed bar

    Thursday March 14th

    the Psychedelic Exhibition 6:00PM to 9:00PM. 

    Opened by Jon Lewis and Prof. Ross Steele.

    With MC Edwina Blush.

    and then the following performances on the weekend which include a relaxed time after each show for supper and a drink with the artists.

    Friday March 15, 6:30PM live performance with JIM ANDERSON – An Artists Journey – illustrated,and EDWINA BLUSH see flyer below.

    Saturday March 16, OATS 6:30PM – the long lost film of the first pop festival in Australia at Ourimbah 1969 - WORLD PREMIERE – Once around the Sun and a celebration with Director David Huggett, licensed bar and light supper provided for ‘after party’.

    Sunday March 17, 6:30PM - live performance with MADAM LASH and DANNY ABOOD - a personal story with Sylvia and The Synthetics Danny Abood – a highly entertaining interaction. Followed by:

    8:30PM following Gretel’s live performance a free screening of ‘Thats Showbiz”, one of PHILLIP NOYCE’s first films. Starring Madam Lash and her ‘whip act’

    Exhibition continues the following two weekends: 

    Noon to 5:00PM thu fri sat sun with Mr FOGG – free admission.

    Live shows continue the following weekend with JOHNNY ALLEN’s illustrated talk about The Aquarius Festival-Nimbin, Cabaret Conspiracy, The Arts factory and Paris Theatre accompanied by the great JEANNIE LEWIS – Then an expanded screening of Albie Thoms ‘Marinetti’ introduced by David Perry followed by our tribute to BLACK and WHITE FREEDOM on the 50th anniversary of OZ Magazine with Francesca Emerson with HERE  -CORRECTION REQUIRED) Andreea Kindryd’s FROM SLAVERY TO STAR TREK.

    DETAILS and links to all the artists here www.talesfromthefogg.net

    BOOKINGS: http://www.trybooking.com/Event/EventSearch.aspx?keyword=fogg

    More information and pictures follow.


    Some of the costumes on display and for sale at the exhibition which including the’ Gown-less Evening Strap’ by Madam Lash.



    Oz boys in London: admiring/pissing on? their own magazine promotion!


    advertisement in GO-SET for the Ourimbah Pilgrimage for Pop.



     OATS or ‘Once Around the Sun’, The film about this festival, the first Rock/Pop Festival in Australia, has just been found and its world Premiere will be on Saturday March 16

    Once Around The Sun was inspired by the Pilgrimage For Pop Festival at Ourimbah near Sydney on a hot and sunny Australia/Invasion Day Weekend in 1970 – so the film is now 43 years old – and has finally made it to the screen, thanks to Exec Producers David Hannay and Jeff Harrison at Umbrella Entertainment. OATS was originally conceived and filmed by the late Gordon Mutch and the late Eddie Van der Madden in 1970. It has now been digitally restored on video by the original editor and co-director David Huggett, who worked on the project until it crashed in 1973


    Once Around The Sun is an evocative psychedelic joyride back to the heady culmination of the flower-power era and, assisted by the consciousness-expanding effects of psychotropic drugs, is a celebration of the dawning of the Space Age, The Nuclear Age and Aboriginal and Gay Liberation in The Cultural Revolution at The Dawning of The Age of Aquarius. Once Around The Sun contains unique performances in 35mm colour by some of the first Australian Rock and Blues icons: Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs, Jeff St John and The Copperwine, Chain, Leo de Castro, Tully, Wendy Saddington and Company Caine, Hans Poulsen and Max Merritt and The Meteors.The orchestral music score accompanying the flights of fantasy into the origins of life, the universe and everything, was written and conducted by Australian jazz/rock legend John Sangster.

    Madam Lash meets and wisely ignores Fred Nile

     A tasty enuf final image to tempt any of you? Remember exhibition during afternoons is free. And shows at night are very low cost. I am going to everything – to remind myself where I came from.

  • 11 Mar 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    Hi, its now more than a week since I saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Belvoir. With a Mardi Gras Parade and Party in between. Plus Library work, plus other shows, etc. The good news is Alison Croggon who eventually caved into the pressures of blogging after I think nine years of devotion, has been salvaged by ABC Arts Online and she has a chance to do what she is so good at in another place in cyberspace. A good and proper result. Meanwhile I struggle , but let’s not sond like a tin drum.

    I thought this Simon Stone directed A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was one of the worst productions of a good script I have ever encountered. Stone is good and smart and I trust self-assured enuf to take a bitch slap from an old queen like me (on behalf of one of the great theatre queens – Tennessee Williams).

    Consolation for Belvoir is that, the night I saw it, the production appeared to be well received by paying punters. But to someone like myself who has seen a lot of theatre I could only watch in silent horor as this poor little ship of lost and confused characters drove itself into an iceberg. I’ve not seen the play onstage before, but anyone who has seen the film is well aware of the potential to bring to life fabulous characters in a gut-wrenching version of  ’a failing marriage’.

    “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is a 1958 American drama film directed by Richard Brooks.[1][2] It is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name by Tennessee Williams adapted by Richard Brooks and James Poe. One of the top-ten box office hits of 1958, the film stars Elizabeth TaylorPaul Newman and Burl Ives.”

    The play is fabulous and well-constructed, and the film has excellence written all over it. One could dare say the life story of the Hollywood marriage begins with Cat: Taylor (Maggie) and Newman (Brick) are incendiary in the intensity of their struggle to keep their young marriage afloat. In my view the sexiest paring ever in a Hollywood movie – maybe any movie. With the final collapse of the dream a mere eight years later with Elizabeth Taylor again, on this occasion an old marriage, paired with Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. A hundred-year history (say 1920 to 2020)  squeezed into less less than a decade – 1958  to 1966 – thematically speaking. In the first we have a couple who can’t conceive because the man does not want to have sex with his wife anymore, not since his best mate has died. A homosexual undercurrent (this is Tennessee Williams remember), quite explicit in the play. And in the film version of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, we see an older couple initially grieving over the loss of their child and we end up discovering there probably never was one. I know Elizabeth Taylor is much admired for many reasons, but to be remembered forever she would only have had to complete these two roles. I saw a superb stage production of Who’s Afraid..in London some years back at the National starring Paul Eddington and Margaret Tyzack, directed by a woman and designed by a women. A ‘womanly perspective’ was perhaps a key to that production’s wonderful ‘reading’, along with two superb leading  performances. So I know actors (apart from Newman and Taylor) can make this play work. In fact the Old Tote version in 1964 starring Jacqueline Kott, Alex Hay, Wendy Blacklock and Kevin Miles, directed by John Clark is still  remembered by anyone who saw it as one of the highlights of the Old Tote’s era.

    I was not expecting director Simon Stone to cast similarly on the pheromonal ‘richter-scale’ as the Cat film, but there is nothing at all sexy happening here between Jacqueline McKenzie (Maggie) and Ewen Leslie (Brick). They are two of our best actors. As much as a fan as I am of both, I could not see them in these roles – especially as a pair. And I am right, it doesn’t work out. Nopt necessarily their fault  - they appear to get little guidance (or the wrong guidance) from the director. In fact I am starting to suspect Stone (and designer Robert Cousins) when evolving a new show simply ask themselves a hundred times over: what will the audience expect? Well let’s just darn well do the opposite. McKenzie’s greatest stage performance that I have seen  in Sydney was her Joan of Arc – the very definition of NOT sexy. And having missed all Leslie’s Melbourne work of late, I go back to ‘his ‘star is born ‘ moment in The War of the Roses to know that he too is an actor of the highest calibre. My compliant has nothing to do with their private lives, personal  bedroom skills, or even the casting here. But when I saw the McKenzie/Leslie combo I did think: ‘I hope the director knows what he is doing’.

    Ewen Leslie (Brick) and Jacqueline McKenzie (Maggie) – photo by Heidrun Lohr

    On the other hand I was excited in advance in the casting of Anthony Phelan as Big Daddy and was disappointed to see him have to withdraw and be replaced by Marshall Napier – who did extremely well I must say at very short notice. There are other performances that hit the mark, noteably Lynette Curran as the begging mother and Rebecca Massey as the grasping sister-in-law.

    The most obvious problem with this production and just about every person has mentioned it – is the loss of the USA Southern drawl replaced by regular modern Australian. Anyone who reads me would know I have no problem with such a shift in theory.

    It’s also one thing to point to, in this instance, an artistic mistake. Quite another to unpack the reasons that might explain why. is it really or only a matter of accents? Such a discussion would easily  fit inside the larger one we have been having over the past few years on the ripping up, cut-and-past, abridged, edited, updating etc of playwright’s scripts by a new generation of young Australian directors. But why in the case off Tennessee Williams does it come off as such a gaffe. One possibility lies in the intricacy of Williams’ surface – his dialogue (and with that the original accent that goes with it). It’s likely (but not a scientific fact) that if you strip any one of his William’s plays of its high camp-Rococo surface, what lies beneath all  of a sudden appears pretty  thin. A brilliant example of  Marshall McLuhan’s 1960′s observation that ‘the medium is the message’. Extra reading includes Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ and ‘Against Interpretation’. The latter being one of the most obvious influences, however out of date, of my way with ‘criticism’.

    For a clue to what I mean: have you have seen Almodovar’s All About My Mother? There are scenes of an actress on stage in a Madrid/Barcelona (I forget) production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It’s a very camp production (in a very camp film). You dont have to be very smart to predict the result of combining Williams and  Almodovar in the cauldron of creativity. And more to the point just these few small scenes in the Almodovar movie carry a gravitas that on a set of comedic scales outweighs this current Belvoir production of A Cat On A Hot Tin Roof in Sydney by a square root of infinity to one. And note: there were no southern accents: the production was in Spanish. Possibly trash Spanish, I wouldn’t know. But we knew even by way of gesture that we were watching something very camp – within camp. The whole film is camp: and, here’s the droll irony, you wouldn’t have heart if you didn’t want to cry at the end of this film. As  we all should want to cry when we get to the end of pretty much any Tennessee Williams’ play.

    So to say the Australian accents is the primary flaw may not be true. Perhaps better to ask where was the exotica, the frills, the ‘campness’ that by way of contradiction creates the birth of empathy and ultimately grieving in the bodies of production’s the audience.. And if you think ‘camp’ is a derogatory word holding little meaning beyond a slight to a person attempting to light a cigarette a la Bette Davis – go read the other Sontag essay (on that subject) I sited above.

    I generally hold the view that you can do anything to or with a playwright’s script so long as it’s as good or better than what the playwright had in mind. In truth every production of every play, even every performance of the same production is different every night. So it’s not ‘difference’ from some sturdy template that’s been breached here.

    Words (certainly my words here) are ill-equipped to carry the meaning I would wish to capture here – so bear with me as I stumble while I try. In a way it’s the  same difference been believing in astronomy and being asked to believe equally in astrology. It’s by no means an effortless leap. And it takes us into the dark heart of making theatre. Can I defer to the words of a marketing guru from Conde Nast in New York, who came out to speak to those of us (back then) holed up in the grubby Atarmon Vogue office.

    He told us that every magazine title had its own built-in DNA and anyone working on that particular magazine had to submit to that scientific fact. By way of evidence he pointed out that the wrong photo on a cover could cost a million sales and the right photo could add a million sales. And here’s the rub of it: take the photo that failed on one title (say Vogue) and put it on another one targeting a different audience (say TeenVogue), you could have another big sales hit. So while a director may quite rightly refuse to see him or herself as a servant to the so-called ‘author’s intentions’, they may not have been left off the hook to do whatever they want. If you wish to do anything you wan you need to include ‘the words’ on your ‘to-do’ list. Because somewhere in a pre-existing script lies a tiny nano-molecule of DNA which, if you don’t respect it, this thing as tiny and as important as the Higgs-Boson particle will rise up like a fire-spitting gorgon and drag you down into Dante’s sixth (Heresy) or eighth (Fraud) level of hell. Pardon my lavishness.

    It’s a precarious case I put. And it goes hand in and with the other unscientific theory I have as of why we can still see in our minds-eye the best performances forever, while the rest fade away. I say they are printed like an x-ray on our souls. Well how flippy-floppy is that – yet in my view truer than true. Given that Simon Stone is still young and has had a few big hits as well as a couple of mega-misses I decline to pass any further judgement – for now. Other than he’s lucker than other directors of his potential in hitting the big time with so little behind him. Other than ask him to next time ponder prayer-like, as the Cardinals are doing right now in the Sistine Chapel, for even a glimpse of the theatre-art’s version of the Higgs-Boson particle in whatever the play-text he may wish to adore – or maul as is the case here. However Stone or any director goes about their theatre-making experiment, they need a collision – with something so tiny and not yet even certain to exist. But that collision remans a must. What we have here is a speedy whip around Switzerland and part of France – but no impact. Directors – you must look to the text’s DNA – once you have that in your grasp – party up as much as you like.

    At the end of every production of any Tennessee Williams play the audience should be left to heroically weep. I cared nothing for these characters, nor their predicaments. Even the candy-coloured party curtain is a mistake – it’s too strong. Far too dominant. We in the audience suffer no grieving in this version of the Cat On a Hot Tin Roof story. That curtain – the production’s only visual totem – doesn’t work as irony. And it’s surely not trying to tell us that all is well in Big Daddy’s Lear-like kingdom. That we can’t see through the curtain’s shrill cheeriness to what lies behind  is only one of this production’s many problems.



  • 28 Feb 2013 /  News

    Dear Children,

    I am  putting this up to show you my age. And to suggest you look at this document with your diaries open. Here is a once-in-a-life-time chance to get some major insights into the alternative art/performance culture of the Sydney that raged big time in the late 1960s and through the 1970s. I was just a tiny bit younger, so these are the people who had a lot to do with shaping who I am and the way I think today. They were truly heady days and Roger Foley (Ellis D Fogg) is creating a fun and very rare opportunity to revisit this wonderful Alice-In-Wonderland world.

    This is only a let-you-know in advance. Once MGras is over I will write more about some the people who are contributing to this very special event. I am not going to miss a single session. But in that next post, I will try and help you pick and choose depending on your interests, curiosities and taste.


  • 25 Feb 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE


    I came home from the theatre a couple of nights ago and, somewhat over-excited, I announced on Facebook: ‘Sorry Judy and Cate, Helen Thomson is my new favourite Sydney actress!’ By that I did not mean for the others to step down from the podium, but perhaps make some room. My ‘shouting from the roof tops’ wasn’t about who is good, better or best, although an official acknowledgement of Helen Thomson’s elite status is overdue. And there are others, to be fair – Pamela Rabe and Susan Prior immediately come to mind. In fact the trouble is we have too many good actresses for the number of roles available. Many more than we have capable men. So if I haven’t mentioned your name here already  it doesn’t mean I don’t hold you in high regard. It’s just that I want  to talk about Helen Thomson in Mrs Warren’s Profession. This was definitely her  role – in the demands it called far: an artlessness that required great craft.

    Helen Thomson as Mrs Warren – quietly confidant before the troubles start.

    It’s been building, my admiration for Thomson’s work. And it’s not just about being a good actress. It’s also her kind of acting which particularly appeals to me. There is so often a tender vulnerability, and  a compassion for the characters she plays. Along with an invisible, gravity-defying structure holding her best work aloft. Elegant, light of touch, sensitive, deft, tender are descriptors that immediately come mind. Her characters appear to be spun out of air. But then, whenever we least expect, we are shown the boldness, conviction and fortitude of a lioness in attack.

    Some of the productions where I have been drawn to her work include In the Next Room or the vibrator play, The Season at Sarsaparilla (both at STC) and as Pearl in Neil Armfield’s production of The Summer of the 17th Doll at Belvoir. But nevermore so have we seen this ‘other’ side of Helen Thomson’s gift/skill than in the title role of Mr Kitty Warren in Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession.

    An excited mother with daughter Vivie – played by Lizzie Schebesta.

    At first Thomson begins as if speaking through a veil. It feels kind of thin, almost unconvincing. Is the actress unwell? It’s actually a deliberate disguise, which goes with the story. Because not long after, in an answer to a question from here daughter, the veil is ripped away. Even her posh accent is thrown to the floor. We realise she has been in control the whole time. She’s been toying with us. Towards the end of the play, she slips in and out of these two people (the original and her double) as she struggle’s to explain to her beautiful, smart, bold, honest daughter as to why it is the way it is. It’s all been for her, her daughter.But the daughter, Vivie, will have none of it. Unfortunately she has been brought up too well to take a step back. A terrific performance also – confident and bright – from Lizzie Schebesta as Vivie: on equal footing with Thomson – scene for scene, if a little less complex. We will be surely seeing more of Shcebesta after this.

    Drew Forsythe as The Revd Samuel Gardner & Eamon Farren as his son Frank.

    What was mother’s profession, her daughter asks? Okay so what is her profession now? Why? Why still. The daughter does not like what she hears. Any more than the mother likes to hear her daughter speak to her this way. This is a mother-daughter cat-fight that leaves a lot of claw marks. And at the end of the play, we are left probably agreeing that both are in the right only to the extent that they are  both, tragically, to some degree also in the wrong.

    It’s a brilliant script by Shaw, in my view more significant and successful than Pygmalion; though in its time it met with much consternation from the critics and authorities alike. Performances were banned in England and America for several years. A case of too many home truths about the system for those running the system to accept.

    Simon Burke ‘tiptoes through the tulips’ as Praed.

    I’m really not giving too much away. Because Shaw, inspired  by Ibsen, chose to take on social themes. And Shaw, like the provocative 1970s German filmmaker Fassbinder, also liked to leave his endings open (see Fassbinder’s film based on the Ibsen play A Doll House). The mother and the  daughter may part ways, but that’s not the point. The question is – why? What prior circumstances had led to this? We know from Isabella in Measure for Measure there is also (hello Vivie) the sin of  pride. Is the daughter really doing the right thing it sending her mother packing?

    Well, that’s for us to argue over wine or coffee after we leave the theatre. Bourgeois drama requires ‘closure’ – by the end we are happily back to where we were in the beginning usually after one too many songs. Grateful for being thoroughly distracted from our worries in the real world for a few hours before we return to it unchanged. It’s like sugar, we can enjoy some of it in our food, but it cannot compose  the entirety of our diet. Shaw did not write bourgeois melodramas. Shaw was a fair-dinkum Socialist, from a time when that meant something. And we, the people, must find our own answers to the questions raised in the play. Or in the very least admit the subject under Shaw’s spotlight is more complex and multi-faceted than we thought before we the entered the theatre.

    Money talks: Martin Jacobs as Crofts hitting on the young Vivie.

    A few other thoughts. The STC has had a heck of a fine start to the year. And looking at what lies ahead one could chance a bet on a bit more good stuff coming our way. On paper the combination of particular actors and directors to scripts looks good. And the texts are of interest. Who doesn’t want to see The Maids with Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert in a production directed by Benedict Andrews? We can’t ask for more than that. What leads to success beyond this is in the hands of the gods, or a good rehearsal period, or perhaps even chance.

    This production of Mrs Warren’s Profession is directed by up-and-coming Sarah Giles who very clearly succeeds in delivering the package in one piece and with impact. Despite a few quibbles I have, she should be very proud of her achievement.

    Vivie is catching on. 

    Let’s have a little talk, shall we.


    It’s neat and well-paced. For a Shaw play you feel the comedy woven into the politics. Though I think Giles could have pushed Simon Burke as Praed a little more to an extreme (easily within the grasp of Burke’s talent and experience). As a family friend, Praed is nice and jolly. But his blindness to the reality that other people can be very wayward is seen by Shaw as irresponsible. Burke’s Praed tiptoes through the lives of his friends blinkered to anything that might be called problematic. He is not just in the play to add a bit of fun. To Shaw it’s a fault: only a character as wealthy as Praed can drift through life without a care in the world.

    Similarly with Drew Forsythe as The Revd. Samuel Gardner, whose role on the plot I will not divulge. As keenly presented as he is by the gifted Drew Forsythe, it’s a given that Shaw loathed dithering county clergymen as much as he did the Archbishop of Canterbury. Through harmless little rituals like country christenings and weddings, along with visits to his wealthier parishioners for cups of tea, the very good Revd. is stitching up a continuation of the class divide. I do think here some of the punch in the play is lost. On top of that Revd Gardner is living out one very big lie.

    What Giles focuses on – the relationship between mother and daughter – is excellently done. Yes we have two significant talents at work here in Thomson and Schebesta. But their scenes need to be orchestrated. And yes we have a new director rising the the ranks.

    The dirt starts to fly.

    It’s a simple and effective set, from another emerging talent, Renee Mulder. Perhaps a little hesitant. Its scantiness apart from a wall of flowers (very nice) works well. This simple look certainly didn’t need a revolve, especially for the little work that was asked of it. The costumes meanwhile are just lovely: beautifully made and not a bit overstated.

    All in all, we have a work the creatives can be proud of.  A middle ranking achievement from the newbies, but that’s fine. Some of the  support roles could be pushed around  a bit more to add further echoing of the themes (some audience members will leave this production unaware that Shaw loathed people like Praed and the Revd Gardner). I need to say here quickly Martin Jacobs, however, absolutely nails Sir George Crofts. A rather slimy figure who knows all too well that money can buy happiness. If  not quite so in the case of Vivie, other chances lie ahead. It’s this decision, regarding Crofts offer, where Vivie most directly mirrors the major life choice of her mother. But her mother did not enjoy the benefits of a good education, when it comes to the fight, as a card to put down on the table!

    Feelings win for a short time over Vivie’s reasoning.

    One  reason to go out of your way to see this production is  Shaw’s wonderful script, influenced by Ibsen yet even more overtly conscience-prickingly provocative. Both dramatists suffered rejection of their early work for much the same reason: the content was of their plays was ‘scandalous’. When, in looking back from where we are a century later, we know the Shaw’s real offence is in questioning the rights of some among us to enjoy extra privileges. Actually lots of extra privileges. For no input from themselves.

    That the cruelty of class divide has morphed into a global format (country against country as much as citizen against citizen) is not a point this production puts to us directly. But it doesn’t mean we can’t take our mind there as we snuggle in under our  one-thousand-thred linen sheets.

    The other is Helen Thomson’s intelligent and beautifully shaped performance. Criticism is never objective and should never pretend to be. All I can say here is: I love watching Helen Thomson act. And never more so than as the heroic and loving mother, Mrs Kitty Warren. Who gets spat on in the end for her doing the wrong thing so her daughter can enjoy the right results.

  • 11 Feb 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    I’ve written previously that I was only going to concentrate on the big four this year – STC, Belvoir, Griffin and Opera Australia – and even their output is too much for one person to cover adequately. Anyway I just happen to have seen a mix of other shows over last weeks which I thought I would try to cover in one post. Following this I have promised Roger Foley (Ellis D Fogg) to put up some news about his upcoming special festival of events. Very keen to tell my younger readers about this – it’s a very rare chance. Then I’ve got two operas to write about (I’ll do them together). All in prep for the next big one - Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - starring Jacqueline McKenzie and Ewen Leslie, Simon Stone directing and Robert Cousins designing. The cast includes Anthony Phelan as Big Daddy, a performance I await with interest. Unlikely casting but very possibly inspired.

    Back to my speed date through these gigs I’ve seen of late. Peter Pan at Belvoir, School Dance at STC Wharf One, Rust and Bone at Griffin, Great Falls at the Ensemble, Milk Milk Lemonade at the New Theatre.

    Amber McMahon, Matthew Whittet, Luke Smiles and Jonathon Oxlade in School Dance
    © Lisa Tomasetti

    School Dance is an excellent study of pimple-age self-consciousness, written by Matthew Whittet (who also performs). It has been visiting Sydney from Adelaide, the creation of Windmill – a theatre company for young audiences and their families. Directed by the company’s Artistic Director Rosemary Myers. Sorry to have not alerted you earlier because it is one of the most tender, funny and well put together shows I have seen in a while – and for all ages. The Sydney season is now over. The best features of  School Dance was the unity of its group invention and wide-open embrace of the audience. The cast reached out for us in the required first two minutes and kept us locked in engagement to the very end. A very fine show. People  were talking about it in the same breath as The Secret River during Sydney Festival time.

    Jonathon Oxlade, Luke Smiles and Matthew Whittet in School Dance © Lisa Tomasetti

    Quite a contrast in value to the show I saw the night before, Peter Pan at Belvior. I had hoped to re-read J.M. Barrie’s much loved story before I saw the show. Curious to see how the translation from prose to stage (as in The Secret River) worked out. In retrospect I am glad I didn’t, because without such back-up I discovered this production simply did not communicate its story to anyone who was not not already familiar with the narrative line (I have run this question past a few people). A few names like Wendy, Tinker Bell (original spelling) and Captain Hook had some resonance. But with no memories of any story attached. Just names in the vast crowd of fictional and factional characters from books and films, newspaper reading and yarns over meals that hide in holes in walls in my brain – collected now for over 50 years: from Shy the Platypus to Hedda Gabler to Eddie Obied and the Faceless Men of Sussex Street. Some mouldy some fresh.

    Meyne Wyatt as Peter Pan: Photo by Brett Boardman

    Whatever my past experience, it was up to the production to stand on its own two feet and for the cast to tell me the story afresh. That didn’t happen. The show has enjoyed excellent reviews (I am happy for that). But I am guessing  most other reviewers and the bulk of the paying public enjoyed the show because they still have easy access to some imprint  of the tale in their minds – onto which they could over-print with this production. There were some minor efforts at invention in the design. But overall, This Peter Pan it was a revealing as staring at a Rothko painting for two hours with my eyes shut. I am glad I emerged devoid of any experience to take home with me because at the bar there fell open an intense debate about gender roles – such as ‘women waiting on the desires of men’ (however old). Stinging criticism of the play’s under-text, which, I was relieved to discover, I had nothing to contribute. And so I could just listen and suck on the re-assuring nipple of a Coopers Pale Ale.

    Geraldine Hakewell as Wendy: Photo by Brett Boardman

    For me the cast failed to reach out for me in that crucial first few minutes and never after that. It was completely insular, performed as if no one else was in the room. By that I mean an audience. It wasn’t an A-list cast, and even though the casting of Meyne Wyatt as Peter Pan had caused a pre-show buzz, he needed more guidance. I think the director, Belvoir’s Artistic Director, Ralph Myers, might have got lucky with his previous effort (Noel Coward’s Private Lives) because that cast was much more talented and experienced. As I said above, I am glad most other critics liked it, and I presume most ticket buyers did too.But to suggest Peter Pan is up there with The Book of Everything, dearie me that’s utter folly: just like comparing chalk with brie. In my defence the photos look better than the show did on stage. It wasn’t an artistic mess, it was just a mess.

    The whole Peter Pan cast: Photo by Brett Boardman

    Let’s get down to the more Indie shows.

    Rust and Bone at the Griffin  intertwined three short stories by a Canadian writer Craig Davidson, the cutting and pasting by  local (talented) playwright Caleb Lewis. This is man-eats-moose kinda stuff thrown on a plate by its creators akin to a late-night roadside diner feed on the highway to hell. Again I felt left out. I could find no reason why I should be listening to these boring tales or why Lewis would  think them even more interesting on stage if convolutedly intertwined. The acting was pathetic. Lucky this wasn’t an official Griffin gig, but not many people would know that. The new people better not squander too much of the goodwill the company has acquired under the leadership of Sam Strong. In fairness, because I am not gong to bother to put a case, here is a link to a positive and well argued review from Crikey reviewer, Lloyd Bradford Syke.

    Christopher Stollery & Erica Lovell on the road – Great Falls: Photo Steve Lunam

    Now to the taste-treat favourite of this lolly-bag of stage encounters. If you have any interest in theatre at all – especially writing and acting, I beg you, go see this. It’s heaven on a stick. A play at the Ensemble called Great Falls by American writer Lee Blessing. Not a familiar name but a master craftsman, and he has learned a lot about succinct, character intense, forward-driven writing in his close to  60 years in the game. IThe production is unobtrusively, yet very astutely directed Anna Crawford. The actors are Erica Lovell playing the grown-up-too-soon obstreperous step-daughter and Christopher Stollery is the never-can-quite-get-it-right, trying-to-make amends step-dad who decides they should go for a drive. To describe it as funny and heart-warming may make it sound like a slab of American Pie. If it is, then it’s very well baked.

    I will let the first two names pass by  - Crawford and Lovell – mainly because I am new to their work. But I have been watching Christopher Stollery for some years now, and particularly catching my eye of late for his stripped-bare, measured, ego-free honesty. A whole lot of giving to a series of slightly off-centre middle-aged men. The kind you find in the books of Don DeLillo. Apart from craft, Stollery also pours a whole lot of compassion into a man who just can’t ever get whatever he’s trying to do quite right. Maybe once, by the end: you decide.

    Stollery & Lovell in Great Falls: Photo by Steve Lunam

    Very impressive for newcomer Erica Lovell to keep up with Stollery all the way, with not a flicker of self-doubt. This is why I trundle off week-in, week-out, in all kinds of weather, just to catch, just a few times a year, acting that’s this unvarnished and eloquent. Great Falls is a lovely play as modern as it is old-fashioned; and here, at the Ensemble, very nicely done.


    Kieran Foster as Elliot (the farm-boy next door) with his true love Emory played by Mark Dessaix in Milk Milk Lemonade.

    For my last play/production I am going to be as lazy as I can. The show was fab, i could go on but running out of steam. I have pulled this up from director Melita Rowston’s Facebook page. Just a few words from me straight after getting home from the New Theatre where thjis production is playing. Another American play, another good recipe if not quite as rich. This one’s called Milk Milk Lemonade by Josh Conkel. Why that title I have no idea because the play is set on a chicken farm. Again a deceptively well put together script.



    It was my first taste of  Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras season 2013 and here’s what I scribbled to Melita: Jimmy Waites ’Adorable production – very well realised and a heap of fun – the love story was beautifully told by both the writer and the actors – and presumably input from you too - a gay play fit to be called a gay play. Go find and read a  fabulous first novel called Lord of the Barn Yard. Not gay but just as hilarious and naughty.’ Trust me – if you’re in the mood for fun and you’re a gay or gay-friendly indie theatre lover. This one’s for you.






  • 27 Jan 2013 /  Reviews, THEATRE

    A friend in the business asked what The Secret River was like. Here is my slightly tinkered with email reply: ‘You must see The Secret River. The Secret River is 6 years in the making (to our amazement we found out on opening night it was the first project commissioned by Cate and Andrew when they took on the artistic directorship). It’s not only Neil at his finest, Bovell at his finest, a cast drawn to brilliant performances – sets costumes workshop etc. But no-one has yet said that this is also a highly intellectual and polemic work. Its race relations politics are well worked through and we have Australian theatre’s most important contribution to the History Wars debate since Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji.” 

    Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River
    © Cassandra Hannagan / ABC Arts online


    That ‘History Wars’ kerfuffle may have gone quiet in other media and art forms for want of anything further left to say. But our theatre has struggled throughout to find effective ways to engage. Not for want of interest or effort, or the number of works (just one being The Seven Stages of Grieving) that have paved the way for these tw0 outstanding works for the stage. But to get to the top, it’s a matter of both understanding the potential of the art form we call theatre, plus the ability to realise that potential technically and creatively. Saying is one thing, doing is another. Both Scott Rankin (director of Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, and Neil Armfield (director of the STC’s The Secret River), understand in their bones what theatre was, is and can be. And both possess the skills to bring a major work to life. If in very different ways. Despite both being about Australian race/culture relations, the two works could not be more different. Nor the methods the directors employ. Do I prefer one to the other? I don’t think we need to go there quite yet.

    Nathaniel Dean as William Thornhill

    There are a few theatre-makers hovering in the next rank who I think are making their own way up the ladder of excellence, mostly by trial and error. And some excellent older creatives still around who have been forgotten with nary a thought for what they might have to offer the ‘now’ generation. A great squandering that.

    For example: Chekhov master, George Ogilvie, may not be up to directing a full main-stage production these days. But how many people who think they are important in Australia’s theatre-world today are familiar with Oglivie’s name, much less his body of work? I can cite another director of the first order barely remembered from the generation that followed Ogilvie’s: namely Rex Cramphorn, who spent several of his early years writing theatre reviews for the Bulletin. On 9 November 1968, Cramphorn published an end-of-year overview titled ‘Ideals and Actualities’, covering both Sydney and Melbourne seasons. Not too happy with what had been dished up, towards the end of the essay he writes in a fragment of consolation: “No-one would suggest the theatre is booming in Melbourne. But some conclusions may be drawn from the success of the Melbourne Theatre Company, with George Ogilvie’s production of The Three Sisters, probably the best thing I’ve seen in theatre in Australia.” (1 – see end of post)

    Anita Hegh as Thornhill’s wife – Sal

    This is a glowing praise from a young buck (Cramphorn) who in the next few years would emerge as the most formally innovative director this country has ever produced, making work (initially in Grotowski’s ‘Poor Theatre’ tradition) in a manner entirely at odds with Ogilvie’s essentially classical style. Their commonality – a huge belief in the importance of the actor and a meticulous eye for (correct) detail.

    My questions are these. If you don’t know your theatre’s history, how could you ever get near knowing  - and/or sharing – a story from our nation’s broader history? Plus, if you’re in the play-making craft, leave the room now if you can’t or won’t put your actors first. Ogilvie and Cramphorn, Rankin and Armfield share the same view: it’s their job to assist the actors in finding a way for them to tell the story. The theatre director is a facilitator not an auteur, even if the final look of the work gives the latter impression. People wonder at how Armfield bumbles round a rehearsal room, as did Cramphorn: yet up come the lights on opening night and what is our reaction? ‘This could only be an Armfield’ or ‘This could only be a Cramphorn’.

    An early meeting: Ursula Yovich as the narrator, Roy Gordon as the elder Yalamundi & Rhimi Johnson Page as Wangarra

    Self-centredness is quite a valid posture in other art-forms like painting, novel-writing and particular film-making where actors are indeed rightly slaves to the director’s celluloid/digital vision – where we are seeing a story through one eye (not even two). But not theatre: in the most painfully telling example of last year was Benedict Andrews’ navel gazing in Every Breath at the Belvoir compared to his brilliant open-hearted generous rendition for Opera Australia of The Marriage of Figaro which had premiered only a week earlier.

    In making important work, development and rehearsal time are factors. Scott Rankin’s Ngapartji Ngrapartji took seven years to create – far reaching, unrelenting, thorough: involving much consultation with the owners of the story and traversing much sensitive cultural terrain. Pretty much daring to go where no whitefella in Australian show business has ever gone before. With a passion to truly tell a story from the view of this country’s First People as best he could, given the position he was born into as a non-Aboriginal. There are plenty of posts dedicated to Rankin’s work on this website – if you can find any of them. This site I know needs a thorough tidy up.

    Sal making friends

    Making music – Trevor Jamieson and Iain Grandage

    Armfield’s The Secret River, we discover on opening night, took six years to produce. I doubt if it took as many working hours as one of Rankin’s major works. There is a lot to be said, nonetheless, for letting things brew – and in this case it shows. This is one of the most meticulous works from Armfield (and his team) out of the many he has created in his favoured ‘backyard barbie’ style. A deceptive throwaway feel that leaves the audience wide open when the big moments hit.

    That said, he has been forced to tread warily through much of the same land-mined cultural terrain that Rankin has stared down. I’m not going to favour one over the other here because each of these directors go about making theatre in very different ways. Rankin determined to ensure the people who own the story, or are close to it, are included in its dramatisation – and ideally benefit socially as well. Say in the case of the more recent Namatjira, descendants not only got to show their own art work in good galleries in all the main cities the show played. But by the end of the run they were getting prices twice or more than what they had been before the show got up.

    In The Secret River, Armfield is somewhat let off this hook. This is essentially an Australian (History Wars) race-relations story (as were Ngapartji Ngapartji and Namatjira), but quintessentially from a whitefella’s perspective. Where Rankin might defer to many people from outback communities in making his work, Armfield really only needed Stephen Page, of Bangarra Dance Theatre fame, as an Artistic Associate, and Richard Green as a Language Consultant. No going bush for Armfield. But nor was there any need.

    Confrontation escalates

    What must have come first after choosing to commission this project would have been who to hire as an adapter? From novel to play-script – in this instance from a very good novel to a play-script which will need to go about its task of telling the same story in a very different way. The job went to Andrew Bovell, not only one of our most sensitive playrights but with an intellect to grasp the fundamentals of the challenge. Firstly, a big slab of the novel is left out. I will come back to that. But unlike the novel, we have characters standing right in front of us and half are Aboriginal. Both sides try to communicate the only way they know how – in their own language. So great swathes of the dialogue are in a particular Indigenous language we whitefellas in the audience don’t understand. In program notes from historian Anne McGrath, we are told that  ”the people from the region the play is set  - in and around parts of the Hawkesbury River – identify as Darkinjung  and Daruk people. However with its tributaries, creeks, elbows, and associated pathways, various dialect and  language groups have complex histories of connection.”

    For a mainstream basically white audience this language wall makes a big statement. While there are very many Aboriginal languages and dialects (many dying out fast), how many of us know how to say ‘hello’ in even just one of them? It’s a question Big hART has asked its audiences in the past. Also it’s clear to see that Bovell is an excellent collaborator. As is Armfield, including in the rehearsal room where he constantly encourages input from his actors. But here especially there must have also been an intense co-operation between Bovell and language consultant, Richard Green (Language Consultant); and a great sharing among  the cast and production team overall. Overall their shared endeavour creates such a deceptively simple and seemlessly put together work.

    Jeremy Sims as Smasher Sullivan – one of the eccentric Hawkesbury River survivalists

    This post is somewhat back-to-front: keen to discuss the making of the work I have overlooked the making of what? Kate Grenville’s beautiful novel of the same name - The Secret River - tells the story of the struggles of William Thornhill, a boatsman on the Thames who, being caught for theft in an effort to feed his family, is convicted and sent with his family to the gulag at Sydney Cove. Where, after some years, he is set free and allowed to make a life for himself and his family – however he chooses. Bovell has taken the bold step of beginning the play with Thornhill staking out a claim on what he thinks is an unclaimed piece of unused, unwanted acreage jutting out into the lapping waters of one of the Hawkesbury River’s many quiet estuaries. It’s not much but it’s ‘freedom’.

    As the drama unfolds we get to meet a family of Aboriginals who happen to consider this same piece of land as theirs. Each group politely waits for the other to move on. After a few years of tolerance and near-friendship, both families realise this is not going to happen. That’s when the trouble really starts.

    There is an imbalance between the way the two family groups are portrayed. The Thornhills are fully fleshed out individuals (western-style). Whereas the Aboriginal characters present more-or-less as a structureless mob. We can tell they have a leader in Yalamundi, but after that? Here too the production is making a point: this story is told through the eyes of William Thornhill and this blob of lookalikes is all he can see. He becomes particularly concerned when he discovers his boys are making friends with the ‘native’ kids, playing games and learning skills from them. It is mostly through the  innocence of the children in the story that any potential rapprochement is cultivated. Sadly the adults, especially the white adults, fail to take advantage of these openings to better understanding and reconciliation.

    Given the inability of the two racial/cultural groupings to cultivate any meaningful coming together, Bovell decides that at times a narrator is needed. This responsibility is given to Ursula Yovich, thoughtfully played, along with a couple of other smaller character roles. She may be overly gentle in her rendering of a story that ends in pointless tragedy. But I have made the point before, going way back to the emerging works by Aboriginal theatre-makers in the 1980s: that there is something counter-productive in yelling at people who have already declared their interest and  empathy by putting dollars down for the chance to know more. I am not at all against ‘angry’ theatre, and there have been some great examples when Aboriginals got their first chances to make the kind of theatre whitefellas do. And on the subject of race-relations in this country, even today, we could have more of that. But it was certainly not the approach Jack Davis took, Australia’s most successful Aboriginal playwright through the 1970s and 80s, despite the searing content of his tales (Kullark – 1972, The Dreamers – 1982, No Sugar – 1985). Nor has it ever been part of Armfield’s repertoire, which is partly why his productions of several of Davis’s plays worked so well.

    Armfield understands that Aussies get their back s up very quickly, and so he calculates social change by way of  theatre-making in inches. Over the past twenty-five years he has, as a result, quietly knocked-down barriers and moved us all a good distance. The opportunities he gave to the telling of stories by Aboriginal people about Aboriginal people when Artistic Director of Belvoir cannot be under-estimated. Built on the endeavours of many others – actors, writers, and directors from both sides of the racial divide. Whitefella efforts going back to Katharine Susannah Pritchard’s Brumby Innes (1927) and  the New Theatre movement  in Melbourne which, by the 1940s, was employing Aboriginal actors. Then in 1970 came Jack Charles’s Nindethana troupe which joined forces for a while with the Australian Performing Group (APG), along with new plays in the European style by Aboriginal writers, including Robert Merritt and Kevin Gilbert, addressing interracial disfunction. One could add many paragraphs to get to the present where we now have our first Aboriginal Artistic Director of a State Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch in Queensland; who attracted international as well as national attention in 1995 with his direction of 7 Stages of Grieving (written and originally performed by Deborah Mailman), and Rachael Maza Long (daughter of Aboriginal actor Bob Maza) very recently directing the autobiographical work Jack Charles Vs the Crown, co-devised on the writing side by Jack’s life-long mate, John Romeril.

    Jumping over very many significant writers and their plays, directors and their productions, actors and their characters is my Captain’s Pick. It goes to Scott Rankin’s Big hART Theatre Company’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, a work I mentioned at the top of this post. He is currently working on a mega-project in WA’s the Pilbara region. My encounter with Ngapartji Ngapartji, when it played at Belvoir, was the kick-start for this blog. Entirely different in construction and temperament, I could almost say ‘coming from the opposite direction’, The Secret River is also a masterpiece  - if not quite as complex in its invention

    If we forget the meta-framework of race-relations that so far holds together (I hope) the argument of this post, let’s now push the lens in closer. What do we have? As I started in that brief email to a colleague: ‘Neil at his best, Bovell at his finest..’ etc

    Some of the best scenes are when we break away from the ‘inter-racial-families-in-conflict’ narrative and we get to meet a circus-like carnival of weird and wild freaks who have previously staked out their claims on other pieces of the Hawkesbury and made it work for themselves, one way or another. They enjoy their lives: if nothing else it’s at a distance not only from England, but also (most of the time) the authorities based in Sydney Cove.

    Knowledge transferred by way of the children

    To the acting. From the first moment the emancipated convict William Thornhill convict carves his name into this little patch of godless earth, we know actor Nathanial Dean is born for this part. I’ve only seen Dean in a couple of live shows before, and for whatever reason his work did not particularly register. To give this massive role to a near unknown takes almost reckless courage on the part of the director, but Dean takes up the challenge and very successfully gives it his all. This is a blistering heart-stopping performance when required, and these ‘hot’ moments are held back typically by Armfield for those special occasions when the big guns are genuinely necessary. Not since Ewen Leslie in the second half of Benedict Andrews’ The War of the Roses have we had such a moment where an actor takes his professional destiny by the horns. It’s a beautiful, soul-searching performance that captures every quiver of competing emotion this role demands.

    Armfield is famous for his impeccable casting (with the odd mega-blooper tossed in to remind us even he is mortal). No mistakes here. Anita Hegh as William’s wife Sal, is both as wilful and submissive as the character and the times allow. Beautiful and measured, staunch – with just a hint of bruising to her soul. I am not going to go through the whole cast one by one. It’s in the nature of the work that the Aboriginal actors are given fewer opportunities to distinguish themselves as individuals (they are a ‘the other’). But for the history books, the Aboriginals in the cast are: Bailey Doomadgee, Kamil Ellis, Roy Gordon (as the Elder), Ethel Anne Gundy, Trevor Jamieson, Rhimi Johnson Page, James Slee, James Slee and Miranda Tapsell.

    Sal is aided in her illness

    The actors cast to play the Hawkesbury ‘maddies’, on the other hand, get to turn in some of their most colourful work ever. Each a Hogarth drawing come to life. As a group  they create a vivid reality by way of emotion-releasing brutish farce. Rarely have I seen Jeremy Sims, Colin Moody, Judith McGrath or Bruce Spence be so bold and inventive. I’ve left out the Thornhill kids, played by Lachlan Elliott, Rory Potter and Callum McMannus. All sweet, upright and bright. Here is probably the right place to mention composer Iain Grandage who performs live on stage: I don’t know how to  write about music. But it worked for me.

    Colin Moody as Thomas Blackwood (secretly married)

    We learn as the years go by and the NSW colony grew, settlers on the Hawkesbury found it easier to ignore Sydney altogether and instead row upstream and do business with the evolving township of Windsor – which eventually is where the story ends. Thornhill’s ultimate transformation into a gentleman of means requires not just a breakdown in his family’s relations with the Aboriginal cohabitants led by Yalamundi, but also a massacre.

    Trouble stirring

    The setting by Stephen Curtis is iconic – the roots of a massive stage-size ghost gum (solving this theatre’s acoustic flaw at the same time). And I thought costume designer, Tess Schofield, did an inspired job creatimg the impression of a time long-gone-by without resorting to the literal. Every item of clothing feels and looks like it’s from back then, but it’s not. Check the ‘boardies’ on Rhimi Johnson Page (see photo 4 from top). Make-up also adheres to the costumes’ mix-and-match aesthetic, if that’s what you call these smears of colours across the characters’ faces – wounds, burns, war paint, carnival masquerade.

    If the play has a dominant theme, it has been aptly put by Rory Potter, a young actor playing one of Thornhill’s sons: ‘I see the story as being about how Australia’s future and past could have been different if people like Thornhill had stood up and said this [killing] was wrong. I think people need to know what actually happened.‘ (SMH – 21 Jan 2013)

    It’s starting to get nasty

    If I can pull the lens back for one last long-shot. Just as we get this sickening sense as Thornhill marks out his modest little plot in the opening scene, that it symbolises the entire continent; equally the elder Yalamundi and his mob represent the entire indigenous population of this country ultimately dispossessed of all that was theirs and many murdered. I know the season is sold out, but it’s touring to other Australian cities – and let’s hope it can come back to Sydney for another run! So I won’t spoil the ending. Only to say that the production closes on a very sad image that could well speak of 150  years ago and/or today. It may only be William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) and Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) no longer talking to each other, and the building of a fence to keep them apart. But it is also very obviously the end of a game of winners and losers. Can there ever be true reconciliation?

    This photo off the net reminded me of something!

    (1)  If any of you found interest in my rather inexplicable references to George Ogilvie and Rex Cramphon up the top: for more go to ‘A Raffish Experience: the Collected Writings of Rex Camphorn (edited by Ian Maxwell for Currency Press). Or with a click of your mouse, you can read this essay through (also by Ian Maxwell and published in Double Dialogues). It’s well worth it.

    If you are still wondering, it was all leading to an anecdote about Ogilvie on tour with an MTC show and rehearsing his famous Three Sisters at the same time. It was about Monica Maugham getting up extra early one morning to practice and practice, until she got it right. How the kind of maid she was playing would correctly lay out a very long linen table cloth. It had something to do with striving for perfection I guess. If you want an even madder segue: it was on one of these  regional Victoria MTC bus tours of the mid-1950s that a bored witless (witful?) Barry Humphries came up with the first inklings of Edna Everage.

    How vaste a distance have we traveled since William Thornhill’s emancipation? And for better or worse?