• 15 Feb 2012 /  News, Other Art Forms

    I have been trying to catch up on missed posts for a while now, and among them are stories about goings on at Opera Australia – and good goings on, I mean. For many years Australia’s most expensive performing arts company thrived of the rare vocal gifts of Dame Joan Sutherland. Her voice was so great, and she was so loved and admired by audiences, that the company only had to include a production with her in a season and they basically had a thriving subscription base. Like any good ecosystem – a generation of fine Australian singers and other theatre-craft folk grew up around her. It was also an era when many subscribers were European emigres, with good ears, who came to HEAR opera rather than necessarily LOOK at it. Directors included some great originals like Elijah Moshinsky, but very often what we might call the exceedingly capable, like John Copley, who could mill massive crowd-scenes (aka the chorus) into elegant shapes around a diva in just a few rehearsals. It was the way opera was done back then – and few complained.

    Joan Sutherland

    I am telling this story in a kind of cartoonish-way to keep the story succinct. The point being Read the rest of this entry »

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  • 22 Jan 2012 /  Reviews

    I have been seeing a show a night for the past week with just one more before the 2012 Sydney Festival is over for me. I am grouping some of them here, as they kinda go together. Besides I need to get back to my real job – the bank manager in my brain is hassling me. I have seen more of this festival than I have for quite a while. All of it has been interesting, some of it quite special, with the home-made fare more impressive than the imported.

    Paul White in Afternoon of the Faun

    Certainly more stylistically and formally advanced. Others may hold a different view, depending on what they have encountered. I did not see Babel, for example, which was greatly admired by many. But as dance, I wonder if it could have Read the rest of this entry »

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  • 27 Oct 2008 /  Reviews

    THE WOMEN OF TROY

    Last week I attended two sobering events. One was director Barrie Kosky’s production of Euripides’ The Women of Troy at the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf One. The other, the next day, was a meeting at the Museum of Sydney for artists and others with a concern or interest in arts practice relating to the subject of the atomic bomb testings at Maralinga in South Australia. Both dealt directly with the aftermath of war.

    Two thousand five hundred years ago, in 415BC, Euripides scalded his home-town audience with an unflinching attack on the indifference of his fellow Athenians to the suffering of the citizens of nearby Melos. Just the year before, it’s not only that the Athenian army had thoroughly defeated the island in battle; but, in the wash-up, slaughtered every single male, and enslaved every female and child. What was doubly outrageous about the action of the Athenian army was that this brutal reprisal was enacted as ‘punishment’ for the Islanders’ ‘neutrality’ during this late phase of the crippling Peloponnesian War.

    Unable to speak of the matter directly, Euripides relocated his drama to the semi-mythological city of Troy. The first two works in what was a trilogy of plays have not survived, but the third – The Women of Troy – asks us to consider the aftermath of a war from the point of view of the surviving women and children. Co-adapter of the text for this production, Tom Wright, reminds us in his notes that there would have been many Athenian citizens watching his play concurrently enjoying the fruits of that pillage in the form the recent influx of fresh free domestic and farm labour.

    In typically unpredictable Kosky fashion, we have an ‘extremist’ theatrical event: in this instance, short, pungent, grueling, attenuated by great moments of aural beauty (the music/singing). Ultimately we are served an uncompromising physicalisation of the play’s ant-war theme. There are enough visual references to Abu Ghraib prison for us to forced to recognize that we are also looking at war in our own time. It is a testimony to Kosky’s profound appreciation of the core nature of art, that he is able to frame violence within an aesthetic that reminds us that it is beauty that holds the world together. Not brutality or force…

    It is really quite an awesome work for the stage where it seems almost disrespectful to begin pulling it apart to highlight individual achievements. So much foyer talk about theatre is usually about ‘the play’ or ‘so-and-so’s performance’, or walking out ‘singing the set’. It is high praise to say that doing so here makes me feel uncomfortable.

    A great work of art speaks entirely for itself.

    Robyn Nevin as Hecuba, Queen of Troy, with Jennifer Vuletic (background): Photo by Tracey Schramm

    On the other hand, it would be discourteous not to single out some highlights, tradition being what it is. We have Robyn Nevin back at last, for example, unencumbered by management duties, giving fully to her role Hecuba – Queen of Troy. It takes courage at this point her career to give herself over to requirements of working, not just on this fierce play, but under the baton of Mr Kosky. It’s a spare and humble and resonating performance. I wrote a little while back of the ‘x-ray effect’ of good theatre: and I can see Nevin cringing under the onslaught of her character’s predicament. Coiled like a frightened victim-child familiar to abuse, yet fearful that even worse – beyond her imagining – is likely yet to come.

    It’s an especially generous performance when you appreciate the space Nevin allows for the younger Melita Jurisic to ‘do her thing’! Jurisic is an extraordinary actress who, it appears, can’t help but work at the very frontier of her imagination. She get to play three roles: Cassandra, Andromache, and the beauteous Helen herself. That Jurisic is able to take us to such far off places, physically and emotionally, and yet never stray from the core themes of the text, is testament to her gifts of an actress. She must surely be one of the most extraordinary, bold and idiosyncratic, working on this planet.

    Melita Jurisic as Helen with Robyn Nevin: Photo by Tracey Schramm

    Among all of literature’s famous types, I admit to a special fondness for Cassandra. She who is blind yet can see too much. She who shouts warning, only to be ignored. It would be ridiculous to say I identify with her situation, but I do ‘feel for’ her predicament. Why otherwise would I ‘bang on’ endlessly, the way I do. My other favourite ‘persona’ is little Oskar in Gunter Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum. Banging away literally, but perhaps morally compromised himself? And no-one taking any notice. Dear me, the plight of the freelance journalist. I must write a letter about this to the SMH!

    It has surprised me that few have mentioned the work of the production’s third main actor: Arthur Dignam. A scary voice of anonymous ‘authority’, grave and heartless over the crackling loud speaker for the bulk of the play. And then turning up in an flash electric wheelchair (read mobile throne) as Menaleus, not only leader of the Greek forces who have turned up to thrash Troy (it took them years), but as the cuckolded husband of Helen. Talk about vicious and unforgiving. I could not praise Dignam’s characterization more highly in describing it as one of the creepiest I have ever witnessed in the theatre. A chuckle here, a cheery toss of the head there: meanwhile feeding bread crumbs to the enslaved women, their half-naked bodies mired and bleeding, as if they were mere pigeons in the park. As they say in the classics: ‘Revenge is best served cold”.

    Then there’s the choir, the chorus, the ‘ordinary’ women of Troy represented by Natalie Gamsu, Queenie Van De Sant and Jennifer Vuletic. In his own program notes, Kosky refers to the extensive music Euripides included in the original performance, suggesting tht ‘over half’ of it would have bee sung. Here we get madrigals and songs from John Dowland and Carlo Gesueldo, Mozart, Bizet and Slovenian folk songs.

    Queenie van de Zandt, Natalie Gamsu & Jennifer Vuletic with Robyn Nevin: Photo by Tracey Schramm

    It’s a wonderful design (sets and costumes) by Alice Babidge too: very locker room. A kind of a male jock porn setting – which is totally right for this sickening fable. It gets very freaky when you notice, who knows when it starts, a certain black muck oozing out of a high point on the right of the set. Is it crude oil? What are we fighting for anyway? Damien Cooper keeps moving up the ladder of eminence with every show he lights: here it is, not surprisingly severe and cold and unromantic.  And in the sound department, we have design by David Gifillan, with Daryl Wallis in view of the audience on live keyboard.

    it is not surprising that, early in the season, some audience members found the production a bit hard to take – and felt the need to exit. It is sad that this far into our theatre’s culture evolution, say since the overturning of the British matinee model in the 1970s, that there are still people who pay good money – possibly on a regular basis – who are are not prepared to give up the notion that the art they pay to see intended to do only one thing: which is to reinforce the social values they already hold dear. Or otherwise, in the very least, distract them for a few hours from daily life’s run-of-the-mill worries.

    What is amazing is that so many weeks into the season, you still have people walking out of this show. The night I was there, about twenty left.  On other nights, it’s been up to thirty. Just in dribs and drabs through out the entire event: at some point they’ve had enough. Where do these people live? I mean mentally. Is it not enough it know that if this is a Barrie Kosky production then you are up for for something that is certainly not going to be tame? Have they not been reading the papers or listening into dinner party chat for th past five  weeks sinc the show opened – not to have some idea of what attending this production was going to involve. How cocooned are these people? or willfully blinkered? Ultimately: how undeserving were they of the privilege offered them? I have little respect for them, and indeed not a lot of patience. Why not hand the tickets over to the kids or their more open- minded neighbours.

    This is without getting into the far more complex question of why such people feel the need to flee such a work. A work that is, like ‘Guernica’, ultimately very beautiful. What is it about their lives that thet feel so compelled to cling to? To the extent that a show like this threatens them? What are they refusing to let go of? What is it about sitting in front of this production that poses such a threat? And, yes: how can they not see the sorrowful beauty in it, like walking through a graveyard and reading the messages on the headstones.

    While The Women of Troy had just closed in Sydney, the good news for Melbourne readers is that the show opens at Malthouse on 6 November. Go to this, the Malthouse site for more information.

    Meanwhile, my next piece will elaborate on the meeting I went to about Maralinga; and the way a fascinatingly diverse group of artists are driven, by whatever, to take up this subject in their work. There is some incredible stuff going on. I know I am behind schedule with my work still, since getting back from the bush. The truth is, each post makes it own demands – and sometimes it takes more than a couple of days to put a piece together. I am hoping my regular readers will exercise some tolerance here: for better or worse, I prefer not to let a piece go until I am more or less happy with it.

    That said, I expect I will catch up with myself and what’s going on in Sydney town over the next few weeks. On another front, I am currentyl reading Fiona McGregor’s book, Strange Museums, about her trip to Poland with AnA Wojak – a journey which allowed them not only to see a lot of that country from unexpected perspectives but to present some for their amazing performance art on the way.

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  • 12 Sep 2008 /  News

    This is a quick howdy to those of you who have already started following this blog. You will know that I am off to Ernabella via Alice Springs in Sunday. It’s not easy getting ready for this (like what to wear?) and keep up with theatrical events in Sydney at the same time. I will ‘write a post’ as soon as I can on the Ensemble Theatre’s lively 2009 program, including mention of the book by John Burfitt just published on the 50-year history of this very special and much loved Sydney theatrical institution.

    Last weekend I got to see Waiting For Garnaut, the Wharf Revue team’s latest political souffle which rises more than twice! It was the opening night of its Paramatta Riverside season. The show is bold and funny and more, and this ‘real centre of the city’ venue is certainly getting into its stride programing-wise. More soon.

    Last night I got to see Damian Millar’s play, The Modern International Dead.  Directed by Chris Mead with a top cast of three:Belinda McClory, Ian Meadows and Colin Moody. Strong stuff. Design by Genevieve Blanchett makes history in creating a new means of entrance onto the tiny Stables theatre stage, after all these decades of use! It allows for fantastic flow of action, a feature of this production. I will write more on this soon as well, but I would like to read the script first.

    I am sorry the season of Scorched at Belvoir is not running into next week. You would have had the choice of three war stories at a venue near you at the same time. What with Women of Troy opening next week at STC. Rumours are already leaking out of the usually watertight STC environment. Apparently, if any of us think we have got the measure of Barrie Kosky – we ain’t seen nothin’ yet! Word out too, is that La Nevin is seizing this rare and timely opportunity to go to the edge her acting possibilities and beyond.  What with sharing the stage with Melita Jurisic, back from her years in Vienna, one anticipates ‘performance’ is going to be a compelling highlight of Kooky’s (cf: Kosky spellcheck – lol) latest.

    I will be away out in the desert with Ngapartji mob when this show opens. But Women of Troy will definitely be my first port of call on my return to the big smoke. So long as the Sydney Theatre is still standing and has not been razed to the ground by either the literal or metaphorical pyrotechnics.

    Desert Wear - Made Entirely of Mortein Molocules!

    Cerruti Desert Wear - Made Entirely of Mortein Molocules!


    What do you think of my specially designed ‘Outfit for the Outback’?

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  • 01 Sep 2008 /  Articles

    I meet up with a mate in showbusiness and we head off to the Museum of Contemporary Art where Melbourne University Press (MUP) is launching its new series – Little Books on Big Themes. A  small but fairly illustrious gathering, including one ex-Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, and one ex-NSW Premier, Bob Carr; and some of us possibly hived off from MUP’s invite list for the launch of Jim’s Sharman’s autobiography, Blood and Tinsel, from a week before.

    MUP Get's It's Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    MUP Gets Its Two Bob's Worth: Photo by William Yang

    I had already purchased and read Barrie Kosky’s little book On Ecstasy, and yet again been impressed by the passionate imagination that drives this artist’s work. The other books in the opening series are Blanche d’Albuget On Longing, David Malouf On Experience and Germaine Greer On Rage.

    Almost all the talk since that night has been about Greer’s ‘polemic’, as Bob Carr described it, recommending it as vital reading to ‘every Australian’. I will come back to Greer’s book. But something should be said of the enterprise of M UP’s head honcho, Louise Adler who, with Elisa Berg working more closely on th project, has brought into being this series of beautifully made, easy to read, intellectually stimulating books. There are already four more in the production pipeline.

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    Four Authors on Big Themes: Photo William Yang

    It’s one of those luxurious and rare publishing moments where the bottom line is not everything. Yet so tantalizing are these little books, and so compelling their contents, there’s every chance of a commercial hit as well!

    Barrie Kosky On Ecstasy

    Clearly, Mr Kosky does not need illicit or pharmaceutical drugs to get high. From his earliest years, the world has been a fulsome empire of smells and tastes, and sights and sounds. Here we have an whirling mini-autobiography via the bodily senses – from home-made chicken soup, the Melbourne Grammar sports change room, racks of fur coats, onto discovering Mahler and directing Wagner.

    I am not ashamed to say I did all I could in my time at the Sydney Morning Herald to make Kosky feel welcome, when he arrived in this city with a series of bold productions for theatre and opera. It was more than declaring an admiration for the work, but also acknowledging that Kosky was adding new life to the town. His was a profoundly ‘fecund’ imagination and I wanted to pay tribute to that in itself.

    We did once have a moment of conflict when I could not get him on the phone in Vienna for a story I was writing. Was he putting his own art ahead my journalism? Surely not? I ended up calling him an arrogant  %)(&&%$##$%)))_*&#, or words to that effect; and the next time we saw each other in the street we snubbed each other like all good prima donnas in conflict do. Then came The Lost Echo, all 64 hours of it, and this time I bumped into Barrie outside the theatre. I was in a state of ecstasy! I Barrie asked if I could get down and kiss his feet. He said it was okay, I didn’t have to……kind of forcing my to my knees anyway (just kidding).

    The envious low-life media hack in me was of course hoping On Ecstasy would bring Kosky back to earth. I could wave it around at dinner parties shouting: ‘See he is just like the rest of us!’ How off the mark were my evil fantasies. The book is as virtuosic as it is joyful. Scribbled off in hand, we discovered at the launch, and faxed off to Eliza in ‘fecund’ clumps. I keep using that word’ fecund’ as it was the one used by Adler in her speech to describe what she considered the chief characteristic of Kosky’s mind. Not to be confused with feckin (Irish); though I reckon, if we were to sum up Barrie Kosky’s output so far, we could call it “feckin fecund”…don’t you think?

    Meanwhile, a reading by an author from their own book is a performance in its own right. While Kosky’s reading was hilarious and daring, Blanche D’Albuget’s was mesmerizing.

    Blanche d’Albuget On Longing

    I am yet to read d’Albuget’s book through, but her own reading of the opening paragraphs at the launch was one of the evening’s highlights. I have never read d’Albuget’s biography of Bob Hawke. But I am glad to hear it is being republished (updated) by MUP. Simply on the impact of these few paragraphs below, how could one not be interested in any writing by this woman?

    On Longing begins thus:

    “One fine day a horseman dressed in white, a man whose bulk made him look to heavy to ride, cantered away from a group of other men on horses. Abruptly his rhythm in the saddle broke – as if the ground were shaking, or maybe he was about to collide with something massive but invisible. Heart racing, he rushed on. The unseen thing grabbed him, its shadow eclipsing all that was known.

    “Darkness engulfed the rider.

    “His mount slowed, stopped, and stood still. It seemed concerned not to disturb the human-equine being into which it had transformed, its man-half slumped, life-less arms still clasped round its neck.

    “Across the field all hell broke loose. People screaming; horses galloping, riders shouting and frantic; and ambulance careening towards the stricken centaur.

    “But for the man who had collided with Death there was neither sound nor silence, light nor dark, no hope and no despair. There was Nothing.

    “For six minutes (or seven, since accounts of that day vary) he was ‘clinically dead’. He had suffered pain like a javelin thrust through his chest and iron bands wound so tight round his ribs his lungs could not move….”

    An amazing evocation of a scene!  The ‘centaur’ is Kerry Packer, of course. I am yet to discover where d’Albuget takes us after dropping Packer’s revived body off at St Vincent’s Hospital, Darlinghurst. But by introducing her essay with Shakespeare’s “I have immortal longings in me” (Antony and Cleopatra, Act V, Scene 2), one gets a sense of what lies ahead. Antony and Cleopatra was not only my first Shakespeare, but whole swathes of its voluptious verse came alive to me like nothing I had read before. That particular line has stuck with me through the years.

    Unlike Barrie K, I did not go to Melbourne Grammar. Where I went to school, if you didn’t graduate to pro-Rugby League you most likely went on to become a (corrupt?) copper. But A&C was on the syllabus in fifth form (back then) and it set my mind on fire. Those longings I had lying on my dorm bunk at night were possibly ‘immortal’. And I’m not referring to the guy above (they were just longings); rather, this noton of ‘immortal longings’ conjured up the ‘rest of the world’ I could glimpse as a vista from the top of the main building’s bell tower.

    I have come to believe much theatre is also about ‘immortal longings’, and soothing them.

    I am taking my time with this particular book also because of the way in which it was encouraged into being. D’Albuget stopped writing fifteen years ago, never expecting to pick up a pen again. It was the feisty Louise Adler who guided this wonderful Australian writer back to her desk, and d’Albuget expressed sincere thanks for that. My point being, we could do with more of this – some encourgement. Theatre people included….lol.

    Germaine Greer On Rage

    While it was disconcerting to observe Bob Carr, an avid reader, pass over Kosky’s book On Ecstasy a little too lightly, Carr is to be congratulated for his passionate praise for Greer’s challenging and insightful ‘polemic’ On Rage. Namely the rage she observes eating out the hearts and minds of Aboriginal men.

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    Seer Greer: Photo by William Yang

    What I want to comment on here is the tsunami of negative responses the book was receiving within 24 hours of its release. Greer anticipated this. What I noticed, with some dismay, was a posse of senior white female journalists who appeared to unite as a vanguard, in unseemly haste, in an effort to bring the book and its writer undone. Writers at The Australian led the way, but there was also a highly tendentious response - ‘Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib Than Lib’ - from Tracee Hutchison in Melbourne’s The Age.

    Below is my riposte, which I publish here since it failed to make it into The Age’s Letters page.

    Dear Editor,

    Why have so many journalists, mostly white women, responded with such viciousness to On Rage, Germaine Greer’s latest attempt to raise an important topic for public debate?

    Especially disturbing are comments by Tracee Hutchison’s in this paper (Greer’s Latest Rage More Glib than Lib, August 16). Her response is to some random remarks made by Greer in a brief television appearance (ABC’s Q&A), hardly a controlled environment for the dissemination of complex ideas.

    What becomes increasingly alarming as one reads through Hutchison’s attack, is the likelihood that she has not yet read Greer’s book before choosing to respond to its content. In an altogether unrelated spray at the end of the article, this is what Hutchison accuses Greer of doing over a previous storm in a teacup over a play by Melbourne writer Joanna Murray-Smith. Surely Hutchison cannot have it both ways?

    Nor, I presume, was Hutchison at the book launch (in Sydney) that took place immediately prior to Greer’s appearance on Q&A. If she had been, Hutchison would not be able to attack Greer for allegedly raising the subject for debate from ‘the comfort of her English garden’. I was at the launch, and Greer not only delivered a most informed and passionate summary of the content of her book, Greer also revealed she has made many visits to the outback communities she is talking about, going back to the 1970s through to quite recently; she has read voluminously across the topic – including many major public documents (see the index to her book); and she has also talked one-to-one with many Aboriginal men and women.

    I have since read the book in horrified gulps at the truths Greer lays down – in black and white (yes literally).

    To paraphrase just one example: ‘there would have been no Stolen Generation had white men kept their hands off Aboriginal women, or taken responsibility for the progeny’. Any arguments with that? An observation surely worth pondering for a minute or two? Classic Greer? No? Yet, our gut reaction – among female peers in particular – is to spit on Greer. I remember when this happened to Helen Garner over The First Stone; and they were equally high-ranking women journalists who led the hysterical, and later disproved, attack on Lindy Chamberlain.

    To sneer over whether what Greer calls ‘rage’ is better described as ‘grief’ is as productive as correcting someone for calling ‘silver beet’ ‘spinach’. It’s the feelings of Aboriginal men (alongside those of the women and children) Greer is asking for us to stop and consider. And at no point in her launch speech or in the book does she excuse the violence Aboriginal men have inflicted on the women and children in their lives. Quite the opposite. She is merely attempting to add more data and fresh perspectives to the issues, in the hope that we may all work more effectively towards solutions.

    James Waites

    A few days later I dropped a copy of the letter into a blog created for smart groovy women who meet up online on a Friday night and throw ideas around. Wow, I got eaten alive. Even Helen Garner, it turns out, still hasn’t been forgiven. I don’t know how Greer survives it, day in day out, year after year. Or Garner, when it’s been her turn for a thorough tar-and-feathering from her activist ’sisters’.

    Discovering My Dark Side

    It was a little bit strange and daunting to ask Germaine Greer to sign my copy of On Rage. I rarely bother with the signature thing, but I had already asked for Barrie Kosky’s and so, in a flush of enthusiasm, I rushed around and got all of the first four books in the series signed. I informed Greer that I have my own special interest in matters Aboriginal, especially right now, as I prepare for a trip out to a small town called Ernabella, 400k’s south-west of Alice Springs, to witness Big hArt’s Ngapartji Ngapartji rehearsals. A swag and billy tea, lots of digital equipment and a night sky full of stars, here we come. I am travelling with my old mate photographer Brett Monaghan.

    As Germaine Greer looked up at me with interest, she offered a little sage advice. And then, on closer examination of my visage, announced I must surely have Aboriginal blood in me! For all Greer’s intellectual brilliance and sheer guts, many think there is a slightly mad side. If there is, so what! It’s like asking Judy Davis to stay calm at all times, and still expect her to go on stage and play Hedda Gabler as well as she did!

    From Greer the phrenologist, thus insight into my ancestry was nonetheless a curved ball. How long had my family been in Australia? she enquired. On my mother’s side… since 1789, I think, I stammered. For Greer, that was QED. Plenty of time for one of the men in that long ancestral line to fiddle with one of the lubras. Who would dare argue with the great Seer Germaine! Perhaps from the comfort of a website. But when she is sitting there before you? Smiling up at you! Well I wasn’t about to. If there is any truth to Greer’s declaration, it’s connected to a skeleton buried way to the back of the family closet. After some consideration, I have chosen to take Greer’s declaration another way: as a call to arms. That in tendency, with regard to respect for country and yearning to belong, there is, I admit, a ‘spirit of Aboriginality’ to which I aspire.

    I Have A Dream!

    I woke up the morning after the Little Books launch straight out of a dream: a scene where Louise Adler – whom I met for the first time that previous night - had taken me aside at the function and was offering me some sage advice. Pennies from Heaven.  ’Okay, okay, I’m ready. Do I need to sit down or something?’ I asked nervously. Patting my shoulder like a primary school teacher, or gold medal Olympic diving coach, might, she whispered: “Keep in simple.” Okay, I promise Louise, I will do my best to do so. Thanks heaps for the tip!

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