• 15 Dec 2008 /  Articles

    Most people probably reckon they’ve got an autobiography in them – if you believe one of the characters in Tough time, nice time (see earlier post). Unfortunately, for any of us tempted to bonfire ourselves in such a vanity, the down-side is a lot of hard yakka. One way out is to get a ‘ghost’ to write it for you, which is kinda cheating; or downgrading to an ‘authorized’ or ‘unauthorized’ biography. I have stumbled across another option. If you cook lunch for enough people, you will simply pop up in their autobiographies. They will tell your story for you. It may not be all your story, or even your autobiography. But it’s still an ‘autobiography’, if that’s what you’re after.

    Two brief appearances now for me, thanx to my efforts in the kitchen.

    Eric Michaels in his Freddie Mercury phase

    Eric Michaels - his Freddy Mercury phase

    My first is in the idiosyncratic deathbed memoir by a gay American anthropologist called Eric Michaels, who lived in Australia from about 1982 until his death from AIDS, age 40, in 1988. Michaels spent the bulk of his early years out here looking at the impact of television, following the establishment of community-managed satellite stations, among remote Central Desert Aboriginal communities. A born-again stirrer, Michaels attracted attention with some very bold essay writing, including the highly regarded ‘For A Cultural Future’ and ‘Bad Aboriginal Art’. He was dying of AIDS in a Brisbane hospital when I heard he was planning a trip to Sydney for one last Mardi Gras fling. I was editing a little theatre magazine at the time, so I asked him if he would like to scribble a ‘grass-roots anthropological response’ to the ‘big gay night out. I might have been hoping for something called ‘Bad Mardi Gras Parade’, which back then would have been even more taboo than raising he prospect that some Aboriginal art might be bad. In fact, he had a wonderful time at the parade, and typed accordingly.

    Prior to the big night out, I created a trendy little luncheon for him. A couple of years after Michaels’ death, I got a call from Paul Foss, then editing a memoir, titled Unbecoming, Michaels had left as a legacy. There was a page in it about the lunch. A few pars about how nice it was to indulge in some reasonably smart chat, while not to be treated like a leper, despite the fact that he was very wasted by then and had Karposi’s Sarcoma sores all over his face. There were bits Foss was wrestling with. Firstly, would I object to being described as a ‘little bit mad’? Not at all! Who worth remembering from era past has not been reported as a little bit mad? Looking deep into the future I could see Neil Armfield directing the musical. Yep, casting would be interesting? Judy Davis as my mother?

    Secondly: what about Michaels’ speculation of an affair between myself and Patrick White? I saw in my mind’s eye the intimidating gargoyle of Manoly Lascaris rise up on the front landing of the house he shared with White in the Martin Road, Centennial Park. You ring the bell, make a sign of the cross and wait. I wondered how anyone even contemplating having an affair with White would get passed the Live-In Saint! But why let the facts get in the way of a good story? A rumoured affair with a Nobel prize-winner, however curmudgeonly, would look very good on anyone’s CV. Why not? I trilled to Mr Foss. As photographer, William Yang, puts it sagely – explaining his vast collection of photographs of Sydneysiders in various states of physical and moral disarray: ‘People prefer fame to respectability.’

    Years later, thanks mostly to my cooking again, I have recently made another appearance – in Blood &Tinsel - the memoir of theatre director Jim Sharman. When I first met Sharman in the late 1970s, he was just back from his years of globe-trotting hit musicals, and I was almost out of uni. I was startled to discover someone planning to direct a Patrick White play. At that point in the cycle, these were utterly disparaged works. In turn, Sharman was startled to discover a person who had actually read one! In fact all four written so far, and was quite a fan.

    Jim had many feathers in his cap: great stories from abroad, an extensive record collection, all the right books. But the cupboard was bare. I boiled an egg and Sharman was impressed. It was s kind of food-for-thought in exchange for real food kind of relationship! They was a lot of payola in it for me. I got to meet some very interesting people. Eventually even the only writer, to that point, to have ever influenced the way I saw the world. Perhaps ever? Mr P. White. It is Patrick’s cooking that I remember from those years, not mine. Here I was in my young twenties sitting down to table with the most amazing people, unable to contribute to the conversation, but loving every minute of it. I ‘acted’ not being out of my depth, and helped Manoly with the dishes.

    Jim Sharman was very kind to me through these formative years. As he has been to others whom he has sought to encourage. I looked after his fine big house and tentatively explored the possible writer in me, while he either talked on the phone to Patrick or travelled abroad. We saw European art movies and he flung me books. And yes, I cooked dinners. All sorts of guests, and this time I could contribute: at least by way of a range of dishes. Sadly, I’ve forgotten how to cook since then.

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    I thought I was a Faded Rose...

    At one point in the Blood &Tinsel, Sharman says I reminded him of a ‘strelitzia’. Everyone has a bloom in them of some sort I guess. Why would mine not be spiky ‘subtropical perennial’ bursting into a garish flourish towards the top? After stumbling across this bit in the book, I wrote to Sharman saying: “I thought I was a faded rose from days gone by?” lol

    I recommend the book. I’ve waded through a lot of autobiographies by people from the Australian theatre profession, and I do wonder if their editors ever think to offer any constructive help? You get the feeling that the folks at Melbourne University Press put a lot of care into this one; although someone could have done a bit of fact checking. Straight forward stuff, like ‘Person X directed play Y opening on date Z.” There shouldn’t be mistakes like that in any book, much less one in this price band and so obviously written with an eye to posteriority.

    There are other kinds of facts which lie beyond the reach of any editor or publisher. For example, Sharman’s version of my time in his house is quite different from the way I might tell it. But that is how it will always be. That said, I do believe he got the ‘spirit’ right. That’s also what I like best about Blood &Tinsel overall. While everyone sees the world through the distortion of their own eyes, Sharman’s version is particularly distilled and compelling. He also has rather interesting material to work with. It has been, and continues to be, an interesting life. The ‘blood’ and the ‘tinsel’ hark back to Sharman’s upbringing on the carnival circuit where his father, and grandfather previously, ran a celebrated boxing troupe. The first third of the book is devoted to that early part of Sharman’s life. It’s a fascinating world of long train and car journeys, strange towns, strong men, exotic women, layers of tent canvas,  the smell of sawdust, intimidating clowns, even Princess Ubangi – a dwarf princess.

    Sharman's 1969 production of Hair

    Sharman's 'communal' production of Hair

    The second section of the book covers Sharman’s ‘global’ phase. From his counter-culture version of Hair in Sydney, premiering 1969; through Superstar and onto London where, with designer Brian Thomson, The Rocky Horror Show was born. This was an exceedingly prolific period that saw season records being broken on the West End, and versions of these hit shows going up all over the world. There was the more intimate world of the Royal Court, too; where Sharman premiered early Sam Shepard plays and, from out of the tiny Upstairs theatre, Rocky was born. Then there was the film.

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman on the set of The Rocky Horror Picture Show

    Sharman had made a visit home in 1973 to create the debut production for recently opened the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House: a startlingly imaginative Threepenny Opera. Kate Fitzpatrick a lusty Pirate Jenny. He was back again for the excellent Sydney version of The Rocky Horror Show, in 1974, starring Reg Livermore in his audacious prime as Fank’n’furter, with Jane Harders and John Paramor ideal as Brad and Janet. Then, at the height of his fame, Sharman turned his back on London and the rest of the world and came home. He looking for more meaning, I think. Sharman’s starting point was a production of White’s The Season at Sarsaparilla in 1976. It’s hard to explain to readers now the impact this production had on Sydney. Not only was White’s reputation as a playwright salvaged from the rubbish tip; but the ‘realistic’ stage aesthetic to have dominated mainstage Sydney since the war was swept away by the Thomson’s minimalist design and the cut-back characterizations Sharman secured form his cast. An even more innovative production of White’s A Cheery Soul a couple of years later, meant there was no going back.

    One thing I will reveal about being close to Sharman during this period, was watching him turn his back on ‘the musical’, the fading art-form he and Thomson had only just revived. I remember phone calls from all over the world: whoever could secure Sharman to direct Evita, for example, would secure the rights. That’s how I remember it anyway! These guys on the end of the phone were trying really hard. But Sharman would not be moved.  He was not going backwards – no matter how tempting the money. It should be appreciated that only after Sharman left the field did others find room to step into that breach.

    I could go on, but it would be easier for you to buy the book. Oh, and back to ‘the facts’. Getting facts exactly right might not be a feature of Sharman’s approach to autobiography. But a zeitgeist kinda guy from the beginning, Sharman is certainly right on target, in Blood & Tinsel, when it comes to capturing the ‘spirit of the age’. While the book is rich in fabulous detail, and most of the facts are right; more importantly Sharman does step back to offer a fascinating personalized ‘overview’ of his life and times – thus far. The book can also be seen as a generous gift: to those ‘who come after’. Just as P. White loved to encourage and reward, so to does Sharman. In great part, this book is an offering to the next generation coming through. Any doubt about this is put to rest in the way the book ends, with a tribute to Benedict Andrews’ 2007 production of The Season as Sarsaparilla. If there were still lingering doubts as to the merits of the text, Andrew’s put them permanently to rest. He also took Sharman’s anti-naturalism to new heights.

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    Robyn Nevin as Miss Docker in Sharman's production of A Cheery Soul

    It is a Prospero moment, if you like – the past pages of Blood & Tinsel. Not that I believe Sharman is about to retire. With an excellent The Three Furies and Blood &Tinsel behind him, and an upcoming Cosi fan tutte for the Australian Opera, if anything, Sharman is on the comeback trail. To enter a latish, ‘mature’ stage, you get a sense that Sharman  the shaman/showman felt a need to let quite a whole lot go. A lot of it is in this book. He ‘breaks his staff’ not just for Andrews, but the promising generation this talented director represents. I suspect a good swathe of my readers belong to the same Sharman ‘gift’ group. Okay the price of a hardback is quite beyond your reach, most of you being out-of-work actors with nothing better to do than read blogs!

    But it’s Xmas; and surely your parents, or a well-funded maiden aunt, have been fishing for clues as to what to get you to put under the tree? So, just as have organized for others to publish my life story (well the kitchen bits), now is the perfect time to encourage others to buy you this book. I have only one regret about Blood & Tinsel. It does not contain everything nor everyone. I am included, to some extent, for colour and movement. There were others from those same years who, perhaps because they had less to do with ‘theatre’, unfortunately don’t make the cut. Wonderful people, impressive people. This book, at its heart, is about theatre for theatre folk. That’s also its strength.

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  • 04 Nov 2008 /  Reviews

    I still have mixed feelings over writing what I did about the Bell Titus. Not that it wasn’t exactly how I felt about the show; but whether it was appropriate; or whether I should be so frank and earnest. Feedback from a friend, not in the business, thought it was a bit rough where careers were at stake; a long-term colleague who has followed my writing since the beginning not only reacted the same way as I did to the show, but was delighted to discover I had not lost any of my ‘punch’. Or pout.

    If I feel squeamish about it, one can only imagine how it is for those on the receiving end. Emotions ranging anywhere from anger to disgust, humiliation, hurt. Or, if they believe enough in their own work, perhaps mere contempt.

    This is in my mind because I recently read Kevin Jackson’s review of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Pig Iron People at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House: he gave it a thrashing not unlike to the one I gave Titus. I don’t disagree with him on a single point – but I would certainly not have put it the  way.  Just as Titus did not upset him the way it upset me, The Pig Iron People did not upside me, the way it upset him.

    I’m not sure how many of you are following Jackson’s writings online. An accomplished actor and director, and on the teaching staff at NIDA, my understanding is that Jackson believes ‘enough is enough’, he has nothing to lose, and so he has to decided to start putting his views on Sydney theatre into print. In doing so, he will not be ‘backwards in coming forwards’. His reviews are methodical, thorough and informed; and he brings a strong sense of the inner-workings of theatre-making to his critiques. Clearly Jackson likes some shows greatly, and he dislikes others equally so. He is one for respecting the text (if it is a good one); and he appears to be quite over the situation in Sydney where, in his view, too many new scripts are getting up before thy are ready. This is, I think the main issue he brings to the table in his argument against the John Doyle play.

    The issue at hand, I think, is this. It is not logical or appropriate to expect criticism (‘art commentary’) of any form to be ‘objective’. I’ve thought about this a lot over many years. Rather than aim for the delusion of objectivity, it is for reviewers to study their own prejudices, or ‘values’; and declare them when and where they can. One can get into huge theoretical knots here – but we need to keep one eye on the fact that reviews will appear in print – so how do we negotiate that? In a sense we can neer truly know our own prejudices or values (otherwise we wouldn’t have any). So all I mean here is, try and give readers a sense of where, as a reviewer, one coming from. It is certainly not enough to work form the equation: I like it there for it is good. That is way to impertinent. A critic is never necessarily ‘right’: Their gift is essentially an ability to ‘describe’ what they see. Gaining familiarity with a reviewer’s work over time certainly helps. Comparing apples with apples as were.

    Is it not interesting that Jackson – whose reviews  I greatly admire – likes the Titus as much as I disliked it?  And he disliked the Kosky Women of Troy, as much as I thought it ‘good’. In this instance, there appears to be an appropriate symmetry in our diverging views. In a small town like Sydney, there is not a lot of critical feedback; and not a lot of range to it. So a singularly strong response is quite exposed.

    If you go to this site, you will find two of Jackson’s most recent reviews (of Titus and Pig Iron; and it won’t take much for you to find his reviews of The Narcissist and The Women of Troy). Meanwhile, I have gone back over my experience of Titus: and I come down to this main point. The actors failed to establish a relationship with me: they never attracted my commitment, it was never secured. The intially bonding needs to happen quite quicly in a show. And it comes in two forms. I know where we are going – and am happy to tag along. Or  I have no idea where we are going, but I believe I am in good hands – so I’ll tighten my safety belt and off we go. It is, in efect, a contract, which every member of the audience is asked to sign. Sometimes signals captured by our antennae cause us to baulk. An experienced theatre-goer has to trust that. Consequently, instead of being taken in by the drama, we sit outside it. Sometimes, more or less permanently. Left to do so, a critic is abandoned to a single question: ‘Why?’ Why is this not working for me?

    The critic, may not be able to answer that question to the satisfaction of all, perhaps not even to themselves. But this does not invalidate the primal impulse. If a reviewer likes most things, or is happy enough to let the bulk of them past, then they must trust their instincts when their brain and heart seizes up inside them – and starts shouting: ‘No’.

    I certainly did not enter the Bell Titus planning not to get involved.  For better to worse, one cannot predict a Bell Shakespeare Company show. Their track record is simply too unreliable: from fabulous to downright awful. When you read Jackson, you will discover that he was drawn in very early – and he stayed with the cast. He believed in the universe they were creating on stage, and Gow’s overarching production worked for him. Stephen Dunne, an old hand at the reviewing game, reckons the show also had cred.

    Any critic can find themselves at odds with their peers. As I mentioned earlier on the week, Kippax and I almost always disagreed. Now we have Jackson disliking intensley the The Pig Iron People. I do agree with Jackson that the writing lacks craft. I also agree that it is high time plays presented in this price band were more securely prepared. And I also agree that there is something wrong at the Sydney Theatre Company in this final year of Robyn Nevin’s programing: why indeed were so many new scripts booked into seasons before they were ready? it has been an embarrresing burden for the new artistic directors – and possibly unfairly tarnishes them? Could they or should they have intervened? The frightful production of The Narcissist – the transfer of a full worked-through show – was probably unsalvageable. But was it really too late to help the author of Pig Iron People, a script with some promise, through to another draft?

    Interestingly this time, where Jackson found The Pig Iron People essentially untenable, I saw a work that was less than perfect, but with a pulsing heart. I did not find it repellent: it certainly did not gross me out. So where does this leave us  – we the reviewers? In the eye of the beholder?

    This is a complex debate I am trying to carry here. And it is as much about the ‘nature’ of theatre reviewing, as it is about shows themselves. For this reason, I am playing it out over days. I cannot put this project together in one big gush. Those of you who want to keep up with me, may like to take a look at some of Jackson’s reviews. Before we pick up again. By way of clarification,  I should point out that I posted my article about Titus – put it up on the site, as it were – and then reworked it several times over during the next few days. If you looked at it early on, what is up online now is probably quite different. I realise  this is not the ideal publishing strategy. It must cause confusion. Equally, it is difficult not to want to improve on work when one sees fault in it, and when one can.

    I will return as soon as i can with more – specifically on The Pig Iron People, John Doyle’s first play.


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  • 11 Sep 2008 /  News

    I’ve partaken in so many launches of late I could be mistaken for Cape Canaveral, or should that be a speedboat derby. I will ultimately get onto Jim Sharman’s biography, Blood and Tinsel, perhaps closer to Christmas shopping time. Anybody who puts a photo of me in their book when I was so young that there was still an ‘air of innocence’ about me is certain to get their product endorsed!

    Last week, Monday 1 September, there was the launch of the 2009 Sydney Theatre Company Season. The Upton-Blanchetts were in full glow, and a spirit of fun, excitement and enterprise filled the air of the Wharf Theatre Foyer.

    Glitter and Fluffy

    Glitter and Fluffy Launching Their Debut Season

    Cate and Andrew (aka Glitter and Fluffy), gorgeous little pussy cats that they are, can clearly be seen pushing the company in new directions. No upheavals or revolutions, but some conceptual tidying up and what looks on paper like some excellent team building.

    The company’s activities have been divided into three areas. Here’s a quote from G&F’s online message:

    “The major divisions are MAIN STAGE, NEXT STAGE (artists and artform development) and BACK STAGE (readings, forums, tours and more), not to mention our Education Program. There are various offerings and activities associated with each (and there are a lot). If you were really keen, you could probably find something to do here every week – we certainly do! You can learn about the Main Stage Season on this our brand new website. As for what’s going on with Next Stage, Back Stage and the Education Program – we’ll let you know the details later.”

    The MAINSTAGE program meanwhile is broken up into three categories by venue: Wharf 1, Drama Theatre SOH, and the wimpily (sic) named Sydney Theatre. (Why not the ‘Robyn Wherett Complex’?)

    With five gigs booked in, work at Wharf 1 has been branded: ‘Discover the Essence of Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf’. These productions, I guess, will focus on those more intimate theatre experiences for which this venue is ideally suited. It includes, on the Australian-play front, a fresh rendition of David Williamson’s classic The Removalists, to be directed (NB) by Wayne Blair; and an upgraded version of Tommy Murphy’s new play, Saturn’s Return, which has just finished its sell-out debut season in Wharf 2. In regard to Saturn’s Return, it’s great to see the theory of working plays up, through process, being put into practice. It will be fascinating to see what this inventive new play looks like in ten months’ time

    Soft on Actors - Steven Soderbergh

    Soft on Actors - Steven Soderbergh

    2009’s celebrity guest, Steven Soderbergh, will also be creating a work for this cosy venue – a good subscription teaser! Coz you aint gonna get in any otherways

    With three gigs, the Drama Theatre is branded: ‘Have a Great Night Out at the Opera House’, kicking off with Tom Stoppard’s writerly pleasure palace, Travesties, to star Jonathan Biggins (currently at the height of his powers) and master craftsman, director Richard Cottrell. The pair recently worked exceedingly well together on the Goons gig, Yin Tong. With Michael Scott Mitchell on set design and Julie Lynch on costumes, I can’t see how the word ‘fabulous’ is to be avoided by those of us generally disinclined to hyperbole!!! Plus Blazey Best, Toby Schmitz and William Zappa among the other cast members. Can we have same NAMES please!

    The Robyn Wherrett Complex (ex-Sydney Theatre), is hosting two shows under the category ‘The Big Event’.

    Names Please! Joel Edgerton, Cate Blanchett and Robin McLeavy: Photo by Derek Henderson

    No Big Names? Joel Edgerton, Cate Blanchett and Robin McLeavy for A Streetcar Named Desire: Photo by Derek Henderson

    One of themis Tennessee Williams’ A Street Car Named Desire, to be directed by Liv Ullmann starring ‘Our Cate’, Joel Edgerton, Russell Kiefel, and rising mini-diva Robin McLeavy. That’s leaving out a bunch of other ‘hot’ names also in the acting line up. Ralph Myers is on set design, with Tess Scofield on costumes. Can’t see it myself – but I guess I’ll plod along.

    Show Pony - Dame Nellie Melba

    Show Pony - Dame Nellie Melba

    A point to be made here. Up until now, our mega divas (Judy D, Robyn N, Cate B) have been involved mostly in small productions at the Wharf. There were reasons for this – like allowing them to be ‘pure artists’, etc. But I can just imagine Nellie Melba looking across the road and saying’ ‘What’s wrong with that Big House over there!’ So with both The War of the Roses (SydFest 2009) and, in a much larger role, in Streetcar, we have Ms Blanchett rising to the challenge and clamour – and putting herself out there where the whole world can see. Bravo!

    Cate Blanchett has taken to her duties in her first year as co-artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company with remarkably good grace. She was obliged to endure some appallingly cheap hits in the print media early on. Her response was to smile and not bite back. Actions prove louder than words, and this – we are discovering – is her way. That she can segue from ‘global icon’ to ‘local industry team player’ by just pulling her back into a pony tail is amazing to watch. She knows when she has to turn her aura on, whenever this is required of her, and when she doesn’t. If she doesn’t have to, she don’t. That doesn’t stop me from wanting to run into the men’s room and hide. It’s the ‘heat’ – lol.  I sometimes think of her as the cinematic child of Kate Hepburn and Grace Kelly, sister of Catherine Deneuve. If cryogenics can allow that.

    It’s different for Andrew Upton, aka Cary Grant, who has been exposed to less ‘tall poppy’ crap. He, on the other hand, has probably got to learn how not to want to be ‘everybody’s best mate’ coz somewhere along the line he is going to have to make some hard choices – between one best buddy and another. Very State of Origin, if you get my drift…But hey, how about the enthusiasm and the smarts!

    Jeremy Sims - Cast to Type: Photo by Derek Henderson

    Jeremy Sims - Cast to Type: Photo by Derek Henderson

    The other comment one could make about the 2009 program is its focus on team building. This can be observed in who has been put to work together on shows mentioned above. Wayne Blair, of Aboriginal descent, gets to tease out the themes that hold The Removalists together. Including a couple that might have been overlooked in the past? By asking Blair to direct, we have a special interest in this revival. The entire talent packages around Travesties and Streetcar promote excitement. This is not a season where plays have been picked and then production teams put to them. Jeremy Sims stars in a play called God of Carnage. Say no more! Rather, a play has only made it onto the program if it was thought that the ‘right team’ could be found to bring the work to true life.

    There are a couple of one-off treats as well. Most notably, a new look Actors Company performing a mega-version of three Medieval Mystery Plays in the vaste expanse of CarriageWorks at Redfern. More on that another time.

    For a full run down of the main-stage program (Wharf 1, Drama Theatre SOH, and the Sydney Theatre) go to the STC’s website.

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