• 28 Dec 2008 /  Reviews
    Life Can be Crap

    Life Can be Crap

    Rabbit by Londoner Nina Raine is typical of playwriting these days, but a particularly successful example of it. You get a realistic setting – a yuppie drinking venue and a few mates meeting up to celebrate a birthday – Nina’s (Alison Bell). Everyone is 29 these days it seems. The mates include a couple of ex-boyfriends: one major, Richard (Toby Schmitz); and one minor, Terry (Ryan Johnson). Then two girlfriends:  Emily (Kate Mulvany) and Sandy (Romy Bartz). All are highly educated, civilized – and seem to have everything. That’s what I mean about this being a typical play for now – same terrain as Tommy Murphy’s Saturn’s Return and Brendan Cowell’s Ruben Guthrie, and several more if I stop to think. It’s either ‘bored and employed’ or ‘back from Iraq’ these days.

    Alison Bell as Bella: photo by Brett Boardman

    Alison Bell as Bella: photo by Brett Boardman

    There’s always a stylistic riff, and this one comes in the form of hallucinogenic appearances from Nina’s father, called Father (Geoff Morrell). It’s not been an idyllic relationship, but Father is dying. So why the heck is Nina out with friends celebrating when she should be with Father? Well, that’s what gets sorted out over the course of the play.

    While Rabbit appears to be just another case of today’s young-people-with-everything feeling something is missing (and to some extent it is), Raine makes a good case for empathy. Better still, this play – typically composed of shallow chit-chat over more and more alcohol – ends up travelling some distance: and so you feel like you do go on a journey. Missing from far too many plays these days. Whether you were charmed or not, this was the problem with John Doyle’s Pig Iron People – it was a still-life picture not a journey. While I just can’t imagine Toby Schmitz ever being a barrister (far too disrespectful of convention) or Kate Mulvany a surgeon (can’t see her putting the knife in), these are not criticisms. Both are wonderful actors, it’s just that after a while you just get to know actors to well – even if you don’t really know them at all.

    The acting from everyone in this production is good – one of the pleasures of the show. This is a good group and the performance I saw – a Saturday matinee a small way into the season – all were on song. Alison Bell gives a wonderful shape to Bella’s journey. And while she may be just another privileged brat, none of us can be blamed for the times we are born in or the circumstances. I got to greatly care for her predicament. I felt her pain.

    Toby Schmitz: get me a lawyer

    Toby Schmitz: get me a lawyer

    While everybody in the cast is strong and true, I want to say something about Toby Schmitz. Putting aside the fact that he is the profession’s current top spunk, Schmitz has an amazing gift to animate his characters, move quickly between dark and funny, and appears to live deeply in the moment. So naturally gifted, I put out this warning notice while he is still on the way up: be vigilant or you will end up with no more than a bag of oft-applauded tricks. Yes, the audience loves you – so don’t go there. Schmitz was excellent in both The Great and Ruben Guthrie. I look forward to seeing him get offered a rip-your-guts-out soul-searching classic role?? Coz I think he can do more than charm and laughs.

    Another of the delights of this production is the work of Brendan Cowell making his mainstage directorial debut. I will say this now. Cowell is a very talented writer, but his natural facility (not unlike that of his good friend Schmitz ) is not a best friend. Sometimes you wish for more rigour. Writing a play ‘over-night’, or whatever, is not necessarily something to brag about. Cowell, too, is a born actor, and his naturalistic work is strong and true. And while there were great stretches of Hamlet where he was in the zone – called me old-fashioned – but I find it ridiculous that a person with zero technique in verse delivery would be cast in such a role. That was marketing not casting, however ‘good an effort’ Cowell put in. He was fantastic, in my view, in Caryl Churchill’s Far Away, my all-time favourite modern (post?) play since Godot. Yep, I think it’s a masterpiece. But back to Cowell and directing: this production of Rabbit is beautifully paced, well nuanced, and one senses a happy camaraderie in the rehearsal room encouraged the lovely, open, shared performances we get to see. If it was a miserable rehearsal process, then Cowell did an even better job to bring the separate parts together.

    Brendan Cowell: Photo for Time by George Fetting

    Brendan Cowell: Photo for Time by George Fetting

    Cowell is one of the lucky ones to have been taken under Nevin’s influential wing. It was a good call on her part. From the first play of his I saw, an endlessly long ATM, with twenty scenes that should have been the last, it was clear Cowell had talent. You worry sometimes that it comes a bit easy. Even Ruben Guthrie, which he spent more time on, is still more of a scratch than it is open-heart surgery. That Cowell spurns criticism with what sometimes feels like a cavalier over-confidence might come back to bite him on the arse one day. To become a great writer he needs to keep pushing at narrative and formal boundaries. That said, Cowell can be very happy with his directorial work here. I would have no hesitation seeing him at the helm of another production. Let me make a daring prediction: this may end up being what he becomes most famous for. I like getting in early: I went up to Cowell at the end of ATM (despite it going on forever) and predicted he had a big writing future. So let’s see how off the mark I am with this one. His intimate experience as writer and director feeds excellently into his work on this engaging production.

    Can I say how much I love the work of designer Genevieve Dugard? I got to meet her out in the desert as she is the designer for Ngapartji Ngapartji. One point I’ve not fully articulated about that show, despite all I have written, is how beautiful it was (is). This is the split in the path between director Scott Rankin and other theatre artists working in so-called ‘community’ theatre, his aesthetic is so highly evolved. And so it is not surprising that he likes to work with Dugard, whose work is not just functional but lovely to look at. Dugard’s designs possess a sophistication and elusive wistfulness that lift you to a higher plane. It is not generally known that Dugard was invited to design Gale Edwards’ recent Rocky Horror Show, the one where she was meant to have a free hand at a whole new look and concept. Sitting on a bus out in the desert, I got some sense of the bold new vision Dugard offered to that project. It really was quite brilliant – a spin on contemporary celebrity culture that would have turned Rocky on its head. And worked – I believe – in a fresh way for a whole new generation. Not surprisingly, it was too much for that &^$#*()*&face Richard O’Brien and his narcissistic money-glutton team, and so Dugard was taken off the job. As we all know, Edwards ended up creating a version just like every other so far – which just happened to have an unusually good cast. An opportunity squandered.

    Cowell's Rabbit: Frantic Assembly

    Cowell's Rabbit: Frantic Assembly

    Why Nina Raine called her play Rabbit is beyond me, I think it’s a nickname used by her father just once. Though I do appreciate the fact that most plays these days are called Rabbit (including one by Cowell) or refer to rabbits (I Hate Rabbits). I’ve even got a bit of one in my bottom drawer that’s not called Rabbit, but has some rabbits in it….ones that have had their ears ripped off by some yuppie on crystal meth (oops). It will likely stay in the drawer – I like to stay fashionable, but one draft short if public scrutiny (lol). Interestingly Cowell’s own Rabbit was picked up by Frantic Assembly in London, in 2003, to whom Cowell submitted and worked hard on many fresh drafts (contradicting what I said above). it was likely better for the further work, though I don’t think the production set London on fire.

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  • 15 Oct 2008 /  Articles

    My life has changed since Germaine Greer declared I was Aboriginal. Not necessarily coz she was right – though she always is! But because this was around the same time I was heading off to Ernabella – and all the good that has come to from that ‘sojourn on another planet’.

    The good from that trip is multi-faceted, but one of the main elements was the opportunity to allow the illness of ‘anxiety’, with which I suffer, to diminish from a big black hole in my heart to a much smaller black smear. Here I am putting my life in my readers’ hands, but – oh well – what are blogs for if not to blog all over. Only a few of you know that I fell off a cliff when I was in my twenties and drifted into a coma while on the operating theatre from which I did not emerge for, I think, something like twelve days. I had many operations, four on my left hip, including two in London – where I limped around for a year with an infection and a bandage from knee to groin for more than a year. It was a tough way to start my global career as a something. From which I returned unsuccessful and instead became a critic.

    Approximately 27 fractures to live with this day, mostly down my left side, so I get a bit of arthritis these days – oh and the blood I received in transfusion was infected with a virus I am still obliged to manage daily. But the only real price I paid for that accident was ‘nominal aphasia’ (aka ‘forgetting names’); and what has been diagnosed as ‘panic disorder’, perhaps better known as ‘shell-shock’. This might help explain to those who think they know me, why sometimes I have been known to ‘over-react’ to challenging or unpleasant situations I have sometimes found myself in.

    It got to a point in my 40s where this behavioural flaw seriously started to have a negative impact on my life at all levels, personal and professional – and I had to go seek help. The highlight of which was being accidentally locked in the toilet of my psychiatrist’s flash new premises, magazines being pushed under the door, while we had to wait a couple of hours for the builder to turn up and get me out.

    I was greatly comforted in that moment by two factors. One was the idea that I was in the middle of the ultimate Woody Allen joke; and the other was a cartoon hand-drawn on the toilet mirror by Leunig – which I really can’t explain here without tiring you out, but which was suitably philosophical to help me through the moment.

    It has taken a lot of hard work for me to feel confident that I could return to crowded buses or bars, though a boss only has to shout at me once for me to get up and exit a new job. It speaks to my love of the form, I guess, (how safe I feel) that I don’t at all mind a crowded theatre foyer.

    But I did let myself down on the drive from Alice Springs to Ernabella when, at a rare petrol station stop, a woman called me to wind my window down so she could pour abuse on me with great enthusiasm for an alleged driving  incident some several hundred kilometres earlier, when – as I tried to explain to her – I was not actually driving the car. In normal circumstances these days I would have done whatever I could to defuse the situation of this hard bush bitch barking obscenities at me with an apology and a soft smiling heart; but instead I fell into the old trap of answering back. All this is very small beer – except for the fact that, while I was chewing angrily on my ‘burger with lot’ (a very good one actually) from the garage diner, Big hART’s Scott Rankin came up and pressed his thumbs gently into my shoulder blades. In front of the rest of the somewhat-alarmed touring squad. It was a gesture of strategic healing and noteable compassion from, in effect, a stranger. And while this piece of writing is not about Scott Rankin, or the recent trip away, it was an action that – I believe now – goes to the heart of his work.

    What I do want to note however was the ‘Whiteness’ of the woman’s attack on me. It is not how I grew up. Something else not many of you would know: but I was born in 1955 in a tiny colonial hospital on the island of Sohano, which sits in the strait between Buka and Bougainville; islands themselves that for thousands of years belonged culturally to what we now identify as the Solomons, but were hived off at the stroke of  a pen and carelessly handed to the colonial powers (first German, then British, then Australian) holding sway over what we like to call New Guinea. Later down the time-line, of course, trouble has come from that.

    Even though my parents were not a great match for marriage, and trouble unfolded in later years; growing up on those islands, and other outposts around New Guinea and Papua (Saidor, Madang, Kerema, Daru, less so Port Moresby in the later years) was characterized by a peacefulness – an absence of ‘anxiety’ – that I have missed since moving to Sydney for boarding school in 1967. ‘Alienation’ is not given its due as one of the structural posts of late capitalism’s consumerist society. “We grieve therefore we shop.” “We grieve therefore we shoplift.” “We grieve therefore we yell at that other customer in the queue.” We grieve therefore we stab the late-night migrant worker before making off with a packet of cigarettes.”

    It was not until I read Patrick White’s Riders In the Chariot and Tree of Man (syllabus texts) in my late teenage years that I found some help in understanding the weird underpinning of gratuitous cruelty that appears to characterize the Australian culture. However ‘low tech’ they might have been, the towns had grown up in across PNG seemed infinitely more civilized.

    I am not talking about some kind of hifaluting colonial pomposity, of the sort indulged in by the British in India. Life in PNG in those post-WWII years was ‘survival’ based, and even if almost all the European households had ‘staff’, there was a great camaraderie and mutual respect between colonizer and colonized – by and large. Mum would babysit the housegirl’s kids if need be. And kids from the nearby village would be rounded up to flesh out attendance at our birthday parties – where such luxuries as lamingtons, meringues and fairy bread appeared as nutritionally mad, if delicious, to the locals, as they actually are.mMy mother used to say she knew we would always be safe on Bougainville, all three of us little children, however far we wandered. That PNG is no longer such a safe place is an indictment of Australia’s mismanagement of it’s obligations as a colonial power: but that is a story for another time.

    It was profoundly tragic to revisit the place of my birth in 1988 – in the midst of a civil war. Bougainville  PNG. All over a goddam copper mine. I found the tiny hospital I was born in abandoned by staff and taken over by a colony abandoned lepers. It was a confrontation as shocking as it was succinct. I had come to find a lost part of myself: and I did so in the form of one young man who would appear from behind trees and bushes, shouting mad things at me with great enthusiasm as he limped along the track behind me – in the belief I was his long lost brother. Jimi! Jimi! Jimi! Well perhaps I was!

    This dislocation in my sense of self is something I have had to learn to live with. And, apart from the occasional fall from good grace, I have done so. More or less. But it does not take away the sadness; nor does it diminish the suspicion in my eye as I gaze across what is brightly described as Western Culture.

    So you can see why my journey to Ernabella with the Ngapartji Ngapartji mob was such a positive experience for me. In the first instance, there is the Big hART working model, which requires all participants to put their egos in their pockets and work as one. As someone who must still be very careful about how much time I spend in the company of large groups, living close to the ground – 24/7 – in so-called ‘primitive conditions’ – with between twenty and forty people was a great test of my susceptibility to ‘illness’. And for 99.99% of the time, the experience was incredibly positive. I fact I have emerged from the adventure with a much stronger and more secure sense of worth and self. And a more secure sense of calm.

    More significant was the experience of being Ernabella itself, which is so like the towns I grew up in. If dryer. Or quite likely similar to what most of these towns would be like if I visited them today. So many memories came flooding back of living in a ‘bi-cultural’ world. And how comfortable I felt with that. I remembered writing in my diary from Rabaul in 1988: “I feel like a frog put back in his pond”; and there was a touch of the same sensation being in Ernabella too. Though I am not making light of the profound cultural differences between indigenous PNG cultures and those of central Australia.

    Dear me: all the above was intended to be no more than of pre-amble to the ‘subject of the day’ – subjet du jour! Which is meant to be what I made of the Deadly Awards in particular but, in the same week, two other trips to the Sydney Opera House. And another tonight to see/hear Pattie Smith. But, in fact, as the week has unfolded, all these ‘live’ experiences survive in the shadow now of the most significant cultural event since my return. That being the opening two episodes of SBS’s bone-shaking series, The First Australians.

    Are you watching it!

    Since few of us these days have very long attention spans, and there are no pretty pictures to go with this post (sorry kids) I am going to stop here. Leave you hanging, as it were; and I will pick up where I am leaving off tomorrow.

    PS: for those of you who love my site exclusively for Brett’s pictures, I assure you, more are on the way. He had to do a wedding on the weekend (yep you know the movie – The Wedding Photographer). But he is back processing images from Outback-DownUnder as you read this

    ….if you got this far (lol).

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  • 13 Oct 2008 /  News, Videos

    Hey there!

    Back in Sydney town and I have visited my own Dreaming Site, the Sydney Opera House, three times in a week. This was for a Palestinian-Israeli one-man show on its way to the Melbourne Festival called In Spitting Distance; and a couple of night’s back, also on its way to Melbourne, was the Phillip Glass-Leonard Cohen gig The Book of Longing. More of these in my next post which I will work on over next couple of days. Along with a report from The 2008 Deadly’s - the national Indigenous sports, arts and culture awards – held on Thursday 9th at the SOH Concert Hall, where our Ngapartji Ngapartji senior men, Trevor Jamieson and Scott Rankin, took out a major award.

    Outstanding Achievement in Film, TV or Theatre
    Trevor Jamieson & Scott Rankin, Ngapartji Ngapartji

    Something to look at while I burrow away at my keyboard for the next couple of days, here are two videos of the Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island, off the coast from Darwin. The Chooky’s lost to Stephen Page and Bangarra in the  Deadly category for Best Dancing (something like that). But I kinda felt disappointed that these creative kids did not walk off with the gong. Taking nothing away from Page and Bangarra, but they are already successful and well known. The Chooky Dancers are a phenomenon. Since a snippet of video went up on U Tube for fun just over a year ago, it has had over one million hits word-wide and the video itself remains a huge hit in tavernas and cafes across Greece.

    Is This Kid The New Nijinsky?

    Is This Kid The New Nijinsky?

    The original video was posted by a then 34-year-old ‘Tammy’ who comes under the U Tube name of Chineyginey (that’s all I know about her at this point). But if you go to the more info tab on the first video you will find out more about the video maker, his connections to the troupe and the troupe’s own origins. Here are two different camera angles. I’m not even sure if they are from the same performance, though the basketball-court setting appears the same. Both offer an insight into something quite amazing, in my view. One is a long shot, the other camera is closer up.

    I’m sure you’ll notice the lead dancer in action (photo above) – can he move or what?

    Totally Deadly!


    Here is a second view which you might like to look at using your full-screen mode as the lighting is very low and I put it up mainly because it offers a few fantastic details.



    I’ll be back soon with a fuller report on last week’s activities. A certain urgency as I need to clear my mind for Barrie Kosky’s The Women of Troy on Friday night!

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  • 19 Sep 2008 /  Articles

    Ngapartji Ngapartji

    I get out of my cosy swag aside the still flickering fire and, as I head over to the vehicle to get something, I notice fresh hoof marks in the red dirt. I thought I had been dreaming, but we must indeed have had a mob of brumbies clatter past in the middle of the night. The evening had been cool and otherwise still – a full moon drifting across, dusk to dawn, from one horizon to the other, like a sacred eye amidst a scattering homage of brilliant stars. I find out later they were wild donkeys: not everything out here is exactly what it seems.

    the drive

    After a seven hours drive from Alice Springs on Sunday, we got in after dark and set up an impromptu base in a rarely used camping ground. A few old buildings include a semi-built shed where I set up a desk. I can see right through the unfinished walls across grassland to khaki hills. This site, a few kilometres outside the township of Ernabella, is surrounded by calm, old, beautifully worn-down mountains wrapping around us like ancient arms in a circle of tender embrace. It is as if we are in nest.

    In a way we are. Such is the camaraderie and spirit of goodwill holding together this cheery group of techies and creatives, admin folk and an entire documentary film crew. Plus a kid and a dog!

    The night before, with most of the team crashed out after a massive first day, a few of us sit around the fire chatting and admiring the hills. The production’s leading actor Trevor Jamieson says that their rounded shapes remind him of country further to the west.

    Trevor

    Ngapartji Ngapartji's Lead Actor Trevor Jamieson

    Over that way, well into central West Australia, similarly rounded mountains belong to an Emu Dreaming. The concept of Dreaming (Tjukurpa) means a lot more to Aboriginal people than to Europeans. I will not have got this exactly right, but the story Trevor told us as we were dozing off goes something like this:

    A flock of young emus have walked a long way when they come across some interesting tucker. They bend down to eat these seeds which make them dopey. One by one they lie down to sleep and never wake up. The roundness of the hills represent the backs of the emus. The emu features strongly in many stories from different locations, often features a ‘law’ aspect, and much contemporary Aboriginal art draws on its symbolic significance in image making.

    Arts center

    If you can picture it, Ernabella sits about 480 kilometre’s south-west of Alice, almost directly under Uluru, on the South Australian side of the border. In 1872 pioneer explorer Ernest Giles passed through the area and wrote: This is a really delightful discovery. In all my wanderings … in Australia I never saw a more fanciful region than this.’

    In 1933, a sheep station was established in Ernabella. The Presbyterian Mission bought the station lease and founded the Ernabella Mission in 1937. While some locals worked on the station, for others the mission served as their first encounter with Europeans.

    Ernabella from Space Station Google

    The Presbyterian Board of Missions established the mission at Ernabella as a buffer against increasingly destructive European expansion into unprotected Indigenous country, and to offer education and medical help. Ernabella mission had a policy of deep respect for traditional culture, best exemplified in their use of a bilingual education policy from the start. School teacher Revd. Ron Trudinger arrived at Ernabella in 1940. He began teaching young Aboriginal children in the local creek bed. Within six weeks he had translated the Lords Prayer into Pitjantjatjara, beginning the bilingual tradition that continues to this day. A remarkable man, Trudinger’s role at the mission over many decades merits particular attention.

    The mission closed in 1973. The Lands were ‘returned’ to Anangu (the people) by the Pitjantjatjara Land Rights Act 1981 (South Australia) granting them freehold inalienable title to the country which, in fact, they had never left. This ceremony took place on the actual site where we are now camped. Ernabella, now also known as Pukatja, sits close to the centre of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands (APY Lands).

    Ernabella sits north of Maralinga, notorious for the atom-bomb testing undertaken by the British, in consultation with Australian government, but not the consent of traditional landowners and residents who were forcibly moved off their country and dumped elsewhere. For those who didn’t make it out in time were locked in by thousand-kilometre fences and died like starved rabbits.Others hid in caves and survived, though illnesses of various sorts have been passed down through generations: this on top of the price indigenous Australians everywhere have paid for having been dislocated from their lands.

    Ernabella Is a town with an extraordinary history. And those of you already following this blogsite will know that this trip has been in the planning for some months. We are here to observe and, in part, document rehearsals in situ of Big hART’s amazing theatre show, Ngapartji Ngapartji about the atom-bomb testing at Maralinga, its immediate impact, but more importantly the long-term effect it has had in terms of cultural dislocation and spiritual alienation on the region’s descendants.

    An outback production line

    The show is coming ‘home’, as it were, and for the first time, after several years to packed houses in fancy theatres at arts festivals in Perth, Melbourne and Sydney.

    In just over a week, the show will be presented to many locals who, from various perspectives, already know the story. Or at least bits of some of the stories out of which the drama is composed. Various residents of the Ernabella township have been included in the performing ensemble from the beginning

    On this occasion, the production is to be presented on a specially built site in the heart of the town as part of the Ernabella Arts Centre’s 60th anniversary celebrations. Ernabella is famous for many reasons, particularly the fact that in 1948 a building was dedicated to art making, the first of its kind in Australia.

    Ngapartji Ngapartji Writer and Director Scott Rankin with Roxxi

    Big hART's Creative Director Scott Rankin with Roxxi

    Some are travelling great distances to be here including ex-residents – Aboriginal and European. Among the big ex-mission names is retired Deaconess Winifred Hilliard who arrived In Ernabella in 1954 and stayed on teaching and encouraging arts and crafts skills for the next 32 years. Another guest planning to visit is Bill Edwards, one-time Superintendent. But more of all this in the days ahead.

    brett and easton

    Brett with Easton

    At my Desk

    I should report on other activities so far. Three days ago I was greeting photographer Brett Monaghan off a British Airways flight from Milan. He was coming home after eight years and landed with the bulk of his European life in tow: a mere two hundred kilograms in Excess Baggage. We spent that first night repacking; and then by 10am the next morning we were on a Qantas flight to the Centre of Earth. As we descended into Alice the famous vast red earth revealed itself from horizon to horizon.

    The young lady at the Europcar (free plug) desk helped us into our state-of-the-art, all-mod-cons blue Nissan patrol and we were off. Alice has a lovely town centre, flat and square, with neat simply designed buildings set on the bank of the almost always dry Todd River bed. We found where we had to go, the Ngapartji Ngapartji office, where resident company members were milling with various other recent arrivals.

    A day later we were on the road in convoy. About seven vehicles, several towing trailers stuffed with camping gear, food and – you name it. Our vehicle carried a mountain of swags on its roof racks to which I was greatly tempted to tie some grand ribbons of coloured fabric – a la Priscilla. Along with our own gear in the back sat two massive Eskies of butchered meat. If Brett and I got lost, or stuck, or broken down, we knew we could at least survive on raw protein for some time. All the more tasty if one of us could work how to make fire by rubbing together a couple of sticks!

    The Remains of the Day

    The Remains of the Day

    Less carnivorous vehicles specialized in the transport of fruit, vegetables, water, tofu burgers, muesli, tea bags, water, coffee, six varieties of Mountain bread, and whatever else hard-working pioneers carving out culture on the frontier of contemporary arts practice require.

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  • 02 Sep 2008 /  Articles

    “What else should our lives be but a series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become.” David Malouf

    YOUR COMPLIMENTARY DRINK!

    Your Complimentary Cocktail!

    Party Up!

    Thanks for accepting the invite to meet up on the first page of my new venture. Ideally you are a mini-throng of some of my favourite people oscillating in cyberspace together, free radicals, enjoying the complimentary avatar drink and a savoury plate promised by Miss Docker. Yet to arrive - apparently she’s stuck somewhere up on the Old Northern Road…

    I guess I want to tell you what has led me to make this move into cyberspace, a world of alternate realities as diverse in content as a Mexico City rubbish tip piled high - truckfuls of postmodern junk – over Aztec ruins. Not that I would dare to ‘privilege’ the past by suggesting earlier civilizations were better (though some probably were, and this current one may well be the last for a while- lol).

    Since I can’t get a job these days working for the Egyptians carving ibises into stone, or misspelling Shakespeare’s plays as one of the inebriated team working on the ‘composition’ of his Folio Edition; nor it seems is there a place for many of us any more in established print media…well I better kick-start my own dance party! Get my own printing press whirring. A New Beginning as it were – to cite one of my favourite creatives, the Danish painter Kristian von Hornsleth.

    'NEW BEGINNINGS': PAINTING by KRISTIAN von HORNSLETH

    'A New Beginning': Painting by Kristian von Hornsleth

    Get A Real Job

    I have enjoyed my days in the sun: for example, an excellent run at the National Times in its heyday. Being the drama critic for that most influential publication of the 1980s was heady stuff. Passionate I might have been, but way young. That was a ride.

    I also had a good run  in the 1990s as drama critic at the Sydney Morning Herald. Until I fell foul with various city burghers. Bob Carr once told me he heard I was fired because I dumped on Les Miserables big time. Bob added brightly he couldn’t think of a ’better reason’ for being fired from the SMH’s critic’s desk. I think there was a bit more to it. Maybe I’ll upload some of the letters from the NOT‘orchestrated’ campaign. The one from James Strong is paticularly hilarious.

    I have had other writing and editing jobs, including stints on the Arts Pages at Vogue, guest editing a few editions of Australian Style and writing freelance for newspapers and magazines across the country. I’ve done some teaching at uni. I’ve also cut grass, poured beers, and served in a carvery wearing a big white hat. In my only stint as a waiter – at Joe Allen in London - my first and last customer was John Cleese! The Manuel in me took over in a hilarious cacophony of dropped cutlery and I never even got to serve a second customer.

    Stories From Theatre People

    I have a wonderful job these days as an interviewer for the National Library of Australia’s Oral History Program. These are ‘in-depth’ voice interviews with ‘eminent Australians’ or on a ‘social history’ theme. Since 1993, I have worked on a project called ‘Australia’s Response to AIDS’, which has been drawn on for research purposes now quite a few times. This now extensive collection of interviews was used in research for a powerful doco – Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague – which screened on ABC TV late last year.

    More recently I was approached by the National Library to take up a new subject area and, with Bill Stephens, we are undertaking an extensive series of interviews with Australia’s leading theatre arts professionals. Among those completed so far are conversations with Arthur Dignam, Nico Lathouris, Brian Thomson, Jane Harders, Rob Brookman, Sue Ingleton, Dennis Watkins, Jackie Kott, Richard Murphett, Joseph Skrzynski, Jennifer Claire, Melissa Jaffer, Monica Maughan, Bob Hornery, John Krummel, Rose Jackson, Ken Horler, John Bell, Betty Lucas and Ron Haddrick.

    What About Writing?

    There is still that little bit of me that likes to write, however, and since the collapse of The Bulletin, not long back, I haven’t found anywhere suitable. What I think might be a good story seems to be at odds with current editorial tastes.

    You would think being the only ‘non-member’ to be invited to the Scarlett Alliance (sex-worker’s union) annual general meeting – held this year in Kalgoorlie! – would have attracted interest. I pitched the story to every outlet I could think, noting that Australia’s oldest surviving Madame happens to live in Perth; and that WA only recently legalised prostitution. No bites.

    PERTH BROTHEL HIDDEN AWAY IN SUBURBIA: PHOTO by JULIE BATES

    Front Entrance - Perth Brothel: Photo by Julie Bates

    Since returning to the city of Sydney, two ago, after half a decade out of town on some acres with horses and dogs, and a somewhat wayward ‘other half’, I have been doing some writing on theatre for www.australianstage.com.au

    If you are not yet aware of this site I recommend it. I was given some great writing chances, including a review of Ngapartji Ngapartji, by Big hArt, which played at Belvoir last Sydney Festival. I count it among the most fascinating theatre events I have ever encountered.

    NGAPARTJI NGAPARTJI AT BELVOIR STREET THEATRE: PHOTO by Big hArt

    Ngapartji at Belvoir: Photo by Big hArt

    Ngapartji Mob

    I have since made friends with the Big hArt mob ho created the show and am currently preparing for a trip out to a small town called Ernabella, four hundred kilometres south-west of Alice Springs. It’s the 60th anniversary of Ernabella’s Arts Centre. The Ngapartji mob is there for two weeks to re-rehearse the show in advance of performances to be held over the celebratory dates of 23/24 September.

    No one in the print media has been interested in this story either. This seemed a squandering of a great opportunity, and a bit of a let down to the Big hArt team who have opened up their creative process to my perusal. Hence the final impulse to set up my blogsite now. I am travelling with photographer Brett Monaghan who is returning from Milan where he has been shooting mostly fashion for the past eight years. We work well together; it should be a fun trip. And I hope to file reports on this site daily, or as close to daily as technology and other challenges allow. I hope to see you around these parts again.

    Meanwhile, get yourself another drink! Unfortunately, the catering has been dismembered. Miss Docker has had a messy encounter with a pack of dogs and will be missing the party, as usual.

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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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