• 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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  • 22 Sep 2008 /  Uncategorized

    Three of us got up early on Sunday morning and climbed the largest of the hills embracing our camp. In honour of the local town, Ernabella, we decided to call it Ernie! The view down onto the sleeping camp is fantastic, as is the vista in every other direction. It’s obvious from above how our camp sits on a valley plain of sediment formed over millions of years from the worn-down mountains.

    After making camp – a week ago now! – it has been non-stop for all included in the advance party. This involves three key groups: a tech crew establishing the performance site; a documentary film unit; and some of the senior Ngapartji Ngapartji creatives (which on this project includes logistics and management types):

    Production Manager Mel Robertson Thinking Big

    Key Performer & Co-Creator: Trevor Jamieson
    Writer & Director: Scott Rankin
    Lighting Design: Neil Simpson
    Creative Producer: Alex Kelly
    Filmmaker: Suzy Bates
    Choir Coordinator & Musician: Beth Sometimes
    Production Manager: Mel Robertson
    Stage Manager: Jess Smithett
    Asst. Stage Manager/Ceramicist: Zoe Churchill
    Company Manager: Mariaa Randall
    Production Assts: Nick Higgins, Ben Lambert, Peter Dixon and young Zac

    From the Crew:
    Sound – Neil Fischer
    AV – Sean Bacon

    I’ll put up all the names of those working on the doco next time, with a chat about their work. Oh and not to forget Brett, snapping away with his camera, and me just sitting back and watching everyone work. Well, every now and again they trick me into occasional light duties – like washing up or shooting a kangaroo!

    Bloggist as Hunter Gatherer

    Yep, I can tell you that a couple of days back I shot my first kangaroo. With Brett’s Nikon – boom boom. Fortunately it was already deceased and gone to kangaroo heaven by the time I got to it. Two of Trevor Jamieson’s kin had arrived from Kalgoorlie/Warburton area in the morning and off they went pretty quick smart in one of the tougher vehicles, with film crew guys, Matt Davis (camera) and Stuart Thorne (sound) in the back. Matt’s camera work has taken him to countries across Africa and Asia, including war zones, and he was even working in Burma when the cyclone struck. Matt reckoned this car ride was one of the wildest he’d ever been on. Tjurlu Jackson, at the wheel, carved up the scrub while Lyndon Stevens rode shotgun – striking with devastating accuracy. Trevor – between them on the front seat – oscillated, as the vehicle bounced over the dunes, between his dual identities: a man who loves his traditional culture and, slightly less gung-ho, a leading man of modern Australian theatre.

    Lyndon Stevens with Tjurlu Jackson and other Roo Tucker Fans

    Brett and I were just returning to the camp when Trevor and his brothers passed through on their way to a site to cook up the roos. We followed, kicking into 4-wheel drive, as the real men ahead ignored anything that resembled track. Eventually they skidded to a stop at a site deemed suitable.  To us it looked like nowhere. But, as we quickly discovered, the soil was easy to dig into and there was an abundance of accessible dry wood. In fact, it took only about 30 minutes before the roos were being dipped into hot flame to have their hair singed off.  The animals then taken off the fire until it settled down; before being returned  to the coals to slowly cook way.

    At one point in this process Brett had go return to camp to alert the film crew. It was then, just as kangaroo guts were being carved open, that the onus of visual documentation was placed in my hands. As some of these shots are pretty gory, Brett has put them up on his site on a discrete location. Culturally fascinating, but don’t go there if this is not the sort of thing you want to look at.

    Neil Simpson with Young Zac

    A week of incredible activity began with the production crew heading down to the open-air site in town with a semi-trailer full of gear to unload: the initial task to set up scaffolding. As days went by, sound and lighting was added in, and then several tonnes of rich red sandy-earth was trucked in to create a stage floor.

    The difference between putting up a show like this in a city theatre and out here in the bush is impossible to underestimate, with resourcefulness and extra muscle power but two of the skills regularly called on. Imagine having to set up your own power source, link in your light and sound desks, create scaffolding to hang lights, dig troughs to run wiring, and more: all under a blazing sun and then working way into the late of night.

    On the afternoon of the second day, most of us had a chance to attend rehearsals of one of the other gigs taking place as part of the Ernabella Arts Centre’s 60th anniversary celebrations. This involved a dance for men and another for women. Orlando, the policeman from Umuwa (a town close by) has agreed to take on the challenge of the Emu Dance. He seems to  have quite a touch of Nijinsky about him (a la Firebird!): his hands behind his back to form a tail, his head down in search of tucker, and then looking up a little nervously now and again, keeping an eye out for the threat of dingo. All of us whitefella men on the Ngapartji Ngapartji team were called up by Punch Thompson, a local senior law man, to have a go. The result, as Brett observed was more Chicken Dance. But we had fun and watchers on from the local community a good laugh over our clumsy efforts.

    Orlando on Patrol

    As crew on site worked through the next day, a few of us got a chance this time to sit in on a rehearsal of some of the members of the women’s choir. The choir’s coordinator Beth Sometimes has a long association with Ernabella, and sings in the group with a number of women who are like family to her and have taught her many aspects of language and culture over the years.

    Amanyi (Dora) Haggie with Beth Sometimes

    A number of these women have performed in the show before, including in Sydney at Belvoir Street Theatre last January – where I first saw the show and fell in love with it.

    The Famous Ernabella Backflip!

    By now it’s impossible to say which day it was, but there was a great moment down on the set one afternoon when a small hovering of local kids grew steadily into a crazed storm of riotous play. For us whitefellas from the city there’s some knowledge in these pictures. It’s not all glue sniffing in these communities and the natural athleticism, spirit of community, and love of unstructured play are everywhere to be seen.

    Palya Palya Palya Palya Palya Palya

    This outback adventure is only just over a week old, yet it feels like years of past city life have already fallen away from the likes of Brett and myself.  We watch and listen, and every now and again take instruction from others more familiar than we are with local ways. The pleasure is bountiful, the privilege enormous, and the experience – quite often – beyond words.

    Take a look a more of Brett’s pix.


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