• 15 Feb 2012 /  News, Other Art Forms

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

    Joan Sutherland

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

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  • 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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  • 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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