Naked censorshipReview: Frost/NixonThe wash upReview: How To Disappear CompletelyBriefly2020 Open Letter in Support of Bill HensonOn a less gloomy noteHenson threatened with prosecutionReview: Through The Looking GlassPhew!Interview: Fin KennedyNavel gazing$1.7 million to raise by MondayBits and bobsReview: A Soldier's TaleWhat I've missedSick...IndisposedRattling the cageBendall moves westReview: Venus in Furs ~ theatre notes

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Naked censorship

Yesterday it was reported that police were investigating websites hosting Bill Henson's photographs. Aside from the grim humour of seeing Fairfax and News Ltd prosecuted for distributing pictures they have themselves been instrumental as characterising as pornographic, there is nothing very funny about this. (Better get your pictures of Michelangelo's David and Classical Greek statuary off-line quick - and make double sure that no photos of your kids playing in the bath are littering your hard drive).

What a gigantic waste of police time and public money.

I've held off from reproducing Henson's photographs myself because they are copyright images, but that seems a bit irrelevant now. One of the many odd aspects of the public fuss is that nobody seems to have mentioned that he also photographs male nudes. (And landscapes, trees, roads and urban wastelands). As always, it's the female body that requires custodianship and control. For a discussion of the wider political and social implications of this farce, and some other troubling examples of the censorship referred to in the Open Letter, see Richard Phillips' article here.

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Friday, May 30, 2008

Review: Frost/Nixon

Frost/Nixon, by Peter Morgan, directed by Roger Hodgman. Designed by Richard Roberts, costumes by Judith Cobb, lighting by Matt Scott, composer Paul Grabowsky. With John Adam, Jada Alberts, Bruce Myles, Marshall Napier, Yalin Ozucelik, Neil Pigot, Teague Rook, Kat Stewart, David Trendinnick and Greg Ulfan. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until July 5. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

In contemporary politics, image is all. It was once said that one picture is worth a thousand words: in these hypermediated times, it’s worth a lot more than that. Words have to be listened to and considered, but a single image drives straight into the collective subconscious.

Every gesture counts. The current US Democratic race is a hallucinatory exercise in image management: Hillary Clinton getting down with the working classes, or Barak Obama’s frantic damage control over the release of pictures where he is supposedly wearing “Muslim” garb.

Television asserted its dominance in the 1960s, when Richard Nixon could not compete with the telegenic John F Kennedy. His tendency to sweat and his “shifty eyes” earned him the epithet “Tricky Dicky”.

Peter Morgan’s play focuses on this shift by dramatising the famous interviews Nixon conducted with British talk show host David Frost in 1977, three years after Nixon resigned from the Presidency to a self-pitying and bitter seclusion

Frost, regarded as a flaky celebrity by the Washington press corps, managed to lever out of this superb political operator a startling admission of wrong-doing and culpability, best summed up in the quote: “When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.”

Morgan skilfully crafts an argument (and, interestingly, makes one feel slightly nostalgic for Nixon – everything is relative) that television reduces and diminishes public office and debate. However, the play doesn’t escape its own criticisms – it too “simplifies, diminishes”.

Most of Morgan’s work is for the screen, and so it’s unsurprising that this play, even though it resists the genre of docu-drama, is very reminiscent of a dramatised television documentary – brief re-enactments of a variety of encounters, held together by an explanatory narrative delivered by one of Frost’s researchers, Jim Reston (Teague Rook).

The production is powered by a magnificent performance of Nixon by Marshall Napier, which reaches beyond caricature to glimpses of an awkward and disillusioned man, and John Adams’ performance of the charismatic Frost.

Roger Hodgman’s production is unobtrusive and elegant, using a revolve to swiftly move the action across a stage dominated by a big screen, on which the swollen faces of the actors emphasise the unreal focus of the camera.

It’s easily digestible stuff which walks an uneasy line between fiction and non-fiction. Its high dramatic point is a fictional late-night phone call between Frost and a drunk Nixon which, paradoxically, generates the most truthful moments in the play.

This review is published in today's Australian.

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The wash up

Daniel Schlusser pointed out last week that an illiterate idiot published in the Age was quoting William Blake in order to condemn Bill Henson. (Formerly Chief of Staff to Howard Federal Minister Kevin Andrews, Kevin Donnelly is also, ironically enough, author of a paper attacking contemporary education called "Dumbing Down"). It's almost Freudian: I can't think of a more apt poet for the defence. No one more fiercely defended the innocence of the body, nor more eloquently attacked the hypocrisy of the prurient:

I went to the Garden of Love,
And saw what I never had seen;
A Chapel was built in the midst,
Where I used to play on the green.

And the gates of this Chapel were shut
And "Thou shalt not," writ over the door;
So I turned to the Garden of Love
That so many sweet flowers bore.

And I saw it was filled with graves,
And tombstones where flowers should be;
And priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,
And binding with briars my joys and desires.

One could be excused for thinking this has been a bad week for art; but, exhausted as I am, I am inclined to think otherwise. It is a mistake to think that the loudest, most strident voices are the dominant ones. They are not. I have been scanning the media and the internet, and much more often I see thoughtfulness and reason, and disquiet at what has been happening here over the past week. Among the best responses I have read was a letter published in the Sydney Morning Herald from a former police superintendent, Alan Leek, which I'll reproduce in full here for its refreshingly sane perspective from someone who knows very well what child pornography and sexual abuse actually are. One of the aspects I most resent about this furore is, in fact, how it trivialises child sexual abuse:

With a foot in both camps, I have watched with interest as this sorry Bill Henson episode has unfolded. I am in a position, perhaps unique in this farce, of having been a member of the NSW Police Force for 34 years and, for the most part concurrently, proprietor of a commercial exhibiting gallery for more than 25 years.

I am gobsmacked and bitterly disappointed that a police force, which is far better than the one I joined all those years ago and far better educated, still fails to see when it has been ambushed by the pursed-lipped paragons of public morality; those zealots who can't separate nudity from sexuality and who rely on an obsequious police to do their bidding in glorious ignorance. Let's face it; most police would not know their Ansel Adams from their elbow.

Debate is one thing, criminal sanctions are another. Debate should be welcomed - criminal sanctions stifle any opportunity for debate.

Henson's art has nothing to do with exploitation or pedophilia, but enough has been said about that by those more qualified than I.

Not one of the pedophiles I arrested and prosecuted advertised their vile workings. They operated under the coward's cloak of darkness and familiarity. Not for them the arc lights of a legitimate gallery - more the deeper crevices of the internet or the well-thumbed pages of their sordid juvenilia and other paraphernalia.

That senior police fail to utilise their discretion to uphold the independence of a profession I still hold dear, setting themselves up again to be pilloried for ill-informed actions that must surely fail, is a bitter pill for me.

Having worked with scarce resources, I shake my head at the waste portrayed by television images of police seizing crates of artworks, and wonder to what better use their expertise might be applied. Child protection, perhaps?

Ill-informed comment and motherhood statements from political leaders that further cast the burden on police are regrettable.

To ensure that public disquiet is addressed in the future and that the police do not continue to undo their normally laudable work, perhaps those same political leaders might consider a mechanism where pious complaints can be referred to censorship arbiters.

In the meantime, I commend Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, for standing tall when others have lacked the backbone to do the same.

In my various command positions, I would not have sanctioned the actions being taken by police. I would also have no hesitation in exhibiting Henson's work.

In time, this whole inane episode will appear pretty dumb, but the damage to Henson and his subjects and lost opportunities for professional policing are inestimable.

Alan Leek (retired superintendent of police) Breewood Galleries, Richmond


Our Open Letter made the front pages of the Herald Sun, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age (the Australian gave it what perhaps was its real news value and ran it more modestly), and overseas was reported in the Guardian, the New York Times and by the BBC. I and other signatories were on talkbacks all over Australia, on PM, the ABC news and television. It has been misquoted, misrepresented and plain lied about. (I personally wish on Miranda Devine the task of getting the "lockstep" artistic community to agree about anything). It was also reported fairly in many instances, and published in full on the Age's site, so anyone who cares to do so can check what was actually said. The letter has been also been reproduced in OnLine Opinion, Real Time and on many blogs.

Those who are surprised by the venom some responses unleashed against the arts community should get out more. There is a real and abiding hatred of the arts and artists among a noisy minority of Australians, fuelled by perceptions that artists are lazy, rich bludgers who steal the tax-payers' money while lounging about decadently drinking absinthe and (almost certainly) molesting small children. Those who are not aware of this strand of the Australian conversation should be. The culture wars are by no means over. To undo this perception - one which, as we all know, bears no relation to reality - will take long, patient and calm work.

Those of us who care about the arts and freedom of expression should focus rather those on who are also speaking, if less stridently, more rationally and thoughtfully about this issue. Over the past couple of days, I have done a scan of blogs and media coverage, and it seems to me that these voices far outnumber those rushing to lynch Henson. I am not so sure that the "arts community" is as "out of touch" as some interested commentators claim.

Samples of the more interesting commentary, in blogs and other online publications, are below:

New Matilda
Sorrow at Sill's Bend
Discussion (and links to others) at Larvateus Prodeo
The Guardian
Home Page Daily
Sebastian Smee (The Australian)
Guy Beres
Hyperidian Bannerman
Goals + Girls Blog
Cafe Philos
Not Too Much (interesting, a Christian view)
Pavlov's Cat

Interestingly too, given the Malthouse/Victorian Opera's recent production of Through the Looking Glass, Phillip Adams raises Lewis Carroll. And it's hard not to wonder how the upcoming Hayloft production of Franz Wedekind's Spring Awakening will go in its return season at Belvoir St in Sydney later this year.

And, for some comic relief:

Ampersand Duck
Aaron Timms in the SMH
Pauline Futeran

Finally, many people have asked to put their names to the Open Letter. We are now considering how best to facilitate this, and will let you all know as soon as it's decided. Meanwhile, normal programming will resume soon.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Review: How To Disappear Completely

How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, by Fin Kennedy, directed by Paul King, Sound design by George Bisset. With Michael F Cahill, Glen Hancox, Helen Hopkins, David Passmore and Tory Rodd. Hoy Polloy Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre, Corner of Sydney & Glenlyon Roads, Brunswick, until June 7)

“What makes you who you are? A name? An address? A random collection of experiences, a few memories? …You are who you can prove you are. You are what people think. And that’s the easiest thing in the world to change.”

So claims the doomed conman Mike in Fin Kennedy’s play How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, a haunting and powerful exploration of identity and loss that made big waves when it premiered in Britain last year.

How To Disappear Completely explores the netherworld of missing persons. Kennedy sketches a bleak picture of the spiritual bankruptcy of contemporary society, where identity is little more than an advertising brand.

It follows the existential collapse of young advertising executive Charlie Hunt (David Passmore). He has an incipient ulcer, a bad cocaine habit, and his employers are just about to prosecute him for embezzlement.As his life crashes around his ears, he decides to slough off his old “soiled” identity and become someone else.

This was the first unproduced play in 40 years to win the prestigious Arts Council John Whiting Award, and its premiere at the Sheffield Crucible elicited rapturous reviews. Kennedy was tagged as a name to watch.

Even in this imperfect Australian premiere by Hoy Polloy, it’s easy to see why. It’s rarer than you might think to encounter new plays of this quality.

Kennedy has a sure sense of theatrical structure and a poet’s ear for professional vocabularies – the pathologist, the career criminal, the advertising shill – which he moulds into arresting dramatic language.

At once dramatically direct and metaphorically resonant, this writing demands a concomitant level of skill from actors, and is unforgiving if they don’t meet its demands. Hoy Polloy’s hardworking cast gives us a honest presentation of the play, but the performers are seldom able to fulfil its potential.

Michael F Cahill, playing a variety of roles, is the only actor who possesses the vocal skills to exploit the theatricality of Kennedy’s text.

Passmore in the central role has a couple of electrifying moments, but lacks a sense of journey: Charlie begins and ends abject. And too often the other cast members, playing a dizzying array of doubles, fall into mugging their parts when they’re at a loss.

Like the performances, George Bisset’s sound design and Paul King’s direction are patchy: there is little sense of integration and continuity. But there’s enough to give us a sense of this play’s power, and it’s a welcome chance to see one of the major new talents in British theatre.

Picture: David Passmore as Charlie/Adam in How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found. Photo: Tim Williamson

This review appeared in Monday's Australian. I fear I am not able to do an extended review this week. As you might have gathered, it's been madness here.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This week has been a dead loss as far as what's loosely called "my life" is concerned. The phone's been running hot with talkback radio calls and bizarre inquiries from journalists ("Does Cate Blanchett own a Bill Henson?"), while I am desperately attempting to get to my dining room table, where the alarmingly fat US copy-edit of The Singing is demanding my attention. (Author copies of the Australian edition just arrived this moment - a short pause for champagne - it's been a long road!)

So I haven't had any time to write the reviews I planned of Hoy Polloy's production of How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, and of Two Blue Cherries' gorgeous production of Three Dog Night, in which I was planning to discourse thoughtfully about plays (these days known as "text-based theatre"). And I'm still not sure if I can get there. The Australian ran a short review on Monday of How To Disappear Completely, which will have to do for now, and Three Dog Night has just closed after a deservedly successful season which I hope some of you caught. I'll try to blog them - both these productions deserve attention - but no promises.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

2020 Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson

I know it's been quiet on the blog the past couple of days. However, it has not been quiet at home: I've been putting together an Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson from a number of the Creative Stream representatives at the Australia 2020 Summit. The letter has just gone out to media outlets, and runs as follows:


Open Letter in support of Bill Henson
From Creative Australia 2020 Summit representatives

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

As members of the Creative Stream of the Australia 2020 Summit, we wish to express our dismay at the police raid on Bill Henson’s recent Sydney exhibition, the allegations that he is a child pornographer, and the subsequent reports that he and others may be charged with obscenity.

The potential prosecution of one of our most respected artists is no way to build a Creative Australia, and does untold damage to our cultural reputation.

The public debate prompted by the Henson exhibition is welcome and important. We need to discuss the ethics of art and the issues that it raises. That is one of the things art is for: it is valuable because it gives rise to such debate and difference, because it raises difficult, sometimes unanswerable, questions about who we are, as individuals and as members of society. However, this on-going discussion, which is crucial to the healthy functioning of our democracy, cannot take place in a court of law.

We invite the Prime Minister, Mr Rudd, and the NSW Premier, Mr Iemma, to rethink their public comments about Mr Henson’s work. We understand that they were made in the context of deep community concern about the sexual exploitation of children. We understand and respect also that they have every right to their personal opinions. However, as political leaders they are influential in forming public opinion, and we believe their words should be well considered.

We also call on the Minister for Environment Heritage and the Arts, Mr Garrett, to stand up for artists against a trend of encroaching censorship which has recently resulted in the closure of this and other exhibitions.

We wish to make absolutely clear that none of us endorses, in any way, the abuse of children. Mr Henson’s work has nothing to do with child pornography and, according to the judgment of some of the most respected curators and critics in the world, it is certainly art. We ask for the following points to be fairly considered:

1. Mr Henson is a highly distinguished artist. His work is held in all major Australian collections including the Art Gallery of NSW, Art Gallery of SA, Art Gallery of WA, National Gallery of Victoria and the National Gallery of Australia.

Among international collections, his work is held in the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, New York; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Denver Art Museum; the Houston Museum of Fine Art; 21C Museum, Louisville; the Montreal Museum of Fine Art; Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris; the DG Bank Collection in Frankfurt and the Sammlung Volpinum and the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna.

Major retrospectives of Mr Henson’s work at the Art Galleries of NSW and Victoria attracted more than 115,000 people, and produced not one complaint of obscenity. His work has also been studied widely in schools for many years.

2. Mr Henson has been photographing young models for more than 15 years. Until now, there has been no suggestion by any of his subjects or their families of any abusive practices. On the contrary, his models have strongly defended his practice and the feeling of safety generated in his process, and have expressed pride in his work.

We suggest that the media sensationalism and the criminalisation of laying charges against Mr Henson, his gallery and the parents of the young people depicted in his work, would be far more traumatic for the young people concerned than anything Mr Henson has done.

3. The work itself is not pornographic, even though it includes depictions of naked human beings. It is more justly seen in a tradition of the nude in art that stretches back to the ancient Greeks, and which includes painters such as Caravaggio and Michelangelo. Many of Henson’s controversial images are not in fact sexual at all. Others depict the sexuality of young people, but in ways that are fundamentally different from how naked bodies are depicted in pornography. The intention of the art is not to titillate or to gratify perverse sexual desires, but rather to make the viewer consider the fragility, beauty, mystery and inviolabilty of the human body.

In contrast, the defining essence of pornography is that it endorses, condones or encourages abusive sexual practice. We respectfully suggest that Henson’s work, even when it is disturbing, does nothing of the sort. I would personally argue that, in its respect for the autonomy of its subjects, the work is a counter-argument to the exploitation and commodification of young people in both commercial media and in pornographic images.

Many of us have children of our own. The sexual abuse and exploitation of children fills us all with abhorrence. But it is equally damaging to deny the obvious fact that adolescents are sexual beings. This very denial contributes to abusive behaviour, because it is part of the denial of the personhood of the young. In my opinion, Mr Henson’s work shows the delicacy of the transition from childhood to adulthood, its troubledness and its beauty, in ways which do not violate the essential innocence of his subjects. It can be confronting, but that does not mean that it is pornography.

Legal opinion is that if charges were laid against Mr Henson, he would be unlikely to be found guilty. The seizure of the photographs, and the possible prosecution of Mr Henson, the Rosyln Oxley9 Gallery or the parents of Henson’s subjects, takes up valuable police and court time that would be much better spent pursuing those who actually do abuse children.

4. Perhaps the most distressing aspect of the trial-by-media to which Mr Henson and his work has been subject over the past few days, is how his art has been diminished and corrupted. The allegations that he is making child pornography have done more to promote his work to possible paedophiles than any art gallery, where the work is seen in its proper, contemplative context. It is notable that the attacks on Mr Henson’s work have, almost without exception, come from those who are unfamiliar with the photographs, or who have seen them in mutilated or reduced images on the internet.

If an example is made of Bill Henson, one of Australia’s most prominent artists, it is hard to believe that those who have sought to bring these charges will stop with him. Rather, this action will encourage a repressive climate of hysterical condemnation, backed by the threat of prosecution.

We are already seeing troubling signs in the pre-emptive self-censorship of some galleries. This is not the hallmark of an open democracy nor of a decent and civilised society. We should remember that an important index of social freedom, in earlier times or in repressive regimes elsewhere in the world, is how artists and art are treated by the state.

We urge our political leaders to follow the example of Neville Wran, when in 1982 a similar outcry greeted paintings by Juan Davila. At that time, Mr Wran said: “I do not believe that art has anything to do with the vice squad”. With Mr Wran, we believe the proper place for debate is outside the courts of law.

Alison Croggon


Louise Adler, CEO & Publisher-in-Chief, Melbourne University Publishing
Geoffery Atherden, Writer
Neil Armfield, Artistic director, Belvoir St Theatre
Stephen Armstrong, Executive Producer, Malthouse Theatre
James Baker, Tax advisor and accountant
Geraldine Barlow, Curator
Larissa Behrendt, Professor of Law, University of Technology Sydney
Cate Blanchett, Actor
Daryl Buckley, Musician
Leticia Cacares, Theatre Director
Karen Casey, Visual Artist
Kate Champion, Choreographer, Artistic Director Force Majeure
Rachel Dixon, New media developer
Phoebe Dunn, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Commercial Galleries Association
Jo Dyer, Executive Producer, Sydney Theatre Company
Kristy Edmunds, Artistic Director, Melbourne International Festival of the Arts
Saul Eslake, Economist
Richard Gill, Artistic Director, Victorian Opera
Peter Goldsworthy, Writer
Marieke Hardy, Writer and broadcaster
Sam Haren, Artistic Director, The Border Project
Frank Howarth
Cathy Hunt, Creative consultant
Nicholas Jose, Writer
Andrew Kay, Producer
Ana Kokkinos, Film maker
Sandra Levy
Matthew Lutton, Theatre director
Nick Marchand, Artistic Director, Griffin Theatre
Sue Maslin, Producer, Film Art Doco Pty Ltd
Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, Director, Museum of Contemporary Art
Callum Morton, Visual Artist
Rosemary Myers, Artistic Director, Windmill Performing Arts
Rachel Healy, Director Performing Arts, Sydney Opera House
Liza Lim, Composer
Jan Minchin, Director, Tolarno Galleries
Helen O’Neil, Executive producer
Charles Parkinson, Artistic Director, Tasmanian Theatre Company
David Pledger, Theatre director
Marion Potts, Theatre Director
Katrina Sedgwick, Festival Director, Adelaide Film Festival
Mary Vallentine, Arts manager

Additional signatories:

The following support the appeal contained in this letter without necessarily endorsing the detailed argument:

John Coetzee, Novelist
Ramona Koval, Writer and broadcaster
Julianne Schultz, Writer

Update: The indefatigable Nick Pickard is logging (some of) the media reaction at Arts Journalist.

Update Friday: TN's round-up of reaction here.

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Friday, May 23, 2008

On a less gloomy note

I forgot to mention, until reminded by my publisher this morning, that composer Andrée Greenwell's chamber outfit Villainelles last night performed settings of poems by me, Jordie Albiston and Kathleen Mary Fallon as part of the Sydney Writers Festival. (You might remember Greenwell as the composer behind Venus & Adonis.) Wish I'd been there. And the charming poetry ezine Pirene's Fountain showcases my work in its new issue, released today.

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Henson threatened with prosecution

Updates below

I am shocked and deeply disturbed to read this morning that photographer Bill Henson - one of Australia's most significant artists - is being investigated by police and threatened with prosecution. Sydney gallery Roslyn Oxley9, which is exhibiting his recent works, cancelled last night's planned opening, amid lurid accusations that Henson is purveying child porn.

It seems surreal: on Tuesday night, I was once again examining a giant, bright yellow poster that announces to the world at large: WANT LONGER LASTING SEX? It's a sight I find unambiguously offensive, but anyone with enough money can put it up where no one can miss it without fear of prosecution. I live in a world awash with advertising images of commodified and sexualised children or women whose bodies are routinely scalpeled and injected with toxins to meet some generically porned-up notion of feminine sexuality, a world where genuine child porn is something that people can access by simply tapping a keyboard.

And what raises the hue and cry? An artist of integrity and passion, whose sensitive and beautiful photographs of adolescents reveal the twilit zones of human liminality, vulnerability and feeling. An artist whose work, in its painful and intimate honesty, directly challenges the crass exploitation and commodification of young bodies by the mass media and porn industries. An artist whose work can, in any case, only offend those who bother to go to the galleries where they are exhibited. This work is, apparently, simply child porn, a form of sexual assault.Update 5: The statement from Roslyn Ozley9 Gallery

As it says in the News Ltd story:

Hetty Johnston, founder and executive director of Bravehearts, a child sexual assault action group, today called for Mr Henson and the gallery to be prosecuted over the images.

"It's child exploitation, it's criminal activity and it should be prosecuted, both the photographer Bill Henson ... but also the gallery because these are clearly images that are sexually exploiting young children," Ms Johnston said.

"They are clearly illegal child pornography images, it's not about art at all, it's a crime and I hope they are prosecuted."

What's pornographic is the pruriently censored images up on the News Ltd site, under the headline "Nude Children Exhibit Shut". The black blocks that conceal their bodies - and vandalise the artwork - demonstrate how shameful we believe the human body really is.

An afterthought: anyone confused about the issue can type "teen porn" into their google (making sure your filter is turned off: and yes, it's a rather unpleasant exercise) and make some direct comparisons between Henson's work and internet pornographers.

Update: More from Chris Boyd

Update 2: A busy day on the anti-art round: artwork by Kevin Rudd's nephew prompts "excessive censorship" by Melbourne City Council

Update 3: PM Rudd himself gets into the act, turns arts critic, condemns Henson's pictures as "revolting" and proves he ought to stick to his own areas of expertise.

Update 4: Police say they will charge Henson. And the senior curator of photography at the Art Gallery of NSW, Judy Annear, defends Henson's work and reputation. She says that he is becoming a "whipping boy" to deflect public anxieties about paedophilia and suggests that the police should be chasing real child abusers.

Update 5: Media statement released this afternoon by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Review: Through The Looking Glass

Through The Looking Glass, after Lewis Carroll. Libretto by Andrew Upton, composed by Alan John. Conducted by Richard Gill, directed by Michael Kantor, set design, costumes and puppets by Peter Corrigan, lighting design by Paul Jackson. With Jacqueline Bathman, Emilia Bertolini, Kanen Breen, Francesca Codd, Margaret Haggart, Hayley Heath, Dana Hehir, David Hobson, Suzanne Johnston, Stephanie Pidcock, Gary Rowley and Dimity Shepherd. Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera @ The Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until May 31.

Childhood is a famously troubled realm. A few hundred years ago it scarcely existed past infancy - in mediaeval paintings and drawings, children are depicted as miniature adults, with the same clothing, the same shoes, the same dour expressions. As is still the case in many places in the world, children were part of a family's capital, and were expected to earn their keep from an early age. It took the Romantics to invent childhood, a kingdom in which the child, his eyes still innocent of the vulgarities of adulthood, had a privileged access to being.

The division of the child from the man more or less began with Rousseau, and was extended through poems like Wordsworth's The Prelude, in which the poet dropped the adult "burthen of my own unnatural self" through contemplating the free child he once had been. It took the Victorians to bring this to a rich apogee of sentiment - that staple of Australian childhood, Coles Funny Picture Book, is packed to the gills with dimpled little girls with bows in their hair, clutching kittens and lisping saccharine rhymes about their love for Daddy.

But there was, of course, a darker side to Victorian childhood, when children worked in shocking conditions in "dark Satanic mills" from an early age. Only the privileged could afford a childhood. And violence was a major part of life, even for those privileged children - corporal punishment was a parental duty, its threat reinforced by books like Struwwelpeter, in which wicked children met dreadful deaths in a morally satisfying circle. The tension between childish innocence and childish wickedness, idealised childhood and childhood as a state of degradation and powerlessness, was perhaps at its height at this time.

It resulted in some extraordinary literature, of which Lewis Carroll's children's books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, are probably the most famous. In these stories, first invented by Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson to entertain the young Alice Liddell during a boatride down a river, enchantment is suffused by a surreal cruelty and callousness. This often discomforting ambiguity is a major part of the books' continuing fascination, and the driving force behind this operatic adaptation by composer Alan John and librettist Andrew Upton.

At the heart of this opera is a photograph Dodgson took of Alice as a child. She appears to have been artfully posed: her head is tilted slightly so she looks over her naked, exposed shoulder, her expression knowing, suggestive of an adult sexuality at odds with her thin, childish body. Whether these and other photos Dodgson took of young girls show him to be a paedophile is a hotly debated question, although there is no evidence that he was. What is beyond doubt, however, is the disturbing power of the image, poised between childish unknowing and adult knowingness and caught in the gaze of the photographer, like those Victorian collections of butterflies pinned under glass.

The opera adapts Through the Looking Glass as a double narrative, exploring the writing of the story, and Alice Pleasance Liddell's subsequent lifelong identification as Carroll's creation, through the strange landscape of Carroll's fantasy. Upton's libretto reaches no conclusions and no judgments about Dodgson himself: rather, he follows Alice through the writer's projections, a confusing mirror-world in which she loses her identity, even her own name; a world in which she exists only as a figment of someone else's imagination. As Tweedle Dum says of the Red King, "why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!"

John's score exploits the full resources of a small band - harp, piano, harmonium and percussion - and, like the production itself, makes little concession to the tropes of Victorian England. It's inventive theatrical music, which plunges straight into the action: it's always unexpected, diving from dissonant sound into lyric melody, evoking moods from comedy to sorrow to absurdity. In fact, at the end, when only four musicians stood up to bow, I was taken completely by surprise - how had so few made so much and so various music? I should also note Richard Gill's presence, not only as conductor, but for his speaking part ("Hang onto the goat's beard!") which broke an imaginary wall between band and stage, and stirred a ripple of laughter. As Gill is playing a train conductor, it's also a terrible pun.

Although this double narrative is dramatically clear, if perhaps confusing at the beginning of the opera, it's tactfully done. It brings a Freudian subtext to warnings about the Jabberwock ("The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!") and Humpty Dumpty's exhortation to Alice to stop growing at seven, while still permitting creations like the White Queen and the Tweedle twins their full Carrollean nonsense. And those expecting a lush evocation of a John Tenniel drawing will be disappointed: for one thing, the model for Tenniel's Alice is reportedly another of Carroll's child friends, Mary Hilton Badcock; and for another, Peter Corrigan's design has reached forward into modernity, growing up as Alice Liddel herself did into the 20th century.

So it is an adult Alice we encounter, dressed unexpectedly in trousers and shirt and carrying a couple of suitcases: perhaps she is touring America, where she made a living giving appearances as the "real Alice". And it is the adult Alice who wanders through the looking glass, here represented by giant shards of broken mirror, to reclaim her identity from the perverse trio of child Alices, dressed in long-legged striped stocking and huge bows, which surround her.

Peter Corrigan's design, a stark geometric fantasy, is central to this opera. The set is a white box marked out in squares, with the band perched above the stage. The floor can be darkened at will to become a chessboard (among other things, Through the Looking Glass is a heavily disguised chess game) and the back wall opens into unexpected doors and windows, or remains a blank screen for a series of projections - a painting of a volcano erupting, fairytale castles, ancient murals - that become a mysterious alternative narrative to the action on stage. It has to be said that sometimes the images become rather too mysterious - I was completely thrown by an image of a World War 1 battlefield emblazoned with the title of Robert Graves' famous war novel, Goodbye To All That - but much of the time the incongruity of the images creates fruitful tensions.

It creates a fertile environment for Michael Kantor's spare direction. This is a very stylish production, where the watchword is restraint and clarity rather than excess: those who have seen his recent work at Malthouse might well be surprised. What emerges are startling and haunting images that dissolve from the grotesque to the lyric, conducted with an unerring sense of theatrical rhythm and dynamic. The mise en scene is continually various and inventive. And Kantor has drawn some strong performances from an excellent cast.

Dimity Shepherd steps through the central and very demanding role of the adult Alice with a poignant authority, and is ably matched by David Hobson playing Lewis Carroll and his shadows - the White Knight, the Train Driver and Humpty Dumpty. The scene with Humpty Dumpty (represented by an Ubu doll puppet) is a highlight, and one of the few times Upton uses Carroll's poems unchanged. Another highlight is Margaret Haggart as the White Queen, in a central scene in which time moves backwards and forwards ("it's a poor sort of memory," says the Queen, "that only works backwards").

As it moves towards its close, the opera becomes increasingly elegaic. Midway through, Carroll mourns the loss of the immediate being of childhood, the child who, with careless innocence, reaches with "bright and eager eyes" for scented rushes which at once begin to fade. But Carroll's perception - envious, greedy, banished from Eden - is overlaid by the grown Alice's mourning for her stolen self - the child who became other under the pressure of Carroll's gaze, splintering into unrecognisable shards - and whom she reclaims.

In its final moments, this opera hit me unexpectedly with a surprising and painful release of emotion; somehow it had stolen up behind me while I was watching, without my noticing. It was, I think, something like the kind of recognition expressed in Dylan Thomas's poem Fern Hill (quoted here with the lineation barbarously mistreated by blogger):

...nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace.

Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land...

Carroll's famous acrostic at the end of the book, which spells out Alice's name, is almost the final word in the opera. It too expresses a haunting of dull adulthood by charged childish memories - "Alice moving under skies / Never seen by waking eyes". But the effect was more overwhelmingly poignant than this poem, a prime example of Victorian sentiment, can perhaps explain, and probably resulted - I am guessing - from the lifting to the surface of complex subterranean movements throughout the opera, and their unexpected connection with my own complex memories.

Like the truth behind this story, these emotional currents are impossible to trace; they resist conscious intellection and articulation. But I suspect that one of things I ask from art is that it invites such experiences, even if I'm not sure what they mean, or even what they are. Those are the moments that go through you, like wine through water, and subtly change the colour of your mind.

Picture: David Hobson and Dimity Shepherd in Through the Looking Glass. Photo: Jeff Busby

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008


Good news on La Mama, who on Friday were facing what looked like an impossible task in order to buy their building - artistic director Liz Jones told me last night that they put the deposit down yesterday, having raised $140,000 between Friday and Monday. How heroic is that? They now have until September to come up with the rest of the $1.7 million, so keep those donations flowing in. To make a donation or for more information on how you can help, contact Liz Jones on tel. 03 9347 6948, 0412 909 077 or

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Interview: Fin Kennedy

Fin Kennedy is regularly dubbed one of the hottest new playwrights in Britain. And this week Melburnians get to see why - on Friday, Hoy Polloy is staging the Australian premiere of his play, How To Disappear Completely & Never Be Found. His second full-length work, it was the first unproduced play in 40 years to win the 38th Arts Council John Whiting Playwrighting Award, which led to a critically celebrated production at the Sheffield Crucible. For your illumination, Ms TN strapped Fin into the interrogation chair and asked him some probing questions...

Firstly, could you tell me a little about the genesis of How To Disappear Completely & Never Be Found? Was there something in particular that sparked your interest in missing persons?

The play idea originally came from stumbling across the website of the national Missing Person’s Helpline (NMPH) a charity here in the UK. They’ve got gallery after gallery of snaps of ordinary-looking people who were never seen again. I was instantly fascinated and began doing some more research. An academic study I read said that 210,000 people are reported missing each year in the UK alone. This seemed like an epidemic! And far fewer of them than you might expect are due to abduction or mental health or suicide. Of those that are traced, two thirds say they did it deliberately (as opposed to just drifting out of touch unintentionally). Further research showed that there was a whole cottage industry out there in self-help books about how to change your identity, and how to exploit loopholes in various systems so that you could survive outside of the mainstream world of documentation which we all take for granted.

I quickly got into quite existential territory about what constitutes an identity anyway, especially in the modern world where ideas of things are so malleable. When I asked the people at the NMPH whether they saw a ‘type’ of missing case again and again they said yes – white male, late twenties or early thirties, good job in the private sector, makes some money, works and parties too hard, suffers some sort of personal crisis and just disappears overnight. They didn’t seem to know why.

A policeman I went to interview told me that in London a lot of them end up being fished out of the River Thames after drowning from drinking too much and falling in. That was where the character of Charlie was born and where the main trajectory of the play came from. He works in advertising as a Brand Manager, so spends all day trying to manipulate and manage people’s ideas of things, so one day he tries to see if he can re-brand himself. There’s a strong philosophical argument that you only exist in other people’s minds and that was something I wanted to play with. It’s a very dark play, but also quite funny in an absurd sort of way. It’s quite influenced by that link between existentialism and absurdism in some of Sartre’s and Camus’ writing. I’ve said elsewhere that it’s a sort of L’Etranger for the 21st century. Charlie’s journey certainly visits some dark parts of the human soul.

You say research in very important in your work. What does this research entail? Is it about more than getting the facts right? Do you have a responsibility as a playwright towards an imaginative engagement with your subject matter? How does the act of research square with imagination?

Research for me is a living, breathing creative act, not a dry thing done in a library (though that has its place). Empathy and research go hand in hand, because for me research is less about understanding facts and systems (though that can come into it) but about getting into other people’s heads and hearts. For me its about accessing life experiences which I haven’t had, and as such I think it's essential if you’re going to have any longevity as a writer (let’s face it, few of us have had such eventful lives that they will provide material for a whole career of plays – and anyway, how self-indulgent would that be?).

I usually conduct interviews whilst researching, then type them up word for word. With my first play Protection, which was about social workers, I was pretty religious about this and I had lots of people wanting to talk to me. But with How To Disappear the subject was more sensitive and obviously the people at the heart of it were a little more difficult to find having disappeared, so I never actually got to meet anyone who had done it and come back to tell the tale (though I did find some interviews online).

This meant I had to engage in a process of imaginative research, where I had to get myself into the head of someone who was absolutely at breaking point and saw such a drastic course of action as their only escape route. So I spent a lot of time in Southend, a tacky coastal town where Charlie ends up, standing at the end of the pier trying to imagine wanting to throw myself in, whilst reading interviews and rehearsing escape routes in my head if I ever had to leave my old life behind. I got all the guide books and worked out how to get a portfolio of new ID. I reckon with a bit of notice I could probably get most of it. Passports are a bit harder now but when the play was written they were still fairly easy. I’m sure it can still be done if you know how. I have a perverse admiration for criminal minds who can exploit systems and confound every security measure, so I had fun writing the character of Mike, Charlie’s mentor.

So anyway, research and imagination are inseparable for me. Those characters were born out of all of the above combined, and emerged over many months in fragments gleaned from one source or sparked off by another. A field trip to a resonant site which will spark imaginative ideas is as much an act of research as being shown pictures of drowned bodies by a policeman, or reading a book by a dodgy private detective about how to get a new driving licence. It’s about establishing the truth of a given character’s situation and the course of action they embark on.

How To Disappear gives a merciless portrayal of the moral and emotional emptiness of contemporary life, which for all its specific Englishness resonates very strongly here too. Among other things, it strikes me as an attack on the cult of appearances, on a society in which surface is everything. Identity itself seems, in the end, to be fraudulent. (I guess it's no accident that your protagonist works in advertising). Are you angry about where contemporary society is going? What are the concerns that propel the play?

I’m not angry at contemporary society so much as exasperated with it, and incredulous that people don’t see through it most of the time. The cult of the individual is the ultimate triumph of advanced global capitalism, to which we all acquiesce every day. Over the years powerful forces have created a system that keeps us unfulfilled and powerful forces continue to manipulate that emptiness by selling us things that promise to fill the vacuum, but which in fact just continue to feed the monster.

Now we have a world full of branding and disposable consumables and makeover shows and empty promises of freedom and rejuvenation. We thought all this would make us happy but it doesn’t and now we’re all stuck with it. And, so far as I can see, it’ll only come to an end when the environment breathes its last and kills us all off. I suppose that’s the ultimate tragedy - that a species so intelligent is managing to kill itself and its planet through sheer stupidity. I don’t know how much of that is in the play but it’s something that occurs to me most days.

It's been said that you're in the tradition of David Hare, a social realist playwright. How To Disappear isn't by any means a documentary play, however. Can you talk a little about how you see your work in the context of British writing?

That was only said of my first play Protection, which was a traditional research-led piece of social realism, documenting an aspect of the public sector, in the tradition of Hare’s state-of-the-nation trilogy Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and Absence of War at the National Theatre in the early 90s. How To Disappear was my second play and I deliberately set out to do something completely different, so it’s a nightmarish netherworld of distorted timelines and people waking up dead. If Protection was politics then I guess How To Disappear is philosophy. I’ve also done a modern Jacobean revenge tragedy, a radio play about religion and mental illness, an as yet unproduced play about the looting of the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, and lots of plays about teenagers in east London. As for where all that fits within the context of British writing, I’m not really sure. Like most writers, I just get on with it and leave academics and so on to put forward theories linking us all up.

Bizarrely (I think) How To Disappear was turned down by many companies, and was only produced after it won a major prize. How hard is it for new voices to enter British theatre? Does the theatre culture suffer from a closed shop mentality? Or is it just hard all round?

It’s hard to break into theatre if you can't afford to work for nothing. That’s the main problem. The current system puts the onus of responsibility onto the individual writer to subsidise their own play, by working on it in their spare time in the hope that it might pay off one day with a commission. This effectively turns playwriting into a speculative activity. It’s the same for directors.

This is why most theatre practitioners are white, male, middle-class graduates – they’re the ones who can afford to take these risks. Now these people can of course produce great drama. But in the modern world they’re not all that representative of the country at large, and it doesn’t seem fair that lower socio-economic groups are excluded from taking part by the ad hoc nature of the current system. There are a few schemes emerging now to address that, and I’m involved with one of them, so I hope things are changing. I remember when I wanted to write my first play for the fringe I had to quit my job and live off my credit cards for six months. It took me two years to pay that off. That’s what ‘arts funding’ means for most freelance artists at the start of their careers, and I think most people would admit that it isn’t the best system for producing great work. We really need some sort of system to spot talent and nurture it and fund it prior to getting that first commission. That’s where most people fall down.

As for How To Disappear being turned down, I’ve never really got to the bottom of that. I suppose structurally it breaks a few rules and that makes theatres nervous, especially in a new writer. Audiences and critics all loved it though, which was a real boost.

You have worked a lot both teaching and with specific communities - can you expand on that work? How has that work influenced your writing?

For the past two years I’ve been playwright-in-residence in a school in east London. I teach playwrighting to students and staff, I help the GCSE and A-level kids develop their play ideas, and I write and produce a new play each year for the kids to take to the Edinburgh Festival. Before that I did similar work on a smaller scale for a variety of different companies working with inner city communities. I also did a play-making project with kids in the social services care system. I love it. It’s very easy as a writer to sit in a room pontificating about how the world works without actually taking an active part in it. That side of my work keeps me real and in touch with some of the most vibrant communities in the UK. It’s so rewarding helping them explore their creativity and shape their ideas, and of course it informs my own work because I have a long-standing relationship with Half Moon Young People’s Theatre in east London who produce and tour my plays for teenagers, so I draw on a lot of my teaching experiences when I write for them.

The young people’s theatre sector is terribly overlooked over here, especially by critics. There’s still a perception that we’re putting out some rickety theatre-in-education tat when actually the sector has changed hugely since the 1980s when that may have been true. As a writer who works both there and in the mainstream I have to say that the young people’s sector affords me far greater opportunities to develop ideas over a long period and experiment with form.

My first play for Half Moon Locked In was a hip hop musical set in a pirate radio station, and was effectively my first verse play. I developed it with them over two years of workshops with their youth theatres and play readings in local schools. A mainstream adult company would never offer you that broad a canvas. You’d get a commission and be expected to deliver in six months with little or no support. Young people’s companies despite, or perhaps because of, having less money, are very loyal to their writers and develop much longer term relationships with them. You get to grow as an artist.

These two sides of my work are now totally inextricable. For example, I can trace a direct lineage from experimenting with verse in Locked In to Chimeras, my modern Jacobean tragedy, which the commissioning company Liquid Theatre are now trying to co-produce with one of the big national companies. I could never have written a play like that without having the time and space to experiment with form which the young people’s sector offered me.

Do you write things other than plays (and blogs/journalism)? Have you always just wanted to be a playwright? What made you want to do it in the first place?

I’m just a playwright, and occasional blogger and features writer. I’ve been doing drama in one form or another ever since I was a kid, through youth theatres, then school shows, then a Drama and English degree. I’ve written stories ever since I could hold a pen, and I’ve always worked in theatres too, long before I was a writer I was an usher, crew member, box office staff etc. I suppose I wanted to write plays because I always had an interest in politics, philosophy, sociology, language and poetry/literature. Playwrighting seemed to combine all those, and in the most exciting way. The self-employed thing also appeals to me, as well as not having to wear a suit.

Who are the writers whom you most admire?

Oh, loads. I won't list them. Playwright love-ins are always a bit tedious. Also I might offend someone by leaving them out. Writers are sensitive like that.

Fin Kennedy's website
Playscript on amazon
Hoy Polloy website

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

Navel gazing

A Sunday afternoon spent slowly ordering a chaotic house is always good therapy. As you know, Ms TN has been feeling a bit ragged lately. It's partly a result of overdoing things: I seem to have two speeds, hyperdrive and stop. I have made many resolutions over the years to find a few gears in the middle, since I am perfectly aware that this is not a sensible way of doing things, but so far I haven't found the golden mean. This is partly circumstance, and wholly my own fault. Like most writers, I have turned procrastination into an artform; but with me, it's taken a particularly pernicious turn. In order to avoid doing one kind of work, I think of another project: and then this idle diversion turns into a monster, which splinters off into further truancies, which in turn become other monsters: and before you know it, I'm like one of those crazed teens in Reefer Madness.

Take note, children: playing with literature is dangerous. It starts innocently with poems, and for a while you might be able to pretend that it's a harmless hobby ("recreational" literature). But before you know it, you've graduated to plays and libretti. And that leads down the slippery slope to novellas. But even that isn't enough. The craving only gets worse and, before you know it, you're mainlining Big Fat Fantasy Novels. But even that isn't the worst. The worst is when you discover blogging. Blogs are the crack of the literary world, they burn up your brains and leave you dribbling by the kerb, an object of pity and derision to all right-minded people.

When you pursue all these obsessions at once, and attempt to have a life as well, your head explodes. That sharp crack you heard wasn't a car backfiring, it was me. You should see the carpet.

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that at present I'm pondering how to achieve a via media, a way of managing my writing life that bears some relation to sense. I don't want to stop doing anything I'm doing, it all being much too interesting to stop. But at the same time, it ceases to be interesting for anybody, and especially me, if all that emerges is mush. Which is to say, I think the balance between attending to my own work and attending to the work of others is a little top heavy at present. And to be honest, since I've always written as an artist first, this has been making me feel a little lost. I need to touch base. Have a little me-time.

For all that, I expect that readers won't notice a lot of difference on the blog. Perhaps it's more an internal than external shift. For example, I'm going to stop thinking that I'm not doing my job if I don't see everything worth seeing. As a solo, unpaid effort, it's ridiculous, even hubristic, to think that I can or that I should, and to feel guilty if I don't manage it. Away, little demons of the mind!

And finally, since it is always good to get back to first principles, let me point you to Mark Fisher's meditations on theatre criticism on his Scottish Theatre Blog, which are a model of clarity, and somehow very heartening.

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Friday, May 16, 2008

$1.7 million to raise by Monday

Doing an Usher here - but the press release says everything. Just received from La Mama:

One of Melbourne’s oldest and most fondly regarded theatres, La Mama, has occupied the iconic building in Faraday St in the heart of Carlton since 1967. For the last 40 years the building has been rented from a local Melbourne family. The Matriarch (and much-loved La Mama supporter) Rose died late last year and the Executors of her Estate notified La Mama that they wanted to sell the building offering La Mama first option.

Yesterday the Executors of the Estate accepted La Mama’s offer of $1.7 million however they stipulated that they have until 5pm Monday 19 May 2008 to lock in the funds. Otherwise the building will go to Auction threatening La Mama’s home.

Since first being notified of the sale early this year, La Mama has raised over $140,000 primarily from industry members and is currently in discussion with a number of Government organisations and philanthropists. The Melbourne City Council has also made a commitment of support to raise funds. However La Mama still needs additional major support from large stakeholders, organisations and philanthropists to secure its future in the unique space that is so integral to the theatre maker’s and audience’s experience.

Longterm Artistic Director, Liz Jones, is extremely grateful to all community members who have committed to supporting La Mama’s fundraising activities. She is making an urgent plea to anyone who would like to make a substantial contribution to contact her preferably before Monday 19 May.

La Mama was founded in 1967 by Betty Burstall after she visited La Mama in New York. Integral in the birth of Australian theatre in the early 1970s, it continues to nurture new, vital and unconventional talents and as a result continues to play an intrinsic role in Melbourne’s diverse artistic life.

La Mama has been an incubator for many big names in Australian theatre with its Alumni including national icons such as Jack Hibberd, David Williamson, Cate Blanchett and Richard Frankland to name a few.

To make a donation or for more information on how you can help secure La Mama’s future please contact Liz Jones on tel. 03 9347 6948, 0412 909 077 or Any contributions, large or small, will be gratefully received.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Bits and bobs

It's often hard to run down the arts angle on Federal Budgets. But in today's Australian, Corrie Perkin chases up arts reaction to Treasurer Wayne Swann's first Budget, handed down on Tuesday night. It's pretty much as expected: business as usual, with some small winners - Indigenous arts, young artists - and few big losers aside from regional Australia, where funding was - shortsightedly, in my opinion - cut. I think it's pretty much wait and see: I'd agree with those who think that next year's Budget will be the one to watch as far as the arts are concerned. (Update: The Pickard Pen has been scratching out more commentary, and more detail, at Arts Journalist).

I haven't spotted any coverage in the Age, though there might have been a par or two in the print edition. But I did stumble across Robin Usher's shameless regurgitation of a press release I received this week from the MTC, which I note for the record. (Update a day later: a budget report by Jo Roberts is in today's edition).

Meanwhile, long-time readers of this blog might recall the controversy when the New York Theatre Workshop permanently postponed a Royal Court production of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner drawn from the diaries of a young American activist who was killed in Palestine by an Israeli bulldozer. While I personally wished the controversy was around a better artistic object, it did highlight some bitter running sores in public debate around the Middle East. And some interesting issues in relation to theatre itself.

Two years later, it's premiering in Sydney, courtesy of young director Shannon Murphy, and as Nick Pickard reports, is causing some pre-emptively emotive reactions, which were republished in the Australian on the day the show was to open. The audience is, says Cynthia Ozick of the Zionist ezine Israel News, "at a show trial. And there are Jews in the dock". Picket lines in Sydney? I wonder. To be honest, I would be surprised: but one never knows.

And don't forget the Next Wave Festival, which opens today to showcase the talents of Melbourne's young artists. The program boasts some fascinating-looking performance, and I'm kind of wincing, because I'm going to miss all of it. But that doesn't mean that you should: I'd be checking out North Melbourne Arts House 180 Seconds in Heaven or Hell, for instance, or Eddie Sharp's The Tent or, actually, any of those intriguing-looking shows. Tell me how it went.

Which leads me to the personal. After two weeks battling mediaeval levels of pain - nothing serious, just problems with teeth - Ms TN is taking it easy theatre-wise for a couple of weeks. I've had it, guys. I'll be here and there, but mostly at home threatening the kids. My apologies to those I've mucked around recently, but a woman's got to know her limitations, and at the moment my face is shoved into mine. I'll surge back when I get a new head.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Review: A Soldier's Tale

The Soldier's Tale by Igor Stravinsky, adapted by Simon Stone, directed by Michael Robinson, conducted by Fabian Russell. Lighting design by Kerry Ireland, set design by Michael Robinson, sound by Richard Buxton. Actors: Frank Gallacher, Bonnie Paskas, David Whitely and Mark Winter; musicians: Zoe Black, Frank Celata, Tristram Williams, Robert Cossom, Kieran Conrau, Jill Griffiths and Adam Mikulicz. The Hayloft Project @ the Abbotsford Convent until May 10.

The Soldier's Tale is a fascinating adaptation, which - in what is becoming a hallmark of Hayloft's work - takes the original work and unobstrusively brings its aesthetic into the 21st century. The Hayloft Project's productions are accumulating into an intriguing oeuvre: there is most certainly a serious investigation occurring here, one which has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with formal inquiry.

The clue here is the modernity of their aesthetic choices, which for all their period dress attain a performative immediacy and elan that remains wholly of the present. When Igor Stravinsky premiered The Soldier's Tale in Switzerland in 1918, it was indeed topical: Europe was still in the throes of the mechanised carnage of World War 1. The libretto, a conflation of a couple of Russian folk tales about encounters between a soldier and the Devil, was put together by the Swiss poet and novelist Charles Ferdinand Ramuz.

It was perhaps the first of a form that became known as "mixed media" work, incorporating dance, music, design and theatre. Despite that, The Soldier's Tale is mostly performed as a musical sequence. Last week, The Hayloft Project, with an adaptation by Simon Stone directed by Michael Robinson, gave us a rare chance to experience it as a work of theatre, with Stravinsky's score performed by musicians from The Orchestra Project, a loose group of musicians culled from Australia's leading ensembles and orchestras.

Stone has vamped up the original libretto, bringing the realities of wartime into the foreground and removing any sense of romantic pastoral: for example, where the original opens with the soldier sitting by a stream, Hayloft's version opens in a disreputable 19th century tavern strewn with bottles and wooden chests and buckets, lit as if by candlelight. But here the romantic glow reveals an unromanticised poverty.

Three performers are on stage already - the barman/narrator (Frank Gallacher), who is washing tin cups in a bowl of grimy water; the Devil, who is playing solitaire (David Whitely); and a woman (Bonnie Paskas) who is on her hands and knees, scrubbing the floor. The colours are warm, highlighting the wood and hessian tones of the set and the instruments of the ensemble, who are standing mid-stage to the left, dressed in vaguely 19th century clothes.

The performance begins with the sounds of artillery which is getting nearer and nearer, until at last one shell is so close the three performers flinch. Then someone is hammering on the door, and in stumbles the Soldier (Mark Winter) in a state of hysteria and shock. He tells the barman that he was marching with a friend who was hit and killed with a shell. When he at last wipes the blood from his face, he crumples into a foetal position, and for the rest of the night gives what looks like an almost clinically accurate performance of a soldier who is suffering from shell-shock (or, as it is known these days, "combat stress reaction").

This sets the tone for the performance, which has an air of nightmare or hallucination. It's the tale of a Faustian bargain - the Devil, whom Whitely plays with an air of subtle, snake-like menace, persuades the Soldier to give up his grandfather's violin in exchange for a book in which the Soldier's future is written. In one of the more poignant moments, the Soldier confesses he can't read; when the Devil suggests that he accompany him to his house for three days, where in return for being taught how to play the violin, he will show the Soldier how to read his book.

After the three days are up, the Soldier returns home, only to find that his appearance causes terror among his friends and relations, who treat him as if he were a ghost. When he sees his fiancee married and nursing children, he understands that he has been away for three years, not three days, and that his former life - and his soul - is lost to him. Eventually, however, he outwits the Devil, wins a Princess and finds happiness - but the the deal is that he can never go back. As always in these stories, he breaks the magical ban, and returns to his village to visit his mother: and the Devil, triumphant at last, claims his soul.

As presented here, it's a stark, resonant and ultimately mysterious tale. The action is punctuated by Stravinsky's music, so focus shifts from music to performance and back again, giving a sense of complementary autonomy to both elements in what is a very difficult balance. Under Fabian Russell's conducting, Stravinsky's score is spectacular, enriched with motifs from jazz, folk music and traditional dances, and here it's performed with exemplary clarity.

There are many beautiful moments in this production, which features four very strong performances from the actors: but perhaps the most surprising is the dance, performed by Paskas (whom I later found out performs with Chunky Move). Up to this moment, Paskas has been the image of a submissive, modest woman, in the background on her hands and knees; and then she explodes into this slow, strangely disturbing tango, in which the soldier is passive, even sometimes overwhelmed by the woman's sensuality. She begins with snake-like movements that suddenly foreground the picture of Adam and Eve on the back wall of the stage, at once vulnerable, potent, joyous and damaged.

The Soldier's Tale doesn't give us a satisfyingly dramatic arc of action, as in, say, a play by Chekhov; rather, the story begins, continues in an episodic fashion, and then it finishes. It follows the naive logic of oral narrative or dream, which has very little to do with psychological continuity or any sense of realism; folk tales, for example, tend to begin the middle, rehearse a number of recognisable tropes (for example, the magical ban) and then may end abruptly.

In this case, the episodic structure highlights the production's hallucinatory air: it is almost as if, when the soldier is killed and claimed by the devil at the end, the whole story has been a nightmare dreamt on the brink of his death, as if the Soldier was actually killed in the first moments of the show. This sense of dislocation is intensified by Winters' remarkable performance of a shell-shocked soldier; he never, for instance, changes out of his bloodstained, ragged uniform, as if the trauma has only just happened to him.

It's this surreal tinge that for me lends the production its particular power and resonance. When I went to see it, I was in the middle of reading Michael Herr's classic book about the Vietnam War, Dispatches, one of the best books about soldiers in war that I have read. (I'm reading it again because the parallels with Iraq now are illuminating, if depressing). For all the differences between Stravinsky's chamber work and Herr's nakedly evocative, strung-out 1960s prose, the two works rhyme painfully in a nakedly honest evocation of the irreversible damage of war.

Picture: Mark Winter and Bonnie Paskas in The Soldier's Tale.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

What I've missed

Which, in the past week, has been almost everything. While I've been developing a painkiller habit you wouldn't believe, various shows have slipped me by. But luckily, even if I've fallen off the ball, my blogger colleagues are emphatically on top of it.

Maybe my most regretted miss - certainly a show that pushes all my buttons of interest - is Brigid Jackson and Adena Jacobs' This Is For You, which closed last night at La Mama. Ming's response is here, and Hannah Liddy has another fascinating meditation at Vibewire. And according to Australian Stage Online, Catalpa, presently playing at the Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre in Brunswick, bears out its promise. Rhys at Stop Panicking has been posting reports on the fantastic Arts House program at North Melbourne, about which I have been hearing Good Things (in particular about Blazeblue Oneline), and Bardassa at On Stage Melbourne has posted on Red Stitch's The Pain and the Itch. (I wonder, do I need to go out at all? These days I could just sit here and post links...)

Then there's the tyranny of distance. I would personally like to be wearing a Frequent Flyers groove between the capital cities - maybe one day, when I can afford my own pink helicopter - but in the meantime for news from Sydney I mainly rely on Nicholas Pickard's Arts Journalist blog for gossip and reviews. Today he posts a rave about The Rabble's Salome, another show which I was hoping to see this week, and will probably miss. Meanwhile, fellow Sydneysider Two Blue Fish's post on Ignorance in the Theatre is a cautionary tale to all of us (I think we've all been there). And now they're joined by Kevin Jackson's Theatre Reviews, a stimulating new blog featuring long and thoughtful reviews mainly concentrating on Sydney's independent scene, which suggests the the Sydney theatrosphere (as our American friends so euphoniously dub it) is livening up.

As for me, I'm still not out of the woods. But plans are still afoot, the moment I am capable of writing a sentence that makes any sense, to review The Hayloft's production of The Soldier's Tale, since even I am getting tired of my peevish complaints.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008


I just woke up from a dream in which I lived in an apartment with a huge hexagonal front room, each wall of which was a window. All the blinds were up and the lights were blazing, and a massive crowd of people - including a former arts editor of the Age, Jason Romney (hi Jason, and what the hell are you doing in my dream?) - was hanging out there. Some of them were showing me an avant garde theatre piece that involved sushi. The sushi probably represented my brain, fresh and dead.

I feel so crappy that I don't think it's tension or tiredness or overwork any more. The nice blond osteo ironed out my spine and exposed what was lurking underneath the rocks, some sort of moray eel, slow and ugly. For the record, I've cancelled two shows already this week - Red Stitch's The Pain and the Itch and The Itch's premiere production of Catalpa. I dropped out of the critic's panel of The Emerging Writers Festival this afternoon, and the chances of my making it to the second last performance tonight of This Is For You at La Mama just fell to zero. Ming's review makes me feel sorrier that I'm missing it, but I think I've just got to face what I can't do and hide under the covers. Thanks to the well wishers, and I swear on my boots I'll be doing all I can to get well soon. Like sleeping. And right now I'm just going to pull the blinds down.

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Friday, May 09, 2008


Ms TN has been dabbing her forehead with lavender water since Monday, attempting to mitigate what the redoubtable Miss Austen called "a sick head ache". Which is why a review of The Hayloft Project's A Soldier's Tale hasn't come forth as yet... It will appear, since I believe in "for the record", but I wanted to heartily recommend it before it closes tomorrow night. Meanwhile, I'm off to the osteopath.

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Rattling the cage

I don't usually do memes, but this one is kind of fun. I've taken it from George Hunka over at Superfluities, and it runs like this:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people, and acknowledge who tagged you.

Reminds me of a John Cage instruction. The nearest book to hand was actually The Song of Roland (translated by the magnificently named Frederick Bliss Luquiens) but, alas, it only runs to 101 pages. Underneath it was Georges Battaille's Literature and Evil. And page 123 reveals this surprisingly resonant thought for the day:

Sacrifice is passive, it is based on elementary fear. Desire alone is active, and desire alone makes us live in the present. It is only if the mind, confronted by some obstacle, brings its decelerated attention to bear on the object of its desire that lucid conciousness has the opportunity to function.

I'll follow George's lead, and leave the tagging as an open invitation. Over to you.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Bendall moves west

Chris Bendall, artistic director and co-founder of Theatre@Risk, today announced that he is pulling up sticks and moving to Perth to be AD of Fremantle's Deckhair Theatre. Creative producer Kirrilly Brentnall and associate director Victor Bizzotto, both of whom co-founded Theatre@Risk with Bendall in 2001, will also leave the organisation. Bendall takes up his new role in a couple of weeks.

TAR itself will be moving towards something like a production house, rather than producing new work itself. John Paxinos and John-Paul Fischbach will take over as co-executive producers of the company, aiming to support other new and emerging small to medium theatre companies and independent performing arts projects through the recently launched Incubator Project.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review: Venus in Furs

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, adapted by Neal Harvey, directed by Marcel Dorney. Design by Lucie Sprague, lighting design by Tristan Bourke, sound design and compisition by Dani Kirby. With Angus Grant, Joel Radcliffe and Karen Roberts. Elbow Room @ Theatreworks, St Kilda, Melbourne, until May 18. Bookings: (03) 9534 3388

The 19th century writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch earned himself a dubious form of immortality when the psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing named a sexual perversion after him. These days, with the Marquis de Sade, he is best remembered as half of the term sado-masochism. But the contemporary image of a leather-clad dungeon mistress that this evokes is a poor reflection of the literature that inspired it. Neither the monstrous boredom of Sade’s vicious fantasies nor the cruel utopian desires of Sacher-Masoch are straightforward texts.

Both can be argued to be about liberation. Sade’s novels Justine or 120 Days of Sodom, written in prison during the French Revolution, enact a philosophy of the libertine, a succession of endless orgies and increasingly cruel sexual permutations which evoke a loathsome tedium, a savage view of human behaviour that directly argued with the basics tenets of the Enlightenment. Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Furs, is on the other hand a product of late romanticism. And although his novel is often called, with some justification, a misogynist book that takes the ancient war of the sexes to a logical conclusion, it contains an interesting paragraph that ought to give pause to easy dismissal.

Woman, claims Sacher-Masoch, is inevitably man’s enemy. "She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion," he says. "This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work." Sacher-Masoch shares Nietzsche’s insight that passive, destructive femininity is a creation of men themselves.

The “woman question”, in fact, haunted the intelligentsia of the late 19th century. The same idea illuminates Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Nora is trapped in a marriage that infantalises her, playing the role of a frivolous, expensive woman to please her husband. Sacher-Masoch’s critique of the crippling effects of socially determined gender roles on sexual relationships is a crucial key to the novel, and perhaps the most radical statement in it.

This idea is vaguely present in Neal Harvey’s theatrical adaptation, but never as explicit as it is in the book. Harvey’s adaptation is elegantly theatrical, with only a couple of dramaturgical hiccups (notably towards the end), and has focused more on the destructive force of idealism, which through the force of its visionary desire can scorch reality to bare earth.

The hero Severin (Angus Grant) is a bored, independently wealthy young man who encounters his nemesis, Wanda (Karen Roberts) while he is staying in a hotel. She is an unconventional and sensual woman who unashamedly pursues her own pleasure without heed for societal conventions. Severin immediately falls obsessively in love with her and, unable to contemplate the prospect of losing her, begs to be Wanda’s slave.

She is initially reluctant to fulfil his fantasy, but discovers an inner capacity for tyranny that thrills and alarms her, and which she takes further than Severin intended or imagined. He literally creates his cruel mistress out of his desire for a pure, ecstatic love: a love that clearly has very little to do with Wanda’s own desires, but which inevitably schools her in a new and vicious pleasure.

Marcel Dorney gives us a production of intelligent clarity, enacted on a minimal set. Lucie Sprague’s design consists of draped black curtains that can be lit to be opaque or transparent, exploiting the cavernous space of Theatreworks by at once defining a domestic interior and – through the transparencies – a darker emptiness outside it. The luxurious fabrics of the costumes and furniture summon a fin de siecle aesthetic of sensual pleasure.

The direction focuses on Sacher-Masoch’s lushly beautiful language, and elicits two courageous performances that are leavened with a cool and bitter irony. As the reluctant goddess released into her power, Roberts steps unerringly between brittle dismay and disturbing pleasure in her cruelty and power. And Grant’s performance as Severin gives a startling verisimilitude to a role that embraces both comic desolation and passionate obsession. It’s worth seeing for the performances alone.

I did feel afterwards that something was missing, although it’s hard to put my finger on it: perhaps it’s as minor as a slight lack of sharpness in the lighting and the writing, subtle beats missed or held too long. Or perhaps I would have liked to see a tougher exploration of those gender questions, which remain vexed and pertinent 130 years after they were written.

This production made me wonder why so many young theatre artists here are obsessed with the 19th century. What is it about late romanticism or early modernism that is so sparking imaginations? As well as Venus in Furs, recently we’ve seen several productions, mainly courtesy of The Hayloft Project: they've mounted Platonov and Spring Awakening, and later this week I'm off to see Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.

Aside from the obvious attractions of the beautiful language of these texts, it’s hard not to speculate that some kind of reclamation is taking place, a return to some of the nascent explorations that were blown apart by the catastrophic events of the 20th century, in particular the second world war. It’s not nostalgia I’m sensing here, but a certain curiosity, a certain desire, and I’m intrigued to see where it leads.

A shorter version of this review appeared in yesterday's Australian.

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