Review: ...SistersReview: RelocatedReview: ComusRandom observations from the English summerBrief notes on apocalypseReview: Scarlett O'Hara at the Crimson ParrotTheatre, poetry and stuffEssay: Dan Spielman on MannaReview: YesA caution - and something on truthfulnessYesBill Henson rated PGCatching upReality: what a concept ~ theatre notes

Monday, June 30, 2008

Review: ...Sisters

…Sisters, adapted and directed by Chris Goode from Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. Designed by Naomi Dawson, lighting design by Anna Watson. With Gemma Brockis, Catherine Dyson, Julia Innocenti, Helen Kirkpatrick, Tom Lyall and Melanie Wilson. Headlong Theatre @ The Gate, Notting Hill Gate, London, until July 5.

When last we spoke I was in a state of high irritation after seeing Anthony Neilson’s Relocated at the Royal Court. But a theatregoer’s unkillable optimism led me on Saturday to the wilds of London, or at least to Notting Hill Gate, where I climbed yet more stairs to see, this time, a matinee performance of …Sisters, a version of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters adapted and directed by Chris Goode. And I gave thanks, for the karmic gods saw to it that there was balance. This production stands with one of the best Chekhov experiences I’ve had.

First, a confession: I’m a bit of a Chekhov fangirl. When I get to that big dinner table in the sky, I hope they seat me next to Anton for at least a few of those eternal moments. His letters reveal him to be a man of great personal charm: he was funny and lively and, which is perhaps most rare, he possessed a coolly humane social conscience, a wholly rational and sceptical compassion that, for example, informed his report on health conditions on the penal island of Sakhalin, and is one of the defining qualities of his work.

It’s this quality, I think, that makes Chekhov one of the more poorly understood playwrights of the modern age: the realisation of his texts demands a special kind of wisdom. The mantel of reverence – or, alternatively, the machismo of anti-reverence – often obscures the intense fragility that animates the strength of his drama. Worse, a grey miasma of contemporary naturalism tends to rise about his work, snuffing out the poetic vitality at its heart.

Goode’s version of Three Sisters has been billed as a “deconstruction”, but this seems like a cold word for what strikes me more as an organic reanimation, an attempt to recover (or perhaps, more accurately, to create) a Chekhov who is continually invested in the raw presence of the moment. At first glance, this appears a quixotic approach to a classic four act naturalistic play, but in fact it is an ambition peculiarly apt to Chekhov’s work. What has always moved me most about Chekhov’s plays is their tragic consciousness of the present, a profound sorrow and comedy that stems equally from the moment’s unbearably beautiful transience, or its crushing boredom, or its pain. For this reason among others, I have often thought that Beckett owes a great deal to Chekhov.

Writing about this production, as is true of all the best theatre experiences, is very difficult. To write it down is inevitably a kind of falsification, as it shifts something that exists almost entirely in the present into the past tense. And memory has its own filters and connectivities, selecting and fictionalising and shaping as it rewrites the experience. All that remains of this production now is what exists in the memory of those who were there.

This acute awareness of mortality (“Each thing once. Only once.”) is the informing feeling of …Sisters, and the reason why it’s so intensely moving. Because of the chance elements Goode and his actors have introduced, each performance is different: no one knows at the beginning who is going to play what parts, or even which lines will be said. However, these variations are played over a deeply thought structure: not only the play (which still preserves its four acts and its language) but in the shape of the production itself. It’s a show that teaches you how to watch it as you watch, profoundly intelligent but also, crucially, profoundly felt. When a character asks: Do we exist? the question resonates intimately in the auditorium: suddenly I felt as fictional – or, conversely, as real - as the characters on the stage. And who’s to say I am not?

Goode has adapted the play into contemporary English and gathered an exceptional cast (it clearly had to be exceptional) of six actors, all of whom learnt the entire text. Then he asked them, as he says in the program, to “dance”. And dance they do. One of the things that took my breath away about this production is its beautiful and subtle choreography, its creation of a continually dynamic space.

…Sisters maintains an exquisite tension between the scripted play and the anarchies of chance. From the moment we enter the space – designed as a comfortably cluttered green room with 19th century touches, complete with electric kettle, walls covered with post-it notes and framed collections of dead butterflies - we see the actors, half costumed, leafing through scripts or wandering idly about the stage, preparing for the show. The emphasis is from the beginning on performance in all its meanings, an awareness which implicates the audience. We are always conscious – we are never permitted to forget – that we are watching a work of theatre.

Goode uses a number of Cagean techniques: the actors choose straws, play spin-the-bottle and pick up at random envelopes containing instructions that drop from the ceiling. Anyone could play any character, and at any point might become someone else. Despite this, it’s a production very strong on clarity: clues are given from the beginning – in costuming and dialogue – to show who is who, although these clues are instantly destabilised. For this reason, it demands close attention. But although my memory of Three Sisters was very vague (I resisted the impulse to reread the play, and merely reacquainted myself with the character list), there was no point where I found myself utterly lost. Perhaps those who don't know the play might be lost, but I suspect what is fruitfully destroyed here is a certain kind of dramatic expectation.

The four acts are very distinct. Act I establishes the play, and sticks most closely to the text as written. Act II stretches the conventions: at one point, for example, there are three Mashas. The love scene between Masha and Vershinin gains a skin-prickling poignancy by being performed in a kind of chorus, the dialogue shifting from one couple to another with no attention to gender. Act III, the dramatic climax, is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to play-as-opera, and is the point where the play's emotional subtext surges rawly to the surface of the performance.

Act IV is a return to stasis, with performers seated staring out at the audience, but now the play is in pieces, literally scattered over the floor for one of the actors, continually circling the others, to pick up and read at random. In a rather Castellucci-ish touch, two rabbits hop onto the stage and lollop around, behaving, as animals and babies do, with a hypnotic lack of self consciousness. I thought it a tribute to the actors that I found myself watching them as closely as I watched the rabbits, which ended up, bored, fast asleep under a desk at the end of the scene. But for all the random elements, the performance begins and ends where the play begins and ends: it still, rather miraculously, attends to Chekhov's dramatic and emotional arc.

I don’t know whether, if he had seen this production, Chekhov would have advised his friends (as he so often did) to “shoot him in the head” if he ever thought about writing another play. But I like to think he might have been pleased: for all its robust approach, ...Sisters seemed to me to be deeply true to him. Certainly, in its peculiar and evanescent transparency, it's a work of exemplary integrity. No wonder people here think Chris Goode is God.

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

Review: Relocated

Relocated, written and directed by Anthony Neilson. Designed by Miriam Buether, lighting by Chahine Yavroyan, sound design by Nick Powell. With Frances Grey, Phil McKee, Staurt McQuarrie, Katie Novak, Jan Pearson and Nicola Walker. Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, Sloane Square, London, until July 5.

Despite my stern resolutions to do other things while in London - like, oh, I don't know, photographing Beefeaters or climbing the Tower of London - Ms TN gave in and decided to go to the theatre after all. After reading various responses to Anthony Neilson’s Relocated, from Michael Billington’s notorious one star review to our Euro-trotting Jana’s indignant defence, curiosity overwhelmed me. And so, on Friday night, I found myself at the Royal Court Upstairs.

When they say Upstairs, they mean Upstairs. I think I made my way up five flights and then, after I'd climbed all that way, I entered a space that felt like an underground bunker. Miriam Buether’s impressive design is not for claustrophobes: it features a black, low-roofed stage furnished with chairs and other objects painted black, and lit by dingy naked lightbulbs.

The stage is separated from the audience by a coarse scrim, so you are effectively peering into a box, creating that sense of voyeurism which seems to be a bit of a staple of contemporary theatre. In a neat touch that increases the voyeuristic frisson, the angle of the stage means that you can watch through the scrim as the rest of the audience enters the space. And then came what turned out to be my uneasiest moment of the night: the ushers shut the doors. I suddenly thought, what if there’s a fire? How do we get out?

It's not a thought that usually occurs to me in the theatre, and is no doubt a tribute to the oppressive effect of Buether’s design and Chahine Yavroyan’s parsimonious lighting, which is more a play of shadows on darkness than of light on shadow. The production they shape is certainly effective, well performed by a good cast and, for the most part, stylishly done. Yet on the way home I was overwhelmed by waves of irritation. I wasn’t offended, I wasn’t mystified, I wasn’t even angry. I was annoyed.

I've spent the whole day attempting to unpack this irritation. And I found that the more I thought about the production, the less there seemed to be think about. On the surface, Relocated is a Lynch-esque nightmare about identity, a peek under the skin of suburbia to its murderous neuroses and alienations, a fantasia of contemporary anxieties. That's certainly how it's dressed. But in the end, it doesn't really offer much more than a solidly visceral sensation of sitting in the dark.

It opens with a woman who is vacuuming and listening to the BBC news when she suddenly collapses. What follows is a series of nightmarish scenes, perhaps occurring in the moment of her death, since the show also ends with the image of the fallen woman. The play is a splintered narrative that splices Josef Fritzl, the incestuous imprisoner of his own daughter, with Connie/Marjorie/Kelly, a woman who, like Maxine Carr, is an unwitting accomplice to the murder of two 12 year old girls by her partner, and who is continually moved around the country under different identities for her protection.

Unlike others who have seen Relocated, I wasn’t disturbed by the ethics of the direct references to current events, although perhaps I should have been. The jarring effect of employing and distorting recognisable news stories wasn’t (for me, anyway) a question of “going too far”; but I did think it was exploitative. What bothered me was how the references literalised the play: they give the mind a handle of explanation which is then, despite variants and wandering storylines, impossible to ignore. The show is hamstrung by the kind of tabloid sensationalist banality which (perhaps) it seeks to critique.

The most effective moments are when the production is most restrained. There is a domestic scene, for instance, when one partner talks about children "upstairs" needing a bath, while the other, shocked, denies that they have any children at all. This moment, and a few others like it, begin to generate a genuine unease, a sense of dislocated, amnesiac identity; but this is hijacked almost immediately by the sudden flagging of contemporary news stories: a topicality, if you like, that erases relevance. It left me on the surface of things grappling with “issues”, rather than underneath the skin, grubbing about in the subconscious.

I suppose I might have liked to see something like the poise in Henry James's brilliant horror story The Turn of the Screw, which is a text so finely balanced that it is impossible to know whether it is a ghost story or an account by a sexually neurotic and destructive woman. Neilson might claim that he is challenging such elegance: certainly Relocated is full of loose ends. But for my money, rather than challenging the idea of narrative causality, these end up merely drifting, creating neither a dramatic narrative nor an oneiric anti-narrative, but rather something with a bet each way.

That sense of scrappiness no doubt emerges from Neilson's process, which is to devise texts during rehearsals. There's nothing in principle wrong with this, but in this production it's hard to see what the advantage is: effectively you have a play that works in the same ways other plays do, but without the benefit of reflective writing time. There are lyrical moments - for example, Connie's recorded assertion of her identity towards the end - that certainly reach towards very writerly ambitions.

And perhaps, too, I had been told too often that it was frightening. I avoid horror films, being rather too vulnerable to suspenseful sound effects and sudden leaps on the protagonist out of shadowy doorways, and I was prepared to have to steady my nerves with a stiff drink afterwards. And, rather to my disappointment, it didn't frighten me at all. The lighting design uses the effect of total blackout a few times too often. While at first it exerts its disorientating power, leaving you with that curious sense that your body's boundaries are now amorphous, by the fourth or fifth blackout it was, for all the inventiveness of Nick Powell’s soundscape of children’s cries and atmospheric electronic noises, just sitting in the dark, waiting for the next scene.

Neilson’s direction, imaginative and precise though it is, suffers from a sense of repetitiveness: not the repetition of scenes as variations, an aspect I found interesting, but from a rather unvarying directorial rhythm. (Reveal, hide, reveal, hide, more darkness…) I suspect this was a major reason I found myself checking my watch, which is a bad sign in a 90 minute show. But I think what primarily prompted my post-show irritation was a feeling of emptiness: for all the physical sensorium it provided, the production never connected into any deeper poetic recognition. I didn't feel anything.

Before the show, I bought the script of Marius von Mayenberg's The Ugly One - presently on in a return season downstairs at the Royal Court - and I read it on the way home. It makes a striking contrast to Relocated, because Mayenberg understands the value and strictness of theatrical metaphor. The Ugly One is, oddly enough, another essay on identity, a wickedly funny and painful exploration of the meaning of the face. I suppose there is a value in being annoyed - it doesn't in truth happen very often - but I couldn't help wishing I had seen Mayenberg's play instead.

Picture: Jan Pearson in Relocated at the Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Review: Comus

Comus by John Milton, composed by Henry Lawes, directed by Annilese Miskimmon. Designed by Lachlan Goudie, musical direction by Richard Bates, costumes by Beth Sims, choregraphy by Kyra Cornwall. With David F. Walton, Mary-Ellen Lynell, Jenni Mackenzie, Ed Rowett, Ned Stuart-Smith, Olivia Marshall, Rachel Thomas, Charlotte Verrill, Maria Pritchard, Shu-Pin Oei, Emma Rhule and Helen Ivory. Christ’s College Amateur Dramatic Society.

Comus: A Reply by John Kinsella, directed by Simon Godwin. Designed by Lucy Minyo, music composed by Simon Gethin Thomas, choreography by Vikki Le May, lighting by Benjamin Sehovic. With David Brown, Amanda Plain, Helen Duff, Sam Pallis, Lowri Amies, Alashiya Gordes, Abigail Rokison, Iona Blair and Arthur Asseraf. The Marlowe Society. Double bill @ Christ’s College Hall, Cambridge University.

Last weekend, I had the rare opportunity to watch a masque in performance – or more accurately, two masques, Milton’s Comus and a 21st century “reply” by Australian poet John Kinsella – in the atmospheric environs of Christ’s College, Cambridge. How atmospheric it was might be judged by the fact that it was performed in the hall where, four centuries ago, a 19-year-old Milton presided as Lord of Misrule, and on the wall was a portrait that is, at least in tradition, a picture of Milton by Lely (and which for the occasion was garnished with laurels).

Yet, for all the 17th century decor, what struck me most forcibly was how modern the form still seems. Much of the most interesting contemporary theatre plays up its artifice, finding emotional authenticity in performance and language rather in any pretence at realism. Masque reminds me of nothing so much as the Asian theatre that so inspired figures like Brecht and Artaud: it’s theatre that focuses on art, music, dance and physically stylized performance, and depends crucially for its intellectual sophistication and much of its beauty on poetic language.

A form of theatre that evolved from ancient traditions of mummery, it reached its apotheosis with Ben Jonson, who created extravagant spectacles that employed the arts of literature, music, singing, dancing and design to enchant the senses of Jacobean courtiers. Milton’s “Mask, presented at Ludlow Castle” (later named Comus) extended the tradition to pastoral poetry, but it was also a play on the genre that confounded the expectations of his audience, who were used to a narrative in which disruptive disorder was finally conquered by the forces of virtue (usually represented by the King and Queen).

Milton reclaimed the masque from its courtly excesses, recasting it as morality tale that defends chastity against the chaos of sensual riot. The plot is simple: a young woman (the Lady) becomes lost in a forest, the home of a wicked magician who, with his half-animal revelers, lives a life of sexual and sensual excess. But with the help of her two brothers, her innate virtue and the intervention of an earth goddess, Sabrina the Nymph, she fights of his seductions.

However, it’s more complex than it first appears. True to the ambiguity noted by Blake when he said Milton was “of the Devil’s party without knowing it”, Milton permits the Bacchanalian Comus to run away to fight another day, still clutching his magic wand.

Kinsella’s version, which was commissioned by the Marlowe Society, sticks closely to Milton’s structure and even, intriguingly, his language, and brings the sexual perversity that is subtextual in Milton rampantly to the surface. Certainly, in its radical message it’s very much in the tradition of Milton. The contemporary version of Comus is an out-of-control genetic scientist who swallows handfuls of Viagra and amphetamines, and after her adventures in the forest, the Lady becomes an eco-warrior. But again, all is not quite what it seems: the ultimate triumph of Virtue is merely another form of corruption, in which the wilds of England are preserved at the expense of the wildernesses of the developing world.

The productions were presented in traverse, in a hall which is intimate rather than grand, with double doors and a gallery at one end. Both productions took advantage of this intimacy, and were both, for different reasons, entirely engrossing. If Milton’s Comus featured some rather charmingly enthusiastic overacting, it also had some gorgeous voices – Mary-Ellen Lynall as the Lady, Jenni Mackenzie as the Attendant Spirit and Olivia Marshall as Sabrina – to deliver Henry Lawes’s sublime baroque settings of Milton’s lyrics. The songs were show-stoppers: for a moment, it was like stepping outside time, and we really were in the 17th century.

Annilese Miskimmon’s direction was functional rather than imaginative, and tended at times to the static; but it mostly filled the space and took proper advantage of the gallery. Beth Sims’s costumes were contemporary, with the Attendant Spirit in a costume that was a kind of cross between a beekeeper's costume and a space suit, the Lady in a tennis dress and her brothers in cricket whites. The most spectacular dress was for Comus and his dancers, in particular some stunning half-masks that demonstrated their Circean bestial provenance: one had a spectacular coronal of peacock feathers.

Simon Godwin’s direction of Kinsella’s Reply was more muscular, heightened by some fun animalistic choreography drawing on pole-dancing and dance clubs, which together generated an urgent energy. The costumes were simple and eye-catching: Comus’s dancers were decked out in bright, skintight lycra draped with complete fox furs, a gruesome touch which makes you wonder why such things were ever considered fashionable, while the Lady’s rather clueless brothers (Sam Pallis and Lowrie Amies) were in public school uniforms. The speaking performances were on the whole weaker than in the previous play, but the production was grounded by an utterly sure and very impressive performance from David Brown as Comus.

Whatever the quibbles, the whole was more than the sum of its parts. The original Comus was performed by amateurs - including the children of Lord Bridgewater, for whom the masque was commissioned - and its hieratic form is forgiving of the declamatory. All the same, I couldn’t help speculating what it would be like to see the masques directed, say, by Michael Kantor, designed by Anna Tregloan, with Geoffrey Rush as Comus and Melissa Madden-Grey as the Lady… but I was in Cambridge, not Melbourne. These were, after all, more than creditable productions. And the location and sense of event gave the evening an irresistible and unique frisson.

And the language was glorious. These masques might easily be a form of superior agitprop: what saves them is the poetry, complex and intellectually graceful, which plays richly against the simplicities of their theatrical form. Perhaps masque, or forms like it, is where poetry can really sing in contemporary theatre.

Picture: Christ's College Hall.

A shorter version of this review was published on the Guardian's theatre blog.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Random observations from the English summer

Ms TN is going to come over all bloggish and type an actual diary entry, since I'm sure you are all bereft since TN hefted herself into the northern hemisphere. Or perhaps, more realistically, some of you are mildly curious about what I'm doing. But first, a confession: I am typing this because the remote controls attached to British televisions are, like the First Sefiroth, wholly beyond comprehension. I unwarily pressed a button marked "P" and found myself in a labyrinth of commands which, after much cursing and frantic button pushing, finally led me to a television picture of grey snow. All this technology to take me back to the tv coverage of the 1950s, only without the comfort of warming valves. I miss the kind of remote that is still prevalent in the primitive antipodes, which merely goes to Channel 2 when you press "2".

But, I hear you cry in horror, what's this? Did Ms TN travel through a dozen time zones merely to watch television? Well, not really; but I was planning a night in with John McEnroe and the latest from Wimbledon, which is the kind of sports coverage that would make Channel Seven blush with shame, were the programming chiefs not actually giant lizards in the process of taking over the world, and so immune to human delicacies and shame. Yes, there are compensations for Britain's watery sunshine. Wimbledon and Dr Who (which is as huge on the wow factor as rumour rumours) are two of them. 

But I haven't only been glued to the BBC. I have been out imbibing some of that history the English are so keen on erasing with carparks. A weekend in Cambridge is enough to make you thoughtful on this point: on the one hand, exquisite 17th century colleges, their perfect lawns cut with nail scissors by armies of specially trained topiarists, and on the other, blocks of concrete dropped in from the sky. (This is, admittedly, rather unkind to Churchill College, which hasn't aged as gracelessly as most 70s architecture, though someone said that was because of its beautiful gardens).

On Friday and Saturday I stayed at the Moeller Centre at Churchill, a cutting-edge example of 70s Danish design with an alien hexagon dropped into its middle for reasons that are not very clear, but which creates a roof terrace that looks like a set for a movie in which sophisticated 20-somethings drape themselves carelessly over S-bend furniture and drop their false eyelashes into their martinis. It is clearly designed for MBAs in conference mode, no doubt with facilitators, and so boasts televisions, internet connections, classy shampoos and body wash and even white flannel dressing gowns. Which was, for me at least, quite unexpected.

On Sunday night I moved into a room at the rather less well appointed but undeniably more atmospheric Pembroke College, looking over the Library Lawn, which is just past the building you see on the right in the picture below. (The building that looks like a church is actually the Library, and the building on the right is the very beautiful neoclassical Pembroke Chapel, which is Christopher Wren's first building). And then I went to see the double bill of the masque Comus - John Milton's version and John Kinsella's eco-warrior "reply"at Christ's College down the road, of which more In Due Course.

All this excessive history and expensively cut grass is probably why the Cambridge dons get all stern and modern. In fact, most people who live in Cambridge are dismissive of its gorgeousness.  One Cambridge don (I think he was a don) told me last night, as I was admiring the rooftops of Christ's College silhoetted against the miraculously luminous summer night sky: "The problem is that nothing has changed since the 17th century". A few things have changed: they let women in, for instance. But I suppose that carefully groomed privilege gets stifling, not to mention the peasants muttering as they rake the leaves. And I have to remember that this is a country where I can pick up the major left wing daily and read a columnist objecting to rude language (a) because it comes from the "lower ranks" and (b) because it is "inherently discourteous to women". (Max, what if it's the women swearing, eh? Are they being inherently discourteous to men?)

Still, as I had an hour to kill on Sunday, such considerations didn't stop me getting in a punt and floating down the Cam, watching the ducks nipping each other at close quarters. And there's no getting away from it: Cambridge is incredibly beautiful.

Now I'm back in London, less beautiful but more vital, planning some leisurely socialising and maybe even a trip to the theatre. After that deeply interesting week at UEA in Norwich (when I took copious notes, none of which I feel like writing up) and my Cambridge weekend, I've finished masquerading as a university person and am uncloseting as a tourist. It's quite restful, after 10 days which have mainly been concerned, one way and another, with talking about climate change and corporate depredation. 

Completing the brainmelt, I managed to get the television working by using another remote, although I'm quite sure it's using the wrong buttons, and my absent hosts will have to untangle whatever unholy mess I've made of the remote control programming. And I watched a BBC documentary which explained something I've noticed over the past few days: why English dress shops are full of cheap, gaudy tat. They are made, wholly unsurprisingly, by Indian children working in sweat shops: and the much-vaunted "ethical policies" of the chain stores are deeply dubious. It strikes me there are worse things in Britain than indecent language. 

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Brief notes on apocalypse

The Guardian book blog today runs a short piece in which I reflect on the New Writing Worlds symposium I attended last week. I was staying at the University of East Anglia, which looks like a Dr Who set dropped into the middle of the Norfolk countryside, with a bunch of most interesting writers and poets, both famous (JM Coetzee and CK Williams) and infamous (me). And, like the walrus and the carpenter, we spoke of many things...

Now I'm in Cambridge, ensconced in yet more spectacular 70s architecture at Churchill College, where tonight or tomorrow night I will be heading back to the 17th century and attending a real masque in a hall that is emphatically not British brutalist or modernist scifi, of which I will report here next week. And thence onto London.

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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Review: Scarlett O'Hara at the Crimson Parrot

Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot, by David Williamson, directed by Simon Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until July 12. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot is, as one of David Williamson’s characters might say, a dog.

It’s a dog with one theatrical idea, which is stretched very thin over two and a half hours. And it’s not quite a nice dog. It has the slightly resentful expression of a labrador that might pee on your shoes if you turn your back.

The play is the story of Scarlett O’Hara (Caroline O’Connor), an incompetent waitress in the sort of restaurant that gives Gordon Ramsay conniptions. In between pratfalls, she deals with her mother, a manipulative bully, and sighs with unrequited passion for her boss.

She fills the emptiness in her life with Hollywood movies. That’s the single theatrical idea: Scarlett drifts into Daydream No. 1 and the backstage screen fills with iconic images of a past era, Bogie and Bergman enacting grand passion for those who can merely watch and dream.

The restaurant is staffed by stereotypes – the dumb blonde (Marney McQueen), the testosterone-fuelled wog (Simon Wood), the frustrated chef-artist (Andrew McFarlane), the aging queer (Bob Hornery). Even Scarlett’s mother Maureen (Monica Maughan) is a cliché, drawn from classic tv shows like Steptoe & Son and Mother and Son.

As I sat stonily under a little private cloud in Row F, the audience around me rocked with laughter. What’s the point of cavilling against that? It inevitably seems mean-minded: as the program suggests, it means that you can’t see Williamson in the “right perspective”, and believe that popularity equals lack of seriousness.

But hey, I’m all for the popular. I adored the ingenious theatricality of the MTC’s production of The 39 Steps, which also riffed off classic Hollywood movies. I’m happy to be counted as a member of the Caroline O’Connor fan club. So why not let the laughter ripple on?

Travelling home with my cloud, I pondered why this work doesn’t merely leave me indifferent, but depressed. It’s to do with Williamson’s startling ability to think solely in media-generated stereotypes, and the complacent laughter this elicits from an audience.

In his essay Politics and Language, George Orwell speaks of a decadent English, in which “phrases [are] tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse”. “Language,” Orwell warns, “can corrupt thought….Every such phrase anaesthetises a portion of one’s brain.”

Williamson’s entire dramatic craft is prefab: at no point do we see through cliché to real feeling. This makes it insidiously comfortable to laugh at wogs, or footballers raping stupid blondes, or lonely old women.

And that’s depressing.

This review was (I think) in Friday's Australian. I am posting from London, so I can't check, as it's not online. There's no doubt alot more to say about politics and language, and I realise I have scarcely mentioned the production itself - 400 words doesn't leave much room - but Ms TN, ever ready with handy excuses, pleads jetlag. I invite you all to talk among yourselves...

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Theatre, poetry and stuff

The more perceptive among you (perhaps, given my endless complaints, even the terminally woolly-minded) will have noticed that Ms TN has been a little ragged lately. In an attempt to untangle the mental threads, I'm flying to London tonight; perhaps mainly to remind myself that while, for good or ill, I may be many things, one of them is supposed to be a poet.

The putative occasion for my visit is the release of my new collection of poems, Theatre, which is out this month from Salt Publishing in a handsome hardback edition (full advertisement below). So while I'm in the UK, I'm going to hang out as a writer: I'll be discussing human beings and nature with JM Coetzee and other luminaries at New Writing Worlds at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and mainlining poetry at my favourite festival, Soundeye, in Cork, Ireland. In between, I'll spend a weekend in Cambridge, where - continuing the poetry/theatre nexus - I'll witness John Kinsella's version of Milton's masque Comus, and then a bit of time in London, where I'm planning to see ...Sisters, poet/theatre maker Chris Goode's take on Chekhov, at the Gate Theatre. Fortuitously, a retrospective of Cy Twombly's work opens next week at the Tate Modern, and I will so be there. Ever since I rounded a corner in the Tate and felt my jaw clang on the floor at the impact of Quattro Stagioni, I've been a Twombly fangirl. The poetry theme certainly extends to Twombly: he hung out in his younger days with Charles Olson and the gang at the famous Black Mountain College. And you can see it in his paintings.

And yes, I plan to blog some of this. In, of course, a leisurely and poetic fashion.

Meanwhile, in between packing and other miscellaneous duties, yesterday I managed to heave myself into Melbourne Festival HQ to hear the media briefing on Kristy Edmunds' final festival, MIAF 2008. I am not, alas, permitted to tell you anything until the program is officially launched next month: but I will say that I am already pondering whether it's possible not to sleep for three weeks. And that I suspect that this festival might be seen in retrospect as one of the high points of Melbourne culture: it is packed with local artists.

At the other end of the scale, last night I saw David Williamson's new play, Scarlett O'Hara at the Crimson Parrot, at the MTC. More on that when I can upload my Australian review.

And lastly, the promised advertisement:

Alison Croggon has from the beginning of her career demanded attention (gaining an entry in The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature, 1994, on the strength of one book). She is one of the most powerful lyric poets writing today.

- David McCooey, Australian Book Review

Praise for Theatre:

Alison Croggon's poetry is distinguished by passion, intelligence and an intense moral honesty that does not consist of statements about things, or a drawing up of attitudes to this or that, but of a commitment to understanding the ways poetry - the language of poetry - enables us to understand. We have, as she says, "perfected the technologies of harm" and will most likely carry on doing so. But the same prose poem, History, goes on: "In unguarded moments I found myself longing for the dazzling conceits of civilisation to be actual, for the profound and bloody pleasures which underlay them." The marvellous sequence that ends the book, Translations from Nowhere, itself ends with "an eyelid / snapping open, dazzled, full". That fullness and that dazzling characterise all work.

Theatre is the apt title for such poems. Alison Croggon is gifted with a rare capacity, negative capability: not so much, as for Keats, one that allows the poet into the life of the sparrow on the gravel, but a capacity to feel her way into the voices of others, from Iseult or Sor Juana to the uncanny, unhomed voices of Translations from Nowhere. But as with the best theatre, it is Croggon's care for language, its singularities and its musics, that makes these poems inimitable. Through it all, an ummistakeable note is sounded, wrapping through the many voices the tones of joy and desolation, water and wind on stone.

To the mere spectator, it might appear that in this Theatre the poet is delivering her lines. She is not! This is a theatre in which there is no script, no actors, no representation. It is a place of first principles, born from, and belonging to, the poet. From her stage there come no answers, indeed, no questions. The latter are for you to ask yourself when you realize and understand the complete lack of pretence in her words – “if I have been asleep” –

And like Alison Croggon, responsibly, I also want to wake up, remove my masks, my costumes, and step out into the generative presence of real life. Clearly, it is the poet’s language that allows this. She knows that the spotlight is never on the stage but, rather, on the audience: Her art’s only illumination is what it illuminates in you.

Personally, I think this is the best book I've done. And if moved by my colleagues' exhortations, you can order it online from Salt Publishing.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Essay: Dan Spielman on Manna

Many of you will know that Dan Spielman is an actor, whose CV spans an impressive range of work. He began his theatrical career with the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project in the late 1990s, and since has gone on to play lead roles on main stages, most recently as a member of the STC Actors Company. But he is a man whom some might say is unfairly gifted. Some of you might also remember that he recently made his debut as a visual artist. And I have known for years that Dan is a writer and, more specifically, a poet: if his translations of Rimbaud don't convince you, then nothing will.

At the beginning of next month, he is making his debut as a theatre writer with Manna, which premieres at the STC as part of the Wharf2LOUD season. Manna, which will be directed by composer Max Lyandvert, is a densely poetic text which explores an intensely physical engagement with language. I thought it would be interesting to ask Dan a few questions about what he thought about the relationship between poetry and theatre, the process of collaboration in Manna, and so on: and he came back to me with this essay. So here it is.

WHEN I read a poem I am reading an object – faceted like a crystal or layered like a flower. Sometimes it takes years for me to be at the angle necessary to see its particular refraction, sometimes many seasons pass before the flower will open. For me, the contemplative engagement with poetry is one of the keys to sharing its incantation.

The spareness possible in the poetic line liberates my mind from the reductive applications of language – I believe that in poetry it is possible for the simplest things to happen. Where so much in this world bristling with media seeks to name and to reduce, to tarmac, comodify or domesticate the relationship between this and this, poetry is revolutionary. The poet can beckon silence to the edge of insufficient language, can gather runes of rhythm and experience together in an alchemical fashion, and more than nostalgia, more than statement of treachery, poetry can incant the most beautiful ambiguities, the most terrifying lacks within and beyond language. In poetry, because it moves at the face of things language can never enter, touch is possible, the vastness can be said in the vessel. This is the invitation to the reader.

If poetry were only literary, it might be impossible for this power to be translated on the stage. In the theatre, bodies, moments, shapes, gestures move and vanish – the audience vanishes. The incantation is written in the air, is written and absorbed by the event. Literally, there is no time to re-read, no time to go away and return. The imagined silence is completely different. The theatre happens, and then we disappear and the happening takes new form in our memory.

But poetry is an oral form. The Homeric hymns are gems in literature, but reading them I have a sense they live in an intrinsic relationship to the ritual, they exist in time relative to the events and gods they sing to. The theatre is such a ritual time/place, and one of my hopes for Manna is that what is said and sung occurs in a new-forged ritual that the theatre provides. That it might express things that exist between us and between us and that which threatens to overwhelm us.

In saying this, I have no desire to replicate the solitude of reading with a preciousness of language. The hymns, monologues and dialogues in the piece are not recited documents – they are infused with the multiple violences and intimacies of this world as it presents itself to me, and their saying is an act of creation as much as recital.

In the solitude of reading, the severity of a line is something that has to be confronted by the reader – perhaps a little like the considering the void. In the theatre I expect it to be very different. My hope is that the severity of the lineation will be experienced bodily. For the performer, the rest of the line has been erased, or a new phrase violently intervenes. The same can be said for the images of the piece. A score of physical and linguistic interruption questions the images seen and the images created. The voices of the actors are, broadly speaking, seeking to sing or say, but the fragmented language within them describes the contrast or resistance. In this way the performance of the poem will write a new text – a score of images, language and music that doesn’t need the security of the page, that conveys through complexity and fragmentation a ritualised singing. The page is the performers’ bodies and voices – and the equivalent of the aesthetic form of my text will be the craft of the performers in concert with one another.


The fact that Max is a composer and sound designer as well as a director is the reason I felt it was possible for me to write this theatre text. Though I have been reading and writing poetry for over fifteen years, I have rarely summoned up the courage to publish it – my process was usually one of filing the poems I wrote away or erasing them altogether. It was in our discussions of music and the ‘ear play’ or radio play form, that I started to see the potential for my writing in performance. On the one hand the imagined silence of reading could be analogous to the exposed ‘production’ of material as seen in a live radio play, and also the setting of poems to music, and the response in the piece of theatre by musicians seemed an exciting way of conveying the ritual I was after.

This ritual is not just an idea about the theatre. By engaging in writing this text, and in asking actors to take it on, I had to look at what my voice was, and what I am trying to do in my work. These questions were new for me. I realised that the place from which I write these poems is a place I need to create in this world. I find a silence, and I try to expand it. In my mind’s ear I summon vast spaces and I seek the expressions there. I am singing when I write these pieces and I am seeking the other who hears the song. This secret dialogue informs my use of language as a performer too. In a sense I try to imagine a fabric of rhythms that has to be found, and the poems that will join this fabric are those that confess all the terror and beauty residual in solitude, but that create new threads, that challenge existing rhythms, in turn creating my path in a communal world. Transforming my voice in this space also engages me in transformation.

At first it was shocking to imagine these private songs being out in the brutal, pragmatic air. I also feared that they would be too slight for the interrogation of an actor – being an actor myself I knew that whatever the material is it has to withstand body blows! – and that there must be certain paths already well trodden. I started to imagine the writing as music.

Max and I were working together in various productions throughout the writing of the text, and in his encouragement, he took a compositional view – some things may be captured in an imperfect musical phrase that would be lost if it were ironed out or described. ‘Keep everything’, he would say; ‘keep going’. Compose later. This conversation resulted in the structure of the piece. Just as every line had to be able to operate both in isolation and in context, so each section of the piece had to build its own relationship between voices, but also to sing to other voices, to answer other parts of the greater song.


The voices in the text are all describing absence. Two lovers are singing to each other, in each other’s absence; An old woman tries to teach a song before leaving, a soldier’s profound insecurity narrates her movements in an alien land… There are interruptions: descriptions of physical aberration and fractures in perception, psychotic episodes and delusional beliefs; there are movements of loosely grouped words in lists, in the absence of grammar, or scale… These are elements that are drawn from life in extremity. where language is at its most exposed, because the world has been turned upside down. Looking at language under this pressure is to look at its power to celebrate, to create, to remember and to imagine, but also to see where it falls short, and indeed where it is a weapon, and a carrier of destructive seeds.

The Jews’ punishment was to wander in the desert for a whole generation. Manna congealed on the rocks not to nourish these lost people, but the generation that would follow them. The gift of manna was a blessing and a curse. I am interested in the fact that language, or text, has been handed down in such a way and in its manifestations as text used to justify belief and action, text for the evolution of laws, or the private text with which we measure the world – language also contains the seeds of creation and destruction. I hope that if it is indeed possible in the theatre to recall the public ritual of grieving – of celebration – it will be possible to articulate something which is all too rare in the world as it presents itself to me – that though there is much we cannot know about the future of this world in throes, we can share a vivid and passionate song about the world we have lost.

- Dan Spielman

MANNA by Dan Spielman
Director/Composer/Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert

Visual Artists/Designers: Kate Davis and Marisa Purcell

Lighting Designer: Emma Valente

With: Jamal Alrekabi, Boris Brkic, Gertraud Ingeborg, Dana Miltins, and Jayne Tuttle.

Wharf2LOUD Sydney Theatre Company

Wharf 2 Theatre
Pier 4 Hickson Road Walsh Bay
Bookings: 02 9250 1777
Previews 27th, 28th, 30th June
Opens 1st July - 12th July.

Picture: Raft, program image for Manna

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Sunday, June 08, 2008

Review: Yes

and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Ulysses, James Joyce

Desire is as much to do with the taking away of the other's pain as with the mutual pursuit of pleasure... it is an alternative, shared use of physical energy and the special lucidity of the body to bestow, if only for a brief moment, an exemption...

– John Berger

Not all desires lead to freedom, but freedom is the experience of a desire being acknowledged, chosen and pursued. Desire never concerns the mere possession of something, but the changing of something. Desire is a wanting. A wanting now. Freedom does not constitute the fulfilment of that wanting, but the acknowledgement of its supremacy.

Hold Everything Dear, John Berger

The story concerns the reason why we love to fall in love. Beauty spins and the mind moves. To catch beauty would be to understand how that impertinent stability in vertigo is possible. But no, delight need not reach so far. To be running breathlessly, but not yet arrived, is itself delightful, a suspended moment of living hope.

- Eros: The Bittersweet, Anne Carson

Was somebody asking to see the soul?
See, your own shape and countenance, persons, substances, beasts, the trees, the running rivers, rocks and sands,
All hold spiritual joys and afterwards loosen them.
How can the real body ever die and be buried?

Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman

For every thing that lives is Holy!

– The Marriage of Heaven & Hell, William Blake

It’s tempting, particularly in the light of a certain inner exhaustion, to write this entire review by assembling quotations. I am simply incapable at present of articulating what these writers express with such sure delicacy (and so apologise in advance). These quotes map some of the emotional and intellectual territory that Sally Potter touches in her film Yes, the story of a passionate love affair between a Western woman and an Eastern man that encompasses philosophy, politics and poetry in a work of lucid profundity.

I should confess at the outset that I haven’t seen the film; I’ve only experienced Potter’s text. The script was written in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and shot as the US invaded Iraq, and is imbued with a sense of urgent affirmation. As Sally Potter says, “I started writing Yes in the days following the attacks of September 11 in New York City. I felt an urgent need to respond to the rapid demonisation of the Arabic world in the West and to the parallel wave of hatred against the United States. I asked myself the question: so what can a filmmaker do in such an atmosphere of hate and fear? What are the stories that need to be told?”

Last week I saw OpticNerve’s theatrical adaptation. It was an inspiring counterweight to some of the more depressing conversations I’ve had lately, a reminder that eros, with all its complexities and difficulties, is the force that reaches towards and affirms life. The film’s title is taken from James Joyce’s Ulysses; it's the final word of Molly Bloom's monologue, which is surely one of the most passionate avowals of life’s imperfections and joys ever written.

It’s easy to see why Tanya Gerstle wanted to make it into a work of theatre. It bears a closer resemblance to Shakespeare than to any standard film script. Most obviously, it’s written in iambic pentameters (the closest formal poetic rhythm to conversational speech) and rhyming couplets; and it shares something of Shakespeare’s dramaturgical fluidity, shifting specific encounters between times and places to enact a story with a clear emotional imperative. Its concerns are at once political and metaphysical, passionate and intellectual. It even has its own take on Shakespeare’s “mechanicals”. If you knew no better, you’d swear this text was a play.

In the hands of OpticNerve, it’s certainly translated into pure theatre. There is no sense of an uncomfortable collision between the media of film and performance: from the opening moments, when you wander into the space in Fortyfive Downstairs, you are alerted to the dynamics of space and body and personal relationship that theatre demands. Where to sit wasn’t immediately obvious; the seats were at the far end, wrapped in the white fabric that is the chief element of the design, and for a few moments I thought we would be standing among the performers, who were already walking about the space, clad only in black underwear.

But we found our seats and then watched the pre-theatre unfold, wondering if the couples who stood talking in the middle of the space, glancing at the performers as they unobtrusively placed clothing and props about the stage, knew that they too were presently part of the performance. The lights signal the beginning of the theatre proper, and the performers stand before us in their underwear, naked and vulnerable to our gaze, and then slowly dress in the costumes of their roles. But the ambiguity signalled beforehand resonates through the show: as witnesses to this theatre, we are also embedded in its dilemmas and reflections, its desires and sadnesses.

At the centre of this piece is the body, its senses of transitoriness and permanence. It begins with a monologue from the Cleaner (Ella Watson-Russell), a chorus/witness figure who also embodies the unseen and ignored third world labour force that keeps the west going. Reflecting on the nature of dirt, she says, “everything you do or say is there, forever. It leaves evidence.” Later, she tells us: “we never disappear, / Despite it being what we all most fear…Every single creature feeds another…When we expire perhaps we change, at most, / But never vanish…”

This idea of permanence is poised finely against the mortality of love, the emotional emptiness that haunts She (Meredith Penman) and her Husband (Gary Abrahams) as their marriage disintegrates. When She meets He (Grant Cartwright), a Lebanese refugee working as a kitchen hand, erotic love becomes the means to a larger, spiritual vision that at once divides and unites the lovers.

Their relationship becomes the nexus for a series of meditations on science, religion, class, consumerism, racism, colonialism, and the vexed question of self and other. But these ideas are revealed through poetic action rather than explained for us. The actors’ bodies, articulating the exquisitely choreographed movement, become the means of precise emotional expression: they are erotic, bereaved, violent, forlorn, ecstatic.

From the beginning, you feel confident that you are in the hands of theatre makers who know what they’re doing, who can step unerringly between the specific realities of feelings and the abstraction of ideas. The design subtly emphasises the poetic restraint of the text, with a rigorous palette of black and white that highlights the passions of the body, and is beautifully lit. And the performances are all first class, physically disciplined and marked by an intense emotional honesty. It’s the kind of theatre that devours your whole attention without your quite noticing. And at the end you are released, at once exhausted and nourished, into the complexities of your own life.

Yes, by Sally Potter, directed by Tanya Gerstle. Lighting design by Richard Whitehouse, stage management by Canada White. Ensemble/co-creators: Grant Cartwright, Ella Watson-Russell, Emmaline Carroll, Anne-Louise Sarks. With Gary Abrahams, Grant Cartwright, Kane Felsinger, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Meredith Penman, Tim Potter, Ella Watson-Russell and Anne-Louise Sarks. OpticNerve Performance Group @ Fortyfive Downstairs. Closed June 7.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

A caution - and something on truthfulness

I know you must all be sick to death of the Henson debacle (I certainly am, and am looking forward to a break from Australia next week) but I feel obliged to update, I hope for the last time, since this case has signalled some warnings for all of us. I am a bit tired of those who keep casting this as a question of The Arts vs Everyone Else: no, it's a question of whether we want to live in a society where moral questions are rigidly applied in state law. As in, for example, theocracies ruled by Sharia law, or the extremities of the Taliban.

Western democracy balances individual and societal freedoms and, for the moment, there are places where the state, quite rightly, stops. As far as I'm concerned, its authority in questions of private morality should focus on the question of harm to others, and that harm should be actual and not perceived. It has yet to be proved to me that Henson's art has harmed anybody, although the kinds of distress these campaigners have caused Henson, his models and their families with their ugly accusations about child porn have, I have no doubt, caused a lot of damage. For all her supposed concerns about the rights of young people, Bravehearts campaigner Hetty Johnston hasn't shown a great deal of respect for the young models in Henson's photographs, and has certainly paid no attention to anything they have said in defence of Henson.

There are various responses to yesterday's dropping of charges against Henson. Hetty Johnston, whose complaints to police sparked the Roslyn Oxley9 raids, has announced her intentions to pursue her campaign against Henson. And, as comments posted here demonstrate, campaigners have decided that he's a menace to society and must be stopped, even over the dead body of democracy. As UK anti-porn activist Gregory Carlin said to the pro-life (homophobic, anti-Harry Potter) LifeSiteNews, "Material which is child pornography in Britain, is now considered child friendly viewing in Australia". Watch out.

Michael Leunig today claims that those who defend Henson do so "in chorus" (unlike, presumably, the brave individuals going with the flow of public outrage): "Some say his work is creepy pornography that culturally legitimises and fosters pedophilia, others hold the considered view that it's abusive and exploitative, while others defend it unreservedly in chorus, seeing any forceful questions or challenge about its essence as a sure sign of ignorance, repression and mindless resistance to change." He reflects many accusations recently made of the arts world, which reflect attitudinal prejudices rather more than what was actually argued; and of course there are many "considered" and thoughtful defences of Henson's work. And it's hard to think of a world more riven by disagreement than the arts.

But there we go: take heed, my friends, and think on. It is not the fault of artists that they are thought of in these ways so widely, since the arts are in general so badly discussed in the mainstream media, but it is up to artists to address the problem.

And finally, a word from Patrick McCaughey, whom many of you will remember as the flamboyant director of the NGV until he moved to the US, where he was a major defender of Robert Mapplethorpe. He has an interesting reflection in the Australian today, in which he talks with great good sense about the ethics and limits of art:

The artist as rebel against bourgeois order may be an over-familiar image. But working at the edge has brought us great rewards in modern art, from James Joyce's Ulysses to Jackson Pollock's Blue Poles and, yes, Henson's photography. That edge deliberately pushes the envelope of the acceptable, both morally and aesthetically.

Best practice among the arts hews to a morality of truthfulness: truthful to the artist's experience or imagination, to observed reality, to a belief, to a concept of art. That morality may find itself in conflict with bourgeois expectations, such as acknowledging openly the irreversible moment of sexual awakening in teenage children.

The morality of truthfulness also acts as a shield and a sword against racism, xenophobia and prejudice against the other, be they gay or lesbian, Jew or Muslim.

There are limits on the artist as there are limits on the laity. They are intimately tied to a morality of truthfulness. An artist cannot claim the impunity of artistic freedom and be, for example, a Holocaust denier, an addict of hate speech or a child pornographer.

Each carries a denial of truthfulness. The first is a denial of history, the second is a denial of authenticity and the third is a denial of responsibility and empathy for the innocent, without which good art cannot be made.

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Friday, June 06, 2008


I'm putting this up to buy time. Despite everything (and there's been a lot of that, even without the pitchfork brigade) Ms TN has been getting along to theatre, but sometimes late in the season. And last night I saw Yes, a theatrical adaptation of Sally Potter's film directed by Tanya Gerstle, which is on at Fortyfive Downstairs until this Sunday. It's a knock-out: elegant, beautiful, intelligent, passionate theatre. A more considered response will be forthcoming, once the synapses engage.

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Bill Henson rated PG

This morning comes the news that the DPP has told NSW police that they don't have a case to prosecute Bill Henson for obscenity or possession of child pornography, and Federal Police have said that they will not press ahead with charges over the Henson photographs in the NGA. Moreover, the Classification Board has given the image on the exhibition invitation - the one that sparked this whole farce - a rating of PG. Apparently, it's "not sexualised to any degree". You could knock me down with a feather.

Moreover, Kevin Rudd is - at last - saying publicly that his personal opinion has nothing to do with the decisions of legal authorities.

So that's that, then. I guess we can claim victory for common sense, although there's little to be triumphant about in the spectacle of the past weeks. But at least the police can now get on with chasing actual paedophiles.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Catching up

Some pointers to interesting stuff I've missed here recently. Firstly, and most importantly, La Mama put out a call for help last week. Having heroically raised $100,000 over a single weekend in order to place a deposit on the purchase of the theatre, Artistic Director Liz Jones and her team now faces the Herculean task of finding the rest of the $1.7 million required to buy this piece of prime Carlton real estate. Every bit helps, so get out there to help save this unique Melbourne institution.

Which leads me to point belatedly to Louis Nowra's very interesting review of a new history of the Australian Performing Group, Currency Press's Make It Australian by Gabrielle Wolf, in which he remembers his encounters with the APG as a young playwright:

My trouble was that I was estranged from the world the APG presented to me. Sometimes I didn't know if the APG was satirising the ocker or celebrating him. The contemporary male characters seemed from another era.... My reservations put me in the small minority, as did my queasy doubts about APG's macho heterosexuality, which seemed as gross as a pub bar five minutes before six o'clock closing. I also found its questioning of the cultural cringe, its gaudy Australian nationalism and anti-British, anti-American attitudes very old-fashioned, its lack of interest in sex and love mystifying. Yet, at the same time, the physical energy, the Aussie humour and the vigorous criticism of conservative suburban values were wonderfully refreshing.

Meanwhile, in a reminder that art is ever an axis of argument, UK playwright Mark Ravenhill robustly defends Bertolt Brecht against his detractors, most recently Nick Cohen, and asks why Richard Strauss, who supported the Nazi regime, is so much easier to forgive than BB.

And now I must, must, must turn to my poor neglected novel, which patiently awaits my authorial copy-edits, before my US publishers begin to scream.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Reality: what a concept

Ms TN and others have had many requests from people who would also like to put their names to the The Open Letter in Support of Bill Henson. Those who would like to do so may go here. Please pass around the word to anyone who might be interested.

Given that (rather laughably, given the fuss) the Classification Board has rated the internet images of Henson's art as "G" or "very mild", prosecution seems very unlikely: but the wider concerns about freedom of expression remain. These are not concerns confined to the arts, as should be demonstrated by the closure of an exhibition about conditions in Hebron after a visit by anti-terror police.

The concerns expressed are about the rights of all of us to represent or debate realities that may offend sections of our community: a point that Guy Rundle seems to have missed in his off-the-mark commentary in the Age today. It's hard to see how the soberly argued Open Letter, which clearly condemns child abuse by anyone, places artists above the law; perhaps Rundle forgot to read it. Certainly, on the strength of some of the responses I've read, I suspect that some of our prominent commentators would fail English comprehension exercises at school.

Yesterday, in a move that reflects the present climate, the ABC reported that the AMA is campaigning for funding cuts to companies making plays and films that depict smoking. I've avoided the phrase "nanny state" (prominent on banners on Friday night, during protests against the 2am lock-out the State Government is introducing, supposedly to prevent street violence) but it's a bit irresistible. Presumably all of us are impressionable infants who can't make up our own minds about anything, and are also incapable of noticing what goes on in the world around us.

Further, many people seem to think that art is a branch of advertising that exists to "promote" certain types of behaviour or "messages". No, it's not: but that's a long argument I won't address here. I'm beginning to wonder if reality is the one thing that artists are not permitted to represent. Welcome to the Brave New World. And pass the soma.

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