Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 1

I arrived at the Sydney Theatre (recently renamed something else in honour of a member of a media dynasty) yesterday morning without a lot of time to spare before my first event at this year’s Writers’ Festival.  In the absence of electronic ticketing I had a whole swag of cardboard to collect and the foyer was jam packed with milling sex- and septuagenarians. Luckily the system was working smoothly and within minutes I was settled in my seat next to a couple of women who had come down from Brisbane for the Festival, and for Vivid (which starts tonight).

11:30 Writers on Writers: Malouf and Mendelsohn on the Classics (click for the podcast)
Daniel Mendelsohn, memoirist and literary critic from the USA, was in conversation with David Malouf. They spent minimal time praising each other’s writing – Mendelsohn reviewed Malouf’s Ransom very positively in, I think, the New Yorker. They launched straight into stories of how they first became interested in classical culture – that is, the culture of ancient Greek and Rome. Mendelsohn, master of the witty remark, quoted John Winkler (I think): ‘What’s not to love about the Greeks? Naked statues and bad behaviour!’ They were both drawn to Greek culture when young as an alternative to the ones they were brought up in. The classics allowed exploration of aspects of existence that were forbidden in their own cultures – including but not limited to sex, and, as David Malouf put it, ‘the flesh as a good place’.

There was a seamless shift from their early attraction to classical images and stories to their serious engagement with the same as adults. Mendelsohn is a classicist, and Malouf put a case for polytheism as a sophisticated way of thinking about the world, certainly more interesting than the worship of what William Blake called Nobodaddy.

I hope that some of our current adapters of ancient drama for the Australian stage get to hear this conversation. Both men agreed that it is a mistake to strip away all the things that make the Greek characters different from us. Mendelsohn described a Medea in which the lead character was pretty much a New York housewife on the edge of a nervous breakdown. This, he said, completely missed the point of Euripedes’ play: that Medea was a granddaughter of the Sun, possessed of uncanny powers, and the Greek male audience would have been afraid of her because she was a woman who acted like a man – that is, destroyed her enemies. To make the play a domestic drama about a pill-popping neurotic is to drain it of its power. Likewise, they talked about how most modern adaptations take the Chorus out – but to do that is to radically change the nature of the play. Among other things, the Chorus underlines the nature of those plays as concerned with public events. In ancient Greece, you could never be alone. That may be why Achilles is so hard to grasp: he had almost figured out how to be an individual, and everyone freaked out because no one had ever tried that before.

There was a lot more: western poetry owes a huge debt to Ovid, the first flâneur; drama owes a similar debt to Aeschylus, who was the first to have woman characters give voice rage against the state of things, a tradition that led directly to Ibsen and Tennessee Williams; balance is central to ancient Greek culture (what is the Bacchae about if not the importance of stopping at three drinks?). Mendelsohn mentioned Edith Hamilton a number of times: I’m guessing she introduced generations of US children to the myths of ancient Greece and Rome – the way the Queensland School Reader did for David Malouf (and me), and the Argonauts Club for many of us as well. Oh, and my parents gave me a copy of Kingsley’s heroes when I was about ten.

Then out into brilliant sunshine and more milling bodies, to catch  a bus home. Back into the city in the evening, to the fabulous Eternity Theatre, where I met up with a number of friends for:

6.00 Readings of Matchbox Theatre
Michael Frayn, every inch the British literary gent, explained that while writing his many plays, novels etc, he also writes tiny plays that just accumulate in his files with nowhere to go. His wife, without consulting him, suggested to his publisher that these little doodles could’ve gathered into an anthology. The publisher agreed, and the book exists. It probably helped that his wife is the brilliant biographer Claire Tomalin.

Frayn then left the stage to four actors who read no fewer than eleven of these plays: a David Attenborough account of the shy species of scene changers that lurk in the theatre; a mobile phone conversation between two people who turn out to be in the same supermarket; an irritable dialogue between tomb sculptures that could have been inspired by Philip Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’; a torturer-tortured Pinter parody.

It was all good clean fun. Which is more than I can say for the Wok On Inn where we had a quick and unpleasant dinner before getting back to the Eternity for:

8.00 Dalloway
A bravura one woman performance by British actor Rebecca Vaughan of an adaptation by Elton Townend Jones of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. My companions enjoyed this a lot more than I did. I responded to it as an actorly reading of the novel, which just made me want to read the novel itself without abridgement and without someone else’s insistent emotions being imposed on it. Others saw it as an engaging theatrical rendition of the substance of the novel.

And so home to the lonely dog.

2 responses to “Sydney Writers’ Festival 2015: My Day 1

  1. Charlie Aarons

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  2. Keep up the good work, Jonathan. I’m attending by proxy through you.