Category Archives: Theatre

500 people: Week Ten

Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. The encounters in these posts probably break down half-and-half into conversations that would have happened in the normal run of things but that I’m noticing in a slightly different way, and those that I initiate because of the challenge. You can probably tell the difference just by looking.

  1. Sunday 18 April, walking down Alice Street in Newtown, we passed two Mediterranean-looking men staring into one of the tiny front yards. I didn’t hear what they were saying but I realised they were looking curiously at a couple of fruit trees. I stopped and said, ‘That’s a cumquat.’ ‘Ah,’ one of them answered, ‘yes, a cumquat. But what’s that other one?’ ‘It’s a guava.’ ‘Oh, guavas are delicious,’ he said, and I was flooded with fellow-feeling. The Emerging Artist, who was also there, hates the smell of guavas and refuses to taste them. ‘Do you think we could lean over and pick some?’ one of the men asked. ‘No, but they’re too green anyway.’ I told them where we’ll all be able to pick ripe guavas from trees growing in the street just a couple blocks away in the next couple of weeks. As I type this I’m salivating.
  2. Monday afternoon, at the sauna, where the Covid-safe limit of three people is still in force, person number 3 came out of the door just as I arrived. Alas, a hefty chap rose up from a nearby bench. ‘You’ve been waiting?’ I asked. ‘Yep,’ he said, smiling with relief that he didn’t have to fight for his rights. I went instead into the steam room opposite, from where I saw another bulky chap arrive a few seconds later and go into the sauna unchallenged. Never mind, I had the warm glow of having done the right thing.
  3. Tuesday evening, when the lights came up after the curtain calls at The Removalists at the New Theatre, I turned to talk to the person sitting directly behind me. This was mainly for the sake of this challenge, but also because I thought I might be about to clap eyes on someone who had giggled during a truly horrible moment in the play. It turned out it wasn’t the giggler, I could tell by his voice. I asked the young white man (knowing the answer) if the play was set for study at his school (‘Yes’) and if he’d read the script (‘Yes’). I said I liked the casting of someone who isn’t white as Kenny, the man who is beaten up by police. He agreed, and asked if I went to the theatre often. I laughed and said I’d been three times in the last four days. Suitably shocked, he asked if that was usual. I reassured him that I usually go every couple of months.
  4. Thursday morning at GymKidz, I asked a woman with BLAH printed on her T-shirt in rainbow colours if this was her first session – it’s the start of a new term. ‘We’ve been coming for a year,’ she said. I expressed surprise, as her daughter seemed to be about two and a half. It turned out that they started coming when her daughter was just 18 months old, and played in the free play times. Then someone made them a gift of a term’s enrolment, her daughter loved it and they’ve been coming steadily ever since. This conversation happened in three parts, in the interstices of the gym session.
  5. Thursday, a little later, as we were making our way back to our car, we fell in with another couple of mothers and children. I commented to one of the mothers that I liked her small son’s brightly coloured pants. Yes, she said, they came from Gorman’s, and she did her best to make sure he didn’t get caught in the standard dullness of boys’ clothes.
  6. Thursday, early afternoon at Sydney Park, looking for a patch of grass where we could have lunch, we passed what at first glance looked like a fine china tea-set on a blanket. On a closer look, I realised the cups and teapot were plastic – it was a children’s play set. I said something to the woman standing guard over the set. It doesn’t really matter what I said because, though she smiled as if she thought what I’d said was mildly amusing, I now think she didn’t understand a word of it: when an older woman turned up a few seconds later with two small children, they spoke to each other in what may have been Latvian.
  7. Friday evening. No words exchanged, but this was a sweet moment. Walking near the Marrickville Metro Shopping Centre, I heard loud music coming from a parked car, and saw a woman sitting behind the wheel dancing vigorously with a big grin on her face. As I came closer I saw that a young teenage girl was sitting in the front passenger seat, looking cheerfully mortified. I smiled broadly and muttered under my breath, ‘What an embarrassing mother!’ She couldn’t possibly have heard me, but the girl smiled back and waved her arms in shadowy imitation of her mother, who also grinned in my direction.
  8. Saturday, on our morning circuit by the Cooks river, we passed a man with his toddler daughter who was insisting on walking back over a little wooden bridge to hear the sound it made as she walked on it, while the mother stood patiently with the stroller at the other end of the bridge. We stomped a little as we entered the bridge and earned a wide-eyed stare from the little one. As we passed the mother she said, ‘You can see why walks always take forever.’ ‘And it stays that way for years,’ I said.
  9. Later on Saturday morning, coming out of the Metro shopping centre, I saw a man with two small boys. He had lifted one of them up and was speaking sternly, and intimidatingly. into the small one’s face: ‘You have to wait for me. You can’t go out there by yourself.’ Seconds later, the boys were happily leading him towards the little water feature. ‘You can only look,’ he said, still sternly clearly having given up on the intimidation tactic. ‘You can’t get wet.’ I laughed and said, ‘Good luck with that one.’ ‘It’s a never-ending battle,’ he said. [This interaction is no less evanescent than any of the others, but I like to think that a friendly, amused word from another adult can be a huge help when parent-child tensions are brewing.]
  10. Saturday, a few seconds later, I stopped to draw Ruby’s attention to the toy monkey she had first noticed more than a year ago hanging from a high branch. [We were enjoying the rare treat of a weekend visit from Ruby and her father.] As we all strained to see the monkey, another family group coming the other way stopped to see what we were looking at. I explained, ‘We have to look at it every time we come past.’

Running total is now 91.

The Book Group and David Williamson’s Removalists

David Williamson, The Removalists (Currency Press 1972)

Last night the Book Group had an extracurricular outing to see David Williamson’s play The Removalists at the New Theatre (which is about as new as the Pont Neuf in Paris).

Written before the outing: I have a soft spot for this play. I saw the first Sydney production at the Nimrod Theatre in 1971, an astonishing 50 years ago, as part of the exhilarating resurgence of Australian theatre at the time. In early 1973, the first copies of the book arrived in the Currency Press office soon after I started working there in my first real job – it was a big seller for them, and as far as I can tell is still selling well. I visited the set of Tom Jeffreys’ film in 1974, and was in awe of the intense inner focus of actor John Hargreaves as he waited for the cameras to roll.

Before our theatre outing I revisited the book – a first edition, stiff and yellowing on a shelf near Alex Buzo’s Macquarie and Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous. In a successful bid for the educational market, Currency’s founders, theatre critic Katharine Brisbane and her scholar husband Philip Parsons, prefaced the text of the play with two essays, ‘Reflections on Violence’ by historian Ian Turner, and ‘Authority and Punishment’ by eminent defence lawyer Frank Galbally (who is mentioned in the play) and Kerry Milte (who was soon to become the subject of interesting dramas of his own). John Bell, who directed the Nimrod production, has an afterword, and the front and back covers fold out to reveal cartoons by Bruce Petty. I haven’t seen the current edition of the book, but the image of the cover on Currency’s web site mentions Galbally and Turner, but not Petty.

This prefatory material is all about violence and authority. Ian Turner sums it up well:

The Removalists raises three questions: one sociological (is Australian society violent of its essence?); one political (do the forces of ‘law and order’ rest on violence?’); one psychological (do all of us have the kinds of aggressive instincts or behaviour patterns which Williamson depicts?).

The essays talk about the streak of male violence in Australian culture (what would today be called toxic masculinity), and they talk about historic violence against First Nations peoples and Asians, especially the Chinese on the goldfields. The domestic violence at the heart of the play is barely mentioned. John Bell does offer an early version of what has become a common observation abut Williamson’s writing: strong women actors are necessary to stop the female characters from ‘degenerating into stilted, unconvincing types’. The edition of the book currently on sale may have been updated. Certainly, in 2014 Currency published ‘The Unexpected Feminist’, a feminist reading of the play by Van Badham (online here).

In case you don’t know the plot: two women, sisters, turn up at a two-man (sic) police station asking for a document establishing that the younger woman has been assaulted, in order to legitimise their plan to move her and her baby out of the marital home while her husband is out at the pub; the older policeman, with sleazy motivation, offers to come and help the move; the younger policeman, fresh out of training, goes along unwillingly; at the home, the husband comes home unexpectedly, and the situation escalates into lethal violence.

Reading the text, I imagine that a successful staging in 2021 would have to take into account our much better understanding of domestic abuse and violence, and our (I hope) intolerance of having it minimised. Though the play doesn’t endorse the way the sergeant and the husband make light of the DV here, it isn’t much interested in it except as precipitating violence among the men. Some of the minimising language could have come from the pages of Jess Hill’s See What You Made Me Do (my review here). John Bell’s comment about how much depends on the women actors has become much weightier with age.

The outing: Nine of us, including two ring-ins, had a cheerful Thai dinner across the street from the theatre. When we crossed over 15 minutes or so before lights down, fate decreed that the third row from the front, in my opinion the best seats in the house, was empty. There was a sizeable audience, almost all of whom I’d guess were high school students who have the play as a set text. It was kind of exhilarating to be in a big live audience full of youthful energy – for some of the Book Group it was the first time they’d sat shoulder-to-shoulder in a theatre since the beginning of Covid days.

I had been wondering how the play would deal with #MeToo. It turned out that Johann Walraven, the director, was more interested in how it relates to #BlackLivesMatter. This was announced in the first moments. As the lights come up, while the two policeman are seen in the shadowy police station on stage right, an Aboriginal man watches a flickering TV screen in his living room on stage left. He turns off the television and walks out of the room, the lights come up on the police station, and the play as written, in which all the other characters are white, begins. The production doesn’t take any liberties with the script, but the power plays of the other characters in relation to Kenny, the husband (by Alfie Gledhill), are now seen through a racialised lens. In a climactic moment there’s a George Floyd reference that feels absolutely integral to the play, and is gutting.

The misogyny was still unsettling. It’s there from the opening scene in which the Sergeant gives voice to the myth of false rape claims, through Kenny’s minimising of his violence against Fiona (Eliza Nicholls), to a sleazy discussion of sex-workers towards the end. It’s meant to be unsettling: it’s the thing about the Sergeant that makes us realise he’s something much uglier than a harmless scallywag who plays the system. And Kenny’s talk of ‘love-taps’ is echoed by the Sergeant later in reference to his own ferocious assaults on Kenny – no minimising possible there, as we’re seeing it for ourselves. I imagine it would have to be written differently today, but the audience is left in no doubt that this is a scene that the two women are smart to be getting out of.

My abiding impression from the 1971 production at the Nimrod Street Theatre is of Max Phipps as Ross, the young constable. It was his transformation from gormless innocence to rage, violence and cunning that burned the play into my memory. Last night, the play belonged to Laurence Coy as the Sergeant. Lecherous, self-righteous, bullying, vicious, self-pitying, out of control, blustering, I’d thought of the character as little more than a crucible for Ross’s transformation, but in this production he’s a tortured human being, and Ross (Lloyd Allison-Young) is pretty much collateral damage. Possibly the most powerful moment last night wasn’t in the big, horrifying violence, but a small moment that almost didn’t happen. In the middle of a rant about self-control as the test of manhood, the Sergeant shouts that his wife had twenty-seven kidney fits after childbirth. Kate (Shannon Ryan), the obnoxious older sister, moves towards him, and says gently, ‘Twenty-seven kidney fits. That’s terrible.’ In a fleeting moment of humanity, the Sergeant says, ‘Yes, We gave her up at one stage.’ In classic David Williamson style, the moment is undercut with some rough humour, but the actors caught this tiny wisp of tenderness and vulnerability and made sure we saw it.


Full disclosure: Laurence Coy is a member of the Book Group – but he really is that good in this play.

500 people: Week Nine

Continuing with the challenge to talk to 500 new people this year. See this post for the brief description of the challenge. Eileen Chong tweeted about my post on this challenge last week – it was her book launch where two of my encounters happened. And one of my encounters did a blog post about the event – here. From now on, I’ll give a little detail if the encounter happens at a cultural event.

  1. Sunday 11 April, the Emerging Artist and I went shopping for new kitchen lights. When I gave the very helpful saleswoman our address, she said, ‘Oh I’ve just moved to near there, in Dulwich Hill.’ The conversation progressed from the geography of Marrickville (we live at the other end of it from her), to the similar work fields of our sons, to her reasons for moving, her previous work and her feelings about her current employer (positive). Afterwards I wondered aloud how much of the conversation was a product of her training as a sales person – ‘Rule Nº 3b: Establish common ground with the customer’ – and I mentioned The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling by Arlie Russell Hochschild (1983), a book about air hostesses that I’ve never read but think about often. The EA dismissed my concerns and said that if we ran into that person in, say, Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill, we’d be pleased to see each other. Of course she’s right.
  2. Monday afternoon in the sauna, there were a couple of encounters. The first was pretty insubstantial, but I need to keep my numbers up. When I came in for my second 20 minutes, a man was lying on the top seat along one wall. He immediately sat up as I entered. I said not to worry, it was fine by me for him to lie down, but with Asian politeness, he persisted in staying upright. We lapsed into companionable silence.
  3. A few moments later, a young woman came in, only the third or fourth female I’ve seen in that sauna, including the EA. She was wearing a high-cut bikini, perfectly OK for the beach but arguably underdressed for the sauna. We all said hello and went back to ignoring each other. The other man left after a minute or so. I started to think about this challenge, and had pretty much decided that in that circumstance it didn’t make sense for me to start a conversation. Then I coughed, and I had to speak: ‘It’s all right,’ I said, ‘I’ve got asthma. And I’ve been vaccinated.’ She laughed, and said something about how Covid–19 had made so many things feel fraught. We chatted a little and soon lapsed back into silence, me reading my book.
  4. Thursday morning in Gleebooks in the previously mentioned Gleebooks in Dulwich Hill, Granddaughter and the EA were at loggerheads over a Bluey book that we already own but GD wanted to buy. As the emotional temperature began to sky rocket the EA reminded GD that we were in a bookshop and it would be a good idea to take a deep breath and say what she wanted calmly. By sheer good luck I saw a Bluey book on the shelf that we don’t have. ‘Ooh, look,’ I said with genuine delight, ‘there’s a Bingo book.’ Suddenly everyone was happy. The talk-to-a-stranger happened next. A woman, probably also a grandparent, caught my eye as she passed by and grinned a conspiratorial congratulations.
  5. Thursday afternoon, two women were wandering around in our complex of units. I asked if they were considering moving in, and the older woman explained that she had lived here when she was a student and was showing it to her daughter. I was a little surprised at her nostalgic tone, given that our main building, a beautiful Italianate mansion, was a home for ‘girls who gave their affections unwisely’ run by the Salvation Army. But no, that wasn’t her, she said. In her time, 1995, it was a boarding house for women students. No men allowed in the rooms, and there was always a Salvation Army chaperone on duty in the parlour. When her mother told a neighbour in Bathurst that she was staying at this address, the neighbour burst into tears and said, ‘That’s where we got our adopted daughter!’ The section where I live was a parking lot in 1995. The daughter stayed silent throughout: ‘Why is my mother talking to this stranger?’
  6. Thursday evening, I took our recycling out. A woman was going through the bins that had been put out for collection. I stood beside one and asked if she had already looked in it. She misunderstood and came over to check the contents of my two small bins. ‘No,’ she said, ‘only cans or beer bottles.’ As I emptied my bins, she went on: ‘So many cans today and I didn’t bring a trolley. Usually there are other people here but I’m the only one today.’
  7. Saturday early afternoon, at the National at the Museum of Contemporary Art, a group of maybe 10 women were sitting quietly on straight-backed chairs around the edge of a circular rug. On the walls near them were a number of projects involving quilting and knitting. I asked one of them if they were somehow part of the artwork. She ignored me, but a gallery attendant explained that they were waiting to be joined by Kate Just, whose work Anonymous Was a Woman took up two of the walls: the idea is that women book in to sit and chat with Kate while she continues to knit panels for Anonymous, and the other women work on their own knitting projects. I asked another woman about her project, and she was happy to explain that she was holding a loom: ‘Not actually a loom, but that’s what it’s called. I.m making a beanie.’ She explained a little about the technicalities – like complex French knitting. We chatted a little until interrupted by the artist’s arrival.
  8. Saturday mid afternoon, I chatted to a baby on the tram. The baby in question, close to a year old, was in his stroller facing away from his mother and older sister. When he dropped his bottle, his sister scrambled around on the floor and retrieved it, but quite rightly gave it to their mother. He was left unable to see them and without his bottle, and started to fret. I was standing right beside him, so I said, directly to him, ‘It’s all right. Your mummy’s got the bottle and she’ll give it back to you later.’ He calmed down, and looked interested, so I kept taking. ‘You’ve got something stuck in your hair.’ I picked a small piece of purple paper from his hair and put it on the rail of the stroller in front of him. Even more interesting. I said something to the mother, she smiled the wan smile of the exhausted.
  9. Saturday evening, at a performance of Jonathan Biggins’s The Gospel According to Paul in Parramatta, with 10 minutes or so to spare before the show started, I asked the young man next to me if he was a Keating fan. It was a genuine question. He can’t have been more than 20 in an audience that was mostly at least 25 years older than him and was solo, so he must have had a particular treason to be there. Yes, he said, he was a Keating buff. When he asked, I said I wasn’t a buff, but an admirer. He’s studying politics, at Sydney Uni I think he said. He’d been intending to see the show the previous night with his parents but had to finish an assignment, so came tonight instead. We chatted until the lights went down: he was impresssed when I told him I’d been the editor of a magazine he’d enjoyed in primary school (though I realised I had already left the job by that time). At the end we agreed it was a terrific show and exchanged names.

Running total is now 81.

Year’s end lists 2017

It’s been quite a year. As it comes to an end the Emerging Artist (now with an MFA) and I have drawn up our Best Of lists.

MOVIES
I saw 64 movies, including a number watched on YouTube such as Godard’s Le mépris and Eisenstein’s October, the EA slightly fewer. It was a year of wonderful movies, as well as a handful of crushing disappointments, but here’s what we managed to single out.

The Emerging Artist’s top five, with her comments:

Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Lonergan 2016): I liked the slow, meditative build-up to the reveal and the ultimate resolution of the past that allowed the character to keep living.

The Salesman (Asghar Farhadi 2016): Tense, intense and brilliant. The visuals were wonderful, from the woman in shocking red against the grey of usual clothing to the tightness of action carried out in multiple stairwells.

Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt 2016): Many friends didn’t take to this film, and we saw it at a disadvantage on a very small screen. Three interlocking stories each gave small moments of pleasure, especially the last.

A Man of Integrity (Mohammad Rasoulof 2017): We saw this gripping Iranian film at the Sydney Film Festival. It has a universal theme of how to live a moral life when survival depends on going along with corruption. Deeply human, and also claustrophobically Kafkaesque.

Living/Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa 1952): What a delight this was. We saw it at the SFF. In three long sections the main character explores how to live well. Being a bureaucrat isn’t the answer.

… plus a bonus documentary for the EA

Nowhere to Hide (Zaradasht Ahmed 2016): A visceral look at northern Iraq through one man’s eyes, a paramedic trying to stay in his town as ISIS moves in.

My top five (chosen after the EA chose hers, avoiding duplicates):

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins 2016): Marvellous film, very slow. One of my companions said that it was like a behind the scenes look at The Wire. Three wonderful performances as the boy who becomes a man, perhaps especially Trevante Rhodes who shows the small frightened boy inside the streetwise drug lord.

Denial (Mick Jackson 2016): A very methodical film, written with great clarity by David Hare and featuring an excellent cast, this is a timely look at the importance of evidence-based thinking as opposed to adjusting the fact to accord with one’s political interests.

Silence (Martin Scorsese 2016): An old(ish) man’s deeply felt exploration of his Catholic heritage. Timely to be reminded of the intensities of Catholic belief when the institutional church’s failures around child sexual abuse are being exposed.

 I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck 2016): James Baldwin was brilliant, and this film does him justice. Favourite quote: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it has been faced.’

Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve 2017): Is there a word that means ‘bombastic’ but has entirely positive connotations?  That’s the word I want to use about this movie. And as someone asked on Twitter, ‘What happened to Deckard’s dog?’

… and a favourite moment:

In Hope Road (Tom Zubrycki 2017), at one point in his arduous fundraising walk, Zachariah Machiek (one of the ‘lost boys’ of South Sudan) strays onto private property and meets a couple of rough looking types who exude menace worthy of any Hollywood thriller.

Worst film of the year:

We both picked the same one, Sea Sorrow (Vanessa Redgrave 2017). Me: This started out as a fundraiser for unaccompanied child refugees in Europe, in which a number of big name actors did bits from Shakespeare and other turns. Vanessa Redgrave wanted to reach more people with her passionate message of compassion and worked it up into a film. Sadly it’s hardly a film at all. Emerging Artist: I’d have to agree. Though we did see a few really bad films, this one rated as it was so anticipated.

THEATRE

All but two of our theatre outings this year were to the Belvoir. It was a very good year – we only left at interval once. These are our picks:

Ghosts (Henrik Ibsen 1882): Eamon Flack’s director’s program note says this production isn’t set in 1881, but in a room that hasn’t changed since 1881. Like Tony Abbot’s mind. The sarcasm of that note is nowhere to be seen in the production, but it’s accurate anyhow. Pamela Rabe is brilliant in a very strong cast. The set refers to the detail of Ibsen while being quite spare. There’s a marvellous theatrical moment involving ash.

The Rover (Aphra Behn 1677): Aphra Behn was quite a playwright, and Eamon Flack and his physically diverse cast have a lot of fun and give a lot of joy in making it new. At the very end there were a couple of bars of Nino Rota’s film music, and we knew we were all on the same page.

Mark Colvin’s Kidney (Tommy Murphy 2017): Directed by David Berthold with Sarah Peirse and John Howard as the leads and set designed by Michael Hankin, this is a terrific play. I would have gone home happy at the end of the first act, but wasn’t disappointed by the rest. I went in thinking I knew the story and expecting to be mildly engaged, but I was bowled over.

BOOKS

Fiction:

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible: A lovely meditation on life and death and ageing. I read it in hospital after major surgery and it fitted my mood. I loved the interweaving of the characters and the story is excellent.

Michael Chabon, Moonglow: Telegraph Avenue is still my favourite Michael Chabon novel, and I loved this because it had many of the same qualities.

Nicole Krauss, Forest Dark: She’s a very quirky writer who takes the reader into weird places. This book possibly had too much Kafka in it but it was still a very enjoyable expedition.

My top three (linked to my blog posts about them):

Halldór Laxness, Independent People (©1934–1935, translation by James Anderson Thompson 1945, Vintage edition 1997)
Madeleine Thien, Do Not Say We Have Nothing (Granta 2016)
Ali Alizadeh, The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo 2017)

Non-Fiction

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful: My favourite book for this year, it has all my favourite things in it: art, maps, an attempt to come to terms with the relationship between Aboriginal people and non-Aboriginal people. And it’s respectful of everybody.

Hannah Fink, Bronwyn Oliver: Strange Things: At present Bronwyn Oliver is my favourite Australian artist. This book gives insights into her work, her practice and the tragedy of her life. It looks at the dangers of the artist’s life, in particular the use of toxic materials, which contributed to her early death.

Susan Faludi, In the Dark Room: A wonderful interweaving of the history of Hungary, anti-semitism, male violence, trans politics and a daughter–father relationship. It’s got everything.

My top three (once again, apart from excellent AWW books listed yesterday; linked to my blog posts):

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)
Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)
James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life ( 2016)

Poetry
(I choose reluctantly, placing it behind most of the AWW poetry books):

Ted Hughes, Tales from Ovid (Faber & Faber 1997). I recommended this enthusiastically at our book swap club. Someone picked it and then rejected it because I’d failed to mention that it was …. poetry.

Comics

Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volumes 1–4 (Image Comics 2016, 2017), my blog posts here and here.
——-
Happy New Year, dear reader. May 2018 see #metoo bear marvellous fruit. May the world become less racist, more peaceful and more just. May all the detainees on Manus and Nauru find safety somewhere very soon.

Year’s end

In Melbourne where the
jacarandas still flower
at December’s end

a pub in Carlton
promises European
yum cha on Sundays

With an afternoon to spare in Melbourne the Emerging Artist and I have drawn up our Best of 2016 lists.

Movies

Feature films (I saw 36, the EA slightly fewer)

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

Paterson (Jim Jarmusch 2016): ‘A wonderful portrait of someone with a rich internal life integrated with normal functioning.’

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy 2015): ‘This was taut as a thriller and had new things to show about how the story of child sex abuse in the Boston Catholic Church was brought to light. A reflection on institutional power.’

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi 2016): ‘Made me laugh.’

My top 3:

I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach 2016): Some people have described this as relentlessly grim. I know what they mean, but what that description leaves out is its tremendous warmth.

One-eyed Jacks (Marlon Brando 1961): I saw this with my big brother more than five decades ago and didn’t understand his reverential tone. Seeing it again at this year’s Sydney Film Festival was a joy.

Rams (Grímur Hákonarson 2015): So bleak and bitter cold, and so full of humanity.

Documentaries (we saw 13):

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

Constance on the Edge (Belinda Mason 2016): ‘Constance is a wonderful character. The film shows the trauma of war and its after effects, especially for women, once you’ve settled somewhere peaceful. The loss of cultural identity in the process of becoming a refugee and how hard to create a new one. Also, how the CWA is changing.’

Sonita (Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami 2015, seen at the Sydney Film Festival): ‘A most amazing film. Where did this young woman emerge from that she had the confidence to hold out against so many cultural taboos against singing, let alone rapping. She was exuberant and full of life.’

Where to Invade Next (Michael Moore 2015): ‘This is one of the best of MM’s films. It reminded me how much we’ve lost in Australia. It’s good to get a perspective on how other places do things differently from what we take for granted.’

My top three:

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week (Ron Howard 2016): I was in a monastery during the Beatles’ touring years; for me this was a surprisingly moving and explanatory visit to my contemporaries’ teenage years.

Weiner (Josh Kriegman & Elyse Steinberg 2016): Funny, tragic story about the devastating effects of a sexual compulsion.

Wide Open Sky (Lisa Nicol 2016): Michelle Leonard teaches music to children in remote and isolated northwest New South Wales. The movie follows four young people from audition to performance in her choir, and we learn an awful lot about music education, about being different in a small community, about discipline and expectations, about many kinds of big-heartedness.

Worst film of the year:

The Emerging Artist: Sunset Song (Terence Davies 2015, seen at the Sydney Film Festival): ‘It was just so bad. I don’t know where to begin. Where were the other women in the main character’s life? The lingering drone shot over the corpses was so terribly done with that shocking music behind it.’

Me: Up for Love / Un homme à la hauteur (Laurent Tirard 2016). I didn’t understand what many people in the audience were laughing at. Maybe it lost a lot in translation, or the idea of a very short man is irresistibly funny to some people, or (a kinder hypothesis) they were fans of the lead actor and were constantly amused by the trickery used to make him look short.

Theatre

DroversWife.jpgWe both picked The Drover’s Wife (written by Leah Purcell, directed by Leticia Cáceres at Belvoir Street): ‘Completely riveting, powerful theatre that worked on so many different levels, and Leah Purcell in the title role was stunning.’ I’d add that it worked beautiful variations on the Henry Lawson story of the same name, and played wonderfully with audience expectations by having an Aboriginal actor playing a character who has always been assumed to be non-Indigenous.

Books

Fiction:

The Emerging Artist’s top three:

The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert 2014): ‘Having hated Eat, Pray, Love, I picked this up with low expectations, but found myself enthralled by a story of mosses, scientific discovery and a woman out of her own time.’

Purity (Jonathan Franzen 2015): ‘Nothing much to say beyond that I really loved this.’

The Museum of Modern Love (Heather Rose 2016): ‘A fabulous find. An Australian author who is very daring: she approaches Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present from many point of view, and gets to the heart of what was happening in the piece both for the artist and for the people who sat with her. Equally interesting for people who know nothing abut Abramovic’s work.’

My top three (links are to my blog posts about them):

A Brief History of Seven Killings (Marlon James 2015)
Fables Books 6–10 (Bill Willingham and others 2005–2008)
The Natural Way of Things (Charlotte Wood 2015)

Non-Fiction

The Emerging Artist’s top three: 

The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Emma Sky 2015): ‘I heard Emma Sky at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. The book is a detailed picture of life on the ground in Iraq after the invasion, and helps to make sense of the news stories.’

The Art of Time Travel (Tom Griffiths 2016): ‘This is a beautifully written story of how Australian history is still being discovered and is so different to what I was taught in school. It has inspired me to go on and read the historians he talks about, including Grace Karsken’s The Colony.’

Hope in the Dark (Rebecca Solnit 2004, 2016): ‘I’ve read this book maybe five times this year and each time it’s like getting another vaccination against bleakness.’

My top three:
Talking to My Country (Stan Grant 2016), especially as followed up by his Quarterly Essay, The Australian Dream
Missing Up
(Pam Brown 2016)
The Art of Time Travel (Tom Griffiths 2016)

I feel obliged to say that such ‘best of’ lists are pretty arbitrary. No sooner had I drawn up these lists than I was aware of so much joy and enlightenment that had been left off them.

Happy New Year, dear reader. May 2017 be filled with good things and victories against the forces of darkness, some perhaps decisive.

Coming Soon

If you live in Sydney, you ought to know about two fabulous things coming soon.

1.
HIDDEN: Rookwood Cemetery, from sunrise to sunset
Friday 18 September to Sunday 18 October
ENTRY IS FREE!

The Hidden website says it well:

Hidden is an outdoor sculpture exhibition that takes place amongst the gardens and graves in one of the oldest sections of [Rookwood] Cemetery. The exhibition invites artists to ponder the notion of history, culture, remembrance and love and allows audiences to witness creative expression hidden throughout Australia’s largest and most historic cemetery.

This is Hidden’s seventh year. I’ve been in previous years, and there’s something  marvellous about the sculptures placed among the tombstones. (It’s in an older part of the cemetery – no one will see the grave of someone who died recently being visited by an antic Don Quixote or a bright perspex rainbow.)

This year the Emerging Artist formerly known as the Art Student is part of the exhibition. Her piece, Bush Memorial, comprises two giant ceramic banksia seeds. Yesterday we installed it.

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2.
THE WAY: Bankstown Arts Centre, 1-10 October. (It’s not free but it’s unbelievably cheap)

The WayThis is the third play in a trilogy that has grown out of a collaboration between BYDS (Bankstown Youth Development Service) and the Sydney Theatre Company.  I saw the second play, The Other Way, in 2013. The collaboration of professional actors with local community members, led by actor/ writer/ director/ musician Stefo Nantsou, produced a brilliant evening of theatre. Here’s a bit from my blogging about it:

This isn’t professional/industrial theatre, where success is judged by the length of the run and size of box office takings. It’s community, where the division between audience and performers is porous, where there’s an intimate sense that people are telling their own stories and those of their neighbours.
There’s a wonderful scene where a group of boys are teasing/harassing a group of girls, who are giving back as good as they get. In the middle of the chiacking and posturing one of the girls looks one of the boys full in the face and says, ‘Hello!’ and the group falls silent. The whole thing falls apart, moves onto a different plane. Sure, it was scripted and stylised, but it felt like it was really happening right then and there.

I gather that The Way has a similar structure to its predecessors: over a single day in Bankstown, storylines intersect as people from diverse backgrounds experience their multitudinous joys and crises. I’m looking forward to it.

The Other Way was evidently seen by a relatively small total audience over its short run. The Way has eight scheduled performances. If you live in Sydney I recommend that you put it in your diary and book seats soon. You can read more about it here. Bookings: 02 9793 8324 or http://www.trybooking.com/isqy

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Shortlist announced

A bit late for anyone who wants to read the whole short list before the winners are announced next month, but the (very long) short list for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards has been announced. You can see the full list with judges’ comments on a pdf press release from the State Library.

Here’s most of it – all except the translator – with links to my blog posts on the few I’ve read, all of which have me nodding my head in agreement with the judges. (Maybe it will take grandchildren to bring me back up to date on children’s lit.)

Christina Stead Prize for Fiction
Only the Animals, Ceridwen Dovey (Penguin Australia)
In Certain Circles, Elizabeth Harrower (Text Publishing)
Golden Boys, Sonya Hartnett (Penguin Australia)
The Snow Kimono, Mark Henshaw (Text Publishing)
The Golden Age, Joan London (Random House Australia)
A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane (Giramondo Publishing)

UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing
The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Giramondo Publishing)
Foreign Soil, Maxine Beneba Clarke (Hachette Australia)
The Strays, Emily Bitto (Affirm Press)
An Elegant Young Man, Luke Carman (Giramondo Publishing)
Here Come the Dogs, Omar Musa (Penguin Australia)
Heat and Light, Ellen van Neerven (University of Queensland Press)

Douglas Stewart Prize for Non‐fiction
The Europeans in Australia, Alan Atkinson (NewSouth)
Citizen Emperor: Napoleon in Power 1799‐1815, Philip Dwyer (Bloomsbury)
This House of Grief, Helen Garner (Text Publishing)
The Reef: A Passionate History, Iain McCalman (Penguin Books Australia)
In My Mother’s Hands, Biff Ward (Allen & Unwin)
The Bush, Don Watson (Penguin Books Australia)

Kenneth Slessor Prize for Poetry
A Vicious Example, Michael Aiken (Grand Parade)
Devadetta’s Poems, Judith Beveridge (Giramondo)
Kin, Anne Elvey (Five Islands Press)
Wild, Libby Hart (Pitt Street Poetry)
Unbelievers, or The Moor, John Mateer (Giramondo)
Earth Hour, David Malouf (University of Queensland Press)

Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature
The First Voyage, Allan Baillie (Puffin Books)
Rivertime, Trace Balla (Allen & Unwin)
Figgy in the World, Tamsin Janu (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Duck and the Darklings, Glenda Millard & Stephen Michael King (Allen & Unwin)
Crossing, Catherine Norton (Omnibus/Scholastic Australia)
The Adventures of Sir Roderick the Not‐Very Brave, James O’Loghlin (Pan Macmillan Australia)

Ethel Turner Prize for Young Adult’s Literature
Book of Days, K.A. Barker (Pan Macmillan Australian)
The Road to Gundagai, Jackie French (HarperCollins Publishers)
Are You Seeing Me? Darren Groth (Random House Australia)
Razorhurst, Justine Larbalestier (Allen & Unwin)
The Cracks in the Kingdom, Jaclyn Moriarty (Pan Macmillan Australia)
Cracked, Clare Strahan (Allen & Unwin)

Betty Roland Prize for Scriptwriting
The Code Episode 1, Shelley Birse (Playmaker Media)
Upper Middle Bogan Season 1, Episode 8: The Nationals, Robyn Butler and Wayne Hope (Gristmill)
The Babadook, Jennifer Kent (Causeway)
Fell, Natasha Pincus Story by Kasimir Burgess and Natasha Pincus. (Felix Media)
Please Like Me Season 2, Episode 7: Scroggin, Josh Thomas
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting
Brothers Wreck, Jada Alberts (Currency Press)
The Sublime, Brendan Cowell (Melbourne Theatre Company)
Jasper Jones, Kate Mulvany (adapted from a novel by Craig Silvey) (Barking Gecko Theatre Company)
The Trouble with Harry, Lachlan Philpott (TheatreofplucK Belfast/MKA New Writing Theatre)
Kryptonite, Sue Smith (The Sydney Theatre Company)
Black Diggers, Tom Wright (Queensland Theatre Company)

Community Relations Commission for Multicultural NSW
Jump for Jordan, Donna Abela (Griffin Theatre Company)
Black and Proud: The story of an AFL photo, Matthew Klugman and Gary Osmond (NewSouth Publishing)
Refugees, Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong (UNSW Press)
I, Migrant: A Comedian’s Journey from Karachi to the Outback, Sami Shah (Allen & Unwin)
The Tainted Trial of Farah Jama, Julie Szego (Wild Dingo Press)
Once My Mother, Sophia Turkiewicz (Change Focus Media)

Congratulations and good luck to all of them, and may the judges’ eyes and brains enjoy a rest.

Details Unknown

Last night we went to the Penguin Plays Rough event at the Justice and Police Museum: the Grand Finale of the Details Unknown evenings. On previous evenings in the series people have presented stories, songs, and videos inspired by this photo from the museum’s archives.

des_cos126

For the grand finale, PPR handed things over to unhappen, an experimental theatre group that used the 18 pieces produced for the previous nights to create an interactive evening of experimental carry-on. There was a weird pas-de-deux in which to actors dressed in nighties enacted a bedroom murder over and over, alternating the parts of visitor and murdered woman (it didn’t seem to matter that one of the actors was male, the other female), and varying their actions in accordance with words typed by audience members. There was a silly puppet theatre. In one tiny courtyard a 1940s police photographer took mug shots. We could stand around watching a tattooed prisoner languish in her cell, though other people told me that when they went into that room they were offered a stick of opium (which turned out to be a chocolate bullet). My favourite of the small sideshows was the interrogation room, in which, though we’d been promised that interactivity did not mean audience participation, relatively unsuspecting audience members were grilled by a slightly demented pair of detectives as possible witnesses to the woman’s murder – I saw at least four people being questions, and sometimes virtually accused, and was impressed by how well they reacted under pressure: other people ran screaming from the room as soon as they realised what was happening.

The museum was originally a police station, and included a small courtroom. In that courtroom we could sit in the gallery, or perhaps it was jury seats, while one actor after another read a story that told how the woman died. We could, if we chose, draw images on butchers’ paper as we listened, and those images were hung on the walls of the murder bedroom.

It was great fun. We were promised a reward at 10 pm, but my little group had been out to midnight the night before at Flickerfest and up early, so we sloped off after only two hours or so. Penguin Plays Rough’s future is not clear. If there is to be a hiatus, it’s good that they’ve gone out with such a bang.

Usually Penguin Plays Rough has a number of wild cards – people who put their names down on the night and read something. That didn’t happen last night, but I wrote 14 rhyming lines anyhow:

Details Unknown
She’s dead, and though it may seem foolish
to make up stories, sing new songs
about her image, even ghoulish
imagining what dreadful wrongs
she may have suffered, or what shocking
act may have unclipped that stocking,
what cruel or pathetic scene
involved that true-crime magazine,
her death derides out pale inventions:
silent, name and tale unknown,
this monument of film, not stone,
though made for plain police intentions
commands our eyes: Attention here.
A life snuffed out. Be still. Revere

The Other Way

Mostly my theatre outings are relegated to the blog that appears in the right-hand column here. But as very few of my readers will have a chance to see The Other Way, here it is in the main body.

The Other Way, written and directed by Stefo Nantsou, is the third annual collaboration between the Sydney Theatre Company and Bankstown Youth Development Service (BYDS). The ABC’s inferior replacement for Ramona Koval’s Book Show (no disparagement of the excellent Michael Cathcart intended – the Powers That Be seem to have declared non-fiction books to be off limits, a stupidifying limitation) ran an interview yesterday with three people involved in the show, which you can hear here.

The show’s cast includes five professional actors, 23 school students and seven other performers from the community, some of whom wrote pieces On Western Sydney (Westside Publications 2012), an anthology of writing from and about Western Sydney edited by Michael Mohammed Ahmad & Felicity Castagna and produced under the auspices of BYDS. I mention the anthology because, although it wouldn’t be fair to say the show was based on it, there is a shared agenda of putting Western Sydney stories and story-makers into the public eye.

The action takes place in a single day, beginning with an old man summoning his family to prayer and ending with family prayer at night. In between, we see people commuting by train and going about their work days. Three main stories unfold, each involving children lost and found. In the most lighthearted, a woman loses her two small children in a shopping centre and they turn out to have been hiding for the fun of it. A second involves children being removed from a junky mother by Community Services and given into the care of a decent, loving couple. The third, which involves the family from the opening moment and nosy teenagers acting as chorus, has a young woman returning to the family after being missing for a long time. Alice Ansara has some big emotional moments of rock bottom despair as the junky mother, but it’s the story of the young woman returning to her family that is at the heart of the show. The responses of her siblings, her parents and her grandfather are richly complex (not glibly joyful, by any means). Only at the end do we discover why she left, and it’s a powerful statement about the difficulties faced by a generation caught between cultures and the vicious effects of anti-Muslim prejudice.

Binding it all together is brilliant hip-hop artist Matuse. He’s part of the family that prays; the returning daughter tells him her story; his songs provide the time frame and an exuberant conclusion; and his encounters with a little thief are a running joke whose punchline evokes not a laugh but breath of hope.

This isn’t professional/industrial theatre, where success is judged by the length of the run and size of box office takings. It’s community, where the division between audience and performers is porous, where there’s an intimate sense that people are telling their own stories and those of their neighbours. There’s a wonderful scene where a group of boys are teasing/harassing a group of girls, who are giving back as good as they get. In the middle of the chiacking and posturing one of the girls looks one of the boys full in the face and says, ‘Hello!’ and the group falls silent. The whole thing falls apart, moves onto a different planet. Sure, it was scripted and stylised, but it felt right then and there.

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn't get my hands on a program so can't say names, but from the left:

Just before the show started, a section, not of the audience but of the cast. I didn’t get my hands on a program so can’t say names, but from the left: a young man who did spectacular leaps to impress a young woman; two players of multiple minor characters; the junkie mother / train ticket collector; younger sister of the returning young woman / girl who was impressed by the boy’s athleticism; neglected son of the junkie;  Community Services worker / mother of the praying family / drummer; mother and two children from the lost-in-the-mall story.

The Other Way is on again tonight and tomorrow night and tomorrow morning (that is, Wednesday 17 and Thursday 18 July) at the Bankstown Arts Centre where tickets cost $5 or $3 (book at 02 9793 8324), and then Friday evening and Saturday afternoon at the Wharf 2 Theatre at Walsh Bay where there’s no charge, but bookings are essential (02 9250 1777 or online) and maybe impossible.

On theatre blogs etc

Belvoir Street hosted a forum this afternoon about blogging and theatre criticism. There were two bloggers, two newspaper reviewers and the theatre writer from Time Out, who seemed to occupy a kind of in-between space – he has a word limit and a consumer guide brief, but there is a comments section.

Toward the end of the question time I felt a tremendous urge to grab one of the mikes and say some very interesting things. Luckily I’ve seen what happens when other people act on such urges (in case you’ve been spared the experience, I’m talking about those tedious types who talk about themselves to a hall full of people who are there to talk about something else). But this is my blog, so I’ll say my interesting things here.

One of my fondest memories of my eldest brother is walking home – it took nearly two hours – after seeing a preview of Steve J Spears’ The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin, talking our heads off. We thought the play had tremendous potential, Gordon Chater was wonderful, and the production was very interesting. We both agreed, though, that it missed the mark: the structure didn’t work, the morality was muddled, it tipped over into squishy self pity. Such a pity, we told each other. The pleasure with which I recall that walk, that conversation, that connection with my brother, is in no way dimmed by the fact that everyone else in the world saw it differently: the play went on to be a huge success, including a long season in New York.

By contrast I went to the Sydney opening night of The Rocky Horror Show with a newspaper theatre critic. We both enjoyed the show, but after we’d exchanged brief post-show comments, I realised that further discussion was being forcefully discouraged. She needed to focus, husband her responses, keep her next day’s review free of contamination.

In my mind these two evenings are emblematic of the difference between blogs and newspaper reviews: the former are about communication, connection, passion, excitement; the latter carry the burden of privileged speech – a readership with little or no right of reply, a position of influence that may of course be completely illusory.

Mostly these days I get my theatre criticism from blogs – Alison Croggon who sadly lives in Melbourne but made the trip up for today’s forum, and Kevin Jackson in Sydney, who sadly wasn’t there. Though I have profound respect for their ability to articulate and contextualise their experiences of theatre, I invariably argue with them, and occasionally even press send.

[I started writing this on my phone in the Belvoir foyer between the forum and the afternoon session of Babyteeth, and accidentally uploaded a fragment. Apologies to M-H and anyone else who got the fragment.]