Tag Archives: Belvoir Street

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 Fahadi 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.

Sydney Writers’ Festival: My Day 4

Saturday dawned with yet another clear sky. I finally understood that El Niño and the weather gods are smiling on the Writers’ Festival this year, and my light linen jacket was all the warmth I needed. It was my busiest day at the Festival, even busier for The Art Student, who went in early for The Joy of Art with Betty Churcher, John Armstrong and Alex Monroe. Rachel Kent, director of the MCA, who chaired the session, tried to keep up the SWF tradition of ditching her advertised topic, in this case presumably because joy hasn’t been sufficiently theorised, but according to the Art Student the panellists gave the audience what they’d paid for and kept joy on the agenda.

I arrived at Walsh Bay in time to join the AS in the packed Sydney Theatre for

11.30 am: Reza Aslan: Zealot
There’s a famous clip on YouTube of Reza Aslan being interviewed on Fox News. The Fox person is outraged that Aslan, a Muslim, has written Zealot, a book about Jesus Christ. The implication hangs in the air that this close to a literary equivalent of 9/11. Aslan is the very picture of cool reason, repeating over and over that he is a scholar who studies religion and has a scholarly interest in Jesus. He insists, to the point of being boring, that his primary identity in this context is as a scholar rather than as a Muslim.

I was a little worried that he might be just as one-track boring when not dealing with a terrified fundamentalist, a worry which was intensified by my past experience of interlocutor Steven Gale as somehow impersonal, even mechanical. But my worries were total garbage  – both men were fabulous. Reza Aslan was witty, warm and exuberant as well as scholarly; Steven Gale obviously liked him and revealed a mischievous streak of his own, at one stage slapping his thighs in enjoyment.

Aslan’s book is about the historical Jesus rather than what he calls ‘the Christ of faith’, but he’s not a debunker – not, as he put it one of those biblical scholars who peers as if down a microscope and cries, ‘Ooh, look at all the people believing things!’ Asked what was known with certainty about the historical Jesus, he said that if you brought a hundred biblical scholars onto the stage and asked that question, once the fisticuffs had finished they would come up with a hundred different answers. But they would agree on three things: he was a Jew; he preached something called the kingdom of heaven, though there would be much disagreement about what it was; and the Roman occupiers executed him because of that. All the same, he says there’s nothing particularly new in his book – its aim is to open up the field to a wider audience. Sure, he takes many positions that other scholars will disagree with, but then he lists the disagreers in copious endnotes.

Jesus was almost certainly illiterate. He was one of probably hundreds of self-proclaimed messiahs of the first century of the common era, which Aslan said was the Middle East’s most turbulent period in history (cue gasp from audience!). Every messiah, including Jesus, had a project to free the Jewish people from the oppressive Romans, and when each one failed he was seen not to have been the real messiah. Jesus differed crucially (no pun intended, the cross wasn’t particularly distinctive) in that his disciples reported experiencing him as risen from the dead – something completely novel in the Hebrew context.

The four Gospels, he pointed out uncontroversially, were written after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Given that the Jesus movement had been pretty unsuccessful among Jews, the Gospel accounts were tailored to make it more attractive to the Romans. This they did in three ways: they made Jesus’ teachings seem less embedded in Jewish culture, more ‘universal’; they removed the nationalism, translating it into ‘spiritual’ terms; they shifted the blame for his death from the Romans to the Jews (what we know of the historical Pontius Pilate’s extraordinary cruelty makes the Gospels’ account of him reluctantly complying with the High Priests’ demand that he crucify Jesus completely implausible).

Aslan ended on an enigmatic note: in all the gospels, it was women who discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead. This is a stumbling block for historians, because at that time women could not be called as witnesses, so if the gospels were inventing the story they would have picked  someone else as the discoverers. [I immediately decided that Mary Magdalen was the key person who ensured that the Jesus movement survived his death.]

We had an hour for lunch and then were just about the last people to squeeze into the Philharmonia Studio for

1.30: The Changing Face of Indigeneity: Now and Beyond
Wesley Enoch, Anita Heiss and playwright Nakkiah Lui were on a panel chaired beautifully by Lydia Miller. If I understood what Lydia Miller said in her introductory remarks, Native Title legislation of the early 1990s changed the way people in Australia think about indigenous identity, because it led to a diversity of narratives. There is also diversity because of intergenerational differences – I think I heard correctly that 60 percent of Aboriginal Australians are now under 25 years old, and 40 percent of those are under 15.

The panellists, two from the theatre and one novelist, addressed the theme interestingly. Wesley Enoch described himself as a psychological vampire, looking around for young Aboriginal blood for use in the theatre. Anita Heiss told us that there are 60 different pieces of legislation in Australia defining what it is to be Aboriginal, and this obsession on the part of whites with defining Aboriginal identity  was something that Aboriginal artists constantly have to negotiate: ‘We don’t sit around discussing identity with each other all day, you know. We have other things to do, like shopping.’  Nakkiah Lui, who spoke very quickly with the result that she was often incomprehensible to me (more about that later), said she was interested in critiquing the power relationships that were the context of cultural work. All three of them brought both zest and urgency to the question of challenging the dominant culture’s unremitting project of containing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in straitening identities.

[I’m writing this after seeing the wonderful Brothers Wreck at Belvoir Street on Sunday evening. The play reminded me of two other comments: Nakkiah Lui pointed out that there had been two Indigenous productions a year at Belvoir Street for some time now, and that this was building on an established tradition of Aboriginal theatre making. Wesley Enoch said that at the Queensland Theatre Company (of which he is Artistic Director) they find that if the audience is more than 20 percent Aboriginal, the response to Aboriginal theatre is completely different – the white audience members become a lot less uncertain in their responses, more open to the work.]

And then with a rapid change of mindset, to

3 pm: #three jerks,
This is a descendant of Alleyway Honour, a highlight of the 2009 Writers’ Festival. Like that event it is an austerely theatrical reading devised by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and directed by Roslyn Oades. Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Luke Carman and Peter Polites, three of the five readers from the earlier production, here read interlocking first-person stories. My assumption is that each of them wrote his own story.

Opening with an infamous 2006 quote from Sydney Muslim cleric Sheikh Hilaly about where blame should be apportioned for a number of rapes in Western Sydney, the stories play out a key couple of days in the lives of a number of Western Sydney adolescents – a gay Greek boy, a white boy who gets caught up in a petty crime, and Lebanese boys dealing with adolescent sexual politics. Some of it is confronting stuff, but there’s an intelligent reaching for understanding, and a basic decency in all three narratives.

The show is scheduled for a second appearance at the Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne: at the Wheeler Centre 7 pm Friday 30 May. So if you’re in Melbourne here’s a chance to hear voices direct from Western Sydney, to provide some kind of counterpoint to the constant wailing about Western Sydney in the political commentariat.

[Luke Carman read very quickly, too quickly for me to understand most of it. This being the third time I’ve made such a complaint at this Festival, I have to ask if the problem isn’t with me rather than the rapid speakers. My ever-sympathetic partner is adamant that the problem is not that Melbourne poets, young playwrights and anglophone Western Sydneysiders talk too fast, but that my deafness has passed the point where I need a hearing aid.]

Bickering amiably about my growing disability, we headed up the queue outside the same theatre for the next session:

4.30: Jeremy Scahill: Dirty Wars
Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist from the US, chatted for an hour to Australian TV journalist  Mark Davis about his book detailing the extent of the US’s covert military operations, particularly those undertaken by the Joint Security Operations Council.  This was pretty scary stuff: Scahill’s early discoveries were dismissed by a spokesman for the White House as conspiracy fantasy, but the Snowden tapes confirmed that he was right on the money. Denied access to top levels of the military and the government, he has nonetheless built a substantial number of sources at the operational level. Mark Davis repeatedly expressed his astonishment and envy that in the US public employees seem to be willing to speak frankly to the press in a way that is not only illegal in Australia, but also simply not done.

Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield (subtitle taken from a Dick Cheney memo) is a hefty paperback. We stayed to watch the film of the same name, which follows his investigation into darker and darker territory until it reaches the climax of the killing by drone of a 16 year old boy, a US citizen against whom no charge had every been made. This was by a military unit that was legitimised by Rumsfeld but now operates under Barack Obama’s direct authority.

We walked to the train though the incredible crowds that had turned out for the first Saturday night of the Vivid Festival. The Opera House, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Customs House are all lit spectacularly. Having just come from these revelations of what the government of our special allies are doing in almost complete secrecy it was hard not to think of bread and circuses. Here’s the bit from Juvenal’s 10th Satire (which I found on Wikipedia):

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

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.]

Namatjira, Perkins, Du Bois, Stojanovski

There’s been an extraordinary confluence in my cultural intake over the last week: Hettie Perkins’s Art + Soul on the ABC, Big hART’s Namatjira at Belvoir Street, Andrew Stojanowski’s Dog Ear Cafe, and W E B Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, which I’m just starting. If I was a public institution and the Coalition was in power I’d have my funding cut.

A major element of Namatjira is the story of the friendship between the man known to non-Arrernte people as Albert Namatjira and the white World War One veteran Rex Battarbee. If Dog Ear Cafe had a single take-home message, it would be about the importance of solid relationships. In an exchange between Stojanovski and Robin Japanangka Granites, a Warlpiri elder. Stojanovski (named Yakajirri in Warlpiri) says that he feels that blackfellas (Yapa) and whitefellas (Kadiya) are standing on opposite sides of the Grand Canyon ‘looking at each other and waving at each other, but our cultural worlds are so different that we are not connecting at all’. Robin answers:

No, Yakajirri, I think you are wrong. I see tightropes across that canyon, and I see people like you and me walking those tightropes, connecting both sides.

Probably the most attractive thing about Art + Soul is the way Hettie Perkins puts herself in the frame, letting us see the warmth, but also the awkwardness of her relationships, as an urban Aboriginal woman and curator, with artists from remote communities.

The first of the 14 essays in Du Bois’s 1903 book begins with a brief impression of white folk clumsily attempting relationship:

Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville [site of a Civil War battle]; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

I know the legacy of US slavery is very different from that of Australian genocide and dispossession, but they do share some features, and I couldn’t resist blogging about this  little volley of reminders of the importance of personal relationships in dealing with those histories.

Imara Savage directs Sam Shepard

Full disclosure: I was thrilled to attend this preview night of Imara Savage’s production of Fool for Love Downstairs at Belvoir Street, not because I’m passionate about the play – I was underwhelmed by the London production in 2006, and before that by Robert Altman’s 1985 film – but because I’ve known Imara all her life and nearly half mine, and have always appreciated her fine sense of the theatrical.

The production uses the tiny space downstairs at the Belvoir to great effect: a man and a woman in a seedy motel room, with another not-quite-real older man sitting up at the edge of the audience with a guitar. It’s claustrophobic and intimate. All four actors are brilliantly cast and perform brilliantly. Instead of the rockstar glamour of Juliette Lewis or the Hollywood iconicism of Sam Shepard and Kim Basinger, the main actors, Emma Jackson and Justin Stewart Cotta, give us a May and Eddie who are worn down by life, can’t live with each other, can’t do without each other, struggle with their compulsive need for each other: there’s no celebrity charisma to confuse the issue. Terry Serio as the older man with the guitar is spot on, and Alan Flower, innocent bystander, is a perfect foil for the destructive passions of the rest.

I’ve seen Sam Shepard done badly, without a feel for the music of his language, and it just grinds on incomprehensibly. This Fool for Love isn’t one of those occasions: there’s a point where Eddie delivers a very long monologue that could bring the play to a crumbling halt, like the verbal equivalent of an explanatory flashback. As performed by Justin Stewart Cotta, with Alan Flower a captive audience, it’s mesmerising. I wasn’t surprised to read in the program notes that Stewart Cotta is an accomplished musician.

You know how when an Australian cast does a US play, there’s often a dreadful unease about the accents, as if you can feel the gears grinding to keep them in place? There wasn’t a hint of that here.

It was a preview, and there was a technical hitch that involve the theatre filling with smoke and the smell of cordite. We had an unscheduled interval. It’s a sign of the strength of the performances that the spell wasn’t broken. This is a magnificent hour and a half of theatre.

Belvoir’s Book of Everything

The Book of Everything at Belvoir Street, adapted by Richard Tulloch from Guus Kuijer’s children’s book, directed by Neil Armfield, designed by Kim Carpenter of Theatre of Image, and performed by a brilliant cast, gave me the most satisfying evening I’ve had in the theatre for a very long time. The audience was mostly adults, though the smattering of children – or at least the ones in my row – were vocal in their enjoyment.

It has its controversial aspects. In a comment at the Stage Noise site, someone identifying self only as ‘Mummy’, wrote::

Parents should be warned that the “dark moments” in this play include graphic domestic violence where a mother is hit in the stomach and face by her husband. I wonder how many parents would take their children to see the play if they were warned about this content.

At Mim’s Muddle, in the course of an excellent account of the play, the eponymous Mim mentioned the portrayal of domestic violence, noting that if she’d been more alert she would have seen mention of it in the press.  She went on to say, ‘But, being a story intended for kids, there was resolution and healing at the end and it certainly led to interesting conversations about relationships on the way home in the car.’ Richard Tulloch commented:

Yes, in rehearsals there was naturally much discussion about the violence in the show. It’s unavoidable in the story, and without the shock of seeing it, we wouldn’t feel the same elation when Thomas eventually rises above it. But we hope that by making it stylized and short it won’t dominate the whole experience for kids, so that they are unable to appreciate the happier scenes.

Here’s my two bobs’ worth, and I speak as one who walked out of a previous Belvoir Street production because of its representation of violence. Violence on stage is very different from screen violence; we could see that the people in front of us were not being harmed (the noise of impact was provided by a person sitting in full view on the other side of the stage, the action was in slow motion, etc.). The violence was understood as dreadful, possibly even cosmos shattering, so there’s no question of it being normalised (as it is every afternoon in the cartoons), and there was indeed resolution and the hope of forgiveness at the end. I too wonder how many children would get to see the play if their parents were ‘warned’ about this content, and I wonder, in addition, if the children who weren’t taken would be deprived of something valuable. I worry that protectiveness of our children may sometimes do more harm than the things we want to protect them from. An age advisory might be called for, but I think it would be a rare ten year old (almost the age of the play’s main character, played with amazing grace and stamina by the 33 year old Matthew Whittet) who would be traumatised by this production.

When  The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll toured rural Australia in the late 1950s, I had the good fortune to see it, my very first piece of professional theatre. I was 10 or 11 years old. Someone, in my hearing, questioned my parents’ wisdom in taking me, given the play’s adult themes. My good Catholic father, bless his memory, fobbed off the concerned citizen with a joke. I loved the play, the adult themes sailing right past me, but I was transported by the intense emotion, which these days might well be classed as domestic violence, and still treasure the memory.

Possibly the best thing about  The Book of Everything is that it transcends the separation of children’s and adult’s culture that we have come to accept as normal. It’s a play about a child that adults can enjoy without condescension. A man playing a savage dog, ridiculously, runs through the audience; there’s the kind of audience participation that’s usually restricted to children’s theatre (we throw things onto the stage, and some of us get to sit up there in the final scene). We adults are allowed to enjoy as if we are children. And the children in the audience are allowed to engage with big themes: how do you deal with abuse of power? is there a God?

You know you’re getting old when …

… someone who was in your son’s class at school is appointed artistic director of a major cultural institution.

Congratulations, Ralph!

Children’s literature is not a genre

Guus Kuijer, The Book of Everything (2004; Translation by John Nieuwenhuizen, Allen & Unwin 2006)
David Greenberg & Victoria Chess, Slugs (Pepper Press 1983)

There’s a way of talking about children’s literature as if it’s a genre, like detective stories or police procedurals or thrillers or vampire stories or fantasy novels. I think this is quite wrong. A genre has acknowledged conventions, that can be followed flexibly or even violated in any particular specimen of the genre. The conventions change and grow with time. But they still rule. It’s not a vampire movie if no one sucks blood. It’s not a detective story if there’s no major crime in the first quarter of the book. Children’s literature isn’t like that. It’s defined entirely by the imagined readership. I like Margaret Mahy’s definition, which I remember as: Children’s literature is literature that you can start enjoying while a child. The two books I’ve just read illustrate my point.

0316326593 I read Slugs for the first time in years the other night. My five year old great-niece was staying with her father. At bedtime, having scoured our bookshelves, she emerged with this unpleasant little book and asked me in her sweet, shy way to read it to her. Evidently she’d fallen in love with the book earlier in the year when they stayed here in our absence. I complied with as much gusto as I could muster. I find the book profoundly unattractive. It has rudimentary rhymes, describing a huge variety of slugs, many being subjected to would-be comic indignities, tortured and murdered in hideous ways, all with images showing the brown creatures impassively accepting their fates, until in the last pages they come and wreak a horrible revenge on a child (known in the book as ‘you’), ending:

And after how you’ve treated Slugs
It surely serves you right!

My great-niece seemed to enjoy having this horror read to her, and when I’d finished she sat for maybe half an hour studying the pages intently.

Clearly she is the reader the creators had in mind – she and my sons twenty or so years ago. I am not that reader.

1kuijerThe Book of Everything is definitely a children’s book, but it couldn’t be more different. It has more in common with J M Coetzee’s Boyhood (which I’ll blog about during the week), in subject matter, point of view, even tone, than it does with Slugs. A lonely boy, helped by apparitions of Jesus and an old woman who is almost certainly a witch, finds a way to free himself and his family from the dominion of his harsh, violent, religiously extreme father. It speaks in particular to literate children. The hero,Thomas, finds inspiration in Emil and the Detectives, Joanna Spyri’s All Alone in the World and the Book of Genesis. The narrative assumes familiarity with literary conventions (OK, there are some conventions!), particularly those about witches in children’s literature. I found my adult-reader self wanting explanations of Thomas’s visions: ‘Please be clear about this. Is the poor child hallucinating from terror, or is this a world where such things really happen?’ Such questions are just plain irrelevant to the book’s imagined reader, and once I moved over to occupy that position the book opened up to me – or I opened up to it.

It occurred to me that just as Pixar animations, among other children’s movies, tend to wink knowingly over the heads of the children in their audience, both these books are winking at the children – ‘Don’t tell the adults.’ If we have to talk genre, the first is something like Perversely Cautionary Verse (which may be a genre found only in children’s literature), the second Domestic Magic Realism (and I doubt if that is limited to any age readers).

I read The Book of Everything on Richard Tulloch‘s recommendation. His dramatisation of it will be playing at Belvoir Street at the end of the year. It seems to me that one of his challenges is to take the story away from the children and give it to the adults who will presumably make up the bulk of the Belvoir audience.