Tag Archives: theatre

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are once again in Victoria for the New Year, and squeezing in our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We saw about 50 movies this year. It’s an approximate figure because we don’t know if we should count the two we walked out of or the ones we watched on TV. We each gave every film a score out of 5. Four films scored the full 10. Here they are in random order (click on the images for my brief blog reviews):

We each chose one more to make five each:

Of documentaries seen in the cinema we agreed on a top four, all seen at the Sydney Film Festival:

A special award for earliest walk-out of a movie goes to Etan Cohen’s Holmes and Watson. Having seen less than a quarter of an hour of it, our only regret was not leaving earlier.

Theatre (best and worst):

We subscribed to Belvoir Street again and there wasn’t a single dud. As for naming a best, we couldn’t go past Counting and Cracking, written by S Shakthidharan and directed by Eamon Flack in a Sydney Town Hall transformed into a huge Indian fort set. I want to give a special mention for Biggest Disappointment to Paul Capsis reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis at the Old Fitz, directed by Dino Dimitriadis which was inexplicably beyond terrible (and cost $50 a seat).


The Emerging Artist read 35 books in hard copy and roughly 17 on her device. Of the hard copy books, 22 were by women. She has given me a list of her five best books in non-fiction and fiction categories, but couldn’t be induced to dictate any comments. Here they are then, non-fiction first, none of which I’ve read (yet), all of them with explanatory subtitles:

And the fiction (the last two with links to my blog posts, which don’t claim to represent the EA’s opinions):

As for me, I don’t know how to pick best books from my year. Reading À la recherche du temps perdu, the first two novels so far, has been a delight and a fascination. Moments from Melissa Lucashenko’s Too Much Lip keep surfacing vividly months after reading it. Edna O’Brien’s The Little Red Chairs knocked me back on my heels. Rebecca Huntley’s Quarterly Essay Australia Fair changed my understanding of the meaning of elections. Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter and Fiona Wright’s The World Was Whole make me look at the people around me differently, with greater respect for their unseen struggles and heroism. I’ve read much wonderful poetry, and rediscovered brilliant books for very small children. I’ve done a quick gender breakdown in an earlier post (here).

And that’s it for 2019. Please feel free to name your own Bests in the comments, and may all my readers have a fire-free and climate-change-mitigating New Year!

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are in Victoria for the New Year, but we’re squeezing in (or should that be squeezing out?) our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We allowed ourselves to pick five each. The Emerging Artist went first, and then I chose five that weren’t on her list. The last one I picked was Juliet, Naked – and it got in on the grounds that there was no comedy on the combined list. There probably should have been more.


It’s hard to single out best theatre for this year. Belvoir Street had a good year, beginning with My Name is Jimi and ending with The Dance of Death, with treasures in between. And we spent six weeks in London, where we managed to go to some excellent theatre. We get to name one each from London and Sydney for the year. We both chose Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance Part 2 at the Old Vic in London (we were exhausted on the evening we’d booked for Part 1, but Part 2 was stunning as a stand-alone event). It’s about Gay men in the age of AIDS. We booked because Vanessa Redgrave was in it, but though she was terrific she was by no means the main attraction.

Back home, the EA chose debbie tucker green’s one-hander, random, directed by Leticia Cáceres, with a bravura performance by Zahra Newman. I chose Calamity Jane, directed by Richard Carroll, which was great fun – Virginia Gay’s raucous, swaggering gaucheness made Doris Day’s Jane look like a maiden aunt.


Rather than a list of our Best Books, I’ve decided to follow a meme that originated at the vlog memento mori and came to me by way of Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

Emerging Artist: Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (Random House 2016) was both. It was a Christmas present, whose size meant it was awkward to read in bed, so I was reluctant to take it on, and then the detail, though fascinating, needed breaks to digest. It turned out to be an excellent complement to the British TV series, which we watched soon after I finished reading the book, and a welcome gift after all.

Me: The longest book was probably Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018).

The one that took longest was either Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018) or Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018): they both include decades of work by fine poets, and I enjoyed them both immensely.

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

EA: Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc 2018) is a fascinating book about palaeontology and archaeology in Australia in relation to actual Aboriginal people, but there’s a lot of technical scientific writing that is not my favourite recreational fare.

Me: Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction again. I had gleaned something of his characteristic style some time ago and completely failed to grasp how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t have opened the book if it hadn’t been picked for the Book Group. Reading it was a joy-filled revelation.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

EA: None.

Me: Just one, Jane Austen’s Emma. I loved it all over again.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

EA: Change the question to, ‘What writer did I read in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading?’ My answer is Geoff Dyer. I first read him years ago, and rediscovered him this year when I found The Colour of Memory on our bookshelves. I’ve just bought Out of Sheer Rage, his book about himself and D H Lawrence.

Me: There are so many, but I’ll pick David Malouf’s An Open Book (UQP 2018). I will dip into so many of the books of poetry I read this year, but I think this is the one I’m most likely to reread in its entirety. That and Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017) 

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

EA avoids short stories and didn’t read any novellas.

Me: Given that Gerald Murnane is in a class of his own, I’ll name Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018), which is a coming of age story set in the context of the Angolan war of liberation. (I was astonished to hear Ms Peres da Costa say at a reading that she has never been to Angola, as the place comes alive in this short book.)

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

EA: Free Food for Millionaires (Head of Zeus 2018) by Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko: it’s hard to think who wouldn’t love it.

Me: I know many people these days think of poetry as an esoteric art to be avoided by everyone except poets and cryptographers. All the same, I recommend Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018) to anyone interested in being alive and human.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

EA: I loved Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated into English by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017). If you are interested in history, then the way this interweaves so many themes as they manifested in 1947 will fascinate you and illuminate our times.

Me: I’m rarely confident that books I’ve enjoyed will appeal to ‘just anyone’, so I’ve got lots to choose from, but bypassing all the titles I’ve mentioned so far, I nominate China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002), which, to quote my blog post about it, ‘includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.’

And that’s it for 2018. Have a great New Year, reader!

November Verse 6

Verse 6: On leaving at interval
We pays our subs and takes our chances.
Support the arts, put bums on seats,
and if the play’s a dud, well, cancer’s
worse and nothing really beats
the sense of risk when new creations
meet an audience: ovations
(standing)? or polite applause?
Will these two hours throw wide the doors
of hell and heaven? Last night neither.
We all worked hard: director, cast,
designer, writer, punters. Vast
good will drained away and by the
midpoint: ‘Who cares how this ends?’
we said, ‘Let’s go and eat with friends.’

At least we waited until the interval, unlike the occasion in 2010 that prompted the following (here’s a link to the original post):

This is just to say
We walked out of your play last night
from front row seats. We’d hung in there
for five whole scenes. The script was tight,
each actor sound, the set though spare
was spot on, and the vocal coach
had nailed the accents – no reproach
on that score. All these things were fine
but almost from the opening line
I couldn’t, couldn’t feel a thing.
I’d pay to watch two monkeys fart
if done with two boards and a heart.
Last night had timing, lines that sing
and sting. It’s heart that wasn’t there.
Sometimes a pause is just dead air.

Of Mice and Men and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937)

ommEvery now and then the Book Group reads a classic. As one of us is currently performing in the play of Of Mice and Men, it seemed like an obviously good idea to read the book and see the play together.

Before the meeting: This is one of those books that you feel you don’t actually need to read. Like the photos of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, it’s a solid part of our understanding of the US in the 1930s. A little skinny guy and a lumbering giant with intellectual disability team up in rural USA during the Great Depression. The big man is a gentle soul, but doesn’t know his own strength and bad things happen.

Predictably, the book turned out to offer any number of surprises. First was the lyricism of the opening. I vaguely knew that Elmore Leonard’s disparagement of ‘hooptedoodle‘, the descriptive bits that readers tend to skip, cited Steinbeck as an authority. It was a surprise, then, to meet an opening paragraph that describes a pool over which arch the ‘recumbent limbs and branches’ of sycamores, and to which water ‘has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight’. That ‘twinkling’ challenged my assumptions mightily.

But then the humans appear, and there’s no more twinkling or recumbent arches until the final chapter, where ‘row on row of tiny wind waves flowed up the pool’s green surface’. The return to that pool carries a huge emotional thwack. Steinbeck knew a little hooptedoodle goes a long way, but he knew how to do it well. In this case, it’s the equivalent of a theatrical backdrop.

The story unfolds in six scenes, each of which observes the classical unities of time, place and action – that is, we see only what happens in a given place, and we see everything that happens there in sequence. The settings, described briefly at the start of each scene, are: an idyllic clearing on the bank of the Salinas river on a Thursday evening; a ranch bunkhouse the next morning; the bunkhouse again that evening; the harness room, which is also the bedroom of Crooks, the stable buck, on Saturday night; the barn, Sunday afternoon; the pool again, still Sunday.

Almost everything is conveyed by dialogue and action. It’s a short book, just about 100 pages – it could have been twice as long in the hands of a writer who wanted to tell us what his characters were thinking, rather than trusting us to get it.

There’s another passage of ‘fine writing’ that stands out. Unlike the other characters – the old man Candy, Crooks, Curley – who reveal themselves by their words and actions, Slim first appears in a long descriptive passage. Here’s the end of that passage:

There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.

This eloquent prose telegraphs Slim’s function as moral touchstone: we know that his judgement is to be trusted, that his point of view is as close as we’ll get to the author’s. Then the prose snaps back to normal, not so much undercutting the hoptedoodle as saving it from itself, when Slim speaks:

‘It’s brighter’n a bitch outside,’ he said gently. ‘Can’t hardly see nothin’ in here.’

As I was reading this book, Barack Obama made headlines for using the N word. (As someone said, he is the first US President to use that word without referring to someone he claimed to own.) Given the extreme sensitivity to that word in the US today, it’s gratifying that Steinbeck’s use of it hasn’t been bowdlerised, at least not in the edition I read. The characters’ casual use of it to refer to Crooks, the only African American character, is very uneasy-making. Then there’s a scene where the woman addresses him by the vile term, and reminds him that she could have him ‘strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’. Steinbeck and Obama would agree that racism is not just a matter of it not being polite to use some words in public.

After the meeting: We didn’t have a group meeting as such, as we spent two and a half hours at the Sport for Jove production of Steinbeck’s play, directed by Iain Sinclair, with an all-round excellent cast. All good intentions of joining our actor-member after the show evaporated at the final curtain, and we all made our way home to warm mid-week beds.

It was interesting to see the play so soon after reading the novel. Maybe Steinbeck had the play in mind when he wrote the novel, because it really did feel largely as if as if the book had been magically transmogrified into flesh and blood. Maybe George wasn’t as wiry as I’d imagined, and Curley’s wife (her lack of a name much more noticeable in the play) was less sexy; the scene in Crooks’ bunk felt truncated; the dog was cuter and more alert than the book’s smelly wreck. But these were minor variations. The novel was walking and talking in front of our eyes. But no twinkling water or recumbent sycamore branches.

The Book Group go to the theatre and read the news

Alain de Botton, The News: A User’s Manual  (Hamish Hamilton 2014)


This was an unusual meeting of the Book Group, an excursion to see a play in which one of us was performing – The Young Tycoons by C J Johnson, about the heirs apparent to two media empires. In deference to our nominal reason for meeting, we agreed to have a look at a book that’s at least tangentially related to the play. (We also read a fascinating piece of journalistic gossip for which, in lieu of further discussion, here is a link).

Before the meeting: This is a high-grade self-help book. If there’s an overall thesis, it’s this:

News stories tend to frame issues in such a way as to reduce our will or even capacity to imagine them in profoundly other ways. Through its intimidating power, news numbs. Without anyone particularly rooting for this outcome, more tentative but potentially important private thoughts get crushed.

‘The news’ is discussed in six main categories: politics, world news, economics, celebrity, disaster and consumption. In each category, de Botton discusses the way the news cycle  and the currently widespread addiction to it mitigate against thinking. There are plenty of interesting observations and insights, many of them obvious on reflection, though when dealing with addictions there’s no harm in stating the bleeding obvious. I had an uneasy feeling that ‘I’ the reader was being invited to feel superior to the ‘we’ that de Botton describes as manipulated by the news media. Maybe that, and a tendency to glibness, is something that comes with the territory..

After the meeting: It turned out, unsurprisingly, that I was the only one in the group, apart from the actor, who had read the book. We weren’t going to have much of a discussion in the foyer of the Eternity Theatre anyhow. But the conjuncrtio of the play and the book prompted at least one interesting reflection. In the chapter on disaster, de Botton compares the way heinous behaviour is typically described in the press with its treatment in ancient Greek tragedy:

The plot lines of [ancient tragedies] were unmitigatingly macabre, easily matching anything our own news could provide … But … in order for a horror (a meaningless narration of revolting events) to turn into what Aristotle called a tragedy (an educative tale fashioned from abominations), the philosopher thought it was vital that the plot should be well arranged and the motives and the personalities of the characters properly outlined to us. Extreme dramatic skill would be required in order for the audience to spontaneously reach a point at which it recognised that the apparently unhinged protagonist of the story, who had acted impetuously, arrogantly and blindly, who had perhaps killed others and destroyed his own reputation and life, the person in whom one might at first (had one come across the story in the news) have dismissed as a maniac, was, in the final analysis, rather like us in certain key ways.

C J Johnson is no Sophocles, at least not yet, and The Young Tycoons is a chronicle play rather than a tragedy, but it illustrates the point. The younger generation of the Murdoch and Packer families appear in the news as glossy celebrities, fair game when brawling with old comrades in a Bondi Street or being patted on the hand by a distraught patriarch before a Parliamentary Enquiry. In this play, stylishly delivered by a cast that has no weak links, we catch at least a whiff of just how appallingly constricted their lives are, and how callous they have been shoe-horned into becoming. I was reminded of Jamie Johnson’s extraordinary documentary, Born Rich, made a couple of years before this play was first staged in 2005.

Stephen Sondheim Finishing the Hat

Stephen Sondheim, Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981), with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines, and Anecdotes (Virgin Publishing 2010)

This was a birthday present from the Art Student. We’ve both been Sondheim fans since seeing the fabulous Sydney Theatre Company production of his collaboration with James Lapine, Into the Woods, in 1993. It’s not that I’ve been dying to pore over his lyrics, as I once did (and still occasionally do) over Bob Dylan’s, but the book’s subtitle promises much more than a set of songs drained of their music. And so it transpired: lyrics of songs you’ve never heard or recall only vaguely don’t make riveting reading, but a master craftsman’s unsparing reflections on his work, and that of his colleagues, collaborators, mentors and rivals is another story.

The comments of the subtitle turn out to be illuminating notes on the writing of particular songs and brief accounts the development of thirteen musicals – from Saturday Night in 1954 (not actually produced until 1999) to Merrily We Roll Along in 1981 (to be reshaped into a success for a James Lapine production in 1985). There are three principles: Content Dictates Form, Less Is More, and God Is in the Details, all in the service of Clarity. The heresies, grudges, whines etc, range from classic showbiz anecdotes (Hermione Gingold’s audition for A Little Night Music is my favourite, closely followed by Ingmar Bergman’s praise of her performance) to mini-essays on a score of eminent writers for musical theatre. There’s a list of the cardinal sins of lyric writing, a spirited advocacy of full rhyme, and any number of fascinating insights into the elation, heartbreak and drudgery of working on Broadway.

Approaching 80 when he wrote the book, Sondheim doesn’t mince words. You don’t have to agree with his evaluation of Noel Coward as the master of condescending blather or Lorenz Hart as gifted but lazy to relish his straight talk. Mostly, his frankness remains respectful: he may ‘cringe at the bloodless quaintness of the ballads’ of Gilbert and Sullivan and be baffled when he hears an audience laugh at one of their songs, but he acknowledges their importance in the history of musical theatre, and allows that his failure to enjoy them may reflect a lack in himself. On the subject of ignorant, lazy or arrogant reviewers and critics, though, he gives no quarter. In particular, he writes scathingly about the first production of Burt Shevelove’s The Frogs by academic George Brustein, who is portrayed as arrogant, self-serving, disingenuous and incompetent. (Brustein, incidentally, didn’t do himself any favours by writing an unconvincing alternative account of that production, though he did at least score a point by saying that while revenge may be a dish best served cold, Sondheim, who waited more than 30 years to tell his story, seems to prefer it frozen.)

This, along with the companion volume due out later this year, Look, I Made a Hat, is probably as close to an autobiography as Sondheim will give us. Although there’s almost nothing of his non-professional life, something of a pictorial biography emerges from the charming personal photos scattered among the images of manuscript pages, playbills, rehearsals and productions – beginning with him, aged about 5, serious at the piano in a school rehearsal, and ending with him grey-bearded and beaming at a theatre entrance.

The book ends on a cliffhanger. The Broadway premiere of Merrily We Roll Along was a flop, closing after 16 performances. Sondheim writes:

It was a show I adored and a deep disappointment in its first outing, and it marked an important period in my professional life.

But then I met James Lapine.


Quack at the Griffin

I love the theatre in Nimrod Street, Darlinghurst, now known as the SBW Stables – it gave us Flash Jim Vaux and Hamlet on Ice, Gloria Dawn in  A Hard God and Reg Livermore in The Tooth of Crime, John Bell’s productions of Measure for Measure and The Removalists. It’s the kind of intimate theatre where Jane Harders as a loose woman from early colonial Sydney could proposition a nerdy young man in the front row and have that young man fall in love with her forever. When the Nimrod moved out, I followed them to Belvoir Street, though I have seen any number of good things at the Stables in the intervening years. I didn’t see Holding the Man there, but I wish I had because it was obviously intended for a more intimate space than the Drama Theatre in the Opera House

We expected to be the oldest people in the audience for Griffin Theatre’s Quack last night. The publicity mentioned zombies, and surely zombies are for the young. But no, the 22-person audience was as silver-haired as Belvoir Street on a Sunday afternoon.

There were signs in the recently refurbished foyer, warning of strong language and ‘DEPICITONS OF ILLNESS’. Just before the curtain at the foot of the stairs was pulled aside for us to ascend, a young man invited us to sit as close to the front as we wanted, but to be aware that during the graphic depictions (not depicitons after all) of illness, bodily fluids would be sailing around the space … all water soluble so nothing really to worry about. We sat two rows from the front; some less brave souls sat in the very back row.

Aimee Horne as Fanny, complete with creepy contact lens

The show itself? I don’t think I can do better than the description on the Griffin web site: ‘a romantic historical western drama noir exploitation comedy. With zombies.’ I would add, though, that there are musical interludes, beautifully sung by Aimee Horne, and a strong satiric thread. As everybody knows, zombies must never be read as symbolic. A zombie is a zombie is a zombie. But when you have the old doctor in a town saying he just wants everyone to be relaxed and comfortable, and the young doctor who seeks to replace him singing the praises of hard work and then delivering enraged diatribes involving copulating rats, you begin to realise that the non-undead characters have intentional similarities to actual politicians.

Most of the actual zombie action happens offstage (hard to do the Zombie Apocalypse with just four actors), and though there was much that was gruesome, most of it was described rather than enacted, and what was enacted was mostly comical. I confess there were a couple of non-zombie scenes when I had to close my eyes and control my gag reflex. But the couple of splashes of fluid that landed in my hair didn’t worry me at all.

This show could have been a disaster. Instead, as far as my companion and I are concerned it was a great success. And neither of us is particularly drawn to zombie movies (though we did both love Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead on DVD). It felt like a chaotic romp, but playwright Ian Wilding, twice winner of the Patrick White Prize, clearly knew what he was doing. Director Chris Mead and the cast – Jeanette Cronin, Charlie Garber, Chris Haywood, Aimee Horne –  get the silly-OTT mode just right. The set – red velvet curtains and a dangerously sloping wooden floor – and the howling sound design are brilliant.

It’s only on for another week. It deserves more than 22 bums on the seats each night. More than 22 people a night deserve to have this much fun . If you’re in town, go!

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?

A Raffish Experiment launch

In my mid 20s I worked for The Currency Press. It was my first real job, and it spoiled me forever. Our offices were frequently visited by luminaries from Australia and beyond. David Williamson ducked to get under the lintel; Jim McNeil and Peter Kenna duelled with anecdotes over afternoon tea; Alex Buzo described one of his leading ladies as having a face like the back of a bus; Richard Eyre (whose Stage Beauty I watched on TV last night) dropped by on a visit from the UK; Aileen Corpus chatted about developments in Aboriginal theatre; Dorothy Hewett and Merv Lilley moved in just up the road. I don’t remember if I actually met Rex Cramphorn, but his Performance Syndicate was one of the most exciting things happening in Sydney theatre at that time. I remember editing a short piece he wrote for a little newsletter that Currency used to produce, in which he imagined a production of Don’s Party in which the actors wore masks and high platform soles. More to the point, his productions made a deep impression on me – I still find myself humming snatches of song from Muriel, a play he directed about a young woman with developmental delay.

Tonight at Gleebooks Louis Nowra, another occasional visitor to our office back then, launched A Raffish Experiment, a collection of Cramphorn’s writings, edited by Ian Maxwell and published by Currency Press. I got there early, bought a copy and sat in a corner browsing it, sipping on a glass of water (the only non-alcoholic drink on offer) while the crowd gathered. I didn’t see anyone I knew to talk to, though there were a number  faces familiar from stage, screen and the photographs in the book. I spent a lovely 20 minutes reading reviews of plays I saw more than 30 years ago. In 1970 Cramphorne (as he then spelled his name) described Hair as ‘the only doggedly good value in theatre here’, and ‘enjoyed the texts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Little Murders – though not the productions’. He describes the overture of a production of Reedy River as ‘a blackout in which the sonic hum of the air-conditioner contested for precedence with a medley of tunes hummed offstage’. Oh how one yearns for such a fearlessly opinionated reviewer these days.

As the speeches were about to begin, a tall silver-haired man sat next to me. we exchanged pleasantries, and then I recognised him and said, ‘Oh hello Arthur!’ It was the great Arthur Dignam who of course doesn’t know me from Adam. By the time we’d established that, the lights had dimmed and the launch was on.

Louis Nowra told charming tales of his collaborations with Cramphorn. Unlike almost everyone else in the theatre he didn’t pay much attention to opening nights – the show would come good eventually, and it didn’t really matter if that eventuality was three weeks into the season. (I must have been one lucky punter, as I have nothing but good memories of his shows, and looking at the list up the back of the book I can see that I did see quite a few.) Ian Maxwell read some excerpts from the second part of the book, which deals with Cramphorn’s own practice in the theatre and said he hopes it’s a book that will prove useful to anyone starting out on a career in the theatre – he wished he had been given a book like this when he was starting out to be a director: we can learn from Brecht and Artaud, and also from Rex Cramphorn.

Speaking as one whose role in the theatre is to put a bum on a seat, I do hope a lot of them on the supply side read the book, and are infected with its disdain for the dull. The launch was a muted celebration of exactly that infection.

Artsy weekend

It’s a long weekend in New South Wales, the Rugby League Grand Final, and a busy, artsy time for our household.

After the Orange Grove Market on Saturday morning, we went to the Australian Centre for Photography in Paddington where there’s an excellent exhibition of students’ work as well as The Lake, in which ‘ten artists explore the exquisite strangeness of the Australian landscape through photography, video and interactive work’, and where I got unreasonable pleasure from making waves swell and crash in one of the interactive video pieces, as well as very reasonable pleasure from the many spectacularly beautiful photos, both digitally manipulated and not obviously so.

Then on to the Roslyn Oxley Gallery where we were puzzled by half a dozen large, rough drawings on butcher’s paper by Tatzu Nishi of equestrian statues that appeared to have been  wholly or partly transported into domestic settings. If these huge drawings, with much Japanese notation on them, weren’t enigmatic enough, there was the added mystery that much of the wall space in that room were bare. Deciding that both the sketches and the blank walls would remain among art’s little mysteries, we stopped on our way back to the car to look at a slide show of the artist’s installations, in which he builds domestic spaces around public objects – the spire of a European church, a street light, a large graffitied sphere in a park somewhere … The mystery of the half bare room was part way to being cleared up.

The mystery was cleared up completely the next afternoon when we visited the Art Gallery of New South Wales to see something that had been mentioned in the small print of a Roslyn Oxley hand-out, the John Kaldor exhibition (a revelation in its own right, but I’ll skip over that). As a Tatzu Nishi project, the equestrian statues that flank the main entrance of the gallery are enclosed in bright blue cladding, with ramps leading to doors that give us access into the blue rectabgular shapes. And inside, we see what those blank walls in Paddington are waiting for. No doubt the photos that appear there over the next couple of days will be better – and much bigger – than these, but here’s a look. Go and see the installation yourself if you can – no photo can convey the exhilaration of walking into those rooms, especially the bedroom. (The John Kaldor site has a slide show of the construction.)

The Spoils of War as seen from the ground:

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and from inside the blue cladding (the fruit on the table is real):


The Offerings of Peace in the elevated bedroom:

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But back to Saturday. After dinner we were off to the Opera House to hear Christopher Hitchens at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. (Just so you know, I think such a festival is a pretty lame idea. What’s the point of giving a huge platform to people who want to argue against legislation protecting workers from exploitation?  Is any useful purpose served by Germaine Greer once again expressing her contempt for Steve Irwin? Indeed, once you’ve read the title of Christopher Hitchens’s address, do you need to pay good money to hear it?)

achitchBut we’d seen Christopher on Q&A on Thursday night, and he was impressive: abrasive and pugnacious but brilliant and, actually, civil. So we decided to make him our Saturday night’s entertainment. We managed to get late-bookers’ seats in the choir behind the stage. Here’s a phone shot taken 10 minutes before the show started from our pozzie in the middle of the front back row. In those ten minutes, the whole hall, including most of the choir, filled. It seems that many people in Sydney are hungry for atheism, or maybe just like a good smackdown, whoever is being smacked.


After the preliminaries – a fabulous Welcome to Country, a speech from the Opera House’s CEO (who hinted that he was heading off to the Sleaze Ball after the talk), an excellent two-minute speech on the right to die from Sarah Taylor (who had won a soapbox-rant competition in the forecourt that afternoon), an introduction by ABC journalist Tony Jones (who called Hitchens, insultingly I thought,  a contrarian) – he gave a forty minute talk, then conversed with Tony Jones for another half hour or so. The audience applauded frequently, which was only right and proper, but at times created an uneasy sense that he was preaching to the choir. Sadly, I mean that only metaphorically – the acoustics in the actual physical choir were terrible, so we missed an awful lot of what was said in the Hitchens’ upper-class mumble. When he started quoting from the Monty Python Philosophy Song what should have been a delight was just an irritation.

I won’t try to summarise his talk – it will be all over the internet soon, on ABC Fora or Slow TV or who knows where else. I loved it that he started out with a personal connection to Australia: he read a lot of Neville Shute as a teenager, and gave us the evangelicals’ banner ‘There is still time, Brother’ flapping in the breeze after the end of the human race in On the Beach as an epigraph for his talk. I loved his response to Cardinal George Pell’s then-yet-to-be-given address, ‘Without God we are nothing‘: ‘Don’t you take that tone with me.’ I wonder how the scattering of women in hijabs and other people of faith in the audience responded: presumably they abstained from applauding at least the cheaper shots (calling Moses a schizophrenic comes to mind). I had a sense, though, that for all his seriousness and erudition, Hitchens somehow was missing the point of religion. When Tony Jones asked him if he would consider the pervasive religious practice of Bali as poisonous, I think he said (remember, my hearing was impaired) that that wasn’t really religion because it wasn’t poisonous. And he replied similarly to a question about a Salvation Army Officer who has devoted his life to demonstrably effective good works. I’m in the atheist camp myself, but came away unconvinced that religion is the enemy of all that is good. I did, however, come away thinking, and that can’t be bad.

gethAfter our visit to the AGNSW yesterday afternoon we went to David Hare’s Gethsemane at Belvoir Street. The play started out with what might have been a quote from Christopher Hitchens, a statement that some people put their faith in a book, some in one book some in another, but the book gives them certainly, and a further statement that the play we were about to see was full of people with a book. The second act started with a similar Hitchy address to the audience about how religious people are incomprehensible. Those two moments, however, had no discernible connection to the rest of the play. There were two very watchable performances, from Hugh Keays-Byrne as a political fixer and Emily Barclay as a troubled teenager. Sadly, whether it was the performances, the direction or the writing, I found the play as a whole pretty much an incoherent mess. And what’s more the Gethsemane reference was irritatingly illiterate: the whole point of the Agony in the Garden, according to these characters, was that Jesus doubted his mission. I would have thought he was doing something a little less cerebral, like experiencing wretched miserable terror and unhappiness about it, without a shadow of doubt. ‘Father if it be thy will, let this chalice pass from me’ is surely a far cry from ‘I don’t want to be a teacher any more because there’s too much paperwork and not enough actual teaching.’ According to Time Out (as quoted on the Belvoir web page), the play provides ‘an insight into why we are in such a mess today’. Not to me, it doesn’t.