Review: Sweeney ToddWomen artistsThe BulletinBlack is the new blackWhat branches grow out of this stony rubbish?Midsumma madnessReview: The Season at SarsaparillaKantor withdraws from TartuffeSustaining the artsReview: Don Juan in SohoPhew, wot a scorcherDrama, theatre and other argumentsBlogging the Sydney FestThe Great Wall of BooksWaking up ~ theatre notes

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Review: Sweeney Todd

Yesterday we co-ordinated the family's complex social schedules and entrained to our favourite cinema, the Sun Theatre in Yarraville (cheap tickets, a bar, superb pseudo art deco theatres - one with actual squishy leather armchairs - and no ads: why would you go anywhere else?) And there we saw Tim Burton's fantastic - in all senses of the word - film adaptation of Sweeney Todd.

As everyone knows, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter star in this cinematic adaptation of what is generally thought to be Stephen Sondheim's greatest musical, and possibly the best post-war musical of them all. And I'm a confirmed Tim Burton fan. I went with high expectations; and I came out with those expectations satisfyingly fulfilled. I loved it.

There's been much discussion about the singing voices of Depp and Bonham Carter (surprisingly respectable, actually - more like theatre voices, drawing their power from actorly expressiveness rather than technical bravura) and Burton's liberal use of CGI. Some have quibbled with the film's lack of realism. Pish posh. Asking for realism in Sweeney Todd is somewhat akin to wanting King Lear to be a comedy. Mind you, Trevor Nunn came close with his operetta production of Lear, so the world is always stranger than you think.

The tale of Sweeney Todd started life as a penny dreadful, a gory thriller series by freelance journalist George Dibden-Pitt. It was so successful that Dibden-Pitt adapted it as a melodrama, and it played in the London "Blood Tubs", theatres that hosted the sensational X-rated entertainment of the time. In the late 1960s, playwright Christopher Bond re-adapted the story as a play, with some success. This was when Stephen Sondheim encountered Sweeney Todd and decided it would make a ripping musical; and the rest, as they say, is history.

Burton's cinematic adaptation is brilliant. Screenwriter John Logan has cut songs, conflated characters and simplified the plot to make a fast-flowing narrative that moves seamlessly from scene to scene. From the moment the organ music swells up behind the credits, its conventions are clear, its artifice apparent. There is absolutely no dislocation when characters break into song. It's maybe the most successful integration of music and dialogue I've seen on screen. And it demonstrates, by the bye, how much Sondheim owes to Brecht.

Burton has brought it to the screen without compromising the dark, melodramatic heart of the original. This last point is where I think the film is spectacularly successful: his gift for creating fantastic worlds that exist at an oblique angle to our own here makes an imaginary London - a city of narrow, dank lanes, dripping, rat-infested sewers and sombre shadows, in which the only living colour is that of blood. It's populated by a grotesque cast of characters whose compelling truth exists in their extremity. Sweeney Todd is pure melodrama.

The advent of realism in the 20th century meant that melodrama fell into disrepute and is now used more often as perjorative description; but it has its place in art, and it's not a dishonourable one. Its power exists in its heightened emotional life, a garish and vivid energy forged from its blatant artifice. Its artifice was picked up and transformed most influentially by Brecht, but it's an energy you can also see in Dostoevsky (in Crime and Punishment, for instance, the image of the weeping Marmaladov children dancing in the streets, while their demented and dying mother screams in the background, is total melodrama).

Sondheim uses the conventions of melodrama to make what is surely the bleakest popular musical ever written. The world it portrays is truly Hobbesian - the law, taken here in its most literal sense, is to eat or be eaten. "The cruelty of men," says Todd, "is as wondrous as Peru..." Todd has escaped from the penal colony of Australia, a place of fabled sadism, after being unjustly condemned to lifelong transportation by the evil Judge Turpin (played by Alan Rickman with a gentle sense of corruption that is more disturbingly creepy than any histrionics). Turpin has removed Sweeney so he can seduce his wife, the beautiful Lucy (Laura Michelle Kelly); when Lucy poisons herself, in her despair, he adopts instead Todd's beautiful daughter, Johanna (Jayne Wisener), on whom he has equally evil designs.

There is the obligatory romantic couple, innocents caught in a world of base and murderous lusts. The appropriately named Anthony Hope (Jamie Campbell Bower) falls in love with Johanna, and plots to rescue her, eventually dragging her out of a squalidly Hogarthian lunatic asylum. But even here, innocence is inevitably damaged by the violence of the world it inhabits; the happy ending already carries the seed of its own destruction. In this respect, the film is, if anything, even darker than the original musical. It's kind of amazing that they all got away with it, given the soft-sell of the Hollywood machine: and if the film or the musical had in fact been more realistic, they might not have.

But it's an open secret that if you're looking for incisive social commentary in contemporary popular culture, you're often better off searching through the pulp fictions: you'll find a much more uncompromising vision in Philip K. Dick (Bladerunner, Total Recall) than in the earnest political films of left-wing Hollywood, a more radical and complex politics in the world of China Mieville than in the ideological certainties of David Hare. The fantastic is perhaps the only place in popular culture where the real world can be truly imagined.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Women artists

Germaine Greer, bless her, had a go at exhibitionist and narcissistic women artists the other day. My response, under the somewhat smartarse headline Dear Germaine: this time you're wrong, is in the Guardian arts blog today.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Bulletin

Back again. That didn't take so long, after all - nothing that a slick new computer couldn't fix. Thank you to the Germans, who subsidised this shiny machine; when I think of the times when my computer could have crashed and didn't, I'm inclined to think the gods have been smiling on me.

While the Croggon cyberworld was in shopping mode, we were rocked by a couple of local losses. There was the well-publicised death of Heath Ledger, to which I have nothing to add; I was saddened and shocked, like everyone else. And then my old alma mater, The Bulletin, was, without ceremony, shut down after 128 years of colourful, if not always admirable, history.

As some of you know, I was theatre critic for The Bulletin in the early 1990s, back when it was an interesting weekly news magazine and had a circulation. What most of you won't know is that it also was the place where I was first published as a poet. When I was about 15, the poet Geoffrey Dutton was appointed as editor of the short-lived but, as I recall, quite classy Bulletin Literary Supplement, and he published two of my poems in the first issue. So I feel like a bit of my personal history has bitten the dust.

The bean counters have blamed the internet for The Bulletin's demise. Me, I don't buy it: that's just an easy excuse. Sure, Time and Newsweek have been feeling the pinch as the market changes, but if news magazines are doing so badly, wherefore the increasing circulation of mags like The Nation, the New Yorker and others? No, I blame unimaginative editorial management, which began shaving The Bulletin's editorial policies back even when I was working for them, and gradually reduced its substance over the past decade until it was a shadow of its former self. To illustrate: when I began reviewing in 1989, a theatre review was 800 words; shortly before I left in 1992, it went down to 600 words; two years later, it was 400 words. And then theatre reviews went altogether, in favour of an "entertainment guide".

It's a familiar declension, one you can see writ large in tv programming (today's wired young adults are a tv executive's nightmare: few of them watch tv at all, although many are welded to a screen, whether for gaming or internet or DVD. And is a diet of ear-bashing ads and cheap reality tv going to win them back? I don't think so...) Ditto the msm's dilemma: the more they cut costs and editorial substance, the less there is to attract readers. And arts coverage is always the canary in the cage.

It's one more nail in the coffin of Australian media diversity, and a mighty big one, irrelevant though The Bulletin had become: it was one of our few indigenous national publications. We are ill-served in the variety and depth of our mainstream media here, with long-reaching effects - think of the fuss, for example, over the Melbourne Festival. Much nasty toad to munch on in the implications of this casualty, I think. Meanwhile, there are the blogs... speaking of which, Ms Alison is still a little under the weather, but if all goes well, will be gradually returning to normal decibel levels.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Black is the new black

This morning I turned on my computer and it delivered me a black screen. I have been speaking nicely to it, but it seems to have suffered some kind of existential crisis and refuses to emerge from terminal depression. (Forgive the pun, but you have to laugh, eh?) Yes, I scrubbed clean my back up thingy the other day, for unrelated reasons; but I think all is not lost. It had better not be.

Suggestions that this expresses with ironic exactitude the present state of my being can be sent on the back on an envelope by snail mail. Meanwhile, please excuse my temporary absence from the cyberwaves.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What branches grow out of this stony rubbish?

It used to be a Melbourne tradition to send reporters down to incoming ships at the docks and ask bewildered visitors what they thought of our fair city. And it seems that old habits die hard... today's Herald Sun has a bunch of European visitors (here for the International Committee of the History of Art congress) telling us that Melbourne is a cultural wasteland.

Like most superficial judgments, it's partially right. From certain elevations, Melbourne is a cultural wasteland. But from others, it's producing some of the most interesting art around.

Sometimes you have to go a long way away to see what's actually here. Sometimes the sludge obscures the vivid and unique creatures swimming luminously in its depths. That's the danger of living here. But in this case, it seems to me that those flinching against the scrubby newness of our culture are missing the strengths that exist in that very newness, the vigor that emerges from being freed of those very traditions we are dismissed for not having.

Myself, I've always had an ambivalent relationship to what is undoubtedly now my home city. It depends where I'm standing, and my feelings have run the whole gamut from pride in the richness and vitality of the art that's achieved here, to a tired despair springing from the smallness of the mindset that often greets (and has sometimes destroyed) it. I deeply dislike parochial breast-beating, but it has sometimes occurred to me that Melbourne is six times as big as Paris was when Alfred Jarry condemned its ignorance, incuriosity and philistinism.

What ruffles me most, though, is the question itself. Since when did the denizens of London or Paris anxiously ask others about their city? Or care what they said in reply?

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Midsumma madness

Occasionally nice people say to me: I don't know how you do it. The answer is that, sometimes, I can't. Your indefatigable blogger does, alas, occasionally find she is a little fatigable. And just when I think it's safe to stick my head over the parapet, Melbourne comes up with the critical equivalent of a cosh (read: another festival) and it's KO all around.

There I was, planning a quiet January - well, quiet as far as theatre is concerned - and suddenly my inbox is overflowing with interesting-looking invitations. Yes, it's the Midsumma Festival, Melbourne's lively queer festival, with a raft of stuff (180 events, covering performing arts, literature, visual arts, fashion, sporting and family events). I'm just not going to make it, so in lieu of actual attendance, I'm posting a few pointers to likely-looking shows. Read on, theatre fans, and then report back and tell me what I've missed.

On at La Mama:
Bookings: 9347 6142

Two plays by Timothy Conigrave, directed by Robert Chuter. January 19 – February 2
(La Mama at Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond St Carlton)

By Kate O’Brien, directed by Lloyd Jones. January 23 – February 3
(at La Mama, 205 Faraday St Carlton)
Performed by Rosie Johns, Marisa Lawler, Adam J.A. Cass, Tim Ferris

By Chay Yew, directed by Beng Oh. January 24 – February 10 (at La Mama)
Winner of the London Fringe Award for Best Play. With Keith Brocket, Colin MacPherson, Matthew Molony, Paul David-Goddard, Leon Durr.

On at Gasworks:
Cnr Graham and Pickles St, Albert Park
Bookings: 9699 3253 or

PINK SHORTS, featuring plays by Jerome Parisse-Brassens, Noel Anderson, Geoffrey Masters, Liza Dezfouli, Tanja Lee Jones, Helen Slaney, Declan Greene, Jessica Letch and Rick Viede, January 22-26

25 FRAMES: Beyond the Porn Legend: Aiden Shaw
By Kevin McGreal, directed by Tim Hunter. January 22-February 2.

And, of course, the cabaret scene is humming, with highlights being Michael Dalley's Vaudeville X at the Victorian Arts Centre, Dolly Diamond (plus 13-piece backing band) at Chapel Off Chapel, and a full-on program at cabaret central, The Butterfly Club, which includes A Tribute to Poppins.

Check out the full Midsumma program here.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Review: The Season at Sarsaparilla

The Season at Sarsaparilla by Patrick White, directed by Benedict Andrews. Design by Robert Cousins, costumes by Alice Babidge, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by Alan John, sound design by David Gilfillan. With Martin Blum, Brandon Burke, Peter Carroll, Eden Falk, John Gaden, Hayley McElhinney, Amber McMahon, Jessica Marais, Colin Moody, Luke Mullins, Pamela Rabe and Emily Russell. STC Actors Company @ at the MTC, Playhouse Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre, until February 16.

Returning to a show that you loved on first viewing can be a nervous experiment: will it live up to your memory of it? And what does it mean if it doesn't? If you are someone who re-reads books - and for me, the greater pleasure of books is in the re-reading - you can be certain that any shifts in response will be in your own perceptions. Crime and Punishment read at 45 is a different book to Crime and Punishment at 16; the words might be the same, but the imagination that animates those words has changed.

Not so with theatre, where every performance is, in a sense, for this night only. Theatre might have been invented to illustrate Heraclitus's admonition that you can't enter the same river twice. Place a show in a different space, with a different audience and a slightly different cast, and the variables spiral into infinity. So it's no surprise that the Actors Company production of The Season at Sarsaparilla, which I first saw at the Sydney Opera House almost a year ago, is a different show in Melbourne. But it remains just as impressive on a second viewing: this is a must-see, a magnificent realisation of Patrick White's theatrical vision.

Another, purely personal, problem with revisiting a work is that I've already said quite a lot about it. To avoid repeating myself, I urge interested readers to check out my earlier review, where I teased out my responses to White's play and Benedict Andrews' production. My major feelings still stand: Andrews' bold, contemporary attack on the script shows a director at the top of his form, and produces a powerful and lucid interpretation of White's fluid dramaturgy.

The differences between the Sydney and Melbourne productions lie in the nuance of space and performance. The Arts Centre Playhouse is a very different theatre to the letterbox stage of the Sydney Opera House, and Robert Cousins' set - a 1950s brick veneer on a revolve - looks a tad squashed. The major aspect I missed was a subtle sense of alienation created by the Opera House stage, as if the audience were looking through a giant screen; a set-up that, I realise now, rhymed pleasingly with the screens either side of the stage, where we see intimate close-ups of the performances. The Playhouse stage has a slight thrust into the audience, which compromises the screen metaphor.

However, this is a minor problem, as are the fluctuating sound levels, which will no doubt be resolved as the season progresses. There are very great pleasures to be had in this production, and the greatest of them are in the performances. In The Season at Sarsaparilla, we can see an ensemble at work, and it's a fine and rich experience. There is a rare fluidity and ease in the relationships on stage, and the performances in the show, which seem to me to have deepened since last I saw it, are about as good as you will ever see.

The first thing that strikes you is the depth of the cast: there are no weak performances, and no minor roles. Even the smallest part, like the disarming innocent Ron Suddards (Luke Mullins, taking over from Dan Spielman's role in the last production) glows with integrity and depth. And while the stage itself seemed a little constricted, the opposite seems true for the cast: there is a feeling of air around the performances, that permits the subtleties and nuances of White's text to breathe.

Certainly, I found myself more aware of the writing this time (and not always, it must be said, to the text's advantage): this production has been tightly focused, with small tweaks here and there that allow an almost unreal clarity to illuminate what is essentially a simple story about life in 1950s suburbia.

In an ensemble where everyone ought to be mentioned, it seems unfair to single anyone out, but there are a couple of great performances I'd be remiss not to note. Pamela Rabe is bewitching in the role of Nola, the slatternly wife of the nightsoil man Ernie Boyle (Brandon Burke); it's a courageously honest performance, poignant and tragic, and here driven by a throbbing anger that echoes the baffled, ambivalent anger of White's play. And in what is still one of the most inspired casting decisions I have seen, Peter Carroll plays the housewife Girlie Pogson. There isn't a trace of camp in this performance, which somehow evades caricature through the force of Girlie's loneliness, but there is a great deal of comic pathos. And Carroll has some of the best lines.

For all its comedy, this play lays bare the intense loneliness and essential innocence of all its characters. It is deeply moving, intelligent theatre, and beautifully realised. You'd be mad to miss it.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Kantor withdraws from Tartuffe

News just in from the Malthouse: artistic director Michael Kantor has been forced to withdraw from directing the upcoming show Tartuffe, due to ill health. Michael was hospitalised with coronary irregularities over the weekend, and although he'll be allowed home by the end of the week, will be away from work for the next month. Best wishes and bunches of get well flowers to Michael, and here's hoping he takes full advantage of that enforced rest.

But there's a silver lining: in a new twist on the understudy's rise to fame, we'll get a chance to see the work of a young talent new to Melbourne. Michael is replaced by rising young WA director Matthew Lutton. He was assistant director on Tartuffe, and has been deeply involved in the production since late last year. Lutton has made a name for himself in the west, working for Black Swan, Deckchair Theatre and the Perth Festival, and with his own company Thin Ice, and was recently AD to Neil Armfield on the Belvoir St hit Toy Symphony. Tartuffe opens on February 15.

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Sustaining the arts

Currency House has published another must-have Platform Paper: a lucid and fascinating examination of the vexed question of arts funding. A Sustainable Arts Sector: What Will It Take? is written by Cathy Hunt and Phyllida Shaw, and is compulsory reading for anybody interested in the nuts and bolts of culture-making.

(It's particularly interesting in the light of the current funding row taking place in the UK, where the Arts Council of England has mystifyingly transformed an injection of 50 million pounds into a high octane public crisis.)

Hunt and Shaw begin with the proposition that a "sustainable" arts sector means much more than a measure of the fiscal health of individual companies. They convincingly make the point that, like education or public health, the arts sector is, in the old-fashioned term, a "public service". Not that they use that phrase.

It's well worth threading through the complexities of the argument: it may sometimes be a little dry, but it's packed with useful background, and is an illuminating survey of government arts policy, both here and in the UK. At base, this is a passionate advocacy of the place of the arts in contemporary society, and an intelligent argument for a more holistic and multi-dimensional approach to arts funding. (We're talking private as well as public investment). In particular, arguing that we should attempt to think more long-term about our arts ecology, Hunt and Shaw propose that the Federal Government consider setting up a Future Fund for the Arts.

Most importantly, it's an example of what we need badly in this country, and especially now under the new Labor Government: intelligent and pragmatic arts advocacy. A Sustainable Arts Sector deserves a close read and serious discussion: it's a significant contribution to a crucial public debate. Hunt and Shaw will be speaking in February at public forums called Rethinking Arts Policy: Putting the Artist First, in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, so watch out for those dates. And let's hope that Peter Garrett picks up a copy.

As a bonus, this Platform Paper also includes responses from Nicholas Pickard, Julian Meyrick and Neil Armfield to Lee Lewis's controversial paper on Cross-Racial Casting, which, as some of you might remember, caused some blogospherical fireworks last year.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Review: Don Juan in Soho

Don Juan in Soho by Patrick Marber, directed by Peter Evans. Set and costumes by Fiona Crombie, lighting by Matt Scott, sound by David Franzke. With Craig Annis, Angus Cerini, Daniel Frederiksen, Katie-Jean Harding, Bob Hornery, Kate Jenkinson, Bert Labonte, Christen O’Leary, James Saunders and Dan Wyllie. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, Melbourne, until February 16. Bookings: 1300 723 038.

Patrick Marber’s contemporary treatment of the tale of Don Juan is only the latest of something like 1700 versions (and counting) of the legend of the serial seducer. One of the most famous is Molière’s, which premiered in Paris in 1665. It was considered so scandalous it was hurriedly withdrawn after 15 performances. The principle outrage was religious: Molière’s critics accused him of “attacking the interests of Heaven” and of insulting the King.

It’s easy to see why: Don Juan is as attractive as he is reprehensible, a defiant individualist and libertine whose perverse honesty (or corrosive cynicism, depending how you look at it) exposes the hypocrisies of those who condemn him. “The profession of hypocrisy has wonderful advantages,” says Molière’s Don Juan. “All the other vices of mankind are opened to censure, and everyone is at liberty to attack them boldly; but hypocrisy is a privileged vice which closes the mouth of everyone.”

Hypocrisy is Marber’s principal target, but he also takes aim at the vacuous narcissism of celebrity culture. This contemporary Don Juan looks at celebrity chefs, footballers and bloggers spilling their inner anguish across the tabloid minds of a gossip-hungry world, and will have none of it: he prefers the bestial but honest itch of desire above the tawdry confessional. “'We live in an ‘age of apology",” says Marber’s DJ. “Don't confuse it with authenticity.”

Marber has written a robustly contemporary and yet surprisingly faithful adaptation of Molière’s original, complete with the avenging statue (this one of fellow libertine Charles II) that mysteriously drives Don Juan to his eventual doom. Marber even restores some punch to the scene considered most scandalous in the 17th century, in which DJ bribes a beggar in an attempt to make him blaspheme against God. Only in this version, it’s a Muslim beggar.

Marber’s DJ (Dan Wyllie) is, as his appalled sidekick Stan (Daniel Frederiksen) says, “Satan in a suit from Saville Row”, who has “declared a jihad against the human spirit”. At the beginning of the play he has just fled his recent marriage to the saintly Oxfam worker Elvira (Katie-Jean Harding), whose charms, after two years of dogged pursuit, have vanished with her conquest.

DJ is a monstrous, infantile egotist, supremely uncaring of the wreckage he leaves in his wake as he pursues his desires. His brazenness leads to some brilliantly filthy moments of stage comedy. But perhaps what is most enjoyable about this text is its playfully heightened language, which is unashamedly rich and theatrical.

Director Peter Evans takes his cue from the excesses of Marber’s writing, and gives Don Juan in Soho an equally heightened production, on a stripped-down stage that exposes the mechanics of the theatre. The action is played out fluidly before a series of flats, with photographic backgrounds that can be stripped away to create another scene.

The performances, which grew on me as the evening progressed, make no attempt at realism. Wyllie’s aristocratic DJ is your classic theatrical cad, magnified to absurd proportions. Daniel Frederiksen as Stan, as exploited and charmed as any of DJ’s women, struggles miserably with his own greed: while he longs for a conventional life, he can’t resist the crumbs that fall from the Earl’s table.

These two central roles are supported by some lively performances, though the cast’s accents tend to be a bit wonky. Katie-Jean Harding, a recent VCA graduate with an eye-catching quality of luminosity, manages the difficult task of giving emotional weight to Elvira’s attempts to save DJ’s moral soul. But what is also clear is that, for all his blatant caddishness, DJ has woken her own sexual passions: her motives for wanting him back are as lustful as DJ’s own. And there are some fine cameos, in particular, Christen O’Leary as one of his brief conquests from the tower blocks, seduced before the appalled eyes of her boyfriend Pete (Bert Labonte).

It’s a nonsensical fantasy, perhaps especially in the visions of crowds of satisfied women fainting in DJ’s wake, which wouldn’t be out of place in email spam for Viagra. The danger of such artifice is that the heartlessness of its protagonist can lead to a concomitant indifference in the audience. Evans avoids this by gradually stripping the stage back to its walls, destroying all theatrical illusion, in an effective mimesis of DJ’s moral emptiness.

DJ’s grisly death at the hand of Elvira’s brothers is surprisingly horrifying and poignant. Marber lacks the metaphorical power of religion – no flames of eternal hellfire greet DJ, despite his supernatural hallucinations. Instead, his fate is existential barrenness, a wastrel life that amounts to a tawdry and vengeful murder; yet it's difficult not to admire his defiant refusal to apologise. His only epilogue is the hapless Stan mourning his unpaid wages. But thankfully, there’s no neat moral bow at the end. Like Molière, Marber leaves any moralising up to his audience.

Picture: Dan Wyllie (front) and Daniel Frederiksen in Don Juan in Soho. Photo: Jeff Busby

A shorter version of this review appeared in Thursday’s Australian.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Phew, wot a scorcher they used to say in the UK Sun when the temperature nudged over 25 degrees: a cue for white English people to throw off their shirts and dance maniacally on pebble beaches with handkerchiefs on their heads, while puzzled Australians still wandered around in their woollies. My English compadres are often puzzled by my fondness for damp mists and pale blue winter skies, but they have never experienced the brutal heat of a Melbourne summer. The recent temperatures of over 40C (almost 110F) really did me in, I fear. Anyway, this by way of apology for the lateness of my meditations on the MTC's first production of the year, Patrick Marber's Don Juan in Soho. On the way folks, though it's already in the Oz.

While I'm looking towards the northern hemisphere, allow me to alert you to the increasingly loud hoohah over the British Arts Council, which has taken advantage of a injection of 50 million pounds to cut funding to around 20 per cent of its clients, in its biggest shakeup in recent years. The fuss began with the cutting of funds to the National Student Drama Festival just before Christmas, and since then the conflagration has been slowly spreading, up to a rowdy public meeting this week which passed an unprecedented vote of no confidence in the Arts Council. A round-up of the row and blogger responses here.

(UPDATE: The row has now spread to the British Council, the government's international arts arm, with a bunch of the UK's most distinguished visual artists protesting a "radical shake-up" in the council's structure. What is going on over there? The one thing that is clear is that nobody really seems to know...)

What is most striking to an antipodean observer is that artists are demanding a system very similar to what we already have here with the Australia Council - a transparent and accountable process with peer review. Let's count our blessings while we have them. Speaking of which, I'll point to a sobering SMH article on NSW arts funding which suggests why the Sydney Festival has gone so populist this year, and why this might be something that should concern anyone who cares for the arts.

Match this with Federal Arts Minister Peter Garrett's apparent indifference to ideas and the heart sinks lower. Garrett has passed on attending the Congress of the International Committee of the History of Art, a major international shindig held for the first time in Melbourne this year, with a new brief of political edginess. In a small but cutting comment, convenor Jaynie Anderson says she is "slightly disappointed" she could not convince Garrett to come. "The previous incumbent, George Brandis, had been keen, but then, Anderson says, he is an intellectual." Ouch.

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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Drama, theatre and other arguments

TN takes issue with Edward Bond in today's Guardian theatre blog, thereby sparking a bit of argy bargy. Underneath, of course, is a serious question about what it means to write in the theatre...

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Blogging the Sydney Fest

While Melbourne slumbers in its theatre down-time, Sydney has got out its gladrags for the Sydney Festival. And our blogger colleague Nicholas Pickard is blogging it for the Daily Telegraph. Today he takes issue with the festival dissenters who are lamenting the lack of theatre and art music. (Slugging the local festival is a favourite Australian sport, up there with sacking cricket umpires). Actually, I'm with the arts snobs: I wouldn't mind seeing Joanna Newsome with the SSO, but give me Melbourne's October arts orgy any day...

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Monday, January 07, 2008

The Great Wall of Books

Generalising... we could infer that all forms have their virtue in themselves and not in any conjectural "content". This would concord with the thesis of Benedetto Croce; already Pater in 1877 had affirmed that all arts aspire to the state of music, which is pure form. Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces belaboured by time, certain twilights and certain faces try to tell us something, or have said something we should have missed, or are about to say something: this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Wall and the Books, Jorge Luis Borges

The pure wall, the pure book: The Great Wall of Books, briefly camped in Federation Square after a three month visit to Macau, is neither. Or perhaps it is both. But it shines, all the same, with a strange sense of promise, of something like the imminent but elusive revelation Borges describes.

It's an installation that is at once a public sculpture, stage set, art gallery and invitation, the brainchild of Well Theatre. Artistic director Dario Vacirca says it is inspired by Borges's meditation on the Chinese Emperor Shih Huang Ti, who simultaneously ordered the building of the Great Wall of China and the burning of every book that preceded his reign. As Borges says, the walling in of a garden is an ordinary act, but the walling in of an entire Empire is not; just as the erasure of three thousand years of history is far beyond the usual scale of dictatorial bookburning.

If The Great Wall of Books is an answer to Borges's story, it is in its undoing of imperial boundaries, its potential chaos, its impurity. But it too encompasses creation and destruction: it is built out of books, which are thereby emptied of their content. Within its walls you trace the ghosts of knowledge - old gilt-lettered encyclopaedias, classic works - but their pages are missing. Instead, passers by are filling the book space with their own stories. It's almost a metaphor for Web 2.0, for the death of traditional critical authority, which is a common cause of breast-beating among the literati. But what you feel most of all here is its human liveness.

There is something irresistible in a book made out of books, a book, moreover, that you can walk into and climb inside, a book you can write in, a book that is a receptacle for your own discarded books, that is at once an art object and a literal and metaphorical theatre. It accretes its form and history - as books do - through its encounters with its "readers". We write it, wander inside it, read it, study its form, help to make it. Just as intriguing as the object is the behaviour of people around it, its invitation to write one's own story: you can type on a computer, or handwrite on the thick paper provided. And people do. Yesterday I saw an old man writing something which was carefully dated and written in beautiful copperplate. I was burning with curiosity, but didn't have the nerve to ask what he had written; it seemed too private, somehow.

In its impurity, its materialisation of the possible, The Great Wall of Books is an entirely charming thing. It's at Fed Square until Thursday, and well worth the wander: and there are performances - for children in the afternoon, and others in the evening. Performance times here.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

Waking up

By golly, it's next year. Ms TN has been hiding in her burrow like the shy marsupial she really is, and it was even nicer than she expected. But, alas, all good things come to an end, and even now I hear the world calling faintly in the distance. For instance, the nice people over at the Toronto blog Theatre is Territory asked me all about me (my true area of expertise) and today published the results. I sound suspiciously like a wanker, but you'll all be used to that. The problem with saying things and then seeing them written down is that I find myself disagreeing with myself almost at once. Oh, it's noisy in this head, I can tell you.

In the Rest of the World - the quite considerable part that surprisingly isn't me - people have been yakking about theatre all through Christmas and New Year. I guess in some parts of the globe it isn't 37 degrees (98F for you undecimalised northerners) and some people's brains aren't looking like Dali's clocks. I'm planning to take it relatively easy through January and February, though we all know what happens to plans; but for starters I thought I'd kick the blog awake with a quote from one of my favourite madmen, Friedrich Nietzsche, from his wonderful book The Gay Science.

If we had not welcomed the arts and invented this kind of cult of the untrue, then the realization of general untruth and mendaciousness that now comes to us through science—the realization that delusion and error are conditions of human knowledge and sensation—would be utterly unbearable. Honesty would lead to nausea and suicide. But now there is a counterforce against our honesty that helps us to avoid such consequences: art as the good will to appearance. ....As an artistic phenomenon existence is still bearable for us, and art furnishes us with eyes and hands and above all the good conscience to be able to turn ourselves into such a phenomenon. ....we must discover the hero no less than the fool in our passion for knowledge, we must occasionally find pleasure in our folly, or we cannot continue to find pleasure in our wisdom!

Precisely because we are at bottom grave and serious human beings—really more weights than human beings—nothing does us as much good as a fool's cap: we need it in relation to ourselves—we need all exuberant, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, and blissful art lest we lose the freedom above things that our ideal demands of us. It would mean a relapse for us, with our irritable honesty, to get involved entirely in morality and, for the sake of the over-severe demands we make on ourselves in these matters, to become virtuous monsters and scarecrows. We should be able also to stand above morality—and not only to stand with the anxious stiffness of a man who is afraid of slipping and falling at any moment, but also to float above it and play! How then could we possibly dispense with art, and with the fool?— And as long as you are in any way ashamed before yourselves, you do not yet belong with us!

Foolish, exuberant, passionate, floating, dancing, mocking, childish, blissful and shameless... Sounds like aspirations, no? Onward into 2008!

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