New Year's EveVale Harold PinterReview: Shane Warne: The MusicalSo, what happened?Death of the criticReview: Dust ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve

I woke up this morning with an old poem going round and round in my head. And then I saw that Duncan Graham - no mean playwright himself and a fine director of Harold Pinter's work - had posted a beautiful poem on TN, a valediction and homage for Pinter. Poetry seems the right way to mark the passing of the year, especially when this Christmas is marked by the deaths of too many writers - Pinter, Dorothy Porter and Adrian Mitchell - who seemed too defiantly alive to die.

The poem that nagged my dreams last night was, like Duncan's, about love, and was for another dead writer. I wrote it in 1990, at the height of the First Gulf War. And I suppose it was circling in my head because, despite everything that's changed in the past two decades, both in me and in the wider world, and perhaps even more because of what has remained the same, I still believe now what I said then.

Ode to Walt Whitman

Did you see me Walt Whitman beside my meagre river where I walk at sunset with my children
Who whinge and buffet my arms and will not be led in any direction
Marching with my sight closed to the rain and skittering seagulls while my children shouted look!
As the incandescent leaves shouted look! lying individual and numberless under the sodium light
Although I hurried on nagging and impatient:
Did you hear the haul of the empty trains into the vanishing twilight
Turning my face like a mint coin hope stamped on my mouth
To a night ambiguous with satellites
Hearing in my secret heart the radio noise of murders half a suburb away
Which all the loud news fails to report -
Walt Whitman there are evenings when love withers inside me
The beat you thrummed with your syllabled fingers those joyous rebellious prosodies:
Did you see the muscles of your teeming world
Smashing the earth unstringing the massive harp of the sky
When you sang of your body returning alert as grass
Or thrust out the spokes of your sight into the great unchanging wheels the miraculous sun and the tumultuous impersonal sea -
Walt Whitman the gods are tarnished now the cities mourn their dead no longer
Children roast in the fires of this terrible century
And no love is enough no elegy sufficient:
And yet I imagine you gentle imperfect generous man I would like to talk to you
Perhaps you sit already at my shoulder whispering that nothing changes
That sunset is enough for its brilliance decay enough for its iridescence
Old faker with your wise beard your lustful piety:
And truly what is my faith
Except a stubborn voice
Casting out its shining length to where I walk alone
Sick and afraid and unable to accept defeat
Singing as I was born to

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Vale Harold Pinter

I'm sad to hear that Harold Pinter has died, aged 78, after a long battle with cancer. Michael Billington, who wrote a recent biography of Pinter, has a moving memoir here. "Harold was a great dramatist and screenwriter, a ferocious polemicist, a fighter against all forms of hypocrisy," says Billington. "What we should also remember today is his generosity of spirit and his rage for life."

George Hunka's fine appreciation of the artist here. And Matt Clayfield quotes Pinter's Nobel lecture here. Another tribute from Jarrett here. And while I'm at it, my review of The Homecoming.

And I add to many other regrets the fact that, for reasons that I now can't remember but were probably trivial, I couldn't take up an invitation to come to his house and meet him. Carpe Diem.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Review: Shane Warne: The Musical

(Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm supposed to be having a break from theatre. But I'm still reviewing for the Oz...)

Shane Warne: The Musical, by Eddie Perfect. Token Events and Trafficlight. Athenaeum Theatre. December 10. Until January 11. Regal Theatre, Perth, March 18-31. Enmore Theatre, Sydney, May 15-30.

You need more front than Myers to get away with an idea like Shane Warne: The Musical. Fortunately, Eddie Perfect is your man for front.

Perfect takes no prisoners in this glorious piss-take on celebrity, cricket, Australia and musical theatre itself. His unlikely hero is a flawed Everyman (“there’s a little bit of Shane in all of us”), a suburban boy from Ferntree Gully with a golden arm and a mullet.

After he fails in his first ambition of becoming an AFL player, he lounges in a beanbag like Jabba the Hutt, eating pizzas, smoking and being nagged by his mother, until the Call comes from the Australian Institute of Sport. He loses the mullet, buffs up his spin bowling and makes it into the national side. And the rest is history.

Warnie is a kind of tragic anti-hero, wandering haplessly through the pitfalls of celebrity and tumbling into most of them. He wins his girl, and loses her. He wins the Ashes, and loses them. Along the way, he takes those diuretic pills (label warning: “may cause drowsiness or bad theatrical dream sequences”), discovers the charms of groupies in hotel rooms and accepts bribes from seedy Bollywood gamblers.

And, of course, exercises his thumb on his mobile phone (“I’ve got an erection in the frozen food section”, he bewails, in the song What an SMS I’m In).

After a few scenes, Perfect looks more like Shane Warne than Shane Warne does. He has that vertical uber-blonde hair and slightly stocky body. In one of the peculiar reflexive moments that characterise modern celebrity, Warnie was there, two rows in front of us, watching his own life written – or sung – very large.

It can’t always have been comfortable viewing, especially in the numbers that record his marriage, which go for the big musical moment and are surprisingly moving.

The show’s cheerful obscenity is shot through with Perfect’s trademark intelligence, which mercilessly skewers the absurdities of mass culture.

Besides being a fond tribute to Warnie, it’s a dizzying musical tour: the songs range from rap to gospel to rock’n’roll to Sondheim.

Perfect has surrounded himself with a top production team, including Neil Armfield, who provides the seamless direction, and Gideon Obarzanek’s snappy and hilarious choreography.

It shows what happens when the crème de la crème of contemporary Australian theatre go for the commercial throat. It’s vital, rude, smart, irresistibly funny and passionately performed. Don’t miss it.

This review is published in today's Australian.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

So, what happened?

At the end of every year, one has the same conversations. "I can't believe it's nearly Christmas! Wasn't it March only a few days ago?" What happened, we wonder, to the spacious durations of yesteryear, when twelve months seemed an eternity?

My theory is that mischievous elves in the eleventh dimension are cranking up the time machine. Either that, or the expanding universe really is speeding up. A second is not as long as it was a decade ago. An hour passes by in the flash of an eye. And a year is now a lot shorter than it was. A few weeks ago, 2008 breezed in, all bright and shiny. And now it's already breezing out.

Despite the shrinking seconds, I saw a fair bit of theatre this year. And I liked a lot of it. Nothing has changed my feeling that we're in the middle of a particularly rich period of theatre-making. There are wonky bits, to be sure; but on the whole, there's much to feel upbeat about: the theatre I've seen this year - a representative slice, admittedly, rather than a comprehensive overview - demonstrates that the local culture is diverse, intelligent and alive. What has emerged in alarming focus are the wider challenges that face art-makers in Australia; and the question in my mind is whether this richness can not only be sustained, but be permitted to evolve. (I wrote at length about these issues recently, so won't reprise here).

So, to the specifics. I thought this year I'd baldly list my favourite works of theatre, with links to my reviews for the curious types who want to know why I liked them. In no particular order, these are the shows that made me think that theatre was a pretty good place to be:

Women of Troy Malthouse/STC
That Night Follows Day Tim Etchells/Victoria, MIAF
Endgame Eleventh Hour, MIAF
Corridor Lucy Guerin Inc, MIAF
Food Court Back to Back Theatre, MIAF
Life is a Dream Victorian College of the Arts
Blackbird MTC
The Serpent's Teeth STC Actors Company
Holiday Ranters/Malthouse
The Season at Sarsaparilla STC/MTC
Chekhov Recut: Platonov Hayloft Theatre
Avast & Avast II Black Lung Theatre, Malthouse
...Sisters Headlong Theatre, Gate Theatre, London
Just Macbeth Bell Shakespeare
Vamp Malthouse
Red Sky Morning Red Stitch
Axeman Lullaby Ballet Lab
Yes OpticNerve Performance Group, Fortyfive Downstairs
Ollie and the Minotaur Floogle, Fortyfive Downstairs
Venus & Adonis Bell Shakespeare/Malthouse
Moving Target Malthouse
Care Instructions Aphids, La Mama

(I admit, a show I saw in London got in there too, but I couldn't leave it off. And yes, another was written by my husband, and for that reason I almost excised it, although it had the necessary impact on this aesthete. But that seems a paltry reason to pretend it didn't happen, especially as it will be produced in Europe next year.)

That's slightly more than a quarter of the shows I managed to see, which strikes me as a very respectable proportion. I liked them for vastly differing reasons. But each experience, even when I had reservations - which I did with some I've included here - widened my view of the possibilities of theatre. I left feeling more alive, which is really the only thing I ask of art.

Crunching the figures, you can see the nodes of vitality. About half of those shows emerged from independent companies, often in tangent with the main stages, and the VCA is very visible among the producers. A quarter came under the aegis of Kristy Edmunds' final Melbourne Festival - three of them, notably, local productions. What's encouraging to this chicken is that the mainstage companies are producing vital work: the MTC's production of Blackbird was one of this year's top highlights, and Bell Shakespeare, the Malthouse (especially, with six shows) and the STC all came up with the goods.

Speaking personally, 2008 has been, to say the least, an interesting year, often in the sense of that famous Chinese curse. Mostly it's been a bit like Italian bread, good but tough. There was the bizarre public circus of the 2020 Summit, exhilarating and disappointing in equal parts. There was the vicious media storm around Bill Henson, in which I had some small part. Immediately after that horrible punch-up, I fled these shores for England, heavily disguised as a poet. There I soberly discussed environmental apocalypse at the University of East Anglia and then, somewhat less soberly, caught up with contemporary poetry in Ireland.

I came back relatively uncrumpled, but that didn't last long. Two books that were long in the completion were finally published - The Singing, the final book in my Big Fat Fantasy quartet, and Theatre, a slim and classy poetry collection that represents about five years' work. As is the way with these things, The Singing hit bestseller status here and in Britain (it comes out in the States and Germany next year), and Theatre is yet to be reviewed, although keen book-twitchers have spotted it shyly lurking in shops.

All this activity involved lots of ancillary stuff - public appearances, endless and still-ongoing proof-reading, blah and blah. But somehow in between I saw about 85 shows. And wrote thousands of words about them.

How the hell did I do that? Looking back, I have no idea. But I do know that I'm tired, which no doubt accounts for the rash of symptomatic typos that have been bedevilling recent reviews. So Ms TN is shutting up shop for a couple of months for some R&R, and maybe to rethink her life. I'll be the one in the bathchair and tartan blanket, flirting sedately with the attractive young attendants at the local Roman spa.

As ever, I owe a few thanks. First to my readers, for coming here. The TN hit counter for 2008 has already surpassed last year's figures, and has bumped 500,000 hits (almost 200,000 unique visitors in 2008, apparently, with about 40,000 regulars). And thanks in particular to the commenters and fellow bloggers who have made the blogosphere such a stimulating place to be (and who have patiently corrected my mistakes).

And thanks too to the many people who have supported this enterprise - the companies who provide tickets and, in particular, the many artists who have encouraged me through many periods of biff, even though I'm only here to be picky. You Know Who You Are. You make it all worthwhile.

I'll be back in February, when the weather cools down and the theatre season begins to heat up. In the meantime, enjoy yourselves. I know I will.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Death of the critic

In a must-read think-piece, Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert laments the cannibalistic celebrity culture of the daily press, citing film critics as the canaries in the media coal mine (a metaphor I've used myself, in relation to arts coverage in general). In a stimulating, accurate and rather depressing piece, he asks what critics are for:

A good friend of mine in a very big city was once told by his editor that the critic should "reflect the taste of the readers." My friend said, "Does that mean the food critic should love McDonald's?" The editor: "Absolutely." I don't believe readers buy a newspaper to read variations on the Ed McMahon line, "You are correct, sir!" A newspaper film critic should encourage critical thinking, introduce new developments, consider the local scene, look beyond the weekend fanboy specials, be a weatherman on social trends, bring in a larger context, teach, inform, amuse, inspire, be heartened, be outraged.

Which, of course, applies to theatre criticism too. H/t Lynden Barber at Eyes Wired Open.

The only chink of light here is the internet. But if the Rudd Government has its way, our internet will soon be as censored as that in China and Iran. In the name, of course, of protecting our children, which, it seems, excuses everything. There's a sizeable public protest mobilising against the new filtering proposals, which have incurred criticisms from everybody from IT industry spokespeople to child protection authorities. There will be nationwide protests on December 13. Find out what you can do here.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Review: Dust

Dust, written and directed by Donna Jackson, composed and performed by Mark Seymour. Music directed by Tracy Bourne, media and film by Malcolm McKinnon. With the Victorian Trade Union Choir, Willin Wimmin and the Ballarat Arts Academy Ensemble. Hubcap Productions with the Asbestos Diseases Society and the University of Ballarat. Williamstown Town Hall, closed.

The phrase “community theatre” is liable to conjure images of earnest amateur thespians giving demonstrations in coarse acting. But this is hugely misleading.

Community-based companies are responsible for some of our most vital political theatre. In the hands of companies like Devonport-based Big hArt - who created Ngapartji Ngapartji, a work which looked at the impact of the Maralinga nuclear tests in the Pitjantjara people - it becomes a powerful conduit for the concerns of specific communities.

This is work that’s neither earnest nor brutally polemic, but rather a reminder that theatre is the most human of artforms.

In Melbourne, Donna Jackson, founder of Footscray’s Women’s Circus, has been making exemplary community theatre for years. Recently she’s been working with trade unions. Her spectacular show We Built This City was a site-specific work created with with former Hunters and Collectors frontman Mark Seymour, and featured, among other things, a surreal ballet of bulldozers.

Dust – an exploration of the grim history of the Australian asbestos industry – is their latest collaboration. Again a site-specific work, it was made originally for the Mechanic’s Institute in Ballarat and remounted in the beautiful Victorian space of Williamstown Town Hall, in Melbourne’s west.

It demonstrates Jackson’s talent for accessing the energies of diverse community groups. The show is backed by the Asbestos Diseases Society and its 60-voice choir includes singers from the Vctorian Trades Union Choir, local Williamstown songsters Willin Wimmin and the Ballarat Arts Academy Ensemble.

Dust is in two halves. In the first, the audience saunters around the huge space of the town hall visiting acts – three-minute plays, a magician, visual installations - in booths on either side, set up as in a fair. This is punctuated by a couple of songs from the main stage.

After interval it becomes a more conventional musical, in which stories glimpsed in the booths are expanded through song. Jackson again exploits multi-media to generate an operatic mode that embraces satire - it includes a marvellous parody of the ideal of the 1960s nuclear family so beloved of advertisers - and moments of sheer grandeur, as in the song Antarctica, based on the the diary entries and photographs of an Antarctic scientist who died of asbestos-related disease.

The politics is dealt with lightly but effectively – James Hardie is represented, for instance, by a corporate woman (Laura Lattuada), who is having problems with her shonky hairdresser before an important address to shareholders - taken, I am certain, from real documents - in which she speaks of a "difficult year", assures shareholders their money is safe and requests a salary raise for directors.

What binds the show together is Jackson’s sharp theatrical eye and the driving guitar of Mark Seymour. Seymour’s songs have the rock’n’roll power and lyricism of Bruce Springsteen, especially the Springsteen of The Ballad of Tom Joad. But he is good enough to transcend the comparison, giving this genre of social anger an antipodean twist. His songs pack a huge emotional punch, especially when they are amplified by 60 voices.

Without a trace of earnestness, but plenty of anger and grief, Dust relates the corporate scandal and individual tragedy of the history of asbestos manufacturing. It’s straight-up, moving and enormously entertaining. Community theatre at its very best.

This review was published in yesterday's Australian.

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