The Birthday Party revisited ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Birthday Party revisited

Director Julian Meyrick has answered reviews of his production of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party with an essay which is posted today on the MTC site (pdf file). My response follows here. Before I say anything else, I want to make clear that I welcome Julian’s comments. Nothing I say about theatre is or should be beyond questioning and, like every artist I write about, he has every right to take issue with what I say.

Julian makes several criticisms of Age critic Cameron Woodhead’s and my responses (both the Australian notice and the later meditation on TN). Most seriously, he claims that our reactions are part of “our culture’s bizarre, unreadable and depressing attitude to Aboriginality”. In his view, “the evidence points … to a critical absence where a critical response should be: to a marked unwillingness to connect with the victim of the play.” Basically, both Cameron and I missed the point of the production because we are unable to empathise with the plight of Indigenous people in Australian society; which is to say, our responses were racist. I’ll return to this point, which has led to a fair bit of soul-searching on my part, later. Firstly, I’d like to respond to the criticisms Julian has made of my practice as a critic, some of which seem a little personal. I don’t presume to speak for Cameron.

Julian suggests that Cameron and I are part of a sterile and rigid matrix of ideas that will, sooner or later, spell the death of Australian theatre. He is more disappointed with me, because he has higher expectations. After saying (nicely) that I am one of the most intelligent people writing about theatre today, he says of my reviews: “partisanship is the essence of her craft. It is possible to say ahead of time what Alison will think of any show because her view of theatre is schematic, adversarial and assured. The result is opinions which label themselves as such, yet lack range in feeling and taste. This has always been a problem for Australian critics of quality, who are bottled-up in a theatre scene not big enough even to be called a pond.”

I don’t in fact know what Julian means by saying that my view of theatre is “schematic” and “adversarial”. (Assured, maybe, although anyone who reads me carefully will know that doubt is one of the poles of that dialectic.) Perhaps Julian really can tell ahead of time what shows I will enjoy, in which case he knows something that I don’t: but it is hardly true, as he seems to be claiming, that I only enjoy a particular kind of theatre. It’s a little hard to second-guess what he means here, but I’ll take my cue from his comments about his revulsion against a theatre of “bling and high technique” that eschews “simplicity and sachlichkeit (literally ‘sobriety’)”, and assume he means that I am a partisan critic who supports a theatre of spectacle at the expense of less showy but more truthful aesthetics.

Well, it's certainly true that I have enjoyed shows that exploit the spectacular possibilities of theatre, from Jersey Boys to Honour Bound, from Food Court to The Women of Troy to The War of the Roses (although that production seemed, if anything, to embrace qualities of simplicity and sobriety). But surely if I were simply a narrow partisan for that kind of theatre, I should have also enjoyed Bell Shakespeare’s Anatomy of Titus, Fall of Rome or Barrie Kosky’s production of The Navigator or the Malthouse production of The Odyssey? And I certainly would not have been so enthusiastic about the MTC production of Blackbird, which was as simple and sober as anything I’ve seen, or the recent production of Franz Xaver Kroetz’s Tom Fool, or even Ranter’s defiantly anti-spectacular work in Holiday. I have pretty catholic, if not always populist, tastes. I admit, as a quirk of sensibility, that I prefer highbrow and lowbrow over middlebrow, but probably my most identifiable prejudice is towards good writing.

Further, Julian says that "a certain kind of diminishing power comes with being a critic - a petty power directors also court, so I recognise it - that is corrosive of disinterested thinking and the wider view." Perhaps. I always hope that my writing is at once interested (in the work it attends to) and disinterested. I can say in clear conscience, however, that I have never been remotely interested in “power”, unless it’s the power to spark a conversation. If power were what motivated me, I wouldn’t have started this blog, or I would have dropped it the moment the Australian job came along. I don’t find power – or at least, the power that Julian seems to be talking about – very interesting at all. I guess I’m rather Senecan on that question: it means very little, and it certainly won’t last, and I’d rather spend my energy in more rewarding pursuits.

It’s possibly not irrelevant here to note that I also inhabit at least two other worlds (not counting those private worlds which come with raising a family), both of which give me a status, even a minor international fame, which is much less ambivalent than the notoriety which comes from commenting rudely on other people’s work. In other words, I don’t need to do this work to gratify my ego. Priggish though it might sound, aside from my passion for the art of theatre I am motivated by the hope that a culture of conversation will take hold on the fragile soil here. I am glad the blog is regarded as influential – that is of course gratifying – but it’s a shame if it also means that the work is read less carefully, if its perceived status obscures the worth or otherwise of what one is actually doing. If anything, the blog’s success has sparked a nightmare scenario of my ossifying into a one-woman institution; and if anything makes me stop blogging, it will be that prospect.

For these reasons, I should be sorry if this argument is read as being simply about power, or even as adversarial. It’s not. It’s about disagreement. Even if it is not the case, I prefer to imagine that I live in a civilised culture, a culture where difference can be respected and is considered an enriching means of extending and questioning the self.

Which brings me to Julian’s central point: that my critique of The Birthday Party was primarily marked by a lack of attention to the Indigeneity of the cast that amounts to racism. This is a difficult charge to counter; and I should hate to think that was really the case. In my reviews of Indigenous productions – Black Medea, for instance, or Yibiyung, or The Man from Mukinupin - I’ve always tried to be sensitive to racial issues, but that doesn’t mean that I’m always successful. As any woman knows in attempting to explain the subtler ramifications of sexism, it can be difficult to register the nuances of prejudice if you haven’t encountered it yourself.

And it seems that here I failed; moreover, I failed in a way that is emblematic of wider problems in Australian culture. As Julian claims:

In shaping their responses, everything about The Birthday Party that is different, new, challenging and important has been swept aside. The result is an evasiveness which, if you didn’t know the show, might not be perceptible. Even if you did know the show you might be tempted to gloss over it as allowable, though strange. But if you cared about it, had felt Pinter’s cold, undeniable fingers close round your heart then this weird slipperiness is something that needs explaining.

I cannot unpack my thoughts on the show without discussing Australian theatre more broadly. Although it is a generalisation, it is one that captures something about the art form at the moment to say there is a hole where its heart should be. This is exemplified by Cameron’s and Alison’s reviews. They are incomplete, in an emotional and spiritual sense, and this speaks to a larger disconnection in the culture.

I am not at all sure how one can be a “complete” reviewer anywhere, let alone in the constraints of print media. Written responses to anything, from the overnight notice to the seriously considered book, are all, to one degree or another, partial. All the same, it’s fair to say that my emotional connection to this production of The Birthday Party was incomplete: my primary criticism of the production, in a mirror of Julian’s criticism of my comments, was that something was missing in the middle.

Contrary to Julian’s claims, I called the cross-racial casting “a rare and welcome example of main stage cross-racial casting” and later, in response to a commenter, expanded my thoughts: “I really don't think the cross-racial casting is an issue here, in any negative way I mean. It's the most interesting aspect of the production, it's thoughtfully done so it doesn't cheapen the play or the issues it brings to bear on the text, and it works, not least because it brings a brilliant new energy into the MTC purview. I'm hoping it brings local casting more in line with what goes on routinely, for example, on the BBC, which is light years ahead of us on this question. The idea had - and I guess this is what frustrated me - the possibility of bringing a tough and fresh angle onto Pinter's work. For me it just didn't get there - but it's not because of anything to do with the casting.”

The major sticking point is the comments on Isaac Drandic’s performance, which attracted criticism from both Cameron and myself; although I took it as probably a directorial decision, Cameron went with his guns ablaze for the actor himself. To quote Julian again: “I have … come to feel these critical judgements of his performance are harsh, unreasonable and perverse. Worse, they operate in such a way as to block traffic, fuddling the intended meaning of the show. His performance is used as an excuse not to look at the unsettling racial associations the action throws up. As a young, black, working-class man – and this description would apply both to Isaac and Stanley – empathy is withheld from him in an unnatural way.”

It’s only natural to want to defend an actor who has been so pilloried. But all the same, I find it hard to swallow the suggestion that these responses have nothing to do with the production, and everything to do with unacknowledged racial prejudice; that it comes from an "unnatural" coldheartedness that can only be explained by racism. As for a perverse lack of empathy for the real victims feeding into my critique of the acting: I think the actual victim in this play is the naif landlady, Meg, and I was knocked out by Pauline Whyman’s beautiful performance.

I think the argument comes down to different readings of the play. Certainly, in his defence of his production, Julian seems to be warping the play I’ve read, giving it a sentimental gloss that is so at odds with my understanding of Pinter’s work that it’s no wonder I missed the point.

Is Stanley, even performed by a “young, black, working class man”, really such a sympathetic character in the play? Is he really the “real victim”? I’d say that Stanley is an ambiguous character from the beginning, as this exchange in Act 1 demonstrates:

Meg: Stan?
Stanley: What?
Meg: Am I really succulent?
Stanley: Oh yes. I’d rather have you than a cold in the nose any day.
Meg: You’re just saying that.
Stanley: (violently) Look, why don’t you get this place cleared up! It’s a pigsty! And another thing, what about my room? It needs sweeping. It needs papering. I need a new room!
Meg: (sensual, stroking his arm) Oh Stan, that’s a lovely room. I’ve had some lovely afternoons in that room.
He recoils from her hand in disgust, stands up and exits quickly.

Or this, a little later on:

Stanley: (quietly) Who do you think you’re talking to?
Meg: (uncertainly) What?
Stanley: Come here.
Meg: What do you mean?
Stanley: Come over here.
Meg: No.
Stanley: I want to ask you something. (MEG fidgets nervously. She does not go to him.) Come on. (Pause.) All right. I can ask it from here just as well. (Deliberately.) Tell me, Mrs Boles, when you address yourself to me, do you ever ask yourself who exactly you are talking to? Eh?

This is classic Pinter dialogue, ripe with ambiguity and implied menace. The dialogue is laced with mingled sexual attraction and repulsion and an implied violence pulses beneath the text. Meg’s sudden fear speaks volumes: she really doesn’t know who she is speaking to. And as McCann and Goldberg make clear later, Stanley is somehow compromised by a secret mutual history that involves these two figures, although we never know what it is. He is not merely a simple working class guy. (If he is, indeed, working class, which I think is arguable).

My issue with Julian's production was always with the emotional tenor and interpretation of the direction. The production I saw smoothed out these disturbances: the relationship between Stanley and Meg was comfortably maternal, with any hint of incestuous perversion softened to a harmless joke, and Stanley never, at any point in the first act, generated any sort of threat. That simply seems to be at odds with the text. As I said, I could see the potential power of an Indigenous take on this play, but in this instance it never caught flame:

But - and for me it is a large but - there was something missing in the middle of the play… a sense of soft-focus permeates the tone of the whole production: the squalor of the boarding house… is here rendered with a respectable cleanliness. There are moments of sudden brutality, moments of discomfort, but instead of winding slowly up to a kind of stomach-twisting panic, they dissipate in comic relief. It's too easy in this production to read The Birthday Party as a kind of surreal comedy about "those" kinds of people - lower middle class, Not Like Us - because its real power, its merciless exposure of the dark animal impulses in human behaviour, is muffled. The sense of interior nightmare never takes hold where it counts, in the primitive caverns of the subconscious.

My first critical concern was with this play, not the director’s political intentions. To my mind, if the production had succeeded on this deeper level, its political intentions would have, blazingly, followed. But I don't believe this happened in this production, or at least in the performance I saw.

My racial blindness, says Julian, lies in two main areas. Firstly, I am remiss in not fully welcoming the implications of an Indigenous cast performing The Birthday Party. “You might get the impression from the reviews that cross-racial casting of canonical English plays went on all the time, instead of the reality, that it almost never happens. One contributor to the Theatre Notes blog suggested it might be a marketing strategy. But the implications are professionally and culturally profound. There are few more difficult playwrights than Pinter. If you can act Pinter, you can act anything. An indigenous cast nailing The Birthday Party is an indication that a new era in cross-cultural casting has arrived. It’s a shift from why (why cast Aboriginal actors) to why not (why not cast Aboriginal actors). If they can do the part, they can be in the play, regardless of colour or creed.”

On reflection, perhaps I could have said more about the fact of the cross-racial casting; but aside from welcoming it, the fact is that I didn’t out of a fear of seeming patronising. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Indigenous actors can do this play; of course they can, just as Iraqi or Russian or Australian actors can (or can’t). To suggest anything else seems, well, racist.

The other level of blindness is in the meaning of the play. This is trickier: in his essay, Julian is suggesting a rewriting of the class and racial structures in the original text along lines that rather shock me in their reductiveness. In Julian’s words: “In this production, everyone is Aboriginal except for Goldberg. So the action goes: a white man hunts down a black man, charms his landlady, seduces his girlfriend, then terrorizes, tortures and takes him away to a malign fate. When Stanley appears at the end of the play, ready to go, he’s physically OK but can no longer talk. It seems hilarious now but when I was rehearsing, I thought the meaning of all this would be too obvious. I hadn’t factored in Australia’s completely aphasic attitude to race.”

I’d suggest that it’s not so much an aphasic attitude to race as a familiarity with the play, which sets up its own expectations, and which is not exactly amenable to any simple top-down reading. As Pinter himself said, “In my play The Birthday Party I think I allow a whole range of options to operate in a dense forest of possibility before finally focussing on an act of subjugation.” In the original play, the lines of power are not nearly so clear-cut, with the "superior" race at the apex of power: race and class cut against each other.

Goldberg might be the top dog, the wealthier man of a higher class, and, indeed, the locus of violence; but, crucially, he is Jewish. As Pinter well knew, he would be a man who was, no matter what his social or economic status, a target of the casual and vicious anti-Semitism in English culture (Orwell’s self-excoriating essay on covert anti-Semitism in Britain is a must-read on this one). McCann, an Irishman, is from another culture marginalised and discriminated against in English culture. It might have made more sense in Julian’s production for Goldberg to be Aboriginal. The play itself works against Julian’s professed intentions, and that’s why I didn’t read it in the way he desired.

I'll finish with a quote from Pinter’s Nobel speech, which perhaps best expresses the indeterminacy of his drama, its essential inhospitability to imposed interpretation:

Truth in drama is forever elusive. You never quite find it but the search for it is compulsive. The search is clearly what drives the endeavour. The search is your task. More often than not you stumble upon the truth in the dark, colliding with it or just glimpsing an image or a shape which seems to correspond to the truth, often without realising that you have done so. But the real truth is that there never is any such thing as one truth to be found in dramatic art. There are many. These truths challenge each other, recoil from each other, reflect each other, ignore each other, tease each other, are blind to each other. Sometimes you feel you have the truth of a moment in your hand, then it slips through your fingers and is lost.
Julian Meyrick's full response is available as a pdf download on the MTC site.


Matthew said...

Meyrick's piece is quite something, isn't it? Having not seen the show, I cannot comment on his take on your take (or yours on his on yours). But as a long-time reader of Cameron Woodhead and yourself, I find his comments on your critical practice (and the implicit assumptions about criticism contained therein) somewhat problematic. He certainly doesn't pull any punches, especially in relation to Cameron, who he attempts to tear a new backside. I know we bloggers tend to criticise Cameron, too, but rarely are our criticisms dripping with such, well, disgust. (Jana perhaps came closest in her review of 3xSisters, but even then she was more indignant than disgusted.) Besides which, it's something else entirely to see a theatre practitioner going to town on him. Or maybe it's just that I disagree entirely with Meyrick's assertion, couched in his dismissal of Woodhead's work, that the critic has a duty to frame the public response to a show. In which case, I routinely fail my critical duty, given I am much more interested in the thing on stage and how it's operating than I am in what the people sitting around me think. We may work for newspapers of record, Julian, or post our reviews online (where they can be just as influential and arguably have a longer shelf-life), but we're not society reporters. It's not our job to record for posterity anything other than our subjective judgements and attempts to understand. Otherwise newspapers would vox pop the crowd after the show and be done with it.

As I said, though, I haven't seen the show. Not that that makes reading this exchange any less compelling.

Anonymous said...

I was wondering whether or not to make this comment anonymous, because I do have great respect for Julian Meyrick, and I don’t want to appear to be slagging him off... I hope it doesn’t come across that way.

I love reading Theatre Notes because it always seems to me to be a place (in both your posts, Alison, and in the commentary which follows) of celebrating the life in Australian theatre, even when discussing shows which haven’t hit the mark. In contrast, I often despair when reading articles by Julian, because they so often seem to mourn the impending doom of Australian theatre – and every time I read words which suggest that I jump out of my chair and start pointing to the life that is in Australian theatre here and here and there and there and in all sorts of places that I’m not sure Julian Meyrick is looking. If he thinks that our theatre is full of holes where hearts should be, I have to wonder if he knows what’s really going on, or whether he, like Harry Kippax, is missing the fact that what he is looking for actually already exists, even if it is only rarely on our main stages. Over the last couple of years my favourite Melbourne writing has been by (and I’m going to name them because I reckon our best writers should be named at every opportunity) Amelia Roper, Lally Katz, Elise Hearst, Melissa Bubnic, Anna Barnes, Alison Mann (we have so many talented women writing in Melbourne, not to mention acting in, directing, and making our plays!), Ross Mueller, Rob Reid (please others add more to this list!)... some of them have written heaps of plays, some of them one or two, but I love their writing because I believe all of them write with their hearts and guts just as much as their heads, and when I watch their plays, my own heart leaps in my chest. For that matter, when I write, I absolutely write with my heart well and truly before anything else, and so it is always such a kick in the underpants to hear somebody who should know better mourning the death of our very much alive theatre! And yes I am university educated, and yes I am anglo-Australian, and so are most of those others I’ve mentioned, but that doesn’t mean our writing doesn’t display a diverse range of styles and approaches and experiences, etc. My own thoughts about this production of the Birthday Party go to what I think is a huge problem in Melbourne’s theatre – that it is thought a better option to shape a canonical English play around an Australian context (in the way it is so often done with Shakespeare, and here with Pinter), than it is to make genuinely new work in the form of a genuinely new play. I think that while lots of things about The Birthday Party fitted Julian’s vision, lots of them didn’t, which is likely the core reason that his production doesn’t quite work. Why not make a new play written by one of Melbourne’s own beating hearts, built specifically for the cast and director and crew who eventually staged The Birthday Party? Surely making new work at an MTC level of support is the only way we’re ever going to have a theatre which truly thrives? Why are our main stages so often reserved for (sometimes excellent, often incredibly uninspiring) cover versions, rather than really, actually, in-any-way-you-look-at-it genuinely new Australian work? From my knowledge of your reviews, Alison, and from the contributors to Theatre Notes in general, when such an attempt is made – whether it is flawed or not, and whether the show itself is perceived as a success or failure – the attempt itself is celebrated. Doing an all-aboriginal main-stage version of a play we already know works, is nowhere near as exciting or important as it would be to do one of a play we don’t know that about. And I reckon that’s the kind of thing that every Melbourne theatre maker should be fighting for.
Adam Cass

Nicholas Pickard said...

Having just read both Julian and your responses, two thoughts cross my mind.

How bloody brilliant that this debate is happening. Beats the pants off the delivery of a broadsheet with a letters page.

Secondly, I can't help but feel the encroaching (and terribly dangerous) debate around the unrealistic expectation for critics to be objective. A Croggon/Woodhead/whoever review is always going to be a subjective response that will hopefully continue the debate a play has already created.

A review is surely not the final word on a production. It would be sad day if it was.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who has an extensive birth mark on his face. I’ve been friends with him a long time, so long, in fact, that I literally don’t see the mark on his face anymore – my brain just doesn’t recognise it. Much the same thing happens with my Asian and Indian friends – their race does not affect my interactions with them (unless, of course, we’re talking about something specific to their cultural heritage). Maybe I’m wrong, but this position seems to be an ideal one.

So if I was to go see this play, and the same thing happened with my perception of the cast, according to Dr. Meyrick, that makes me racist?

A thought experiment: what if the same cast had been, say, living in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory, and had decided to put a Pinter play on. Word gets around about this, and the MTC decides to fly the cast out to Melbourne to perform the production at their theatres. So it’s the same show, but there was no conscious choice of casting (with Aboriginal actors being used because the play was born in an Aboriginal community). Would this make a response, such as Alison’s, to the play more or less acceptable to Dr. Meyrick?

It seems to me that one side is thinking, “they’re indigenous actors, so what?”, while the other side is thinking, “they’re indigenous actors, look, they’re indigenous, did I mention that they’re indigenous actors?” Dr. Meyrick seems to be expecting some type of Obama-esque “first black president” response to the casting, but is such a celebration a somewhat racist act in itself? (And I’m not suggesting that Dr. Meyrick is racist.) Imagine an exclusive club in the city, all-white except for one black man, a man who is introduced to others either as “this is X, he’s the first black man in our club,” or, “this is X”. Which one is the better introduction?

Again, I haven’t seen the play, but there seems to be two responses possible towards it: either you see a cast of humans, who are acting out a story in which some humans are bad to other humans; or you see a cast of black and white humans, where a white human is bad to a black human, and all the connotations to historical events that that conjures up. Which is the better response (if there is a better one of the two)? What response would a racist have, or a non-racist? Would they be different or the same?

Nicholas Pickard said...

Of course.... I forgot! You guys don't have Company B!

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for all the comments, people. Adam, especially thanks for yours, which is thoughtful and which makes me realise (again) that there's a lot I don't know. But you're right - there's a lot of passion and good faith, a lot of heart, in the theatre that is being made in all these different ways. There's no doubt that theatre here faces myriad problems, and it would be foolish to gloss that; on the other hand, there are many encouraging signs of vitality here. Julian's claim that it's too small a culture to be even called a pond ignores how outward looking the culture is; at its best, it's the reverse of provincial.

EP, I think that those questions devolve to individual productions. Peter Brook's Hamlet with Adrian Lester in the title role is exemplary colourblind casting, but his international casts have always been like that. Then there are ways in which casting does speak to race, as in the Bell Shakespeare Othello, with Wayne Blair in the title role. A good primer on the complexities and problems of this question is Lee Lewis's paper on cross racial casting, which is available from Currency House - easily googled and ordered!

Anonymous said...

We have a theatre culture that is timid, white, polite, subservient, less brave than just about every abuse victim (read: every single abo there is in this country). You mention writers up there that by and large are so timid, so safe, so fucking private school it is an offense to say they are important writers.

What important writers do we have in this country? Not one fucking one of them. Not one white person gives a fuck about the black man and if any of us did there would be a fucking riot.

This disease, this pox, this fucking hole on the face of the earth. Rise up my white brothers and slay your white masters.

This theatre you speak of, built on Black Land, populated with White Rich Kunts who have only made their money from theft and death and you know what, the black man on his reserve cannot even BUY HIS OWN FRIKN HOUSE!

You keep him down and you keep on keeping him down and meanwhile we have one of the very highest rates of tuberculosis in Australia than anywhere else on earth, than anywhere else on earth.

And you cool, frikn baseless, rich white snotty nosed pooftas all want to talk about reviewing theatre?

You want to talk about these writers like they matter? Matter? Yes they might write from the heart but really, about what? GIve me the fire they start that begins to flame, but no, we get stuff for white people about silly little things, to be programmed by white people, to be watched by white people, to be talked about by white people.

Just like the same old story.

These writers you mention, and all the rest, not to deride their individual talents, I would also say we probably have some good sheet metal workers in this country, but it's hardly brain surgery is it?

and where is the inventiveness? Well aren't they all striving to do something interesting? Yeah, but maybe if more thought went into writing a good play, a well made drama, then we would be saved, but no, most of the new theatre we see has no drama, has so much inventiveness that it makes me frikn sick with it's clammy handed grip on art.

This dead hand gripping the corpse of Mother England, this stolen land and a story that has itself been stolen and placed now on op shops shelves where the dreamtime is painted by white painters, where the dreamtime is written about by white writers, where Aboriginal secret womens business can be bought in a $2 paper back, like the remaindered plays of all of those writers you mention, plus all the rest.

Dead stories, written from a dead hand, from a dead heart, for a dead land full of dead people.

The theatre is here and we ignore it. We always have.

Good night.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks, Anon. Yes, the medical emergency, the social emergency, the rank injustice, are the ugly facts.

There are in fact many writers and artists, black and white, who speak about these issues, inside and outside theatre. To name a few off the top of my head: Jack Davis, Lisa Bellear, Lionel Fogarty, Sam Wagan-Watson, Leah Purcell, Wesley Enoch, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, David Paige, Jane Harrison; among white writers, Dorothy Hewett, Richard Flanagan, John Kinsella, Judith Wright, James Boyce, Peter Minter... well, I could go on, there are many more, but I'd say every artist of conscience in Australia is aware of this shame.

This is where thr rub between politics and art gets real. I'm not pretending it's not a real rub: it's a dilemma that I, personally, obsess over. Art matters for its own reasons too.

Geoffrey said...

"Pooftas"? Good on you. Bang your drum, by all means ... but don't try and build up your own cause by insulting mine. And don't start me on my experience with our Indigenous Brothers and Sisters ... at which Leah Purcell was the main attraction. Pathetic. Hyperbolic. Shambles.

Geoffrey said...

... and would be be obtuse of me to note that Dr Meyerick did not choose to enter this conversation (the existence of which he is more than painfully aware), but rather post his "response" to a 'conversation' in the hallowed ground of the MTC's un-conversational website? If anything, that in itself only furthers the argument for locking academics out of the theatre once and for all. Discuss.

Alison Croggon said...

It would probably be good for all concerned if academics had more to do with theatre, rather than less. There are things to learn from academia, good and interesting things. And things the academy has to learn from theatre. However, the worst of both worlds would be hell indeed.

As for Julian posting on the MTC website - I can understand the need for autonommous space. It would be interesting indeed if the MTC posted a link to the reply, but I'm not holding my breath.

Anonymous said...

Plus a 2600 word essay would be a mighty long blog comment!

Thanks for the book recommendation, Alison – I’ll add it to the to-read pile, along with the other 100 (not an exaggeration, although some days I wish it was!).

Jana said...

I agree: I don't see how keeping a rare academic out of the discussion (what discussion, really?) would make our theatre better.

If anything, Geoffrey, this is a fantastic argument to be having, and it would not exist if it weren't for Alison's blog. By which I don't mean for the right to press the 'comment' button (which is not what Meyrick did), but because Alison is a very rare thing at the moment: a theatre critic with both influence and knowledge. Such a long reply would never be sent to The Age, not just because it wouldn't be published, but also because The Age would never publish a review worth debating in 2,000 words. On the other hand, how many smart theatre critiques reach more than a handful of people?

If theatrologists reviewed theatre in the newspapers, as they do in Europe (and there are many incorrect cliches about life in Europe, but that one is true), perhaps newspaper criticism would matter a bit more. I can understand Meyrick's frustration that his carefully crafted work gets reviewed by two people, who happen to agree. It must be quite defeating to send off messages into a vacuum. On the other hand, no critic should apologise for personal taste (just like no artist should be asked to do anything more than what the work they want to do).

I haven't seen Meyrick's production of the Pinter, and I can't talk. I saw a very good one a few years ago, and I've heard more than one complaint of the current MTC production that repeated, as you said, that Stanley was miscast/misacting (whichever way you want to place the blame). I hope more eye witnesses will argue on way or the other.

I can't help, though, but think of War of the Roses, whose brilliance went above and beyond gender-blind casting. It wasn't a choice pregnant with meaning, it wasn't trying to be, it solved the issue by not making it an issue. Alison, if you remember, I brought it up last year in regards to Haydon's article on Pornography (the same MIAF '09 show) in The Guardian. We had a smallish skirmish at the time, because you thought metaphor where I thought politics. (At the time, I probably didn't quite understand how much you value metaphor.) After War of the Roses, gender was literally a non-issue.

What bothers me, personally, in Meyrick's argument, is a stance that one often finds among street protesters: what matters is the action, not whether it makes a change. Just like protests become a performance of dissent valuable for their own sake, so racially-blind casting, in Meyrick's argument, is a gesture worth upholding for its own merit.

Perhaps, as even Kevin Rudd has noticed by now, Australians are more sophisticated than their own media believe. Perhaps certain things simply aren't shocking. Perhaps certain political fights are against puppets.

Gilligan said...

Hi Everyone,

I have also been quite shocked by Julian Meyrick's response to Alison's review.

I saw this show mid-season, and went in without expectation, and to be honest I was largely underwhelmed by the production. Similarly to you Alison, the casting didn't faze me at all. I was quite pleased when I discovered the productions setting had been shifted to Australia, I feel of late we have somewhat lost the sound of an Australian voice on our stages. But I barely gave any notice to the fact that the cast was mostly indigenous, I had seen many of the actors in productions before and saw no reason as to why they wouldn't be cast in the play. For me to have acknowledged the decision to the extent that Julian is seemingly suggesting would in my own moral conscience feel like "reverse racism". Of course this is a personal reaction, but I feel like it is a valid one that Julian is seemingly dismissing.

For me the let down of the production wasn't the casting or the transference of the setting to Australia, in fact these were the most interesting elements of the play. The things that let the production down in my view were actually Julian's direction and the performance of Isaac Drandic.

Both Alison's and Cameron's criticism of Drandic's performance were completely justified. The fact that he is indigenous is, of course, irrelevant to this criticism. Actors should be judged on their performance regardless of race. Julian stated "Watching Isaac's performance grow these past weeks I realised what a difficult job I asked him to do". Yes Julian, he was playing a lead in a very difficult play, that doesn't mean reviewers are wrong in criticising him. He also suggested that these criticisms "operate in such a way as to block traffic, fuddling the intended meaning of the show". Julian is seemingly diverting the blame for the shows shortcomings to the reviewers, accusing them of not having the ability to separate one actors performance from the overall meaning of the show. This is, of course, ridiculous.

After watching this production I was left scratching my head. Where was the musicality of the language, such as the famous pauses? Where was all the suppressed violence? Where was the tension? To me it is the director's job to bring these things out in a production, and Julian missed most of them.

Alison, reading your review has helped me understand Pinter a lot better. It also helped me understand what went wrong in this production. So much detail in the text was brushed over, leaving a rather superficial interpretation of the play. It wasn't a disaster by any stretch but, like you, I was disappointed.

Julian, suggesting that Alison and Cameron's reviews were racist is completely unwarranted. Both reviewed the show as they would any other. To review the show differently on the basis of a largely indigenous cast, as you seem to be suggesting, would be racist. No one has suggested that the play's faults lie in the casting, in fact that move has been commended. The play's faults mostly lay in your own direction, and the performance of the lead actor. Both of these criticisms are perfectly acceptable. Had the meaning of the text been discovered more wholly on stage, then the casting may well have had more impact, but as Alison already pointed out, it was never allowed to take off as the production as a whole was stilted and awkwardly realised.

I don't mean to be so critical, I enjoyed almost all of the performances in the play and I thought it was very well designed, but I feel the cause of this debate lies largely in where the criticism of the production is directed. Meyrick seems to feel that it was directed at the casting, when clearly this isn't the case. He also seems to believe that audiences have overlooked the fact that the cast is largely indigenous, and that this is the show's great strength. I feel he is doing his production, especially his actors, a great disservice by suggesting that this should be the main focus; as opposed to focusing on the production as a whole.

remembereringgiap said...

while i observe australian culture from very far away & with 20 years of distance - i observe it keenly because it represents what christopher caudwell would have called a dying culture

australia's imagination has remain colonised & you don't need to read fanon or foley to comprehend that - the only authentic voices in my lifetime have been those of women, of aboriginals, of immigrants & sometimes, very rarely that of the white working class

& they are at best ruptures, epistimological ruptures certainly but not a great deal more than that

the australia that continually reelected that menzies in nappies - john howard - & who if the truth be told have always chosen their 'leaders' from the most reactionary, the most backward elements of their societies. don dunstan perhaps can be read as the wildest leap they have ever made in their political imagination

where a political culture is so impoverished & so culturally dependant on its foreign 'masters' - it is evident that these ruptures within culture which perhaps are nothing more than what wilhelm reich described as a cultural malignancy where an instinct for life fights it out with the instinct for death

when you refuse refuge to those in need, when you cook an aboriginal elder in paddy wagon in the desert, where the greatest inequalities of opportunity are somehow celebrated then you will only find your truths in silences & screams

from what i read here, alison does her best to examine with precision what is alive & what is not & it is largely true that as another commenter sd here that what is there is - dead or dying

what is it then that an artist does in a dying culture -s/he breathes - as much pure air as possible - not wait for the gods of grotowski, the bible of brook, the pearls of pina or the hebraic black horse of sasha walz

& indeed i am luckier than you i am able to read, from far away & not suffer the attendant indignities of that culture which are in its everyday practice

it seems to me from where i am that daniel keene is one of the few writers who breathes the pure pain that it means to be an australian in the 21st century

ana australia absolutely amnesiac not only about its crimes but also of its few successes daniel has a heritage in xavier herbert - this beautiful & broken man beltying it out in his great oratario - 'poor fellow my country' - the tears that cinstructed george johnston & charmain clift - writing so confessional it could only have been written with tears - that mocks the false austerity & sordidness of the american confessional novels

so i am not surprised that some scholarly fellow weeps in public that he has enacted something revolutionary - when the facts that he himself articulates - point to a culture completely unable to discern up from down, future from past, here from there & tommorrow from tommorrow from tommorrow

it is because there is no memory & that is why there is no heritage & if such a heritage existed it would be one that is hollow & full of horror

Alison Croggon said...

Hi, RememberingGiap. Where are you observing from, as a matter of interest? Is it Vietnam? America?

I'm glad you mentioned Daniel Keene. I have been careful not to, simply because if I did it would be called into question, but his work ought to be in the purview of this discussion.

Living overseas does give you a different perspective on Australia. It can be somewhat shaming when the only times you see your country mentioned in the paper is when an Aboriginal is jailed for three years for stealing a packet of biscuits, or for yet another condemnation from the UN human rights people. You realise too how stifling so much of the culture is, and yes, how timid.

However, it was when I was overseas that I also, for the first time, saw the strengths in our art: its blazing tradition of poetry, for instance, which I recognised has a freedom and vitality that is actually unique, unweighted by the heavy weight of an ossified cultural tradition. It was impossible to register (at least for me) in the dulling miasma of the culture itself, which is something I've discussed at length elsewhere. I think the same goes for the theatre - it depends on the angle of observation, and there's more going on the ground than is possible to see from a distance. Yes, there is much that is moribund, but there is a surprising amount that isn't. As I said above, the reason why this is so is perhaps because so many artists (famous and not famous) are peripatetic, working between Australia and Europe, America and Asia. A culture that produces energies like the Malthouse, Chunky Move, Barrie Kosky, Benedict Andrews, Lucy Guerin, Ranters, just to name a few prominent names, isn't all dead. They all, like Wittgenstein in Cambridge, manage to make their own oxygen. There really are some interesting energies at work, and more under the skin. Art anywhere always happens, as Mandelstam said, "against the grain".


Alison Croggon said...

Thanks too for your comments, Gilligan and Jana. Gilligan, I'm not shocked that Julian replied: as I said at the beginning, he has every right to. And I am glad it is finally public, so the questions he raised can be discussed. It was actually quite valuable for me to think about the play a little further, which Julian's questioning prompted me to do. And whether he is correct or not about my blindness to the racial implications of the production, he is right that Indigenous Australia presents a problem and a denial here of which we all have a duty to be mindful.

I do take your point on political actioning, Jana. That's a tricky one: like I said, I think politics and art are difficult bedfellows, and at the same time, art that ignores the realities of injustice is empty. I'm reading Victor Serge's novel The Case of Comrade Tuleyev at the moment, which among other things is making me think about political radicalism, action and theory. Aside from being a literary masterpiece, it's an incredible inside view of Stalinist Russia. Even though that's at the very deadly end of the scale, it's an eye-opening read. I think the truly radical nature of art exists in its inherent impulse towards freedom, and in what Berger calls the naming of the terrible; but it's too easy for artists to overestimate (and, at the same time, tragically underestimate) that fragile value. All imagining demands a proper respect towards reality. And it must be respect, because imagination is what creates our human world: it has agency and purchase, although often we perceive it only the most negative of ways. But I am blathering on.

I do think it's a little weird that Julian thinks a cross-racial casting of Pinter, a British classic, ought to attract more notice than a cross-racial casting of Hewett, an Australian classic, which was on at the same time in the same theatre (and, for my money, rather better thought through)... at the same time, the general MTC audience resistance to Hewett's play, which does directly address racism and genocidal slaughter, does suggest something of the refusal to look at the questions of race that Julian is talking about. Perhaps he has encountered it elsewhere in the responses to his production of Pinter, and so inevitably read it in the reviews, whether it was there or not. I don't know. I still think The Birthday Party is a problematic play to use as a vehicle in this instance, but I respect his efforts.

Yes, there is also the issue of the right of a critic to his or her taste. It's a right that is, of course, balanced with a number of responsibilities, signally the responsibility to think and to be informed as much as possible, unless we're heading to voxpop land, as Matthew suggested (some outlets do this already and don't bother about critics). And of course, as this discussion demonstrates, the landscape has changed radically in the past few years. I fear Julian is still living in the old landscape, where discussion was simply not possible, and maybe not even desirable. Again I don't know.

remembereringgiap said...

i do not find it all odd for example that perhaps australia's greatest poet was a blind workingman, john shaw nielsen

remembereringgiap said...

& that like wittgenstein some of the wisest poets from her interior & since colonisation have passed over much in silence

what is called ' a shame job' in transliteration

nut i think too of kath & her son dennis who have sung too their story

& is it not odd that that in contemporary poetry - a quite mad mad man, bruce beaver stands heads above others tender & strong, frail & forcefulas he was was

what i'm suggesting that those who have been colonised - are condemned to sing only the saddest of songs

that the greatest painter of the late 20th century was a drunk from new zealand the utterly magnificent colin mccahon & his brother under the skin - tortured as hell, ian fairweather & it is telling that none of these people struck deals, compromised - they possessed the fury of madness but also the rigour of art & make no mistake about it they were enemies, profound enemies of whatever dminant culture threw up

Anonymous said...

Geoffrey asks "...and would be be obtuse of me to note that Dr Meyerick did not choose to enter this conversation...". Not obtuse. Just irrelevant. As much as some of you would like to think of these grounds as hallowed, Croggon's page is not the only potential forum for comment. However once she has written a "review" - it's out there, unchanging, locked in, fixed. Readers can comment all they like, but at the end of the day it's just a "Comment". And Meyrick wasn't just responding to Croggon, but was responding to both her and Woodhead (for whom Croggon doesn't presume to speak).

Alison Croggon said...

Hallowed ground? A high priestess yet again? This is getting a bit ecclesiastical for my liking...
those robes just don't sit well on me.

Well, I did invite Julian to post his essay on this blog, where it would have had exactly as much prominence as any review. Ie, it wouldn't have been "just a comment". I have done such things before, in the spirit of dialogue. I respect that he didn't take up the invitation and chose to publish elsewhere, and indeed there are many other fora for discussion - just look at the blogroll.

Alison Croggon said...

...Nielsen is one of my favourites. I first read him when I was a child and had no idea until I grew up that he was actually Australian, which maybe says too much. That's when I first read Oodgeroo too, under the name Kath. Randolph Stow, Francis Webb, Judith Wright - yes, all great, tragic, uncompromising elegists, "a doubtful song that has a dying fall". Not something that has necessarily sold well here over the years...

Anonymous said...

As a Pom living in Australia and working in the industry I find all this discussion of race based casting very nineteen nineties! Thats not to belittle it or to suggest that Australia is behind the times (perish the thought!) but it is something that countries all around the world have struggled with for some time and to the best of my knowledge none of them have come up with a successful solution. Nor am I about to offer one myself.
The theatre culture of any given country is of course only a reflection of the greater culture of the society it sits within. Julian Meryick should surely be aware of this so I'm surprised that he takes umbrage at any response to a work he has created that challenges that societies orthodoxies. That's not to say he shouldn't continue to make work that will be percieved indifferently or indeed wrongly but he must realise that he won't change that culture simply by casting some Aboriginal actors in a play that is normally cast white.
What is it that you expected from Australian reviewers that you didn't get Julian? Methinks your heritage may be clouding your expectations.

The feeling of Australia "not getting it" is an easy one to slip into as a Pom, but as Alison points out there are many theatre people here in Melbourne who strive to make a difference, to challenge societies wrongs and to make art that stimulates and invigorates discussion and in doing so helps to bring about change. Critics too play there part in this but they can only review a work from their own standpoint.

Rememberinggiap and others are right to point out Australias faults and inadequacies but one could easily do the same with any country. Indeed this discussion could and probably is, going on as we speak in Germany, Mexico, Latvia and Turkey. Every country has its own faults and idiosyncracies and the artists within those countries will all be doing as much as they feel they can to change it for the better.
Art, as always, exists to educate. To raise up, to emmancipate and hopefully to enlighten.
Julian, you may not have realised it yet (or perhaps you do!!)but this little discussion is a vindication of your work.
The reviews may not have been what you wanted but you have made a difference. That should be enough.

Anonymous said...

and now the article in the age!, I hope this continues to stir controversy and debate. This is very entertaing and insightful. So much more so than the play itself which I saw and was woefully disapointed in.

Jana said...

The second time recently that The Age reports news from Theatre Notes :p

bigdog said...

Alison I think you possibly did brush over the cross-racial casting in your original review. If you look at the Comments on your extended post from July 13 they are predominantly about the cross-racial casting and I think that it is the most significant aspect of this production of The Birthday Party. David Mence appropriately focused on this aspect in his review on his White Whale blog and I think his review gives the reader more insight into the production then either your's or Cameron Woodhead's review (who I hear is now referred to as Cameron Bonehead in some theatre circles).

In comparing cross-racial casting in The Birthday Party with The Man from Mukinupin it is interesting to look at how audiences have responded. I attended closing night of The Man from Mukinupin and was shocked that the theatre was more then half empty. On the other hand the closing week of The Birthday Party is completely sold out. So while Julian Meyrick may be disappointed that (in his opinion) two reviewers missed the point of his production, he must be pleased with how well it has been received by the public.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I acknowledge that I could have said more. All the same, I just can't read the casting the way Julian seems to wish. The text just gets in the way...

I'm glad to hear that the season has booked well. Whatever the reservations I have about the production - and they stand - it's great that people are flocking to see playwrights like Pinter and Beckett, ad I hope it leads to more curiosity about their work. Now we just have to get people to see what our own playwrights are doing, otherwise we really are in cultural cringe land. While we're talking David Mence, he did a beautiful defence of MFM.

remembereringgiap said...

australia's amnesia is very specific & is historically determined. in brief, a jail for victims of imperialism, an undistinguished puppet to that empire allowing generations to be bled dry & to unintentionally create a matriarchal society where men are either weaklings or victims - essentially a puppet state of a often utterly stupid imperialism. a labor party with a history of fighting the poor & the oppressed with armies, the police or with jurisprudence

thatcher created a monstrous rejection of society & writers like pinter & le carre were the first to write about it in a profound way. australia, effectively is one of her monsters - where a rejection or a hiding of the underclass in liverpool, sunshine, whyalla is standar operating procedure, with a contempt for aboriginal people that does not even take them into account except in the same way that americans weep over themselves after murdering over 3 million vietnamese. now they weep again after murdering with the crudest butchery in iraq & they cry over themselves.

when the sack of baghdad was facillitated by us forces with burning & looring of art galleries, museums & libraries & then the targeted assasination of its intellectual including its epochral poets & it painters - that is a culture - a real & concrete culture - our cradle if you like & it was torn apart as if by savage dogs

pinter did well to understand that western culture for the most part is a culture of silence & of screams. pinter underlined this in his powerful nobel adress. he touched on the sore point of western culture - forgetting. or remembering - as my mother would say - selectively. his testimony against those who chose not to remember remains a heartbreaking moment - so sublime that it passes straight through polemic because it is well understood he knew what was not on our minds

& australia is a locus of forgetting, i would say of criminal forgetting & if you have lived in other cultures you can palpably feel the shame of their crimes - even in countries as brutal as the baltic, france's shame is visible on her metros, & in istanbul you are immediately aware of the contradictions of their culture

perhaps it is the influence of thugs like the packers & the murdochs byt contemporary australia is founded, grounded - if you will - on forgetting

britain responds to anything more than silence & screams from its oppressed with anti social orders & complete complicity of its intellectuals (if they indeed can be called that)

the importance of pinter, of hobshawn, of john pilger, of john le carre - is that a group of old men who historically would have gone further & further to the right - chose to speak about decency, common humanity & they chose to underline their work with remembering

it seems appropriate then for aboriginal to play pinter because they instinctually remember, their culture is if nothing else a culture of remembering - everything & white australia has forgotten that aboriginals like the palestinian poet said - record everything in their notebooks, everything

i also understand alison's interrogations - because mere polemics is ultimately another form of degradation & that as always - in culture - especially a colonised culture - politics ought to be in command & that means rigour & that is all i read in alisons work - a demand for rigour

a culture is not capable of rigour if it not capable of remembering

a culture of silence & screams must have a memory as its underpinning

& while i examine australia only from books, journals & the internet - it is clear to me that it is a culture of forgetting - if i look at their commentators whether they are cultural, economic, social or political - they are for the most part - cretins & someone like michael leunig who brings remembering into shar focus is demonised in exactly the same way as wilfred burchett or john pilger have been demonised

remembereringgiap said...

there are very few artists really capable of listening to the heart of a country in the way pinter did - jeannie lewis has sung australia & has in moments sung from whatever heart it has left, daniel keene writes from the heart of the forgotten because in the great tragoidia it is the citizen paradoxically who envies the slave,,, who envies the song of the slave, in form but ultimately it is that the slave remembers, remembers everything. all of greek drama is locked in this question. this remembering is ultimately about hearing, profound listening

& pinters work is about profound listening as is keene - we are obliged to listen to the breath that construct speech & the space between speech. sewell, a good writer but not a great one merely reproduces european form - a kind of vulgar ibsen but daniel like pinter is full of mreal menace precisely because of that breath

truth is located in that breath & i would have imagined that aboriginal actors wer closer to the truth of that breathing than any other people residing in that hell

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks RG. I guess it's worth pointing out that while Daniel Keene's work has been cross-racially cast for years, both here and in France, he has only twice addressed the question of race directly - once in a short piece called Custody, about deaths in custody, which is about two white police officers, and once in The Words, a piece commissioned in France specifically for two actors, one black, one white. I'm sure he won't mind my quoting him (and too bad if he does). He says - and it's something that I also feel - that as a white person, he has neither the knowledge nor the right to speak "for" a people whose voices have been thoroughly erased by white culture, that at this point, it is probably better to clear the space for those voices to speak for themselves. What we can speak towards is how that instating crime and its denial feeds into our social and historical amnesia.

It's not just amnesia: it's a certain laziness, a willingness to accept received realities rather than going and having a careful look ourselves. I'd put Julian's claims about my partisan criticism in that category (those "opinions which ... lack range in feeling and taste"), since it's clearly not true if you actually read my reviews, which are all available online. But it operates at much more serious levels too.

This is where companies like Ilbijerri Theatre or Wesley Enoch's various work or the idea of a national Indigenous theatre company or Bangarra and other contemporary Indigenous dance companies or documentaries by Indigenous film-makers like The First Australians (which was scripted by Louis Nowra, Beck Cole and Rachel Perkins) or films like Samson and Delilah state their case as of vital importance. I do think, if we're talking about how Australian society has been warped and tainted by our treatment of the Aboriginal people, that Wesley Enoch's production of Dorothy Hewett's play is a much more significant and direct statement, both aesthetically and socially, because that play is actually about that question. Which may well account for the audience reaction, which frankly I still find deeply puzzling. Though maybe it's also that theatricality is a bit of a foreign language in our culture.

Which is not to say that casting a British classic with Indigenous actors is unimportant; of course it is another front. But I think Julian should be careful here not to erase the many other things that are being done by overstating his own case.

Memory and forgetting are always at war, and in every culture - look at Ariel Dorfman's work on that, re the Pinochet regime in Chile.

remembereringgiap said...

what chile has though to contain the terrible events that have passed there & threaten to pass there again is they are an ancient culture & it is no accident that today the indigenous cultures of latin america are dominating the political leadership & are showin us 1,,2, 3 many nelson mandelas - they are exemplary - whether it is chavez, or morales or correa , luga, lula. their ancient culture is underpinning memory

in australia, te contrary is the truth - australia is dispossessed of its ancient culture no matter how much it tries to attempt a 'reconciliation'. the violation has gone too far, too deep, the process of the erasing of memory, itself criminal

the saddest is that largely even indigenous people have to fight to their last breaths to maintain their relationship with their ancient culture & it is clearly - an endless & constant struggle

the culture of australia is completely isolated from the truths of it ancient culture - this culture which has clearly the vocation & art of healing

no it is very much like apartheid south africa - where the boers effaced the ancient culture & replaced it with a comicbook version of pioneer history - ridiculous to the extent that it was built on the ugliest form of oppression even in its infancy

australia too has effaced the real & ancient history with the sordid history of subjugation to power & powers always outside its control

& that is its specificity - it has lost the capability to ever connect with its real & ancient history & that is not only australia's loss - it is the exemplar of how ridiculous a culture can become - that its mimicry rather than be a marvel is a malignancy

where wonder has to be sought by other means

Alison Croggon said...

Well...yes. Without wanting to minimise the problems, what troubles me about that statement is that it does rather re-erase the many Indigenous artists (and people in many other areas) who are in active contact with their culture, and are working now in contemporary Australian society. They are there, even if it is a struggle. I've been on mailing lists dominated by men, but with a couple of active women, where men have regularly asked, and where are the women? And it feels a bit like a slap in the face to have to say, ok, there aren't many women, but I am here, breathing quite loudly.

andigold said...

I saw this show last night after studiously avoiding all review & comment as I like to make up what passes for, in these days of information saturation, my own mind.

Having never seen the play or movie and not having read the text (just "about" the text) I found it a confounding, confusing, discordant and ultimately absorbing couple of hours. I agree that Stanley could have been developed more (sympathetically?) in the 1st act to emotionally charge the change in his persona in the 3rd act, but only in the context of the show, not the text. The sunny naivete of Meg, the calm acceptance & terrified courage of Petey juxtaposed with the chilling menance of Goldberg was the highlight for me. Stanley appeared simply to be a vehicle to bring these disparate halves together. This is a small criticism however as i thoroughly enjoyed the show.

I didn't even realise it was an all (but one) indigenous cast until I read this discussion. Stanley & Lulu looked white to my eye and even McCann was of indeterminate ethnic origin to me so I seem to have completely missed the director's point (not for the first time :) ).

Australian race politics made no impact whatsoever on me during the show and even after reading this discussion I still find little relevance. This, to me, was a show about power, the power of secrets, the power of class, the power of innocence (denial?), the power of intimidation and the power of a man with a "purpose".

The show wasn't perfect of course, but the kind of show that(when mixed in a season with horrors like Mukinupin & banal soap like Osage)will ensure I subscribe to the full MTC season again next year. Bravo Julian.

remembereringgiap said...


my argument is about the specificity of australia's amnesia & its basis, a brutal but formal rejection its ancient culture couple with a negligence towards it that has endured for over 2 centuries

you do as you must - a public intellectual is obliged to work aganst the odds, & is in the sense connected to the silence & screams of pinter

to the degree that meyrick utters publically is a healthy thing in a culture completely overwhelmed by sickness

i have noted the special role that women have played not only in a culture of resoluteness but that is also noted in the social life of that country

the chinese used to say that women held up half the sky - in australia - that sky seems to be held up only by women & some men gone mad from their vocation

but yes, personally i 'd suggest the damage is so great against that ancient culture - that artists or intellectual, aboriginal & otherwise - no matter how heroic & noble cannot succeed in such a difficult enterprise as reconciliation, let alone - real remembering

i'm not saying anything new here - a reading of manning clark & humphrey mcqueen in the final analysis are telling us exactly the same thing

what aboriginal culture teaches & continues to teach is the act of listening, really listening - listening to the heart of the country

Alison Croggon said...

HI RG - it's a complex story, and depends what Australia you mean. If you mean Howard's Australia - "One Nation, One People, One Culture", which only acknowledges white official Anglo culture, well, yes. (I fear Rudd's Australia is Howard-Lite, but at least that rhetoric of One Nation has receded.) There are other more recent histories which track continuities and inheritances and hidden resistances. James Boyce's reimagining of convict history for instance, which argues for an Indigenising influence, or Rebe Taylor's research into the hidden Indigenous genealogies of Kangaroo Island.

Hi AndiGold - I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Pinter. You are, of course, perfectly correct about the play.

Matthew said...

Wow, remembereringgiap, you want to start celebrating Chavez because he represents the domination of Latin American politics by that continent's indigenous cultures? Morales, too? Sure, but there's plenty about their rule to balk at, especially that of Our Man in Caracas, and you can happily have left-leaning tendencies and say so without compromising your principles. I love how willing the hard-left remains, even now, to trade-off democracy for autocracy when the rhetoric is cooked just right.

remembereringgiap said...


the people & their leardership within latin america possess a real & concrete connection between their ancient culture & the contemporary society

they are the light of this world at the moment precisely because they posses a memory & they reject with fury a culture of forgetting

you may demonise these people's leaders - chavez, morales, correa, luga - but their democracy his far more authentic that the putrid parliamentary democracies in the west that commit crimes in your name. australians in that sense are very much like the boers & it is not all all incidental that many whites who have fled zimbabwe & south africa find their real home in australia

well before tampa - what was being done in your name was not only lllegal but an obscenity - an obscenity of the darkes proportions - three million vietnames murdered, 1 million indonesians murdered, the abandonment of east timor - all these with the active hand of aust govts & the complicity of the australian people

if you read your pinter correctly - you may hear what real history sounds like in his silence & screams

Carl Miller said...

This contribution is a bit late in the day, but I've just read (in Michael Billington's book State of the Nation):

'Pinter expressed his feeling about the play's meaning in a letter to its first director, Peter Wood, just before rehearsals began:

'"We've agreed: the hierarchy, The Establishment, the arbiters, the socio-religious monsters arrive to effect censure and alteration upon a member of the club who has discarded responsibility (that word again) towards himself and others..."'

Pinter's description of Stanley as 'a member of the club' seems relevant to the discussion here. Just to be absolutely clear, that sense of Stanley as apostate in no way militates for me against the casting of a black, working-class actor in the role (and who would want to argue with 'young' as an attribute for a character in his late thirties).

I know writers aren't sole custodians of our work's meanings. There's always the question of how to regard all the indications (explicit and implicit, inside and outside the text) offered by a playwright. And the shifting priorities for productions removed in space and /or time from the world in which a playtext is conceived. But Pinter on Stanley himself in 1958 is inevitably interesting:

'His core being a quagmire of delusion, his mind a tenuous fuse box, he collapses under the weight of their accusation - an accusation compounded of the shit-stained strictures of centuries of "tradition".'

Unknown said...

We can debate the intentions of the text, directorial decisions and the role of critics for days (and so we should). But the point we should be focusing on is how our stages and theatre industry reflect and effect our culture and society in a wider context.

As an Italian-Australian female theatre director I am all too aware of how white and Anglo-centric our stages and performing arts industry currently are. Quite frankly, it's embarrassing and shameful, especially when I walk the streets of Sydney (not to mention western Sydney!)and see the incredible diversity of this city. This cultural diversity, our urban Australian culture, is (almost) never displayed on our stages. No wondering young people from these communities do not become writers, directors and actors. The Australian theatre landscape needs to be exploded apart and a revolution that allows these people to step on our stages needs to take place. As an artist I desperately want to see our diverse world, our diverse cities and our diverse Australia on our stages. I am not interested in making art that is not relevant to the society in which we live. It's about time our industry became the cultural leader it should be.

If the theatre is to remain relevant (not to mention economically viable) it must cultivate new and diverse audiences. It must become accessible - I am tired of the seeing the same actors and artists, who are all part of the homogeneous, mainstream theatre 'club' that this industry has become. We must encourage and develop writers, directors and actors from all cultural backgrounds.

Although I haven't seen the production, I congratulate Julian Meyrick on his cross-racial casting choices and hope other directors follow his lead. Whatever the possible failings of the production he should be commended for defending his choices. To Alison, who I respect greatly, I think you need to consider that your perspective and your opinion of excellence is a anglo, white, middle class perspective - I wonder if an Indigenous reviewer would share your view? Maybe they would just be celebrating that finally, they can see an actor from their culture and background speaking the wonderful dialogue of Harold Pinter.

remembereringgiap said...

one of the darker ironies of all this is a close friend of pinter - v s naipaul one of the most overestimated of writers for 2 books perhaps 3 but a writer who learnt nothing from other writers as walter benjamin instructed - would have hated meyrick's idea & i wonder why pinter was so close to him

beckett, it is easy to understand - an exemplary & humble master & booh after book shows us that he was both a principled & generous man. especially, in the realm of politics. generous to a fault for example with the san quentin players who sometimes misserve his work

& naipaul claimed a kinship with pinter which i am completely unable to see - he is like nabakov for me - though other writers claim they write with steel - i see rubber. for writers who disdained style nabakov & naipaul were both prisoners of it

so it surprises me that the older pinter got the braver he got - from no mans land on - he risks his forms on the precipice of their own destruction, certainly the poems - but i still find them wondrous things wheras to read nabakov or naipaul today is like being forced to read thomas hardy in a trench full of urine

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks all - especially Carl for his great quotes from Pinter on Stanley.

Laura, maybe read what I wrote again... did I say anywhere that I thought that stages ought to be white bread, or that cross racial casting isn't a necessary idea, or that an Indigenous cast is inappropriate for Pinter? The contrary, rather. It's easy to throw labels around like "anglo, white, middle class", but I'm not sure that they mean much in connection to what I think about Pinter's writing. And to be honest, assuming that I haven't thought about these things (not to say what you assume about my background and perspectives) is a little patronising.