In Which Ms TN Discourses At Length2010: or Why I Love Living In MelbourneReview: The NestCollected Works benefitIndependent theatreReview: Peer Gynt, Elektra, CreditorsHolding post ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

In Which Ms TN Discourses At Length

KO: REVOLUTION. What takes place as indicated by Ko is believed in only after it has been accomplished. Hexagram 49, I Ching.

It's no exaggeration to claim that there has been a revolution in local theatre over the past five years. From this end of the telescope, it might appear to be a Boojum revolution, during which certain verities about theatre have "softly and suddenly vanished away". Consider how times have changed! Next year almost every major company in Australia, from Melbourne to Brisbane, has a new artistic leader, ushering in a new generation of theatre makers. Even that stalwart defender of the deadly middlebrow, Robin Usher, is writing laudatory pieces about independent theatre, and I haven't seen a snarky mention of "the fringe" in the local mainstream press for ages. Suddenly everything, it seems, is groove and roses.

It was not always thus, and I'm not sure that it is thus even now; the present accord on the virtues of the young seems more to me like a strange detente. The amnesia and kneejerk conservatism of much mainstream commentary is, after all, as evident as it ever was, and its capitulation to the inexorable rise of a new generation of theatre makers probably signifies less than it seems. For once, vital theatre is where it belongs, in the limelight. Theatre has even become hip. Yet our media culture, with certain honourable exceptions, has a short attention span and an even shorter memory, as every artist who has worked for more than a decade knows to his or her cost.

For all that, it's beyond argument that Melbourne's theatrical landscape - and more widely, Australia's - has changed out of sight over the past five years. In 2004, a main stage hit like Hayloft's Thyestes was all but unimaginable in Melbourne. You might have seen something like that in the "fringe", heroically staged without sufficient resources or time, as Australians have always had a talent for poor theatre. But rapturously received on a main stage? Only by the rarest of accidents. Now the presence of work from companies like Hayloft or My Darling Patricia in main stage seasons around Australia barely makes anyone bat an eyelid. This change has happened so rapidly and so completely that it's easy to forget how impossible it once seemed.

There are many reasons for this shift, and to talk about all of them requires a book. This post will focus on Melbourne, with the caveat that there were other, equally important things happening elsewhere. In a few years, somebody else will write the history of what happened in Australian theatre culture in the first decade of the new millenium (and I seriously doubt it will be me). This is my report, from one of the many frontlines. And it is, as this blog has been from the beginning, a personal account.

There are four major reasons why Melbourne's surge of artistic vitality flourished and evolved, rather than its promise withering, as happened so often in the past, on the vine. Two were major institutional appointments. The most significant was the remaking of the moribund Playbox Theatre as the Malthouse, after the appointment of Michael Kantor as artistic director and Stephen Armstrong as executive producer, on which I'll mainly focus in this post. As Kantor and Armstrong leave the Malthouse and usher in a new team headed by Marion Potts and - later in 2010 - associate director Matt Lutton, it seems timely to reflect on what has been achieved over the past five years.

Another crucial appointment was Kristy Edmunds as artistic director of the Melbourne Festival, a position she held for four years from 2005, building on the artist-centric festivals that characterised Robyn Archer's tenure. Equally important was a surge of new talent - especially from the VCA, perhaps the true heritage of the radicalism of the Australian Performing Group and the Pram Factory - which has seen a generation of autonomous and skilled theatre artists who were not prepared merely to be industry fodder, and who sought to shape the culture to fit their ambitions, rather than the other way around.

And lastly, there was the rise of the theatre blog. For I've been part of this change as well as a witness to it, bearing out the adage that observation inevitably changes what is being observed. There are, as I've often pointed out, many theatre blogs; but Theatre Notes was the first in Australia, and can take a little credit for the changes in public discussion that followed. Not all, by any means: a conversation cannot exist without other voices. Nevertheless, the story of the past six years is, in part, mine as well; and if I don't tell it, nobody else will. (I feel I ought to do as Neil Gaiman does in his twitter notices, and label this: WARNING: Blog post contains me.)

What has been at stake in all the cultural conflicts of the past few years has been the question of legitimacy. When Peter Craven and Robin Usher attacked Kristy Edmunds's festival programming in 2006, part of one of the most sustainedly vicious campaigns I've seen against an artistic director, it was on the grounds that the work she programmed was "fringe" work, not fit for our main stages. Since the issue was the main stages of Melbourne, it was unsurprising that the Malthouse came in for some collateral damage. Craven described Benedict Andrews's brilliant production of Marius von Mayenburg's Eldorado as "resolutely anti-mainstream, sometimes to excruciating effect". Whatever that means. The message was clear: "fringe" theatre, whatever that was, was ok in dusty church halls and small theatres, where it could be safely ignored: but an anti-mainstream mainstream (whatever that was) was an abomination not to be tolerated.

I wrote an opinion piece for the Age in response, in which I pointed out that the term "fringe" was meaningless, and that the fringe/mainstream dichotomy was almost entirely false. And there it might have rested, as a minor flurry in the press that passed without disturbing the status quo. This is certainly how it always worked in the past; theatrical energies have, again and again, been successfully marginalised by attacking and, at the last, ignoring them. Once a show closes, the only place it exists is in the memory of those who were there: in the absence of meaningful critique, the public record becomes a record of amnesia. But a funny thing happened on the way to the forum: the forum changed. The internet, with its challenge to the monopoly on public discourse held by the mainstream press, came into its own.

The web was so foreign to theatre culture in 2004 that, when I rang theatre companies to give them the glad news that I was starting a review blog, almost everyone asked me what a blog was. As I outlined in my first post, Theatre Notes was an experiment: I had no idea whether a critic with no institutional ballast behind her could create an online readership. Three years later I was straddling the print-digital divide as Melbourne theatre critic for the Australian, a post I enjoyed but never sought, and which I have now resigned. (And hello to my successor, my Esteemed Colleague Mr Chris Boyd!) Last year I won the only prize that exists in Australia for critical writing, the Geraldine Pascall Critic of the Year. The speed of the transformation of Ms TN from unknown blogger to one-woman cultural institution was startling, and it's fair to say that I feel deeply ambivalent about it. But there's no doubt it's been a fun ride.

What I didn't know six years ago was how exceptionally lucky I was. There could not have been a better time and place to begin a serious theatre review blog than Melbourne, 2004. Unlike London or New York, Melbourne is a relatively small city, but large enough to sustain a diverse culture and, significantly, to support audiences for independent theatre. At the same time, the theatre culture in particular suffered from limited arts coverage in the major dailies, where it was mainly regarded as a branch of "entertainment". Aside from Real Time, there was almost no serious discussion of the performing arts anywhere. Theatre Notes was the right thing at the right time: an independent review blog that by the sheerest chance was launched right at the beginning of a theatrical renaissance. What a gift.

I was also - and have always been - a different kind of theatre critic. Not a new kind, despite using pixels instead of print. My idea of criticism is, in fact, rather old-fashioned. Since I began reading critics in my 20s, those I found most illuminating were almost always artists. My models included the visual art criticism of Frank O'Hara, who wrote about his colleagues and friends Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly; the poetry criticism of Octavio Paz or Randall Jarrell or Yves Bonnefoy; or the literary thinking of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who practically invented modern literary criticism. It seemed to me that practising artists who worked as critics brought a different weight, tact and imagination to their writing about art, and I aspire to do the same. (Aspiration, I might add, doesn't mean achievement).

I have never been interested in writing consumer guides, which is generally what theatre reviewing is considered to be. I wanted to talk about art - what it is, what it might be - which can only be done with any real meaning by considering individual examples. I wanted to think about theatre seriously, as a unique, fascinating and volatile form and a socially embedded art. I am, I guess, a rather literary theatre critic: writers reviewing their peers has been commonplace in literature since Goethe. That there is a place for this kind of criticism in the theatre became evident very quickly.

Like the critics I admired, I was reviewing my peers and colleagues. Michael Kantor, for instance, has directed my writing twice. The first was The Burrow, an opera based on Kafka's short story with a score by Michael Smetanin that premiered at the Perth Festival in 1994 to, as the Song Company's manager remarked with disgust, "critical acclaim". This remains one of the works of which I am most proud: I thought it beautiful, strange, powerful and moving. A couple of years later, Kantor directed a theatre text I wrote based on Georg Büchner's story Lenz, which premiered at the Melbourne Festival. I was so dismayed by the production that I wanted my name taken off the credits and refused to attend the opening night. Perhaps these polarised experiences might balance out as "objectivity"; it's more likely, I think, that they add up to a lively appreciation of Kantor's virtues and faults as a director.

I mention this history because of the oft-cited "bias" that my critics claim I have toward the Malthouse. For all my distaste for generational generalisations, it's perhaps not surprising that I should have similar values to others my own age, who were, for better and worse, young artists under the Baby Boomers. At their best, the Baby Boomers remain keepers of the radical flame, and are invaluable repositories of cultural memory; at their worst, schooled in bitter divisions and simplistic binaries, they became ever diminishing defenders of their own power bases. (I am speaking here of poetry as much as of theatre).

Just as I was excited by the possibilities unleashed by Edmunds's Melbourne Festivals, and have always kept an interested eye on Melbourne's independent artists, I have never made any bones about supporting the Malthouse's project to enliven and diversify Melbourne's main stage theatre. God knows that it needed to change. My interest in this was entirely selfish: having decided to stay in Melbourne, after several years dithering over whether to move to Europe, I would much rather live in an exciting culture than in a dull one.

This has never meant that the Malthouse gets a free pass, and there are reviews on this blog to prove it. Like Robert Brustein, Michael Billington or Kenneth Tynan, I consider myself a critic-advocate, but I have never believed that advocacy is an uncritical act. Bias, at least in the conventional meaning of the term, always is.

Six months after I started TN, Kantor and Armstrong took over the Playbox and redesigned its corporate structure from the ground up. Kantor's first production, early in 2005, signalled their intent: to redefine Australian theatre. It was, shamefully, the Melbourne premiere of Patrick White's The Ham Funeral, in repertory with a new adaptation by Tom Wright of Daniel Defoe's Journal of a Plague Year. As I said in my review, "Michael Kantor's first presentation ... offers an alternative means of imagining Australian theatre, outside the narrowly nationalistic or topical concerns which have dominated the Playbox aesthetic since the early 1990s. And although I don't feel it's an unqualified artistic success, I left feeling more hopeful about Melbourne theatre than I have for many years."

The significance of headlining White, our only Nobel laureate, was clear: it was about choosing the road less travelled, looking back and picking up the threads of a modernism that had been abandoned in favour of an increasingly jejune blend of naturalism and "issue-based" plays. Most importantly, it was about seeing theatre as a whole phenomenon, in which design and performance were as important (not more important) as the writing. Predictably enough, this led to the Malthouse being attacked for abandoning writers, a puzzling criticism given that they premiered at least as many new plays as the Playbox. But it's true that they have never programmed David Williamson.

My hopefulness was borne out in the work that followed, in a series of seasons that plugged into and, crucially, encouraged the richly diverse independent scene. It's hard to over-emphasise how important this has been: not only directly, in commissioning and re-staging work, but in how it legitimised a diversity of theatre practice that had formerly been consigned to the "fringe" as minor and unimportant. This second point is more significant than the first, although less easy to measure. The Malthouse encouraged a culture of dialogue and exchange, a culture that welcomed intelligent criticism, rather than attempting to shut it down, and in tandem with the increasing digital conversation, and a good bar, it began to be a social and artistic hub.

A notable feature of the Malthouse under Kantor and Armstrong has been its fostering of younger talent, giving proper support and productions in the main season, rather than fobbing them off with workshops and readings. And it was the first company to recognise the potential of the blogosphere, one year printing a long list of theatre blogs in its program. In tandem with Edmunds's festivals - and, importantly, Belvoir St and the STC in Sydney - it fostered an outward-looking, internationally confident theatre culture that was unapologetic about taking the art seriously.

This institutional support in turn led to an increasingly confident independent scene, which at last had an intelligent establishment to both woo and resist. One of the great pleasures of the past five years has been watching the evolution of so many young companies from small, co-op productions in venues such as La Mama or Fortyfive Downstairs or tiny rooms in Brunswick or Northcote to main stage triumphs (and back again - the preferred "career" model is not so much a ladder leading upwards in a straight line, as multiple platforms of parallel practice). I've seen so much good theatre that I have become parochial (me!): there are times when I can't imagine a better place for a theatre enthusiast to be.

One should always resist triumphalism; as the UK government is presently demonstrating with alarming brutality, decades of work can be destroyed with the mere stroke of a pen. As a more diverse menu of theatre has been offered by the Malthouse and the Melbourne Festival, public taste and curiosity has, however slowly, widened. Importantly, young people are now going to see theatre again.

This influence has filtered through to the Melbourne Theatre Company, both by raising the bar and suggesting possibilities. This year the MTC will produce Malthouse regular Lally Katz for the second time. Benedict Andrews's first adventure in Melbourne, the aforementioned Eldorado by Marius von Mayenburg, was critically slammed (though not by me) and a box office disaster. A year later, in 2007, his STC production of White's The Season at Sarsaparilla, artistically the equal of Eldorado, swept the Green Room Awards when it was programmed at the Melbourne Theatre Company. And earlier this year, Marius von Mayenburg's The Ugly One was given an exquisitely elegant sell-out production in the MTC's Studio by Peter Evans, which deserved way more kudos than it received.

It's impossible to second-guess the future of the MTC after the departure of Simon Phillips, since there is no word yet on the new artistic director; but a critic is always hopeful. If the MTC continues to broaden its aesthetic purview, and especially if it continues to support the new works program fostered under Aidan Fennessy, Melbourne theatre will thrive.

Melbourne's contemporary theatrical landscape has been created by many hands, but it is simply unimaginable without the Malthouse. Having transformed the view, it's right that Kantor and Armstrong should leave the company in the capable hands of new AD Marion Potts, again breaking the rules: it used to be that artistic directors hung on to the plum jobs with every fibre of their being, until forced out with a crowbar and/or death.

But what of Kantor's artistic achievement over the past five years? It bears some examination, and not only because Kantor has often been dismissed, inaccurately in my view, as a mini-Kosky. In a familiar pattern, Age critic Cameron Woodhead, while saluting the institutional legacy outlined here, savaged Kantor's work in his year-end wrap-up this week. "When Patrick White said that the enfeebling vice of Australian theatre was amateurism," says Woodhead, "he couldn't have picked a better example than Kantor."

Woodhead labels Kantor's work as part of a "wider movement" called "post-dramatic theatre". He vaguely equates this with the director-auteur, who "devalues" narrative and character and claims that the text is dead. It's not at all clear that Woodhead has a clue what post-dramatic theatre is: he dismisses it as "really just a modish phrase for postmodern theory applied, belatedly, to theatre", and furthermore declares that it refers to no art of any interest. Woodhead's excoration is even more puzzling when you consider that he lauds Thyestes - as pure an example of the post-dramatic theatre as one could point to - as one of the shows of the year.

For the record, "postdramatic theatre" is a term that was first used in the 1970s to describe "happenings". It was given ballast by German critic Hans-Thies Lehmann in an influential 1999 book, Postdramatic Theatre, in which he analysed through a broad theoretical lens some of the most important post-war theatrical experiments. Artists he considered included Robert Wilson, Tadeusz Kantor, Heiner Muller, the Wooster Group, Forced Entertainment, Theatre de Complicite and Societas Raffaello Sanzio. (And what a bunch of mediocrities they are.)

Kantor is, like his peers Barrie Kosky and Benedict Andrews, an inheritor of these late 20th century influences, and like Kosky and Andrews, he has forged his own aesthetic. Unlike both of them, he draws from profoundly Anglo traditions of performance. I haven't always liked the results, but I've enjoyed a lot of them; and some deserve to stand with the best theatre Melbourne has seen in the past five years. His directorial strengths and weaknesses were on show in his first productions of The Ham Funeral and Journal of a Plague Year, and over the past couple of years I would argue that his work has refined into considerable achievement. There have certainly been occasions when I agree that he simply settled for empty visual spectacle. But to claim this comprehends the entirety of his work, or to mistake his various explorations of rough theatre for "amateurism", is deeply unjust.

What has often been most striking - and often controversial - about Kantor's work at the Malthouse is its cheerful mixing of high and low art. One of the most common criticisms has been that "it's just pantomime". To which I would answer, why, yes! Stripped of its pejorative overtones, it's an accurate description of a key part of Kantor's aesthetic. Especially early in his tenure, he commonly drew on lowbrow forms such as pantomime, vaudeville or the rock eisteddfod to explore his particular brand of rough theatre.

Perhaps Kantor's greatest sin was to bring these manifestly uncool popular forms into the purview of the serious stage (it wasn't long before criticisms moved from the Malthouse being "too elistist" to its being "too populist"). Underneath all this, there's a strong argument to be made about the connections between the deeply English phenomenon of pantomime and Brechtian epic theatre; among other things, it seems to me that Kantor was nativising some European ideas in Anglo traditions. At the same time, it's salutory to remember that he was reaching into other areas of contemporary art: he brought dance into theatre not only in his programming, but in his Bessie-winning collaboration with Gideon Obarzanek and Lucy Guerin, Tense Dave.

In the past couple of years, Kantor has applied his understanding of vulgar performance to serious writing and created some stunning theatre. He has always been at his best when, as in The Ham Funeral, he is constrained by a brilliant text. His tragic-burlesque production of Dario Fo's Elizabeth: Almost by Chance a Woman in April this year was absolutely true to the spirit of the playwright, and one of the most restrainedly stylish shows he has done. And it's churlish to ignore his brilliant 2009 production of Happy Days, which miraculously sited Beckett in a set of visual lushness and framed one of the most moving performances of the year, in Julie Forsyth's portrayal of Winnie. Now that Kantor is freed of administrative pressures, it's going to be fascinating to see what happens next.

As always, there are many more narratives to unfold, but they'll have to wait for another time. I'm winding up a year in which I've said plenty, and looking forward to a 2011 which promises to be as theatrically rich as the last. I'll be continuing the blog, but in what shape is a question for the future: at this point, I have no idea. On my holidays I'll be rewriting my novel, summoning up my first column for Overland and working on the opera libretto. And maybe doing some web tinkering - it's about time I made a version of this blog for mobile phones. There is, as they say, no rest for the wicked.

See you next year. And prost!

Picture: Julie Forsyth as Winnie in Happy Days.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

2010: or Why I Love Living In Melbourne

It's that time of year again. Mechanical Santas litter the pavements, cheering on the shopping with catatonic hohohos, and those of us who should know better are threatening the bank balance with imminent annihilation. And Ms TN is posed at her desk in strenuous attitudes of thought, magisterially weighing up the annals of 2010.

I think that all Melburnian theatre geeks agree that 2010 has been an exceptional year. Despite my stern resolution a year ago to focus more on my own work and cut down my theatre going to sane levels, I actually reviewed many more shows in 2010 - 90 as opposed to 66 - and probably saw in toto close to 100. This demonstrates two things: that (a) I should not make resolutions for fear of looking like an idjit, and (b) how much was on our stages that I felt I couldn't afford to miss. And even given my disastrous lack of anti-theatre discipline, there was a disproportionate number of works that I regretted not seeing. There was way more happening in this town than one person could satisfactorily write about.

Looking over 2010, I listed 37 shows that I thought top notch. (Those wondering about the bases for these judgments can read, as well as the reviews themselves, something I prepared earlier on my process of critiquing). On the other hand, the number of (reviewed) shows that made my toes curl was very low - it amounted to five. The remainder are shows that are merely good; that is, most of the shows that don't turn up on either list were not mediocre.

This is actually fairly startling. It was enough to pull me up and make me wonder if I'm going soft in my old age: but further thoughtful scrolling through the list only made me add a couple more titles to my initial list. There is, naturally, a certain amount of self-selection here - I am much more likely to be wooed from my couch by work I anticipate will excite me. Yet high expectations can be the more easily disappointed.

I think that, as much as anything, this year's theatre reflects how high the bar has been lifted. We expect our theatre, no matter how small the venue or lean the budget, to be intelligent, deeply felt, well produced and well performed. And we especially expect it to be well designed: I've commented often on Australian sound design culture, but equally lighting and stage design are consistently good. This abundance of talent and achievement hasn't apparated out of nowhere. I've been keeping a close eye on Melbourne for six years now - that is, since I started this blog - and I've watched with fascination how a tsunami of change has thundered through the theatre culture, transforming the landscape out of sight.

So this post will be Part One of a longer meditation. Part Two - which, if my plans don't go astray, will be up in the next few days - will take a wider view: I want to think about what has happened in theatre culture - mainly in Melbourne, but with an eye to the rest of the country - over the past few years. The end of the decade seems a good time to ruminate on this change, and not only because it's numerologically satisfying. As of next year, as Ben Eltham usefully outlined in Crikey last week, there is a change of guard in almost every major company in Australia. It seems timely to take stock.

To return to 2010. Working out a Top Ten list felt particularly arbitrary this year. And so, after a bit of debate with myself, I decided not to do one at all. I could come up with a Top Ten, of course, but - like summing up a show in three and a half stars - to do so distorts what's been brilliant about seeing theatre in Melbourne this year. What's more interesting is to consider the range, depth and quality of work that has been on offer. So this is the list labelled "shows I loved in 2010": a Top 37. I liked these shows for all sorts of different reasons, as you will find if you click the links to the reviews, but all of them made me think theatre was the place to be.

You'll notice I've included Daniel Keene's plays, which I didn't review because I'm married to the playwright. I thought both productions excellent; and given the responses they elicited from others, it would be absurd to exclude them.

In alphabetical order:

66A Church Road, by Daniel Kitson. Victorian Arts Centre.

A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous, adapted by Janice Muller and Meredith Penman. Malthouse Theatre.

Acts of Deceit (Between Strangers in a Room), directed and written by Gary Abrahams, from a novel by James Baldwin. Courthouse Theatre, La Mama.

Bare Witness, by Mari Lourey, directed by Nadja Kostich. La Mama Theatre, Fortyfive Downstairs.

Bromance, directed Alisdair Macindoe, choregraphed by Alisdair Macindoe and Adam Synnott. Next Wave Festival.

Creditors by August Strindberg, directed by David Bell. Red Stitch.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, adapted by Judith Armstrong, directed by Alex Menglet. Stork Theatre.

Elektra by Sophokles, translated by Anne Carson, directed by Adena Jacobs. Fraught Outfit @ The Dog Theatre.

Elizabeth: Almost By Chance a Woman, by Dario Fo, directed by Michael Kantor. Malthouse Theatre.

Fatboy, by by John Clancy, directed by Marcelle Schmitz. Red Stitch.

Hole in the Wall by by Halcyon Mcleod, directed by Hallie Shellam. Next Wave Festival.

Human Interest Story, choreographed by Lucy Guerin. Malthouse Theatre & Perth International Festival.

Life Without Me, by Daniel Keene, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare, directed by Benedict Andrews. Belvoir St Theatre.

Moth, by Declan Greene, directed by Chris Kohn. Arena Theatre and Malthouse Theatre.

Peer Gynt by Henrik Ibsen, adapted by Four Larks.

PropogandA by Acrobat, North Melbourne Arts House.

Richard III, by Shakespeare, directed by Simon Phillips. Melbourne Theatre Company.

Sappho... in 9 fragments, by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, directed by Marion Potts. Malthouse Theatre.

Stifters Dinge, by Heiner Goebbels. Melbourne Festival.

The Beckett Trilogy, by Samuel Beckett, Conor Lovett and Judy Hegarty Lovett. Melbourne Festival.

Irony is not Enough: Essay on my Life as Catherine Deneuve, by Anne Carson. Fragment 31.

Maybe Forever, choreographed and performed by Meg Stuart and Philipp Gehmacher. Malthouse Theatre.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, by Suzanne Andrade. 1927 @ Malthouse Theatre.

The Bedroom Project by The Rabble.

The Nest by Maxim Gorky, adapted by Benedict Hardie and Anne Louise Sarks, directed by Sarks. The Hayloft Project.

The Nightwatchman, by Daniel Keene, directed by Matt Scholten. If Theatre @ Theatre Works.

The Tell Tale Heart, adapted by Barrie Kosky after Edgar Allan Poe, remounted by Michael Kantor. Malthouse Theatre.

The Raft, by Bill Viola. (Yes, I know this isn't theatre, but visual art. Still, one of my performance high points this year. And it's still on view). Melbourne Festival.

The Trial, by Louise Fox, directed by Matt Lutton, after Franz Kafka. ThinIce and Malthouse Theatre.

The Ugly One, by Marius von Mayenburg, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

Twelfth Night, by Shakespeare, directed by Lee Lewis. Bell Shakespeare.

Thyestes, after Seneca, directed by Simon Stone. The Hayloft Project and Malthouse Theatre.

This Kind of Ruckus, by Version 1.0, Victorian Arts Centre.

Triple Bill of Wild Delight, Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith, La Mama Theatre.

Vertical Road, by Akram Khan, Akram Khan Company. Melbourne Festival.

Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), by Nigel Jamieson. Malthouse Theatre.

Schadenfreude: there is some. Below were the shows that caused me pain in 2010. It's striking that (a) there were so few and (b) so many were from the MTC. Although, to be fair, the MTC was absolutely happening mid-year, when The Ugly One and Richard III - both among the best shows I've seen there - were running simultaneously; and the worst experience I had in the theatre this year was actually courtesy of an independent company. I didn't review it, since there is no satisfaction in sticking the knife into a work that is already manifestly sinking, and so will keep schtumm on its identity. Although I will say that I thought my colleague Cameron Woodhead - who wrote a scathing review of this particular debacle - was being kind.

Dead Man's Cell Phone by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

The Grenade by Tony McNamara, directed by Peter Evans. Melbourne Theatre Company.

King Lear, by Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Bell Shakespeare.

Madagascar, by RT Rogers, directed by Sam Strong. Melbourne Theatre Company.

The Swimming Club, by Hannie Rayson, directed by Kate Cherry. Melbourne Theatre Company.

So that was 2010. What a year! And it's been a bit dizzying for Ms TN on other levels, too.

On a personal note, I calculated this week that I have written approximately 200,000 words for publication over the past 12 months. A swathe of that was for this blog, as well as reviews and features for The Australian. I also wrote several scholarly-type essays for journals such as Overland or Theatre Forum, and various think pieces for other blogs around town - The Drum, the Wheeler Centre, Overland, and others. In between all that, I wrote a novel, Black Spring (which looks likely to be published in Australia next year); a piece of music theatre, Night Songs, with Daniel Keene for Bell Shakespeare; and I started on a libretto for Sydney composer Michael Smetanin on the poet Mayakovsky. This perhaps accounts for my recent raggedness.

Partly in response to that raggedness, I've resigned as Melbourne theatre critic for The Australian, as of the end of this year. I've wholly enjoyed working for the Oz, which has reason to be proud of its arts coverage, and hope to continue my relationship with them as occasional feature and profile writer. I've resigned also because of conflicts of interest brought about by my writing for the theatre again - something I thought was well over when, three years ago, I was offered the job - which make being a daily print critic problematic. I don't see these issues being a problem on the blog, where I have always written as an artist first and an improper critic second, and where my interests are declared here and here for anyone who cares to look.

More importantly, resigning as Australian Melbourne Theatre Critic will permit me to rethink the blog, which has, by default, been operating under the matrix of being a daily print reviewer. This rethink is a necessity: I have a slew of new and interesting commitments next year. Many are looking rather literary: I'll be doing a regular column for Overland; and I'm part of the editorial advisory board for the new-look Meanjin, under editor Sally Heath. Also, I planned out a new epic fantasy I want to write. And there's that Mayakovsky libretto, which I had better finish before my composer has conniptions.

Nevertheless, while Melbourne theatre keeps on being so exciting, I can't imagine stopping the blog. It's too much fun, and way too rewarding in every sense except the pecuniary (which appeals to my Quixotic nature). Over the past 12 months, my stat counter tells me that there have been just under 220,000 unique visitors here, around 60,000 of them return visits, and that's a lot of reasons to keep going. All the same, my body is reminding me firmly that I have to be sane about my output. I have been about as exhausted this past month as I have been in my life, and I assure you, I'm an expert on all the varieties of weariness. But I will definitely be here to see what happens next year.

All that remains is to thank all of you - artists, companies, readers and commenters - who have made this blog so lively with tickets, time, thoughtfulness, encouragement, brickbats and, above all, the art that makes it all happen. You've made my life very rich indeed, and I'm deeply grateful.

Pictures: from top: Thyestes, The Hayloft Project; The Trial, Malthouse & ThinIce; Bare Witness, Fortyfive Downstairs; Fatboy, Red Stitch; Richard III, MTC; 66A Church Rd, Daniel Kitson; Stifters Dinge, Melbourne Festival.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review: The Nest

A fascinating phenomenon over the past few years has been the revival of naturalism as a theatrical force. For years, commentators divided Australian theatre into two strands: "naturalism", the accepted form of the mainstream or proto-mainstream; and "non-naturalism", which covered everything from mime to Barrie Kosky. Naturalism was linked to the so-called "well-made play", in which theatre did its best to imitate the conventions of television. Non-naturalism had a suspicious internationalism about it, and was best left to the Europeans or people who dressed exclusively in black and lived in Fitzroy.

This did theatre no favours, since the artform overspills such simplistic binaries. And not unsurprisingly, this binary - which also masquerades as the division between the "mainstream" and the "fringe" - has been collapsing, along with many other theatrical truisms, over the past decade. It's worth remembering, however, how recent this collapse is: only three years ago, critic Hilary Glow argued in her book Power Plays that naturalistic, character-based drama was a defining form of the "mainstream".

The state theatre presence of artists like Benedict Andrews or Tom Wright is a telling symptom of this shift. Just as telling is as the fact that some of the most interesting independent work around Melbourne in recent years - ranging from Beng Oh's production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's Tom Fool at Hoy Polloy, to floogle's production of Duncan Graham's Ollie and the Minotaur, to Daniel Schlusser's theatrical reworkings of classics - has been re-examining naturalism. Which brings me to The Nest, Hayloft's exquisite version of Maxim Gorky's first play, The Philistines.

Written by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, The Nest at once returns naturalism to its radical, poetic roots, and liberates it into the present. It's an impressive work of adaptation: Hardie and Sarks have cut Gorky's unwieldy two and a half hour drama back to a finely-honed 90 minutes, filleting out its essentials from Gorky's baggily structured original. In doing so, they have created a piece of theatre that situates itself convincingly in contemporary Melbourne, while at the same time retaining an unmistakeable sense of Russianness, an achievement which almost feels like sleight of hand.

The Nest is a scathing indictment of a bourgouis family, which in Gorky's original play is a metaphor for Tsarist society on the brink of the Bolshevik Revolution. Here it's shifted, with a surprising aptness, to middle class Australia: a generation that defined itself through stability, security and authority is threatened by a world of bewildering global and technological change. Anti-globalisation protests are not quite the 1917 Revolution; the Revolution has already happened. And this is key to the poignancy of this adaptation, in which the shadow of the past is a dark smudge beneath the present.

The action revolves around Victor (James Wardlaw), in this version a widower, who is the miserly and viciously angry father of Tanya (Julia Grace) and Peter (Benedict Hardie). Victor is embittered and bewildered by his loss of authority over a rebellious new generation - his children and their friends, his young lodgers, even the maid. His avariciousness extends to his children: unable to let them go into adulthood, he finds he is equally unable to keep them. He is desolatingly lonely: some of the most powerful moments of the evening feature Victor alone in his house, tidying up the kitchen in rubber gloves, punching uselessly at the buttons of an iPod to turn off the music his children have left carelessly blaring through the house, or sitting emptily in his patriarchal seat in the dining room.

The Nest isn't simply about the divisions between generations; it is also about the profound connections - of habit, affection, grief, memory - between them. The young are as lost as their elders are, falling into patterns of which they are not even conscious. It's clear, for instance, that for all his rebellion against his father, Peter will follow in his footsteps. That these complexities play so beautifully is a tribute to the Hayloft ensemble: this is a strong, focused cast, each member of which deserves mention, and the various characters are played with beautiful emotional detail.

Claude Marcos's design sets the action in the round; the audience sits one deep around a wide playing area, dotted with the solid furniture of an old, middle-class Australian house representing a loungeroom, a kitchen, a hallway, a bedroom, a dining room. Russell Goldsmith's sound design unobstrusively heightens this reality with ambient sound and music - passing traffic, bird calls. The imaginary walls and doors are at first meticulously observed in the performances; as the work subtly shifts into a heightened stylisation, the "walls" dissolve, becoming a poignant sub-conscious metaphor for the dissolution of the family.

The audience is almost in the house, visible and invisible just as the walls are. This makes scenes like an impromptu party in the loungeroom intensely direct, almost as if we are at the same party; it's this directness of communication, placing events explicitly in the same social space as the audience, that is the real strength of contemporary naturalism. Anne-Louise Sarks's direction modulates this immediacy with subtle reminders of artifice: this is not theatre that aims to seduce us into an unthinking acceptance of its conventions.

Attention constantly shifts, without apparent effort, from one space to another; as the action progresses, there are more and more simultaneous moments - a couple making love in a bedroom, Tanya swallowing poison in the kitchen, a group on the back verandah - which gives a textured, increasingly powerful sense of individual privacies crossing in a mutual space. It's one of those shows which manages the delicate balance between deep polish, the result of craft and work, and yet in which each moment glows with spontaneous discovery.

Since their first production, in 2007, I've learned to expect a lot from Hayloft: I rather suspect, after Thyestes and The Nest, that my expectation has wound up another notch. Looking over this company's body of work, what's most striking is that they have never repeated themselves, although each project has deepened what appears to be a very singular exploration. Which seems to me the very definition of exciting art.

Pictures: Top: James Wardlaw; bottom, The Nest cast. Photos: Jeff Busby

The Nest, by Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie, after Maxim Gorky's The Philistines. Set by Claude Marcos, costumes by Mel Page, lighting by Lisa Mibus, sound and composition Russell Goldsmith. With Sarah Armanious, Stuart Bowden, Stefan Bramble, Alexander Englabnd, Brigid Gallacher, Julia Grace, Benedict Hardie, Carl Nilsson-Polias, Meredith Penman and James Wardlaw. Northcote Town Hall, Studio One. Until December 19. Details and bookings.

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Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Collected Works benefit

Collected Works, under the proprietorship of Kris Hemensley, is one of the treasures of Melbourne. It is that rarest of businesses, a poetry bookshop. As The Wheeler Centre comments today, Victoria boasts over 300 book shops, but its City of Literature submission singled out Collected Works as “unlike any other shop in the country… specialising in poetry and ideas, and is the most substantial retail outlet for poetry in Australasia, giving local literature a sense of where it sits within a global sphere”.

A recent rent hike threatens its existence, and so tonight, from 5.30-7pm, a bunch of literary peeps have organised a Collected Works Benefit. There's even a raffle, with donations from a range of poetry folk, including Australian Poetry, Victorian Writers’ Centre, Hunter Publishers, University of Queensland Press, John Leonard Press, and over twenty writers including Kevin Brophy, Joel Deane, David McCooey, Robyn Rowland, Alex Skovron, Chris Wallace-Crabbe and me. More details from SPUNC. At Collected Works Bookshop Nicholas Building Level 1, 37 Swanston Street, Melbourne.

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Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Independent theatre

The Australian today publishes my whistle-stop and inevitably partial guide to Australian independent theatre. Feel free to note significant omissions, especially outside the Sydney/Melbourne axis...

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Sunday, December 05, 2010

Review: Peer Gynt, Elektra, Creditors

The talk in the foyers of late has been that of scarred veterans swapping notes from the front-lines of culture. Never, say hardened theatrenauts (as they whittle their programs into speaking likenesses of Ibsen) has Melbourne seen such a season as this. A few years ago, you could count on the theatres going dark in November, leaving summer free for extra-curricular frolicking in front of the Wii. Not this year, they add blackly (expectorating into handy spittoons). This year, the culture has gone feral.

Some, their spirits broken, point silently to harpoons. Others lean mutely against walls, a thousand-yard stare betraying their inner turmoil. If only, they mutter into their beards, most of it wasn't so good. If only we could all stay home and watch Australia get demolished in the Ashes, secure in the knowledge that the local stages are bereft of interest...

Like some of my colleagues, Ms TN ran out of gas a month ago. Personally, I don't see a lot of point in TN if all it offers is straight up-and-down reviews; but sometimes, straight up-and-down reviews is all a gal can manage. So here goes...

Peer Gynt

Like Goethe's famously unstageable Faust, Henrik Ibsen's verse drama Peer Gynt is something of a gift to theatremakers. A phantasmogoric parable of a man's struggle with himself, it's one of the more bonkers plays in the repertoire, leaping with its anti-hero from the mountains of Norway to the deserts of Egypt, from rural wedding scenes to lunatic asylums. It is not a play for literal minds: the only level on which it makes sense is that of metaphor. And there it makes a great deal of sense indeed, foreshadowing Freud's own grubbing about with the monsters of the subconscious.

It's easy to see its attraction for a young, ambitious company like Four Larks. This company has in fact attempted this play before, in 2008. I can't compare their stagings; despite a bunch of good intentions - and we all know where they lead - I hadn't seen their work before last week. This young, unfunded collective has been making waves for a couple of years now, and finally last Wednesday I got to its production of Peer Gynt, staged in a barn-like space off a back lane in Northcote, to see what all the fuss is about.

The fuss is certainly warranted. Although the theatre they produce is vastly different, the aura around the event reminds me strongly of the early days of the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project, which - similarly unfunded - staged several seasons of short plays in the Brotherhood of St Laurence warehouse in Fitzroy. There's the same sense of an audience excited by discovery, the same raw faith in theatre, the same feeling of welcome.

This adaptation of Peer Gynt, co-adapted and directed by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro, Jesse Rasmussen and Mat Diafos Sweeney, hovers just on the theatre side of music theatre. The text is heavily cut, and many transitions or episodes replaced by narrative or lyric songs that channel the independent folk scene - think Joanna Newsom, the Decembrists, José González, Sufjan Stevens. The six-strong band, lined up on bales of pea-straw on the left of the stage, includes a harp, double bass, violins and banjo, and the vocals feature some sublime harmonising.

But maybe the strongest aspect of this company's theatre is its design. It stretches through the building's environment - charcoal drawings of Norwegian mountains adorn the walls as you enter the theatre, and a drawing on the barn door to the left of the set, which Peer Gynt himself is extending as the audience enters, is of a man with antlers, recalling the English folk figure Herne the Hunter, but is more pertinently an echo of the deer shamans of the Sami, who would adorn themselves with reindeer antlers during their mystic ceremonies.

Reaching back into pagan folk tales, just as Ibsen did for his play, gives the text and the music a powerful resonance, a sense that this is a contemporary enactment of a story that reaches back far beyond the 19th century. And the constantly inventive staging, often using re-purposed objects like feather dusters or bits of rope, reinforces this feeling: the ordinary is here made strange. It makes for a heart-lifting investigation of theatrical storytelling, with an unabashed intention towards beauty. There are glorious moments - Solveig (Tilly Perry), for example, appearing lamplit in a high window, singing to Peer Gynt (Ray Chong Nee), or the rambunctiously disrespectful trolls.

My only reservations are at the level of performance. Especially in the first half, its style veers, sometimes uncertainly, sometimes with unsettling sureness, from a Pythonesque grotesquerie to moments of clear naturalism. This was most successful in Ibsen's most surreal act, where Gynt becomes serially a rampant capitalist, a prophet and a scholar. The actors are clearly a talented bunch - each has a chance to show his or her strengths - and there's no questioning their commitment. This is mainly a technical quibble about voice - a complex text like Peer Gynt needs to sound clearly, and sometimes I was simply struggling to hear the lines. It almost seems churlish to mention it, since the theatre making here is otherwise so exciting. But there it is.


(Spoiler warning).

I wondered how the very talented young director Adena Jacobs would stage the ancient tragedy Elektra in a theatre as tiny as The Dog in Footscray. The answer is: with absolute simplicity. Eugyeene Teh's design surrounds the playing area in transluscent plastic curtains, and the walls vanish: we are suddenly in a space without edges. Actors can be so close we could almost touch them, and yet, by merely stepping behind the curtain, are suddenly cloaked in an illusory distance, or loom behind the unobscured characters like uneasy ghosts.

In the centre of the stage is a single object, a bed covered with old bloodstains that invokes the crimes of sex and murder that shape the action of this play. This production also makes a virtue of the venue's intimacy. The lights are up on the audience for much of the play, and when the actors speak to each other, they turn and meet our eyes as well, so we are not merely witnesses, but accomplices in the unfolding action.

Elektra is the second act of the trilogy of the Oresteia. The story begins with the murder of Agamemnon as he returns from Troy by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, as revenge for the sacrifice of her daughter Iphigenia. In Elektra, Agamemnon's daughter camps on the threshold of Clytemnestra's house, neither inside nor outside, awaiting the return of her brother Orestes. By the code of vendetta, Orestes must avenge his father's death: however, if he does so, he will commit another unforgivable crime, that of matricide.

Anne Carson's fine translation of Elektra is clean and contemporary, drenching the action in an unforgiving lucidity. Here it is - very effectively - cut: most notably, Aegisthus's return in the final scene is deleted. In the mouths of this most accomplished cast, around a stunning central performance by Zahra Newman as Elektra, it plays with a compelling muscularity; sometimes the language is bitten off with a contemporary, almost slangy curtness, and at other moments the keenings of the original Greek are left untranslated. These cries are spine-tingling, Elektra's purest expression of what Carson calls her "torrent of self". For she talks all the time, all through the play, veering between obsessive madness and a bitter rationality. All she can do is talk.

Two things are immediately striking about this production. The first is the obvious fact that this is a play primarily about women. When Clytemnestra (Jane Montgomery Griffiths) speaks of the pain of birth giving, or of her grief for her murdered daughter Iphigenia, or when Elektra savagely claims that she is the shape her mother has made her, or in the arguments with her meeker sister Chrysothemis (Luisa Hastings Edge), the play summons darkly feminine turbulences that drive it towards its grim climax.

These women writhe under their subordination to male power. Unable to act as men do, they can only take refuge in speech, plotting their actions through the bodies of their men: in this case, Orestes (Gary Abraham) and his guardian Pedegogus (Josh Price). The actions of men become in this play functions of the women's frustrated desires. Elektra's inability either to act or not to act make her vengefulness a different thing in kind to that of Orestes: her lack of control alarms and frightens him. What is for Orestes a question of male honour becomes, through Elektra's voicing, a darker and more visceral thing, inchoate hatred and love driven from the gut, rather than Apollonian justice.

The second aspect is the claustrophobic awareness of the human body. From the beginning, when Elektra squats on the bed, or strips naked, or when the Chorus (Karen Sibbing) slowly eats a cake that is a grave offering, finding inside it a bone, the sense of opaque fleshliness, of the weight of muscle and bone, is foregrounded. On the skin, all light: on the inside, all obscurity.

This culminates in an extraordinary final scene. After the off-stage murder of Clytemnestra, Orestes carries her body onto the stage and attempts to lay it on the bed. The body passively flops to the ground instead, a dead weight. For the next minute or so, Orestes tries to lift the body up, thwarted constantly by its limp lifelessness. He pauses and fixes a frustrated eye on Elektra, but she will not help him. At last, after an excruciating struggle, he succeeds in lifting the corpse onto the bed. Elektra, without looking at him, seats herself on the floor next to her mother, cupping her dead hand to her cheek. Orestes sits on the bed and stares into space.

It's in these anti-climactic moments that we feel the weight of the crime that has just been committed. It is the realisation that the murder solves nothing: rather, it has orphaned them entirely, and left them mired deeper in shame and grief. They can't even take comfort in each other. Neither sibling can look the other in the eye.


August Strindberg is one of my favourite misogynists. As with Friedrich Nietzsche, his perception of how men have shaped the femininity of Woman mitigates - to some extent, at least - his mingled loathing and attraction towards actual women. He comes close to the top of the list of Men To Avoid, especially in matrimony. His second wife, Frida, described her marriage as "a death ride over crackling ice and bottomless depths", and there's no evidence that his first and third wives would have disagreed.

A paradoxical side effect of Strindberg's obsessive loathing (all women, even his wives, were "whores") is his perceptiveness in analysing the war of the sexes. He could speak as an insider, a man who practised what he preached - a treatise that translates roughly as, treat 'em mean, or they'll have your balls. Yet his pitiless intelligence doesn't permit him to gloss his own behaviour. For a scathing portrayal of the wounds patriarchy inflicts on both sexes, it's hard to go past Strindberg.

His three-hander play Creditors is a classic example. Adolph (Brett Cousins) is a gullible and highly suggestible young artist who is the second husband of the novelist Tekla (Kat Stewart). Tekla is a thoroughly modern woman, the dominant partner in the relationship. As the play begins, she has left her husband at home for a few days while she goes out gallivanting. Enter Gustav (played with Mephistophelean oiliness by Dion Mills), a stranger who perceives the young man's weaknesses, manipulating him into a state of jealous hysteria.

Gustav is, of course, Tekla's first husband. Unable to forgive the blow to his masculinity caused by Tekla's departure, he has coldly determined to destroy their marriage. Having sown the seeds of insecurity and paranoia in Adolph, he seeks to seduce Tekla into betraying her husband while Adolph listens behind a door. Adolph has a fit and dies, Tekla is distraught with grief, and Gustav finds, to his enormous surprise, that his ex-wife loved her husband, after all.

Within this melodramatic plot lurks a surprisingly complex argument about men and women. Strindberg exposes a series of archetypes - the dominated man, the dominant man, and the Woman. All are ruthlessly articulate about their desires and feelings, and all expose their weaknesses as well as their strengths, generating a darkly fascinating narrative of argument and counter-argument that builds up into a devastating tragicomic satire about marriage. Strindberg dismisses from the outset the possibility of an equal relationship in a marriage; one partner must always be dominant, and - in his view at least - it must always be the man. What's provoking is how contemporary so much of this sounds. Not a lot has changed in the past century.

David Bell's production at Red Stitch is an excellent and lucid reading of the play. It focuses, quite rightly, on the actors. Using a muscular new translation by David Grieg, the three give powerful and detailed performances, opening out the complexities of their characters. The melodrama gets its due, as it ought, and it doesn't flinch back from comedy; but what sticks in the mind afterwards is the darkly visceral emotions that Strindberg transcribed with such troubling accuracy. My only complaint is a decorative pillar in the middle of the set that kept obscuring the performers. Why was it there? A querulous quibble perhaps; but not being able to see an actor's face for no good reason drives me crazy.

Picture: Four Lark's Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt, by Henrik Ibsen, adapted and directed by Sebastian Peters-Lazaro Jesse Rasmussen and Mat Diafos Sweeney. Four Larks, The Little Bakery, Northcote, until December 11. Details and bookings here.

Elektra by Sophokles, translated by Anne Carson, directed by Adena Jacobs. The Dog Theatre, Footscray, until December 18.
Details and bookings here.

by August Stringberg, in a new version by David Grieg, directed by David Bell. Red Stitch Theatre, Prahran, until December 18.
Details and bookings here.

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Friday, December 03, 2010

Holding post

Ms TN's brain has once again gone AWOL. I've released its description on Interpol, on the off chance that it's done something glamorous and illegal like running off with Julian Assange, although I suspect it's more likely to be lurking in the mean streets of the Western Suburbs, consuming custom-made pickles and designer lattes.

This abscondment means that, despite the fact that Melbourne's theatre scene is pulsating with pulsating stuff, all week I have found myself mute in front of the keyboard. So (to avoid the brickbats that come my way from writing about shows that have closed) this is a quick listing of recommendations from the past week's viewing. All will reward your ticket purchasing with actual theatre. And if you get to all of them, you will experience an excellent cross-section of Melbourne's quality independent scene.

To wit: Creditors, at Red Stitch; Peer Gynt, by Four Larks; and Elektra, by Fraught Outfit at The Dog. And a plug too for The Nightwatchman at Theatre Works. (Most of you will know it was written by my husband, Daniel Keene; the music is also composed by my son, Ben. Andrew Fuhrman, who is related to neither of them, has written a beautiful response in Crikey.)

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