"It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause."
-Theodore Roosevelt

21 November 2009

Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants

When the directors’s notes in the program talk about exploring things like anxieties, spirituality and purpose, you worry. Well, I do. I usually expect something that’s more like a ‘performance piece’ than a play, and something that, to quote an esteemed colleague, is ‘as deep as whale poo’. What I don’t generally expect is a play like Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants.

This play, staged at Wellington’s independent Bats Theatre, is the culmination of a collaborative project (I seem to be encountering a few of these this year), that has apparently involved a broad cross-section of the Wellington community. The action is set in Wellington, so I’m glad I didn’t see it on my first night here, because I would have missed half of the references! Nonetheless, I would still have walked out of the theatre a little dazed, a little confused, but nonetheless happy to have witnessed Julian’s story played out, and to have recognised something of myself in it.

Death and the Dreamlife of Elephants could reasonably be slotted into the Deep as Whale Poo genre, but this is probably the first play I’ve ever seen from that genre that has a (discernable) plot, as well as recognisable figures. Of course, the more intellectually challenged of my tribe would have trouble following the plot, but it is there, and it is both engaging and distinct. And as deep as whale poo.

11 November 2009

Mao's Last Dancer

Much is being made of Bruce Beresford's latest film, Mao's Last Dancer. It has been released amidst a flurry of discussion about the nature of Australian film, and because it doesn't deal with a particularly Australian story, it seems to break away from the stereotypical Australian film. Unfortunately, I think this will be the most memorable feature of the film.

Mao's Last Dancer is the true story, based on the autobiography of the same title, of Li Cunxin, a ballet dancer plucked from obscurity in a small Chinese village to study ballet in Beijing, who went on to defect from the People's Republic and achieve stardom in the United States. It is an inspiring story, but for my money, not a particularly memorable one.

As we expect from Bruce Beresford, the cinematography is superb, the performances convincing, even from some iconic Australian actors playing Americans. But I think that the only thing particularly noteworthy about the film is its subject matter. This is an Australian film that has next to nothing to do with Australia, and while I would be happy to see more films like this, I fear that the more endearing aspects of Mao's Last Dancer are overshadowed by this fact.

A good film, with a rather dull plot but spectacular performances, and one that offers excellent insight into a culture we tend to stereotype rather than engage with. Watch it when you're not at risk of falling asleep.

05 November 2009

Notes on Directing 'Take Their Life'

I have just handed over the reins of my current project, Take Their Life, to the stage manager, Joyce Gore. I thought I was scared of directing anything of Shakespeare's before, but now I'm even more scared because I no longer have any control over what happens!

I have learned an awful lot from the experience of directing a sacred cow. Having only directed new, or relatively new, works before, I've never had to deal with strongly-established and conflicting interpretations of character before. The principles are the same: you look for various interpretations and pick the one that best suits your needs, but when there is such a wide range of varying interpretations, and when some of those interpretations are so firmly entrenched from centuries of analysis, it can be a tough call to pick the one that best suits our purposes.

All directors say it, but it really has been a pleasure to work with such a talented cast. They've amazed me at times with their capacity to take an idea I've had about how a character should act or respond, and incorporate that into a holistic expression of a character, which essentially is nothing more than a concept. I have found it quite humbling to watch those characters emerge from vague and shadowy ideas in my head into characters who stand and walk about and interact as if they're real people.

So next stop is opening night, when we turn Shakespeare's sacred cow into a profane one. I hope people enjoy it, but really, the best part of the experience of profaning a sacred cow is over, and after nine months in development, I am both breathing a sigh of relief, and beginning to fret about letting it go.

Chookas, cast.

28 October 2009

Review of Arts in the ACT

This afternoon I participated in the democratic process. Sounds very noble and boring, doesn't it? Actually, I joined a whole bunch of other arty types to talk about arts practice in the ACT and government support for it. It was an interesting discussion, although it will be far more interesting to see what our great and mighty leaders do with our input.

The event was a consultation session run by a private firm contracted by ArtsACT to conduct a review of the arts in the ACT. Amongst a little bit of outright whining, there were some interesting discussions about the way in which governments support the arts, and how arts funding could best be utilised to the benefit of the arts community.

There were a few comments about the level of importation of art product, and the proportion of government funding that flows out of Canberra to artists based interstate or overseas. There was also a particularly interesting point made about the lack of support for arts businesses, which are, presumably, one of the most sustainable forms of arts activities.

But I think the most interesting point made, from the perspective of someone who has only been in Canberra for a little over a decade, was that Canberra had a much healthier and more robust arts community in the 80s and 90s. While I was well aware of most of the organisations, what these 'older' Canberrans were reminiscing was an atmosphere of creativity that could rival that of Seattle or Paris. At least one person who had lived through it remarked that she hadn't thought about it for years. It made me sadly jealous of those who have had a longer association with the city.

Still, I can hold out hope that a new era of cultural vibrancy may yet dawn on our little concrete jungle. The group I found myself in this afternoon certainly has more than its fair share of optimism. One of them was so optimistic that she even thought it possible that our elected officials may one day actually take pride in the achievements of creative Canberrans. I'm optimistic, but not that optimistic. As long as the minister for the arts is a lawyer with a strong cultural cringe against his constituents, I hardly see that happening.

What I hold out hope for is a revival of creative energy. I am in one sense thankful that I don't have an older picture of what a creative Canberra looks like, because a new era of that kind of culture is sure to look very different from the old one. I was surprised to learn that Happy Feet was largely created in Canberra. That is certainly a different image of creativity from what must have gone on in the 80s and 90s, but that kind of creative energy is something to get excited about (as long as they can find better script writers, because Happy Feet was crap in the dialogue and plot departments).

At any rate, if you would like to contribute your $0.02 worth to the debate, it's not too late. You can get along to the last consultation session on Wednesday 4 November at Belconnen Arts Centre, or you can complete the survey.

16 October 2009

The Christian Brothers

I am getting a little bored with the whole "let's say nasty things about the Catholic church" thing that our culture seems to have going on these last few years. Being an older play, Ron Blair's The Christian Brothers doesn't suffer from the same simplistic and one-dimensional depiction of Catholicism as its more modern counterparts. It's refreshing.

This one-man play is about an ageing Catholic school teacher going through something of a crisis of faith in the strangely public context of his classroom. Perhaps the most interesting part of this play is how the classroom itself, while occupied by however many students the audience imagines to be there, can be at once public and private.

Veteran of the Canberra stage, Bill Boyd brings the flawed teacher to life brilliantly, eliciting empathy and laughter as we recognise those flaws that most of our teachers probably also had. This is a great production, and an hour well spent.

09 October 2009

The Hamlet Apocalypse

I think Dionysus was smiling on me when I rocked up at La Mama tonight without a booking. And to be within those hallowed walls was, as always, a humbling experience. The Danger Ensemble's The Hamlet Apocalypse illustrates beautifully the human inclination to cling to what we know when facing what we fear.

Director, Steven Mitchell Wright, says that "this work is very simply about a group of actors choosing to perform William Shakespeare's Hamlet in the face of the apocalypse, the end, death, finality, loss, whichever it is for you". And while there is an element of simplicity in its performance, there is nothing simple about the way these actors face their apocalypse. Rather, there is an understanding and intense depiction of the very human emotions of fear, anticipation and determination.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is the perfect partner for this story, and its broad plot arc has been deftly interwoven with these actors' story. The cast delivers Shakespeare's dialogue with aplomb, and I may well have wanted to see them simply do Hamlet, were it not for the fascinating development of the actors' characters. As the cast counts down to the apocalypse, their own fears, insecurities and personalities render some of Shakespeare's most profound characters dull by comparison with these performers, whose experiences resonate spectacularly in La Mama's confined space.

06 October 2009

The Taming of the Shrew

When you go to the preview night for a Bell Shakespeare production, it could be for one of two reasons: either you're too stingy to pay full price, or you're so damn keen you couldn't wait... I fall into both categories.

If you've read any of the publicity about this production of The Taming of the Shrew, you will probably be aware that it sports an all-female cast. Of course the history of the play's interpretation, especially in the last century, is all about its gender politics. And rightly so, since it is a theme that cannot be divorced from Shakespeare's text. But having seen it, I wonder whether the decision to use an all-female cast really entered into the play's production process. I think it felt more like an academic exercise. A valid and interesting academic exercise, perhaps, but not as exciting as Shakespeare can be when he is lifted above the realm of the rational.

Petruchio is the character that stands to lose the most in being played by a woman, but Jeanette Cronin delivers a slightly insane Petruchio with a singularly spectacular performance. Luisa Hastings Edge likewise delivers a fully engaging and well-rounded Lucentio. Unfortunately, in the case of the remaining male characters, their female performers fail to deliver an entirely engaging performance.

Of course, this may be intentional. Perhaps Director Marion Potts meant for the disjuncture between the performer and character to accentuate our modern discomfort with the shrew's taming? Perhaps. But if this was the case, it's unfortunate that it leaves the audience simply uncomfortable and not sure why. Even if the other male characters had been better played by their performers, I still feel that the all-female cast idea would amount to little more than an academic exercise or marketing ploy, offering no enhancement to the production.

I don't mean to be too heavily critical of Bell's production, nor of the other performers playing male roles. Despite the unnecessary distraction of the female performers, the production as a whole is excellent, eliciting plenty of laughter and pathos even from a tired old cynic like me.

I especially liked the setting, which immediately put me in mind of Rooty Hill RSL, until I realised that there is no way there'd be five mirror balls at Rooty Hill, and this must therefore certainly be modelled after Parramatta RSL. The use of Karaoke is a nice touch, and I still have Culture Club lyrics swimming around in my head.

So apart from bearing perhaps a little too much concern for its gender politics, I think Marion Potts should be congratulated on a great production of one of Shakespeare's best comedies.

03 October 2009

Puss in Boots

How the magnificent Nina Stevenson manages to harness the enthusiasm of more than 30 youngsters to fill a stage and tell a comprehensible story is beyond me, but with Puss in Boots, she has done this and more, because the show is a delight.

I took my own three youngsters (who have the energy of 30), and they sat enthralled, completely engaged by the show's larger-than-life characters, especially the evil ones. And who wouldn't be? There is some fine emerging talent on display, especially in the personages of Rebecca Riggs, who plays the evil sister Rubella, and Adrian Thomas, as her brother Snotty. Even at my age (and with my degree of evilness), I struggle to emit an evil chuckle, but Rubella's cackle sent shivers down my spine. And their brother TJ, played by the engaging Rory Asquith, was as lovable as his sister was evil.

The principal cast is supported by a young ensemble equally noteworthy for their excellent performances; and the whole show is a magnificent showcase for the talents of these young Canberrans, who I expect will be entertaining us for decades.

23 August 2009

Fringe Festival Folds?

Like most of Canberra's arts community, I was not anticipating the news that the Fringe Festival would not be funded into 2010, and that the National Folk Festival would be given greater funding to include a fringe event in their program. Jorian Gardner was apparently quite surprised about this, but I can't say it wasn't predictable.

Jon Stanhope's time as Minister for the Arts has seen the loss of many opportunities for emerging artists in the ACT, as well as an ever-increasing flow of ACT Government funding to interstate and international artists. And John Hargreaves, who has responsibility for a number of arts events under the spurious ministerial arrangements of the Labor government, has shown himself to have a very limited capacity for abstract thought. So given that the Minister for the Arts shows very little interest in emerging artists, and the Minister for Multicultural Affairs has no capacity to comprehend the kind of events staged at a Fringe Festival, I doubt there was ever any hope for continued funding of the festival.

Nonetheless, Stanhope has apologised to Gardner for excluding him from the process, and The Canberra Cook is encouraging us to lobby for the continued funding of the Fringe. A protest is also planned for this Thursday (27 August) at 1pm in front of the Legislative Assembly. Personally, I'm completely over this notion of lobbying this government for anything. ACT Labor seem to think they're exempt from democracy, and would probably like to disband the ACT people and elect another.

Fringe events at the National Folk Festival are unlikely to include a range of art forms, and if the Fringe Festival is unable to find willing supporters to keep it going, it will be a sad loss for artists in the ACT. Fortunately, artists in the ACT are used to dealing with loss, and will no doubt carry on in spite of the ACT Government's disdain for their work.

For an interesting discussion of this news, see this post on RiotACT.

11 August 2009


There is a fine line between a documentary and a movie, but occasionally a film comes along that sits very comfortably on that line. Balibo is one of these. The very true story of Roger East, who Jose Ramos-Horta lured to East Timor in those few days between Portugal's withdrawal and Indonesia's invasion in 1975, Balibo follows East's efforts to find out what happened to the five Australian reporters who had vanished amidst the Indonesian advance.

The film has a unique quality that at once depicts East's story and allows the audience to engage fully with him as a character, while at the same time telling the story of the Balibo Five with a sense of documentary. The process is not unlike Brecht's verfremdungseffekt, in the way that the film shifts from building dramatic intensity to communicating the facts of the story.

This serves the purposes of the film makers very well. Talking about the making of the film (I went to Dendy's Q&A session), director Robert Conolly talks about the Indonesian government asking whether the film will include the Indonesian point of view, to which he responded that the last thirty years of hearing the Indonesian point of view hasn't gotten us any closer to the truth. I am not in a position to comment on the accuracy of this film as a historic record, but as a piece of cinema, it has more human honesty than your average documentary, and more depth than your average movie.

East Timor celebrates ten years of independence later this month, so this is a timely release, in a way. It is, however, an Australian film about six Australians. What remains is to hear the stories of the East Timorese who suffered 24 long years of Indonesian rule. The makers of Balibo are aware of this, and provided training to East Timorese working with them on their film, in the hope that they will one day do so.

Sense and Sensibility

Jane Austen's novels don't appeal to me greatly, but the quality of her wit is superb. Although Sense and Sensibility is not a novel that readily lends itself to a dramatic adaptation, Canberra's own Jodi McAlister has done a fine job of condensing Austen's story into two hours of engaging stagework.

One of the most memorable characteristics of Austen's work is the importance of the subtext, and the many paradoxes that are inherent in such a context. Drama, of course, thrives on paradox and subtext, but the sheer volume of these found in Austen's work has been the downfall of many dramatisations of her stories. In this production, I think both Jodi McAlister and Liz Bradley are to be commended for their work in focusing the attention and keeping the journey of the characters paramount.

A great performance by the cast was punctuated by three stellar performers in the roles of the three Dashwood sisters. Alex de Totth, Ylaria Rogers and Nicola Grear are most notable in the degree to which they are able to balance the humour of their roles with the truth of their characters' experiences. This is critical to Austen's stories, and the success of this production owes much to these three performers.

I have never been a great fan of Austen, but have always enjoyed the quality and intensity of her satire, and am very pleased that this production managed to express it so well.

30 July 2009


I really must come up with a good reason why I don't like follow spots and smoke. Normally my dislike of them doesn't matter, but in the case of Chess, they use them right at the beginning, and they use them well! Why is this a problem? Well, if you don't like follow spots and you don't like smoke, but the first thing in the show is a follow spot and smoke, it distracts you from the show. It's not a problem with a poor show, but unfortunately, The Q's production of Chess is not a poor show, so I feel I need to justify my dislike of follow spots and smoke. One day, my prejudice will have a justification, but this is not that day. Chess is just too good.

Chess is, in many ways, poles apart from Krapp's Last Tape, which I gushed about the night before, but it shares two important characteristics: it tells a remarkably human story, and allows an audience to engage in some depth with its central characters. That said, I think I missed some elements of that story, due to some distortion of Tim Rice's lyrics. I am unsure whether this was a problem with enunciation or amplification, but I suspect the latter. Of course, putting such complicated sentence structures into lyrics was probably a bad idea in the first place, but in this instance it was not a fatal one, probably due to the talents of this magnificent cast.

The ensemble gathered for this production must be one of the best I have seen in Canberra, but they were not a patch on the magnificent talents of principals Stephen Pike, Christine Forbes and Lexi Sekuless. Even an old cynic like me felt goosebumps!

29 July 2009

Krapp's Last Tape

Opening at Tuggeranong Arts Centre, Krapp's Last Tape is one of Samuel Beckett's more well-known plays.

Sitting, as I am, and contemplating what I want to say about Krapp's Last Tape, I think about commenting on the set, the actor's performance, the lighting, the direction; but all of that seems to undermine this play. This is a story about a man who made a decision decades ago, and whose existence is not haunted, but shaped by the consequences of that decision. And nothing matters more than that character.
Of course, the design elements have to be properly balanced, or the character won't be visible. Ian Croker's set, Jack Lloyd's lighting, and Len Power's sound design are as important as Graham Robertson's performance, but all of these must be properly balanced, and nod gently to the presence of Beckett's 'hero'. I think this is the great strength of this production. All of these design elements are indeed balanced perfectly, giving the audience perfect access to the character.

I had read Krapp's Last Tape many years ago, and enjoyed it at the time. Like any of Beckett's work, it is difficult to read, but it absolutely sings when a performer embodies it. Graham Robertson is a veteran of the Canberra stage, and as one would expect, he brings Beckett's miserable Krapp to life. His engrossing performance is punctuated with perfect delivery of Beckett's dry humour.

I will argue to my dying day that the use of the word 'absurd' to describe Beckett's world view is absurd. He is a logician, and his work epitomises logic. It might baffle a person who tries to read it, but in performance Beckett's work is simplicity itself. And Krapp is a superb example of Beckett's magnificent capacity to tell a story. Nothing beats that.

24 July 2009


Canberra Repertory opened Deathtrap tonight. A comedy about an ageing playwright ready to kill to get what he wants.

What I found most interesting about Deathtrap was its style. This is a play by an Australian playwright, written in the late 1970s, and very much set in that time and place; but it has all the hallmarks of an excellent British comedy from the 1960s. The madcap humour, dialogue almost entirely dependent on wit, and a very conventional structure, all mark this play as something other than what it is, and were I not aware that it was an Australian play, I would have assumed it wasn't, despite the references to Sydney's northern suburbs.

It is a lot of fun: one of those plays that you could well come away from with a sore belly from all the laughing. I didn't, though. Maybe the timing was a bit off due to opening night nerves, or maybe I just like a little more meat on characters' bones than Levin provides, but it was good.

07 July 2009

Let The Sunshine

Opening night of David Williamson's Let The Sunshine and The Street Theatre was full. Well, you wouldn't expect any less for one of Williamson's plays, would you?

I would like to describe this play as an amusing double-autopsy of capitalism and socialism, but that hardly does the play justice. Williamson's superb play demonstrates the inability of these two-dimensional political ideologies to deliver what they promise their adherents, through characters who, despite being built on one or the other of these ideologies, are forced to grapple with humanity in three dimensions.

I think some of Williamson's best qualities as a writer are on display in this piece; the intricate crafting of character and plot is astonishing to reflect on. This, like most of his work, is a plot-driven story, but that plot is clearly driven by the characters, and their individuality, their connectedness and their ideologies dominate the plot. Without the cast of distinguished actors assembled by the Ensemble Theatre, the text could be very dense, but it resonates beautifully as a play for today.

20 June 2009


Anyone who's ever spoken to me about authors knows that the author I loathe most is Tolkein. I hate Tolkein's work because I can't understand how someone who fails entirely to grasp the idea of interworking exposition with climax can sell a single book! These people may also realise that I have a double standard insofar as my hatred of Tolkein for this reason has not caused me to dismiss the playwrights of Ancient Greece. The fact is, the Ancients wrote for a different purpose and a different audience, but Tolkein was just a babbling fool. Aeschylus, of course, was a master playwright, who had a justifiable reason to write an enormous quantity of vaguely interesting, but largely confusing, expository matter and interspersing it between some good dialogue and interesting plot. What I like most about Rachel Hogan's adaptation of Agamemnon is that she has managed to distil the essence of Aeschylus' tale into a performance that is widely accessible.

In doing this, the focus is drawn carefully onto Agamemnon's wife Clytemnestra, particularly her interpretation of Agamemnon's actions, and her primal response to his slaughter of their child. These characters are portrayed exquisitely by the performers in this production, who balance the intensity of their emotions well with the need to edify the audience, as was the tradition of the Ancients.

The interplay between what we can control and what we can't control is one of the things we humans find most difficult to get a grip on. For the most part, we get the things we can control confused with the things we can't; and even when we do know which one is which, we still instinctively try to control the things we can't, ignoring the things we can. In some ways, Agamemnon's story is that of a king who spent ten years doing something about what was out of his control, while unwittingly losing his grip on what he could have had. But then again, Agamemnon was never really about Agamemnon.

Although I may have retitled it Clytemnestra, I love what Rachel Hogan has done with Aeschylus' play, perhaps enough to hail her as the anti-Tolkein. Of course, she may take offence at that (I don't know how she feels about Tolkein) but it is intended to be the compliment of compliments!

18 June 2009

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah is a unique film that most filmgoers will probably find unappealing. It breaks many of the conventions of film, which makes for very unusual viewing, and it makes you uncomfortable in many ways, but it is a great story, and it is told with a great sense of simplicity and honesty.

Set in outback Northern Territory, this is the story of a young couple caught in a clash of cultures, and it explores the impact of broader cultural and political circumstances as they apply in this environment.

What I think is this film's greatest achievement is the way it touches on broad political issues without being in any way didactic or even judgemental. It tells a story about two young people, and the context in which they find their way through life and love. I think stories like this can play a big part in furthering the process of reconciliation, and more to the point, I think it's a great story.

10 June 2009

Lotte's Gift

Another uncomfortable trip to the theatre tonight. I am not entirely sure why I didn't enjoy this play, because on one level, it has all the things I love; a good story, great performances, and a novel approach to storytelling. And yet, it just didn't engage me.

The play is a one-hander, and it is the true story of the performer's grandmother, told through a conversation between them where the granddaughter learns her grandmother's deepest secret. And yes, a single performer with dialogue does mean that old naff idea of the person jumping from one character to another; but no, that's not why I didn't like it, because that performer, Karin Schaupp, manages to change character effortlessly, and David Williamson's 'dialogue' moves slowly, allowing the audience to move with her, and engage with the story. At least I think that's the intention. Having failed to engage, I'm not sure.

This is where Lotte's Gift left me in two minds. A good story, well told, and expertly written by one of the country's best playwrights. But it was just too slow.

26 May 2009

The Road to Guantanamo

There is a particular atmosphere in films that depict the victims of the Holocaust, and I found it incredibly disturbing to sense that same atmosphere in this excellent documentary recently aired on the SBS.

The Road to Guananamo is the story of several Pakistani Britons from Birmingham who found themselves caught up in the war in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 attacks, and who are ultimately imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being members of Al Qaeda. That this can happen to innocent travellers is hardly surprising, but the stories of their treatment at the hands of mostly American guards is no less shocking and outrageous than the many depictions of Jewish victims of the Nazis during World War II.

Apart from its moral position and emotional impact, which is similar to what I have felt when watching depictions of how the German Jews were treated in the early forties, what I found astonishing was the realisation of how conditioned I am. As these young men were relieved from their Afghani captors and handed over to the Americans, I felt, when I heard the American accent, a sense of relief; I felt their ordeal was finally over. Of course, the worse was yet to come, and the Americans proved themselves incapable of justice.

The film unselfconsciously takes advantage of our conditioning, allowing us to feel some confidence in the American gaolers before showing them to be as evil and conniving as their Nazi predecessors; and putting the story into this context highlights that the problem lies with the fascist element in the perpetrating society. While I cannot vouch for the voracity of the prisoners' accounts of their gaolers' actions, I am more inclined to trust their accounts than the rantings of governments beseiged by criticisms. What appalls me more than the behaviour of the American guards is the knowledge that Australians were imprisoned with these Pakistani Britons, and that our government was no more loyal to our people than the British were to theirs.

It is rare to see such a cogent and compelling story about the need to heed the lessons of history. While I know that the American people are every bit as honourable and worthy of respect as the Germans are, this film demonstrates that no people, least of all the Americans, should be complacent in holding their politicians accountable.

24 May 2009

Ruben Guthrie

I want to charge Brendan Cowell with writing a masterpiece in Ruben Guthrie, but I fear that would undermine the intense humanity of this work. This is Australian playwriting at its best, exploring Australian society with no sense of cultural cringe, and no sense of being old fashioned or quaint.

The promotional material for Ruben Guthrie repeatedly asks whether it is unAustralian to refuse a drink, but whether it is Australian or not is not really a concern for the central character, who you might have guessed is called Ruben Guthrie. His main concern is staying sober, not only within a nation that loves a drink, but within an industry where alcohol consumption is a selection criterion, and within a family with a strong love of the bottle. Brendan Cowell has dealt with his story's heady themes with a deft hand, plenty of humour, and stoicly (and wisely) refuses to answer the marketers' question.

What I found most remarkable about this play was the way in which Cowell has managed to show the fundamental failings of social programs that seek to address addictions or compulsions (such as AA's famous twelve steps), while also showing their effectiveness.

I recall reading some time ago Neil Armfield saying something about theatre being "necessary". The terminology has stuck with me, because many people see the arts as an optional extra, something to make life enjoyable, rather than a crucial building block of a healthy society. Ruben Guthrie eloquently articulates the reason why the arts, and especially the narrative arts, are necessary to a society, and in the process, it also highlights the inadequacies of the social work profession.

But that doesn't make it any less funny. In fact, it is yet another example of that spectacular Australian creation: the play that is, at once, both drama and comedy.

23 May 2009

All Shook Up

All Shook Up is a take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, in case you didn't know. I knew, and I think I missed half the show trying to figure out which characters corresponded to which Twelfth Night characters. Why did I do that?

As we have come to expect from Supa, All Shook Up is a great show that doesn't ask a lot of its audience. We joined the blue rinse set for today's matinee. It's not normally a good idea to go to a matinee, the audiences are usually a bit flat, and the performers suffer for it. This was probably true today, and yet what struck me was the technical precision displayed by the cast. Under the musical direction of Garrick Smith, the principal cast gave stunning performances of many of Elvis Presley's most popular songs, supported by an equally impressive ensemble.

It was a great show, although not a patch on Supa's recent productions of Buddy. It could have something to do with the music, but I think maybe I'm just a little too young to appreciate it the way the rest of the audience, who were mostly twice my age, did. It's a good show, but for my tastes it needed a little less sugar.

16 May 2009

The Seed

Iain Sinclair says in his director's note for The Seed that it is "one of those special pieces that help us see with fresh eyes". I will assume he is right, but for someone who has had little contact with Vietnam veterans or the IRA, fresh eyes are a given. And in these wars, which are both in a way secreted failures, some of us still need more information.

The thing is that while a little more exposition would have helped, it would also meddle with a well-balanced plot. You can tell a story about one of the World Wars of the twentieth century and assume reasonable knowledge, but these conflicts are a mystery to most Australians, even those who continue to feel their impact on their lives. Of course, that's why this story is so necessary.

The Seed, ultimately, is not so much about these conflicts as it is about how politics impacts individual lives and families. I find this fascinating, because we in Australia, and, ironically, especially those of us who live in Canberra, are largely unaffected by the goings on in Parliament House, and there are many Australians who never even consider that in some countries a change of government can turn people's lives upside-down.

While I found it somewhat difficult to relate to the solid and resonant performances of this impeccable cast of three, I felt that this was more to do with my own ignorance of Vietnam and the Irish struggle. I hope in time that we will experience many more stories of the wars that have been fought and lost.

15 May 2009

Big Voice

It's a good sign when all a performer has to do is stand on stage to elicit a hearty laugh from her audience. And although it seemed that much of Shortis and Simpson's fan club were sharing the auditorium with me, their laughter, tears and raucous applause were well-deserved.

Moya presents an autobiography, in a form I have never experienced before. She shares, mostly through music, and in a broad range of styles, I might add, her life. And as patchy as the story may be, it is told with a unique combination of elegance, wit, and pathos that warmly engages its audience.

Her description of her Surrey grandmother, whose accent made her sound as though she were singing whenever she spoke, was endearing, and I could not help but swell with anger as she related the story of how her year 2 teacher berated her for singing a harmony before the class had been taught it. Her journey back to a love of singing, and her rediscovery of it here in what was described to her as an 'uncultured' Australia, is the main theme of this show.

Moya says in the program:
"Whenever people hear that I started singing at age thirty-five, there is always the same astonishment. What I find astonishing is how many people have been stopped from doing something that I truly believe is a natural expression of creativity. It's mostly a family member or a teacher that has intervened at a critical stage, made a judgement on a voice, and effectively silenced the flow, often for ever."

While the style of the piece is clearly that of a baby boomer, Moya's story resonates with a generosity and simplicity that is often lacking in theatre. It even appealed to a relatively cynical Gen-Xer like myself.

04 May 2009

The Alchemist

It took a while, I think, for both the cast and the audience to warm up to The Alchemist on Monday night. Maybe it was the day, or maybe it was not quite what the audience was expecting from Bell Shakespeare, or maybe it was simply the language.

There are a lot of people who find Shakespeare's language difficult to understand. I have always found that the more I am working with the language, the easier it is to understand. It took some warming up, but I found Ben Jonson's dialogue less dense, and more accessible for my 20th century ears, than I usually find with Shakespeare. Maybe it has something to do with the nature of the humour, which is more pithy than Shakespeare's, and perhaps, as such, more akin to an Australian's sense of humour. The interpretation of Lovewit, performed by Russell Keifel, certainly played this up, with his use of a laugh and accent reminiscent of Bob Hawke.

Whatever it was, Bell Shakespeare's production of The Alchemist met my expectations. It was thoughtful, intelligent, imaginative, unencumbered by preconceptions, and thoroughly entertaining.

15 April 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

I've always been moderately fond of Danny Boyle's films. I wouldn't call myself a fan, I just notice his name on the end of films that I like quite regularly. Slumdog Millionaire is different. I loved it, and was shocked to see his name flash up at the end!

Although the plot is somewhat convoluted with a bit of ambiguity in its chronology, the story is intriguing, and although I went when I was kind of focused on something else (namely a meal at my favourite Lygon Street cafe), I was engaged quickly, and the film held my attention until the end.
There are some great performances from some child actors, and spectacular performances from the adult cast, but the star of this film is definitely the cinematography. From the slums of Mumbai to the Taj Mahal to the beauty of India's countryside, even the most dire of circumstances is presented beautifully, composed with a delicacy that is not common in films about this subject matter.
There aren't many films that successfully depict the horrible realities of our world and retain a sense of possibility and optimism, but Slumdog Millionaire does this beautifully. I suppose I will have to reassess my opinion of Danny Boyle. If he makes another film as good as this one!

08 April 2009


How much money do you think you could make with your party tricks? The cast of Stomp have developed a series of party tricks (and they're great party tricks), and have put them together for our viewing pleasure.

Apparently this happens every year, and the TV ad has been saying that Stomp 09 is fresher, faster and funnier, which is just as well because I got bored halfway through, and if it was any slower or less amusing I may not have sat it out. There are moments throughout that are indeed fast and funny (I'm not sure whether they're fresh, you'll have to ask the marketers what that means), and it was a fun night, but it left a lot to be desired.

Most of the audience loved it, three or four of the thousand people there even thought it deserved a standing ovation, and the raucous applause elicited an encore better than the show itself. Some children in the audience elicited some golden responses with their laughter, and the show would be excellent for a family, if you want to blow your entire stimulus payment on it, that is.

I don't want to be mean; the cast is talented, responsive to the audience, perfectly synchronised, and very entertaining; but I just can't help thinking that these are just glorified party tricks. They are great party tricks, they really are, but I just can't help wondering why no one pays $80 to come and see my party tricks. Actually, no: if their party tricks are worth eighty bucks a view, mine would only be worth eighty cents, but it still makes me wonder, where's my eighty cents?

So, the next time you're at a party and someone starts banging on a garbage bin, remember to give them their eighty cents. Apparently they're worth it.

06 March 2009


The Welsh are a strange people; not strange in an unpleasant sort of a way, just odd. Different. Unusual. And so it makes a kind of cosmic sense that Wales should be the first country to have one of their islands float off on a tour of the North Atlantic.

Tonight's performance of Floating at the Sydney Opera House has been one of the most profound experiences I have ever undergone. It was theatre in a most pure and hallowed sense; unique, fleeting, and momentary.

Hugh Hughes, the protagonist, foretells this, referring repeatedly to connection, and highlighting our disconnection from the world by running around the auditorium, touching the three walls and pointing out how they disconnect us from the outside world. The interaction with the audience continues as he and Sioned encourage the audience to say hello to someone they haven't met before and explain the structure of the show to come, handing around some objects relevant to the story. This introduction was said to usually last 20 minutes, but in our case, took 45. During this time, three groups of latecomers entered, the first of which was welcomed gently. When the second group entered, we were encouraged to applaud, but by the time the third couple entered, 25 minutes late, the audience needed no encouragement to give them a standing ovation, and Hugh generousy praised their courage at entering so late.

The humour was light and easy, not at all forced, and by the time Hugh and Sioned were able to begin their story, we were asked if we needed to go to the toilet. As an audience, we had formed a bond. Sioned passed around an inflatable globe, to illustrate how far from Sydney Anglesey was, and upon realising that it was a beach ball, the gentleman in the front row threw it into the auditorium and we tossed it around for some time. There came one point in the story when a woman in the row behind me was laughing uncontrollably, and an infection of laughter took over the entire audience for several minutes. Hugh engaged her in conversation and it became apparent that it was her birthday, so under Hugh and Sioned's encouragement, we all sang happy birthday to Sue. There also came a time when someone needed to go to the toilet, and Sioned said she needed to go too, so we arranged an impromptu interval and Hugh stayed and chatted to those of us in the front row and a gentleman who had come from somewhere deeper in the auditorium.

The connections made were so natural and simple and honest that you didn't realise what was happening until Hugh reminded us of the theme of connection that was at the core of this 'show'. The story, while well-structured and relevant, was almost incidental to the entire nature of the evening, and when the show was over, and the audience offered an unequivocal standing ovation to the performers, who remained on stage, there was a sense in the audience that we wanted to stay. I know I sat back down after the ovation, and felt that I could remain here, as part of this audience, forever.

I don't know whether it is the same at every performance, but since the Opera House's documentation for the show says it lasts 75 minutes, and since our performance with its interruptions from late arrivals and an impromptu toilet break lasted no less than 120 minutes, I doubt it. Each performance is completely unique, and I could happily return and see another if the Opera House wasn't so far from home. The hubbub from the receding crowd was much more enlivened than any theatre audience I've ever been part of, and the ease with which members of the audience, who had been strangers at first, chatted and engaged was remarkable.

Floating is theatre at its best. It engages, connects and responds in just the way that film doesn't. And in doing this, it achieves something remarkable: it highlights the disconnectedness of our societies and worlds without judgement or reproach, but by simply presenting an alternative way to be.

I could not bring my dear wife to see Floating, and ringing her afterwards, I couldn't explain what was so wonderful about it. I don't think I've done it justice here, but this is a fleeting moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Unless, of course, I suffer amnesia.

21 February 2009

I Hate Hamlet

I love going to Theatre 3. There is magic in the place. I don't care that the decor is old and tired, I only ever notice it for a moment, because before long you feel the atmosphere of genuine theatre lovers mingling and engaging, like Liberals in the Press Club or bikies in a pub. This was what it was like at Theatre 3 last night, especially straight after the curtain went down on the opening performance of I Hate Hamlet.

The plot revolves around Andrew, a successful television soap actor from Los Angeles, who relocates to New York after having agreed to play Hamlet in a non-profit production in Central Park. Problems arise when he reveals that he hates Hamlet, and mainly agreed to play the role because of his girlfriend's love for the play. Fortuitously, the ghost of the late, great actor Barrymore, who once occupied Andrew's gothic apartment and played Hamlet, can return to mentor Andrew through the process of preparing for the most important role of his life.

A couple of the people I spoke to afterwards expressed the same surprise I had; why had I not heard of this play? It was written way back in 1991, and is such an astute and passionate exploration of our attitudes towards Shakespeare that it shocks me to think that it isn't part of the curriculum of every university's theatre department. It looks quite deeply into the psyche of the greatest play of all time while still retaining a modern view that is unencumbered by social expectations about how we should view the bard. In short, it is respectful without being reverential. It treats the way society hallows Shakespeare with ridicule, while still holding a deep and profound respect for the man's humanity, wisdom and power.

When I first started my academic careerafter dropping out of high school and bumming around dead end jobs for a few yearsone of the first pieces of literature from the English Canon that I encountered was Hamlet. I struggled with it, and came to some kind of understanding of it, rudimentary as it was. Over the years my love for the play has deepened. In the twelve years since first reading it I have seen more than ten stage productions and every film I could clap my eyes on, and I have never been disappointed by modern theatre practitioners' capacity to glean some new kernel of wisdom from the pages. Just like Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, I Hate Hamlet further unpacks Shakespeare's story, treating it as a living, breathing work of art rather than a museum piece.

Canberra Repertory's production is simply brilliant, with the considerable talents and experience of Ian Croker in the role of Barrymore admirably matched by my old university classmate Glenn Brown as Andrew. Their swordfight was so much fun that I found found it difficult to resist the urge to get up and join in! The entire cast carries off the production brilliantly, with excellent comic timing (perhaps with a couple of hiccups that I am putting down to opening night), brilliant wit, and impeccable characterisation.

Now all I need is a show I can audition for with a sword fight...

04 February 2009

In Cold Light

It could almost be said that In Cold Light deals lightly with an issue of severe gravity. It could be said, if the play did not take itself so seriously.

Jarrad West gives a credible performance of the lead role, Christian Lamori; a Catholic priest summoned for questioning by a seemingly guileless inspector. With this character, writer Duncan Ley has deftly woven elements of a stereotype with the intensity of a tormented soul. This is mostly successful, but I felt that the use of an English accent for these characters lent the production a sense of remoteness that hindered my capacity to empathise.

Nonetheless, the play is a brilliant exploration of an aspect of humanity that we generally either avoid telling stories about or explore with very little depth. And the twist at the end is pure gold.