2012, the verdict

Here are my selections for the best, the worst and the otherwise of 2012. In no way definitive, it is based on my own personal opinions and evaluation of the past twelve months (give or take). You may not agree with my choices, nor do I claim to be any sort of real critic, but here it is nonetheless, the verdict on my 2012.


On Reading, Part Seven

To live is to dream. To dream is to want to escape. To escape is to read. Ergo, to live is to read, to read is to live. It’s a bit of a vicious circle sometimes, as I’ve mentioned on a number of occasions already this year – the need and want to read sometimes cannot match the volume and supply of books. Which is why I trawl through bookshops and libraries like fishermen do the ocean, hoping that amongst the shelves and thousands upon thousands of volumes there’ll be just one that catches my eye.
Everybody extols the virtues of Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap. And for that reason, I wanted nothing to do with it. I also don’t like the way he writes, the way he uses language, certain words peppering his writing like bullets. When I finally did get around to reading it, I wondered what all the commotion was and had been about. 


A moveable feast: Bell Shakespeare’s The School for Wives

Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. Invariably, they are both disappointed.
Albert Einstein

It’s November, eight weeks until the new year, and the city is in its holiday humour. I don’t think there is a better way to bring on summer than with a life-affirming comedy – such as one of Bell Shakespeare’s offerings – of which their production of Moliere’s The School For Wives is a perfect example.
Following on from her beautiful and ingenious production of Twelfth Night for Bell Shakespeare in 2010 (also the national tour production), Lee Lewis directs a new Australian translation of Moliere’s “comedic train-wreck of a love story that tangles innocence with arrogance – and the other way around.” Set in Paris in the 1920s, Lewis’ production borrows and riffs upon the aesthetic of silent films and is filled with a rollicking knock-about sense of life, self and body. It plays to and acknowledges its stylistic progenitor in a deliciously playful and whimsical way, every pratfall and moment savoured and delighted in by cast and audience alike.
The School For Wives tells the story of Arnolde (or ‘Monsieur de la Souche’ as he prefers to be called), a man who desperately wants to get married but is afraid that a smart woman will cheat on him. He devises an ingenious solution, and enlists the help of a local convent to raise a girl so stupidly innocent that she won’t know the first thing about cheating – let alone the last. In his mind she will be the ever-faithful perfect wife. But is she? In true Moliere style, much like a Shakespearean comedy, “the course of true love never did run smooth” and by the play’s end, the characters’ passions and desires have become so entangled only something akin to a miracle – or at least a heaven-sent miscommunication – could save them and right wrongs.


Oh, you pretty things: Puberty Blues

I’m not embarrassed to admit I’m quite a fan of the recent television series Puberty Blues. Perhaps for no other reason than because it is so good, because it stands out from the crowd, head and shoulders above the rest of the mediocrity on offer; because it is an engrossing piece of Television. 
Recently seen on Channel Ten, it is an adaptation of the 1979 book by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey. Written when they were just shy of twenty, Puberty Blues is a brutal and unsanitised portrait of seventies youth culture, a window onto a despairingly misogynistic world where (young) women were something worse than second-class citizens. In an episode of Australian Story from 2002, Kathy Lette describes the boys she grew up with in Cronulla as “[disproving] the theory of evolution. They were kind of evolving into apes. It would have looked much more natural if they squatted on their haunches and groomed each other.” It shows, both in the book and the television series. As an example of the vernacular of the time, especially in the surfing fraternity, the terms for sex were “‘rooting’, ‘tooling’, ‘plugging’, ‘poking’, ‘stabbing’ and ‘meat injecting’… And the terms for women were ‘bush pigs’ or ‘swamp hogs’; if you were very good-looking you got called a ‘glamour maggot’.” But as brutal as the book is in its depiction of the times and the attitudes towards women, it almost seems to be a caricature, the briefest of sketches. Maybe I’m too old or perhaps too cynical, but there is almost a lack of depth to the book which I was surprised at, considering its status as a ‘classic’, an important part of our cultural maturation. It focuses squarely on the (mis)adventures of the kids – whose ages are described as being thirteen in the book, but in the film and television series have been raised to sixteen – and everything life throws at them, with barely a mention of their parents or the adults in their lives.

The television series however, constructs the story as a set of two parallel narratives – that of the kids, and that of their parents – mirroring and contrasting one with the other. Produced by John Edwards and Imogen Banks, the pair responsible for much of the critically acclaimed television drama series’ of the early twenty-first century – The Secret Life of Us, Love My Way, Spirited, Tangle, Offspring – the series does not flinch away from depicting the times as they were, complete with their mannerisms, vocabulary, actions, and values systems, no matter how crude or backward they seem to us now. If anything, it perhaps works to its advantage, not to show us how far we’d like to think we have come, but to show us how far we haven’t. (Full points are also awarded for reintroducing the word ‘moll’ to the vernacular.) But the show belongs to the young cast who seem so uninhibited and natural; there’s an unadorned charm and intrinsic honesty to their performances, something that is definitely not acting so much as Being.


In too deep: Griffin's Between Two Waves

You think we’re like, actually all fucked? Like rising seas, and hurricanes and judgement and shit?

A white stage, a single lightbulb in the middle of the white ceiling. The black walls of the theatre. A blank slate, a fresh start. Except it’s not, not really.
Ian Meadows’ Between Two Waves is a bittersweet and immediately political relationship drama about climate change. It may seem an incongruous mix on the page – relationships and climate change – but when you think about it, it’s not that big a leap of the imagination to draw a direct correlation between the two. Seasonal Affective Disorder is not just a flippant way to explain away our despondency on a lack of sunshine or clement weather, something my good friend Rosie talks about on her blog. And as for climate change, we all know what’s happening – weather becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable from one year to the next; extreme weather events – floods, hurricanes, cyclones, drought, bushfires – becoming more frequent; temperatures rising unforgivably, unstoppably; icecaps melting, sea levels rising… They’re all phenomena which Ian Meadows’ Daniel has been researching and studying for ten years. Until the worst floods Sydney has witnessed destroys his research as well as part of his house. The irony isn’t lost on him, however, and as the play unfolds, we see Daniel’s grip on surviving in the face of catastrophe start to loosen. Something that isn’t helped by his partner, Fiona, when she tells him she’s pregnant.
It’s not just a play about climate change; it’s also a play about finding happiness and contentment in the face of uncertainty, of keeping calm and carrying on as the posters tell us. Originally written as a screenplay – a form to which it has aspirations – Between Two Waves is a gripping and engaging piece of theatre about the hereandnow, the very moment we’re being faced with now. Like so many books and plays and films out in the past six months, there’s a degree of anger and frustration to it, but it’s a passionate anger for the most part, anger at the way we’re dooming ourselves and the planet, hammering in the nails on the lid of our coffin with every passing day just that little bit more; anger at the lengths to which we’ll hide the truth, the way we interact with each other (or don’t), but there’s also a desperation – a need – to cling to those around us, to draw together when it all goes to shit.

On Reading, Part Six

I learnt a new word recently. Bibliobibuli. It means someone who reads too much. H. L. Mencken describes it as being “constantly drunk on books, as others are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.” For about a week at the end of August, that was me. For just one week, all I wanted to do was read, readreadread, read as much as I could and then keep going, straight on til morning. It was only when Mum told me to stop being so OCD that I stopped and looked past the end of the book and saw that it was perhaps true. This doesn’t happen often, in fact I don’t think it’s really happened before. And it only happened this time because of J. K. Rowling’s new book, The Casual Vacancy, which I talk about later.


What do you see?: Ensemble's RED

There is only one thing I fear in life, my friend…
One day, the black will swallow the red.

In the middle of his studio, Rothko sits, staring at a large (unseen) canvas, a cigarette burning in his fingers, his eyes eagerly darting around the large red expanse, the gaping hole on the wall. Around him lie the detritus and the carcases of his work: buckets splattered with dried and congealed paint the colour of blood; jars of pigments, boxes of receipts, bottles of Scotch, cartons of eggs; a phonograph, brushes, shelves overflowing. And behind him, a dropsheet covering a wall, spattered with dried paint in dark angry blobs. Enter Ken, Rothko’s new assistant, out-of-place in a grey suit. And Rothko asks him, ‘What do you see?’ 
It’s the underlying theme of the play – one of them, at least – the theme of looking, of seeing, of understanding and grappling with art. And, at times, it’s angry, it’s passionate, it’s impassioned, it’s frustrated, it’s defensive and defenceless; it’s human and intangible; emotional.


Toffs behaving badly: Belvoir's Private Lives

It seemed impossibly good to be true, too much of a dream to miss, the most tantalising of carrots to be dangled in front of subscribers a year ago when the 2012 season was announced: Ralph Myers directing Toby Schmitz in Noël Coward’s Private Lives. In a nutshell, the play is about two newly-wed couples – Amanda and Victor, Elyot and Sybil – who go on their honeymoon. To the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda were previously married, and now they’re are about to find out all over again why they got divorced in the first place. Considering Coward wrote the piece as a vehicle for himself (playing the role of Elyot, Schmitz’s character) and the censors tried to ban it upon its premiere in London in 1930, it’s pretty much still bang-on the money, still definitive in its wit, almost-perfect in its plot, and utterly beguiling in its critique of modernity and the rich, to paraphrase Belvoir’s season book.


Moonrise Kingdom: Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Wes Anderson

I don’t normally do this, write singular reviews or pieces about one film. It’s not because I don’t want to, but rather because most of the films I see don’t particularly warrant it, or that the various reviews found in the newspapers and online encapsulate my thoughts, if not to the letter then in the approximate vicinity. But every so often I make an exception. (My Honours thesis, in its own way, was an elongated piece on Across The Universe, but that was kind of different again).
Back in June, at the Sydney Film Festival, I fell in love with Wes Anderson’s latest film, Moonrise Kingdom. Intrigued by his style and the oeuvre he has built up over the past eighteen years and seven feature films, I recently watched all his films, some for the first time, and it was an interesting if slightly neurotic adventure. In many ways, Moonrise Kingdom is the epitome of Anderson’s oeuvre, a kaleidoscope that refracts and refocuses his distinctive stylistic traits and thematic concerns into their most concise, most emotional – most whimsical – evocation yet.


Unpredictable: Belvoir's Conversation Piece

The prospect is tantalising. “A group of actors and dancers meet on stage and begin the show with a short conversation about… Well, we don’t know yet. Each night it will be a different conversation – just an ordinary pre-show chat like [the audience themselves might have] – and this conversation will form the basis of the rather surprising performance that follows.”
Conversation Piece is a mad idea by any standard. By its very nature, every single performance of its three-week run is going to be different, unique, irreplicable; the very best example of an act of theatre – lost into the ether, contained only within the memories of its participants.
It’s also a wonderful show.


Like Me - thoughts for an as-yet-unmade film

This is an edited version of a document prepared in November 2011, prior to starting work on the project.

Like Me is, simply, As You Like It without the politics, the explicitly philosophical debates or the ‘clowns.’ In other words, it focuses squarely on the six ‘kids’ – Rosie, Cecelia, Orlando, Oliver, Silvius and Phoebe – and takes them to a farm out near Dubbo for a couple of days, long weekend maybe, and throws them all in it together. Over the course of the long weekend, relationships develop and blossom, truths are learnt, feelings made known and affections made clear. In the end, though, who gets who? It’s not as simple as it once seemed, not now anyway.
Before the film starts, Rosie is in a fight at school with Charlie who said she was a guy. (We may or may not see this). So she and Charlie were suspended, as was Cecelia by association. Four friends – Rosie, Cecelia (Cee), and their friends Oliver and Orlando (Oliver’s brother) – had long planned to go on a road trip together, and now that the long weekend is upon them, now seems as good a time as ever to get away and find themselves, discover each other. Silvius and Phoebe are also invited along for good measure; the more the merrier, or so they say.
As we meet them – Rosie and Cee, then Orlando, Oliver, Silvius and Phoebe (arguing, lost) – they find themselves on Orlando’s family farm, a slowly shrinking sheep run still pulling itself out of the recent drought. Besides the sheep, there is a forest that runs down and along the border of the farm and it seems the perfect location to set up camp… To paraphrase Chekhov, ‘it’s a comedy – three women’s parts, three men’s – and is set in a forest (on a sheep farm) with a great deal of conversation about Being and relationships, and five tons of love.’


On Reading, Part Five

August has been a slow month. Time seems to have elongated itself, gone backwards almost. Chronic time distortion syndrome, it’s called, at least I think so. Each day seems like a week, weeks turn into moths and they fly into lightbulbs. I read to escape, pretty much always have done so, and the only bad thing about it is when the experience is not worth it, is not worth the days and pages you’ve invested in it, when the author is condescending to the point of patronising, when they treat the reader like an idiot. When the reverse happens, when the book is as much a gem as it can be, when reading it feels like flying, when the characters seem to be your best friends, then it’s the most wonderful thing in the world. This month has seen both these cases, and if anything else, it confirms what I already suspected – that writing stories (anything, really) is one of the hardest and most rewarding things is to share it with people and see the smile on their faces when they’ve finished.

So. First up, I want to talk about David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. If you’re eagerly awaiting the Wachowski siblings’ new film (co-directed with Tom Tykwer) adapted from the same book, now would be a good time to stop reading and join us again after the break. And perhaps not; I don’t know what the film is like.
The main problem is the book’s structure, both its physical construction and in its nature. It is, in its most simple form, a set of six interconnected albeit truncated stories which, upon reaching the middle of the sixth story, reverse their order and conclude their respective narrative fragments. I don’t know if that’s such a good thing.


“Let me introduce to you:” How I met The Beatles

If you wanted to, you can pinpoint the day I started listening to music and looking at films. I mean really listening to music, obsessively, the same way I read books – trying to decode its mysteries and secrets, trying to work out why it makes me feel the way it does, trying to make sense of its sounds and melodies. Likewise with films, the way meaning and shots work together, how the disparate elements add to form the total (or not), how a film is made; how it all works.
July 2007, and I was meant to be writing an essay at school in study hall when I found out about Across The Universe, and… well, one thing led to another, and I found a trailer for it and fell in love with it – its colours, music, visuals, scope, diversity, sprawl. When it opened in Australia in November, I asked my two best friends if they’d like to see it with me, knowing they were huge Beatles fans, and so we went, and ‘everything changed’ that day, or so they say. From the film’s opening shot – a slow zoom in to Jude sitting on an empty windswept beach, as the waves fell upon the screen, intercut with archival images of protests and violence and revolutions; as the all frenetic agitated guitar of ‘Helter Skelter’ cut across it all, I remember thinking ‘so this is what it’s all about.’ The ‘it’ in question was the Beatles – their music, their lyrics, personas; their magic, their mystery, the phenomenon; their legacy. The film picked you up on “a wave of terrific Beatles songs” and catapulted you head-first through the decade of the Sixties – from the youthful innocence of the early days, to the experimentation and exuberance of the psychedelic era, to the violence and protests of Vietnam, to its ambiguous end. Two hours later, as the final strains of ‘All You Need Is Love’ faded over a girl standing on a rooftop, smiling amongst her tears, ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ played and the credits rolled, it was hard not to sing along. There was one point, I think, when the three of us were singing along, and we left the cinema grinning like maniacs, bouncing on the tide of energy and music that was the film.
‘Do you have any of the Beatles’ music?’ he asked.
‘No,’ I replied, immediately ashamed of the fact.
‘Right,’ he said. ‘We’re about to remedy that.’


On Reading, Part Four

Since finishing uni, my book consumption has dropped dramatically. Reading has always been a bit of an escape for me, something I do instead of doing what I’m meant to be doing, something that lets me escape the word around me and lose myself for a couple of thousand words, spend time with people I’d otherwise never have the opportunity to meet. Very rarely do I go anywhere without a book, even if it is just to feel the weight of words in my bag.
Berlin Syndrome by Melanie Joosten was one of this year’s Sydney Morning Herald Best Young Australian Novelist awardees, and is essentially, the story of two people – Clare and Andi – and their struggle of co-dependency, seen through the Stockholm Syndrome. Cleverly appropriating the Stockholm syndrome (from which the book is titled), we slowly see Clare and Andi’s world collapse in upon itself, their needs and want destroying the beautiful obsession which brought them together in the first place.

Hellbent: Bell Shakespeare’s 'The Duchess of Malfi'

“I know death has ten thousand several doors
For men to take their exits, and 'tis found
They go on such strange geometrical hinges,
You may open them both ways.”
 – The Duchess [IV, 2]

Elizabethan tragedies – and by extension, their natural Jacobean successors – are a strange bunch, all fire-and-brimstone, hellfire and damnation, a never-ending downward spiral of revenge and death and murder that ends only through the extinguishing of the lives of the play’s characters. Of all of the Elizabethan-Jacobean tragedies, none are better or more potently – delightfully, malevolently, gleefully – delicious than Shakespeare’s: Titus Andronicus, beneath the innumerable killings and murders and barbaric acts, is darkly comic and is an absolute blast; Macbeth is a potent examination of power, and what happens when you become drunk on its allure and promise; Othello is devastating in its misrepresentation of evidence, while King Lear and Hamlet are perhaps the pinnacles, the generally-considered perfections, of the form. Shakespeare was not just writing for himself, he was writing in reaction to those that had gone before him – Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd – and those that were writing around him – Ben Johnson, John Webster. Of all of them, it is Webster whose plays perhaps took Shakespeare’s achievements and reverted them to the glory-days of Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy or Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, denying the dramatic tragedy form of Shakespeare’s elegance and finesse, and restoring to it much of the robust and blatant disregard for humanity, along with all the bile and brimstone that one could muster. (If you’ve seen Shakespeare In Love, you’d already be familiar with John Webster; he’s the street urchin kid who’s often seen outside the theatres, playing with the cats and mice, and who facilitates Thomas Kent’s unmasking as Viola de Lesseps.)
This presentation of Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was written in 2006 by Ailsa Piper and Hugh Colman and first performed by the Red Stitch Actors Company under the title of ‘Hellbent.’ It’s a pretty accurate description of the play, to be honest, as the two brothers scheme and plot the maintenance of their sister’s chastity, her subsequent downfall and eventual death, along with that of her maid and husband (and former steward).


FRAGILE: IDEAS – THIS WAY UP: Remembering Brain Freeze

Four years ago, I assembled a group of friends and we made a film. We didn’t set out to blow our minds or create something of undeniable genius or change the world; we set out to make a film, have fun, and feel as though we’d created something special and wonderful out of a bunch of words on a page. That was our goal, our sole reason.
In a nutshell, the film – brain freeze – is about Leonard, a struggling author, and his attempts to end the writers’ block that has been plaguing him for the past eon. Onceuponatime, he was a successful author, but he hasn’t written anything for months. Desperate and at his wit’s end, he decides to go into his mind to see what old ideas he can use. But as he soon finds out, his characters have other ideas.


Fighting the American Dream: Belvoir’s Death of a Salesman

                   Will you take that phoney dream and burn it before something happens?
                    – Biff

Alone on a bare stage, stands a white car, headlights carving into the dark like twin knives, the tail lights a fiery glow on the back wall, the dream already on fire. As the houselights darken, a figure is revealed in the car – Willy Loman, the titular travelling salesman. Considered one of the staples of the American dramatic canon, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is about “a man refusing to let go of the false dreams we were all once promised.” It’s not a pretty play, either; rather, it’s grueling and harsh and unforgiving and brutal, ferocious even, in its depiction of this crumbling dream.


Occam's Opposite: ‘Anonymous’ and the authorship of Shakespeare

For a bit of a laugh, I decided to watch Roland Emmerich’s film Anonymous, half-expecting to turn it off in the first ten minutes. But as the film progressed and the end credits rolled, I found myself enjoying it tremendously. From its cleverly staged time-shift to its impressive recreation of Elizabethan London, the viewer cannot help but be drawn into its cesspit of intrigue, danger, romance, politics, and theatre. As you may have gathered by now, I am a Bardolator, a staunch Stratfordian, and I don’t think for a minute that anyone other than the William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon wrote those thirty-seven plays, one-hundred-and-fifty-four sonnets and five narrative poems that are often cited as being the first modern works of literature in the Western canon. I’m not going to spend much time or space here on the illogicality and implausibility of Emmerich’s film or the scholarship that informed it, nor do I want to stand on my soap-box and wax lyrical about the genius of Shakespeare, because it is boring and has been done before, and it’s not what this is about. All I want to do here – all I aim to do, as with everything else on this blog – is to write about my thoughts on the film.


Infinite Stories: Sydney Film Festival 2012


Each May, the Sydney Film Festival program comes out and I trawl through it, circling films in pencil, making notes on them, trying to work out which ones I do, don’t and wouldn’t mind seeing, working out the eleven days of the festival around whatever else it is I’m doing then. For the past few years, uni got in the way of fully enjoying it properly (at all, in fact) so last year was my first year, and I thoroughly enjoyed the seven films I saw (especially Joe Wright’s Hanna, along with the symphonic expanse of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Tran Anh Hung’s Norwegian Wood). This year, even though there might’ve been a smaller selection of films that I was interested in, it was – on the whole – another enjoyable experience.
My first film this year was the repeat screening of the Opening Night film, Peter Templeman’s very-Sydney Not Suitable For Children – the film, so the joke goes, whose title doubles as its classification. I’m going to say straight off that it is one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far, and definitely one of the best Australian films of recent years (along with Leon Ford’s Griff The Invisible, also starring Ryan Kwanten).


Belvoir's Old Man

I know I will look back on this day as an old, old man.

There’s a kitchen table. Another kitchen table. Four chairs. Two bowls stacked neatly in the middle, spoons. In the darkness, the shuffle of feet, and as the lights rise, we see Daniel (Leon Ford), stretching against a chair, arms outstretched on its back. As he starts speaking, we know something’s not right.
“Something is missing,” we are told in the season book. “The phone is not working, and the kids’ toys are not in their usual spot under the television. In fact, [Daniel’s] wife and children seem to have disappeared.” We’re not told how or when, nor even a why; they just are. Missing, gone, disappeared. As Daniel begins to try to piece it together, tries to make sense of it, we meet his mother (Gillian Jones) and later his wife, Sam (Alison Bell), and kids, Charlotte and Harry. This part, Part One, is strung through with a strong sense of loss and losing, of the vacuum that exists when the carpet is torn from under your feet and you’re left struggling to pick up the pieces. And we are never told what happened, why they are effectively in disparate albeit overlapping places. Part Two begins after a lengthy (somewhat clunky) interlude of blackout, and is immediately – noticeably – different for its presence and abundance of activity and life, of its warm familial feel. Like Part One though, Part Two is also strung through with a sense of loss or a vacuum (albeit, not as strong as the former), the hole that exists from not knowing one’s father (or, more specifically, one of your parents), how you might try and fix that if it is at all possible.


Food with your play: Belvoir's Food

I’ve got a thing for theatre involving kitchens. Not necessarily sinks, just kitchens; little theatres of life, crucibles of thought and action, meeting places; familial communal spaces. I’d heard good things about Food, playing at Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre – very good things, in fact – and so this review comes from the closing weekend of its (already extended) season, something which only adds to the performance, I think: that it could be as fresh and as moving as it did at the end of its run means it’s a strong well-crafted piece of theatre. It’s about sisters Nancy and Elma who run a takeaway ‘restaurant’ on a highway, somewhere in Australia. Amongst the endless cycle of preparing food, the daily rut of serving the same customers the same thing day after day, comes a stranger, Hakan, a young traveler, who slowly – quickly – manages to bring the two sisters together, turning their world(s) upside-down.


Things I’ve learnt at university (an un-definitive list).

If you’d asked me a year ago why I was adding an Honours year to my degree, I would’ve said it was to prolong – delay, even – the having to make a choice about what I wanted to do, delay the having to ‘get a real job’ thing and all the stuff that accompanies not being a student, like bank fees, and ridiculously priced everything.
Initially I didn’t want to do Honours (why would you voluntarily add another one to two years onto your degree?) for the simple reason that it involved writing a thesis of twelve to fifteen thousand words, something which scared me stupid. (It was only once my supervisor told me to cut bits out that I realised I’d written more than I thought I would, more than I had ever written before. Now, I know I can at least write something in the vicinity of sixteen-thousand two-hundred words all told, and I’m still not sure if it’s what I set out to write.) After I’d actually figured out how the hell you actually ‘do’ Honours – how to get the balance of researching, processing your research, writing ideas, and meeting with your supervisor every three to four weeks right – I realised that, as strange as it sounds, I actually liked the researching bit, the finding of as much stuff as you possibly can and digesting it all, seeing what comes out, what connections and ideas you can come up with, the hitherto unnoticed patterns that may become apparent. If there’s one thing I know I am going to miss about university, it’s the library and all the journals and databases you’re given access to.


On Reading, Part Three

A colleague at work asked me a while ago how many books I’d read in a year. I replied that it was ‘a lot,’ and that I’d never really counted properly before. So, these bi-monthly entries are that attempt, a record of the books I’ve read this year with commentary and thoughts on the patterns, the images, the styles that I come across.

Perhaps the first truly noteworthy piece I read in this instalment was This Year’s Ashes, a play produced by Griffin Theatre Company in November 2011, written by Jane Bodie. It had received good reviews and I wanted to see it, but as with many things, time conspired against me and it closed before I could get a chance to find an evening to go. There’s something about reading plays that I find wonderful: on one level, I see them playing out as if in real life, like a film I spose, with the scenes being cut together without the blackout or change in lighting state and or costume that you get in theatre. On another level, I see them as they might have been performed in the theatre (if I didn’t see them performed, that is), and I try to imagine how they would’ve been staged, how it would’ve all worked. And on another level, I look at how the scenes are ordered, how the characters are written, how the play is written, how it all works, trying to work out what makes it tick.


A day at the festival

Each May, the Sydney Writers’ Festival rolls around and I look at the program of events, highlight a few that interest me and then… do nothing about it. I realized the other day that the last time I went to the Writers’ Festival was in 2004 with school, (I’ve still got the ticket stub for it somewhere).
But this year, seeing how writing is what I want to do and what I love doing, what I’m passionate about, I thought that it would be beneficial – productive – if I went to something. So I consulted the program and chose three events that sounded interesting (there were others, but other factors had to be taken into consideration) and, as luck would have it, they were all on the same afternoon. I’m not going to go into the nitty-gritty details of each of the three events because it won’t mean anything, but I do want to make a few observations.


Belvoir's Strange Interlude

The whiteness is total, all encompassing. Like a void, it swallows the vanishing point into its depths so you are convinced something strange is happening in the fabric of reality. Like the backdrop in a photographer’s studio, Robert Cousins’ set for Belvoir’s latest production (a Simon Stone rewriting of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play) creates a blank page in the open book of Belvoir’s corner. Ingenious in its simplicity, it recalls Peter Brook’s at-the-time groundbreaking A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1970, the foremost example of Brook’s ‘empty space.’ You might’ve seen the pictures – a white cube of a set, with doors and panels set in its walls, swings hanging from the flies, the giant red feather of Titania’s bower, the actors dressed in brightly-coloured costumes, purples, reds, yellows, blues, greens; a circus-like aesthetic, as it’s often been described as – and as the play progressed, you could tell that the audience too, was aware of the intertextuality, the meta-theatrical allusions at play. Much of what Brook wanted to do in his Dream, was to strip away the tradition of realism that theatre had become entrenched in since the 19th century, and liberate it into a heightened realm of metaphor and symbolism, where the audience was part of the theatre-making process, involved implicitly in completing the circle of theatrical illusion.


Cold Boiled Potatoes: Griffin's The Story of Mary MacLane by Herself

Few things feel as cosmic as a cold boiled potato at midnight. 

The first thing that struck me was how small the foyer was, how the theatre’s capacity ended up spilling outside (a street party in Griffin’s foyer). One hundred and five people in close proximity creates its own weird alchemical energy, almost as if you’re reading from the same sentence of the same book. I used to (and still do) think that Belvoir’s ‘open-book’ corner stage was intimate, but Griffin’s precious diamond, its wedge-like stage among the seating banks takes intimate to a new level. Which, for the productions they do, seems to work a treat.

In the program, musician Tim Rogers is described as a “prancing satyr,” and it’s actually not far off the truth. From his opening dialogue with the musicians (violin and double-bass), he had a puckish raconteur-like effect on proceedings, his eyes glinting mischievously, hinting at a secret truth. It was Rogers who kept the ball rolling when Mary MacLane (a wonderfully mercurial Bojana Novakovic) rebelled against the show and disappeared off-stage, returning with a green shopping bag filled with her own possessions and diary. The line between artifice and reality, show and life, was blurred throughout, and you almost got the impression that, if MacLane hadn’t been a historical figure from the early twentieth century, then she could have been an alter-ego of Novakovic’s without much of a stretch of the imagination. (Popular opinion has taken to calling Novakovic’s MacLane ‘BoClane,’ a rather succinct way of phrasing this duality.) “You see only an impression... the impression of an impression impersonated by an imposter... She is a stupid, pompous, pretentious actress," (p22-23) she says at one point, and it’s hard not to hear Novakovic talking here, perhaps when viewed in light of her diary, read by Rogers to mock-comic effect, which speaks of being bored and angry with the production, with being someone she’s not.


To build a globe

London, 1598. 

Picture a theatre in Shoreditch, a tall polygonal building, a wooden O, with tiered galleries facing a stage, a wooden embrace able to house three-thousand bodies in rapt entertainment. It is London’s first theatre, owned by James Burbage, a businessman and impresario, father of Cuthbert and Richard, the latter a soon to be well-known actor. Creatively enough, theirs is named the Theatre, the first and only of its kind for sometime. Outside the city walls, anything is possible. Here, dreams are made and acted out by men playing at soldiers and braggarts, kings and queens, lovers, tyrants, gods and mortals; a kingdom for a stage, princes to act and monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

This winter, in 1598, the Burbage’s and their company of players, the Chamberlain’s Men, players to the Her Majesty, found themselves in the unpleasant place of having a landlord who wanted his land back, preferably without a theatre on it. Only trouble was, as players and theatre-folk, the theatre was their only means of survival. Sure, they could have toured, but every touring company needs a base, needs a home ground, a waterhole, a place of succour and refuge; their place. The Burbage’s called a council of war, a meeting of minds, where each of the shareholders in the Theatre met to voice their concerns. Present that night was a man who has since become legendary, a William Shakespeare of Stratford. As the night lengthened and their wits wandered, desperate to find a solution to their darkest hour, a candleflame flickered in that marvellous mind.


Upon the heath: Bell Shakespeare's Macbeth

The houselights go down and you’re plunged into blackness. Thick total inky suffocating blackness. The audience begins to shift uneasily in their seats, caught off guard, until at the rear of the stage, a thin shaft of light illuminates a disembodied face hanging, impossibly, upside-down from the ceiling. We soon realise it’s a mirror, or what passes for a mirror, and it speaks – all at once female and male, its timbre trebled and possessed – and the alltoofamiliar opening lines of the play echo confusingly around the theatre. As the lights rise on the stage, we see a gently raked space – the “blasted heath” – a scattering of gravel, dirt, and tussocky grass. Suspended above it is a black reflective panel, the counterweight to the heath, a mirror for all intents and purposes. And the play begins.

Bell Shakespeare’s first production for 2012 is Macbeth (or ‘The Scottish Play,’ if you’re a superstitious mug), directed by Peter Evans. It’s a play about politics and power, rumours and gossip, witchcraft and lineage, kings and courts, and was written around 1605 in response to the Gunpowder Plot. All that is merely historical context to this production which, true to Bell Shakespeare’s ethos and house-style, is in modern-dress, a fusion of 21st century jeans, boots and shirts, and 1940s elegance, in the lords’ bright cerulean blue jackets and Lady M’s dresses. Director Peter Evans (who directed Julius Caesar for Bell Shakespeare in 2011) wanted to focus more on the people and the power, the relationships and humanity of – in – the play, than on the politics, a decision which gave the play a weirdly languid dynamic and yet one of the most insanely gripping and astoundingly brilliant endings I’ve seen yet.


On Reading, Part Two

I suppose I should continue on from the first post; it’s no use having a part one without a part two or three. While I may be writing my Honours thesis, reading is like my keep-sane, my distraction, my sleep-inducer at days’ end; I can’t recall the number of times I’ve fallen asleep with a book open on my face or woken to find it splayed open on the floor beside my bed like the carcass of some wond’rous beast.

The first book of note this time around is The Children’s Bach, by Helen Garner. I’d heard things about her earlier book Monkey Grip, in that it was meant to be a classic and all that (Penguin recently republished it as one of their modern classics in their iconic orange-and-white covers), but compared to her later book, Monkey Grip was empty, a constant cycling of same-old same-old. The Children’s Bach is entrancing from the outset – using the idea of a book of music as the loosest of frameworks, what you end up with is a series of linked vignettes, rhapsodies on a theme of life if you will, and they are as elegant, as mundane, as heart-warmingly extraordinary in their ordinariness as they are in their rhythm and essence of human behaviour. The way Garner captures her characters’ eccentricities and mannerisms, the way you feel a part of their household sucks you into the story so seamlessly, is just magical. It's like a more intimate Cloudstreet – in that its scope isn't as rambling, but it's just as eccentric and acutely captured – as good as it in its own way, on its own strengths, on its own terms. Their conversations have an otherness to them, that they could be happening anywhere at any moment but they still seem extraordinary in their construction and phrasing; the images they conjure of the books’ inhabitants are just beautiful.
‘But I like the mother,’ said Poppy. ‘Athena’s perfect, isn’t she.’
‘Perfect - you reckon?’ said Philip.
Elizabeth looked at him. ‘She’d have to be, to live up to the name.’
‘The goddess of war,’ said Philip.
‘I didn't mean that perfect,’ said Poppy.
‘Of war and needlecraft,’ said Elizabeth. [p66]


Every Breath wasted

I'm still asking myself ‘why?’ Juvenile, immature, ludicrous, preposterous, silly, self-indulgent, are all words I’d use to describe this production. It was a case of nudity-because-I-can-get-away-with-it, and I don't think I can begin to expound upon how completely pathetic a waste of 80mins of my life it was.
Benedict Andrews, Every Breath’s writer and director, has a lot to answer for in the current Sydney theatrical scene. Perhaps the man who single-handedly bought pretentious wanking back onto our mainstages (literally, intellectually, metaphorically), Andrews is famous for the continuous stream of gold confetti in STC’s War Of The Roses (as well as continuous streams of ash and rain, not to mention Prince Hal performing fellatio on Falstaff), as well as the seagulling of Chekhov’s Seagull, and the ‘sexy’ power-fuck of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure.


Mirrors, or The Play Chooses You

O, is all forgot?
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?
A Midsummer Night’s Dream [III.2]

Preamble: People often talk about having a favourite Shakespeare play, the one play that they love and admire above all the others, for any number of reasons. While it’s a fantastic thing, I also think it’s not possible to have just one favourite Shakespeare play for ever, for the simple reason that as we go through life, so too do our tastes change; we keep looking in the mirror and seeing new things reflected back at us.

By my own admission, while I am a Shakespeare tragic, a bardolater if you will (I used to joke I had Bard flu), and have been for a number of years (since Year Twelve, if it matters), but it’s only quite a recent thing for me, if we talk about the passion and drive, the underlying connection to his oeuvre. Before that time, like a lot of people, Shakespeare was just this guy, you know, who wrote some plays about four-hundred years ago, and people think he’s pretty okay still… I never really ‘got’ why Shakespeare was Shakespeare, why he held such a godlike position in the literary canon. Okay, yes, Mum and Dad took me to see ‘The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)’ when I was twelve, and I ‘got’ enough of it to thoroughly enjoy myself. (I particularly remember the ‘balcony scene’ in Romeo and Juliet. One actor knelt in front of a chair with three tiny flowerpots strapped to his head, while another actor stood on the chair with a small watering can. ‘The balcony scene,’ the waterer said, deadpan, and the audience roared and applauded.) You could say that was the beginning, if you really wanted to.

But if you think about it, this idea of having a sequence of favourite Shakespeare plays, whether we like it or not, is actually a part of our education. Consequently, I have a theory happening, and I’m beginning to think it’s more purposeful and subtle, more conscious, than we’d ever assumed at first.

number one cloud street

Tim Winton. Where do I start?

I think cloudstreet is unarguably his best piece of (serious) work. But… To be forthright, as much as I love his style of writing, I have a problem with his books, as whole pieces of work. They are sparsely written with hauntingly simple yet achingly eloquent language and subtly vivid descriptions. Once you step back and look at them again, however, you realise how hollow and empty they are, like waves; there’s all the build up (and promise) in the world, but once it breaks and another book has been read, you wonder what all the fuss was about. Throughout everything Winton wrote pre-cloudstreet, you find traces and fragments of the themes that would come to define his masterpiece, as if they were all experiments before he found the right recipe. Post-cloudstreet, everything he writes is trying to be cloudstreet, as if he’s trying to recapture the seemingly effortless wonder and economy of storytelling he employed so magically in his sprawling story, trying to recapture the epic lovefest that surrounds Australia’s favourite book about itself. I think part of the problem is that because of cloudstreet, and the way it’s loved by everyone (I may be exaggerating, but it seems not too far off the truth from my experience), people are willing to overlook or turn a blind eye to the lack present in his other books. (Critics don’t help much here, either; they seem afraid to point out the inadequacies of the emperor’s new clothes, and instead fall over themselves in their emphatic and borderline sycophantic praise for everything Wintonian.)

Magic Lantern: Dickens200

Everyone’s jumping on the bandwagon with the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens this year, (and, alarmingly, it started in the last quarter of 2011, when the occasion wasn’t until 7th February 2012), so I’m adding my bit to the blacking pot.
To start with, I’m going to put this right out there, in big shiny glowing letters. I find it very hard to read Dickens, all and any of his books. I struggled through Oliver Twist because I was reading it for a school assignment, and while I enjoyed it to a degree, I just wanted to cut through all the verbosity and get through it. Actually, so far as I can recall, that’s the only one I’ve read all the way through, the whole thing. If anything, I find it easier to watch the television adaptations of Dickens’ books than to read them, and it’s not as strange as it sounds. Dickens’ books, by their nature and the way they were written and published, are rather complicated, convoluted and meandering: characters come and go as they please, disappearing for some good many parts, only to reappear at the end (when you’ve forgotten who they are, so you have to scramble madly back through the book to find them again) to get their comeuppance or reward and be sent on their merry way again; three or more plot lines run simultaneously so you have a hard time of remembering who every one of his exquisitely drawn characters are… Because of their length, and the way they were serialized with parts appearing in monthly installments, the television series format suits them perfectly, more so than film, and it comes without the forgetting of characters and the convoluted simultaneous plotlines.

Tiny Apocalypse: Belvoir's Babyteeth

                                   “Lean back. I've got you. Find a bit of sky.” 
                                    – Part One

For the past two years (this being my third), I’ve held a season subscription with Belvoir St Theatre. Initially it was so I could get tickets to see the inimitable Geoffrey Rush in Diary of a Madman in December 2010, but it’s grown to be more than just that. There’s something magical about that corner stage of Belvoir’s, a rare magic, where the audience and actors play to each other, where the energy is never lost in the gaping chasm between the proscenium arch and auditorium, where everything is highly focused, cornered even; where you feel like something special is happening.

In 2010, the highlights for me were Love Me Tender by Tom Holloway, Gwen In Purgatory by Tommy Murphy, and Diary of a Madman with Geoffrey Rush and Yael Stone. In 2011, with the rebranding of Belvoir and Ralph Myers’ first season as Artistic Director, the standouts for me were Neighbourhood Watch by Lally Katz, and As You Like It, directed by Eamon Flack. (Never before have I had so much fun in a theatre than with As You Like It, and never before have I actually wanted to see a show more than once. Also, I have never seen such brilliant sheep as that cast created during interval.) This year, I think the biggest promise was Babyteeth, a new play by Rita Kalnejais, directed by Eamon Flack, and billed as “a mad, gorgeous, bittersweet comedy about how good it is not to be dead yet.”

On Reading, Part One

Some years, I make a list of books I'd like to read that year. Some years I give up halfway through, some years I barely scratch the surface of the list before giving up entirely, other years I get a fair whack of the way through it before I find other books to distract me and I never finish it. So this year, I thought I'd stick to a small list of books that I'd like to read, have been meaning to read, have never got around to reading, that I should've read before now but haven't, and see how far I get through it. As a loose kind of rule, there has to be a modicum of classics balanced by a similar quantity of newer books. Books that make awards lists are generally avoided, as I have found that more often than not, they’re not exactly wholesome and rewarding books. Bear in mind, though, that I will not elaborate upon every book I read, just some that I feel deserve it.

The name is Sherlock Holmes, and the address is 221B Baker Street

I wrote this article for a project a friend and I are collaborating on. We hope, however naively or misguidedly, to write our own episode of the BBC series Sherlock, fitting in between episodes two and three of Series Two as broadcast.

As far as silhouettes go, I think Sherlock Holmes’ is one of the most recognisable, even if it is entirely and utterly wrong. In the original stories, Doyle never described Holmes as wearing an Inverness cape or a deerstalker; instead, what we know today is a late-Victorian perpetuation of a stereotype and icon which has been compounded by the cinema and popular culture to the point of ludicrousness.


In this world, not dissimilar to our own, there is magic and pain and death and bank statements; people dance on rooftops, and sing songs to stones; skies are like Turner watercolours, and the light a Debussy nocturne. People meander, their paths crisscrossing like spiderwebs, shared events collecting like dew on their strands. Everything is anything and something is never nothing.

Here, on these pages, anything is possible, if only you’d stop for a moment to see…

canvas of life

We start our lives as a blank canvas. We start with the childish scribble, the first grasp of self-expression and shape, then the careful-colouring-within-the-lines; then the whimsy of endless daydreams of ‘what if…?’ and the formation of life-ambitions; in high-school, we learn about light and shading and nuance, perspective and empathy and style. As an adult, we try to cling to the person we once were, the person we want to be. And in the end, our canvas resembles a Pollack, with lines and squiggles (and lost car keys) and notes and meaning everywhere, phrases and quotes and portraits, letters of love and rejection; bloodsweatandtears.
- 28/09/2011