Light on the Hill: Reflections on a cultural history

While everybody’s proudly displaying the flag and eating damper and lamingtons, racing ferries up and down the harbour, hurling frozen chooks at Watson’s Bay, celebrating en-masse two-hundred and twenty-six years of nationhood (or one-hundred and fourteen and a bit, if you’re being pedantic), I’ve put together a list of a cross-section of books, films and pieces of music which encapsulate what my Australia is, how I see the nation and our chequered history.

Death becomes them: Sydney Festival & Belvoir’s Oedipus Schmoedipus

A disclaimer in the Belvoir foyer warns patrons that “this production contains all the bells and whistles including the use of loud noises, graphic violence and loads and loads of blood.” While early reviews did not quite know what to make of this production, it is safe to say that none of it is ever truly serious. Especially not in the hands of collective theatre group post who “take being silly very seriously.”
Oedipus Schmoedipus is a smorgasbord of over the top deaths and an outrageous amount of stage blood (all within the first ten minutes of the show). There are deaths by gunshot, knives, long-sword, cutthroat razor, throat slitting, and bomb, while various appendages are lopped with relish and groans of barely-disguised enjoyment. After this opening barrage of deaths, the stage is cleaned in a ballet-like effort by the stage management team, and the curtain is pulled back to reveal The Volunteers, post’s (not-so) secret ingredient in their madcap shenanigans. What follows is a forum about death, delivered by Mish Grigor and Zoë Coombs Marr with occasional interjections from the volunteers who follow prompts on screens set in the lighting rig. One carefully chosen-at-random volunteer enters and dies – in this performance, she sits on the ground, coughs once, then lies on the floor, playing dead. “What is that?” asks Coombs Marr. “What is that? What is that?” Her disappointment is only short-lived, as she and Grigor pun and non-sequitur their way around the often-taboo subject of death, dying, carking it, falling off the perch, kicking the bucket, meeting their maker, and various other euphemisms. Underneath the anarchy, the coordinated (and sometimes choreographed) chaos and the uncooperative backdrops, is a poignant and often quite unexpectedly frank discussion of how we all know it’s coming, sooner or later, one way or another, but we have no idea how or when, so we might as well enjoy those presented on stage in the meantime.

Red heart: Sydney Festival & Malthouse’s The Shadow King

“The greatest of all epics about nation, is finally an epic about our nation,” proclaims the promotional material for Sydney Festival’s presentation of The Shadow King, and there is much in this production to recognise, in both the Aboriginal nation and in the ‘white’ Australia. The first thing you notice when you enter the space at Carriageworks, is the red earth, a vivid orange only amplified by the lights. To one side sit a rock band – guitars, Hammond organ, didgeridoo – while the middle of the space is dominated by a marvellous overbearing metal evocation of a gargantuan mining truck which turns and slides forward, mechanised and invasive; violating the red sacred earth.
Directed by Michael Kantor from an idea by himself and Tom E. Lewis (who plays Lear), it follows much the same progression as Shakespeare’s text. It too is about familial conflict, power, land and entitlement; about learning humility, learning how to see when you are blind. Originally presented by Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre in 2013, we are introduced at the outset to the Fool (Kamahi Djordon King), who serves as a framing device for the telling of the story, all at once part of it and outside of it, a bit like a spiritual songman, drawing past present and future together. Eschewing Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter in favour of a contemporary translation workshopped by the cast in several local Aboriginal languages, the core of the story is never lost in translation, nor do you need subtitles; the language is just as expressive and direct as Shakespeare’s, and when spoken from the red earth, it breathes with a new life and vitality.


Hip-hOpthello: Sydney Festival’s Othello: The Remix

I’ve never had the opportunity to study Othello, either at school or at university. In fact, my first knowledge of the play came when I saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged] (in which all thirty-seven plays are performed in ninety-seven minutes) when I was twelve. Apart from teaching myself Hamlet’s ‘To Be’ soliloquy backwards, and their glorious conflation of the Comedies, the only thing I remember from it is their Othello Rap. Enter, then, Sydney Festival’s presentation of Othello: The Remix, by the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in an Australian exclusive. Not only is it, like the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s song, surprisingly accurate, but it too is enormous fun and is something of a masterstroke.


Lest we forget: Sydney Festival’s Black Diggers

Every so often a theatre production stands head and shoulders above everything else, a production that stands out as a landmark event because of its social and cultural significance, because of it’s bearing on the shaping of Australia’s national psyche. Sydney Theatre Company’s The Secret River was perhaps such a production. Now, a year later, Sydney Festival and Queensland Theatre Company, in association with the Balnaves Foundation, present Black Diggers, an ambitious and monumentally affecting production which shines a long-overdue light on the contribution of Aboriginal soldiers in the Great War.
Like The Secret River, Black Diggers comes at a time when we, as a nation, must face the past and learn from it, when we must acknowledge the contribution people have played in the shaping of the country we know today. Directed by Wesley Enoch, we follow the stories of several archetypal figures as they travel from their homelands to the battlefields of Gallipoli, the Middle East, and the Western Front. Far from being jingoistic or representative, the result is an engrossing, harrowing and emotionally charged one-hundred minutes of unavoidably powerful theatre that does not shy away from the ugly truths of war and its legacy.

Further on and further up: STC’s Travelling North

The idea of ‘going north’ is firmly rooted in the Australian psyche. Analogous perhaps with the great (American) road trip and the immense body of literature that has spawned from it, from Kerouac’s On The Road and Nabokov’s Lolita, to home-grown classics such as Michael Gow’s The Kid and Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (albeit partly in reverse), as well as the life-affirming Bran Nue Dae. There is the myth of the bush, the untameable wetlands and inhospitable red desert; the cattle-owners, the crocodile wrestlers, “the serial killers, salt-of-the-earth stalwarts, bigots [and] drag queens,” as Ailsa Piper writes in the program. Simply put, “the north is epic,” just as its allure is irresistible, and not just in a physical literal sense of ‘going north’.
The road trip has long been associated with coming-of-age stories and journeys of self-discovery. So it is in David Williamson’s Travelling North, presented here by Sydney Theatre Company. And while Williamson’s protagonists might be a generation or two older than most other literary road-trippers, the process of change and discovery, of soul-searching and path-finding, of going deeper in and further up, still speaks to our restless twenty-first century mindset as much as it did in 1979 when it premiered.


Could happen to anyone: pantsguys & Griffin Independent's On The Shore of the Wide World

First performed in 2005, Simon Stephens’ On The Shore of the Wide World is the story of the Holmes family as they try and negotiate their world, and how they deal with whatever life throws at them. Told across a nine month period, we follow the parents, the children and the grandparents, as they fall in and out of love, as they try to make sense of everything. As produced here, in its Australian premiere production by pantsguys and Griffin Independent, this Laurence Olivier award-winning play is all at once elegant, sprawling and startlingly honest.


Pride and prejudice: Disney's The Lion King

Let me play the lion too: I will roar, that I will
do any man’s heart good to hear me; I will roar,
that I will make the duke say ‘Let him roar again,
let him roar again.’
– Bottom, A Midsummer Night’s Dream [I.2.66-9]

Eight years ago, my year twelve English teacher showed us the first ten minutes of a film guaranteed to change the way we look at Shakespeare. In an empty coliseum in the dead of night, soldiers, dressed like figurines, poured into the ‘archetypal theatre of cruelty’ to the bold choric strains of a majestic fanfare. Horse-drawn chariots sat sidebyside with tanks and motorcycles, foot soldiers danced, their hands fused with their swords, and an old battle-wearied general addressed his people, cheered on by the echo of their ghostly cries. The film was Julie Taymor’s Titus, and that afternoon marked the beginning of many things for me, not least my fascination with Taymor’s work, both on stage and on screen.
In 1994, Disney’s thirty-second animated film opened in cinemas and set records instantly to become, twenty years later, the highest grossing hand-drawn animation in history. The film was The Lion King, and three years later, it roared onto the stage of the New Amsterdam theatre on New York’s Broadway as a musical, quickly becoming a critical and popular success, and spawning numerous concurrent productions internationally. Its director, Julie Taymor, had taken Disney’s beloved film and so thoroughly reimagined it for the stage that it was a beast in a class all of its own, without peer before or since. Where Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s first foray into theatrical musicals based on their film, was described as ‘animated Broadway,’ Taymor’s envisioning of The Lion King was pure full-blooded theatre. No other director working today has so audaciously mixed theatrical styles and techniques, or used cinematic conventions on a stage so audaciously, that no matter how hard you try to resist it, the story still affects you every time because its magic is so ephemeral and so vibrantly alive, so vividly present that you cannot ignore it.


This Is Our City In Summer

Each January, Sydney erupts into a kaleidoscope of colour, diversity and ideas with the Sydney Festival. Now in its thirty-eighth year, the festival is a smorgasbord of theatre, dance, music, arts and free events that take place across the city for most of January. As always, summer is a time to grab a picnic, head outdoors with your friends, and be in the life. And I wouldn’t miss it for the world. In honour of the 2014 Sydney Festival starting today, I decided to put together a playlist inspired by this year’s program.


2014, the year in preview

A new year – a fresh new slate of theatre, books, films, events, ideas. A brand new batch of reviews and thoughts, and some rather interesting goings on.
In Sydney’s theatres this year, there are many shows to look forwards to – such as Donna Abela’s Jump for Jordan, Jane Bodie’s Music, and a one-man production of Roald Dahl’s The Witches at Griffin; Hugo Weaving’s Macbeth, Jez Butterworth’s Mojo, adaptations of Cyrano de Bergerac and Children of the Sun, and Sarah Giles’ production of Perplex at Sydney Theatre Company; Once In Royal David’s City, The Glass Menagerie, and The Brothers Wreck at Belvoir; and Damien Ryan’s Henry V, alongside a late-period Romance in The Winter’s Tale from Bell Shakespeare. There’s Sport for Jove’s Twelfth Night and All’s Well That Ends Well at the Seymour Centre (to celebrate Shakey’s 450th birthday); Mark Kilmurry’s Richard III at the Ensemble theatre; the return of The Lion King musical; Black Diggers and The Shadow King at Sydney Festival, as well as a few aces I've got planned.