Monday, 24 April 2017

Old and New, Glass and Rachmaninov

Image result for alexander Malofeev
Alexander Malofeev

I had a wonderful experience with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra on Saturday night. An 80-year-old American man gave us the rhythms of life, then a 15-year-old Russian boy gave us the melody of life. Alondra de la Parra, from Mexico, was in charge of all. Almost Trumpian geopolitics.
The Philip Glass Symphony No. 11, commissioned by the Bruckner Orchestra, the Istanbul International Music Festival, and the QSO, had its second ever performance, following its January premiere at Carnegie Hall in NYC on Glass's 80th birthday. We heard the repeated rhythms of living, and the jagged.
The audience loved this new work from an old man.
Then an old work from a boy when Alexander Malofeev ravished the Rachmaninov Second Piano Concerto, that miracle of melody. This Russian prodigy, winner of the 8th International Tchaikovsky Competition in 2014, is the real thing, brilliant and brave. We leapt to our feet. Nice to know that in July last year he recorded his debut DVD in the Queensland Conservatorium Theatre, performing works by Tchaikovsky, Medtner and Liszt.
A Medtner Fairy Tale encore was a blast.
A nourishing night of life's contrasts and contours.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Ripples of Hope

I am in the middle of directing Tommy Murphy's new play, Mark Colvin's Kidney, for Sydney's Belvoir. It's been extraordinary.   

I remember being glued to the Leveson Inquiry. All that rigorous interrogation and the testimonies of the famous, including a fragile-looking Rupert Murdoch. It felt like we were witnessing the fall of a media empire. It felt like the world was about to change and that ‘truth’ and ‘ethics’ and ‘justice’ would somehow flourish.

Five years on, that feeling is foreign. ‘Alternative facts’ fight with the truth, and justice for many seems more distant than ever.

I was not aware of Mary-Ellen Field’s story until Tommy Murphy, that most intrepid of playwrights, brought it to my attention. Things struck me with immediate force. Here was a very successful woman, a member of the Conservative Party, who bit by bit had her natural faith in the cornerstones of British justice eroded. More specifically, here was someone who had been treated savagely by the media and yet decided to give her kidney to a journalist. How does that happen?

Altruism is mysterious. Evolutionary biology and neurobiology tell us that we’re hardwired for it, but that the trigger can be untouched. We are often suspicious of those who say they expect no reward for their kindness. The idea of absolute selflessness (is there such a thing?) doesn’t quite gel in times when empathy seems to be in such short supply.

But, it happened. Mary-Ellen gave Mark Colvin, that exemplary journalist, a kidney, that spectacular centre of the body’s waste disposal system. That act of kindness, in its private, personal way, helped to cleanse. It added, in its modest way, to the sum of goodness in the world. Perhaps, in the face of crushing malice and injustice, that is the best we can hope for. Perhaps, though, such acts, however small, accumulate and cultivate.

Perhaps Mark Colvin’s Kidney can be part of that current, its own ripple of hope.

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

(Robert F. Kennedy, Day of Affirmation address delivered at the University of Capetown, South Africa, June 6, 1966)

Friday, 7 October 2016

Have you ever been to a movie?

Senator James Paterson wants Blue Poles sold, and all funding of arts and sport stopped, to help pay off our national debt.

The estimated $350 million the painting might gather would represent about 0.07% of our $470 billion gross national debt.

Paterson claims that we "fund $7 billion a year into the arts". He's wrong. Federal spending on the arts this financial year is $639 million. Not even close.

The budget he's referring to is the culture budget and includes everything from arts, the ABC, libraries, museums, and even zoos. I imagine he's not actually suggesting we wipe all those things away. Or does the Senator genuinely believe that a society with a little less debt is better than one with libraries, a national broadcaster and working artists? Has he ever been to a movie?

Does the Senator also realise that the $7 billion government investment in culture makes a $50 billion economic impact? Does the Senator mean that we should ignore this return?

Does the Senator understand the reality of "subsidy"? Very few areas of our society are not subsidised.

Mining gets about $4 billion a year in government subsidy. The big four banks – among the world’s most profitable – are subsidised, through various provisions, by almost $6 billion a year. Education, agriculture, health and manufacturing are all heavily subsidised. Maybe that's as it should be.

Whatever view you take on government support of these sectors, it's fair to say that the arts sector is one of the nation’s least subsidised.

It's telling that when the Senator refers to Blue Poles, he talk of now being a good time "to cash in on our investment". Is that the language of someone who understands the place of arts in a society? It appears that Blue Poles is only worth something when it's sold.

I'm reminded of Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

On the Value of Arts and the Place of Subsidy

[A version of this piece was first published in The Courier-Mail on 5 September 2016] 

More Australians go to art galleries each year than go to AFL and NRL games combined. The creative industries employ more people than agriculture, construction or mining.

Around one million people will experience this year’s Brisbane Festival, Brisbane’s international arts festival. Theatre, dance, circus, music, stand-up? With almost 500 performances across three weeks, it’s all on the menu.

How do we value this love for arts and culture?

A festival is a remarkable thing. People relax and become more receptive to the unfamiliar. It’s all in the name. During the festival of a holiday or the festival of a dinner party, we let our guard down and allow ourselves to absorb new ideas and experiences.

It’s also when artists reach for things at the very edge of their imaginations. You could say that ‘‘why not?’’ is the festival spirit.

Part of it is making sure people have access. Brisbane Festival spends more than 20 per cent of its program budget on free events. Ticket prices to other shows are kept low. Specially built performance spaces are also great social spaces – look at Arcadia in front of QPAC, by the river.

Like many arts organisations, Brisbane Festival is supported by government. That investment generates many benefits. It enables an exhilarating gift to the city, enriches countless lives, and delivers an unmistakable economic impact.

Each year Australia’s creative industries make a $50 billion economic impact against a government investment of $7 billion. But we sometimes hear that arts should pay for themselves. This misunderstands the reality of subsidy. Very few areas of our society are not subsidised.

The Australian Institute of Sport spent $332 million of public money on the recent Olympics campaign. Mining gets about $4 billion a year in government subsidy. The big four banks – among the world’s most profitable – are subsidised, through various provisions, by almost $6 billion a year. Education, agriculture, health and manufacturing are all heavily subsidised. Maybe that's as it should be. 

Whatever view you take on government support of these sectors, it's fair to say that the arts sector is one of the nation’s least subsidised.

But let’s leave money and think of value. People have a right to arts and culture. It’s a right equal to political, social and economic rights, and is universal. The value of arts and culture – how they enrich and enliven, comfort and challenge, help make us more engaged, empathetic human beings – is where we best begin.

Then we can think of broader educational and social benefits, which are many, and then of economic value. That’s the best order. Otherwise we fall into Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

So I’m looking forward to Brisbane Festival. Perhaps a show that blows expectations apart, the discovery of an amazing artist, enjoying a new space for a great night out, the highest note, the deepest current, the widest embrace of that ‘‘Why not?’’ spirit.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Orlando, Hate and Homophobia

The attack in Orlando was a gay hate crime.

The Prime Minister today initially omitted this fact from his expression of sympathy.

He later changed his language, calling the mass shooting “an attack on the gay community and an attack on all of us - on all our freedoms, the freedom to gather together, to celebrate, to share time with friends.” He went on to say that there “are people outside our country, and some within it, who hate the freedoms that we enjoy and would seek to threaten them and undermine them with violence... Together, at home and abroad, we continue the fight against terrorism and stand up for the values of our free nations.”

There seems to be no acknowledgment of the glaring irony. What are these “freedoms that we enjoy”? Certainly not the freedom to marry. For that, we must argue the case during a plebiscite that is sure to unleash homophobic hate.

It's difficult to feel that it's "an attack on all of us" when the LGBTQ community are not equal citizens.

Here in Brisbane, it’s great to see the Story Bridge, City Hall and Victoria Bridge lit in the colours of the US and rainbow flags, and the Pride flag flying on City Hall.

Yet alone among Australian states, Queensland's age of consent laws remain unequal. Those under the age of 18 engaging in anal sex face up to 14 years in jail. The age of consent is 16 for oral and vaginal sex. Also in Queensland, a person charged with the murder of a gay person can use the “gay panic defence”. This allows the killer to claim they were provoked by an unwanted homosexual advance, a claim that can act as a partial defence reducing the crime to manslaughter. 

Under Queensland law, fear of gays can be partially acceptable as a reason to kill.

Legislation to remove the defence is expected to be introduced to the Queensland Parliament later this year. Let's hope it passes.

Let’s also remember that 79 countries still have anti-homosexuality laws on the books.

Let's not ‪#‎PrayForOrlando‬. Religion often sits at the source of hate and homophobia. Instead, stand up, be heard, demand.

Brisbane Pride invites those wishing to express their grief and mourn the loss of those in Orlando to gather at Reddacliff Place in Brisbane at 6pm on Tuesday, June 14. Candles will be available on the night.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Australia, the Australia Council, and the Erosion of Cultural Rights

This week the Australia Council allocated more annual funding to small-to-medium arts organisations than ever before.

Yes, you heard right. In announcing $28 million to go to these organisations each year, it invested more, not less, in operational, multi-year funding than it had in recent years. This funding round saw more of a realignment of support than a reduction. Here are the figures:


2009-10
2010–11
2011-12
2012-13
2013-14
2014-15
To Key Orgs
$21.2m
$22.1m
$21.4m
$21.1m
$22.8m
$23.1m
Total Funding
$163.5
$163.8
164.5
174.8
199.2
191.5

It remains unclear, though, what other programs will be available to complement this multi-year funding, if any. In the past, a good variety have been available to organisations both with and without operational funding. It will be important to see how many of these, and indeed others available to individual artists, have been dissolved in order to reach this higher level of operational investment.

I think the frustrations of the last few days are, in some part, misdirected. It’s easy to blame the ‘Brandis Raid‘ of May 2015 – and indeed there’s a great deal that was very wrong about that action – but there's a bigger story. The results of this funding round also have much to do with the philosophical shift that emerged after a long consultation process with the arts and culture sector aimed at finding a new funding model for organisations. As part of the shift, the Australia Council set new strategic goals.

This recent round was the first time that organisations across all areas of practice were assessed at the same time, thus enabling a full national view. It was always possible, even likely, that there’d be a big shake-up. There was a similarly seismic shake-up following the 'Make it New' shift that found its resolution in late 2008. It's periodic. 


It was the view of the peer assessors – and let’s remember that arts peers, not government bureaucrats, make the decisions – that a raft of new organisations had better claims to multi-year funding than some others that had been supported for many years. The status quo was rejected. Organisations working in Indigenous arts, for example, have emerged with new, long-term support. So have many in regional areas. A third of the organisations funded are new to multi-year funding. There has been disappointment, but also delight.

Nevertheless, there is a serious money problem.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Vale, Bob Ellis, an Australian Colossus.

Bob Ellis, one of the great, Protean figures of Australian cultural and political life, passed away on Sunday afternoon after battling a rare liver cancer. A magnificent fig has fallen.

Bob was never dull - he was hyperbole's bosom friend - and always wrote and behaved with the future and morality of his beloved nation at heart. He could compose a phrase like no other, making it sing like a thought never before sung, whether for a politician's speech, an essay, criticism, or a film or play. He was one of our great writers, a thinker, a contributor, a scoundrel, a provocateur, a melancholic warrior, a comrade. His roguery and relish marked him as an Australian Gore Vidal. Like no other, he inhabited the forests of politics, arts and culture equally. He was indisputably an Australian colossus.

Many years ago, I loved directing a workshop of one of his plays at Sydney Theatre Company. Ever since, like many others in my field, I mostly saw Bob in theatre foyers. The fellowship was enduring and I usually came away knocked-up and nourished by at least one outlandish claim. But this was his mode: he was one of our great mythologisers.

His books are pleasure gardens of insight, and I own them all. I was a daily reader of his blog. On Sunday night, Bob's son, Jack, posted Bob's school report on the blog. It is touching in its accurate simplicity.

A sad Sunday night. And so it goes...

Sunday, 3 April 2016

On Simon Stone's 'The Daughter'

I saw Simon Stone's debut feature film 'The Daughter' recently.

It's a terrific film, with an Ingmar Bergman-like tautness and a keen understanding of film form that makes for a deeply affecting experience.

The film is derived from Ibsen's 1884 play 'The Wild Duck', which also stimulated a stage production written and directed by Stone in 2011. That production has played a few places in Australia, as well as Amsterdam, Vienna, London, and at Oslo's Ibsen Festival.

Stone has had a sometimes uneasy relationship with Australian theatre, particularly in regard to his adaptations of plays by other authors. But it has not affected his now terrifically successful career in Europe. Last year his production of Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman for Vienna's Burgtheater and Theater Basel earned him a best director award. In March this year, he staged Ibsen's Peer Gynt in Hamburg, while in July his take on Lorca's Yerma will open at London's Young Vic. In August, Stone will direct his debut opera, Die tote Stadt, in Basel - he is the in-house director at Theater Basel - followed soon after by Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande for the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Another opera will follow in late 2017 at the Salzburg Festival. That's a packed creative itinerary.

The film's setting in a contemporary Australian logging community feels like a nod to Norway, but still feels very much of this country. The language is authentically Australian, effortlessly so, and the film even manages to unmask some of the class issues of a nation that likes to tell itself that it doesn't have any.

The cinematography and production design are beautiful and precise - each with a coherent and purposeful language (rare in Australian film) - and Mark Bradshaw's score is one of the best I've heard. All of the performances are top notch, but Ewen Leslie, who played the same role in the stage version, sits at its blood heart. A privilege to watch him.

The audience I saw the film with were clearly gripped, with some, I sensed, experiencing this story of family and secrets as a reflection of their own. Gasps towards the end, and tears. A wonderful experience.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

On Visiting Parents

Last week I visited my parents at The Entrance, on the Central Coast, about an hour north of Sydney. We holidayed there every year when I was a kid, and I sometimes even got the last week off school to do so. My parents always said that when they retired they’d move there, and that’s what they did.

When I visit now, I arrive as a ten year old, excited at being back in a place of childhood delight, my muscles and synapses defying time.

The choc-dipped ice cream, probably deficient in dairy, is still to be found, though the price is not, with 40c transformed to $4.50. The pelicans are still fed, but now it’s a daily 3pm tourist attraction. The jetty where I used to fish is untouched, though now seems so much smaller, just like the bream. The Housie Hall is now one of those Base Warehouses, where quality is an apparition and everything is cheaper than you’d imagine.

This year is different. My parents are living in a new place, closer to the water. When I scan the rooms, I see furniture in three worlds at once: in this new address, in their first coastal house, and in the ghost of our family home in Maitland.

But that chair never used to be near that table. That wall hanging, which I never really liked, should be to the left of the table, not the right. And why that new fruit bowl?

“Where’s the brown bookcase?”, I enquire, affecting calm.

"Oh, we gave it away. It was too heavy to move and it was old.”

Too heavy? Isn’t that what removalists are for? Don’t you remember that it was MY bookcase, the first I ever owned. Why the fuck didn’t you ask me about it?

I didn't actually say those things, because the adult subsumed the boy. I now realise that after decades of unbroken neglect I no longer have rights over the bookcase, any more than I have rights over the presence of a fruit bowl. Physical ownership is now a memory, just like the books the bookcase once cherished, books now lost to student days, though still written, shakily, in my thinking and feeling. Newer books live in a new home, where I live, where they stare at me from new shelves, some grumbling at not being read, some waving at me with their pages, reminders of love and loss.

You can never truly own a book, only the paper it's printed on. Nor can you pin the past to a wall, like a tortured butterfly, demanding it remain in an eternal present. To do so is to mistrust the future, and that is a crime.