Monday, 4 April 2016

Vale, Bob Ellis, an Australia 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 from the page 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 here 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 here, 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, 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 on earth didn’t you ask me about it?

Soon, the adult subsumes 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, if shakily, in my thinking and feeling. Other 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 we 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.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Andrew Bolt's Fear

Andrew Bolt’s first published work was written when he was 13.

It was a poem published in Quadrant, called 'Fear':
The jeering, gloating ring of youths
Closed in around a solitary boy,
Teasing and taunting him
Because he was black.

The boy staggered from a blow;
The yells grew louder,
Humiliating and bewildering the boy.
The colour of his skin was a cause
For ridicule.
I wanted to help him
But fear sealed my mouth,
Held me back.
And soon I was yelling with the rest.
Andrew Bolt

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On completing Brisbane Festival

An arts festival is an opportunity for artists and audiences to take risks. It’s a chance to experience new forms and new ideas and to lift our gaze beyond the everyday.

The arts enable us to walk in the shoes of another for a short while, to experience a different kind of exhilaration or disturbance or reflection or joy, and it has always been my simple hope that those experiences might make us more empathetic, more generous, more valuing of things outside our daily selves.

Brisbane Festival is part of that huge ongoing human project, and it gives me hope that making a difference is possible.

This year’s Festival, my first, tied together work from five continents and many, many hundreds of artists, all of whom had something to say. These voices spoke powerfully across the city, sharing with us views and experiences of the world that were both challenging and refreshing. Sometimes our securities were shaken, and often our hearts went out.

I found myself particularly affected by the powerful presence of artists who carry with them an experience of the world that is not mine, but which has enlarged mine and, I believe, made me a better person. I can only trust that others have felt similarly.

As the world becomes smaller and more connected, and the value of creativity and sharing becomes clearer, I hope that Brisbane Festival will reverberate with increasing depth and consequence.

The Festival staff and volunteers have been extraordinary. It has inspired me to see how much they’ve all have cared: the insanely long hours, the utter belief in the work, the clear desire to get it right, the generous disposition to artists and audiences. Truly amazing. I thank them all.

I’m longing to get on to the next edition.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Holding the Man: The Three Champions of Australia's Greatest Love Story

Last week, before a preview screening in Brisbane of the film version of Holding the Man, I joined writer Tommy Murphy for a public talk about how the story came to be, first as memoir, then as theatre, and now as film.

It was lovely to be with Tommy, such a crucial figure in how this story has reached a wider audience, and to reflect on what is now a 20-year history adorning the 15-year relationship between Timothy Conigrave and the man he called his husband, John Caleo.

Tim was an actor and playwright, but his final form was memoir. Following John’s death on Australia Day 1992, Tim was determined to write a book about his lover. In an interview with James Waites for a National Library oral history project on HIV/AIDS in Australia, Tim says
‘The only thing I have to live for is these two things that I am writing, which I’d like to finish both of. One’s a play that involves stuff about AIDS but it’s not really about AIDS, and the other one is the book that I’d like to write about my lover and I, which I’ve started.’ 
The interview itself is quite extraordinary. Over almost three hours, recorded at his home in Sydney on 13 January 1993, Tim tells stories of his life, his time with John, and his current health. Many of these stories are clearly well rehearsed, probably told at hearty dinner parties, and many are in a form similar to how they’d eventually arrive in the book.

Two weeks before this interview, Tim met the first of several people who have been crucial to how this story came into the world, and to how it has endured. At a New Year’s Eve party in Melbourne’s St Kilda in 1992, Tim met Sophie Cunningham.   

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Hansel and Gretel in Brisbane

What a fabulous night.

I'm just back from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, a student production at the Queensland Conservatorium, directed by Michael Gow and conducted by Johannes Fritzsch. How blessed these students are to be working on this glorious score with two great artists. And the design by recent NIDA grad Charles Davis is worthy of any opera house. Great to see the Con devoting significant resources to what must be a priceless learning experience for the students involved, in the pit and on the stage. 

I love this opera. I've known every note for 25 years, and it's a score that keeps on giving. It's a miraculous synthesis of German folkiness and Wagnerian complexity. Humperdinck was a student of Wagner's - he assisted at the premiere of Parsifal, and even wrote a bar or two for a tricky scene transition. Hansel and Gretel, completed in 1893, with a libretto by his sister who urged on the project, is full of Wagner - the climaxes, leitmotifs, and thick chromaticisms. Richard Strauss conducted the premiere in Weimar, then Mahler conducted the Hamburg premiere in the following year. Not bad. Within a year of its premiere, the opera had been performed in more than 70 theatres.

The dramatic construction is immaculate. It flows beautifully, while allowing for some great set pieces. But it's an incredibly difficult sing - the father in this story needs to be pretty much Wotan - and it doesn't give up.

This production delivers. Sure, student singers cannot ever be expected to deliver the full goods with a score like this, but they do a mighty job, singing their hearts out across a big orchestra, and clearly relishing every moment. This story of hunger, kidnapping, cannibalism and witch burning seems right up their alley.

Go see it. You have until Friday.

Friday, 31 July 2015

On the Occasion of La Boite's 90th Birthday

Today is the 90th birthday of La Boite Theatre Company, making it, perhaps, Australia’s oldest continuously running theatre company. I’m really looking forward to tonight’s big birthday bash.

On this day in 1925, the first show was staged: a one-night season of A. A. Milne’s comedy The Dover Road at the Theatre Royal in Elizabeth Street. The following day The Brisbane Courier raved:
“Nothing was left to chance. The cast was admirably chosen, and the large audience was held by the splendid acting for two hours and three-quarters. The players, one and all, rose to the occasion, and satisfied the sceptics that the repertory movement in Brisbane has come to stay; it will grow from strength to strength; it will enlarge the communal mind, and prove a great and joyous power in our cultural life.” 
I love that last stretch: “it will enlarge the communal mind and prove a great and joyous power in our cultural life.”

It’s quite confronting to lead a theatre company, as I did La Boite between the end of 2008 and the middle of 2014. What do I really believe in? What do I think is good theatre? Who will I champion? What changes need to be made? How can I best enlarge the communal mind?

It’s a phrase that sticks.

I’m honoured to be part of the huge La Boite clan, and particularly of its family of artistic directors. I hope I played a useful part, as many have, in enabling the company to enlarge the communal mind.

Long may she continue to be "a great and joyous power in our cultural life”, a theatre that invigorates our minds, stirs our emotions and inspires our better natures, a theatre that enthrals, enlivens and entertains, a theatre of daring, dash, and distinction. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Arts, Politics and Brisbane Festival

Politics and the arts are family. Both are concerned with the affairs of the people. Whenever anyone questions an accepted reality, it becomes a political act – and many people do that most days, whether they think of themselves as artists or political or not. Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist and vocal critic of his government, goes further: “Everything is art. Everything is politics."

It’s easiest to see this in the extreme. The success of any revolution depends on a rupture with the past. In February this year, ISIS burned 100,000 books in the central library of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. UNESCO called it “one of the most devastating acts of destruction of library collections in human history."

Look at any revolution – French, Boshevik, Chinese and so on – and you’ll find a similar pattern. As Orwell reminded us, “he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

Wars against a people always go hand in hand with a war against culture.

The CIA believed that the arts could win a war. During the Cold War, it financed and assured the success of the American abstract expressionist movement as a weapon against the Soviet Union. Its Congress for Cultural Freedom had offices in 35 countries, published around 30 prestige magazines, and held large exhibitions and international conferences. Its mission was to encourage the intelligentsia of Western Europe away from a lingering fascination with Communism. Artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell and Mark Rothko were held up as exponents of what Rockefeller called ‘free enterprise painting’.

The Brisbane Festival is not attempting to win a war, but it does have a political energy this year, one that tries to help us make some sense of how the world is – a natural role of art. It’s possible to follow themes of race, colonialism and discrimination through the three weeks of the festival, and to discover things we might not have known.