Monday, 4 May 2015

Principles matter

When two Australians were put to death in Indonesia last week, the idea that the death penalty is simply wrong was at the heart of protest. In this sense, it did not matter whether these two men had been rehabilitated or not. Capital punishment is not right, anytime, anywhere.

We do not accept that race, gender or religion should be the basis of discrimination. Tanya Plibersek makes the point that support for marriage equality should be seen in these terms. She reminds us that her political party, as a matter of principle, does not believe in discrimination before the law and so should, as a body, support the equal right of people to marry irrespective of gender. It is not, she argues, a matter of 'conscience', but one of principle.

It's difficult to argue with the logic.

Whether it's good politics or not is a different question. It might well inhibit the passage of any relevant legislation through the parliament. But maybe principles should come first.

Our evolutionary imperative is towards a more equal and pluralistic society. That grand sweep of human history is unstoppable, despite hiccups and short detours. It's clear that marriage equality is on a powerful wave traveling in that direction. Look at the world, especially those nations we like to compare ourselves with. The UK, Canada and NZ are now on the right side of history, Canada for a decade now. The USA is at a Supreme Court legislative tipping point, having already mostly made its choice to be on the side of equality.

How long is Australia willing to be out in the cold?

Monday, 13 April 2015

Günter Grass - 1927-2015

RIP Günter Grass, author of The Tin Drum, Nobel Prize winner, speechwriter to Willy Brandt, environmentalist, jazz musician, and moral voice of the great German trauma, aged 87. A life of triumph and turmoil.

When the Swedish Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize in 1999, it praised him for embracing “the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”

He was a complex figure. He was part of a German artistic movement known as Vergangenheitsbewältigung, which translates roughly as “coming to terms with the past.” Yet he left it until 2006, in his memoir 'Peeling the Onion', to reveal his conscription into the notorious Waffen-SS in 1944 at the age of 16.

“The job of a citizen is to keep his mouth open.”
― Günter Grass

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Personal reflections on Alan Seymour, 1927-2015.

Alan Seymour loved life like no one I have ever known, so I was particularly saddened to learn of his passing, aged 87. 

I directed Sydney Theatre Company’s 2003 revival of Alan’s groundbreaking play The One Day of the Year. The play, written in 1958 when Alan was 31, was famously rejected in 1960 by the very first Adelaide Festival as being too controversial. An amateur company produced the work in that city in the same year, and in Sydney the following year the first professional production earned Alan death threats.

It is now one of the great cornerstones of the Australian theatre. Its nominal subject is ANZAC Day and the limits of Australian mateship and masculinity, but it’s a play, I think, that ranks with the best family dramas the world has. The war in Iraq was intensifying as we rehearsed, lending fresh frisson, but finally it was the human drama of father and son that affected people the most. To see Max Cullen as Alf and Nathaniel Dean as son Hughie, with Kris McQuade as the mother in between and Ron Haddrick (Alf in the 1961 Sydney production) and Eloise Oxer intervening from the sides, was to witness ruptures known to families everywhere. It was a privilege to be with Alan during that revival.  

Alan, born in Fremantle in 1927, left Australia in 1961 and returned to live in Sydney in 1995. This meant that his fame in Australia was muted. I first met him at a dinner at the Newtown home of Nick Enright not long after Alan returned. Nick, ever the generous host and theatre historian, was keen to introduce Alan to Sydney’s theatre world. I learned then of Alan’s substantial career in London. He was a television writer, producer and commissioning editor with the BBC. His work included Frost in May, House of Eliott, the hugely popular adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, and an adaptation of John Masefield's novel The Box of Delights, which won Alan a BAFTA award in 1984. He also worked as a theatre critic for The Observer. He made a rare foray into Australia when he wrote the screenplay for the 1988 TV movie Tudawali about the life and times of Aboriginal actor Robert Tudawali, who had starred in the 1955 Charles Chauvel film Jedda. Frustratingly for him, Alan found that he was defined in Australia by The One Day of the Year. He wrote at least ten other plays, mostly unproduced. At least his facility with television led him to the screenplay for the 2000 TV adaptation of Bryce Courtenay’s The Potato Factory. His dramatisation was thought by some to be an improvement on the novel. In 2007 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to the arts. That was something. 

Nick Enright died on the day of the first technical rehearsal of the STC production. My final conversation with Nick was about many things, but included Nick’s desire that Alan’s old play be a new success. Nick knew that it was important to Alan for many reasons. Mostly, I think, it was because Alan knew that his partner of 54 years, Ron Baddeley, was close to death and that this would be their final chance to share the play on stage. Ron, a quiet psychologist, was there on opening night, frail and wheelchair bound due to an amputated leg, and full of love and pride. He died, aged 80, a few months later.

Alan and Ron shared a rich and resonant life. They even lived in Turkey, home of the Gallipoli Peninsula, for five years between 1966 and 1971 – a book almost came of the experience. I didn’t know Ron well – he was mostly too frail for company – but I did get to know Alan. His passion for life privately shamed me. He bounced around his Darlinghurst kitchen like a flourishing youth, preparing sumptuous salmon and savouring champagne. He told stories of Turkey and of London, of landscapes, lives and loves. He railed against Murdoch and rallied for fresh talent. He admired the young men I introduced him to, and was keen for gossip. I don’t think I have ever met someone so embracing of a sensual and accentuated life. He gave up religion at aged 15 and took up the song of experience.    

When Alzheimer’s gripped him, robbing him of story and safety, Alan was moved to care in Lulworth House in Elizabeth Bay. His death in the centenary of ANZAC, a somehow cruel joke, also brings with it a sense of comforting continuity. A new production of The One Day of the Year, directed by Denis Moore, will tour regional centres this year, and another, directed by former STC Artistic Director Wayne Harrison, will open at London’s Finborough Theatre in May.     

Goodbye, and welcome, dear Alan.

[Relatives and friends of Alan are invited to his funeral, to take place in the chapel of Walter Carter, 302 Oxford Street (opposite Denison Street), Bondi Junction on Thursday 26th March commencing at 2:30 pm. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Australian Writers Guild Donations Fund would be appreciated.]

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Thoughts After the Queensland Election

I hope that the results of this weekend’s Queensland election herald a return to a more civil and communicative society.

The astonishing dismissal of the Newman approach perhaps should not have surprised. We saw what happened in Victoria. We can see it happening in the federal sphere. It is now surely clear that the public will no longer tolerate the inauthentic and will not hesitate to deliver swift and savage judgement. There are no longer any second chances. A decade ago the public was still tribal in its allegiances, but those days are now indisputably gone. It is now time for our political parties to abandon the tribal approach too.

We want to listen to our political leaders, but they do not wish to speak. We long to be persuaded by cogent argument, but are fed nothing but empty slogans. We desire a direct relationship with our politicians, but these relationships are mediated out of all humanity.

I like watching television election night coverages because for a short time politicians sometimes reveal the authentic. Last night, for example, Peter Beattie and John-Paul Langbroek were able to engage in genuine dialogue, unfettered by tribal allegiances. Why can’t governing be like this? By contrast, on the ABC’s Insiders program this morning Bill Shorten, even on such a morning, could speak in nothing but robotic mantras. Why couldn’t he speak from his undoubted good heart? What is it that he fears?

The Queensland ALP, should it form government, will find itself in a fascinating position. Presumably, it was not expecting to govern. In some areas it will need to find policy direction from a fresh start. It will bring with it many new members of parliament who have not emerged from political machinery and who will have much to learn. I hope they will learn from what is palpably present: that the people want to listen to the authentic.

Good government is the outcome of personal virtue. Let’s hope that such virtue is released in whoever governs and is spent in the service of good policy persuasively argued. It was Jefferson who reminded us that “all tyranny needs to gain a foothold is for people of good conscience to remain silent.” Now is the time for those of private virtue and good conscience to speak and to govern with authenticity.   

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Thoughts on 'The Imitation Game'

A gutless and immoral movie has been nominated for eight Oscars including Best Film, Best Director and, perhaps most offensively, Best Adapted Screenplay.

That film is The Imitation Game.

Alan Turing
It's gutless because it cannot bring itself to look directly at Alan Turing's sexuality. Yet as the end credits roll, and emotive music kicks in, the film tries to position itself as a plea for equality. This is disingenuous. Even though Turing is surrounded in the film by good looking men, not once is he seen to give them even a sideways glance. Worse, Turing's relationship with Joan Clarke, important in real life, but a sidelight, is here moved to the centre of the story and decorated with the familiar tropes of a cinematic heterosexual love story: romantic picnics, furtive glances, close shots, and so on. In feeling a need to anchor the film with a love story - a need it's easy to dispute - the filmmakers have chosen to play it straight. Gutless.

The film is immoral because it represents Turing as a traitor when he was no such thing. It has him working with John Cairncross, the Soviet spy thought to be the 'fifth man' of the 'Cambridge Five' that included Philby, Burgess, Maclean and Blunt. When Turing confronts Cairncross on his activities, the spy replies that he knows that Turing is homosexual and that he will reveal this should Turing spill the beans. Turing keeps Cairncross's secret to protect himself. It is a traitorous action.

In real life, Turing never met Cairncross. In trying to juice up the narrative - an often necessary thing, but really not so here - the filmmakers have done Turing a profound injustice.  

Some might say that this is drama, not documentary, and exists for entertainment, not enlightenment. Some might say that we expect films to be loose with the facts. All this is true. But let's remember that screen and stage are powerful storytelling media that affect people's opinions and values. Sometimes they need to be held accountable. There are many in the world who now believe that Turing's sexuality was not important to him and that he was a traitor. Neither is true and both lies malign one of the great figures of the twentieth century.

This is a shallow, formulaic film and one that insults Turing, his sexuality, and the public's ability to cope with anything other than the familiar.

It is not deserving of an Oscar.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Metaphor in New York

A few days ago, before embarking on a week of fresh frontier works as part of several festivals now playing in New York - Coil, Under the Radar, Prototype and others - I visited two classics of the American theatre: A Delicate Balance and Into the Woods.

Edward Albee's 1966 Pulitzer winning play about an unnamed terror is running at the Golden Theater with a starry cast including Glenn Close, John Lithgow and Lindsay Duncan. It's a curious experience. It's the type of production you would never see on an Australian professional stage - a perfectly realised WASP living room with a curtain rising and falling on tableaux at beginning and ends of acts and scenes. 

The performances are mostly disappointing. Few of the cast seem to be living in the play's situation and instead rely on presenting its ideas. Lithgow's extraordinary speech about a pet cat he had put down for avoiding his company and refusing to purr is an exception. So too are performances by Bob Balaban and Clare Higgins as visiting friends Harry and Edna. When they enter that living room, fleeing from and gripped by a sudden undefined existential eruption, they bring with them something visceral and alerting. These characters often seem the least authentic, and the most authorial, in productions of this play, but here they tremor with truth and make us fear the terror that lurks.

Finally, the play wins out and we feel the tug of Albee's mysterious drama.

Sondheim's 1986 musical is in previews for the Roundabout Theater at the Laura Pels. It's a Fiasco Theater production in from Princeton, made up mostly of graduates of the Brown University/Trinity Rep M.F.A. acting program. So, no stars here. Nor does the production have an orchestra, but is rather served by a central piano and an assortment of unconventional instruments scratched, pounded or played by the cast. It's fair to say that a couple of this cast can barely hold a tune, but nevertheless they manage to bring such life to the lyrics and situation that most musical faltering is forgiven. In some ways this production is a revelation - the naked show with an authentic pulse. I wish there was more of this in the Albee.

In seeing these two shows back-to-back it was difficult not to conflate the terror of Albee's unnamed plague with the terror of Sondheim's giant. In doing so on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it was easy to feel both as an expression of the contemporary situation. At both theatres, Paris was on the stage.

Great theatre must exist as metaphor. Both these works do. There is comfort, too: dawn breaks on some kind of delicate balance and the thudding giant is killed.

May life reflect the theatre.

Friday, 23 May 2014

On Moving to an Arts Festival

Like most Artistic Directors, I’ve always tried to balance the needs of artists and audiences. In history, of course, these needs have never perfectly aligned, and nor should they ever. But the gap between what artists want to make and what audiences want to see is now wider than I’ve ever known it.

Part of this tension arrives because we live in an era of participation. The audience, or the general public, is no longer just the consumer; they are now co-creators. We don’t buy albums anymore; we create our own playlists. We don’t watch TV passively anymore; we tweet our responses and vote. Anyone can make a film; you don’t even need film, just your phone. Anyone can compose music; just download an app or upload your song to YouTube. Anyone can write a novel and distribute it on the net, bypassing the traditional publisher.

This blurring of the border between consumer and creator unsettles many, for it signifies the destruction of the comfortable distinctions between professional and amateur. The very idea of ‘community’ is undergoing a seismic shift.

It’s difficult for theatre companies, in their present form, to effectively address this cultural trauma. At La Boite Theatre Company, over five years, I made some attempts, with modest success. The audience for our work were very young  – around 45% under the age of 30, a genuinely startling statistic in an age of the so-called ‘aging audience’ – and they came not on subscription but because something caught their interest. They were also boisterous, enlivened by a democratised space and metatheatrical productions that gave the audience almost as much agency as the actors. Still, we only scratched the surface.

This new era of cultural democracy requires a new kind of cultural leadership. Our major cultural institutions are mightily challenged: they struggle to connect using older models and resist the radical reshaping that might lead to genuine engagement. Who will take the plunge? Who will be brave enough to start again?

I have come to believe that festivals are fitter than theatre companies for the complex challenges ahead. At their best, festivals can inspire new ways of thinking about creativity and cultural participation. They can encourage a city to express itself, offering great arts while revealing that we are all artists. They can create a civic passion for the culturally different, putting a city in the mood to take a risk on the arts and to treasure the unusual and the unexpected. Public and private space can be newly shared and time can be evocatively slowed. Festivals can live and prosper at the nexus of arts and community.

Brisbane Festival is the youngest of Australia’s major arts festivals, making it a particularly agile agent. Some older international arts festivals – Edinburgh and Avignon in particular– were created after World War II as a means of building from the experience of global conflict. High art was the order of the day – an expression of the most elevated creative aspiration in the wake of the most horrifying devastation.

Other festivals followed the model.

But 70 years later our idea of ‘arts’ has broadened immeasurably. But more than that, city arts centres such as the Sydney Opera House, the Victorian Arts Centre and QPAC have usurped many of the old functions of the arts festivals, regularly presenting famous orchestras, opera and dance companies. These days, there’s nothing impressive about the Brisbane Festival offering, for example, the Hamburg Opera or the American Ballet Theatre – QPAC hosts them at other times of the year.

Brisbane Festival’s youth means that it should be more able than most arts festivals to chart a course more in tune with the contemporary spirit. Its very DNA means it’s made for the task. Of all the major festivals, it is the one that has most authentically grown from community aspirations. It was created in 1996 out of a waning Warana Festival, which was about ‘entertainment for the people, by the people’. It became an annual festival only in 2009 when it merged with Riverfire, which was created to celebrate the river through community engagement. Brisbane Festival is made for the new world.

I’m enlivened by all of this. It’s useful to think of culture – expressing it and enjoying it – as a human right, the fulfillment of which goes into building a reflective, self-aware, civil society. To go further, inspired by Bill Ivey, the former Chair of the USA’s National Endowment for the Arts, we can imagine a perhaps utopian but nevertheless meaningful Cultural Bill of Rights:

  • The right to our heritage – to explore music, literature, drama, dance and visual arts that reflect both our nation's collective experience and our individual and community traditions.
  • The right to the prominent presence of artists in public life – through their art and the incorporation of their voices and visions into democratic debate.
  • The right to an artistic life – to the knowledge and skills needed to play a musical instrument, draw, dance, compose, design, or otherwise live a life of active creativity.
  • The right to be represented to the rest of the world by art that fairly and honestly communicates our history, values and ideals.
  • The right to know about and explore art of the highest quality from many nations and ages.
  • The right to healthy arts enterprises that can take risks and invest in innovation while serving communities and the public interest.

Rights need to be fought for. With the recent federal budget cutting around $110 million from arts and culture funding over the next four years, I wonder if we’ve fought hard enough. If culture is one of the four pillars – along with political, economic and social institutions – on which a successful society is built and bound together, then it should be worth the effort. If the effort is not made, then we are all diminished.

Festivals can help keep these questions visible and buoyant. They are broad and reach corners of society often out of the reach of single artform companies. When the city itself is the stage it’s hard to ignore the action. I hope, at the Brisbane Festival, that we can find ways to reach out. I hope we can relieve the relationship between artist and audience. I hope, if participation is the bright new currency, that we can spend it well, and up the value. I hope we can help public space work for community like never before. I hope we can announce the start of spring - that time of renewal and aspiration - with genuine and creative joy, for what better time to begin a festival in Brisbane than in the first week of September? I hope we can reveal the arts, and the artist in us all. I hope we can make people proud to live in Brisbane and make others wish they did. 

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Normal Heart: To win a war you have to start one.

I'm really looking forward to The Normal Heart, the HBO film of Larry Kramer's monumentally important 1985 play. The was the first truly great play to address the HIV AIDS crisis: a passionate play of politics and polemics that reinvented the civil rights movement. Ned Weeks, the play's central character and Kramer's alter ego, railed against and changed a world that had fallen silent in the face of catastrophe. One of the play's chief targets was President Ronald Reagan, who infamously did not utter the word "AIDS" until September 1985, four years into the epidemic and five months after this play.

It came just a year before Timothy Conigrave's Soft Targets at Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company, a play that was Australia's first theatrical response.    

At first, no one wanted to produce The Normal Heart, but it became a triumph for Joe Papp's Public Theater. The film rights were promptly optioned by Barbra Streisand in 1986. It's been a long and troubled journey. At various times John Schlesinger, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes have been attached or interested. Finally, after 30 years, the film will premiere on HBO on May 25. 

Martin Sheen in his Royal Court dressing room
The play and its afterlife have affected me greatly. Holding the Man is one result. I was lucky enough to see the London premiere of The Normal Heart at the Royal Court Theatre. This new production starred Martin Sheen as Ned Weeks. It had such impact that I wrote the actor a fan letter. A few days later he invited me to visit him in his dressing room after a performance: here was an actor of articulated social conscience. He was generous, shared much, and assured me forward.

Monday, 21 April 2014

On the Occasion of Shakespeare's 450th Birthday

The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

(Robert Graves)

First encounter

Scratch a theatre director, and you're likely to find Shakespeare just below the skin. And so it is with me. He was the vehicle of one of my very earliest theatre experiences: Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, with the touring Old Vic Company, directed by Toby Robertson. The production played at Her Majesty's Theatre (now apartments) in Sydney for five nights in December 1979.

I remember little, other than I found it 'superlative'. My diary records this response. I must have just learned the word.

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, 1979.
Later, I realised what a key production, and performance, this was. Earlier that year, the Old Vic (actually, the Prospect Theatre Company resident at the Old Vic) became the first English-speaking company to play in post-revolutionary China. Jacobi also enjoyed the distinction of being the first English actor since Laurence Olivier to play the part at Elsinore. A year later, after two years touring, Jacobi recorded his Hamlet for the fraught BBC Shakespeare series. He tried to start from scratch - the television production had a different director and cast, and played a much fuller version of the text, cutting just a few hundred lines. Looking at it now, this TV version seems incredibly clumsy, quite amateurish in places. Still, you get a sense of what a landmark performance Jacobi's undoubtedly was.   

Jacobi was 41 when he played Hamlet in Sydney - old for the role, even by standards of the time. I can't say I was aware of it. But what he perhaps lacked in youth was made up in genius.

School encounters

In my final year at Maitland Marist Brothers high school, the first part of Henry IV was the compulsory text. The year before it was Othello, I think, and it seemed to us that we were being short-changed: instead of a famous tragedy we were lumped with a play no one had heard of. In fact, we got by far the better deal. Othello is relatively dull, stretching at credibility, compared with the glorious life and variety of I Henry IV.

The Signet Classic edition I devoured
I devoured it. Hal, drinking with his mates but not giving all away, reflected something of my own youth. My school was not one with an interest in the arts, nor one that was academically progressive. It was a school of rugby league and cricket. I was hopeless at league, but serviceable at cricket and enjoyed playing it. I would happily drink with mates after a Saturday club game while also, secretly, looking forward to heading home and drowning in the Boar's Head Tavern. Hal resonated in a way that made me examine my own friendships.

The brilliant construction of the play, always connected to life, held me in awe. The lived rhythms of Act 2 Scene 4, in which Hal and Falstaff move through gut-splitting comedy before landing in heart-tearing pathos is, I think, one of Shakespeare's most astounding sequences. I know nothing like it in English drama.

Hamlet, as is its habit, returned. While at school, I decided to mount a production. Perhaps Jacobi's ghost was lingering. Naturally, I would play Hamlet - and design the show, look after the lights and realise the fight choreography. Like Falstaff gathering buddies, or Hal gathering food for powder, I enlisted much of the cricket team to play the other roles. We rehearsed after school for months. I borrowed foils and costumes from a local amateur theatre company, and I'm sure I engaged sheets for the ghost scenes. There might have been ultraviolet lighting. It was a much truncated text, probably no more than 90 minutes long, but since I was playing Hamlet it retained all the soliloquies. We performed the play for the rest of our class and the year below us, and then threw on a couple of night shows for parents.

It was about this time that I discovered that John Bell had attended the school. A dusty trophy cabinet revealed that John was Dux in 1956.