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.

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.

Macbeth

Thursday, 23 July 2015

On Dealing with Doubt: QUT Graduation Ceremony Commencement Address

Today I gave the Commencement Address at the graduation ceremony for the Creative Industries Faculty of the Queensland University of Technology, held in the Concert Hall of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre. Here is what I said:

I really don’t know why I’m here.

I think you've been fooled into thinking I'd have something interesting to say.

But no.

I’m a fraud.

Standing here, I remember my late friend Nick Enright. He was a great Australian theatre artist. As a playwright he gave us a few classics – A Property of the Clan, Blackrock, Good Works and an adaptation of Cloudstreet. As a librettist for musicals he gave us The Boy from Oz and The Venetian Twins. As an acting teacher at NIDA he taught Mel Gibson and Judy Davis and a raft of other big names. He was loved, and a great mentor to many.

He was also nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay for George Miller’s film Lorenzo’s Oil. Nick and I spent a lot of time together during this period. After his nomination – he lost to Neil Jordan for The Crying Game – Nick was inundated with Hollywood film offers. I remember Nick taking calls from Steven Spielberg. His house in Sydney's Newtown was full of scripts commissioned by American studios. He was being paid a lot of money.   

At the height of this success, Nick turned to me and said, "One day they’re all going to wake up and realise I’m a fraud."

We all have moments like this. We hold our secret doubts and put a confident face to the world. When I was appointed Artistic Director of Brisbane Festival, I secretly thought to myself: "Well, I guess I fooled some more people. One day they’ll realise."

In the darkest of these times, in those moments when doubt gnaws like a sewer rat, I comfort myself by remembering that more talented people than me have these same feelings. 

It was Robert Hughes, perhaps the world’s greatest art critic, who said: “The greater the artist, the greater the doubt. Perfect confidence is given to the less talented as a consolation prize."

You will feel doubt more and more. There’s really no way around that. Away from the comfort of the finite world in which you’ve lived and created over the last few years, the world will conspire to make you think yourself a fraud. You will say to the world, "I am not yet being recognised for my talent", but secretly you will doubt you have talent at all. 

I do.

But remember this. You're not a fraud; you’re simply human. Doubt is normal, and it is important. It keeps us honest. It makes us question. It makes us strive. It is not something to be avoided. It is something to manage.

How might we deal with doubt?

First tip? Just do it.

Doubt can get a footing when we dwell too long on a single project. I see this in playwrights all the time: chipping away, for years, on one play, circling into a dramaturgical hell.  

My advice? Forget it – move on to your next play.

As Sturgeon’s Law has it, 90% of everything is crap. And when you’re deep into something, it’s hard to know if it’s crap. But the chances are good. As Henry Ford, one of history's great entrepreneurs, said: "I know only half of my advertising works. I just don't know which half." He was aware that at least 50% of his marketing was ... well ... crap.

There’s a telling exchange in Voltaire’s Candide that goes like this:
'How many plays have been written in France?' Candide asked the Abbé. 
'Five or six thousand.''That's a lot,' said Candide. 'How many of them are good?' 
'Fifteen or sixteen,' replied the Abbé. 
'That's a lot,' said Martin.
I know a young artist named Jake Connor Moss. He just turned 21. I’ve never come across anyone like him. Last month, I helped launch his first exhibition at a gallery in Paddington. What was launched? Three walls of paintings, three walls of photographs, a novel, a memoir, a book of poems and three feature films.

This was a fraction of his output. Jake set himself the task of making a painting a day for something like a year. Through all that - and while studying for a few degrees - he wrote endless poems, took thousands of photographs, wrote a 200-page memoir of his school days and a 200-page novel, made the films and so on and so on. 
Do you know what? Amongst the crap Jake churns out, there’s good stuff. One of the photographs I saw on the gallery wall was breathtakingly beautiful. A handful of his poems are cut-glass gems. One of his paintings was so good I wanted to buy it, but I was beaten to it. I don’t know if Jake will ever be a great artist, but I do know that his creative muscles are match fit. I know that he has vastly increased his chances of making something that isn’t crap and might just be gold. 

And I know that Jake has no time for doubt. He’s too busy doing. 

As Andy Warhol put it, “Don’t think about making art, just get it done.  Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it.  While they're deciding, make even more art.”

A second tip?  Develop a hinterland.

The most interesting people in the world have a rich hinterland. What’s a hinterland? It’s that place on the outskirts of your life where the intellectual pursuits outside of your career thrive. The back paddock of ideas and influences that make us fuller.

I know a surgeon who reads old Italian poetry – it reminds him that his patients are people with deep histories.

I know an urban planner who reads Stephen Jay Gould – he finds that it opens his mind to new ways of thinking.    

When he was Prime Minister Paul Keating used to listen to Mahler or Bartok symphonies when he was reading cabinet papers at the Lodge. He said it made him think bigger. 

It’s too easy to get trapped in the small circle of our work, caught in a cycle of tasks and deadlines and conferences. Our work might be interesting and important, but the world is always bigger, and it is ready to give up its gifts. A rich hinterland makes our doctors more empathetic, our teachers more exciting, our politicians more human and our scientists more creative.

And it will make you better at what you do.

So be curious, for curiosity is doubt's principal enemy. Cultivate a hinterland. Plant it lovingly, and don’t let it go to seed.

Without it, your spirit might starve and you will be, well, just a bit boring.

But if you have a rich hinterland, you’ll always have somewhere nurturing to go when doubt wants to imprison you.

A third tip? Look outward to your audience.

It’s likely you’ve been looking inward these past few years. Focused on your subject and on impressing your teachers and peers. Now it’s time to look to your audience. To the public.

Now, I don’t mean that you should just give people what they want, that you should simply be driven by market demand. That’s deadening. 

I mean that art is a dialogue, not a monologue. I mean that people will look to your creative gifts for their own nourishment and that there is a kind of human obligation to provide it. How often have you visited a theatre or gallery and been frustrated or (worse) bored because the artists have not been clear and have been only interested, you suspect, in talking to themselves?

Creating a dialogue means sharing a story. What is your story? How clearly are you telling it?

I think this is really important, because I think people are now craving story. I sense that the world can now feel so fragmented, so uncertain, so breathtakingly full of a million unconnected things all available with the touch of a screen, that we need stories even more. We need their structure and form to help us make sense of things.

Think about it. We spend a phenomenal amount of our daily lives with stories – telling them, listening to them, reading them, watching them being acted out on Netflix or on TV, or sharing them on Facebook or Twitter. The news is presented in the form of stories. “Today, a man was caught…” Much of our conversation is taken up recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. "How was your day?" "Well, let me tell you…" As small children, we have no sooner learned to speak than we begin demanding to be told stories.

The need for story is part of our DNA. We're hard-wired that way. Neurological studies tell us that the same part of the human brain that recognises the self is also responsible for inventing narrative.

What is your story? If your story is rich and clearly told to your audience, if there is dialogue and not monologue, then that audience will be your support when doubt wants you lonely.

I envy you. You are going out into the world, as creators, at a time when anything seems possible. The internet is still a baby. Sharing is a new currency. We share every day on social media, and more and more we live in a share economy. This is a world ready for a conversation. A conversation with you.

I’m reminded that at the beginning of the Vietnam peace talks in Paris in the ‘70s, they spent the first two years arguing over the shape of the table. What shape would permit all parties to sit down so that everyone could feel they were being heard? 

In this wondrous new age, with New Horizons past Pluto and the world shifting from west to east and from north to south, your generation will determine the shape of the table. You will create the space that will help bring the wildly disparate elements of our society together. Your story, and how you share it, will help people feel included. Your careers, and the hinterlands that nourish them, will help us all understand more about what it is to live in this world at this time.

You have in your hands something the world needs.

So now is the time to deal with doubt, the time to be brave, the time to share your story and to release the power, beauty, grandeur, courage and danger that is present in the creative act. This is the time to go forth and to create a more substantive, more sharing world. A world not of doubt, but of hope; not of terror, but of beauty; not of apathy, but of empathy.


Your world. Go forth. Make it. 

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

The Great Forgetting - Brisbane Festival and the Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo sits in the very heart of Africa, in the cradle of all humanity. It is the size of Western Europe with a population of 75 million. It has an astonishing history. But what do we know about it?

Arts festivals are made for illumination. In September this year, Brisbane Festival offers a series of brilliant works from or about the Congo. 

Why shine a light here? Because the Congo has helped form the history of the world. In more ways than you might think…

Congo's Curse

The Congo is blessed with more natural resources than almost any other country on the planet. A Congolese legend has it that God, tired after creating the world, stopped at this part of the earth and dropped all his sacks of riches. And these riches have helped make the world as we know it.

When the world needed rubber for the tyres of the newly invented motorcar, the Congo was there with half the world’s known supplies.

When the world needed copper to feed its need for electricity and industrial expansion, the Congo was there with the world’s largest supply. This same copper formed the bullets that won World War I.

When the world needed tin for the conductors used in almost every electrical circuit, the Congo provided.

When two atomic bombs dropped on Japan to finally end World War II, the uranium came from the Congo. 

That smart phone in your pocket? It couldn’t work without a mineral known as coltan. And yes, you guessed it, 80% of the world's supply is in the Congo.

The world has benefitted hugely from the Congo, but not always honourably. In 1924 Joseph Conrad, author of Heart of Darkness, set in the Congo, called this reaping of resources the ‘vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of human conscience’. He didn’t see half of it.

It is Congo’s curse. This nation, home to so many natural treasures, should be one of the richest on the planet. But it is the poorest.

The Congo, in helping to make the world, has been consumed.  

Monday, 18 May 2015

The Principles of Arts Funding and Why It's Unwise to Cut Off Your Arm

One of the driving beliefs of the 2015 Federal Budget is that small businesses are well placed to energise the national economy. They are strong of arm and ready to 'have a go', as the language of the budget has it. 

The budget certainly helps them to get moving. If a small business has an annual turnover of less than $2 million, from now until 30 June 2017 there’s an immediate tax deduction for every item purchased up to $20,000 (the threshold used to be $1000). Cars and vans, kitchens, machinery, computers... anything under $20,000 bought for that business is instantly 100% tax deductible. There is more: the company tax for these businesses is cut from 30% to 28.5% - the lowest small business tax rate in more than 50 years - and there’s a fringe benefits tax discount on mobile electronics. All in all, it’s a $5 billion boost to GDP over two years. Quite an adrenaline hit for the economy.

This is the opposite of ‘trickle-down economics’ – the idea that economic benefits provided to big businesses and upper income levels will indirectly benefit poorer members of society when the resources ‘trickle down’ and so benefit all. It’s an idea that is now widely discredited in international economic circles.

The Treasurer expressed his rationale very clearly in his budget speech:
Our future growth will come from growing small business into big business.

Every big company in the world started small.

Every big idea in the world came from just one person, or a handful of people working together.

That is why tonight, I am announcing a package of measures that will make a genuine and permanent difference to small business in Australia. 
It’s a good rationale, and it’s clear that it will have a genuinely positive impact.

So I wonder why this same rationale is not part of the government’s approach to stimulating the arts. The distribution of resources seems to be away from the ‘small businesses’ of the arts and more towards the top end. In fact, its approach to the arts is closer to the debunked ‘trickle-down’ approach.

Details are still emerging, but we know these things for sure: 
  • There will be no reduction in the Australia Council’s funding to the 29 major performing arts companies – these are the ‘big businesses’ of the arts. In 2013-14, the Australia Council gave $102 million of its $199 million grant budget to these organisations. 
  • The Australia Council must find $7.3m worth of ‘efficiencies’ over four years. The budget papers say explicitly that ‘these savings will be met through reduced funding to the ArtStart, Capacity Building and Artists in Residence programmes’ - programs very much about emerging artists and the ‘small business’ end of things. 
  • A new, Minister-led National Programme for Excellence in the Arts will be established, taking three core programs from the Australia Council - Visions of Australia, Festivals Australia and the Major Festivals Initiative. $110m will be redirected over four years from the Australia Council to this new body.  
So, some questions arise.  

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.

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 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 too often they do not wish to speak. We long to be persuaded by cogent arguments, but too often we are fed empty slogans. We desire a direct relationship with our politicians, but too often 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, from opposing political parties, 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 personal 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.