Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Brisbane Festival and the Road Less Travelled

(This article was first published in The Courier-Mail on 24 August 2017)

I HAVE just returned from the world’s largest arts festival. I travelled down many paths searching for work to include in next year’s Brisbane Festival.
The Edinburgh Fringe offers 3600 different productions from every corner of the globe. Its open access philosophy – anyone can be part of it, if you’re prepared to lose money – means that much of the work is pretty rough. But taken as a whole the event provides a fascinating snapshot of the things that are occupying the world’s artists. Right now.
There are many shows about Trump, democracy, Brexit and migration. There is an Arab Arts Focus and the transgender experience is the subject of a number of very good shows.
The arts can explore complex things in ways that surprise us. We all live in echo chambers of some sort, and that’s not always good. The arts extend our contact with the world beyond the boundaries of our lot.
This is part of a greater humanist project – to increase the level of empathy in the world and to make a more civil society.
We can see all around us, in Charlottesville and in Barcelona, and more and more it seems, what happens when civility breaks down, when echo chambers go unchallenged.
If the Barcelona terrorists had been able to imagine themselves into the thoughts and feelings of those they mowed down, they would not have done what they did. It’s difficult to be cruel once you’ve allowed yourself, feelingly, into the mind of your victim.
Their crimes, and those of the American white supremacists, come from a failure of imagination and a victory of ignorance.
This year’s Brisbane Festival, like all arts, is part of that great humanist project. It is full of surprises. It is joyous, and offers great nights out to get the mind and heart singing. Amongst it all you will find shows to crack the echo chamber.
You’ll encounter shows from our neighbours in the Asia Pacific – from China, Korea, Indonesia and Singapore. You’ll make discoveries about race, politics, terrorism, Islam, gender, and autism. You’ll hear love stories and stories to love. If you think you might vote ‘no’ in the upcoming postal vote on same-sex marriage, then there’s a show or two that might encourage you to think differently. You’ll find places to party, too.
A great festival, like all storytelling, is like a magnet dragged through the randomness, pulling the chaos of things into some kind of shape, and, if we’re lucky, some kind of sense.
A great festival is a cube, not a square. It’s best enjoyed when you take hold of it and turn it around to discover what’s on the other side. It might not be what you expect. It might be a marvel.
Actually, it’s not even a cube, because across the 22 days of Brisbane Festival there are 513 performances to choose from. There are plenty of perspectives on offer, plenty of paths you can take.
So trust your gut, dive in, take chances. See some favourites, but also take the road less travelled. It will make all the difference.

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)