Monday, March 18, 2019

La Reprise. Histoire(s) Du Théâtre

Adelaide Festival Centre – Space Theatre, Wed 6 Mar.

Technology has had a significant impact on live theatre, and when coupled together with the creative vision of director Milo Rau you get something quite special. The story told here is the senseless murder of a young man in Liege, Belgium. Part of Rau’s credo of good theatre is that the inner workings of the production be open to public view, and we are therefore treated to a parallel tale of how this production came about. A short introduction guards against acting for its own sake, and we see the cast being auditioned for their parts in dual live modes – simultaneously live on a large screen, or by just observing the actors on stage.
This dual mode is used to offer a split focus at several points. At times the video and live action are in sync; at times the filmed sequence mirrors the live action but with slight differences. At other times the split focus is diametrically opposed – love versus violence for example. On each occasion you get to choose where and what to watch – unmediated direct observation, or on screen.
Another tenet of Rau’s work is that plays should be in multiple languages. In La Reprise Dutch, French and Arabic are spoken. English is in sub-titles only.
The graphic re-enactment of the murder is both disturbing and clever – and again we can choose to watch it directly, or on screen just like you might do at home on TV. Rau believes theatre should change the world. It isn’t entirely clear to me what La Reprise might change about the world but regular exposure to this method of presenting violence might serve to re-sensitise those who have grown used to on screen gratuitous violence.
This is powerful and gripping theatre. Thankfully there are intelligent laughs along the way to ease the tension. The cast is uniformly strong, authentic and humane. They do indeed appear to deliver a story and not just act. This creates a more engaged relationship between audience and cast, and also makes it harder to be blasé about the grim reality being played out before you.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)
Image courtesy of Michiel Devijver

He's Every Woman

Gluttony – Empire Theatre, Fri 1 Mar.
Way down the far end of Gluttony lies the Empire Theatre. A small crowd waited in the thankfully air conditioned venue for a real treat. Justin Clausen and Jamie Burgess are simply a great double act. Professing their love for pop divas from an early age they trotted out their favourites from Celine Dion, Tina Turner, Olivia NJ, Whitney Houston, Tina Arena et al and were superb.
For contestants on The Voice, Australia’s Got Talent and the like – listen to Justin Clausen to hear how you belt out a song with passion and power while still respecting the melody – he has a wonderful voice. And he reaches that place where the melody is fuelled with real emotion and had me close to tears more than once.
And behind him, super competent on piano, Jamie Burgess provided deceptively complex harmonies that added another delicious vocal layer. As well, Jamie taunted and teased his partner with some good-natured bitching, and kept him from straying too far down the X-rated road.
They obviously have a great affection for each other, and their on stage banter was humorous and well timed. Stories from their own lives lent an air of honesty that was refreshing and sometimes deeply moving.
This is an unusual show. Clausen and Burgess are great musical talents, but it is their ability and willingness to share who they are in a winning mix of personal and professional that sets them apart from other similar acts. Great music, great showmanship and despite making fun of themselves and their divas, an obvious love for their craft and the songs they sing. I loved it.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Saturday, March 16, 2019

John Safran - Jew Detective

The Garden Of Unearthly Delights – The Factory, Wed 27 Feb.

John Safran’s Wikipedia entry describes him as radio personality, satirist, film maker and author. In Jew Detective: Sarcasm is Not a Crime he is attempting to add stand-up comedian to his list of pursuits. It’s certainly worth a shot. Many of the elements are there. Safran is a natural born trouble maker and his ability to draw satirical/sarcastic insight from the absurd situations he finds himself in should make for plenty of hilarity.
But this show may demand too much subtle thinking to be very funny. Safran pitches his show within a framework that pits the artist against the ideologue. Even assuming enough people understood the concept of ideologue, the audience found this show hard to fathom. Is he making fun of the far right? Is this Jew anti-Jew? Is he making fun of artists? Why does he mock so many people who defend causes? And of course all of these things are true. Safran treads a lonely, risky, grey area exposing the shortcomings of all the various -isms people march to defend.
He does this with sarcasm and satire, and runs the risk therefore of coming across as a smart arse. Safran says he just gets out of bed in the morning and finds himself mixed up in fights and disagreements. But this would be after taking a photo of a far right rally that he posts to Instagram with some provocative jibe and strangely enough someone at the rally challenges him! Which is exactly what he wants of course.
We’re shown lots of photographs from his past stunts, the occasional video, cuttings of amusing and threatening social media posts; there’s even a little live music. But it felt like he’s still learning the craft of the stand-up comedian. He read a lot from prepared notes, and at times it felt like he was reading one of his books out loud to us. But the certainty and conviction of his words in print or in the scripted narration of a documentary were not quite as sure in the live medium of stand up. But as Safran himself said, artists have to deal with loose ends and that he hasn’t quite mastered yet.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Monday, March 11, 2019

A Dark Comedy about Brahms

Bakehouse Theatre – Studio, Wed 20 Feb.

In Vienna’s City Park there is a grand statue of Brahms depicting the composer as a grumpy old man. This new work by Neil Salvage reinforces that view and goes some way to explain why he became so grumpy. In what could be seen as just another tortured artist scenario, albeit from the 19th Century, Brahms it seems was the only person in Vienna at the time who didn’t like his own music. Or so it appears at this party to celebrate the first performance of his new violin concerto.
Rather than play the gracious guest of honour Brahms spends much of his time drinking in a back room and berating all who commend him on his achievements. Cycles of praise and recrimination ensue between the composer, his publisher, violinist and musical collaborator, old friend Clara Schumann, and an influential critic. Bitter and resentful, Brahms seems intent on bringing everyone down with him to wallow in misery and self-doubt.
All these various roles are masterfully played by Salvage himself, Nicholas Collett – both eminent actors from the UK stage, and local emerging artist, Stefanie Rossi. Having excerpts of Brahms’ work played live added immediacy and context, but having the violinist overplay her silent reactions to the dialogue unfolding before her was a mistake. They need to be far more subtle.
Billed as a dark comedy, there’s not much room here for laughter. Ironic smiles perhaps as we watch Brahms himself try to reconcile being the author of the famous Lullaby with the angry person he’s become.

An entertaining play with solid acting performances, and a really good way to learn something about Brahms the person, and become (re)acquainted with his music.

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Judith Lucy vs Men

The Garden Of Unearthly Delights – The Vagabond, Tue 19 Feb. 

Dysfunctional relationships, gender stereotypes, feminism, toxic masculinity, ageism, online dating, social media – you could write a thesis on Judith Lucy v Men. But with the skill of a veteran comedian she turns serious stuff into laughing matters. Judith Lucy bares all about much of her own life in a story that could easily turn sad and sentimental, but she keeps a professional distance from the emotional impact relationships with men has had on her, enabling her audience to laugh with her, but still feel close enough to care. And she wants us to care – at least enough to cast a vote at show’s end as to whether she should give up men altogether.
If half of what Judith says is true she has indeed had a bum deal with straight white men, and they come out of this show looking pretty much like bastards. But she’s not bitter about it; she’s quite resilient in fact, and willing to concede that there may be something about her that invites relationship disaster.
Much of the show is about sex but Judith Lucy has a way of addressing the lewd and lascivious with a touch of class that makes sex part of a larger more important story – the desire to be wanted and how to cope when relationships go wrong.
She delivers much of her material with this wonderful brand of sarcasm that draws the humour out of situations without whinging, and it adds a keen edge to her story telling. Lots of audience members get to join in the discussion, and by show’s end everyone cares about what happens to her next.
Amid the laugher and the joy however there is also a sense of pathos. Great that she can makes us all laugh along with her about her failed attempts at love, but perhaps she’d rather not be alone, treading the boards night after night getting laughs from her failures? But that only Judith Lucy can know.
In the meantime we all get to go and enjoy a really funny show that is engaging and full of raw humanity.  

(This review also published on The Clothesline.)

Sunday, December 02, 2018

A Cat Story

We’d seen a grey cat scurrying away down our driveway a few times when we came home. We figured it probably lived next door amidst the abundant piles of junk in the neighbours’ backyard. About a year ago these neighbours had to vacate the property as it was to be redeveloped.
The demolition began and we occasionally noticed a grey cat walking past our open back door. It, as expected, would scurry away at any indication we might come closer. This happened several times until one day the same cat ventured inside. We were sitting outside watching. It spent just a few seconds in the house and then scurried away once again.
This went on for a week or so until one night I was sitting in our living room near the back door and this ever braver grey cat walked right on in, surveyed the kitchen area for a minute or two and then strolled back outside. Again, this happened a few times before the next stage.
We had clearly passed her lengthy audition process and this dear cat one day strolls in with a kitten in its mouth. She deposited the kitten in a corner of our sitting room, and paced around nearby for a while. The kitten as it happened wasn’t too happy. It didn’t like where Mum had put her and meowed pretty much non-stop for about 20 minutes. Mother cat had seen enough. She picked up the kitten and took it back outside.
The following day she repeated this procedure with a different, larger kitten. This larger kitten was much happier about being left alone in the corner of our sitting room and barely said boo. After some time Mum went back outside and returned soon after with the smaller kitten from the day before and put it with its sibling. At this point of course we were wondering how many more there might be. I went outside and heard the meowing of another kitten on top of our back shed. I rescued it and put it in with the others.
Se we now had 4 cats - the stray grey mother cat and 3 gorgeous kittens. So began an illuminating period of watching these creatures interact and grow. It was like watching a David Attenborough documentary in real time with front row seats.
I guess we always knew we would eventually get another cat but that time was far off in some undetermined future. We had the decision taken out of our hands. We had been adopted by this delightful skittish grey stray. So skittish in fact, we called her Skitty. Still very nervous of humans, especially any sudden movements, she would dart away impulsively and slink back to her kittens when no one was around. But Skitty would stay with us – she had chosen us after all. We ultimately gave 2 of her 3 kittens away, and decided to keep the smallest of them
I still hesitate some months later to start writing about her. Her story brought us so much joy and so much sadness in her short life. When we decided to keep the three kittens we erected a cardboard barrier across the entrance to an area of our sitting room to keep them contained. Almost as soon as that barrier stood it was this tiniest kitten that stood up against it, looked up and me and meowed. From the start she was the one who wanted to be picked up; she was the one that wanted human contact. It was love at first sight and it was an easy choice – if we were to keep one kitten to keep Skitty company, it would be this one.
She had several trial names. Her official Paws and Claws name was Jasper. River called her something else. For some reason I was reluctant to name her – perhaps I knew somewhere that she wouldn’t be with us for long. It was only on the final night of her life that I knew who she was. I named her Spirit – such was her desire to be alive and to do everything she could within her severe limitations.
Her life with us started out happily. She was much smaller than her 2 siblings but mixed it with them in the rough and tumble of cat play and games of chasey up and down the hallway and skidding around corners on the kitchen lino. She, like the other 2, was hilarious. When her siblings had gone, she and her mother played together and enjoyed roaming around the garden looking like Mum and Mini Me.  At some point we began to notice that she had occasional balance problems. She would wobble a little on her back legs and occasionally tumble over. This gradually got worse and more pronounced but she, undeterred, would pick herself up each time and continue on. She was happy.
But we saw that she was getting worse. It turned out she had a congenital disease of the central nervous system that was affecting her ability to walk and keep her balance. We kept her for as long as we could but at approximately 6 months old we had to put her down. (Those words hold no hint of the depth of emotion that we felt losing her. She was just a tiny little stray cat but we had fallen in love with her.)
Skitty spent much of the next few days wandering around the house looking for her little Spirit – it was so sad to see. It didn’t take long before we decided that we would try again. We would get another kitten to keep Skitty company. The experts will tell you cats are quite happy being solitary pets, but many will tell you too that if you have 2 cats they will likely spend a lot of time together.
We knew it was a gamble. There was no guarantee that Skitty would accept another kitten into her world, but we thought it worth the risk. Enter the 6 month old tabby we named Tully. It took 8 days for Skitty to start washing Tully and lying with her on the same couch or corner of a bed. That according to our local vet was something of a miracle. Typically it takes 6-8 weeks in such situations before the host cat will accept the newcomer.
We were hopeful, even confident, that Skitty would be OK with another kitten. She had been a loving and devoted mother to her own, and was very affectionate with us. We thought she had the right temperament to ‘adopt’ a new cat and we were right.
So now, several months on, we have two pretty much adult cats who get on famously, and are really good company for each other. In an ironic twist Tully is the acrobat par excellence that little Spirit should have been, and walks on tree tops and roofs and fence lines and keeps us in a constant state of anxiety whenever she’s outside. Two year old world weary Skitty causes no such anxiety. She has experienced life on her own out in the wilderness and is now quite happy with a domestic life indoors, or enjoying the garden from ground level!
If you had asked me a year ago if I was a cat or a dog person my answer would have been unreservedly ‘dog person’. As I write this Tully is lying asleep next to me just touching my left arm gently with her outstretched paws. It’s a deeply calming sensation. I’m now a cat person.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Lake Mungo and the Meaning of Home

In 1974 the remains of Mungo Man were found on the shores of the former Lake Mungo in western New South Wales. His bones were transported to places far away for the purposes of science. It was these bones that proved conclusively that humans had lived in Australia for at least 50,000 years.
After four decades, and after much lobbying from Aboriginal people from the Lake Mungo region, Mungo man was returned to his resting place by the lake in 2017.  An elderly Aboriginal woman commented:

“He needs to go home. His soul’s just wandering around lost. It’s not good for him. It’s not good for us. It’s not good for anyone. He needs to go home so his soul can rest.”

When I heard these words it was as if I was appreciating the wisdom of the ancient hosts of our land in a way I never had before. Tears flowed as the profound message in those simple words echoed deep down in my soul. We all need to go home. And the elderly woman was talking about a man 50,000 years old as if she knew him. She cared about Mungo Man’s soul. No matter how long ago he lived. She and other members of her community have a responsibility to take care of their ancestors and their land. And a man or woman and their land should not be separated.
I went to Lake Mungo recently – an extraordinary place. The public can’t visit the final resting place of Mungo Man, but you can visit the extraordinary wall of sand dunes that run along the edge of where Lake Mungo once glistened in the sun. The Visitors Centre refers to local Aboriginal groups having cared for the land around Lake Mungo for 50,000 years. Note, not lived in, but cared for the land. Their very existence in the land of their ancestors assumes they are its custodians. Another simple, powerful message.
There is something deeply primal about the notion of home. It strikes at the very core of what it means to be alive, to be human. It evokes feelings of warmth, safety, and contentment. Home is a place where you feel comfortable and know intrinsically how to behave. No pretence is needed because at home you are your natural self, and for many it is a place they return to again and again – in both the literal and metaphorical sense – for sustenance.
For some others this may be precisely why they leave home for they crave something other than safety and comfort. Or their experience of home was so dreadful that they leave never to return. Oscar Wilde wrote that ‘no man is an adult until they leave home.’  In many cultures it is a mark of respect earned if you have left your homeland and lived much of your life in foreign shores. It conveys a certain worldliness somehow, a strength that you have struck out on your own and succeeded without the support of your family, relatives or culture – the immigrant. And though an immigrant at the end of their life might long to return to their homeland or have their ashes scattered in the fields or rivers of home it rarely happens. In the modern world a great many people leave their home never to return.
So what of their souls? Is the soul of one born in Wales and buried in Australia doomed to wander for eternity? If the Mungo elder is correct then that would be the case, and we all therefore suffer. Could there be a different set of rules than those that govern the belief systems of Aboriginal Australians? Is that the case for those who choose to leave their place of birth, and are happy to remain away, and who come to some spiritual reconciliation with a different place of their own choosing; a place they came to as a foreigner but came to regard as their home; their spiritual home? Can you in effect choose where your soul calls home?
The Aboriginal belief that one should be buried in the land of your birth works for a culture and time where most people would not have strayed far from their ancestral home. Though there may be some deep primal appeal attached to this notion, it can’t be a matter of absolute fact. It is culture and context specific.
It is interesting though to contemplate what home means for each one of us. Is it a house? A suburb or town? A land or country? Or is it being with a certain person, or being in a certain state of mind? Does listening to a particular piece of music make you feel at home? The possibilities are many. Is the state of feeling at home literal and physical or more metaphorical and symbolic where in fact the physical location has no bearing at all on the notion of feeling at home?
For my own part it has been all of these things at different times.  In terms of physical location I can variously claim to feel at home in a particular suburb where I have lived much of my life, or more widely the whole city of Adelaide, or more widely still the land of Australia. I do honestly feel at home in locations where I have previously lived or visited frequently – Holland, or Cambodia. And mysteriously, or perhaps even mystically, some places seem to take hold of your soul for no obvious reason. Israel worked like this for me. I felt a strange and strong affinity with Israel from the moment I arrived there. And there are other times when it is only in the company of my partner that I feel truly at home.
So is home where the heart is? It turns out the heart can be at home at any number of places, but perhaps not simultaneously. Perhaps home is simply where you are at any given moment that you’re feeling good about yourself and your place in the world.
To return to Mungo Man, or any other deceased being that has been interred, it seems obvious that they should just be left in peace, and it seems quite feasible that a disturbed body may trigger the wandering of a consequently restless soul.

More photos HERE

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

The Ugly Australian

I initially wrote this song about travelling in Greece. I was a deck class passenger on a ferry between Athens and Israel and I was give this inedible food for dinner. I kicked up a fuss with the ferry staff and they agreed to give me some other food and allowed me to sit in the first class lounge while I ate it. The food in truth wasn’t that much better, and after a short time all the lounge staff logged off and turned off most of the lights as they went.  As I sat there in the half-darkness eating this dreadful food I realise I’d been had! It was the kind of thing that made you want to go home.

Thirty years on I realised that if I just tweaked the lyrics a little and wrote them from the perspective of a refugee stuck on Manus or Nauru I have a similar but different song.

You put shit food down in front of me and expect me to eat it
You put me up in the first class lounge with my anger and expect that to placate it
I’m on a foreign boat in a foreign sea in times foreign to us all At times like this I’m wonderin’ why I’m so far from my native shore I’m going home

I’m tired of the ever moving ground
I'm tired of the ever changing ground

Australia will you wait for me with your long and golden shore?
You’re a land of sun and dreams they tell me but I wanna know for sure

Are you keeping up with fashion? Are you keeping down the poor?

Are you looking down the barrel? Or has nothing changed at all?
But I’m coming home

So I’m coming home

TAKE 2: 2018

You put shit food down in front of me and expect me to eat it
You stick me out on an offshore island with my pain and expect that to placate it
I’m in a foreign place in a foreign sea in times foreign to us all

Australia was what I was looking for – why I left my native shore
But I can’t go home

I’m tired of the never changing ground
I’m tired of the never moving round

Australia I will you wait for you with your long and golden shores
You’re a land of sun and dreams they tell me will I ever know for sure?
I have no home

Are we closing up the country? Have we shut down all the doors?
Are those in need not welcome? When did we get so mean?
They can’t go home
They have no home

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

On Australian Identity

Ever since I taught Australian History to high school students I have felt uncomfortable using Anzac Day as a cause of celebration, let alone espousing it as some kind of event that forged our national identity.
From a historical perspective the verdict is pretty clear: the ANZAC campaign was a disaster. Australian and New Zealand soldiers were used as decoys and sent as lambs to the slaughter to distract the Turks from another region the British intended to attack. It was a disgrace that was best forgotten.
Yet we go on making it bigger and grander with each passing year. Richard Flanagan in his recent address to the National Press Club says that in his family Anzac Day was always about remembering those who went to war, and especially those who didn’t come home.  From around the mid-80s, in the hands of politicians – beginning with Bob Hawke – it has become something else. It’s become a patriotic rallying call to define who we are as a nation and the values and beliefs that go with it, and if you don’t subscribe to those beliefs you are somehow un-Australian. Well let me say right here and now that I am un-Australian. Which of course just means that I think differently to those who hold up the ‘Anzac spirit’ as some kind of mirror that all Australians must look into to find themselves.
I do a lot of walking around Australian towns and cities, and as I watch the churches become homes, cafes and bars, and the war memorials shine and proliferate, and see the vast sums of money being spent on more of them at Gallipoli, France, and here in Adelaide, it’s become clear to me that Australia’s real religion is war, or at least the memorialising if it. It feels like an unhealthy obsession.
What bothers me, and as Flanagan noted is really quite dangerous, is none of this is up for discussion with mainstream Australia. War, and the militarisation of national memory, is a no go area. Question its relevance or importance and you are immediately dismissed as un-Australian, left-leaning, hippy, radical or some other insult that consigns you to the margins. It’s a closed book, and sadly is in large part based on myth rather than fact.

We are going down a dead end street that offers no solace for the growing number of Australians who are unhappy – who smash up churches and graves, eat themselves to obesity, or express their life’s emptiness through road rage….

Flanagan wonders whether there may be another path Australia could take to seek the roots of its national identity. We have been given the priceless gift of sharing this remarkable continent with the oldest unbroken culture on the planet. This could be our legacy to the world. Why isn’t there a national museum dedicated to our indigenous culture? Why would we rather spend $100 million on a war museum in France honouring the lives of those who died fighting for another country’s wars rather than spend that money on a national monument honouring Australia’s vast pre-history? Why aren’t we standing on the hilltops boasting about the fact that we host an ancient civilization whose ancestors are still with us? And this story happened on this land – not in Turkey or France or Vietnam. These are the real, authentic stories of our ancient land: our true past. Who knows - it might even make us feel more connected to it, and perhaps lead us to appreciate the unique place in history that our co-existence with the earth’s oldest culture affords us.