LENNY BRUCE: 13 DAZE UNDUG IN SYDNEY
presented by the Tamarama Rock Surfers, April 2013
Newcastle, 1999. We were partying just as the Prince song had instructed us to. Benito “The Fooz” Foozolini was out on the street corner sharing a rolly with some laser beaked debonair dressed as a Pterodactyl while I took Polaroids of passing trade and swapped the results for beer. It was the Young Writers’ Festival and about twelve hundred people had crammed into a dance studio to sneer at Margo Scotch Finger for being too mainstream. Margo wrote the first political blog on the Sydney Harbinger and as such she was appropriately crucified by super fucking hip fucking radicals for being a part of the establishment. Then she lit up a ciggie and we all looked like fools for being abashed. Nobody was allowed to smoke indoors those daze. Not even radicals. At one point a naked man ran through the crowd carrying a flat cardboard box that smelt like smoky barbeque shouting “all pizza is theft” but that was fine. We just kept at our self-assigned task of mocking squares. Fucking Squares, Man.
“Over the last eighty years the campaign against government censorship has been almost completely a success story… in the case of blasphemous literature they have had only trivial setbacks”
Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition – John Coleman, 1962
Some cat was passing ’round spliffs and space cake in the name of research and I said to Van Bingham – “hey- that’s John Brown, he wrote some childrens’ book I used to love. That guy basically taught me to read!” Van said no, that’s the Midnight Cat, his cousin. They look exactly the same. I’d already spent half the night sponging cash off him for ginger ale so it’s just as well. Man if he ever finds out I’ll have to pay him back that tenner. Booze was cheap in those days so you could live cold on the dole and still sleep in a park for five days, and still have some extra dough for a night at the Crowne Plaza, where you could swap post-midnight semillon for LSD and MDMA… I spent the following day in a kimono heckling sound artists and holding court outside the festival club. I think that’s where The Fooz first noticed my talent for spectacle but I can’t be sure
“in the 1930′s and 40′s writer’s organisations such as The Australian Fellowship of Writers and The Australian Journalists Association would one minute defend our right to read banned novels because they were expressions of the True and the Beautiful and the next would denounce American Comics as Jewish-Negroid-Southern-European inspirations unfit for White Australians”
Obscenity, Blasphemy, Sedition – John Coleman, 1962
Around that time I ran into the Ghost of Bob Ellis. He told me to change my name back to Sanchez. So I did. I asked him to come up for a reading of Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in an abandoned shop window on Hunter St but there was no-one to read Gwendolen or Cecily, not even for ready money. It was already 9am but we found Maryam Lion out and about and she stepped up to the crease like Allan Border in the mid-eighties. Sans moustache of course. Later she became the only Australian guest on lateline or Q and A to ever walk away with dignity. Dig? They never had her back. The reading went well. I played Tristan Tzara but the only thing I’d had for breakfast was the space cake I’d got from John Brown’s cousin’s friend the night before. In the play he’s hanging out with James Joyce and by the time he takes on Ulysses my vision was doubled and I had the appearance of the Rumanian Undead.They started calling me ‘Vlad The Inhaler’ but Any attempt at Eastern European accent was fine but for some reason all I could speak was fluent Oscar Wilde.
Meanwhile Van Bingham had red and blue ribbons in her hair and was quietly becoming a destroyer-of-worlds. Some ten years later I bribed her friend Lucy Grayskull ten thousand cubits to cast me as Sergei Petrov in a ten minute reconstruction of the life of “The Glimmerman” or Blind Boy Ziesel, as he preferred. The Fooz had wrote it on the back of a red-wine hangover coaster and it seemed to make sense. it was the begining of the end. Soon we would all become legitimate artists in our own right. Humiliating.
Having declared the battle against government censorship a varied success in 1962, John Coleman went on to briefly become Chief Censor in NSW. In twenty-thirteen, a movie depicting gay sex is banned. You still can’t say “cocksucker” on free-to air TV but you can replay video of the deaths of thousands of people again, and again, and again, all through the day and night. You can promote gambling and booze to children in prime-time because ‘free markets’ and these are acceptable forms of self-abuse. But a woman breastfeeding her child in public? There’s no political will to defend that. We’ve always been uptight about banning books in this country (famously including Nabakov, D H Lawrence and of course, Ulysses). But in the context of Mr Coleman’s comments, one cannot help but wonder – was it Mr Bruce’s obscenities which caused him to be banned? Or might the journalists of the time been more forgiving if he happened to be white?
This play is probably the most important new work I have seen all year (and I’ve seen a few). It’s a vital piece of Sydney history, painstakingly researched and developed for the stage, with tight, powerhouse performances, laughter and music to boot. We can’t add anything to it because there’s simply so much there to enjoy, and learn, and laugh with, and cry for. With one week left, you would be mad to miss out.
Lenny Bruce, 13 Daze Undug in Sydney, by Benito Di Fonzo, directed by Lucinda Gleeson. Featuring Sam Haft, Lenore Munro, Damien Strouthos & Dorje Swallow.
Playing at the Bondi Pavilion until May 4th, 2013.
THE HAM FUNERAL
presented by The New Theatre, April 2013
ANZAC Day. We remember the fallen. Reflect on our past. For me, it’s a memorial to something I never knew – for others, something more personal, a display of history and pride. For some it’s a demonstration of our national character (whatever that means), or just a day off work to get smashed and gamble. There’s a lot of hand-wringing over words like ‘celebrate’ or ‘militarisation’. Jostling for moral high-ground, politicising the dead, even one ill-advised tweet suggesting Two-Up winnings might be used to purchase a particular brand of burgers. And don’t even start me on Christopher Pyne (no, really, start me on Christopher Pyne)… Everybody seems to want to own a piece of the ANZACs, or tell you how to remember, or how to feel. It really is – if anything is: “A funeral for the living”.
Whether by accident or design this Patrick White play opened last night (April 25th) in the historic New Theatre, and we couldn’t help but extrapolate the metaphor to the pseudo-intellectualisation of something we will never really understand. Whether it’s War or History or The Classics or a Loveless Marriage, White’s play relentlessly mocks the self-absorption-of-the-artist-as-a-young-man trying to go through life as an exercise in studious query. The hubris is dizzying.
Our self-announced protagonist: the Young Poet. Educated, Well-Read, Articulate, Perceptive, full-of-Ideas, Never-Had-a-Real-Job.
Sound like anyone you know?
Meanwhile, the action centres around the basement kitchen-table-war-zone of Mrs Lusty and the eponymous funeral for her husband; her joie-de-vivre is an inspirational counterpoint to the middle-class pretensions of her tenant. The play doesn’t shy away from pouring acid onto the working classes either, but its expressionistic tone gets one wondering how much of this occurs in the mind of the bourgeois reader*. The exaggerated filth of the Two Ladies, the leering, sneering relatives, all press on the Young Poet’s fear and privilege. Their aphorisms are certainly no more or less in weight than his (although one or two carry a brutality of truth he seems incapable of finding) – on the other hand, the aspirational truths spoken by the mysterious Woman-Next-Door offer an impossible fantasy, enticing him out of the slum to which he is so drawn. These conflicting worlds-within-worlds create a tasty tension between what is real and what is projected. Honey on salted ham.
As such the play reflects the Australian self-conciousness of identity as a vital, visceral grotesque, ‘real and unreal as your face in the glass’. The darkness perhaps overpowering the light (on the night I was present at least) as the sheer vertiginous language can make short shrift of an actor caught napping. Here are plenty of laughs amongst the poetry and vicious swinging barbs. It’s a whirlwind. Despite these challenges the ensemble work is strong and beguiling, and (as overheard in the foyer afterwards) “with a degree of difficulty of 10″, there’s plenty for the team to work with. Special Mention must be given to Lucy Miller – we so rarely single out actors - but this is a consummate performance of a hugely demanding, once-in-a-lifetime role. If you’re unfamiliar with Patrick White (and let’s be honest, who isn’t?), this is a great opportunity to dip your toe in the muck.
The Ham Funeral by Patrick White, playing at The New Theatre until May 25th, 2013. Featuring Danielle Baynes, Rob Baird, Steve Corner, Brielle Flynn, Zach McKay, Lucy Miller, Kallan Richards, Karina Sindicich, and Benjamin Vickers. Directed by Phillip Rouse.
THE BULL, THE MOON AND THE CORONET OF STARS
presented by Merrigong Theatre Company, Griffin Theatre Company and Hothouse Theatre, April, 2013
Previews are special. The uncertainty, the danger, the risk that’s unique to any other performance, as artists and performers hand over their careful creations to an audience blind, like first-time lovers. Things go wrong. The creators’ anxiety is at its peak – which as the work is tested, moment by moment to win or fail – exuding a palpable crackling energy that only comes with a rare blend of sheer uncertainty and the courage of letting go. We have referred to this phenomena before in response to another intimate production at Griffin bearing a mix of magic, mythological and contemporary motifs. It is especially fraught in first-performances of a new play. Any new play is a confronting thing to perform, let alone one as touching and personal as this. It is known. Paraphrasing from the program notes: Van Badham conveys a great deal of her own heartbreak, hope and fear into the writing, something acknowledged by Lee Lewis that we are “deeply indebted to her” for it. Indeed.
That debt must extend as well, to Lewis for her work in translating it to the stage, and to the performers who countenance such evocative and cathartic material with their craft. At times vivid, direct, erotic, ridiculous, insouciant, tragically naive or hideously proud – always committed and yet somehow slightly one-step-removed from the text. A tricky balance that accedes to the paradoxes of the text that are simultaneously ancient tales and very much the here-and now. The echoes of Theseus and Ariadne into our lives today, and the threads of action-consequence that travel into the labyrinth of milennia past. How much of our own anxiety and pain are a part of this cycle of mythologising men (or women) into heroes, from presupposing an inevitability of love or lust or loss? Badham’s script portrays an acceptance of culpability for personal distress, owning it, laughing at it, unequivocally sharing it – with a sophisticated ear for irony and trademark wit, she manages to fashion the Myth of the Minotaur (referenced in the title of the play) into her own story, now subverting the hero-figure, now recognising the allure. This is more than merely a modernised adaptation of myth in the traditional mode of Anouilh (or even TS Eliot’s The Cocktail Party), as the epic is embedded to the tale in equal measure as it is historically removed. Altogether a different process and form to what we are accustomed to in the recent glut of adaptations. But perhaps that is an issue for another day.
The innate paradoxes are also apparent in the staging. From the opening seconds there’s a nod and a wink to the oral traditions of the lyric poet #notaeuphemism – as the tale is writ like a novella and much of it spoken in past tense. This allows for a concurrent distance and immediacy of the action, both drawing us in and keeping us at bay. This duality of form is a very tricky business to make work and often fails in the hands of lesser performers but these two manage to keep us sublimely in-the-moment despite the overarching and constant reminders that yes, we are watching a play. Yes, it’s a tale we all know, and yet we don’t know. Yes it’s a fable of modern horror, yet it’s imbued in the conventions of romantic comedy as well. Yes, it’s slightly tongue-in-cheek, yet devastatingly honest. But most of all, simply “Yes”.
THE POLITICAL HEARTS OF CHILDREN
presented by subtlenuance at the TAP Gallery, April 2013
Some years ago I attended a ‘Welcome-to-Country’ which preceded the National Young Writer’s Festival up in Newcastle. The traditional owner hosting the welcome sat everyone in a circle and told us some of the background of the place, of the Awabakal and Worimi people and how they first began to use coal way back before colonisation, and how the knowledge had been passed on through word-of-mouth in gatherings just like the one we were in that day. She asked the group to each tell something about from where they had come, myself from Sydney, others from Western Australia or overseas – it took a while (there were forty of us in the group) – but as a custom, it’s central to the welcoming process, for understanding where we have come from is a vital part of knowing who and where we are. At the end of the welcome, she thanked us said she looked forward to seeing us around the place over the course of the festival weekend. As we all got up to leave, almost offhandedly she said “and I want to hear those stories”.
I kept thinking of that day in the post-show haze of wonder. Those stories that define us, as a people, as an individual, as a nation, as a world, can so easily slip from the memory but when told, can take on such power to change lives. It’s evolution on a granular scale – and that’s why this show, with such a deceptively simple premise, is a vastly important piece of theatre. Seven actors, passing on a tale from their childhood, each defining moments of personal truth, pain, glory or fear – shared with seven writers and retold, stylised, cut up and played out in the empty space – we recall the words of Brook’s seminal text “where anything can happen”. Each tale is a truth and an exaltation, a memory and a trick of the mind – and all of them much, much stranger than fiction. This is a rare find for theatre-hunters, the opening night audience laughing, crying and so privileged to find insight into not one but seven beautiful minds. I’m going back again.
The Political Hearts of Children, featuring James Balian, Mark Dessaix, Rosanna Easton, Carla Nirella, Kelly Robinson, Kathryn Schuback and Stephen Wilkinson. Written by Alison Rooke, Katie Pollock, Kimberley Lipschus, Victoria Haralabidou, Benito Di Fonzo, Didem Caia and James Balian, directed by Paul Gilchrist. Playing until April 21, 2013 at the TAP Gallery, Sydney.
POST-SCRIPT: further reflections
After going back for a second bite – the show equally as enjoyable, in different ways – I want to just expand on what I mean by “evolution on a granular scale”. I meant the phrase sincerely but it has the unfortunate reek of pretension without context – which becomes very difficult given my hatred of spoilers! But I digress…
What struck me was the sense of rediscovery of innocence, a recurring thread throughout the pieces. The opening monologue, a back and forth between the adult and child versions of Kathryn Schuback on a trip to the beach, demonstrates just how easily we can forget ourselves, our childhood dreams “what do you want to be when you grow up?”… realistic or not “do you have to go to school to be an astronaut?” and the natural comedic pitch of such a conversation set the tone of reflective wonder. There’s some dramaturgical nous at play as well, rather than setting each tale back-to-back-to-back, this piece and the thrilling Skink-Hunt from Stephen Wilkinson & Benito Di Fonzo are broken up into sections, bookending some of the other pieces neatly and interweaving between threads, giving Political Hearts an overall tapestry feel throughout.
With each of the actor-writer teams given a similar brief, there are wildly different results. Some of the stories take the form of a set of impressionistic memories, such as Rosanna Easton’s fascinating recollection of early life in New Zealand, some key moments counterpointing the overall metaphor of the hothouse-orchid, yearning for more but trapped in the “always winter” of adolescent discontent. A recurring motif: frustration, disappointment, oppression and hope, throughout each piece, ranging in scale but always uniquely personal to the world of the actor – and for the young, that world is nothing less than everything they’ve ever known. Whether it’s a deadly backyard war-zone, or the grandparents’ farm disappearing only to live on in the memories of the now grown-up cousins, or the world of school corridors and associated bullies – the vividness of what seems so small today can pull a thread on our own tiny worlds.
We can relate to something in each, or imagine the rest. The imagination’s power intensified by the bare stage and raw images, culminating in the sudden shift in distance to a world most of us only read about. An actual warzone – Iraq, 1963 – James Balian’s tale of a trip to the dentist in the midst of a revolution. It’s a strange transition, still from the child’s perspective but fifty years gone. We’ve just come from the joyous victory of Boy Wilkinson’s heightened battle against the magpies for his prized skink. So it’s an abrupt reminder of the breadth of the world experience and its universality. These are all stories of Australia, even when they aren’t, because we’re here, now, telling them, sharing ourselves. The Welcome to Country I refer to earlier because storytelling is a vital part of our Indigenous heritage, an something we must begin to embrace if we are to come to terms with our identity, our identities as a nation today.
Oppression and fear can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s imagined, sometimes it’s projected, sometimes it’s very real, and sometimes it’s simply easier to pretend it’s not there. It’s how we react that shapes us. “We grow up.” Lest we Forget.
New Theatre, March 2013.
A must see for theatre writers – The Pillowman is a modern horror classic in the vein of – actually we’re stumped here – Frankenstein? Nosferatu? Accidental Death of An Anarchist? The Trial? Stephen King’s IT? None of them quite match. There are even shades of Havelian absurdity but Martin McDonagh is a true original, weaving together something akin to a Grimm’s Faery Tale of courage and imagination. This is true horror in that what is not said, what is not seen is so much more brutal than what we do. It’s such a fine line between revulsion in black comedy and the production does not mess around, delivering a tight back and forth of shock and laughter counterpointed with some meta-text that is both chilling and provocative.
Outside time, without extension* the world of the play switches like a light between the dank cells of an unnamed police state and some of the more depraved paths of the human imagination and storytelling we’ve taken. Immediately there are comparisons with public debates on hot-button issues such as police brutality, censorship and media regulation, and the always popular right-to-silence / free-speech double whammy. Context. Think that’s enough for one play? Just wait. You will be challenged on your beliefs on these subjects by curtain. The ensemble delivering on all fronts to suspend all kinds of disbelief while also balancing the kind of audience dislocation necessary for the material to work.
This is not a play for the faint-hearted. There are child-assault triggers and explicit language that will shock. But not in the way you expect. The beauty of the words here demonstrate the power of literature in performance that three little words, followed by silence and a look between two men can destroy even the staunchest of audience. Totally absorbing, this is what we look for in a play, to challenge and suggest alternative realities, to provoke the heart and mind and soul. Another quality production from the team at the New. Recommended.
*with apologies to Beckett
THE PILLOWMAN by Martin McDonagh, directed by Luke Rogers. Featuring Julian Dibley-Hall, Lauren Dillon, Michael Howlett, Peter McAllum, Jeremy Waters, Oliver Wenn.
At The New Theatre until April 13.
Let’s talk about adaptation.
What makes a play? Is it the words on the page? Is it the actors on stage? Is it more than that?
We think yes.
We think it’s in the imagination of the audience. We think the words and colours and actions and music are just a window through which to see into the writer’s world. To see what we will see. Tell what we can tell.
Art is the conversation between the dead and the yet-to-be-born. The living are just translators. This is why writing a play is so hard, but adapting one is easy.
I’ve been thinking a lot about promotion and persuasion recently and I’m convinced that the reason the arts are losing audiences is that we don’t understand the difference.
The culture of arts marketing is one of promotion, of course. Always has been. And this was just fine back when demand was high, but the fact that audiences are in steady decline suggest that we need to be more persuasive, and we don’t seem to know what that means.