“It’s come to my attention that you don’t know who I am” – is a line that Cate Blanchett delivers with deep and devastating effectiveness when she first enters THOR RAGNAROK. Could it be that she is referencing her old acting teachers, Kevin Jackson and myself? Not certain – but what this line does reflect is the subject of ‘identity politics’ that has come to dominate so much of modern theatre and film.
So – here we are – at the end of 2018 – that brief time in which we reflect on what we have seen and done over 2018, amidst the plethora of ‘Best of’ lists. I am not necessarily into the ‘Best of ’ etc. I have a fervent dislike of art becoming a kind of superficial competition, which is why I don’t watch a lot of TV. My lists are far more personal and revealing, reflective of those productions that affected me in one way or another, and have stayed with me for various reasons. I have my favourites, certainly, but they are not necessarily the “Best” of anything. I like the respective following works – because they moved me – that’s all.
I feel very fortunate to be living and working in Adelaide, partly because I am able to see a relatively vast range of national and international productions each year. This is primarily due to the respective festivals, such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Film Festival, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, and (my favourite) the Oz-Asia Festival.
So – here we go. However, let me first state that I did not see any opera this year, nor did I see much dance and ballet, so these kind of productions are not on my list. All the theatre productions listed below were different in their own way, yet each profoundly moved me as well as enlightened and thrilled me.
THEATRE (in roughly chronological order)
JOHN BUCCHINO: IT’S ONLY LIFE – Davine Productions (USA/AUST. – Fringe Festival)
FLESH & BONE by Elliot Warren – Unpolished Theatre (UK – Fringe Festival)
KING JACK QUEEN by Baboab Tree Theatre Company (UK – Fringe Festival)
SMOKING WITH GRANDMA (Threewords Playwright (China – Fringe Festival)
KINGS OF WAR based on the ‘History’ plays by William Shakespeare – directed by Ivo von Hove and produced by Toneelgroep Amsterdam (Adelaide Festival)
US/THEM by Carly Wijs and BRONKS, Belgium (Adelaide Festival)
FLA.CO.MEN – Israel Galvan (Spain – Adelaide Festival)
MEMORIAL by Alice Oswald – directed by Chris Drummond with Helen Morse (Brink Productions) (Australia – Adelaide Festival)
PATTI LUPONE (USA – Cabaret Festival)
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL (USA – Cabaret Festival)
NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour (Iran – Oz-Asia Festival
SECRET LOVE IN PEACH BLOSSOM LAND by Stan Lai (China – Oz-Asia Festival)
SUTRA by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (Netherlands/China – Oz-Asia Festival)
FAITH HEALER by Brain Friel – directed by Judy Davis with Colin Friels, Alison Whyte and Paul Blackwell. (State Theatre of South Australia.)
THE PURPLE LIST by Libby Pearson (UK – Feast Festival)
SEUSSICAL by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens– Northern Light Theatre Company
LINES by Pamela Carter (UK) – directed by Cory MacMahon (UK)
GODS OF STRANGERS by Elena Carapetis (State Theatre of South Australia)
Whilst this is really just shameless self-promotion, nonetheless, I am very proud of the productions that STARC the company I have formed with Stefannie Rossi and Marc Clement, produced in 2018. This includes TOYER by Gardner Mackay, TWO by Jim Cartwright, and REASONABLE DOUBT by Suzie Miller. Plus – there was Genet’s THE MAIDS.
Suzie Miller’s REASONABLE DOUBT, Elena Carapetis’ GODS OF STRANGERS, as well as Jada Alberts’ BROTHERS WRECK were the outstanding new Australian plays produced in Adelaide in 2018. I did see other new works in Sydney and Melbourne – but that’s another story, and none of them had the same impact on me as these three works. I may be biased re REASONABLE DOUBT but it was an honour and privilege to direct and produce the Australian premiere of this play.
FILM (not in any order of preference)
SHOPLIFTERS (2018) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda (JAPAN)
CRAZY RICH ASIANS (2018) directed by Jon M. Chu (USA)
A STAR IS BORN (2018) directed by Bradley Cooper (USA)
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018) directed by Bryan Singer (USA.UK)
HEREDITARY (2018) directed by Ari Aster (USA)
GURRUMUL (2018 directed by Paul Damien Williams (AUSTRALIA)
Films released at the end of 2017 and seen in 2018
SWEET COUNTRY (2017) directed by Warwick Thornton (AUSTRALIA)
THE INSULT (2017) – directed by Ziad Doueiri (LEBANON)
A FANTASTIC WOMAN (2017) directed by Sebastian Lelio (CHILE)
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (2017) directed by Luca Guadagnini (ITALY)
THOR – RAGNAROK (2017) directed by Taika Waititi (USA/NZ)
DARKEST HOUR (2017) directed by Joe Wright (UK/USA)
THE POST (2017) directed by Steven Spielberg (USA
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017) directed by Martin McDonagh (USA)
THE DISASTER ARTIST (2017) directed by James Franco (USA)
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) directed by Rian Johnson (USA)
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017) – directed by Michael Gracey (USA)
BLADERUNNER 2049 (2017) – directed by Denis Villeneuve (USA)
Rather an eclectic group – and there are others – but these are the ones that have stayed with me.
I was also very fortunate in representing the National Film and Sound Archive in presenting during the 2018 Adelaide Film Festival (which was excellent) the newly restored prints of Gillian Armstrong’s STARSTRUCK (1982) and John Duigan’s THE YEAR MY VOICE BROKE (1987). The latter, in particular, was very well received, and it was marvellous to see the very young Noah Taylor and Ben Mendelsohn who most certainly have gone on to have quite wonderful careers.
2018 also marked the 100th Anniversary of the Raymond Longford’s and Lotte Lyall’s THE SENTIMENTAL BLOKE (1918), which premiered in Adelaide on the 26 November 1918. I couldn’t attend the anniversary screening in Adelaide, so I watched this great Australian silent film classic at home.
Re Australian films – I did see a number, including Stephan Elliot’s SWINGING SAFARI, Mark Grenfell’s THE MERGER, Chris Sun’s BOAR, Ben Howling’s CARGO, Marion Pilowsky’s THE FLIPSIDE, and Heath Davis’ BOOK WEEK. I also finally caught up with Simon Baker’s BREATH (2017) and Ben Young’s HOUNDS OF LOVE (2017). A number of these films I admit I watched at home as they either had a limited cinema release and/or went straight to Netflix.
So – a wacky combo of romantic comedies and horror. None of these films was ‘brilliant’, but they were OK; in fact, more than OK. I particularly liked and appreciated the romantic comedies, perhaps the most difficult of all film genres to successfully pull off.
It was, however, Paul Damien Williams’ documentary GURRUMUL and Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY that were the stand-outs – especially SWEET COUNTRY.
Warwick Thornton’s SWEET COUNTRY is terrific! And yet – I don’t know anyone who has seen it. Seriously. I saw it at the movies in Mitcham and I was one of three people in the session. Rather depressing – especially for such an excellent Australian film, but the reality is that it has been a bit of a disaster at the box-office, and continues to be an unknown despite good reviews etc.
SWEET COUNTRY, however, did trigger and inspired me to explore in more detail the nature of Australian ‘westerns’, and the ‘Western’ as a film genre in general.
The ‘Western’ is arguably the most common form of film in World Cinema, beginning with the Tait’s THE STORY OF THE KELLY GANG (1906), the first feature film in World Cinema, and the shorter THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903).
Subsequently, it is possible to argue that it was the ‘Western’ that began cinema and feature film. There are so many sub-genres in regard to ‘Westerns’, including musicals, comedies, horror, and science-fiction. Virtually all major ‘stars’ have at least one ‘Western’ in their body of work – and often more than one. Nor is the ‘Western’ confined simply to US film – they are everywhere; for example, the influential Italian/ Spanish ‘spaghetti westerns’ of Sergio Leone. Australian ‘Westerns’ have the strange title of ‘meat-pie’ Westerns.
There is not the time nor space to elaborate on this wonderful conundrum (what does the ‘West’ mean? Etc), but SWEET COUNTRY certainly joins the pantheon of great Australian ‘Westerns’ that includes WAKE IN FRIGHT, THE MAN FROM SNOWY RIVER, THE TRACKER, THE PROPOSITION, MYSTERY ROAD, GOLDSTONE, as well as earlier films such as ROBBERY UNDER ARMS, BITTER SPRINGS and even JEDDAH.
The ‘Western’ is also very much a part of contemporary US films. Here is a list of some of the modern US ‘Westerns’ that I have watched. John McLean’s SLOW WEST (2015) and Ti West’s IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) being two in particular that I enjoyed and would thoroughly recommend.
THE HOMESMAN (2014) – directed by Tommy Lee Jones
SLOW WEST (2015) – directed by John McLean
BONE TOMAHAWK (2015) – S. Craig Zahler
THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015) – Quentin Tarantino
IN A VALLEY OF VIOLENCE (2016) – Ti West
BRIMSTONE (2016) – Martin Koolhoven
Looking back – WOW – quite pleased with myself that I have actually seen so much.
Finally – did Ms Blanchett wickedly reference either Kevin Jackson or myself in THOR RAGNAROK?
I don’t really know – but it certainly has been suggested. No matter – but if and whenever I see this wonderful ex-student of ours I do intend to say to her in a rather deep voice – It has come to my attention that you don’t know who I am (Kevin), quickly followed by – Have you been listening to a word I’ve said!!! (Me)
Bring on 2019.
I have been neglectful of my WordPress website. I have recently had a very successful exhibition of my photography for this year’s South Australian Living Artists festival, a number of which have been sold. Thank you.
I have started a new series called DANCING TREES. This is an attempt to capture the movement and character of trees. I will post a few of them – the story so far. This one from Brown Hill Creek, Mitcham, Adelaide, has already been sold. My photos are available for sale on the BlueThumb web site.
Looking through a window, any window, is to gaze on a number of possibilities – some good, some bad. Stepping through that window, by choice or by force, means engagement – some good, some bad. Either way, it is a journey – from the scourging of a past life to a re-birth, a re-awakening, and a re-discovery of self-worth. This was my journey over the past several years, represented and exemplified by the following photographs.
Through a Window: Inneston, Innes National Park, Yorke Peninsula, South Australia
Everyone faces, at least at one point in their life, an experience that wipes away a past life. This can be quite painful and devastating, combined with feeling like one is going through a ritualistic cleansing – a scourging of fire and water.
Prologue: The Scourging of Flaming Waters – Fountain, Brisbane, Queensland
ACT 1: RE-BIRTH & RE-AWAKENING
After the scourging comes the re-birth and re-awakening. We greet the new day with a smile in the hope of better life.
Re-Awakening: Sunrise – Maslin Beach, South Australia
We look around our immediate environment and notice the ruination. Feelings of being confined and trapped complement a sense of isolation.
Re-Awakening: Isolation – Port Willunga, South Australia
We rise to face the day. Gazing into what seems vast as well as beautiful there is the juxtaposition of various figures and positions that reflect our current sense of self.
Re-Awakening: Moon, Sky, Sea, Sand, Rock – Maslin Beach, South Australia
ACT 2: SOLACE
We need to accept what was and move forward to what may be. In order to do that we must seek solace; to calm, to nurture and re-nourish, to be inspired and to re-invent. This place of solace can be nature, a place of religious worship, and in art galleries. In all cases, it is a source of spiritual solace as well as slowly but steadily re-connecting with a living world.
Solace: Nature – Dancing Trees – Murdoch Walk, Botanic Gardens, Adelaide, South Australia
Solace: Spiritual – St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Adelaide, South Australia
Solace: Art – National Museum of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory
ACT 3: INSPIRATION
In these places of solace, there is always the possibility of being inspired by something – such as a work of art. Emerging from these places, hopefully re-nourished, you are more open to the wonders and beauty that surrounds you on the street.
In Adelaide, there is wonderful ‘Street Art’, which is often breathtaking in beauty as well as scale. This includes the first work of ‘Public (Street) Art’ in Adelaide, which is a statue, a copy of Canova’s ‘Venus’. It was first unveiled in 1892, and caused a minor scandal due to its nudity and conservative tastes and morals of the time. It shows the goddess Venus stepping from a bath and being surprised; by what or by whom is up to the imagination of the gazer.
In the contemporary ‘Street Art’ of Adelaide there are numerous other re-imagings of a modern ‘Venus’, which can be found down laneways, and even in car parks, such as this one by Adelaide Street Artist Jimmy.C.
Inspiration: Canova’s ‘Venus’ – North Terrace, Adelaide, South Australia; Jimmy.C’s ‘Venus’ – Rundle Street, Kent Town, Adelaide, South Australia
ACT 4: RE-INVENTING
From the nurturing honeyed waters of solace and inspiration, the re-invention of self begins.
Re-Inventing: Honeyed Waters – Fountain, Martin Place, Sydney, New South Wales
Re-invention means re-engaging, and the realization that there really is, as Shakespeare’s says, ‘a world elsewhere’. There are multiple worlds, none of them perfect, in which one can find inspiration, hope, and adventure. Looking out, not in, moving forward by accepting the past and the present for what it is…and the next journey begins.
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Temples, Indien, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Cow & Temples, Bagan, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Fisherman, Lake Inle, Myanmar
Re-Inventing: Adventure – Temple Entrance, Bagan, Myanmar
EPILOGUE: The New Self
Photography was a major source of re-invention for me. After the devastation and sense of isolation and abandonment, I discovered a means to release a dormant creativity. I thank the various people involved in helping me to re-invent my fractured self in a way that I never knew could be possible.
The New Self: Portrait – Sie and I
‘Never Stop Believing’ and continue ‘Making the Ordinary “Extraordinary”
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Performing Space’ and the influence of ‘One-Room’ Theatre.
3. The Performing Space – ‘One-Room’ Theatre
The anniversary of his majesty’s birthday was celebrated, as heretofore, at the government house, with loyal festivity. In the evening, the play of the Recruiting Officer was performed by a party of convicts, and honoured by the presence of his excellency, and the officers of the garrison. That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced, will not be wondered at. The exhilarating effect of a splendid theatre is well known: and I am ashamed to confess, that the proper distribution of three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles stuck around the mud walls of a convict hut, failed not to diffuse general complacency on the countenance of the sixty persons, of various description, who were assembled to applaud the representation. Watkin Tench, A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson, in New South Wales. London, 1793. 25.
Watkin Tench’s eye-witness account of this first theatre performance in the new colony is one of the very few that exists. What can be gleaned from Tench’s account, however, is of considerable significance. Previous posts in this series have highlighted the choice of the play, George Farquhar’s popular satiric comedy, The Recruiting Officer, and its immediate ‘modern’ relevance to the contemporary audience, and that it complemented an ‘event’. Both these issues are still relevant and influence the formulation of the Australian actor. Of even greater significance and influence, however, is that the play was performed in a convict hut, with mud walls, and ‘three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles. This is, in modern theatre parlance, intimate theatre – ‘One-Room’ theatre in which the demarcation between audience and actor is relatively minimal.
The above images are derived from a later period, nonetheless, they give the impression of what convict ‘slab-huts’ were like – they were not very big at all. It was in such a place, however, in which the convict production of The Recruiting Officer took place – intimate ‘One-Room’ theatre and performing space.
In the English theatre, it wasn’t until the mid-18th Century that the lights in the auditorium in a theatre were turned down, creating what is known as ‘Two-Room’ theatre, with a clear demarcation between auditorium and stage. This was a French theatre innovation that was taken by David Garrick and introduced to English theatre, partly in order to quieten the audience, to make them passive observers and focus on the action on-stage. By 1789, however, this innovation was still relatively new.
Watkin Tench’s account references the rather improvised design of the production. It is easy to overlook the fact that the particular items cited – three or four yards of stained paper, and a dozen farthing candles – were actually precious and relatively rare commodities in the new colony. There was no printing press to churn out paper, nor was there an ready and easy supply of wax for candles. In relative terms to the dreariness and dejection of their situation, this was an expensive production; a marvel that it even went on at all.
The play was performed under candle-light, which was also common practice in the English theatre. This is a much softer light on actor’s faces, and subsequently often demands heavier and more defined make-up. In an intimate performing space, candle-light can also influence gesture and physical expression; any overt and reckless gesture could knock over a candle and the whole theatre could have gone up in a blaze of fire.
‘One-Room’ theatre demands and exerts a considerable influence on the physical nature of performance. There is a physical, and subsequently emotional, intimacy between actor and audience. Over the years, and centuries, this steadily become a ‘cultural habit’ – and is very much a part of contemporary theatre practice. Whilst the larger proscenium arch ‘Two-Room’ theatres play a major part, particularly for commercial theatre (i.e. musicals), most Australian actors begin their careers and acting experience in intimate ‘One-Room’ theatres. The very immediacy and physical presence inform the acting style and approach – and this began with the convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
Throughout Australia in major cities and in regional communities, there is a plethora of intimate ‘One-Room’ performing spaces. These can be school halls or old buildings that have been converted into theatres. Examples include The Stables Theatre in Sydney, which originally was an old stable for horses, as well as The Bakehouse Theatre in Adelaide, which originally was an old bakehouse, and the Powerhouse Theatre in Brisbane, which was an old electrical powerhouse. There are many others – including the La Mama Theatre in Melbourne, the Hayes Theatre in Sydney, the Blue Room in Perth, and Whilst all the major subsidized state theatre companies have proscenium arched ‘Two-Room’ theatres, they also have smaller intimate ‘One-Room’ theatre performing spaces.
Subsequently, the ‘cultural habit’ and influence of ‘One-Room’ theatre is firmly entrenched. Audiences and actors are accustomed too, and very often prefer the physical and emotional intimacy of ‘One-Room’ performing spaces – and this ‘cultural habit’ and legacy began with the convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
On June 4, 1789, in the middle of a Sydney winter and less than 18 months since ‘First Settlement’, the first piece of ‘Western’ theatre was produced in the new colony – The Recruiting Officer by George Farquhar. This first theatrical production in the new colony was mounted in honour of King George III’s birthday, performed by a group of unknown convicts, to an elite audience of about 60 people, including Governor Arthur Phillip, the Marine Corps officers and their wives, as well as the few ‘free settlers’, and was performed in a ramshackle convict hut. Other than this not much is known about this first theatrical production, nonetheless, there are a number of factors that remain as considerable influences on the character of the contemporary Australian actor. These include – the Play, the ‘Performing Space’, the ‘Event’, and the Actors. This series of posts will look at each of these factors and how they relate to modern Australian theatre, film, and television practice in forming the character of the Australian actor. This post concerns ‘The Play’ itself.
1. THE PLAY
George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was a popular ‘Restoration’ comedy that had been first produced in London in 1706 and had remained in regular performance throughout the 18th Century. It concerns the social and sexual exploits of two officers, Captain Blume and Captain Brazen, in the rural country town of Shrewsbury, and the recruitment of soldiers from the local farming community with the ‘trickster’ Sergeant Kite to assist them.
One of the central tenets of ‘Western’ theatre is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601), that ‘the purpose of playing’ is ‘to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature’; that the theatre is a reflection of life and the human condition in all its myriad forms. More often than not this a reflection of immediate contemporary life – as was the case with this convict production of The Recruiting Officer.
What does the title – The Recruiting Officer – suggest? This is a play involving the military, and subsequently, it had an immediate contemporary relevance for its elite audience of Marine officers and their wives and the ‘free settlers’. Recruiting was something they would have all be very familiar with, particularly being often enforced by the notorious “press gangs’. Furthermore, as Humphrey Hall and Alfred J Cripps state in The Romance of the Sydney Stage (1996) it is more than likely that the convict actors were dressed in borrowed clothing from the officers and their wives. Somewhat ironically, the convict actors were dressed as their jailers.
In modern theatre parlance, this would have been a ‘modern dress’ production of a relatively old and ‘classic’ play. This issue, plus the immediate relevance and topicality of the play has remained a relatively common feature in Australian theatre, film, and television – we like our dramatic works to be ‘modern’. Whilst we certainly do ‘historical drama’, nonetheless, for the most part, Australian audiences like their plays/films to be of immediate contemporary relevance.
This is particularly evident in the numerous ‘modern’ dramas and especially in satiric Australian ‘comedy of manners’, exemplified by the plays by David Williamson (amongst others), of which Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971) remains the most popular. Other examples include Chris Lilley’s Summer Heights High (2007) and Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White (2017). Subsequently, Australian actors are not only distinctively ‘modern’, reflecting their times, but are also experienced and skilled in ironic and satiric comedy. The mischievous ‘trickster’ character of Sergeant Kite in The Recruiting Officer is arguably the first in a long line of ‘larrikin’ characters.
The next installment in this series on The Genesis of the Australian Actor will look at The Event, and how similar events and festivals are those which are the most heightened times of theatrical activity in Australia.
This is an article in the series devoted to seemingly ‘neglected’ plays and playwrights.
Jean Giraudoux (1882-1944) was a major French writer in the early 20th Century, particularly in the period between WW1 and WW2. Many of his plays were international successes including Amphitryon 38 (1929), The Enchanted (1933), The Trojan War Will Not Take Place( 1935), Electra (1937), and particularly Ondine (1939) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1943).
Considering Giraudoux’s social and political position, as well as his heightened poetic realism, I find it rather extraordinary that he is now relatively neglected. Is this because a number of his great characters are elderly? His themes and subject matter are still extremely relevant to our complex modern world, just as challenging and, dare I say it, ‘innovative’ as they were when first written and performed. Maybe it’s the arguments – relatively long scenes, reminiscent of Shaw, in which a particular issue is debated. However, in context, they are still theatrically dramatic.
The Madwoman of Chaillot is a case in point. Written in 1943 but not performed until 1945, this is truly a wonderful play – and very relevant for today.
It deals with an eccentric old woman and her equally eccentric friends in Paris who are concerned with the environmental changes they see being inflicted upon their region in Paris, and elsewhere. These environmental and ecological changes are massive in their potential destructiveness, and are led and desired by a group of conniving and manipulative successful corporate businessmen. These corporate executives are known as The Prospector, The President, The Baron, The Broker. They plan to rip up streets in PAris to get at the oil hidden underneath. Countess Aurelai, the madwoman of Chaillot, is determined to stop them. She gathers together her own little army, made up of The Street Singer, The Sewer Man, The Flower Girl, The Sergeant, and most importantly The Rag Picker. Then there are her elderly so-called aristocratic friends – Constance, Gabrielle and Josephine.
At a very strange tea-party organized by Aurelia the corporate executives are put on trial. This is truly extraordinary scene, and in particular The Rag Picker’s advocerial prosecutor’s speech is fantastic – breathtaking. One by one the corporate executives, these ‘wreckers of the world’s joy’ are judged, condemned and lured to a basement from which they never return – they disappear – or are they murdered. It isn’t actually stated, but the suggestion that Aurelai and her friends have actually deliberately led them to their deaths, and subsequently are murderers, is very unsettling. Nonetheless, the evil man have gone, and joy returns to the world. Still – what may, or has happened to bring about this happy ending is rather complex and creepy.
The play was a considerable success when it was first produced, and subsequently was performed in London, New York, and many other parts of the world. In 1969 Jerry Herman, Jerome Lawrence, and Robert E. Lee turned the play into the musical Dear World, which starred Angela Lansbury.
Also in 1969 British director Bryan Forbes made a movie version with a truly amazing cast featuring Paul Henreid, Charles Boyer, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Danny Kaye, Oskar Homolka, Nannette Newman, John Gavin, Donald Pleasance, and Katharine Hepburn as Countess Aurelia, with her friends played by Edith Evans, Margaret Leighton and Giulietta Masina – amazing! Unfortunately, however, the film is not really successful, despite the brilliance of the actors. Nonetheless,it is worth watching, especially if you are unfamiliar with this extraordinary play.
Many notable and terrific actresses have played Countess Aurelia, including Martita Hunt, Geraldine Page and Anne Jackson.
The play occasionally re-appears, usually in American Universities theatre courses, and in Europe, sometimes in rather exciting modern re-inventions. However, as far as I’m aware it hasn’t (surprisingly) been seen in Australia for centuries – literally.
It would be so wonderful to see this play live again on-stage. I am quite surprised that it is now in the ‘neglected’ plays bin, at least in Australia. Maybe it simply isn’t known about, not being taught in respective drama schools and History of Theatre course? Hence this article. It does feel sometimes that the respective state theatre subsidized seasons come from the list of plays in whatever History of Theatre course the deciding artists have authorities may have done as students – it is a bit limited and predictable.
Not only is The Madwoman of Chaillot extremely topical for today’s world it also offers great roles for senior actors – something, or rather person who are also somewhat relatively ‘neglected’ in the Australian professional theatre. A new production of this with a cast of some of our finest ‘senior’ actors and actresses would be amazing to see. The Madwoman of Chaillot is a play well worth reviving.
With Alfian Sa-at’s and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s HOTEL (2015) about to open here in Adelaide as part of the Oz-Asia Festival I thought it opportune to write something about Alfian Sa’at, one of Singapore’s best modern playwrights. Most people in Australia may not be aware of Alfian Sa’at and his work. This is an attempt to slightly address that. He is an exceptional playwright, poet, and from my all to brief dealings with him, a really great guy as well. I first became aware of Alfian Sa’at’s work whilst I was living in Singapore. During that time I was fortunate enough to see a number of his plays being performed by Singapore’s terrific Wild Rice theatre company, led by another exceptional person, Ivan Heng, the Artistic Director and co-founder of Wild Rice. The productions I saw included Dreamplay (2000), which is Part One of Alfian Sa’at’s beautiful Asian Boys Trilogy (2000-07), Cooling Off Day (2011), Cook a Pot of Curry (2013), and my personal favourite, the intriguing The Optic Trilogy (2001). All these are terrific plays and make an excellent introduction to the world of Alfian Sa’at.
Alfian Sa’at was born in Singapore in 1977 and attended Raffles Junior College where his passion for theatre was first revealed. His tremendous creative spirit led to the publication of his first collection of poetry One Fierce Hour in 1998. This was a instant success with The Malaysian New Strait Times praising and calling him a ‘prankish provocateur’ and ‘libertarian hipster’. What followed was a steady outflow of excellent work – a collection of short stories called Corridor (1999), many of which have been adapted for television, and his second collection of poetry A History of Amnesia (2001). All these are available and are excellent reads; personal favourite being Corridor.
It was partly due to this work, and subsequent others, that Alfian Sa’at earned the moniker of being Singapore’s enfant terrible. He is a ‘provocateur’. This rebellious stance is also evident in his many plays, which are often acute observations of contemporary life in Singapore, combined with a deep knowledge and appreciation of Singapore’s history, as well as World Theatre in general, and a delicious and mischievous wit.
The Asian Boys Trilogy is something that could be seen during Sydney’s annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras and/or Adelaide’s Feast Festival. This is a terrific ‘gay’ play that is not only enlightening about ‘gay’ life in South-East Asia, past and present, but is also very entertaining. I have only seen Part One – Dreamplay, which is theatrically influenced by Strindberg’s Dreamplay, and was directed by Ivan Heng and featured the wonderful Singapore actor and dear friend Galeb Goh, amongst other excellent Singapore actors.
One sequence in Alfian Sa’at’s Dreamplay that I found particularly fascinating and gripping involved a relationship between a young Chinese-Singaporean and a Japanese officer during the horrendous Japanese occupation of Singapore during WW2. To be frank, Australians know virtually nothing about this tragic chapter of Singapore’s history, and yet we are intrinsically involved, not just because of the horrors of Changi Prison, but much much more, which time and space does not allow me to enter into here.
Cooling Off Day (2011) was actually the first Alfian Sa’at play I saw. It is a series of monologues based around the then recent Singapore General Election. I didn’t know much about the politics of Singapore so this was a terrific introduction. Whilst some of it went way over my head and was very local specific, nonetheless, it was extremely entertaining and enlightening. I loved the structure of the piece, a snap-shot of Singapore at a particular and politically important moment in time, the different voices and perspectives, a cross section of Singaporean characters and society, and the vital and engaging performances by the respective actors. It was also through this play and production that I became aware of the delights of Singlish.
Singlish is the English based patois or slang that is spoken in Singapore. When I was there Singlish was often denigrated as not being ‘proper English’ by those in the so-called social and academic elite, who can be ruthlessly and dully conservative. I loved it! When queried I would be mischievously provocative with these borish snobs, stating that I thought Shakespeare would have loved it too. Shakespeare was a words-smith and you only have to be familiar with his plays, as well as his contemporaries, to see how much he incorporated colloquial English (and others) slang into his works.
I tried many times to speak Singlish, much to the amusement of my Singapore friends. I even had a couple of Singlish dictionaries, and would fervently implore my Singapore students and friends to speak Singlish as I just loved hearing it. Unfortunately, I never got the hang of it – lah. Friends would just giggle at my attempts, my problem centring on differences in stress. Australians follow our English-speaking heritage with an iambic word/vowel stress (Dee-DUM), weak-strong; Singaporeans follow their English-speaking heritage with a trochaic word/vowel stress (DUM-Dee), strong-weak. I couldn’t break my Australian cultural habit. Instead of saying the common ‘CAN lah’, I would say ‘Can LAH’, which generally produced shrieks of laughter. Nonetheless, I was acutely aware that whenever Singlish was spoken in the theatre, as in Alfian’s plays, it was like an electric current suddenly shot through the audience, making them excited and animated – it was fantastic! This was most apparent in Alfian Sa’at’s delightful domestic comedy Cook a Pot of Curry – I didn’t understand half of it, but it didn’t matter, I just enjoyed the vitality of the show, and the joy of the Singapore audience as it would roar with laughter at recognition of themselves and their unique colloquial language. I am sure Hotel will have some Singlish in it – can’t wait to hear it again.
As previously mentioned, my favourite amongst Alfian’s plays is The Optic Trilogy. This is a two-hander between an unnamed man and woman in three separate scenes. I remember this Wild Rice production clearly, which featured dear friend and colleague the wonderful Brendon Fernandez, and how from the very first scene set in a hotel room I was absolutely transfixed – by the drama, the complexity, the language, and the brilliant performances. This is a play about deceit, full of poetic metaphors, and is often very funny. It has been performed in a number of other countries, but not, as yet, in Australia. This is the play that I would love to do in Australia. I can only encourage you to get hold of it, as it is published, and read it. But please – let me do it! Haha!.
Hopefully this brief little introduction to some of the works of Alfian Sa’at will encourage you to find out more about this terrific Singapore playwright and poet. It is well worth the effort. Also – if you haven’t as yet booked your tickets for Hotel here in Adelaide then please do so immediately – now! From all reports it is simply marvelous – both parts. I know that if you do you will not be disappointed and discover the joy of Alfian Sa’at, as well as Wild Rice.