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.
As part of the South Australian History Festival that has been running throughout May, there is a truly fascinating exhibition at the South Australian Maritime Museum in Port Adelaide – Leviathan: An Astonishing History of Whales. This a celebration of the compelling majestic power and beauty of whales.
Part of this exhibition is devoted to the history of ‘whaling’, past and present. Hunting whales, despite its current ‘politically incorrect’ status, was and still is part of human history. Why hunt whales? Many people today, including myself, would find such a thing truly repulsive – and it is! Nonetheless, whilst acknowledging the brutality of ‘whaling’, this exhibition captures the fascination, dependence upon and respect for whales by a number of human groups and tribes, some of which continue to hunt whales today. This includes a few modern indigenous tribes in places such as Indonesia and Greenland, as well as past ‘western’ commercial whaling that inspired artists and writers, including Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
I am most certainly not defending the hunting of whales and ‘whaling’, nonetheless, there is a fascinating mystery, a kind of ‘romanticism’ about ‘whaling’ that is part of past and modern human history. Why? Neither I nor this exhibition has an answer, yet it does exist and is a conundrum – which is partly why this exhibition is so fascinating and well worth a visit. Furthermore, it is a part of South Australian history as Port Adelaide once was a trading centre for commercial whaling in the now distant past. This may be uncomfortable for many who think it should be buried beneath the veneer of the niceness of modern ‘political correctness’ – nonetheless, it remains an historical fact. This exhibition challenges as well as informs without being gory and horrific, adding to its overall impressive value.
Furthermore, there are many other reasons why a visit to the South Australian Maritime Museum is worthwhile. There are numerous artefacts from the past that are fascinating. This includes a series of ‘figureheads’ that once stood proudly at the prow of sailing ships – a lost art form in itself.
In the mountain range high above Lake Inle lies the ancient town of Indien. From a distance, these stupas appear, making it seem you are approaching a magical ‘Shangri-la’ kingdom. This was indeed once a major Burmese city, on the scale of an equivalent to Angkor Wat – and just as old. It’s a bit of a trek but thoroughly worth it.
The Fleurieu Peninsular extends to the immediate south-east of Adelaide. It was named in honour of Charles Pierre Claret de Fleurieu who was French explorer, by Nicholas Baudin when he was exploring the region in 1802. The name ‘Claret’ seems rather prophetic as this region that encompassed ‘The McClaren Vale’, one of the top wine regions in Australia. This is a short photographic record of a recent trip down to the Fleurieu Peninsula, particularly to the spectacular and rugged coastline, and the magnificent pristine beaches.
DAY 1 – GOOLWA to MASLIN BEACH
Goolwa – Paddle-Steamer and Hindmarsh Bridge
First ‘port of call’ was GOOLWA, at the mouth of the Murray River. Goolwa was once considered as the capital of South Australia due to it being a major port. This included the old paddle-steamers that travelled up and down the Murray River. It was also once known as ‘theNew Orleans of South Australia’, which conjures up all kinds of hedonistic possibilities. Now, however, Goolwa is a relatively quiet country town, a popular place for tourists to visit and perhaps catch a glimpse of the by-gone time.
PORT ELIOT – VICTOR HARBOUR – ENCOUNTER BAY
Encounter Bay – South Australia
From GOOLWA we drove west to PORT ELIOT and to the headland, granting a spectacular view of the coastline, including Victor Harbour and Encounter Bay. In the late-nineteenth century, the connection between Goolwa, Port Eliot and Victor Harbour was quite significant. There are remnants of this by-gone ear, old sandstone houses and hotels, and even an old steam train that still runs between the three towns. The rest is very much tourists and retirees townhouses, that are not particularly attractive. The best part is the beaches and coastal walks.
The headland is the remains of an old glacier, thousands of years old, which accounts for the unique rock formation.
Granite Island – Encounter Bay
Just beyond Victor Harbour, at the western promontory, there is this wonderful coastal walk. The coastline is rugged with some startling, almost pre-historic rock shapes, and there are tales of shipwrecks and drownings that are marked along the path. It kept reminding us of parts of Cornwall in the UK, with one lonely sandstone house set amongst the hillside that runs down the coast.
Deep Creek – Walk
We drove further west along the coast and started the walk to Deep Creek Beach, which marks the beginning of the ‘Heysen Trail’ that goes all the way to Cape Jervis. We only did part of this walk, which as you can see was rather steep, uphill and downhill. Nonetheless, the view was fantastic – and as you gazed south all you could think was ‘next stop Antartica’.
MALSIN BEACH in the Gulf St. Vincent was recently named amongst the ‘Top 10’ beaches in Australia. It easy to see why as it is quite unique with its impressive cliff face. We arrived at sunset and walked along the beach to the ‘Unclad’ section. Maslin Beach was the first official ‘nudist’ beach in Australia – we did not venture into that
Maslin Beach – Wedding
Maslin Beach – ‘Unclad’
Onkaparinga River – Maslin Beach
DAY 2 – PORT WILLUNGA to ADELAIDE
We started the next part of our journey through the Fleurieu Peninsula by visiting PORT WILLUNGA. This was another old sea-port that serviced Adelaide and the Fleurieu Peninsula. The only remnants left of that ear are the weathered posts of the old jetty and the man-made caves in the cliff-face. There is also the ship-wreck 200m of the coast of the ‘Star of Greece, which went down in 1888.
From Port Willunga, we drove inland to the PRIMO ESTATE VINEYARD.
And then to PORT NOARLUNGA, which is a beach suburb of the City of Onkaparinga; very popular with families and tourists. We bought a couple of delicious hamburgers from a local (Thai) restaurant and devoured them on the beach.
Like anywhere in Australia there are always fantastic and fantastical ‘street art’, which includes advertisements, murals, and shop window displays.
We returned to Adelaide and went to the South Australian Art Gallery, then walked through the Botanic Gardens before returning to the Rose Park apartment for another beautiful sunset.
Biennale – Art Gallery of South Australia
Adelaide Botanic Gardens
Rose Park – Adelaide
Currently, in Adelaide at the Art Gallery of South Australia, there is a truly wonderful and enlightening exhibition – Colours of Impressionism – that has some excellent works from Musee D’Orsay in Paris. What follows is a brief overview of the exhibition.
The first colour that is focused on is black. Following traditional methods, black was used for shadows, to highlight landscapes and portraits. Black hues were used by the romantic artists to darken their predominantly historical paintings. Significantly, ‘black’ was also the dominant colour of men’s clothes in the mid-nineteenth century, hence its relatively constant presence in realistic portraiture of the time, and was regarded as very ‘modern’.
Clair de lune sur le port de Boulogne (1869) – Edouard Manet
It was Edouard Manet (1832-1883) who exemplifies the beginning of a new approach by the ‘impressionists’ in the use of the colour black. To quote from the exhibition pamphlet – ‘Manet applied thick black paint to create stark shapes with greatly simplified contrasts. Black played a key part in the balance of his compositions, a departure from its standard use in creating shadows and darkening other tones’.
There are other works in this first section of the exhibition. Two works that captured my attention that also exemplify this new use of the colour ‘black’ are by Alfred Stevens (1823-1906) and James Tissot (1836-1902).
Le Bain (1873-74) – Alfred Stevens
What is remarkable about Alfred Stevens’ Le Bain (The Bath) is the juxtapositions of ‘white’ and ‘black’ objects. The actual bath, which was traditionally done in ‘white’, is in various dark shades and hues. In contrast, the eye is drawn to the ‘white’ objects, such as pale flesh of the female bather, the book and linen next to the bath, the flowers, and the soap dish on the wall. Intriguingly, there seems to be a black ‘fob watch’ in the soap dish, which suggests that there is a time limit for this bath.
I am big fan of James Tissot’s work. He is primarily known for his painting of ‘high society’ that are generally quite crisp and vibrant in detail. Subsequently, it was great to see La reveuse (The Dreamer), which is a rather dark intimate painting of a woman reclining in a chair. According to the accompanying descriptor, Tissot was also inspired by Japanese art at the time in regards to linear portraiture.
La reveuse (1876) – James Tissot
The second section of the exhibition deals with the colour white. This is exemplified by respective paintings of snow by Charles-Francois Daubigny (1817-1878), Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and Claude Monet (1840-1926). There are others, including a most unusual Paul Gauguin, nonetheless, it was the following that captured my attention and imagination.
La neige / Snow (1873) – Charles-Francois Daubigny
Following new contemporary theories in regard to colour, shades of blue were used for shadows and highlights. Furthermore, inspiration came from Japanese artists, such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Monet, in particular, was inspired by these Japanese artists, and kept a large personal collection of Japanese art.
Vue de toits (effet de neige) / Rooftops in the snow (snow effect) – Gustave Caillebotte
La neige a Louvreciennes / Snow at Louvreciennes (1878) – Alfred Sisley
There are a number of Alfred Sisley’s ‘snow’ paintings but this one stood out for me, partly because of my own fascination with ‘pathways’ and ‘perspective’.
However, the most impressive painting for me is this section was Claude Monet’s magnificent La pie (The magpie). This relatively large painting not only exemplifies the use of white and blue, but also the vulnerability of life in winter, represented by the sole magpie perched on the rickety gate.
La pie / The magpie (1868-69) – Claude Monet
3. PAINTING LIGHT
The third section of the exhibition is devoted to the matter of la peinture claire (‘painting light’). This involved the impressionists use of luminous colours, ‘subtle contrasts of tone and rapid broken brushstrokes to capture the ephemeral effects of light’. This complemented another developing characteristic of ‘Impressionism’ known as en plein air, which essentially meant painting in the open air.
La peinture claire and en plein air were partly due to a reaction against the conventional and academic approach to historical painting favoured by the official ‘Salon’ of contemporary Paris. The ‘Impressionists’ were also called the ‘Independents’ because of their reactionary position. The term ‘impressionism’ came from the art critic, Louis Leroy, who used this word to describe the work of Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, Berthe Morisot, Camille Pissarro, Auguste Renior and Alfred Sisley, who were the artists represented in the first Impressionist group exhibition in Paris in 1874.
There are numerous examples of la peinture claire and en plein air in this exhibition, particularly by Pissarro. However, it was the ones by Alfred Sisley that mainly attracted my attention. This included La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly (Boat in the flood at Port-Marly). Sisley lived in Port-Marly from 1874-1880. In 1876 the region was subject to severe floods and Sisley did a series of paintings, of which this is one.
La Barque pendant l’inondation, Port-Marly / Boat in the flood at Port-Marly (1876) – Alfred Sisley
What is remarkable about this painting is not only it perfectly exemplifying la peinture claire but also adds a dramatic element to un plein air. Even here there is the unexpected subversion of conventional ‘historical’ painting, based on real events. The two figures, as well as the whole canvas, seem rather calm and tranquil in contrast to the natural disaster of the flood.
There is also another – a ‘triptych’ that has paintings by Sisley, Pissarro and Monet, all depicting different aspects of a ‘lie-de-France’ – Sisley’s Saint-Denis Island (1872), Pissarro’s Entrance to the village of Voisons (1872), and Monet’s Pleasure Boats (1872-73).
These three paintings were donated to the Musee de Louvre in 1923 by Ernest May and remain exactly as they were when they belonged to him. As the catalogue states, ‘Each in a similar gilded frame, they maintain their long-standing dialogue’. Whilst Pissarro’s painting centres the triptych it remains within his general preoccupation with earthy rural settings. Sisley’s and Monet’s offer a chance to discern their respective differences in depicting reflections in water. As the catalogue states, ‘in Monet’s treatment of water, the areas of flat colour impart a vigour absent in Sisley, who preferred small, juxtaposed touches to express the shimmering river.’
4. OF GREENS AND BLUE
The fourth section of the exhibition is about the Impressionists use of green and blue. Monet’s advice to a young American painter, Lily Cabot Perry, encapsulates the use of these colours and more: ‘When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have before you…Merely think here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint them just as you see them…until your own artless impression of the scene appears before you’.
Most of the paintings in this section are un plein air. There is one Monet, however, that is of an interior – Un coin d’appartment (A corner of the apartment), which contains a young boy in blue who is framed in different shades of green shubbery. It is a rather unsettling painting as the young boy seems like a ghostly presence in this corner of the apartment.
Un coin d’appartment / A corner of the apartment (1875) – Claude Monet
Another extraordinary Monet painting is Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie rose (Water lily pond, pink harmony). This comes from a much later period in Monet’s life, around 1900, and is one of two studies; the other being Water lily pond, green harmony. As stated in the catalogue, these paintings ‘anticipate the long sequence of pictures that Monet painted of the pond that was built in Giverny in 1893’. Nonetheless, the ‘pink harmony’ painting also exemplifies the respective use of la peinture clair, the use of green, blue and pink, and the influence of en plein air.
Le bassin aux nympheas, harmonie / Water lily pond, pink harmony (1900) – Claude Monet
The fifth section of the exhibition is devoted to the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. This is exemplified by works by Georges Seurat (1859-1891), Paul Signac (1863-1935) and Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944). These artists featured in the eighth and final Impressionist exhibition in 1886.
The critic Felix Feneon identified Neo-Impressionism as ‘a modern synthesis of methods based on science’. Rather than mixing on the palette, the Neo-Impressionists divided primary colours based on the principles of contrasting colours advocated by Michel-Eugene Chevreul and James Clerk Maxwell, as well as Ogden Nicholas Rood’s influential 1879 ‘colour circle’. As the exhibition’s pamphlet states, the Neo-Impressionists ‘methodically juxtaposed small brushstrokes of complementary unmixed hues, these responding to and invigorating each other’. This was called Divisionism, that included the sub-genre of Pointillism, ‘which refers to the technique of applying tiny dots of paint rather than adopting the principle of colour division to create more vivid and accurate tones’.
One of the most famous examples of Pointillism is Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86). This exhibition contains a couple of ‘studies’ that Seurat made in preparation for the final painting.
Whilst there are a number of other Neo-Impressionist work in this section, there are three by Paul Signac that I found particularly impressive – Les andelys (The Riverbank), La bouee rogue (The Red Buoy) and Les chateau des papes (Palace of the Popes); and L’entree du port de Roscoff (Entrance to the port of Roscoff) by the lesser known Theo van Rysselberghe (1862-1926).
Les andelys / The riverbank (1886) – Paul Signac
La bouee rouge / The red buoy (1895) – Paul Signac
Le chateau des papes / Palace of the Popes (1909) – Paul Signac
L’entree du port de Roscoff / Entrance to the port of Roscoff (1889) – Theo van Rysselberghe
6. IDEAL HARMONIES
The final section of the exhibition involves how the colours of the Impressionists softened in the late-nineteenth century and early twentieth century. This exemplified by works from Claude Monet, Berthe Morisot (1841-1895) and Auguste Renior (1841-1919).
Sur un banc au bois de Boulogne / On a bench in the bois de Boulogne (1894) – Berthe Morisot; Gabrielle a la rose / Gabrielle with a rose (1911) – Auguste Renoir
As stated in the exhibition’s pamphlet, ‘The works us “fluid harmonies” of gentle tones, rather than complementary colours, to create subtle effects such as the morning mists, the pink of dusk and the play of light at different times of day. Painting the fleeting light was now, however, less about recording direct observation than the expression of a mood evoking a sense of memory or melancholy’.
Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Monet’s series of paintings of Rouen Cathedral (1892-94).
La cathedrale de Rouen. Le portail et la tour Saint-Romain, plein soleil / Rouen Cathedral. The portal and Saint-Romain tower, full sunlight (1893) – Claude Monet
The exhibition concludes with a painting by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906), representative of and anticipating ‘Cubism’ in the early twentieth century.
Rochers pres des grottes au-dessus du Chateau Noir / Rocks near the caves above Chateau Noir (c.1904) – Paul Cezanne
EPILOGUE – AUSTRALIAN IMPRESSIONISM
The Art Gallery of South Australia contains some truly exceptional artworks. This includes some 19th Century paintings that exemplify the kind of ‘historical’ works favoured by the conservative academics at the Paris ‘Salon’ that the ‘Impressionists’ reacted against. This includes popular works such as The Feigned Death of Juliet (1856-58) by Frederic Leighton (1830-1896) and Zenobia’s last look at Palmyra (1888) by Herbert G. Schmaltz (1856-1935).
The Impressionist exhibition has a couple of paintings by Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863), citing his ‘experimental use of colour’ influence on the ‘Neo-Impressionists’. Australian ‘Impressionism’, which was like its European counterpart also primarily characterized landscape painting – un plein air – can trace its own unique influence with the early colonial artists, such as John Glover (1767-1849).
Baptism on the Ouse River by Rev. Henry Dowling (1838) – John Glover
One of the most impressive Australian paintings and one of the most popular in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection is Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) by H. J. Johnstone (1835-1907). This perhaps couldn’t be regarded as a work of Australian ‘Impressionism’, more like a precursor to twentieth-century ‘photo-realism’ (Jonstone was a professional photographer), nonetheless, its use of colour is very much sympatico with ‘Impressionism’, as well as coming from the same time.
Evening Shadows, Backwater of the Murray River. South Australia (1880) – H. J. Johnstone
The first major Australian ‘Impressionist’-like artist is perhaps Tom Roberts (1856-1931). Roberts, like his European Impressionist counterparts also firmly followed un plein air, as exemplified by his Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885).
Winter’s Morning After the Rain, Gardiner’s Creek (1885) – Tom Roberts
Other major Australian ‘Impressionists’ are Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), exemplified by his Cario Street Scene (c.1897), and Charles Conder (1868-1909) and his A Holiday at Mentone (1888), both in the Art Gallery of South Australia’s collection.
There are many others. Complementing the final section of the Musee D’Orsay’s exhibition – ‘Ideal Harmonies’ – and the more ‘fluid’ and softer use of colour and light in the early decades of the twentieth century, there is From the apartment window, Paris (1901) by Hans Heysen (1877-1968), Le Bar, Saint Jacques, Paris (1904) by American artist Ambrose Peterson, La Coiffure (1908) by Rupert Bunny (1864-1947), After the Bath (c. 1911) by E. Phillips Fox (1865-1915), and The Pheasant (c.1919) by English artist Walter Sickert (1860-1942).
Finally, to finish with one of my personal favourites is German-Australian Hans Heysen, who studio and home were in Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills, which can be visited today. The Art Gallery of South Australia has a number of large paintings by Hans Heysen – one of which is Mystic Morn (1904), which is a superb example of ‘Australian Impressionism’, as well as a painting that exemplifies ‘ideal harmonies’.
Mystic Morn (1904) – Hans Heysen
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 Event’.
2. THE EVENT
This production of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer was arranged and performed as part of an ‘event’ – in honour of King George III’s birthday. It is highly likely that Governor Arthur Phillip and the rest of the ‘First Fleeters’ had no idea that by this time King George III had succumbed to the first in a series of serious mental health battles, which quite possibly was the generic disease ‘porphyria’ that has plagued other members of the British royal family. Besides, the approximately 1,500 people who made up the ‘First Fleet’, convicts as well as officers, free settlers and their respective wives and servants, had their own concerns – mainly survival in a strange and hostile land.
Lieutenant Watkin Tench (1753-1833) was a Marine officer with the ‘First Fleet’ and provided one of the few eye-witness accounts of this production of The Recruiting Officer. Tench wrote, ‘That every opportunity of escape from the dreariness and dejection of our situation should be eagerly embraced will not be wondered at’ (Trench – A Complete Account of the Settlement at Port Jackson in New South Wales (1793). 25. Tench’s comment reflects the genuine concern and fragile position that faced the ‘First Fleeters’ in establishing the colony. There were only copies of two English plays that accompanied the First Fleet – George Farquhar’s popular satiric comedy The Recruiting Officer (1706) and the sentimental The Tragedy of Jane Shore (1714) by Poet Laureate Nicholas Rowe (1674-1718). Considering the difficulties, the ‘dreariness and dejection’ felt by Tench and one can assume by many others, Governor Arthur Phillip wisely chose Farquhar’s comedy to honour King George III’s birthday.
The complementary matching of theatrical performances with respective events is still very much a part of the annual modern Australian theatre scene. It is notable that the occasions in which there is the most heightened theatrical activity occur during the numerous festivals throughout Australia. This includes the Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane, and Darwin Festivals – plus others – such as the Adelaide Fringe Festival, which is the second largest in the world.
Furthermore, a number of festivals are targeted towards specific audiences, similar in a way to the target audience of The Recruiting Officer – the respective Marine officers and their wives. Examples include The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Festival, and the Oz-Asia Festival in Adelaide.
In conclusion, whilst a number of Australians are regular theatergoers, nonetheless, it would seem that Australian audiences really love ‘events’ with theatre attendance soaring during such ‘events’ like the annual festivals, combined with and complementing the vast range and diversity of productions that can be seen and experienced in these respective ‘events’ and festivals. Many of these productions are in ‘site-specific’ locations, such as the convict production of The Recruiting Officer, which is the subject of the next post in this series. Whilst it may be somewhat romantic (and theatre is a romantic world), the combination of heightened theatrical activity and events helps to produce a ‘spirit of play’ in the formulation of the character of the Australian actor.
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.
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.