‘Hokusai Morning’ – Maslin Beach, South Australia.
THE RISE OF THE AUSTRALIAN ACTOR: George Coppin (1819-1906)
George Selth Coppin (1819-1906) has been called “the father of Australian theatre” (Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 1939). Whilst this may be disputed, nonetheless, George Coppin was one of the prime movers in establishing a professional theatre in Australia in the mid-colonial period. In many ways, he could be called 19th Century Australia’s ‘greatest showman’. As Sally O’Neill states, ‘Undoubtedly his enterprise was irrepressible; the business of entertainment suited his talents but, more important, he had an ingrained love of the theatre. He acted to make money but he found a stage in many other spheres.’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
George Coppin was born 8 April 1819 in Steyning, Sussex, England. His father, George Selth Coppin, was the son of a clergyman who gave up his medical studies to become an actor, and subsequently was disowned by his family. Hence, George Coppin was born into a theatrical family and started performing (with his sister) from the age of six. From 1835 he was working in the English provinces and at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where he established himself as ‘first low comedian’. It was also in Dublin he met Maria Watkins Burroughs, nine years his senior, and they lived together from 1842-1848, Maria accompanying Coppin on first adventures overseas.
In 1842 George and Maria decided to leave the UK, with a choice between the USA and Australia. On a toss of a coin, they decided on Australia and arrived in Sydney 10 March 1843. From this point and for the next fifty years Coppin’s fortunes were like a rollercoaster, going from ‘boom’ to ‘bust’ several times. He worked in Sydney, Hobart, Melbourne, and Adelaide, either as an actor-manager, or hotel owner. He created a number of theatres and hotels, including the Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide, and the Semaphore Hotel, which gave the Adelaide suburb its name. It was also in Adelaide, in 1848, that Maria died.
In 1851, after going ‘bust’ again, he left for the Victorian goldfields, and whilst he did not find gold, nonetheless, he earned a considerable amount performing for the gold diggers. In 1853 he returned to Adelaide, paid off his creditors, and returned to England. He worked successfully in London and the provinces, and it was whilst working in Birmingham he met Gustavus Brooke (1818-1866), one of the leading British tragedians of the time. He engaged Brooke for an Australian tour and had a pre-fabricated ‘Iron Theatre’, specially built for the tour. In a way, Coppin’s ‘Iron Theatre’ prefigured popular ‘pop-up’ theatres in the 21st Century.
This marks the beginning of ‘international’ actors touring Australia. Whilst there had been a number of English and American actors touring Australia, the Coppin-Brooke partnership truly marks the successful touring of Australia by internationally renowned actors. These included Gustavus Brooke, Joseph Jefferson, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Kean, and Maggie Moore and J. C. Williamson.
From 1858 Coppin also established a political career that lasted off-and-on until 1895. Time and space does not allow for any elaboration on Coppin’s political career, other than stating that it was relatively successful and he was a valued member of the respective Victorian parliaments and legislative committees on which he sat. It is, however, in his ‘off’ political years that Coppin furthered Australian theatre. This included acquiring the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, which unfortunately was burnt to the ground in 1872. As the Theatre Royal was uninsured Coppin went ‘bust’ again. Nonetheless, he formed a committee and rebuilt the Theatre Royal. It was in this period that he also performed in the USA where he met J.C. Williamson and Maggie Moore, and in 1881 engaged them to perform in Australia.
Suffering from gout from 1868, Coppin announced his retirement from the stage; an announcement he kept making for next twenty-odd years. He embarked on numerous ‘farewell’ tours in Australia and other British colonies but did not give up the theatre until the mid-1880s. His later years were mainly concerned with his political career, as well as developing the Victorian seaside suburb of Sorrento, where he lived with his family. In 1855 Coppin had married Harriet Hilsden, Gustavus Brooke’s widowed sister-in-law. Harriet died in 1859, and subsequently, Coppin married one of her daughters from her first marriage, Lucy Hilsden, in 1861. Coppin had three children from his first marriage, three daughters, and seven children from his second marriage, two sons and five daughters. Except for one daughter from his first marriage, Lucy and the other children survived him when Coppin died in 1906.
This brief sketch doesn’t really do justice to the incredible life of George Coppin. As an actor, he specialized in ‘low comedy’, but was also successful in ‘classical’ works, such as Sir Peter Teazle in Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, Bob Acres in Sheridan’s The Rivals, Tony Lumpkin in Goldsmith’s She Stoops To Conquer. Launcelot Gobbo in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. The contemporary Australian critic James Smith described Coppin’s talent and ability to successfully portray “the ponderous stolidity and impenetrable stupidity of certain types of humanity—the voice, the gait, the movements, the expression of the actor’s features, were all in perfect harmony with the mental and moral idiosyncrasies of the person he represented, so that the man himself stood before you a living reality”. This suggests that there was an acute sense of observation of real life, and a kind of early ‘naturalism’ in Coppin’s characters, albeit in essentially heightened comic roles. This is complemented by his theatre-manager-director insistence on ‘correct costuming’ for his characters and productions (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
As well as building theatres, including the Princess Theatre, Melbourne, establishing new methods of advertising shows, and bringing international artists to Australia, Coppin also helped to establish copyright legislation for playwrights in Australia and was one of the first to advocate for a ‘school of acting to develop Australian acting’ (Australian Dictionary of Biography).
Coppin also advocated and brought camels to explore the interior Australia, some of the camels that Coppin imported were on the disastrous Burke and Wills expedition (1860-61). Whilst owner and manager of the Cremorne Gardens, Melbourne, he arranged for the first aerial balloon ascent over Melbourne and helped to introduce English thrushes and white swans to Australia. This is just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the truly remarkable George Coppin.
So – I have just posted my decision for the Australian ‘Same-Sex’ Marriage Survey. I had made my decision whether or not ‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’, correctly and accurately put a cross in the required box on the given form, sealed it in the provided government envelope and posted it. Just as I was dropping the envelope into the post-box a young woman was next to me doing the same thing. She smiled at me, I smiled back, and then she said, ‘I hope you are voting “Yes”. I didn’t reply, but smiled again and walked away. I had just taken a couple of steps when I heard, thrown to my departing back – “Leech!”.
I stopped, but did not turn around. I giggled. This was, perhaps, not the wisest thing to do as subsequently I was ascended/descended to another level and called, quite loudly, ‘F (expletive) leech!”. I kept walking.
This young woman’s behaviour exemplifies the worst of this current Same-Sex Marriage debate. It has been completely divisive on a national level with both the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps being extremely vitriolic and vicious in their condemnation of each other. Furthermore, if one has not publicly declared one’s choice, preferring the democratic right and privilege of privacy and silence, one can find oneself also condemned – or worse – threatened to be ‘de-friended on Facebook, and other social media. So – now I am a “leech”.
The reason why I giggled was because of something that this young woman would not have known. She must have assumed that I was mocking her, which I can understand and appreciate. However, this was not the case. I giggled because just recently I have enjoyed doing some private tuition for an upcoming production of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens; the final lines of which, spoken by the character of Alcibiades, are : ‘Bring me to your city, / And I will use the olive with my sword,/ Make war breed peace, make peace stint war, make each / Prescribe to other, as each other’s leech,/ Let our drums strike.’
Now – these final lines are quite complex and full of multiple meanings. In a play that deals with the betrayal of friendships, broken loyalties, and leeches, Alcibiades final lines are ambiguous. The word ‘leech’ implies someone who is like a blood-sucking insect; however, leeches were also used for medicinal purposes, beneficially and successfully removing bacteria from open wounds – they still are used for such purposes. There is an implied threat behind Alcibiades final lines. He a friend of Timon’s, but he is also an Athenian general who has swopped sides in the Peloponnesian War, which is the historical context of Shakespeare’s play, and now threatens to destroy Athens. He wins, but it is left unknown as to whether or not he destroys Athens. The real Alcibiades didn’t; but Shakespeare’s Alcibiades intends to bring in a military dictatorship – “I will use the olive with my sword”. Even the final line “Let our drums strike” suggests the power of military force.
Timon of Athens is a play that has long lived in relative obscurity. Now, in the 21st Century, it would seem that this cranky and bitter play has found a contemporary relevance. The opposite fate of the once popular and regularly performed The Taming of the Shrew, which due to the influence of feminism has somewhat drifted back into relative obscurity; but not Timon. It is a strange play, full of anger and bitterness. It is not even called a ‘tragedy’, yet is grouped within Shakespeare’s ‘Tragedies’ in the First Folio. It’s full title is actually ‘The Life of Timon of Athens‘. You don’t feel any type of sublime tragic catharsis at the end of the play – you feel relief.
It is often cited as prefiguring King Lear but I think it has more in common with Coriolanus. Both characters, Timon and Coriolanus feel betrayed by their own country. However, whilst Coriolanus achieves a kind of tragic dignity in his decline and fall Timon remains an embittered old man. Unlike Coriolanus, as well as Lear and other so-called tragic characters, Timon isn’t even given an on-stage death; we are merely told he is dead. In Alcibiades final speech, at the end of the play, he reads from Timon’s epitaph, “Here lies a wretched man corse, of wretched soul bereft:/ Seek not my name. A plague consume you, wicked caitiffs left!/ Here lie I, Timon, who, alive, all living men did hate. / Pass by and curse thy fill, but pass and stay not here thy gait’. His friend Alcibiades tries to mitigate such bitterness – ‘yet rich conceit / Taught thee to make vast Neptune weep for aye / On thy low grave, on faults forgiven’. However, the faults are not forgiven. Timon certainly hasn’t forgiven anyone for his tragic fall. Alcibiades knows this, and quickly moves to ‘Dead/ is noble Timon, of whose memory/ Hereafter no more’. So that’s that re Timon; a person not even to be remembered. This is unlike the fate of any other main character in Shakespeare’s tragedies. Most are eulogised in some sympathetic form or other, with an appeal to remember their respective fates – but not Timon. He is disposed of as quickly as he was by his so-called friends in the play, like a piece of worthless rubbish whose memory would only disrupt the new world to come. Or – is Alcibiades wanting to remove any personal connection with Timon to disguise his own ambitions and intentions? A mystery.
It is, however, this mystery, this non-neat ending, so different from Shakespeare’s other plays, that makes Timon of Athens so unique. It may also be one reason why the play is finding a new resonances with modern audiences. We know, now, that neat endings, are idealized and non-existent. This leads me back to the Same-Sex Survey. We know that no matter which way the vote goes it will not be, nor ever be, a neat ending. Furthermore, there is a mystery that may never be revealed about why respective and consecutive governments have failed to amend the current Marriage Act despite the overwhelming evidence that the majority of the population is not opposed to such change.
For those who don’t know this is a survey organised by the Australian Federal Government to garner a national opinion of whether or not the Australian Marriage Act should be amended to include Same-Sex marriage. You may well ask why? It’s a mystery – especially considering that homosexuality has been decriminalised for decades, and that same-sex de-facto relationships are recognised; that homosexuals are protected under the Anti-discrimination law; that opinions had already been asked for, with the response being overwhelming in the positive; that the Federal Government is spending $1.2million on something for which they already know; and that it is happening at the same time of funding cuts to universities and, of course, the Arts; and meanwhile the North Koreans are firing missiles over Japan, threatening the whole world’s peace. Nonetheless, the Survey form currently is being distributed and we are all busy responding with either a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’, and our own private Civil War continues to rage on and on and on….a mystery.
It stands as a complete mystery as why the respective and consecutive Liberal and Labor Governments have consistently failed to push through this reform. This includes (not surprising) the Howard, and (surprising) the Rudd, Gillard, and Turnbull administration and governments. This failure is a major blot of shame on these respective governments as eventually, despite the current Survey probably ending nowhere, this issue of Same-Sex marriage will simply not go away and will finally be approved – it is inevitable.
The real tragedy about this debate and this current Survey is that it has been highly divisive on a national level. Both camps, the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ supporters, have indulged in public denouncements of each other that have been vitriolic, vicious, and violent to the extreme. What is extraordinary in all this mish-mash is that very rarely is the actual Marriage Act cited. Opinions are based on emotional knee-jerk indignation and misinformation. For example, the Christian Right who are forcibly advocating a ‘No’ vote based on religion refuses to acknowledge that the Marriage Act is actually secular. Except for authorising ministers and priests, along with civil celebrants, to conduct marriage services, there is no mention of religious belief in the Marriage Act. Yet the Christian Right believe that any change to the Marriage Act to include Same-Sex Marriage will undermine religious freedom in Australia, despite absolutely no proof or evidence that this will happen. The paranoia associated with ‘Reds Under the Bed’ and anti-Communist witch-hunting has nothing on this baby. However, if we take the failure of the Menzies Government to outlaw the Communist Party through a national plebiscite in the 1950s as an historic precedent and indication then one can be hopeful that this current Survey will support the ‘Yes’ vote, reflecting overall modern Australians characteristic abhorrence of discrimination (at least on paper).
The whole debate centres on a one-sentence definition of marriage at the beginning of the 1961 Marriage Act, which was regarded as not a satisfactory definition by the Howard Government in 2004. Due to two challenges to the 1961 Marriage Act by two individual same-sex couples the Howard Government pushed through Federal Parliament an amendment, which whilst challenged by the Green Party was supported by both Liberal and Labor MPs and Senators, and passed into law. This 2004 amendment specifically defined marriage as a union between ‘a man and a woman‘, and was designed ‘to ensure that same-sex marriages are not recognized as marriage in Australia, inclusive of those performed under the laws of another country that permits such union‘. The amendment was also to ‘prevent same-sex couples from adopting children from overseas‘. Whilst the 1961 Marriage Act also stated that marriage was between a man and woman it was the Howard Government in 2004 that brought in the boogey-man of social and religious non-conformity and abnormality. The issue of gender, and specifically ‘sex’ in the proposed amendment to the Marriage Act, which will allow Same-Sex marriage, is constitutionally problematic; hence the whole thing may collapse under a High Court ruling. There is a solution, however, if we follow the Canadian definition of marriage, which removes sex and gender, and states that marriage is ‘the lawful union of two persons to the exclusion of all others’. For further information see -(http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Bills_Legislation/bd/bd0405/05bd005). Unfortunately, these means that dogs can’t marry, but hopefully they will continue to love us anyway.
I find it remarkable that most of what I have written above is not mentioned in the various emotional explosions blasted up on social media and other forms of news and information distribution. The tone, attitude and expression of most is ‘You are either with us or against us’ – from both camps. We are, in effect, in a state of Civil War, which has been hardly civil, and like all Civil Wars – there are no victors. The resentment that both camps will feel no which way the decision goes will fester like a rotten canker in the body politic.
What truly concerns me is the complete lack of respect for privacy. As the young woman today at the post-box exemplifies (joining far too many), just because I chose to exercise my democratic right and privilege and not disclose my decision, and no give her what she publicly expected, she punitively attacked me. I am sure, in her indignation she felt completely justified in doing so; I had rejected her advances. Generously giving her the ‘benefit of doubt’, maybe not – I don’t know. However, she said it so loudly and strongly that I think I can assume she wanted others to know too. This smacks of witch-hunting and mob rule and violence.
Am I being a bit paranoid? Maybe – but the level of abuse from both camps and the expectation that one should reveal one’s private decision is alarming. It is anti-democratic; it is the birth of fascism. In other words, “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”, based on the issue of public disclosure and revelation. I have nothing terrible to hide, and those that know me well can well imagine (correctly) what I may have voted – but I’m not going to publically declare and share it with all and sundry.
It is our democratic right and privilege not to disclose which way we are voting. This applies to voting for respective local, state and federal governments, as well as the national survey. If we give in on this issue then the potential flood-gate of fascism pours forth, and the oven doors of non-conformity begin to open. If you choose to reveal your decision then that is your choice. However, if you decide not too, exercising your democratic right and privilege, then you should not be ridiculed and criticized for not following the popular front. Sadly, and tragically, this has not been the case in this current debate. This expectation of public sharing in regard to voting, probably born by social media, is the un-neat ending to this hideous and divisive Civil War. The resentment and expectation, I fear, will remain no matter what the final decision.
OMG – I’m sounding like Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons! However, unlike the real Sir Thomas More, I am not running around burning Catholics at the stake, and hanging, drawing and quartering others whom I suspect are undermining the fabric of society. However, judging by the various sentiments articulated and vigorously expressed by both camps in this current debate my fate could be the same as Sir Thomas More’s. Death due to silence.
Our Boys by Jonathan Lewis is a two-act play that was first performed in London on 1993, and subsequently won a number of awards. The Adelaide Repertory Company’s production, directed by David Sims, is the Australian premiere of this thoroughly enjoyable, moving, challenging and unique play. My litmus test in regard to seeing theatre and films these days is whether or not it has moved me emotionally. In the case of Our Boys it did most profoundly and in a way that caught me by surprise. Set in a military hospital in the 1984, we follow the trials and tribulations of 6 war veterans. On the surface, especially the first act, the play is full of crude, smutty and vulgar British humour, similar to other hospital drama-comedies such as Carry on Doctor (1967) Peter Nichol’s The National Health (1969).
Some may dismiss this play as just another case of ‘men behaving badly’, nonetheless, something else is at work here. Underneath all this, and is partly the motivation for such behaviour is genuine fear – and specifically the fear of impotency. I’m finding it difficult to think of other dramatic works that concentrate on masculine impotency – a taboo topic that few men would even discuss let alone admit too. In a theatrical world that is often led by feminist ‘equality’ issue this play is a sober reminder that there are tragic contemporary male stories to be told as well; in a way it makes the play unique in contemporary theatre.
Our Boys, however, does join rather a long and brilliant heritage of other war and/or post-war traumatic stress dramas. This includes – R. C. Sherriff’s Journey End (1928) and W. Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered (1932). There are also William Wyler’s Academy Award Best Film winner The Best Years of our Lives (1946) and Fred Zimmerman’s The Men (1950), which was Marlon Brando’s debit film. Speaking of Brando it is an often neglected factor in regards Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) that one reason why Stanley and his buddies are so violent is partly associated with 2WW experiences. Other works include Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall (1959), John Frankenheimer’s brilliant and unsurpassable The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Barry England’s Conduct Unbecoming (1969), David Rabes’ Sticks and Bones (1971) and Streamers (1976), Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade (1977), Hal Ashbey’s Coming Home (1978), Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (1989), Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), Simon Stevens’ Motortown (2006) and Stella Feehily’s O Go My Man (2006). Closer to home, there are such Australian dramas as Sumner Locke Elliott Rusty Bugles (1948), George Johnston’s My Brother Jack (1964), John Power’s The Last of the Knucklemen (1978), and Bill Bennetts’ A Street to Die (1985). However, the film that has the most immediate impact on Our Boys is the Michael Cimino’s devastating brilliant The Deer Hunter (1978).
Towards the end of Our Boys first act, in an attempt to cheer up the wheel-chair bound character of Lee, who is often inarticulate due to being shot in the head, the men stage a beer drinking competition called ‘Beer Hunter’ after the film The Deer Hunter. The drinking game parallels with devastating and highly memorable Russian roulette game in the The Deer Hunter. It is due to this game and the celebrations that the men find themselves in trouble, facing military discipline for ‘conduct unbecoming’ and expulsion from the army. With their self-esteem and sense of potency already vulnerable this new attack on their individual security brings forward issues of class warfare and scapegoating. The resident officer is blamed for being a back-stabbing informer – but he is innocent. The actual informer is one of their own, and without giving it away, is the character who has the most to lose. He betrays his friends and lies, blaming the officer; when the truth is finally revealed the sense of betrayed loyalty becomes violent in its retaliation. Surprise, surprise – not.
Our Boys as well as the works cited above all involve “men behaving badly”, physically and emotionally, often due to past or current war experiences. The individual stories and characters highlight struggles for self-esteem, power and potency. In this masculine rationale if you do not have these things then you don’t have an identity and viability to make positive and active contributions to society. Whilst ‘feminists’ may rage, nonetheless, masculine identity, health and well-being is still firmly tied to these issue, which are generally the domain of the work-place. Men still are (too often) defined by the work place and what they do (or not do) for a living. What does one do when self-esteem, power, potency, viability, credibility and identity is taken away by things that are beyond your control by murderous violence – physical and/or psychological? Does one resort to the betrayal of loyalties, revenge, in order to satisfy delusional prejudices and self-preservation? In Our Boys these issues rise to the surface, especially in the second act. Ironically, there are good outcomes for some of the patients in Our Boys – but by no means not all – such is life. This mixture of fateful and fortuitous endings only serves to add to the overall greater complexity of the play
Throughout this admirable and ultimately extremely moving production the voice of Margaret Thatcher (post-Falkland War) is heard, stating things like ‘we must take care of our defenses in order to prepare for any situation’. But how can you prepare for sudden and inexplicable violence? One could argue, perhaps, that these men are in the military and subsequently are trained for the violence of war. But this is not necessarily so; not all military personnel are trained for and do active service; and yet are still targets for violence. Nor do all military personnel, especially when working in a domestic and local world, necessarily expect sudden violent acts of internal terrorism. The final scene of Our Boys attempts to articulate the ‘horror’ of home-front terrorist violence. It is the most moving as well as frightening moment of the play. The harrowing experience and subsequent trauma of home-front terrorist violence is stunningly realized in the final confession by Joe, the patient who has been in hospital the longest, and beautifully acted by Adam Tuominen. Joe has an inexplicable disease that has resulted in the removal of one of his fingers. This mysterious disease, however, could be read as metaphor for HIV/AIDS – or other cancers – as it seems as if it will never be cured. Or is it the disease inside his brain, the never-ending post-traumatic disorder due to the incredible violence he experienced. Joe’s story is partly based on a real-life event in a bombing in London by the IRA. As the story unfiled I found I was gasping and shaking my head with the sheer horror of the violence. How could anyone get over such things? The thing is – like an incurable disease – you don’t.
Congratulations to the Adelaide Repertory Theatre, David Sims, and all the actors involved in this terrific production – Adam Tuominen, Patrick Martin, James Edwards, Lee Cook, Nick Duddy and Leighton Vogt. Thank you for providing an opportunity to see this truly unique and moving modern play. It has remained with me, as it did with my Asian-Australian companion last night, who is studying English here in Adelaide. Admittedly, some of it went over his head, and I was a bit concerned as the Asian imitations in the ‘Beer Hunter’ scene, nonetheless, this was the scene he liked the most. Go figure. He also, like myself, was very impressed with Adam Tuominen’s Joe and Patrick Martin’s Lee. Thank you.
The South Australian Theatre Company‘s production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, directed by Geordie Brookman, has some truly terrific moments, and some not so terrific moments. Set in a ‘wasteland’ of an abandoned and derelict modern basement, reminiscent of the set for the horror film classic Saw, the play begins with Lady Macbeth giving birth to a featureless child. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth begin with the opening lines of the 1st and 2nd Witch in Shakespeare’s play, and then the psychic lines of the 3rd Witch (and the rest) are taken over by the child. ‘When shall we three meet again’, the opening line of the play is teased out to involve and include this unholy threesome of Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and their demon child who remains on-stage throughout the rest of the drama and is instrumental in all the subsequent bloody deaths.
It was like watching a contemporary Spanish horror film, like Mama; indeed, I kept thinking that this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth was very much like Saw meets Mama. Nonetheless, from an academic point of view this interpretation attempts to address one of the most important questions posed in regards to Macbeth by Shakespeare scholar L. C. Knight in his seminal essay How many children had Lady Macbeth? (1933). Lady Macbeth states that ‘she has given suck’, in other words had a child, but this child does not appear or is ever mentioned again in the play – a mystery. In this production, however, the mystery is interpreted in rather an interesting way. When Lady Macbeth delivers this line to Macbeth it hits home and Macbeth is emotionally weakened. This particular interpretation, of the Macbeth’s being somehow haunted by their demon child, may be a distortion of Shakespeare’s original play – but it was interesting nonetheless. Furthermore, distortion has always been a factor in the story of Macbeth.
The play was probably first performed by the King’s Men in 1606 with Richard Burbage as Macbeth. The play’s subject matter, themes, location and characters were deliberately chosen to please the King’s Men’s new patron, James Stuart, King James VI of Scotland and now, following the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, King James I of England. Furthermore, not only was James a descendant of Banquo, but James had also published a book on witchcraft. These elements in the play are more aligned with the King’s Men appeasing and playing to the known tastes and predilections of their new royal patron than the actual truth of Macbeth. Shakespeare may have read about Macbeth in Ralph Holinshed’s Chronicles but the story Shakespeare tells is far from the truth.
Macbeth, King of the Scots, ruled from 1040-1057. Macbeth was Lord of Moray, a part of modern day Scotland, whose troops killed King Duncan I of Alba (Scotland), when Duncan invaded Moray. Subsequently, Macbeth became King. He was married to Grunoch, wife of the previous Lord of Moray (who he may have killed), and they had no children. Macbeth ruled Alba peacefully for 17 years. From 1054-57 he was faced with invading armies from England, and was eventually killed in the Battle of Lumphanan in 1057 by troops loyal to Duncan’s son, Malcolm, who became King Malcolm III in 1058. Macbeth was buried on the mystical (and ghostly green) island of Iona, the traditional burial place for the Kings of Scotland. You can visit his supposed grave on Iona – and I would encourage you to do so as Iona is truly wonderful.
Shakespeare’s Macbeth has been one his most consistently performed plays over the past 400-odd years. All the great theatre actors and actresses have tackled the challenging roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth with varying degrees of success. Macbeth has also been adapted for film numerous times, the most successful version being Akira Kurosawa’s extraordinary Throne of Blood (1957). I don’t know how many productions of Macbeth I have seen – but it is quite a few; the best being the famous Trevor Nunn RSC production with Judi Dench and Ian McKellan in the late 1970s, with an equally exceptional supporting cast, and on a relatively bare stage in a small intimate theatre. Brilliant!!! However, in many ways it has spoilt seeing other productions; ‘comparisons are odious’ (Shakespeare), but nonetheless when one does see greatness in the theatre it is unforgettable.
There is a touch of greatness in this current SATC production – the actor Peter Carroll who plays Duncan, as well as the Porter. Peter Carroll is a bit of an Australian acting legend with a truly remarkable career. His Duncan is dignified and touching. His Porter is sheer brilliance – the best I have ever seen. Usually one smiles agreeably at the Porter and his obscure jokes; a bit of sardonic light relief after the murder of Duncan. Here, however, Peter Carroll gets a laugh out of every single line in the Porter’s speech about ‘equivocation’ and welcoming the audience to hell. He was hilarious and completely deserving the round of spontaneous applause at the end of this brief scene. If you are a Shakespeare nut, like myself, it may be worth the price of admission to see this terrific performance.
Geordie Brookman is a clever director with a keen academic mind and a wonderful theatrical sensibility. There is, however, a relative inconsistency that is discernable at times in his direction of actors. When it does all come together, such as in the ‘apparition scene’ in this production of Macbeth the results are thrilling. Part of the problem of inconsistency in this production lays with the direction of virtually all the male characters as passive-aggressives. The generalised bleating emotional tone of ‘Feel sorry for me’ dominates the performances, with the occasional flashes of choleric anger. This is often in opposition to the text. For example, the scene in which Macbeth seduces the two men to murder Banquo. Macbeth actually says that he is ‘making love’ to them; there wasn’t much love going on here. The worst example was unfortunately my favourite scene in the play, Act 4.3 between Malcolm, Macduff and Ross. The Machiavellian complexity of this dynamic scene was completely overwhelmed by excessive emotion from the very start, with Malcolm and Macduff basically just shouting at each other. Subsequently when Macduff hears from Ross that his whole family has been slaughtered, which is the actually emotional release of the scene, you felt nothing. The passive-aggressive dominant tone, particularly from Macduff from the very beginning, robbed the characters of any true dynamic strength. I’m not sure Shakespeare intended us to sentimentally ‘like’ or ‘understand’ these characters as modern sensibilities tend to dictate. These are not necessarily likable characters, and their dynamic power is reduced by generalised sentimentality and continual emotional bleating.
Maybe it had something to do with the overall pace of the production. Scenes and speeches that should be delivered ‘trippingly on the tongue’ (i.e. quickly) were slow, whilst others were rushed, such as the Malcolm, Macduff and Ross scene that is deliberately placed to slow the pace down before the final climax. Furthermore, theatrical affectation occasionally takes over, such as when Ross, played by a woman, dressed and acted as a ‘whining schoolboy’, steps forward and suddenly vomits on stage when told of the murder of Duncan. Why? Another issue involving the character of Ross, who is a continual presence throughout the play, is that in this production he/she takes over the role and fate of Young Siward and is slain by Macbeth, adding to the ghosts who haunt the stage. Finally, there are the deaths of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth that also happen on stage, but are not in the original play. These deaths are, however, understandable in light of the overall production and interpretation, being directed by the demon child. Nonetheless, they are a distortion. Significantly, although not necessarily theatrically acknowledged, the roles that Shakespeare wrote for Richard Burbage that climax with a battle, such as Richard III and Macbeth (both regicides), the character is actually killed off-stage. This may suggest a kind of vanity on Burbage’s side in that being a master-swordsman he didn’t wish to be seen as defeated in a one-on-one fight with an opponent.
In conclusion I should state that overall I enjoyed and appreciated the performances of Nathan O’Keefe as Macbeth, and particularly Anna Steen’s Lady Macbeth. They both had some electrifying scenes and moments, especially at the beginning of the production. Their final scene together, however, was disappointing, with Macbeth unaccountably sexually groping Lady Macbeth, when it is the emotional, physical and psychological distancing of her that drives her mad. Also – I loved Elena Carapetis dry and modern interpretation of Lady Macduff. She may have perhaps unintentionally got a few laughs, like the dry delivery of ‘Your father’s dead’ to her precocious son, but it was an excellent performance. However, as previously stated, the real triumph of this production was Peter Carroll’s brilliant performance as the Porter. This alone, plus the overall interpretation of the Macbeth’s being haunted by their demon child, is well worth the price of admission.
Charles Conder (1868-1909) is regarded, along with friends and colleagues Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, as the finest Australian Impressionist artists. Born in Tottenham, Middlesex, U.K. Charles Conder was a bit of a rebel. His strict civil engineer father disapproved of his artistic bent, and sent the 16 years old Charles to Sydney in 1884 to work for his uncle as land surveyor. Charles Conder, however spent more time drawing landscapes than surveying them, and in 1886 he left his uncle’s employ and started working as an ‘artist’ for Illustrated Sydney News. After meeting Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts he moved to Melbourne, sharing a studio with Streeton and Roberts. Arthur Streeton, ten years Conder’s and Robert’s senior, was a significant influence on both. Whilst the time they all spent together was relatively short, just 18 months, nonetheless, this type of artistic collaboration produced many of their best works. Despite early studies of beach scenes in Sydney it is A Holiday at Mentone that marks not only the first major success of the then 20 year old Charles Conder but also the beginning of Australian artists capturing the unique beauty, splendour and light of Australian beaches. A Holiday at Mentone has often been called a ‘celebration’. This is not only because of its light ‘holiday’ theme and tone but also because it was painted and exhibited as part of the Australian Centenary celebrations in 1888. Furthermore, the painting is highly regarded for its composition and colours. The influence of the American artist James Whistler is possible due to the white and mauve bridge that effectively cuts the painting into two halves; but there is so much more to be gleaned when examining the painting closley. There is also the discernable influence of the then popular Japanese Aesthetic Movement, as well as popular Japanese woodcut artists Hokusai and Hiroshige. The Japanese influence can also be seen in the up-turned red parasol, and as art critic Jane Clark has noted, the calligraphically-like seaweed. However, despite all this brilliance, as well as the celebratory nature of the painting I find there is something a little disturbing about this painting. Despite the brightness the respective characters are not in summer clothes. Furthermore, no one seems to be actually communicating. The seeming asleep man at the centre of the painting seems more dead than asleep; the discarded red paper, like the red parasol, hint as something lost than something gained. Furthermore, the couple at the front of the painting are distant – an argument perhaps? The figures in black add to this unsettling tone. The elderly couple nearest the gentleman are watching the couple – concerned parents? Whilst the remote black woman with a child behind the woman reading could be a nanny with the couple’s offspring. The seaweed hints at something fractured rather than ordered. The painting, for me, starts to take on a similar complexity to Georges Seurat‘s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-86), or Stephen Sondheim‘s Sunday in the Park with George (1985) with the expectation that any second someone is going to state – ‘It’s hot up here!’
Sydney Long – The Spirit of the Plains (1914)
Sydney Long (1871-1955) is one of the most unique Australian artists. This is mainly due to his particular poetic and lyrical vision of the Australian bush, which is combined with classical European imagery and characters. Born in Ifield, Goulburn, New South Wales, he trained at the New South Wales Art Society in 1890. His first major work By Tranquil Waters (1894) caused a scandal, but was bought by the New South Wales Art Gallery.
The controversy brought Sydney Long to the attention of Julian Ashton. Eventually Sydney Long joined Julian Ashton as co-head of Ashton’s Sydney Art School, a position he enjoyed until 1910. The popularity and sale of his works allowed him to travel and studying London, where he stayed until 1925, with a brief return to Australia in 1921. Long continued working and exhibiting. He won the Wynne Prize in 1938 and 1940, and was a trustee of the Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1938-1949. He returned to England in 1951, and died in London in 1955. Whilst Sydney Long produced an immense body of work it is, however, his work from the late 1890s and early 20th Century that marks him as unique. His vision and artistry in this period stands in marked contrast to his ‘Heidelberg’ contemporaries Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin. There is an erotic sensuality in his work from the 1890s and early twentieth century, which has a similarity Norman Lindsay. This form was labelled as a new school of Australian art called ‘Australian Paganism’. Virtually all the galleries in Australia display works by Sydney Long. There are two in the Art Gallery of South Australia – The Valley (1898) and The West Wind (1909). These combined with to two other works by Sydney Long in this article – By Tranquil Waters (1898) and The Spirit of the Plains (1914) exemplify the uniqueness and sensual beauty of the art of Sydney Long – making the ordinary extraordinary. Sydney Long – The West Wind (1909)
John William Waterhouse (1849-1917) was born in Rome to English parents, who returned to England in 1854. Waterhouse, nicknamed ‘Nino’, studied at the Royal Academy of Art and began regularly successfully exhibiting at the Royal Academy from 1871 to 1916. Waterhouse belongs to the ‘Pre-Raphelites’ who also include Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt. He is also known as the ‘modern pre-Raphelite’ partly due to the influence of the ‘Impressionists’ on his painting. Waterhouse’s work is characterised by his subject matter, which is generally based in classical myths and history, including ancient Greece, Rome as well as Arthurian legend. Waterhouse’s works are exhibited in numerous galleries and museums around the world, and Australia is blessed that the respective state galleries have some of his best and well-known work. The Art Gallery of South Australia has The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius (1883) as well as Circe Invidiosa (1892). The Favourites of the Emperor Honorius shows the Emperor in his throne room, preferring to concentrate on his birds than attending to business and his waiting councillors. The drama of the scene is heightened by the spacial arrangement and particular use of colours – the dark reds and crimsons being the domain of the Emperor, contrasted with the paler colours associated with the councillors.
John Brack (1920-1999) is one of the most important and influential Australian artists of the 20th Century. Born in Melbourne and educated at Melbourne Grammar School, Brack rose to prominence in the 1950s. He was a member of the group known as the ‘Antipodeans’ who reacted against the then popular form of ‘abstract expressionism’. Brack later became Head of the National Gallery of Victoria Art School from 1962-68. Like many artists Brack went through particular periods, re-inventing and experimenting with new forms, genres, styles and subject matter. He is an artist who makes the ordinary extraordinary. This painting – The Lift dates from 1954 and is currently on display at the Art Gallery of South Australia. In many ways it is characteristic if Brack’s major works – a very distinctive and deliberate composition; dull, drab and muted colours, his most common colour being brown. On first glance t would seem that this painting is somewhat quite ordinary and mundane. The Lift, however, is a response to the Jewish Holocaust during WW2. As described by the gallery – ‘Rather than making an anguish or impassioned response to this subject, Brack has exercised immense restraint. The unnerving quality of this work comes from imagining that the steps leading up to the seemingly ordinary lift are analogous to the tragic fate suffered by the Jewish people led to their deaths in the gas chambers of Nazi Germany’. Extraordinary.