Thursday, November 19, 2020

Wicked Sisters (Theatre Review)

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre presents WICKED SISTERS, by Alma de Groen, at the Reginald Theatre, in the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, Sydney University. 6th November - 12 December. 

 The Griffin Theatre premiered WICKED SISTERS sometime in the early 2000's and this is a revival of the work for the same company. This play was written in 2002. Alma de Groen is one of those great writers of plays. 

Alma de Groen was born in New Zealand but pursued a life as a playwright in Australia. Her work, contextually, came forth in the so-called era of the Second Wave Feminism. This play, unusually, has a cast of four women, who being over the age of fifty are the surviving elders of a niche university clique who were, supposedly, friends and activists of different commitment motivations at a vital time in their life development. 

When the play begins, Meridee Hobbes (Vanessa Downing), has been a widow for 15 years to a 'brilliant' scientist of Darwinian origin/persuasion. He had been developing a computer algorithm as an Artificial Intelligence Researcher - Alec Hobbes - at a university who believed and still believes passionately in his work so that his computer program has been kept active all this time. Alec Hobbes is dead but his Artificial Intelligence propositions stiil pulse with life. Four women who were influenced by this man come together to celebrate his birthday and reacquaint themselves, and ostensibly, for two of them, to bring 'back to life' the grieving widow. 

One can presume that the choice of Hobbes as the surname of this relatively contemporary scientist/researcher, from Ms de Groen, is a meaningful clue as to what the core of the play might be about. Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who in his major book LEVIATHAN (1651), proffered a discussion and philosophy investigating the relationship between natural and legal rights - and to the possibility that on surrendering some of our freedoms we can submit to the authority of a ruler (or rulers) to create security for a civil community/society. 

It is indeed a provocative premise as we allow today, in 2020, our own elected government, under the panic of the COVID pandemic, to take some of our freedoms, having us believe it is for the greater good for now and the future. That Alec is also a Darwinist believing in the survival of the fittest, we watch his active algorithm on the screens surrounding the Set Design of Alec's study/studio (Tobhiyah Stone Feller) destroy many 'lives'/screen blips in his visually multiplying algorithmic community! 

 If only there was a more possible glimmer of the subject debate in the foreground of this production of WICKED SISTERS we might have had a more valuable time spent in the Reginald Theatre. Instead we have in the foreground of this time spent, a reunion of four female once best friends, who bitch about their consequent lives that has led them to make choices that resulted in a huge diminishment of their youthful ideals. Cheating, lying, deceiving, coveting, wallowing and devaluing the mores of the world they live in, their venal crimes, with and on each other, are painfully, and in this production, painstakingly, revealed. 

Bemused by the performances in this production I felt that I was watching a ninety minute special of the American television sitcom from the late nineteen eighties, early nineteen nineties of, THE GOLDEN GIRLS : a text of wise cracking put downs and systemic cruelty that passed as humour and that may have a social enlightenment. Instead of the cast of Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty espousing and solving the wit and social dilemmas re-created in comic formulas by Susan Harris, which, all inevitably in the Darwinian sense of the survival of the fittest, had the ambition of positive social change but instead devolved over an eight year, one hundred and eighty episodes 'run', to 'crash and burn' like the metaphoric inventions in Alec Hobbes' algorithm, In WICKED SISTERS we have a cliche grouping of archetypes rubbing injuriously up against each other at an uncatered party with not enough table or chairs for the guests to eat and drink off : the unrequited wife, Meridee, played by Vanessa Downing, ineptly hosting a reunion for some friends from University days; the sexually charged, ebullient golden-hearted real estate agent, Lydia, in the grips of Deborah Galanos; and the sexually frustrated but successful personal business manager, Judith, haunted by Hannah Waterman. But there is a surprise, there arrives a gate-crasher : the long ago betrayed science student, Hester, who shocked and destroyed because of stolen intellectual property, has travelled down a road of personal abuse, who now seeks a future by grafting a revenge that will benefit the down and out among her new 'community' - her like-sufferers - inhabited creatively with a dry-as-a-bone cynicism by Di Adams. 

 This play's performance is not all disaster; it just doesn't fulfil its ambitions. But that is not just because of the writing of the intellectual arguments of the concept with such cliche characters, from Ms de Groen, it is also because the Director, Nadia Tass, a film director, has not been able to assist her actors to develop a backstory to bring these women together as competitive but emotionally and intellectually bonded friends, companions. 

Most of these performances are acted AT each other rather than WITH each other. The beings we are observing in this production seem to be meeting each other for the first time - they talk to each other but do not seem to hear one another so that there can be a feasible or acceptable human progress going on. We can read the cause of these characters but not the affect on these characters. No-one seems to be in the same play. 

It is, mostly, a disappointing night in the theatre. I wrote early in this response to the Griffin production of this play that Alma de Groen is a great playwright. Personally, I believe her plays THE RIVERS OF CHINA (1987) and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1999) are two outstanding concepts and resolutions of philosophical science fiction existing in the Australian cannon. Find them and read them. They are well worth the effort,

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Book Review: Grand Hotel

This is a book by Vicki Baum. It is Grand Hotel. The Grand Hotel in Berlin. In Berlin in the early 1920's. The culture, the city finding its way to continue survival post the Treaty of Versailles through the weighted demands made on the German nation in reparation for its provocation of World War I and before the Weimar Government was buried in the Hitler led National Socialist agenda - the rise of the Nazi party.

The events that happen to people in a big hotel do not constitute entire human destinies, complete and rounded off. They are fragments merely, scraps, pieces. The people behind the doors may signify much or little. They may be rising or falling in the scale of life. Prosperity and disaster may be parted by no more than the thickness of a wall. The revolving door twirls around, and what passes between arrival and departure is nothing complete in itself. Perhaps there is no such thing as a completed destiny in the world, but only approximations, beginnings that come to no conclusion or conclusions that have no beginnings. Much that looks like Chance is really Fate. And much that goes on behind Life's doors is not fixed like the pillars of a building nor pre-conceived like the structure of a symphony, nor calculable like the orbit of a star. It is human, fleeting and more difficult to trace than cloud shadows that  pass over a meadow. And anyone who attempts an account of what he sees behind those doors runs the risk of balancing himself precariously on a tightrope between falsehood and truth ...
In the Lounge, Doctor Otternschlag sat and talked to himself. "It's dismal", he said. "Always the same. Nothing happens. One's always alone, dismally, alone. The earth is an extinct planet - no warmth left in it.... Maybe I am dead and don't know it. If only something worth while would happen in this great big pub. But no, not a thing. 'Left'. And so it goes on. In-out, in-out-" ... 
"Little Georgi, however, behind the mahogany table was revolving a few simple and extremely banal thoughts. Marvelous. Always something going on. One man goes to prison, another gets killed. One leaves, another comes. They carry one man on a stretcher by the back stairs, and at the same moment another man has a baby. Interesting if you like! But so is Life!
The revolving door turns and turns-and swings ... and swings ... and swings ...

In the GRAND HOTEL, we watch the doomed and the desperate, the predators and the prey who pass through the revolving doors of the most expensive hotel in Berlin ... and whose lives will never be the same again: The fading ballerina, Grushinskaya, who finds a new reason for living in a single night of ecstasy. The titled thief, Baron Gaigern, in search of rich pickings who chooses love instead of pearls. The middle-aged book-keeper, Otto Kringelein, determined to see life before his incurable illness takes its final toll. The stiff-necked businessman, General Director Preysing on the verge of a disaster and a girl, his secretary, Flammschen, with a body to stir a man's senses and destroy his reason.

This is to us readers and viewers of contemporary film and television a familiar genre of activity and character. But GRAND HOTEL written in 1929 created anew the genre of the whirly-gig of the environs of the temporary meeting place of many varieties of humanity. What surprised me was the quality of the writing with its intimate detail of human activity and the richness of observation that is beautifully restrained and yet wealthily triggering of what may be a memory of a personal fancy or a recall of passionate returning dreams.

The sexual encounter between the ballet dancer and the burglar Baron, in the hands of Vicki Baum, is marvellously salacious in its telling and still beautifully embedded in a poetic metaphysical point of view. This book is "classy" in its writing. No blatancy of the bodice-tearers of say a pop culture writer such as Harold Robbins (THE CARPET BAGGERS) or Jacqueline Susann (VALLEY OF THE DOLLS). GRAND HOTEL has a depth of the tragic-comic. In its many story trails it connects to a metaphysical touchstone to the primal energies, emotions, of the human experience. A connection as old as the worlds of the Greeks that we have inherited in their surviving plays and books. 

For instance what today is a story cliche of the downtrodden worker finding a path to a fling that will be a final gesture, before an incurable disease conquers him with death, of an adventure that will reveal and reward him with a sense of what LIFE could be - where he discovers that life is a mixture of fear and pleasure where the risk of choice is the best part of the thrill of being alive. In Ms Baum's hands this is simply not a kitch episode but one with the possibility of giving the reader a gently rewarding profundity.

Otto Kringelein, a book-keeper trapped in the machinations of a provincial city, Frederesdorf, both personal and professionally, has escaped with his hard worn savings to the Grand Hotel, Berlin, where he encounters a playboy derring-do survivor of the trenches of the World War, the handsome adventurer, Baron Gaigern. The Baron takes Otto under his wing - not without some plan of using him for aggrandisement, to have access to his new friend's money - and introduces Otto to some adventures out of the provincial ordinary.

One of them is a car ride with Gaigern: 
Now we can let it rip," he said, and, before Kringelein understood what he meant, he had done so. 
At first the wind grew colder and colder, and blew harder and harder, until at last it beat like a fist against his face. The engine sang on a rising note and at the same time something ghastly occurred to Kringelein's legs. They were filled with air. Bubbles rose in his joints as if they would burst. For several seconds, that seemed to last an incredible time, he could not breathe, and moment after moment he thought, Now I am dying. His chest caved in and he gasped for breath. The car swallowed up one object after another before it could be recognised, streaks of red, green and blue. A patch of red just became a car before it vanished into nothingness behind, and all the while Kringelein could not breathe. He now felt an unimagined sensation in his diaphragm. He tried to turn his head towards Gaigern. Strange to say he succeeded without finding it torn from his shoulders. Gaigern sat a little forward over the wheel and he was wearing his wash-leather gloves though they were not buttoned up.This for some reason was reassuring. Just what was left of Kringelein's stomach strove to escape at his throat, Gaigern's closed lips began to smile. Without taking his eyes off the Avus road whirling past like an unwinding spool, he pointed somewhere with his chin, and Kringelein obediently followed the direction with his eyes. Having some intelligence he realized after a guess or two that the speedometer was before his eyes. The little pointer trembled slightly as it pointed in 110. Good Lord, thought Kringelein, and swallowing down his fears he bent forward and gave himself up to the rush of speed. Suddenly the new and appalling joy of danger overcame him. Faster! cried a frenzied Kringelein within him whom he had never known before. The car complied with 115. For a few moments it kept  to 118, and Kringelien finally gave up all thoughts of breathing. He would have liked now to whirl on and on into darkness, on and on in the shock of explosion, and to get right beyond and out of time. No hospital bed, he thought, better a broken skull. Hoardings still whirled past the car, but the spaces between began to alter. Then the grey ragged streaks beside the road became pine woods. Kringelein saw trees eddying more slowly to meet the car and stepping back into the wood like people as the car went by. It was just as it was on the read roundabout as Mickenau when it slowed down. Now he could read the names of oils, tyres and makes of cars on the placards. The rush of air relaxed and streamed in his throat. The speedometer sank to 60, trembled a little, then 50-45-and then they left the Avus by the south gate and drove along soberly between the villas of the Wannsee.

'There-now I feel better'. said Gaigern and laughed all over his face. Kringelein  took his hands from the leather cushion in which till now he had dug his fingers and carefully relaxed his jaws and shoulders and knees. He felt completely tired and comp;etely happy. 
So do I," he answered truthfully.

To follow is a simple but elegant meal; a flight; a gambling den; a beautiful woman. Life and its adventures were laid out for Kringelein.

I guess I am an incurable romantic. In my long ago youth I was captured by a screening on our television of GRAND HOTEL (1932). It won the Academy Award for Best Film in 1932, Directed by Edmund Goulding and Produced by Irving Thalberg featuring some of MGM"S stars: John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford and Greta Garbo. Later I began to realise that Garbo was also one of the great screen actors. I have always regarded Garbo's performance in CAMILLE (1936), as Marguerite Gautier ,as one of the greatest screen performances ever captured (She is amazing in QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) as well. In my estimate it was Meryl Streep's performance in SOPHIE'S CHOICE (1982) that challenged it, or topped it. Maggie Smith in THE PRIME OF MISS JEAN BRODIE (1969) is quite astonishing as well.

The screenplay by William Drake uses his adaptation of the enormously successful Broadway play, Directed by Max Reinhardt, of Vicki Baum's - an Austrian novelist - book: GRAND HOTEL (Menschen im Hotel - 1929). 

Years later I found a dilapidated copy of the novel in a translation by Basil Creighton in a second hand store and bought it and left it on my shelf to one day read. Coronavirus has given me the time. 

GRAND HOTEL is a wonderful read. It is a novel of some greatness and ought to be more appreciated than it is. 

Read it. 

Another novel THE GOOD EARTH, by Pearl Buck, was made into a great film. I, too, bought the book in a secondhand store eons ago and have kept it on my library shelf until now. I shall let you know if I can encourage you to pick it up to have a good time.

Monday, July 13, 2020

It Must Be Heaven (film review)

Cinema going is always a risk. At the moment with the re-opening of the cinemas there seems to be a dearth of product - new product. The BIG films are being held back from launching I guess to ensure a proper audience take-up to ensure a monetary return, as investment due for the risk taken. Fair enough.

So, besides the reprise of many films that have had a proper screen time before the Coronavirus interruption we have been given, in new film, a lot of art film investigations.

IT MUST BE HEAVEN, Directed by Elia Suleiman, in 2019, is one of these. It has had a positive critical response, and I heard Jason Di Rosso rapturing about it on The Screen Show on Radio National.

My addiction urged me to attend.

Elia Suleiman wrote, directed and starred in this project that begins in Palestine, moves to Paris and then New York. It is supposedly a satiric, comic observation that one place is much like the other. The commonality of being human dominates the observations. Suleiman places his character as an observer of the world around him. There is little dialogue and much of the work is made up of animated facial responses to indicate us to places of personal contemplation.

I am not sure of the persona that Suleiman projects: for instance I thought the Paris section spent an inordinate time with the camera directed at the bodies of the young women of Paris passing him by in the streets. I found it cumulatively an uncomfortable experience. a kind of soft-pornography.

Some have mentioned Suleiman's mentors have been Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton. Tati is an earned appreciation and is a difficult one, for me, to view in the full length feature mode. If I could see the Keaton influence I might be more amenable. One wishes he had indulged in the Chaplin politics and entertainment fashion.

My experience of IT MUST BE HEAVEN, was that of an art house dirge with a less than charming 'host'. I wondered if I needed to be Palestinian to appreciate this work. I was so glad when it finished.

One responds with the swings and round-abouts of the cinematic art form and you too may enjoy it as Jason Di Rosso did.

Que sera sera.

The Personal History of David Copperfeild (film review)

The cinema is back. I have an addiction for the cinema experience. So, a friend of mine booked the first morning session: 11am! I just love sitting in my seat as the lights go down, watching the previews and then the feature close to the front, to be enveloped by the width of the screen and surrounded by the sound. I have diagnosed the need to have the stimulation of the flicker of the large image otherwise I can become a little depressed, literally. No matter the quality of the film or its genre I feel so much better when I come out of the darkened 'cave'.

I went to see the new Dickens adaptation of his novel, whose title has been edited down to: THE PERSONAL LIFE STORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Armando Iannucci co-wrote with Simon Blackwell and Directed the screenplay himself. His other work includes the satiric comic television series THE THICK OF IT and VEEP.  In 2017 he Directed THE DEATH OF STALIN - a wondrously dizzy excursion into political satire with a stellar cast of actors, a must see.

The film is an adaptation of the Charles Dickens' novel, THE PERSONAL HISTORY, ADVENTURES, EXPERIENCE AND OBSERVATION OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, THE YOUNGER, which was published first in serial form but arrived as a complete novel in 1840. This was Dickens' favourite work and has an autobiographical aura about it. The novel was special for Dickens - his favourite achievement.

The novel takes us on the maturing journey of David Copperfield who is shaped by the family and friends of his acquaintance who we get to know precipitously through the robust comic caricatures we meet on his life journey. There are liberties taken with the source material but not to any lessening of the adventures we encounter. Iannucci seems to be as in love with the material as Dickens himself was and has a tremendous respectful attitude to the source - as in any novel adaptation there are instances of character and event that have been excised that will, possibly, distress you - but in a 2 hour storytelling,  something has to give in the huge epic that is the book.

The film is boisterous fun set in the many social stratas of the early Victorian era celebrating it with a sense of joy but with an acute and accurate (and subtle) eye for the difficulties of the huge adjustment that the British nation was having shifting into the economic and social challenges of the Industrial Revolution in the city of London and the country, both rural and seaside. It is the Victorian Era writ large with the social, political, satiric energy that made Dickens such an important artist of his time in indicating where the social reforms by government ought to be made.

Iannucci begins the film with David Copperfield arriving on a Victorian theatre stage to read and impersonate the novel much as, famously, Dickens did: acting out his books, creating his characters, performing - he was a famous amateur actor (ham!). The Director then shifts us into natural locations, bantering back and forth from the 'theatrical' locations to naturalistic renderings. It begins much like the Joe Wright adaptation of the 2012 ANNA KARENINA, with Keira Kneightly, but does not pursue the same risky consistent bravura shifts that the Wright film has (I love it, some others were disconcerted by the Wright 'method' - it does take adjustment but it is worth making an effort to do.)

The other offer that Iannucci makes with the film is to practice colour blind casting right across the board. David Copperfield is played by Indian actor Dev Patel. Mr Whitfield is played by British Asian actor Benedict Wong, whose daughter Agnes is played by Rosalin Eleazar. Niki Ameka-Bird plays Mrs Streerforth whose patrician son, James, is played by Aneurin Barnard. There is no question of visual racial contradictions that could intrude on the film as an obstacle to our involvement as the sheer confidence of the company and that each actor is absolutely the best actor for that role sweeps us imaginatively into utter belief - the speed of the film allows no time for quarrel or questioning  the choices. It is a refreshing exercise and ought to be a standard for imaginative casting to come; both in the cinematic world and in the theatre (where it has been in practice for some many years in Europe and the United States.)

This film is also boasting and bursting with actors who, if you are a fan of the work of Iannucci, are a familiar team: Hugh Laurie (Mr Dick), Tilda Swinton (Betsy Trotwood), Peter Capaldi (Mr Micawber), Ben Wishaw (Uriah Heep) are some of them. (I especially loved Dev Patel, who seems to be able to do anything. Ben Wishaw is astonishing and was at first not recognisable.)

The DAVID COPPERFRIELD story was famously told in film  for MGM, directed by George Cukor (one of the Great Directors of the era), in 1935. It was the quality standard bearer of this story and is still a film that is worth watching and loving. The acting company is sublime and the story, for its contextual period, is moving, funny and enhancing. Compare the achievements.

I thoroughly recommend Armando Iannucci"s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD.

Book Reviews, Non-Fiction, Biographical: By Women Possessed (Eugene O'Neill) and The Letters of Cole Porter

I always try to keep my knowledge of the Performing Arts and the creators expanding to augment my vision and knowledge to teach my students with insights that only Knowledge can give me.
So, here are some of my recent excursions and a brief response.


by Arthur and Barbara Gelb.

The Gelb's, husband and wife, spent a great deal of their creative energies researching and writing investigations into the genius and life of American playwright, Eugene O'Neill.They have written several books on O'Neill and some of the other people of the era. BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016) is the last of their collaborations and is a dense and gruelling read using O'Neill's relationship with women in his life: His Mother and then his three wives: Cathleen Jenkins, Agnes Boulton and Carlotta Monterey to, perhaps, explain, his driving creative energies - his furious response to what he viewed as the carnivorous woman. Both he and the women seemingly POSSESSED.

The book is wonderfully prepared with a life time of discoveries by these two writers (they have written another biography - 1962). The psychology of cause and affect is woven with an enlightening sensibility by the Gelb's. The writing career, play by play, is examined and parallels with his personal struggle with the demons of his psyche - burying him in fierce states of depression augmented by an addiction to alcohol, from which his fierce plays emerged. The ancient Greeek myths, bible stories and historical context of his world are used to lubricate his visions.e.g. MOURNING BECOMES ELECTRA, DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS. Later, his auto-biographical penchant is evident. AH, WILDERNESS, A TOUCH OF THE POET, THE ICEMAN COMETH, LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT, besides the one act sea plays. He was a winner of many Pulitzer Prizes and became a Nobel Laureate for literature.

An American son, his father an actor, a matinee idol (THE COUNT OF MONTE CHRISTO), his mother a convent girl who becomes addicted to morphine, he of a dark Irish temperament determined not to have his writing distracted by women and children. His personal demands were outrageous and facilitated by the context of the times and the macho embrace of his genius. He mesmerised his women to subservience to allow him to write without distractions of the ordinary life.

The book is astoundingly illustrative into the origins of the plays and the explorations - experiments - of form that O'Neill produced. It is a tremendous resource that I recommend as a must if you are working in the O'Neill ouvre. It also reveals the theatre experience in New York and the Americas that helps one to enter and begin to understand the reason why this man wrote those plays and why the audience embraced his work with such interest both savage and felicitous.

Literally the book weighs a ton - difficult to read in bed - but is also a disturbing and turbulent exposure of an unpleasant man that has produced some of the most important plays/visions of life for the theatre.

I recommend but be warned: it is not for the feint hearted reader. It is grinding.  An indispensable background.


by Cliff Eisen and Dominic McHugh (2019)

I picked up this book as a result of an article in THE NEW YORKER. I know, really, only a cursory amount about the great musical composers of the early 20th century American era.

This book is a collection of letters (624 pages of them) and are dated from the first decade of the twentieth century to the early 1960's and features correspondence with many of the movers and shakers of the musical world - Irving Berlin, Ethel Merman, Orson Welles as well as many of his friends and lovers. Coming from money, marrying money, he had other money most of his life raining down with the musical genius of tune and lyric. Married, suffering a shattering horse accident, his homosexuality is part of the information we read through. His interaction with the wheels of Broadway and the Hollywood film studios are amusingly, cynically, revealed. The suffering of an artist in the naked reveal of his work and struggling with success as well as failure is recorded first hand.

I found the book a boorish insight and sometimes just plain tiresome. I pushed through it. It is a dip-in, dip-out book and is probably of most interest to the musical theatre tragic. I'm not one of those.


by Martin Gottfried (1984)

This is a biography of one of the great and legendary Directors of the American Theatre. He was the son of Esther and Meyer Wolf Horowitz who arrived in Newark with their son, Jacob Hirsch Horowitz. He was one of several children but was the bookish one - finding the realm of literature a sanctuary in the harsh life of the Jewish American immigrant. He was a wilful determined person, fractious with his family and locals, who blighted his study at Yale, and gradually bullied his way into the theatre where he produced a series of triumphs one after the other. BROADWAY, THE ROYAL FAMILY, THE FRONT PAGE, OUR TOWN and THE HEIRESS are some of his landmark successes. He worked with playwrights such as Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Edward Chodorov.

He died in 1979. At his memorial few people turned up. Most people thought he had long been dead and were surprised he had survived so long. The absence of the collaborators, celebrants of his career life was really his greatest achievement, which the writer Martin Gottfried intimates was his principal objective: to make enemies and to destroy his own legend. He, apparently, succeeded.

Being of Jewish inheritance was a burden and the cruel relationships with the women in his life are presented as some of the combustible fuel of his pernicious artistic drive. Most people worked with him only once. His rages, his quarrels, his feuds, his cruel witticisms, were wanton and shocking - disturbingly vicious. He was a genius of the theatre, with a great sense of finding the play, 'fixing' the play, casting and directing the play, he had the ability to diagnose the problems of the playwrighting and the gifts of his actors. He always cast his plays and rarely changed his mind - his instincts were an exceptional talent but were the undoing of his self - he was a genius in pursuit of perfection and had liitle patience with the less talented or the less motivated. Was it worth enduring him to have success? Time told him: NO. He vanished from sight (It could be seen as a result of a deliberate strategy of his own!)

This book is sometimes a little shallow in its insights but is stuffed with anecdotal references that is enough of a bait to keep one engaged. The background to how the Broadway Theatre 'worked', its history through the century is a great knowledge to have to store in the resources of my own practice. I gained a lot from reading it. I recommend it very much.


by Desley Deacon (2019)

I read of this book in the Sydney Morning Herald. Of course I was curious. For Judith Anderson is a world famous actor, stage and screen who was born in Adelaide - in ADELAIDE (As was Robert Helpmann) and found an illustrious future, particularly on the stages of Broadway. How does she achieve such success is what one reads the book for. She died in 1992. Most famously she created Mrs Danvers in the Hitchcock film REBECCA. That performance is an iconic one for cinephiles. But it was her theatre work that is thrilling to discover: her MEDEA is legendary. That career spanned decades. (She toured 'down under').

I am grateful for this book by Desley Deacon but would not recommend it as a satisfactory read. It is rather a documented review of her career and personal life that is not to 'juicy' in its details. Important, undoubtedly, but not riveting. (It was interesting to read that she was one of many women that had a long, off-and-on relationship with the notorious Jedd Harris - as did Ruth Gordon - who, in fact, had an illegitimate child with him, a scandal he ried to hide - James Harris).

If you're an Australian artist then this book is a must. As she is a successful woman in the world theatre it should be part of your knowledge of history. HERSTORY no just history. She, apparently, was a formidable artist. Her film and television career is worth finding: Tony Awards and Emmy.

TONY CURTIS, the autobiography 

By Tony Curtis and edited, supplemented contextually, by Barry Paris. (1993).

Given to me by a friend it was an insightful read into the life and , especially, times of Mr Curtis' career - especially the 40's-60's America.

Things I learnt: Tony Curtis was the son of a Hungarian Jewish family: Bernard Schwartz (I always thought of him as being of Italian origin). His youthful adventures in the inner city of Manhattan, especially in the 30's during the parallel rise of the Nazi's in the Weimar Republic, there were in the 'ghettos' of the refugee immigrant, German conclaves in New York, gangs of Brown shirts full of the anti-semitic propaganda and violence of the home country. Surviving in that environment was a war in itself. Fascinating insight into history - now there is a Scorsese film to sit beside THE GANGS OF NEW YORK. Enduring that was one of the formative experiences of this young actor's life, as was his relationship with his brutal mother and vagrant father. Formative traits that influenced so much of his direction of career.

It was his incredible good looks that facilitated the career of Tony Curtis, who along with a precocious sex life developed his own approach to acting - personalisation - eschewing the Method as indulgent crap that was the great influence of the period. Brando was a 'genius' and really didn't need the Strasburg influence. Neither did Curtis.

I am not especially excited by autobiographies of artists and read them with a cynical eye. The Biographies are more reliable and the further the book is away from the death of the artist the more interesting and illustrative they are/can be. Read the late biographies of Olivier, for instance, for a most honest assessment of the actor. After all the subject is long dead and not likely to resurrect to sue the biographer.

What this book did was to remind me of some of the great performances and films of Tony Curtis besides the 'popcorn' commercial ones that entranced us momentarily in the cinema as kids: IVANHOE!


Curtis does not skirt his drug and alcohol period of the 70's and 80's and is prepared to talk of his many fractious relationships with women and his children. Reading this book contextualised the Hollywood experience of his era and gave some anecdotal insights to some of the great artists he worked with. Recommended.

You may want to find these books..

Thursday, July 2, 2020

More book reviews Pt 2: "The Offing" and "Smoke and Ashes"

CORONAVIRUS reading time.

Two books that are very different from each other but both easy and good reads.

THE OFFING, by a young writer, Benjamin Myers, was published in 2019. It has had some ecstatic reviews.

Set in England just after the end of World War II, Robert Appleyard decides to take a year off after finishing school, and explore the world outside of the Durham Colliery, in which his family have been miners from generation to generation. Is he destined to mine the mines? His family expect so. He is not so sure. This is the vague fuel to the quest he engages in.

He wanders by foot into the countryside, following nature and its flora and fauna, taking on light tasks and camping on properties that he is passing through. It is a journey that connects him to the wonder of the natural world - a world he had not ever before regarded.

Robert finds himself, stumbling onto a bushy hillside with a ramshackle cottage and sheds overgrown by nature, not far from the seaside. There he meets Dulcie Piper, an older bohemian eccentric with her German Shepherd, Butler. She without inhibition invites him to food and alcohol and literature, to poetry. To an ideal of Europe. His world is broken open to a scale, a potential, he had never known before. Breaking into the sunshine of forces of nature and escaping from the shadows of an industrial nightmare populated by his family's history.

The local fishing village have adopted Dulcies' eccentricities and take a care for her surviving, and Robert taking himself away to continue his journey is guided back to Dulcie's with a seafood gift from one of the local fishermen. Robert, then, finds himself further drawn into her influence by taking on small jobs to organise the garden and to restore a shed that reveals itself as a once studio for a foreign artist - a poet, Romy Landau - a companion of Dulcie's who has died. A German refugee hiding in the countryside of England during that terrible war. A poet not of this world.

This is a coming-of-age story for Robert and a resurrection of hope and faith for Dulcie as both participate in the reveal of a lost and unpublished collection of poems by Romy, called The Offing, that had been abandoned in the studio/shed.

Offing is defined as "the distant stretch of sea where sky and water merge". In that space there is possibility and growth.

This short novel is written in descriptive language that sparkles with the reflective light of sparkling jewellery. The language is strangely old fashioned in its vividness and charm but has a disarming energy that wraps about you with a warmth of familiarity and comfort. I found myself propelled into the reading of the book with a sense of delightful ease. The descriptives are overrich yet completely entrancing. Given to me by my friend, a bookseller, it was a present for which I am so grateful.

The grief of a nation flowing out of the destruction of a World War, a land in scattered decay, and a woman devastated by a broken heart are healed by the grafting of a miner's son to become, in time, a blossoming into a poet - a novelist - of joyous simplicity of experiential depths. 

Robert Appleyard, now an older man, is the voice of this narrative as he recalls the year that changed his life - this is his novel of memory, when his life was changed. THE OFFING may change your life, too. And, if not, you will, at least, have had a very pleasant read.

Highly recommended.

Okay. Let me continue my fandom for the Abir Mukherjee crime detective series which I have written about in an earlier blog post.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the third book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-Not' saga. All three books are set in Calcutta in the 1920's. These two men are members of the British Police Force and are investigators of crime. The books have followed these two men and a collection of other characters in their natural growth, personally and politically, during this highly volatile time in India during the rise of the Gandhi driven Independence movement enveloped in the spectacular corrupt collapse of the British Raj.

Wyndham, a cynical survivor of the trenches of World War I, and the death of his young wife, after a short stint with Scotland Yard, is seconded to Calcutta under the aegis of Lord Taggart. He has been commissioned there for some two and a half years. Opium is readily available in this city and he has become addicted intensely - taking risks that could ruin his career.

SMOKE AND ASHES, is set in December, 1921. Wyndham's addiction to opium has become quite intense and this book opens in an opium den where he is woken mid-way through an indulgence as there is a vice squad police raid going on. To be found there will be the end of his career. He takes flight and finishes on a roof where he stumbles over a corpse with its eyes gouged and a ritual stabbing to the chest.

He is not able to report the crime for fear of exposure but when another body is found with similar wounds he becomes alert and is sent with his native detective companion, 'Surrender-not', to investigate and solve.

These crimes spiral and a pattern of murder becomes revealed in a gradual exposure of a secret British research biological experiment illegally using Indian troops as their human 'guinea-pigs' to develop contemporary chemical weaponry. These ritual crimes may be revenge actions.

What is thrilling is that as this investigation climaxes, it is set against the non-violent, non-cooperation protests held in Calcutta at this time led by Gandhi deputies: Chitta Rajari Das, Subhash Bose, and Das' wife Basanti Devi, both climaxing on the day of the Royal Tour of Prince Edward, later King Edward VIII, and his arrival in Calcutta as a tool of British propaganda to rally India to the British cause.

As usual, Mukherjee handles the storytelling with a deft speed and a comfortably sensed and researched dramatic integration, if not with complete historic accuracy. It gallops along in its twists and turns. Add the development of the individual characters' dilemmas, especially that of Wyndham and his opium habit, and the native sergeant 'Surrender-not' who has a duty to the Raj as a member of its police force but is also a member of a family highly engaged in the Gandhi confrontation with the white culture. He is torn in his ambitions and loyalties to his nation and his immediate family.

SMOKE AND ASHES is the best of the three books, so far, in its drafting and exciting juxtaposed content. The book does stand on its own but is more interesting because the chronological order created  so far in the series is especially arresting.

Recommended, highly.

Monday, June 15, 2020

More book reveiws

More light reads.

I found an Australian crime writer that has a series of books - 11 books - written about the character of Rowland Sinclair, a wealthy Sydney artist. Sulari Gentill is the writer. Each book is centred in a different background. The one I read: ALL THE TEARS IN CHINA, is set in Shanghai in 1935.

Sinclair's brother, Wilfred, runs the family business - a wool business and is unable to attend an important international negotiation meeting in Shanghai and seconds his younger brother, Rowland, to stand in for him despite his relative ignorance of how the machinations of business in the period context all works.Quickly instructed in the facts of the business and ordered not to agree to any offer from any of the participants - to stall every offer of negotiation - he travels to Shanghai with his three Sydney companions: Clyde, an artist; Middleton, a poet; Edna, a sculptress - it seems they are inseparable, a bit like the Secret Seven or the Famous Five or the Talley Ho gang, quaint, but nostalgic, inventions of dear Enid Blyton.

In the exotic realm of China's international port filled with refugees from the revolution in Russia, the shady movers and shakers in the underground gangster 'industries' of this glamorous city with its taipans and tycoons and suspect police force, with the subtle but lethal pressure of the presence of Japanese invaders and their pursuit of economic and political power in China, in an unstable world of German, Italian and Spanish agitation for war, our Australian companions indulge in the sexual and drug hedonism of this exciting Eastern environment. On their first night Rowland and his friends brush up against the taxi girls in their luxurious hotel's ballroom only to be plunged into a murder investigation which Rowland Sinclair becomes the principal suspect. 

To unravel the crime to find the actual culprit, Gentill takes us through many landscapes of the city - rich, poor, desperate, celebratory - meeting a complex set of international characters that enliven the storytelling with well researched detail. Some 374 pages, it is a lively read although I found the principal characters superficial and cumulatively rather boring, maybe even objectionable asses of entitled wealth and preposterous derring-do. The catalyst character  provoking the big 'turning point' moment - a love besotted newspaper 'madman' - was for my taste too obvious a novelistic ploy - and was a very shallow psychological projection - to shift the storytelling into its final action. Hugely disappointing, and fairly banal.

But, then, there are 11 books and so the characters are a source of pleasure for many other readers. The Age is quoted as saying: "A sparkling crime series ...Evelyn Waugh meets Agatha Christie ..." . This is what, ultimately, persuaded me to pick it up, buy it. 

Waugh and Christie - if only!!!!!

A TESTAMENT OF CHARACTER is the latest in the series. Perhaps I need to read another to confirm or reverse my reaction.

At the same time I picked up a new novel from the creator of DOWNTON ABBEY. I thought it would be an untaxing diversion to fill the Coronavirus vacuum of time. The book is BELGRAVIA, published in 2016. It is fruity in its world which is early Victorian - 1830's - and is stuffed with the clambering rivalry between the dwindling power of the gentry and the new upwardly mobile trade successes of the period, with all of their different prejudices and well worn strivings. 

Class, as usual, is under the scrutiny of this writer. But it is not the Upstairs Downstairs politics in a family house this time but a rubbing of the Ancestral shoulders of the old collapsing money peoples with the rising of the new money of the industrial tradies. If you want standing: marry into the gentry, if you want money to survive, accept and marry the rising status of the power of well earned money, even if it is blatantly of dirty 'trade' origin.

For me, there are too many caricatures written to spin the wheels of the plot into 'violent' activity. Too many of them are, in the writing, just thumb nail sketches of recognisable melodramatic types. 

It begins in  Brussels on the evening of Duchess of Richmond's ball - which 25 years later has become a legendary occasion - is interrupted by the news that Napoleon was gathering his forces on the fields of Waterloo. The young soldiers leave their dancing to prepare for battle. Some of them will never return. One of them, the young son of the Duchess, is one of those who never returns. But he has left behind a young woman who was fooled to give her virginity without marriage to him. The resultant child of this 'fallen' woman becomes the centre of the story. He is a secret that draws the Duchess and the Trade family, the Trenchards, into necessary interaction.

In the writing the characterisations are rather cloak and dagger caricatures serving the turn of the wheel of an obvious plot that sits in the shadow of say, Thackery's VANITY FAIR, without any of its wit, sophisticated machinations, or relish of satire or irony. 

At page 271 of the 411 pages of this book I discovered that a new television series of 6 episodes had been made to bring this book to a wider audience - I think it is now available on one of the many streaming platforms. Checking through the casting and watching a Trailer or two on Google, I deducted that the acting by a very competent cast of actors would more than likely provide ALL the characters with a complex internal life as well as the external actions of the storytelling of these intrigues. That the embodying of these characters by very good actors would do the work that Mr Fellowes does not do in this book, which may have been, now I think of it, been written as a very long winded 'pitch' for the filmmakers of our era. (Certainly, that is what I observed while watching the previews.) So, I gave up reading any further and decided to wait for the series to be screened.

I cannot imagine it necessary to read the book. And the script and acting of the series may be a more satisfactory experience of BELGRAVIA. 

(I should report that I was right. The Series is much more palatable than the book.)

Crime novels, Katherine V. Forest's 'Kate Delafield Mystery' series

One of my favourite series of Crime novels are those by Canadian/American Katherine V. Forest, with her Kate Delafield Mystery series.

Kate Delafield is an ex-marine employed as a Detective in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).

I came across this series of books last year and was fortunate to read them in chronological order, or at least six of them: AMBER CITY (1984), MURDER AT THE NIGHTWOOD BAR (1987), THE BEVERLY MALIBU (1989), MURDER BY TRADITION (1991), LIBERTY SQUARE (1996) and APPARTITION ALLEY (1997).

What is fascinating is that not only is each book deeply involved in the solving of a particular crime investigation written with a great sense of detail and intense research of period and geography (we get to know the LA roads and the 'personalities' of each suburb) incorporating a canny conviction of deep knowledge of police procedural practice, so gives the reader a comfort of truth. It is cool, particular and non-emotional. We get to know her superior officers and her partners. We watch Kate become one of the highly respected detectives in her division over the passing years, driven by a great sense of mission and honour, loyalty to her hard learnt values originating from her torrid experiences as a marine in the Vietnam War.

The books are involving because we become engaged with the personal life of this woman and we follow her emotional journey over the years and are privy to her relationships and her struggles with her homosexuality. Katherine Forrest writes with restrained but non-inhibited ease in the sexual interludes with Kate's casual sex partners and finally in her significant relationship with Annie. We develop a caring relationship with Kate Delafield. 

As a lesbian police officer in the LAPD we are brought to the dilemma and politics and the changing attitudes to the LGBT community in this notorious LA department, for this is the misogynistic department that was a part of the O.J. Simpson saga, the Rodney King riots - remember the police officers that were exposed during those very public trials. Being gay is a quality of life that needs to be 'buried' if one wishes to have a career. At least that is how the books begin. But as we follow the developing personal life of Kate Delafield we also become witness to her growing political conscience over the passing of the years and the slow changes occurring in the LA Police Department.

There is not only the Kate Delafield character that is in every book but also a rolling collection of men and women who appear in changed and growing circumstances from book to book. We can identify particular individuals and the burgeoning community, it is not not fiercely realistic - it has a ring of truth rather than a fanciful fictionalisation. Over the chronological reading of the novels we not only have a brilliantly researched set of crimes being centred in each novel but also a sense of the passing of historical events that are shaping the growth of the American attitude to the LGBT community through the tough prism of LAPD.

I recommend these novels without hesitation and believe them to be setting a contemporary standard in Crime Fiction. Search them out. You will not be disappointed whatever your sexuality. Raymond Chandler and his Philip Marlow detective, Dashiell Hamnett and Sam Spade, and James M. Cain with his crime figures are matched indeed by Katherine V. Forrest.

P.S. The next three books that await my appetite are SLEEPING BONES (1999), HANCOCK PARK (2004) and HIGH DESERT (2013).

Friday, June 12, 2020

Some Book Reviews

Hello. Besides the literary books of 'weight' - fiction and non-fiction - I have distracted myself with some relatively lightweight reads.

Recommended by a bookshop owner friend I embarked into the detective genre. Abir Mukherjee is the son of immigrants from India and grew up in West Scotland and now lives in London. His debut novel A RISING MAN appeared in 2016. We meet Sam Wyndham, a World War I veteran and Scotland Yard refugee, who takes on a job offer in Calcutta in 1919. A rising man belonging to the British Raj ruled by Viceroy Lord Chelmsford is found murdered in a disreputable part of Black Town with a message stuffed in his mouth warning of the coming independence movement that is taking a path to revolution.

Sam Wyndham is placed in charge of the investigation by his superior, Lord Taggart, and is partnered by an arrogant British officer Inspector Digby and a British educated but Indian born Sargent Banerjee. He reveals himself as an invaluable local for interpreting and understanding the 'methods' and values of this great city, to lucidly assist his officer superior in the solving of the crime. In the novel he is called 'Surrender-not' as his British superiors can not - will not - pronounce his name Surendranath. This is the first of the racist tensions, unconscious and systemic, that colour the world of this book where the British population of all classes regard that they belong to a superior civilisation and despise the local peoples.

No-one in this novel, except, perhaps, Banerjee are without flaws. Our leading man Sam Wyndham is 'lost' in a PTSD depression, having survived the trenches of World War I and the loss of his young wife and has a naked cynicism to the values of the world. He balances his sanity with an addiction to opium (as does Sherlock Holmes) and has little trust for his British commanders and is dogged in the pursuit of unravelling the murder. We meet a very interesting range of characters, especially, an attractive anglo-indian secretary, Annie Grant, that provides a tantalizing possibility of a romantic interlude. The climax of the investigation comes with the background issue of the troubles/massacre of Amritsar. stirring with menace of things to come in the country's political future 

We find out truths but you must not expect justice. The novel is permeated with a cynicism that is very 'modern' and gives the work a contemporary resonance although it is set in a period of history a century ago. The writing rattles along at a galloping speed and leaves one breathless and keen to turn the page - it was an absorbing day long read. It was mostly fascinating, although, there are some too obvious clues to the suspicions of whodunnit that undercuts a fully committed surrender to the chase. However, A RISING MAN won the Harvill Secker/Daily Telegraph crime writing competition, and a CWA Endeavour Historical Dagger and the Eastern Eye ACTA Award for literature, and was shortlisted for the CWA Gold Dagger.

I followed up a few weeks later with his second book in the Sam Wyndham/'Surrender-not' Banerjee series, A NECESSARY EVIL, published in 2017, and is set in 1920. The book is a continuation of Wyndham's career set in Calcutta as part of the Bengal Imperial Police and we meet characters we already know from the first book and observe the deepening relationships as well as a whole intriguing set of new principals in the solving of the assassination of the Maharaja of Sambalpore's eldest son - the heir apparent, Adir.

In the royal family, there are three wives and forty odd concubines with hundreds of children, living in the zenana. The Maharaja, Rajan Kumar Sai, the wives: the first elderly Maharani Shubhadrra, the third Maharini Devita,(the second Maharini has died); the heir apparent Adir, his younger brother Punit, and the very young Prince Alok, the third in-line for the kingdom. The novel of 370 pages begins on Friday 18 June and is over by Thursday 24 June - a mere six days. The story rockets along and is full of political twists and turns intriguingly bound in religious entanglements and beliefs. The suspects are numerous.

The guiding deity is Lord Jagganath (the origin of the English word juggernaut) and is the centre of the Maharini Subhadra's worship, supported by the mystic priest Dewan. The English representatives are Mr and Mrs Carmichael - professional diplomats bored to mundanity soaking in alcohol; Golding the practical, realist, efficient bookkeeper/accountant of the affairs of the Kingdom; Fitzmaurice, the corporate leader of the Anglo-Indian Diamond Company attempting to claim the kingdom's new money resources: coal, as the diamond mines dwindle as the money maker; Colonel Aroa, in charge of the Maharaja's police, he seems to have a foot in the present and the future - which side is he on?; a powerful eunuch of the harem, Sayed Ali; Miss Pemberley, a white British woman sought by the playboy Prince Punit; and the outspoken radical critic of the political structures, schoolteacher Shreya Bidika. All have motive. Even the British Government who wish to enforce the Kingdom of Sambalpore to become a member of the Chamber of Princes - an instrument that will maintain - ensure - British control: Viceroy Lord Chelmsford and police controller, Lord Taggart have much at stake with their career on government view, for whom Wyndham/Banerjee are the accidental tools of enforcement.

The corruption of the Kingdom is surrounded by the corruption of The British Raj and Mukherjee in his handling of the description of the places of the book, signalling the degradation of the British Empire, saturated in centuries of ambitious deceits. The genre is crime fiction but it is also a political critic of the affairs of history. Fortunately it is delivered without overbearing didacticism and seeps insidiously into the spine of the tale. for those of us who are 'awake'. 

There are now two new books in the series: SMOKE AND ASHES and DEATH IN THE EAST, and I am curious to see the developments of character. Of Wyndham's addiction - the dangers that its revelation will put his career in peril; of the growing relationship with his Indian partner, "Surrender-not' Banerjee, who one hopes becomes even more central to the unravelling history of Bengal, Pakistan and India.

A NECESSARY EVIL was a one day read. It was a page turner much like its predecessor. Recommended

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Actress, by Anne Enright (book review)

Theatre and Cinema closed. reading is able to be done. So here is a response to one of the recent reads.

Norah is an Irish writer of 5 novels and is 58 – the same age that her mother, Katherine O'Dell, an actress of international fame - both of the theatre and cinema, particularly Theatre - died. Died after a long depression, an accident with a gun and a descent into 'madness'. An academic is writing her Phd on the life of Katherine and is interviewing Norah to get some insight into her subject. Norah becomes disturbed as she observes the young academic has some pre-conceived projection of her mother that she will 'jemmy' onto her subject, and feels she has a duty to recollect her mother to set the facts straight.

She is encouraged by her devoted husband to attempt to remember her mother. She does so, writing a novel, using her personal quest that becomes the substance of the context of the book. It is a success. It is definitely a fiction, that uses her personal life to create art. It is a painful and difficult chore, although there are some tantalising references to real events, plays and people woven into the story density - it is the sixth novel that Norah has written.

ACTRESS, is by the way, the sixth novel written by Anne Enright (Published by Penguin Books, Australia). This detail, is indicative of the sly and deliberate humour of Ms Enright. Although this book, which is typically, for me, an uniquely Irish concoction: dripping, and permeated with melancholy and sadness. It is set mostly in Dublin during the 60's and 70's during the time of the 'Troubles' - though there is no overt referencing of that setting. It is riddled as well with comedy and much laughter, too. Norah, for instance, says that she feels she has a mother that had overnight turned like a milk bottle left out of the fridge: Drinkable to soured, from sanity to madness.

The Writer/artist investigates the Actress/artist.

The book subtly underlines the selfish demands that any art form, if you are to be great, insists upon. The sheer difficulty of creating, the amount of focused energy that is expended to produce 'performance', either as an actor or a writer (a participator in the plastic arts; a musician) is a tyrannical master and exhausts the striver so that they really have no time or any spared energy for the real world. It demands all your powers.

Concurrent to this book, I have been struggling through a biography by Arthur and Barbara Gelb on the life of Eugene O'Neill: BY WOMEN POSSESSED (2016). This biography details the tragic demands that his "ART" required, to serve his literary genius - its ruthlessness, selfishness and cruel intensity that only truly thrived in the writing studio/room - real life responsibilities were necessarily kept at bay - O'Neill's Black Irish inheritance and imaginative instincts along with its lubricant, alcohol, dominated and terrorised all of those about him in his real life: Wives, women (except as servants), children, especially his own, and all but the drinking sponges and soaks of the prohibition underground bars. In ACTRESS, as with O'Neill, Katherine and Norah's personal life is the servant, the sacrifice, that feeds their 'greatness'. It is this slow reveal that is the substance of ACTRESS.

Recently, I re-read THEATRE, by Somerset Maugham - one of my favourite writers - a novel written in 1937, that has a successful actress, Julia Lambert, at its centre. It is a jolly good story beautifully written with all the human foibles cannily, and amusingly, observed but is in form basically a melodrama - an entertainment. The events, theatricals, of the book are heightened emotional 'traumas', as are the vivid characterisations - excesses. ACTRESS, on the other hand, is a contemporary work that is life-like in its exposition. All the events of the story are under dramatised and are casually given, so that it is only in hindsight that you gather the enormity of the events that has been the webbing of the narrative and characters - which includes vicious psychological as well as physical rape, that had no dramatic impact when told, but, definitely, as we read on, has a cumulative poisoning that perverts the characters' spirits to a withering self-persecution - as, when one is older (I am an elder), say 58 (I am more elderly - mmm!), one can calmly sit back and reflect upon the past with more dispassion- a kind of surrender to one's fate and not get too biased or upset. (Oops, Anne Enright is 58 this year! The year of this book's publication. What is fiction and what is fact in this novel? A Hitchcock MacGuffin, perhaps?)

Norah's foggy knowledge of her mother is the disturbing element of her quest/search. Katherine as a young woman at the age of 19 with no training at all is cast in a mediocre play that unexpectedly becomes a sensation in the West End Theatre of London, and subsequently, in New York. Katherine is instantly a STAR. Really not an actor but a STAR. Her Irish heritage is buried, her name changed and some minor cosmetic changes are predicated to facilitate her advancement in that superficial world. She becomes an invention. Her career, however, reflects that Katherine was special and not easily commodified, an extraordinary presence that with 'innocent' instincts was able to create a mystique of sexual power on stage that bedazzled her audiences into imagining that they were watching greatness. (I think of Marilyn Monroe. I remember Arthur Miller's tragic observation that Marilyn was a victim of the power of her presence, of which she had no real inkling, that was pinched and plucked at by any man (woman) that met her, to try to transubstantiate to empower their own flesh and psyche). Katherine creates a magic spell that tantalises everybody and of which she has no real knowledge or control - she has no technique, just that god-given curse: animal instinctual power. This first play, that she acts in, is the artistic highlight of her career - and although she works in the theatre regularly - even late in her career absolutely naked for the entire performance - avant garde experiment - never achieves the same kind of adulation. At the age 26 she is a has been. She becomes a curiosity, a Norma Desmond of the Irish theatre.

Ironically, her film work is limited and perhaps because of the ruthless lens of the camera she, in contrast to her theatre work, is only occasionally able to seduce her audience: the deep truths of the character are elusive in the large exaggeration of the cinema screen - the effort of the emotional recall required by the laborious demands of film making, she is unable to conjure, sustain. So what the editor has to use in the 'take' after 'take' to create Katherine's "art' is limited and flawed. For history's sake Katherine has one war film remnant, an ace melodrama, and, humorously, a TV commercial for Irish butter with a catch phrase that she pronounces: "Tis only Butter" as her most enduring film work. There is no close up, Mr de Mille, for Katherine O'Dell.

Katherine's only other creation is a daughter, who she neglects, in pursuit of her international career for the stage. Norah is brought up only partly with Katherine who is mostly absent because of her professional obligations. Her mother is possessed, completely absorbed in the world of make believe - hopelessly obsessed. Norah without bitterness remembers that her mother was probably always acting. The stage and the real world were not necessarily different. Norah felt that when she was with her mother "she was always sitting in character, you were just not sure which one". Norah has had no other mother and so what she has received from her Katherine is normal - she is comfortable and not judgemental of her mother's relationship with her.

The men in Katherine's life are predators that were (are) typical of the period that the #Metoo movement has now spotlighted, disturbed. Katherine was fairly diffident about the men and has never told Norah who her father was. One of the many threads of the novel is Norah's casual unravelling of that identity - perhaps it was Katherine's Catholic priest who was always attentive in his regular, private visits to the house - there were always furtive movements in the room on Norah's unprompted appearances. Maybe, dad was the egotistical Director, Boyd O'Neill, who is shot, in the foot, accidentally, by Katherine? (again, the Enright sense of humour).

ACTRESS is not a casual read. I had just read APEIROGON, by Colum McCann (which is highly recommended, by the way) and had to re-teach myself to read again. This novel is full of digressions and circumlocution circumstances, so that one not only must take care of the words and the order that they are placed in, but also a care, a strict attention to the syntax - to guide one through the mental drama and comedy of Ms Enright. This attention to this detail is required to gain the most out of the writing. Not since the last Patrick White novel that I had read have I needed to so discipline myself.

ACTRESS, is a demanding but rewarding novel. Anne Enright was mentored in her writing studies, particularly, by Angela Carter, a writer with a spectacularly unique approach to the childhood stories in her short story collections, for instance: THE BLOODY CHAMBER (1985) her last novel WISE CHILDREN - a story of two twin girls and their escapades in the theatre. Both, referenced books, wrestling with the relationship of daughters to mother and family in a language of Wildean flamboyance. Angela Carter's influence on Ms Enright is, for me, present. Her other mentor was Michael Bradbury, an academic and novelist who in his 1975 novel THE HISTORY MAN, writes, in the revealing of the dilemmas of his hero, Howard Kirk, of "life's jumbled truths". Norah in her quest of knowing and settling her qualms concerning her mother and present family connections, too, reveals the non-patterns of "life's jumbled truths".

ACTRESS makes me contemplate my knowledge of my mum and dad. I know nothing. Well, nothing much, and you know what? I think I shall let sleeping dogs lie. Opening Pandora's Box is an extremely daunting proposition. I am grateful that Anne Enright, in a cornucopia of courageous constructions has introduced me to the possibilities of that hazard and warned me off, with insight, humour and a nostalgic aura.

The darkness, the bleakness, the comic/tragic lens of the Irish soothsayers of olde: Yeats, Synge, O'Casey, Beckett, is the undercurrent of this work to be found echoed in the recent work by Anna Burns, MILKMAN (2018) - a hard but rewarding read (Booker Prize), and in John Boyne's THE HEART'S INVISIBLE FURIES (2017) - comic, full of co-incidence and downright passion.

In the recent French film LA VERITE (THE TRUTH) (2019), the Japanese director, Hirokazu Kore-eda (SHOPLIFTERS), guides Catherine Deneuve through the role of a possessed actor, Fabrienne, and exposes her relationship with her daughter, Lumir (Juliette Binoche) and extended family. Her dedication to her art is unyielding. "I prefer to have been a bad mother, a bad friend, and a great actress," she says, "You may not forgive me, but my public does." Enright's Katherine O'Dell, another actress, has a mirrored friend.

Recommend reading.

Monday, March 30, 2020


Cross Pollinate Productions in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre, present EVERYBODY, by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), Kings Cross. 6th March - 21st March. (Closed early as a response to the World Health Crisis).

I was especially keen to see this play, mostly because of the writer and his growing reputation as a force in contemporary American playwriting. AN OCTOROON - 2014 (seen in Brisbane. Needs to be seen in Sydney), APPROPRIATE - 2014 (again unseen), and GLORIA - 2018, which we saw last year at the Seymour Centre. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is a subversive writer with a tremendous sense of comedy and balanced political/social critique - he is kind of fearless.

EVERYBODY - 2018 - is based on the 15th Century medieval mystery play - EVERYMAN. It tells of the Everyman who is summoned by Death, at the command of God, that he come and present his life achievements as a 'passport' to heaven (or hell).

EVERYBODY has a company of 9 actors, 2 of which play one role each throughout the play (Annie Byron (Death), Giles Gartrell-Mills (God and Host). 7 actors (Kate Bookallil, Caitlin Burley, Isaro Kayites, Mansoor Noor, Kate Skinner, Samm Ward and Michael Wood), playing all of the other characters, though not the same ones necessarily each night. Death has them choose out of a rotating basket their roles for the night - all of these actors have learnt the entire play.  Just as in life their destiny is an accidental event. Every night Fate chooses Everyman and his world companions, to die and face his creator with a justification of his life.

Gabriel Fancourt, in his Directorial debut, adopts many techniques that contemporary theatre has available for him: recorded voice, microphones able to be 'treated' for sound effect (Felicity Giles), complicated light (Morgan Moroney), and the magic of 'haze' to keep it all swirling forward. The Set  is an impressive podium of solid wood (Stephanie Dunlop - she also has created the Costume), draped with a green altar cloth covering a door - that when opened is the 'doorway' that we cross to enter the other world!

The play is full of direct intervention/participation with the cast seated in amongst the audience keeping one on edge that, "Yes", Death could be just waiting for me, seated beside me now and to cause me to wonder: "Am I ready to face a summary of my own life?" Branden Jacobs-Jenkins is aware of the strategic powers of the live theatre and in most of his works employs them.

This production is strong but not as good as the play.

Problem number One is the use of the 'treated' microphone that God uses to communicate (for some time) the premise of the play and later again when used by Death - the electronic treatment, the effect, obfuscated the text content and dominated our aural reception rather as noise - an irritating noise- resulting in an ignorance of the text content, as well, literally, giving physical pain!

The second and biggest problem seemed to me to be that in the task given (by the writer) to have 7 of the actors learn all of the rest of the text content and be ready, in the moment, to jump in and create the randomly assigned characters each night  as 'owned' fully realised people was a tremendously difficult demand in which TIME, would be the necessary ingredient to solve the nuances of the humans they were asked to inhabit.

Were these actors afforded the TIME to find the solutions to own the people they were allotted in the witnessed lottery? It didn't seem so.

These actors were immaculate in the speaking (and miming) of the text but had not created individual figures representing fellowship, kin, goods, good deeds, etc. They were virtually 'mouthers' of text, having no supporting human dimension for us to connect, identify with, so that we could have an identification of a personal resonance in our (the audience's) own 'here and now'. The 'mouthing' of the text did not seem to be balanced with sufficient acknowledgement of the written syntax, which the writer has given signal space for the actors to use, to create the opportunity that would allow the audience to endow, invent, the unspoken, sub-text, of the dilemmas of the characters. This company remained actors reciting the text, jumping through technical demands of the production at the expense of exploring experienced truths, with an active development of the textual arguments to justify, explain, their character's problems.

There is bravery from this cast and company, Directed confidently by Gabriel Fancourt, imbued with a passionate sense of mission and achievement. As admirable, as that was, it was no compensation for the lacking of dimensional truths in the characterisations for it to be a fully satisfying confronting night in the theatre.

N.B. As a student I was once an actor in a version of EVERYMAN, and have Directed an adaption of my own for a school production, centuries ago. Recently, I also Directed a production of EVERYMAN, commissioned by the National Theatre in London, prepared by the then Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy. A brilliant contemporary rendering of the original play for our times. It was Broadcast into our cinemas. That production by Rufus Norris, was overblown and unbalanced the writing of Ms Duffy, I reckon.


ATYP@Griffin, A Brown's Mart Theatre co-production, presents CUSP by Mary Anne Butler, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, 11th - 28th March. (Closed because of the World Health Crisis).

CUSP is a new work by Mary Anne Butler. It has taken three years of discussion, development and rehearsal which included two weeks of that development - one week in Darwin and another in Sydney - with the writer, director and actors to find manifestation in a theatre.

It is a quasi-poetic play that uses an abundance of 'lists' to achieve this - true to our Elizabethan and Jacobean forebears and their example. We meet three actors playing three young Northern Territorians at the cusp of having their life cycles moving from the teenage metamorphic to the young adult evolution. The opportunities for the evolution are spare in the play's world and are complicated by the tentative fragility of the young adults in this environment for it to be able to be realised.

In virtually, what is written as a monologue, Maddie (Stevie Jean) travels through - recalls - an early innocent sexual experience which results in a pregnancy that she faces alone, that thereby hampers her relationships and circumstances in her daily progress for a secure future. No matter her potentials, Maddie is 'trapped'.

The other writing of the play, interwoven with the monologue of Maddie's, is a duet between Elvis (Josh McElroy), an explosive young man with 'anger management' issues who has been attracted to Rosie (Nyasha Ogden) since school days, she having the intellectual promise to be offered educational opportunities that will take her away, interstate, with a certainty that it will liberate her potential as a positive contributor to her community. It is the story of the attractive animal brawn of the unleashed 'alpha' male meeting the sophisticated brain of a liberated woman full of heart. It is the battle of the tension between the sexual physical allure of our animal instincts and the sophistication of the 'gift' of reason that our species has inherited.

Neither of these stories are unfamiliar in performance literature  (Contemporary plays and  screenplays) and none of these characters or their treatment in CUSP are a revelation for us - we have been here before. Their familiarity and the playwriting choices of typicality hamper our interest  to the storytelling.

Josh McElroy, as Elvis, certainly has the dynamic skills, energies and physical attractiveness to jolt one into attention to regard this young man with an initial interest. However, as the play (90 minutes without interval) 'rockets' on, Mr McElroy finds little nuance to character insights and little opportunity to reveal the inner causes of Elvis' limited behavioural patterns - it is all an overwhelming bombastic temper expressed with a convincing and fierce noise and physical presence that gives little entrance to an inner life of motivational justification and limits any chance for us as an audience to give open empathy.

The young (attractive) actors playing Maddie and Rosie are limited in their experience as performers, as storytellers. Their artists' skills are not sophisticated enough to move beyond saying the words with a 'pretended' emotional state - they both 'understand' the character's dilemma and can, intellectually, see them but have none of the necessary actor's skills to truly inhabit them. It is, in actor's parlance, that they are playing "her" rather than identifying the character as "me". They sit outside the young women that the writer has written. They remain immature actors speaking a text rather than authentically experiencing the emotional journey of the characters.

It seems the Director, Fraser Cornfield, has not been able to draw from his actors the way to reveal the truth of Ms Butler's characters journey.

The performers skills limit the audience's ability to engage fully in the play.

The production design, by CJ Fraser-Bell, is mostly made up of gleaming metallic boxes, set in a black background void, that can be moved to create shapes and intimidate with clash of noise to support the elements of the violence in the play. The Lighting Design from Jessie Davis supports the atmosphere of the story and is assisted with the Sound Design by Brad Fawcett.

CUSP is a contribution to the artistic goals of the Australian Theatre For Young People (ATYP).

Sunday, March 15, 2020


Fixed Foot Productions present DISTORTED, by Xavier Coy, at the Old 505 Theatre, Eliza St Newtown. 10th - 22nd March.

DISTORTED is the latest play from Australian writer, Xavier Coy, whose other plays BURIED and ARE YOU LISTENING NOW? I have seen, both at the OLD 505. Mr Coy's writing has always intrigued, provoked and excited me.

This work is 90 minutes long with no interval and charts ten characters in a journey-arc to depression. Mr Coy is exploring Mental Health.

Director Richard Hilliar with Mr Coy and his actors have 'workshopped' the original collection of independent people into a text to reveal definite characters with individual narratives, all existing in the same world but not at all connected to each other. Originally some 73 scenes, perhaps the time plan for this showing was pressured in its need to find dramatic shape and character such that the creative application to find expressive truths for character belief had to be rushed.

It is essentially a piece 'about people yearning to connect with one another' and yet finding that, ultimately, they are all alone, that they cannot ever really know anybody but themselves.

Kate Tempest, the slam-poet, presented her latest Album: THE BOOK OF TRAPS AND LESSONS, as a soloist with a musical soundtrack, in February at the Arts Factory Theatre in Marrickville - and her envisioned people, like the people in DISTORTED are, presently living in the mouth of a society that is breaking down. What can they do to survive? Ms Tempest gives us an inkling of hope. Mr Coy's people don't get that far, they arrive in a 'pit' of despair, of nihilism and the play stops - stops short of providing hope.

Mr Coy's play has its energy fed with an acute observation of our present zeitgeist. However, DISTORTED is probably 40 minutes too long, as its dramaturgical point is made quite clearly early, and unfortunately repeats that conceptual well-spring over and over again with a tedious insistence that allows all 10 of the people the opportunity to speak.

Mr Hilliar, the Director, has staged the play by shifting his company on and off the stage and around it relatively efficiently, but has not paid sufficient attention to the vocal demands of the Ensemble, especially in terms of tonal contrast, or for the ensemble to have a technical ear empathy for the choral effect of the text in this small space. (N.B. the shouty 'chorus' that speaks to Mr Coy's character and his struggle with his pet cat. There is little characterisation or presence in that 'chorus' who vocally broadcast sounds with no personalised, owned text - no word for word clarity or acted intention, whereas Mr Coy has a deep ownership of his pathetic man-child, both, vocally and with a clear inner monologue with an expressive face physicality.) Mr Hilliar indiscriminately allows the actors the choice to shout - and to shout far too often - and making 'noise' rather than communicated textual information. The Old 505 is a space that does amplify the sound incontestably - a boom-box.

Neither has the Director drawn fully developed characters from his actors who are mostly exhibiting two dimensional representations of type with no depth or complexity of the human condition and relying on emotional states and sentimentality to communicate. Really the buck does stop with the actor - it is the actor's responsibility to do that work in detail - it is simply the applied craft of the actor that one ought to expect. The best performance and the one that truly moves one is that created by the writer, Xavier Coy, who, as one would expect knows who his person really is, beyond just speaking the words. Michael Arvithis is next best.

The playwriting is better than this production, although the Set design, by Hamish Elliot is both beautiful and a satisfying support to the 'ribbon' of the decent to a state of instability. - it has great sophistication.

DISTORTED is a disappointment but has a writer of interest to encourage an audience.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Vale Ron Haddrick

Ron Haddrick passed away on February 11th this year, 2020. A memorial service was held at NIDA on Sunday 1st March that included celebrants of this man's life: Daughter: Lyn, Son: Greg, Granddaughter: Milly. Peter Carroll was the Master of Ceremonies and invited John Bell, Aubrey Mellor, Drew Forsythe, and Kirrily Nolan to speak.

The surprise guest speaker, for some of us, was cricketer, Ian Chappell. Mr Chappell apologised for his presence but soon illuminated the raison d'etre for it. As a boy Ian Chappell used to watch Ron lead one of the local cricket teams in the Adelaide suburbs onto the field. He remembers watching Ron appear in the State representational team for South Australia as an opening batsman and he remembers, when he was a child, the dressing room 'joshes' and interplay among the players and the good nature that Ron exuded as a contributor to the spirit of the teams.

The cricket connection was easy for me to understand because my memory sees Ron through three lenses: his acting; his obsession with the annual International Piano Competition that often ran in tandem with us, they upstairs in the Concert Hall that was broadcast by the ABC live and we downstairs in the Drama Theatre, toiling through the dramatics, of say, THE CRUCIBLE, and his addiction to the Cricket seasons that he kept us informed about, wandering through the passage ways in our dressing room areas with his transistor radio plugged into one of his ears when he was not required on stage. Cricket played a big role in Mr Haddrick's life.

Ron had returned to Australia in the early '60's after a career in leading companies in Great Britain. He quickly established himself as a leading performer in Australia possessing a vocal instrument of much beauty and expressiveness and physical aptitudes that only a sportsman could have hewn. I met Ron when I was a young actor joining the Old Tote Theatre Company after my stint of training at NIDA, as we all prepared for the Opening of the Sydney Opera House with a three play repertoire: THE THREEPENNY OPERA, RICHARD II, and a new Australian play WHAT IF YOU DIED TOMORROW? by David Williamson with Ron Haddrick and Ruth Cracknell starring as the hapless parents (this pairing was a long one over the coming years, and he became known affectionately as "Sir Ron" and she as "Dame Ruth".)

Ron was the leading man of the company (us youngsters thought he was an "old man" - he was only 44!) and was a tremendous influencer on the atmosphere of the company by setting, through a thoroughly professional approach to all his work, abetted with a sensitive but discreet eye that was kept out for us youngsters' care as we negotiated our way through the work tasks we were given. He led without overtly leading. Every production that I was in with Ron, he was, in hindsight I recognise, responsible for the very positive and happy environment, that no matter the trials and tribulations of getting a work onto the stage, no matter the volatile creative temperaments about us, he was present to calm us down and focus our attention on solving the problems, collaboratively, together. THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF NICHOLAS NICKLEBY (1980) in which he as Mr Crummles led with Ms Cracknell the Acting Company of that play was the penultimate time I worked with him. His leadership was so subtle that none of us - 36 of us in 'NICK NICK' - really saw it. He saw to it that it was one of the happiest experiences that any of us had on a stage. He was a Crummles for us Sydneyites.

Ron was a Gentleman of the Performing Arts - he gained our respect by example, by just being there and doing the work. He had an easy humorous disposition that gave the rehearsal and performance space a glow of safety and comfort. He subtly encouraged us to take risks. The quality that the speakers at the Memorial who worked with Ron especially noted was his comic timing and characterisations, launched they told us by his very outrageous Australian Larrikinism. The last role I saw him in was in NOISES OFF, by Michael Frayn, in an endearingly eccentric but perfectly pitched performance as a farceur - with a physical dexterity and sense of comic timing that a man of his age should not have had, still - he was, then, remarkably 84 years young.

Our paths crossed later when I was Head of Acting at NIDA and he was a member of their Board - his gentle curiosity and warm support was a balm for my anxieties over the responsibility I had been given. His gentle touch and handshake accompanied by a reassuring smile was a support to me every time we met. His approval was a blessing for me - a comfort.

Ron Haddrick: a Family man, devoted to his wife Lorraine (and she to him - what an example?); a Gentleman of the Theatre, leading actor, subtle larrikin, cricketer and lover of the classical piano are my memories.

One, as well, should not forget his many achievements on Radio, Television and Film - a vast, vast career. One of the most prolific Australian Performing Artists I should think.

Ronald Norman Haddrick AM, MBE.
April 9th, 1929 - February 11th, 2020