Monthly Archives: June 2009

The Birthday Party

Hero

It’s been two years since Lee Lewis published her trailblazing essay Cross-Racial Casting: Changing the Face of Australian Theatre Platform Papers (# 13, 2007).

In it she asked, among other things:

At what point will a (non-white) actor with discernibly accented English be cast in a Pinter?

Julian Meyrick has now answered that question.

His production of The Birthday Party for MTC features not just one, but five non-white actors with discernible accents (Jada Alberts, Isaac Drandic, Gregory Fryer, Glenn Shea & Pauline Whyman.  Only Marshall Napier, from last year’s excellent Frost/Nixon, is recognisably white.)

It’s a bold move, sure to attract a lot of criticism, but it more than pays off.

I’ve been a massive (some would say obsessive) fan of Harold Pinter for years.  I fantasize frequently about directing Old Times or The Caretaker or even (dare I name its dizzying heights) The Homecoming. Last year, in fact, we did a reading of The Birthday Party as part of our Whale Soundings Program which went off like a frog in a sock, especially during the madcap banter between Craig Annis and Pete Reid (our Goldberg & McCann).

It’s a very special play; the sort of dramatic litmus test that can turn unsuspecting audiences barking mad with its unique blend of lower class voices, English manners, and Kafkaesque nightmare.  It’s a play that you need to see to remember just how radical it is. Though written half a century ago, it is, with its indeterminate language, more radical than most of the avant-garde dross of today.

As Goldberg puts it so eloquently to Stanley:

You’re dead. You can’t live, you can’t think, you can’t love. You’re dead. You’re a plague gone bad. There’s no juice in you. You’re nothing but an odour!

A few minor quibbles aside, I think this production captures the spirit and playfulness of Pinter’s language.  It would be so easy to fall into mannerism (the deadly repetition of every production that has come before); to overplay the menace and lose the humour of the piece; or to do the inverse, and lose out on Pinter’s ferocious power struggles (“McCann, tell him to sit down.”)

Meyrick has done a sterling job and part of his success lies in re-introducing Pinter to us with a new set of voices.  It’s liberating to hear Meg ask “How are your cornflakes?” in straight-up Aussie strine.

I would urge everyone to see this production.  It’s rare enough that we get to see Pinter on the mainstage; even more so with such an unconventional cast.

As an afterthought…I couldn’t help but notice that there were a handful of empty seats after interval.  All I can say is, I hope those members of the audience left because they were struggling with Pinter’s play and not Meyrick’s casting.  On the other hand, perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad thing?  Cross-racial casting is supposed to be threatening.

And, in that vein, we need more such casting from our mainstage companies, not less; whether that be a whole play cast against the grain or a spread of roles throughout any given ensemble.

Oh and I couldn’t resist posting this: the great 1968 film version by William Friekin.  Do you recognise an external force?

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The Watchmen vs The Watchmen

Many years ago, when I was a fresh-faced youngster, I stumbled into the Rowden White @ Melb Uni and discovered a treasure chest beyond my wildest dreams.

They had a whole wall devoted to comics: all the Alan Moore’s, all the Frank Miller’s, all the Neil Gaiman’s, all the Cerebus stuff, every Neon Genesis spin-off imaginable.  For about six months I was like a kid in a candy store, gorging myself mindlessly on everything that fell to hand.

One of the best things I read during that period was The Watchmen.

It’s often said that pundits that it was the first graphic novel.  It shattered previous notions of what a comic could do and changed the way people perceived the medium.  Hence it’s position on Time magazine’s list of 100 best ‘novels’ of the 20th century in 2005.

Like a lot of people, I was keen to see what Hollywood would do with it. I secretly hoped The Watchmen film might do, for superhero films, what it had done for superhero comics.

I should have known better.

It’s not that The Watchmen is a bad a movie…compared with some of the dross that emerges from Hollywood’s gaping maw, it’s actually quite good.  But compared with the original work, it’s dismal.

The brilliant thing about The Watchmen comic was that it took the medium to its highest expression.  As with other great works in other mediums (Ulysses in novels, Waiting for Godot in theatre, Apocalypse Now in film) that meant discovering something unique and inimitable – and not just in terms of content but form.

The Watchmen
The Watchmen

I was quite bemused when I found out, not long before The Watchmen movie came out, that Alan Moore (the writer) had requested his name be removed from all associated material. Not only that, he refused to have any involvement with the movie whatsoever.

I find film in its modern form to be quite bullying.  It spoon-feeds us, which has the effect of watering down our collective cultural imagination.

There are three or four companies now that exist for the sole purpose of creating not comics, but storyboards for films. It may be true that the only reason the comic book industry now exists is for this purpose, to create characters for movies, board games and other types of merchandise.

When I read this I thought, “Oh what an old crank.”  But now, having seen the movie, and re-read the comic, I can see what he means.

One of many advanced techniques used in The Watchmen was contrapuntal frame-by-frame storytelling.  Moore cross-blends multiple voices and stories and gradually allows them to bleed into each other.  It’s not the sort of thing you could do in a movie unless you broke the screen into multiple sections (and even then it wouldn’t work very well).

But in The Watchmen film this William Burroughs cut-up narrative effect is entirely absent.  And there is none of the richness of symbolism that Moore drew from William Blake.

In theory, comic and film are closer than other mediums.  Both combine of text and image in order to tell a (usually) linear narrative.  Comics should therefore translate better into film than novels (too interior) or plays (too verbal).  Which is, in most cases, true.  But not for The Watchmen.

The lesson to be learnt is that narrative is not free-floating.  It exists suspended within form, or medium.  And each artistic medium does different things well.  Which is why our desire to constantly translate books and comics for film is misguided.

We should be sifting through piles of screenplays for the next true original.  And leaving masterpieces like The Watchmen and The Road to do their own thing.

The only good thing to come out of the whole escapade is the animated Tales of the Black Freighter.

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Muleborg

What is this?  Why is it on this blog?  Why do I find it one of the most disturbing things I have ever seen?

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The Fly

Just when I thought Obama had reached the zenith of cool, calm and collected…

Watch and weep at his Ninja stealth skills.

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The Road (Not) Taken

It wasn’t that long ago that I blew open the literary vault of my brain with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Not for years had I picked up a book which from the outset (“See the child.”) had me holding on to the arms of my chair for fear that my head would explode with the sheer power of the language.  It stopped me in my tracks and forced me to rethink everything I knew about ‘the novel’.  It was like a nightmare weighing on my brain, after which my mind was left spent and parched, pulverised by McCarthy’s relentless historical phantasmagoria.

I didn’t think I’d pick up another one of his books for quite some time.  I thought I’d thumbed enough violence and horror.  I thought I had him all figured out.

But recently I found myself in a bookshop holding a copy The Road and I flipped it open and started to read:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.  Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each than what had gone before.  Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.  His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath.  He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.

I devoured the next 307 pages in a sustained frenzy.  A total of three sittings.

I don’t think it is hard to see that The Road is one of the most significant novels to emerge since the turn of the millennium.  It poses some incredibly important questions, not the least of which is, what does it mean to be human in a world devoid of humanity.

I would highly recommend it to anyone concerned about the state of our world.  It gives fresh hope that there is meaning in words, power in language, and purpose in art.

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Kaufman on Kaufman (on Kaufman)

synecdoche_new_york

For those of you living under a tortoise shell or in a fallout bunker, Charlie Kaufman has a new movie out which he has written and directed.

Synecdoche, New York is, in short, brilliant.

If you haven’t yet seen it, step away from your computer and go check it out.  It’s far better than Adaptation, a sight better than Being John Malkovich, and in my humble opinion equally as good (if not better than) the much loved Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

If you happen to work in theatre – like I do – then it is compulsory viewing.

And check out this interview with Kaufman: he has some very interesting things to say about writing for stage and screen.

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The Gift that Keeps on Taking

Ever since the subprime market collapsed in America things haven’t been looking so good for global markets.

Our current situation has come to be known as the GFC (Global Financial Crisis) which has to be a euphemism if ever I heard one.  What we are seeing is not a ‘crisis’.  Crisis is too specific a word: a plane crash is a crisis; a terrorist attack is a crisis.  A global collapse of capitalism is NOT a crisis…it’s a disaster of incalculable proportions.

So let’s have some linguistic clarity and call a spade a spade.  We are in a global depression.

I’m not an economist and I don’t pretend to understand the way these things work or unfold…but there’s two things floating around in cyberspace that have caught my attention and I want to point people towards.

Despite my lack of economic knowledge, I have been making a feeble attempt to try and at least understand what it was that caused the financial crash.

Veritable mountains have been written about this – including Kevin Rudd’s much discussed article in The Monthly – and yet there is no single, unified understanding of where and why it all went wrong.  We can accurately predict to millioneths of a second what happened after the Big Bang.  We can explore the deepest trenches of our earth’s great oceans.  We can map the synaptic pathways of the human brain (with some accuracy).  We can unlock the humane genome.  But we cannot make sense out of the intricacies of global capitalism.

That’s why my eyebrows almost rose up off my forehead when I read Paul Krugman’s recent opinion piece in the NY Times.

The more one looks into the origins of the current disaster, the clearer it becomes that the key wrong turn — the turn that made crisis inevitable — took place in the early 1980s, during the Reagan years.

Attacks on Reaganomics usually focus on rising inequality and fiscal irresponsibility. Indeed, Reagan ushered in an era in which a small minority grew vastly rich, while working families saw only meager gains. He also broke with longstanding rules of fiscal prudence.

On the latter point: traditionally, the U.S. government ran significant budget deficits only in times of war or economic emergency. Federal debt as a percentage of G.D.P. fell steadily from the end of World War II until 1980. But indebtedness began rising under Reagan; it fell again in the Clinton years, but resumed its rise under the Bush administration, leaving us ill prepared for the emergency now upon us.

The increase in public debt was, however, dwarfed by the rise in private debt, made possible by financial deregulation.

The change in America’s financial rules was Reagan’s biggest legacy.  And it’s the gift that keeps on taking. [my bold]

Perhaps it’s not rocket science – but it helped clear up my thinking a lot.  This global collapse was Reagan’s biggest legacy.  And it is a gift that keeps on taking.

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