Category Archives: Politics

Theatre Wars Reach the UK

It’s not everyday an Australian debate causes a stir overseas.

But our antipodean argument over The Birthday Party has done just that.  The Guardian, a newspaper of some repute, has a feature up on its Theatre Blog about the dispute.

Says the Guardian’s blogger, Chris Wilkinson:

Perhaps the core problem is that director and critics see the role of the production to be fundamentally different.  Meyrick thinks it succeeds because it is aiming to spark a much wider debate about Australian culture; the critics think it fails because, as Croggon puts it, “the possibility of bringing a tough and fresh angle on to Pinter’s work” is missed.

If I had to choose between praising theatre for examining society or praising it for re-examining the theatre, I would certainly opt for the former.

Amen to that, brother,  I couldn’t agree more.

McCann crosses to the table, left, sits, picks up the paper and begins to tear it into strips.

McCann crosses to the table, left, sits, picks up the paper and begins to tear it into strips. But is it the Age, the Australian or the Guardian?

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Heath’s Anti-Whaling Video

Whales roaming the high seas, hunting humans.

Absolute genius.  And it was directed by our very own, the late Heath Ledger.

Apparently he was incredibly passionate about animal rights, and an advocate for Sea Shepherd, who have worked tirelessly to stop the Japanese whaling in Australia’s Antarctic waters.

All the video  needs now is for a giant white human (doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, I know) to come and shear off the Captain’s leg (or flukes); for him to get a replacement peg-leg made out of human teeth; for them to spend the next few years chasing said white human around the globe; and for the whole cacophony to end in a vortex of swirling, frothy doom and a slowly wheeling albatross.

It could be called, Dick Moby, or, the Human.


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The Theatre Wars


First there was the History Wars.  Now we have the Theatre Wars.

The battle lines are drawn, the forces marshaled, the trenches dug, the artillery called in.  And it’s about time, if you ask me.  We need to confront these issues head on.  We need to breach once and for all our great Australian silence.

I know, I know, all of this must sound incredibly hyperbolic for a discussion about theatre. After all, it’s not sheep-stations, right? Or is it?

If our stages are, as Shakespeare tells us, all the world, then surely whatever happens onstage must be a reflection of what happens offstage.  And so, because I know there’s a hidden sting in all this, I’m being quite deliberate in choosing military metaphors.  It’s important, I think; important to emphasise the fact that there is a war of a kind being fought in this country.

And in fighting this war, history and theatre are not as far from each other as we often presume.  If history is what hurts, then perhaps theatre is a looking-glass through which we magnify history: a specific sort of history, however, not history as fact but as representation.  In other words, perhaps theatre is a way of finding out what hurts?

The catalyst for all this was of course Julian Meyrick’s production of The Birthday Party.

The debate around this production has been simmering for some time (as can be seen from the deluge of commentary online) but now it has flared right up.  In fact, it’s become a bonfire.  The difficult thing is trying to work out who’s tied to the stake: Meryrick, the critics, or the whole darned lot of them?

Who wins and who loses out of this?  What is at stake?  And why are so many normally quiet and thoughtful people behaving so viciously towards one another?  Clearly something has happened, some raw nerve has been exposed, and that alone bears close examination.

Before I go any further with this, I think it’s worth saying that any production that causes this much of a stir has to have done something right. Not that the ultimate goal of theatre must be to  cause disagreement.  But there’s a good argument to be made that art, by definition, should get people talking, arguing and fighting for something.

Let me try and briefly summarise the shots fired thus far.

It all started with Cameron Woodhead’s review for The Age (not online) in which he singled out Isaac Drandic and gave him a particularly vicious drubbing (leaden and inert…an actor reciting lines in the earliest phases of rehearsal).  This was followed by Alison Croggon’s review for The Australian and a series of longer reflections on Theatre Notes.

In her review Alison argued, among other things, that:

What is missing…is the uneasy sense of impending terror that underlies the laughter.  The human ugliness and savagely bent eroticism that make the play so disturbing are rendered in soft focus; comic, rather than frightening.

On Theatre Notes she expanded on her comments, discussing more fully the significance Stanley’s character and Drandic’s performance:

On the night I saw it, Drandic was a blank: he responded catatonically, with none of the repressed violence so characteristic of Shaw’s performance in the film. This gives the performance nowhere to go, since in the final scene he really is catatonic; because he has been emotionally blank from the beginning, his inability to speak is much less devastating. And it neutralises many of the exchanges in the play, as Stanley is always a passive victim.

Then came the flare from the other side of no-man’s-land.  The director, supposed to sit quietly in the trenches while the critics’ mortar flies overhead, suddenly fired back.  Julian Meyrick”s response was posted on the official MTC website:

I’m sure both critics said what they felt…but in shaping their responses, everything about The Birthday Party that is different, new, challenging and important has been swept aside.

You might get the impression from the reviews that cross-racial casting…went on all the time, instead of the reality, that it almost never happens.  An indigenous cast nailing The Birthday Party is an indication that a new era in casting has arrived.  It’s a shift from why (why cast Aboriginal actors) to why not (why not cast Aboriginal actors).

And the point is a good one.  The Birthday Party, with less pomp and ceremony than one might expect, has ushered in a new era of casting practices (at least, we hope so).

In this day and age, every director worth their salt should be asking themselves, as Lee Lewis says, what the political significance is of having an all white cast, and what that says about our national identity and how it is projected onstage.  This applies not just to Aboriginal actors, but actors of all different racial backgrounds.

But this is simply not the sort of thing that critics think about when they review a show.  And fair enough, that would be to review a show by what it achieves offstage and not what it achieves (taking casting as a given) onstage.

A critic cannot help but compare what they see on the night with what they envisage in their mind’s eye, in a Platonic sense.  They make an aesthetic judgment and inform us whether desire eclipsed reality or vice-versa.  And this is perfectly reasonable; after all, it’s what critics do.


So how do we steer a course between these two perspectives, both of which are valid and deserve our sympathy?

Julian’s rejoinder may be at times plaintive and overwrought, but it’s sincere, and comes from what I believe is the right place.  Similarly, Alison’s response on Theatre Notes,  makes an irrefutable argument for the necessity of clear headed criticism.

Since the furore broke there has been such an outpouring of words (mainly on Theatre Notes) that I think it’s fair to say that this is no longer an isolated spat but a much larger and more symbolic tussle for supremacy between cultural creators and cultural interpreters.

Unfortunately, a great many of the hand grenades lobbed have been from behind the facade of anonymity, which I find quite difficult to swallow.

There has also been a flurry of commentary in the mainstream press.  Critics Raymond Gill and Peter Craven have both waded into the debate.  Raymond Gill’s article in The Age professed to take no sides but then politely pointed out that:

The unwritten law is that artists should never respond to negative criticism because it only bolsters the critic’s power and ego.

Peter Craven’s longer response, also published in The Age, was more unambiguous about things:

Julian Meyrick should be grateful to critics…who pay him the courtesy of telling him the ways in which a production of his may fail.

Now, I don’t mean to point out the obvious, but critics don’t visit the theatre out of courtesy.  They do it because they get paid to do so.  Whereas a director, like Meyrick, is paid to create the theatre they see.  So, as a simple logic would have it, it is they who should be grateful, for it is his job that prima facie provides them with theirs.

The other lesson we learn from Craven is that, in this debate, we are dealing with a theatre production for heaven’s sake and not with interventions and land rights.

Which takes me back to the start of this mini-essay and my basic premise that history and theatre (or politics & theatre) are not so far apart as we think.  And, if we are willing to concede that, then we must be willing to concede that perhaps critics should be applauding diverse ethnic casting (given that casting is the main vehicle through which we can change conservative theatre pratices).

Perhaps, if I can add my two cents, at the heart of this dispute is not so much a disagreement over whether a particular production (acting, directing, casting etc) is any good, but rather a confusion as to where we think Australian theatre should be headed.

Julian Meyrick thinks one thing, and acts on it, putting his casting where his mouth is.  Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead think another, and tell us whenever a production doesn’t match up with what that.

All three are trying to have an impact on the unfolding of our cultural history.  And all three, no doubt, are sadenned by the fact that blood has been spilt over the performance of a wonderful play by Harold Pinter.  Personally, it does saddens me to hear a devoted and talented director at the top of his game publicly ponder whether it’s even worth continuing.

But maybe this is exactly what we need?  A little blood spilt.  And maybe, just maybe, it’s exactly what surly old Harold would have wanted?

This has turned into a huge rant, and if you’ve made it this far, thanks for sticking with me.

There can be no doubt that there have been too few non-white faces on our mainstream stages.  No director in Australia would disagree with that.  And in this, as always, the argument has not been so much about what we want to see, but how to make it happen.

Unfortunately, we haven’t proven up to the task, and have fallen far behind other parts of the world.  And so, we can no longer nod our heads with Shakespeare and say that all the worlds a stage. Because, the truth is, our stages reflect only a small part of it.

Whatever we think The Birthday Party good, bad or otherwise, we cannot deny that it is an important production.  I myself argued that it was well worth seeing.  And I know plenty of people who saw it and loved it.  And plenty more who blatantly disliked it.  I don’t have a problem with any of that; as I said, I think it’s a mark of artistic integrity if a production is divisive.

I guess where I find this whole debate a little confused is that, what is worthy about the production (in terms of process) has not been the major focus, whereas its critical reception and flaws have been.  And this has pulled focus from what could have been more of a celebration.

I only hope that this debate helps us to better understand each other and that, when the last shot is fired, we can reach a truce that involves a true reassessment of what, why, and how we do what we do in Australian theatre.

Let’s not make the Theatre Wars a lasting part of our culture like the History Wars.  Let’s make them a step in the right direction.


Filed under Politics, Theatre


I came across this today via Twitter (which goes to show that Twitter can be a force for good and not only in Iran).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

This has to be, quite possibly, the coolest thing I have ever seen.

I want to join these people.  I want to live at sea as part of an organic, self-sufficient sea colony.

My only suggestion to improve it would be that they could tame whales and ride back and forward between the various sections of their oceanic organism, like Dune, but in the sea.  That might go against their sustainable, eco-friendly ethos, but I reckon it would be worth it.

Ahab would approve.

Check it out more fully @ Open_Sailing


Filed under Books, Politics, Random

Krugman Strikes Again


Paul Krugman has got another great opinion piece in the NY Times about the GFC:

Goldman Sachs just reported record quarterly profits — and it’s preparing to hand out huge bonuses, comparable to what it was paying before the crisis.  What does this contrast tell us?

First, it tells us that Goldman is very good at what it does. Unfortunately, what it does is bad for America.

Second, it shows that Wall Street’s bad habits — above all, the system of compensation that helped cause the financial crisis — have not gone away.

Third, it shows that by rescuing the financial system without reforming it, Washington has done nothing to protect us from a new crisis, and, in fact, has made another crisis more likely.

Makes a hell’uv’a lot of sense to me.

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Other Conspiracies


She might have found the Tristero anywhere…through any of a hundred lightly-concealed entranceways, a hundred alienations, if only she’d looked.

Just while I’m on this train of thought, here’s some other conspiracy theories:

  • that Alan Greenspan was planted in the Fed to destroy the world economy.
  • that 9/11 was a deliberate ploy by the Pentagon, whose rocket destroyed the Twin Towers.
  • that JFK was killed by _____ (insert your favourite dictator).
  • that the moon landing of 69 was filmed in a Hollywood studio and never happened.

The list could go forever.  Feel free to add your favourite crackpot theory.


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Everything has a value in India, nothing is wasted.

E-waste dealer, Bangalore.

The ship left a pier on the Hudson River with one name, I don’t know what is was but it got changed three months later off the West African coast. Then they changed it again. This was somewhere in the Philippines.

Don DeLillo, Underworld.

Write by W.A.S.T.E.  The government will open it if you use the other.  The dolphins will be mad.  Love the dolphins.

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

As you can probably tell, I’ve been thinking about waste.  About e-waste, in particular.

Waste is an enormous, growth industry.  E-waste especially so.  Perhaps the only other industry that has grown so rapidly in recent times is security (since 9/11).

And yet, both waste and security, are invisible industries.  They must, if they are to succeed, remain unseen.  Consumers (ie. you & me) don’t want to be reminded of our throw-aways.  We need to be free, unburdened, so that we can go and buy new products.  We never want to see our waste again.   Like flushing something down the toilet, we need to know that it won’t come up again, else we would be immediately on the phone to the plumber.

But that is exactly what is happening.  Our shit, our waste, is rising to the surface.  You can’t simply flush things out of existence.  For every action, Newton tells us, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Think about a typical e-product: the iPhone for example.  Each and every iPhone is assembled in California from numerous independently constructed parts originating in developing counties such as India, China, Thailand, Bangladesh, Indonesia etc.  The product is consumed (by Westerners mainly) who then, when they are finished with it, throw it away.  It then finds its way back to the developing nations that collectively made it.

What we throw away, with wilful blindness, we presume others will deal with.  The problems that we create, through our consumer demand, we handball on to those poorer and less equipped than us.  The alienation of consumer from product (according to Marxist thinking) thus reaches its apotheosis: we don’t know where it came from, we don’t know where it will go to, and we don’t give a shit about either.

This is a great evil.  Particularly given that e-waste, even more-so than normal waste, contains incredibly harmful toxins that destroy humans, animals, and whole environments.  Read for a moment, if you will, this special report on the e-waste industry and its effect in Ghana.

The images I have posted above and below were taken by photographer Sopihe Gerrard.   Sophie travelled around India documenting the e-waste industry in mega-cities lke New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore.

According to Sophie:

20 – 50 million tons of electronic waste is generated annually worldwide.

Each year, thousands of tons of old computers, mobile phones, batteries, cables, old cameras and other e-waste are dumped in landfill or burned.  Thousands more are shipped, illegally, from Europe, the UK and the USA to India and other developing countries for ‘recycling’.

E-waste is highly toxic.  It contains lead, cadmium, mercury, tin, gold, copper, PVC and brominated, chlorinated and phosphorus based flame retardants.

Recently, in Australia, the cabal-like forces that make up the e-waste industy have come under media scrutiny.

According to The Age (22 May 2009):

Illegal shipments of electronic waste from Australian homes – old computers, televisions and mobile phones – have been seized from cargo vessels, as part of a little-known smuggling trade that fuels child labour and toxic pollution in China.

Since the start of last year, 12 ships carrying “e-waste” have been intercepted leaving Australia for Asian ports without hazardous materials permits, including four so far this year, Australian Customs and the Department of Environment confirmed yesterday.

These seizures were the tip of the iceberg, recycling industry sources said.

Thankfully we are starting to wake up to this issue.

And manufacturers of e-products (like Apple and Dell etc) are becoming more responsible for their products.  It remains to be seen whether we can turn the tide before environmental damage in places like India becomes irreversible.

Next time you open the bin and are poised to chuck something in, think again.



Filed under Politics, Random

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 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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Obama Speaks in Cairo

This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

The interests we share as human beings are far more powerful than the forces that tear us apart.

The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few.  Islam is not part of the problem in combatting violent extremism; it is an important part of promoting peace.

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Gandhi’s Legacy?

Sunday Protest at Flinders St

It came as a huge surprise – to the whole of Melbourne  I think – to see the scale of the Indian demonstration at Flinders St on Sunday.

I was in the CBD for the Emerging Writers Festival and was dropping in at Melburnalia 2.  But the protest caught my attention, kept it throughout the day, and has stayed in my mind over the last few days.

What is it about the Indian community?  Why do they exercise their right to protest with such zeal?  Looking beyond the specifics of the situation – the horrific racist attacks and the equally horrific media feeding frenzy – I wanted to try and think through what it is about Indian democracy that distinguishes it from the democracies of say Australia or England or America.

When I was in India a couple of years back with Kel (we travelled all over the subcontinent) we noticed that wherever we went, no matter which state we were in, or which city or town or village, there were always people out in the streets marching, waving banners, blaring through loudspeakers, protesting for one reason or another.

Fruit prices take a hike. Suddenly the banana vendors are teeming up and down the main drag with their trademark wooden barrows. A woman is mistreated by a group of young men and the police turn a blind eye.  Suddenly a whole fraternity of rainbow coloured sari clad women take to the streets.

It was something noticeable, something tangible in the culture.  A refusal to lie down and be kicked in the head.  And India, more than most countries, is the sort of place where corruption and mass inequality can easily breed futulity.

The modern history of India has a large part to play in all of this.  Throwing off the British, the story of Partition, the role played by Gandhi…all are deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche (and too lengthy to discuss here).  John Keay’s India: a History gives a succint account of how it all unfolded.

Which brings me back to Melbourne and the racist bashings in 2009.  If it were only a couple of co-incidental attacks against Indian students there would be no problem.  But the Victorian Police have quietly been keeping track of this for the past 12 months or more; and (as John Birmingham’s recent article explains) there is a longer pattern emerging of racially motivated attacks occuring throughout the western suburbs.  Something clearly needs to be done to address the problem.

Because the Indian community has protested so vocally, it will.  Iit will get done quickly too.  I’m not saying the protesters were all well-behaved little lambs.  Sure, they threw rocks at Flinder St’s stained glass windows.  But for the most part they were a pacifist protest.  And just look at the effect that they (and the media frenzy) has had.  Question Time in parliament house yesterday was almost wholly absorbed with the issue.

I applaud those who are unaffaid to exercise their civic rights.  We in Australia could learn a lot from other countries with a rich tradition of civil disobedience such as India or the USA.  Civil disobedience is not a function of democracy unravelling; it is a part of the dialectic that keeps it healthy.

In recent times in Australia, when we have been unhappy about racial villification, we have responded with riots (Cronulla) and increased villification in return.  We would do well to respond in a more mature fashion.  We too could learn a lot from Gandhi’s example.

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