Part one: A spot of culture in Sydney in summer
This post is 99% coronavirus-free. Enjoy!
1917 — The White Album — True History of the Kelly Gang — Rethinking Leadership in Cultural Industries — Bronze Lands — Iron in the Blood
֍ Tuesday 7 January 2020: Saw ‘1917’ at the Event Cinemas, George Street, Sydney. This was a free-ticket preview organised for Sydney Morning Herald subscribers. The Event Cinemas in George St is a cavernous and unpleasant complex of screens, devoted to showing mass market entertainments to people who like their popcorn in big buckets. It hasn’t been a fashionable place to go in forty years (or maybe ever), and the line of grey-headed SMH subscribers snaking across the lurid carpet of the endless foyer waited discontentedly for admission. There were no staff in evidence, and none of us were even sure that we stood in the right queue. What can a non-paying guest expect? Eventually the queue moved forward. It proved to be the right queue, and at the head of it people with clipboards checked our names off a list before directing us into one of two theatres showing the movie. So there was organisation, artfully disguised as neglect.
‘1917’ turned out to be a ripping yarn, sumptuously filmed, exciting to watch, but ultimately slightly spoiled by the growing number of implausibilities served up to keep us on the edge of our seats. For me, the final effect was an unreality not really evocative of world war one’s special madness. ‘1917’ tells the story of mateship and pointless sacrifice less effectively than ‘Gallipoli’, and its war panorama, while terrific, was less visceral than ‘Saving Private Ryan’. Well worth seeing, but not actually as great as the vibe around the movie suggested.
֍ Wednesday 8 January 2020: Joan Didion’s ‘The White Album’ by Lars Jan and Early Morning Opera at the Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay. This was part of Sydney Festival, an explosion of theatre, music and related events all over Sydney that runs every January. The 2020 festival was more than usually augmented by smoke effects, courtesy of the Australian bushfires, which had Sydney smelling like a barbecue from early December to early February. On the worst day (24 January), I stood on Balmain East wharf and could not see the Harbour Bridge, only a woolly blanket of smoke resting gently on the water. If you’re not from round here, that might not mean much, but it was a density of smoke that I would have thought impossible — and the nearest fires were 80 km away.
I have attended Sydney Festival events for years, with mixed results. The festival aims to be extraordinary, challenging and memorable, and this is always partially achieved, but some of the featured performances turn out to be weird, pretentious or silly, and it is difficult to predict which will be which. The festival program is written by masters of breathless hyperbole, so every event is billed as a work of unprecedented artistic significance. A cabaret singer with a pleasant repertoire is described as if the performance will tear your heart out; an amusing social satire becomes an excoriating call to revolution; a magic act will apparently transform forever one’s notions of physical reality, etcetera, etcetera. The misleadingly enticing descriptions of the ‘installations’ housed at CarriageWorks induce a tingling anticipation that is destined to collapse into bemused frustration when you discover that the spatial meditation upon the intersecting dynamics of race, gender and class is actually three cotton balls on a stick, or something less interesting. One benefit of this kind of textual inflation of visual art is that it can induce a kind of intellectual hypersensitivity in which even the quotidian banal takes on a luminous intensity. Suitably prepped, I have been greatly enlightened by a cleaner’s bucket and mop leaning in a corner, the smudges left by absent machinery on a concrete floor, or (most dramatic) the colour-coded stop-cocks of the fire protection piping.
But I digress. ‘The White Album’ is not originally a piece of theatre at all, nor has it much to do with the white album of the Beatles, even if that piece of manic creativity arose in the same period. ‘The White Album’ in this case was originally an essay by Joan Didion, first published in 1979, about her experiences in 1968. It features observations on The Doors, the Manson murders, the Black Panthers, and her own illness, all woven together with meditations on the meaning of American life in that time of violent change.
This essay is brought to the stage by an actor who voices the essayist, a small supporting cast who sing, dance and provide a stylised dramatisation of some incidents, and selected volunteers from the audience (the ‘inner audience’) who perform like a silent chorus, representing student protestors, bystanders, party-goers and so on as required.
At least on the night I attended, the performance concluded with a fifteen minute discussion conducted between cast, inner and outer audience. The audience reaction to the piece was surprisingly bolshevik, a number of people hearing a call to arms in Didion’s words. Was this nostalgia for a more dangerous age? It is true that violent revolution seemed closer in 1968 than it does now, but Didion’s essay is full of fear and doubt about the meaning of the violence which she saw diversely embraced by students, police and murderers. Personally, I felt that one of the great merits of the show was that it reminded us that ‘crazy’ is not a 21st century invention. We have Trump, terrorists, and very short memories, with a horizon foreshortened by the hysteria of social media, and I think it is worthwhile to remember what an exotic brew of social dysfunction existed half a century ago.
Having said that, I cannot really imagine what this piece means to people who were not born when the essay was written. For me it was good: articulate, complex, ambiguous, visually interesting, inspiring.
֍ Friday 10 January 2020. True History of the Kelly Gang at the Open Air Cinema, Mrs Macquarie’s Chair, Farm Cove. The location of this open-air cinema has to be one of the most striking in the world, with the audience located on the banks of Farm Cove looking westward over Sydney City, the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. It only operates over January and February each year. Getting tickets and then navigating the system of this event to ensure that you secure a reasonable seat after eating an adequate meal is a bit of a rigmarole, but for many Sydneysiders this is an annual ritual not to be missed.
‘The True History of the Kelly Gang’ is far from the best film that I have seen at this venue. The director and several cast members showed up for the premiere showing, and described the film as demythologising the story of the Kellies. Non-Australian readers may be wondering what this is all about: a standard account of the bushranger Ned Kelly and his gang can be found in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kelly-edward-ned-3933). Ned Kelly is perhaps the greatest villain/hero in Australian history. The world’s first feature length movie was made about him in 1906, and Mick Jagger came to Australia to play him in a film in 1970. Sidney Nolan’s ‘Kelly’ series of paintings (1946–1947) are iconic. More about this can be found in Wikipedia (<a href=”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ned_Kelly#Legacy”).
The latest Kelly film is fascinatingly weird, but demythologising it is not. It starts raw, and does a lot to remind us that the Kellies were rough as bags in a society that was harsh, corrupt and cruel to the Irish underclass. The depiction of Ned Kelly as a boy is touching. But later sequences of the movie take mythology to new 21st century levels. The Kelly gang are depicted as conducting their bushranging activities in dresses and black-face. The dresses are an ornamentation of the fact that gang member Steve Hart was reported to wear a dress to disguise himself when crossing the countryside on horseback (this has also been painted by Nolan, and you can read about it here). It has sometimes been speculated that gang members Dan Kelly and Steve Hart were gay, and the contemporary allure of this possibility could not be resisted by the filmmakers. The blackface, excused perhaps as camouflage or warpaint (but without there being any evidence that the gang wore any such thing), seems to be an unsubtle attempt to associate the gang with the other outcasts of colonial Australia, the Aboriginal people. This seemed to me to be specious politics and pretentious film-making, taking the Kelly myth into new and absurd territory.
The film belongs in many ways to Essie Davis, who plays Mary Kelly, Ned’s mother. Mary is depicted as a victim of British injustice, a sociopath, and the fatal mother who goads her son to his destruction. George MacKay, who plays Ned, is extremely watchable during the film’s most posturing and phony moments. He plays a very different leading character in ‘1917’, so he clearly is an actor of great range.
Finally, the film is based on Peter Carey’s book of the same name. As is so often the case, the book is much better than (more thoughtful than) the movie. Don’t believe me: read the book, then see the movie for yourself. Like all Australian movies, the film-makers will be scrabbling to get their money back.
֍ Tuesday 14 January 2020. UTS Big Thinking Forum. Rethinking Leadership in Cultural Industries: Agents of Change in a Risky World. This free public seminar at University of Technology Sydney turned out to be a leisurely chat with three interesting women panellists: Patricia Cornelius, garrulous and charming, but perhaps uncomfortable to be a white post-working-class woman spliced into a conversation that was mostly about Aboriginal women’s cultural business; Alice Whittaker, precocious and articulate, not at all uncomfortable to have led a privileged existence under the umbrella of Blak academia; and Pauline Clague, warm and sincere but ponderously loyal to some rather commonplace rhetoric about Aboriginal identity. The panel was interviewed by ‘Distinguished Professor’ Larissa Behrendt. The group discussion with the audience, led by Professor Susan Page, was awkward and unrewarding, rather like many a university tutorial. This forum, held as part of Sydney Festival, touched on many interesting issues, but was not at all focused on the matters raised in the title of this event. Underdeveloped and over-hyped, this gets a Pass but not a Credit.
֍ Tuesday 21 January 2020. Bronze Lands (Tailte Cré-Umha) by Robert Curgenven. Sydney Town Hall. This was the Australian premiere (one night only!) of a work heralded as follows in the program:
Forget the bombast and propriety of a traditional organ recital. Lie down in the spectacular Centennial Hall as sound artist Robert Curgenven immerses you in his awe-worthy colours and sonic textures through the Sydney Town Hall organ – built in 1890 and still the greatest instrument of its kind. [and so on … read it here: https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/bronze-lands]
The organ is magnificent. The music rose and fell mesmericly, but without climax.
֍ Thursday 23 January 2020. Iron in the Blood. City Recital Hall. This was truly something weird and wonderful: a jazz composition by Jeremy Rose performed by a 17-piece orchestra, accompanied by readings from The fatal shore by Robert Hughes and a video backdrop based largely on paintings and other illustrations from Australia’s convict era. This was a Sydney Festival event with a shout-out to the Sydney Writers Festival.
This performance inspired me to reread The fatal shore — one of Australia’s greatest historical texts, full of harrowing details of our origins as a British penal colony. Hughes’ book could inspire any number of creative interpretations, being full of violence, rape, buggery, cannibalism, murder, thievery, conquest and genocide, with a wide cast of appalling villains and hapless, long-suffering heroes. However, interpreting The fatal shore through the idiom of modern jazz did not quite work for me. The jazz was great, but so culturally distant from the sounds of the Australian bush or the culture of colonial Australia that it brought to mind a distracting range of references: Wynton Marsalis, George Gershwin, Miles Davis, New York, Paris, Spain. I found myself looking for the connection with the words (beautifully read by William Zappa and Patrick Dickson) and repeatedly failing to find it. Meanwhile, the video back projection, while occasionally interesting, was also running its own race, intermingling slow motion footage of the bush with semi-animated maps and historical pictures in a style that might be called ‘budget museum’. Music, words and pictures: alas, the effect of the whole was less than the sum of its parts.
That’s it for now, although I’m tempted to move on to describing some of my cultural excursions during February. Maybe next time. An iron curtain is now being brought down on all cultural gatherings in Sydney (and the rest of the country). We are about to be more isolated in our homes with our screens than ever before. I’m not hopeful that this will do anything to improve the temper or the character of the country, but maybe it will. I’m doing more reading myself, and I certainly don’t mean social media. 🙂