Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Artists at the Forefront 

The following is a slightly expanded version of an article recently published on the ArtsHub website, which was in turn based on a short paper I gave in July at the Artists Hub run by Performing Lines WA at Subiaco Arts Centre in Perth. I thank Daisy Sanders and the staff at Performing Lines for allowing me to present the original paper at a session entitled 'Artists at the Forefront'. I also thank the participants at that session for the generous discussion afterwards which contributed to the piece in its expanded form. Finally I thank the editor of ArtsHub Richard Watts for publishing the original article, as well as for choosing the images of Perth ensemble The Last Great Hunt and Geelong-based ensemble Back to Back Theatre Company.


In July at Subiaco Arts Centre in Perth I heard representatives from ten local performing arts organisations speak about the impact of Covid-19 on their activities. Some spoke about using JobKeeper to retain staff. Others spoke about employing digital and other strategies in response to venue closures, loss of income and restrictions imposed by physical distancing. One artistic director proclaimed that fundamentally their organisation hadn’t changed. Most were looking forward to things returning to normal. 
The following week at the same venue I heard representatives from four major performing arts festivals speak about how the pandemic had disrupted their plans. Some spoke about having to cut back on programming, or even postpone their festivals completely. Others spoke about responding to the pandemic in novel ways, for example by only programming local work. Most were looking forward to things returning to normal.
I’m a freelance actor, director and writer, and an independent theatre maker. 
I don’t want things to return to normal.
Let me begin with some statistics – not about the pandemic, but about our industry.
A report on Working in the Entertainment Industry released in 2016 showed that over a third of performers interviewed reported mental health problems. The incidence of depression among arts and entertainment workers is 5 times higher than the national average; moderate to severe anxiety is 10 times higher. Suicides are double those in the general population. Five arts and entertainment workers a week attempt suicide. 

The report attributes this in part to racism, sexism, bullying and harassment in a stressful and competitive industry. However, it also cites the following income and employment statistics:

·      63% of all performers earn less than the National Minimum Wage of $34,000 
·      75% of actors earn an annual industry income of less than $30,000 a year (the situation is even worse for dancers and musicians)

A reminder: this was four years before the pandemic closed down theatres and put most performers out of work. 
These statistics are ‘normal’.
These are my friends and colleagues. These are the students we’re training in our performing arts academies; these are the young people, and the people from diverse communities, that we're supporting and encouraging to become artists.

The issue is not just lack of income, but security of employment. Most artists are employed on short-term contracts for a couple of months at a time, sometimes once or twice a year, sometimes less. There’s no continuity of work, and no discernible career-path.
This needs to change.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow refers to security needs as the next level up from basic physical needs like food, water, clothing and shelter. Clearly, artists suffer from a deficit when it comes to income and job security. This has an impact not only on their physical needs, but also on their emotional needs, which are just as important in terms of their physical and mental health. Specifically, it leads to a more or less permanent state of anxiety.


The next level up in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs are love and belonging needs. Artists may receive love and a sense of belonging from their friends and families – and even up to a point from their colleagues, audiences and communities. However, their sense of belonging or being valued is precarious when it comes to their work, because of the inconstant, atomised and competitive way in which they’re currently employed. Again, this leads to a constant state of anxiety, as well as regular bouts of depression.

Next level up again are social and self-esteem needs, where a similar deficit applies. Certain artists are celebrated for their achievements, but even celebrities know they’re not valued as human beings, but as commodities to be bought, sold, consumed and profited from.

(You’ll notice that I’ve shifted from the language of psychology to politics and economics. That’s because I want to talk about systemic problems, and systemic change, rather than addressing things at the level of therapy or self-help. The latter is the kind of language we’re good at using as artists, because we’re used to talking about and working with our emotions. The problem with this is that we reduce everything to the level of the individual, ­instead of looking at things systemically and addressing them collectively.)

At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is self-actualisation. For an artist, this doesn't mean something nebulous or spiritual; it means being able to practice their art. A singer needs to sing; a dancer needs to dance; a musician needs to play; an actor needs to act. However, the industry as it’s currently structured prevents artists – and especially performers – from being able to work except in a sporadic and unpredictable way. This leads to what behavioural psychologists call learned helplessness. It also leads to chronic doubt, shame and eventually despair. (If I’m not working as an artist, am I even worthy of the name?)
Finally it has a debilitating impact on artistry. Without being able to consistently practise your craft, your skills atrophy, and your artistry suffers. As a performer in particular you need to practise with other artists, and in front of an audience. 
Imagine a teacher, doctor or nurse being unable to consistently practice their vocation. Then imagine schools and hospitals staffed by administrators and hiring teachers, doctors and nurses on a short-term or casual basis. (Actually, we have a model for this with nursing homes – renamed ‘aged care facilities’ – employing a casual workforce of health workers. Similarly, we now have theatre companies which might be described as ‘theatre facilities’. No wonder the results are often similarly deadly.)
Now imagine an orchestra or a band without permanent members that simply hired sessional musicians for every concert or gig they played. Would it even have a recognisable sound? Would you even call it an orchestra, or a band? 
The great theatre and dance companies of the world have been – and still are – ensemble companies. Shakespeare, Moliere, Chekhov and Brecht wrote their plays for ensembles, and their most famous and enduring roles for particular actors in those ensembles. The great theatre companies of today – like the Schaubühne Berlin, the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the Maly Theatre in St Petersburg, or the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK – are all ensemble companies; and the great theatre directors of today ­­­– like Ivo van Hove or Thomas Ostermeier – are the long-term artistic directors of those companies. The same is true for the great choreographers, past and present. 

The difference between these European companies and their Australian counterparts is not simply more funding, but a different model of what a theatre company actually is: a company of artists. It’s a difference in artistic priorities.
Permanent employment in the arts in Australia has largely been reduced to administration and marketing in companies and organisations with a few niche labels and slogans attached: young people’s theatre; First Nations theatre; diversity; disability; women; queer and trans artists. Let me be absolutely clear: diversity of representation and participation in the arts is crucial; but diversity without the possibility of having a sustainable career as an artist is at best window dressing, and at worst an insult to those communities. It’s like telling them: ‘You can be an artist, but it’s not a real job.’ 
The same applies to having power and agency, which is just as important as regular income and employment. Performers and other artists (apart from artistic directors, who currently aren’t necessarily directors or even artists) scarcely have a voice at the table when it comes to decisions that affect them directly, such as artistic programming, funding or arts policy. Once again this leads to learned helplessness. It also leads to poor artistic decisions, and poorly realised artistic outcomes. Fundamentally it robs artists of dignity by treating them like children rather than adults capable of making decisions for themselves.
We’re all friends and colleagues in the arts, but like every other industry it’s divided between those who have decision-making power and security of income and employment, and those who don’t. In the performing arts, this currently means the difference between those who work in arts management and administration and virtually all artists – 80% of whom at any one time constitute what Marx called ‘the reserve army of the unemployed’. 
In the current crisis of a pandemic, coupled with the last round of Australia Council funding cuts, the brutal truth is that we are not ‘all in this together’. For example, JobKeeper is designed to retain employees who’ve worked for the same business for more than 12 months. This means it doesn’t support most artists or technical crew who are only employed on short-term contracts. 
As Artistic Director at Belvoir Street Eamon Flack recently put it in an interview with The Sydney Morning Herald back in April: ‘The situation we are in now is absurd. We have a theatre sector with no actors. Or to speak the language of government, we are an industry with no essential workers. Because what’s an arts company without artists making art? It’s like a plane without a pilot or a hospital with no nurses. It’s ridiculous. The whole sector has become something out of a satire.’ 
I agree, but Eamon’s description doesn’t just apply to the absurdity of JobKeeper; it perfectly describes the situation that already existed before the pandemic hit. And it’s been this way for way too long. 


What is to be done?
The first thing is to put artists first: because without artists there is no art, and no arts industry.
It’s no use simply saying we need more funding. Funding for whom? The answer, I suggest, is more funding for artists– excellent, innovative, diverse, Australian artists, to be sure, telling diverse Australian stories in excellent and innovative ways; but they can only be and do those things if they can have sustainable and viable careers and career-paths as artists
It’s not enough to blame the government or the community for not valuing artists. We do it to ourselves – or more precisely, we let the industry do it to us. 
Here are some proposals that could form the basis for having a sustainable career and a viable career-path as a performing artist, and therefore a performing arts industry worthy of the name.
1.     The majority – or at least 50% – of all permanent employees across the performing arts industry should be practising artists
By ‘permanent employees’, I mean they have job security for at least a year (or multi-year contracts) as well as standard employment conditions like annual leave and sick leave, just like artistic support staff. By ‘practising artists’ I mean they’re employed to practice their art. 
Note: the point isn’t that the majority of artists should be permanent employees; it’s that the majority of permanent employees across the industry should be artists. The point is to close the gap between artists and support staff in terms of employment. 
2.     The majority – or at least 50% – of the permanent employees of all major performing arts companies should be practising artists.
This could be as artistic directors or as resident artists: e.g. associate directors or choreographers, resident playwrights, dramaturgs, composers, movement directors, set/costume/lighting/sound designers, scenic artists, costume and makeup artists, etc, as well as resident actors, dancers, musicians, puppeteers and other performers. These positions could be shared or part-time so they can practise their art across the industry. 
Note: this doesn’t mean that company artists are the only artists employed by companies. In other words, freelance and independent artists still have a crucial role to play across the industry. Another way of saying this is that freelancers and independents should be so by choice rather than by default.
3.     All major performing arts companies should employ a core ensemble of performers (be they actors, singers, dancers, musicians, puppeteers, etc, or some combination of these) as well as a core team of creatives (as such those listed above) as permanent employees. 
Note: this doesn’t mean that every production or project needs to employ every artist in the ensemble or creative team. The point is that the permanent ensemble and creative team are the core of the company’s work and artistic identity. Without a core ensemble and creative team, there is no company.
4.     All major performing arts companies should have a paid apprenticeship program. Professional training should be an integral part of the industry, and not just part of the tertiary education sector, so it doesn’t merely add to the reserve army of the unemployed.
5.     All major companies should have a permanent associate artist program (associate directors and choreographers, playwrights, designers, etc) so they have an integrated succession plan.
6.     All performing arts organisations should be led by practising artists as key artistic decision-makers. 
By ‘performing arts organisations’ I mean companies, festivals, venues and other presenting, producing, support and service organisations, funding bodies and government departments for the arts (which by the way should all have the word ‘arts’ in the title). By ‘key artistic decision makers’, I mean artistic directors, festival directors, venue directors, program curators and executive directors of all arts organisations. Once again, if necessary their positions could be shared so that they can continue to practice their art across the industry.
Note: being a practising artist is a necessary but not sufficient condition for artistic leadership, which also requires leadership skills, training and/or experience. However, this training or experience must be in the arts.
7.     The majority – or at least 50% – of the boards of management of all performing arts organisations – including companies, festivals, venues, and other presenting, producing, support and service organisations – should be practising artists. These should be paid positions.
8.     The majority – or at least 50% – of all arts funding panels should be practising artists. This also applies to all arts policy committees and working groups. (Again, these should be paid positions.) 
This leads me to the question of funding. At the moment, funding for individual artists is limited to short-term project funding, residencies and fellowships (usually for one or two years at most and available only once in an artist’s career). Project-based funding, residencies and fellowships alone are not sustainable in the long term for independent or freelance artists. Therefore:
9.     Individual artists (just like companies) should be able to apply for ongoing long-term funding. This could take the form of 1-year or multi-year programs of activity, or an agreed industry standard artist allowance. These would cover basic living expenses; time and money spent on physical and mental health; ongoing education, training and professional development (including workshops, classes, work-related travel, theatre tickets, etc); home office and admin costs (including time spent on grant applications, work-related phone calls, emails, meetings, attending talks and conferences, etc); auditioning; learning lines (or practising in the case of dancers, singers and musicians); studio hire costs; and creative gestation time (including time spent writing, thinking and dreaming). These are all essential aspects of an artist’s work. In other professions, most of these activities (ongoing professional training and development, phone calls, emails, meetings, conferences) are considered part of their work and paid accordingly. The same should be the case for artists. 
Note: I’m proposing an artist allowance (as distinct from a universal basic income) to acknowledge that artists are working even when they’re not currently employed. As with other forms of funding, criteria might include demonstrable levels of professional training, professional experience, professional achievements, or some combination of the above. As with project or fellowship funding it might also include a realistic budget and outline of activities. However, the allowance should not be outcome-based.
This pandemic is a time to pause, reflect and take stock of where we are, and where we want to be. It’s revealed the fault lines in our relationship with the planet and with each other. It’s also revealed the fault lines in our industry. 
We need to acknowledge and repair those fault lines. That doesn’t mean finding fault and blaming people (or ourselves). The problems I’ve outlined aren’t personal but structural. Addressing them means working together – artists and arts support workers – to meet our needs as an industry collectively. 
I’ve outlined what I see as some possible goals and some concrete steps to achieve them. 
Yes, it will require more funding, and more importantly a reallocation of priorities. Some will say that now is not the time, because of the pandemic, or lack of funding. I say: on the contrary, now is precisely the time
The federal government recently committed $250 million dollars to the so-called Jobmaker program for the arts sector back in June (money the Arts Minister has yet to sign off on). Of this, $35 million has been allocated to federally funded arts organisations, to be delivered in partnership with the Australia Council. The government also announced a Creative Economy Taskforce to implement the Jobmaker plan. 
This Taskforce should be majority-artist and artist-led – as should all decisions about arts policy and funding if they are to have any credibility. As the slogan says: nothing about us without us. And the Jobmaker program should do just that: create jobs for artists.
The performing arts industry has been effectively shut down, at least as far as artists are concerned. We need to take the opportunity to decide what we want our industry to be before we reopen. Let's start making our voices heard. We need to reclaim our power. And those who have power in our industry need to start sharing it.



Tuesday, 25 August 2020

Postcards from Melbourne Film Festival 68.5 

(from my living room cinema in Perth)

Postcard 1

Friday 7 August 2020

Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the current lockdown in Melbourne, MIFF 68.5 made a brave decision to go ahead as a virtual festival this year and stream a reduced program online. Tickets were available at various prices including free events; most films were available for viewing throughout the festival, with some more limited viewing windows for special screenings.  

There’s a difference between ‘watching’ and ‘seeing’ a film which is not merely verbal. The difference is not just between the small and big screen, but between being at home and going to the cinema, with all that the latter entails: going somewhere to have an experience at a certain place and time; having that experience under certain conditions, including specific interior architecture and seating, dimmed lights, and seeing a film as a continuous experience (or rather as an event that unfolds regardless of my coming and going or even my presence); and above all, the public and collective nature of that experience. All of these conditions make the cinema a kind of theatre, and a cinema screening a kind of performance (for the audience as well as the projectionist and other cinema staff); going to the cinema is more like going to a concert or play than listening to recorded music, watching TV or downloading content online. 

Phenomenologically one might say that ‘seeing’ as opposed to ‘watching’ a film involves a different kind of looking, which engages us physically, emotionally, imaginatively and cognitively in a very different way; ontologically it implies a different kind of presence, on the part of the film as well as ourselves. Aesthetically it invites a different kind of contemplation; socially and politically it entails (and possibly encourages) a different kind of action. Psychologically it has a very different effect as well; for me, the experience has something in common with dreaming.

I watched the opening night film Kelly Reichardt's First Cow in my hastily improvised home cinema in Perth (desktop computer screen on chair in front of sofa). Notwithstanding my previous reflections, and a certain amount of misgivings and even lowered expectations, the experience felt in no way diminished, only different, in comparison with being in Melbourne (as I normally would be) and seeing it with an audience (and possibly friends) on the big screen. Despite the limitations of the format, I felt grateful for being able to connect, however remotely, with a festival I love and a city I still call home. In some way it alleviated the strangeness (including a kind of survivor’s guilt) I feel about living free-range here in Perth, isolated (as ever) from the rest of the country, and the world – for the present, at least. What follows is therefore as much a review of this experience as of the films themselves.

My older daughter (currently living under lockdown in Melbourne) recently introduced me to Reichardt's work: quiet, simple storytelling with luminously restrained performances and a rigorous use of landscape, setting, cinematography and sound as essential elements of narrative rather than ornamentation. It’s based on a novel by Portland Oregon writer Jonathan Raymond (who also wrote the stories and screenplays for Reichardt’s earlier films Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) and set in the Pacific Northwest (where most of her films take place) during the early years of white settlement in the 1820s. 

The story concerns an unlikely bond that forms between a shy Jewish cook (sensitively played John Magarro) and an enterprising Chinese immigrant (a more disciplined performance by Orion Lee) who defraud a local landowner (Toby Jones) by stealing milk from his cow to use as a secret ingredient for the small cakes they make and sell. As such, it’s a kind of buddy movie that also offers a counter-foundational myth about capitalism and colonisation which quietly celebrates tolerance and comradeship (as well as an alternative take on masculinity as not necessarily competitive or even sexualised). 

George Roy Hill’s late 60s/early 70s revisionist western/gangster buddy movies Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting are obvious precursors, but Reichardt’s style is quieter and more minimalist; her historical and social reconstructions more scrupulous; and her protagonists more unassuming in their pursuit of ‘prosperity’. Like her other films (most recently the epic Meek’s Crossing and the more intimate Certain Women) First Cow speaks (among other things) of the importance of friendship: between human beings, across race and class, and between humans and other animals. 

Watching online from my living room made me feel deeply connected with friends, family, colleagues and loved ones across the continent and even on the other side of the world. This will pass, I silently told them, and myself. This will pass.

Postcard 2

Sunday 9 August 2020

Yesterday afternoon at MIFF home-cinema I watched Boys State, an engrossing documentary by San Francisco-based filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBain about a civic program in Texas run by the American Legion in which teenage boys ‘learn about democracy’ by being randomly grouped into two political parties and then running for office. The film focuses on four boys (one Latino, one black, and two white – one of whom is disabled) who became its lead characters during the shoot.

Released in January 2020, it’s a tightly structured observational work with no editorial voiceover or soundtrack score but refreshingly candid direct-to-camera commentary by the four leads about their motivations, experiences and epiphanies (which makes them more revealing subjects than professional ‘adult’ politicians). It also presents a microcosm of pre-pandemic Trump-era America: the strengths and flaws of the two-party system; the polarising prevalence of guns, abortion and immigration as hot-button issues; and the micro-politics of popularity, class, race and masculinity. The arc of history may bend slowly towards justice, but the systems of power and privilege (as well as human psychology) also have a remarkable propensity to ‘snap back’.

The film also made me think of Julia Gillard’s 2013 speech about ‘men in blue ties' and the cycle of leadership– a reminder prompted by a recent showing of #thatwomanjulia, an incisive dance-theatre work-in-development by local Perth artists Natalie Allen and Sally Richardson. Wherever we are, whoever we are, whatever medium we’re working in, we’re all on the same planet; even if – because of class, race, gender, age, disability or geography – we’re emphatically not ‘all in this together’.

Postcard 3

Friday 14 August 2020

Last night I watched the most remarkable film so far in my living-room experience of MIFF 68.5: Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa’s mesmerising Vitalina Varela

Shot over the course of a year in a vanishing district of Lisbon, Costa’s stylised documentary-fiction is the most recent testimony to his long-term collaboration with members of a community of Cape Verdean immigrants playing versions of themselves. The bare-bones story concerns a woman arriving in the cargo-hold of a plane only to learn that her husband (who abandoned the home they were building together in Cape Verde and emigrated to Lisbon decades earlier) has recently (and mysteriously) died. 

This lapidary narrative (briefly recounted in a monologue by Varela in her previous film with Costa) here becomes the mythic framework for a film that (even in its making) is a kind of ritual of failed mourning and the impossibility of reconciliation. As such, the film recalls Freud’s essay on mourning and melancholia, as well as Walter Benjamin’s thesis on Baroque tragedy as a form of ‘mourning-play’. 

Costa’s camera never moves, and his shadowy, highly burnished images (mostly lit by refracted light) resemble carefully staged Baroque paintings – framed by an architecture of ruin – in which people are often motionless, like tableaux vivants or still lives, or from which they emerge and shuffle, stumble or drag themselves across the frame like zombies or effigies of themselves. (Jacques Tourneur’s 1940s B-grade horror-noir I Walked with a Zombie also came to mind.)

Nevertheless (unlike Tourneur, but more in the vein of Bresson) Costa gives his dispossessed characters a haunting beauty and dignity, like figures in a passion play, and grants them (on screen at least) a kind of redemption. 

Postcard 4

Friday 14 August 2020 (2nd post)

In an inspired piece of MIFF programming, Costa’s film has a fascinating counterpart in The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, Chilean surrealist Raúl Ruiz’s long lost and unfinished 1967 first feature, which I watched in my living room last Friday, but am only now coming to terms with. 

Ruiz’s film is ‘about’ a man haunted by his dead wife – mostly in the form of mysteriously appearing and disappearing brunette wigs. It was shot in black-and-white without a soundtrack and abandoned after the director fled Chile following Pinochet’s military coup in 1973 and rediscovered in a theatre basement in 2016 (Ruiz himself died in 2011), but apparently no screenplay remains. 

The film has been restored and ‘completed’ by his widow and collaborator Valeria Sarmiento. In an intriguing experiment, she added dialogue with the help of lip-readers and voice actors, as well as a score by Chilean modernist composer and fellow Ruiz collaborator Jorge Arriagado. Somewhat more controversially (but arguably in keeping with Ruiz’s surrealism), Sarmiento has also added another thirty minutes of footage so that scenes from what now effectively becomes the first half are replayed backwards in reverse order, thus providing a form of appropriately anti-narrative closure. 

Having previously seen and loved two films by Ruiz on the big screen at MIFF over the years (his oneiric adaption of Proust’s Time Regained, and a labyrinthine four-and-a-half hour adaptation of a 19th Portuguese novel, Mysteries of Lisbon), I found this early work (and Sarmiento’s ‘completion’) a surprisingly moving relic for contemplation. In retrospect, after seeing Vitalina Varela, the two films echo each other (in almost Proustian fashion) in a complex interweaving of personal and political trauma. 

Varela, Valeria. Time regained, indeed.

Postcard 5

Saturday 22 August 2020

In another astute (and generous) piece of MIFF programming, Rolf de Heer’s Dingo and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s Hyenas (both free to download for the duration of the festival) are two vastly different films that nonetheless also echoed each other when I watched them earlier this week in my living room cinema. This is not just because of their titles, or the fact that they were shot within a year of each other in the early 90s, but also because both are highly stylised small-town fables (or perhaps more accurately a fairy tale in the case of Dingo) set in remote landscapes with almost mythical qualities (especially in the case of Hyenas). 

Dingo is a relatively early de Heer film from 1991 featuring a youthful Colin Friels, a luminous Helen Buday and Miles Davis in his only onscreen role as an actor. Shot in Meekathara and Sandstone in the mid-west region of Western Australia, the familiarity of the landscape (as well as some of the local cast members) also had a personal resonance for me. 

Despite a somewhat flimsy and implausible screenplay, the film also resonated because of a pervasive sense of alienation, frustration and yearning in relation to his environment on the part of the main character John (a jazz trumpeter and dingo-trapper energetically played by Friels). These feelings are first aroused in John’s childhood by the arrival of a charismatic outsider in the form of Davis, who makes his somewhat surreal first appearance emerging (along with his band) from a plane that lands in the middle of the desert just outside the town. They are temporarily assuaged when John (and the film) take flight in a final half hour of pure fantasy and he goes to Paris for a weekend to play jazz with Davis on a kind of artistic fling – before returning to outback small town married life in what must be one of the most unconvincing anticlimaxes ever committed to celluloid.  

To some extent the film anticipates Shirley Barrett’s more understated and accomplished Love Serenade later in the 90s. Playing a barely disguised version of himself, Davis completely overshadows proceedings whenever he appears (apparently no one on the set knew what he was going to say or do from one take to the next). This is especially the case in the Paris scenes, where his sphinx-like pronouncements and almost inaudible rasping delivery reminded me strangely of Marlon Brando in the closing act of Apocalypse Now

It’s also worth noting that Davis and his fellow musicians are the only non-white characters in a film that completely expunges any Aboriginal presence from the mythical version of Australia that the film presents. There’s something strangely poignant (and revealing) about the way a young white outback small town Australian boy responds to a Black musician (and Black music) from a European metropolis on the other side of the planet. It spoke to me deeply about how (and why) white Australian culture still yearns for a sense of identity and belonging. 

Postcard  6

Saturday 22 August 2020 (2nd post)

Hyenas is a work altogether on another scale. Only the second (and tragically final) feature by Mambéty (who died in 1998 aged 53), it’s a Senegalese adaptation of Swiss playwright Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit

The play is about a wealthy woman who returns to the town she was once cast out from in disgrace, and who offers to put her money back into the community if they agree to kill the man who disgraced her. Mambéty’s version is set in a reconstructed and fictionalised version of the village where he grew up on the outskirts of Dakar; and the tragicomic tone and satirical reach of the play are amplified and extended to encompass not only bourgeois corruption and hypocrisy but the entire project of neocolonialism and global consumerism. 

Alongside its politics however Hyenas is also an uncompromising and exuberant artistic statement, visually and sonically rich but as austere in form as a folktale or parable. It combines traditional and contemporary African and European sensibilities in a hybrid style that’s (possibly) only a heightened version of the contradictions of everyday Senegalese life and culture. Like Pedro Costa in Vitalina Varela, Mambérty used non-professional actors; but unlike Costa he insisted on only using them once, in a single film, so that they uniquely embodied their roles; he also had them play fictional characters rather than versions of themselves. As such his strategy resembles the way Pasolini used non-actors in his film adaptations of St Matthew or the Marquis de Sade, or Caravaggio used life models in his Biblical narrative paintings. Conversely, Costa’s use of non-actors is more like de Heer’s use of Miles Davis in Dingo; although unlike Costa’s non-celebrities, Davis was arguably always performing himself, onscreen and off.

I’ve not seen Mambéty’s other films, including his debut (and only other feature) the acclaimed Touki Bouki (made 20 years earlier); indeed, I’ve seen shamefully little sub-Saharan African cinema. Even without this context however Hyenas is an enthralling and ultimately devastating work by a clearly visionary artist, and I’m hugely grateful to MIFF for streaming this recently restored masterpiece.

Postcard  7

Monday 24 August 2020

My MIFF living room experience came to a close on the weekend with two highly personal documentaries about art, politics and place made by two very different female artists.

German lesbian visual artist and filmmaker Ulrike Ottinger’s Paris Calligrammes is a thematic assemblage of home-movie, archival and contemporary footage and images narrated in voiceover by Ottinger herself, and covering her years living and working in Paris in the 1960s. I watched it on the sofa with my younger Perth-based daughter; we visited Paris together ten years ago when she was in France on a high school exchange program (and stayed in the aptly named Hotel du 7ème Art).

The title of the film refers to the name of a bookshop in Saint-Germain-des-Prés which was Ottinger’s entrée to avant-garde intellectual and artistic life when she arrived in Paris in 1962. The bookshop was owned by Fritz Picard, a German Jewish refugee and collector, and frequented by an older generation of (mostly male) post-War artists and thinkers – including key figures in Dadaism, the movement that seemingly shaped Ottinger’s own aesthetic and politics most decisively. A haunting montage sequence early in the film accompanies a sound recording of German satirist Walter Mehring reading an acerbic poem aloud at the bookshop which commemorates writers who were killed or driven to suicide during the War and now ‘lie in German fields’. 

The word ‘calligrammes’ comes from the title of a book of poems by Apollinaire (who was another habitué at the bookshop), and refers to the figurative arrangement of words, letters, punctuation marks, spaces and other elements of typography. Ottinger’s film is itself a kind of calligram or collage-portrait of 1960s Paris. It’s also a fascinating introduction to the work of the artist herself, including tantalising glimpses of her films, which she began making after her return to Germany in the 70s, and which appear playfully at odds with the (mostly male and generally dour) output of New German Cinema.

Above all the film is a hymn to – and lament for – a city and an era, in all its contradictions. Most telling for me was the section that dealt with the massacre of Algerian protesters by Parisian police in 1961 on the orders of Maurice Papon, the head of police who also participated in the deportation of over 1600 Jews to concentration camps during World War II. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. The massacre has never been formally investigated despite hundreds of protesters being beaten to death and thrown into the Seine, but I remember seeing a small commemorative plaque on a bridge over the river when I visited the city with my daughter ten years ago. Graphic footage and stills of the atrocity were followed by images of Genet in rehearsals for his play The Screens, which was produced at the Odéon Theatre in response to the massacre and the Algerian War (though not until 1966). The film also deals with the upheavals of May 68, which promised so much but were brutally crushed, disintegrated into chaos and ultimately delivered so little (it seems no coincidence that Ottinger left Paris and returned to Germany shortly afterwards).

Nevertheless, the film also conveys an abiding sense of excitement and possibility (the subtitle of Apollinaire’s book was ‘Poems of Peace and War’). There are wonderful sections on Paris nightlife, the explosion of Pop Art, and a tranquil reverie devoted to the Bibliothèque Nationale using archival and contemporary footage of readers and scholars having rare books and prints delivered to their desks and slowly turning the pages, lost in contemplation. There are also images of museums and galleries (not to mention the city itself) blissfully devoid of crowds in the era before mass tourism. As my father (himself an Austrian Jewish refugee who fled to Paris in 1938 before emigrating to Australia) used to say: Où sont les neiges d’antan?

Postcard 8

Monday 24 August 2020 (final post)

The Giverny Document (Single Channel) – which I watched alone on the final night of the festival, two hours behind Melbourne and with only a narrow viewing window remaining to me because of the time difference) – is very different kind of ‘documentary’, but one similarly informed by a highly personal and political aesthetic. 

Ja’Tovia Gary is a Brooklyn-based African American artist and filmmaker from a younger generation than Ottinger. Her practise likewise involves montage but employs video, found internet footage and a startling use of direct animation (inscribed directly onto the surface of used or blank film). In this case, the work intersplices heterogenous elements unlinked by any narration. These include material from an earlier film, Giverny I: Négresse Impériale (in which the artist inserts herself both clothed and naked in HD video footage of Monet’s garden in Giverny); street interviews with black women in Harlem responding to the question ‘Do you feel safe?’; Facebook Live video and audio posted by Philando Castille’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds immediately after his fatal shooting by police when they were pulled over because of a damaged tail-light; archival footage of Black Panther Fred Hampton (who was also shot and killed by police while he was in his bed during a pre-dawn raid) talking about education and black sovereignty; unidentified military footage of a drone strike on a targeted vehicle; and (perhaps most unsettling of all) concert footage of Nina Simone at the Monteaux Jazz Festival in 1976. The last sees the great musician and activist delivering a tortured version of the famously cheesy and inarticulate pop song ‘Feelings’, in the course of which she variously sings in a robotic, broken or almost inaudible voice, bursts into furiously overwrought cadenzas on the piano, or stops and exhorts the audience to clap or join in – at one point exclaiming: ‘Goddam! I do not believe the conditions that produced a situation that demanded a song like this!’

Gary’s film (like Simone’s performance) is not so much to be understood as experienced. Her use of direct animation (ranging from brightly coloured stains and scratches to leaves and flowers pressed directly onto the celluloid) repeatedly interrupts and defaces the found and original footage. In fact the entire work expresses an energy or force – perhaps even a creative violence (or counter-violence) – in response to the violence perpetrated against black bodies (and black women’s bodies in particular) not only by police, the military, capitalism or men in general, but by cultural history and even culture itself (or at least white capitalist patriarchal culture, however we choose to define that). The ‘safe’ enclosure of this culture is represented by Monet’s garden; Gary’s counter-invasion of this ‘safe space’ might be described (in all-too theoretical language) as an irruption of the real into the closure of representation. 

Nonetheless, as with Paris Calligrammes, The Giverny Document is also shot through with beauty, and even (dare one say?) hope. In the end I found both films – like the entire experience of watching MIFF 68.5 in my living room – at once a window onto the past and present (with all their nostalgia and trauma, their reveries and atrocities), and a window into the future, which is always unknown, and therefore always pregnant with possibilities.

Monday, 23 March 2020

Postcard 2 from Adelaide Festival 2020 

Dramas of Ideas in a Time of Crisis

The Doctor/Mouthpiece

It’s been a fortnight since I saw The Doctor and Mouthpiece at the Adelaide Festival. How time flies. 

Back then the coronavirus was a secondary local topic of conversation and cause for concern, some way behind the Democrat primaries in the United States. Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the world. It’s changed everything – including the global conversation, and my perspective on both plays.

In retrospect, it now seems ironic that The Doctor – which I experienced at the time as a play about identity politics – is essentially a medical drama; and even more so that it’s an adaptation of a play by Schnitzler that deals with the ‘virus’ of anti-Semitism.

Similarly, Mouthpiece – which ostensibly deals with exploitation, appropriation and the question of ‘who has the right to tell whose stories’ – when viewed through the lens of the current crisis becomes fundamentally about economic and social precarity, physical and psychological health, the need for boundaries and ‘distancing’, and even the ethics of whether or not a public gathering (in this case a theatrical performance) should take place. 

The meaning of work lies its future reception rather than its intentions, as Walter Benjamin once said.


British auteur-director Robert Icke has been repeatedly described in the London press as ‘the great hope of British theatre’. His sensational (indeed sensationalised) version of 1984 was co-adapted and co-directed with Duncan McMillan for Headlong Theatre, and transferred to the West End and Broadway before touring Australia last year. More recently his play and production The Doctor  – ‘very freely adapted’ from Arhtur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi and starring stage and screen luminary Juliet Stevenson – was produced by the Almeida in London in 2019, and was duly presented as the big-ticket work of text-based theatre at this year’s Adelaide Festival in the Dunstan Theatre. 

Schnitzler was fin de siècle Viennese-Jewish doctor, playwright and author of fiction. He’s most famous for his literary and dramatic treatment of sexual and class hypocrisy: his most widely translated and performed play Reigen (known in French as La Ronde) was adapted by David Hare as The Blue Room; and his novella Traumnovelle is the basis for Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut

However he also wrote about anti-Semitism – most directly in Professor Bernhardi. The play is set in Vienna in 1900, when widespread anti-Jewish sentiment was on the rise and being exploited by populist politicians, with consequences Schnitzler could not have predicted but we now know all too well. In fact the dialogue is peppered with subtle and not-so-subtle hints about the characters’ religious or racial identities, ideological allegiances and personal attitudes towards each other. However the inciting incident of the play soon breaks down the protocols of speech and conduct among medical colleagues – from formal hierarchy to informal collegiality – so that cracks apparent at the outset soon become unbridgeable chasms.

The plot deals with a Jewish doctor and director of a charity-funded hospital who prevents a Catholic priest from giving the last rites to a female patient dying of septicemia following a botched abortion. He does so in order to spare her distress because she’s delirious from the infection and unaware that she’s dying; the summoning of the priest is a routine procedure that the doctor decides to overrule.

Nevertheless he’s falsely accused of striking the priest and hounded by the press; the hospital is threatened with bankruptcy; and a law proposed in parliament banning Jews from certain positions. The doctor is betrayed or abandoned by most of his (non-Jewish) colleagues, who agree to him being charged with ‘obstructing religious observance’ (a law in Vienna at the time which has something in common with the proposed ‘freedom of religion’ legislation currently being discussed in Australia). He resigns from his position in protest, is put on trial and ultimately sent to prison.

Professor Bernhardi is as finely wrought and multi-faceted as it is open to interpretation. Alongside the issue of anti-Semitism – Bernardi is the victim of racially motivated lies, hate speech, persecution and even bribery (a colleague offers to help him if he appoints a Christian instead of a Jewish specialist to the hospital staff) – the play untangles a tightly knotted complex of related personal, professional, political, psychological and philosophical conundrums. These include the difference between professional and personal competence; righteousness and arrogance; workplace ethics and workplace politics; legal, medical and administrative ethics; moral consequentialism and deontology; ethics and politics; science and religion. In particular, one might point to the currency of debates over abortion (and the health risks associated with its illegality); the question of what constitutes a ‘good’ death; and the issue of ‘religious freedom’ already mentioned.

This level of complexity, ambiguity and sophistication is matched by Schnitzler’s typically Viennese irony, lightness of touch and sense of perspective. As a social drama of ideas, it shares at least some of these qualities with Shaw. Nevertheless the writing also probes at Ibsen’s deeper vein of individual tragedy, as well as Chekhov’s all-embracing sense of collective absurdity.

Schnitzler himself was no stranger to controversy in the court of public opinion. His earlier play Reigen was banned from publication in 1904, and attacked as ‘Jewish pornography’ when it was finally performed in Vienna in 1921, with riots taking place outside the theatre. Professor Bernhardi was banned from performance in Vienna in 1912 for its realistic depiction of anti-Semitism. His works were described by Hitler as ‘Jewish filth’ and banned by the Nazis when they took power in 1933, and his books were publicly burnt (along with those of Marx, Freud, Einstein and Kafka). 

The doctor-writer described his works with typically Viennese understatement and evasiveness: ‘I write of love and death. What other subjects are there?’ In fact Professor Bernhardi was originally billed as ‘a comedy’ – perhaps in the spirit of his fellow doctor-playwright Chekhov, who described his own plays in similar terms. A more obvious precursor  is Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The opinionated, contrarian anti-hero Doctor Stockmann is a prototype for Professor Bernhardi; and Ibsen likewise admitted that he was unsure if his play was a comedy or a drama. 

An updated English adaptation of Professor Bernhardi by Samuel Adamson that underlined the satirical aspects of the play was produced in London by the Oxford Stage Company and Dumbfounded Theatre in 2005. More recently an uncharacteristically low-key and textually faithful production directed by Thomas Ostermeier at the Berlin Schaubühne in 2016 also toured to the UK.


The Doctor is set in a private medical institute presumably somewhere in the UK that specialises in Alzheimer’s disease. The protagonist is Doctor Ruth Wolff (Stevenson), the institute’s founder and star physician who also serves on the board of directors. She also happens to be Jewish, and a self-righteous prig. 

Somewhat implausibly, she intervenes in another doctor’s case similar to that of the young woman in Schnitzler’s original play; even more implausibly, the family priest (Jamie Parker) barges into the ward without being restrained by anyone else on the staff or hospital security. Wolff refuses to admit him to the patient’s room, on the grounds that the young woman is unconscious, and has given no authorisation for him to do so. They both immediately start yelling at each other; the priest attempts to force his way in; and Wolff appears to lay a hand on his arm (though the production obfuscates what actually happens with a dramatic movement freeze, sound cue and lighting change). Meanwhile a nurse goes in to check on the young woman, and returns with the news that she’s died, presumably in fear and stress because of the commotion.

The next day the priest accuses Wolff of assault (though it’s not exactly clear why); and predicably there’s a social media pile-on. The hospital board turn on Wolff and vote for her to be dismissed from the board and the hospital staff; but not before (in another implausible scene) the young woman’s father (again played by Parker) bursts into the room (again without any intervention by security staff) and strikes Wolff in the face (another dramatic freeze-frame). Again for reasons that are unclear, especially given her ‘by the book’ character, she doesn’t subsequently charge him with assault; nor does she sue the hospital board for unfair dismissal.

The implausibilities continue to pile up after interval. For some reason Wolff agrees to appear on a Fox News-style (but unanimously ‘progressive’) chat show where she’s grilled by a panel of experts who are all caricatures of political correctness. Despite losing her job, however, the charges against her are (without explanation) dismissed. In a final scene of prolonged implausibility, the priest comes to visit her at her home; she lets him in; and they have a civilised chat about it all.

So much for the plot; the writing is even more ham-fisted. The language and tone is unvaryingly monotonous and monological. Icke seems incapable of writing in character; mostly we hear the voice of the author, or straw men and women whose arguments are easily refuted. Real dialogue or nuance are sadly lacking, and sorely needed. Perhaps that’s the point; but in reinforcing it so rigidly, the play seems part of the problem.

The exception is in the scenes between Wolff and Sami (Liv Hill), a young neighbour in the same block of flats. Despite their plot-redundancy, and the unexplained reason for this unlikely relationship, these scenes are surprisingly well written, and demonstrate genuine complexity. A monologue about having sex in the school toilets was the best piece of writing in the show, and certainly the funniest. It almost seemed to be written by someone else – indeed it seemed to come from another play. In a similar though slightly more sentimental vein, the final scene between doctor and priest was at least a relief in that they finally emerged from behind their masks as three-dimensional human beings: dialogue and nuance at last.

These scenes remind us that drama of ideas does not necessarily involve an endless hurling of brickbats. Among contemporary Australian playwrights working in a similar genre, I found myself thinking almost fondly of David Williamson’s cheerful sense of satire, or the caustic wit of Joanna Murray-Smith. In comparison, The Doctor is closer to the sledgehammer approach of Stephen Sewell. However the latter offers a more penetrating analysis of political psychology, while Icke remains on the more superficial level of cultural politics, which sees everything in terms of ideas rather than material reality. At best one has the sensation of watching an ‘issue-based’ ABC TV drama series onstage, or at worst, reading an opinion piece in The Australian

In terms of ‘issues’, the complexity of Professor Bernardi is reduced to the overriding theme of ‘identity politics’ – a catch-all that extends from race, culture and religion to gender, sexuality and even gender-identity – with the predictable if somewhat gratuitous inclusion of transgender rights thrown into the mix. This results in a false equivalence (especially dear to cultural conservatives) between all forms of identity politics (other than their own) that assimilates ‘political correctness’ with totalitarianism, ‘radical’ left-wing protest with far-right violence, and (even more preposterously and offensively) uses the ‘slippery slope’ argument to compare accusations of discrimination or hate-speech with ‘witch-hunts’ or the Holocaust. In the climactic scene of Act One, for example, The Crucible is openly cited, along with the extermination of the Jews; in one rhetorical howler Wolff is even described as being ‘crucified’. 

At the risk of stating the obvious: privileged white middle-class doctors, academics or journalists (even Jewish ones) are not actually being crucified, burnt at the stake or exterminated; whereas racial and other minorities are still being oppressed by physical persecution and material injustice based on racism and other forms of prejudice. Underlying this false equivalence is a confusion between the symbolic and the real that is arguably symptomatic of contemporary cultural politics in general (on the left as well as on the right). Perhaps it’s even a part of what Icke is railing against. The problem is that in railing against it, he becomes its mirror-image.

This is amplified by the production, albeit in an interesting way (here a spoiler alert is in order, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re ever likely to see the show). I’m referring to the use of reverse-colour and reverse-gender casting, such that virtually every actor except Stevenson is progressively revealed to be playing a character whose racial or gender identity is other than it appears at first sight.

Personally I’ve no argument with inverting racial or gender-based casting. Caryl Churchill does it brilliantly in Cloud Nine, as Genet did before her in The Blacks and (at least potentially and perhaps even implicitly) The Maids. Shakespeare did the same thing, albeit in a more theatrically traditional but all the more subversive way. The same is arguably true of the Greeks, especially Euripides. In all these cases the inversion or subversion of norms is the point of the play. 

In the case of The Doctor however I found the device confusing and distracting. Perhaps it was meant to be an ironic reflection on the politics of identity; or perhaps it was intended as an act of (symbolic) colour or gender ‘blindness’ (a metaphor which is indeed ‘blind’ to social and material reality). Whatever the intention, it seemed to commit precisely the sin of political correctness that the play itself condemns. 

On a more visceral level, it also gave Stevenson and her character an unfair advantage over everyone else in terms of theatrical and moral integrity, almost as if she were being presented as the only ‘real’ person onstage. Once again, Schnitzler is far more nuanced in his portrayal of the humanly flawed but genuinely persecuted Bernhardi (as was Miller in his characterisation of John Proctor). In contrast, Icke makes Wolff an emotional cripple, and then tacks on a back-story about a lover who killed themselves after developing Alzheimer’s that supposedly explains her surface coldness and underlying rage, as well as her over-identification with a patient’s right to a peaceful death.

This lack of subtlety extends to the acting, which (like the writing) is mostly one-note and hysterical. There’s a lot of shouting, banging of fists and over-emotionalising. Once again, the exceptions are the scenes mentioned above between Wolffe and Sami, and the final scene between doctor and priest.

Stevenson herself is a riveting actor in terms of razor-sharp intelligence, emotional force, technical precision and sheer stage presence. She also possesses great comic timing, even in otherwise humourless scenes. However even she resorted to shouting from the first scene of the play onwards.

The rest of the performances – with the exception of Hill and Parker (at least in his final scene) – were woefully under-par, wooden and two-dimensional. Admittedly this was partly due to the writing and the cross-casting, which many in the cast appeared to be struggling with.

Things weren’t helped by the design. Hildegard Bechtier’s streamlined IKEA-style set featured a concave blond wood-panelled back wall, a long functional table surrounded by benches in matching tones, and a white floor that revolved slowly during various dramatic ‘turning points’. These were accompanied by heavy-handed underscoring (sound design and composition by Tom Gibbons) from a live drummer (Hannah Ledwidge) seated on a platform above the back wall.

All these elements – the curved back wall, the furniture and blocking (with the actors seated around the table in crucial scenes), the use of the revolve, and the live percussion – made it difficult to hear the dialogue, despite the use of radio-mics (it was hard to tell from where I was sitting if the actors were wearing these or if they were hidden on the set – possibly both). The curved back wall in particular seemed to create echo-points within the set that were compounded by the mics, so that the acoustic surrounding the actor’s voices constantly changed as they moved around.

As a result even Stevenson’s remarkable anchoring performance never quite landed for me because I couldn’t always understand what she was saying, even (and perhaps especially) when she was shouting; and the situation was even worse for some of the other actors.

In a sense, this flaw in the design goes to the heart of the problem. In a Guardian interview in 2015 Icke described his philosophy of adaptation as being ‘like using a foreign plug…you have to find the adaptor that will let the electricity of now flow into the old thing and make it function’. This analogy betrays the crudity of his approach to adaptation, theatre, and the drama of ideas. 

In comparison with Schnitzler’s original play, The Doctor is simplistic, one-sided, heavy-handed and hysterical. Ultimately it fails – not just as an adaptation of Professor Bernhardi, but on its own terms – because for all its sound and fury it never leaves the echo chamber of ideas to become a convincing or compelling drama. 


Scottish playwright Kieran Hurley’s new play Mouthpiece – produced by Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Company and directed by the company’s previous Artistic Director Orla O’Loughlin – is a much more tightly woven play than The Doctor. It also deals with a more focused clash of ideas on the battlefield of cultural and identity politics – this time over class rather than race or religion. However once again it ultimately came across as overwrought in conception and overcooked in performance.

Like Educating Rita, it’s essentially a two-hander about a man and a woman of different ages and class backgrounds who establish a mentor-relationship that becomes a love story – and which founders because of the contradictions between all of these factors, especially class. The obvious precursor to both plays in terms of the drama of ideas is Shaw’s Pygmalion.

The play is set in Edinburgh (as opposed to London or Liverpool in those two plays), and the city is almost a third character, with its own landscape, personality and contradictions. Scenes take place in inner-city cafes, art galleries and theatres, as well as a suburban housing-estate flat and – most memorably – the edge of a crag on a hilltop overlooking the city. All these settings feel convincing, and have the quality of lived experience – like the hospital setting in Professor Bernhardi (as opposed to that of The Doctor).

Libby (Shauna Macdonald) is a playwright in her forties who has hit a period of artistic and personal crisis and come back to Edinburgh from London after a promising early start to her career hit the doldrums. At the start of the play she appears to be contemplating suicide on the hilltop, but is rescued by Declan (Angus Taylor), an angry young unemployed teenager fresh out of juvenile detention who is also a gifted amateur artist and hangs out on the crag to sketch the view.

Libby cultivates a relationship with Declan and encourages his art. She reveals that she has a vested interest in doing so, as she hopes to reinvigorate her career by writing a play based on him called – you guessed it – Mouthpiece. The title is stolen from a drawing of his, depicting his little sister standing on the edge of the cliff with her arms outstretched and her mouth wide open – a drawing which is in turn inspired by seeing one of Bacon’s ‘Screaming Popes’ at the Scottish National Gallery when Libby takes him there on an excursion.

Things get out of hand when Declan’s own life spirals into crisis; Libby attempts to comfort him and an awkward sexual encounter ensues. When she attempts to continue their ‘professional’ relationship while enforcing some kind of emotional distance, and then shows him the ending of the play (which we don’t at this stage get to hear) for approval, he flies into a rage, and abuses her for exploiting him and appropriating his material to write a piece of poverty-porn.

In the final (and most theatrically intriguing) act of the play, Declan shows up at the opening night of Mouthpiece at the Traverse Theatre, and confronts Libby (from a seat in the actual audience) during the post-show Q&A. (For me this was where a more interesting version of play began, and could have unfolded in its entirety.) Eventually he storms the stage and threatens her at knife-point in an outburst of toxic aggression. (This was a bit of a stretch for me, and reminded me of similar moments in The Doctor when the playwright’s own hysterical desire for drama seemed to outstrip psychological plausibility on the part of the characters – notwithstanding slightly generic back-stories about anger management or unresolved grief.) A police chase ensues (the play having well and truly jumped the shark for me by this point), culminating in a cliff-hanging final scene. One more draft, please. 

Mouthpiece is a more intimate play than The Doctor, and was performed in the relatively small black box of the Odeon Theatre (although a larger venue or more open stage – perhaps more like the Traverse itself – would have been exciting, especially for the final act). Kai Fischer’s basic black two-level set and occasional furniture provided for upstage and downstage scene changes between hill-top, café, flat, art gallery and theatre, although a bare stage would arguably have been even more effective. Lighting (also by Fischer) and sound (designed and composed by Kim Moore) were appropriately minimal. 

Unfortunately (as with The Doctor) the performances were unnecessarily ‘big’ (especially for the venue) and involved a lot of shouting, which was understandable on a windswept hilltop but seemed redundant elsewhere (even in the final act). Macdonald frequently got stuck in a register of fragile self-pity, especially in her long monologue in the café about being a hard-done-by and misunderstood playwright. Personally I felt that the play worked best as a satire on well-intentioned but self-absorbed middle-class writers who are unable to relinquish their power and privilege; and there was a lot of comedy in the writing that wasn’t realized onstage. 

Taylor’s performance was much more robust and self-mocking, assisted by Declan’s sometimes hilariously incomprehensible ‘Embra’ dialect. Nevertheless the character’s sense of social isolation was deeply moving; and his outrage totally understandable (even if his final outburst of rage was unconvincing). 

In the end – again like The Doctor - despite a fine central performance, Mouthpiece remained trapped by its own ideas, rather than taking flight as a living, breathing organism. 

As the coronavirus is teaching us: all our ideas are ultimately as insubstantial as gossamer when torn asunder by the impact of material reality. 


The Doctor was at the Dunstan Playhouse from 27 February to 1 March.

Mouthpiece was at the Odeon Theatre from 6 to 14 March.


Postscript: on the drama of ideas, naturalism and the current crisis

Both The Doctor and Mouthpiece arguably belong to a tradition known as ‘the drama of ideas’: a phrase that resonates strongly in an era of political, economic, social, cultural, ecological and now epidemiological crisis such as the one we’re currently living through. This sense of crisis is heightened by the current pandemic, which has in turn been amplified by the economic reality of globalisation – as well as an ideology of neo-liberalism that has left the world so unprepared to handle realities like the coronavirus (or climate change) because it prioritises individual prosperity over collective needs. 

This atmosphere of global ‘crisis’ (the word itself refers in a medical context to the ‘decisive point’ in an illness) also prevailed during the era in which the drama of ideas emerged – along with the literary and dramatic movement called Naturalism with which it’s more or less co-extensive.

We might define the former as plays in which a conflict of ideas, opinions and values (rather than interests, needs or desires) becomes the substance of the dramatic action, usually in the form of prolonged debate (although arguably these interests, needs or desires underlie the ideas, opinions or values in question). As such it’s a tradition that goes back to Greek Tragedy.

Naturalism on the other hand refers to a certain historically determined and circumscribed idea of ‘nature’ – and more specifically ‘human nature’ – which in turn owes something to the ideas of Darwin, heredity and evolution, as well as their various social, political, psychological and philosophical offshoots. It too has ancient origins (going back at least to Lucretius).

Nevertheless Naturalism and the drama of ideas in their modern form took shape in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As is well known, the period in question led to two world wars, as well as genocides and other crimes against humanity. It’s also worth noting in the current context that this sense of crisis was intensified by viral epidemics; the so-called ‘Spanish’ flu, for example, infected more than 500 million people between 1918 and 1920, and killed somewhere between 30 and 100 million (far more than the combined military and civilian casualties resulting from the First World War). 

Needless to say I’m not suggesting that the drama of ideas or Naturalism caused or contributed to those deaths. Nevertheless these historical movements – and the works that sprang from them – reflect something about their times, and perhaps we can learn something from them.

Perhaps we can also learn something from the way that the drama of ideas and Naturalism have been misunderstood, in a way that illuminates our current situation.


As historical repertoire, both the drama of ideas and Naturalism are now looked on somewhat askance, notwithstanding their persistence as contemporary genres and styles on the stage and screen (large and small). The plays of Bernard Shaw for example are now rarely performed; and the work of his precursor Ibsen has been left like road-kill not far behind, at least on English-speaking stages – with the signal exception of adaptations by contemporary ‘auteur-directors’.

In part this is due to a characteristically tendentious interpretation and appropriation of Ibsen on the part of Shaw himself (in terms of Shaw’s social realism as opposed to Ibsen’s fundamentally romantic individualism). This strong misreading in turn influenced the reception of both playwrights, as well as the entire subsequent history of English-language theatre, especially in terms of acting that favoured the intellect and the voice over the emotions and the rest of the body (Shaw’s philosophy of ‘vitalism’ – which to some extent he shared with Ibsen – notwithstanding).

A similar misreading is also true of Naturalism. Admittedly the plays of Strindberg (or at least an early work like Miss Julie) and especially Chekhov have fared somewhat better on the English-language stage than those of Ibsen (or even Shaw). This prevalence is however due to two fundamental misconceptions. The first is a simplistic reduction of Naturalism considered as a historical movement – which had philosophical implications in terms of content as well as form – to ‘naturalism’ considered as a genre of writing or style of acting that is purely formal and equated with verisimilitude. This reduction leads to a notion of being convincing or life-like which is fundamentally different from – and even opposed to – being truthful or real.

The second and more technical but no less reductive misconception of naturalism – which relates to acting in particular – is an English-language interpretation of Stanislavsky that is just as tendentious as the Shavian reading of Ibsen. This interpretation focuses primarily on textual ‘units’, ‘bits’ or ‘beats’, verbal ‘actions’ and psychological ‘objectives’ rather than more primal and fundamentally non-verbal forms of behaviour and motivation. For example ‘task’ is a more accurate translation than ‘objective’ of the Russian word zadacha; and Stanislavsky himself soon abandoned the term kusok (‘bit’ – as in a slice of bread or a piece of meat) in favour of the more clearly material ‘facts’, ‘events’ or ‘episodes’. Needless to say this misreading of Stanislavsky has had a huge impact on the subsequent understanding of Ibsen and Chekhov – the two playwrights (along with Shakespeare) whose works Stanislavsky most frequently wrote about, acted in, taught and directed (though Chekhov famously disagreed with Stanislavsky about the latter’s productions of the former’s plays). 

In fact Ibsen, Chekhov, Stanislavsky and perhaps even Shaw himself are long overdue for a re-evaluation (at least in the Anglosphere) that focuses more on the body (and especially sexuality) rather than being typically performed by actors who appear to be dead from the neck down. This tendency is especially prevalent on the English-speaking stage, as well as in British, Anglophile and more generally White culture –including Australia and to a much lesser extent the United States (partly because of the pervasive influence of African-American culture there).

However the tendency ultimately springs from an elevation of ideas over reality, the mind over the body, the abstract over the concrete, language over other forms of action, and the symbolic over the real, which goes back at least as far as Plato. As a way of thinking and being, this habit is not merely theoretical or aesthetic, but has practical and political implications: for example when it comes to prioritising ‘the economy’ over society (or nature), profits over people, debt-reduction over risk-reduction, or financial over physical and environmental health. This has become glaringly obvious in the current period of crisis, especially with regard to the cornovirus and climate change.

To return to the drama of ideas: in the case of contemporary English-speaking playwrights (not to mention screenwriters), what might be called the ‘idealist’ version of this tradition is still very much alive (or at least on life-support). Think of the regular and popular programming of plays by Tom Stoppard or David Hare in the UK, or David Williamson and Joanna Murray-Smith in Australia. In the United States, the genre took a more heightened and visceral turn – in part due to the influence of Arthur Miller, and more recently Angels in America – for underlying reasons which have to do with a very different relationship to language, class, ideology, and the heritage of European as well as African-American culture.

In film and TV (in both English and non-English speaking countries) the drama of ideas and naturalism have taken root and thrived, with feedback effects on theatre itself. In part this has to do with the displacement of theatre by the large and small screen for the purposes of mass entertainment in the course of the 20th century. More specifically, dramatic writers interested in communicating with a mass audience have increasingly migrated to a mass medium (TV) for reasons of ongoing employment and artisic influence in a much more writer-driven industry than theatre or film. In terms of scale, format and attention-span the small screen is also better suited than the stage (or the big screen) to genres like the drama of ideas or naturalism that typically favour dialogue (or more precisely talk) over action; workplace or domestic situations over large-scale settings like cities or landscapes (which are more easily rendered in novels or films); and long-term character development (or the lack thereof) over the exigencies of a well-crafted classical three-act plot. 

More recently – and partly in response to the flocking of audiences and writers to film and TV in particular – within theatre itself one might point to the dethronement of the playwright by the ‘auteur-director’ (in this case aping the medium of film, where the director has always been the leading creative artist and principal ‘author’ of the work). This has its own set of problems, as the writing and acting tend to suffer as a result, unless the director has a background in acting and writing as well directing, a preternatural gift for all three, or a generous capacity for collaboration.

There’s also been a tendency for theatre acting to become more and more ‘naturalistic’ or ‘filmic’ – a tendency reinforced by the ubiquitous use of radio-mics. The latter is partly necessitated by the similarly ‘filmic’ use of ‘sound’, which means that the actors’ voices have to become part of the ‘mix’ in order to be heard. One of the consequences of this (especially the use of head and body mics) is that the acting becomes less fully embodied and more ‘head’ related. The increasing use of live-feed video (typically involved big-screen close-ups and ‘head shots’) compounds this tendency even further.   

On European as opposed to English-language stages, the drama of ideas and Naturalism have always been interpreted in more physical and heightened terms. Productions of Ibsen or Chekhov in Europe are typically staged and performed in ways that reflect the content and form of the plays themselves, not only by setting them in a contemporary and local context but also by using a more physical and heightened acting-style. Both these strategies are truer to the radical spirit of the original texts than the museum-like staging, acting and diction still predominant in the Anglosphere.

Recent attempts to adopt this more ‘European’ approach on the part of English-speaking auteur-directors have typically imposed ‘anti-naturalistic’ staging (in terms of concept and design) onto writing (often their own) and performances that remain resolutely and even banally ‘naturalistic’ or ‘filmic’ in style. Once again, a lopsided approach to the drama of ideas and naturalism is apparent here.

Perhaps this distortion in theory and practice is not confined to the sphere of theatre, but also applies to the political, economic, social, cultural, ecological and epidemiological crisis we’re currently living through.