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Welcome to the Masque

25 Aug

Last Sunday, at Riverside Parramatta, Genevieve Lemon and Max Lambert offered a soulful hour of cabaret.

Twenty five kilometres away, comfortable on my couch, I gratefully accepted their gift.

This is one way live performance continues in the age of COVID. Live streamed and shot with multiple cameras, Lemon and Lambert shared classics by mournful, magical composers like Carol King and Jodie Mitchell. There were songs of loss, love and hope; those aspects of the human experience, wild and intense, that call to be sung rather than said.

And though some of the banter between numbers felt strained, the musical presentation was brilliant.  Lambert played like a waterfall in the sunshine; great primal forces channeled, naturally and seemingly effortlessly, as eternal flow and sparkle. And Lemon’s voice – extraordinarily beautiful, rich and subtle – was used with an actor’s attention to meaning. The potential limitations of the small screen were transcended, a connection was kindled, and each classic shone with light and love.

Welcome to the Masque – Riverside Theatres Digital

riversideparramatta.com.au

Holding Emily Bronte Prisoner

22 Jun

Many of us know Emily Bronte only from her novel Wuthering Heights.

And many of us know Wuthering Heights only from Kate Bush’s pop song.

“Heathcliff, It’s me, It’s Cathy, I’ve come home,” sang Bush, capturing either Heathcliff’s half crazed grief for his deceased lover, or the eternal moan of that lover’s spirit in the wailing winds of the moors.

Death – and the attendant possibility of existence beyond death – was more immediate to Bronte than to us.

Before she was ten years old, she had lost her mother and two elder sisters. Before she herself died, at only thirty, she had also lost her brother. Her younger sister was to follow her to the grave soon after.

(I once set a play in Elizabethan England – over two centuries before Bronte’s time – and several audience members, including a reviewer, expressed incredulity that my protagonist had lost several children in their infancy. In the pain of enduring my play, perhaps they forgot how fortunate we moderns are.)

Wuthering Heights is considered a literary classic, but Bronte did not live to see fame. I doubt she would have wanted it.

Bronte

In addition to her novel, she wrote hundreds of poems, but only published twenty-one.

One of these is “The Prisoner”.

The young female protagonist whose detention is presented in the poem is not a criminal, but is most likely a victim of changing power relations between competing families. Her relatives and friends have been killed. She soon will die. Such machinations were not the stuff of Victorian England, but it was not a human experience the poet needed to invent.

In just over sixty lines of verse, Bronte presents convincing dramatic portraits of three human souls: the young master, whose privilege leads him to the self-justifying assumption that those who suffer must be bad; the gaoler, whose heart has been hardened by daily witness to cruelty; and the prisoner, who gently laughs at her captors and shares her vision “divine”.

The critic Spurgeon called it “one of the most perfect mystic poems in the English language”.

Dare we write such stuff in theatre?

A good dramatist would make easy work of the young master and the gaoler.

But the prisoner….?

“ …first, a hush of peace—a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast—unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.

“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels”

Do we simply not believe that human life has such dimensions?

Dare we look?

The liquefaction of Julia’s clothes

18 Jun

“Gather ye rose buds while ye may” is Robert Herrick’s most famous line.

It’s a call to seize the day, to make the most of our short lives.

The poem’s title is “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” and it advises them not to be coy, but to go marry.

Herrick’s lyrics, written in the 17th century, are charming, life affirming – and often addressed to lovers.

In delightful, easy-to-read verse they celebrate female beauty and sensuality. They sing of the power of love and of total devotion.

There are poems for Sylvia.

For Electra.

For Julia.

For Corinna.

For Anthea.

And none of these women existed.

Or so it’s been claimed.

Herrick lived to his eighties. Eschewing his own advice, he never married – implying an inherently sexist perspective, or the utter irrelevance of poetry.

The second of these possibilities receives insufficient notice nowadays, so let me expand.

Does it matter that Herrick’s impassioned verse was addressed to fictional characters?

Cynics will argue that the object of our affection is always a fiction, a mere projection of our own fantasies, an emotional amusement only made possible by the eternal mutability and essential unknowability of the Other. From a nebulous, swirling cloud of vapour we see the expected rainbow.

But not everyone is a cynic, and if fantasy speaks to us, perhaps it’s because the glory it clothes is ineffable.

 

Whenas in silks my Julia goes,

Then, then (methinks) how sweetly flows

That liquefaction of her clothes.

 

Next, when I cast mine eyes, and see

That brave vibration each way free,

O how that glittering taketh me!

 

 

Losing Paradise

17 Jun

I chose to spend the pandemic as a poet.

During the day I have experimented with multiple forms.

At night, I read.

My shelves bulge with volumes of verse I’ve bought over the years – books often purchased on the strength of a single sonnet. Shelley’s Collected Works bought for “Ozymandias”. Barret Browning procured for “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” Shakespeare’s sonnets snapped up second hand for “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Books bought and never read.

I do not blame only myself.

We’re taught poetry is difficult. We are told it is meant to be analysed – that is, pulled apart –  and then from the remaining mess we’re expected to fashion an academic essay that fits whatever is this year’s fashion. It’s a bit like forcing your dog to chomp at a pearl necklace and then carefully inspecting his turds in the hope of finding beauty.

The last few months I have read poetry purely for pleasure. Volume after volume, cover to cover. No agonising, only enjoyment. I do read everything twice; I’m not going to miss a Grange simply because I awkwardly gulped my first mouthful. But playfully I push on. No lingering over the needlessly esoteric. No pandering to thoughts and feelings I deem artificial. My shelves are full of dead poets. They wrote for me. And I’m taking it all.

Which brings me to Paradise Lost.

Milton’s epic was set for my second year at uni. At age 19 it seemed unreadable. The assessment concerned a passage from Book Six …. out of the twelve. I struggled through to Book Six, a dog that by page 1 knew this was not fare meant for my mouth.

I expect I got a C.

I pity the marker who had to rake through all that excrement.

Thirty five years later, I owe Milton an apology. And I owe myself one. Perhaps I wasn’t ready while still in my teens, but did I need to wait until I was in my fifties?

What impresses most about Milton is his utter audacity.

The introduction to my edition quotes the critic Northrop Frye: ‘In listening to the Kyrie of the Bach B minor Mass we feel what amazing things the fugue can do; in listening to the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 106, we feel what amazing things can be done with the fugue.”

Milton does something amazing with the form, but he also does something amazing full stop. He attempts to “justify the ways of God to Man.”

He fails. Of course.

But what an exhilarating failure! Milton’s Fall of Humankind might teach you little about God – but it teaches you a hell of a lot about being human.

Let me pull this back to theatre.

Because we have so many highly trained professionals in this town, the danger is we will be (to use Frye’s distinction) more “Bach” than “Beethoven”. Professionalism means we aim for certain standards: we try to get things right. Our goal is to make theatre that is perfect.

“But what can be wrong with perfection?” you ask.

Nothing. By definition.

Except that ….. when we cease to right, we can start to be human.

Some paradises are meant to be lost.

A Manifesto; or Reflections on Writing about Theatre over a Decade

28 Jan

“Manifestos are written by revolutionaries as they wait for the next shipment of bullets. Oh, and by reviewers waiting for the next play.”

When I began this site in 2011, writing as the character Veronica Kaye, I wrote the above, and then continued:

Not that this will be a manifesto. But, then, I’m not a reviewer.

Which in two sentences [sort of] sums up my attitude.

I’m not in the slightest interested in judging plays. I’m interested in responding to them. I intend to write about what plays make me feel and what they make me think. I don’t intend to label them as failures or successes. Other writers can do that. And they will. And I don’t think it’s enough.

I hope to encourage the appreciation of plays as what I believe they are – sharings of our visions of the world.  They are not tricks that are done either well or not. Theatre is not Olympic diving.

Of course, theatre can be done horribly. But I’m not going to write about that. It’s tempting to be all Oscar Wilde for a moment and say that task can be left in far less capable hands than mine. But, it’s actually just a choice.

Theatre is not space flight. When you get it wrong, no-one dies. We just don’t get to visit new worlds.

[So I suppose it is like space flight.]”

Looking back, almost a decade on, I agree with most of what Veronica wrote (and she did write beautifully.)

But she was a young pup and, in her exuberance, I feel she was guilty of …. exuberance.

Now older, I find I differ with her attitude to both reviewers and artists. These differences are only subtle, but when we trip, it is not over Mt Everest but rather a mere crack in the pavement.

Veronica criticised how others wrote about theatre. I’m not much interested in this anymore. We must all work out our own salvation (and there is more than enough to be done on mine.)

Veronica also gave the impression she would talk about herself.  She did not (though her focus on the meaning of plays did surprise some people – especially if you didn’t think your play meant anything at all. Or didn’t want it to.)

I’ll continue with the same focus as Veronica, but I want to make clear that I’ll be analysing and discussing what the artist is doing, not using the production as a hook to hang my erudition.

I’m still not particularly interested in evaluating theatre. But I know some people like it. And I know it slips in anyway, unbidden, a sort of reflex action. After all, judgement is a natural response to Life  (“This coffee is awful!” and “What a beautiful day!”) and also a necessary one (“This society is unjust.”)

And, following Veronica, I’ll continue to write about artists with respect.

And her space flight analogy is charming (didn’t we all want to be astronauts when we were young?) but I’m going to rejig it, and make it something more down to earth.

I will consider a play as a gift.

And I’ll unwrap it.

And share it around.

Paul Gilchrist

Theatre Red is Re-Open for Business

10 Jan

About two and a half years ago I decided I didn’t have enough time to write about theatre anymore.

Well, things have changed.

Recently, as I was ferreting around the dark and dusty corners of my subconscious, hidden behind boxes labelled Bad Habits and Dis-organisation, I discovered this big bucket of extra Time.

I’ve decided to use this extra Time writing about theatre, because I enjoy it so much.

My contact details can be found on the page inventively entitled About/Contact.

Why I don’t write about theatre anymore

9 Jun

Everyone loves a rant, don’t they? So perhaps I should begin with a complaint about disorganized publicists who never had my name at the door, a whine about painful productions by hopeless incompetents, a whinge about competent productions by cynical CV-fillers, and a despairing howl about my inane colleagues who wrote only fluent cliche.

Unfortunately, I have no such rant in me. I’ve enjoyed writing about theatre and I have met some truly wonderful people.

But, before I explain why I no longer write about theatre, I’d like to explain why I began in the first place. Over the years, some people have responded as though there was something inappropriate about me doing so, suggesting it was either wrong or unwise for a working dramatist to comment on other dramatist’s work. But surely artists should be able to talk about Art? The moral discomfort seemed based on the assumption that if I wrote about theatre my aim must be to criticize. I don’t think this is the only way we can respond to Art.

Paul and Croc

I wrote about other artists’ theatre in the way I wished my own theatre was written about. I wrote about theatre in an attempt to acknowledge and appreciate the gift being given. Evaluation is the default position in most critical writing and, of course, it has its place. But I don’t write as a dramatist to be judged. I write to share.

As a playwright, I write to share my vision of Life. I use the theatrical form because it allows complexity and contradiction. (Dramatists who say they’re writing the Truth are simply substituting that word for an expression I believe more humble and honest.)

My vision of Life is joyful and hopeful – I hope. But if it were sad and miserable I would share it anyway, because you have to bring to the table what you have. (Occasionally as an artist I’ve come up against the view ‘Who are you to do that?’ and my response is ‘Who are you to not?’ Sharing is not arrogance. Deliberate isolation is.)

There are many qualities required in order to write about theatre well. One of them is time. I find I have increasingly less of that, and so I can no longer write about theatre, not when there are plays to write.

However, I have enormous admiration for those who do write about theatre (whether they’re driven by the need to evaluate or not). It’s not an easy task, as I’ve discovered. But I believe it is vital. If we don’t discuss our Art, it’s as though we are spitting Life in the face.

Paul Gilchrist

Open Letter to Sydney’s Theatre Critics

14 Dec

Firstly, thanks so much. The job you have chosen is not an easy one, but it is important.

About this time, some of you will publish your “Best of the Year” list.

This is not something that usually interests me, unless subtlenuance is on your list – and then I’ll social-media-the-shit-out-of-it.

What I would love is if you’d spend some time discussing what is happening in the scene overall. After all, you see so much theatre, much more than the rest of us. Some of you, I know, will have seen over 150 shows this year!

keep-off-the-stage

An interest in quality control is what many of you have in common, so by all means tell us what shows you enjoyed the most. But there are many other things I’m also keen to know.

These include:

  • As a culture, what sort of things do we produce theatre about? Are there any themes we seem obsessed with? Or are there important issues not being explored? What conversations are we having with our audiences?
  • How much new writing is there? And what’s it about? And how does it compare to overseas work? Is there a distinctively Australian voice? And is this new work reactive, attempting to take part in existing contemporary conversations, or does it ambitiously address issues explored nowhere else?
  • How much work is actually genuine art? (Now, that’s a term to start a conversation.) How much of it is simply pure fun? And how much is merely produced as a showcase for the talents of the actors and directors?
  • When non-original work is produced, where is it from? Is it predominantly classics or is it recently imported material from theatrical hot spots like the UK and the US? Having seen the productions, why do you think these choices are being made?
  • How does the indie scene differ from the main stage?
  • There is a vital push for more diversity in programming and on stage. What impact is this having on the actual work?
  • What is the house style of particular theatres?
  • And what isn’t happening in the scene that you really think should? After all, a good critic recognises what’s happening, and a great critic knows what is not.

Go on, make outrageously broad generalizations. You’ve earned it!

And thanks again.

Paul Gilchrist

The Wit and Wisdom of Veronica Kaye

26 Oct

The trouble with reviewers is that, ultimately, they’re always writing about themselves. Every evaluation is simply their world view writ large. The more sophisticated critic will acknowledge this, but rarely in a review (usually in a bar).

I, however, will not hide behind any pretense of objectivity.

If it’s going to be all about me ULTIMATELY, then it may as well be all about me INITIALLY.

So, while other theatre writers might present lists of the best they have seen, I prefer to present the best of what I have written.

 

The Wit and Wisdom of Me

“Theatre is not space flight. When you get it wrong, no-one dies. We just don’t get to visit new worlds. (So, I suppose, it is like space flight.)” By Way of a Manifesto

“We judge art so it does not judge us.” To the Death, 2011

“Don’t give me that crap about theatre being the most natural thing in the world. ‘All the world’s a stage’ is just professional myopia. To footballers, all the world’s a game. To risk assessors, all the world’s an accident waiting to happen. To fishermen, all the world smells of fish.” StoryLines, 2012

“We should be wary when too many of our conversations about theatre sound like demarcation disputes, performance reviews, price negotiations, quality control panels, courts of petty session and magistrate’s verdicts. Only one conversation is vital. And it happens in the desert, when the artist battles with the devil – alone, naked and true – and in that battle forfeits her ego to win her soul. And tired but free, she returns to the city, and scratched in the dirt if necessary, she offers a vision of the kingdom of heaven.” Let the children keep their paint boxes

 “‘I’m only being honest,’ says the bully……It is naïve to think we communicate primarily to tell the truth. ‘Pass the salt’ is far more typical, and meaningful, than ‘That is the salt’. Truth maybe crucial but it is always secondary. We speak, we write, to impact on the world.” A Hoax, 2012

 “The obsession with acting in the drama theatre is like an obsession with anesthetic in the surgical theatre. Of course, you have to get it right, but it’s hardly the point of the process.” Masterclass, 2015

“There have been times and places where drama has been entirely banned. If you can’t see why, you haven’t seen it done well.” The Venetian Twins, 2012

“Reviews are our revenge on theatre. (And not just when we dislike it; after all, even 5 stars is rather parsimonious, considering how many stars there actually are.) In answer to the beautiful multiplicity of theatre, reviews offer a stern monotone. Which is why no-one takes them too seriously. Which is why I don’t write them. (They’re like trying to catch starlight in a jar.) When the Rain Stops Falling, 2012

Rochester

Now, where are those pigeons?

“To be honest, I find it difficult to be overly interested in judging the technical details of a production.  Maybe I lack something. But I want a play to give me more than the satisfaction that I am superior to it and its creators. No-one survives this life, but I intend to go down fighting. I want a play to arm me for that fight. I want to leave the theatre with more than I entered. And that “more” is not disdain – or even admiration – for the artists. The plays I need are fuel for life; logs to feed our open fire. They give warmth. They give light.  So we’ll gather, in silent fascination, and watch. And as one flickers out, we’ll throw on another, and no two will burn the same. And so we’ll pass this night, the dark and the cold all around us, and know that no dawn comes, except of our own making.” But What’s It All About?

“If a piece of theatre doesn’t appear truthful, maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s original.” Conservatism in Theatre 2

“Whenever someone begins a comment with ‘I see a lot of theatre’ I’m left wondering whether it’s a claim to expertise, or just a cry for help.” The Small Poppies, 2013

“People go to the theatre for all sorts of reasons. For me, one of the greatest attractions is the insight it offers into how the world is viewed by others. If we’re asked our values we’re often lost for words. It’s hard to sum up our worldview in a few pithy sentences. It’s like asking a fish to describe the ocean. (Feel free to test the truth of this analogy.)” Shopping Centres and Gutters, 2011

“The problem with the pursuit of excellence is not that you’ll never catch it. The problem is you miss so much else. Doing something without fault is a secondary virtue. The crucial issue is what you’re trying to do, not how well you do it. Surely, it’s better to fail at something worthwhile than succeed at something worthless. Do you really want to be remembered for producing the play that most effectively keeps the world small and cold?”  The Pursuit of Excellence

“I’ve come to accept that people will attempt to inoculate themselves from art. In terms of theatre, most people do this by not going. Those of us forced to go – because of career, or the pursuit of career – adopt other methods. Most of us don’t want to be changed. We don’t want to be challenged. And, considering the lives of unparalleled privilege that most of us enjoy, that’s perfectly understandable.” Theatre as Just a Trick

“Only God knows the complete Truth. And She’s not sharing…What we call the Truth is simply the point at which we cease asking questions.” Dangerous Corner, 2013

“Remember when the most important question was ‘What is to be done?’, rather than ‘Who am I?’” Indian Embrace, 2013

“We reviewers need to keep in mind that if the artist really valued our opinion, they’d ask us to read the script before the production, or at least get us along to a couple of rehearsals. As it is, they ask us in when they’re finished. Obviously, they don’t intend taking what we say that seriously. (Analogy: We think we’re specialists, yet we’re only ever called in for the autopsy.) What are reviews for?

“It’s difficult to see you as serious writer if you won’t help mount a production of your play that could be truly awful. Worthwhile writing challenges established values, so a writer seeking status is as absurd as a spy wanting recognition. ‘But if it was any good wouldn’t someone pay me for it?’ That attitude is loud and clear in our society, and perfectly designed to silence dissent.” Natural Born Producers

“In a capitalist society, co-operation is not encouraged. Competition is. Careerists – people interested primarily in personal advancement – are held up as model citizens. To support this world view, it’s expected that writers about theatre will focus on evaluating performers and productions, as against discussing ideas. And so the prevailing economic structure influences everything; even trivialities like theatre criticism.” His Mother’s Voice,  2014

“Theatre’s particular oddness is that it is not first person. Theatre presents Life from the outside, which is decidedly not how Life is experienced.” Tell Me Again, 2014

“Every evaluation is a political act.” Truth in the Theatre Foyer

Veronica Kaye

Reviewers say the darndest things

14 Oct

Over the last 8 years I’ve been reviewed as a writer and director over 200 times. The vast majority of responses to my work have been very generous-spirited, and some of them have even been intelligent.

There have been exceptions. At times, I’ve been described as unimaginative, mean-spirited and self-indulgent. And I’ve been branded a coward, a racist, a misogynist and a homophobe.

(The last three accusations all came in a single review. Admittedly, it was the work that was so labeled, not me; but when you’re the writer and director of the production such a distinction seems somewhat irrelevant.)

So what do you do when you get a review like that?

I complain.

Of the derogatory reviews listed above, only once did I fail to take the reviewer to task – the time I was accused of cowardice. Insert own joke here.

Each of my complaints was successful, in that the reviewer was willing to discuss the issue in a public forum, or in the case of the alleged racism, misogyny and homophobia, the review was withdrawn.

I want to make clear that I haven’t complained every time I received a less than glowing review. Who’s got the time?

What I do want to suggest is, that every time I elicited the type of response I’m discussing here (that is, a personal moral attack), it was perfectly obvious to me that the play had hit home. It had angered someone. That was never all that happened in the audience; each of those plays received glowing reviews from other critics.

But that anger? Was I pleased about it?

No.

And yes.

Paul Gilchrist