Thursday, 29 December 2011

As I Please: The Dear David Letter

Dear David,
There have been for these last nine days no respondents acclaiming or defending Nothing Personal. And this, surely, is the point.
I praised Don Parties On, and praised it in print, because I thought it good. I dispraised Nothing Personal because I thought it bad; and thought it, moreover, a minor scandal that the Ensemble had put it on when better plays were available.
You and Kristin however have said I panned it solely because I was a jealous of you, and a sad, sad man with a fameless, frustrated life. This would make some emotional sense if the play had any defenders, but there are none. Where are they? I ask you to drum up a hundred quickly lest your libellous claim that I had no motive but jealousy further enkindle the present, irritable situation.
I said one Williamson play was good, and, a year later, another Williamson play was bad because, what, I was jealous of you? and always have been? Please take some thought about this. An apology, appropriately worded, would be accepted.
In the meantime let us look at the revived Nation Review and your part in its extinction. When your lawyer's letter came in the printer/publisher Peter Isaacson said, 'I haven't budgeted for litigation!', cursed my 'love-hate relationship' with you,  kicked a chair and soon closed down the paper for a 'six-week Christmas break' after only ten issues. It never came back; and the subsequent shrivelled careers of Hepworth, Mungo, Cook and Leunig then followed, and within two years, the death of its layout-creator and food writer Sam Orr (Richard Beckett) at 52.
To say you did not 'sue' the paper may be technically correct, but by God you did the pivotal thing, after only six issues, in extinguishing it.
And a lot of fine writing consequently never occurred. I remember Les Murray mournfully asking when it was coming back, since he had never been paid a dollar a word before.
A sad, sad business. And why? Because I had said you had stolen the phrase 'a long thin streak of pelican shit' from Alex Buzo who used it in Norm And Ahmed thirteen years before and grumbled to me about it. You correctly pointed out it was in the common tongue. And thus extinguished the great adventure, probably, of The Nation Review.
You do harm, David. You do harm you do not acknowledge to other writers' careers. Bryan Brown was shaping up as a good correspondent, Laurel McGowan, Tony Morphett, Lex Marinos, Peter Jensen, Fred Hollows. You pre-emptively stepped on the neck of a lot of good writing. But, heck, how little does that matter when compared with the derivation of 'pelican shit' as Australian invective? The pelican shit outweighs it all; outweighs Fred Hollows; everything. Follow the thread. Follow the thread.
Kristin's odd view that any critic of any of your plays must be sad, lonely, jealous or mad is very, very close in its reasoning to the longtime Soviet policy of gaoling dissidents in lunatic asylums and should, I suggest, be reconsidered before it is repeated. For it does raise the question, does it not, since she is so protective of your work, of how much she did of your work.
A lot of 'research', she implies, for Nothing Personal, whatever that means. How much research for what else? And how much dialogue? For Sons Of Cain, for instance, which seems to be based on her years at The National Times? Did you give her fair credit for this in the programme? What credit was that? Perhaps the two of you should answer this one separately.
It's entirely possible none of this would have happened if you had simply held tight to your millions and not compained too vividly when a play of yours was criticised; and if Kristin had been more truthful -- and less triumphalist -- in her memoir. Or if you had given her what she first wanted, an acting career. 'I wanted to be his Monica Vitti,' she told me once. And I think it is true.
As thus the whirligig of time, as the Earl of Oxford once said, brings in his revenges.
Over to you.
Bob Ellis
P.S. Anyone wanting to see more of this correspondence will find it under my piece Tall Poppies: David Williamson's Nothing Personal in these pages now, and, later, under 'December 2011'.
P.P.S. David replied to this under Tall Poppies, and I replied to him in the column now called The Williamson Moment, but my words all vanished in the computer. I will try to rewrite them in the next few hours.
P.P.P.S. They are now rewritten. For further correspondence, see the ever-augmenting As I Please below.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

As I Please: The Williamson Moment, The Maggie Movie, The Ashes Of '011, The Beresford Fireworks Party, The Thatcher-Kristin Comparison, The Wikileaks Admonition, The Beresford Intervention, The New York Production, The Onion Sandwich At Wayne's, The Reading List, The Marples Distraction, The Guilt Of Gabriel Byrne, The Voting Trends Thus Far, Williamson The Liberal, The Popjie Intervention, Applause, Applause, And So It Goes

Saw The Iron Lady and wrote about it for Unleashed a piece they may not want and I'll put up here if they reject it. The short summary is two great performances in a film unworthy of them, sluggishly confected by two dull women with much more interest in dementia than politics, and no interest whatever, it seems, in how Thatcher changed, and pretty much wrecked, the western world.
On Thursday morning I became aware that Kristin Williamson had fingered me again as a sad, lonely, jealous, friendless failure and bade me get off the earth in her usual regal proud magnanimous way, and had foolishly done so in these pages, whose only editor is me. I had some green tea and Vegemite toast and a think, and after some vacillation decided to exhume our old sexual relationship, and a theory about her attitude I got from it, one chill, horny night in Diamond Creek.
It's in the correspondence under Tall Poppies.
I may also publish the missing Ellis-Brooksbank-Williamson letters from Days Of Wine And Rage that Kristin had suppressed.
It could be an interesting summer.
Saturday, 31st December, 2011
No correspondence yet from anyone who liked Nothing Personal and no more from the Williamsons. It's possible they will now do nothing but they could sue, I suppose, and strive to take the house. This is Annie's great fear, and my son Jack, who's a lawyer, pointms out how much Marieke Hardy had to pay for a wrong accusation that was up for only one hour on her blog and named the wrong male pest as her hate-bloggker and had to withdraw, apologize and fling sheaves of money at him. It's a new world. And not a brave one.
The difficulty David and Kristin risk in all this is contained in what she wrote about me in her book and in her recent ballistic reply, and what I wrote about her in mine that Penguin asked me to take out. It wasn't libellous but would make her 'uncomfortable', the editor said. Maybe it should be reprinted.
Here, say.
Their technique has been remarkably successful to date: just say 'You're jealous of our success, just look at the money we're making by writing plays that people want to see' and watch the befuddled critics crawl backwards out of the room. And for decades the critics have done so. It's worked very well.
But they've never acknowledged, not even for a minute, the part that timing had in their success, as it did in the life of Andrew Lloyd Webber, turning up with Jesus Christ Superstar just when the sixties youth culture was heating up to its clitoral climax and the censorship of the stage (forbidding dramatisations of Christ in the theatre, and nudity, and coarse language, and impertinent political comment) was being lifted at last in England and America.
In David's case it was the arrival of Don's Party a few months before Whitlam was uproariously elected, which made him overnight the limelit laureate of that particular eloquent, colourful, poignant, passionate era.
But had he done it a year later, and had John Doyle, for instance, come up with his Changi musical, or some early draft of Pig Iron People in the same big year, 1972, it would then have been John not David who became the flagship comedy-dramatist of the decade and the bankable brand-name of the nineteen-eighties, and it would then have been David who was writing Certain Women and A Country Practice, as Annie my wife did, and I did for a while, and stifling under the storylines. And it would have been John who was having glamorous opening nights at the Opera House and the West End. And deservedly so, because he is, as we all now know, the better writer.
But the ongoing Kristin Doctrine of Williamson Exceptionalism (other people also write good dialogue and raise laughs in plays that succeed but we are exceptional, chosen, apart from the common herd in a somehow royal, somehow predestined way) has an alluring touch to it -- of magical realism, of pixie-dust and rainbow's ends and wishes made on a star -- that has drawn too many female interviewers into the Legend that, until now, has been the scenario.
If you say you're the best, and you imply you have a particular gift for something or other -- Baz Luhrman comes to mind in this context, Stephan Elliot, Benedict Andrews, Barry Kosky, Alan Jones, Kyle Sandilands -- there will always be a few dull tycoons out there somewhere, and a few fearful bureaucrats in government boardrooms, to admire your impertinence and fund it, and often, not always, a large unlettered audience to reward you. Kristin to her credit understood this. But she did not reckon on the Legend outstaying its welcome, which it has.
These anyway are a few drear midnight thoughts on my seventieth New Year's Eve to heaven that may guide and shape and sweeten the days and days and days of Kristin ruckus that is to come.
A green tea, I think, and bed.
2.05 pm
It was David not Kristin that came back again to these columns, to correct and embellish a few 'facts' about his and Kristin's money, mentioning no amounts and not denying the sex or Kristin's part in his writing, and perhaps unwisely libelling me by saying my 'vitriolic attacks' on Kristin are because she doesn't treat me with the 'reverence' I think I deserve from 'the opposite sex'; though I never sue; I never sue.
But he's wrong, really wrong, about why I'm doing this. It's actually about good table manners, in the end, in table talk like this. For I would respond to Kristin's apparent guiding belief that all criticism of her and David is somehow a breach of royal protocol with the same splenetic annoyance if she and I were still committing adultery together; and I would by God resent, and resent in public, as I do here, her lofty disdain for better talents than David if we were still the threesome we briefly and brashly and lustily were in September 1974.
David says in his letter he will do now what I suggested a week ago, put money via the Writers' Guild into the upkeep and care of new playwrights. He hasn't said how much, and he emphasises it was all there in the pipeline before I suggested it, and it will start, a happy coincidence, next year; and whatever the sum it turns out to be for this good work it will be welcome.
He also reminds me, correctly, of some of his past kindnesses to me and Annie: of the money he put into my run against Bronwyn Bishop (a thousand dollars, Annie recalls, a sum only Peter Garrett equalled and no-one bettered) in late1993, and of the money he gave us, the total I don't remember, when our house burned down a few months before; and I thank him now of course without caveats for his generosity twice in that far-off calendar year. And I in turn, of course, can also remember, not that it matters, how twenty years before that I helped make Maggie Fink fund the Removalist film, and with O'Malley helped create the theatre, the Nimrod, and the director, John Bell, that launched his career in Sydney.
We have had our ups and downs, as Eleanor of Aquitaine coldly jested in The Lion In Winter. He praised Down Under and A Very Good Year. I praised Petersen, Phar Lap and Duet For Four and bagged Gallipoli, and he sued me for it. We travelled in Bali together, quarrelled in foyers, saw the same great British theatre, got drunk in Chinese restaurants and shared a few girls, or I think we did; two for certain. He mocked me so accurately in Celluloid Heroes that Graham Blundell was excised from the Ellis role in the Belvoir production lest I note the close resemblance and sue them for it. I so esteemed Dead White Males I saw it four times and commanded my grumbling family to it. He said I was 'unequalled as a rhetorician in the Australian context', high praise for him. We were civil at writers' festivals. We never shared a bed again. We exchanged affectionate letters. I really liked Face To Face. My review of it was never published. We planned once to write a musical together but Kristin, territorial as ever, put a quick stop to that.
Kristin is like that. She defends her patch with ferocity, and any intruders are soon cast out of partnership with her meek and sorrowing tall obedient consort. Like Margaret Thatcher or Bronwyn Bishop she believes the past can be removed from a nation's brain cells if a tough bright girl just has the will to say 'it never happened' or 'how dare you bring that up, it was a long time ago.' David has caught the disease of denial, and in his latest response now says, in effect, 'I know I can't write, of course I can't write, but I must be paid millions for failing to do it. I think this is only fair.'
But the pigeons are coming home to roost in the eves of elden memory and it's time perhaps he revealed how much he lately paid resurging litigants, and how much of its wording had to be changed or abolished for legal reasons before Kristin's memoir was printed last year, if the Penguin rumours are true; and how happy he was in the end with a book that aired so many of their marital difficulties and cast him as an adulterous goof and her as a loyal wife who only took lovers when exasperated by the number, frequency and foolishness of his, a book he said in interviews he had begged her not to write. And if her decision to do no more writing is connected to this.
And it's time he said -- though of course it makes no matter in a legal sense -- what sort of work she did on plays like Sons of Cain and Corporate Vibes and Top Silk and Nothing Personal which seem to some to more echo her voice and style than, say, Don's Party, The Club or The Department and if she will get a credit in future (like, say, 'With Kristin Williamson') for the research work she occasionally does for her hardscribbling spouse, if this indeed is the case. When she told my wife in 1974 how lucky she was that I let her put her name on plays that we wrote collaboratively, David was preparing, or conceiving, or working on A Handful Of Friends and this could be added to the list of their joint projects if the theory is true.
There are always two names on the plays and screenplays I co-write. It halves my income from each of these projects but I think it only fair.
Sunday, January 1st, 2012, 7.53 am
Went with difficulty to Beresford's fireworks party in the house he bought from the Williamsons by the water in Birchgrove, walking for fifty minutes from a blocked-off Darling Street and sharing my map with other pilgrims enthused by water and fire and the turning of the year as I to their surprise was not.
The first thing Bruce said at the door was 'The Williamsons aren't coming'. We agreed it was a pity.
The guests who made it through the policing and watched on the verandah the great flowering of beauty above the Bridge included John Duigan, whose new movie Careless Love is terrific and reviwed in these pages, and who may or may not direct in partnership with Bruce, if we can fix it, our Murdoch miniseries; his sister Virginia Duigan, Bruce's wife, whose novel The Precipice, lately launched by Barry Humphries, Annie says is really good; the cinematographer Don McAlpine who shot Breaker Morant and Driving Miss Daisy, now in his middle seventies and shooting 'a science fiction film' in New Orleans; the playwright-academic Larry Buttrose who is unabashedly still at work on his vast and punishing Don Quixote Project; the American-born actor and writer Nicholas Hammond who was one of the children in The Sound Of Music and lately played Arthur Miller in Intimate Strangers in the reading Bruce directed at the Wharf; and his partner Robyn Nevin, content she said to be touring in the Doll at 69 (she is six months younger than me) as it meant she was 'still working'.
She wasn't pleased I was fighting, again, with the Williamsons -- 'Still at it are you, darling?' -- but agreed I think with my dim view of Nothing Personal, though Beresford liked it a lot. 'It was my idea,' she said. 'I was up at Pearl Beach at a lunch with some semi-retired arts bureaucrats and I looked around the table and thought a play about people who were losing their influence in the world, and how this affected them, would be a good thing to do. And I soon asked David to write it. And he did. And it wasn't what I wanted at all.'
'And you rejected it?'
'Yes. Yes, I did.'
'Have you seen this production?'
'No. No. I haven't.'
She'd directed Corporate Vibes, of course, and may not have liked the experience.
And the fireworks banged and crackled and bloomed and faded above the Opera House and the Bridge and the dark, boat-bobbing water.
David and Kristin would have loved to have seen this from the old verandah, I thought.
But not, perhaps, tonight.
11.55 am
This blog racked up 1196 hits on Friday-Saturday and 1154 on Saturday-Sunday not counting my own interventions and on these figures, I am told, it just might attract some advertising, from cinemas and theatres, for instance.
Not, I would think, from the Ensemble for a while.
Kristin's resemblance to Margaret Thatcher is worth brooding on. She lacks the whisky component, but other qualities are similar; the David-Denis comparison merits attention also.
I will ponder this more closely.
6.45 pm
Beresford has written in defending Nothing Personal under my piece about boat people and constitutes, thus far, the Williamsons' only advocate in these pages.
It may not prove a breach between us, the first in fifty-one years of acquaintanceship, friendship and collaboration early and late, but then again it may.
And so it goes.
11.50  pm
The hits on this blog this New Year's Day look like totalling more than two thousand; proving, I guess, that the lovers' quarrels of even septuagenarians draw audiences when honour's at the stake (in Hamlet's words) and the arguments well put.
Or it may be that the Williamsons' world is one of corporate secrets hidden for generations from prying eyes and this is the world of wikileaks where everything soon gets known by everybody.
Let's see what the morrow brings.
Monday, January 2nd, 2012
7.25 am
My co-writer Denny Lawrence emailed while I was asleep that there will be a staged reading in New York of our Olivier-Monroe-Miller-Leigh-Coward play Intimate Strangers to scare up backers for a full production Off-Broadway this year. The Curtis-Branagh film on Monroe and Olivier has at last alerted interest in the bleeding obvious and the excellent script, praised alike by Bell, Carr, Collins, Williams, Beresford, Nevin, Forsythe, Ralston Saul, Al Clark and Greta Scacchi, and rejected, of course, by the Ensemble three years ago, who preferred the work of the Williamsons.
Twelve years in the writing, during which our audience died, and three years in the waiting after the economic downturn hobbled its first, fresh London hopes, the touring New York version and a proposed new West End one with Barry Humphries as Noel Coward may fund some part, I guess, of my extreme old age, now imminent, and show the world at last some measure of the Williamson Effect, which is to stop good work getting on in significant Australian theatres, and interrupting careers that might have else brought joy to many audiences.
Andrew Upton has for three years refused to read it, saying 'I'm just so busy'.
9.40 am
Went to Wayne's for an onion sandwich, a Vegemite sandwich, a peanut butter sandwich, a Coke and a latte and a brisk walk round the block and began to wonder if I should sell now from this address the DVD we did of Beresford's reading --- with Muldoon, Heather Mitchell, Amanda Bishop, Nicholas Hammond, Terry Clark and Patrick Brammall as Olivier, Leigh, Monroe, Miller, Coward and Tarquin Olivier -- of Intimate Strangers for five dollars each; or four. It might convince some theatre managements of its superiority to Nothing Personal and Dog's Head Bay and encourage them to put it on in my lifetime and make me a few spare millions; but you never know.
Best, I think, to do a few more readings with that fine cast and then sell shares in it. The Olivier-Monroe market is hot for a few weeks and we should move now.
And so it goes.
2.15 pm
A biscuit and a latte at the Bookoccino after going for half an hour to The Skin I Live In which seems to be rubbish, and a look at what the politicians are reading over the summer (Shorten Richard Mahony, Mawson, and After America; Swanny Keynes/Hayek, Kissinger on China, and Keith Richard's Life; Rudd The Tyrannicide Brief, Ruby Blues, Civilisation, and Why The West Rules -- For Now; Penny Wong some baby books and There Goes The Neighbourhood, and Gillard of course Tony Bilson's 'culinary memoir' whilst curled up front of her role model Miss Marple wittering and solving things on the television) and listing in my mind, for what it's worth, what I am also reading.
Niall Ferguson's Empire; Peter Ackroyd's The History Of England: Foundation; Eric Lax's The Mold In Dr. Florey's Coat; Wodehouse's Carry On, Jeeves for the eighth time; Hitchens' Unacknowledged Legislation for the second; David Marr's Panic; W.H. Auden's Prose, Volume IV; Arthur Miller's Echoes Down The Corridor; Thomas Harris's The Fear Index; Ian Kershaw's The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45; and, if I can get them, Fred Raphael's Letters 1978-79 and Hugh Trevor-Roper's wartime diaries.
It is a little amazing to me that the Prime Minister has not yet read her first book on Asian or European or Middle Eastern or American affairs; or any novel on any subject whatsoever since high school; but who am I to criticise our Blameless Leader In This Time Of Enormous Global Challenge for such a tiny oversight. No doubt there will be someone in the office to tell her what to think; what to think, say, when Gaza is next bombed to smithereens, on January the tenth or so, I am told, and to write the pro-Israel speech and coach her through its delivery; the one that says that like 007 Israel is licensed to kill, and kill in particular children 'in self-defence', on any Christmas holiday of their choosing, and that will be that: only a few dozen immolated schoolkids, Prime Minister, who will miss them, only their immediate family, only people unapprised of the big picture; people much like, well, you, Prime Minister.
But, hell, by then Miss Marple will have solved nine Home County homicides; and that, of course, is what matters.
3.05 pm
No defence but Beresford's yet of Nothing Personal in the fifteen days since I called it a sort of war crime. Perhaps the North Shore audience is uncertain about it.
I ask them to speak up, if they will, and say why they liked it so much. And anyone who detested Intimate Strangers, of course, when it was on, and why they found it so bad, boring and feeble-minded.
I invite contributions.
9.30 pm
Watched four episodes of In Treatment marvelling at the dialogue and the performance in particular of Mia Wasikowska, then seventeen, and the subtle, shaded reactions of Gabriel Byrne, the guilt-smitten psychologist, who can hint aggression, lust and moral fury better than almost any living Irishman other than Peter O'Toole. The  blog hits for today are now 2,501 in only eleven hours, not counting mine, and should top three thousand by this long night's journey's end. Would Kristin Williamson call this a 'success'? I doubt it.
Tuesday, January 3rd, 2012
8.50 am
A good exchange with a Liberal-voting fool who seems to be a Williamson friend in the columns below this entry.
It would be interesting to track the Williamson audience from Labor in 1972 through Democrat in 1985 to Liberal now. It has nothing to do with his politics I think, just the social circles which he, an Engineering graduate resident in Coastal Queensland, grew more familiar with.
And so it goes.
11.40 am. The final figures for yesterday now in: 3,978. Tendulkar already in.
4.45 pm
India's innings a debacle. How foolish it is to bowl so well. It loses the SCG millions, and saddens a billion batting enthusiasts, here and on the Subcontinent.
The more I think about Thatcher and Kristin the more appropriate the comparison seems. Will-power. Gorgeous legs. Lofty flirtatiousness. Implacability. I suspect Maggie too would have been terrigic in bed.
Is 'terrific in bed' libellous? Under the Higgins Rules, probably.
It could be seen to imply the woman was 'unchaste'.
What a proud Sustralian coinage.
11.25 pm
A very funny send-up of all this by Ben Popjie on his blog shows good writing did not end when Rodney Cavalier by ministerial fiat abolished good spelling.
It should go in any future update of Dwight MacDonald's classic collection, Parodies.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Blanchett, Unbuttoned

I saw Gross Und Klein on Wednesday night and in the middle of the second row of the stalls underwent an experience unlike any other in my life thus far: an intimate exposure to one of the world's great stage performances by a female, and a play so jagged and bewildering I wanted to leave the theatre.
It's about a woman seeking lodgings, friendships, family love and personal fulfilment who may be a little mad. Her husband beats her; she leaves him; she begs him to take her back; he beats her again, inexplicably; some people she stays with for a while evict her; her best friend from school won't invite her up as she stands forlorn on the street and presses the button; she attends a family gathering at which a mad son pulls down his father's beach shorts exposing his genitals; at one point she talks to the audience about the dreary time she's having at a conference overhearing conversations in the restaurant and saying the word 'amazing' a lot and 'I love voices'; she bleeds from the crotch at one point and holds up bloodied fingers in wonderment. It's all very puzzling, and I'm not sure what to make of it. It's as if there was a missing first act and I got there an hour late.
In the lead role Blanchett flings herself about in a kind of puppet-dance, a dance of death, a terminal frenzy, a Pinocchio becoming human. She leers, winningly. She sings, beautifully, then stops. She confides in us. She tells of her nightmares. She slumps; seems dead; revives. Her luminous communicativeness, if that's the right phrase, is an unrivalled, confronting experience for an audience, like being stuck in a lift with Sarah Palin when she is speaking in tongues, and her long ovation, and the religious fervour of it, at the end of the show entirely deserved, I think. Benedict Andrews' direction was wonderful at times, using the great depth of the stage to see a faraway nervy conversation in a phone box, for instance. The set flew about and reassembled itself as if it had a mind of its own. Every minute of it was impressive and every fifteen minutes made me pine for a hip-flask and an absorbing novella.
And I couldn't get over the the rising thought that the play was a series of jottings, randomly jumbled together and flung at a fine director, a really good cast, and a great, great actress to make sense of somehow. Like Pinter, really, but crazier. Out of similar female disorder Hare made Plenty and Jean-Jacques Beineix Betty Blue, and the audience understood. It could be seen as a female Hamlet or a sort of Mistress Courage or a modern metropolitan Odyssey or an updated Edible Girl or Sterile Cuckoo or Dud Avocado or, on the other hand, a glad-bag of tampons, mouse droppings, Fantale wrappers and postcards from the edge.
It's all very hectic, depressive, post-modern and German, and never mentions the war. The writer, Botho Strauss, may be one of those travelling loud Germans in tiny swimsuits who fail to make friends on foreign beaches; or not. It's hard to tell. The title apparently derives from Alice, in Alice in Wonderland, being either too big or too small for the various magical places she fetches up in.
I should see more European theatre, clearly; or less.
I wonder what it all means.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Pilgrim Soul In You: Darren Hanlon's Apparent Innocence Partly Explained

I'm not sure what brand of buoyant innocence drew four hundred and eighty fans to see Darren Hanlon singing in St Stephen's Church beside the mossed and crumbling graveyard to his guitar, ukelele and banjo in Newtown last night, and the twelve-old-girls behind me, one with braces on her teeth, to sing along word-perfect his complicated lyrics for the ninety minutes he was on stage. But it was a rare and luminous Christmas event, thronged with non-believers and tottering infants in wet nappies but stirred by the cheery, stoic, benevolent knowingness he has made his own special flavour since he first looked eleven years old, and beguiled a kindergarten audience in, I guess, the 1980s. He looks about thirteen now and, at thirty-seven, carries the burden of his middle years with equanimity, wiliness, honour and grace.
One song was about hating Lismore, my home town. One was about the need for more songs about squash. One, as good as a Simon and Garfunkel classic, was about 'The Last Night Of Not Knowing You.' He was joined on stage for two numbers by Holly Throsby, and their joint song, by him, about them wondering what country, and what city, or town, or village, they should now, as glum and wandering musos, at last settle down in, was as good, in its way, as 'Rock 'n' Roll I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life'; and the special melting wifely softness of Throsby, who looks like a cross between her mother and Liza Minnelli and has a voice like a midnight autumn fog in Paris, added a further wayfaring innocence to the pilgrim flavour of the evening, much like the one you get on TCM from the Mickey-and-Judy Backyard Musicals of 1939 and 1940.
Lucy Lehmann, beside me, explained young Darren's apparent unblemished vagrant pure-hearted winningness with the one word 'Queensland' -- and, coming from up that way myself, I could see, and hear, what she meant. It was not quite innocence, but a big-skied starlit mixture of innocence-and-cynicism one sees in other Queenslanders, Gerry Connolly, Judy Morris, Jim Killen, Geoffrey Rush, George Miller, plus the blithe-and-quirky John Denverish or do I mean Doris Dayish quality that irradiates him from within, a product of many, many years on the road, and talking back to his audiences with guile and good humour and perspicacity.
He's worth looking up on YouTube, if I've got that name right, for one particular rock clip especially, Looking Beautiful For You, which he enticed the ninety-two-year-old Eli Wallach to make with him a couple of years ago. He shows big, easy skills as a Capra-like auteur, with a smattering of Woody Allen and Richard Curtis, as well as a songwriter-singer in the league of McLean, Simon, Kelly, and, on a good day, Dylan.
He apparently has, Lucy Lehmann tells me, small covens of devoted fans in many countries across the world, but he should in my view be doing better. He has taken up my proposal of a film of him touring several countries, shot in 3D.
Lucy Lehmann would be in it, of course. Her song of urban exile, Six Hours West, is one of the best two hundred of the last hundred years.
Watch this space.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

As I Please: On The Wisdom Of Drowning Children Fleeing Adaminejab To Show That We Mean Business When It Comes To Border Protection

It is wrong, it seems, and wickedly wrong, for persecuted families to flee Iran, and if they die in the Arafura Sea it serves them right. It is wicked of them to want to live in Australia instead, and raise their children here. If they drown, well, we warned them, we told them not to come. They shouldn't have come. We told them to risk the vile rule of Adaminejab but not the sea voyage here. And we were right to do so.
This is the moral stance we are now defending, the moral stance the Australian Labor Party, long an ally of human rights, is now defending: don't flee persecution, stay persecuted, risk your children's lives under persecution, because some of the boats you plan to escape in, well, the boats might sink. We won't send you back to Iran, but the boats might sink. So stay in Iran. Risk being tortured. Risk the coming nuclear war with Israel. The boats might sink. So stay in Iran. Stay in Iraq, where fifty people are blown up every week. You know it makes sense.
How feeble-minded all this is. It's like telling British soldiers on Dunkirk Beach not to risk the voyage to Dover in frail fishing boats through stormy seas because they might drown on the way. Better stay and take your chances under the Third Reich. Better seek work in Occupied France in your British Army uniform. You know it makes sense.
And it's worse because we burn the boats they come in. Families fleeing Adaminejab are drowning because we burned the better boats they might have come in, years ago. Every boat that comes is seized by uniformed Australian pirates and either given to a local white person or burned on the beach.
No protest has ever been made against this policy, which is essentially the same as the Vikings raiding England in the seventh century. By what moral right do we steal a man's boat and burn it? Is it a lethal weapon? No. It's a boat. Why burn it? Why not invite the owner to pick it up and sail it home?
We do not burn the Qantas planes on which most illegals come. Why not? The logic is the same. These unwelcome refugees from persecution are being assisted by Qantas pilots to come here, so we are gaoling the Qantas pilots -- of course we are -- and we're burning the 747s on the tarmac as well.
It's a measure of how racist, how otherist, how heathenist we are that none of us has yet protested this kidnapping, piracy and arson by our duly elected government. Our victims are brown and Muslim, and their travel arrangements unwelcome to us, so we kidnap them on the high seas and traumatise their infant children, and burn the boats they come in. Which causes worse and worse boats to come, expendable boats, overcrowded because so many good boats have been burnt, and on these rickety, rotting, splintered craft children drown.
And all this unwanted migration can be stopped, we reckon, and Ba'Hai and Sunnis and Christians and educated secular women persuaded to stay in Ademinejab's Iran, the desired outcome, by telling them the voyage is dangerous and we'll send you to Malaysia if you come here.
Only a racist would believe this is rational policy, only the kind of racist that thinks 'these people' throw their children overboard or can be daunted from seeking a better life by the threat of Nauru, Malaysia, Woomera, Baxter, Villawood or Curtin.
And that sounds pretty much like all of us.
Or perhaps you disagree.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Stoppard, Sleeping

Tom Stoppard sat alone at another table, reading. Urged by my companion to go up and say hullo, I said, 'If I don't, I'll regret it, and if I do, I'll regret it.' I watched him through the meal, sitting there in the Wharf Bar, unbesieged.
Upstairs for the show, we presented our blank tickets and the usherette said, 'There's two of you? Oh dear. I'll get you a plastic stool, you're beside Tom Stoppard.'
Margie said she'd sit elsewhere and she went away and left me to it.
I sat gingerly beside him, and on the other side of him Margaret Throsby greeted me. Soon he was in the conversation. He remembered meeting me before when I'd asked him why he'd refused to do a libretto for Sondheim, because he 'hated his music', and he looked a little cornered.' Not hate,' he said. 'But he's not my favourite composer.'
I told him of playing Bennett in Travesties in a Gielgud accent, which I demonstrated, and the live white rabbit with whom I would sit backstage communing as we waited in the dark for our cues. He seemed sorry not to have seen our amateur production, and confessed he hadn't seen the STC production either, and I said Biggins was very good in it. 'This is why I'm here,' he said, 'to see him in this Revue. I hear he's excellent.' I said this was my ninth viewing of it, and the Wharf Revue was 'my spare religion'. He was very gentle, polite and unassuming, very English, not at all pretentious. His great classic head, though (like Robert Graves he resembles a Roman emperor), daunted intimate chat, and the show began.
He laughed at the boxing tent sketch, the Brecht-style circus song, and shared everyone's delight when Rudd, half-masked like the Phantom of the Opera, lured Gillard into his dank basement and singing hugely began her torture.
But then the Keating-Hawke sketch, in which they plot in wheelchairs the 'restructuring' of their nursing home, commenced and he didn't know who they were, and began to nod off. With the lightest of touch to his sleeve, I woke him, and he dutifully laughed again. Whenever a song began, he immediately dropped off, jet-lag having revived in him a lullaby-trigger from his infancy, I suppose. Excruciatingly embarrassed, I kept waking him. He liked very much what he saw, the King Lear Murdoch tragedy in particular, and the French Revolution one, though he dropped off in the Les Miz martial anthem at the end ('The best of times, the worst of times or both of the above') he thought absolutely stunning.
Afterwards we talked a bit, and he met the actors and told them they were brilliant, and got his taxi, having the night before walked a mile back to his hotel for want of one.
I will go today to see Biggins interview him in the Opera House. Watching him sitting alone in the restaurant reading, it occurred to me how much better he is as a theatre technician than Harold Pinter, whom I judge now a sluggardly tosser beside him. Stoppard does the work. He puts in the time. He does the research, the weeks in the library, forcing acres of reading down into his epigrams. I recalled Bob Carr asking him what it was about Shakespeare and he said, 'A simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.' And he of course has this too.
What a lovely accidental privilege it was to spend those two hours in his company, I thought, recalling other encounters with eminent Englishmen -- John Osborne, John Mortimer, Howard Brenton, D.M. Thomas, Trevor Griffiths, Ian McEwan, Bruce Chatwin, Ian Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Donald Sinden, Simon Callow, Christopher Hitchens, Ken Branagh, John Lennon -- and how their unassuming politeness, their almost automatic egalitarianism, their almost defensive, post-imperial humility, surprised me likewise.
Stoppard, though, had a further dimension. A Czech national, a Hong Kong colonial, a lately self-discovered Jew with Auschwitz-dead close relatives, a dabbler in mathematics, a student of Soviet torture, a Tory Party adviser, a Thatcher knight, a Beckett fan, a fellow-traveller in the moral philosophy of A.J. Ayers and MI6, a passionate, practising cricketer and lover of rock 'n' roll, he summed up in his Jaggerish visage and tumbling cascade of references the glorious, vast and agonised multiculture of twentieth century Europe and its writers and its ideologies and murders and fads and its accumulated learning, and it was good to brush sleeves with this in the dark, and awaken him now and then to our own best theatre writing, just this once.
I should have told him all that but I, too, was a little shy.
And so it goes.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

As I Please: Rupert Murdoch's Brave New Rules For The Great Ever-Altering Game Of Worldly Dominion

Thursday, 3.35 pm
So now we know how it happened, at last.
Bill Shorten was 'rewarded', wrongly it seems, for making Gillard the leader, or so we are told by the Murdoch decrypters who selflessly search out and ponder these things. And Tanya Plibersek, who stuck by Rudd through his last hours and spoke out against Gillard leading, was also 'rewarded', for some reason, for being Gillard's enemy. And Mark Arbib, whose factional numbers cut down Beazley midstream and uplifted Rudd into the empty saddle was also 'rewarded' (if you can keep up with this logic) in spite of his having wrongly done this, because he changed his mind later on; and Kim Carr punished because he did not.
I hope all this is now perfectly clear.
Because 'reward', the Murdoch moral philosophers currently tell us very persuasively, is a bad, bad thing. The man who saves the nation from Rudd should be punished for it, not rewarded, much as a man who saves a child from drowning is always rightly punished for it. Well, isn't he? Of course he is. Shorten helped the Party get rid of Rudd, and thus keep Abbott out of the Lodge and a probable twenty years of wayward, malicious, hydrophobic power, so Shorten should be punished for it. Of course he should.
Where did this new rule come from? That good deeds should not be rewarded?
For it's very, very, very, very new.  Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who brought his disabled plane down in the Hudson and so saved a lot of lives, was acclaimed not condemned for it. The crack team under Yoni Netanyahu, Bibi's brother, who rescued the Entebbe hostages were highly praised for it, and given medals. The team under Howard Florey who invented penicillin and saved a billion lives got the Nobel Prize for it, not prison. Yet the team who rescued us from an Abbott-Hockey-Bishop-Truss-Morrison-Barnaby Era and a restored and brutish WorkChoices must cop a shellacking for it, under the new, bizarre, infallible Murdoch rules-of-thumb.
For Murdoch and his people understand well that any word can be made to seem bad if it is said with a certain vocal colouring. 'Liberal', for instance, and 'Leftist', and 'Bleeding Heart', which describe the sort of people who favour a fair go for other human beings, are made to sound evil, or mad, or laughably mistaken, merely from the way the word is said, and repeatedly said, or sarcastically said, or with waggled forefingers satirically said. I and Marr and Mungo and Phillip Adams are called 'tired old Lefties' because we do not favour, say, the torture of children in Woomera, or the killing of children for WMD they don't have, and their parents and uncles and cousins don't have, and somehow this is a bad thing. How is it a bad thing?
It was also thought by Murdoch that if you say,'Do you know who I am?' to a Woy Woy waiter you should lose your future in politics for this, even after the Woy Woy waiter is shown to be schtupping a staffer of the Robertson Liberal candidate and may well have made the whole thing up. It was thought by Murdoch that because Gordon Brown used the word 'bigoted', accurately, in a private conversation that Sky News unlawfully bugged, he should lose the Prime Ministership for it; and he did, indeed he did.
It is thought by Murdoch that if you suggest some people or group of people were behind anything that has happened you are subscribing to a 'conspiracy theory' and only fools do that, since Caesar, Jesus, Thomas A Becket, Richard II, Lady Jane Grey, Cranmer, Essex, Ralegh, Charles I, Louis XVI, Danton, Robespierre, Lincoln, John Kennedy, Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, Gerald Ford, Olaf Palme, Jenny Lindh, Uday Hussein, Qusay Saddam, Osama Bin Laden and Moammar Ghaddafi were all killed or shot at by lone madmen and there is never more than one person involved in any murder and only an idiot, a 'conspiracy theorist', would think so. There are no conspiracies, ever. You'd be mad, really mad to think there were.
Murdoch makes up new sins: that's what he does in his day job most mornings, midnights and afternoons. Stephen Conroy uses the phrase 'fucking fantastic' and must, Newscorp now says, be sent to the backbench for it. 'Fucking fantastic' is a phrase that is used, or heard without offence, by eighteen million Australians every week. Yet Conroy must be sacked, or censured, or made to apologize, or otherwise publicly shamed for it. Howard need not apologize for having frogmarched us into a war that killed a hundred thousand children who did not, as he alleged, possess atomic bombs and neither did any adult around them, but Conroy saying 'fucking fantastic' is different, it's a serious matter. It's in a different category of plain and manifest iniquity from killing children. Saying 'fucking fantastic' is unforgiveable.
And 'reward' is unforgiveable too; rewarding your allies instead of your foes unthinkable. Rewarding good deeds like ousting the vapid sleepless dipstick tyrant Rudd is especially unthinkable, in the upside-down Murdoch world (like Alice's Wonderland) where all good deeds are punished.
They have to be.
Rupert said so.


Monday, 12 December 2011

Tall Poppies: David Williamson's Nothing Personal

At interval I rushed out and ordered two gins and tonic in a clenched and stertorous panic fearing the second half of the play might well be as bad as the first; and then, for want of tonic, a Black Label scotch with ice. But the second half was fine. For David not Kristin had written it, and the evening then rose to his long accustomed altitude of dull bland Shaftesbury Avenue acceptability. There were genuine laughs and some actual poignancy when Carla died of brain cancer and her daughter addressed her empty chair. But the first half came close to war crime, and in a better ordered universe Kristin would be tried in The Hague for it and get two years, and the Ensemble and David six months each for collaborating with the enemy.
It is time these implacable Williamsons were discussed with clarity and care. They have sued me, justly, once before this and received in reparation the ruin of the briefly resurrected Nation Review. And I did like very much Don Parties On and I said so publically, to David's perplexed and mawkish gratitude, earlier this year. And we do talk warmly from time to time. But Nothing Personal, despite superb performances, a nice transparent-perspex design by Steven Butler and shrewd, longsuffering direction by Mark Kilmurry, up against it like no-one since General Perceval in Singapore, has insulted the intelligence of even its most pliable North Shore audience unforgiveably this time, and even they applauded only listlessly, wondering what precisely it was they had seen. Let me strive to explain this.
Bea, a female publisher, tells Roxanne, her assistant for thirty years, that the Booker Prize if won by a certain author would increase her sales, but a Booker Prize nomination would have absolutely no effect. And Roxanne nods as if this nonsense were news to her; or true. Bea deplores furthermore all novels of the multicultural bent (by which I guess she means The Slap) which 'get down in the gutter' and is righteously reluctant to publish them, preferring Anita Brookner. Naomi, her game young sub-editor, tells her times have changed and plots to overthrow her; and in part pursuit of this aim assents to being fucked by Kelvin, the wealthy handsome adulterous Chairman of the Board, in his Byron Bay hinterland farmhouse, to which he has flown her in his personal jet and to her surprise, after lashings of champagne, flung her to the carpet and had his way with her. Because of this, and her lying about it, her longtime squeeze Simon, an idealistic inner city architect intensely involved in public housing in Newtown, leaves her forever, being ignorant of the long tradition of stray fucks by lady publishers in most of the recent centuries. She copiously repents, and wants him back, and he, morosely returning to pick up hisx things ... but I shouldn't spoil it for you.
Nothing which deigns to occur in these eighty-two minutes which I will never get back has any plausibility except the brain cancer, and Bea's neglect of her daughter in childhood, which persists in surprising her daughter, though not the rest of us, for decades thereafter; and, oh yes, Naomi's metropolitan promiscuity, treachery, ambition, self-righteousness, presumption and venality. But not her or Bea's manner of talking. No female publishers I have ever known in the course of twenty-two books have ever talked like that, like Playschool presenters unveiling the alphabet, nor known so little of life among the lower orders and refused to read about them. As always these Williamson characters speak in uncontradicted explicatory paragraphs, dumbed down to the level of those Women's Weekly subscribers who increasingly crowd the matinees, and his people only vestigially exist outside the hobbling plotline he and Kristin have rough-hewn for them, one steamy summer Sunday afternoon in Port Douglas, Noosa, or Byron.
It is all very strange, and pretty familiar. It is what one might call the curious, continuing Williamson South Sea Bubble, unpierced and scarcely examined these thirty-four years. The Big Brand Name continues and its usual audience, unaware of any other Australian writing, turns up religiously to it year after year. It is as though no other Australian drama exists. The Slap does not exist; Grass Roots does not exist; Blue Murder; Rake; Underbelly; Hotel Sorrento; Beneath Hill 60; Breaker Morant; The Year My Voice Broke; Angel Baby; Honour; Noise; Traitors; The Games; A Hard God; Animal Kingdom; Cloudstreet; A Local Man; Pig Iron People; Country Music; Sky; Away; Blackrock; Intimate Strangers; Italian Stories; Myth, Propaganda And Disaster In Nazi Germany And Contemporary America; King of Country; Barmaids; Diving For Pearls: works of plain superiority to Top Silk and Corporate Vibes and Celluloid Heroes and The Great Man which pummel on the doors of the few available theatres while Williamson, still bizarrely thought our finest playwright when he is merely our tallest, continues to somehow prolong his underwhelming yet charismatic reign by yet another decade, yearly banking millions and ofttimes bellyaching that he is not praised enough -- like Madonna or Albert Schweitzer or Carl Sandilands  or Mother Teresa -- for the suffering he has endured for his art, in a kind of parallel universe where rivals and standards and new opinions barely exist. It is a form of lunacy, like Enron, or Demidenko, or Norma Khouri, or Baz Luhrman, and should be exposed, or at the least mulled over by a Noosa psychotherapist.
What is worst about all this is what one might call the Kristin Williamson Rule of Thumb, which declares all sins that are initially denied are always forgiven when at last found out. Thus Bea's neglect of her daughter Lucy in childhood and her contempt for Lucy's working class bloke is initially punished by her banishment from her grandchild's life, but is then, after haughty confessional declamation, forgiven and re-embraced. And the workplace sexual harasser Kelvin, rebuffed in love, yet retains the respectful friendship of the gorgeous, talented female he so briefly whanged and so lavishly shamed in the Byron Bay hinterland (there is no Byron Bay hinterland, I come from up that way, discuss) and now in penance overpays. It is the ethic of a female inner-urban careerist long practised and skilled in Spin, one who, in her haughtily glamorised memoir David Williamson: Behind the Scenes, understates, by my count, her own unhidden adulteries while overstating and hyperbolising David's; and I speak with some close personal knowledge of this, and of matters long known by a few surviving elderly readers once agog at the Williamson-Ellis exchanges in Days Of Wine And Rage, whose re-publication Kristin has lately forbidden, printing the legend, as she is wont to do.
...Some aged lingering grudges inform these present rancorous ruminations, of course, and some envy of a public success and national esteem so inordinate and ill-gotten. But most of it, I swear, is altruistic aggravation at the yearly gazumping of theatres hallowed and crowded as the Ensemble by such blithering shallowness as this while great works like, say, The Will, by Amy Maddison, are performed unnoted in tinier, grimier spaces to audiences blown away by their excellence.
Greta Scacchi, a formidable, tall and erotic presence, gives her Bea what beef and heft and brain she can, recalling now and then Faye Dunaway's simmering Crawford in Mommie Dearest. Julie Hudspeth is very good as her longtime supportive plain-speaking lieutenant Roxanne. Matthew Moore has a whiff of Stork about him in the gloomy mistrustful role of Simon, Naomi's patient cuckold, here played very well indeed. Jeannie Drynan is blithe and moving as the oversmiling, overbuoyant, bulky, grandchildless cancer patient Carla; Emma Jackson very fine as Bea's vengeful, scalded, unforgiving daughter Lucy; and Andrew MacFarlane persuasive as the wealthy womanising wooer Kelvin, especially in the boozy, bumpy seduction scene and its nods towards date rape. And Rachael Coopes makes a fair deal of sense of Naomi, the usual Kristin supergirl, jangling, righteous and brimming with sexual doubt and moral ache, who will always opt for the money and whore herself when the opportunity, and the tempter's dick, arises. And Mark Kilmurry's direction, given the text, is miraculously subtle, measured and somehow, despite the mounting vacuity, dignified.
But whatever the signature's truthfulness it should not have been staged as written. A couple of weeks' rewriting after some workshopping and some lacerous dramaturgy was essential and might just have saved the first act from its unceasing embarrassments and me from alcoholic excess, but I doubt it. Some research on the publishing industry might have helped. Les Murray's fine definition of publishers, 'air hostesses in training', might have added a laugh. But sheesh it was a shocking night.
None of these glum, exhausted, necessary judgments were arrived at with any pleasure I assure you in the last three cranky nights of their accumulation. I too would prefer, like David, a quiet life. But the Emperor's New Clothes have been falsely acclaimed for too long by a lot of intelligent people who should know better, and proudly worn for too long by a nice man, fallen among flatterers, whose foot has been for too long on the throat of larger talent, causing harm to our civilisation.
And so it goes.

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Spacey's Crookback: Not For An Age, But For All Time

A hint of Groucho, a touch of Tevye, a gathering aroma of Bruno Ganz's Hitler and just a soupcon, maybe, of Jack Benny, inform Kevin Spacey's lurching and grimacing Crookback but do not bruise or diminish the sinuous rock-ribbed verse, which Sam Mendes, the director, has allowed to remain the star turn of his Richard III, by William Shakespeare, now touring.
The setting, a stained grey hallway of many doors and a grey brick wall on which newsreel projections dance (a frail, bearded king, arriving; Chamberlain-era throngs, cheering) might be Barcelona 1936 or Sarejevo 1998, and many headshaven men talking into their sleeves in the foreground give us, in our day, what Shakespeare's hushed groundlings must have seen in theirs: a world very similar to their own, of half-remembered shabby suits and crumbly buildings, war medals and uniforms from their grandparents' time; and, of course, in blood-smattered black-humorous blank verse, bitterly brandished memories of the slaughters of which most kingdoms are made.
Performed uncut, the text reveals more large, lavish women's roles than any other tragedy: assassinations' widows and mothers mourning butchered sons and spouses like those of Chile's Disappeared; some weird rough Plantagenet chivalry having spared the women's lives, it seems, and let them run like shrill Cassandras through palace halls unguarded.
Of these, the half-mad Queen Margaret, widow of the mutilated Henry VI and mother of his mutilated son and heir, and murderess herself of the dynasty's much mourned kingmaker York, is the most unlikely palace guest, and poses for this director and all before him a near-insuperable problem of why she is not eftsoons beheaded or clapped in a padded cell -- which Olivier testily dealt with by excising her, bag and baggage, from his movie altogether.
Mendes has made her part ghost, part mad plaintiff, heard out with bored amusement by snide shrugging courtiers as Margaret Thatcher in her present mumbling dementia might be heard today; and he has added her as well to further scenes as vigilant prophetic witch overseeing the carnage her curses have brought on Crookback's kingdom supernaturally. In this role Gemma Jones, once the Duchess of Duke Street and lately Bridget Jones's tempestuous randy mother, delights as she did in Brook's Dream in and Bennett's Getting On in 1970 and 71, a wellbeloved legacy, much missed already, of better times.
A cast of twenty, more than Shakespeare's Globe afforded, beating ominous drums and interjecting from the audience, excel at every turn in Lancastrian, South London, Kentish and mid-Atlantic accents here mixed promiscuously and well. A black Buckingham is a bit of a surprise, more so when Richard calls him 'cousin' but, as a good and trusty servant betrayed by his colonising master, he fits the last African century quite well; but not, I would think, not Buckinghamshire...
No, no, no. No. I do not like it. In even an era of a Blanchett Bob Dylan and Richard II and a Nevin King Lear and Mark Antony ('I look forward,' I told the great lady, 'to your Antony and Cleopatra, co-starring Gerry Connolly'), two cousins must bear some resemblance to each other. Shall a black Desdemona, or female Falstaff, or dwarf Coriolanus, follow? I hope not. Though Mr Chuk Iwuji is an excellent plausible torn hob-nobber with manifest evil he is, as we used to say, ill-born, on the wrong side of the Buckingham blanket.
Maureen Anderman, Stephen Lee Anderson, Jeremy Bobb, Nathan Darrow, Jack Ellis, Haydn Gwynne, Isaiah Johnson, Andrew Long, Howard W Overshown, Simon Lee Phillips, Gary Powell, Michael Ridko, Annabel Scholey, Gavin Stenhouse, Hannah Stokely and Chandler Williams excel in their many worrying roles, including two infant princes who speak in unison, and a Duke of Clarence who drowns in a butt of Malmsey in real time right there before our eyes, giving beef and marrow and poignancy to walk-on characters oft played heretofore as mere nodding muppets. Katherine Manners is particularly good as King Edward's tall bony widow Elizabeth, out-hollering Spacey through a twelve-minute scene of repetitive unabashed hortation and shrieked blood libel that might, just might, have been cut down a bit; it's already 11 pm, after all, and some of us have elderly bladders. And yet, and yet ...
Spacey's lumbering, smirking Richard is as fresh and pungent in its impact as Olivier's must have been on that first night in 1945. But unlike Lord Larry he flaunts no vocal tricks nor pirhouettes. He plays the dialogue as dialogue, the monologue as human speech, with an unaugmented naturalism that startles with its directness and modern, everyday cadence. Occasionally he pulls a face, or raises a crippled languid hand satirically, or mugs a gasp or eye-roll at his own perverse duplicity, but this is what the role demands. This is Richard as written, the Sir Les Patterson of his day. There are no bolt-of-lightning moments till the very last, wherein he hangs feet up like a slaughtered hog, or Mussolini, as Larry did as Coriolanus in 1957, bleeding and twisting on a hook.
But his triumph, and it is an enormous one, and the standing ovation true earned as few in our time, is built up line by line within the meaning of what is said, and hinted, and thought; and when, after three hours lurching and smiling and wooing and roaring his lungs to shreds, he goes into a punishing sword-fight, steel against steel, with fingers and foreheads at risk, he climaxes at infarct's throbbing frontier a physical marathon that would have pole-axed most Olympians (or, more aptly in this case, Paralympians), and does it sometimes twice a day.
I give him best, and wish him well, good health and survival. Bell, McKellen, Olivier, Pacino have not come near him. This is a Richard Crookback for the ages, and should be preserved.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

As I Please: How To Win In Queensland

At the Labor Conference in crowded rooms over lots of coffee I put about with waning hope my plan for Labor to win in Queensland. It attracted everywhere firm assurances that 'Bligh will never buy it' and pleas that I cease talking now, please. I therefore put it down for the record, as evidence of Labor's implacable desire to lose, and lose big, whatever glad prize dangles before them.
The idea is this. That the Queensland Goverment buys 18 percent of Qantas and with its thereby boosted influence on the company's operation seeks to impose on its customers very, very cheap air fares to Cairns, Mount Isa, Port Douglas, the Gold Coast and other Queensland holiday destinations; and it also demands no further Qantas jobs go overseas. And Alan Joyce be sacked if it is the mood.
This idea would have no significant enemy I would think and would leave Campbell Newman foxed and bloodied and whimpering for oxygen. The Queensland And Northern Territory Air Service -- QANTAS -- would come home to its roots and the tourism industry get up off the canvas with some small chance, or a better chance, of surviving 2012.
It would also remove some part of the curse from Bligh's and Fraser's widely abominated privatisations. No privatisation of anything ever has won a single swinging vote in world history, yet Labor governments everywhere keep losing office by trying it on. They disgust the party faithful and the undecided voters by pretending it's good policy when it's only a fuckwitted venal scramble to balance the books.
This mild-mannered Chifleyesque chess move could turn around all that and keep Labor in power in Queensland for forty further years.
But of course it won't happen. It sounds and feels too much like common sense.
As I said nine years ago in one of my books of the same bright, balding, self-desructive dipstick: Shame, Fraser, Shame.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

As I Please: The December Primates Poem

Attend the fate of J. Assange,
In chokey still: ah, plus ca change.
He gave the world, through wikileaks,
Such bad news of its ruling freaks
As caused post-haste the Arab Spring,
That most unsettling, seismic thing,
That upsurge of the baleful truth
Which made earth's mighty cry, 'Forsooth!
We must bring down this upstart Aussie,
The spifflicator of Moammar and Hosi,
Lest he bring down proud Bibi too,
A shakedown that would never do.
Let's find some sex-crimes he might rue.'
There swift appeared in wowser Sweden
Two dodgy dykes he'd done the deed in.
'Mah Gerd, he wers so impolite,
He smiled, we ferked, he stayed the night,
Then ONCE MORE while ah wers asleep:
Ten years minimum for thees creep!
Plers torture and chains in Guantanamo!
And death for wert he else mart know!'
And did we, Primates, likewise pork
Some snoring slut in fear she'd talk,
We might too howl now in some cell,
Nude, shackled, freezing, mad as hell.
We needs must practise better manners
In bed, in Sweden, with urban planners
Or cinema ushers, or what you will.
They mean us harm, they mean us ill.
One prick-prod out of place means gaol.
Beweep Assange's fate; and then all hail
His early rising cock. Wassail.

The Good Whore of Coogee: Duigan's Careless Love

For twenty odd years John Duigan's The Year My Voice Broke was the best Australian film -- till Beneath Hill 60, Snowtown and Samson and Delilah overtook it, in my view. And Careless Love, his latest, is in its league. Like most of his work it has confidence, clarity, wit, the range and force of a novel, superb individuated performances and a morally troubling narrative.
It is about a university student who works as a prostitute part-time; not, as is often the case, to pay her fees and rent, for she has a scholarship, but to send money back to her father, a laid-off worker still waiting for his coastal north Queensland factory to reopen, who is now behind in his mortgage and may lose the family house, and, as a Vietnamese boat-person grown old and pathetic, will get no mercy from the smarmy white bank manager if he defaults.
Linh, the student, finds in the course of the film a boyfriend, Jack, who does not know what she is doing at night -- she claims she is in the library, studying late -- nor suspect her of any romantic duplicity, though he himself is not quite finished, it seems, with a former love he has difficulty shedding. Linh tries to keep her two different lives 'in different parts of my head'. She whores, she reads, she takes notes, she shares a bed with her mild-mannered bloke, she has sex with him, she has nightmares, he observes her nocturnal distress, she is always short of sleep, she comes late to classes, she is sometimes in physical danger, once with half a football team.
She has for a while a relationship, paid but affectionate, with a bearded American painter and art collector and winter surfer of indeterminate age who may be CIA; and she copes, narrowly, with her two lives, visiting her father and mother and brother in Queensland and lying, effectively, about her arrangements. She has the makings of a good university tutor, a moral philosopher, an actress, a novelist, an activist, a party leader. And her father, believing she is a 'fashion model', lavishly paid, continues to service the mortgage with her large mysterious earnings, not questioning her too much, not wanting to know.
Though rarely naked in the scenes we are shown, we sense that she is good at her job. She answers with wit but remains submissive, plays dumb and virginal, when this is required, with a clanking heavy accent in pidgin English. She plays smart when that is amusing to them, before she submits to their gross penetrations and impotent failures. She hears out the lofty theories of the obese, effusive dimwits whom she eventually goes down on. She plays, for an hour or so, the good wife, the mistress, the incestuous daughter, the naughty smackable schoolgirl; and then she goes back to her studies.
And this for a hundred years or so has been, I suppose, a common story of our modern age, a frequent unprinted memoir of tens of thousands of 'liberated' girls in other towns, more so since foreign students have studied here and needed, from time to time, to send money back to their families. The division of self it requires is easier of course in another country, a far-off city, a metropolitan drug-affected student coffee-house culture. Sometimes it goes no further than nude modelling. Sometimes it includes blue movies; sometimes urination; chains; whips; thongs; tattoos. But it is always, always, in whatever decade, an avid swift seizing of the brief and fleeting interim of youth and beauty and Fast Lane living to make money out of it while it lasts, money you then spend elsewhere -- on drugs or on jewellery sometimes, no doubt, but sometimes, as here, on what might be called, without scorn, 'family values'.
As befits the story, we sometimes do not know if she is lying, and we do not find out. As befits the story, we see an older, coarser Asian woman in the same trade, a version of what she may turn into, being buggered by two cops over a car boot and being unable to help her. Always a violent end is near and she, like the raucous older strumpet should get out fast. Next week, perhaps. Next Tuesday.
The many male customers are drawn in depth in varying degrees of repulsiveness, pathos, perversity and physical threat. We fear she may be killed, and know she shares that feeling. We are sometimes reassured by her pimp Dion, played by David Field, a brutish, wily, stoic, working-class, fair-go Aussie man who knows she will scarper eventually and looks out for her nonetheless, not himself having sex with her because that is not the deal; and by her CIA friend Luke, who brandishes a gruff Bogartish insouciance and will, we believe, look after her. But we always fear for her.
We realise with a shock towards the end that the shadowy, secretive sub-Kafka nightmare she is in is a legal business venture, responsibly administered by tax-paying citizens who put their girls through compulsory government health-checks; and the money she earns by, say, test-driving a new vibrator in a room full of beaming coked-up wanking students is not ill-gotten or unacceptable. It is a normal, accustomed, sanctioned, free market business pursuit in a global economy.
Which raises the question, of course, of what in fact is wrong with what she is doing? Anything? And why should she lose her future in academia or suburbia or true love if she is found out? And will she, in fact? Or is the world a little different now? A little more tolerant? Maybe. Maybe it is.
This is a wonderful film, raising as all fine drama does big questions of how a society is run, where justice truly lies and what are the lineaments of evil and good we see overlapping and intermingling in characters here before us. And who among us if used against his deserts would 'scape whipping, as Hamlet of Elsinore asks of Ophelia, the pregnant girl he carelessly whanged and cast aside.
It is, one might venture to say, John Duigan's companion-piece, thirty years on, of his earlier, grimier urban fable Winter Of Our Dreams, about a sadder, smack-smitten, lovelorn hooker played by Judy Davis and her nervy junkie roommate, played by Baz Luhrman. They should be seen soon in a double feature, as the measure of a calm and capable auteur whose work, now and then, touches the hem of greatness.
The lighting and composition of Katherine Millis is majestic, assured and revelatory. It is like seeing Sydney for the first time, with its tropical palms and unexpected night harbour vistas, its candlelit dinner parties, morning joggers and sudden thundering rainstorms. The set design by Colin Gibson is wonderful, though a fair bit of it seems to be Duigan's unaltered Coogee flat, a work of art itself which he uses deftly and modestly.
Peter O'Brien, who plays Luke, has an impact like George C. Scott and may be a future superstar. Nammi Le, who plays Linh, is one I think already. All the parts are well played, Andrew Hazzard especially as Jack who is a ringer for the young Peter Weir and will appeal as Hugo Weaving did to the next generation of doctors' wives, and Ivy Mak, as the older prostitute Mint, a coarse, unstaunchable, vulgar tower of strength.
Duigan's script is as good as anything by Ruth Prawer Jubhvala, the adaptation, it seems, of a classic novel as yet unwritten, and his direction as quiet and measured and unostentatious and lucid as that of Louis Malle or James Ivory.
That Screen Australia would not fund it, not award even five dollars to it, is a national scandal. That it was nonetheless made is a miracle.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Hemingway, Picasso, Bunuel, The Gang's All Here

Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris will make as much money as Annie Hall and restore him to the affections, perhaps, of the many women who chose to abhor him for most of this millennium, foolishly. It is literate, funny and sexy and mixes the appeal of his two great New Yorker short stories, The Whore of Mensa and The Hugelmass Experiment, with the daft adolescent magical realism of Play It Again, Sam and The Purple Rose of Cairo.
So, then: Gil, a disconsolate Hollywood hack obsessed with Scott and Zelda and Ernest and Salvador and Pablo's romantic Paris of the 1920s, is on a pre-honeymoon trip there with his fiancee Inez and her vulgar rich parents John and Helen and would like to stay there, really, live in a garret and finish his first novel and find out how good a writer he really is. But she -- and they -- won't let him. He makes big money doing movie rewrites, they reason, and she has her eye on a big house in Malibu. He is further unsettled by Paul, a haughty, bearded former college crush of hers, who lectures now at the Sorbonne, and loftily guides them round Versailles and some punishing art galleries he dominates with his erudition. And then, one night, furthermore, he takes Inez dancing.
Alone, outclassed, abashed and feeling semi-cuckolded, Gil becomes drunk and maudlin and lost on a wet cobbled street, and a clock strikes midnight, and a vintage car appears in moonlight, and some young revellers urge him into it. Soon he is at a party with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Stravinsky and other famed figures long dead but ardent and articulate who prove interested in discussing his novel with him. They then kick on to a smoke-filled cafe where Ernest Hemingway, big, young, baleful, leonine, intolerant of Zelda and keen to punch someone, sneeringly refuses to read Gil's novel but says he will take it to Gertrude Stein. Gil stumbles back to the hotel and gets it but by the time he has returned the twenties cafe, alas, has become a modern laundromat.
Was it all a dream? He takes Inez back to same spot next night, and they wait, and she eventually walks off, believing he has a brain tumour. And then, at midnight precisely, the same car arrives, containing Hemingway, who is keen to urge on his passenger the noble experience of death in battle, and at Gertrude Stein's he is introduced not just to Picasso but his shy, alluring mistress Adriana, whom Hemingway covets and Gil falls copiously, madly in love with; and she, oh God, with him.
This is the ideal girl. The mistress successively of Miro, Degas and Picasso, she studied design with Coco Chanel and yearns for the Belle Epoque of the 1880s, finding the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation and Hemingway's Moveable Feast a weary, stale, flat and unprofitable disappointment and waste of youth. Ah, but to be there in the Moulin Rouge in the Belle Epoque with Toulouse-Lautrec and Gauguin, she avers, that is the place to have been. And soon, sure enough ...
You get the idea. Woody fiddles with history a bit, making Ernest a seasoned rhino hunter already in 1922 when he was nothing of the sort, and airbrushing his wife Hadley and baby Bumby out of what seems now a riotous brawling bachelorhood of smashed glasses and groped barmaids without end, and in a matter of a few days packing Ernest and Adriana off to Kenya to hunt lion, break up and come back bruised by lust, mosquitoes and artistic differences.
But the casting and the set design is so engulfingly good one does not niggle too much. Corey Stoll is exactly as Hemingway must have been, bellicose, feral, ardent, envious and just a half-Pernod off crazy. Tom Hiddleston gives us a cautious, tolerant, not-too-champagne-sodden Scott and Alison Pill a tiny, wide-eyed, bullfighter-fucking teenage maddie who likes now and then to suicide in the Seine -- just to round off the evening, and attract Scott's attention away from whatever rich widow he is lately flirting with. And Adrien Brody's effusive bellowing Dali and Adrien de Van's dour Bunuel (to whom Gil vainly tries to sell the plot of The Exterminating Angel amid the auteur's growing puzzlement: whay dern't they jerst leave the rerm?) seem spot on, as do Yves Heck's Cole Porter, David Lowe's T.S. Eliot, Vincent Menjou Corles' tiny goose-like Toulouse-Lautrec, and -- especially -- Kathy Bates's plump unselfish imposing Gertrude Stein. This is a woman whose taste you do not cross, and whose kindness is unending.
Cotillard's Adriana, however, tests Gil's conscience like no first novel or hurtling Pamplona bull. Radiant, knowing, soft, sympathetic, bruisable and lovely as five Renoirs all at once, she is shocked to learn that he has nert terld her he is engarzhed and like Pablo and Miro plans to treat her as a shuckable sexual convenience and abandon her, like the others. He protests that he does not plan this, he loves her, but there is this minor problem of a wedding night he must get to in 2011 that will not go away; not for ninety years yet at any rate. A scene where they walk at night by the lamplit Seine and  accordions play 'Plaisir d'Amour' through caressing mist is as achingly romantic and wrenchingly sad as anything in An American In Paris or Jules et Jim.
What is Gil to do?
He will not best the gorgeous, ferocious Inez or her bellowing progenitors without the Eighth Army and General Patton at his back. Nor will he ward off the threat of the pompous Paul with whom, Hemingway informs him, from a close reading of the latest draft of his novel, Inez is having an affair. Accused of it, she denies it formidably. It must be true, he shouts, Hemingway read it between the lines! John meanwhile has hired Duluc, a sly French private detective, who follows Gil at midnight into the past and falls down like Clouzout between some centuries.
You get the idea. President Sarkozy's flighty wife Carla Bruni is very fine as a Museum Guide with green confronting eyes who, in the present millennium, tempts him almost as much as Lea Seydoux as Gabrielle, a beautiful calm warm girl in jeans in a music shop who is fond, like him, of Cole Porter 'because he writes so much about love, and Paris'. And his fiancee, Inez, magnificently fuelled and fired by the drop-dead Rachel McAdams, determined, spoiled and gorgeous beyond enduring, in what may be the film's best performance, and John and Helen, blazing, acquisitive, self-righteous in-laws from Hell but superbly individuated -- if that word exists -- by Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy (lately seen with bleeding teeth under kleenex in In The Loop) and Michael Sheen in a beard as the stiff adulterous pedant Paul, fill out a cast as fine as any in world cinema that, in only 89 minutes after the Paris montage that under Coltrane's yearning clarinet starts the film, brings in the story's long sweet amorous revenges.
Only Owen Wilson as Gil disappoints, just a little. Nervous tics and stumbling one-liners the young Woody Allen would have made work seem over-naive sometimes in his mouth and his curious nasal cadences, and his character belongs more to the 1950s than this era of meltdown, bailout and Inglorious Basterds, when history is not just adjusted but blown to smithereens.
But it is Woody's film for the ages, and his late box office redemption in this, his seventy-fifth year of implacable quest for the joke that brings down the house and sets, like Yorick, the table on a roar. His output now is rivalled only by Lumet's and his ratio of laughs attained to laughs attempted by only The Simpsons' team, who are numbered, I guess, in their hundreds.
He has made it home to Parnassus from silly beginnings. And he should be acclaimed.

Clooney Campaigning: A Feather Duster's Remembrance Of Things Past

George Clooney's The Ides of March is the best look at the backstage of political campaigning since Michael Ritchie's The Candidate, starring Robert Redford, in 1979. The round-the-clock tiredness, mutual suspicion, campaign fucking, big policy lurches, two-way betrayals, tawdry deals with ideological enemies,  alcoholic remorse and chronic self-loathing are the same in most democracies, I suspect, and characters I recognise from New South Wales and South Australia, including two Bruce Hawkers, exist as vividly and potently and achingly in this film for me as they do in the life I have known for sixteen years as a part-time backroomer and Labor fellow-traveller. The shopsoiled idealism of Tom Duffy and Paul Zara, played by Paul Giamatti and Phillip Seymour Hoffman (the two Hawkers), is particularly familiar: this is the life they know, they detest it, are hooked by it, want out of it, will never leave it and may die of it, gunned down in a motel in Tucson or a parking lot in Anchorage, Alaska.
So is the heady chess-playing amoral hydrophobic ambition of the young tactician Stephen Meyers, played by the quiet, splay-eyed Ryan Gosling, an enthused Machiavellian sucker-fish-turned-pirhana who may make President himself if the wallopers do not catch up with him soon; he has elements of Bodisco, Wedderburn, Walladge, Muldoon, Bobby Kennedy, and follows you home when you leave the cinema and sits by the bed looking mildly at you. You know something he wants to find out and he is keen to talk to you. No hurry, he'll wait there till you wake.
Clooney himself plays the Presidential Contender, Mike Morris, a dishy, hair-perfect, smiling simulacrum of a modern Hollywood President who looks like Romney and talks like Bob Brown. He has policies we all want to see enacted -- universal free tertiary education, an end to oil and the desert wars that come with our need to consume it -- and a fatal flaw which if discovered will hound him, like Herman Cain, out of politics altogether.
Wonderfully, Clooney, the auteur, keeps Clooney, the featured star, off-screen a good deal of the time. Great speeches we really want to hear -- as good as their West Wing equivalents, or Barack Obama's -- are overlapped by murmurous angry wrangling on phones back-stage or campaign fucking while the television plays the late-night round-up in the motel bedroom. He does the big effusive counterfeit campaign smiles as well as Henry Fonda in The Best Man. He is tuned-in, on message, baritone, handsome and plausible as Bill Clinton. We sense he believes it too, but what does that matter? He has a fatal flaw. What his aides can do, fuck an intern, he cannot. Must not. As we in the trade used to say, oh shit.
Marisa Tomei as the dark-eyed, probing, brilliant bitch reporter is excellent as always. And so too is Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns, the intern. Twenty, she could be twenty-six. She is old beyond her years but capable, when smitten, of the kind of high-school-prom-night-fuck-up that can bring down the whole house of cards. She thinks of herself as a budding Evita; but she is wrong. And very dangerous.
No more of the plot can be decently revealed before you see it. Watch carefully Giamatti and Seymour Hoffmann as they walk away. The burden of their life on the road from La Mancha to earthly glory has worn them down. They look like faithful mongrel dogs with only three legs left, keeping up with their masters as they have to, limping, hurrying, catching up, their Casablanca-sardonic dialogue barely maintaining their dignity till they get to the night's first whisky.
This is a wonderful film. Go see it.