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Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Road to Guantanamo

There is a particular atmosphere in films that depict the victims of the Holocaust, and I found it incredibly disturbing to sense that same atmosphere in this excellent documentary recently aired on the SBS.

The Road to Guananamo is the story of several Pakistani Britons from Birmingham who found themselves caught up in the war in Afghanistan immediately following the 9/11 attacks, and who are ultimately imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, accused of being members of Al Qaeda. That this can happen to innocent travellers is hardly surprising, but the stories of their treatment at the hands of mostly American guards is no less shocking and outrageous than the many depictions of Jewish victims of the Nazis during World War II.
Apart from its moral position and emotional impact, which is similar to what I have felt when watching depictions of how the German Jews were treated in the early forties, what I found astonishing was the realisation of how conditioned I am. As these young men were relieved from their Afghani captors and handed over to the Americans, I felt, when I heard the American accent, a sense of relief; I felt their ordeal was finally over. Of course, the worse was yet to come, and the Americans proved themselves incapable of justice.
The film unselfconsciously takes advantage of our conditioning, allowing us to feel some confidence in the American gaolers before showing them to be as evil and conniving as their Nazi predecessors; and putting the story into this context highlights that the problem lies with the fascist element in the perpetrating society. While I cannot vouch for the voracity of the prisoners’ accounts of their gaolers’ actions, I am more inclined to trust their accounts than the rantings of governments beseiged by criticisms. What appalls me more than the behaviour of the American guards is the knowledge that Australians were imprisoned with these Pakistani Britons, and that our government was no more loyal to our people than the British were to theirs.
It is rare to see such a cogent and compelling story about the need to heed the lessons of history. While I know that the American people are every bit as honourable and worthy of respect as the Germans are, this film demonstrates that no people, least of all the Americans, should be complacent in holding their politicians accountable.
 

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Ruben Guthrie

I want to charge Brendan Cowell with writing a masterpiece in Ruben Guthrie, but I fear that would undermine the intense humanity of this work. This is Australian playwriting at its best, exploring Australian society with no sense of cultural cringe, and no sense of being old fashioned or quaint.
The promotional material for Ruben Guthrie repeatedly asks whether it is unAustralian to refuse a drink, but whether it is Australian or not is not really a concern for the central character, who you might have guessed is called Ruben Guthrie. His main concern is staying sober, not only within a nation that loves a drink, but within an industry where alcohol consumption is a selection criterion, and within a family with a strong love of the bottle. Brendan Cowell has dealt with his story’s heady themes with a deft hand, plenty of humour, and stoicly (and wisely) refuses to answer the marketers’ question.
What I found most remarkable about this play was the way in which Cowell has managed to show the fundamental failings of social programs that seek to address addictions or compulsions (such as AA’s famous twelve steps), while also showing their effectiveness.
I recall reading some time ago Neil Armfield saying something about theatre being “necessary”. The terminology has stuck with me, because many people see the arts as an optional extra, something to make life enjoyable, rather than a crucial building block of a healthy society. Ruben Guthrie eloquently articulates the reason why the arts, and especially the narrative arts, are necessary to a society, and in the process, it also highlights the inadequacies of the social work profession.
But that doesn’t make it any less funny. In fact, it is yet another example of that spectacular Australian creation: the play that is, at once, both drama and comedy.
 
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Posted by on Sunday, 24 May 2009 in Belvoir, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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All Shook Up

All Shook Up is a take on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, in case you didn’t know. I knew, and I think I missed half the show trying to figure out which characters corresponded to which Twelfth Night characters. Why did I do that?
As we have come to expect from Supa, All Shook Up is a great show that doesn’t ask a lot of its audience. We joined the blue rinse set for today’s matinee. It’s not normally a good idea to go to a matinee, the audiences are usually a bit flat, and the performers suffer for it. This was probably true today, and yet what struck me was the technical precision displayed by the cast. Under the musical direction of Garrick Smith, the principal cast gave stunning performances of many of Elvis Presley’s most popular songs, supported by an equally impressive ensemble.
It was a great show, although not a patch on Supa’s recent productions of Buddy. It could have something to do with the music, but I think maybe I’m just a little too young to appreciate it the way the rest of the audience, who were mostly twice my age, did. It’s a good show, but for my tastes it needed a little less sugar.
 
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Posted by on Saturday, 23 May 2009 in ANU Arts Centre, Canberra Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Seed


Iain Sinclair says in his director’s note for The Seedthat it is “one of those special pieces that help us see with fresh eyes”. I will assume he is right, but for someone who has had little contact with Vietnam veterans or the IRA, fresh eyes are a given. And in these wars, which are both in a way secreted failures, some of us still need more information.

The thing is that while a little more exposition would have helped, it would also meddle with a well-balanced plot. You can tell a story about one of the World Wars of the twentieth century and assume reasonable knowledge, but these conflicts are a mystery to most Australians, even those who continue to feel their impact on their lives. Of course, that’s why this story is so necessary.
The Seed, ultimately, is not so much about these conflicts as it is about how politics impacts individual lives and families. I find this fascinating, because we in Australia, and, ironically, especially those of us who live in Canberra, are largely unaffected by the goings on in Parliament House, and there are many Australians who never even consider that in some countries a change of government can turn people’s lives upside-down.
While I found it somewhat difficult to relate to the solid and resonant performances of this impeccable cast of three, I felt that this was more to do with my own ignorance of Vietnam and the Irish struggle. I hope in time that we will experience many more stories of the wars that have been fought and lost.
 
 

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Big Voice


It’s a good sign when all a performer has to do is stand on stage to elicit a hearty laugh from her audience. And although it seemed that much of Shortis and Simpson’s fan club were sharing the auditorium with me, their laughter, tears and raucous applause were well-deserved.

Moya presents an autobiography, in a form I have never experienced before. She shares, mostly through music, and in a broad range of styles, I might add, her life. And as patchy as the story may be, it is told with a unique combination of elegance, wit, and pathos that warmly engages its audience.
Her description of her Surrey grandmother, whose accent made her sound as though she were singing whenever she spoke, was endearing, and I could not help but swell with anger as she related the story of how her year 2 teacher berated her for singing a harmony before the class had been taught it. Her journey back to a love of singing, and her rediscovery of it here in what was described to her as an ‘uncultured’ Australia, is the main theme of this show.
Moya says in the program:

“Whenever people hear that I started singing at age thirty-five, there is always the same astonishment. What I find astonishing is how many people have been stopped from doing something that I truly believe is a natural expression of creativity. It’s mostly a family member or a teacher that has intervened at a critical stage, made a judgement on a voice, and effectively silenced the flow, often for ever.”

While the style of the piece is clearly that of a baby boomer, Moya’s story resonates with a generosity and simplicity that is often lacking in theatre. It even appealed to a relatively cynical Gen-Xer like myself.
 

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The Alchemist

It took a while, I think, for both the cast and the audience to warm up to The Alchemist on Monday night. Maybe it was the day, or maybe it was not quite what the audience was expecting from Bell Shakespeare, or maybe it was simply the language.

There are a lot of people who find Shakespeare’s language difficult to understand. I have always found that the more I am working with the language, the easier it is to understand. It took some warming up, but I found Ben Jonson’s dialogue less dense, and more accessible for my 20th century ears, than I usually find with Shakespeare. Maybe it has something to do with the nature of the humour, which is more pithy than Shakespeare’s, and perhaps, as such, more akin to an Australian’s sense of humour. The interpretation of Lovewit, performed by Russell Keifel, certainly played this up, with his use of a laugh and accent reminiscent of Bob Hawke.

Whatever it was, Bell Shakespeare’s production of The Alchemistmet my expectations. It was thoughtful, intelligent, imaginative, unencumbered by preconceptions, and thoroughly entertaining.

 
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Posted by on Monday, 4 May 2009 in Bell Shakespeare Company, The Playhouse

 

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