Monthly Archives: February 2013

Henry 4

henry 4A post-industrial landscape meets a little Brit kitsch in Bell Shakespeare’s latest work to grace the stage of Canberra’s Playhouse. Opening with the dissonance of early Brit Rock and the destruction of a massive Union Jack (a very pleasing sight), Bell’s Henry IV is young, pithy and full of the muck, mire and joy of life.

Not one of Shakespeare’s better-known plays, Henry IV, which was written in two parts but is here presented by Bell in one, tells the story of King Henry IV’s efforts to restabilise his kingdom and rein in his recalcitrant son and heir. Led astray by the inimitable Falstaff, Prince Hal confides…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.


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Crash Test Drama

There isn’t much as satisfying as spending a night mucking around with scripts with a bunch of other people who like mucking around with scripts! I had a ball at Crash Test Drama, and I still would have, even if I didn’t come home with a couple of awards! Yes, two awards! Best Director, and People’s Choice award for my new short play The Boat Person.

It is really encouraging to hear that The Boat Person took people’s choice by a big margin, and I’m thinking that this year I will try to get it into Short+Sweet Canberra as an independent production. Its themes, which centre on the Laboral parties’ entirely immoral asylum seeker policies, will be especially relevant (and of course (because it’s me writing) irreverent) during the August festival as we bear headlong into the September election. I want to be right in the middle of this one.

Congratulations to everyone else who took home either an award, or just a pat on the back. It was great to spend the evening playing and watching, and I can’t wait to join you for the next one.

If you have no idea what Crash Test Drama is all about, head over to the website at


Posted by on Monday, 25 February 2013 in Uncategorized


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Love Me Tender

Love-Me-TenderIn preview tonight at Theatreworks, Love Me Tender explores a grab-bag of vaguely-related themes through a series of stories told sometimes in dramatic dialogue, and other times in literary monologue. The characters are mostly plagued by a lack of control of their circumstances and a sense of helplessness, and much of the exploration is a cavalcade of questions and of doubt, which doesn’t exactly make for riveting theatre.

At a rather fundamental level, I have an objection to the mode of storytelling employed by Tim Holloway in much of Love Me Tender. This is theatre, but the events in the narratives are not actually performed on stage. Instead, performers tell their story, often in metaphor, mostly in direct address to the audience. The result is that what the audience encounters is not strictly speaking dramatic, but tends more towards the literary arts. We lose, as an audience, the capacity to read between the lines, the capacity to read the characters’ relationships, and the capacity to engage with the characters’ experiences as they experience them. Instead, we’re left with…


The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.


Posted by on Wednesday, 20 February 2013 in Melbourne Theatre, Theatre, Theatreworks


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lincolnI was really looking forward to seeing Lincoln. His figure looms large over American history, and the particular juncture at which he held office in American history makes his story ever more relevant to a broad international audience. So when I found it so disappointing, I decided to wait a while and process it more before posting on it. And it’s been a worthwhile exercise, even if only for the study of historical narratives.

What this film suffers from the most is trying to tell the whole story of Abraham Lincoln’s final, event-filled years. It’s a common mistake for makers of historical films; to attempt to cram into a film of a couple of hours the full breadth and depth of several eventful years. The first two scenes illustrate the problem with this film perfectly. We begin with Lincoln being treated as a major celebrity by loyal soldiers, who for some inexplicable reason quote one of the president’s speeches back at him. Granted it’s a great speech, but I’m not convinced he’d forgotten it and needed the reminder, nor am I enamoured of the pathetic doe-eyed image of the American soldier so besotted with the president as to do such a thing. This scene is followed by the one thing screenwright Tony Kushner made a perfect call on; to use Mrs Lincoln to humanise and ground the celebrity. Had the story been mostly told through her eyes or in her presence, it would have made a much stronger impact, it would have held together more consistently as a narrative. Mrs Lincoln plays a significant role as the story progresses, but this role is too small for the attempt to narrate and humanise what is otherwise a docudrama mainly suitable for a midday slot on television. And of course, it isn’t helped by the longish written history lesson viewers are subjected to before the first scene even begins!

Whatever the creators have failed at, they have at least put to rest the myth of Honest Abe. Instead, Lincoln is depicted as the consummate politician, manipulative and conniving enough to achieve his goal, demonstrating both his leadership and his conviction. The mythical hero of history is in this film depicted as we know modern politicians; distrusting of democracy and determined to do good in spite of democracy’s aversion to good. It is a demonstration of the futility of democracy to see Lincoln connive and subvert the democratic process, only to turn the accusation of these ‘evils’ against Jefferson Davis.

This paradox, though, leaves me a little confused. I am not sure if the creators intended to depict Lincoln as a hypocrite, because he is otherwise shown as the consummate hero. I’m no fan of Westminster democracies, nor of the American congressional system. Both are subject to extreme subversion (in fact without subversion they’re entirely dysfunctional), and I like the way this film depicts that. But I am not convinced this was the intention of the screenwright. Too often the system is praised. Too often these characters have me convinced that they believe in their democratic processes. At the end of the film, I remain unsure as to what is being communicated.

This is a valiant attempt to tell an epic story, but it is unfortunately clouded by too many spectres of issues: democracy’s flaws; racial equality; gender equality and power all get a run, but none of them quite come into focus as well as they ought, mainly because the central character is a hypocrite, and his hypocrisy is not quite justified (not in the context of the film, that is; the historical figure of Lincoln had very good reasons for his lying, cheating and scheming).

So despite some great performances from the cast, fine characterisation and a rich plot, I found Lincoln struggled to deliver on clarity.

I think the magic bullet, the thing that would truly make this American history come to life in film, would be for it to be created by a foreigner. Americans take either too emotional or too factual a view of their complex history, and as a result, they slim down their historical figures to two dimensions. A foreigner would have enough distance from the material (and from the mythology Americans have built up around their history) to do it properly, and avoid these pitfalls. It would require a sympathetic foreigner, so a Canadian probably wouldn’t do. I suspect that if the story of America’s biggest political hero were to be told by an Aussie or a Brit, they’d hit the nail on the head. For my money, Lincoln is too confused a film to  be worthy of the praise it’s getting.

So as you look for great films on this period of American history, I think Django Unchained the better choice.


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Django Unchained

Django UnchainedI’ve never been a big fan of Quentin Tarantino‘s films. Most offend on my most cherished traditions of storytelling — character and plot — so I pay them less heed than I might otherwise do, but Django Unchained is a true exception. Sure, I liked True Romance, and Pulp Fiction isn’t without its charms. Inglorious Basterds is a fine piece of cinema too, but Django Unchained is a refined, glorious masterpiece. A film worthy of the attention Tarantino usually gets for the more flimsy of his work. I will give three reasons why I think this film alone is worthy of all the praise that has been lavished on Tarantino for all of his lesser films put together.

First, it has a plot. And not just an “I need an excuse to shoot so many scenes of blood and gore” kind of plot. It has a narrative. As in its central characters have a context in which to be, and not a flimsy one, but a solid, relatable, engaging one. A slave — Django — is bought in Texas by an anti-slavery German bounty hunter for the knowledge he has of the bounty hunter’s target. In exchange for Django’s help, he agrees to free him and share his earnings. The two become friends and colleagues and the German learns the story of Django’s wife, and they set out to free her from slavery also.

Second, it has characters that speak like real people. Not all of them, mind you, but a whopping majority, which is more than can be said for most of Tarantino’s characters (it’s also more than can be said for half of the movies made in the United States in the last 50 years). Most of them tend instead to opt for trite one-liners or metaphors or abbreviations of concepts that are supposed to make us think they’re really cool, but these characters are so damn cool they don’t need the pretence and can speak in full sentences like human beings. I like that. It gives them depth and develops relationships and shows me people I can relate to.

Third and best of all, Django Unchained has that wonderful quirk of Tarantino’s; the ability to draw us into the violence as if it is the realisation of our deepest, darkest instincts. It’s the karma we westerners of the 21st century wish we could exact upon the evil of the past. The wish that we could punish slave-owners for their sins, or take revenge on Hitler or upon that bully who just wouldn’t let up. I think this is what has sold so many of Tarantino’s films (that and truly beautiful cinematography that doesn’t just glorify, but truly beautifies, violence), and why I’ve often been willing to forgive the lack of plot or the superficiality of the characters or the ridiculous illogicality of the combat. Someone who deserves to suffer the full force of their victim’s fury is getting even more than the full force of it. Payback’s not just a bitch, she’s a tsunami of violence, desolating everything in her path.

And while this has always been the element I’ve liked in Tarantino’s films, in this instance, he doesn’t sacrifice character and plot to deliver it. And that is why Django Unchained is the film that redeems his ouvre.


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Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings PlaybookThis is a romance story for those who don’t tolerate a lot of nonsense. And it is seriously one of the best romance films I’ve ever seen.

We meet Patrick, played by Bradley Cooper, in a mental institution as his mother delivers a court order for his release. It is soon revealed that he was institutionalised with bi-polar disorder following an incident following his discovery of his wife’s infidelity. Now on a restraining order to stay away from her, he seeks to prove that he’s worthy of his wife’s love and trust through positive living and a few trite aphorisms.

Before long, he encounters Tiffany, a widow suffering depression with whom he strikes a strong and immediate bond. From there the plot is basically predictable; they fall in love, he denies it, eventually changes his mind, yada yada yada. But it doesn’t matter, because these characters are so strong. Characters like these are hard to come by. There’s something so much more genuine than the average romance film offers.

The characters with the apparent mental illness offer great insights into humanity, and those without a diagnosis are shown to waver in their ability to control their senses also. We need more stories that depict varying degrees of mental health, rather than the old paradigm of being either sane or insane. This film does it beautifully, and is well worth a look.


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