Cymbeline: a rare jewel

Secret House at the Depot Theatre, Marrickville

Directed by Sean O’Riordan

Why should we be made to give up our fairytales just because we are going to grownup theatre? I was delighted to finally have the chance to see Cymbeline performed, one of Shakespeare’s late Romances, full of whimsy and folkloric imagery, and fanciful coincidences and resolutions. Set in Roman Britain, the play combines staples of fairytale (wicked stepmother queen, banished princess) with staples from Shakespeare’s bag of tricks (woman falsely accused of adultery, smooth-talking villain, family long separated reunited).

The design for this production shows just how much atmosphere can be conjured with minimal resources. As ever, the key seems to be to give actors a variety of levels to work on (pay attention, Sydney Theatre Company). Some wooden pallets, some fabric throws with interesting textures, and costumes that were other things ripped apart and re-assembled created a fantasy world the actors could dig themselves into. Because Cymbeline is a fantasy, and it is foolish to write it off as a play because of its core features, just because we have become so used to promoting Shakespeare by singing about its ‘relevance’. This punk/Elizabethan/goth framing was a great way to indicate to the audience that we were to enjoy a bloody and fantastical tale, which proved to be enormously good fun.

A large ensemble creates the advantage of full crowd scenes and a range of vibrant smaller roles, but the difficulty of finding a consistent acting level. Here, a terrifically strong, rather magnificent Belarius was counterpoised by a weak Cymbeline, and numerous polished and vivid female characters faced young men who looked the part, but lacked the vocal depth to convince in the more demanding speeches.

A touching Imogen showed her good, sound heart, which wins her friends all the way through the story, even while her nearest and dearest plot to do appalling things to her. She brought out some of the play’s most charming lines, which remind us that Shakespeare is all about those heightened emotional moments:

I draw the sword myself: take it, and hit
The innocent mansion of my love, my heart;
Fear not, ’tis empty of all things but grief.

The pacing was excellent, with the whole of the piece racing along without a dip in the action. This was pure storytelling, and an excellent reminder that a rattling good yarn told with enthusiasm is the bedrock of what theatre needs.

Young white woman in bodice and white skirt reaching out.


Twelfth Night in Vivid Colour

Twelfth Night by Company B, Belvoir and Piya Behrupiya by The Company Theatre, Mumbai

No matter how many times Twelfth Night is staged, each production bursts out of the seams of the text in new ways. There is just so much stuff in this play that as long as the performers are encouraged to be adventurous with what they find, every version will feel fresh.

So it is that two productions of the same play on in September in Sydney can share a story and very little else, and still be alike in their vivacity, though widely varying in their execution.

Woman and man in green and orange velvet embrace.

Sir Toby woos Maria – image by Brett Boardman

The version at Belvoir St Theatre provides the example of what a reliance on the guidance of the text produces. There was barely any cutting, even of archaic jokes, and just a touch of ad-libbing to frame that. The choice of actors, heavily weighted towards older, highly experienced stage performers, set up the piece to emphasise thoughtfulness and polish in the delivery. Actors who know both their verse speaking and their slapstick as the finely honed tools of their profession bring joy to a production in partnership with their skill. In artists like Damien Ryan as Orsino and Lucia Mastrantone as Maria we saw how much the communication of both meaning and personality comes from understanding the language and offering it up with love. Peter Carroll was a phenomenon, giving everything to his performance. Malvolio’s dance of glee and hopefulness after receiving the letter was giddying to watch.

This play involves an unusually high number of clown figures: Feste, Malvolio, Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, even if you don’t count Maria and Fabian. In this confidently exuberant crowd (even with an unusually sober Feste), Nikki Shiels was a charming enough Viola, but looked as if she was working very hard to be funny. This by contrast with Amber McMahon who infused the usually ‘straighter’ role of her twin Sebastian with a wildly effortless comic physicality.

After a lengthy fashion on Sydney’s main stages for rehearsal-room casuals and an inexcusable preponderance of track suit pants, I am so grateful to be getting costumes again. Appearing first all in Marat/Sade cream-coloured smocks, as each actor became a character they acquired an exquisitely constructed heavy velvet costume in a block colour. Set off by walls designed to look like lacquer or the gilt backing medieval religious paintings, these minimally adorned yet rich costumes allowed for beautiful stage pictures to be created.

This production allowed the play to be funny and moving as a piece of fanciful storytelling, without insisting that it must remind us of our own world in order for us to care about it.

Old man in yellow stockings, dancing.

Peter Carroll as Malvolio

Piya Behrupiya is a version of Twelfth Night adapted into a variety of Indian languages, through the financial support of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, as part of their ongoing project to see Shakespeare translated into all possible languages. This was far from a straightforward translation, however. As the English surtitles attested, the play had been translated into rhymed verse, which was then translated back into English in rhyme. A kind and educated audience member explained to me that Feste sang in Bhojpuri, and that Olivia often used Urdu, while there were interjections in English, though the majority of the piece was in Hindi and Punjabi. The richness conjured by grabbing whatever form of expression feels the best fit for the moment is a truly wonderful approach, that pays off all the way through.

Curiously, this version too made Sebastian in some senses the designated clown, being the one who addressed the audience directly and improvisationally, and who stepped out of frame to make jokes about Shakespeare, the Director and himself as an actor.

This production was all about the joy in the tale, with only a handful of moments that called upon the darker sides there can be to the play, although Viola’s initial grief at her brother’s loss was real and touching. The effervescent energy of all the performers is easy to dwell upon, but I enjoyed how they knew when to find moments of stillness or gentleness, particularly during the many songs.

At the Sydney Opera House the audience was almost entirely Indian, and clearly having a terrific time, sharing a huge number of in-jokes and cultural references that went whooshing by me, as well as a familiarity with the music. It was such a delight to be swept up among characters I know so well, but being told the story in a way that called upon a whole additional set of experiences.

Such different experiences of theatre, and utterly divergent ways of treating the text, in service of the same plot, yet both showing what a vivid story is painted when  the artists bring their hearts.

Man and woman in traditional Indian costume seated on the ground, Indian musicians behind.

Olivia woos Sebastian

A Short Rant

I’m becoming really distressed by people who work in new writing in performance treating people who work on older texts as the enemy. The enemy is a culture that doesn’t value all kinds of art creation, and a government/mainstream media/corporate world that doesn’t treat artists as worthy of support. The artists, whatever kind of art they do, are on the same side in this.

If you create new work, people who work with Shakespeare (or other ‘canon’ texts, or even those who work in superannuated productions of cheesy musicals, or largely imported new productions of even cheesier musicals) are not stealing from you. They are not sucking up oxygen that you would otherwise get to breathe, they’re generating a greater abundance of oxygen. They’re creating an environment where audiences learn to expect theatre to be a part of their social life. They’re creating places for performers to earn a living, develop their skill sets, and do something they love. They’re creating new points of dialogue between text and performance. They’re creating new ways of talking about ourselves that are just as valid as yours. They’re creating.

They’re creating, and they’re very often doing it out of nothing. They build something, many things, out of nothing because they care so much. They have so much heart and passion and belief that they have something to give that is enriching and meaningful and transformative. And it costs us our energy, our undervalued time, and very often our spirit when we can see how much joy this work brings to the people we share it with, and yet how little that means to the people who have the power to help, but don’t. Notice how similar my experience is to that of artists working on new writing? Notice that I managed to lay the blame where it belongs, with the powerful, and not on you, my fellow struggling artists?

We should, by all means, critique the quality of any work that is put out there, discuss and debate what we get out of it or how it could have offered more. This is quite different from expressing derision at someone else’s field of work getting support or attention.

I spend so much of my time supporting other people’s work. I hook up people creating work with people who might offer them a platform to promote it. I sling what dollars I can spare to crowdfunding so independent projects have a better chance of seeing the light of day. I tell people I know who hold senior positions in the industry all about the people I know who are just starting out. I re-tweet, and re-post, and cross-promote. What I don’t ever, EVER do is tell an artist or a scholar that their specialisation shouldn’t exist, or shouldn’t get whatever attention it manages to secure from neglectful media and parsimonious funding sources.

So, as an artist, if you can’t extend the same courtesy to my work and that of my colleagues because it’s not the work you’re into, then you may kindly fuck right off into the heart of a flaming gas giant. And leave us to do our work.

Funding Humanities Research: it’s called being part of the world

Nearly three years ago when the Australian Research Council was last under explicit attack, I wrote a blog post for my other site, Hoyden About Town, mostly prompted by my astonishment at how little challenge was being offered by anyone to the open ridicule coupled with threats of government interference in an independent process. We should have been rocked by the implications of a declared intention to undermine the foundational principles of higher learning.

Medieval painting of Hildegard von Bingen transcribing a vision.

This esoteric research lark has been going on for some time.

Now our government, which should be in the business of supporting and promoting the work of our universities and high-end intellectual workers, has once again chosen to join in the disparagement of the very concept of employing people to do research in non-STEM areas. News Ltd. publications have been dipping into their recycling bin of material on why academics are a waste to keep fed and clothed. Rob Brooks’ column in the Conversation lays out the background, and uncovers the indispensable element of sustained ignorance necessary for making an argument that Arts and Humanities research is not important: If you’re going to ridicule research, do your homework.

To help them along, Scott Morrison went on record to agree that the Australian Research Council, which allocates most of the research money available in Australia, is wrong to approve projects that don’t offer outcomes of obvious material benefit. He told the Australian‘s Ray Hadley that the ARC is failing to offer adequate justification for its choices of which research to fund, and would not pass a “pub test” of approval from the general public. Thanks, Mr. Treasurer, for making us look like hicks to the world, at the same time as kneecapping one of our key growth industries. Not to mention the insult to people who spend time in pubs.

This time around the ARC has finally been goaded into making a statement that it believes in the value of its role in supporting Humanities work. Unfortunately it includes reassuring the public that only 3.3% of the organisation’s competitive grant funding even goes to the Humanities – I could do without this being framed as a positive. I’m sorry that I need to re-publish an old article. I foolishly hoped we would turn a corner in the time since then, and this piece would be a mere historic artefact, in a world where History as one of many valued disciplines was beyond doubt.

Posted at Hoyden About Town on 18 December 2013

Yesterday in Federal Parliament the MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, gave a speech in which he stated that there should be no funding for research that does not either find a cure for a disease, ”improve our prosperity” or “improve our lifestyles”. The speech rested on mocking research projects that have gone ahead at Australian universities in the last few years under independent, peer-reviewed processes standard the world over. Here is an excerpt:

A cool $150,000 went into a study of the impact of locally mined silver to make coins in Athens between the years 550 BC and 480 BC. In another example, a cool $200,000 went to determine what young Australians are learning about sex, love and relationships from the popular media. I would suggest that these are not the type of funding projects that the government should be funding.

Another little one here, which I am sure might be a favourite of many sitting on the opposition side, is a study of Marxism and religion and the relationship between theology and political radicalism—$60,000. Another one here is $180,000 for a study rethinking the history of Soviet Stalinism to provide a sophisticated understanding of the complexities of Stalin’s Russia. We know the complexities—obviously, Stalin must have been a good bloke who was misunderstood. We need $180,000 to find that out.

In another example, $210,000 was spent on a study of how early-modern women’s writing was produced and circulated. And $196,476 was spent on a study of trade unions in Indonesia to document and analyse unionist strategies for the upcoming Indonesian election. Is this really what the Australian taxpayer should be funding, instead of medical research, instead of research to make our nation more competitive?

This is a little bewdy, too: $164,000 for a study of magical spells and rituals from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD to achieve success in personal relations—a most important expenditure! In another one: $370,000 for a study to find whether physiological plasticity of individuals renders populations resilient to climate change. It goes on: $265,000 for a study to understand the context and purpose of philosophy within higher education in the eastern Roman Empire in the period 300 BC to 500 AD. In another example, $330,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent under the previous Labor government to explore the music-cultural identity and related socioeconomic dilemmas of remote South Sea nomads vis-a-vis the Muslim Malays in the industrialising Riau Islands.

Under the previous Labor government $253,000 of taxpayers’ money also went to study archaeology in the Central Caucuses. And $444,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent to study a history of advertising industry practices in Australia between 1959 and 1989. Isn’t that the type of study that would be better funded by the advertising industry than by taxpayers? Another example is a study of official histories produced by humanists in the courts and chanceries of Renaissance Italy during the 15th century.

There has been too much under-reaction to what the government is advocating, so let me spell it out: if these grants shouldn’t happen then our universities shouldn’t have Arts faculties. If this use of resources is a waste then our universities should be downgraded to vocational training centres, all academics not working in medicine or technology should lose their jobs, and Australia can kiss goodbye to the income we get selling our education overseas, because people from other parts of the world won’t pay huge amounts of money to travel here for a qualification from an institution that can’t command international respect.

Kelly keeps referring to making Australia competitive, so let’s talk about that. Education is a product; you can’t sell it if what you are producing isn’t any good. The way the world judges whether you are capable of offering a good education is by looking at the quality of the research you publish. Not the immediate practical usefulness of the topic, the quality of the scholarship. If we stop participating in the system of higher learning engaged in by the rest of the world, it will take no time for us to have no standing in the international higher education scene. Universities function as a world-wide community, and they are wildly competitive. You fall behind, you disappear. Not publishing research across the breadth of potential fields of knowledge is to fall behind. If you want any hope of being competitive in education, you can’t limit your research to a few restricted areas.

You can’t publish without doing research, and no publications, no credibility. This is how the world measures whether people doing higher level intellectual work are any good or not. If our academics can’t prove they are good at what they do, no one will pay to come to their institutions to study under their guidance. People come to university to learn from experts. Experts carry out research. Grants pay their wages while they do. It is not enough for a university to only have experts in the narrow fields that sell best to overseas students. Universities are judged on the full breadth of what they produce, an institution that no longer publishes in philosophy, history or literature will not be seen as a serious site of intellectual activity. Our brand in the marketplace for that immensely valuable product, education, will be trashed.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this: if you don’t believe “a study of Marxism and religion and the relationship between theology and political radicalism” or “a study to understand the context and purpose of philosophy within higher education in the eastern Roman Empire in the period 300 BC to 500 AD” should be funded, then you don’t believe philosophy departments should exist, because that’s what they do. If you don’t believe “a study of how early-modern women’s writing was produced and circulated” should be funded, then you don’t believe history and literature departments should exist. The only end game here is to shut down all philosophy, history, fine and performing arts, and literature departments, and probably most of sociology, psychology and political science too.

Painting on a tower wall of an arm made of books holding aloft a giant key.

A conceptual diagram of the value of Arts and Humanities research

It’s easy to look at these figures as some kind of disembodied amount paid for the topic, like buying a book. That’s not what they are. The money tagged in those grants goes almost entirely on the salary of the person doing the research. The money covers some expenses like research trips and organising conferences, but the bulk of it is the wage of the scholar, sometimes also research assistants. A $200,000 grant is three years of salary for an academic who is also writing, publishing, speaking, and when they are not engaged on a full-time research project, teaching. Each of those grants Kelly lists represents several jobs. You cancel the grant, your scholar goes overseas, or leaves higher education for a job below their skill level, or is unemployed. Less work, less teaching, fewer peripheral jobs, the sector shrinks, Australia has fewer skilled workers.

The insult to the electorate is that Kelly assumes the titles of previously funded projects are a weapon in his arsenal. He assumes anyone hearing them will join him in mocking their worth. A person with even a cursory understanding of what is going on when research grants are allocated will be nothing but disgusted at his sly, shock-jock misrepresentations that show he believes Australians to be too parochial to comprehend that there could be “complexity” worth understanding in Stalin’s Russia. A person of any reflection will see a study of “archaeology in the Central Caucuses” and think how great it is that Australia has players in a field as competitive as archeology. They will see “a study of official histories produced by humanists in the courts and chanceries of Renaissance Italy during the 15th century”, and be impressed that we have moved on from the cultural cringe enough to know we have scholars who can contribute to a major field in European history. Kelly counts on us being so enamoured with ignorance that we can’t even see value in knowing “what young Australians are learning about sex, love and relationships from the popular media”.

There is plenty to get angry about in the contempt the government is showing for this country’s smartest and most committed people, not to mention the contempt for the broader idea of there being value in the life of the mind. But we shouldn’t miss noticing the extremity of the contempt they are showing to every single Australian out there, even those with no personal stakes in the university system. Abbott, Pyne and Kelly have all assumed that Australians are too stupid and ignorant to understand the value of this country continuing as part of the intellectual world. They assume we will scoff at the notion that work on thought and culture is needed if a country is to thrive. They think we will agree with them that we shouldn’t aim to be a part of the wider world’s systems of pursuing knowledge. I am going to choose to believe that they have grievously misjudged us.