Friday, 13 September 2013

Friday Five: Friday 13th and other superstitions

Today is Friday 13th. I have no superstitious belief about this whatsoever. We got married on the 13th so every now and then we will have a wedding anniversary on Friday 13th. We actually got married on a Saturday, but the date was considered so unlucky by many that we were able to book the church and the reception venue without difficulty, although either side was booked up for months.

Considering this I thought to myself that I am not superstitious at all, although I am involved with theatre and many theatrical people supposedly are. As children we used to pull the wishbone of chickens (and the Christmas turkey) apart and the one with the bigger bit got to make a wish. I can’t remember what happened to the ‘loser’ but it was certainly nothing bad. We also used to wish on shooting stars and birthday candles (I still do, but it’s always the same wish, and no, I’m not telling or it won’t come true…) and pretend we had found four-leaf clovers by splitting one of the petals in half.

I never had a rabbit’s foot, but that was probably because I thought it was creepy. Neither did I set much store by the lore about black cats – mainly because I couldn’t remember if they were meant to be lucky or unlucky (apparently if a black cat walks towards you, it brings good fortune, but if it walks away, it takes the good luck with it) and I have shared my life with two black cats (Wraith and Hatstand) and couldn’t imagine either of them to be harbingers of doom.

I have since discovered that, it is supposedly unlucky to wear opals unless you were born in October, which is fortunate as I do and I was. My mother always used to say it was bad luck to put shoes on the table, but I always assumed this was for hygiene reasons as much as anything. So I never considered myself remotely superstitious, but recently I realised I do many things which emanate from old wives’ tales. I do them unthinkingly, however, and I suspect they are more to do with the customs with which I was raised than any deeper meaning.

5 Superstitions I Follow:
  1. Walking under a ladder – I don’t do it. Admittedly, this is because there is a possibility something might fall on my head, but I have been known to step into the road to avoid them.
  2. I never open umbrellas indoors – I’ve lived in some very small English houses before where there simply isn’t room.
  3. When I spill salt, I throw some over my left shoulder with my right hand – this is meant to be flung on the face of the devil who waits over your left shoulder (he’s sinister you see) but it does create more mess to clean up.
  4. I don’t like to have thirteen people at the dinner table. I won’t make a fuss about it or anything but it does make me slightly uncomfortable – the last supper and the great betrayal and all that.
  5. I knock on wood after mentioning good fortune so evil spirits won’t ruin it. I know it makes no sense and I don’t why I do it, but I do. So there.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

A Compelling Tale, However You Tell It.

Home at the End by Duncan Ley
Everyman Theatre
Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, 4-14 September 2013

How many ways can you tell a story? And how can you tell if it’s true? And if you don’t like your own history, can you rewrite it?

Reading from a storybook; interpretive dance; shadow play; masked mime; puppetry; writing on a computer; imaginary discourse; counselling and therapy sessions; plumbing the depths of family history; game shows; reportage; musical commentary – between them playwright Duncan Ley, director Jarrad West and the cast and crew of Home at the End employ all of these methods to bring us a tale of post-traumatic stress disorder and personal redemption.

If all that sounds a bit drama school, it is, in parts, but is rescued from pretentious self-indulgence by some solid acting and script-writing. The obvious storytelling segments are expertly presented and the audience is sucked into the narrative, in whatever way it is presented. Once again, Duncan Driver proves himself to be a mesmerising raconteur (he played a similar role as First Voice in Canberra Rep’s production of Under Milk Wood earlier this year) to Molly, the little girl who comes to visits his shack, followed by her mother, Andie, and, by extension, us.

The play is weaker in the naturalistic moments as the contemporary dialogue sounds forced. The audience may enjoy the witty banter about writing being a form of masturbation, but the one-liners occasionally feel as though we are watching one of those sitcoms where the jokes are shoehorned into the script for the benefit of a laugh.

Isaac Reilly, as Joe Smith, has one of the toughest roles of the play as he attempts to present realism in the midst of heightened drama. Helen McFarlane plays his wife Andie, who relishes the compound challenge of mixing the sensible everyday with surreal extremes. And some singing.

In the foyer as we were leaving, I heard the comment, ‘It must be a great play for the actors.’ That’s a fair point, as there are lots of complementary roles to play but this makes it sound as though it isn’t equally rewarding for spectators, which is untrue. It could be tightened and trimmed, as the play is a vessel which is bursting with so many ideas and themes that it seems to overspill and leak some from the sides. Perhaps a slightly smaller measure is required, if we are to see through a glass, darkly.

The subject matter is confrontational and a man’s descent into madness and destitution as a result of what he did or didn’t do at the moment of crisis, is appalling although compelling. Macabre hospital scenes and Kafka-esque interrogations (surely the name Josef cannot be a coincidence) are contrasted with gritty streets and soulless bars in an urban wilderness that feels depressingly familiar. Elements of humour highlighted by the ensemble cast keep the performance from being doom-ridden and harrowing.

The half-time shock seems to come out of nowhere, and blasts what was a fairly comfortable fable into something deeper, darker and more threatening. So many concepts are exploded, that there is barely time to consider them all before we are plunged back into the story. It is a play of two distinct halves as though something has been ripped apart and now cannot fit back together.

Set (Nick Valois), lighting (Kelly McGannon) and costumes (Emma Sekuless) are all put through their paces in this multi-tiered spectacle and pass the test with honours. It is clear the crew are working as hard as the cast to present this original, demanding and questioning drama.

One of those questions being, if the play is, as playwright Duncan Ley is quoted as explaining, ‘a gift of Canberra to itself’, and it’s the thought that counts, what exactly was he thinking? Pondering that poser (that’s without a ‘u’) kept me awake long into the small hours. I love theatre that can do that.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Stop the Press (Gallery)

And then I went up to the Press Gallery, which was my favourite part of the entire building. It retains its original decor – rather nasty mushroom-coloured walls – and is very shabby compared with the rest of the building.

Audio recordings are available for the public to listen in on some past interviews, such as this one from press journalist Gay Davidson, “In general I don’t think journalists should play God, but I see no reason why they shouldn’t comment and interpret and the more of that there is in newspapers, the better.”

The tiny corridors and soundproofed rooms are empty now, but it is easy to imagine them resounding with footsteps and the chatter of typewriter keys. The space in which all the journalists worked was minimal, and the press gallery members and politicians all worked together intimately. Press Gallery journalist, Fred Brenchley wrote,
“One of the joys of working around here was that you were so close... you felt always that you were a part of public policy making because you were working so close to ministers... and you could write things that you felt perhaps influenced the debate here and there. Journalism after all is the first rough draft of history.”
The press boxes at the top of the stairs would have been the main site of all the action. Members of the foreign press such as The Guaming Daily (China), Pravda Tass (USSR) and The Times (UK) were accredited members of the gallery with a press box, although they did not have offices here. Yuri Yasnev, a journalist with Pravda, said in 1965, “We’re covering Australia because it’s [becoming] more important in covering international affairs.”

Canberra was very small and the press and politicians alike missed the familiar surroundings of the bigger cities. They spent time socially together and built up camaraderie on trains between Canberra and state capitals. They stayed in the same hotels, drank in the same bars, and even played cricket together, although that rivalry may not always have been entirely friendly. 
Prime Minister Bob Hawke hit in the face while batting in the annual cricket match against the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1984. The bowler was ABC journalist Gary O'Neill
 It was clearly cramped and there was no sense of privacy, but there must have been an element of excitement about the place. Colin Parkes, Press Gallery journalist, explains,
“The nature of this building was that the whole building and everyone in it was a source. You could walk in this building at nine in the morning and you could sniff something. You could feel an atmosphere that something was going on. It was a quickened pace or, ‘What are those two talking about? Those people are enemies, why are they talking? ...You could hide nothing. You couldn’t have secret Cabinet meetings. You couldn’t have secret committee meetings. If a minister was summonsed to the Prime Minister’s office, the odds were he’d pass six journalists on the way.” 
Paul Malone agrees, “There was a buzz about this place. You could be sitting in my little office and you would suddenly hear footsteps in the corridor and people rushing. And the common greeting was, ‘What’s happening?’ Nobody ever said, ‘Hello’ or ‘Good day’ or anything. It was always ‘What’s happening?’”

The equipment was clearly archaic, but the reporters loved it, especially as they began to be taken seriously for their work. Press Gallery journalist Alan Ramsey explains that reporters rarely got by-lines in those days and their articles were headed, ‘by our political correspondent’, but The Australian changed that, building up its staff and promoting its journalism.
“They introduced not only a degree of competition, but also the worth of the journalist himself. That somehow the person writing the story was as important as the story they were writing.”  
It appeared that not everyone agreed, and there was a little friction between some of the politicians and the press. J.S. Rosevear, Speaker of the House of Representatives was keen to point out in 1947, “After all, the press has no right to be here. The only right the press enjoys here is the privilege bestowed upon them by the Parliament.”

In one of the sound-booths, you can have a go at recording your own interview from an autocue and then listen to it played back, if you can bear the excruciating embarrassment.

In 1945, the ABC broadcast from the House of Representatives, and you can see the room set up as it would have been, with bench-boxes in place of the desks. Everyone sat in this office: Chief of Staff; Reporter; TV News Reporter; News Reporter; AM and PM desk; Radio News Reporter; Radio Australia's Desk; TV Producer; Nationwide Desk; TV News Correspondent. Note the importance of the position of the beer fridge!

Not everyone was happy with this development, and the new technology, with war correspondent and Press Gallery journalist Ian Fitchett bemoaning the loss of the romance and acumen of the newspaper journalist.
“Television has ruined, to me, political reporting. It’s become political comment, because today the politician can beat the pressman, the Gallery man, to the box. He’ll get on the box. He can either, the Minister, tell the truth, tell a half truth, or tell a lie, but he’s gone nationally. All the pressmen can do is follow and make a comment. The idea of being of being able to break what the Minister’s going to tell the nation and get a beat, is gone.”
It’s an interesting distinction between reportage and commentary. And he would be horrified if he could see the glib dross that passes for news on today’s TV shows. The Press Gallery provides a fascinating insight into the relationship between media and politics. I was thrilled by this slice of recent history, and I’m not even Australian. If you are, and even if you aren’t, I highly recommend visiting.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

More from Old Parliament House

I wandered through the (very narrow) corridors, poking in rooms, past clocks, telephones and typewriters – so much ritual belonging to a bygone era. All the volumes of Parliamentary debates from the House of Representatives and Senate are collected – hmm, I’ll bet they make for fascinating reading...

The speechwriters' office
The Country Party Rooms have an exhibition about various members including Tim Fischer, from Barra Creek, who joined the Narrandera branch of the Young Country Party. The Country Party became the National Country Party which morphed into the National Party and is now simply the Nationals. Apparently, ‘The Country Party was formed to represent the interests of people living on the land and in country towns’, which explains a lot.

Fischer was deputy PM to John Howard – he held the party together during the 1990s with the threat from One Nation dividing the rural support base, and was pivotal to the success of the anti-gun legislation of 1996. There are cabinets full of gifts from firms and communities acknowledging his support (as trade minister) for the growth of Australia’s export markets.

The place is like a labyrinth with rooms opening off corridors. One holds an architectural model of Parliament House in 1927 and 1988. Another is dedicated to the Queen’s royal tour of 1954 when she opened the Federal and State Parliaments and wore a golden ball gown with sprays of wattle (this symbolism began her Coronation dress, which was the first time her white dress had been embroidered with colour; decorative flower emblems represented every country in the Commonwealth).

Many of the doors have frosted glass with the names etched upon them. The government whip and opposition whip’s offices back onto each other across the Speaker’s Walk at the back of the Chamber of the House of Representatives. The rooms were divided to create more space, for receiving members like naughty schoolchildren making excuses for not doing their homework. Politicians gave the whip some imaginative reasons for missing a Division, which was very serious: legislation can be defeated or motions lost for the lack of a single vote.

The Senate Opposition Party Room operated as a sort of gentleman’s club from 1927-37. There was (was??!) little entertainment in Canberra, so here the senators, regardless of which party they were in, talked, read, wrote letters, drank wine, and enjoyed film nights together. It had amenities such as mail boxes and sound-proof telephone booths for senators who didn’t have offices.

The building has little kitchens and bathrooms which are very 70s but were probably considered flash at the time: brown wood and tiles, square furniture and straight lines date the place. Furthermore, the narrow corridors and low ceilings give it the feel of a bunker, trapped and sealed in time.

Susan Ryan, who was a Cabinet Minister in the Hawke Government wrote, “At the beginning of our administration, the standard snacks consisted of white bread sandwiches and lamingtons, the latter very popular with our team, especially the leader. Sometimes during extended meetings party pies and sausage rolls appeared. When we met at weekends the attendants did not come in, and we were left to our own devices.

"Distracted from affairs of state by hunger pangs, one Sunday evening we tried to rustle up a meal. Nothing doing: no local eateries were inclined to provide take-away to the Cabinet of Australia. In the end one of our Comcar drivers, typically down to earth, located a few pizzas and brought them in to us. As we ripped the messy strips of fat and carbohydrate off the cardboard to which they had congealed, we agreed that it was pretty flash being in Cabinet.”

John Smith Murdoch, the building’s architect, also designed much of the furniture, of which there is an exhibition in Suites Seats and Suits. The functional furniture is of the Stripped Classical style – simple lines with limited decorative features – and constructed of Australian timbers, such as Queensland maple or Tasmanian oak and Australian Blackwood.

I like the Blackwood reading slopes for reading papers and the octagonal tables (a departure from the usual strict discipline of right angles and circles) for displaying periodicals – cut off from the outside world in Canberra, this was the only way many politicians could keep in touch with their constituents. There’s also a room of signs – strictly members only etc. – which echoes the bold design and geometric precision, even reflected in the coat and hat stand, and the solid, square bins.

The Senate Government Party Room (with record player and Mozart records) features a hexagonal table representing the original six senators from each of the six states. The brushed aluminium light fittings in this room replaced the original glass fittings in the 1940s.

A couple of politicians are highlighted in displays. Dorothy Tangney became the first female senator in 1943 and served for 25 years, concentrating on social issues and Labour principles such as the needs of returned servicemen, war widows and war brides. Meanwhile, Neville Bonner was the first Aboriginal senator in 1971. He strongly believed that Aboriginal people should work within the parliamentary system to achieve their rights.

The members’ dining room was closed as it was being prepared for a function, but the nearby courtyards are a nice touch, affording glimpses of trees, grass, light and air. Along the carpeted hallways (a natty blue design) are cabinets containing special crockery with a parliamentary crest and a tea service including a set of tongs resembling emu feet. 

The Illuminations by Wendy Fairclough
The halls are lined with information and quotes – this one is telling:
“Throughout Provisional Parliament House there is a very interesting incongruity between the glamour of the seat of power and a concern to be seen as not wasting money on luxuries for members. Despite the refurbishment of the Members Bar in 1974, a member in 1978 described it as looking like a ‘second rate hotel’. There are very few photographs of the Members Bar and even fewer of members patronising it – apparently members did not wish to publicise this image of themselves.”

Monday, 9 September 2013

Corridors of Past Power

As we have just suffered a general election in Australia, I thought this would be a good time to record a visit I made to Old Parliament House back in May. Although I intensely dislike the new Prime Minister and his party, the whole concept of democracy is an honourable one, and the place in which it is (or was) conducted is a venerable building.

A tour had just got underway when I arrived at Old Parliament House, so I joined it. We began in the Senate, which is decorated in red, similar to the House of Lords, and has panels on the windows to reduce glare and enhance acoustics. There is a special seat reserved for the monarch and consort or the Governor General and spouse.

Dividing the Senate from the House of Representative, the King’s Hall (named after King George V who was king at the time it was built) is bright and simplistic – a classic design. There are bas reliefs in the columns and portraits hung on the walls which are owned by the National Portrait Gallery for Old Parliament House.

The House of Representatives is decked out in Eucalyptus Green (an Australian take of the House of Commons). Old Parliament House – or Provisional Parliament House (PPH) as it was called – was in use from 1927 to 1988. The benches are all made of alternating panels of Australian black bean wood and Tasmanian Blackwood.

The Speaker’s Chair was a gift from Britain and is a copy of A.W.N. Pugin’s Speaker’s Chair in the House of Commons. The Royal coat of arms over the chair is carved in oak from timber originally built into Westminster Hall in 1399. The hinged flaps of the armrests are of oak from Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory. It was built using traditional medieval methods (no screws or nails etc).

As one of only two international gifts of furniture to be presented to Provisional Parliament House, the furniture has great symbolism, alluding to the Australian Parliament’s associations with British history and the Parliament at Westminster. Sir Littleton Groom, the first speaker in the PPH, stated the chair stood for ‘the authority, honour and dignity of Parliament… it will inspire feelings of affection, esteem and gratitude towards the land that gave birth to Parliamentary institutions.’

This relationship was reinforced when the Speaker’s Chair in the British House of Commons was destroyed during an air raid in 1941. The Australian Government presented the British House of Commons with a replica Speaker’s Chair carved by British craftsmen out of Australian black bean wood with ‘The Gift of Australia’ carved across the back. It tickles me to think that each Parliament has a foreign Speaker’s Chair.

The mace is another gift to the Australian Parliament by Great Britain. Made in London, it was designed to resemble the Mace used in the British House of Commons but is etched with designs of fruit, rams’ heads and wheat to symbolise the importance of Australia’s sheep and agricultural industries. The gift in 1951 marked the silver jubilee of Australia’s federation. The real mace is obviously in the ‘new’ Parliament House (referred to throughout the tour as ‘the house on the hill’); this is merely a replica.

The tour led us through the warren-like maze of corridors to the Prime Minister’s suite of offices. They were commissioned by William McMahon but he never got to use them as he lost the 1972 election to Gough Whitlam. Each Prime Minister to work from the office chose artworks for display, located his desk in a different position, and chose new curtains.

In its current configuration, it is presented as it was during Bob Hawke’s term of office, as the last Prime Minister to work in PPH. The Arthur Boyd painting on the wall is a replica of his choice, which has been the subject of much symbolic speculation. The Prime Minister’s Secretary had a peephole into the PM’s office, which probably also raised plenty of discussion!

We were also guided to the Government Party Room, where every newspaper in Australia was delivered. It was the only way many could find out what was happening in their constituencies. The sound-proof telephone booths were apparently often used for private conversations with two or three members squeezing in there.

Members must never miss divisions and there are clocks here as there are in every room so members could always see one – there are over 900 in the building. When the bells rang, the members had three minutes to reach the chamber and they would race along the corridors – staffers knew to stand back against the walls to avoid being flattened.

Our tour finished, we were free to wander the building and look at whatever we chose. It seems that for all its foibles, it was quite a popular building and one member even felt moved to write a poem for it.

Farewell Old Parliament by Ralph Hunt, member for Gwydir 1969-1989

Farewell to you Old Provisional
As we your spirits depart
Leaving our house so traditional
Another era is about to start
We leave you as an empty shell
A host of memories to protect
No longer will you ring your bell
Calling politicians to reflect.