Friday, 30 December 2016

Friday Five: Best of Theatre 2016

Looking through my notes (I keep notes of nearly everything, as I'm sure has become apparent by now), I find that I only saw 23 plays this year in six cities. That's not many for me, but it's still pretty hard to whittle it down to a top five. 

I shall start by saying that I am not including anything in which I was involved whether on or off stage. That cancels out a number of productions for Canberra Repertory, which were very good including Witness for the Prosecution, Macbeth, and She Stoops to Conquer, and also Vinegar Tom for COUP: Canberra. Because it is very hard to separate the rest then, I shall list them in alphabetical order.

Antigone, Sport for Jove
5 Best Productions I Saw in 2016:
  1. Antigone – Sport for Jove, Canberra Theatre Centre
    This is an outstanding example of how to modernise a classic. Damien Ryan's adaptation of Sophocles' Greek drama is contemporary and pertinent while losing none of the dramatic relevance. From family grief to civil war and the aching need to just make it all stop and face a brighter future; it's all here in this tight, compelling tale. The set calls to mind Aleppo; the humour (yes, humour) invokes modern sit-coms, and the political speechifying will be familiar to all. Andrea Demitriades in the titular role and William Zappa as Creon are superb performers and mine their conflict to its ultimate depths, but Greek drama is always supported by a chorus, and this ensemble is terrific. I loved it.
  2. King Lear – Sydney Theatre Company, Roslyn Packer Theatre
    Of course it's going to be all about Geoffrey Rush as he plays Shakespeare's tragic king driven to madness. But the rest of the cast provide perfect foils as the ruthless politics become personal embodied in the actions of the daughters and their consorts; exposed with rueful poignancy by Robyn Nevin's Fool. The Dover Cliff scene is sensational as Edgar (Mark Leonard Winter) leads his beloved father, Gloucester (Max Cullen) to the edge. There's nothing happy in this play, and director Niel Armfield leaves us emotionally exhausted and utterly spent. This is cathartic theatre at its very best.
  3. Matilda the Musical – The Royal Shakespeare Company, Princess Theatre, Melbourne
    For someone who doesn't really like musicals or children (especially singing ones), but who loves Roald Dahl and Tim Minchin, this was always doing to be a close call. I'm happy to report that the pros (and they are most certainly pros in all senses of the word) substantially outweigh the cons. The acting is excellent, with the adults hitting all the comedy notes and the kids bringing the pathos. The songs are great (I was still singing All I Know I Learned from Tele several months later), even if a few of the lyrics are hard to discern in the children's harmonies. And the production values are sublime - that disappearing cake and the school gate/ building blocks sequence are spectacular. 
  4. Tales from a City by the Sea – VCE Drama, La Mama Courtyard, Melbourne
  5. This powerful and moving drama focusses on love and life in the Gaza Strip. In some ways, with its war-torn lovers and family interventions, this is a modern Romeo and Juliet. It has all the hallmarks of that classic story - duty to family and tribe set against personal fufilfment and hopeless situations - but it is set against the real experiences of people living under occupation. There are tough choices to be made when Jomana, a Palestinian woman living in a Gaza refugee camp, falls in love with Rami, an American-born Palestinian humanitarian doctor. The simple staging of a white sheet is cleverly used to conceal and reveal, while the actors remain on stage watching the action in which they do not participate: when war affects individuals (and it always does) - we are all complicit whether or not we want to be.
  6. Uncle Vanya – Canberra Repertory Society, Theatre 3
    One of the things I dislike most in theatre is when directors take over the text, trying so hard to put their own stamp on the play that they lose the original intent. Geoffrey Borny allows his actors to bring out the nuances in Chekov's great work in such a way that makes them seem fresh and new.The family lead dull and boring lives. They eat and drink and sleep, and follow a rigid routine of sandwiches and samovars, and are immensely unsettled when this banal schedule is interrupted. The aesthetics of this life are beautiful (from the set and staging to the costumes and props) but empty. It is left to the servants to provide the depth, and the richest images are drawn from the land; those who do the physical labour are the true heart of the country. Passing passions are fleeting but solid foundations will endure. As a doctor and an activist, Chekov understood the importance of substance over artifice; as a director, Geoffrey Borny does too.
Matilda, The Musical, Royal Shakespeare Company
Honourable mentions to:
  • Miss Bronte - Bravo Theatre, Queenbeyan Performing Arts Centre Mel Dodge embodies the restless spirit of Charlotte Bronte and her struggle with conformity in a sensitive and soulful one-woman play directed by Lyndee-Jane Rutherford.
  • Mother - If Theatre, Queenbeyan Performing Arts Centre Noni Hazlehurst controls the stage flawlessly and pleas for empathy in the powerful one-woman poetic drama about an ordinary person who ends up homeless due to set of depressing circumstances.
  • Playhouse Creatures – Pigeonhole Theatre, Queenbeyan Performing Arts Centre It's such a pleasure to see this great play about women in the seventeenth-century theatre of the Merry Monarch brought to the stage with energy and conviction. 
  • Shakespeare's Greatest Hits - Vol. 400 - Remarkable Theatre, Queenstown Botanical Gardens Local actors provide promenade theatre in a beautiful setting for some great excerpts of the bard's best bits, which brings back a lot of memories from previous performances. 

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Only Connect

How to Be Both by Ali Smith
(Hamish Hamilton)
Pp. 371

This ambitious novel twists strands of tales together like the DNA double helix molecule that symbolises the story. The first half concerns Francesco del Cossa in an out of body experience – she may be dead, but she doesn’t remember dying; perhaps this is purgatory? She is drawn to a girl who is looking at her painting in an art gallery. The second half concerns George, the girl from the gallery, trying to cope with the death of her mother, Carol, who became obsessed with the unknown painter of frescoes in Ferrara, Italy and took her daughter there to see them in situ.

The halves of the novel are both numbered One; half of the books are printed with George’s story first and Francesco’s second. They can be read in either order because everything is connected, and all things overlap. Sitting in an Italian piazza and discussing the prevalence of over-painting images, George’s mother asks her, “Which came first? The chicken or the egg? The picture underneath or the picture on the surface?” George says the picture underneath, of course. “But the first thing we see, her mother said, and most times the only thing we see, is the one on the surface. So does that mean it comes first after all? And does that mean the other picture, if we don’t know about it, may as well not exist?”

These palimpsests become a metaphor for life. Francesco is really a girl, but disguised as a boy so that she can have a career as an artist. Pictures record things past their death; they capture immortality. Carol was an art activist, “It was her job to subvert political things with art things, and to subvert art things with political things.”

After her mother’s death, George feels as though her life has been split into two entirely separate halves. “That before and after thing is about mourning, is what people keep saying.” She discovers a woman with whom Carol had a relationship, and George stalks and photographs her every day. She recalls how her mother used to think she was being spied upon and ‘Minotaur-ed’; was she just being paranoid? Or is this the self-enveloping effect of time’s continuum? Both art and surveillance involve watching and being watched, and there is always more going on than meets the eye. Carol taught George, “Nothing’s not connected. And we don’t live on a flat surface.” History is ever-present and the weight of all this connectivity can be oppressive.

The novel is a complex work of meaning and metaphor: a classic story of love and loss, told in a fresh and modern way. Both genre and gender bending, this is a work of parallel universes, palimpsests, fluid time and space, paranoia and mystery – almost too clever by half, and certainly challenging, but definitely memorable.

Monday, 19 December 2016

It's what you make it

My Life in an Object
Canberra Writers Festival
National Museum of Australia, Visions Theatre
Saturday 27 August 2016

Objects acquire symbolism through our transference. Many people have items of ‘sentimental value’ that would mean little to anyone else. I have a quilt my sister made me when she left home. It has accompanied me around the world and graced my bed in every house I’ve ever lived in. I know that once the people and animals were safe, that would be the thing I save from a house fire. Sentimental and worthless to strangers, it connects me to my love for my family although they are many miles away.

Ahead of the National Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects exhibition, three authors were asked to bring along an object and explain how it had changed their life. That’s a tough request, and they all admitted that they chose something lightweight and easily portable to represent a greater truth. George Megalogenis, Karen Middleton and Nick Earls all entered into the spirit of the panel show-and-tell, My Life in an Object, with enthusiasm.

Author, journalist and political economist, George Megalogenis, brought along a Beatles record, Please, Please Me. He explained how the first time he heard it he had to have it, even though he didn’t have a record player. He was crippled with consumer anxiety that by the time he had the wherewithal to play it; the record wouldn’t be available any more. Clearly he couldn’t predict the enduring popularity of the Fab Four and the ubiquity of their songs.

He mused that it is no longer his favourite Beatles track, and that objects don’t necessarily change but people do and so the relationship alters. Our need to possess things we like is also interesting, but I wonder if it is fading in the world of digital downloads, minimalist furnishing, and premium prices on real estate space.

Karen Middleton's effect was a stars-and-stripes bandana purchased shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001. At the time she had been in Washington DC with John Howard as a political correspondent for the West Australian newspaper, reporting on the then Prime Minister's visit to the United States. She recalled that John Howard was bundled onto Airforce 2 and flown to Hawaii, then Qantas to Canberra, but Air Traffic Control was asleep so he was diverted to Sydney where he was met by recently-sacked Ansett workers.

She, meanwhile, flew to New York to report on the scene there. The air was full of noxious dust comprised of potentially lethal asbestos from toppled buildings and human remains. Some African-American kids saw a gap in the market and sold these bandanas not as souvenirs but for practical reasons so people could mask their faces and breathe a little more easily. “They were enterprising kids – I paid way too much for it.” Even in the face of grief and horror, capitalist opportunism will triumph.

At the time she didn’t know she would become a war correspondent, but she knew this was a life-changing moment and that it would have a dramatic effect on her personal and professional development. Indeed she went to Afghanistan three times as a direct consequence of these events and published the book, An Unwinnable War: Australia in Afghanistan. In it she questioned Australia’s carte blanche commitment to help the US, for which she received hate mail and was labelled a traitor. She took the bandana with her, as a reminder of why she was doing what she was – the object became imbued with her projected focus, and although she said it is not a talisman, she has clearly made it a token.

A butter pat makes a fairly unassuming object for author, Nick Earls, to expand upon, but he soon brings the domestic wooden item to life. It was used on the farm in Ireland where he lived until he was nine. He explained that such simple appliances provide links to the land, and that the stories of nearby churches or landmarks become your stories too – we willingly assume the ties and inherently form affiliations.

Apparently we crave these connections and researching family history is the third most popular activity on the internet “after shopping and pornography”. Earls used this platform to appeal for more funding for Trove, the popular and free digital resources portal created by the National Library of Australia. “Please remove the shackles and let it run.” The on-line resource contains books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music and archives, but the Library stopped funding content in July due to government cuts. (At the time of writing, this decision has been reversed.)

Nick Earls is writing a series of novellas. He has researched the form and understands the way it works to intrigue and delight the reader in a single sitting. He complained that people now consume so much information and content and so quickly they don’t understand anticipation or deferment. He believes in enforcing breaks “to let the stories sit in your head.”

Just as the Quarterly Essay (for which George Megalogenis writes, bringing us full circle) fills the gap in the market that has been dropped from the weekend newspaper, novellas have their own place on the bookshelf. Earls claimed that while articles were getting shorter, books were getting fatter, and that we are losing the art of digesting information. He stated that novellas can give depth without padding. Similarly objects can give meanings without words.  It’s a concept worth exploring, and this panel did so convincingly.

Monday, 21 November 2016


The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson 

Fourth Estate

Although Swedish and with a ludicrous plot, this is not another in the sequence of The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest or Played with Fire. For this good-natured drama, the unconventional implausibility is deliberate and clearly signposted. In the frontispiece, the author notes, “The statistical probability that an illiterate in 1970s Soweto will grow up and one day find herself confined in a potato truck with the Swedish king and prime minister is 1 in 45,766,212,810. According to the calculations of the aforementioned illiterate herself.”

Nombeko Mayeki is a South African girl who grows into a supremely intelligent woman through sheer dint of survival. Her love of books leads her to gain eclectic knowledge, while her diamond discovery ensures her wealth, and takes her far from her origins as an emptier of latrines in Soweto. Times are harsh but never graphic, and there are several fairy-tale elements to this novel, including a dauntless heroine and a cast of colourful characters. After being careless enough to be run over, Nombeko is sent to work as a cleaning lady for the clueless drunken engineer in charge of South Africa’s secret nuclear weapons programme, who makes atomic bombs without any understanding of the mathematics or physics involved.

On her travels she encounters a trio of Chinese sisters manufacturing fake Han Dynasty pottery, and identical twin brothers called Holger – one of whom is bright; the other is not, but he is the one who was registered and so the one who officially exists, inheriting his father’s passion to bring down the monarchy due to a perceived historic sleight. Holger One is in love with Celestine, an angry young woman who wants to protest about everything and disrupts all plans; wanting to be arrested so she can claim to be Edith Piaf and sing Non, Je ne regrette rien. Nombeko also meets potato farmers in rural Sweden and high-powered heads of state, interpreters, and Mossad agents.

Real events (such as the assassination of Olof Palme or the imprisonment and subsequent release of Nelson Mandela) make their way into the novel but, although they lend a touch of realism to the obvious fantasy, they are reported in a light and frothy style, which removes the weight from world atrocities. The cartoonish antiheroes, against whom our plucky underdogs find themselves pitched, are like Roald Dahl villains, and enhance the childlike faux-naïve element.

All the threads of stories come together and every strand is woven into the bigger narrative and tied off neatly (if improbably) at the end. The novel has a warm, comfortable feel to it. It is charming without being challenging, with a shallow feel-good factor, leaving behind a faint and forgettable glow.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

One Man's Banana Lollies is Another Man's Baby Vomit

There are some common faults in brewing beer and they result in identifiable 'off-flavours'. We had a session to try and isolate and identify them, which proved very interesting. You see, not all 'off flavours' are bad - for example; apples; honey; popcorn; aniseed might be pleasant aromas and flavours. Some, however - such as cardboard, sulphur, farts and baby vomit - will never be particularly palatable.

Most of these flavours are natural and occur during fermentation and other organic brewing processes. Some of them are present in all beers, but pass below the detection threshold, unless they are meant to be noticeable in certain styles, in which case they are perfectly acceptable.

The difficulty is that we don't all use the same vocabulary to describe these things, and we don't even all detect them in the same levels.Different people have different words to describe the same thing (green apple/ paint thinner).The ability to detect some tastes and aromas is genetic, and we all have different biological sensitivities. It is, naturally, of benefit to be able to identify one's own blind spots to assist in brewing.

To test these things, we took a control beer and added samples of off-flavours (chemical compounds) to it. The control beer was Mort's Gold, a crisp, hoppy, Czech-style pilsner brewed by BentSpoke. After we had all sampled it and made notes on how it was supposed to taste, our facilitator (and crazy chemist in the kitchen), Patrick Baggoley, added capsules of powder to different jugs of the beer, which were then passed around for our delectation. He did, first caution us with a service announcement - “If you see someone slipping powder in your drink in the pub, report it to the authorities.”

  1. ACETALDEHYTE (CH3CHO) - I detected a sharp aroma of nail-varnish remover and an unpleasant finish which flattened both the hop and the malt profile. I am meant to detect green apples, cut grass,cut pumpkin and/or latex paint. This is naturally-occurring organic compound found in yeast is present in all beer in small quantities, and is part of the flavour profile of some American lagers (including Budweiser). High levels are generally due to poor yeast health or un-aged beer.
  2. ETHYL HEXANOATE - I detected an aniseed/ fennel aroma and a saccharine flavour with detergent notes. I am meant to detect aniseed, red apple, strawberry and floral, sweet esters. It is produced by yeast early in fermentation and found in low quantities (0.07 - 0.5 mg/l). The perception threshold is 0.2 mg/l.
  3. ETHYL BUTYRATE - I detected vomit and cooked creamed corn. I am meant to detect banana sweets and bubble-gum (deliberately encouraged in some Belgian beers), tropical fruits, mango, tinned pineapple, and a slightly cheesy fruity ester flavour, probably not encouraged in anything.
  4. ISOAMYL ACETATE - I detected no aroma and an astringent, chemical flavour. I am meant to detect banana and pear-drops, which I don't even consider to be remotely alike! Apparently this is perfectly acceptable in Heferwizen
  5. 4-VINY GUAIACOL - I detected root beer flavour, nutmeg, vanilla and clove,which was not unpleasant. I am meant to detect spicy, herbal, clove. Hurrah! This phenolic flavour is caused by/ found in wild yeast/ specialty yeast, and is present in all beers. It is perceptible in wheat beers, smoked beers and Specialty Belgian beers, but at higher concentrations it may taste medicinal.
  6. CIS-3-HEXANOL - I detected a buttery aroma, and a flat, graphite, hay/corn flavour with a lingering astringency. I am meant to detect alfalfa (seriously? How many beer-drinkers know what that smells/ tastes like?), grass clippings, sagebush, hay and green leaves. This is a compound that arises naturally in vegetal matter when unsaturated fatty acids are degraded, and can be eliminated by reducing dry-hopping.
  7. ISOBUTYRALDEHYDE - I detected not much; it stripped all flavour and left me with a tinny/ metallic impression. I am meant to detect a grainy taste. Clearly I don;t get this one at all. It is present in all grain husks, and is detectable in high quantities when using malt that hasn’t been stored long enough before use, excessively long mashing, over crushing or over sparging.
  8. DIACETYL - I detected sweet buttery aromas and a flavour of plastic or rubber. I am meant to detect butter popcorn and butterscotch. This dulls the malt and the hops, and is a very common fault in homebrew. It can leave a slick mouthfeel, which gives the illusion of a richness, and the ability to detect it is easier in lower alcohol beers. It is acceptable in small quantities in ESB and Bohemian Pilsner. It is produced early in fermentation and is generally caused by wrong temperature, unclean beer lines and infection.
  9. LIGHT-STRUCK - I detected skunky, wet dog, damp flats and soggy carpet aromas - it smells like a lager (Carlsberg/ Heineken/ Steinlager). I am meant to detect sulphur, which presents as a catty, skunky aroma - yay, me! It is caused by the photo-chemical reaction of exposing beer to light. Imported Euro lager (in green bottles) often tastes like this, to such an extent that many people now have accepted that is how it is supposed to taste. (Corona uses a hop additive/ chemically-modified hop to get around this problem and still be able to use clear glass bottles.) You can try this yourself at home (or at the pub if there is a nice sunny beer garden) by pouring an IPA and putting it in direct sunlight. Even after 30 seconds it will start to taste differently. The solution is simply not to expose beer to sunlight after hops have been added – don’t use clear or green bottles.
  10. DIMETHYL SULFIDE (DMS) - I detected rotten veg and boiled cabbage. I am meant to detect cooked broccoli, corn, and/or parsnips. This is a sulphur compound produced during fermentation of malt and is present to some degree in all beers (the highest concentrations to be found in German lagers). Fortunately it often boils off naturally in the brewing process, so can be eliminated by the use of a long, rolling boil.
  11. 2-NONENAL - I detected a spent fireworks and peated whisky aroma, and a strong cardboard flavour. I am meant to detect wet cardboard, paper, ball-point pen, and tomato juice. This indicates that the beer has oxidised, and can be avoided by purging bottles with CO² prior to filling, storing beer cool, and drinking beer fresh.
  12. MERCAPTAN (3-METHYL2-BUTENE-THIOL) - I detected sulphur and rotten eggs. I am meant to detect drains, polecats, rotten veg; and a farty catty sulphur. This is usually caused by light-strike (see 9).
  13. HYDROGEN SULPHIDE - I detected burning, lighter fuel, and an astringent mouthfeel. I am meant to detect rotten eggs and burning matches. This is produced by yeast during fermentation, and, whereas in small quantities it can make beer taste ‘fresh’, at higher concentrations it is an ‘off-flavour’. It is hard to detect because olfactory senses quickly adapt to this flavour. “The more you look for it; the less likely you are to find it.”
This seemed like a good note on which to end the session and go and have a decent beer! For more information on off-flavours in beer check out these links:
BJCP Guide to Beer Faults
The Complete Beer Fault Guide by Thomas Barnes

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Getting to Know 'The Other'

Climbing Mountains and Writing Stories: In Conversation with Yann Martel
Canberra Writers Festival
Llewellyn Hall, 26 August, 2016

Yann Martel looks a little like a scruffy and earnest student. He talks like one too, frequently wandering off on tangents and occasionally forgetting what he’s talking about. But he is so erudite, charming and fascinating, that he is captivating as he describes his attitude to religion, politics, art, and life (both of Pi and in general).

He studied philosophy at university, which he claims is a good way of being reasonable; of “scouring the wonder from religion and art”. And yet he is fascinated by religion and he loves religious texts, which both tell stories and entail the suspension of disbelief. He laments that our culture is so cynical and explains that if you can set that aside, the texts of the gospels can open up to faith and wonder. Admitting that there is no proof for faith, he confesses, “it is comforting and it makes me feel better.”

He asks us to consider why Agatha Christie is so popular? Her novels all follow the same framework and they are very English in their setting, humour and morals, and yet she has sold five billion copies of her books worldwide. He suspects this is because she writes about death in a way that is entertaining rather than depressing. We are all going to die in the end, so it is comforting to think of death in terms of faith. The Jesus event is a bit of an anomaly, because gods are usually omnipotent and don’t die. But this one resurrects; death is not a finality, but merely a threshold.

This returns him to his interest in religious faith and Life of Pi. He feels there is a proximity of animals to the divine, stating where there are lots of animals (India), there is a strong manifestation of religion. Gods and animals are always in the moment (not worried about the past or thinking about something else), and have a strong sense of presence. They can play the role of the witness, and he has put a chimpanzee into his latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal. The chimpanzee is an interesting choice as it is the closest animal to a human, sharing 98% of the same DNA as us, but what a difference that 2% makes!

With little prompting, Martel speaks about the film adaptation of Life of Pi. He accepts that adapting a novel to screen is challenging. For a start, there is the need to use different language. He may write, ‘the ship sank’, because he is more interested in the effect this has on Pi than the event itself, whereas in the film, it becomes a visually dramatic and engaging scene. His reaction to the film was mixed due to the difference of perspective and point of view. In the book we see everything through Pi’s eyes; in the film we see Pi himself. Naturally the ruminations of the book are lost. Martel considers the film is a nice compliment to the book if you read the book first. If you see the film first, it seems a little lacking. He was slightly disappointed in the film but, he laughs, no one ever blames the author for a bad adaptation of their novel, and anyway, “I cried all the way to the bank”.

When asked which version of Life of Pi really happened, he throws it back to the audience – which did we prefer? Obviously the first one with the animals is more marvellous and remarkable. We tend to prefer metaphors; who cares if they are true? If we are obsessed with facts and the truth alone, we would never read novels or poetry. We also tend to believe what we last see, which becomes problematic in a film. In a novel we don’t see anything; we create it all mentally, and because the ‘real’ story is macabre and horrible, most people want to believe the first story, even if it is incredible. Life of Pi is going to be adapted for the stage in London (cue gasps of delight from the audience), and Martel hopes to involve himself more and suggesting that the storyline is inverted, putting the grim one first, and allowing the fable to be teased out by the investigators in the Mexican hospital.

Martel has a shack to write in, in which he isolates himself. Before he begins a novel he reads books, asks questions and researches. Then, “I close my eyes and try to imagine being the other”. He wrote about a man who became a woman and returned to being a male with a new sense of awareness in Self (1996). Interested in sexual identity, he asked women about all aspects of their sexuality and physicality and concluded there is a greater sorority of women than there is fraternity of men. Beatrice and Virgil (2010) is an allegorical tale about the Holocaust featuring a donkey and a monkey. He believes that a great story creates empathy, and the best way of understanding ‘the other’ is to be ‘the other’ through fiction. It is a matter of concern to him that the largest group of people who don’t read is that of middle-aged males; the ones who tend to run the world, and therefore, need the most understanding.

One of his more controversial actions was his attempt to educate former Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, whom he describes as a “tight, narrow little man”. Harper had no life/ work/ travel experience and famously never read. When asked what his favourite book was, he replied “The Guinness Book of World Records”. Shocked by this gulf between the political and the arts, as Harper was meant to be the people’s representative of both, Martel sent him a book every two weeks with a short note. The first was The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, for which he was accused of being elitist – “We can’t all read Tolstoy!”

Martel continued to send Harper a variety of books from Agatha Christie to Harlequin Romances (The Virgin Secretary’s Impossible Boss) over four years – 101 books and letters – and received no reply. People accused Martel of arrogance and asked him, “What does it matter if Harper doesn’t read?” He counters that it is important to read the imaginative word; “If you have power over other people; you must know these other people.”

Naturally, this statement lead to a question from the audience asking what he would recommend our own Prime Minister read. After commenting, “You make me feel like a literary oncologist”, Martel fielded the question deftly, suggesting that, as he needs courage and serenity, perhaps a war novel would be appropriate – something like The Red Bad of Courage. Playing expertly to the crowd, Martel concluded, “but I understand that Turnbull likes the arts – he’s just in the wrong party…”

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

A Stranger Comes to Town

Astray by Emma Donoghue

Emma Donoghue’s collection of fifteen short stories is all about changing situations; leaving places and immigration. In her afterword she explains, “By long tradition, Irish writers emigrate. Not always, of course, not nowadays – but still, many of us fly the coop. It’s a small island, after all. It’s rare to find Irish writers who haven’t spent at least a few years abroad or who don’t pass half of their time at foreign universities.”

Whether it is the elephant handler in Man and Boy who has to take his charge from a zoo in England to a performing circus in America, or the woman in The Widow’s Cruse who pretends her husband is dead and presents his will, allowing her to come into a fortune and emigrate as a widow; all of these characters explore new worlds. 

All of these people, and they are usually women, remain outcasts in their new country. In Last Supper at Browns a white woman in Texas kills her abusive husband and goes on the run with her slave. In The Long Way Home a nomadic woman returns straying husbands to their wives who are trying to raise their families.

A man is tortured by paranoid hallucinations in The Lost Seed, and accuses others of lewd acts in a puritan community (Cape Cod 1639) in which he is despised. A boy becomes a ‘man’ in The Hunt when he is forced to rape a girl he has befriended as a casualty of war. Emma Donoghue explains the dual meaning of her collection: “Straying has always had a moral meaning as well as a geographical one, and the two are connected. If your ethical compass is formed by the place you grow up, which way will its needle swing when you’re far from home?”

All of the tales are based on true records, whether from diaries, letters, or newspaper cuttings, from the bunch of counterfeiters whose party is infiltrated by an undercover agent when they break into Lincoln’s tomb in The Body Swap, to the woman in The Gift who gives her child into what she thinks of as foster care until she can afford to support her, but meanwhile the family with whom she is placed adopt her as their own. No one wins in this heartbreaking situation, told through letters to the agency from both sides.

Emma Donoghue explores all these disparate tales and draws them together with themes of belonging, alienation and difference. Everyone is a traveller through life; we are all a little bit strange; and we all deserve compassion and to grant it to others. We may all be straying sheep, biblical or black, but hopefully there is a welcoming fold for all of us.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Loud but Never Square: 200 Years of Australian Fashion

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.” - Henry David Thoreau, Walden

This exhibition highlights distinguishing features of Australian fashion through the work of more than ninety designers and makers. From the early dressmakers of colonial Sydney and mid-century salons of Melbourne's Collins Street to the inner-city studios of contemporary designers, this exhibition considers what and who has defined Australian dress.

I love the way it is curated, with each room concentrating on a different aspect or era of fashion - the lighting, setting and sound in each section has been carefully selected to highlight and support the appreciation of the progress or otherwise of design. Fashion is art: Sometimes it's brilliant; sometimes it's beautiful; sometimes it's banal; sometimes it's just pants.

We begin with colonial fashion, of which very few examples remain, as the early settlers were a little too preoccupied with establishing cities, industries and infrastructure to worry about preserving dresses. Fashion throughout the Western world at this time was inspired by developments in Paris and London, with fabric often imported from China and India. Being geographically close to these centres, Australia became part of this international fabric trade.

Empire-line and gold thread
When the gold-rush struck in the mid-nineteenth century people from around the world flocked to Melbourne, which became one of the richest cities in the world. In both Sydney and Melbourne dress was used to symbolise wealth, power and status.

The next section was set out like a department store, which feature changed the nature of urban shopping in Australia between 1850 and 1880. large emporiums of imposing grandeur with arcade windows, stylish interiors, tempting displays and a prodigious array of merchandise were flourishing in all the state capitals.

I heard some women saying how much they admired the tiny waists of these outfits and expressed a longing that they could wear such garments now. Clearly they didn't read (or care about) the accompanying panels that explained the supporting foundations that made the outward show possible. Women squeezed themselves into contraptions of steel and whale bone, crushing their bones, bruising their rib-cages and loosing their breath and consciousness to conform to the contemporary stereotypical image of feminine beauty.

Department stores created an environment where fashionable middle-class ladies could shop at their leisure. They were offered well-appointed mirrored areas, comfortable seating, fresh flowers, rest rooms and sections dedicated to different garments and apparel, such as fine gowns, underwear or millinery.


In the eighteenth-century the tailoring and dressmaking trades were traditionally divided between the sexes. Tailoring, historically practiced by men is the careful art of measurements, pattern cutting and shaping, while dressmaking is based on draping fabric round a form and was traditionally practiced by women. This division of labour was adopted all over the world and gave women in particular the ability to develop independent fashion businesses and trades.

In the nineteenth-century these conventions began to erode and tailors began to make men's as well as women's equestrian wear. While dressmaking and tailoring were sometimes an individual pursuit, early department stores, drapers and retailers often had their own in-house workshops in order to cater to clients' individual orders and tastes. This section was laid out like a workshop with dressmakers' dummies, bolts of cloth and tailoring equipment strategically scattered throughout.

Afternoon dress (c. 1878) by Miss Margaret Scott
Miss Margaret Scott was considered one of Brisbane's leading dressmakers. She was known for her French taste and her gowns used fine imported fabrics, such as China silks as well as detailed finishes. She also labelled her garments following the precedent set by Parisian couturier Charles Frederick Worth. Miss Scott employed a small team of dressmakers and apprentices at her workshop and showroom - they made hand-finished gowns but they also used sewing machines, which had been introduced to Australia in the late 1950s.

These gowns are displayed with gilt mirrors and glass; satin drapes and plushly upholstered furniture; chandeliers and revolving stages, to mimic the prestigious department stores with their magnificent window displays and in-house parades. Many of these garments were one-off made-to-measure gowns based on French designs, involving ruching, beading and embroidery, and juxtaposing cling and drape.

An alternative silhouette to the romantic full-skirted gowns of the early 1950s, this embellished sheath projects Hollywood glamour. Creating a long slender line, fitted styles such as this caused hips to become a focal point. Emphatic details such as ruffles, darts or pleats often figured at the top of skirts to draw attention to womanly curves.

The ascendancy of youth culture and the look associated with it were pivotal to the radical social changes that took place in the 1960s. As areas of art, design and pop culture merged, fashion came to be seen and experienced in totally different ways. From the world of intimate exclusive salons to new swinging urban boutiques, fashion in Australia underwent a tremendous cultural transformation at this time. As ready-to-wear replaced custom-made, a new generation of talented young designers emerged to produce garments for their modern lifestyles.

From mini to maxi, baby-doll to unisex, fashion shifted from middle-age to teenage as the formal categories of day and evening-wear were exchanged for casual dress and the top-down dictates of couture were swapped for the trickle-up effect of the street.

In 1965 English model Jean Shrimpton caused a great stir when she appeared at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne in a white shift mini-dress that sparked controversy by being daringly short - the hem was four inches above the knee. She was paid a $2,000 fee (astronomical at the time) to be the judge of Fashion in the Field but conservative Melbourne was shocked and felt she had snubbed them by wearing no stockings, hat, or gloves, and they openly scorned and jeered her. Later she said, "I feel Melbourne isn't ready for me yet. It seems years behind London."

Naturally she was defended by the British press who wrote, "surrounded by sober draped silks and floral nylons, ghastly tulle hats and fur stoles, she was like a petunia in an onion patch." Every young girl wanted to be free, cool and elegant, like 'The Shrimp'. It was considered a pivotal moment in Australian women's fashion, and the typed words from various papers were projected on the walls above the fashion displays.

Corduroy was newly adopted as a fashion fabric in the 1960s, being well suited to the execution of a sharp, tailored line. The belted waist of this outfit reflects the early 1970s trend towards unisex attire, which saw traditionally ascribed masculine and feminine codes of dress become more androgynous. 

In 1973 Jenny Klee opened her Flamingo Park 'frock salon' in Sydney's Strand Arcade. She and her friend and fellow designer, Linda Jackson, produced clothing that was grounded in an affection for Australian iconography: kitsch and craft inspired by the landscape, Indigenous culture, and local flora and fauna.

Jenny Klee and Linda Jackson
Flamingo Park fashions

By the late 1970s, an alternative inner-urban fashion scene was evident in Australian cities. Australian fashion designers and makers were experimenting with unconventional materials and methods, and re-configuring traditional craft practices, blurring the lines between fashion and art.

To show off the force of established design in Australia, The Powerhouse Museum staged an exhibition, Australian Fashion: The Contemporary Art in 1989, of more than fifty designers, milliners, jewellers, shoemakers and textile artists. The exhibition later travelled to the Victoria and Albert Museum. This section, set up like a model catwalk with flashing lights and pulsing music (by The Cure and New Order among others) was a highlight.

Patchwork of Society by Alasdair MacKinnon - a collaborative work inspired by woollen 'waggas' - blankets made with tailors' swatches in Australia during the 1920s Depression 

Contemporary Australian designers respond to the country's landscape and reflect on the creative possibilities of cloth. They have responded to these conditions with innovation, ingenuity, humour and irony. While these designers have absorbed artistic, architectural, local and international influences, increasingly they are referencing Australian fashion history and the work of local designers of the past.

In the twenty-first century Australian fashion is a reaction to and revision of the existing fashion system.Today, as in its past, Australian fashion offers a rich landscape of possibility that each designer engages with in their own unique way.