Neonslicked

Short Stories, Blog Posts, and Film and Literature Reviews by Cameron Colwell

Theatre Review: Montague Basement’s ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Macbeth’

Both programs of the Montague Basement’s double bill of The Taming of the Shrew and Macbeth have an emphasis on whether or not Shakespeare is still relevant today. As the program for Taming of the Shrew points out, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which begs the question: Is Shakespeare even worth performing today?

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Bianca (Jane Watt) and Katherine (Hannah Cox) — Photo Credit: Zaina Ahmed

The Taming of the Shrew is polemic in its response. The story of the shrewish Katherine, who on order of their father Baptista must marry before her pleasant sister, Bianca, can, is one that I first encountered in Ten Things I Hate About You, which was just about the peak of interest I had in the play. Other encounters with it have left me frustrated and bored with the misogyny and the writing, which is amongst the thinnest of Shakespeare’s plays. However, I was pleasantly surprised by director Caitlin West’s take on the play. While at first it seems that the production does as previous productions have, and attempt to gloss over the abuse at the heart of the play with slapstick and focusing on the light-hearted romance between Bianca and Lucentio soon lifts the veil and expresses Katherine’s relationship with Petruchio in a way that suggests a strikingly relevant story of domestic violence, hidden amongst the frivolity of the other scenes.

The contrast between the scenes which depict their home life and the comedy of life in Padua, where Katherine has left (Travis Ash as Baptiste is an excellent stiff, straight foil to Robert Boddington’s oafish Petruchio) is used to chilling effect. As in real life, the violence is not an aberration, sealed away from polite society, but a hidden part of it. Katherine’s mental agony is contrasted against the well-ironed dress chinos, pop music, and sense of frivolity of the other parts of the play to devastating effect. That said, the first half does feel a little hectic and breathless amongst the humour, but by its end it feels worth it. The final scene, in which Katherine finally submits to her husband and renounces her shrewish husband, was written as a happy one by Shakespeare, but here Hannah Cox performs a perfect portrait of a broken woman. For injecting life, vigour, and political commentary into what I thought was an irretrievably horrendous play, I must end this review by saying that Montague Basement’s The Taming of the Shrew is a must-see.

 

Event Dates: 30 November, 2 December, 3 December, 6 December, 8 December, 10 December
Venue: PACT Centre for Performing Arts
Running Time: 75 minutes no interval.
Ticket Prices: Adult $25.00, Concession $20.00

 

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Macbeth (Robert Boddington) — Photo Credit: Zaina Ahmed

Macbeth is less evocative and more ambiguous than its counterpart. Rather than shining a light on social issues as in Taming, Macbeth brings out the timeless psychological horror of the original text. It too takes some risks: There is much double-casting, costuming and the stage are strictly monochromatic, and the three witches are replaced by one witch, played by a very engaging Lulu Howes, who plays a much more adversarial role to Macbeth than is usual. In note of that last point: This Macbeth seems much more interested in the existential conflicts of the play than the conflicts between characters, so that the relationships come across as somewhat weakly developed. When martial violence happens, it leans on the symbolic, which only occasionally convinces.

However, Lady Macbeth is played well, giving off vibrations of a sensible, manipulative businesswoman alongside her tortured soldier of a husband, but the relationship between two fails to engage. However, this Macbeth is more interested in the primal aspects of the play than the dynamics between character, depicted through the frequent use of the aforementioned slime, fake blood, and ghoulish props, including a particularly creepy baby doll. As Macbeth’s sins stack around him, the white stage becomes more and more slicked with mess, an effect which works to great effect.

While this is certainly one way to do Macbeth, it may not work best for everyone. The viscera and spectacle are a delight, and certainly make for an evening of solid entertainment, but those expecting a more subtle, character-driven Macbeth may be left disappointed. Still, this is one of the most memorable, exciting adaptations of Macbeth I have encountered.

 

Event Dates: 29 November, 1 December, 3 December (2:00pm matinee), 7 December, 9 December, 10 December

Venue: PACT Centre for Performing Arts
Running Time: 110 Minutes
Ticket Prices: Adult $25.00, Concession $10.00

 

Book Blog: Thea Astley’s ‘Drylands’ (1999)

A Review of Thea Astley’s ‘Drylands’, and Also Some Thoughts On Australian Anti-Intellectualism

In Drylands, Thea Astley examines a vision of my country that crops up here and there through my wanderings in Australian fiction of the last century or so: That of the anti-intellectual, conformist, hypermasculine Australia, perhaps best typified by the Monty Python sketch, ‘Bruce.’ I’m interested in representations of this kind of Australia, and, in a brief period where I thought I might try to do an essay on it (It ended up as a bitchy piece about arts cut that got rejected from a few literary magazines. C’est la vie.) discovered some interesting, widely publicised instances of it. Drylands came into my radar when I was researching: A book witheringly titled Drylands: A Book For The World’s Last Reader had a deep attraction to the suburban, gay, bookish version of myself who loves to read about how backwards and stupid my country is. MThe book starts with Janet Deakin, a widowed writer, bitter sitting on top of a news agency with its rows of unread lit-mags and popular “men’s magazines.” She is bitter about the new age, about the death of reading, and laments in this new world there will be “None of that lounging propped on one elbow in the lamplight with moms or rain drumming while you sniffed the delicious scent of paper and binder’s glue and the whiff, the very ghost, of printer’s ink, the words you wanted to reread coming back as you lazily flicked a page with your finger.” (Astley, 9) I wonder what Astley would’ve made of e-books.
It then diverges, going into the heads of the town’s ‘oddballs:’ an ex-banker who escapes to the town, Drylands, with a false identity, a woman from the coast attempting to start a writing group in the country, and an Indigenous man kicked out of his home by council rates among them, returning back to Janet’s attempt to write a novel in between stories, which are lovely aberrations from the other stories, filled with insights into the writer’s mind. Drylands was the last of Astley’s many novels. In the words of her biographer, ““She was finely calibrating all the fifty years of her anger for one last expression — about men and women, small minds, the violence and hedonism of a philistine culture that like to pretend it was ‘knockabout’’ while in fact being driven by consumerism and corruption.” (Lamb, 300)

Now, Drylands is a beautiful, acerbic book, a little slow to start with, but by the end, equipped with the readability and intensity of a thriller. The stories are contrived at points (Perhaps that’s what it takes to concoct drama in a small outback town), and the characters cartoonish, but I still found it a pleasurable experience. Astley had a piercing wit, and compassionate insight into each of her characters, while never dipping into the schmaltz, or the tedium, that I associate with Australian literary fiction: For instance, this gem, from probably the best story in the collection, Almost There, Almost There: “I love Clem. I think he loves me in between pauses.” (Astley, 268) Then, there’s lines which pin down the discomfort expressed above:

Yet every now and again there would be a light, dry moment that hinted at a cynicism, a humour, an eye for the odd. A sentence here, a sentence there that Evie felt — No, knew — pointed to a sensitivity that was being repressed in case it transgressed the boundaries of what the writer was supposed to feel, that broke through those sanctions imposed by the conventions of thinking acceptable for small-town bush wives.” (Astley, 85)

Poetic, insightful, yes, with a keen eye for the misogyny that Astley targets again and again, but also patronising. Drylands was the 2000 winner of the Miles Franklin award, a prize which was remarked by some of the time as being funny, because apparently Australia loves to read about how terrible it is. Like Blake, Astley was originally from the coast, and criticised the small-mindedness of the town after being a newcomer. Both middle-class, with Astley attending a private girl’s school, there is a sort of elitism going on. Not to say that pointing out that racists are racists is inherently classist: You can be mindful of the economic circumstances that breed open bigotry while still standing against it. But it’s interesting that there are few books about the ‘small-mindedness,’ of the suburbs, or indeed the city-dwelling political types: One of the most telling quotes I found about that type of philistine is the 1973 Arts, Environment, and Indigenous Affairs Minister, Peter Howson, lamenting his appointment of the offices of “trees, boongs, and poofters.” I suspect there’s a sort of mental displacement going on: It must be tempting for a white, educated middle class to not examine its own prejudices and the prejudices of their elected leaders when they can use poor small-town folk as scapegoats. I don’t doubt that there aren’t towns like Drylands, where women are shamed for attempting to find jobs and get away from their home, and where would-be artists point to their husbands and say things like “That’s my husband. He is the cultural desert.” (Astley, 89) Yet, Astley’s jabs at this kind of anti-intellectualism are one-sided, and disappointingly uncritical. There’s a line in the book, somewhere, about a character “not having time” for Sibelius, perhaps an unselfconscious reference to the fact that to enjoy culture, to engage in education, takes wealth, and time and energy left after work.  The unemployment and economic ills of regional Australia are alluded to, particularly as the town starts to die off close to the end, but rarely treated sympathetically. 

I heavily disagree that the most stable foundation of a good moral compass is culture, yet it’s an implication buried not only in Australian art, but modern Australian discourse: For instance, see the recent targeting of the working class voters supporting the bigoted, right-wing Pauline Hanson, as if the Oxford-educated cabal of Liberal Party higher-ups, noted defunders of women’s shelters and support programs for the underprivileged, are welcome and opening to all, regardless of race, sexuality, or gender. In my experience, as a member of two minorities (Queer and disabled), bigotry lies at all levels of society, but better-educated, wealthier people are better at hiding it. In Australia’s ‘canon’ (I can’t be bothered discussing if there is one or not, but Astley is featured on Circular Quay’s Writer’s Walk), examinations of the prejudice among the middle-class and the political elite are rare. Apparently white middle class Australia would much rather pretend all the bigotry and hatred of difference happens far in the outback, or, in more recent discourse, in the far-off outer suburbs, where it doesn’t have to examine it within themselves.

As well as a continuation of a specifically Australian trope I find deeply classist, Drylands is also a major Australian literary player’s swansong. Astley encountered a fair amount of prejudice herself, finding it tough to be taken seriously among Australia’s grizzled white male writers – To that point, it’s frustratingly difficult to find much criticism on her work.

Perhaps Janet Deakin is a stand-in for Astley, in which case the book is a bitter, withering final remark on a culture she loved to criticise.

Works Cited:

– Astley, T, Drylands: A Book For The Last Reader, Penguin Books, 1999

– Lamb, K, Inventing Her Own Weather, University of Queensland Press, 2015

Book Blog: Jon Rose’s At The Cross (1961)

I found word of Jon Rose’s At The Cross while reading Garry Wotherspoon’s Gay Sydney: A History, and thought it was an interesting find: Published in 1961, Wotherspoon writes that the book captures ‘camp life’ in Sydney’s King’s Cross, home of ‘perverts’ and outsiders,  during the 1940s. The novel’s protagonist, Jon Rose (Supposedly a fictionalised version of the book’s author) travels with an adult couple, Eris and Barry, to Sydney, under the pretence that he is seventeen, and thus not eligible to go to war, and Eris and Barry’s children. However, after a lover’s dispute, in which both of the couple have sexual designs on Jon but will not “Share him” (Rose, pp. 13) he must navigate life in the Cross on his own, eventually renting a room from Bella, an ageing and friendly sex worker.

Wotherspoon notes that Rose uses the defensive ‘I am a camera’ role favoured by other homosexual writers in the latter half of the 20th century (Wotherspoon, pp. 58.) That is, Rose does not indicate the sexual preferences of his main character, and rather than being an agent in the illicit sexual practises that surround him in the Cross, he is an observer. After my own reading of the book, I’d suggest that Wotherspoon’s reading is a little reductive. There is a self-conscious self-censorship to the queerness of Rose. Everything alluding to sex is vague and allusory, hidden just as much by Rose’s observer status as his naivety. He often notices that non-gendered ‘people’ look at him ‘in a nice way,’ (Rose, pp. 13) and at one point, mentions a brief affair with a lover whose gender is never stated, and who is never mentioned again. Given that the book was written in the Sixties, it is not surprising that an author would have to defend himself in this way.

The book was published in England, and the author’s only other book, ‘Peppercorn Days,’ seems to be missing from any records. While ‘At The Cross’ appears in The Penguin Book of Gay Australian Writing, references to it elsewhere seem non-existent. I theorise that Jon Rose may a pseudonym, as no biographical details seem to be available anywhere.

The writing itself is bland and unadorned, with Jon’s misadventures while he pursues a stable income and a home, as well as his dream of being a singer, holding not much interest. However, it does function well as a fascinating portrait into queer existence in a time when it was not an appropriate conversation topic, for instance, during the scenes about the ‘drag balls.’ One example of what I’m talking about here is when the centrepiece party is subject to a police raid. Lady Melba — A drag queen named after Dame Nellie Melba — has an altercation with a police officer:

“Come on down, you poffta.’ (Note: Actual spelling) Melba put her hand on her hip and said ‘Just supposing you come up and get me you big bull.’ The copper was furious and started yelling ‘I told you to get down off there, you great bastard, I’ll bash you black and blue when you do.’ Melba wagged her lorgnette saying “Oh you great big impetuous dream boy, why don’t you come up to Momma?’

The cop glared and bellowed “You’re no Momma, you’ll never even be a Poppa.’ Melba flashed back “Really darling, I know you’re upset, but that’s no way to speak to a dame—“ The copper, still trying to get over bodies, almost shrieked “Dame! Dame? You’re no dame you, you big pervert.” Melba yelled back “and you’re no gent, and I’ll bet you’re bloody lousy in bed as well.” And that second a tremendous gale of screams rent the air, as twenty-five show girls, getting dressed backstage, started to get an inkling of what was happening in front.” (Rose, pp. 103)

Long before ‘transgender’ entered mainstream discourse, we have multiple accounts of ‘men’ using parties such as these to embody female identities, and vice versa:

“Half the theatre and the radio world seemed to be there, as well as quite a few people who, one would have thought from listening to their usual comments on life and people, would sooner have been found dead in the nearest gutter than be seen at such a degenerate ‘do.’ Amongst other games was trying to use the lavatories: If I went to the gents’ what seemed like a host of hair-arranging girls shrieked all as one, ‘try the ladies’,’ and a lot of gentlemen yelled — wonderful chaos.’ (Rose, pp. 99)

However, aside from the parties, which offer historical insight into the lives of queer people, not much happens. The presence of the war overseas gradually permeates the book with the increasing references to American soldiers and mentions of Jon’s oncoming eligibility for the draft. Eventually, he is involved in a scandal at a shop he works at involving false currency, before he is sent to a prison before a boy’s home before returning to Melbourne, where, before long, a police detective has tracked him down and he is found to be dodging the draft. All of this is presented vaguely and without segue, leading to a lot of confusion during my reading. However, reading the book was worthwhile, as, as mentioned before, I was able to find an accurate, if crudely wrought, image of a time and place that mainstream history has brushed over.

Review: Looking For Grace (Originally Published on Grapeshot)

Looking for Grace (Published first by Grapeshot)

Like an unhinged love-child of Gone Girl and Puberty Blues, Looking for Grace delivers a slow-burn emotional punch that, while perhaps prosaic on the surface, hints at worlds below the facades of its familiar, everyday characters. The film starts with a gorgeously shot sequence featuring Grace (Odessa Young) and her friend, Sappho (Kenya Young) , alternating between the boredom and thrill of a long-distance bus ride through the West Australian outback. Soon enough, the handsome but sleazy Jamie (Harry Richardson) boards the bus, immediately setting his eyes on Grace. Within the next set of scenes, all centred on Grace, we come to know each of these characters, despite an almost total lack of dialogue. What director Sophie Brooks has is a fine command of subtlety, demonstrating Grace’s endearing mix of teen awkwardness and recklessness, Sappho’s jealous priggishness, and the inexperienced seduction of Jamie through a more-or-less anal adherence to the rule of ‘Show, Don’t Tell.’ ‘Behind every smile, there’s a story,’ says the tagline, but such is the attention to detail that there is the sense that so does every pause, involuntary touch, and awkward giggle.

Once we are shown what happened to our teen runaway protagonist, the story’s quirky structure unfolds: We are sent back in time and into the perspective of Jamie’s mother, Denise, who discovers a note: ‘Sorry, Mum.’ Then, it is revealed that Jamie has stolen a small, secret fortune hidden in her father’s safe. The film follows a number of character’s perspectives, each with their unique tone. While, at first glance, Looking For Grace may seem to be a bog-standard checklist of Australian indie yawn-fest cliches with a neat post-modern spin, being a bleak, ‘arty,’ film about family relationships featuring shots of a waifish, lost protagonist wandering silhouetted in a majestic outback, the film transcends its trappings with the subtle insights we gain as we are shown the lives of people connected to Grace.

The most striking thing is the lack of emotion around Grace’s escape: Small talk is exchanged about whether her disappearance is occasion to bring out the good china, a tactless receptionist brightly lists a litany of horrible fates which may have befallen the girl to her mother, and Grace’s gormless father wonders aloud why the note did not include his name. While these scenes individually come across as a series of lightly comedic and frustratingly awkward vignettes, they, along with the backdrop of horrifically staid and sterile rendition of suburban Australia, amount to a dark satire of modern suburban blandness. No wonder, we think, by the end, Grace would choose the earthy emptiness of the wilderness over that of the kind filled with the genteel chaise lounges and dull-eyed family portraits of her home.

The title, while appearing to be a cute pun, may refer to the hole left by the protagonist in the wake of her disappearance: Adult life is empty, dreary, and lacking meaning, but the enthusiasm and rebellious tendencies of Grace are a kind of antidote to this way out of parochial, middle class life: If Grace does return, will she be able to maintain her vim, or will she be consumed into the bourgeiose lifestyle, doing things like having snappy, frustrating conversations with couch cleaners as her Mum does, or have an affair, as her father is revealed to be doing. Like so much about the film, these questions are left unanswered. There’s a sense that we have just touched the surface of the film, that we are shown just the edge of something much bigger. This is at once tantalising and irritating: For instance, Sappho is never given a part featuring her perspective, which is a pain because I’ll never know if her jealousy over Grace is just the product of a friendly bond, or she is much more like her namesake than appearances would suggest.

It’s not as if the boredom of suburban existence has been untouched by cinema, but Brooks makes nher work stand out by showing monotony with compassion rather than contempt. By the flooring and brutal ending, I wanted to know more of these characters, and, because of the detail, had three realisations about them just in the time it took me to write this review. However, it has to be said: Grace has much more in common with an Anton Chekhov short story than an ction blockbuster. At times I was yearning for the film to make something, anything, explicit, and, particularly within the middle of the film, felt myself beginning to be bored. However, the film does ultimately deliver on the ambition its structure promises, and I am keen for my next viewing.