Friday, November 17, 2006

Charlotte Perkins Gilman: The Yellow Wallpaper

According to Deborah Philips, a co-founder of Women’s Review, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House was based on actual events. But while Nora ends the play slamming the door of her doll’s house behind her -- boldly going where no actress had gone before -- the real life ‘Nora’ sweated out her days in a mad house.

When that door-slam reverberated around Europe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman was in her late teens in Connecticut. A dozen years later, Gilman -- by then a journalist and feminist -- wrote the Edgar Allan Poe version of Nora’s story: The Yellow Wallpaper. More than a century later, she is still best remembered for this Gothic little tale, barely 6000 words long.

It’s a first-person narration by a nervous and depressed new mother who is effectively locked up in a huge room at the top of a colonial mansion. Against her physician husband’s express orders, she has taken to writing down her increasingly agitated thoughts.

The woman blithely reasons that the big, airy room must have been a nursery once, then a playroom and gymnasium, “for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls.”

And then there’s the wallpaper... “The color is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.”

She becomes obsessed with its malignant, shifting patterns, eventually ‘seeing’ a wraith-like woman imprisoned behind it.

Another woman in another attic...
Anita Hegh in The Yellow Wallpaper

Rather than present The Yellow Wallpaper as a feminist ghost story or a tale of post-natal ‘hysteria’ in the late 19th century, director Peter Evans and actor Anita Hegh subtly emphasise the Bergman Persona elements of the story in which “imaginative power” and the “habit of story-making” are equated to “nervous weakness” and “sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies.”

It’s not entirely clear, in Gilman’s story, if the narrator’s sickness comes from her imaginative power or from its thwarting.

Husband-and-wife team Evans and Hegh call their performance of the short-story (in its entirety) “an investigation” for the stage. “We really wanted the feeling in the production that there is an actress who is taking on a role and that she is a little bit unstable, like the character in her story,” Hegh said.

“So she starts in a rehearsal skirt, her idea of what a 19th century dress would be. Then, as the play progresses she looks more and more the part... so that, by the end, you don’t see the actress as separate from the character.”

Best known for her work on Stingers -- or “Stinkers” as she affectionately calls it -- Hegh is the actor you call when you need a mad woman with a human face. Think of Judith hacking the head off Holofernes in Caravaggio’s painting: the girl next door with a machete in hand and the “contagion of sin” in her eye. And Hegh will go a long way to play it.

Between her TV gigs “to pay the bills,” Hegh has played Phaedra in Brisbane, and the child-murdering fourteen year-old in the ‘Medea Redux’ section of Neil LaBute’s three-part play Bash in Sydney.
“I’m not in the league of the Rachel Griffithses and the Cate Blanchetts... and the great roles just get snaffled up. So, you have to travel far, far, to play them, which I’m more than happy to do! You have to take the opportunities when they come along.”
The NIDA graduate from the “north side” of Sydney came to Melbourne to do Stingers, some years ago, “and ended up loving it.” Melbourne, that is, not Stingers so much.

Acting, Hegh explains, was never about film and television for her. “My aspirations were always about theatre.”

Hegh seems like a born clown: full of banter, quick to laugh and mess around. But the extrovert was buried deep within, when she was a teen. She was drawn to acting as a way of speaking a “full sentence without umming and ahhing.”

“I was really shy,” she explains. “I come from a dark, Eastern European family of complete introverts.”

Watching actors on stage, as a teen, Hegh became fascinated with their ability “to hide”, and attracted to the stage as a means of expressing her extroverted alter-ego.

Like the actress she plays in the Yellow Wallpaper, Hegh herself has merged with the role she has chosen to play. “That was the appeal of acting. It goes down quite deep, I think. It becomes part of your persona.”

Stage acting, she says, is a hit. “It’s an adrenaline rush. There’s some chemical that’s released. The same thing for some people as a cigarette or a drink or whatever else they do! A bit of gambling or phone sex! A Lindt chocolate ball! You get a taste of that, and you go gna-gna-gna-gna-gna... I need a fix.”

The Yellow Wallpaper opens tonight at the Malthouse in Melbourne.

Cross-posted at Sarsaparilla.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Richard Flanagan: The Unknown Terrorist

The Unknown Terrorist
Richard Flanagan (Picador, A$32.95)
ISBN 0-330-42280-4

The year before Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Heinrich Böll was honoured for his portrayal of Germany's social problems in his novels and short stories.

Richard Flanagan's turbid tale of a Sydney pole dancer hounded to death by gutter journalism, and by the over-zealous policing of new anti-terror laws, draws on two of Böll's stories: The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum and The Safety Net.

Flanagan's thesis -- accuse or be accused -- is also reminiscent of Arthur Miller's The Crucible.

Gina Davies -- aka the Doll -- is an ordinary young woman: blinkered, unthinkingly racist and wholly preoccupied with squirreling away enough undeclared cash to be able to buy an apartment.

The cover of the UK edition

The Doll has few friends and fewer vices, though she lives on Zoloft, Valium, Stemetil and Temazepam. In a matter of 48 hours, she goes from anonymous dancer to Australia's most wanted. If she loses all, she might just live up to her billing as Australia's "unknown terrorist."

This is a lurid and seedy story of sex, drugs and paranoia. Of scare mongering and scapegoating. It's a brave and rough novel, with Flanagan abandoning all restraint to climb inside the plush flesh of his heroine.

This review was published in the November 18-19 2006 edition of the Financial Review.

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Monday, November 13, 2006

Sydney Theatre Company artistic direction: Robyn Nevin, Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton

If one were to judge from media reports alone, it would be hard not to conclude that the Sydney Theatre Company is wasted on Sydney. The Emerald City, apparently, has no idea just how blessed it is to have a flagship theatre company so committed to excellence and to theatre as a live art.

And it has no idea just how vital a contribution Robyn Nevin has made to the culture of the city in the last seven years.

The dirtiest remark made in the wake of the announcement of Nevin’s retirement as company Artistic Director -- quoting “a commentator who declined to be named” -- bizarrely wrote off her programming as “anglocentric and worthy.” The Sydney Morning Herald’s blog has also run a number of remarks hostile to Nevin and the STC since the blog began, a few months back.

Perhaps Nevin’s STC is a soft target because it has strong establishment support. But if its patrons are predominantly upper-middle class, upper-middle aged and upper-middle brow, the work the company puts on stage is anything but middling.

Behind the scenes, Nevin relies heavily on what she calls her “gorgeous talented babies.” Resident directors, designers and associates, many of whom are less than half her age. She invests in talent, young and old, wherever she finds it.

Yes, the STC’s productions are better resourced than the productions of any other state theatre company, but it is resourcing intended to achieve a vision -- “the practice of craft” -- not just to flaunt. In Nevin’s own words: “Rich resources are not essential to a rich evening in the theatre... I’ve never believed that.”

Nevin is the first to admit that she is conservative and had “no interest in radicalising [the] company” when she took it on. She used to speak of “the quiet progress of artistic practice.” She embodied it. Persistence, focus, determination.

In this day and age, her devotion to theatre as a stage art -- as something qualitatively different from film and television -- looks shockingly radical. In a world of mainstage mediocrity, Nevin is a champion of this most primal art form. While other major theatre companies serve up soapy bathwater, the STC serves up the baby. Live and kicking.

Lets look at some of Nevin’s crusades and achievements. She was absolutely committed to extending rehearsal periods from the Australian “standard” four weeks to five and even six where possible. That’s a big ask for a company obliged to raise one and a half million dollars annually at the box office.

Her quixotic dream, though, was to start an ensemble. A large (by Australian standards) squad of full-time actors. And she achieved that goal this year. And, already, she’s lined up some superstar directors to work with her ensemble: Théâtre de Complicité co-founder Annabel Arden and Cheek By Jowl’s Edward Dick will each direct the ensemble in 2007.

Of course, Nevin’s productions haven’t always been successful. Her Mother Courage (very Anglocentric that one!) was a qualified failure, brilliantly acted though it was.

And who can knock a flagship company for daring to engage Barrie Kosky for a marathon two-part orgy of Ovid? If this is conservatism, baptise me now.

Nevin, first and foremost, is a great actress. Not just one of the greats of her generation, but one of the greatest stage actors we’ve had the good fortune not to lose to Hollywood.

As a director, she’s competent. Nevin is a good motivator. She enables great performances. She has been obliged, under the terms of her contract, to direct two or more productions a year.

As an artistic director, however, she is irreplaceable. Not just a matchmaker of talent, Nevin is a hands-on CEO committed to Quality Assurance.

She rarely, if ever, goes for the cheap dollar -- the kind of pop-fare star-vehicle that the Melbourne Theatre Company is clawing its way back into the black with -- even if that would underwrite more risky productions.

But, admirably, Nevin does make the tough decisions. And it is these, I suspect, that have made her “the enemy” to certain sections of the theatre community.
What I do as an Artistic Director is make sure that my program is viable. That is an absolute responsibility that I take on. [General Manager] Rob [Brookman] and I work very closely together in achieving that outcome.

He’s very sensitive to the art. It’s the only way I could possibly work. I’m the boss. I am ultimately responsible. I’m answerable to the board. But we work closely together. There’s never been any need for me to say to Rob “this is the program that we’re doing... make the budget fit that.” I would never take the position.

It’s a pragmatic relationship at the ultimate moment of decision making. And it’s harrowing. Because the decisions to drop things sometimes that have become precious, significant and meaningful... can be heartbreaking...

You’re letting go of artists that you’ve, in your imagination, wholeheartedly embraced; artists whose vision excites you and leads you to believe that the company is about to take a great step forward... you have to just let go...

There are a lot of people who think -- understandably and inevitably so -- that the company is not including them. The hardest part of this job I think is, inevitably, there are artists out there who will not work with the company next year, and who did not work with the company last year...
The choice of Nevin’s successors -- Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton -- is an interesting one. Blanchett is, in her own way, a True Believer when it comes to theatre. Well, as true a believer as anyone born after 1956 can be, when television contracted the world thus... One doesn’t see her at the theatre as often as Geoffrey Rush, say, but then I probably don’t go out as often as Rush.

Upton is a solid -- and occasionally brilliant -- writer for the stage. (I adored his Cyrano.) Together, they are well-connected in a very different way to Robyn Nevin. And, likewise, Blanchett’s glamour is radically different to Nevin’s.

Name and glamour are possibly more vital to the on-going success of any company than we may care to admit.

“I’m acutely aware,” Nevin told me, “of how difficult it can be to create a lively and vibrant theatre company... when it’s of this size and when -- I’m afraid I have to say it -- the financial resources are so limited.”

I suspect the in-coming husband and wife team is a shrewd choice. But I can’t pretend that I’m not anxious about the future of this extraordinary company.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

Little Birdy, live in concert. ANU Bar, Canberra, Friday.

After Little Birdy’s Canberra concert, last Friday, I wandered to the front of the stage to have a look, to see if I could souvenir a playlist and, hey, cos I sometimes feel like going against the flow of humanity... which was pouring out of the bar.

I was amazed to find a metal crash barrier about a foot from the stage in this tiny venue. I’m guessing it was intended to keep Katy Steele in rather than keeping her fans out. She attracts the kind of tall, fey boys who make butterfly shadow-puppet shapes with their hands like early ’60s proto-hippies. Not a finger pointing Satanist to be seen in this uni crowd.

It seems to me Little Birdy has an image problem. Live, the four-piece band is incredible: passionate, heavy, tight. Every bit as musical as it is on record. But better. Nothing is faked.

Song-writer, singer, guitarist Steele is like Chrissie Amphlett and Mark McEntee rolled into one. She’s not as reckless, maybe, as Amphlett, but she hammers her guitar with the same plunging, pump-action thrums as McEntee.

In songwriting terms, Steele is closer to ’80s babe Pat Benatar than Divinyls, maybe, but you’d think that Little Birdy would be better off covering something from Monkey Grip (like ‘Girlfriends’ or ‘Only Lonely’) than Split Enz ditty ‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’, which the band ended its set with... brilliantly performed pop schlock.

‘Six Months In A Leaky Boat’ was Little Birdy’s contribution to She Will Have Her Way, a recent two CD set of songs by the Finn Brothers: Split Enz and Crowded House originals on one disc, covers by various women on the other. (The covers, on the whole, blow the originals out of the pond!) Little Birdy’s cover was released again, recently, with ‘Come On Come On’, the first single from Little Birdy’s just-released second album Hollywood.

It’s a strong, instantly-likable set, too, even if several of Steele’s melodies are alarmingly interchangable. (I’d love to see one of those computer-generated word clouds of her lyrics, too... She has a few “favoured phrases” shall we say.)

One thing Katy should have picked up from her brother Luke, main man of The Sleepy Jackson, is that pop can be unique and original and still utterly likable. (Inoffensive even!)

More than three years after its debut EP, Little Birdy could do with some additional song writing input. Don’t get me wrong, Steele is good. But there are a couple of tracks on bigbiglove and Hollywood that probably shouldn’t have made the cut. And, finally, it is Steele’s voice that turns the odd mawkish sentiment into magnificent truth.

Really, Little Birdy hasn’t come far from its ‘Relapse’/‘Baby Blue’ days when it won a WAMA for Indie/Alternative Song of the Year. It promptly -- and brilliantly -- supported acts like Placebo, Morcheeba and The Superjesus.

But, hey, the band is anything but lazy. Apart from a brief wave-the-microphone-at-the-audience moment in ‘It’s All My Fault’ when I grumbled to myself “I didn’t come here to hear my-fucking-self sing!”, Steele did most of the work.

And, in ‘Message to God’, we got a glimpse of what Little Birdy might be like as a stadium band. Huge, commanding, exciting and bloody impressive.

See them before the barriers are actually needed.

ANU Concert Playlist

01. Come On Come On
02. Tonight’s the Night
03. Music
04. Feeding on the Night
05. Please Don’t Lay Me Down
06. It’s All My Fault
07. Set You Alight
08. Message to God
09. If I
10. Bodies
11. This Is A Love Song
12. On and On
13. Relapse
14. After Dark
15. Six Months in a Leaky Boat


E1. Hollywood (Katy solo)
E2. Beautiful to Me
E3. Don’t

Upcoming Shows:

Melbourne, Hi-Fi Bar, November 9 & 10
Adelaide, Governor Hindmarsh, November 12
Mandurah, Players Nightclub, November 16
Fremantle, Metropolis, November 17
Maroochydore, Sands Tavern, November 23
Coolangatta, Coolangatta Hotel, November 24
Brisbane, Tivoli Theatre, November 25
Toowoomba, Tattersalls, November 26
Cairns, Johnnos Blues Bar, November 28 & 29
Townsville, Bombay Rock, November 30
Sydney, Homebake Festival, December 2, 11:00AM
Lorne, Falls Festival, December 30, 6:00P
Marion Bay, Falls Festival, December 31
Busselton, Southbound Festival, January 6, 2007, 11:00AM

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Little Birdy: bigbiglove (CD)

Little Birdy (Eleven)

A migratory little birdy, this one. It will go a long long way.

Katy Steele’s voice is helium high -- she's mid way between Macy Gray and Frente’s Angie Hart in temperament and timbre -- but man can she deliver a song. When she swoops on a note, look out. It might be a feathery caress or a talon attack.

Her aerobatics in ‘Come On Little Heartbreaker’ turn a jangly little sugar-shock pop number into a Zippo torch song.

Steele writes about love: winning it, losing it, stealing it and suffering for it. Causing suffering for it, too. She has a hand in eleven of the twelve songs on bigbiglove, Little Birdy’s debut LP, and wrote eight of the songs outright.

I can’t think of anyone -- except maybe Heather Nova -- who invests so much joy and pain into a sequence of notes. When you hear Steele gulp “I can’t help this pain that I’m feeling” in ‘Relapse’ you can’t help but believe.

Given the strength of Little Birdy’s first EPs -- especially last year’s self-titled EP -- bigbiglove has too many weak links... like ‘Forever’, an inexcusable little throw-back, when a song like ‘Too Late’ could have been included. The mix is a bit clean for my liking, too, but ‘Excited’ lives up to its name when the volume is cranked up.

This CD review first appeared in The Big Issue, Edition 215, November 1, 2004.

For a review of Little Birdy’s November 3, 2006, concert in Canberra, click here.

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