Monday, September 24, 2007

La Mama: The Jerilderie Letter by Ned Kelly

The Jerilderie Letter by Ned Kelly. Devised and performed by Peter Finlay with Malcolm Hill. Directed by Lloyd Jones. La Mama, 205 Faraday Street Carlton, until Sunday September 30.

UPDATE: Also BRIGHTSPACE (Level 1, 8 Martin Street, St Kilda) for the St Kilda Festival, from February 6-16, 2008.

According to the State Library of Victoria, just two original documents by Ned Kelly are known to have survived. The Jerilderie Letter -- which was dictated by Kelly to Joe Byrne -- is our best glimpse into the mind of the bushranger.
"the ground was that rotten it would bog a duck in places..."
It was written after the Stringybark Creek shoot-out in October 1878, where three policemen were killed, and left at the Riverena town of Jerilderie which the gang raided and occupied in February 1879. Kelly wanted his testimony published and circulated. An employee of the bank the gang robbed offered to pass the letter on to the editor of the Jerilderie Gazette. He didn't.

The letter -- now in the library's possession -- is a bit under 7400 words. You could print it off in a dozen pages. It's not an easy read though. It's sometimes hard to get a grip on its literal meaning. But it thunders with the voice of the persecuted.

Like Paradise Lost, which was dictated by a blind poet, The Jerilderie Letter comes to life when recited.
"I threw big cowardly Hall on his belly I straddled him and rooted both spurs onto his thighs he roared like a big calf attacked by dogs..."
In Lloyd Jones production, Kelly's shaved, white, severed head -- a death mask on a plinth -- does the talking. Peter Finlay (pictured, left) is the actor. And what a mighty, controlled, hypnotic recitation he gives!

Finlay's delivery clarifies many of the ambiguities of the letter. That said, the intense and slightly deranged rant that closes the letter are not pinned down. And that, I think, is a good call on the part of director and actor.

It's up to the audience to decide if this is an apologia -- the final perjury if you like -- of a guilty man or if, instead, it is the breakdown of a man whose family has been hounded for more than a generation.

Though barely literate, the letter is, in every sense, a manifesto. It's a call to arms to the poor and the powerless -- the Irish Catholic trash of the colony -- against thieving, lying, corrupt, British rule. It's a call to revolt.

One could imagine, for example, it coming from a black author in South Africa under apartheid. It's a warning to potential collaborators.
"If I had robbed and plundered ravished and murdered everything I met young and old rich and poor. the public could not do any more than take firearms and Assisting the police as they have done, but by the light that shines pegged on an ant-bed with their bellies opened their fat taken out rendered and poured down their throat boiling hot will be fool to what pleasure I will give some of them and any person aiding or harbouring or assisting the Police in any way whatever or employing any person whom they know to be a detective or cad or those who would be so deprived as to take blood money will be outlawed and declared unfit to be allowed human buriel (sic) their property either consumed or confiscated and them theirs and all belonging to them exterminated off the face of the earth, the enemy I cannot catch myself I shall give a payable reward for..."
Apart from a clumsy and poorly executed song about Kelly's bravery sash, Malcolm Hill's musical contribution -- voice and acoustic guitar -- is electrifying. He's like a rampaging, howling dervish.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Miriam Margolyes: putting some lead in the crystal balls...


Two rather random thoughts for the day from brilliant character actress and "New Australian" Miriam Margolyes:
Part of being an actress is that you have to be objective about yourself, but completely passionate and committed about your character.

You don't feel famous when you're having a shit in the morning. You just get on with it.

Margolyes is touring her one-woman show Dickens' Women around Australasia in the next ten weeks.

Miriam Margolyes being Julia

Now, I happen to think that Charles Dickens is beneath contempt -- as a writer and human being -- if he were alive today, I reckon he'd be turning out scripts for Kath and Kim but Margolyes is always worth seeing. This show is no exception.

The tour, which opened this week in Melbourne, has prompted me to dust off a piece I wrote about the star of screen, stage and sound stage almost four years ago, around the time of the "refugees overboard" debacle.

Don't be distracted by the belatedly-awarded OBE or the quince tart speaking voice that Miriam Margolyes engages when playing herself -- for an audience of one -- she is no more an insider in Great Britain than detained asylum seekers are in this country. And this "new Australian" has plenty to say about both the English caste system and our own "despicable" treatment of refugees.

But the little ol' lady with a huge voice -- the one who bullied Arnold Schwarzenegger in the film The End of Days -- wants to end her days right here. "For the end of my life, I want the best. This is the best."

Yes, that internationally admired character actress is now resident here -- living in Bondi -- and soon to be a proud citizen. Well, proud-ish. Of her new home, she asks: "Is there anywhere else that could match it? It's optimistic, it's ironic, it's beautiful -- despite John Howard and his minions. I feel good here. I have close friends. And I fit in."

For a fit and feisty woman, all this talk about turning up her toes in our sandy soil seems wildly premature, even if she is the childless only-child of "old" parents.

"My mother died much too young. She had a stroke when she was 62... My age, in fact [in 2003]. Which is rather scary." The stroke left mother paralysed, "slightly mental" and unable to speak sensibly.

With a weird kind of aphasia, Miriam's mother could speak just two simple phrases "Poof I want" and "I can't afford a carriage" (from the song 'Daisy, Daisy') though she believed she was speaking intelligibly, saying ordinary words and sentences. "I was the only person who could really understand what she was getting at" explains Margolyes.

"The only good thing about having lived through her chronic illness is that it's given me a gravity that I might otherwise not have had. I might have been rather frivolous."

Margolyes's frivolity is largely confined to her increasingly visible contributions to films such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (she's Professor Sprout) and her amazingly prolific audio book recordings (Prince Charles is a big fan of her Oliver Twist) and voice-over work for all screens great and small... from the film Babe to Cadbury commercials.

But the best -- and least frivolous -- of her work is her stage acting. Those that saw Margolyes and Pamela Rabe do a double act as Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas in 1987, here in Australia, remember it vividly. And fondly.

Yet those performances pale beside her eye-popping, show-stopping turn in The Way of the World for the Sydney Theatre Company, early in 2003. Under Gale Edwards' scintillating direction, Margolyes turned Lady Wishfort from a bog-standard cartoon-character into a vulnerable and almost frighteningly authentic portrait of a deluded and still rampantly sexual older woman.

Modest to a fault in the face of slack-jawed praise, Margolyes concedes: "If I was good in it, beyond Gale's tutelage, it was because of my own experience as an older woman."

Margolyes is working a similarly magical transformation on Madame Arcati in the new Melbourne Theatre Company production of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. And, coincidentally, the first ghost that Madame Arcati conjures up -- that of Elvira -- is played by Margolyes's old companion and sparring partner Pamela Rabe.

Rather than play her as vague or dotty, Margolyes puts some lead into Arcati's crystal balls. There's genuine enthusiasm and delight in her responses to the ectoplasmic machinations. The role is funny precisely because it is played with facile sincerity. With gravity and honesty.

"If you show vulnerability, people accept it. When you open out, when you reveal... That's where you are most powerful."

At sixty-two and a half, Margolyes gave up being shyly polite long ago.

"If I was a different kind of person, I could just shut up and mutter platitudes. But I can't do that. I've always been a loud mouth. And people are always telling me to be quiet, including the Queen!"

A good old fashioned middle class Jewish socialist, whose family migrated from Belarus to England in the 19th century, Margolyes saves her harshest words for the present government of Israel. When she says "Fundamentalism is destroying everything" she isn't talking about the suicide bombers. She's referring to the flat-earthers in the Knesset.

"I was conceived during an air-raid. And I don't know whether that's had an effect on me. I think it's probably made me a bit jumpy." She says this with a twinkle so bright you could hunt kangaroo by it.

Though she is contentedly childless -- the last of a rather stunted line -- Margolyes feels that she is a part of the heritage of the English tongue. The language itself is her antecedent and her descendent.

"I feel really thrilled that English is my first language. To have Shakespeare, Dickens, Blake... God! That's massive. A real blessing." But with those kinds of writers on our team, she reckons, we should be doing much much better. Margolyes fears that language -- "the currency of our thought" -- is being used to obfuscate instead of communicate, more and more. To hide rather than inform. To tell lies instead of telling truths.

Paradoxically, Margolyes believes that the 'lie' of acting can be a powerful force for truth. "The most precious thing an actor can do is to build bridges between people, to show one half of a community what the other half is like. If you can truthfully show what a person is like -- even to somebody who might be unsympathetic -- it can open eyes. And that, finally, is our job as artists."

2007 Australian - New Zealand Tour Dates: Dickens' Women

Melbourne - Playhouse, The Arts Centre
September 17 - 23
Bookings: 13 6100
Online Booking |

Brisbane - The Powerhouse
September 24 - October 7
Bookings: (07) 3358 8600
Online Booking |

Frankston - Frankston Arts Centre
October 9 - 10
Bookings: (03) 9784 1060
Online Booking |

Hobart - Theatre Royal
October 12-13
Bookings: (03) 6233 2299
Online Booking |

Sydney - Sydney Theatre, Walsh Bay
October 15 - 21
Bookings: (02) 9250 1999
Online Booking |

Newcastle - Civic Theatre
October 23
Bookings: (02) 4929 1977
Online Booking |

Parramatta - Riverside Theatres
October 25
Bookings: (02) 8839 3399
Online Booking |

Glen Street Theatre
October 29 - November 4
Bookings: (02) 9975 1455
Online Booking |

Adelaide - Her Majesty's Theatre
November 5 - 11
Bookings: 131 246
Online Booking |

Perth - Octagon Theatre
November 12 - 18
Bookings: (08) 9484 1133
Online Booking |

Canberra - Canberra Theatre Centre
November 19 - 25
Bookings: (02) 6275 2700
Online Booking |

Auckland - Auckland Town Hall
November 30 - December 2
Bookings: 9 309 2677
Online Booking |

Christchurch - Issac Theatre Royal
December 4 - 5
Bookings: (03) 377 88 99
Online Booking |

Wellington - The Opera House
December 7 - 9
Bookings: (04) 384 3840
Online Booking |


Charles Dickens wrote two kinds of women: the innocent and the grotesque. Bland young angels and creepy, painted, psychotic, blowzy harridans. (I can think of one exception, an innocent who has been raised for the sole purpose of luring men into her lair, like a Siren, and then destroying them...)

The innocents, pretty much, are indistinguishable. They're all 17 and utterly utterly nice. Dream girls. An old man's fantasy. The grotesques, by contrast, are unique. Each has a pathology all of her own.

There's no prize for guessing which are more fun to play, especially for a character actor of the calibre of Miriam Margolyes! (They're also much more fun to watch!)

So, first and foremost, Dickens' Women is a freak show. It strings together scenes from various novels: monologues, little dramas and a couple of self-contained readings from a lectern, a replica of Dickens' own... which he designed himself.

As much as Margolyes loves Dickens' novels, she's the first to admit that his ingenues are a little bit "icky" and that the man himself was a misogynist pig. (He once likened his wife to a donkey before cruelly dumping her for a woman almost thirty years younger than himself.)

In the course of two hours, Margolyes neatly sketches Dickens' life story and places him on the analyst's couch. Tales from his life are then illustrated by the scenes that those events inspired in his novels.

It's all immense fun, even if you're unfamiliar with the novels. Even if, like me, you can't stand Dickens as a writer.

There's an earthiness and a cleverness that feeds into Margolyes' acting. Yes, she can pull faces and pull off dozens of voices with the best of British, but there's so much more to her and her work. There's a creative spirit and a restlessness which helps keep a well-honed and well-drilled work fresh and utterly live.

How lucky we are that this extraordinary actor now calls Australia home.

A shortened version of this review was published in the September 25 2007 edition of the Herald Sun.

Dickens' Women by Miriam Margolyes (performer) and Sonia Fraser (director), with John Martin at the piano. Presented by Andrew McKinnon.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Laurie Anderson 1: "when people say 'I know exactly what you're talking about!"

[Laurie Anderson:] ... I felt that too. I think, great, then I'm doing something right. Not making up some private fantasy thing... I'm talking about something that other people experience.


Probably because of that freedom and that lack of rule. The fact that it's the only thing I could find to do where no-one could say this is how it should be done. Cos no-one knows... that's the beauty of it. You can do anything you want in your experimental art works. It can be anything you want.


Nobody ever asked me what I wanted to do. Nobody said: are you going to be an architect or a biochemist? Nobody ever said that.


I did! I never really felt that I had to decide what I was doing. I never had to say I'm a musician. I did have to say "I'm an artist," at one point. That was really hard for me. I was choking on those words. I'm not gonna say that! Van Gogh's an artist, I'm not an artist!


It's a big thing when you say it. It really is... I had a friend who really helped me a lot. I was really scared about being an artist. How am I gonna pay the rent if I'm an artist? It's just not practical! He just kept saying the same thing to me -- so enfuriating -- just do your work. That's crazy! That's so impractical.

It finally sunk into me, that was where... It was about priorities. If your main goal is to pay your rent then that's what you're mainly gonna be doing. And then you'll have time left over to do your work. But if you actually do your work, the other things will fall into place. And that's the biggest act of faith you could possibly imagine. So scary to do that.

And he was, er... This was a time in the '70s when everyone's the work, the work, the work. You didn't live in a place, you lived in your workspace. We were very puritanical and snobby about that. The value of the work we were doing. We were sure that it was collossally valuable. And that we were creating new scene that would revolutionise the world.


You do. Otherwise it's just too hard.

Yeah. That's a good attitude to have. Making something is really daring and its really scary and you need a lot of confidence to do it.



Saturday, September 08, 2007

We have your presidents...

Apart from a couple of illustrations and caricatures, the front page of today's Financial Review has two photographs. The main one is of a cheshire-grinning Australian Prime Minister shaking hands with Vladimir Putin. The other is of Laurie Anderson. (Same as the one below, click on it to see full size.) Nice. I like a paper that has its priorities right.

Nice, too, to have my by-line on the front page. It's been a while.

So, yeah, there's a biggie in this weekend's AFR. (No link, as ever.) But I'll be posting some chunks of the interview before Laurie's road train gets to Oz.



Saturday, September 01, 2007

Premature evaluation

Thursday night, at the ballet, I half remembered a bawdy old joke. It's something like:
Q. Why do Australian men ejaculate prematurely?
A. Cos they can't wait to get down the pub and tell their mates...
Not unlike blogging about the arts, really!

There was I, "prematurely evaluating" a show... Cos I couldn't wait to get home and tell my virtual mates!

Okay, okay. I have to tell my million mates in the Herald Sun, first. But if you're at all into the muses -- don't mind hitting the 'terps' on occasion -- then go see Destiny, a really remarkable double bill from the Oz Ballet. It's in Melbourne until September 10, then Sydney in November.

The company, bless 'em, never quite know which way I'll go when reviewing a show. So when I (prematurely) (there I go again) put them out of their misery by announcing that I was giving the show a Homer Simpson Ten Thumbs Up, they just looked bemused.

I'll go see another cast or two and report... A little less prematurely, but no less enthusiastically... I hope. [Just stop now, Chris.]

Actually, there's one more thing. George Hunka has been accused of the dreaded PE, after removing himself from a show at interval... then writing about it. It's Yet Another Beat-Up... Still, it's a rare pleasure (nowadays) to get to read a Hunka review. My only objection to George's review, as a West Wingnut and Janel Moloney 'shipper, is that he doesn't mention what the fricken hell she was like as the dunny-cleaner!

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