Friday, November 16, 2012

Music - a new play *REVIEW*

Image of Programme by Pants. Cover Photography by Marcel Aucer

I don't often review plays. By the time an international production makes it to Australia, most people have already seen it, forgotten it and subsequently died. Luckily for me, several new Australian plays of exceptional quality have turned up recently in Melbourne. I've previously seen Deborah Cheetham's sublime and moving opera Pecan Summer and Tim Winton's witty and waggish Rising Water. The Arts Centre, Melbourne has been playing a blinder when it comes to supporting Australian work lately.

Now, I find I have a been the recipient of an unusual experience with great thanks to my friend and fellow blogger Ann O'Dyne. I have witnessed a preview of the 'world' premiere of Music, a new play by stalwart of Australian theatre, Barry Oakley. That's about as first-cab-off-the-rank as it gets for me.

Plays about grumpy old academics are not rare. Plays about grumpy old dying academics are not even that rare. In fact, there is another play about a grumpy old dying academic currently on in a theatre close by (Wild Surmise - a stage adaptation of Dorothy Porter's verse poem). It takes chutzpah to turn the sod of a theatrical cliché as crusty as this and find something new to say. The upside is that pulling it off makes for a thrilling entertainment.

There is one advantage to familiar plots - a wealth of available shorthand. The main business is despatched quickly. Jack, a retired lecturer in English Literature has a brain tumour. His best friend Max, a doctor, must break the news. Max is the lover of Jack's wife Margie, a pianist and teacher at the 'Conservatorium'. They decide to tell Jack he has longer to live (3 months) than he really does (3 weeks). This all happens in the first few minutes, giving us ninety minutes to explore the way Jack chooses to confront his demise. The well-meaning white lie backfires unleashing a spectacular display of ill-humour and misbehaviour. Refusing all treatment, Jack decides instead to self-medicate with music, memories, morphine and malt whisky. 

A character with terminal illness in a play is obliged to die by the end, therefore the playwright must find another way of managing suspense. This is done effectively with a series of secrets that may or may not be revealed over the course of ninety very tense minutes. The secrets and pressures and personal frailties too are
clichés. Oakley plays us like a toy piano. Jack rails tepidly against the 'dumbing down' - yes he actually does say 'dumbing down' of English Lit. and its usurper, the odious 'cultural studies'. His brief rant is entirely absent of plausible conviction. He knows we've heard this all before.

Jack's 'early retirement' due to impropriety with a student; Margie's imminent ousting from the Conservatorium because she's too old; their under-fulfilled professional lives; their joint failure to grieve adequately for a dead child and each falling into inappropriate arms because of it - clichés all but perfectly placed. We absorb these people's backstories via a few scant sketches. 

And so to the main event - Jack's decline. And what a magnificent unravelling it is. Jack is played by Richard Piper who bears a striking resemblance to the late Peter Finch. Appearing throughout in a tatty plaid dressing gown, in meltdown he appears to be channelling Howard Beale. We see a man who is suddenly aware that he hasn't ever bothered to step outside the frame of sandstone conventionality. He's lived a life of minimal effort and now it's too late to pen that major scholarly work and be the good man he always expected himself to become.

The fourth person in the drama is Jack's estranged brother, Peter. A catholic priest, he is coincidentally visiting Melbourne from Sydney to attend a conference on eschatology - the study of 'last things'. Again, Oakley makes smart work of another cliché. Lost faith is the basis of the brothers' falling out. The filial tension requires little explanation giving us plenty of opportunity to soak up the sheer muscularity of it. And this is a very physical play, despite being about people in late middle age.

Oakley chooses to punctuate each dramatic milestone with a piece of music, hence the title, and this is the spine of the play. Jack relives moments of his life through a series of musical memories. The pieces are either played by Margie on the upstage grand piano which is the centrepiece of the semi-circular performance area, or on a CD player placed downstage. Each piece of music advances the plot as it would in an opera or stage musical. More expertly wielded shorthand. As artists once used memento mori to symbolically illustrate the 'dance of death' in etchings and woodcuts, Oakley exploits the human capacity to animate the past with music. These accompany Jack's own dance of death. A sparse, cylcoramic set aids the physical flow and a few scattered accoutrements establish the social stratum - 1930s grand piano, early model CD player, piles of books and papers.

The way I've described it here, it sounds like a very complex drama, but it doesn't play that way. The shorthand is the key. We all know that baby boomers have always got to be protesting about something and never do attain that peskily out-of-reach state of personal nirvana, or manage to acquire every possible status object and are pathologically competitive, (Max and Margie have a running argument about whose forebears had the rougher time - her Viennese Jewish grandfather or his mother, widowed by the firebombing of Dresden). Boomers also don't believe they should die until they've reached at least 98 or feel the slightest obligation to grow up. And thanks for keeping all that fetishism for self-obsession alive by the way, Oprah. 

Here's a play that deals with someone coming to terms with the realisation that this is no way to live. Jack's decision to spurn any treatment is fundamentally a declaration of decency, an eleventh-hour maturing. He accepts finality, however reluctantly. Now that is radical.

I've gone on too long already I know but there's one more thing I want to say. I know I never stop blathering on about how tedious I find Australia's prolonged and utterly self-indulgent identity crisis and how it just poisons creativity but a play like this makes me realise how right I am. Australian writers are obliged to tell 'our stories'. This breaks down into even more constricting subsets. Indigenous writers and those from minority ethnic backgrounds are expected to write only about their own cultures. Hell, every time poor Peter Carey sets foot in this country someone has a go at him for writing a book set in America, where he's lived for over twenty years. No wonder he can't wait back to get back there. 

Music, (and yes I know I've just written a longish review of a play called 'Music' without mentioning any of the featured tunes - plenty of others will do that), is not an 'Australian story'. We assume it's set in Melbourne and Peter visits from Sydney but it could be located anywhere. And this is one reason for writing this review. It could be set in New York with Peter visiting from Boston. The two cities could be London and Liverpool and it would all work with just a few reference changes. This play has ambition. It has a passport. It wants to play on bigger stages. And I like that, very much.  Clever you, Mr Oakley, clever you.

Music is on at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre, Melbourne until 22 December.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Naughty is not the same as bad

Whipping Boy - from Pants Family Album, c 1900. All rights reserved

Two things are abundantly clear about the late 'Sir' Jimmy Savile - that he sexually assaulted hundreds of young people, mostly girls, over a forty-plus-year career as a national treasure and that a great many people either knew or strongly suspected that it was going on. The question of why so many colluded in this obvious cover-up isn't even that much of a mystery - everyone's afraid of powerful men. Savile was, apparently, so powerful that no one dared seriously broach the subject of his heinous, criminal activities until he had died. Cursory enquiries were seemingly easily satisfied with a jovial rebuff. That's some power.

One person embarrassingly taken in by Savile's subterfuge is his biographer, Alison Bellamy. Her book, How's About That, Then? named for one of his superficially innocuous catchphrases, had barely exited the presses before this whopper of a scandal blew up. Oh the irony of that title in the present context. Bellamy writes in this piece in her newspaper, The Yorkshire Evening Post,

'Around the time of his 80th birthday in 2006, I spent many days with him as I interviewed him for a series of features. It was then I first asked him about the rumours about his fondness for young girls. He reacted as expected and said with a well-rehearsed speech: “It goes with the territory.”

He was dismissive, as if what I was saying was ridiculous.

But he was always manipulative with the press and, even though he insisted he would always answer any question thrown at him, he would often change the subject or talk nonsense.'

At that point, none of his victims had broken through the wall of silence. A lot of people thought he was a bit odd, apparently. But stars are, aren't they?

Everyone's afraid of powerful mad people and of appearing to discriminate against powerful mad people.

Anthony Barnett writes on OurBeeb,

'How, then, did he get away with it?

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.'

Everyone's afraid of speaking out of turn about the powerful because it can rebound in nasty ways. The road to justice is paved with shot messengers.

Barnett also says this,

'Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement. It would be unbearable for him to represent the human race - and at some level all who saw him knew it.' 

Everyone's afraid of being called a class snob.

Andrew O'Hagan gives us some context in the London Review of Books.  He writes of a previous culture of paedophilia at the BBC that goes back a further generation to a post-war cohort of children's presenters and programmers who congregated around the popular Lionel Gamlin,

'Gamlin, in common with later youthquakers such as Jimmy Savile, never liked children, never had any, never wanted any, and on the whole couldn’t bear them, except on occasion to fuck. And, again like Savile, Gamlin managed all this quite brilliantly, hiding in plain sight as a youth presenter full of good sport but who didn’t really care for youth and all its pieties. This was in the days before ‘victims’ – days that our present media and their audiences find unimaginable – but it gives context and background to the idea of an eccentric presenter as a teasing anti-hero within the Corporation. Auntie was essentially being joshed by a child abuser posing as a child abuser.'

Everyone's afraid of messing with a system that works this well.

Savile had a whole wardrobe of cloaks of invisibility which allowed him so successfully to 'hide in plain sight'. It was all one big, audacious parcel of dares held together by the glue of threat. Exposure would have ended the cash flow he generated, so no one looked too hard for proof. Being so obviously mad and creepy worked as a defensive shield. In the same kind of twisted logic that allows crooked bankers to cheat the public and be rewarded for it, people reasoned, en masse, that someone who is so transparently transgressive, couldn't possibly be like that for real. Playing the fool was the perfect disguise. Savile was thought of as cheeky and naughty rather than perverted and bad.

This goes some way to explaining the seemingly inexplicable - that the stream of children who complained about being molested by him were ignored or punished for saying such awful things. There was a virtual cost/benefit ledger in play. Those who needed Savile made sure the books were cooked to protect their investment. He tended to prey on vulnerable girls in environments where he was generating a lot of funds and/or good deeds of his own. No one places much value on the vulnerable. We aren't talking about an opportunistic fiddle here. We are talking about a cynical, calculated crime spree perpetrated by a man who managed to exploit every self-conscious cultural neurosis imaginable to get what he wanted without conscience or nuance.

By chance, I happen to be reading Isabel Allende's memoir Paula. She talks about how long it took the Chilean people to understand the terror of the Pinochet dictatorship and why she thinks that is. Firstly, these sorts of things simply didn't happen in sophisticated, democratic Chile and, secondly, there just didn't seem to be a motive. Surely it wasn't necessary to kill a huge portion of the population and terrorise the rest to create order in society, was it? She writes,

'I knew so little about the workings of terror that I was slow to perceive the warning signs: nothing indicated that a parallel world existed in the shadows, a cruel dimension of reality.'

And this is the parallel world into which Savile's victims fell. It was a world that others simply did not believe existed or, if they did afford it some credence, imbued it with a sense that those who ended up there did so at the behest of fate. They must, themselves, be bad. The 'good' kept themselves from harm by suspending their disbelief and swallowing the line that bad things happened only to bad people.

In mathematics, if you make one mistake in a calculation, everything you do afterwards simply compounds that mistake, making it impossible to arrive at a correct solution. This is how logic works. Our fundamental error is that we may say that human rights are extended to all equally, but we don't really mean it. We don't mean it when it applies to women, or to black people or to people with a disability or to the vulnerable elderly. And we certainly don't mean it when it comes to children, who are still often dehumanised and reduced to the status of a chattel or a 'case' in the event of family breakdown.

Andrew Barnett talks about British society being in thrall to eccentric scallywags who can 'get away with it'. He invites us to observe the behaviour of London Mayor Boris Johnson who openly and obviously gets away with behaviour far more outrageous than would be acceptable in other, less popular politicians. Barnett does not equate the gravity of this behaviour with that of Savile. The comparison he makes is with the level of public awareness coupled with the incongruous suspension of criticism, for which Johnson's personal power, charisma and popularity can be the only excuse.

I would offer a different comparison - to the Australian photographer, Bill Henson. Likewise, I don't suggest any moral equivalence. There has never been an accusation of impropriety by any of his photographic subjects. But, Henson does photograph real underage children naked and display their pictures in public - an act for which others who omit to self-classify such images as 'art' might be sent to jail. I suggest that there is a similar collective failure of logic in play, one that somehow makes it acceptable for an adult male to photograph and display for personal profit photographs of children in the nude but not okay for parents to take snaps of their own clothed children at sports carnivals. The only way to accept this anomaly is to grant to Henson exceptional rights.

If we aspire to be a global society that is truly decent and honourable, we need to go back to the place where we made our initial error of logic and fix it. We need to ditch the some-are-more-equal mentality and extend genuine equal rights to all, even the ones who don't have any money or talent. If we tell children that the law protects them from bad men and that they should report it if a man does or tries to do something to them that feels wrong, we must not then tell them that the law does not apply to all bad men and the protection does not apply to all children so they must go away and reflect on why they tell dreadful lies about powerful people. To paraphrase another of our heroes, who may or may not have been a paedophile, we should say what we mean and mean what we say.