Cultural Comment

Don Parties On – and so do the Boomers

There has been much disquiet about Don Parties On – David Williamson’s sequel to Don’s Party, especially from Jason Whittaker and and Alison Croggon in their reviews. Having seen it on March 4 at the Sydney Theatre, I can see why they would have a problem with the play.  It does feature a lot of clunky dialogue, cliches, repetition, too many references to the original play, flat spots and seems to have a myopic view of the world outside Mr. Williamson’s window.  Their problem dovetails, though, with the reason it is popular – that is because it is play suited to a specific demographic, in much the same way as any Agatha Christie or Jodi Picoult novel is written for a particular audience.  And that demographic does not include people under the age of 50.  It is a play that could be taken to symbolise a lot of what is wrong with Australian theatre – that it is a museum piece for older people to frequent.

I was in a community theatre production of Don’s Party last year, playing a character that didn’t make it into the sequel, except in repeated references to the original play.  That is why I was there, with a group of young actors who had given a great deal of energy, humanity and warmth to characters who maybe didn’t deserve it.  It is from that perspective that I saw the sequel.

One element from the original I liked was the humanity that the characters had – it was also evident at times in this version.  For this reason, I was taken with the start of the play, where we got a chance to see where Don and Kath had gone in their relationship.  It was also where we saw Mal taking on the characteristics of Mac from the original – on his own, a bit warmer, more reflective, less arrogant.  This was his character note throughout the play, even to the extent of being the one sitting with Don at the end, reflecting on how good things were.  I am sure many younger audiences would have been bored by the opening, in that there was a little too much expositionary reference to the original play, as well as many pauses and repetitions. However, it did feel like a real party, where there was air around the words and conversations – something Williamson achieved at times in the original.

The cartoon character nature of Cooley is another element kept from the original.  The arrival of Cooley, which was an explosive, shocking event in the original (because of his expletive) was also fairly explosive in this version, mainly because of Frankie J. Holden’s remarkable evocation of what Shane Warne would look like in 20+ years. Cooley’s prop of the oxygen tank also brought that element of the cartoon into the play.  The conversion of him to Liberal Party mouthpiece wasn’t difficult and as a result his one liners and caricature style suited Williamson’s purpose of showing the hollow nature of the Liberal campaign.

The political conversations, though, were patchy – sometimes insightful when they were responding to the events of the night – but often regressed into broad brush statements about the idea free nature of both sides of the 2010 campaign.  It was telling that Maxine McKew’s concession interview formed the cornerstone of the latter discussion – her words were more useful as commentary than the lines composed by Williamson.  Perhaps that was his intention – to show how the people who follow politics are fond of broad generalisations, rather than detailed analysis.  It was good, however, that this time around Kath was cast into the role of apologist for the ALP risk averse style, rather than as the housewife that doesn’t comment on politics.

The first act, however, had two major flaws for me – the age of Bella and the overly melodramatic life of Jenny.  It was not a good look to have Mal and Cooley leering at a teenager still watching Twilight films.   Williamson made a mistake with her age, in that an older character would have articulated political views better, have more appropriate interactions with the men.  If Williamson wanted a child’s reaction to their father’s affairs, then he could have easily cast a younger sister or brother.  Or even show that 20 year olds can be vulnerable as well.  It was an uneasy decision he came to.

The other flaw was Jenny.  The character in the original was sarcastic, sour and funny – as Jenny was in Act Two of the sequel.  In Act One, though, her “revelation” and professed deep depression due to the way she was portrayed in a novel was too much like soap opera, or an attempt to have Jenny be a “symbol” of her age.  It really did spoil Act One for me, when she talked of deep depression but then didn’t snap back with a sardonic, dark joke at Don’s expense.  After all, that is what Don is for – a punching bag.

Act Two saw Williamson do what he achieved with Act Two of Don’s Party – tie things up, throw in some farce and have tighter action.  I thought this was much more successful and funnier.  The injection of the cartoonish Roberta (she of the undefinable accent) was funny – and not a bit realistic.  I found the character of Richard to be the same.  To me, he was a caricature 42 year old, not a real one, showing Williamson’s cluelessness about any character under the age of 50.  However, the character of Richard wasn’t funny because Williamson was trying to be serious with him.  He should have gone the cartoon with him as well.

In the end, it was still an interesting piece of theatre that did have some pithy moments, an exploration of the times between 1969 and today and I particularly liked what Kath brought to the play – like in the original, I believe she was the best character – she had the most emotional depth.  I also liked the addition of Helen as a counterweight to Cooley’s cartoon ways and her cool representation of the Blue/Green patrician seeking to help asylum seekers.  That was smart work.

As for the critics who have had their knives out – I didn’t think it was as dire as they say. The reality is that there have been many, many better plays than this and people already know there are better playwrights than Williamson.  Critics who target this are shooting fish in a barrel – it’s like criticising teenagers for liking Twilight films.  The audience were mostly baby boomers.  They liked the jokes written especially for them about young people and politics.  They liked the domestic politics, the stories of affairs, the wife swapping tales.  It was a play for them, a piece of nostalgia.   Therefore, Don Parties On is not a great piece of theatre that summarises the human condition, nor a play that addresses what it is to be Australian. It’s an aging man making comments to similarly aging people, about a place that neither the playwright nor audience quite understand.

Cultural Comment Sport

Eddie McGuire – Not Quite Dying with a Falafel in his Hand

I have lived in the western suburbs most of my life and have, weirdly to most people I know out here, liked Australian Rules football since the age of 7.  The number of times I have copped the “fairy football”, “GayFL” and “Aerial Ping Pong” jibes, both at school and from adults has been more numerous than Tony Abbott exaggerations.

As a result of this, I am getting behind the GWS Giants push, even though I don’t really like the Giants name (I thoughts Rangers or even Gladiators would have been better).  I like the idea of a team that will eventually draw players and supporters from the western suburbs.  There are people who suggest that the new team will snatch supporters away from the Swans (like me), but in all honesty, getting out to the SCG for most home games is a real pain.  Homebush is a great central venue.  But, of course, it is early days and there is a lot of apathy and disinterest to resist for the team.

This cause is helped, or not helped, by the likes of Eddie McGuire.  Today, in order to gain some more ratings for his underperforming MMM show (when will they realise it’s the music that sucks, not the presenters…), he decided to call Western Sydney “the land of the falafel” – which quickly spread to other media outlets.  I was immediately bemused by the comment, not least because you don’t see many falafels sold in Penrith.   More Maccas, Kebabs and KFC.

It was the implication behind the words that was more interesting, the one that life in Western Sydney is boring and hasn’t got variety in food or culture – hence driving any players for AFL teams away from the area.  I found that a fairly extraordinary comment from the Chairman of Collingwood, a club that attracts pages such as this – indicating that there may not be a particularly vibrant culture connected to his club.  In any case, footballers of any of the two major codes have rarely shown much interest in culture outside drinking, clubbing and having a BBQ with their mates.  Western Sydney has that.

I also don’t think Eddie is contemplating his players frequenting bars like this one, which is right next to Collingwood, with its vegan meals and Victorian microbrews.  If he was, then I could possibly understand his attempt to denigrate Western Sydney.  But maybe Eddie is telling us that his players do like the cosmopolitan life of modern inner city Collingwood and its neighbour, Fitzroy.  Footballers in Brunswick Street.  That is progressive of him and his club.

If that is the case, I would suggest that if Alan Didak, Steele Sidebottom or Tyson Goldsack ever considered coming to the GWS Giants, there is a whole lot of Western Sydney food and culture which would act as a handy compensation for the loss of Brunswick Street.  Perhaps they could live in the Lower Blue Mountains, where they could enjoy a morning Caffe Latte at Mash Cafe in Glenbrook.  They could then take a trip down to their training at Blacktown Olympic Park, coming back for a lunch at the Log Cabin Hotel.  Or on special occasions, they could eat dinner at Restaurant Como in Blaxland – they don’t serve falafels there.   On the weekend, there is my favourite lunchtime venue in the west – Cafe Lewers, next to the Nepean.

Mind you, if it’s simpler fare they are after, Rooty Hill RSL, which is close to the training ground, has a great restaurant called Menu 33, which offers food that you don’t see in Melbourne’s poker machine venues. Rooty Hill RSL, like Panthers, has increasingly become an upmarket venue as the cash has continued to roll in. Eddie does need to see how the focus in Sydney football revenues is more about the leagues clubs than the football club.

In all seriousness, though, reading the coverage, however, it seems that Eddie is presenting two faces.  To Sydney people, he is “just making a light hearted joke”, even if it shows a complete misunderstanding of where the club is situated.  To Melbourne people, he is saying that Sydney people need to lighten up.  No, Eddie, you need to actually come to Western Sydney and learn stuff before making lame, poorly directed jokes.  Mind you, he is working for MMM – lame, poorly done jokes are their stock-in-trade since Tony Martin left.

It could also be a bizarre way for the AFL to get publicity for GWS, like Sheedy’s comments about Nathan Hindmarsh. This might work, who knows.  But if GWS starts becoming successful, just wait for McGuire’s whinges about draft picks and salary caps.  Again.

Cultural Comment

Eddie Perfect and Barrie Kosky – Nature and Sexuality Examined at Misanthropology

The planning for our Sydfest week was fairly complex and more expensive than in past years – usually all I ever did was haul a chair and food to the Symphony Under the Stars. This year, however, the timing of Misanthropology, midnight, forced us to look at staying in the city.  And so it happened.  A great thing too.  We ended staying two nights, so we could simply wobble back to the room after the Symphony Under the Stars.

It was a show that had at its heart the concept that we as human beings are not developing, evolving, moving forward.  Instead, we are wallowing in a cultural netherworld.  This argument was supported by songs like Eco Lodge (which I still have stuck in my head), songs about self-absorbed cyclists, the creepy concept of a father buying his daughter’s fake breasts and the concept of “stray” women being fair game for footballers in a song that held up Kerry-Anne Kennerley as a symbol of the cultural netherworld.

In Perfect’s argument, we are, as a society, confused about nature and sexuality and how we deal with them.  With nature, we seem to want to protect it, but we do that by transferring our overwhelming instinct to dominate nature – in every way possible.  In terms of sexuality, the elders of society – fathers, experienced TV personalities – are not dispensing wisdom; instead there are fathers telling their daughters that it is OK to be more sexually desirable through acquisition of artificial breasts and a female TV personality can water down talk of rape by saying that there are “stray” women looking for sex in the early hours of the morning.  Amongst the cutting satire and great singing, there is meat in Perfect’s social commentary.

My favourite moment, however, came with Perfect’s response to the type of cultural concepts being created by Barrie Kosky.  Its argument was that we as humans have now produced shows that require long commitment to view shows that are self-indulgent, pretentious and devoid of clear meaning to the gathered crowds.  And that is Kosky. Here is one example of a Kosky adventure, complete with men wearing dresses.  The highlight of the song for me was where we hear Perfect, as Kosky, declare that Europe loves him, as a way of justifying himself in the face of Australian criticism.  The song summed up for me just where Kosky sits in the context of Australian culture – as a self-promoting touchstone that attracts funding, praise and adulation for shows that have little to do with Australia or its people; a hostile force that has not but disdain for critics.

With that, Eddie Perfect neatly tied together a few threads of the Sydney Festival for me. His musical performance was excellent and he managed to, along with Paul Kelly, provide a picture of Australia that shows us that we are fairly laconic, lacking in pretention and willing to provide a slightly innocent, strongly moral look at the human experience.

And then, after the show, Eddie stuck around and had a drink with audience members who didn’t have to race home.  I can’t imagine John Malkovich or Barrie Kosky doing that.

Cultural Comment

Minto Live at the Sydney Festival

On a Wednesday night, I saw the much maligned Giacomo Variations.  I do understand why McCallum would be so scathing of the show.  Perhaps he should have instead gone to Minto to see Minto Live (or, as the locals would call it, Minno Live).  This event was an interesting and refreshing mix of locals and imported performers doing their thing on the streets of the much maligned suburb.  Tellingly, the streets where the performances occurred were the new, freshly redeveloped streets of the suburb.  We saw locals sing, dance and gain a sense of pride in their suburb.  As well as have an audience of between 300 – 400 see it.  Here’s three images I particularly liked.

One of the local dances
Ever wanted to dance in your front yard in front of hundreds?
Turn on the car radio and dance in the street like this family.

They showed just why this event was a winner – people really appreciated the effort the locals had made in preparing their dances and connected on a personal level with the concept of freely expressing yourself in front of a crowd.  The next picture is of an indigenous local who wanted her dance to cleanse the area of the heartache associated with death and domestic violence from the past.

Cleansing the area of its heartache.

I was walking next to the performer of the cleansing dance, who was very excited about having completed her dance, feeling joy and affirmation for their lives from the gathered crowd – affirmation I don’t think she’ll forget.  I saw this performance the night after spending nearly $100 to barely hear John Malkovich speaking above an orchestra.  The contrast was stark.  Malkovich, by contrast with these dancers, didn’t like giving interviews or interacting with Sydney on any level.

The other performance, by Ten, asked the crowd to think about their cultural heritage and used paint and dancing to do that.  It was a challenge for a number of children present to maintain interest during the talking elements – but for the most part, it was engaging, funny and it resonated with the culturally diverse group of locals and visitors. Mixing cultural heritage with the St. George Cross was a very interesting concept.

Part of the Ten performance

This was the Sydney Festival as it should be, in some respects.  It went out into the community, collaborated with locals and produced a very enjoyable, free event.  I hope there is one of these collaborations every year.  It is as far from European costume foolery and Eddie Perfect’s sharp social commentary as you can get – but it was still a nice night out.  I’ll end this blog with a picture that summed up the spirit of Minto Live for me.

Taking the knitting circle outside.
Classical Music Cultural Comment

Colm Mac Con Iomaire – Irish Music Goes Global

The last concert in our Sydney Festival extravaganza was a concert by Irish musician Colm Mac Con Iomaire with gathered musician “friends” as he put it.  And you can believe they are friends.  Colm is so low key, humble and understated that you could believe that they enjoy cups of tea and the occasional beer together.  I had no idea about the music before walking in, except that he was Irish and liked to mix things up.  His type of music, I discovered, shows what can happen if you combine a detailed and sophisticated understanding of Irish culture with a knowledge of how to use music technology and a willingness to absorb other cultural elements.

I had expected the sort of Irish music everyone hears when you see any Irish program or documentary about Ireland.  Jigs.  Lots of tin whistles and bodhrans,  Chieftains style – or perhaps what we consider “traditional” Irish music (check out “Paul Keating” in the video!).  However, it wasn’t in terms of style.  His is modern Irish music that has matured and changed in contact with the world outside Ireland. Colm was very particular about telling us where the musicians in the group came from, as if to tell us about their cultural background and how that might inform the music.  The same went for his introductions of the songs, where the influences were discussed.  He reflected at one point about an Eastern Europeans writing music in Ireland, and vice versa being a great thing, which it is, symbol of the blending of global boundaries to create new musical voices.

His music also makes extensive use of technology, where he recorded his violin (though, probably more accurate to call it a fiddle) playing a particular loop while he placed other layers on top – but wasn’t afraid to start again if he stuffed up, showing his desire to provide the best sound for the audience.  It gave a more haunting and rich quality to the music being made.   It also added an element of the type of repetitive looping that was heard earlier in the week with Philip Glass.  Except this time, it wasn’t there to show the mechanistic nature of modern society, more as a way of driving the music forward, provide a framework over which the melodies sang their links to Ireland and the Irish people.

Ultimately, while this music had influences from various cultures, especially bluegrass from the USA, it softly spoke about Ireland, its history and its people in musical forms. Colm’s love of Irish Gaelic could be seen in the way he spoke the soft phrases from the language in his introductions, as well as in reading poetry by Michael Hartnett and the softness could be heard in the music and the gentle way it wandered.  In that, Colm had much in common with Paul Kelly – he is telling the story of his people in just writing about them – except in a more abstract fashion.  It was a lovely sorbet after the massive feast of sounds we had been enjoying.

Talking of that feast, there will be blogs this week about other events from the Sydney Festival – Minto Live, Eddie Perfect and the Symphony in the Domain.  Hope you enjoy them and get something out of them.



Cultural Comment

From New York to St. Kilda – Philip Glass and Paul Kelly at the City Recital Hall

We went to vastly different musical experiences at the City Recital Hall as a part of the Sydney Festival this week. Philip Glass and Paul Kelly. Both were sold out, both had adoring, appreciative audiences and both told rich stories about the cultures of their respective places.

Paul Kelly is an artist I haven’t paid anywhere near enough attention to over the years. I bought a collection of his over 10 years ago and was dimly aware of his better known songs. This is due mostly to an outer suburban life where you don’t hear much outside the “hits”. My partner, though, has been a very enthusiastic fan for a long time. So, for her, the evening of Kelly where he wandered through his catalogue from F to L was a night of rapt reacquaintance with the songs, without the presence of bogans demanding he play more “hits”. For me, it was a discovery of a whole type of storytelling I had never knew existed.

As Kelly gave short, but rich accounts of the background of the songs and then sang them in with the unassuming air of a musician who is in the prime of his career, sure of the tone he is setting with his audience. There was a spellbinding bond between a musician and his/her audience that you experience every so often in a concert hall – Stephen Hough, the English pianist comes to mind. As the night wended its way along, I could also see an emerging image of the variety of what it is to be Australian. I’m pretty sure that was never Kelly’s intention, but It struck me that he has been quietly assembling the Australian story simply by writing about it.

And all this in a setting that we haven’t normally associated with a so-called “popular” artist, the City Recital Hall, which is a far cry from the many venues Kelly would have played before now. But there, the focus was on him and he left a lasting impression.

I contrast this with Philip Glass, for whom the Recital Hall would be a familiar setting. He brought an isolated New York feel to the festival, playing in his own bubble, resembling more a machine that we were there to observe, rather than a musical event with which we could participate. No less special or remarkable than the Kelly performance – just very different. Glass brought a view of his world that highlighted how mechanical the city can be, driving incessantly and with relentless intensity. I know there are many New Yorks, from what I have been told, but Glass brought us one of them. While I understand that world and often feel isolated in the mechanistic and cold Sydney, I found myself more drawn to the warmth of Kelly. I look forward to listening to the A to Z recordings.