Australian Arts

Orson Welles

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

24 October 2020

9:00 AM

The journals of the plague year from the point of view of culture are getting weirder and weirder from Daniel Andrews’ Melbourne. The premier has banned people from congregating in homes to watch the Grand Final which is an open provocation to civil disobedience. In the capital city of Australian Rules.

So what about high culture? It’s gratifying that people will be able to experience both Christos Tsiolkas’ Loaded and Michelle Lee’s Single Ladies in audio formats given that live performances had to be cancelled. It’s moving too that the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra has announced the first half of next year’s season with a special emphasis on outdoor concerts at the Myer Music Bowl but when the MSO re-enters Hamer Hall, it’s calculated that only 480 of the 2,000 seats will be filled. Needless to say the world of international guests will take a while to reinstate.

We could always have done more with this mix in the theatre. Back in the late Seventies Keith Michell toured Australia in Shaw’s The Apple Cart and as Othello. He might – with Zoe Caldwell and Leo McKern – have been a mainstay of an Australian national theatre. Michell played Hotspur, the dashing uncontrollable Geordie rebel in Shakespeare’s Henry IV and there is a fine audio recording of McKern as Falstaff.

The best overall production of the two parts of Henry IV I have seen was done as part of the English Shakespeare Company’s production of the whole of Shakespeare’s history plays at the Melbourne Festival. There was a superb Falstaff in Barry Stanton though the finest performance of the title role in Henry IV I’ve seen was Richard Piper in a Bell Shakespeare production twenty-odd years ago.


Thoughts of Henry IV flooded back into my mind because I watched the Criterion DVD of Chimes at Midnight in which Orson Welles, the genius of Citizen Kane and A Touch of Evil, culled the two parts of Shakespeare’s greatest history play in order to create for himself the role of the fat knight as the absolutely predominating figure.

Welles is captivating in Shakespeare’s greatest comic role where the sublime trick is to equip the supreme amoralist with a heart Prince Hal can break. He captures with a weird clairvoyance the gravity and melancholy that underlies the wit. This is a Falstaff who knows that the grave gapes thrice wider for him.

It’s a crying shame that the Criterion Channel is not available in Australia so that people deprived of the theatre could at least watch great cinema. Imagine having the 14 hours of that greatest film ever made for television, Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz or Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Imagine being able to see, without having to buy it as I did, Max Ophuls’ film of Schnitzler’s La Ronde, that great dream-like comedy which Nicole Kidman did naked in London as The Blue Room and which Sigrid Thornton did here.

In Ophuls’ hands a dazzling French cast – with Anton Walbrook, as the perpetually role-shifting compère, and Danielle Darrieux, Jean-Louis Barrault, Simone Signoret and Gérard Philipe –presents a world of erotic obsession and delusion as desire and impotence, passion and pretension, glide into each other and change shape as miraculously as Ophuls’ direction makes every wall, every door, every barrier, melt away as the camera sweeps like magic.

Ophuls is one of the supreme artists of the cinema who constantly plays with the idea of showmanship in order to reveal the glimpses of death behind the carousel and comedy of human desire. In Le Plaisir where he uses and transfigures stories  by Maupassant or in Letter From An Unknown Woman – the one in English with Joan Fontaine and Louis Jordan from the novella by Stefan Zweig – entertainment and the highest art seem to blend absolutely.

Ophuls has a quality that could be mistaken for cynicism but is in fact an ability to look at what underlies zest and human striving with a scepticism that becomes deeply poignant.

Without Criterion you can of course find great films on YouTube and from the streamers. Almodovar’s Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down available from Apple is a humane comedy which has a bit in common with that very incorrect play of Shakespeare The Taming of The Shrew famously defended by Germaine Greer.

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