It’s funny to reflect how the performing arts, theatre in particular, are a lot stronger when they have a literary basis. As Melbourne staggered to emerge from what looked like its umpteenth lockdown — one where you could exchange viruses at eating venues but not have a dinner party or go to a show — it was interesting to see that just in time for Bloomsday, June 16, the calendrical James Joyce celebration, Naxos brought out a complete recording of Finnegans Wake, the supreme gobbledygook masterpiece written in a jabberwock of cross-lingual puns to a basic Irish lilt and blarney.
The readers are Marcella Riordan, the Molly Bloom of Naxos’ complete Ulysses, with Jim Norton, and Barry McGovern, who did Waiting For Godot at the Dublin Gate (and for Radio Teilefis Eireann’s boxed set Beckett). The production also came to Melbourne, as did McGovern, who did a superb adaptation of Beckett’s Watt for the Melbourne Festival in 2018. Finnegans Wake has been recorded selectively at a level of lyrical genius by Siobhan McKenna (doing the counterpointed and contrasted washerwomen of Anna Livia Plurabelle) as well as 30 minutes of the great Cyril Cusack. But a complete audio Finnegans Wake will release the gnomic unreadability of this acrostic joke-a-thon into the atmosphere of living, breathing voices.
It’s an enigma and a fascination that Ian McKellen, who came to late middle-aged fame with his Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, should have opened in London on 21 June as Hamlet, at the age of 82. The great Shakespearean actor — the most highly regarded Macbeth since Olivier (with Judi Dench) —was not, for some reason, a very successful Hamlet when he played that actorish mirror of introspection at the age of 35, despite his success as Richard II, the first of Shakespeare’s soaring tragic roles, and it will be interesting to see whether this venture by a notable King Lear — he came to Melbourne in the play in 2007 — goes down as the folly of a man four score and upward or as a revelation against the odds. The production has its peculiarities and diversities — Francesca Annis, McKellen’s Juliet (and Polanski’s Lady Macbeth) is playing the Ghost. In 1995, she played the Queen to Ralph Fiennes’ melancholy Dane and their subsequent affair gave a strange unreal Oedipal shadow to the story of a man who wrestles and rages with his mother. Fiennes — another actor who can carry a one-man show — is performing the whole of Eliot’s Four Quartets. And that strange ascent of a spiritual mountain, so agnostically expressed for all the highs and lows of Eliot’s Anglo-Catholicism, is ideally suited to a time of plagues that whisper of new worlds.
In 2004, when McKellen and Peter Jackson and the Kiwis were taking the Oscars in what looked like an ‘empire strikes back’ moment, the award for cinematography went to a man who was honoured in the Queen’s birthday list, Russell Boyd, who had the modesty to explain to the Hollywood audience when he picked up his academy award for Master and Commander that his accent was actually Australian. When you’ve shot Picnic at Hanging Rock — as well as The Year of Living Dangerously — and Tender Mercies (for Bruce Beresford rather than Peter Weir) not to mention that accent-heavy romp Crocodile Dundee — honours from Tinseltown or Buckingham Palace are bound to be icing on the cake.
Then again, Chris Hemsworth got one and we were reminded that the guy who plays Thor gave away a cool million dollars at the time of the Black January bushfires in 2020. He says he’s had the most exciting moment of his lustrous career finding himself cast in the new Mad Max with Anya Taylor-Joy from The Queen’s Gambit.
It’s interesting when it comes to accents and the ability of an actor to be a superhero of solo dramatic space that Chris Hemsworth did Thor with Ken Branagh and perhaps learnt in the process to speak the Queen’s English. He does it impeccably in the Formula One film Rush and it would be fascinating to see him realise the old Heath Ledger ambition of doing Shakespeare on an Australian stage. Would the queues outstretch those of Olivier and Vivien Leigh back in 1948 if he were to do Henry V or indeed Hamlet?
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