Australian Arts

Nic Denton and Frances O’Connor

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

As the northern hemisphere, that ambiguous spectral homeland we’re conscious of, starts to open up, it’s easy to be envious of the Australians who are plying their trade in the world of art and entertainment. Barrie Kosky, who’s finishing up as the head of Die Komische Oper in Berlin has just done a swag of operas – and will continue to do more even as he ceases to run the company – and of these nothing could be more thrilling and intimidating than to do Brecht /Weill’s The Threepenny Opera at the Berliner Ensemble. This is a bit like being transported back in time to direct Shakespeare at the real Globe, not the modern facsimile, with the ghosts of Shakespeare and his leading man, the actor who created the roles of Hamlet and Lear, Richard Burbage, at your shoulder. No wonder Kosky says he has to pinch himself at the thought of mounting the show in the very theatre where Lotte Lenya sang those songs and with the sardonic Brecht cigar in mouth, a man of the theatre beyond all his politics, putting people through their paces.

It was in the early Eighties that Ekkehard Schall, the great actor of the Berliner Ensemble, came to the Adelaide Festival and his one-man show was not a testament to alienation techniques but to the power of an actor’s art to create and recreate emotional reality. It was a reminder of George Steiner’s description of Helene Weigel doing Mother Courage and the way in her desolation her face took on the look of ravaged grief, at an absolute attenuation of physical atrocity, that we see in the figure of the horse in Picasso’s Guernica.

George Steiner is a reminder of the Australian literary critic Andrew Riemer who shared something of an accent with him, a great lover of opera who died last year. Not knowing this I emailed him some months ago because The Hands of Pianists the extraordinarily powerful meta-novel by Stephen Downes had appeared and it was clearly not only influenced by the German writer W.G. Sebald but seemed – a bit astonishingly – just as good. And I wanted to alert Andrew Riemer to this because he was the first person in this country to hail Sebald, when he had just published The Emigrants, as a master.

Riemer was a man of great charm and as someone who tended to review the same books it was delightful when he also raved about that unexpected masterpiece of late American postmodernism, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, its quotation from Hamlet in the title a half-wry reminder of the book’s ambitions.

I once said to Andrew Riemer of that most dazzling and wayward modernist masterpiece Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, ‘I suppose you can read it in German?’ ‘No,’ said the Sydney English department academic who mocked every one of his claims to learning or competence. ‘I can’t read it in German but I can read Thomas Bernhard in German because he says everything twice!’

Bernhard, who wrote sentences a bit like Gertrude Stein but raged like Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, certainly does and he’s another one of those figures, together with Sebald, who remind us of the power of blackness in Stephen Downes. But let’s say of Riemer, as the Romans said, ‘May the earth lie light on him’.

It’s true of Downes’ book that it’s scarcely suitable for adults, this story that worries the question of whether consummately talented pianists are impelled to top themselves. And that’s true of The End a miniseries full of extraordinary artistry in its realisation but which succeeds (if that’s the word) in being about assisted dying and which sports a trans character, once Titania now Oberon, who happens to be wonderfully attractive and is played by Morgan Davies.

The End has Frances O’Connor, one of the greatest Australian actors of the Blanchett generation, as a troubled young doctor and Harriet Walter ––arguably the greatest actress in Britain not to be world-famous – as her mother. It is brilliantly realised even as you recoil and includes a fine performance by Noni Hazelhurst as a true blue and Robyn Nevin in a delicious comic sketch as a bonne bourgeoisie memsahib.

Illegal euthanasia and trans mutations are not everyone’s kind of hilarity but the whole thing is superbly turned.

Meanwhile in Britain the Australian tenor Stuart Skelton is performing at the Proms. He’s done a lot of Wagner with Simon Rattle but he’s giving an Australian accent to his Proms performance by singing Peter Allen’s ‘I Still Call Australia Home’.

It’s a weird world because so many artistic Australians are shuttered here or there. Simon Stone’s production of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde has been seen at Aix-en-Provence and Kosky’s productions of operas mount up and up but where in Australia do we get to see performance.

Well, in Annastacia Palaszczuk’s Queensland you can see Sam Strong’s Queensland Theatre production of Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. When he did Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones a few years ago with Nic Denton it was superb. It sounds a good bet for the unlocked in Queenslanders. Denton is a superb young actor who I would cheerfully see do anything from Hamlet to the younger Tennessee Williams leads in The Glass Menagerie or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Trent Dalton certainly captured the nation’s attention with his first novel and it’s pretty obviously true that in the time of the virus when performative life is shut down everywhere but in Queensland and Western Australia you can always read a book.

There has been a great susurration of enthusiasm, as well as a few dissenters, at the publication the other week of Sally Rooney’s third book, Beautiful World, Where Are You? The Irish writer came to prominence three years ago with Normal People and like Dalton she belongs to that almost but not quite extinct breed of fiction writer who has very high literary skills and can also command the biggest kind of readership. At the merest glance, the writing doesn’t seem all on the same level but there’s no mistaking a high compelling quality.

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