Australian Arts


12 February 2022

9:00 AM

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

Does anyone know where we are in the world of arts and entertainment as Omicron advances, boosters abound, RATS are rare and the Prime Minister now approves of Premier McGowan keeping the WA border closed though until the other day this was anathema to him? But the Australian Ballet are limbering up for their Anna Karenina, Melbourne Opera, with truly colossal ambition, is doing Die Walküre, the heart of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, with Rosamund Illing brandishing a spear as those aerial offspring of Wotan take their spiralling tumultuous ride. In the middle of the year, the tenor Jonas Kaufman (as eminent a figure in his field as Novak Djokovic) will appear in Lohengrin, God and the virus willing. In a couple of weeks, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of Daniel Mannix, most turbulent of all Australian priests, will be the setting for a performance by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and MSO Chorus of Fauré’s exquisitely beautiful Requiem, so gorgeously recorded by André Cluytens with Victoria de los Angeles singing the Pie Jesu and the incomparably great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau doing the Libera me, Domine. It was the Libera me which Mannix recited stonily and relentlessly as he led the procession of the coffin of a man who had died of hunger objecting to the British suppression of independence in Ireland through the streets of London. It’s also the case that James Joyce’s Ulysses which saw its centenary on 2 February, refers to ‘my lords of Maynooth’, and on 16 June, 1904, the day when the great Bloomsday book is set, the President of Maynooth University, the Irish seminary, was the man who would rule Catholic Melbourne like a fiefdom for half a century, winning his battle with Billy Hughes over conscription, taking up residence at Raheen and doing his best, with the aid of Bob Santamaria and the DLP, to keep the Labor party – which he had once supported – out of office. There’s a very distinguished life of Mannix by Brenda Niall, the biographer of Martin Boyd and indeed of the whole Boyd family, and at the age of 91, she has just brought out her own autobiography, My Accidental Career.

There was something uncanny last Saturday night about attending the first night of Grace at Red Stitch. The play by Katy Warner is about three women in a Copenhagen hotel because the middle one, Kate Cole, is being given the Hans Christian Andersen Prize for Children’s Literature. Her mother, Jillian Murray, is a sometime literary novelist inclined to take a dim view of such fripperies and then there’s Mia Tuco, as the granddaughter of Murray but also something else. On top of this, she too turns out to be a novelist.

Grace is directed by Sarah Goodes, the former resident director of the Melbourne Theatre Company who was widely tipped to inherit it but didn’t. She was there for four years and the performances she elicited from Helen Morse and Melita Jurisic in Annie Baker’s John were things of wonder. It’s also the case that her production of Joanna Murray-Smith’s Switzerland with Sarah Peirse as Patricia Highsmith and Eamon Farren as her extraordinary nemesis was a flawless realisation of a very powerful mainstream play. Goodes did this in her Sydney Theatre Company days and there’s something a bit extraordinary about the way she is now working for the extremely enterprising Red Stitch.

Grace is a weird, slightly uneven, play, full of rapid zigzags between comedy and drama and its thematic is that of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter which can be seen streaming with Olivia Colman at the height of her powers. The Australian play however, has none of the operatic intensity of The Lost Daughter and is a delicate insistent study of the insinuations that belittle any woman who backs away from a motherhood she has been encouraged to believe she will cope with, no matter what. There is a fine, sometimes electric tension between Murray and Cole, both of whom embody familiar types with a distinguishing individuality. Mia Tuco as the young one in the nest of scribblers could have been a touch starrier and also perhaps a shade more convincing and verbally adept when she reads from her own novel. But this is simply a qualification. It’s encouraging to see a contemporary Australian play about three women and directed by a woman who has seen some of her great projects – the Virginia Gay Cyrano, the not unrelated Joy Hester play, Sunday, with Nikki Shiels – melt into air. Of course they will rise again because Sarah Goodes is a powerhouse as well as a woman of vision but the ordeals she’s been through highlight with the power of allegory just what an ordeal Melbourne went through during the lockdown and the potency of that captivity at a time of plague which has not stopped.

Red Stitch has always been a theatre which shows what the theatre can do rather than – think of the opposite case of The Malthouse – what can be done with the theatre. It’s hard to recall an occasion with any of their productions where you couldn’t at least see the point of what they were trying to do even if their reach exceeded their grasp. And sometimes –with Kat Stewart or David Whitely, with Nadia Tass directing Annie Baker’s Aliens or The Flick – it has looked as good as theatre gets.

It’s not for nothing that Nicholas Denton – one of our finer younger actors – he’s currently making a streamer version of Dangerous Liaisons – has acted there and it’s where we first encountered Ngaire Dawn Fair and Anna Sampson, each of whom might have given a different kind of lustre to the title role in Grace.

But you can’t complain about Red Stitch because it believes in acting and believes in writing. You need only to feel the dramatic heat coming off the stage as you sit there gasping through your mask to know this is a theatre that cannot be taken away from us.

Ancient memories returned of that fine stylish actor Dion Mills doing a little known Strindberg play with Kat Stewart and the way they acted like archangels. He’s been playing Egeon – the father who actually gets some varnished blank verse – in Glenn Elston’s production of The Comedy of Errors in the Botanical Gardens.

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