HIGH CULTURE BY THE YARRA


Peter Prattle writes about two important arts events in Melbourne.

It was a night of pure magic such as the young Marie Antoinette must have known as she danced with the Sun King on the Field of the Cloth of Gold - except that it wasn't ancient history, it was in Melbourne this week. The occasion? An Evening with the Stars hosted by theatrical grande dame Robyn Archer and legendary satirist and funny person Rod Quantock in aid of Women for Gillard. The Joan Kirner Arts Space on Southbank has never been seen to greater advantage: its legendary green-spangled auditorium with Indigenous motifs of genitalia - the tour de force of architects Ashton Raggatt McCrock - coruscating with talent and glamour. Everybody who is anybody was there and it made me proud to realise what incomparable riches we possess in the Melbourne arts and intellectual community. Cultural cringe! Forget it.

Rod and Robyn were impeccable hosts. As the first act Rod introduced himself in his much-loved rôle of Cap'n Snooze. Perhaps the only tiny blemish on the evening - and it was no more than the effect of a beauty spot on the countenance of the Queen of Sheba - was when Rod seemed to want to continue beyond his allotted time. Was it my imagination or did I hear a hissed "Stop hogging the f****ng stage!" from Robyn? I should calculate that fully an hour had passed before Rod, still pulling his hilarious funny faces, was carried off bodily by the next act, the hunky black-bearded scimitar-wielding Sons of the Caliphate, the Islamic performance group from Burchett Hill we had all come to see. Their well-honed blades sliced and flashed, streaks of pure silver and gold, as the Sons demonstrated with dazzling dexterity the various chopping movements traditionally employed in their home country for removing the hands of thieves and other malefactors. True, it seems brutally harsh to us, and I do not know how anyone could condone this kind of punishment for gay and transgendered people, but I fear one must never forget that in an imperfect world all culture is relative.

By now it was time for interval. Over a cool crisp glass of local bubbly I had a brief chat about literature with Morry Schonkhauser, the tall good-looking property-developing publisher for whom I briefly worked (though perhaps the less said about that the better) and his shy and retiring wife Anna, whose Flinders Lane gallery is currently featuring Bill Henson's latest show, Anuses. She laughingly told me that if I bought one of Bill's - photographs is an inadequate word: artographs perhaps I should call them - she'd "throw in" another at half price. 


One of the great things about these cultivated Melbourne evenings is that the audience can be as much an attraction as the acts on stage. I suppose it's part and parcel of being in not only the world's most liveable city but the world's most culturally aware city - yes, even compared with places with a reputation for enlightenment such as Adelaide or Auckland, both of which I have visited. 

At the bar, where the excellent cool-climate Mount Bogong Sparkling Chardonnay was on the house - a very civilised touch - I bumped (literally!) into Victorian Arts Funding supremo Gail Lesdyke and her Japanese partner Sashimi. Both are very much involved in Women for Gillard and believe that it is crucial for the arts in Australia that Labor be returned to office on 14 September, something she has no doubt will happen. "All these reports about Julia being down in the polls are nothing but scaremongering by the hate media," Gail told me, just as adorable Marieke Hardy hove into view. She'd spilt chardonnay down her pretty denim tube top, poor thing, and was very put out - even Gail had to ask her to "chill" with the language. I was helping mop her down when out of the corner of my eye I spotted my truly favourite ABC lady Margaret Throsby recording an interview with Richard Tognetti for her marvellous program, a daily "must" for me. I believe she has interviewed him 31 times! 

Another ABC great down from Sydney to enjoy the evening was the omniscient Tony Jones, who must be one of the keenest intellects I have ever encountered. It beggars belief that the hate media (again!) can go on about "bias" in our wonderful national broadcaster when its public faces are as impartial and fair-minded as Tony. I suppose it's the "tall poppy" syndrome - little pinched right-wing minds are envious of greatness.   

The bell rang to summon us back to our seats but I managed to down a couple of last glasses of wine before they stopped serving. Having just met one eminent media person in Tony who should I see as we started moving towards the auditorium but another of my pin-ups with important media associations. Justice Mordy Bromberg is a legal genius whose sage deliberations have had a most beneficial effect on our freedom of speech. At first I thought he had a twin brother with him, but that must have been the chardonnay! Before filing in, I just had time to congratulate the reclusive Michael Leunig, in town from his country hideaway, on his cartoon for the cover of the evening's souvenir program. His drawing of Tony Abbott secreting a key labelled "Your Freedoms" in his "budgie-smugglers" was alone worth the $75 I paid for the program. 

Back inside, a hush descended for perhaps the evening's most challenging act, "Goodbye Baby and Amen", a hauntingly beautiful evocation of partial-birth termination from the Raunchworks Liberated Dance Company of Coburg. The dancing was rapturous; the sinuous interplay of the dancers with their dolls as delicate and natural as the movement of reeds in the wind. I was glad that the organisers had had the courage to defy any attempts to censor this "meditation" on a very significant women's health issue. This is the kind of exploratory art we will be in serious danger of losing if the forces of reaction are voted in on 14 September.

A change of mood next, to the inimitably dry and austere wit of stand-up comedian Dave Hughes, whose impersonation of a man wanting to "take a leak" and not being able to find a loo has to be seen to be believed. After Hughesy, a musical interlude from Melbourne Theatre Company lead and singer Frankie J. Holden, who gave us a selection of songs made famous by the late Aboriginal tenor Harold Blair, who would have been at Covent Garden and the Met (Opera Australia had not then started) if it hadn't been for the racism of Australia under Menzies in the 1950s. I particularly enjoyed the traditional ballad "My Mabel Waits for Me", with its haunting lyrics (to which Frankie's golden voice did full justice):

My Mabel waits for me underneath the bright blue sky
Where the dog sits on the tuckerbox, five miles from Gundagai.

and the sublime refrain, so redolent of the rural outback:

I think she's bonzer and she thinks I'm good-oh.
I'm going to enter her - 
Going to enter her in the local show...

This is the version as adapted for vaudeville by the celebrated "Mo", Roy Rene in the 1920s. Is there a double entendre in the penultimate line? The jury's out on that one, though "Mo" did have the reputation of being "edgy" by the repressive standards of his time.

When Robyn, now acting as host by herself, announced the next act - and pièce de résistance of the evening - I thought the thunderous cheers would dislodge the green spangles from the exposed "neo-brutalist" concrete roof (Ashton Raggatt McCrock's homage, I understand, to Melbourne's pioneering modernist architect, Roy Grounds). "Please welcome," she said, "the incomparable" - and the adverb was absolutely appropriate - "Max Gillies, the greatest Australian satirist and mimic of all time." Max was in sparkling form and delighted us with a smorgasbord of his favourite characters - Marcel Marceau walking uphill against the wind, Malcolm Fraser (looking like Lurch in The Addams Family), little John Howard in jackboots with a Nazi cap and swastika, Pope John Paul II ("Eet veel make you go blind!") and (of course!) Sir John Kerr falling over drunk at the Melbourne Cup. All were as fresh and original as when Max first performed them it seems like a century ago. The audience went wild and it was a pity that when Max as Kerr fell over he was unable to get up again. As he was carried off, the great curtain, consisting of literally thousands of Aboriginal bark paintings sewn together with synthetic crocodile gut, was rung down. Then Robyn appeared and explained that Max had twisted his ankle in the fall. "Max is such a dedicated artist - he can't help throwing himself into the part," she quipped, and the house roared.

A busy busy week. Thursday I was at the Wheeler Centre, Melbourne's own Areopagus, where people meet to talk and exchange ideas just as they did thousands of years ago at the original Areopagus in ancient Rome. The evening was a landmark event for Australian literature: the launch of Christos Filthios's new book Gobble by public thinker and intellectual Robert Manne (I sometimes think the Wheeler Centre would shut down if it couldn't rely on Robert's regular appearances). Set in Melbourne, Christos's novel tells the story of Imram, a young Pakistani gay man living in Preston, a devout Muslim whose ambition is to expiate what he has been taught to believe is the stigma of his sexuality by becoming a suicide bomber. He decides to sacrifice himself by blowing up Flinders Street Station at rush hour, but when he goes into the "gents'" to put the semtex into his underpants he is seduced by a stranger lurking in one of the cubicles. This stranger turns out to be a right-wing radio host in disguise, and Imram is so ashamed and disgusted at what has been done to him that he plants the semtex in the radio host's coat as the latter is slinking out of the cubicle and - well I won't reveal the rest of the story. Robert was in excellent vein and made a terrific speech arguing that climate-change denialism makes one question the whole case against capital punishment. Afterwards I chatted with yet more of Melbourne's beau monde - Morry and Anna Schonkhauser, Bill Henson, Gail Lesdyke, Mordy Bromberg, Marieke Hardy, Richard Tognetti, Max Gillies (on a crutch but obviously on the mend, I was happy to see), Dave Hughes and of course Christos, who was with his new partner Grant, who he told me proudly is a champion surfer in his native Queensland. Such an endless array of interesting people and exciting ideas, such a glittering calendar of social exchanges. Who needs New York or London? We've got it all here. Marie Antoinette - eat your heart out!


Critic and writer Peter Prattle, former editor of Pretentious magazine, reviews theatre for The Spectator Australia and is Argus arts and culture correspondent. 


14 June 2013

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