Writing, concerts, theatre and a little bit of travel

Category: Comments on Concerts, Plays, Films, etc

Joshua Harmon’s Admissions, Melbourne Theatre Company

When I was attending my privileged independent school in Melbourne I genuinely thought that it was good to make toffees to sell at our stall to help support a mission school for poor Aboriginal children up in the Northern Territory. I thought that we should try to give them something that approximated our own education. It didn’t strike me until decades later that we could learn a huge amount from the First Australians — indeed, their relationship with and knowledge of the land is integral to our attempts to understand and try to navigate the world out of the disasterous consequences of climate change.

Joshua Harmon

Members of the Melbourne Theatre Company audience are very much a replica of the people this play is about: mainly white, well educated, middle class, with ‘progressive’ opinions. Indeed, in the play all of the actors are white — we never see the people of colour who are, we are told, a significant part of their lives.

Admission Manager’s Office

The setting for the play is Hillcrest, an elite, New Hampshire boarding school. The stage set shows a library of oak bookshelves holding 19th century tomes and the admissions manager’s office has solid antique furniture. In the first scene, a teacher is reprimanded by the admissions manager for producing a prospectus that ‘looks too white’ — she is trying to build up ‘diversity’, which means attracting more students of colour. But as the play progresses we come to realise that it is the ‘look’ that is important rather than the values.

Charlie argues with his parents

Everything blows up and truths seep out when a Hillcrest student of colour is accepted into Yale and the admissions manager’s son (who is white and got good grades) is not. Charlie, the son, brilliantly played by William McKenna, is initially put out by the news — in the usual rivalling way when a friend wins something and you don’t. But then he decides that he doesn’t want to go to a prestigious college and he wants the money his parents would have spent on his Yale education to go towards a scholarship so that some less privileged student can attend Hillcrest. His parents absolutely refuse. There is no way that they will accede or even listen to their son’s arguments. In a typical privileged way the mother starts to make enquiries and pull some strings totally against her son’s wishes. It is far more important to the parents that their son go to Yale than that a student of colour get a scholarship to Hillcrest.

William McKenna

Would I do the same thing if I had a son who didn’t get into Yale? I hope not — but I have a sneaking feeling that I might be torn towards such behaviour, or I might just offer some token donation to salve my conscience. Altogether a brilliant play.

Syzygy Ensemble: a concert of four world premières

I’ve written a post about the Syzygy Ensemble before, but that was back in March 2020, the last concert they gave before we plunged into the thick of Covid-19, lockdowns, and very little work for artists. How exciting to attend this concert two years later — to hear that their superb music-making is as good as ever inspite of the drought of performance opportunties, and to experience four world première performances, all composed since that concert of two years ago.

The concert was entitled ‘Revive’. As pianist Leigh Harrold says in his program notes, ‘We’ve been here before’. In other words, the ensemble has been trying/ hoping to put together a concert for some time and with so many set-backs — new strains of the virus, new regulations, there’d been a feeling of cynisism as to whether the concert would ever eventuate. Congratulations Syzygy — it was a memorable evening.

Zinia Chan

Recently I’ve been fascinated by writers and composers I’ve come across who draw their inspiration from the study of plants. In this case, in Weaving Threads, composer Zinia Chan draws parallels between the relationships of fungus and plants and the symbiotic nature of human relationships. Chan says, ‘I wanted to explore the current time and also the importance of human connection and to draw the comparison between the Mycorrhiza network and humans; how although trees are seemingly separated and distanced, they are in fact connected through a mass of thin threads, known as mycelium (fugus).’ Her music explored these connections. It had been commissioned for Melbourne Recital Centre by Jane Kunstler.

The piece that bowled me over for the evening was by Australian/ British composer Keyna Wilkins. The program notes told us that Keyna’s music is characterised by a fascination with astronomy, First Nations culture, jazz, dance forms and intuitive improvisation. Her piece, Virago(meaning female warrior), celebrates women leaders. Keyna had taken four contemporary leading women and short sound bites of their speeches were incorporated into the composition: Greta Thunberg ‘We will not let you get away with this…’,

Greta Thunberg

Grace Tame ‘Share your truth it is your power…’,

Grace Tame

Jacinda Ardern ‘It takes courage and strength to be empathetic and I’m very proudly an empathetically-driven leader…’

Jacinda Ardern

and Angela Merkel ‘Anything that seems to be set in stone or unalterable can, indeed, change…’ The music reflected the energy and wisdom of these words.

Angela Merkel

Another favourite for me was a piece that had been especially composed for Syzygy and commissioned by the Echo Commission, founding donor, Dr Rosalind Page. Composed by Anthony Moles, The Tower, celebrates Sydney’s inner west, in particular the Petersham Reservoir, which is an interesting structure where a kind of nested tower structure is built over the old, covered, reservoir of 1888. The tower also depicts a tarot card — a tower with no obvious entrance. There was vibrancy and energy in the music — strength in the face of adversity — destruction of the old and emergence of the new. The piece is written in memory of composer Louis Andriessen.

Anthony Moles

The final item by Cyrus Meurant was also a memorial, commissioned by writer and former ABC producer Mark Wakely for his dear friend Steven Alward. To me, the music was a little more conventional than the other items but was nevertheless a beautiful tribute, with inspiration from Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, each movement depicting the crossing of a sea: The light that glows on the sea waves — Love, Amduat — Loss and Our different worlds — Transformation.

Steven Alward
Cyrus Meurant


Dmitri Shostakovich

This concert was performed in the Adelaide Town Hall as a part of the Musica Viva program. Given the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the Shostakovich programming seemed highly appropriate. More poignant when the brilliant Russian pianist, Konstantin Shamray, gave a short opening speech saying that whereas some of his fellow countrymen were afraid to speak out against Putin, he was not.

Konstantin Shamray

The programming seemed appropriate to me because I associate Shostakovich with quiet, underlying rebellion. In 1934 he wrote an opera, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Despite early success, Lady Macbeth became the vehicle for a general denunciation of Shostakovich’s music  by the Communist Party in early 1936. After this, much of the music he wrote seems superficially celebratory – supposedly celebrating the great success of the Soviet government, but there is underlying discord. For me, this is the case with Shostakovich’s one piano quintet. The program notes state that this piece ‘lacks the autobiographical references and the touches of irony which can be identified in many of his other pieces’. I disagree. The third movement is a Scherzo – which suggests ‘playful’. But this is not entirely in joyful major chords – every-so-often it is slightly off key.  It is, in fact, one of my favourite pieces of music. The same happens in the energetic finale. It was wonderful to hear this executed by the Australian String Quartet and the fantastic technique of Konstantin Shamray. The program was rounded off with the Third Razumovsky Quartet of Beethoven.

Australian String Quartet

Le Coq d’Or

Composer Rimsky-Korsakov

The opera, The Golden Cockerel, was performed at the Adelaide Festival. The music is by Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908). It was directed by Barrie Kosky. How could anyone have known, when programming this opera, of the present situation in Ukraine? Rimsky-Korsakov wrote the opera during the 1905 Russo-Japanese war – it is a political satire about Tsar Nicholas II, who was deposed in 1917 and assassinated in 1918. Tsarist censors forbad performance until 1909, so Rimsky-Korsakov died without witnessing a performance of this work. And further irony – the part of the Tsar on this occasion in Adelaide was sung by Ukrainian Pavlo Hunka and other lead characters, such as the tsarina he falls in love with, are Russian.

The ineffective tsar goes off to war

The music reminded me of Scheherazade, with melodies wafting like those from one thousand and one nights – many beautiful woodwind themes. The libretto was inspired by a Pushkin tale. The main focus is a stupid old tsar, who falls in love with the tsarina of one of the countries he wants to conquer – she makes fun of his bumbling love-making.

The one set was stunning. It reminded me of the Sorrento surf beach – no sea but what seemed like sand dunes with tussock grass, a driftwood-like tree at the top of which perched the silvery golden cockerel who warns the tsar when his country is in danger. I’ve never before seen a performance of this opera, but I expect that the chorus of soldiers is usually outfitted in colourful military uniforms. In this case, the soldiers wore horseheads – all dark grey. There was little colour, and this was effective reminding us of a sombre side as the tsar made his foolish and ultimately abortive attempts to rule. I was surprised that over the two hours (without interval) the set didn’t change. But I guess there was no need for anything more than an oppressive backdrop.

Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan

I admit that I can remember when, 50 years ago, a homosexual university lecturer drowned when thrown into the River Torrens. No one has been convicted of this crime. It was whispered that he was on a notorious gay beat – I’m not even sure that we used the word ‘gay’ then. Now there is an oratorio commemorating this event. The music is by Australian composer Joe Twist and the libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas.

An oratorio rather than an opera is appropriate (quite apart from requiring less stage space). It provides a certain reverence and restraint – there’s some action, but also the Adelaide Chamber Singers who, in a subdued choir-like way sing: ‘The night’s offerings are of sweat and spit and cum’. In those days gay sex was illegal, all very hush hush. Dr Ian Duncan (he used the name Ian, not George) was a quiet, studious loner who had recently taken up a post at the Law School of the University of Adelaide. The curtain rises to an ingenious set with a foreground of water and a screen onto which are projected appropriate images – photographs of the scene and newspaper accounts. A Jesus-like man descends on a cable – crucified, I wonder?

Back in the 1970s, even the New Scotland Yard Report describes the incident as a ‘frolic’ gone wrong. And there’s some lyrics about whether or not ‘faggots’ can float. There seems to be absolutely no respect for queer love.

I left the Dunstan Theatre thinking, on the one hand, of how far we have come from those days of clandestine whisperings: Gay Pride, Gay Marriage, etc… and that Dr Duncan’s death – the death of an academic – at least motivated these developments. But then I was absolutely gutted to think of all those young men who drowned in the river in complete anonymity. As the lyrics say, only the river remembers their names.

My only reservation about this oratorio is that it is very localised. It has a message that is pretty much universal, but would it work in Melbourne or Sydney, let alone New York or London?

Leopoldstadt: A National Theatre film of the play by Tom Stoppard

Leopoldstadt is about a Jewish family in Vienna across six decades, it has been filmed live on stage in London’s West End.

Although he had always known he was Jewish, Stoppard found out only in the 1990s that he was ‘fully Jewish’ and that many of his Czech family had died in Nazi concentration camps. The play is not directly based on Stoppard’s family, but he says it’s his most personal play. In an interview with the director, Patrick Marber, Stoppard says that it felt like ‘unfinished business’.

Tom Stoppard

Stoppard’s mother died in 1996. The family had not talked about their history and Tom didn’t know what had happened to the family left behind in Czechoslovakia. In the early 1990s, with the fall of communism, he found out that all four of his grandparents had been Jewish and had died in TerezinAuschwitz and other concentration camps, along with three of his mother’s sisters.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Leopoldstadt was the old, crowded Jewish quarter of Vienna. But Hermann Merz, a factory owner and baptised Jew now married to a Catholic, has moved up in the world. In the play we see how history impacts on identity, from institutionalised antisemitism (professorships are slow to be awarded to Jews, those of Jewish origins cannot join the jockey club) to the outright terror of the Holocaust.


Rather than a play with a plot, this is a narrative of a Jewish family group in Vienna over the period 1900 to 1955. The main set is the drawing room of a well-to-do family. There are five acts, occurring in the years 1899, 1900, 1925, 1938 and 1955.

  • 1899 This is the family Christmas (complete with Christmas tree).
  • 1900 One of women takes an unrequited fancy to a cavalry officer whom she meets at tea with a family member. And that family member succeeds (secretly) in having an affair with the officer, subsequently producing a son.
  • 1925 Post-war conversations and circumcision celebrations (the mother vacillating between whether or not her infant son should be put through this rite – ultimately it is carried out).
  • 1938 The year of the Anschluss. The family’s home is requisitioned by the Nazis and the family must leave to be transported the following day, taking limited possessions.
  • 1955 Post war gathering, with a diminished cast, many having died in The Holocaust.

I had been unsure of how I would cope with this film of a play, having been put off by early (1950s) films of Shakespearean plays and films of opera where the camera is aimed fairly statically to the centre of the stage. A movie of The Magic Flute where these constraints are thrown aside (I think it was the one directed by Ingmar Bergman) proved to be an exception. For some reason that I find hard to articulate (Stoppard’s brilliance, probably) I feel that the filming of this play was superb. To have conceived this as a film where we might see the family in all appropriate contemporary trappings moving through the first half of the twentieth century would have had far less impact. We are with the (changing) family in their living room for over two hours, from the children’s excited preparations for Christmas in 1899 (the family’s liberal blending of Judaism and Christianity conveyed brilliantly when a young child places a star of David at the top of the Christmas tree), to the diminished gathering in 1955. When necessary we are reminded of significant events such as Kristallnacht with sound effects.

According to Stoppard the play ‘took a year to write, but the gestation was much longer. Quite a lot of it is personal to me, but I made it about a Viennese family so that it wouldn’t seem to be about me.’

Quo Vadis Aida?

I write this on the second day of the invasion of Ukraine by the Russians, described as potentially the worst European conflict since World War II. Quo Vadis Aida? dramatises the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995, the genocidal  killing of more than 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys in and around the town of Srebrenica, during the Bosnian War.

I must confess that my knowledge of the Bosnian-Serbian conflict in the mid-1990s is shamefully limited. Shamefully, now that I have seen the movie Quo Vadis Aida?, (brilliantly directed by Jasmila Žbanić ) and realise what horrendous slaughter was taking place then under labels such as ‘ethnic cleansing’.

Prior to the massacre, the United Nations had declared the enclave of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, a ‘safe area’ under UN protection. However, the UN failed to demilitarise the Bosnia-Herzegovinian Army within Srebrenica and were unable to prevent the town’s capture and the subsequent massacre. In the movie, the UN personnel are shown to be inadequate and powerless – some of them very young men in short trousers.

Aida is a Bosnian Muslim former school teacher, working as a translator for the Dutch-run peacekeeping mission in Srebrenica. The Muslim majority town is soon overrun by the Bosnian Serb army and people flee desperately to the UN safe zone – but there are scant resources and there isn’t room for everyone. Aida desperately tries to save her husband and sons who have not made it to safety. The UN facility is grossly under-resourced and the UN soldiers resorted, pathetically it seemed, to procedure. The Bosnian general (Ratko Mladić, later convicted of war crimes) demanded that the Srebenicans be bussed to ‘safety’: the men and women were separated, and my stomach churned as I was immediately taken back to WWII movies I’d seen of Jewish people being marched onto trains destined for concentration camps. In this case, the women survived but the men were shot and buried in unmarked graves – so reminiscent of the Nazi brutality.

At the end of the movie we see that, some years later, the Srebenican women were able to return to identify the bones of their loved ones. And, amazingly, Aida, having lost all of her family, returns to teaching and to the apartment where they lived – the wall clock still ticking as it had all those years ago.

Aida in her apartment

Millions were killed in the holocaust. Over 8,000 were killed in the Srebrenica massacre. Eight thousand too many. And as I write, there is war in Ukraine.

Seeing Earth: a Concert!

It’s really going to happen. After waiting almost two years because of Pandemic lockdowns, Stuart Greenbaum’s piece Seeing Earth, written for Ensemble Francaix — and commissioned by me — is to receive its world premiere performance tomorrow evening. The ‘live’ performance will take place in Melbourne’s Athenaeum Theatre but, if it’s too hard to get there (eg if you live in England) you can tune in through the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall:

I have mentioned Ensemble Francaix elsewhere on this blog: a fine Melbourne-based chamber trio: Emmanuel Cassimatis – Oboe, Matthew Kneale – Bassoon and Nicholas Young – Piano.

A couple of years ago I decided it was time for me to stop playing oboe. I had two fine instruments, which I would sell. But I wanted the money from the sale to go towards something musical — in a sense, for me, something in memory of my oboes. I love the combination of oboe, bassoon and piano and indeed I had enjoyed playing some of the limited number of compositions for this ensemble — notably by the composer Francaix and also Poulenc. How exciting it would be to add to this repertoire. I approached Ensemble Francaix and they suggested that we ask Stuart Greenbaum whether he would be interested writing a piece for the trio.

The result is Seeing Earth. Stuart Greenbaum is professor of music composition at the University of Melbourne and currently the Head of Composition at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. His work has been performed by both the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has written opera and choral music as well as instrumental. Some of his works suggest a fascination with space and the future. For example, his work 90 Minutes Circling the Earth was named Orchestral Work of the Year at the 2008 Classical Music Awards. Another work, The Year Without a Summer was toured nationally and internationally at the City of London Festival (2011).

The concert includes another world premiere performance: Panvino’s Gluttony for Solo Bassoon. Other works will be Borodin, arranged by Davies – In the Central Steppes of Asia, Britten, Pan from the Six Metamorphoses after Ovid for Solo Oboe and Johann Sebastian Bach – Allemande, Courante, Sarabande & Gigue from French Suite No. 5 in G Major, BWV 816 (1725) — I assume this will be played by Nicholas on piano.

Do tune in to Melbourne Digital Concert Hall if you possibly can. They are fine players. It will be a great concert.

Virginia Gay’s Cyrano

There have been many adaptations of the late 19th century play, Cyrano de Bergerac, including opera and many film versions But Virginia Gay has done something special.

In case, like me, you haven’t read the original play, here is a summary adapted from Wikipedia:

This is a very cut-down account of Cyrano de Bergerac, the original play written in 1897 by Edmond Rostand. There was a real Cyrano de Bergerac, and the play is a fictionalisation following the broad outlines of his life. The play has been translated and performed many times, and it is responsible for introducing the word “panache” into the English language. Cyrano (the character) is in fact famed for his panache, and he himself makes reference to “my panache” in the play. Hercule Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, a cadet (nobleman serving as a soldier) in the French Army, is a brash, strong-willed man of many talents. In addition to being a remarkable duelist, he is a gifted, joyful poet and is also a musical artist. However, he has an obnoxiously large nose, which causes him to doubt himself. This doubt prevents him from expressing his love for his distant cousin, the beautiful and intellectual Roxane, as he believes that his ugliness would prevent him the “dream of being loved by even an ugly woman.”

One day Roxane and Cyrano have the opportunity to talk privately as she bandages his hand (injured from a fracas at the Port de Nesle); she talks about a man with whom she has fallen in love. Cyrano thinks that she is talking about him at first, and is ecstatic, but Roxane describes her beloved as “handsome,” and tells him that she is in love with Christian de Neuvillette. Roxane fears for Christian’s safety so she asks Cyrano to befriend and protect him. This he agrees to do, which gives Christian the opportunity to confess to Cyrano his love for Roxane but his inability to woo because of his lack of intellect and wit. When Cyrano tells Christian that Roxane expects a letter from him, Christian is despondent, having no eloquence in such matters. Cyrano then offers his services, including his own unsigned letter to Roxane. Later, when Roxane and Cyrano meet up again, Roxane says that Christian’s letters have been breathtaking—he is more intellectual than even Cyrano, she declares. She also says that she loves Christian.

Later, during a meeting with Roxane, Christian makes a fool of himself trying to speak seductively to her. Roxane storms into her house, confused and angry. Thinking quickly, Cyrano makes Christian stand in front of Roxane’s balcony and speak to her while Cyrano stands under the balcony whispering to Christian what to say. Eventually, Cyrano shoves Christian aside and, under cover of darkness, pretends to be Christian, wooing Roxane himself. In the process, he wins a kiss for Christian.

Roxane tells Christian that, because of the letters, she has grown to love him for his soul alone, and would still love him even if he were ugly. Christian tells this to Cyrano, and then persuades Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth about the letters, saying he has to be loved for “the fool that he is” to be truly loved at all. But, before Cyrano can tell Roxane the truth, Christian is brought back to the camp, having been fatally shot.

Fifteen years later Roxane resides at a convent outside Paris, eternally mourning her beloved Christian. Roxane expects Cyrano to come by as he always has with news of the outside world. On this day, however, Cyrano has been mortally wounded by someone who dropped a huge log on his head from a tall building. Upon arriving to deliver his “gazette” to Roxane, knowing it will be his last, he asks Roxane if he can read “Christian’s” farewell letter. She gives it to him, and he reads it aloud as it grows dark. Listening to his voice, she realizes that it is Cyrano who was the author of all the letters, but Cyrano denies this to his death. While Cyrano grows delirious, his friends weep and Roxane tells him that she loves him. He combats various foes, half imaginary and half symbolic, conceding that he has lost all but one important thing – his panache – as he dies in his friends’ arms.

Gay wrote her Cyrano while suffering from COVID-19. She says, ‘It felt like somebody was trying to press my brain and eyes out of the front of my skull’.

I saw one of the few performances at the Melbourne Theatre Company before Melbourne went into the current lockdown. Because of the previous lockdown, rehearsals had been mainly by Zoom. There had been one dress rehearsal held the afternoon before we saw it and Gay, who, as well as having written the piece plays the role of Cyrano, warned us that things might go wrong. So far as I could tell, they didn’t.

Virginia Gay

The big difference in Gay’s adaptation of Cyrano is that in her piece, Cyrano is a woman. And the outstanding quality is that, as in the original, Cyrano is a wordsmith. In fact, although this was an acted, almost cabaret-like play, it was the words I wanted to see: the deft use of late Victorian poetry, reference to the near impossibility of trying to resolve the politics of the Middle East — I know that I missed a lot. In the original play there is mention of Roxane’s balcony. (I am spelling her name ‘Roxane’, as in the original play, although I think Gay may use ‘Roxanne’ — there was no program, so I couldn’t confirm.) I was drawn to thinking of Romeo and Juliet as the balcony was central to much of Gay’s Cyrano. The main reason I’d like to read the script is that I think I probably missed a lot of good things.

I guess that when you change the gender of a major character in a play there is a risk of being a bit precious about it. This was not the case. Changing the gender and also not having a false ugly nose (although reference is made to Cyrano’s large nose) meant that there could be more emphasis on Cyrano’s not feeling worthy of love. This came out clearly as what the play is about — not feeling worthy of being loved by anyone, which is apparently how a young gay person can feel growing up in a heterosexual world. Another important difference from the original Cyrano is that Roxane is much stronger and far more independent than her 19th century version — Gay’s Roxane is a woman of colour (Tuuli Narkle who plays Roxane is of Aboriginal descent) and university educated — she is an intellectual match to Cyrano.

Gay gives her play a happy ending — a ‘joy bomb’ — Cyrano and Roxane make love in a (quickly dragged onto the stage and unfolded) leafy bower. While Cyrano’s panache may have faltered while Roxane was in the arms of Yan (the equivalent of Christian), it has certainly returned by the end of the play.

I want to see this play again, but I realise that with lockdowns, I’m privileged to have seen it at all!

My Name is Gulpilil

This documentary of actor David Gulpilil is not so much about him; it is him. He narrates it and, one feels, is totally in control of it. The director, Molly Reynolds, has worked closely with him in a number of his movies. The career of this revered Indigenous Yolŋu actor spans 50 years and the story moves gently between present and past, the past being deftly inserted clips from Gulpilil’s many movie performances. Although he seems a fish out of water when he had to go to London (he’d barely been to Adelaide) after the success of Walkabout (1971) – he can joke about having to eat with a knife and fork.

Gulpilil’s present existence is that of a 60-something-year-old cancer sufferer and we see him having chemo (with Mary his friend and carer close by) and having radiotherapy. We see what an effort it is for him to walk to the post box each morning. I was interested at how this movie managed to show a kind of blending of Western medicine and Indigenous – to me, some of the diagrams of lungs shown were reminiscent of Indigenous paintings. But, as Gulpilil says, there is a difference – a difference which he manifests: Western medicine tries to beat the disease, but the Indigenous approach is one of acceptance and Gulpilil is going ‘back to country on a one-way ticket’.

Clearly, his days are numbered and I couldn’t help thinking that it is the Western lifestyle of movie-making that made him the drug addict and alcoholic that he admits to being. In a shot described by the Guardian reviewer as ‘Buñuelian’, Gulpilil is filmed from overhead, lying in a coffin with spools of film all around him as though they are sprouting from him – this is David Gulpilil.

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