Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Night to Remember

This week I had the great fortune of seeing the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Present. Directed by John Crowley, the ensemble cast included Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett, Chris Ryan, Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz, Marshall Napier, Susan Prior and many more.

Set in Russia in the mid 1990s - as evident in the fashion, music and dialogue -  Anna (Blanchett) has invited a gaggle of friends to her country house to celebrate her 40th birthday weekend. Among the partygoers are her adult stepson Sergei (Ryan), his new wife Sophia (McKenzie), disillusioned school teacher Mikhail (Roxburgh) and his wife Sasha (Prior), obnoxious doctor Nikolai (Schmitz) and his young girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford). Unknown at the outset, there are a number of past relationships, secret infatuations and unfulfilled desires among this group.

Anna is at a crossroads. Recently widowed by the death of "The General" she finds herself alone, at 40, with many debts. Consequently she has invited two wealthy older men to the party, Yegor (David Downer) and Alexei (Martin Jacobs) with the hopes of perhaps snaring one of them to secure her future.

From the moment Blanchett walked on stage it was clear that The Present was going to deliver a terrific evening of theatre. Over the next three hours the audience laughed aloud at the witty dialogue, absurd scenarios and drunken antics of the partygoers. I had not expected so much hilarity - the party scene alone was worth the price of admission.

Crowley's staging was brilliant allowing overlapping dialogues, and displaying the highs and lows of the gathering. The sets were clever and the music was perfect - The Clash's 'London Calling' and Haddaway's 'What is Love' among the highlights.

Andrew Upton has done something wonderful in adapting Anton Chekov's untitled play, commonly known as Platonov. He has made it feel fresh and contemporary, and very Australian despite it's Russian setting. The dialogue, peppered with slang and curse words, is sharp and savvy.

Blanchett and Roxburgh are definitely the drawcards and the do not disappoint. Roxburgh channels his Rake with Mikhail's womanising, drunken antics. Blanchett is incredible, delivering such a range of emotions, that it is hard to keep yours eyes off her. But both of them respect the ensemble nature of the play and allow the rest of the cast to showcase their talents.

The Sydney Theatre Company produce such great work and has been blessed to have Upton and Blanchett at the helm these past few years. They will be missed when the leave Australia later this year.

My review of the Sydney Theatre Company's Macbeth, starring Hugo Weaving is also on this blog.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Good as Gold

Joan London's The Golden Age (2014) is a beautiful gem of a novel. Set in 1954 in Peth, Western Australia, at a children's polio convalescent home, The Golden Age is the residence of infants and young children who are recuperating from their illness. Days are spent learning to walk again, attending to school lessons, and a lot of time lying in bed in the heat of Perth's summer.

At 13, Frank Gold is the oldest resident and doesn't quite belong. Transferred from the local hospital's Infectious Diseases Ward, his arrival at The Golden Age is beautifully described: "He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home" (p.2).

Frank is used to not fitting in. He and his family fled Hungary during the second World War and arrived in Perth. His parents Frank and Ida did not know what to make of the strange parochial outpost on the other side of the world and missed the charms and customs of their European home. But young Frank worked to fit in, catch up in school, and become increasingly Australian.

Frank is a poet and sees beauty and poetry in all things. He carries a prescription pad around in his pocket and as he wheels himself around the convalescent home he finds places to escape and moments to compose his verse. What inspires him most is Elsa, another resident, with whom he forms in intense relationship.

There are so many things I loved about this novel. London's writing style greatly reminds me of Alice Munro, my favourite short story writer. London writes in a mature voice with crisp, concise prose. Her words create a dreamy sense of nostalgia and are evocative of an earlier, simpler time.

Each chapter is almost like a short story. Through these vignettes she gives insight into the lives of nurse Sister Penny, Ida's experiences during the war, a trip with convalescing children to the sea. She captures moments in time and brings them together to create a marvellous whole.

I also loved how Australian this novel is. She depicts the landscape, the language and the culture of Australia in a way that made me want to send a copy of this book to all my Australian friends overseas.

My only quibble is with the imagery on the cover of this edition - a photo of a young man on a train. I thought perhaps this was supposed to be Frank, but he takes no train journey in this book so I don't get it. I should have asked Joan London about the cover when she signed my copy at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May. Oh well...

The Golden Age was deservedly shortlisted for numerous awards in 2015 including: The Stella Prize; The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction; The Literary Fiction Book of the Year; and, The Miles Franklin Award. It was joint winner of The NSW Premier's People's Choice Award.

Friday, 7 August 2015

In Cold Blood

On Friday 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik brought terror to Norway. He set off a bomb in the heart of Oslo's government sector before driving north, alongside the picturesque Tyrifjorden to Utoya Island, where he executed teenagers and staff at a labour youth camp. By the end of the summer's day he had murdered seventy-seven people and turned himself into the police.

In the aftermath there were many questions. Who was Anders Breivik? Was he a madman or a terrorist? Could this have been prevented? And above all, why did this happen? 

Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad set out to uncover the answers to these questions and documents her findings in her latest book One of Us - The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (2015). 

At the Sydney Writers' Festival in May 2015, I attended a session where Seierstad spoke about this book. When I met Seierstad afterwards at the book signing I told her that I was unsure whether or not I wanted to read this book. The subject matter is so uncomfortably horrible, and I didn't want to give any attention to Breivik. But Seierstad is such an impressive writer, I decided to give this book a read.

The first section of the book paints a picture of Breivik as a troubled child in a dysfunctional home. A loner, abandoned by his father, at home with a mother who did not know how to parent, Breivik becomes isolated. He tries but fails at many things - becoming a graffiti tagger, operating businesses (selling fake diplomas) and becoming a mason. He does not fit in anywhere and spends five years as an adult in his room playing video games. This section of the book was a bit slow for me, largely because I had heard Seierstad describe his history at the Writers' Festival. 

She then goes on to talk about Breivik's 1500 page manifesto on the Islamisation of Western Europe which he tried to send to thousands of email addresses on the morning of the terror campaign. Breivik was no writer, and his declaration is essentially a cut-and-paste of various blogs and websites he has prowled and quotes he has misused. He calls for an expulsion of immigrants in a rant against multiculturalism, feminism and the Labour party.

Seierstad at the Sydney Writers'
Festival in May 2015
The chapter titled 'Friday' describes the day of the terror in graphic detail. It is a compelling story of mayhem and innocence lost. It builds to a climax, almost like a mystery thriller, and is deeply emotional - feeling frustration at the bungling of the police, disbelief at the relentlessness of the attack, disgust that it is so easy to buy guns and bomb materials online, fear alongside the children running for their lives, dispair as the parents await news of their children's fate.  It is masterful writing and an extraordinary feat of journalism.

The court case and the sentencing follow (amazingly, he was sentenced for just 21 years). Breivik was found to be responsible for his crimes. He now resides in prison and complains about the poor conditions of his confinement. He never achieved the fame and glory he was seeking. Nor did he reverse multiculturalism through fear, but rather pulled the people of Norway together against hatred.

Reflections one year on from the survivors and the families who lost loved ones are heartbreaking. What I really appreciated was how Seierstad shifted the focus from the narcissistic Brevik to his victims. Meeting Bano Rashid, Simon Saebo, Anders Kristiansen, Viljar Hanssen and others throughout the book made a deep impression. So many young lives, with so much promise, now dead or wounded. Their families' loss is profound and unending. The message that resonated at the end of the book is one of community, belonging and resilience as a response to terror.

Meticulously researched, cleverly written, One of Us is a compelling book reminiscent of Truman Capote's classic In Cold Blood (1966).  I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in journalism as Seierstad delivers a masterclass in storytelling.