Saturday, April 28, 2007
As a genre, Science-fiction has contributed to the cinema in a host of, often, quite inspirational ways. It is a complex and demanding genre, especially given that it deals with a vast range of psychological aspects, all underwritten by the great wonder and fascination we have for the mysteries of The Universe that lie beyond our Earth-bound human comprehension. In order for it to succeed, it must plug into our imaginations and our curiosity, our belief and our hope. In this increasingly cynical day and age, it's a significant task.
Ultimately, like so much of the real dramatic and cinematic torque in the world of Science-fiction, it all comes down to Fear, Faith, Fate, and Trust ... great big emotional states and frames of mind which underpin the truly great work in the genre (think Scott, Kubrick, Lucas, Spielberg).
In Sunshine, the year is 2057 and the sun is dying. Earth's (and our) last hope lies with a spacecraft, Icarus II, and her crew of eight who are sent on a mission to deliver a nuclear device into the core of the sun which, when detonated, will re-ignite it.
In the accompanying propaganda, the film makers admit to having taken some creative licence in resolving the issues relating, particularly, to the science. It's an odd apology, especially given that the word that follows the word 'science' in the case of this particular genre is 'fiction'. Unlike most genres (with the possible exception of some Horror films), Science-fiction offers the film makers unrestricted parameters within (and without) which to challenge and delight our well-reasoned understanding of all that is possible. In skilled hands, our notions of impossibility are discarded ... and we enter a world where dreams make sense, objects float, time is immeasurable by Earth-bound reason and standards, doors open and close with a hiss, and the atmospheric pressure outside will crush you in nano-seconds. In the world of Science-fiction, an audience's desire for an indefatigable raft of creative possibilities is the currency. Sense and meaning are exchanged for adventure and vision. Reality ceases to matter. It is the single greatest attraction the genre offers, and it is the standard by which we measure its effectiveness.
The screenplay for Sunshine is by Alex Garland - a writer in whom I have a great deal of interest. His novel The Beach was a rip-snorting, popularist, page-turner. A Gen X Lord of the flies. I was a back-packer once, and Garland faithfully (and most entertainingly) drew on the spirit of this particular mode of exploration: no care, no responsibility ... "I'm only this young and this carefree once so I'm going to do whatever I fucking well want". We've all met them: noisy, brattish, rude, obstreperous and inconsiderate. His dissection of the cult of commune was equally razor-sharp, and his study of the politics of power and how it impacts on our primal instinct for joy, carelessness and irresponsibility in our lives was quite brilliantly observed.
His novel The Tesseract was a marvellous, if not especially memorable, read. Cryptic and obscure, it was an intense study in the 'something evil this way comes' narrative. The way Garland's striking force intersected, interrupted and divided the characters in his book was thrilling and inventive. He discarded chronology and went for a splintering of time and place which he admirably sustained. Sure, it stumbled occasionally, but it is a compelling work from a young writer determined to take risks. A loud and original voice - a British version of (his mentor) Brett Easton Ellis (American Psycho). It was only a matter of time before he ended up writing science-fiction.
Garland's great skill (albeit still in development) is his disregard for conventional narrative. His is an ode to the unknown ... the questions as opposed to the answers - and his script for Sunshine is at its best when he is true to form. It's when the film demands the answers that we end up in a place beyond repair - textually and cinematically. There are flashes of his brilliance, especially in the wordless apology scene which is certainly the script's highpoint, but the way in which the script disintegrates into derivation (play name the source), conceit (a cynical reference to Ridley Scott's Alien about twenty minutes before the film makes several doomed attempts to mimic it), a stereotypical body-count cliché (with none of the Horror genre's nerve-shattering tension), and a messy and needlessly chaotic denoument is ultimately disappointing.
Director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting with Irvine Welsh's novel adapted for the screen by John Hodge, The Beach for which Hodge adapted Garland's novel, and 28 days later for which Garland wrote the screenplay) provides the film with an skillfully assured pace but Boyle is not yet quite as adept at handling the dynamics of an ensemble as he is with the journeys of one or two key players. His camera is, at times, quite obtrusive - which only lends weight to the sense of almost pedestrian contrivance as opposed to the (un)natural order and consequence of events as they unravel. The majority of his points of view ultimately rest uneasily as mute observer, resulting in a chronic lack of engagement with the action. It's all happening and we're there ... it just doesn't mean anything.
The performances by a stellar cast of young over-achievers (including Rose Byrne, Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, and Jane Fonda's son Troy Garity), are similarly un(in)formed ... the over-riding sense being that they're going through their paces without a greater understanding of why. The roles (and the casting of them) owe a debt to Ridley Scott and Alien that is impossible to ignore. Apart from the fact that, early on, the ensemble appear in a 'dining room' identically lit from within the 'table' (as famously resolved by Alien's Cinematographer Derek Vanlint and Director Ridley Scott), the concept of ordinary people doing extraordinary tasks served Alien in ways that Boyle and his cast and crew can only try and hope to emulate. Byrnes' 'Cassie' is no Ripley, that's for sure ... and from that point onward, the casting and playing, almost inevitably, falter.
Production Designer Mark Tildesley (The Constant Gardener) delivers a stunning design for the spacecraft - the highlight of the film. Devotees of the genre will be captivated by the craft's design concept and will find the way the first ten minutes of the film unfolds quite mesmerising. Cinematographer Alwin H Kuchler (One day in September) has a ball with the exposure to life-threatening light (heat) and life-saving shade (cool) inherent in our crew's proximity to the sun.
The editing, by Chris Gill (28 days later), keeps the film moving briskly and really only suffers as a result of structural weak points in the action (which I am unable to write about in any detail here because they will reveal the plot). The original music (Karl Hyde, John Murphy and Rick Smith) is instantly forgettable.
Interestingly, having been released in the UK and Oceania, the film is not due for release in North America until September this year - presumably to ensure it qualifies for Academy Award® consideration. I am looking forward to the project where Boyle and Garland unite - true to their distinctive and unique forms and gifts.
Sunshine isn't it.
Sunshine is in general release.
Director Danny Boyle; Screenplay Alex Garland; Cast Hiroyuki Sanada, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Troy Garity, Mark Strong and Cillian Murphy, Cliff Curtis; Co-producer Bernard Bellew; Producer Andrew Macdonald; Original Music by: Karl Hyde, John Murphy, Rick Smith; Cinematography by Alwin H Kuchler; Film Editing by Chris Gill; Casting by Donna Isaacson, Gail Stevens; Production Design by Mark Tildesley; Art Direction by Gary Freeman, Stephen Morahan. Denis Schnegg and David Warren (Senior Art Director); Distributed by 20th Century Fox.
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
I started this blog to serve me in my relentless pursuit of distraction ... a record of all of those hours spent clicking, Googling, oggling, surfing, reading ... and then, almost overnight, I was plunged back into the darkest recesses of the haunted house in which my memories of my time on the planet (so far) dwell.
I stopped writing because I had nothing to say. A large part of me still believes that. Plays are nasty bastards. One or two of mine have fallen onto the page almost effortlessly, where the penultimate challenge was keeping up with the conversations my characters were having with each other in my head. Others have simply stopped stone cold dead. Too complex. Too boring. Too much like something - and everything - else.
Simply too much.
They say that the hardest part about writing is the re-writing. And whoever "they" happen to be, are right. But a boy's gotta do what a boy's gotta do ... so I'm going to take a leave of absence from my beloved blog and get back to a script I abandonded late last year. I think it has potential. And I am grateful to the discipline of this funny little blog of mine ... and to my band of readers who have made all the difference to how confident I feel about opening up the Word file and trying again.
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
There are several times of the year when I am utterly embarrassed and ashamed to be Gay ... and right up there at the top of the list is Anzac Day.
I've actually never identified with "Gay" as a label. When people ask me if I am "Gay", I always tell them that I am not: I am Homosexual. They protest, like most ignorant people, about there not really being a difference. "There certainly is!" I usually sneer, before falling back on the old "There's nothing gay about being a homosexual" quote ... and besides, I prefer Poof to Gay ... and Faggot above all else.
After all, it's my misery ... and I'm entitled to identify with it and call it whatever I fucking well like.
Every year on Anzac Day, some blindly opportunistic promoter or two will seize the, well, opportunity, to promote a "Gay Dance Party" on, yes, you guessed it, a military theme. Like sex in public toilets, it is one event on the otherwise glittering and character-building "Gay" calendar that is bound to lose the "Gay Community" friends. And respect.
I, for one, always hang my head in shame.
As a pacifist and the child of a generation who lost too many throughout the years of conflict, I find the rituals surrounding the remembrance of our war dead a little complex to even pretend to understand. I've never been up in time to attend a Dawn Service. I don't buy the stick-pins, but I have been known to pin the odd poppy on my lapel. One of the many unfinished plays of mine is one about the Second World War. I spent many years researching, but when it came time to write the play, I realised that I needed to find a way to reach a greater understanding about what we lost in the process ... or perhaps what we gained. All that I had in its place was purple prose and borrowed observation.
War was always a 'male thing' when I was growing up. Men, men, men ... so many men. Brothers, Fathers, Sons ... and it wasn't until I met Greta, who had been a Driver for the Australian Defence Forces in Singapore that I was introduced to something other than my, previously, naively considered total sum of the catastrophe. Greta urged me to read about the stories that were told from the female perspective ... so I did. It fried my brain.
This year, there is a dance party somewhere in Sydney. I saw the full page ad in a "gay newspaper". Front, centre in the foreground is a muscled, shirtless stud in his camouflage pants - his jocks strategically peeking out over the top of his waste, sorry, waistband. Around his neck are the standard gay fantasia "Dog Tags". His smug, self-satisfied "Come fuck me/be fucked by me ... no, not you fatty" eyes, peering down at us. Behind him, in the distance, the whirring helicopters. And the sunset. The promise of a new day ... off. The drugs ... the pecs ... the muscles ... the abs ... the booze ... and the sex. Oh, yes! With him. Be my fuck-pig! Grunting, sleazy, stinking, sweaty, cum-soaked sex.
Call me old-fashioned, but I find it impossible to reconcile the great sense of loss and epic tragedy that are these wars and their dead we remember tomorrow, with this base, unacceptable and entirely disrespectful display of narcissistic, soul-less, cock-obsessed and ultimately meaningless pursuit.
I wonder if these people have any idea of what "Dog Tags" were/are used for, once the wearer of them had/has been killed. Now that's a dance party ticket seller of a snapshot if ever there was one! Or just how well a dance party might sell with an image I have firmly imbedded in my mind from a particular memoir I read: the soldiers who found a group of about six Australian nurses on a beach somewhere in Asia-Pacific who had been gunned down on the spot, and whose breasts had been severed and placed strategically on their heads, where their eyes had been.
Monday, April 23, 2007
Melbourne? Sydney? Melbourne? Sydney? Melbourne? Sydney? Melbourne? Sydney?
I have a dilemma. I've just returned from a(nother) weekend in Melbourne where, among other things, I went in search of a new client or two for my communications company. The good news is, I found some. The bad news is, I really need to be Melbourne-based to fully capitalise on the potential they represent. Or is that "good" news?
I missed my blog for two whole days! I made a promise to myself to write something every day, but the business and social demands of a quick trip 'home' prevented me from giving it the attention it deserves. And now I have a choice to make: Melbourne or Sydney?
Anyway, the cute boy jogging in his Speedos is - surprise, surprise - Nick dal Santo from my beloved St Kilda Football Club ... and after Round 4, I'm equal twenty-fifth on gayfooty.com.au's Tipping Competition!
Friday, April 20, 2007
The new end
The thing about about abuse of any kind - emotional, physical, psychological, verbal, sexual - is that it stiffles and retards growth and development. On both sides of the act. The act of critical review is essentially no different. Whether they shove their hand down your pants and express like - or dislike - for what they feel, they've still shoved their hand down your pants. In life, it can be many things: rude, pleasureable, invasive, arousing, invited, uninvited, unexpected and a catalyst for many many things.
In the Theatre, it's the same. Ultimately though, it depends entirely on whose hand it is and how much you enjoy it down there. And where it leads ... and how soon after the initial mystery of the exchange, the mutual respect and consideration is lost to selfishness and greed. Savagery. The primal instinct for conquest. The hunger and appetite of the abuser at the expense of the curious consent of the person who might have continued to let them get off on the privacy of their desire.
In reflection, the saddest aspect of this entire journey for me was that yes, I did care about what the reviewers in London had said. Too much? At 25 years old, with your hand down your own pants and on the edge of the rest of your life, just how are you expected to comprehend, let alone know how to maintain and sustain that magical thing called "perspective"? ... not to mention know how to measure - precisely - what is "too much" of anything? It's futile ... pointless ... not unlike trying to measure what is "too long". Admirable sentiments I am sure, but the power of Perspective (not unlike the power of Denial) is not something that belongs in the domain of the young and adventurous. They come later. Like Regret.
Melodrama is drama without truth. And truth is that rare and fleeting almost instinctive breath of a moment in the theatre that is utterly and entirely impossible to capture. But it does exist. It's just very, very difficult to manufacture. You find it ... sometimes where you least expect it. It will sometimes chose to reveal itself in the perfect measure of time and place. But more often than not, it will elude you ... as was the case with many, if not most, of the performances of Tunnels without end I sat through in London.
You strive for it but it constantly eludes you. And the times in the theatre where truth has revealed itself, even fleetingly, remain my most memorable. I understand that now. And I seek it in everything I do.
Ireland's Brian Friel is my Master. William Shakespeare is too ... some of the time. So is Christopher Marlowe - all of the time. Arthur Miller most certainly delved deeply and often for the truth, but the truth of his writing was ultimately sabotaged by the truth of his significance to the lives of others and the turbulent times in which he lived. You need to look harder to find it in his writing. But it is there, especially in All My Sons - a magnificent, monster of play. And Timebends, his utterly compelling autobiography. Alan Bennett betrays truth with circumstance and his finely pleated structure. His becomes a convenient truth and he makes me uneasy. He is the very Englishness of contemporary English dramatists. Right up there with Alan Aychbourn. Aychbourn's truth is entirely of his own making which, in my mind, is akin to admitting that you'll never expect or allow it to appear in the work ... that it shall remain forever ellusive. It's a dangerous claim to stake ... because Theatre without Truth - or at the very least the eternal hope for its appearance - is Dead Theatre.
Tom Stoppard, a writer to whom I would be compared in a London review, is far too clever to be obviously seen to be truth-spotting.
Because we imagine it has. Something this cleverly written and structured has to eventually reveal truth in one form or another.
I have tried many ways to deal with the what Alistair McCauley took from me. I have accepted - and resolved - my responsibility for it. I revisited the script, rewrote it, and staged a production of it in Melbourne which was fantastic. I learned. I developed. I changed. And I am grateful for the lessons.
Today I understand and accept that Alistair McCauley is - essentially - a thief. I often read his reviews (I read one today) and marvel at how he consistently uses the creative energy of others to write - essentially - about hate. And I still marvel at just how much hate he is truly - no, truth-fully - capable of. How bitter and miserable must he be, recognising how incapable he is of taking the kind of creative risks he is forced to endure in the dark with the less hate-filled. He mistakes fleeting Truth for wit, observation and cleverness. His. At least the blood of mine he spilled that day on The Green was bright red. Not black, toxic, poisoned, and oxygen-less - like his. I have gone on to make a great deal more theatre. He has, quite obviously, not gone on. I relish that fact.
Every act of critical review is like a kabob. There's onion, red capsicum, lamb, green capsicum, tomato and you. Having written an inestimable number of reviews since, I know a truth about McCauley - and myself - I wish more than anything I'd known on my knees on the grass in the middle of The Green all those years ago. Because everything that occured after it would have been different. I would have ensured that the responses to him were entirely different. I would not have allowed him to castrate me in the way I allowed him to then. I would not have allowed him to punish me for daring in quite the same way as I did then. I would, instead, have responded with the full strength and weight of my passion, and courage, and the sheer unbridled determination that had placed my magnificent attempt at his feet in the first place. All the saved-up-for way from Glen Waverley, Australia. In short, I would have cut off his fondling fingers - and the hand they were attached to.
His was a position of great privilege to that point in my life that we shared and I will hate - and I really mean Hate - him and his like forever for not deciding, instead, to find what there was to admire about my sprawling passionate ode to Fate and despair - as opposed to finding what there was to hate about both himself and me, as he gazed at his ugly and twisted reflection in the cracked mirror I was holding up to his face.
My solace, if you like, is to know that at the end of my life, I will at least have imagined what was possible. McCauley, and his like, will only be able to look back at how much they truly were beneath it ... and how, ultimately worthlessly, they instead, take anothers' creativity, passion and ability prisoner - captive in their own unenviable, lonely and creation-less cell of complete theatrical and literary insignificance.
They signify only The Reactionary my insightful and quite brilliant Mother dared to hope I would not become. I understand her fear of that happening for me in its entirety now: 'Where," she was asking "is the courage and originality in that?"
And it makes the act of making uncompromising theatre again in my life almost compulsory.
My journey through the memory of this life-altering experience abroad has been immensely painful. That much is probably obvious. What is perhaps not quite so obvious is the way I feel today, right now, about where the rest of my life will take me. And I will close this final chapter of a most remarkable reminiscence with this exchange which somehow, quite magically, The Universe delivered to me late last night.
It is an edited transcript from the ABC Radio's PM program in 2005 - and the interviewee, Michael Billington, is a reviewer for London's The Guardian newspaper.
MICHAEL BILLINGTON: I suppose what makes Pinter interesting as a writer and as a man, is that the plays themselves defy analysis. You can offer an interpretation, but you can never quite fully say what The Homecoming is about, what No Man's Land is about, what Landscape is about. I think that's partly what makes Pinter interesting and what links him with the great dramatists of the past – that there is a quality in his plays that is beyond rational explanation. And one of my colleagues ... I think brilliantly said, part of the pleasure of watching a Pinter play is not fully understanding what it is about.
Really, Mr Billington? Well touché.
And the "colleague" in question? Here, and I hope this will give you as great a thrilling and gut-busting laugh as it did me, is the unedited version:
MICHAEL BILLINGTON: ... And one of my colleagues, Alistair McCauley, I think brilliantly said, part of the pleasure of watching a Pinter play is not fully understanding what it is about.
If "brilliance" is defined by "not fully understanding" then I feel terribly sad and sorry for both you and your colleague. And terribly proud of myself and the literally hundreds of people who came to my play in London and loved and understood it - in spite of him.
Thank you, Masters of Nothing ... and fuck you!
Thursday, April 19, 2007
Tunnels without end was a disaster. That much was obvious. A couple of the actors, who had been taken by complete surprise by the savagery of the attack, responded accordingly and began acting it as though it were some embarrassingly hideous C-grade drama. There was constant talk of it closing, but Sonia was maintaining the last semblance of her belief in herself, it, and me by keeping it running.
One night, Robert (Piotr) hit Billy (who was playing Valsa, one the maestro's lovers) and almost fractured his jaw. (Undisciplined actors in this particular play of mine would become synonymous with productions of it. In the Melbourne production, Nicholas, who was playing Piotr, would be hospitalised during a performance after a wayward punch to the side of his head from Josephine, the actress playing Sasha, his sister. Discuss.) Billy was refusing to go back on and had demanded that I be summoned to the theatre by management. I raced to the theatre and Billy and I sat in his dressing room while the interval was extended from twenty to almost 45 minutes. Thank God that The Tube runs 24 hours I can remember thinking. This poor audience aren't going to be out until well after midnight!
One night, when I actually happened to be in the audience, the sound system blew up about five minutes into the performance. "Bring it on!" I think I shouted aloud to the three other people that were there. The performance continued and I watched, in complete wonder and every-increasing astonishment, as a pair of impossibly small speakers were lowered from the bio-box window at the top of the right-hand side wall of the stage. They were slowly lowered only when people would have been looking at the opposite side of the stage. I know this, because I couldn't take my eyes off them! And the music duly returned. At interval, I learned that the Assistant Stage Manager had taken over calling the show while Helen had raced outside and up the road a little to rip the stereo system out of her car! The speakers that were being lowered to just above the heads of the actors were the ones from her fucking car! Bless her precious and inspirational heart!
Sadly, we had to let the ASM go. Not only couldn't the production afford him anymore, but he got the offer of another job in another show. I remember him trying to justify his departure to me. He needn't have bothered. The part of me that truly cared about everything that could possibly still happen had departed this production a long time ago.
One matinee afternoon, there was an audience of one (a disturbing fact that would also become synonymous with future productions of this play of mine. In fact, it is so synonymous with this play that I hope it happens again - and fully expect it to - in Sydney next year. I will actually be very disappointed if it doesn't). This charming man was on his way home to New York and he had read about Tunnels without end in the London Theatre Guide and thought he might like to see it. I walked in to the foyer while the staff were informing him that, given that he was the only audience member, the performance might not be going ahead ... and would he mind waiting to see if anyone else turned up. The Union's ruling was (and still is I understand) that if there were more people in the cast than in the audience, then by default, the performance could be cancelled.
The actors were ready. Our audience was ready. The bar was ready. Where was the problem? I asked the cast if they would agree to perform for two - the charming man and me - if he was prepared to become an audience of one. He confirmed that he was. I jokingly made him promise not to walk out (which is ironic really, because that's precisely what would happen in Melbourne.) We sat next to each other and the performance was fantastic ... and our audience member loved it. He cried at the end and apologised for having to rush off to the airport to catch his flight home.
A few nights later, I was at an open air Luciano Pavarotti concert with my friends from the Royal Opera. (We were seated in the row behind Princess Diana.) The concert was fantastic and when it ended, my friends suggested we head to the New End Theatre and have a drink with the actors. The axe was about to fall, and I should stop by and begin preparing myself to finally farewell the theatre which had become my home for the most amazing number of weeks of my life. How soon would it be, they joked, affectionately, before I could again take my friends to a theatre in London where a play of mine was being staged?
It was a wonderful suggestion and we piled into a cab. I immediately knew something was up the second we turned into New End. There wasn't a carspace to be seen. I joked to my friend Ian (who was the Royal Opera's Marketing Manager), that maybe they'd closed Tunnels ... without telling me and put something else on in its place. Our cab dropped us at the front door, and as I marched up to it, it opened from the inside. The front of house manager beamed at me.
"Where have you been all day and all night!" she screamed.
I saw Sonia appear behind her and I was dragged into the foyer. The doors into the auditorium opened and people - not person - slowly started to leave the theatre. Five ... ten ... surely that's got to be it! ... twenty ... thirty. I looked at Sonia who had her hands to her mouth. I felt Ian's hand on my shoulder. Forty ... fifty ... sixty ... I didn't know where to look.
My audience were shattered and many were wiping away tears. Some looked as though they'd just been bored out of their brain, but most of them looked as though they'd seen something. Sonia took my hand and dragged me up the stairs to the bar.
"I've been leaving messages for you at home all day and all night! Where have you been?"
She didn't wait for an answer before placing a large newspaper clipping in one of my hands and a glass of champagne in the other. With my friends peering over my shoulder, I read something I barely recognised: our first good review. Not a great review, but a positive one all the same. Sure, the "destination of the journey" was "a little vague" ... but the drama was "Magnetic!" Magnetic! ... and the costumes were "stunning!"
The review had come out in one of the local Hampstead newspapers and apparently, the reviewer - a woman - was notorious for determining the success or the failure of productions in the local area: and "the journey" with Tunnels ... was, apparently for her, "certainly worth it!" The bar slowly filled up with people who toasted me and applauded. My friends hugged me and, as the actors got news that I was in the house, they too came up and celebrated. It is Helen's hug I will remember as long as I live. It said "This is actually what you deserve! This is what we all fucking deserve!"
And Tunnels without end played to almost capacity audiences for the rest of his run home. I know, because every night, I would stand outside and watch - in complete wonder and with great pride - the audiences pour out of the theatre. The conversations at the bar were epic, intense and incredibly rewarding for me - as they often are when you are among friends.
One day shortly before the end of the run, Sonia called me and told me to come to the theatre. Something else quite amazing had just happened.
I dashed to the theatre and raced up to her office. She handed me a fax: a request for fifteen tickets. The 'charming' man who had dropped by and watched the play on his own was bringing fourteen of his friends all the way from New York for the closing night performance. Not only had this never occurred at the New End Theatre before, but this booking for fifteen plus the bookings already made on the day - in person and on the telephone - meant that I had broken the New End Theatre's record for the most number of tickets sold in one day!
My dribbling, snotty-nosed little spastic had found his home ... and, more importantly, his audience.
The final performance was one I can barely remember. I knew it would be over and a great part of me desperately wanted it to be. Still. And as it came to its conclusion, I felt more overwhelmed than I had ever felt before ... and possibly since. As the actors came out onto the stage for the first time to take their final bows, fifteen people stood up and threw red roses onto the stage. I was actually quite unsentimental about the occasion until I saw Michaela in tears. She bent over and collected a rose and held it up, high in the air and looked at me like I have never been looked at in the theatre since. Everyone but me was on their feet. I couldn't stand up.
I managed one final look at the image that I had created on stage and buried my head in my hands.
It was the first time since I had left my beautiful dog Kimberley with my friends in Australia all those months ago that I had actually been able to cry.
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
The telephone at home started ringing uncommonly early. It woke me, but - as Fate would have it - not in time to answer it. I threw on some clothes and raced out the door to the newsagent. I knew there would be at least one review this morning. A dash through the park and then across The Green, one of those quaint little parks and gardens that try, valiantly, to save London from turning in on, and suffocating, herself.
The fatigue of the weeks beforehand had coloured the production a rather pleasing rich shade of chocolate-pink grey - almost as though it was happening in spite of everyone associated with it. And the bookings were strong. I had had many glorious conversations with members of the audience, some of whom had once sat with me at the bar until sunrise.
Later today there was also to be a meeting at the theatre with a couple of Producers who wanted to mount a touring production of it. A Number One Touring Company - whatever that meant. In the meantime, my heart, my ambition and I rushed to confirm that we were a success. I grabbed copies of all the morning newspapers (no mean feat in London) and started my return, bubbling with nerves and anticipation, to the house. My landlady (and great friend), Annie, would have the coffee going and together, we would pour over the reviews: "An important new voice in the theatre ... " ... "Brilliant! Stunning!" ... "Don't miss this amazing production before it transfers - as it inevitably will - to the West End!"
I am halfway across The Green. A review! The Financial Times! A quarter trademark pale orange page, right across the bottom! "Wow! Geoffrey! Look at you!" I scream, guiltily and silently, to myself ... "look at all that space they've dedicated to a review of my ... "
"Poor Tchaikovsky! His life was sad enough and one would have liked to spared him some of the rubbish that has been made of it since - of which Ken Russell's The Music Lovers and this play, are, alas, prime examples."
It is like someone has suddenly removed both my legs. I can't feel them ... and I drop to the ground like a wing-less bird. Hard. Thud. I try and keep a hold of all of my newspapers but they slide from my arms onto the damp grass around me. I grapple with The Financial Times and read the opening paragraph again ... and again ... and again. To be sure it actually says what I have just read. My heart is beating so impossibly fast. There must be some terrible mistake!
There is ... and apparently it's me.
The review is by Alistair McCauley and his review is as painful to imagine as it is to read. He slices the actors, my play, my production, my dialogue, my direction, my ambition and my imagination - my everything and my all.
My mind flashes back to many years earlier. I was working as a stock controller for an abbatoir when 'the boys' thought it might be fun to take me on a tour of the slaughterhouse. I remember watching, helplessly mute, as a wide-eyed and terrified bull was clamped into place on his muddy death row. Seconds later, the bull-bolt penetrates one side of his quivering head and appears out the other side. How do you describe that look on his face? The bull-bolt retracts, and with an unbearable shudder, the beast crumples to its knees. Staring balefully. Twitching. Its jaw hits the ground. And eventually dead.
There is no way for the heart and soul of an artist to know how to respond to the slaughter of everything they imagined they were. It is a complete annihilation of everything I have held so near and dear to my heart for months. And everything that was to be my future. McCauley ridicules the emotion and relentlessly eye-gouges every aspect of the thing I have dared to put before him. He picks "particularly awful" lines of dialogue with which to misquote me. I can't sort out the array of nauseous reaction I am having. It's like a fatal internal hard-disk error. Irretrievable. My memory is erased and I only have this damning evidence of my complete and utter worthlessness as a risk-taking creative being. (People often ask me why I don't get a chest x-ray. It's actually quite simple. I've already had the worst news of my life.) Here, on my knees, pathetically surrounded by my newspapers and fighting to contain a sound I don't recognise - my creative being has been hacked to bloodless pieces. And I am not actually sure how I am going to survive my reaction to it.
Of course! I'm not supposed to.
I don't see Annie running across The Green toward me. She has answered the telephone to someone from the theatre telling her to keep me away from the newspapers. It's been a wholesale slaughter of the highest order and they're concerned about the effect it will have on me. She has jumped in her car and driven around toward the newsagent to find me.
I choke on my breath as Annie drops to the ground beside me, collecting my newspapers and encouraging me to stand up.
There's nothing to say and there's no way to say it.
I am suddenly a long way from home. I think of my Mother and Father in Glen Waverley and how shattered and sad they will be. I think of my Sister who will be equally as embarrassed by - and a little for - me. I think of the actors and the sudden and unexpected shock of realisation that they were right all along not to trust me entirely. I think of the script, and the actual versions of the lines misquoted by McCauley - wishing I had not given up on my right to cut them from the script while the actors still had time to adjust and re-learn. Fuck their precious Egos! Look where it got them! Fuck them! Look where it got me! I thought of Sonia and her dreams and expectations for this marvellous play and the wonderfully talented fucked-up dreamer of a boy who had written it. She had plucked him from obscurity for their crazy mad dash onto a mainstage in the Theatre Capital of the English Speaking World.
The shame and the horror of it changed me forever in a split second.
Over the coming days the bad reviews continued to appear. Shockers. I can't quote them. I don't have them anymore. Once, not that many years ago, I burnt them all. Including McCauley's (which is actually quoted from memory here). They were like seeping, angry herpes blisters: every time I caught sight of them, all the fun had to stop.
Tunnels ... limped along. The Number One Touring Company, which ended up being the consolation prize to a West End transfer, never eventuated. At the meeting later that day, they informed me that they wanted me to write two characters out of the script. I responded with "Which two? Tchaikovsky and ... ?" I was merciless. They were fools. There was no other way I could even begin to defend myself from the events of the morning. As far as they were concerned I was no longer the boy with the goose that laid the golden eggs tucked under my arm. Instead, I had somehow miraculously morphed into the parent of a dribbling, snotty-nosed, spastic baby - who was desperately trying to find it a good home. But I have always believed in life after death, and I scoffed at their ridiculous suggestion. Sonia was finally convinced I was utterly mad.
The box office telephone stopped ringing ... almost overnight. A Jewish critic in a Jewish magazine loaded the final bullet into the chamber by referring to the play as "... roast pig's ear ..." - which, when you think about it, is actually quite astonishing in its brutality. People stopped turning up to collect their tickets. The length of the play did, in fact, come back to haunt me - with one critic writing something along the lines of: " ... never mind the tunnels, this terrible piece of theatre is positively interminable!" Or something witty and droll like that.
Regardless, they had achieved their end. The public and private humiliation of me and my beloved, spastic child, was complete. And I was grateful for the silence in my life.
It is impossible to know how to behave in these circumstances. People suddenly stop acknowledging your existence. For my front of house friends, I metamorphisised from someone who had single-handedly guaranteed their rent for weeks, maybe months, into someone who had just kicked a puppy to death on the footpath out the front. Sonia is suddenly, not so sure. She knows we share the responsibility for the crime - but it's quite obviously proving a little too complicated for her to resolve her guilt by association. Box office staff are instantly laid off - I know, because I watch them gather their belongings and leave.
It was like the award winning Child Care Centre I had left my child at had suddenly burned to the ground - and I was the parent of the only child inside who hadn't managed to get out. Everywhere I turned, there was nothing but suspicion, shame, embarrassment and resentment. I wanted - and needed - to defend my play but I needed people around me who believed it was worth defending. None of those people were here. Anywhere. I had been tipped upside down and exposed as a fraud. A cheat. I had coloured their worlds with great hope, passion and inspiration, only to now be the cause of their creative poverty and actual penury. And it had all come as a complete surprise. We were in shock ... not the shock of a somewhat high telephone bill, but the heart-stopping shock of someone facing what they innately recognise as their impending, and instant, demise.
There was really only one thing to do. I left the theatre and decided, in spite of the distance and myself, to walk somewhere ... anywhere ... home. I had been introduced to the concept of Damage Control.
And as suddenly as it had ended, several quite extraordinary things happened. Unexpected miracles which, to this very day - somewhat astonishingly - make me grateful I dared.
There was, after all, still one more New End Theatre record to smash.
Image: The park near my home in Ealing, London.
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
How should a boy from Bairnsdale feel about the fact that his play is opening in London? And what should he spend the day doing? He can't go to the theatre because they are painting the entire inside of it black. By lunchtime, the paint will be drying and the dry-cleaned costumes will arrive shortly thereafter. Cleaners will be going through the place from top to bottom. Instead, he messes around at home and fields phone calls from Australia and from all his friends in London. He will get to the theatre in time for a drink or two and sit down with Sonia to go through his schedule of formalities, including a brief meet and greet with some local dignitaries, the West End producers and a couple of directors from the RSC.
I had been 'seeing' a wonderful boy - whose name escapes me completely. He worked for some kind of impossibly secret service agency in the United States. The first time we had a dinner party at his place, there were five of us. I was the star, of course, and I held court with due aplomb. I was still a very different person then. I had performed in musicals and plays all over London. I had sung Sondheim for Sondheim. I had trained as an actor, writer and director there and had visited Mel Gibson on the set of the film version of Hamlet he was making somewhere or other. I had flown in more jump-seats than I care to remember (including one especially memorable and delightful experience with Aer Lingus, which I will write about in more detail another time). I had spent a week in Luxembourg wandering about, wide-eyed, in the Ardennes. I had flown to Paris for dinner.
Life was grand. Impossibly.
My boy always offered our guests a wonderful cocktail at the end of the evening. It was called a "Security Leak" ... and within minutes of consuming it, you would be unconscious wherever it was you were sitting ... or reclining. Nothing, and no-one, else has ever managed to stop me mid-sentence. Except Alistair McCauley. But we'll deal with him shortly. And when you woke up, some half an hour later, you would be unable to remember a single thing about the entire night. He and another friend of ours - a colleague of his - were to be my guests at Opening Night.
I don't recall much about the day at all. My mind was totally preoccupied with the night ahead. There were still a couple of flat sections in the performance ... and an especially messy transition into the final scene in Act One. But the music took over. Tchaikovsky was my fallback. How could I fail?
The theatre foyer and office was full to bursting with flowers and cards. The bar was being stocked and I collided with the caterers who were delivering the Opening Night Finger Food. Sonia was buzzing. She looked gorgeous! She had mirrored my blanket enthusiam and love for this difficult child of mine from the start. I had sent it to her as soon as it was finished. To the best of my knowledge, there were two 'transfer' theatres in London: The Hampstead Theatre and The New End. Fatefully, I picked hers.
Sonia had rung me some days after receiving it and told me she thought it an amazing script ... but that her theatre was full until the end of the year. There were weeks of pre-Edinburgh try-outs and something else was currently limping toward the finishing line. I thanked her for liking it and we wished each other 'all the best'.
My problems actually all stem from one simple fact: I had never really expected anything to come of this play. I had written it in three days after months of research and hours and hours of intense and illuminating discussions with several renowned Musicologists - each of them a Tchaikovsky 'expert'. They had guided me through the canon in prayerful and awe-inspiring ways, highlighting the journeys of particular instruments within each score. Tchaikovsky, unlike almost all of his peers - past, present and future (his and ours) - wrote for the entire orchestra. Every single instrument. Most composers write for the instrument of their expertise (generally piano) and work with someone else on the orchestra parts - or hand the responsibility for the orchestrations over to someone else entirely. Not Tchaikovsky. The journey of every single instrument through every single one of his compositions was mapped out by him. I first became captivated by him for this reason: what the fuck must this have sounded like in his mind?
This is also why he is the greatest composer to have ever lived - and I also believe that this little known aspect of his powers of creation go most of the way in explaining why he was, and still is, so popular. Even if the lay-person really has no definitive idea of why his music moves them in the way that it does. My understanding of Tchaikovsky's music literature is something that, to this very day, gives me great pleasure. An example, perhaps, is to find a really great recording of his Fifth Symphony and listen to the journey of the trumpet. It was once affectionately described to me as 'a symphony for the trumpet and orchestra'. In a really really great recording, it's actually quite easy to hear why.
If a ballet company anywhere in the world is struggling financially, they'll whip on Swan Lake. You might like to listen to the flute in the maelstrom that follows Siegfried's realisation that he has been deceived by Odile. The manner in which the orchestra drowns out the flute is utterly heart-breaking in a great recording. And Swan Lake gets 'em in every time. Without fail. (Within the space of six months this year, there are two Swan Lakes in Australia: Matthew Bourne's and The Paris Opera Ballet's.) A mind-bogglingly high percentage (something like seventy-eight) of people who have ever attended a live orchestral concert have chosen to attend for the first time because Tchaikovsky was on the programme.
I have certainly picked an incredibly popular subject with which to plummet to the very depths of unpopularity. Ken Russell would end up looking like David Lean by the time Geoffrey Williams was through with Maestro Piotr Tchaikovsky!
Less than a week later, Sonia called me again and told me that she could not get my play out of her head ... and would I come to her theatre and see a play. And have a meeting. Of course I would! A couple of days later I danced into the New End and met with Sonia for the first time. She had a problem. The play that was on at the moment was playing to almost empty houses (a concept of Sonia's I would help to utterly redefine for her in the weeks ahead). So ... if she closed this current catastrophe early and brought one or two of the pre-Edinburgh try-outs forward, would I be interested in bringing Tunnels ... into her theatre (she pointed to a date in her diary) here?
What I should have said - and very nearly did say - was said "No." "Thank you."
It is very, very clear to me now. In the lush embrace of hindsight. "No" was the right answer ... as it so often should have been - and only occasionally has been - ever since.
"Thank you anyway, Sonia," I should have said, "but are you out of your God-damned fucking mind? It's a play about the greatest composer that ever lived, to be staged in the city of his greatest fulfilments ... not to mention his most ardent admirers and defenders!? Tchaikovsky himself said that English musicians performed his music better than anyone else in the world! I'm Australian you Stupid Woman! The English press HATE Australians! In their gruesome, post-colonial paranoia they still thought that there were wooden ships sporting the Union Jack conquering great, previously unchartered continents for the acquisition of King or Queen and Country! Most of the sad little perpetually soft cocks still do! Sorry guys, but your Piotr The Great is actually Piotr The Great Big Pillow-biting Shirt-lifting Turd-burgling Arse Bandit! ... and if you don't believe me, I'm gonna show you because he's going to spend - what is it now? - at least three pages of somebody else's artless and ultimately pointless fucking dialogue in bed with a Russian Prince who didn't even fucking exist! There are monologues in this crap that run for four pages. That's four A4 pages Sonia. Jesus Christ! There's one monologue in there that's so fucking long and verbose it's practically a short fucking play of its very own!"
What was this woman thinking? What was I thinking when, instead, my Ego said "Yes".
Tonight she was on fire. Her theatre was glittering with artistic, creative and theatrical potential ... and the bar was doing great business. As a Director, I don't interact with actors before a performance. I acknowledged their arrival with a smile and a wave ... or a kiss ... and watched on proudly as they gathered up their flowers and took them down in the direction of their respective dressing rooms. They were certainly nervous, but I was already well on the way to complete sensory obliteration at the bar. My friends had started arriving with flowers and gifts and as early as the half hour call, I was already propping myself up on the bar.
The foyer bell suddenly started ringing ... and the second I heard it I had to excuse myself and go into the office toilet where I promptly threw up. I have had many deep, meaningful and lasting relationships with any number of repositories of my turgid and tormented fear, but this one was unique. "This one will go down in theatre history!" I remember thinking, somewhat obliquely. I tried to stand up, but couldn't. Every flaw, doubt and anxiety about what all these people were about to witness punched hard at my eyeballs - from the inside of my head. I tried to get up, but slipped on the tiles and cracked my lower jaw so hard on the toilet bowl I thought I was going to slide into a technicolour coma on the spot. Vomit stained rented tuxedo and all.
It would have been preferable.
My boy was finally sent in to get me and - for what would turn out to be the final time - he looked at me with so much love for my pain. He couldn't comprehend why I wasn't going to watch the performance ... no matter how much I tried to convince him I knew what was going to happen ... better than the people who were about to make it happen.
Once he finally had me on my feet, he doused me with breath-freshener and we walked together out into the nearly empty foyer. He reluctantly let go of my hand and disappeared into the auditorium. The doors shut and the moments between then and the music starting were laced with an indescribable panic, mixed with hope and fear. I stood by the door and listened. It had started. There was no stopping it now. And I walked up the stairs to the bar.
"The horror." "The horror."
I sat at the bar drinking vodka and orange juice. It's hard to remember precisely what I was thinking. I could see it unfolding and falling over ... dazed and confused ... a scratch on his knee. Bandaids. More bandaids. OK, this is serious ... we need to get him to a hospital. The bar staff and front of house staff eventually started to busily prepare for the interval. Covers came off the finger-food and champagne started to be poured into glasses. Ooops! Here we go! The end of Act One. Is there still anyone awake in there? Alive? The barman looked at me and then looked at the back door to the very top of the auditorium. Ha! I remember thinking. Wouldn't it be funny if I snuck in to watch, only to discover that the audience had all walked out an hour ago and were up the road at the pub? Or gallantly throwing themselves in front of oncoming traffic ... anything but this! Anything but this terrible, terrible play!
I nodded ... and he quickly and quietly opened door into the auditorium. I poked my head in and looked at the stage. There he was, Robert's and my version of Piotr Tchaikovsky, supporting his chin with the back of his hand, and fiercely conducting the end of the Fifth Symphony. Antonina was stage left in her 'cell', madly scribbling a slogan in chalk on the jet-black wall. Nadia von Meck, his patron, was tearing up music and letters on the opposite side of the stage before collapsing onto the floor in a fit of jealousy, hatred and rage. Act One was certainly ending.
Polite applause. The worst kind. Sustained for an almost impolite amount of time. Maybe, I thought, they would refuse to stop clapping in the hope that they may prevent - or prohibit - what was to come. Were they demanding the curtain calls? I know I wasn't ... and I ducked back out to the bar to be met with the concerned frowns of the entire theatre staff. They had heard rapture all week. This was something they didn't recognise. But The Universe stepped in and made sure I did. She wanted to soften the blow. Immediately, and instinctively, I knew it had failed to lift off the ground.
I tried to lift my spirits as the foyer bar filled with punters ... but the buzz was hopelessly subdued. Act 2 was lighter, and shorter ... the fruits of the labour which was Act One were waiting to be harvested. Drama is tough on Act Ones. Audiences often conveniently ignore the fact that there's still much more of the story to come. Act Ones do the hard yards. Act Twos get to stand on the podium. (I remember a conversation with a theatre manager at another production of a play in mine in Melbourne who thought my Act One was "a dog", but he adored Act Two ... so much so that every night he was on duty, he would sneak in to watch it and sob quietly to himself in a curtained off alcove. After many conversations, he finally agreed that Act Two was only as good as it was because of the work that Act One had done to set it up.)
Sonia made a point of coming up to me and gripping me a little too tightly on the shoulder. My boy and his colleague left and I never saw or heard from either of them again. I picked at least two notebook-wielding critics, stealing food and engaged in quiet, almost catatonic, conversation. They didn't dare look at me. But sitting here today, I recognise the expressions they wore. I've worn one like it myself on those nights when you curse the obligation that prevails over your right to run as far and as fast away from this travesty of what some people think is theatre.
My friends from the Royal Opera were fighting with all their might to increase the buzz in the room. One of them called it 'compelling' ... a little too loudly. I just wanted it all to be over.
It would be. And it was. The only thing I was less certain of was the extent of the damage. Not yet anyway.
Following the performance, the company were invited to an extravagant supper at a nearby restaurant which Sonia and Roy had booked out for the purposes of our Opening Night Party. Forced jovial congratulations punctuated tense, deprived silences until Sonia made a speech about how proud she was to have my play in her theatre. She was actually quite convincing. I made a speech about how wonderful it was to have made it to Opening Night ... and how proud and grateful I was for everyone's efforts to get us here. I was genuinely moved by the impression this rancid beast of a play of mine had made on everyone. There may not have been plaudits galore, but there was creative and spiritual exhaustion ... the best kind.
In the days that followed, Sonia and my relationship would crumble underneath the most painful layers of betrayal, legal threats and toxic, unspoken blame that neither of us - in that blind passion-fuelled meeting so many, many weeks ago - ever imagined possible. In the meantime, I went home in a cab and lay awake all night ... hoping, against hope, that my instincts were, in fact, wrong. Until I fell asleep - dreaming of The Reviews.
Monday, April 16, 2007
In order to even begin to take on The Theatre, you need to believe yourself to be endowed with the greatest and most dazzling array of capabilities and understanding. It's a marvellous conceit. Time and timing, space, reason, science, poetry, mathematics, fantasy, chemistry, reality, character, purpose, illusion, angles, shapes, psychology, darkness, light, half-light, habits, shade, patterns, distance, sound, beats, silence, phrasing, pace, tempo, relationships, juxtaposition, the myriad beginnings, middles, and ends, punctuation, breath, vowels, consonants, entire sentences, past, present, future, archetype, stereotype, cliché, conversation, dialogue, monologue, duologue, design, technique, swoops, drops, holds, tastes - and silent stillness, the master of all. Each and every seen and unseen element of a work in the theatre combines to power the communication of a single, precious moment. The honour the theatre provides for us is the opportunity to luxuriate in a shared moment of creation. Of our making. More than one would be implausible ... greedy ... not to mention impossible. More than you could possibly hope for. But it's what you aim for. The power to change lives. To change minds. To challenge. To teach. To entertain. To undeniably Be. Exist.
It's a fair exchange. The nights when the performances of this play were well-received were thrilling and life-enhancing. It should be against the law to feel this enriched and enlivened by what you have achieved. The conversations with audience members at the bar afterwards, if I had been at the performance or had dropped in for a peek and a free drink afterwards, were almost always fascinating. But compliments have always been impossible for me to accept. They still are. I never know how to process them.
But who did I think I was fooling? By the time Tunnels ... closed, I would be so roundly changed and profoundly defeated that the direction of my life would be changed forever.
The play is barely breathing. Helen quietly suggests that the "Top and Tail" is actually my new best friend - especially given the fact that the actors are now suddenly wholly suspicious. She gives me a impromptu lesson in shaving. Time. Good Stage Managers are actually the unsung heroines of great theatre. They are mostly women. With good reason. And whenever I work in the theatre, they always are - and always will be. I'm not sure I will ever fully understand why.
We disagree on a tense, ego-challenging detail: precisely how much shorter do I want it to be.
It's a magnificent question. A true mark of her genius. But it is a question I am unable to answer. I am not experienced enough in making theatre and I am still too attached to this thing that is lying, comatose and bleeding, on the greyest of black decks at my feet. The two Geoffreys are are fighting for perspective. Geoffrey The Director wants to keep directing a shorter version, while Geoffrey The Playwright just wants the best view from the best seats. And to get to the foyer bar sooner.
And for a fleeting moment my greatest ally considers abandoning me to my destiny. It's one thing to own your skills and imagination, it's another thing altogether to know how to prove them. And from this moment, our relationship begins to unravel. I have 'handed it over' to her, but I'm still in the way ... fussing around over the fall of the fabric. It's a masterful art, the balancing act of the transition of power in the theatre. Helen - had she held the total (as opposed to to the sub-total) sum of power and influence that was due her - could have saved me in ways I, only now, comprehend. And not even fully. We respect, and need, each other too much. This monstrously passionate play defies and devours our creative intellect and all our previous experience. Her way would be to force Tim to his dressing room wall with an elbow pressed tightly against his throat. Then, she would instruct him, almost cursorily, that there would be no point in him trying to deliver the monologue because the production would have moved on without him. She would ensure that he: a) vanished from sight in the blackout; b) drowned in the music cue; and/or c) was physically moved out of the way by the scene change she would not even bother telling him was now going to be take place around, and instead of, him. Or all three. And if not, a replacement actor can be at the theatre within fifteen minutes. A list of replacements is being drawn up as we speak ... and I can look at it at any time. I think she is joking ... until after we close, when she tucks the list inside her thank you card.
And I have dealt with recalcitrant actors very differently since. Partly to honour Helen, partly myself, but mostly to honour them. Actors become blind to the consequences of their actions. Everything is mapped out for them ... everything they say, think, feel, and do. They adopt. It is never a child of their own. The art of acting is, after all, the art of creative lying. It's why there is so rarely truth in it ... and it is why, when watching truly great actors like Sean Penn, the fact that they have made such unquestionable truth from such obvious deceit is mind-altering.
But loyalty is the Queen of The Whores in the theatre - and when a production is transitioning from rehearsal to sell-out previews in London, there's no knowing who'll swallow.
It will of course, in time, be me.
And, not for the first or last time, this work of mine defeats me.
Helen goes about her business and I suddenly feel like a paedophile in a playground. Watched. The first indiscretion will result in my banishment. Until Anna Scheer, the only Australian in the cast, braves the intimate distance between me and the not even one-year-old object of my affection. (Anna has since gone on to a career in performance art in Berlin. I hope, more than anything, that one day I can meet her again and talk. She was a wonderful, intuitive energy. And she didn't give a fuck about the length of anything.) She kept a barely respectable distance, but told me that there was still much work to be done. That 'length' was a purely subjective consideration. That my play was steadfastly refusing to run to somebody else's schedule. That good storytelling takes time.
And Helen called the Act One beginners to the stage.
Tim's little revolution has broadsided the ensemble and damaged it in ways I was not even aware of. They knew I wasn't happy and yet, it was only me they lived to please. It was only me who would take them with me when my play transferred to the West End as it was hotly tipped to do.
And they started walking into the furniture - AS it was being brought on stage. They didn't even have the good grace to wait until it was there.
A note was whisked into the theatre: would I do a publicity call this afternoon in the foyer and a photo out the front? No, I wouldn't. Buy another ad instead. They used to mean the same thing to me.
The "Top and Tails" eventually ended and Helen called another in fifteen minutes. I asked her how long I had before I no longer had the option of canceling this evening's preview. Given the fact that she ignored me, I assumed that she didn't think it was an option.
Tim was like the leper in a beauty pageant and the fat, ugly, tiny-dicked queen in a porn film all rolled into one. Robert (who was playing Piotr) couldn't look at him ... which was incredibly useful for an hour of the time they spent on stage together, but entirely and utterly inappropriate for the other two and half hours of stage time they shared. He had committed the cardinal sin of an ensemble: putting his own selfish, ego-centric opinions and vanity ahead of the needs of the group. He had betrayed himself, them, and me ... but ultimately 'us'. I thought momentarily about replacing him. It was, in retrospect, the only thing to have done. A new actor would have had the rest of the week to learn the shortened version of the role and, in the meantime, his isolation from the ensemble would suit the character perfectly. And I could have had the pick of the crop. This play, after all, was transferring to the West End. Sonia, unbeknownst to me, already had her lawyers drawing up the contracts.
But there was something about Tim's performance - like everyone's performance - that I truly, truly adored. We had travelled a long and incredibly difficult road together. I had cast him, from the nearly 200 actors who turned up to audition. The first time he had to strip in the rehearsal room was so painful and confronting for him that I still remember the look on his face as he demanded I order him to disrobe. It was like he was peeling off a layer of skin and I was astonished by - and grateful for - his vulnerability to the work (and to me) more than anything else. The scene was never rehearsed again. He was rivetting in it. (One night during the season, under the covers with Robert, he would not be able to contain an erection and, by midday the following day, we would be dealing with the first major legal challenge to the season - a 'Closing Order'. Ironic, really, in the country responsible for Fred and Rosemary West ... not to mention Myra Hindley.) And with only one or two exceptions, I despise the English to this day.
The Previews were, however, fantastic and the audience exit polls were incredibly positive. I poured over the feedback every night ... into the early hours of the morning. The red and black costumes (except for Antonina's asylum 'dress'): superb. Yvonne Kower's artful and inspired freeze-frame choreography for the opening party scene - where Antonina and Piotr's marriage collapses: brilliant. Much of the work was amazing ... yes, it was long ... but that was fine. It was getting shorter and faster. Security and confidence were nestling in amongst the fear and apprehension. There had not been one, single walk-out. The audiences were staying the distance.
As I heard the thunderous conclusion of Swan Lake followed by the rapturous applause following the end of the final preview, I slipped - pissed - from my bar stool upstairs and walked, haltingly, down the stairs to the foyer. The applause was still going ... my retarded child was being sent off into his season with great enthusiasm. It is apparently a theatre tradition in countries where theatre actually really matters. The final preview audience know they are witnessing a work in a state in which it will never exist again. A pen and ink study of the huge, sweeping canvas it is to become.
I stand and watch as the audience file out to a quiet and reflective section of the maestro's Piano Concerto No.1. Many are in tears. Most are fatigued. An elderly woman is the last to leave by a good fifteen minutes. I hope she hasn't died in her chair from boredom, but she stands slowly and reluctantly walks out of the auditorium. She stands at the door - moved beyond measure. I am concerned she is going to collapse. I glance nervously at one of the front of house staff who immediately comes over and supports her arm.
"Where is the writer?" she asks.
I am inclined - almost instinctively - to deny my role in the fiasco. Maybe she hated it so much that she wants to hit me ... and the front of house staff are trained to not identify anyone associated with the production without that person's consent.
"He's upstairs", I say.
The woman glances at the stairs and contemplates taking them on, but thinks better of it.
"His great, great suffering."
"Whose? The writer's?" I ask.
"No, you fool. The Maestro's! This writer ... the play ... has captured the weight ... the truth of his pain and suffering which was his music. His greatness."
"It's three hours! Don't you think it's a bit too long?" I ask.
"Pffft!" she discards, with tired contempt. "Of course not! What a ridiculous thing to say! You don't know what you're talking about. The time it takes is the time it needs to tell the story of such great pain and accomplishment. I hope you never have to suffer to the extent he did."
And with that, my Muse is supported out the door and into her waiting taxi.
"Suffer"? You ain't seen nothing yet old girl! But in the meantime, I bound up the stairs to the packed theatre bar to a spontaneous, heart-felt round of applause. I am touched, hugged, kissed and cajoled. The actors gradually appear and there is a great sense of unity, hope, expectation and a dream-like air of a monumental success.
Tomorrow, there is our sold out black-tie Opening Night. There will be flowers and telegrams.
And in the days that are to follow, the slaughter of the innocence.
Image: The Suffering, from the 'XBox' image library.
Sunday, April 15, 2007
There's to be a week of previews. I arrive at the theatre early every morning. The actors are called at midday. They need to sleep. The play runs for three and a half hours and they are exhausted. I check in with the theatre staff and look at the bookings sheet for the next preview. Sonia is ecstatic! The Previews are all nearly sold out ... and there is a buzz about "the Tchaikovsky play". Glenda Jackson (who played Piotr's wife - Antonina - in Ken Russell's Tchaikovsky film The Music Lovers) has been invited to opening night. So has Ken Russell. Jackson sends an autographed photo and Russell sends a note: 'Thank you for your invitation, but I am unable to support someone who appears to be making the same dreadful mistake as I did.' Or something like that. I left Russell's note at the theatre. By the time it was all over, I would hate more than anything how insightful he would turn out to have been. In the meantime, he can't be right: there's a waiting list for the black-tie opening night and the box office staff are fielding telephone calls all day.
Helen, our Stage Manager, is devoted to me and our play. She's always at the theatre before me, and over strong coffees, like neurosrugeons, we go through my notes. One morning, Sonia's husband Roy brings Jane Torvill and Christopher Dean into the operating room. They are clients of his and the three of them are off to a media call somewhere. They are looking forward to seeing the play tonight and glance excitedly around the space. I'm annoyed that they're there. A Director and Stage Manager's time together is sacred. Personal. Private. Sensing my impatience, Helen fluffs and giddies them out the door.
"Who were they?" I ask.
She ruffles my hair. "They're ice-skaters darling."
A note goes up to the office: we are not to be disturbed.
The stage is tiny and the rehearsal room was huge. That's my dilemma. The drama has shrunk from an horizon-less vista of possibility to a pinhead of reason. And it's no longer working. The ocean currents of air, space and 'room' around any creative work - both for spectators and practitioners - has vanished. The whole thing is feeling - and looking - pinched. My rehearsal process has failed us. Permission, safety, passion and consideration - by their very nature - lack economy.
The play exists around the music - not the other way around, so the music cues are analysed first. If Tchaikovsky's not onboard, this ship doesn't sail. We re-mark the beats.
Set changes are taking up far too much time. The crew will just need to get faster. The actors will need to get offstage quicker. We re-plot the scene changes. The actors won't exit ... they'll merge with the change. More needs to happen onstage in the blackout than off. Blackouts become cross-fades and I ignore the collisions and confusion that instantly appear in my mind. The morning is getting away and the actors will shortly start to arrive.
The cuts. To the script. Helen is concerned. The actors won't like it. We talk through them and she frowns. The whole time.
The actors start to arrive. Like excited children at a new playground. They are all early, which I like ... and as they all settle in the auditorium with their scripts on their knees, I wait on the stage for their attention.
"We need to make some cuts."
Lips purse. The steaming fresh turd in their sand-pit is obviously mine.
"It's too long."
The actors haven't yet mastered the art of disobeying or ignoring me, and the scripts are dutifully - if not reluctantly - marked. Tim, who is playing the Russian Prince Alexei, looks away. Tim trained as a ballet dancer and handles the physical vocabulary of Alexei magnificently. His painful and compulsive strip to nakedness in Act 2 is pure instinct and all courage. But he hasn't the actor's skill to deliver Alexei's bad poetry as subtext. He is playing it as cure, when it is actually disease.
The cuts are harsh ... and the general consensus is that they should have been made days - if not weeks - ago. I refuse to blame them for taking three of the eight week rehearsal period to even begin to connect to the passion of the piece. That would come later ... when I would find myself limb-less, gripping my steadily deflating life-raft with my teeth, alone at sea, at the height of a perfect and terrifying storm.
Bits and pieces here and there go. I justify each cut with extreme precision. I talk about tempo, pace, clarity and over-writing. I praise their abilities as an ensemble and remark that all of the dialogue we are losing is simply because they are acting so well. It might sound like a flabby embellishment, but it's true. I had simply written too much emotion. I still do.
The shark takes a huge bite out of one of Alexei's monologues. Tim rises out of his seat, throws his script to the ground and storms out of the theatre. I let him go. (There had been tantrums galore in the rehearsal room and there were some gob-smackingly memorable tantrums to come.) He needed to react. He was very good at it. And I knew he had met his match.
We continued the vivisection. Nobody argued.
Until the doors to the theatre were flung open and Tim stormed back in.
"I thought you were stronger than this". He was trying not to let me know he had been crying. "I think we all did."
I looked at Michaela, who was playing Antonina. Michaela was my anchor in the cast. She had secured the role at the auditions in the final showdown with Madonna's understudy in David Mamet's Speed The Plough on Broadway. If I had made a mistake, it would show in her eyes. Tim, it appeared, was telling the truth ... or at least part of it.
I faced him.
"Your ... beautiful words ..."
"The Playwright is not in the room, Tim." This had been a device I used, and would always use at work in the theatre everywhere, to differentiate between Geoffrey 'The Playwright' and Geoffrey 'The Director'. A safety-valve. A necessary mind-set. A creative schizophrenia ... which would also, years later, fracture the Melbourne production of Maestro ... but I digress.
"Well, I want him here. Because I, for one, am not going to cut one word."
The Playwright wanted to kiss him. The Director wanted to sack him. I needed stronger medication.
"If there's something you can suggest that might make this speech work more effectively as far as you're concerned, then let's have it. Because that's your only option. I'm going to deliver it, as it is, whether you like it or not!"
Helen wanted to kill him. I'm actually surprised she didn't. She, better than anyone, knew we would read about the length of this play in the reviews. (The extent to which it would bury us - and at the same time save us - was yet to be revealed.)
But the anchor of my theatre-making process was a concept called "Actor Ownership" - and Tim knew it.
"You gave this wonderful work to us. You are not going to take it away from us now."
My medication arrived as Sonia bounced into the theatre and rushed up to hug me. The Previews are now all entirely sold out ... and for the first time in the New End's recent history, the "House Full" sign had been dragged out from the pitch black of storage.
And for the last time in my theatre making experience, I gave up.
I had written the rule book which was now being used to penalise me. Actors in almost complete (as "complete" as it ever is) performance readiness are awesome foes. I had struggled for eight weeks to strip their Englishness away. They had run from the rehearsal room in tears. One of them had disappeared for nearly a week, so confronted had she been. English actors train in cause and effect - not emotional truth. It's all about the way it sounds and the way it looks - not about the way it feels. My ensemble were raw and their power was immense. I had made sure of it.
I looked at Tim, with honest eyes, for the last time. I would never be able to look at him in quite the same way again. (And once the reviews began to appear, he would never be able to look at me in quite the same way either.)
I didn't realise it at the time, but he was to become the last person to ever deny me permission. To my face, at least.
Helen let the company go with a half hour call to the "Top and Tail".
It would now be a matter of tweaking the length in other ways.
But Ego was to have other ideas. And, unbeknownst to me, I was squarely in Her sights.
Image: The New End Theatre Auditorium.
Saturday, April 14, 2007
When I was cleaning up 'my room' the other day, I found my Theatre Scrapbook. And with the heart-attack inducing speed and efficiency of Jason Voorhees, it always closes a particular window on my world. It's a point of impact. Hard ... and I always have to prepare myself to consider it again. Like a surgeon considering the length of the first cut.
The detritus of my time as an Independent Theatre Maker occupies lots of little nooks in my environment. Like landmines. I'll be searching for something else and suddenly find myself at the knuckle-whitening climax of a rollercoaster ride before idling in the company of familiar ghosts - back in the musty and haunted old Carlton Courthouse.
I also found this quote:
"It is the nature of the artist to mind excessively what is said about him. Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others." – Virginia Woolf
My relationship with reviewers and reviews is complex. I have known many critics. I am one of them. And as an Independent Theatre Maker I have endured more than my fair share (which is actually a lie - on both counts). The questions that are often raised about how a critic should respond to a work constantly fascinate me. What is their purpose? Is anyone else ever really guaranteed to know? Is the act of criticism, much like the act of creation, essentially selfish? The kitchen is closed, but you sit down and read the menu anyway - fully expecting to be served.
I am preparing to make theatre again. It's a more significant statement than it might, at first, appear.
But first, I am going to dissect the single greatest love affair of my life. I am going to do something for myself that I have steadfastly distracted myself from doing up until this point in my life: I am going to remember. I was done with auditioning years ago. I'm done seeking validation and I don't need permission. I never have.
Many, many years ago I lost hold of something.
And now I need - and want - it back.
My play about maestro Piotr Illyich Tchaikovsky - Tunnels Without End* - is about to preview at the tiny New End Theatre in Hampstead. The owner of the theatre - Sonia Saunders - has taken a huge and significant risk. She loves this play, and has bumped six weeks of pre-Edinburgh try-outs out of the way to make room for it. And 'it' has arrived: costumes, sets, furniture, audio tapes, props, passion and hope. We absorb every particle of the theatre's being into our anticipation.
It is a ridiculous time.
Previewing any play is impossibly fraught - and this one was a breach birth. As a Director, you literally writhe in the agony of internalised (and sometimes externalised) reaction too vast to truly comprehend at the time. Lines are fucked up. Entrances are missed. Lighting cues are late ... or early. Fades don't and pauses extend ... and emotional truth is suddenly sacrificed at the almighty altar of Actor Insecurity. You are helpless as you watch your babies study recall. The light of comprehension in their eyes switches off ... leaving only panic in the light through the window. Meaningless stares into the middle distance. Nuance becomes a noisy hiccup. The carefully plotted interspatial relationships and complex stage patterns look like sloppy guess work. Silk threads become fence palings ... and snap. The tips of your fingers ache as you scribble notes ... veritable cures for cancer ... in the dark. Your internal organs strangle each other while your ankles tango and your knees embrace.
As a Writer, it is - quite simply - a sadomasochistic death-defying stunt of the highest order ... and leaping from The Empire State Building onto a matchbox-sized safety net would be like a walk in the park by comparison. It is not what you wrote ... nor what you heard, remembered, meant or intended.
As a Writer/Director, you want to leap out of your seat! You want to start again and again. "This scene is actually quite wonderful when they do it the way we've spent the last fucking eight weeks rehearsing the fucking thing!" you silence. "I actually do know what I'm doing - it's these lazy fuckwits that don't!" you mutely protest. He's too far downstage, upstage, offstage ... she's not even on the fucking same stage!
And all evidence of every whiff of creative potential is lost in the maelstrom - like a tea-candle in a typhoon. There is no contest. Or hope. But there will be Notes. Lots of them.
* Piotr Tchaikovsky once described his life as being "like a tunnel without an end". After seeing the rehearsed reading of the piece at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre, Joan Harris AM suggested I change the title of the play to Maestro. So I did ... as you would.
Image: Outside The New End Theatre, 27 New End, Hampstead London NW3 1JD
Friday, April 13, 2007
Thursday, April 12, 2007
Scene: The exterior of a small yellow terrace house, hiding behind an almost overgrown garden in a narrow street. Albert Park, Melbourne. Late on a Sunday afternoon. Autumn.
I had arrived at the offices of my newspaper - Brother Sister - to work on the next edition. I have no idea where I had been, but the ritual of working and sleeping at our quaint little Albert Park terrace was well and truly ingrained. There was no other way it was possible. And I loved it. We had moved from the office in the city to the terrace in Albert Park, partly, to trim our overheads. Inner-city rents were increasingly tough on our new masthead, and our income had started to fluctuate. Quite dramatically. We bought dinners out and take-away coffees in during the Dance Party Season and bought Nescafé and boiled rice in at every other time of the year. The gay communities' obsessions with cocks, sex and dance parties has tortured every one of my titles to a inexorably slow, painful and inevitable death. It's now quite impossible for me to imagine that there is something else. Because there isn't.
But I digress.
I knew, instinctively, that I was in trouble. The man sitting behind the steering wheel of his parked car was trying not to watch what I was doing. Our address was published and public knowledge - and there was something about the look on his face ... and his vain attempt at not to be seen watching me. An abstract study of my every move.
My business partner and I had discussed not publishing our physical address. Just a PO Box. Safe. But we wanted our new masthead to be accessible. Visible. The opposite of anonymous. The edict of the day was: 'Yes we are gay and we exist! Get used to it!' - and the single greatest statement we could make was to stake our claim in the heart of quirky little Albert Park, and be proud of the fact. A perfect and worthy sentiment ... but not when some fag-hating psychopath is parked outside your suddenly not quite so commercially imperative statement of vibrant community pride and visibility.
There was only one way in and out of our tiny little terrace and I considered not going inside. His intention was palpable. A grim cross-examination. I was frightened ... and cautiously glancing over my shoulder, I fussed around in my bag for the keys to the door. The sound of a car door opening would be like a gunshot. I would be off, through the shrubs and - hopefully - out of his reach. I would race to the police station ... which was where? The shops, yes, just around the corner to the shops. Even with a bullet I would make it. Unless he possessed the skills of a marksman, in which case 'it' wouldn't matter.
My keys are in my hand ... fished out of my bag and waved around in full view like a white flag. Why was I making it so easy for him? Was my subconscious engaged in an act of unconditional surrender? Fags always have been, and always will be, easy targets. I would go inside and into my office, I decided. My office was the front room with an almost uninterrupted view of the street through a large window. I would stand by my couch, next the window, with my telephone in my hand. I would establish eye contact with the murderer outside ...
I drop the phone. The man behind the steering wheel has become the man walking along our front verandah to our front door with what appears to be several copies of my newspaper in his hand. I drop to the floor and reach for the receiver with the tips of my fingers. Got it! I pull the receiver toward me and the telephone crashes from my desk onto the floor ... taking my in-trays and out-trays prisoner. Fuck! Make some noise why don't you!?
My Fate (and my impending demise) is punctuated by a tentative knock on the door. Of course serial killers knock! Tentatively. 'It all seemed so ordinary Officer ... like he wanted to be my friend ...'
My murderer presses his face to the window. Something akin to a determination not to be seen cowering on the floor like a weak, spineless poof forces me onto my feet. He holds the copies of my newspaper up to the window. I consider, for a moment, denying they're mine. If I hadn't have been so proud I could have pretended to be the cleaner!
"I want to talk to you about these."
He's uncertain ... uncomfortable. Is the desperation his now, not mine? When did that happen? But yes, the power has quite suddenly shifted ... and I instantly forget that glass is breakable.
"What about them?"
"Do you work here?"
"Yes. It's my newspaper."
"Then I need to talk to you."
A confused pause.
"About where I found these."
"Can I talk to you?"
There is something about his vulnerability that forces me to consider opening the door. Vulnerable men are uncommon in my experience. There is a need to know ... to understand something that lies beyond his comprehension. This man is unique. He hasn't made up his mind about something he knows absolutely nothing about. He has no information. No opinion.
He is grateful when I do, finally, open the door, and he comes into our office - head bowed slightly, as though in reverent observation of my power ... my influence over his dilemma. His is obviously a nagging question built on disturbing doubt.
I gesture to the couch in my office. He slumps into it and rests his copies of my newspaper on his lap. I sit at my desk. There is no time, or reason, for pleasantries.
"I found these ... "
He can't continue. And I can't guess.
"In my son's room."
How do you confirm a father's worst nightmare?
There is something that connects us - this stranger and I ... a singular indescribable energy I have never experienced since. It remains unique to this moment in my life, and probably his. I don't know if he is going to cry. I don't know if I am going to. He wants to look at me, but can't. I don't want to look at him, but can. I wait while he glances around my office.
Where is your son now?
He's out ... with his friends.
And his mother?
She didn't want to come. She didn't want me to come. She's very upset.
He mistakes my youthfully naive attempt at empathy for blatant condescenion.
He brandishes his copies of my newspaper ...
You publish this ... stuff! Don't you have any responsibility for where it ends up?
He is looking for a reason to explode. An admission of guilt in the safety of which he can admit his own. He doesn't know why, but someone must be made accountable. (Certain) men and their fear of curiousity. Their wholesale rejection of 'other'. But something about this man is different. I don't recognise it ... and I am suddenly certain that neither does he. Something else is at stake here - and, for me anyway, it is the safety of his son.
We publish this newspaper to let people know that there are others who are the same ...
The same? The same as what?
... as them. We publish news and information about ...
I've read what you publish. My son is 16.
And you're worried that your son is gay.
Shouldn't I be?
It's not only gay people who read our newspaper.
A flicker of hope I am wrong to encourage. But I am out of my depth. I've heard stories about the hatred and condemnation that can result in one of 'our' young 'coming out' to their parents. It comes with the territory. I am overwhelmed by statistics and hyperbole about youth suicide. Agit-prop. No-one really knows because dead baby poofs tell no tales. It's supposition, mostly. Riddled with cliché but powered by truth and suspicion. And fact. Michael was ... different ... a loner ... a sensitive boy ... he loved his drama classes ... he was popular with all the girls in his class ... he didn't have many close male friends ... an absent father.
I see this boy. I was this boy. I spat the truth of my own homosexuality into the back of my Father's head on the tip of a poisoned dart. He was in the front seat of our car, driving. My Mother was in the front passenger's seat, grieving. I knew I had to be out of reach. And out of sight. My Father was certainly not a violent man, but like most people, he knew enough to rely almost innately on an act of unquestionable strength and aggression when confronted with something he had no other means of addressing. The last great bastion of defence against an assault on everything he understood. When action hurts harder than words.
And I know how this is going to end.
Why did you come here?
He cannot answer. His lips are tight. He puffs his cheeks. And exhales.
I wait. With knowledge.
Because I want to understand what this means.
What do you think it means?
He looks at me for the first time.
I really have no idea.
Do you think I understand what it means?
He suddenly grips his evidence and stands up.
This was a mistake.
He is suddenly as incapable of hurting me as I am capable of hurting him. A few well-chosen words in a tightly knit phrase could disassemble him. I know. I specialise in it. But it is a finely-honed skill that is of absolutely no use to me here.
Your son may or may not be gay.
He looks at me with an un-actable look of evenly matched resentment and gratitude.
But I think he probably is. And what he's found in our newspaper is something that he connects to ... something that tells him that he is not alone. I think it is fantastic that you have taken the trouble to come here, and I wish I could tell you something easier to hear ... but I'm not sure what that might be. But if you look at those newspapers closely, you will see that there is another world ...
I think I've seen all I need to ...
... that for whatever reason, your son has connected with.
Do you have a father?
Does he know what you do?
Does he know about this newspaper of yours?
Because that whole aspect of who I am doesn't exist for him. He's a Christian. It disgusts him.
And how do you feel about that? That your own father ...
It's not important to me what he thinks. I wouldn't be running this newspaper and having this conversation with you if it did.
Disconnection. He starts to walk toward the front door and I move quickly to open it for him. I'd like him to know that even gay people have manners. I know he wants to stay longer and I know I wish I had the vocabulary to encourage him to.
He walks slowly away, along the verandah.
Don't hurt your son for this.
He stops ... and turns, barely capable of bringing himself to face me again.
"Hurt" him? Do you think I would have gone to all this trouble if I was going to "hurt" my son anymore than you've already hurt him?
How have I managed to do that?
By showing him that all that (he tosses his copies of my newspaper at my feet) is possible.
Image: Sando Botticelli's The Story of Nastagio degli Onesti (First Episode).