From Angst to Affirmation: a theatre of betrayal

Are you old enough to remember when theatre of angst and tragedy were acceptable in our theatres and demanded a tough skinned audience to accept the unpalatable realities?

Something hit me when reflecting on reviewing Bell Shakespeare’s productions for about twenty years. John Bell was my hero after seeing what he could do with Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” at The Nimrod Theatre in 1977. It was an amazing experience. Seeing Barry Otto and great actors like Peter Carroll doing simply unbelievably astonishing things on stage reinforced my need to be in theatre and to also explore and see the potential of life and art. Stage Managing Peter Carroll in “The Christian Brothers” at La Boite in the late 70s was an eye-opener into the world of a great artist. I also stage managed Steven Sewell’s first play and production at La Boite “The Father We Loved On A Beach By The Sea”. NO! It wasn’t a Bell production! I could see how people without any real connection with what the writer was about could fuck up a theatrical vision so easily. So it hit me when thinking about Bell Shakespeare’s works over the last twenty or so years. Like his production of “Twelfth Night” the comedies were mostly remarkable and simply brilliant. However, the tragedies were mostly surface crap and unable to penetrate the mask of civility that the young actors were trained to accept and directors were refusing to challenge. In the main, substance was replaced by theatricality!

Fortunately we still have Belvoir Theatre. Formed from the old Nimrod Theatre, it still manages to produce challenging and often unfashionable works. In 2016 it produced Stephen Sewell’s 1983 play “The Blind Giant is Dancing”. Plays about class politics and the personal and political connection have not been hip for years. The theatre does Brecht. In 2019 it produced a remarkable production of “The Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht … also directed by Eamon Flack. Belvoir is one of the flag carriers in a cultural war of artistic attrition. It seems with most theatre, that if it doesn’t affirm a particular social group, it isn’t worth producing.

I remember discussions with John Romeril in 1980 about whether a play needed an uplifting ending or whether it could survive with a downer! Romeril is one of Australia’s most prolific and significant playwrights along with Stephen Sewell. Both have been able to dig savagely beneath veneers of civility.

But today, there are rare truly challenging theatre events. I suggest one is from Stan Grant:

Yes this was theatre! And more significant than anything from theatre presentations from State sanctioned theatre offerings in 2019. A presenter / an audience / relevant content / connection … challenge? YES.

So let’s imagine a state funded theatre company had an actor presenting this speech and this content. It probably would get support because politics being what they are, they might see it as an advantage to position a caustic view of culture from within a conservative program that featured historically dated material that nobody really cared about.

So when a state funded festival appears to support legitimate demands for recognition of people’s rights, how could any theatre enterprise neglect to offer support and even compliance?

Wesley Enoch, Director of the Sydney Festival

Wesley Enoch has done about all that any one person might achieve in theatre given a lifetime and his comparative youth. Coming from a most unlikely base, his achievement is even more significant. But this doesn’t mean his choices can be exempt from serious criticism.

Festivals provide opportunities to challenge the current stereotypes of vision as adopted within society. By programming a generally already acceptable commercial program it is hard to see how the Sydney Festival is not a betrayal of this ideal. The programming of a replica Spiegeltent, The Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent, ripping off the original Famous Spiegeltent, in Hyde Park suggests concerns more for box office success than any sense of challenging. Yes, a betrayal!

 His criticism of the withdrawal of the French company which was supposed to be one of the main planks of the festival in 2020, who pulled out because of the smog, was offensive if not plainly ignorant. The main actress – a French film star – had been advised by her doctors not to go to Sydney as it was a health risk to her because she had a history of respiratory problems – even the French Government has issued travel warnings… and Enoch said ‘how dare she… it was an insult to Sydney’…

Perhaps if Enoch was a young producer trying to make a name for himself by debunking the famous and powerful, there might be some value in his reaction. But as it came from one of the most powerful and significant authorities in Australian theatre the action was hollow. 

So where is theatre expressing the anger and the uncomfortable voices of the dispossessed. Does it come down to patronising Australia Day street marches and cute dancers? And a feel-good sense of “aren’t we doing something” while presenting no actual commentary or revelation.

On the bigger picture, we cannot confuse sentimental tragic stories with what might be considered tragedy.

Theatre can seem cool and hyp while appearing to be radical and focused in its attack … However, so much of it is simply playing to its own coterie of sycophants! It’s cool to be seen as connected or part of a socially aware group. Yet there is a hollow core to this current theatrical incarnation.

Where are the imperfect and vulnerable practitioners who don’t fit into state sanctioned festivals and state theatre companies? Where are the ones who are truly SEEING and not simply adapting or shaping to the accord of coolism and jingoistic narcissism?

They are performing in back streets and struggling with commitments to pre-schoolers and families while risking the admonishing of extended families, cultures and societies! They won’t stop. They can’t even get reviewed … but they don’t need millions to support what they do. They are the festivals. They are the cockroaches at the table of culture and scampering away before being smashed.

And there is the real tragedy. As each one is killed off, there is the potential for new myths that might give rise to an ascension of art with its own paradigm for presentation. Theatre of angst and tragedy is still possible and may still have its resonance in the absurd dramas of back-street performers and clumsy writers and musicians.

When the original Famous Spiegeltent presented La Clique more than fifteen years ago with an eclectic mix of street performers, Olympic Gymnasts, comedians and Variety Performers, it was a radical act; an erotic attack on smug society. The replicas only provide the sound and fury … but all signifying absolutely nothing!

Like the shaman from the past, our art and theatre needs to re-define and re-discover the very reason for our existence … and then self-consciously proceed. Only when the smug sense of righteous bullshit is eradicated can theatre and our art move on and have some kind of new relevance to be the new shaman of culture and society!

“Saturday Night Fever” a youthful dream

©Robert Stigwood Organisation

DTC is presenting a youthful presentation of “Saturday Night Fever” based on the Paramount / RSO Film and the story by Nik Cohn; Adapted for the stage by Robert Stigwood and assisted by Bill Oakes; Edited by Ryan McBryde. Presented by arrangement with David Spicer Productions (

Dreams become nightmares when the exhilaration turns to dread. That is what happens when a young man finds out his life becomes a living nightmare. Yet all around him is the glitz and clutter of the disco. Another youth, Tony Manero, is the centre of this evasive world. He is king. Yet his reign disguises the need for escape from a terrifying future.

The women in “Saturday Night Fever” fare no better. Having their consciousness formed through the fragility of male insecurity and the awareness of their own vulnerability, they are part of the clutter just as Tony’s male friends provide constant noise. Stephanie, like Tony, has been struggling to climb out of the suffocating environment which bred her. Her choices become stronger and give her some space to see and further her ambitions.

“Saturday Night Fever” is probably best known for the Bee Gees sound track; it being the biggest selling film sound track of all time. Yet beneath the memorable tunes and perfectly crafted lyrics, there is a gritty and very dark reality experienced in the lives of all characters. They are virtually all trapped in the crab pot and only some recognise their own desperation to climb out. It is not a romantic or escapist work in any sense of the word. There is no Hollywood ending. No happy ever afters …

Yet there is a sense of possibility; a fragile possibility linked by a bridge that might be a way out and a way upward. It could also be destruction.

The Bridge

the poetics of a Japanese garden

DTC’s production actually uses a bridge between the disco reality and the hard and enduring world that one can try to evade or enter.

There is a recognition that one has to face the tough questions about oneself in order to progress across the moat that separates illusion from what is real.

It is these tough questions that give the work its necessary quality.

Beautiful Ambiguity in Conclusion

If one is searching for answers in a work of art then one will always be disappointed. Art cannot provide certainty. It is always going to be a liminal quality like a doorway. It isn’t propaganda or a self-help fix. Older views of art seem to fixate on its affirming qualities: affirming god, religion, various world-views and the cultural precepts of the past.

Theatre at least has progressed from there into an art form where one’s subjectivity is engaged and there is room to wonder and evaluate for oneself. This is demonstrated so beautifully in the final scene of “Saturday Night Fever” where two people form a kind of momentary bond that takes them out of their own entrapment and into an experience of possibility beyond their every-day … while still being inconclusive …

The bridge and the shadows into the gritty reality of DTC’s production of “Saturday Night Fever”

While the bridge in the DTC production provides the link to something else, possibly better and possibly real, it also is provides a kind of gravitation that is destructive and potentially deadly.

The Dance

Lauren Morfoot (Stephanie) and Isaac Bisa (Tony)

… and the fever is the dance! The production could not be done without truly excellent dancers and so DTC has cast a group of the very best dancers for the lead roles of Tony, Stephanie, Annette and the two Latin dancers along with an ensemble of terrific dancer / actors. Their work will inspire members of the audience to get off their seats and dance. The show has different textures and is one of those rare pieces of theatre that combine the almost sacred in humanity with the exuberance and lusty rough rhythm of letting off steam and simply pounding away the beat.

Performances: 25, 28, 29, 30 April and 1, 2 May at 7.30pm and at 1.30 on 2 May
at McCowage Hall, Daramalan College, Canberra

Director / Designer: Joe Woodward
Director / Choreographer: Lucy Cronan
Musical Director: Michael Jackson
Production Manager/: Angela Dunn
Costume and Make-Up Designer: Lauren Reid
Singing Director: Annette Mitchell
Set Construction / Design Consultant / Engineer: David Kurthi
Stage Manager: Tilly Watson
Stage Manager: Charlotte Blackley
Video and Image Creation and Editing: Bernard Kane
Sound Engineer and Operation: Shannon Jackson (professional)

When the Holy Spirit Comes on You

When drawing substance from translated scriptures over-rides rational and reasoned interpretation of real evidence

Theatre as an art from is never rational, objective nor linear in its construction and presentation. It is more of a dream-like experience. No matter how objective, rational and scientific its approach to development might be, even when using verbatim dialogue, the work of theatre is sculptural and multi-dimensional and is highly subjective. And this is its strength and power!

This lack of objectivity applies to the relationship of the audience to the performance as much as it does to the work of the actors and collaborators who prepare and present it. Theatre that claims otherwise becomes dangerously close to propaganda; possibly deceiving its proponents as much as the audiences it gathers.

Theatre and religious texts

Israel Folau sermonising about a monstrous and murderous god

Without delving into the seemingly sexual references in the bible (as suggested in the above title), there is no doubt that the poetic and metaphorical form of biblical writing (Christian and otherwise) gives substance to people’s yearnings, failures and seeking of personal redemption.

And this is the point. The stories are not histories. They are not prescriptions. Religious texts are like theatre texts in that they cannot be more than dreams of insight, perception and subjective realities. However, while theatre claims this reality as a strength, many religious proponents, adherents and followers claim the texts of religion as being the divinely sanctions last word of god: a fundamental truth.

A monstrous and murderous god reeking petty revenge for perceived slights from the underlings in the world cage

Israel Folau is an amazing sporting phenomenon. His achievements are almost super-human. But his brain seems to be hard-wired like a Frankenstein Monster hell bent on fusing left-over electrons from some saintly cadaver with egoistic certainty displayed by psychopathic messiahs. It draws sustenance from extreme authority: a vengeful and petty psychopathic god being the perfect inspiration. And yes, the man is filled with admirable humility as he displays surrender to the Word! He himself displays little personal ego. He is rather in the service of the supreme ego: a monstrous and murderous god reeking petty revenge for perceived slights from the underlings in the world cage.

And the beauty of it is this: such an invisible monster cannot be disproved. In fact, by identifying the actions of other authoritarian monsters throughout history, this one is probably quite capable of ordering the mass murder of children under two years of age or destroying whole cities because of people playing sodomy or submitting one’s daughter to be raped by Angels (smug theologians offer smiling and sanctimonious bullshit explanations) or sending refugees to concentration camps or creating an  Auschwitz.

God of Love and God of Vengeance

Peter O’Toole in “The Ruling Class”; an amazing film drawing out the very notion of sanity in a Capitalist society

Peter Barnes play “The Ruling Class” was popularised by the film of the same name. Peter O’Toole plays a schizophrenic Lord who believes he can be Jesus and embody the god of love. He is loving, light and playful. This of course means he is insane! Then after a series of events, he morphs into the Old Testament god of Vengeance. Coupled with this, our hero believes the God of Vengeance is also Jack The Ripper!

See the movie … or the play if anyone is game to do it …

Psychopathic god who creates fires to burn people, animals and land

Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm …

Yep … I am against the bullshit that is neurotic religious belief systems. If you want to create a neurotic or psychopathic monster and call it god then so be it. It could be “GREAT”! There might be many circumstances when such creation could be useful: war for instance where you need to encourage people to kill children, innocent people and soldiers who serve the OTHER! Or simply bomb a city into oblivion!

But to placate a god so insecure that it needs to masturbate over its creations who then need to fear its incarnation is simply inhuman and suggests a massive tumor in the very soul of the worshiper. That one could then draw on the hardship and destruction from the bush fires that rage, kill and maim whole communities and threaten the very existence of our society on earth … and then turn it around and use one’s high standing to say it is the vengeance of a disturbed and vengeful monster with murderous intent called GOD … that one could do this suggests a massive problem in ones brain wiring; a vindicative insecurity that seeks to project on to others the very shadow of one’s own preexisting anger and need to strike at the world.

Artaud created a “theatre of cruelty” in which such characters might thrive. They throw light on to the shadows of existence. It is a theatre of disturbance and distortion. But it is only theatre. It seeks to infect dreams. But it isn’t prescribing how we ought to think or act. It certainly questions. Thankfully it doesn’t suggest you will be condemned in a mythical or real hell when the Rapture comes and the Holy Ghost ejaculates blessings on the righteous who are absorbed into heaven as the poor unwashed idiots who are the rest of us are left to suffer in the fire …

Trinculo (Jan 2020)


I remember the impact this poem had on me as a kid. And it wasn’t just the visual tone of the work, but the metaphorical and dangerous aspect.

Christopher Brennan has a unique place in Australian literature. His work predated the influence in Australia of the various “isms” that became so much a part of European poetry. To this extent he was outside the accepted poetic visions so prominent in Australia towards the end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. However, none of this had any effect on me. When I was fourteen I just found his poem “Fire in the Heavens” magical. And as huge slabs of Australia is burning and the smoke is choking Canberra with the most toxic air in the world at the moment, I have paused to consider this outstanding work.

Like the storm in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” the fire in Brennan’s unusual sonnet suggested to me the antagonistic quest for the meaning of my existence. It represented the inner anguish of youth along with the outer world of harshness that existed in the very stones and valleys of my country. It suggested burning of the past and acceptance of pain provided provided through “some dazzling puncture”. It suggested the paradox of discord and harmony. The poem finishes with “the cicada’s torture-point of song.”

So why was the work so often shunned? Let the academics address this. Brennan was recognised with awards in his honour. But the beautiful thing about his work is that it was never fully accepted. Yes! It influenced without full acceptance. And for me, this one poem provided a core suggestion of how the universe operated in a way no philosophy could … except perhaps for Keats’ notion of “negative capability” …

“Fire in the Heavens” suggested the paradox of hellish scenarios in heaven. It pitted the necessity of hell with the ideal of heaven. The poem never allowed the observer or reader to escape into fanciful bullshit of positive universes or anything else. It told it as it is …

As significant populations are evacuated from their homes and their places of contemplative relaxation in so much of Australia, we might be reminded that there is no escape from the reality of a consistent and ever present hell. All else is illusion. And while illusion is sometimes nice and even necessary, there will always be “fire” in “
heaven …

Mocking the dead from the political swamp

The US President is rewriting the book on acceptable behaviour from political leaders and we might soon expect a new normal. The US president mocked the late Rep. John Dingell and “longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history” may be “looking up from hell”. ( 19 Dec 2019. Previously he had mocked the late John McCann ( ) 19 Dec 2019. But mocking in itself is not the issue.

Mocking ideas, beliefs, attitudes and lampooning foibles and behaviours has always been the role of the “all licensed fool” or the satirist. Shakespeare references the court jester or fool in a number of his plays. Such characters were not immune from drawing the displeasure of the powerful. While Erasmus suggested: “They can speak truth and even open insults and be heard with positive pleasure… “, people with very fixed positions haven’t always appreciated being lampooned or sent-up in parody, even by their own appointed jesters. This was seen directly in the Tudor period with the likes of William Somers and Richard Tarleton.

While these “fools” worked to reveal truths and break through the fawning of sycophants surrounding kings and queens, the mocking seen by the US President is of a very different nature. In his adopting the guise of the Fool and Jester, he is assuming a weapon to strike on behalf of his power in quite the opposite way of the traditional Fool. He is not revealing anything more than his own ingrained prejudice and sociopathic nature. This is a very different kind of mocking and should not be confused with the genuine value of the satirist and Licensed Fool.

Education mottos and mission statements virtually no one uses while creating a culture of narcissism

Rajimpella Blog makes a helpful list of potential slogans and mottos for schools. Many of the terms will be familiar and utilized in many schools. Of themselves they make great sense for use in schools. However, one must wonder if the aim of education is to create competent life-long learning narcissists with no goal beyond personal and individual advancement!

Have a look at Rajimpella’s impressive list of mottos and slogans:

1. A Schools of Excellence
2. Better future starts here
3. Advancing human understanding
4. Aim for excellence
5. An education that lasts a lifetime
6. Believe bigger. Aim higher
7. Committed to Excellence in Teaching and Learning
8. Learn. Together
9. Developing the creative innovators of tomorrow
10. Dream big, Do right.11. Education that inspires
12. Enabling young Adults
13. Educating for human greatness.
14. Educating Students For Success In A Changing World.
15. Education – Your Door To The Future.
16. Education Is Our Business.
17. Empowering and inspiring all students to excel as life long learners.
18. Empowering students to become scholars.
19. Enabling Our Students To Learn.
20. Making Your Child’s World Better.
21. Modeling excellence.
22. Motivated achievers perform, learn, excel.
23. One school serving all.
24. Open the book of life.
25. We focus on learning. We respect ourselves and others.
26. A Great Place To Learn
27. Achieving Excellence Together
28. A Place Where Children Soar
29. Prepare to soar
30. Prepare to lead
31. Dare to be remarkable
32. Lead, inspire, make a difference
33. An opportunity for every underprivileged child
34. Learning for life
35. Succeeding together
36. Cultivating brilliant minds
37. Sowing the leaders for tomorrow
38. Breeding individuality
39. Beyond learning
40. Nurturing an exciting future for the world
41. Grow. Explore. Discover
42. The Future Begins Here!
43. A brighter future for all
44. Imagine greatness
45. A Family Of Learning
46. Where learning is fun
47. A foundation for the future
48. Imagine, create, participate
49. A Great Place For Education
50. A Great Place To Learn
51. A Partnership In Discovery
52. Be nice. Work hard
53. Creating Our Children’s Future
54. Educating for human greatness
55. Opening doors through literacy
56. Opportunities For Lifelong Learning
57. Touching Lives Forever
58. Where Love Is Shown Daily
59. Together for excellence
60. We Enter To Learn, Leave To Achieve”


Is there any school or educational institution that has as its motto:

“creating crap detectives” or

“removing culturally ingrained blinkers” or

“freeing the open mind” or

“subverting tyranny” or

“enhancing authority skepticism” or

“social regeneration” or

“creating cultures of reason and love” or

“striving for change” or

“embracing pain and hardship” or

“willingness for social and climate activism” and more?

to emphasize the responsibility each person has for each other and for the environment in which individuals, societies and cultures operate. Probably not!

Without a statement of purpose for individual linking to relational responsibility educational slogans and mottos risk simply orientating educational practice to the inherent narcissism of individual self-interest. Based within our slogans and mottos there needs to be recognition of harsh truths and social purpose. Without the focus on the harsher and darker sides of necessary resilience within a paradigm of responsibility, our population is doomed to a sense of failure leading to depression, anxiety, ennui and other forms of escapism.

Think about it …

New Year finger to the bullies

Teaching students how to use the bird

Recently I took the unusual step of explaining to students the appropriate use of the “Finger”. A New Year’s resolution might be to offer the literal and metaphoric “Finger” to bullies close up and the bullies on the International stage. Our young artists and society’s thinkers shouldn’t be made targets for Smugnatist bozos who attempt to rule our spaces and our planet. One is reminded of an episode of The Simpsons where Crusty the Clown entered politics. His platform mirrored the Scomos, Trumps and many of the other authoritarian populist arse-holes who deny science, rational thinking and evidence in pandering to ignorance and prejudice. So don’t hold back. Use the finger and be seen. Be silent if you wish but proudly display the finger.