Estragon: And if we dropped him? [Pause.] If we dropped him?
Vladimir: He’d punish us. [Silence. He looks at the tree.] Everything’s dead but the tree.

The original French version of Waiting for Godot was written in Paris between October 1948 and January 1949. This was a time of mass migration in Europe, when a flood of displaced humanity washed across the continent. It was a time of refugees, exiles, immigrants, fugitives, and transients. France settled more than 38,000 people who, for one reason or another, could not be repatriated. Australia took more than 180,000.

In 1953, there were still some 250,000 refugees awaiting resettlement in camps across Europe. These were the human leavings, the people deemed surplus to a world intent on reconstruction and forgetting: the elderly and the infirm, the crippled and the insane.

In January of that year, Godot premièred at the Théâtre de Babylone in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, across the road from the Lutetia, a luxury hotel that doubled as a refugee centre at the end of the war.

Of course, Beckett’s comic tale of two derelicts waiting vainly for the arrival of a mysterious stranger who will surely come today, or the day after, is not reducible to a bleakly sentimental refugee fantasy or metaphysical reflection on the conditions of displacement and abandonment. And yet, as a point of view on the play, it seems not only valid but indeed essential.

It is not, however, a point of view that seems to inform this new Wit’s End production. Instead, this is a frolic for auld lang syne, a celebration of old acquaintances and a meditation on reunion. This is announced in the first minutes of this production when Vladimir says cheerfully: ‘On the other hand what’s the good of losing heart now, that’s what I say. We should have thought of it a million years ago, in the seventies.’

It’s a minor change to the script – from the 1890s to the 1970s – but it points to the motivating impulse of the production and makes explicit the link to autobiographical experience. In 1976, John Jacobs and William Henderson played Vladimir and Estragon respectively in James McCaughey’s Pram Factory production. Here, forty-one years later, they are reprising the roles in a new version directed by Henderson and Shona Innes. The experienced cast also includes Tom Considine as a rather saturnine Lucky and Richard Bligh as a booming, ruddy-faced Pozzo. The role of the child anti-herald, always announcing the non-appearance of Godot, is shared between Jean and Sean Innes.

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It is a fine-looking production, but part of me wonders if its significance is only accessible to friends and fellow travellers, to comrade survivors of the decade of wine flagons and protest marches. In any case, it is not accessible to me. This is a decent version of one of the most durable plays of the twentieth century; what else to say except that they are all older now than they were. Time, as Pozzo assures us, has clearly not stopped.

This is the sort of production where the hats keep falling off at inopportune moments and need to be retrieved in order to get through the next bit of business; the sort of production where the performers are forever tangling themselves in Pozzo’s rope as they cross the stage; the sort where the bright nylon band of Lucky’s underwear shows above the waist of his ragged trousers. The room smells of fresh paint, and the stage floor squeaks like a basket of guinea pig pups. And yet it still works – well enough.

Waiting for GodotWilliam Henderson (left) and John Jacobs reprise their roles in Waiting for Godot more than forty years after James McCaughey's 1976 production (photographs by Ponch Hawkes and Brendan Hennessey)


The highlight is designer Julie Renton's eye-catching cyclorama backdrop. A clear, graded, late-evening sky of purples and blues and oranges encloses the performance space in a semi-circle, with the horizon a mere streak at floor level. The lone tree, which prompts the two vagrants to think of suicide, is negatively defined, a hollow cut out from the colours of the sky. Niklas Pajanti’s soft lighting suggests the all but imperceptible approach of night.

Henderson and Jacobs are relatively straightforward and unaffected in their depictions. There is little caricature or trampish colouration, and the rhythm is relaxed, though not exactly fluent. It is all made to seem as ordinary as possible. The performers play to the audience, and there is a fair bit of friendly interaction. Again, I wonder how much of this performance is really a kind of collective reflection on life in the little theatres of Melbourne.

As I looked into the empty space that represented the tree, I couldn’t help but think that all this was the merest outline of the real thing, and that what actually mattered at this moment was elsewhere. Perhaps that is the most Australian thing – the most parochial thing – about this production of a modern classic. On the night I attended, almost four thousand kilometres away, members of the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary were moving the remaining 328 asylum seekers at the decommissioned Manus Island detention centre to new camps, where, no doubt, the waiting will continue.

Wits' End, which is a new incarnation of Henderson’s Eleventh Hour Theatre, is based in the old Mission Hall at 170 Leicester Street, Fitzroy. It’s a fine building and a cosy theatre space. The streets around the theatre are pleasant and leafy. There was a storm during the performance, but by the time we emerged the streets were almost dry. It was a pleasant evening for a walk.

Waiting for Godot (Wits' End / Eleventh Hour Theatre) is written by Samuel Beckett and directed by William Henderson. The season continues at 170 Leicester Street, Fitzroy, until 16 December 2017. Performance attended, 24 November 2017.

ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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    The original French version of Waiting for Godot was written in Paris between October 1948 and January 1949. This was a time of mass migration in Europe, when a flood of displaced humanity washed across the continent. It was a time of refugees, exiles, immigrants, fugitives, and transients. France settled more than 38,000 ...

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Sunday, 26 November 2017 15:48

Books of the Year 2017

Michelle de Kretser

Pulse Points Books of the YearSybille Smith’s Mothertongue (Vagabond) is a thoughtful, brief memoir-in-essays, chiefly concerned with growing up between two places, Vienna and Sydney, and two languages, German and English. It speaks of loss and carves out recoveries (partial, provisional) in moving, lucid prose; a small gem.

In a big year for Australian novels, here’s a shout out for two collections of stories. Jennifer Down’s Pulse Points (Text Publishing, reviewed in ABR 9/17) consolidates her reputation as a remarkable young writer. Her stories are effortlessly global yet strongly anchored in place. They testify to Down’s remarkable powers of observation and her ability to create bleak but engaging worlds – the longer tales are especially potent. Tony Birch’s Common People (UQP, 9/17) also traffics in characters in difficult circumstances, but Birch is tender as well as unsentimental. This sturdily crafted collection, Birch’s best yet, offers illuminating, sometimes harrowing narratives that sing of solidarity and humour in hardscrabble lives.

Geordie Williamson

Draw Your Weapons Books of the YearIn a world where nations are more likely to militarise than to engage in dialogue, to build walls rather than open borders, Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons (Text Publishing, 8/17) is a formally elegant and intellectually rigorous argument for peace. Not a pacifist manifesto so much as a collage built from paradox and juxtaposition – from encounters with images of terror, war, and torture – whose total implication is clear. We in the affluent West cannot remain unsullied by refusing to look at evidence of the multiplying human disasters around us. Sentilles’ book inspires us to be more than we are, to live beyond our historical moment. Not a call to arms so much as a call to the writers’ pen.

Brenda Niall

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin Books of the YearIn too many biographies of political leaders the private self is lost, or not even sought. Like John Murphy’s subtle portrait of Herbert Evatt (NewSouth, 11/16), which revealed a complex human being, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (Text Publishing, 9/17) explores our second prime minister’s career with full attention to his intense inner life and family relationships. Her title points to the puzzles, but Brett doesn’t simplify; she ponders, suggests, dramatises. Closely observed and psychologically persuasive, this is more than a life-and-times; it is a life. Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible (Viking) looks like an elegy for small-town America, but the degree of loneliness Strout exposes puts paid to any easy notion of community. Strout’s interconnected short stories reveal the isolation of people who have known one another since childhood. As well as lies and secrets, gossip and harsh judgement, there are astonishing moments of compassion. A brilliant, disturbing work.

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Tom Griffiths

Call of the Reed Warbler ABR OnlineCharles Massy’s Call of the Reed Warbler: A new agriculture – a new earth (UQP, 10/17) is a revolutionary and lyrical story of a farmer’s journey towards ecological literacy. It is learned, wise, practical, and full of hope. Another impressive big book is Tony Hughes-d’Aeth’s Like Nothing on this Earth: A literary history of the wheatbelt (UWA Publishing, 6/17). It is a brilliant work of scholarship that effectively establishes a new genre; I hope it inspires more regional literary ecologies. Don’t miss Kieran Finnane’s honest, powerful, and sensitive report from the streets and camps of Alice Springs, Trouble: On trial in Central Australia (UQP). This is journalism of the highest calibre. And I love Alex Miller’s new novel, The Passage of Love (Allen & Unwin, 11/17), which delivers an enthralling fusion of fiction and memoir.

James McNamara

Home Fire Books of the YearI should nominate Twitter, because I spent much of the year in America reading and shouting at it. Offline, I hugely admired Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire (Bloomsbury, 10/17), a magnificent reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone that traces the impact of a brother’s radicalisation on his British-Pakistani family. Mohsin Hamid’s beautiful, magical realist Exit West (Hamish Hamilton) deftly humanises the refugees that Western governments are deftly trying to ignore. Robert Webb’s memoir, How Not To Be A Boy (Canongate, 12/17), is both hilarious and lip-wobblingly poignant. And, without meaning to sound too much of a (tweedy, threadbare) jetsetter, I missed the 2010 Australian release of Ashley Hay’s The Body In The Clouds (Washington Square) while I was living in London, but I delighted in its publication here in the States this year. So I’m going to count it for 2017 and direct some positive shouting towards Hay’s brilliant, multilayered work: ‘huzzah!’

Sheila Fitzpatrick

October Books of the YearIn China Miéville’s October: The story of the Russian Revolution (Verso, 10/17) – the liveliest of the centenary publications – the dramatic events of 1917 in Petrograd are related with some wistful regret that things didn’t turn out better. Sarah Dowse’s As The Lonely Fly (For Pity’s Sake, 6/17) is a twentieth-century Jewish family saga encompassing Russia, America, and Palestine – a moving story that makes you think. Chris Hilliard’s The Littlehampton Libels. A miscarriage of justice and a mystery about words in 1920s England (OUP) is a real-crime scholarly history, but Agatha Christie fans should love it. It’s Christie’s world, and those dogged and courteous police officers turn out to be real.

Paul Giles

A long way from home Books of the YearDennis C. Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the friendship that shaped modern thought (Princeton) is a lively and readable account of how two Scottish philosophers conspired to subvert many nostrums of Western culture during the late Enlightenment era. Peter Carey’s A Long Way from Home (Hamish Hamilton, 11/17) is an important novel that treats relations between white Australian and Indigenous cultures through a framework of dark postmodernist humour. Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come (Allen & Unwin, 10/17) sensually incarnates her themes of travel and displacement in a work of fiction that brilliantly evokes the climate, smells, and cuisine of Sydney. And Tracey Moffatt: My horizon, edited by Natalie King (Thames & Hudson) brings together Moffatt’s provocative visual exhibition for the 2017 Venice Biennale with a collection of essays from Alexis Wright and others that testifies to the enduring importance of Moffatt’s oeuvre.

Sarah Holland-Batt

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky Books of the YearFay Zwicky’s death was keenly felt among poets and readers of poetry earlier this year, so it is a bittersweet joy to see all of her terse, tough, magnificently spiky poems gathered in one volume. The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky (UWAP) reveals a poet whose oeuvre was the product of what she calls ‘the dissenting imagination’; her poems concern themselves deeply with the ethical realm, but also grapple profoundly with agnosticism and doubt. This meticulously edited collection offers all seven of Zwicky’s books, along with a substantial selection of new and uncollected poems at the end; it is a pleasure to be able to read her life’s work in order and trace how her relentlessly contemporary late style developed. ‘Let us talk of now,’ she said in her masterwork ‘Kaddish’, and her poems follow suit. This indelible collection will be treasured everywhere by those who love poetry.

Susan Sheridan

The Unknown Judith Wright Books of the YearAs one of the Miles Franklin Award judges, I spend the first part of the year reading Australian novels published in the previous year, after which I set out to catch up on other contemporary fiction. Kamila Shamsie’s latest novel, Home Fire, bowled me over: it is a brilliant rewriting of the story of Antigone, set mainly in London, about two families destroyed by jihad and anti-Muslim politics. Apart from fiction, two new titles from university presses – Georgina Arnott’s The Unknown Judith Wright (UWA Publishing, 11/16) and Thea Astley: Selected poems, edited by Cheryl Taylor (UQP, 11/17) – provide fascinating insights into the earliest work of these two giants of twentieth-century Australian literature.

Frank Bongiorno

A Fuhrer for a Father Books of the YearTwo books exploring father–son relationships in the context of changing masculinities and gay life stand out. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Sparsholt Affair (Picador) is as profound as you would expect from this Man Booker winner. Beginning in Oxford in 1940 and stretching over seventy years, Hollinghurst lovingly evokes period detail without allowing it to overwhelm the absorbing drama of lived intimacies. Jim Davidson’s memoir, A Führer for a Father: The domestic face of colonialism (NewSouth, 9/17), by one of Australia’s leading cultural historians and biographers, explores with enviable subtlety the connections between British imperial rule and the patriarchy of a man inside a family. Judith Brett’s excellent The Enigmatic Mr Deakin introduces this Federation-era giant to a modern audience: a timely reminder of the achievements and failings of a century ago, and perfect summer reading for any Australian politician whose aspirations rise above seat-warming.

Bernadette Brennan

Lincoln in the Bardo Books of the YearI am currently judging an Australian literary award, so will refrain from nominating some of this year’s brilliant Australian fiction. Melanie Joosten’s A Long Time Coming: Essays on old age (Scribe) is an important, moving collection of essays on ageing, mortality, and the ethics of writing. Arundhati Roy’s huge – in every sense of the word – The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Hamish Hamilton, 6/17) and George Saunders’s lyrical Lincoln in the Bardo (Bloomsbury, 3/17) extend the novel’s form superbly. Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire takes us deep inside the psychology of a disaffected Muslim youth, and draws us into a complex world of loss, pain, filial piety, and (largely destructive) duty. My favourite book of the year is Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible. What a thrill to be returned to the richly extended world of Lucy Barton and her narrative people.

Tony Hughes-d’Aeth

‘I found myself immeasurably and inexplicably moved’, to use the words of one of its ghostly narrators, by George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo. While it is a novel that is bold in its formal innovations, these never overpower the simple, heartrending premise of a father’s raw grief for the death of his eleven-year-old son. Closer to home, I had my unfairly high expectations met by Kim Scott’s novel Taboo (Picador, 8/17), in which the problems of reconciliation between settler and indigene in Australia were slowly and slyly circled, then seized with breathtaking precision. Both novels rose to a similar challenge, the challenge of all serious literature, which is to narrate the unnarratable.


Felicity Plunkett

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness Books of the YearMy list begins with the latest dazzling novel by Ali Smith. Winter (Hamish Hamilton) is the second in a proposed series of four seasonal novels and follows the crisp and crackling Autumn (Hamish Hamilton, 1/17). Set between life and death, closeness and solitude, the mythological and the contemporary, it shimmers with snow crystals, etymology, and thaw. Smith’s winter is ‘an exercise in how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again’. I found Arundhati Roy’s sprawling, magnificent The Ministry of Utmost Happiness a demanding and compelling assemblage of ‘a shattered story’. I have begun Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come and am thrilled by the shape of her every sentence and her acute wit and insight. And Reinhard Kleist’s Nick Cave: Mercy on me (SelfMadeHero) is a rollicking confabulation exploring the Nick Cave universe, all myth, slash, and swagger.

Shannon Burns

The Last Days of Jeanne DArc Books of the YearI particularly enjoyed three works of Australian fiction: Kim Scott’s Taboo combines aesthetic and moral seriousness with unusual success, and is a worthy follow-up to his two Miles Franklin-winning novels. His is a truly generative and urgent brand of fiction. Tony Birch’s Common People is a collection of stylistically unadorned yet artfully wrought stories. Birch hones in on protagonists and communities rarely glimpsed in contemporary Australian literature. Ali Alizadeh’s The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc (Giramondo, 10/17) is lightly experimental and emotionally rich – the kind of novel that invites and rewards close attention without forcing the matter.

On the non-fiction front, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-year untold history of class in America (Allen & Unwin) – which documents the social history of the ‘waste’ people transported from Britain to the United States – was particularly eye-opening.

James Walter

No End of a Lesson Books of the YearGeorge Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, a cascade of voices observing, mourning, and denying death, is a literary high wire act. The peril of an adventurous literary conceit teetering so close to extremes as to threaten collapse kept me reading: the most arresting novel of the year. Judith Brett achieves something rare in political biography: a synthesis of the public life with the beliefs, doubts, private struggles, and spiritual inquiry that made The Enigmatic Mr Deakin our most intriguing prime minister. She rescues Alfred Deakin from recent ahistorical readings of his ‘Australian settlement’. Not only politically minded but also general readers perplexed by the collapse of confidence in public institutions should read Stuart Macintyre, André Brett, and Gwylim Croucher’s No End of a Lesson: Australia’s unified system of higher education (Melbourne University Press) A compelling narrative history of John Dawkins’s revolution in higher education, it is a revelatory instantiation of the intentions, achievements, and unforeseen consequences of recent policy reform.

Jen Webb

Their Brilliant Careers Books of the YearTara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx (Carcanet), a wonderfully angry, self-deprecatingly funny yet tragic collection of poems, reflects on women’s lives in fiction and in history. Bergin gives voice to famous people, fairytales, and folklore in her rhythmic, beautifully disturbing collection.

Vahni Capildeo’s chapbook Seas and Trees (Recent Work Press) is crammed with vivid images, and language that shimmers and sings. It presents a landscape of possible universes where ‘trees had evolved to eat other trees’, where the familiar sea becomes strange and unknowable. Supple, subtle, marvellous.

Ryan O’Neill’s Their Brilliant Careers: The fantastic lives of sixteen extraordinary Australian writers (Black Inc., 8/16) is probably the funniest literary novel since Tristram Shandy. This unmerciful lampooning of ‘extraordinary Australian writers’ – barely disguised, bizarrely intertwined – doubles as a parodic, playful workshop in OzLit, and a portrait of the literary community and its politics.

David McCooey

The Memory of Music Books of the YearAndrew Ford’s memoir of his extraordinary life in music, The Memory of Music (Black Inc.), seems somehow effortless, but it’s also profound, deeply moving, and often very funny. The ‘composer’s memoir’ might be a niche category, but Ford’s is a classic of the genre.

In Australian poetry, The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky shows what an uncompromising and playful poet Zwicky was. Meanwhile, I loved Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments (Graywolf). Only ninety pages long, Manguso’s book brilliantly extends the literary possibilities of the ancient form of the aphorism. And talking of brevity and renewal, Fleur Jaeggy’s wafer-thin These Possible Lives (New Directions) reinvents the biographical essay. In Jaeggy’s hands, the lives of John Keats, Thomas de Quincey, and Marcel Schwob become nightmarish and uncanny prose poems. Happily, the year also saw the appearance of a new collection of Jaeggy’s stories, I Am the Brother of XX (New Directions).

Fiona Wright

One of my favourite books this year felt like a call to arms: Briohny Doyle’s Adult Fantasy (Scribe). Doyle’s book is about how difficult it is for our generation to come to terms with our own adulthood, because so many of the markers of that stage – a house, a stable career, a marriage – are so often unavailable to us; the book seemed to articulate something (some things) that I’d been feeling, vaguely, for years. It’s smart and funny and fierce, but never angry or divisive – it isn’t interested in the intergenerational slanging wars that so often categorise this kind of discussion in the media (there’s nary an avocado toast in sight), rather, in a much more personal muddling through that’s somehow still hopeful and affirming and bold.

James Ley

Age of Anger Books of the YearThis year I particularly enjoyed reading Laurent Binet’s witty and irreverent novel The 7th Function of Language (Vintage), a parodic thriller that pokes fun at the influential cohort of French philosophers and literary critics (Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, et al.) whose work colonised the humanities in the latter decades of the last century. In a rather more serious vein, I also enjoyed thinking about the arguments proposed in Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A history of the present (Penguin), which seeks to understand the political volatility of our own time by tracing its origins all the way back to the eighteenth century. It is an impassioned and rather narrowly focused book that draws some long bows, but one that nevertheless contains important insights.

My final hat-tip is to Wayne Macauley’s Some Tests (Text Publishing), a subtle and quietly moving novel about illness and death. Macauley’s stylised and artfully paced narrative, which gradually takes on a dreamlike quality, is a fine example of his ability to evoke the inchoate sense of dissatisfaction and existential disquiet that lurks beneath the surface of contemporary life.

Nicholas Jose

The Windy Season Books of the YearI loved the mix of vaunting ambition, vendetta, and sheer madness in Their Brilliant Careers, Ryan O’Neill’s wicked re-imagining of Australian literary history. A weird mob, these great writers. O’Neill acknowledges Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas as essential background, and Vivian Darkbloom walks on wonderfully from Nabokov. Satire is its own reward. Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 8/16) is darkly comedic, too, combining formal inventiveness with a poker face in a particularly sharp collection of short stories. ‘The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man’ is surely a classic. Then there is Sam Carmody’s The Windy Season (Allen & Unwin, 11/16), an emotionally charged novel that kept me awake at night, raw and self-scrutinising in its exploration of the ‘toxic masculinity’ in a West Australian fishing town, scarier than any shark.

Jill Jones

Equipment for Living Books of the YearMany terrific Australian poetry books have been released this year – how to choose? I was impressed by volumes from many small, indeed, micro publishers, such as Sydney’s Subbed In. But Alison Croggon’s New and Selected Poems 1991–2017 (Newport Street Books) is a long overdue highlight, a deliberate reconfiguration of her poetry, thus, a ‘new’ work. Croggon, again, shows us how to do things with lyric in ways I can only envy. Fleur Jaeggy’s These Possible Lives reads like meticulous yet dreamlike collage. The essay on John Keats is worth the price of admission alone. Equipment for Living: On poetry and pop music (Simon & Schuster) by Michael Robbins is an intense, if at times overheated, exploration of the consolations of poetry and music. He’ll never get me to love metal, but his Basho-to-Rhianna ‘playlist’ is a smart coda.

Mark Edele

The Unwomanly Face of War Books of the YearEvgeny Finkel’s eloquent Ordinary Jews: Choice and survival during the Holocaust (Princeton) shows how serious historical research can benefit from the perspective of a political scientist. Claire L. Shaw’s Deaf in the USSR: Marginality, community, and Soviet identity, 1917–1991 (Cornell) is a landmark in the history of disability and the Soviet welfare state. A stunning first book, it covers the entire Soviet experience from a thought-provoking perspective. Svetlana Alexievich’s The Unwomanly Face of War (Penguin, 11/17) was published in Russian in 1985 and in a hard-to-get English translation in 1988. This stunning oral history remains unsurpassed. Finally, it is back in print. Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex (Icon Books), finally, makes short work of scientific sexism. Male evolutionary biologists sometimes claim that men evolved to be promiscuous because they can, allegedly, make 100 babies a year with 100 different women. The schedule involved would be punishing, as Fine points out.

Morag Fraser

Light and Shadow Books of the Year Australians should long remember Mark Colvin – for his authoritative ABC voice (its British modulations raised Bob Hawke’s hackles) and his exemplary integrity as both radio presenter and foreign correspondent. So the publication of Light and Shadow: Memoirs of a spy’s son (Melbourne University Press, 3/17), a few months before Colvin’s untimely death, was an unexpected bonus – revealing the extraordinary life behind that Radio National sangfroid. Colvin, committed journalist and seeker after truth, was the loving – and loved – son of a Cold War MI6 spy. I found his story psychologically complex and professionally inspiring.

Alex Miller’s new novel The Passage of Love is capacious, wise, and startlingly honest about human frailty and the permutations of love over time. Frankly autobiographical, it is also a work of fully achieved fiction, ripe with experience, double-voiced, peopled with unpredictable men and women, and set in Miller landscapes that characteristically throb with life.

Glyn Davis

An Odysee Books of the YearFor sympathy and insight, Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a welcome contribution to analysis of Australian politics. A difficult subject, often deliberately elusive, is captured with skill. Through close and compelling reading of Deakin’s private writing, Brett brings to life his political thinking and spiritual wrestling. An important book.

For sheer reading pleasure, Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey: a father, a son, and an epic (Knopf) is compelling. This classical scholar leads us through a semester teaching The Odyssey with his father in the classroom, reflecting on parallels between Odyssey and Telemachus while he displays the hidden weaving in Homer’s text.

Alice Oswald is a precise and powerful poet. Her latest collection, Falling Awake (W.W. Norton), is about change in the natural world, with reflections that speak to motion among people. The opening poem about rain, ‘A Short History of Falling’, approaches perfection.

Anna MacDonald

Blind Spot Books of the YearA number of books have remained with me this year. Teju Cole’s captivating collection, Blind Spot (Faber & Faber, 11/17) rewards slow reading. Cole’s photographs are presented in abstract relation to short texts that read as part prose poem, part metaphysical investigation, and part memory fragment. The whole is often heart-stopping. Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is challenging in the most necessary sense. A polyphonic epic, this novel incorporates stories of hijra, Kashmiri rebels, Guajarati Muslims, and is clearly a counterpoint to Roy’s political activism. Beverley Farmer’sThis Water: Five tales (Giramondo, 6/17) is a lyrical and resonantly interwoven rewriting of myth, fairytale, and folklore. Farmer’s last work, This Water affirms her place among Australian literature’s pre-eminent stylists. And Eley Williams’s collection, Attrib. and other stories (Influx Press), playful and genuinely original, is a joy to read.

Gregory Day

Staying with the Trouble Books of the YearArundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness has been misread by some critics as being untidy and too polemical. But well-kept gloom or neat literary dystopias won’t satisfy this reading heart. Roy has said that her return to fiction was prompted by a frustration at ‘winning the argument but losing the battle’. Well, her return has produced the most virtuosic and emotionally affecting response to our era’s profit-driven barbarities that I know of. In many ways it makes real some of the ideas prescribed by ground-breaking Californian academic Donna Haraway in her Staying With The Trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene (Duke). Like Roy, Haraway is responding directly to our age with what could be described as a permacultural approach to organising human society. Staying With The Trouble sits alongside Charles Massy’s wonderful The Call of The Reed Warbler as the most regenerative non-fiction stimulants I digested this year.

Patrick Allington

Sarah Sentilles’s Draw Your Weapons, a word collage, is a complex and original reaction to violence, warfare, and conscientious objection: I’m still thinking about it, still dipping back into it. Judith Brett’s The Enigmatic Mr Deakin is a reminder that meticulous scholarship can also be elegantly written. Kim McGrath’s Crossing the Line: Australia’s secret history in the Timor Sea (Redback) chronicles decades of Australian misbehaviour, notwithstanding developments since the book was published in August 2017. The quarterly Mekong Review continues to impress with its mix of Southeast Asian-related criticism, analysis, reportage, fiction, poetry, and more.

Susan Wyndham

A writing life Books of the YearWe’ve had a feast of Helen Garner with her reissued Stories and True Stories (Text Publishing) for her seventy-fifth birthday, and Bernadette Brennan’s ingenious A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (Text Publishing, 5/17), which gets around the subject’s resistance to biography by viewing her life through her writing, as Garner herself does. Michelle de Kretser warns that The Life to Come may be her last novel. If so, I will miss her mastery of metaphor, her laser insight into the yearnings and pretensions of characters – writers, shopkeepers, travellers; friends, lovers, neighbours – and her scrutiny at once of the domestic minutiae and the global context of their lives.

Living with a bird-watcher, I welcomed The Australian Bird Guide by Peter Menkhorst et al. (CSIRO Publishing, 10/17) as a gorgeous lure to spend more time in nature.

Andrew Fuhrmann

The Last Garden Books of the YearI am enthusiastic about the two new Fleur Jaeggy translations published by New Directions this year – a collection of essays called These Possible Lives and a collection of stories called I Am the Brother of XX. Everyone seems to be talking about this enigmatic Swiss writer, now in her late seventies, and with good reason. Two Australian novels stand out. The first, Eva Hornung’s The Last Garden (Text, 6/17), is a cut black gem of a book: beautiful, compact, and sinister. The other, Michelle de Kretser’s The Life to Come, overflows with intelligent, incisive observations about identity, imagination, and privilege. I am currently working my way through The Tracker (Giramondo) by Alexis Wright, and it’s proving something of a revelation. It’s both an exhaustive account of the life and work of activist Tracker Tilmouth and, crucially, an experimental form of ‘collective’ memoir.

Beejay Silcox

Drawing Sybylla Books of the YearMy literary heart belongs to the rule breakers – to the form smashers and narrative knotters. George Saunders’s first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, won me over early and easily this year with his fragmented tale of Abraham Lincoln’s transcendent grief for his lost son. A novel haunted by its spectral cast, but also by the ghost of an American future yet to come. Sarah Sentilles’ tender collage essay Draw Your Weapons was an unexpected marvel: equal parts treatise, history, meditation, and prayer. Her premise – that art can vitiate violence – is unapologetically idealistic and deeply necessary. Closer to home, Odette Kelada’s début novel, Drawing Sybylla (UWA Publishing, 12/17), was a mercurial wonder, illuminating the inner lives of Australia’s women writers. And finally, The Sarah Book (Tyrant Books) – an almighty wallop of a book. I wouldn’t have encountered its author, West Virginian Scott McClanahan, had I not lived just across the state line – I’m deeply glad I did.

Bronwyn Lea

Lionel Fogarty Books of the YearRobert Hass’s handsome Little Book on Form: An exploration into the formal imagination of poetry (Ecco) begins: ‘A single line is a naked thing. It is both light and heavy. It is, obviously, the basic unit of all lyric forms.’ I could read his prose all night long. One of the contemporary masters of the line is Alice Oswald, whose Falling Awake is ever awake to the repetitions of the natural world. In a hat-tip to Wallace Stevens, ‘Slowed-Down Blackbird’ ends with her blackbird on the edge ‘trying over and over its broken line’. Also in pride of place on my bookshelf are The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky and Lionel Fogarty: Selected poems 1980–2017 ( ‘Do yourself a favour’, Fogarty says borrowing from a Stevie Wonder song – ‘educate your mind’.

Marilyn Lake

The most imaginative Australian history at present comes from young women, who locate our past in a wider world. Sophie Loy-Wilson’s Australians in Shanghai: Race, rights and nation in Treaty Port China (Routledge), an evocative account of the transnational lives and chaotic mobility that challenged the White Australia Policy, prompts us to rethink national history. Katherine Ellinghaus’s fine study, Blood Will Tell: Native Americans and assimilation policy (Nebraska) digs deep into American archival sources to show how ideas about ‘mixed-blood’ facilitated the white take-over of Indian land. In locating her subject in a broader consideration of settler colonialism, Ellinghaus helps us to understand the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in Australia. Further afield, I recommend Harvard historian David Armitage’s Civil Wars: A history in ideas (Yale). It reminds us that civil wars are now the most common kind of warfare and refugees – including the almost five million from Syria – their most vulnerable victims.

John Hawke

Fibrils Books of the YearMichel Leiris’s Fibrils (Yale) is the third and latest volume in Lydia Davis’s translations of Rules of the Game, his ground-breaking experiment in ‘creative non-fiction’. A meditation on the relationship between literature and politics, set against the 1950s background of a visit to Mao’s China, Leiris’s self-excoriating writing includes a description of his own suicide attempt. This year saw the first visit to Australia by legendary US anthologist, Jerome Rothenberg: a new and expanded fiftieth-anniversary edition of Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred (California), described by Nick Cave as ‘the greatest anthology of poetry ever created’, has just appeared. Among local poetry, Lionel Fogarty’s Selected Poems gathers the best work of this important Indigenous poet in a single volume. Also recommended are three volumes by younger authors, Matthew Hall’s First Fruits (Cordite), Bella Li’s Argosy (Vagabond), and Oscar Schwartz’s The Honeymoon Stage (Giramondo), each of which indicates intriguing new directions for our literature.

Catherine Noske

The Museum of Modern Love Books of the YearI was fascinated this year by Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love (Allen & Unwin), and thought it a deserving winner of the Stella Prize. More recently, I’ve been enthralled by Alexis Wright’s ‘collective memoir’ The Tracker, which is creative and important, challenging expectations of the biographical form. Weaving several voices together in a unique cultural history focused on the life of Tracker Tilmouth, Wright’s work is testament to the power of Indigenous modes of storytelling. Finally, this year’s poetry titles from UWA Publishing have been exciting; of the eight offerings from their series, Nathanael O’Reilly’s Preparations for Departure stood out for me. Separately from UWA Publishing came The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky, poignantly released only days before Fay passed away. Edited with love and subtlety by Lucy Dougan and Tim Dolin, it is a rich body of work from an important poet.

Suzy Freeman-Greene

On John Marsden Books of the YearIn Being Here: The life of Paula Modersohn-Becker (Text Publishing), French author Marie Darrieussecq animates the short life of a passionate German artist with vivid, spare prose. The first woman to paint herself naked and pregnant, Modersohn-Becker died in 1907, at the age of thirty-one, soon after giving birth. This taut biography, written in the present tense, has the urgency and poignancy of the best novels.

In Draw Your Weapons, Sarah Sentilles reflects on war, art, the ethics of looking, and how we should respond to the violence governments enact in our name. Sentilles mounts her argument with an accumulation of detail, employing metaphor rather than polemic. Her examination of drone warfare is especially powerful.

Alice Pung’s On John Marsden (Black Inc.) is ostensibly a tribute to an author of Young Adult novels. But this wise, political, heartfelt essay is about so much more.

Kerryn Goldsworthy

The Trauma Cleaner Books of the YearMohsin Hamid’s Booker-shortlisted Exit West uses an unexpected fantasy device to disrupt a mode of realism so precise and sharply focused that it would feel like reportage if not for some truly breathtaking writing. His style builds ideas into its very grammar, and gives its account of a world in conflict an extra dimension of meaning and reflection — and sometimes a horrible beauty as well. Closer to home, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay and disaster (Text Publishing) is a superbly written book about the redoubtable Sandra Pankhurst and her work as a trauma cleaner: someone who cleans up after hoarders, murders, meth labs, and suicides. This is the startling life story of Pankhurst, a trans woman with a heart the size of Uluru, written in Krasnostein’s irresistibly warm, frank, intelligent voice as she describes sites of sadness and horror that take the reader straight to the dark heart of the human condition.

Geoff Page

Transparencies Books of the YearTo narrow the excellent new Australian poetry collections I’ve read so far this year down to four is an almost arbitrary exercise. Among them, however, would have to be Clive James’s unerringly formal and poignant Injury Time (Picador). A comparable technical achievement is Stephen Edgar’s Transparencies (Black Pepper, 8/17). Edgar’s cleverly rhymed poems often end in a single powerful image, leaving us with an awareness of the poem as a resonant whole. A third highly formal book is Euclid’s Dog by Jordie Albiston (GloriaSMH). It’s a pleasure to be carried along by her unfailing metres – and to be surprised by the unpredictable internal rhymes which have so long been a part of her armoury. Melinda Smith has an innate feeling for irony and humour but can also produce poems of extreme tenderness and emotional depth. Her new collection, Goodbye, Cruel (Pitt Street Poetry), displays all of these and more.

Jane Sullivan

Half Wild Books of the YearSometimes a year produces a novel that is head and shoulders above everything else, and for me that was George Saunders’s wonderfully weird Lincoln in the Bardo. It reads like a play of fragments performed by ghosts; it weaves historical accounts, fiction and mythology into an inextricable tangle; it is outrageously grotesque, satirical, comical, scary, and poignant. How daring a writer he is: and how well he shows our lack of daring, our skill at deluding ourselves, even beyond death.

Plenty of bold new Australian writing, but perhaps the standout was a first novel that dared to tackle a rich but hugely challenging subject. Pip Smith’sHalf Wild (Allen & Unwin, 12/17) transforms the true story of a transgender man accused of murdering his wife into something far beyond the sensational: it is a sensitive examination of a secret life that for all its subtlety also conjures a sense of rollicking adventure.

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    To celebrate the best books of 2017 Australian Book Review invited nearly forty contributors to nominate their favourite titles. Contributors include Michelle de Kretser, Susan Wyndham, James Ley, Geordie Williamson, Jane Sullivan, Tom Griffiths, Mark Edele, and Brenda Niall.

In the late 1950s, when he was a fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Learning, George Steiner overheard the legendary J. Robert Oppenheimer, at that time head of the Institute, dressing down a young physicist outside his door: ‘You are so young,’ boomed the father of the atomic bomb, ‘and you have already done so little!’  The story appears most recently in A Long Saturday, a series of conversations between Steiner and the French journalist and biographer Laure Adler, but it is one he has told several times before as a kind of apology for his own unflagging industry as an educator, critic, essayist, and novelist. ‘After comments like that,’ he reflects, ‘you could only hang yourself.’

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  • Custom Article Title Andrew Fuhrmann reviews 'A Long Saturday: Conversations' by George Steiner and Laure Adler
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    In the late 1950s, when he was a fellow at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Learning, George Steiner overheard the legendary J. Robert Oppenheimer, at that time head of the Institute, dressing down a young physicist outside his door: ‘You are so young,’ boomed the father of the atomic bomb, ‘and you have already done so little!’  The story appears ...

  • Book Title A Long Saturday
  • Book Author George Steiner and Laure Adler
  • Book Subtitle Conversations
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio University of Chicago Press (Footprint), $44.99 hb, 144 pp, 9780226350387

A persistent fascination attaches to those who help break the new wood, and so it is with Bernard Smith (1916–2011). His contribution is foundational to the study of the arts in Australia. Smith was for more than sixty years the country’s leading art historian, but he was also an educator, curator, newspaper critic, collector, memoirist, and biographer. Even as an artist his work has acquired an aura of significance. When I was last at the National Gallery of Australia, one of the large and rather tenebrous canvases he painted in the early 1940s was hanging alongside work by James Gleeson as an example of early Australian surrealism.

The Legacies of Bernard Smith arose from a series of symposia held at the University of Melbourne and the Power Institute in 2012, a year after Smith’s death at the age of ninety-four. There are twenty-one chapters in all, covering many and various topics. It is an interesting collection, but I suspect that we still don’t have a clear vantage on Smith’s long and distinguished career, and that there is much more to say about his influence.

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  • Custom Article Title Andrew Fuhrmann reviews 'The Legacies of Bernard Smith: Essays on Australian Art, history and cultural politics' edited by Jaynie Anderson, Christopher R. Marshall, and Andrew Yip
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  • Book Author Jaynie Anderson, Christopher R. Marshall, and Andrew Yip
  • Book Subtitle Essays on Australian Art, history and cultural politics
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  • Biblio Power Publications $39.99 pb, 372 pp, 9780994306432

Is it surprising that Jeff Sparrow should write a book on Paul Robeson, the great American singer who was also a civil rights activist, a man of the left, and the most celebrated Othello of the twentieth century? Sparrow is a broadcaster and columnist, but he is also the immediate past editor of Overland, a literary journal dedicated to a mixed diet of – as Billy Bragg might say – pop and progressive politics, a magazine where reports on workers’ rights sit next to think pieces on Kanye West and the 2020 presidential election.

So why not write about Paul Robeson? He was, after all, at one time the most famous African American entertainer on the planet: almost the Kanye of his generation. Indeed, Robeson’s excess of talent still boggles the mind. The son of an escaped slave, he was a football star, a formidable orator, a virtuoso linguist, and a singer and actor of immense power. He fundamentally changed the way the world looked at black performers on stage, and to a lesser extent, on screen. When he played Othello in London in 1930, opposite Peggy Ashcroft, it was the first time that a non-white had played Othello in London since Ira Aldridge in 1825. He reprised the role in 1943 on Broadway with Uta Hagen in a production that still holds the record for the longest-running Shakespeare production in the United States. He was also an impassioned socialist with an instinctive sympathy for the underdog. He campaigned tirelessly for racial equality and the rights of working men and women everywhere. He was an uncompromising opponent of fascism, and toured Spain during the Civil War, singing for Republican troops at Tarazona and in hospitals at Murcia and Benicàssim.

To tell this story – or partially tell it – Sparrow scampers around the world, visiting the places Paul Robeson visited, using key moments in the great man’s life to reflect on a clutch of contemporary hot-button political and cultural issues. From Harlem to London, Cardiff to Barcelona, and then Moscow, Sparrow stays in the same hotels that Robeson stayed in and walks the same streets, searching for traces of a lost spirit, as if there were salvation in emulation.

He visits Robeson’s childhood home near Princeton and discovers that the area no longer seems so run-down or poor. Much has changed for African Americans since Robeson was a boy, but some changes have only ensured that things stay the same. In 1850 there were nearly 900,000 adult men enslaved in America; today, almost one million African American males languish in jail. ‘To put it another way,’ writes Sparrow, ‘more black people were deprived of their liberty in the twenty-first century than at the height of slavery, a comparison absolutely astonishing and deeply depressing.’

In Wales, Sparrow meets a woman who teaches local schoolchildren about Robeson’s special relationship with Welsh mining communities and culture. He admires her project, but is disappointed that her students are not also taught about the socialist ideals Robeson subscribed to. What a shame, he sometimes seems to say, that today Robeson is celebrated for his accomplishments as an artist rather than for his commitment to collectivity.

Robeson Hagen Othello 280Paul Robeson as Othello and Uta Hagen as Desdemona, Theatre Guild Production, Broadway, 1943–44 (Wikimedia Commons)There are moments in this book when Sparrow does not seem on top of his material. To take just one example among many: he declares that Othello is ‘the one Shakespearean role marked as non-white’, despite the fact that there is a long interview here with Hugh Quarshie, who played Othello for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but also played Aaron the Moor in the BBC Shakespeare Titus Andronicus (1985).

Slips and misunderstandings like this add to the impression that Jeff Sparrow is more interested in his own anguish over challenges facing the left than he is in Robeson or his historical context. This book takes its place as part of a broader wave of retrospection and soul searching among veterans of the left who are struggling to comprehend activist movements where identity categories loom large, the politics of privilege-checking dominates, and where working-class perspectives are withered away to nothing.

It is against this background that Sparrow points his lesson. After World War II, Robeson became a victim of anti-communist paranoia in the United States. An impenitent Soviet sympathiser, his career was curtailed for more than a decade. For Sparrow, this is the inspirational high point of the Paul Robeson story. The most successful black man of his generation sacrificed it all for the sake of his principles and his vision of a better future, refusing to compromise or concede or in any way scrape for the government bullies.

No Way but This finishes on a melancholy note as Sparrow tours Russia, attempting to fathom Robeson’s admiration for the Soviet system. It is remarkable to think that in 1938 Robeson enrolled his son in a model school in Moscow, where he studied alongside the daughters of Stalin and Molotov. As Sparrow wanders in his heartfelt, gloomy way around the ruins of old gulags, he muses on continuities between Russia then and now.

Paul Robeson 1942 280Paul Robeson in 1942 (photograph by Gordon Parks, Office of War Information, Wikimedia Commons)In the end, Sparrow finds solace in Robeson’s firm belief in a better world to come. He must have started writing this book at a time when it seemed as though America’s first black president would be succeeded by its first female president. Instead, we have Donald Trump, a president whose admiration for Vladimir Putin is an ongoing puzzle. In this context, Sparrow’s final gestures of uplift and hope seem rhetorical.

Robeson may have been blinded by the legacy of American racism and by the monumental sacrifice of the Russians in World War II. Still, it is baffling that he did not denounce the Communist Party in 1956 over Hungary, like Overland’s founding editor Stephen Murray-Smith. It is also terribly sad that in the early 1960s, when black actors like Sidney Poitier were finally conquering Hollywood, Robeson, who should have been their patriarch, was lost in a maze of mental affliction.

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  • Custom Article Title Andrew Fuhrmann reviews 'No Way but This: In Search of Paul Robeson' by Jeff Sparrow
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  • Book Author Jeff Sparrow
  • Book Subtitle In Search of Paul Robeson
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  • Biblio Scribe, $32.99 pb, 304 pp, 9781925321852

Quicksilver begins in magniloquence, like the prophet Isaiah. It was the cold midwinter season, we are told, when Nicolas Rothwell began his days of journeying, driving west from Papunya in the Northern Territory towards Marble Bar in Western Australia. ‘The roads were empty: for the best part of a week I saw no trace of man and his works.’ As he drove, he thought about the last expedition of Colonel Warburton, the first European explorer to cross the continent west from the centre. He remembered how Warburton, after eight months labouring through the Great Sandy Desert, camped by the dry bed of the Oakover River and there witnessed a marvel beyond all expectation. ‘To our great surprise,’ Warburton wrote in his diary, ‘we were awakened at 3am by the roaring of running water.’ In the morning, they discovered that the landscape had been transformed by a fast-moving flood some 300 metres wide. For in the wilderness shall waters break out, said the prophet, and streams in the desert.

Quicksilver is a book about the sacred and its relationship to the world of the profane. It is a collection of six essays exploring the many dim passages and hidden transits between the human world, the world of nature, and the mysteries of whatever lies beyond. Some of these essays have appeared before, but here they are allowed to expand and grow, sprawl and cascade.

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  • Biblio Text Publishing $29.99 hb, 200 pp, 9781925355574

Tissues on the sofa

Dear Editor,
I’m pleased that Peter Craven found so much to enjoy in The Boy behind the Curtain (ABR, December 2016). Winton always writes good – though somewhat deliberate, even mannered – prose. But in my view his work has become a kind of sacred cow in this country: no one seems willing to write a critical review of it. Craven’s is a case in point, fawning to a fault.

The Boy behind the Curtain200pxThere are some good things about the book, as your reviewer says; but there are problematic areas, too, and Craven is reluctant to identify them. This is a memoir: you expect it to be personal. But it is far too emotionally indulgent. Winton, in this book and in others, wallows. Even his political commitments rarely go beyond his own outrage and sadness. Emotional intelligence is valuable, and Winton has that, but it needs to be connected to other kinds of intelligence and to seek deeply informed insight beyond the borders of the author’s personal feelings – with which Winton is obsessed. He avoids the complexities of contemporary Aboriginal issues, and seems to have made even less effort to educate himself about them. The same is true of environmental issues. It’s a pity he didn’t take more seriously the work of Peter Matthiessen, who really did write in this integrated, informed way. Here it is all navigated from inside the Winton universe of feeling. It’s all very comfortable, but in the end it requires little engagement from the reader beyond tissues on the sofa.

Is this why Australian readers love Tim Winton? Perhaps we don’t do well, as a people, when we have to think and question and learn.

Geoffrey Wells (online comment)

Russian accents

Dear Editor,
Andrew Fuhrmann is mistaken when he says ‘the much lauded 2011 Sydney Theatre Company production of Uncle Vanya with Cate Blanchett was done with Russian accents’ (Arts Update, November 2016). I know this to be quite untrue because I was in it. At the insistence of the Hungarian director Tamás Ascher, we actors used various Australian accents, depending on our characters’ station in life, ranging from broad and rustic, to middlebrow and educated, to downright posh, rather like a typical cross-section of accents one can hear any day in Australia. What’s more, American audiences seem to have no problem listening to an Australian accent; some even profess to enjoy it.

Jacki Weaver (online comment)

Freaks and oddballs

Dear Editor,
That’s rather naughty of Red Stitch to change words in a translation they are using. Did they obtain written permission from the translator’s agent to do this? I doubt it. Many Australian theatre companies are not abiding by the rules and contracts that are clearly stipulated by playwrights and translators alike: that is, not to change a word in the script. If Red Stitch didn’t get permission to change ‘freaks’ to ‘oddballs’, the company should be ashamed of itself. After all, Annie Baker is the translator, not Nadia Tass (or anyone else).

Eleanor Windsor (online comment)

Uncle Vanya Marta Kaczmarek David Whiteley cDavidParkerMarta Kaczmarek and David Whiteley in Red Stitch Theatre Company's Uncle Vanya (photograph by David Parker)

Andrew Fuhrmann replies:

Many thanks to Jacki Weaver for correcting the not-so-small matter of the accents used in the STC’s production of Uncle Vanya during their tour of the United States. Alas, I can no longer remember where I picked up this (in hindsight) absurd misconception. I’m pleased to be corrected by such an incontrovertible authority, but vexed that I didn’t check it myself.

Regarding the translation: for what it’s worth, I do think that ‘oddball’ worked well enough in this production. It’s a colloquial Americanism, so it fits in with the rest of the translation. There’s a discussion of the relative merits of ‘creep’ and ‘oddball’ on page seven of the program of the Round House Theatre’s 2015 production.

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    Dear Editor, I’m pleased that Peter Craven found so much to enjoy in The Boy behind the Curtain (ABR, December 2016). Winton always writes good – though somewhat deliberate ...

Wednesday, 26 October 2016 15:35

2016 Arts Highlights of the Year

To highlight Australian Book Review’s arts coverage and to celebrate some of the year’s memorable concerts, operas, films, ballets, plays, and art exhibitions, we invited a group of critics and arts professionals to nominate some favourites.

John Allison

Creeping nationalism has been one of the more depressing aspects of 2016, but at least most leading opera houses are opening their artistic borders rather than shutting them. My year of highlights began and ended with two striking examples of this, with Polish National Opera inviting an outsider (David Pountney) to direct Stanisław Moniuszko’s Haunted Manor for the first time and the Hungarian State Opera doing the same with Zoltán Kodály’s Spinning Room (Michał Znaniecki). In between, the first production at Covent Garden of George Enescu’s Oedipe (by the Catalan collective La fura dels baus) represented a turning point for this Romanian masterpiece. Happily, this year has also seemed to bring more productions of Bohuslav Martinů’s operas outside the Czech lands than ever before. The only setback for Czech music I heard was Simon Rattle’s patronisingly distorted performances of Anton Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances with the Berlin Philharmonic at the Proms – one of the year’s turkeys.

Spinning Room2 550The Spinning Room (photograph by Szilvia Csibi, Hungarian State Opera)


The most memorable concerts were more intimate affairs at the Wigmore Hall: the Heath Quartet’s sensational Bartók cycle at the Wigmore Hall and an evening of Beethoven songs with baritone Matthias Goerne and period-pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout. Beethoven really created the first song cycle in An die ferne Geliebte, but few performers show how, in addition to his longing for ‘the distant beloved’, the call of the mountains and meadows echo his Pastoral Symphony.

Robyn Archer

Orava Quartet played the Shostakovich String Quartet No 8 in the BBC Proms salon series at Melbourne Recital Centre. These young men are the real deal, and they performed the work with all the intensity it deserves. We’re used to seeing this work played so well by other vigorous quartets such as Brodsky and Kronos, but Orava are the next generation and it’s so good to see a young Australian quartet taking its music so seriously.

Orava Quartet 280The Orava Quartet There is a unique collaboration between Gavin Webber (dancer, choreographer co-founder of contemporary dance company The Farm) and Kayah Guenther, a young man who has Downs Syndrome. With a highly respectful approach, of the kind that Back to Back Theatre exemplifies, this is tough and uncompromising dance in which no quarter is given. Both dancers give their all in a highly physical exchange. When Kayah steps forward and says, haltingly, ‘When I dance I feel strong. I am a strong man’, there’s not a dry eye in the house. You’ll have to travel far to see the next performance – at the Puerto de Ideas in Valparaiso, Chile in November 2016.

Shifting Sands was a large-scale community event for Bleach on the Gold Coast. Directed with characteristic authenticity and flair by Donna Jackson, the event combined paddle-boarders, oral history, local Indigenous people, the Queensland Ballet, synchronised swimmers, and some cool music to document the life and times of the beloved Currumbin Estuary. Held at dusk, it was a beautiful work which celebrated a place and its people with grace, fun, and awe: an object lesson in terrific community process resulting in an excellent end-product.

Ben Brooker

2016 was not, for me, a stellar year for new Australian theatre. My highlights were international – the deeply moving non-professional cast of 600 Highwaymen’s wordless The Record at OzAsia – and musical: Robyn Archer’s fierce and funny Brecht/Weill revue, Dancing on the Volcano, at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival; the State Opera of South Australia’s production of George Palmer’s Cloudstreet (Arts Update, 5/16); and James Morrison in concert with his youthful big band, the prodigiously swinging Academy Jazz Orchestra.

Antionette Halloran Oriel Lamb Nicholas Cannon Fish LambAntoinette Halloran as Oriel Lamb and Nicholas Cannon as Fish Lamb in State Opera of South Australia's production of Cloudstreet (photograph by Oliver Toth)


Neil Armfield’s King Lear at Sydney Theatre Company, with Geoffrey Rush masterful in the title role, did not disappoint (Arts Update, 11/15). I had looked forward to Machu Picchu at State Theatre Company of South Australia, but its reteaming of director Geordie Brookman and playwright Sue Smith from 2014’s superb Kryptonite did not see lightning strike twice. But let’s face it – most everyone had their work cut out for them in what was a bleak year to be an artist in this country.

Lee Christofis

Northern hemisphere choreographers dominated the 2016 Australian dance calendar, beginning with the Pina Bausch Company’s Nelken (Carnations) at the Adelaide Festival (Arts Update, 3/16), and Spanish-born Rafael Bonachela’s Lux Tenebris for Sydney Dance Company.

The Australian Ballet presented short works by three of the world’s most illustrious artists – William Forsythe, Jiři Kylián, and Christopher Wheeldon – but memories of these were but all but eradicated by John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, created for the Hamburg Ballet, which he has directed for forty years (Arts Update, 9/16). Nijinsky is a monumental experience for dancers, musicians, and audiences alike, as it delves into the fantasies and psychotic episodes through which the greatest Russian dancer of his day recounted his glamorous career and his decline into madness. Rarely have the dancers of The Australian Ballet been so drilled and galvanised, dancing beyond their experience into such contrasting worlds of war and terror, as well as the beauty and sexually ambiguous ethos of the Ballets Russes.

TAB16 NIJINSKY CristianoMartino PhotoJeffBusby 1303Cristiano Martino as the Faun in The Australian Ballet's Nijinsky (photograph by Jeff Busby)


On a much smaller scale, existentialism, absence, and longing have fueled Rafael Bonachela’s recent works for Sydney Dance Company, nowhere better than this year’s Lux Tenebris. Nick Wales’s dense, moody score underpins the vital ways Bonachela has begun to complicate his stage pictures. Lux Tenebris was as exhilarating as it was emotionally commanding, and the dancers of Sydney Dance Company, who always look wonderful under Bonachela’s direction, revealed themselves as heroes of a completely different class.

In cinemas, ‘live’ screenings from the Royal Ballet delivered treasures in spades: revivals of two Frederick Ashton choreographies: Rhapsody and Le Deux Pigeons; and a new Frankenstein by Liam Scarlett, whose A Midsummer Night’s Dream was sold-out hit for Queensland Ballet in April (Arts Update, 4/16). The Australian Ballet has announced it will screen its Sleeping Beauty (Arts Update, 9/16) in 2017, but it will need to find more talented, local choreographers if it wants to show new, home-grown product to the world at large.

Ian Dickson

The Brisbane Baroque festival may have ended chaotically with stories of unpaid artists, but it included several excellent concerts and its imported production of Handel’s Agrippina was an undoubted highlight, fully deserving the several Helpmann awards that came its way. Laurence Dale’s witty production played up the black comedy of Grimani’s libretto, and the cast was uniformly excellent.

An equally excellent cast, combined with Kip William’s compelling production, made STC’s version of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (Arts Update, 6/16) an unforgettable experience. Sunset Song was quintessential Terence Davies, long, slow, beautiful, and ultimately extraordinarily moving (Arts Update, 9/16).

All My Sons John Howard as Joe Keller and Chris Ryan as Chris Keller Zan Wimberley John Howard and Chris Ryan in Sydney Theatre Company's All My Sons (photograph by Zan Wimberley)


It was good to welcome back to the stage two splendid performers, Keith Robinson at Belvoir and Marta Dusseldorp at Griffin, though it is to be hoped that the next project Dusseldorp takes on is worthier of her talent than Benedict Andrews’s wilfully obscure, overheated melodrama Gloria.

Andrew Fuhrmann

One of the most memorable performances I saw this year was at a half-full theatrette in Brunswick – the Mechanics Institute – where André De Vanny was doing Swansong, the award-winning dramatic monologue by Irish actor and writer Conor McDermottroe. It was an absolute tour de force, but one that got lost in the mad ruck of this year’s Fringe Festival.

This year I decided to forswear all theatre presented at both the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Malthouse, the idea being that occasional abstinence works as a cure against the creep of cynicism. I did, however, break my pledge in order to see the adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock directed by Matthew Lutton (Arts Update, 3/16), a gothic nightmare which I enjoyed immensely. I was also very impressed with director Tanya Gerstle’s production of Mill on the Floss at Theatre Works (Arts Update, 8/16): a powerful ensemble piece with a provoking feminist theme.

MHPicnicHangingRock photoPiaJohnson 0137 550Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Nikki Sheils, and Elizabeth Nabben in Picnic at Hanging Rock (photograph by Pia Johnson, Malthouse Theatre)


Tony Grybowski

Gustav Mahler’s Second Symphony holds a special place in my life. As a tuba student at the Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne in the early 1980s, the Resurrection Symphony was the ambitious 1985 repertoire for the Conservatorium orchestra. Fast forward about six years and I was working in a management role at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra when the late Stuart Challender embarked on a memorable cycle of symphonies as part of his tenure as Chief Conductor of the SSO. It was therefore very special to return to the mighty Sydney Town Hall and hear that work with the current Chief Conductor, David Robertson, on a Sunday afternoon in July.

David Robertson Keith SaundersDavid Robertson (photograph by Keith Saunders)


In contrast, I was honoured to step into the world of central Australian artists at the Annual ‘Desert Mob’ Exhibition, Symposium, and Market Place at the Araluen Arts Centre in Alice Springs. The gathering puts a spotlight on and brings together a showcase of artists from the thirty-nine Indigenous arts centres across central Australia. There are very few experiences that mix a gathering of artists and art lovers who can meet, talk, and learn about the culture of this stunning region, as well as presenting an opportunity to purchase a valuable piece of work at the market place.

Michael Halliwell

2016 seems to have been a Così fan tutte year throughout the world, but the Opera Australia production by David McVicar was the highlight. This most difficult opera to bring off successfully was given a searching, elegant, vocally resplendent, and ultimately moving series of performances in Sydney (Arts Update, 7/16). A production of the Mozart opera at the Vienna Volksoper drew on an imaginative concept: staging it as a student rehearsal of the opera, but ultimately failed to deliver, abandoning the concept during the first half (Arts Update, 7/16). My musical highlight was the performance of Schubert’s masterpiece, Die Winterreise, performed by Matthias Goerne, with projections by William Kentridge, as part of the Sydney Festival in January (Arts Update, 1/16). It was stunning both musically and visually.

Winterreise Jan 07 2016 credit Prudence Upton 006 smallerMarkus Hinterhäuser and Matthias Goerne in Winterreise (photograph by Prudence Upton)


Philippa Hawker

I loved German writer-director Maren Ade’s epic and comic Toni Erdmann, which I saw at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Ade lets the relationship between a father and his adult daughter play out in awkward, hilarious, often protracted detail, in a work that seems excessive and perfectly balanced, brutal and generous at the same time. I would also single out MIFF’s program Gaining Ground, consisting of six films directed by women in New York in the 1970s and early 1980s, ranging from the deadpan comedy of Elaine May’s A New Leaf to the feminist near-future uprising of Lizzie Borden’s Born In Flames. Curation at its best.

A New LeafA New Leaf (1971) (Paramount Pictures)


Paul Kildea

Dancers feel vibrations through a sprung floor. Orchestral musicians too: double basses sawing away on a decent stage, say. This same visceral sensation was there in Opera Queensland’s Snow White, where Silvia Colloca as the Queen lay on the ground wailing like a singer in a Fado tavern, the sound cutting through us all, the show cumulatively reeling us in. Writer Tim Dunlop would approve, for in his book Why the Future is Workless he ring-fences artists from the enormous changes taking place in the way we work. In punchy, elegant prose he writes optimistically of shifting practices and priorities – if only we can all get our heads around it.

Liza Lim’s opera Tree of Codes, based on the cut-out book by Jonathan Safran Foer and premièred in Cologne, is a virtuosic, mesmerising exploration of memory and time, of colour and sound, simultaneously a challenge to the genre and a pretty good roadmap. We need to hear her more.

Snow White Opera Queensland dylan Evans 550Opera Queensland's Snow White (photograph by Dylan Evans)


David Larkin

My highlight of the Sydney Festival was an utterly compelling performance of Dusapin’s ‘O Mensch!’ cycle by baritone Mitch Reilly and pianist Jack Symonds. Beautifully lit and directed, this Sydney Chamber Opera production turned the work into an expressionist monodrama.

The new Verbrugghen Ensemble under John Lynch gave a stunning rendition of a radically downsized Fourth Symphony by Mahler, which revealed fresh aspects of an old favourite. Continuing the Mahler theme, the in-form Sydney Symphony Orchestra delivered a monumental Resurrection Symphony with David Robertson on the podium in Sydney Town Hall.

Within the world of opera, the Met broadcast of Strauss’s Elektra showcased a fabulous cast of singers headed by Nina Stemme in the final production of the late Patrice Chéreau: an effectively minimalist staging which humanised the monstrous characters. At home, George Petean was outstanding in the title role of Opera Australia’s Simon Boccanegra, and Nicole Car and Anna Dowsley shone in David McVicar’s stylish production of Così fan tutte.

For 2017, Jonas Kaufmann in OA’s concert performance of Parsifal, and Martha Argerich’s belated Australian début with SSO are unmissable.

Nicole Car as Fiordiligi and Anna Dowsley as Dorabella in Opera Australias Così fan tutte Photograph by Prudence UptonNicole Car as Fiordiligi and Anna Dowsley as Dorabella in Opera Australias Così fan tutte (photograph by Prudence Upton)


Brian McFarlane

In what has been an often-rewarding year for cinema, Terence Davies’ Sunset Song, for my money, just pips at the post such strong competitors as Brooklyn (Arts Update, 2/16), the tonally perfect adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, and Simon Stone’s daring relocation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck to a modern-day rundown setting in rural Australia: The Daughter (Arts Update, 3/16). Davies sets his film in pre-Great War Aberdeenshire. With his wonderful flair for evoking time and place, he chronicles the life of a teenage girl as she copes with a puritanical father, a bullied mother who dies too early, and a husband who will be traumatised by his wartime experiences. This may sound gloomy, but the overall effect is both elegiac and quietly hopeful.

Geoffrey Rush in TheDaughter MarkRogers 1362 EditGeoffrey Rush in The Daughter (photograph by Mark Rogers)


Two theatrical experiences stand out. The Bell Shakespeare’s Othello achieved that rare melding of the poetic and the conversational among its uniformly fine cast (Arts Update, 7/16). At fortyfivedownstairs, Wit was a stark and confronting study of a woman dying from ovarian cancer, played with lacerating lack of compromise – and, indeed, with wit – by Jane Montgomery Griffiths.

James McNamara

On television, I hugely admired The Night Of (HBO, Arts Update, 9/16), The Kettering Incident (Foxtel, Arts Update 9/16), and Stranger Things (Netflix), whose child actors – particularly Millie Bobby Brown – gave wonderful performances.

showcase TKI Elizabeth Debicki as Anna Macy Foxtel 550pxElizabeth Debicki as Anna Macy in The Kettering Incident (Showcase/Foxtel, photograph by Ben King)


My theatrical performance of the year is called ASSSSCAT. I know it sounds odd, but in American comedy circles ASSSSCAT has the canonical ring of Bell Shakespeare or Monty Python. It is the flagship improvisational comedy show of the Upright Citizens Brigade, a theatre responsible for a staggering array of talent – Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, and Zach Galifianakis, to name a few. Every Sunday night in Hollywood, film and television actors come together to improvise a comedy on stage. It is, consistently, brilliant – with a full-house shouting laughter at a show that crackles with wit, has a polish you would expect from scripted comedy, and the intellectual sparkle of a cast composing lines as they deliver them in bravura comic performances. ASSSSCAT is truly exhilarating theatre.

Christopher Menz

LACMA Self Portrait in Tuxedo Max Beckman 1927Self-Portrait in Tuxedo by Max Beckmann, 1927 (Harvard Art Museums)Two major exhibitions – Degas: A New Vision (National Gallery of Victoria, Arts Update 7/16) and New Objectivity: Modern German Art in the Weimar Republic, 1919–1933 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Arts Update, 10/16) – offered refreshing and innovative takes on their subjects. Degas was curated by former Louvre Director Henri Loyrette and showed the full range of this most creative and inventive of artists, from his student work to the late paintings, and included his remarkable photography and a fine selection of sculpture. New Objectivity – expertly curated by Stephanie Barron – presented a brilliant and at times confronting thematic display of paintings, prints, books, photographs, and film from the Weimar era.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Melbourne recital of Olivier Messiaen’s majestic cycle for solo piano, Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus, was one of the great concerts, amply justifying its 2016 Helpmann Award for Best Individual Classical Performance (Arts Update, 3/16). Aimard enthralled the audience with his artistry and technical mastery of this keyboard marathon.

Peter Rose

Several productions confirmed Sydney Theatre Company’s status as the country’s pre-eminent theatre company, notwithstanding regime change and the abrupt ouster of its new artistic director, Jonathan Church. Two productions stood out: King Lear, still running in the New Year. Directed by Neil Armfield and starring Geoffrey Rush, this was a loss-filled and nihilistic Lear, one that eschewed grandiloquence. The STC complemented the world-wide Arthur Miller revival with an inspired production of All My Sons. Director Kip Williams drew consummate performances from his players.

Bravo to the MSO for programming Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis (Arts Update, 8/16), not heard in Melbourne since 1971. Hard-pressed choristers and soloists may not lament its infrequency, but Andrew Davis (more galvanic than usual) led a revelatory performance of the Mass.

Andrew Davis conducting the MSO photograph by Peter Tarasiuk Andrew Davis conducting the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (photograph by Peter Tarasiuk)


Few present will ever forget Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus. Virtuosic in the extreme, this was a mesmeric performance that somehow transcended pianism.

Mariusz Treliński’s new production of Tristan und Isolde, at the Metropolitan Opera, was similarly unforgettable (Arts Update, 9/16). Nina Stemme confirmed her ranking as one of the finest singers of the age, Stuart Skelton was consummate, and Simon Rattle drew great playing from the Met’s phenomenal orchestra.

Leo Schofield

Australian Chamber Orchestra’s performance featuring the magnificent Russian-born, Vienna-based pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja was one of unalloyed pleasures of a year packed with peerless pianism. Grandest of grandes dames of the piano, Leonskaja’s matchless Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, the so-called Jeunehomme, was flanked by elegant arrangements by Timo-Veikko Valve of the sextet from Capriccio and Beethoven’s late quartet Opus 127. This was programming at its best, and under guest leader Roman Simovic the ACO seemed to find new energy, new tonal colours.

Two opera productions stood out for me, David McVicar’s wholly satisfying and delicious take on Così fan tutte for Opera Australia and (interest declared but quality attested to by four Helpmann Awards) Brisbane Baroque’s Agrippina.

Elisabeth Leonskaja Julia Wesely 550Elisabeth Leonskaja (photograph by Julia Wesely)


Michael Shmith

The most inspiring highlight of 2016 was the Australian Youth Orchestra’s marvellous concert in August, conducted by Manfred Honeck (Arts Update, 8/16). Normally, the AYO gives its Australian concerts before its international tour – but, for a change, this one, in Hamer Hall, occurred just after the orchestra returned from Europe and China. Therefore, the repertoire (an explosive showpiece from Carl Vine; Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G; Mahler’s First Symphony) was well and truly played in. Honeck is a great conductor, but also a fine teacher. The travelling pianist, Hélène Grimaud, was utterly at home in the Ravel.

Conductor Manfred Honeck and Hélène Grimaud photograph by Oliver Brighton 550Conductor Manfred Honeck and Hélène Grimaud (photograph by Oliver Brighton)


I was away for Opera Australia’s autumn season and, at this writing, the revival of the Melbourne Ring has yet to be forged. But I took particular joy from Victorian Opera and Circus Oz’s Laughter & Tears, which imaginatively paired Pagliacci with a delightful commedia dell’arte pasticcio. Praise, too, to Melbourne Lyric Opera’s adventurous performance of Malcolm Williamson’s 1963 opera Our Man in Havana (Arts Update, 9/16).

Jake Wilson

Jerry Lewis metromedia Wikimedia CommonsJerry Lewis (Metromedia, Wikimedia Commons)Easily the most spectacular film event of 2016 was the Jerry Lewis retrospective at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the most valuable tribute to a single director MIFF has mounted for many years. (The only thing missing was the man himself.) Lewis’s violently coloured, emotionally fractured slapstick comedies still have the power to divide audiences, but those who see him as a chauvinist dinosaur need to look again: his Jekyll and Hyde variant The Nutty Professor (1963) now plays like a ruthless satire on the twenty-first century men’s movement, suggesting that inside every mild-mannered nerd is a raging misogynist trying to get out.

Claims that television has taken over from cinema as a serious artform are premature, to say the least. Still, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul and Louis CK’s internet experiment Horace and Pete were as engrossing and formally inventive as any of the new films I saw on the big screen this year.

Jacki Weaver

One of the best nights I’ve ever spent in the theatre was in New York with this year’s stunning revival by London’s Young Vic Company of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Mark Strong was breathtakingly fine in the lead; he was surrounded by a super-strong ensemble. I also loved Stephen Karam’s play The Humans, with a brilliant Jayne Houdyshell.

This year I have watched eighty-four films! Two I loved are Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Lobster and Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic, Colin Farrell and Viggo Mortensen in career-best performances respectively.

Young Vic Phoebe Fox Catherine Mark Strong Eddie and Nicola Walker Beatrice in A View from the Bridge. Photo by Jan Versweyveld. at Young Vic Theatre 550Phoebe Fox as Catherine, Mark Strong as Eddie, and Nicola Walker as Beatrice in A View from the Bridge (photograph by Jan Versweyveld, Young Vic Theatre)


Barney Zwartz

I was fortunate enough to see Nina Stemme, possibly the finest Strauss soprano at present, in a new Elektra at the Metropolitan Opera with Waltraud Meier as Klytemnestra, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen, in a posthumous production by Patrice Chéreau. Simply riveting, such as come seldom in a lifetime.

In the same musical stratosphere was French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing French composer Olivier Messiaen’s Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus at the Melbourne Recital Centre: refined spirituality, deeply moving.

Pierre Laurent Aimard credit Marco BorggrevePierre-Laurent Aimard (photograph by Marco Borggreve)


I must also mention Opera Australia’s Luisa Miller in Melbourne (Arts Update, 2/16) and Così fan tutte in Sydney, both with the stunning Nicole Car, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven festival of all five piano concertos over four concerts, with British pianist Paul Lewis bordering on the miraculous.

Coming up: Opera Australia’s Ring in November and December.

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  • Custom Article Title 2016 Arts Highlights of the Year
  • Contents Category Highlights of the Year
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    To highlight Australian Book Review’s arts coverage and to celebrate some of the year’s memorable concerts, operas, films, ballets, plays, and art exhibitions, we invited a group of critics and arts professionals to nominate some favourites.

No one should be surprised that Terry Eagleton has written yet another book about the excesses of academic postmodernism. Railing against the pretensions and deceptions and phony jargon of postmodernism has been a favourite sport of his for more than twenty years. In this latest book, Culture, his specific target is that sinister creeping project, cultural studies, a conceptual field which currently dominates the humanities and social sciences and which Eagleton claims is a crucial obstacle to the ultimate overthrow of capitalism.

Like King Canute, Eagleton sets up his armchair on a shingle beach (Morecambe Beach if we're within spitting distance of his professorial home at Lancaster University) and orders back the tide. Culture, he says, needs to be put back in its place: not everything is cultural, and culture should not be a site for analysing all the world's problems. Instead, he proposes a return to a more modest concept of culture. For Terry Eagleton, it is much handier if culture is understood as a combination of shared habits of mind, patterns of behaviour, and emotional disposition. Culture is what gives life meaning, although it is not to be equated with life. Eagleton imagines culture as a kind of social unconscious or communality of the psyche. His central idea is that we can only completely understand political and economic systems – and ultimately revolutionise them – if we first cotton-on to the shared psychology that underlies them and gives them significance.

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  • Custom Article Title Andrew Fuhrmann reviews 'Culture' by Terry Eagleton
  • Contents Category Cultural Studies
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    No one should be surprised that Terry Eagleton has written yet another book about the excesses of academic postmodernism. Railing against the pretensions and deceptions and ...

  • Book Title Culture
  • Book Author Terry Eagleton
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Yale University Press (Footprint) $38.95 hb, 192 pp, 9780300218794
Monday, 09 May 2016 12:21

SHIT (fortyfivedownstairs)

Patricia Cornelius has a passion for putting unlovely characters on stage. It has almost become an end in itself. Here she chooses, as her anti-social subjects, three violent, foul-mouthed women, all from broken families or foster homes, all victims of sexual and physical abuse, all bruised down to their moral core.

Billy (Nicci Wilks), a brawler and a bawler, picks fights wherever she can, always talking at maximum volume. She sees herself as a realist, someone who has shredded every last illusion about the world and her situation in it. She has never cried about anything or anyone. Then there's Bobby (Sarah Ward), quieter than Billy but just as tough, or perhaps tougher. She only gets worked up about one subject: women. She hates them, or says she does. In today's jargon, she has internalised misogyny. Finally, there's Sam (Peta Brady). She likes a good cry, feels bad for her junky mum and still holds onto some hope for a better future. Maybe she'd even like to have a baby. Bobby and Billy reckon she's hasn't really grown up.

Hours after watching a woman being almost beaten to death by her partner, the three of them have just beaten – and possibly killed – a stranger. Now they are in police custody.

These characters allow Cornelius to explore the traumatising effects of extreme socio-economic disadvantage, especially on women. And they also seem to operate, at least in certain scenes, as a metaphor for women generally, as second-class citizens who are never given a chance. For a playwright, these characters are also their own reward. They are lavishly alive. Cornelius writes with sympathy, but it is the vitality of the characters which attracts us. They have everything the stage needs, or almost everything.

This is also play about language – specifically bad language. It opens with Billy hurling a torrent of 'fucks' and 'cunts' more or less indiscriminately at the audience. And she loves it. All the women love it. They love to see nice people squirm as the air turns blue in a tram or on a train or on the street. The playwright, too, seems attracted to the potential for bad language, even in today's fallen world, to make an impact on audiences.

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SHIT was first performed as part of the Melbourne Theatre Company's 2015 Neon Festival of Independent Theatre, directed by Suzie Dee, and this is a remount of that production. In the much larger Lawler Theatre, I thought Marg Horwell's set looked a bit awkward, a block fallen haphazard from some obscure disaster. At fortyfivedownstairs, however, the design fits snug with the theatre's dimensions. This better serves the snatches of physical theatre between the scenes. Now it really does look like the performers are exploring a hostile urban environment, not playing 'ring around the rosy' with a concrete behemoth. Now the bulky, almost featureless grey façade more effectively disciplines the stage space, always seeming to push the women right into our faces. Which is where they want to be.

In this season, as with the première season, it is the virtuoso performances by Wilks, Brady, and Ward that really excite. Miracles pile up as the brief scenes hurtle by. I think, for instance, of the scene in which the women compare their respective abilities to simulate submission and helplessness. When it's Bobby's turn, Ward immediately crumples, her eyes watering and her hands shaking, and from her mouth we hear a stranger's voice, begging not to be touched. It's a remarkable performance within a performance, one that is simultaneously terrifying and very funny.

SHITPeta Brady, Sarah Ward, and Nicci Wilks in fortyfivedownstairs' production of SHIT (photograph by Sebastian Bourges)


It must also be said that the play is better served by its audience at fortyfivedownstairs. On the opening night of the Neon season, the audience turned the play into a comedy, laughing at almost every expletive. And there are a lot of expletives. There is comedy in SHIT, but it is very black, and it rubs too close to horror to be laughing all the time.

SHIT was the clear standout in last year's Neon Festival, and it's a fine thing that we have this chance to see it re-staged. Still, I think it is a bit disappointing that the production has not been further developed. It is a short play, less than an hour, and there is a sense in which, in its current form, it is something of a writerly exercise, albeit one executed by a writer at the top of her game. There is not much dramatic shape to the play, and there is barely any tension. It is bravura from beginning to end. It does feel as though this play could be more than just a vehicle for energetic impersonation. You can glimpse the outline of something more substantial, something which takes the argument beyond the relatively banal observation that brutalised people do brutal things.

Still, to have brought these unlovely characters to the stage, and to have made them sympathetic without sentimentalising, is in itself a fine achievement.

SHIT, written by Patricia Cornelius and directed by Suzie Dee, is presented by fortyfivedownstairs. The production continues there until 15 May 2016. Performance attended: 5 May.

Arts Update is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation.

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  • Custom Article Title SHIT (fortyfivedownstairs) ★★★1/2
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    Patricia Cornelius has a passion for putting unlovely characters on stage. It has almost become an end in itself. Here she chooses, as her anti-social subjects, three violent, foul-mouthed women, all from broken families or foster homes, all victims of sexual and physical abuse, all bruised down ...

  • Review Rating 3.5
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