‘I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.’ So says Hanna Heath, protagonist of Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel, about her search through time and place for the history of ‘the Sarajevo Haggadah’, the ‘Book’ of the title. She is accustomed to writing scholarly essays that derive from her function as a rare books conservator, full of ‘riveting stuff like how many quires there are and how many leaves per quire… and so on’. She wants this one to be different.

Hanna’s search for the exact provenance of the Haggadah takes her from her home in Sydney, in 1996, to war-ravaged Sarajevo, and thence, having sighted the manuscript, which is ‘small … convenient for use at the Passover dinner table’, to Vienna to see her old mentor Werner Heinrich. She then travels to Boston where, by chance, her mother is also lecturing; then to London, back to Sarajevo; to Sydney via Arnhem Land; and then back to Sarajevo again. The peripatetic requirements of her esoteric profession are tracked through alternating chapters of the novel, which eventually bring her up to 2002.

While Hanna is engaged in travelling halfway round the world in pursuit of her intellectual goals, the alternate chapters chronicle the history of the precious book in reverse chronology. An expert in ancient manuscripts, Serif, and other Jews, including Lola who has lost all her family to the Nazis, join the partisans during World War II, having contrived to save ‘one of the museum’s greatest treasures’, the Haggadah. In successively interleaved chapters, the book’s ownership is traced to Vienna, rife with anti-Semitism in 1894; then to Venice, 1609, where a wealthy Jewess passes the book to a rabbi with a dangerous gambling compulsion and an uneasy friendship with a Catholic priest; to Tarragena, Spain, 1492, when a Jewish diaspora begins; and to Seville, 1480, where Muslim, Catholic and Jewish imprints make themselves felt on the book’s biography. As Hanna comments on this reverse history, we are invited to see the Haggadah at times when it ‘was still just some family’s book, a thing to be used, before it became an exhibit’.


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    ‘I wanted to give a sense of the people of the book, the different hands that had made it, used it, protected it. I wanted it to be a gripping narrative, even suspenseful.’ So says Hanna Heath, protagonist of Geraldine Brooks’s latest novel, about her search through time and place for the history of ‘the Sarajevo Haggadah’, the ‘Book’ of the title ...

  • Book Title People of the Book
  • Book Author Geraldine Brooks
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio HarperCollins, $19.99 pb, 372 pp, 9780007177424
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Talk about unlikely associations. My first response to the opening chapter of Tim Winton’s latest novel was how its sense of a life at a standstill, awaiting some new impulse, reminded me of Jane Austen’s Emma. Winton’s protagonist, Georgie Jutland, with a string of unsatisfactory relationships behind her and bored with her present bloke, Jim Buckridge, her useful life as a nurse now well in the past, sits in front of the computer screen, ‘gone in her seat, like a pensioner at the pokies’. In White Point, the Western Australian ‘personality junkyard’ where she has fetched up, she needs a stimulus (‘recently something in her had leaked away’) as urgently as Austen’s heroine. In both novels, it comes in the form of a new man. After this, it must be said, Dirt Music isn’t much like Emma and it certainly settles for a less conservative dénouement, but the underlying narrative starter has this echo.

Another inapt association. Georgie is forty and unanchored: for the life of me, I couldn’t get Helen Mirren out of my head as I read. Even when I read later that Georgie has a short black helmet-like haircut, it couldn’t displace the image of the tough, intelligent Mirren-type sexiness. (The opposite process, perhaps, from never being able to re-read Women in Love without seeing the film’s black-haired Oliver Reed as the Nordic god, Gerald.) However, the resonance isn’t unhelpful as the wayward Georgie gradually accretes a Mirrenish determination to shape events rather than just let them happen to her.

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  • Custom Article Title Brian McFarlane reviews 'Dirt Music' by Tim Winton
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    Talk about unlikely associations. My first response to the opening chapter of Tim Winton’s latest novel was how its sense of a life at a standstill, awaiting some new impulse, reminded me of Jane Austen’s Emma. Winton’s protagonist, Georgie Jutland, with a string of unsatisfactory relationships behind her ...

  • Book Title Dirt Music
  • Book Author Tim Winton
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Picador, $45 hb, 461 pp, 0330363239
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‘It is arguably the most famous play on the planet’, writes Jonathan Croall in his introduction to this absorbing study of how the play and its eponym have gripped the imagination across the ages – and, as far as this book is concerned, particularly across the last seventy years. Whether for actor or director, Hamlet has always been ‘a supreme challenge’, making huge demands on those bringing it to theatrical life.

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  • Custom Article Title Brian McFarlane reviews 'Performing Hamlet: Actors in the modern age' by Jonathan Croall
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    'It is arguably the most famous play on the planet’, writes Jonathan Croall in his introduction to this absorbing study of how the play and its eponym have gripped the imagination across the ages – and, as far as this book is concerned, particularly across the last seventy years. Whether for actor or director, Hamlet has always been ‘a supreme challenge’, making huge demands on those bringing it to theatrical life.

  • Book Title Performing Hamlet: Actors in the modern age
  • Book Author Jonathan Croall
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Bloomsbury $47.99 pb, 208 pp, 9781350030763
Tuesday, 20 November 2018 12:22

Peterloo

What I’ve come to expect of a new Mike Leigh film is, above all, the unexpected. His first feature, Bleak Moments (1971), of which there were quite a few in that contemporary study of urban, lower-middle class life, made him a potent force in British film. Think of Naked (1993) and Secrets & Lies (1996), unnerving studies of difficult relationships that almost re-defined realism. Then came Topsy-Turvy (1999), Leigh’s glorious version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s tribulations in preparing The Mikado. Yes, Leigh could do ‘period’, and he would go on to surprise further with Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), a rare study of irrepressible cheerfulness, and with another period piece, the biopic Mr Turner (2014).

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    What I’ve come to expect of a new Mike Leigh film is, above all, the unexpected. His first feature, Bleak Moments (1971), of which there were quite a few in that contemporary study of urban, lower-middle class life, made him a potent force in British film. Think of Naked (1993) and Secrets & Lies (1996) ...

  • Review Rating 4.0

Gail Jones

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) is the tale of a poor man (Antonio) and his son (Bruno) living in postwar Rome. Antonio, searching for his stolen bicycle, moves in restless anxiety around city locations. Scenes recall de Chirico, Antonioni, and Pavese, but at its centre are the desperate, irresistible faces of the father and son. Men with movie posters ride bicycles holding ladders; a truck driver who finds movies boring veers through cinematic rain; father and son mop their faces with the same wretched handkerchief; a near drowning; an epileptic fit; restraint; tenderness. The ending: see it and weep.

Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola in Ladri di biciclette 1948Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola in Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), 1948 (Produzioni De Sica)

 

Dion Kagan

The passionate cultivation of unforgettable women characters becomes a manifesto in Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother (1999): an intimate homage to drag, performance, and female melodrama. High camp mixed with high sincerity, this is Almodóvar’s signature ensemble portrait of women on the verge, women navigating unendurable worlds. The quintessential work of queer matrocentric desire.

Marisa Paredes and Cecilia Roth in All about my Mother 1999 Sony Pictures Classics Marisa Paredes and Cecilia Roth in All About My Mother, 1999 (Sony Pictures Classic)

 

Lauren Carroll Harris

Of all the films Paul Thomas Anderson has directed, The Master (2012) is his favourite, and mine. In it, shell-shocked, alcoholic war veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) gravitates to the charismatic founder of a therapeutic cult, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Though many expected a Scientology exposé, Anderson thought about his story in relation to the idea that the best time to start a cult is after a war. Indeed, The Master exquisitely captures a world at a crossroads and a life in flux. It is alive with symbolism and alert to the psychology of obsession and dependence.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in The Master 2012 The Weinstein Company ABR OnlineJoaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master, 2012 (The Weinstein Company)

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Alice Addison

An Angel at My Table (d. Jane Campion, 1990) tells the story of the writer Janet Frame from childhood to her literary success. Recalling the film, I think first of colours – the green of New Zealand and the vivid orange of Frame’s distinctive red hair. The film contains the twin pleasures of its subject’s writing and that of Laura Jones, the screenwriter, who collects a series of moments in a life – some harrowing, some hopeful, all human – and weaves them together to create something wondrous and wholly life-affirming.

Kerry Fox as Janet Frame in An Angel at my Table 1990 Hibiscus FilmsKerry Fox as Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table, 1990 (Hibiscus Films)

 

Anwen Crawford

Practically everyone with access to a television has seen The Wizard of Oz (d. Victor Fleming, 1939), probably when they were too young to conceive of film (or television) as anything more or less than images set in motion by an unseen power. Who put this girl and her dog and the witch and a scarecrow inside a box that I am watching in my house? No number of viewings could resolve the mystery. Last year I saw the ruby slippers at the National Museum of American History. I practically cried. Judy Garland’s feet were narrow. She flashes through my mind.

Judy Garland Ray Bolger Jack Haley Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz 1939 Warner Home VideosJudy Garland Ray Bolger Jack Haley Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz, 1939 (Warner Home Video)

 

Emile Sherman

There’s nothing like a Coen Brothers film, and the one I keep returning to is The Big Lebowski (1998). It’s not the story itself, which, like many of their other films, is a little hokey, although enjoyably so. It’s the worlds they create, that particular tone, that music. Above all else, it’s those characters. The genius of The Big Lebowski, and of the best of the Coen Brothers’ work, is the way the filmmakers ride that fine line, creating archetypal characters that feel at once mythic but equally human. Balancing on this line is impossibly hard. Too archetypal, and you move into caricature, and we lose connection. Too human, and you lose the epic resonance and the bounce. The Big Lebowski gets it all right.

 Steve Buscemi Jeff Bridges and John Goodman in The Big Lebowski 1998 Gramercy PicturesJeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi in The Big Lebowski, 1998 (Gramercy Pictures)

 

Philippa Hawker

During my first year of high school, my English teacher showed our class a print of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962). Less than half an hour long, it consists of black-and-white stills and a single moving image, a voiceover narration, and layers of sound and music. It is, among other things, a story of time travel, memory, obsession, and inevitability, a work about science, nature, surveillance, the human face, the everyday. I didn’t see it again for years, but I carried it within me and could recall it in an almost tactile way. It feels new every time I watch it.

Hélène Chatelain in La jetée 1962 Argos FilmsHélène Chatelain in La Jetée, 1962 (Argos Films)

 

Stephen Romei

It was directed by a Canadian and starred two Englishmen. It was panned by critics on its release in 1971, degraded in its VHS format, and then almost lost forever, with the original film and sound version rescued en route to the tip in 2004. Yet Wake in Fright, based on Kenneth Cook’s 1961 novel, directed by Ted Kotcheff, shot in Broken Hill, and starring Gary Bond as a bonded schoolteacher and Donald Pleasance as a mad, alcoholic, menacing doctor, is the greatest Australian film yet to be made, an unflinching examination of life in the outback, where everyone is an outsider, even the two-upping, roo-shooting insiders played by Chips Rafferty and Jack Thompson. When the educated teacher says the locals are stupid, the doctor pulls him up. Their lives are a living hell, he observes. ‘You want them to sing opera as well?’

Chips Rafferty and Gary Bond in Wake in Fright 1971Chips Rafferty and Gary Bond in Wake In Fright, 1971 (NLT Productions/Group W Films)

 

Desley Deacon

The psychological western Pursued (d. Raoul Walsh, 1947) is a fascinating product of the 1940s – mystery, trauma, repressed memories, flashbacks, voiceovers – moodily shot by James Wong Howe in the brooding landscape of New Mexico. With Judith Anderson as a frontier woman whose adultery sparks a series of tragedies that haunt her family, and a young Robert Mitchum as her adopted son, it is both tough and intimate, with Mitchum and his estranged brother sweetly singing ‘Londonderry Air’, and a no-nonsense Anderson toting a shotgun to save Mitchum from a hanging.

 Teresa Wright and Robert Mitchum in Pursued 1947 United States Pictures Warner BrosTeresa Wright and Robert Mitchum in Pursued, 1947 (United States Pictures/Warner Bros)

 

Kylie du Fresne

I’d opt for Desperately Seeking Susan (d. Susan Seidelman, 1985). There was something prescient in its energy, storytelling, and soundtrack, announcing that it knew ‘cool’ before it happened. You can see that vibe through so much of the casting: hip NYC musos John Lurie and Arto Lindsay, as well as Laurie Metcalf, John Turturro, and Giancarlo Esposito. But the script’s classic screwball elements with two strong female roles for Rosanna Arquette and Madonna seduced me at the age of twelve in that magical way that movies have. I wasn’t aware then the film was written, directed, and produced by women. More than thirty years later, this alone makes the film exceptional and such an example for the industry.

Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan 1985 Orion PicturesMadonna in Desperately Seeking Susan, 1985 (Orion Pictures)

 

Felicity Chaplin

From its monumental prologue set to Wagner to the spectacle of its apocalyptic ending, Melancholia (d. Lars von Trier, 2011) extends the definition of art house cinema in the digital era. The film is great for its careful use of digital technology, sublime imagery, allegorical treatment of its subject, blend of bleakness and comedy, unsettling atmosphere, and inspired casting. Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kirsten Dunst give subtle yet audacious performances, supported by such greats as John Hurt, Charlotte Rampling, and Stellan Skarsgård. Best described as an ‘art house disaster movie’, Melancholia intellectualises the ‘pleasure in annihilation’ disaster movies tap into, without the deus ex machina of the Hollywood ending.

 Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia 2011 Zentropa EntertainmentsKirsten Dunst in Melancholia, 2011 (Zentropa Entertainments)

 

Brian McFarlane

‘Let’s go home, Debbie’ may not, out of context, seem like the most profound line, but, uttered by Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) as he picks up the niece years ago abducted by Indians, it pulls together so much of what makes The Searchers (1956) such a great film. Ethan’s racism has made him equivocal about rescuing her from her ‘contaminated’ years as a squaw, and it also reminds us that home – and Ethan’s lack of it – is one of the film’s underlying motifs. Home, in John Ford’s complexly stunning western, is a frail defence against a majestic but daunting landscape.

John Wayne in The Searchers 1956 C.V. Whitney PicturesJohn Wayne in The Searchers, 1956 (C.V. Whitney Pictures)

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James McNamara

I first saw Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) as a teenager, when some friends and I shuffled to the movies and went in the wrong door. Afterwards, I acted all sullen ‘yeah yeah’ cool, but inside it was like Baz had poured sherbet on my brain and cranked the music up to eleven. The kinetic modern setting, the smash and fizz and dazzle of his aesthetic, perfectly captured the rage of feeling in Shakespeare’s text, and brought R&J roaring gloriously to life for a new generation, inspiring my love of Shakespeare and a career in television. I love it so.

Claire Daines in Romeo Juliet 1996 Bazmark Productions ABR OnlineClaire Daines in Romeo + Juliet, 1996 (Bazmark Productions)

 

Jake Wilson

Fans have been debating recently whether David Lynch’s magnum opus, Twin Peaks should be considered a film (1992) or a television show (1990, 2017). Self-evidently it’s both – a single story extending over two seasons of network television, the harrowing ‘prequel’ feature, Fire Walk With Me, and the long-awaited follow-up mini-series shown on cable last year. What began as a quirky soap opera has by now evolved into a masterpiece without precedent on the big or small screen, both a bona-fide religious epic and a liberating vision of what the world might look like if we gave up demanding that things make sense.

 Sheryl Lee in Twin Peaks 1990 Lynch Frost ProductionsSheryl Lee in Twin Peaks, 1990 (Lynch/Frost Productions)

 

Craig Pearce

When I first stumbled across Wake In Fright on late-night television, I was young enough to be terrified by its nightmarishly familiar portrayal of Australian masculinity – and old enough to thrill to its savage brilliance. I sat mesmerised and appalled. I didn’t know much of that world, but the film’s grotesque intensity spoke truth to me that night. Most know that this great masterpiece was lost and then found and resurrected. When a few years ago I finally saw it projected on a big screen, it was still all true.

 Peter Whittle, Gary Bond, Jack Thompson, and Donald Pleasence in Wake in Fright 1971 Peter Whittle, Gary Bond, Jack Thompson, and Donald Pleasence in Wake In Fright, 1971 (NLT Productions and Group W Films)

 

Nick Prescott

By the time David Lynch released Lost Highway in 1997, he had educated his viewers in the predilections of a deeply idiosyncratic auteur. Blue Velvet (1986) suggested to us, and Wild at Heart (1990) confirmed for us, the fact that Lynch was far more interested in the allure of mystery than in anything as mundane as a linear, traditional ‘solution’. Lost Highway represents the pinnacle of Lynch’s cinema: the film’s fever-dream intensity keeps its viewers perfectly off-balance throughout, and delivers them a work replete with the power of the most compelling and disturbing of dreams.

 Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway 1997 Ciby 2000 Asymmetrical ProductionsPatricia Arquette in Lost Highway, 1997 (Ciby 2000 and Asymmetrical Productions)

 

Peter Rose

As a boy of ten I happened upon Laurel and Hardy’s silent film Big Business (d. James W. Horne, 1929), a work of singular perfection in eighteen minutes. All of life seemed to be there: bluster, farce, commercialism, amour-propre, violence. When Laurel and Hardy call on James Finlayson to flog him a Christmas tree, all hell breaks loose. Tempers fray and Finlayson’s house is soon destroyed while he dementedly wrecks the tree salesmen’s car. Even an innocent piano is demolished amid this weird suburban havoc. My lifelong love of ruination was strangely seeded, plus my reverence for these two comic geniuses.

Oliver Hardy Stan Laurel and James Finlayson in Big Business 1929 (MGM)Oliver Hardy, Stan Laurel, and James Finlayson in Big Business, 1929 (MGM)

 

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  • Custom Article Title 2018 Australian Book Review Film Survey
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    We invited some writers, film critics, and film professionals to nominate their favourite film – not The Greatest Film Ever Sold, but one that matters to them personally.

One of my favourite podcasts at the moment is called The Rewatchables. It deconstructs movies (mainly from the 1990s and 2000s) and offers an enjoyable mix of amusement, nostalgia, and insight. It also speaks to the desire, particularly strong in the internet age, to hear what other people think about content already enjoyed. Brian McFarlane’s Making a Meal of It: Writing about film offers a somewhat similar experience in written form. The book – divided into three parts that play on its prandial title – is a collection of previously published reviews and essays by one of Australia’s pre-eminent film writers.

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  • Custom Article Title Varun Ghosh reviews 'Making a Meal of It: Writing about film' by Brian McFarlane
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    One of my favourite podcasts at the moment is called The Rewatchables. It deconstructs movies (mainly from the 1990s and 2000s) and offers an enjoyable mix of amusement, nostalgia, and insight. It also speaks to the desire, particularly strong in the internet age, to hear what other people think about content already ...

  • Book Title Making a Meal of It
  • Book Author Brian McFarlane
  • Book Subtitle Writing about film
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Monash University Publishing, $29.95 pb, 380 pp, 9781925523416
Monday, 08 January 2018 10:20

Darkest Hour

Who knows why, but there have been at least three films in recent months focusing on the Dunkirk evacuation: Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, Christopher Nolan’s magisterial Dunkirk. and now Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Unsurprisingly in view of this, we have also seen a lot of Winston Churchill on our screens. It is a role that attracts formidable acting talents. Wright’s film juggles the personal and the political with some skill. His Churchill is concerned to fight to the end, with his eye on victory rather than peace, and this might be said of his dealings with colleagues as well as with the enemy.

Darkest Hour is necessarily talky. This is not essentially an action piece, or at least not the kind of action which might have been suggested by the opening black-and-white images of military men and ammunition. Much of the film’s drama is in the talk, which will inevitably makes its way via ‘toil, tears and sweat’ to the ultimate ‘We shall fight them on the beaches’ and so on, until ‘We shall never surrender’. But it works more subtly than this might suggest. Much of the talk is about matters that require argument: for example, the deposing of Neville Chamberlain following his misplaced appeasement venture and bringing Churchill on in the wake of this; or dealing with the idea of Italian mediation between Britain and Germany; or in the actuality of preparing for the Dunkirk rescue operation and how the situation in France has determined this.

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    Who knows why, but there have been at least three films in recent months focusing on the Dunkirk evacuation: Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest, Christopher Nolan’s magisterial Dunkirk. and now Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. Unsurprisingly in view of this, we have also seen a lot of Winston Churchill on our screens ...

  • Review Rating 4.0

Readers of this review are warned that they are in the presence of an addict. Having read Anthony Powell’s monumental twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time three times, I had been trying not to succumb to a fourth. Then along comes Hilary Spurling’s brilliant biography and will power has suffered total defeat.

Anyone who has read Spurling’s magisterial ‘lives’ of, among others, Henri Matisse and Ivy Compton-Burnett (each in two volumes), will be expecting that irresistible combination of immaculately detailed research and eloquent storytelling. There are pages of notes at the back giving sources for everything, but Spurling has not peppered the chapters with those little numbers that can get in the way of narrative fluency. Since, like Powell in his great work, she deals with a huge cast, it is important for us to know where she got her information about them, but equally important for them to establish and retain their presences.

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  • Custom Article Title Brian McFarlane reviews 'Anthony Powell: Dancing to the music of time' by Hilary Spurling
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    Readers of this review are warned that they are in the presence of an addict. Having read Anthony Powell’s monumental twelve-volume Dance to the Music of Time three times, I had been trying not to succumb to a fourth. Then along comes Hilary Spurling’s brilliant biography and will power has suffered total defeat ...

  • Book Title Anthony Powell
  • Book Author Hilary Spurling
  • Book Subtitle Dancing to the music of time
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Hamish Hamilton, $55 hb, 525 pp, 9780241143834

One of the most appropriate titles since Pride and Prejudice, Balancing Acts adroitly captures the drama and appeal of Nicholas Hytner’s account of his twelve years as director of London’s National Theatre. There have been several different takes on this often-controversial site of some of the world’s most riveting theatrical fare. Previous directors Peter Hall and Laurence Olivier have both had their say, as in Hall’s often contentious Diaries (1983) or in the numerous biographies of Olivier in which his own sometimes irascible views emerged beneath the ‘luvvie’ surface. Best of all to date was Australian Michael Blakemore’s even-handed chronicling in Stage Blood (2013).

So, what has Hytner to add to this list? In charting his years at the National from 2003 to 2015, he reflects on the challenges of running such an institution. This is not just a history, nor a memoir, though there are crucial elements of each. There is a wonderful sense of a highly productive period in the National’s history, and there is an equally strong sense of Hytner’s personal involvement in the making of that history.

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  • Custom Article Title Brian McFarlane reviews 'Balancing Acts: Behind the scenes at the National Theatre' by Nicholas Hytner
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    One of the most appropriate titles since Pride and Prejudice, Balancing Acts adroitly captures the drama and appeal of Nicholas Hytner’s account of his twelve years as director of London’s National Theatre. There have been several different takes on this often-controversial site of some of the world’s most riveting theatrical fare ...

  • Book Title Balancing Acts
  • Book Author Nicholas Hytner
  • Book Subtitle Behind the scenes at the National Theatre
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Jonathan Cape, $49.99 hb, 320 pp, 9781910702895
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.

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