Ben Brooker

At sixty-six years of age and best known for his books on the sociology of food, the American author and journalist Michael Pollan has become an unlikely figurehead for the so-called ‘psychedelic renaissance’. In How to Change Your Mind (2018), Pollan surveyed the recent revival of psychedelic drugs as adjuncts to psychotherapy, and the emerging evidence that supports their use in the treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders. Globally prohibited since the early 1970s and still mostly illegal, these compounds – including the ‘classic’ psychedelics LSD and psilocybin (the main psychoactive alkaloid in magic mushrooms), as well as MDMA (also known as ecstasy) and ketamine – are once again the subject of clinical trials, including in Australia where the federal government has became one of the first in the world to fund research in the field.

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Hibernation 

State Theatre Company South Australia
by
19 August 2021

About fifteen years ago, a group of British playwrights, disheartened by what they saw as a lack of ambition and scale in new plays, started a movement they dubbed ‘monsterism’. Their manifesto called for large-scale work with big casts and ideas in contrast with the two- and four-handed studio theatre plays proliferating in an atmosphere of economic and intellectual austerity. Watching Hibernation, Finegan Kruckemeyer’s new play for State Theatre Company South Australia, I was reminded of the monsterists and their still-relevant demands for a bigger, bolder theatre.

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Four kangaroos recently moved into the paddock that adjoins the house on Peramangk Country in the Adelaide Hills where I live. For weeks I had been conscious of distant gunfire, not the usual firing of the gas guns that wineries use to keep birds off their vines. I concluded that the kangaroos had been driven here by a cull. The goats, Charles and Hamlet, and the sheep, Lauren and Ingrid, who call the paddock home, seemed unperturbed by the roos’ presence. But what, I wondered, did all these animals think about one another? What, indeed, did they think about me?

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Medea 

Adelaide Festival
by
09 March 2021

In her essay on Akon Guode, the thirty-five-year-old South Sudanese refugee who drowned three of her seven children in April 2015, Helen Garner recalls striking up a conversation with a VCE student about Euripides’ Medea. Garner tells the student, ‘She did a terrible, terrible thing. But she was very badly treated. She was betrayed.’ Before she can go on, the student interrupts her, flushing and leaning forward in her seat. ‘But she was – a mother.’ Garner writes of feeling troubled ‘by the finality of the word “mother”, this great thundering archetype with the power to stop the intellect in its tracks.’  

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The Boy Who Talked to Dogs 

Adelaide Festival
by
01 March 2021

There is, somewhat surprisingly, a German connection in the otherwise resoundingly Irish The Boy Who Talked to Dogs, the State Theatre Company of South Australia and Slingsby Theatre Company co-production based on Martin McKenna’s memoir about his hardscrabble childhood in 1970s Garryowen. In both the book and the play, adapted by Irish playwright Amy Conroy, we encounter Martin (Bryan Burroughs) as a deeply troubled youth – the ‘smallest, weakest, and scaredest’ of a set of triplets – growing up with German emigrant parents.

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A German Life 

Adelaide Festival
by
01 March 2021

Who in their right mind would want to be running an international arts festival right now? Two months ago I was slated to review four Adelaide Festival shows for this publication. Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, two were subsequently cancelled, including Anna Breckon and Nat Randall’s highly anticipated Set Piece. Co-artistic directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy must have been harried during the lead-up to the opening weekend, as national borders continued to snap open and shut like the jaws of a capricious crocodile.

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Borrowing a term coined by the late Jewish Nobel Laureate and vegetarian Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Patterson (in)famously likened humanity’s treatment of animals to an ‘eternal Treblinka’. In his 2001 book of the same name, Patterson set the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and industrialised animal slaughter side by side, drawing a line between the production methods of Chicago’s early twentieth-century slaughterhouses, the assembly-line technology pioneered by Henry Ford – an avowed anti-Semite and Hitler supporter – and the death camps of Nazi Germany. Another Jewish writer, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, is said to have observed that ‘Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals’.

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Talking animals in fiction have, for the most part, been confined to children’s or otherwise peripheral literature. Yet they often serve a serious purpose. Aesop’s fables, with their anthropoid wolves, frogs, and ants, have been put to use as moral lessons for children since the Renaissance. The ‘it-narrative’, fashionable in eighteenth-century England and perhaps best exemplified by Francis Coventry’s History of Pompey the Little: Or, the life and adventures of a lap-dog (1752), saw various animals expatiate their suffering at human hands.

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From the Man’s horse ‘blood[ied] from hip to shoulder’ in Banjo Paterson’s ‘The Man from Snowy River’ (1890) to the kangaroos drunkenly slaughtered in Kenneth Cook’s Wake in Fright (1961), non-human animals have not fared well in Australian literature. Even when, as in Ceridwen Dovey’s Only the Animals (2014), the author’s imagination is fully brought to bear on the inner lives of animals, their fate tends towards the Hobbesian – ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ – reflecting back to us our own often unexamined cruelty. The rare exceptions, such as J.M. Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello (2003), incorporating a fictionalised series of animal-rights lectures, serve only to point up the rule.

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Light and The Dark Master

OzAsia Festival
by
06 November 2019

At a time of increasingly bellicose nationalism and ever-proliferating flashpoints of contested history, it’s no surprise to find multiple works at this year’s OzAsia Festival exploring, and in some cases provoking, these global fault-lines. Light (★★☆), a collaboration between writer Thomas Henning of Melbourne’s Black Lung Theatre and Malaysian producer–designer collective TerryandTheCuz, takes as its point of departure the lives of Francis Light and his son William, the first surveyor-general of South Australia. The history books tell us that in 1786 Francis laid claim to the island of Penang on the north-west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, and that, fifty years later, William set out his plan for the city of Adelaide: a grid of wide streets and large public squares ringed by parklands. Less than three years later, William was dead from tuberculosis, the bulk of his papers and possessions having been destroyed in a fire at his North Terrace office.  

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