Ian Dickson

Opening Night 

by
04 March 2022

Although America produced other alternative filmmakers of his generation like Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren, John Cassavetes (1929–89) would have to be considered the doyen of the movement. Directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Peter Bogdanovich, and Pedro Almodóvar have acknowledged his influence. Technically rough though they may sometimes be, Cassavetes’ films have a raw power that, in the words of Amy Taubin, ‘catch you up, turn you around, bore you a little, startle you, and throw you out upset and confused’. Opening Night (1977), a film that was undervalued when it first appeared and is now perhaps somewhat overvalued, is no exception.

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West Side Story 

20th Century Studios
by
16 December 2021

Steven Spielberg obviously relishes challenges. Tackling, at this late stage in his career, his first musical is challenge enough, but directing a remake of one of the most iconic filmed musicals since the talkies arrived might be considered a mixture of chutzpah and lunacy. Luckily, the result is, mostly, a successful mixture of hommage and re-evaluation.

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Death of a Salesman 

Sydney Theatre Company
by
09 December 2021

In his program notes, Kip Williams, artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company, talks about the need to ‘wrestle’ Arthur Miller’s great play ‘into the present’. But if ever there was a play that speaks, as the Quakers would say, directly to us in our condition, it is this one. When Miller wrote it, he assumed that the postwar boom would not last and that America would head back into another depression. In fact, the boom continued, and for the next thirty years the United States, albeit hesitantly, moved past the horrors of McCarthyism, Vietnam, and the brutal resistance of the south to the Civil Rights Act towards a more just and equitable society. But the election of Ronald Reagan and the last forty years of triumphant, unrestrained capitalism have led us to the Trumpian world where people are either winners or losers and are, in the gig economy, to paraphrase Willy Loman, eaten like an orange and thrown away like the peel. Miller’s play is a reminder that being human, in his words, ‘is something most of us fail at most of the time and a little mercy is eminently in order given the societies we live in’.

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Marjorie Lawrence: The world at her feet 

Sharmill Films
by
07 December 2021

Say the words ‘Australian opera singer’ and most people, if any names were to surface at all, would nominate Nellie Melba or Joan Sutherland. But for a country with a small population, Australia, since Melba’s début in 1887 at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, has consistently punched above its weight in the production of successful classical singers. In the 1950s and 1960s, both Covent Garden and London’s alternative opera company, Sadler’s Wells, were studded with Australian singers, while in Paris, Menindee-born Lance Ingram, under the name Albert Lance, was for many years a leading tenor at the Paris Opera, partnering Maria Callas, among many others. Today singers such as Stuart Skelton and Nicole Car have major careers only slightly curtailed (one hopes) by the wretched virus.

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Platée 

by
03 December 2021

Jean-Philippe Rameau’s setting of Adrien-Joseph Le Valois d’Orville’s adaptation of Jacques Autreau’s then unpublished and unperformed play Platée must be considered one of the most tactless entertainments ever presented to celebrate a royal wedding. The story of the ugly, vain water nymph who is used as a pawn to salvage the rocky marriage of Jupiter and Juno was certainly not the usual bland extravaganza to be expected at such an occasion. It probably didn’t help that the Dauphin Louis’s bride, Maria-Theresa of Spain, was not considered conventionally attractive.

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There were divas before Nellie Melba and, given that nowadays any young woman who can hold her career together for a few years while screeching into a microphone has the title bestowed on her, there have been many genuine and ersatz ones since. But Dame Nellie (1861–1931) remains the ne plus ultra, the gold standard of opera divas. Essential attributes include an instantly recognisable voice, an unshakeable faith in one’s ability, and position in the world, and an equally unshakeable determination that no rival will intrude upon one’s limelight. Nellie Mitchell showed these traits from an early age.

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Happy Days 

Red Line Productions
by
15 June 2021

Towards the end of the first act of Happy Days, Samuel Beckett spells out clearly the question that is at the heart of his work and that of the playwrights loosely grouped under the title ‘absurdist’. His protagonist, Winnie, buried up to her waist in earth, is describing the conversation of a couple who, wandering by, have caught sight of her. The man turns to his female companion. ‘What’s she doing? he says – What’s the idea? he says – stuck up to her diddies in the bleeding ground – coarse fellow – What does it mean? he says – What’s it meant to mean? … Do you hear me? he says – I do, she says, God help me … And you, she says, what’s the idea of you, what are you meant to mean?’

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Fun Home 

Melbourne Theatre Company/Sydney Theatre Company
by
04 May 2021

Fun Home is not your average musical. Based on Alison Bechdel’s hugely influential 2006 graphic novel of the same name – which contrasts her coming out as a lesbian with her gay father’s closeted, unhappy, and ultimately self-destructive life – Hello, Dolly! it ain’t. But in the clear-eyed, compassionate, and understanding hands of playwright Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori, it became a multi-award-winning, much-performed success.

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On 8 November 2015, a year after his death, a celebration was held for Mike Nichols in the IAC building in New York. The audience included the likes of Anna Wintour, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Stoppard, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Meryl Streep. Seventy-six years earlier, less than a mile away, seven-year-old Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky walked down the SS Bremen’s gangplank into America and a new life. The transformation of the angry, bewildered immigrant Peschkowski into the outwardly charming, debonair, outrageously talented Nichols is at the heart of Mark Harris’s comprehensive, compulsively entertaining biography.

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Appropriate 

Sydney Theatre Company
by
25 March 2021

Picasso is supposed to have claimed that ‘good artists borrow, great artists steal’. The young American playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does something slightly different. He, as it were, appropriates, taking well-known theatrical styles and adapting them to his own use. He gets old theatrical forms – the minstrel show in Neighbors (2010) or nineteenth-century melodrama in An Octoroon (2014), which this writer was fortunate enough to catch in New York, and explodes them to blisteringly funny effect. With Appropriate (first produced in 2013), he adopts that well-worn saga, the dysfunctional southern American family.

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