Tim Byrne

Lifespan of a Fact 

Melbourne Theatre Company
by
24 May 2021

Over the past decade or so, the centrality of fact in journalism, in political discourse, and in long-form non-fiction writing itself has taken a hit. The days are long gone when readers of The Washington Post could have confidence that the journalists who broke open Watergate had not only done due diligence but had chased every fact down the rabbit hole of governmental corruption. Now readers tend to gravitate to media organisations that confirm their own bias and dismiss the others as hubs of half-truths and outright lies. But what if the facts obscured rather than revealed the heart of a story? What if the facts got in the way of the mood, the texture, and the feeling of a real-life event? Is there any justification for deliberate or poetic inaccuracy in non-fiction? Lifespan of a Fact, a new play currently being presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company, has us wondering.

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Over the past year the pandemic has devastated the performing arts in Australia. Theatre especially has been adversely impacted. In today’s episode, theatre critic and ABR regular Tim Byrne looks at how theatre organisations are coping now that venues are beginning to reopen. He interviews a range of artistic directors spanning Melbourne Theatre Company’s departing Brett Sheehy, Queensland Theatre Lee Lewis, Malthouse Theatre’s Matthew Lutton, and many more.

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The Father 

Sharmill Films
by
29 March 2021

So much critical discussion of films adapted from plays centres on the notion of the ‘opening out’ of the action and on the ways in which the director and screenwriter have disguised the work’s theatrical origins, the implication being that this is always desirable or appropriate. Mike Nichols, with his extraordinary adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), understood that some works demand a restricted, claustrophobic setting; that film can indeed feed off the physical limitations that define the stage. With this principle squarely in mind, French playwright Florian Zeller has, along with English screenwriter Christopher Hampton, adapted for the screen his own play La Père (2012). A finer example of the process of translation is hard to conceive.

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James Shapiro, in his brilliant book 1606: William Shakespeare and the year of Lear (2015), notes the general reluctance of the Elizabethan theatre to deal directly with the subject of plague, despite its pressing relevance to audiences of the day. He asks if this is ‘because it was bad for business to remind playgoers packed into theatres of the risks of transmitting disease or because a traumatised culture simply couldn’t deal with it?’ As our own theatre begins to emerge from pandemic, those twin concerns of risk and trauma loom large over the collective consciousness. Outbreaks that explode like spot fires around the country have sapped our confidence, and the gap between our desire to participate in live performance and our fear of community transmission still seems insurmountable.

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There is a celebrated moment in Jonathan Glazer’s 2004 film Birth when Nicole Kidman enters a theatre late and sits down to watch a performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre. The camera remains on her perturbed features for two whole minutes. This image kept recurring as I read Claire Thomas’s new novel, The Performance. In it, three women sit and watch a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days (1961), alone in their thoughts, their whirring minds only occasionally distracted by the actions on stage. If for nothing else, Thomas must be congratulated on the boldness of her conceit, on her ability to make dynamic a situation of complete stasis.

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In today's episode of the ABR Podcast Tim Byrne discusses his review of Mark Mordue's new biography of Nick Cave with ABR Digital Editor Jack Callil. 

Tim Byrne’s review of Boy on Fire appears in the January-February issue.

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At one point in Boy on Fire, music critic Mark Mordue’s strange, hybrid biography and social history of the early years and musical development of singer–songwriter Nick Cave, Mordue describes his subject as ‘the nominal ship’s captain, a drug-spun Ahab running amok on stage and off’. It is a typically sharp image, but it may reveal more than was intended; for all that Cave is Mordue’s Ahab, he is far more like the white whale itself: a great and receding mythical creature that will swallow the world before giving up any of its secrets. For a long while, the reader is cajoled into thinking this work might be the first in an exhaustive series on the artist, but by the end the truth is revealed: the subject simply got the better of his biographer, who languishes still in the belly of the whale. After an unnaturally long gestation, it seems to have become a case of publish or go mad.

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Ratched 

Netflix
by
21 September 2020

How, precisely, does a character unmoor itself from its source material? And how concerned should we be to track its progress – or should that be retrace its steps? These questions bugged me as I admittedly devoured Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix series, Ratched. Ostensibly a prequel, it re-contextualises and re-packages the unforgettable villain Nurse Ratched from Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) for entirely different aims, so much so that the original feels hopelessly far away. In fact, there’s little evidence of Kesey at all.

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Late into Take Me to the World, the live-streamed isolation concert to celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s ninetieth birthday, Nathan Lane quips that the composer has ‘been so under-appreciated all these years. I can’t believe there’s never been a tribute to this unsung musical genius.’ It’s a delicious routine, because every fan of the indisputable master of the American musical knows just how many Sondheim tributes are extant, and how unlikely it is that this will be the last. For a while it seemed as though this one might just slot in with the others, a standard – if, given the format, unorthodox – collection of musical performances showcasing Sondheim’s particular talents.

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It’s perhaps a dubious thought, but the life of an actor invariably triggers something prurient in the audience, some desperate need to peer past the mask, to see beyond the curtain. Books by and about actors indulge this prurience, whether or not they are intended to. Works like Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (1936) or Stella Adler’s The Art of Acting (2000) deal academically with the interiority and motivations of acting, but they still offer a glimpse into the process and the perceived trickery of creation. The most fun are the intentionally salacious ones, like David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon (1971) or Scotty Bowers’s Full Service (2017), which detailed the sexual proclivities of Hollywood’s closeted élite. Anything to get us closer, to get us into the inner sanctum.

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