Archive for October, 2010

October 26, 2010

I became aware of Shane Jones’ Light Boxes back in February 2009 when I blogged meagrely about how much I admired Jesse Ball’s The Way Through Doors. Jones informed me that Ball had blurbed his book, and diffidently suggested, ‘Check it out if you want’. I did want, and I emailed him to find out a little bit more about Light Boxes. My e-epistle to him was embarrassingly stupid. I said, verbatim: ‘What is the likelihood that I would like your book?’ Seriously.

Despite this inauspicious beginning, I did eventually get around to reading Light Boxes – almost two years later – and I interviewed Jones for Killings. Read the interview here.

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One of my favourite childhood narrative arcs was that of the desirable man falling in love with the heroine in very unlikely circumstances. Examples:

  • Jane Eyre: rich man with a predilection for society beauties loves poor governess with no connections
  • Pride and Prejudice: rich man who doesn’t like anyone loves poorish woman with sharp wit and paradigmatically irritating mother
  • Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness series: prince falls in love with girl who previously was pretending to be a boy
  • Never Been Kissed (starring Drew Barrymore and that guy from Alias): handsome, kind high school teacher falls in love with talented student (errrrr) which turns out to be okay because she is actually an adult investigative journalist masquerading as a high school student (yes, a bit weird, I grant you)

This is of course because I had no idea about how to go about recommending myself as a love-object to anyone, and was therefore tragically beholden to the idea that no matter how much society or fate or the weather had it in for you, ‘the right one’ would see through your ugly clothes/lack of personal hygiene/dearth of interesting conversation/ability to converse with animals in your head/coarse curtain of hair to THE TRUE YOU, the one which he would clasp to his bosom going forward. The great-grandfather/mother of these plots is, of course, Bill Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, at the end of which Duke Orsino is willing to give it a go with Viola, even though she has hitherto been in disguise as Cesario, his eunuch. His on-the-spot reasoning for this is fairly weird:

Your master quits you; for your service done him,
So much against the mettle of your sex,
So far beneath your soft and tender breeding,
And since you call’d me master for so long
Here is my hand: you shall from this time be
Your master’s mistress.

Basically, thank you for being a friend, and since I suppose I quite liked you anyway, let’s get married. What’s not said here is that the service done Orsino is a mélange of friendship, loyalty and love – ‘I have unclasped to thee the book even of my secret soul’ – the extent of which is so immeasurable that Orsino is willing to overlook Viola’s lie of identity. It’s a great love story. This is why Twelfth Night was one of my favourite Shakespeare plays when I was growing up, and it still is.

Bell Shakespeare is currently touring its Twelfth Night, which I saw about a month ago in Melbourne (it’s currently on in Canberra, and Sydney will follow). I’m not a regular theatre-goer by any means, but this was a temptation I couldn’t pass up. I would have been happy even to see a historical, word-for-word version of the play – complete with boring renderings of Feste’s songs – and, wonderfully, this production was anything but.

The striking set held a huge mountain of clothes in the centre of the stage and detritus littered the perimeter. People dressed in smoke-stained clothing and firefighting gear wandered the wrack and ruin. A flickering TV screen told the firefighters, and us, that bushfires had been raging, that people were lost in the wilderness. One woman began crying; other people continued their wandering. One man picked up a book – a copy of Twelfth Night, and began to read. Someone strummed a guitar. Individuals hesitatingly read parts and then took them; the play was a way to pass the time and to defy the tragedy of their forsaken meeting.

This introduction was awkward and heavily played – which I’m assuming was deliberate, given that all the performers were excellent. But the wordless, mechanical opening foregrounded that heavy feeling of awaiting a performance of Shakespeare. No one sits in such an audience lightly, and I presume that no one stands on that stage lightly. Everyone knows what to expect; or do they? This opening signalled something different, and radically so. As the actors warmed to the well-loved words and the parts, my expectations fell swiftly away.

Lee Lewis’s Twelfth Night is an athletic, shape-shifting production. The set is a playground: parts get picked up and thrown around, and the mountain of clothing is both change room and platform. But even more affecting than the wise and wide-ranging use of space is the actors’ capacity to embody both the mourning firefighters and the long-beloved comedic characters. Andrea Demetriades is an earnestly slapsticking Viola; as always, I simultaneously rejoiced and mourned the moment when her pretence ceases and Cesario is no more. Ben Wood’s is easily the most sympathetic Malvolio I’ve ever seen (not that I’ve seen many) – his steward’s love of propriety comes from a taste for order rather than merely pride, and the bogan slant to his fastidiousness created some memorably comic moments. Easy, fussy, hammy Brent Hill is a magnificent Maria (he also plays Antonio and Valentine) – truly the fun-loving wench of the original play.

The grace and presence of the production is such that you waver between absorption in the story and wonder at the sparkling, new telling, despite the shabby clothes and dirty faces of its performers. Kit Brookman is a perfect Olivia; his crafty delight and comic haste shine beneath Olivia’s raggedy black slip dress. Elan Zavelsky’s interpretation of Orsino is a classic one; he’s handsome and well-voiced, and his restraint pays off in a noble, if distant, Count. But the real genius of Zavelsky’s smooth Orsino is its juxtaposition with Sir Andrew, whom Zavelsky also plays, sometimes within two beats of the other. A simple costuming change – a suit jacket is discarded – and Sir Andrew appears, a well-meaning, slick-looking lumphead recognisable to anyone who’s watched Big Brother or gone to the races. It’s such a well observed performance that you can almost hear Sir Andrew’s two brain cells knocking against each other.

One major sticking point in any production of Twelfth Night is the music. You can only hear Feste’s ditties (seriously) so many times, really, before you start wishing for one of Tolkien’s Ent poems. Lewis has bravely and affectingly updated the songs, with the wonderful Max Cullen singing blues or Hunters and Collectors’ ‘Throw Your Arms Around Me’ in place of the original verses. And the spectacle of Sir Toby (Adam Booth) and Sir Andrew singing Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ is exactly the right update for the drunken scenes I usually skip through in any re-read (and which fall flat on screen). Trust me, it’s much better (and funnier) than it sounds. Only one of the contemporary tunes didn’t hold up for me – the cast’s saccharine rendition of ‘Walking on Sunshine’ made me feel like I was at a high school choral.

But that’s a tiny quibble about one of the most enjoyable nights I’ve had in ages. I haven’t laughed so much all year, nor been so inspired to revisit Shakespeare (apart from Hamlet). And it’s not every day you get to think about eunuchs.

Hey! Kill Your Darlings is having its Issue Three launch this Thursday, and it’s doing double-duty as a Literary Trivia Night.

6 for 6:30 pm, Thursday 14 October
The Pumphouse Hotel
128 Nicholson St, Fitzroy
$15 at the door / $25 for entry and a copy of Issue Three

What, you don’t want to come? Okay, here’s an animated video that Courtney Love commissioned about her own style evolution.

What, a link to a video of Courtney Love doesn’t constitute content? Okay, women became the majority of the workforce for the first time in US history and Hanna Rosin asks if postindustrial society might be better suited to women at The Atlantic. (Though the glass ceiling is still a hazard for women in Australia.)

What, you want to relive your teenaged poetry-reading years? Try Ted Hughes’ poem about Sylvia Plath’s death, published by New Statesman which is actually amazing and doesn’t deserve to be in a jokey filler list.

What, you just want a hug? No. Nooooooooo. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows trailer might work, though. Or the 25 most embarrassing pictures of Justin Timberlake.)

I was talking to a friend the other day about how it seems to be baby season, how we have swiftly and surely reached the age where our family, friends and colleagues generate offspring without any scandal – indeed, it is expected. In response to this influx of infants, I found myself saying, ‘I don’t want to have a baby, but I don’t want not to have had a baby.’ And then I mentally slapped myself across the wrist, for I had just paraphrased Lydia Davis, whose Collected Stories I had been reading. (Not that I had done very much paraphrasing – many of Davis’s stories are renowned for their brevity.) But the ease with which the words left my mouth signalled to me just the genius of Davis’s plain rendering of people’s interiors. Instead of padding stories out, she trains her storytelling on dilemmas in an intimate, immediate way.

Not all of the situations Davis depicts are as straightforward as the one I parroted, though – time and time again her narrators painstakingly work through problems that seem a little left of the centre show; or they are at the beginning of their workings-out, taking an exploratory path that unearths only a proliferation of other avenues. The collection is remarkably assured right throughout its bulk – over 700 pages, almost 200 stories, the work of more than ten years. It’s a beautiful tome, as well, which  you can slot in right next to Lorrie Moore’s collected stories, if your library is arranged by Pantone colour.

My review of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis appears in this month’s Australian Literary Review, the first under the editorship of Luke Slattery. It comes with today’s edition of The Australian. You can see the contents list and the editorial here, or purchase online access to the day’s edition here. Enjoy!

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Off to Newcastle for some fine times. I’ll be appearing at the following events:

And so I got to thinking: Does Column Writing Suck? (Sunday 3 October, 1pm)

Renew Newcastle Church

Pretty self-explanatory, really. With Andre Dao, Michaela McGuire and Tony Edwards.

How To: Get Along With Your Editor or Writer (Saturday 2 October, 1pm)

PAN (Upstairs)

Editors are jaded bastards who murder precious words. Writers are egomaniacs who can’t take criticism. In this roundtable, writers and editors face off for an insight into what it’s like being on the other side of the fence – and how to make this symbiotic relationship work for everyone. With Anna Barnes, Cameron Pegg, Caro Cooper, Dion Kagan.

Lit Journal Survivor (Saturday 2 October, 4:30pm)

Civic Park

Feats of strength and daring to determine which of the literary journals has what it takes to make the distance. Final two teams standing to be championed by mystery warriors! If you are from a lit journal but don’t see your name here, put yourself forward. With Geoff Lemon, Laura Jean McKay, Leigh Rigozzi, Ronnie Scott, Sam Twyford-Moore, Sean Wilson, Voiceworks Magazine Editorial Committee.

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