My Salad Days

Review: Godface by Matriark Theatre

The current state of funding for the arts in Australia is in dire straights, as this year the Australia Council announced enormous cuts in funding for small to medium arts companies. The future is uncertain not just for the production of theatre, music, writing, and art in this country, but also for the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people who work in the creative industries (which, by the bye, employs more people than agriculture, construction, and even mining). At the end of last night’s performance of Godface by Matriark Theatre, one of the actors beseeched the audience to join the #istandwiththearts campaign. As one of the hard working, talented and passionate non-for-profit multi-arts companies in this country, the government cuts does provide major cause for concern.

Ending the show with this message was more than apt, considering their short piece is political satire. The play is set in a dystopic futuristic city, Godface, where the half human-animal creatures are competing to be elected the next Prime God. These humanoid beings are created through stunningly rendered puppetry; giving a whole new meaning to the term “political animal”. The new girl in town, Pippa, decides to make a play at the political system, but very quickly she’s chewed up and spat out. On the face of it, the play uses an Olympian setting, with a pantheon of petty gods squabbling. What emerges is an Orwellian vision of the future of politics in Australia. The play sends up the failure of the two party system to adequately represent the populace, and indeed, the possibility of the two parties becoming one totalitarian leader. I particularly liked that instead of falling into cynicism, the playmakers capitalised on their knowledge of commedia dell’arte, making the play full of humour and warmth. What emerges is something like Aristophanes: political satire, with animals, and low comedy.

Go for the puppets, stay for the satire, and support independent theatre in Sydney.

Godface is showing at 107 Projects till 10 July


New Blog: Erratic Dialogues

erratic-dialogues-headerI am very excited to announce that my good friend and collaborator Claudette of Hons & Rebels and I have started a new blog: Erratic DialoguesErratic Dialogues was created in order to design a forum for cultural conversations that explore the boundaries of how the arts are discussed online. We aim to play with form, structure, and storytelling as a means to tease out the limits of the online essay. This blog is a story of culture and collaboration; by writing and speaking together we are able to create dialogues that are between a conversation and discourse. We believe that by bringing together different mediums in order to explore particular novels, films, and artworks, we are able to tease out potential meanings in new and undiscovered ways. This blog is an experiment in combining the art of cultural deconstruction over a cup of coffee with the art of online forms. I hope Erratic Dialogues generates more conversations in turn, and that most of all, you enjoy reading it!

Review: Ali Smith, How to be both (2014)

PA Photo/Hamish Hamilton

PA Photo/Hamish Hamilton

How we interact with art says as much about us as it does about an artwork. It was passing through the Van Gogh Museum where I first discovered the impression an artwork can leave on you inner being. Staring intently at a picture of blue irises against a yellow background, I was struck by the emotional stamp Van Gogh left on this painting. Not just a still life of some flowers, this work captures a feeling of pure delight, a sense of wonder at the beauty that can be found in something so simple. Just looking at this painting made my spirit soar, and suddenly I felt as though I understood not only myself, but Van Gogh’s choice to render this image, as well as the lure of the world.

Vincent Van Gogh, 'Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background', Van Gogh Museum

Vincent Van Gogh, ‘Still Life: Vase with Irises Against a Yellow Background’, Van Gogh Museum

Ali Smith’s multifaceted Man Booker shortlisted novel How to be both (2014) explores, amongst many other things, how we see ourselves in relation to art. It is simultaneously a story of the quattrocento Renaissance artist Francesco del Cossa and also that of George, a sixteen-year-old girl who has suffered the loss of her mother. The story is divided up into two parts, and the part you get first is dependent on your luck at the bookshop. In my copy, I met Francesco before George. What I find most interesting about How to be both is how Smith plays with mirrors, gender (one of the great unsaids of the novel), and questions of seeing all to the effect of creating an argument for empathy. So much of what the novel revolves around is the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of another; ultimately, this becomes an argument for the importance of art itself.

It would make sense that a novel about art thematises acts of looking. As an artist, Francesco’s world is dominated by the visual. She is excited by colour, form, and creating beauty. Eyes recur throughout her artworks, and assert the power of the artist to make their audience connect with the painting. Most of Francesco’s section of the novel revolves around the creation of her magnum opus, the allegorical frescoes of March, April and May in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara. In one section of the picture, Francesco paints a horse who has ‘eyes that can follow you around the room’ (the most famous example of this effect is the Mona Lisa). A lot of the novel explores the point at which we stop seeing and we start being seen. The artwork, even if it isn’t alive, stares right back, and holds us:

those are the God eyes and whoever has them in a painting or fresco holds the eyes of whoever looks at the work, and this is no blasphemy, merely a reasserting of the power of the gaze back at us from outside us always on us.

The artwork becomes inescapable; for a moment the viewer is caught by the artist and pulled into their imagined world.

Francesco del Cossa, 'Allegory of April', Palazzo Schifanoia

Francesco del Cossa, ‘Allegory of April’, Palazzo Schifanoia

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, George’s mother is holding forth about questions of looking, ‘And which comes first? her unbearable mother is saying. What we see or how we see?’. In this part of the novel, the gaze of the artist turns into the gaze of modern surveillance cameras. Smith explores the difference between being looked upon as an object of sexual desire and as a person being monitored. When George’s internet anarchist mother takes her children to Italy on a whim to see Cossa’s frescoes, she explains that she thinks her erstwhile friend (who she possibly loved) may have been spying on her for the government. George cannot understand why her mother finds the gaze of her friend erotic, to which her mother replies, ‘Seeing and being seen, Georgie, is very rarely simple’. All through the novel there is an awareness of surveillance, and the complexity of George’s mother’s relationship to being watched mirrors Francesco’s desire to have her work gaze back onto the viewer. The eyes are everywhere, and those who are able to direct vision in How to be both are those who hold power.

Francesco del Cossa, 'Allegory of March', Palazzo Schifanoia

Francesco del Cossa, ‘Allegory of March’, Palazzo Schifanoia

Besides representing control and authority, looking and vision are also part of Smith’s exploration of empathy. This theme is part of How to be both’s framework of deliberate artifice; the sincere rendering of empathy is an element of Smith’s play with the novel’s form. For homework, George and her friend Helena have to write a presentation about the difference between empathy and sympathy. In a moment of insight, George imagines doing the presentation about Francesco, making up his/her whole world and life story, seeing as very little is known about the artist in reality. Francesco’s section of the novel, it seems, it just a momentary figment of George’s imagination:

You’d need your own dead person to come back from the dead. You’d be waiting and waiting for that person to come back. But instead of the person you needed you’d get some dead renaissance painter going on and on about himself and his work and it’d be someone you knew nothing about and that’d be meant to teach you empathy, would it?

Smith’s metafictional description of her story of Francesco made me do a double take: was the whole first part of the novel just a flash in the mind of a teenage girl?

Having read George’s section after Francesco’s, I wondered how my reading of How to be both would change if I happened to have a copy that went the other way around? Would I see Francesco only as a figment of George’s imagination? Is this just part of Smith’s deliberate play with form and artifice through the novel? An intellectual game of puns and mirrors? I doubt this. If one of the major themes of the novel is to express the need for empathy, Francesco’s story is probably meant to make the reader see through the blind eyes of history. The reader is given a vision into an artist who could have been lost to time; the only reason we know of Cossa’s existence is because a letter of his was found in the late 1800s, asking the duke of Ferrara for a larger payment for his frescoes. The motif of vision is constant in Francesco’s section, and she is particularly empathetic to those who can’t see. Smith describes Francesco’s rendering of the blinded Saint Lucy, to whom she gives eyes as though they were flowers, because she thinks it would be cruel to deprive Lucy of her vision. Francesco quotes the Renaissance art theorist Alberti, ‘the eye is like a bud’; it is through our eyes that we perceive the world, and from which things grow in our lives. The act of seeing in this novel is tantamount to empathetic feeling. To really see, to perceive, is to love. And by writing a novel seeking to identify with two (seemingly disparate) characters, Smith may be asserting that the creation of art itself is an act of empathy and love. How to be both reinforces that great art makes us emotionally react and see the world through a different pair of eyes; that it has the capacity to make us see beyond ourselves. As George’s mother says, ‘Art makes nothing happen in a way that makes something happen.’

Francesco del Cossa, 'Saint Lucy', National Gallery of Art

Francesco del Cossa, ‘Saint Lucy’, National Gallery of Art

In How to be both, Smith presents the limitlessness of art and the empathetic effect it can have upon individuals. Even the title draws upon the idea that empathy means being both ourselves and someone else for a moment. And what is fiction but inhabiting the mind of another? This novel is a testament to the power of the artist/writer’s capacity to create a world and have the viewer/reader inhabit it. I must admit, after reading How to be both, I spent hours trawling through articles on Smith, Cossa, and Ferrara. I’m now determined to see these frescoes myself, and hopefully catch the eye of that god-like horse.

Dear Henslowe’s Diary

Henslowe's play list, MSS 7, 011 recto, the Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation ProjectBefore I knew about Henslowe’s Diary, I often wondered how it is we know so much about the running of theatre companies in early modern London. Our knowledge is thanks to a wonderful document possessed by the impresario Philip Henslowe, who was the manager and financier of the Admiral’s Men, and owner of the Rose theatre in Bankside. You’d probably know him as Geoffrey Rush’s character in Shakespeare in Love. Henslowe, in reality, was no fool. The Admiral’s Men are thought to be the second most important company (after the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men, where Shakespeare was a shareholder, actor and writer), but if it weren’t for the bookkeeping of Henslowe, we would know next to nothing about the world of Elizabethan theatre. Henslowe was a fastidious man; he wrote down every cent that passed through his and the Company’s fingers. He recorded every payment to a dramatist (including Marlowe, Jonson, Middleton, Chapman, Dekker, Rowley, to name a few), every costume or piece of set bought, loans and debts, his financial dealings with the Mater of the Revels, and spells that he bought (one of which to was to help him find a stolen object). In one particular section, he listed every single production at the Rose from 1591-6.

Henslowe’s play entries reveal the ever-changing nature of the London theatre industry. Whilst a modern theatre would do a run of a show, playing the same production every day for a few months, during the early modern period, a company would play a different drama from their repertoire every night. This, of course, has huge implications for how a play was practiced (they usually weren’t) and how lines were memorised (very speedily). Dramatic companies had to supply a constant turnover for the very high demand for entertainment, and in order to survive (and make profit), companies like the Admiral’s Men had to provide a huge variety of plays. Early modern English performances were clearly not like the highly polished versions of today.

Henslowe’s list of plays show how the Admiral’s Men’s set list was contingent on a play’s previous financial success. Basically, a play would only be put on again if the Admiral’s Men could reap in a pretty penny. Marlowe’s works, for example, were extremely popular throughout the period. Performances of Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta, and Doctor Faustus would be interspersed with new shows, and the new shows would get performed again if they did well in the first place. This shows us that the Admiral’s Men had a core “season” which they played on repeat over the years. A Knack to Know a Honest Man by Thomas Heywood (or Anthony Munday) is a good example of this. Heslowe first recorded the play on 22 October 1594 as ‘ne-Rd at a Knacke to Know a noneste’. It was played again on October 29, November 1 and 7, and then integrated into the Admiral’s Men repertory. The equivocal “ne” that appears next to some of the play entries could mean that this play was new, a revised version, or was a sucess. As the play had not yet appeared in the list, and was played again three times in quick succession, it is safe to assume that A Knack to Know a Honest Man did pretty well at the box office.

Magic spells, MSS 7, 017 recto, Henslowe-Alleyn Digitisation ProjectHenslowe was canny enough to ditch the plays that were canned on first viewing. On 30 July 1594, Henslowe entered ‘ne-Rd at the marchat of eamden x’. The “ne”, coupled with the “x” (meaning a payment to the Master of Revels), allows us to assume that The Merchant of Eamden was new play. Sadly enough, The Merchant of Eamden does not make another appearance. It seems that the audience voted with their feet; it was the audience who were the main directors of the Rose’s repertoire. There was also a taste for seeing a play and its sequel over two days. On 11 March 1595, Tamberlaine 1 was played, and on March 12, Tamberlaine 2. On June 12 and 13, Part 1 and 2 of “herculos” was performed, and on June 25 and 26, the two parts of “seaser”. This rather shrewd repertory structure meant that the Admiral’s Men could rely upon an audience for two days. This also shows that plays such as Tamburlaine, Hercules and Caesar were popular enough that sequels were written for the audience.

Does Henslowe’s Diary give us a vision into how all theatre companies were run? As an actor and writer for the Chamberlain’s Men, did Shakespeare feel the pressure to churn out plays and learn new lines every day? Seeing as we have no evidence to the contrary, it’s safe to assume that this is probably how it was across the board. The Diary is a pretty nifty piece of material history, and one of my favourite theatrical documents, giving us a great and rare glimpse into Shakespeare’s theatrical world.

Check out this great site about the Henslowe-Alleyn archive:

Review: Late Turner – Painting Set Free

When looking at the late works of J. M. W. Turner at the Tate Britain, I could not help but be in awe of Turner’s expression of the potential limitlessness of the imagination, and the sheer scope of our world. Perhaps that’s why the curators entitled the show, ‘Late Turner – Painting Set Free’. However, Turner painted these works at point where his body was quickly deteriorating: he relied on alcohol to control a tremor, he suffered from diabetes, and was losing his eyesight and teeth. Was Turner trying to reconcile himself to his bodily imprisonment and his knowledge of earthly impermanence with images of grand landscapes, historical fantasies, and representations of human ingenuity and power? With the knowledge that his hour of strutting and fretting upon the stage is almost up, did Turner wish to make permanent those chimera-like moments that pass through man’s fingers like sand? Turner’s final burst of artistic freedom, perhaps, was to come at the cost of his life.

Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842), Tate Britain

All through the exhibition I could see works that played with enclosure and freedom. Some of Turner’s grand and unlimited visions of the ocean show a natural world independent of mankind. Humanity, in these paintings, is either enclosed in scenes of natural violence, or powering through with his industrial ingenuity. In ‘Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth’ (1842), the sea does not care for the boat being tossed, or for lives of those upon it. At the centre of a vortex of blue, white and grey, the boat’s pillar of smoke is a cry for safety. Man, here, is subsumed by the force of the natural world. This painting is a Romantic prophesy, almost like something out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, showing humanity to be impotent against nature. And yet, in ‘Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway’ (1844), Turner depicts the oncoming whoosh of a steam train through the fog like a herald of man’s capacity to cut through nature’s barriers.

Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844)

Rain, Steam, and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844), National Gallery

Turner also seemed to be curious about the state of captivity, such as in his depiction of Napoleon exiled on the island of St Helana, ‘War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet’ (1842). The elongated figure of Napoleon, standing with crossed arms and looking into a pool reflecting the bloody sunset depicts the cost of grandiose aspirations. War, here, is reduced to an isolated man staring at a mollusc. With a guard standing at a distance behind him, I like to imagine Napoleon is contemplating how one insignificant snail has more freedom than he. But that is the price one pays for washing Europe red. The critics universally canned this painting upon exhibition, perhaps because the depiction of Napoleon as but a man facing the existential hugeness of the world was too much to bear. The power of this painting lies in Turner’s impression of the effect of a single man upon Europe, although this comes with the knowledge that he too will be washed away by the natural world. As the sun continues to set in the painting, Napoleon will be subsumed by its light, and blotted out.

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (exhibited 1842)

War. The Exile and the Rock Limpet (exhibited 1842), Tate Britain

In ‘Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis’ (1843), Turner’s circular, swirling vision of religious power is enclosed within a square frame. One can imagine the white gyre at the centre of the painting expanding into eternity, like the creation of a new universe. With flashes of warm yellows, browns and reds, and a peak of blue in the upper right corner, this may be how Turner envisioned the power of God. Perhaps this painting represents man’s fresh freedom after the flood, as they are brought together with God. However, despite the glowing and powerful whirlpool of colour, the painting is square-shaped. Almost like a visualisation of a round peg in a square hole, the sense of liberation and release created by the incredible use of colour is cordoned off by the square enclosure. Freedom, here, has been made captive.

Light and Colour (Goethe's Theory)  - the Morning after the Deluge - Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited (1843)

Light and Colour (Goethe’s Theory) – the Morning after the Deluge – Moses Writing the Book of Genesis exhibited (1843), Tate Britain

When looking at Turner’s late works, I had the overwhelming feeling of being subsumed by beauty, like coming face to face with the artistic sublime. The paintings I’ve mentioned does not encapsulate the exhibition as a whole – I have not even touched upon the whole room dedicated to Venice, or Turner’s (perhaps overwrought) fantasies of Ancient Rome. Although many of the paintings in the exhibition have a sense of excess which could be quite showy and alienating, where I liked Turner best was in his soft and subtle explorations of colour and light. In ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ (c. 1845), the balmy blues and yellows of the watercolour merge the castle and the landscape. Turner’s gentle rendering of this scene makes one feel that they are looking upon a moment captured never to be seen again. Turner’s paintings catch wrinkles in time, yearning to preserve those seconds that will be lost in an instant. Turner, perhaps, painted these works with death at the forefront of his mind. His paintings, set free, yearn to escape the captivity of mortality. The audience of this exhibition are lucky enough to be able to look upon the freedom of Turner’s every brushstroke.

Norham Castle, Sunrise (c.1845)

Norham Castle, Sunrise (c.1845), Tate Britain