Wednesday 10 September 2014

Macbeth at Sydney Theatre Company, 10 September 2014

Macbeth is one of Shakespeare's most iconic plays about the nature of evil and the destructive human thirst for power.

Kip Williams, the director, is not a big name (yet). He decides on a drastic re-working of the stage setting: We, the audience, sit on the stage, while the action plays around a bare table, mismatched chairs and very few other props in front of the auditorium emptily looming behind. The actors (all of them except Hugo Weaving playing more than one role) are sometimes sitting up in random seats, sometimes standing right in front of us. This is a thrilling and raw experience. I could reach out my hand and touch them, I  hear their breath and see their spittle and sweat flying.

Hugo Weavering plays Macbeth. No, he doesn't play him, he is Macbeth. He whispers, he cries, he shouts and sobs, and he takes you right along on his intense emotional journey. He is absolutely mesmerising and domineers the stage. Next to his towering performance some of the younger actors seem slightly pale in comparison. Only John Gaden can measure up, playing first Duncan and later Macduff's young child. He is formidable as both.

Above all I'm struck by the physicality and almost athletic nature of theatre. I quite forgot this after mainly watching movies recently, where every experience is edited and airbrushed. Sitting on this (very uncomfortable) chair for two hours straight, there is no distancing myself, no escaping. I'm sucked in, I'm there - in that Scottish castle and on that battlefield in a snow storm, and I'm watching Macbeth die right in front of me. It's chilling and it's beautiful, and I am hooked. Watch this space for more stories from the theatrical frontline.

Wednesday 30 April 2014

TEDx Sydney 2014

Sometimes a day isn't enough. How can I summarise the amazing experience that is being in the audience for TEDx Sydney 2014?

Firstly, a few words about the event for the uninitiated: TED originally stood for Technology, Entertainment and Design. It started as a conference in California in 1984, a not-for profit enterprise asking the world’s leading thinkers and doers to speak for 18 minutes and share their 'Ideas Worth Spreading'.

TEDx developed from there all around the world in local, self-organised events, bringing people together to share a TED-like experience with speakers and performers. TEDx Sydney is a day of ideas, storytelling, creativity and innovation. It's a day to foster the community, for conversation and debate.

There is an atmosphere of kinship, of 'we're in this together'ness. You can palpably feel the energy and love of 2,300 people in the audience, around 200 in the sold-out event downstairs and about 50 satellite events. The hunger for ideas is breathtaking.

It gives me such hope for humanity to look at the faces around me and know that we are all here to listen to inspirational people who - in one way or the other - want to serve the community, improve the life of their fellow beings.

The day is divided into four sections:


There isn't really one single performance that stands out - I'm blown away by different speakers for different reason.

There is the very first speaker, Markus Zusak, author of the bestseller The Book Thief, who delivers a poignant speech about the benefits of failure as a writer and a human being. He is funny, humble and self-deprecating.

There is the dry and matter-of-fact former soldier and diplomat David Kilcullen who works with communities in conflict zones to help them take over control in a participatory approach, dealing with crime and poverty in rapidly growing, overstretched urban sprawls.

Judy and Tim Sharp, down-to-earth mother and 25 year-old autistic son have everyone in tears after their appearance on stage. Tim is a talented artist who has created Laser Beak Man, a colourful, funny and quirky super hero who likes to take things quite literally. Think Barbie Queue or picking up chicks...

Oliver Percovich is founder of Skateistan, a grassroots project that started in Kabul, which teaches skating and general education to thousands of boys and girls in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa. He is very nervous, but incredibly passionate about his cause. His speech is a good example of what is so satisfying about TED: These are often not polished performers, but real people with a real passion to share a great idea.

And then there are the musical performances - the whimsical beauty of Linsey Pollack creating an orchestra out of a carrot, a garden hose and a feather duster. Or the breathtaking performance of Flamenco dancer Johnny Tedesco with the ensemble Bandaluzia that sizzles with his understated sexual energy and incredible stage presence. There is composer Nigel Westlake together with singer Lior who delivers the sublime and haunting Avinu Malkeinu out of their song cycle 'Compassion'. And finally Megan Washington, who gives a touching and vulnerable speech about her stutter, followed by her flawless and beautiful singing.

And finally the food. Oh, the glorious food. As Jill Dupleix says, "At TEDx Sydney we don't just do lunch". We sit down at long tables to nourishing, beautiful soups, curries, herbs, salads, hand churned butter and fresh bread with ingredients that are sourced from local refugee initiatives. The wine and beer is specially commissioned and locally produced for the day. The quality on such a large scale is astonishing and just so damn pleasurable. It seems like a fitting metaphor for the whole day - done with love, pride, passion and compassion.

What am I taking away from this day? Change is possible. Do something. Be open. I laughed out loud, I cried, I was speechless, excited, touched, inspired, and I can honestly say I enjoyed every moment. Bring on TEDx Sydney 2015.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

The 19th Biennale of Sydney - MCA

I find art calming and invigorating at the same time. Strolling through the Museum of Contemporary Art to explore their display for the 19th Biennale of Sydney a few weekends ago, I'm wondering: What exactly is it about art that makes me so happy? Is it being surrounded by like-minded people, silently connected through the love of art? Or being alone with my thoughts, aimlessly musing about this art work or the other, making mental connections?

My first stop is a dark room with a wall-to-wall video screening by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. It's titled Mercy Garden Retour Skin (What is it with obscure titles for art works by the way? I guess it's supposed to draw you in, make you curious. Or I'm missing some vital cultural reference here. Clearly, this needs to be addressed in a separate blog post...).

People are lying on bean bags that are scattered throughout the room. I join them and let the atmospheric music and pictures wash over me. It's a loop of lush, organic, hyper-coloured plants, grains of sand, swirling water... I feel myself drifting off, being carried along by the vivid images when I notice people around me getting restless. There are a few embarrassed giggles, and I realise that what I took for a floating sea plant under water is actually a shrivelled penis gently swaying in the soft current. Which explains the reference to nudity at the entrance I was wondering about. It's light-hearted and sensual art at its best:


The next room is the opposite - brightly lit and angular forms. Jim Lambie's work is titled Zobop (obviously). He has covered the whole gallery floor in vividly coloured striped vinyl tape. The result is striking:

I almost walk past this next neon installation by Polish artist Hubert Czeropok. He is quoting the Joker in the Batman film The Dark Knight. The sign depicts a darkly comical message about the fine line between sanity and madness:

Continuing, I enter a bright, austere room where artist Roni Horn has assembled pale blue glass castings that look like small pools filled to the brim with water. It is incredibly tempting to disturb the surface of this still mirror, and a vigilant museum attendant keeps reminding newcomers not to touch the fragile art work. This is beautiful and ethereal:

The last exhibit reveals another thing about art that makes me happy: it's enjoying the sheer aesthetic pleasure of gazing at a thing of beauty. In that sense it's like poetry or music - it calms my inner turmoil. I guess you take whatever you need from art in the exact moment you experience it. And that is good for the soul.

Thursday 2 January 2014

Sunset Park by Paul Auster

It's been quiet here lately. There have been concerts, alt J and Leonard Cohen namely, but they both failed to move me, for different reasons. One concert entirely lacked feeling and pathos while the other one had too much of it, with sugar on top (also, when people next to you do the cryptic crossword waiting for the concert to begin, you kinda start to wonder if you're not too young for this).

I've been just so busy with... life, I guess. The kids and school runs and groceries and cooking and friends and a job that occupies a large part of my mind in a good way. So I've been doing a lot of thinking and researching policies and politics, ideas and abstract concepts, but not much immersing myself in a good story.

And then I came across this on Rozelle markets. I've loved Paul Auster for a long time, since reading the amazing and disturbing City of Glass, first part of his New York Trilogy. And just now I've discovered that he has also written the screenplay for two movies I loved, Smoke and its follow-up Blue in the Face.

I'm not going to reveal much of the plot of Sunset Park, just that it is about twenty-eight year old Miles who has fled New York and his family after a tragic event he has caused seven years ago. Now he lives in sweltering Florida, taking photos of abandoned houses. He stays because he has fallen in love with a teenage girl, Pilar. When he is blackmailed by Pilar's sister, he is forced to return to New York. There, he settles in an illegal squat with two women and a man and prepares himself to face his father and the past he has been avoiding for years.

Sunset Park is the seventh novel from Paul Auster I've read. Reading it feels like coming home, recognising a kindred spirit on an almost instinctive level. It is a book about loss and forgiveness, about love and loneliness. It is intelligent, it is tragic, it is articulate like all of Auster's work, and it has the immediacy of living inside the protagonists heads, even more so as Auster switches perspectives in each chapter. And then there's the clarity and beauty of his prose, the simple elegance and rhythmic cadence of his sentences.

It all just reminds me why I love books so much. No matter how busy life gets, there is always enough time to lose oneself in a good story.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

The Maids at Sydney Theatre Company, 17 July 2013

I love theatre. I love the big gestures and big emotions - it's life amplified.

This performance has been anticipated as the highlight of the year for Sydney's theatre lovers: Cate Blanchett, French actress Isabelle Huppert and the young prodigy Elisabeth Debicki together on stage to play The Maids in an Australian adaptation of Jean Genet's classic written in 1947.

The play is loosely based on real events, where two maids and sisters murdered their employer. It is a sexually charged piece that explores the complex relationship of the three women. Solange (Huppert) and Claire (Blanchett) are subversive characters who have nothing. When their mistress (Debicki) is out, the two engage in an elaborate roleplay, one assuming the part of the mistress, the other one of the maid. They hate and depend on their mistress in equal measures, playing out sexual fantasies, but also a secret desire to kill the decandent oppressor.

Elisabeth Debicki is only 22 years old and working with two of her professional idols. She carries her role of the mistress with confidence and charisma. She is very tall, towering over the two other women, with the gangly, loose limbs of a dancer.

Blanchett's voice is remarkable (I've noticed this for the first time when she played Galadriel in The Lord of the Rings): sometimes booming and frightening, sometimes chilling and clipped, sometimes shrill, sometimes girlish. The same goes for her appearance: She can be plain and almost plump looking in one moment and of luminous, shimmering beauty in the next.

Huppert is like a naughty child - surprisingly small and slight, with the lithe body of a teenager. She is constantly moving, swinging from the clothes rack, frolicking in the big bed with her legs in the air, gesticulating and sticking her tongue out. She is hard to understand with her very strong French accent, but what courage of her to expose herself like that!

Part of the stage set-up are cameras taking details of the performance and projecting them on a big screen above the stage.

The cameras capture unexpected angles that are sometimes grotesque, sometimes painfully intimate, sometimes strangely random, like the shot of the yellow rubber gloves or one single shoe. At the same time this gives a sense of unease and building tension, the foreboding that a catastrophe could happen at any moment, from any corner.

The actresses are brave enough to let the audience see unflattering angles, sweat and faces that are no longer as taut as that of young Debicki. But they are still beautiful and at moments strangely innocent looking, yet so bitter, polluted and twisted in their murderous hate.

Huppert and Blanchett are incredibly courageous performers. They look exhausted and drained at the end, having hated, yelled, plotted and flirted for two hours straight.

I'm virtually on the edge of my seat for the whole time and find myself audibly exhaling at the end, being relieved for this emotional roller-coaster to end. And isn't this what art is all about? To suck you in, shake you up and spit you out at the end, dizzy from the experience.

Friday 12 April 2013

Manu Chao at the Enmore, 27 March 2013

All good things happen twice. I have no idea if this is true, of course, but it's a way of weaving into the conversation that this is the second time I see Manu Chao perform live. The first time was his free concert in the Domain at the opening night of the Sydney Festival 2012. Tonight he is visiting the more intimate venue of the Enmore Theatre.

It's been an eventful day leading up to the concert. In the morning I had an interview for a job I really wanted and had veered all day between thinking I did ok and there was no chance in hell they would ever employ someone like me (spoiler alert: I got the job in the end!). So this evening finds me tingeling with exitement and eager to release some pent-up tension. And have I come to the right place!

Manu Chao is still the small, bouncing bundle of energy he was a year ago. He has the rather disconcerting habit of pretending his guitar is a machine gun, miming to shoot at the ceiling or pointing it at the audience, but other than that he is just pretty much jumping up and down throughout the whole concert, playing with pure, unabashed bliss that is inspiring and infectious in its joy.

Manu Chao performes with three band members, but at times it gets pretty crowded on stage: After a couple of songs he is joined by political activists he had previously invited who are protesting against coal seam gas mining. It slows down the momentum the concert had built up so nicely, but it's still admirable to give this group a platform to express their views. As we are in Newtown, they are of course preaching to the proverbial choir, earning cheers and loud applause. Clearly there are no mining magnates or conservative politicians hidden in the audience...

Towards the end of the concert there is another interruption on stage that is far more entertaining: A very agitated bloke breaks through security and dances wildly on stage. Then he takes off all of his clothes, continues dancing and proceeds to hug Manu Chao. The singer, who is clearly having a great time watching this spectacle, signals the stern security people that everything is under control. He hugs the naked guy back and smacks two kisses on both his cheeks.

Manu Chao, who was born in Paris to Spanish parents and has travelled the world with his music, clearly hasn't lost either his Punk roots or his political conscience. And apart from all that there is the simple pleasure of witnessing this force of nature on stage. Twice.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

The Cat Empire at the Metro Theatre, 1 March 2013

I love sad music. Always have, always will. Give me a voice full of sorrow, a haunting melody and mournful lyrics any day. One of my favourite bands is still The Smiths, for God's sake.
But this clearly isn't going to be one of these days. The first person I notice on stage this Friday night is a young lady in a purple sequin dress and a huge flower headpiece (this is called a fascinator, I think, and how pleasing it is to have such a fitting word for it). The lady in question is smiling sweetly and playing banjo. Barefoot. She is part of a band called Flap! from Melbourne, and they are here to set the tone for a night of singing, dancing and general cheerfulness.

If there is any music that is just meant to be played live, it is that of The Cat Empire. This eight-piece band oozes energy out of every pore from the first moment they come on stage. I'm here with a bunch of friends, and when trumpeter and amazing vocalist Harry Angus plays the first tunes of How to Explain, we are well and truly ready, with a pair of knees to spring and a pair of lungs to sing...

The evening has a lovely, organic flow to it: The playlist is a satisfying mix of old songs and material from their new album that is due for release in May. Everything fits nicely together - all the songs are utterly danceable, or at least jump-up-and-downable, which is all I manage, squeezed in as I am among a very enthusiastic crowd. Harry Angus shares the front man role with the very handsome and very charming singer and percussionist Felix Riebl. One girl even throws her bra onto the stage, which seems to unsettle the poor drummer entirely, on whose instrument it lands. The girl later meekly (and unsuccessfully) asks to get the offending garment back.

My personal favourite song of the The Cat Empire is The Wine Song. It is introduced by a brilliant keyboard solo by the highly talented Ollie McGill, who very much reminds me of Schroeder from the Peanuts. This song is everything that the band does so well: simple lyrics that you can relate to, a rousing chorus that you just can't help singing at the top of your lungs and an irresistible rhythm that just makes you want to shake those hips.

The music of The Cat Empire defies labelling - it's a mixture of jazz, reggae, latin, hip hop and everything in between. It is, in short, one loud and joyful invitation to party. My taste for sad music will just have to wait until the next concert...