To Dad With Love

A Tribute to a Beloved Father

Book review: The Childhood of Jesus

the childhood of jesus

JM Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus is a cryptic tale set in Novilla, a city populated by people who have accepted the chance to live. Upon arrival residents are given new names and washed of their memories. Life is sustained on an appetite of asceticism; and hunger, like desires and impulse, is regarded as “a dog in the belly” that must be starved. There is plenty of goodwill, and social welfare thinly lines everybody’s pockets.

Middle-aged man, Simon, fresh from the processing camp has tasked himself with tracking down the mother of David, a child he had met on the boat to this present life. The boy has no recollection of her and the letter in a pouch strung round his neck is lost. Ines — the woman whom Simon, guided by intuition, decides is David’s parent — dotes on her son with profligacy. But, the six-year-old turns out to be a handful at school, supposedly from ambiguity about his heritage. As the family flees from education authorities, David, while on the road, urges others to follow him.

Philosophical questions are a provocative motif in this complex and confounding novel that, written in taut, elegant prose, infuses an enigmatic country with symbolism and soul.


Theatre review: The One


A man (Mark Storen) and a woman (Georgia King) encounter each other following “a summer of break-ups” when after a long time they find themselves single again. They make conversation, make love, fall in love. Soon, it has been two years since the nameless couple lived together, and things seem to be going well. Then, news arrives of his younger brother’s upcoming wedding that, when combined with the pressure of turning 40, prompts the man to want to advance his life through tying the knot.

Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s sobering account, a multi-award winning work first seen in Western Australia that now comes to Melbourne as part of the Fringe Festival, is an unflinching examination of the impermanence of intimacy in a relationship, and the confusing role of marriage in reversing this inevitability.

The man believes only by being husband and wife he can be relieved of the constant anxiety of losing the woman; when challenged, he lashes out that formalising status alone will compel people who have fallen out of love to fall back into love.

Interspersing third-person narratives with first-person embodiments, as the characters seamlessly segue in and out of scenes, Fowler uses rap and action and songs to tell the (ubiquitous) story, presenting perspectives and counter-perspectives on this universal tradition whose relevance appears to be atrophying.

Despite feeling terrible for turning down his sincere, down-on-one-knee proposal, the woman remains impervious in her conviction the legal arrangement is a mere mechanism to confer ownership of her future to the man, like chattel. Defiantly, she insists she prefers to wake in the morning, and choose to be with him, rather than allow any government to make that choice.

The play is delivered with plenty of energy and finesse in an absorbing production that reverberates with poetry and humour and utter realness. While sometimes funny this 60-minute rarest of gems is ultimately a portrait of the way we instinctively try to protect ourselves from getting hurt, by avoiding or pursuing matrimony, whatever the gender.

King gives a wonderfully intense performance: assertive, vulnerable, panic-struck by turns. She is most memorable in her portrayal of the inebriated guest at the brother’s wedding party mocking the whole celebration. And deeply we feel for Storen’s romantic, idealistic man, his consummate skills as a musician — liquid, melodious voice riding on waves of strings — connecting one with our softer, often-buried, forgotten sides.

Under Fowler’s exceptional direction The One is erotic not only through the artfully graphic script: the enactment of the man’s nightmare, for example, in which he dreams of being a strong, lusty, wild cave-man on a quest to possess the sensual, wet, sultry cave-woman is breath-y and angry and (in the scorching lighting) hot.

Faultlessly, this is the kind of theatre that will send lovers and un-lovers into complex and confronting journeys as they study their own bedroom affairs.

Film review: Hampstead


In Hampstead acting veteran Diane Keaton plays Emily, a recent-widow in late middle-age, whose only inheritance is a tower of debt and bitter memories of her husband’s infidelity. She has an adult-son, Philip (James Norton), who holds his deceased father in high-esteem, something Emily never tries to blemish.

Emily lives evasively: despite her financial woes, she maintains an infrugal lifestyle and continues to volunteer at a charity shop, hoping the accountant with a romantic agenda could pull her out of the mire. In the attic she stumbles upon a pair of binoculars that she uses to spy on Donald (Brendan Gleeson), a vagrant, in a shrubland across the road.

Having occupied the block of disused site for 17 years, the Irishman has set up a comfortable shack where he grows his own food, generates his power. But, because Hampstead Heath has become prime real estate, Donald finds himself served up with eviction notices and physical threats.

Based in part on a true story around Harry Hallowes, a homeless man, who in 2007 challenged squatter-removal orders in the courts and won, this new feature by Joel Hopkins is a feather-light love-comedy. Here, Donald is an endearing mixture of stubborn-gruff and vulnerability and tenderness, one who after succumbing to human weakness in the past is determined to keep his home and way of life.

Keaton gives Emily the idiosyncracies and flightiness of a woman longing to be swept off her feet in her silver-years. The broken heart she suffers when the man she loves resists her plans for their future is convincing.

Yet, while some may find Hampstead heart-warming — even cute — the serendipitous encounter feels too much like a plot mechanism, short on persuasion (and weight).

Film review: Kiki, Love to Love


Bursting with colours of grapefruit flesh and fig, and moving to the vigorous rhythm of copulating wildlife, Kiki, Love to Love is like a collection of sensual frames from several dramas: scenes meant to be reprieves from main plots to delve into characters’ intimate moments, or distractions of yearning moods. Only, here, these distractions are in need of distractions, intimacies are explicit, the frames salacious. In other words, this Madrilenian feature by Paco Leon with five distinct storylines is curious.

Natalia (Natalia de Molina) and Alex (Alex Garcia) are a young and beautiful couple much in love (and lust) until she reveals how an episode at the petrol-station in which she was held at knife-point by a robber had brought on an orgasm more intense than any she had ever had.

Ana (Ana Katz) and Paco (Leon, himself),both liberal-minded and arguably progressive are married for eight years, and things have begun to turn stale. So, when a flirtatious friend, Belen (Belen Cuesta) shows up flaunting kisses and breasts, juicy ideas start to flow.

Candela (Candela Pena) is a woman longing to be a mother. The doctor tells her a paucity of climaxes on her part during love-making may be the problem in her maternal quest. Then, the fortuitous realisation she seems to be aroused by her husband Antonio’s (Luis Callejo) tears means she now has a lot of planning to get into.

Meanwhile, Doctora Ginecóloga (Blanca Apilanez), a plastic surgeon ejaculates each night as he watches his wheelchair-bound wife (Mari Paz Savago) sleep. To ease his sexual tension he allows himself to drug her and succumb to the blackmail of their housekeeper.

Sandra (Alexandra Jimenez) is a half-deaf woman who finds sensory gratification in fine fabrics. As a translator for the hearing-impaired she encounters a boy for whom she acts as an intermediary with a sex-line operator.

Working with  chutzpah and creativity, Leon appears to take sexual imaginings to the point of parody. The film refrains from going on overdrive in the actual act. But the dialogues and narratives are saturated with the subject. Characters are preoccupied either with fulfilling their own fetishes or those of their lovers.

Kiki, Love to Love does not pretend to be more than fluff. The acting, however, is first-rated, and the colourful cinematography (Kiko de la Rica) excellent, although on a whole the movie reminds me why I am sometimes nostalgic for black-and-white pictures, where reprieves add to the tale, rather than bunched up into something without reprieve.

Film review: A Ghost Story


“… the reason for living [is] to get ready to stay dead a long time.” says William Faulkner, in his novel As I Lay Dying. This may perhaps be what David Lowery is driving at with his latest feature. A poem to human connection and legacy A Ghost Story powerfully evokes the notion that the sense of what one leaves behind is, not in who remembers you or for how long but, in the thing(s) they do to those you love.

A man (Casey Affleck) and a woman (Rooney Mara) live in a plain, ranch-style residence, somewhere. We do not know their names. He is a musician, although it is not clear what she does. One day, while canoodling during an intimate moment, she relates how when she was little she would hide a scribbled-note in some crevice each time before the family moved away.

The next thing we know, he is dead, slumped over a wheel, in an accident. After she has replaced the cover over his head and departed the morgue, the spirit of the deceased man rises, draped in the full-length sheet with two eye-holes. Wading, he returns dragging the white cloth about him like a wedding-dress to the house where he shall haunt from this point forward.

Held together without extraneous words or scenes in which hard-cuts are strategic as line-breaks, the movie uses time like meter and rhyme to dramatise the poetic narrative. Both long and short, time, here, moves forth and back and starts over, slipping then and stalling now. In one scene, the woman overcome by grief sits on the kitchen floor to eat a pie a friend has dropped off. She takes a mouthful. Then, another. Another. And again, whittling down the huge dish, for what seems like forever. Yet, other decades, indeed tens of decades unspool in seconds when the ghost travels into the future and the past to relive an unborn history or visit an obsolete fate.

Clothed in the same inscrutable linen for nearly the entire film Affleck astonishes with the range of emotions he manages to convey through neither expression nor speech. As the spread droops or holds we can almost discern the helplessness and anger, jealousy and affection breathing within the hollowness.

For all that has been said about Lowery’s startlingly low-tech choices in his production, sounds from Johnny Marshall’s design seem sometimes to come from outside the screen, right next to us, a creepy feeling in a story far more profound than creepy.

Inching ever closer to his lover’s outstretched hands while she lies listening to his last composition, in apparent desire for (re)connection, the ghost makes one reflect on why we do what we do when piece-by-piece we build on our work. And having to die twice to find rest from what his significant-other too has left (albeit concealed), he goes on to show us the reason for living could well be to leave behind what matters to whom that matter to you.


Theatre review: Mirror’s Edge

Mirror's Edge

“Who am I?” asks Kai (Rebecca Poynton), if internally to herself. An otherwise quintessential Aussie but for her yellow skin, the Melburnian arrives at Lake Tyrrell in the regional town of Sea Lake, angry and embittered by prejudices she has had to endure in a white country. Here, she encounters motel-operator, Leanne (Rachel Shrives), an ocker Australian trying to capitalise on the Chinese tourist-dollar, that has of late been seduced by the lake’s reflective waters and clear sky. Agreeing to a collaborative project to revive the “impossible” place draws not only Kai into an exquisite insight for herself, but (hopefully) also us for the nation as a whole. The unborn future is a much more promising world by the play’s end.

Calling back to mind one’s history, and noting our predicament at a time of unprecedented migration, to imagine a more prosperous and colourful multi-cultural melting-pot, underpins Kim Ho’s new play. This is a poetic piece that tucks today’s xenophobia beneath the desolation of a girl’s identity crisis. Its rigour and resonance go well beyond the country-specific context.

In keeping, perhaps, with the mythical powers of the body of water, the show brings together five distinct narratives across three hundred years into one smooth and fluid intersection.

A wealthy William Stanbridge (Martin Hoggart) in 1851 assures the aboriginal custodians of due respect for their culture and mores upon his acquisition of the land. His domestic help, Aoife (Eleanor Young), falls in love with Lao Ghit (Antonia Yip Siew Pin), a native Chinese panning for gold after losing her son. Xiao Yu (Jo Chen), a Malaysian overseas student in 1966 befriends Jasmin (Lucy Holz), a scholar who goes on to publish a research paper on Aboriginal Astronomy. Castor (Eden Gonford), an indigenous ranger, inspired by Jasmin’s publication vows to safeguard his ancestral territory  from “Chinese invasion”. And Kai presents as the juncture in which all the stories converge.

Bickering between the new business partners over the way Kai invariably believes her own kind is somehow better than the ordinary white person makes for rich metaphorical drama, with nuanced allusions to the ever-present stereo-typing of aborigines.

In one scene Lao Ghit relates her heart-wrenching account to Aoife wholly in Cantonese. While this seems to alienate the English-only-speaking members of audience, the move offers a taste of what it feels to be left out and marginalised.

Although Petra Kalive’s direction, like Ho’s writing, has a touch of the scalpel, the staging is tender and funny and steeped in eloquent symbols. The set sparkles as starlight projected on a shimmering backdrop is mirrored on the wet surface, characters sometimes seen behind the screen , as if they’re beyond the sky. There is no palpable change in lighting throughout the 70-minute production, making the jump in (or confluence of) time the stuff of hallucination.

A deft concept, Mirror’s Edge balances the magic of traditional beliefs with the hard, implacable reality we are confronted with. It gently persuades us that no conflict is irreconcilable through creativity and an open mind, not before, however, the quiet contemplation about who we are, but, most of all, can be.

Film review: A Quiet Passion

a quiet passion

Resistance vibrates right from the outset in the beautiful and plangent movie A Quiet Passion. There is, in the central character, little by way of subordination to religious authority. Stubbornly, social convention is questioned and subverted. And, gender stereotyping opens a new war to be waged in the frontiers of the 19th-century milieu. In other words, the latest feature by Terence Davis is demanding to watch.

The biopic, subtitled This is my letter to the world that never wrote to me highlights about 40 years in the life of the American poet, Emily Dickinson. It starts in the latter part of the 1840s when teenage Emily (played by Emma Bell) graduates from an all-girls’ seminary and returns home to Amherst, Massachusetts  where she (portrayed now by Cynthia Nixon) shall remain for the rest of her days.

Despite growing up in an ardently-Christian family in which the woman’s place is very much regarded to be in the home, Emily is resolutely opposed to allowing anybody, let alone God, compromise the “independence of [her] soul”. We soon come to know the poet will never marry even after the married pastor whom she adores leaves for another parish.

Alighting remorselessly for most of the film upon the interiors of the Dickinson estate with, subsequent to a youthful opera excursion, the absence of shops or any street, Davis trains the entire focus of his work on the depth of emotional range, Florian Hoffmeister’s lens capturing every tear brimming in the eye, a summery grin, or furrowed brow, as time manoeuvres itself into the narrative arc.

In one early scene, the camera pans from character to character in a slow clockwise motion, shadows from the fireplace long on faces reading by low lights, softly illuminating the mother’s melancholy (Joanna Bacon), before settling on Emily’s vicarious expression, the grandfather clock all the time ticktocking in the background that culminates in a resonant chime.

Retreating more and more into herself Emily becomes embittered when things around her begin to change: her father (Keith Carradine) dies, then her mother, and a close friend, Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) who, in spite of  strong near-feminist attitudes, gradually displays a willingness to conform, for the sake of harmony, and weds — all for which the writer churns with the same unforgiving grief.

It isn’t that, Davis shows us, Emily cannot love or does not want to love, only the tension between raising a family and autonomy seems in her mind insoluble. However much she longs for human affection — a dream-like sequence plays out her unseen desires — the barrier Emily erects about her blocks out suitors who find themselves scorched by caustic remarks.

The tenderest moment in the movie occurs when in trying to comfort Emily, her sister Vinnie (magnificent Jennifer Ehle) says, “In matters of the soul you are rigorous,” to which Emily replies, “[That] rigour is no substitute for happiness.”

If I have one regret while watching A Quiet Passion it is the inability to delve more deeply into the poetry that is voiced over as a kind of internal monologue, given how it requires rigorous analysis. There is a lot of tenacity and conflict present here, and rarely do they cause such inner tremors.


Theatre review: (de)construct

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Watch us speak, watch us, hear us. We do, uncomfortable, though, it sometimes is, in Cera Maree Brown’s staging of her rich yet delicate play, whose title conjures the addressing of one’s multitude of selves, in order, perhaps, to define our authentic nature.

Four young people embark on a series of body movements in an expression of their unseen experiences. They lunge, writhe, spread their arms, this way, that, pluck their clothes, envelope themselves, gently then fast, nudging a toe into the ground, shuffle with force their agonising heels. You want to shout, “Stop! Go easy.” But we don’t, as they take their microphones at both ends of the stage, and we, too, settle down, released, if momentarily, from the visual anguish, to listen in to their conversations.

Working upon recorded exchanges amongst several individuals, Brown materialises their interior action into dance sequences, to capture the reality that straddles in the consciousness between emotions and behaviour. Jai Leeworthy, Lucy Pitt, Nabs Adnan, Antonia Yip Siew Pin are 20-something adults, of myriad backgrounds, anxious and occasionally desperate, clinging to their ideals in the face of an imperfect world, as they confront issues of identity and sexuality, struggling in an attempt to reconcile the conflict between desires and cultural norms, all the time longing for social acceptance, even when self-acceptance remains resolutely elusive.

In a memorable vignette, one of the immensely talented cast relates her trepidation about not being successful — the worry arising not for her own well-being, but — out of sheer reluctance to let her family down, portraying the all-too-familiar quandary between what one wants, what others want of them, and, indeed, what is ultimately good for us.

It is a powerful, undeniably intrusive, but dramatically effective piece, made only more potent  by Leeworthy’s lighting design that vacillates between white starkness and an ethereal sense of reverie. Isha Ram Das’ soundscape is also extraordinary, creating atmosphere imperceptibly like the best kind of film score.

These would, of course, be superficial without the piercing honesty, pain and desolation of the transcripts, and above all the performers’ superb execution, so true and absorbed that after they have torn down their thin veils of disguise — a break-through moment following endless tumult of tripping up over their fragmented personality — you feel you can glimpse the definition of their character glistening through.

Film review: My Cousin Rachel


“Did she? Didn’t she? Who is to blame?” asks pensive Philip (Sam Claflin), in the prologue of My Cousin Rachel, the latest feature by Roger Michell (Notting Hill), through which this sense of amorphous uncertainty shall resonate to the end. Each time Philip thinks he knows, something or somebody pulls the scenario out of shape. Here, after all, is a film of luscious inscrutability that entices us to probe conscience and ambition.

Philip, an orphan, was raised like a son by his wealthy cousin Ambrose in a large faming estate in 19th-century England, where women were considered dispensable. So, when he receives news his guardian is going to marry their cousin Rachel (Rachel Weisz) in Florence, Philip is ambivalent. Subsequent letters from Ambrose telling of ill-health and torment only intensify his misgivings. And, arriving too late in Italy, in response to a hastily-scribbled message “Come quick!”, the hot-headed 24-year-old vows to exact revenge on the “woman that caused” Ambrose’s death.

Only, that woman turns out to be witty and poised, and Philip is surprised to find himself falling under her beguiling spell. The revelation Rachel is not a beneficiary at all in Ambrose’s will appears also to eradicate any sinister motivations.

Despite the seemingly innocent cinematography (Mike Eley) throughout — there is hardly any sex or cleavage, and save for the face not much bare skin either, for what is a dark and mysterious romantic drama — the movie does involve a great deal of allusions to raw passion. Gifting Rachel an elaborate pearl necklace that belonged to his mother, Philip petulantly says he wants her to wear it every night, which when combined with the older woman’s “Now go to bed like a good boy!” after kissing him on the mouth, carries every stirring of Oepidus complex.

Meanwhile, Rael Jones weaves his richly sensuous sounds (lush woodwinds and rousing piano and strings) through sweeping coastal vistas and tragedy, between alleged poison and voluptuous costumes, as chunks of juicy, red meat are torn inside panelled rooms, and secrets written on scraps of paper are tossed into open fires.

In short order, Philip upon coming of age endows the object of his affection with all that Ambrose had bequeathed to him, defying warnings of “unbridled extravagance” and “limitless appetite”, defying too his own observations of Rachel’s intimacy with “a very old friend”. Even when suspicions are later strengthened, the realisation that all the jewellery he bestowed on her she has returned once again undermines any deduction he — indeed, we — can draw.

Based on the novel by Daphne Du Maurier My Cousin Rachel is an impressionist portrait of love and perception and money. But, as indeterminate as when one examines an artwork up close it is, above all, a study of truth and of the human heart.

Theatre review: ODE


With a rapidly ageing population dementia has become more and more prevalent in our society; over 350,000 Australians are known to live with the debilitating condition. Karen Sibbing’s ODE offers a window into what that is like: drawing from the experience of watching her own grandmother succumb to it, she imagines a world as seen through the eyes of a sufferer. The result is devastating, but tender, bookended with an unmistakable impression of hope.

Lighting, under the skilful direction of co-creator Samara Hersch, turns into a powerful tool. In one — no, two — occasions the theatre is plunged for longer than anybody would be comfortable with into complete darkness, in which feelings of disorientation, of visceral susceptibility, desperation to want to find whatever trace of glow there is, seem to close in on us, like walls, like possibly the mental incapacity.

Near the opening of the 55-minute, one-woman show, the character relates a childhood incident where she witnesses the way her young brother’s wilful act of wandering off in a play-fair and getting lost yielded not punishment but a lollipop from their father. Despite carrying a brooding sense of premonition and whiff of unfairness — spoken in the present tense, perhaps to neutralise the influence of time — the fascinating anecdote conveys the idea of reward from tragedy that is premised on blessing in perspective.

For the rest, though, it is mostly through texture that Sibbing works. Small, intricate, observational details give us a glimpse of surviving with Alzheimer’s: hearing sounds in the head, having an imaginary friend in a toy, wolfing down handfuls of cakes on impulse, enduring bouts of frustration and anguish.

Whilst it is her grandmother whom she is depicting, Sibbing, we realise, has braided into the play her own anxieties of decline and ultimately of herself falling victim to this incurable illness.

The antics are theatrical but in all likelihood very real. A lot appears to happen and at the same time not much at all, like the ever-growing balloon that instead of popping sucks away, loses air, shrivels and limps, because that is probably life when you lose yourself.

Sibbing’s performance is outstanding: brave and heart-clutching and luminous, she embodies without reproach the volatile, vigorous, vulnerable part. The helplessness, as she stares into the distance, urine pouring down from between her legs, tears welling, is enough to make a stone weep.

Is it disconcerting? Yes, most definitely, for it forces us to confront manifestations of an unseen tormentor, so often untold.

Yet, there is a curious air of eerie magic permeating through the piece — amplified when the giant revolving image of a musical-box dancer projected on an opposite wall is the only illumination in the room — a magic none more precious than the gift eventually granted to Oma (grandmother), the gift of imagination, to which this timeless work is ode.

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