Thomas's Rant

Story, myth, writings

Posts Tagged ‘reviews

“The Course of Love” by Alain de Botton

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Well I finished this a few weeks ago. It’s not a novel at all but an easy-to-read run-through (as in, with a sword) of the magic and misgivings of modern relationships, revealing, after the honeymoon phase, the unrealistic and rather trite insecurities of the myth of romantic love. I highly recommend it as a quick, easy and mightily demoralising read. You’re really only ready for a relationship when you have given up on perfection and being fully understood, when you know you’re crazy, that a relationship itself is inherently frustrating, that loving trumps being loved, that sex won’t really go with love, that no one is properly compatible and you’re ready to teach and to learn constantly. It is actually an excellent modern addendum to Robert A. Johnson’s mythic “We” – see my earlier post.


Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 9:01 pm

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe

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I strongly recommend this slim little book – the author reveals overlooked passages from the first European settlers all around Australia, who, despite strong negative bias, can’t help remarking on sophisticated and subtle aboriginal agriculture, housing, villages, food storage practices, land management, and complex social customs even as they then dismiss them as the work of “ignorant savages” and seize their mysteriously well-maintained pastures for destruction under the harsh trampling hooves of introduced sheep and cow species. The revelation for me is that Aboriginal history is really an urgent study of sustainable Australian agrarian economics today. (Reading level is just one step down from easy due to some overuse of passive forms and nominalisations (and lack of humour) – but this is splitting hairs really.)

Written by tomtomrant

1 September 2016 at 8:33 pm

Life Is A Dream (Theatre is Unrelenting Torment)

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There’s not a lot to be said about this theatre production which I saw at the Store Room Theatre in North Fitzroy last Sunday.

The play is supposedly about the horrors of repression and the unbridled dictatorship of some Polish king or other at some time but reading the programme notes gives the false impression the show has a plot.

We were subjected to a stuffy half-demolished room in which a team of actors sat around having half-mumbled arguments with each other that eventually escalated into violence and blood-shed in a gradually increasing series of crescendos interspersed with boring lulls. The play had obviously been choreographed at great length so that there was constant movement and overlapping action which was mildly diverting for about 20 minutes but given the show was 1hr and 20 min long, attention soon waned.

I don’t want to go into this show in any more detail – mainly because it was meaningless anyway (it’s one of those post-modern productions in which lots of weird shit happens and ‘anyone’s entitled to their opinion’ as to what the heck any of it means). But I do want to ask why we subject ourselves and our audiences to such demoralizing works?

The works are all the same – one-set plays in which miserable characters sit around tormenting each other in one way or another and then it ends without anything having happened. (I have a theory that it’s all about economics – it’s nice and cheap to make one-set shows where nothing much happens and it poses very few writing or acting challenges either.)

The show was definitely ‘affecting’ – in that one is inclined to think about it later – but so is a car accident. In other words, the trauma was moving but I could have done without it thank you. I have to ask why we subject ourselves to such harrowing experiences and call it ‘art’ or ‘entertainment’. I cannot see any benefits brought about by such an experience.

You could say it is ‘catharsis’ – “purging of emotion” – but catharsis is a misunderstood concept. Catharsis is not simply expressing or engendering in the audience some emotion for its own sake. We don’t need to be “purged of emotion”. (The modern pop-psychology-basis for this theory is Freud’s outdated and naive theories no longer supported by most practicing psychologists but still touted out by artists who like fanciful melodrama.) If we needed to be “purged of emotion” we could all just go in for a good spanking every week and purge ourselves of all that pent-up subjection or whatnot. Every story has conflict – indeed the power of a drama is found in the grave and universal problem at its core – but what about the reprieve? How do our characters escape their torments? The valient fight of our hero expresses pure unbridled humanity. There is none of this here.

In tragedy of course our characters often do not escape their torments but instead they and we achieve a state of catharsis. When all else fails, how do you hang on – how do you keep living? Strangely (for logic/political theorists), when all else fails, something beyond logic opens up – a void into nothing – a force beyond the opposites of time. The hero learns that the secret cause of all his problems has been himself, that, astoundingly, Fate was leading him here the whole time. This Fate engenders wonder and astonished awe. This is what catharsis is – astonished awe and wonder is a profoundly healthy experience.

Now compare shows such as this one. No character stands out as doing or experiencing anything but torment and disinterestedness. We, as audience, are subjected to anguish and emotional torments but not in aid of cleansing awe – no character experiences an epiphany; no character even reflects (no one is sure what is going on!). We are subjected to torment and then we gratefully escape the theatre. We are chagrined and disheartened, firstly, because someone has told us basically, “Life is meaningless, pointless and tormenting”, which is an oversimplified narrow-minded lie; secondly, we barely even reflect on the unlovable characters or heartless events but instead feel a sense of anger and blame at the unlovable and heartless actors and producers that tormented us, the audience, and took our money for the sake of such a worthless exercise.

The experience conditions theatre audiences not to come back.

Written by tomtomrant

5 December 2009 at 10:19 pm

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MTC play: When The Rain Stops Falling

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Story: A tragic and dysfunctional family history ends in the story’s present with a father and son that seem to be prepared to communicate. Then “the rain stops falling”.

Style: fractured logic-puzzle structure with constant intercutting between 3 different time periods (further complicated by a mother and father that have the same name).

The performances are good and inoffensive, but, as you can imagine, the story is completely static and has no action or forward-thrust. Not a single character strives for a goal or does anything (which makes ACTING the roles less challenging I suppose). It is sad to see characters talking about anguish and courage but no one actually demonstrating these. The whole play could be described as people explaining memories to each other – which is very poor drama. Also clichés are everywhere – from dysfunctional families, to child pornography (yet again) to Aussie-UK relations and car accidents. I question the emotional accuracy of the many experiences described. (It also appears strange to me that these characters do not remember people for what they did but for shallow physical quirks like how they dressed or smelled or because they had a moustache.)

The story itself is basic “kitchen-sink” realism, with all the laughter and enjoyment that affords (very little). The play tries to hide this with lighting and scenery effects, ‘quirky’ symbolism and the intercutting multiple-flashback structure. Along with the music, which is of the slow-moving suspended-chord variety reminiscent of an arthouse movie, this rather ordinary story is muddied and made to seem generally “deep” and “moving”.

Reminds me of a short film I made which needed a musical accompaniment. I saw an ad on the internet from a composer who said he could whip me up a score. We chatted about how the music could best be used to bring out the drama, but the score I received was like the music in this play – surreal and semi-magical. I rejected the music for my film as it was clearly a one-size-fits-all job – the ethereal score could be plastered all over the film inoffensively but without bringing out any of the drama, as if the composer hadn’t the guts to decide whether the scene called for sadness or anguish, a comic flair or brooding suspense. It was all just soup – ‘magical’, static, hypnotic soup that makes everything taste the same, like the monotonous pacing of this play.

It’s all a bit suspect and fishy as drama – fish soup in fact.

How about something with guts someone?

Written by tomtomrant

22 November 2009 at 10:16 pm

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George Bernard Shaw: Arms & The Man/Candida/You Never Can Tell

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Having just finished reading Shaw’s “Plays Pleasant”, I must admit I find his plays pleasantly light but mostly meaningless.

‘Arms & The Man’ is concerned with poking fun at the contemporary ‘romance’ of war. Shaw does this by pitting the romantic visions of an on-the-whole rather suicidal soldier (and the dominant beliefs of the domestic womenfolk) up against the witty ‘realist’ soldier (and the pragmatic servants of the household). It’s all very witty and contrived and amusing – the plot concerned with misunderstandings, apparently scandalous liasons and neatly packaged happily-ever-afters.

Now, ‘social-political background’ is often analyzed by critics because a work has nothing overly intellectual for critics to write essays about – thus missing the entire point of the work, but I must admit that Shaw’s intentions are very clear; he certainly seems to be making some attempt at addressing tricky social issues of his day. But to that end, as often occurs when the author is interested in ‘challenging issues’ of a topical nature, the work dates badly and quickly. For if a subject is topical, it is often not timeless. And whereas any subject, generally, can be timeless, often the author-as-social-commentator, lacking subtlety in the name of his desire to ‘affect change’ or ‘expose falsities’, points not to the deficiencies in our nature but in the specific social-political milieu of – oh, a hundred years ago when the play was written. Shakespeare, for instance, avoids this because his dramas are dramas not social-commentary. They can be misread as social commentary but the poetry and dream-like metaphoric nature of his works takes us away from Elizabethan England and into the timeless human soul. There the play may work its emotional power, perhaps ‘change’, perhaps ‘release’ or perhaps ‘disturb’ something, which then may show itself outwardly and play back into the contempory culture – of perhaps any age. This is called having depth.
It is interesting that Shakespeare’s works have dated – particulary in the area of comedy. This is perhaps not surprising as much of his comedy is based on now-archaic wordplay and – whattyaknow – cultural references to Elizabethan England (cf. Love’s Labour Lost and other weaker – rather impenetrable Shakespearean plays). I’d like to suggest that most effective comedy is topical and outside the period in which it was performed (even absent the right form of delivery in performance), the references may more or less be lost, or at least, laughed at for a different reason.

For all that, Mr Shaw comes out rather poorly, I must admit, after a mere century or less. His characters are so 19th century (or so 1930s depending on the play you’re reading) in their mode of speech and way of life that to modern audiences their very accents and speech-patterns appear unintentionally funny at times, their society dim, far-off and irrelevant, and their problems insignificant and out-of-date.

There have been successful modern productions but there must be rather a lot of text-doctoring, new or mis-readings to get laughs, or an overemphasis on researching ‘the socio-political background’ so as to intellectually ‘appreciate’ rather than organically enjoy (read, ‘be truly affected by’) the drama. Despite what our scholars or critics may believe, the audience experiences a drama based on the character’s intentions, and the plot – i.e. what happens next. And what happens next in ‘Arms and the Man’ for example is not, ‘Captain Bluntschli challenges Sergius to revise his views of the romance of warfare’, but ‘Raina must extract that compromising love-letter from her father’s jacket pocket without his noticing’. What was comedy with healthy social satire becomes, a century or even just decades later, merely dated, superficial, drawing-room farce, little better than the latest Summer Movie (though probably less entertaining).

Written by tomtomrant

2 May 2009 at 10:01 pm

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Philadelphia Here I Come! By Brian Friel

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25yo Gar prepares to leave Ireland and his less than exciting father and disconnected friends behind him for a new life with relations in Philadelphia. The play explores should he go? Is he doing the right thing? Etc. The genius of the work is in having 2 actors play Gar – one as his public persona, the other as his personal persona. This allows the personal not just to soliloquize but to argue out problems with public Gar and make sarcastic and highly amusing comic put-downs of the tired old characters he knows all too well. Friel’s language is also quaintly musical and “Irish”, permitting a fluid illustration (“dramatisation”) of character and colour that in lesser plays would be simply clunky or boring exposition. Highly recommended.

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21 April 2009 at 9:53 pm

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Hamlet (a novel) by John Marsden

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Oh what a mess! John Marsden (of Tomorrow When The War Began fame) has written a novel version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Or, more accurately, a smutty version. Featuring lots of Ophelia and Hamlet masturbating scenes (as well as surprisingly irrelevant asides featuring servants with large penises (??)), God knows what on Earth he’s doing.

The book purportedly makes the great play more accessible to a teenage audience. Marsden supposedly uses modern language and plain language description to retell essentially the same story. If you assume teenagers perk up at the mention of sex, then I suppose this is true. But Marsden, if he truly believes he is keeping to the story of the play, misunderstands it.

Ophelia and Hamlet are lusty young lovers in his version of the tale. Hamlet spends his time lusting after her, peering through her windows, brooding over sexual escapades and avoiding crotchety old Polonius. Marsden has blurred the central thrust of the play with these titillating scenes. Hamlet is essentially about a son agonising over how to avenge a murdered father. At no point in Shakespeare’s play is there any subplot involving trying to get it off with Ophelia – in fact, the complete opposite. Hamlet famously spurns women, “Frailty thy name is woman!”; “Get thee to a nunnery” etc. He sees his mother’s marriage to his uncle, his father’s murderer, as the ultimate sign of corruption and deception, never mind that Gertrude probably does not know of the murder. Hamlet’s reaction is a classic Shakespearean tragic overreaction. He sees the attraction of women as a whorish bewitchment. No longer can he view the sexual and emotional pull of the women in his life as the force of beauty or purity or maternal care. He tragically takes this distrust in Gertrude to its extreme – then goes so far as applying it to the entire female gender. His lover, Ophelia, is treated first with distance then with aggression. The situation is indeed not helped by Polonius’s conniving and spying, but a comparison with Juliet suggests Ophelia is hardly the ardent lover herself. Ophelia’s father puts pressure on her not to mix with her lover. In Romeo & Juliet, Juliet’s father does the same. Juliet defies her father and elopes. Ophelia obeys Daddy like a good girl.

We relate to Hamlet somewhat more than other tragic figures in Shakespeare’s plays because he is so terribly alone. He is let down by almost everyone around him: his mother is sleeping with the enemy, his lover spurns him in his time of need, and his old school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are visiting simply to spy on him for his father’s murderer. Having fudged Hamlet’s spurning of Ophelia, Marsden portrays Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as simply ‘pompous lords’ rather like Osric in Shakespeare’s play. There is no mention of their earlier relation to Hamlet.

These teething difficulties aside, Marsden’s language is a complete mess, juxtaposing, “My bum hurts; let’s play football,” with “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” He can’t seem to make up his mind whether he is quoting Shakespeare or not. He frequently paraphrases half a sentence then quotes directly the rest. In the latter half of the book he seems to get tired of adding “he said” and “he replied” to Shakespeare’s text and resorts to play format:

‘Guildenstern: “Highness, I do not understand you,”
Hamlet: “I am glad of it.”‘ etc.

There are also a number of bizarre references (they can’t be in-jokes since they are not funny) – Claudius considers sending Hamlet to Australia rather than England; Hamlet considers whether Alexander the Great and Shakespeare would have rotted away just like Yorrick. Whatever he means by these odd references, they sure are clumsy and distracting.

His novel certainly does inspire me to read the play again, if only to mentally clear up the mess Marsden has made of it.

Written by tomtomrant

18 April 2009 at 9:56 pm