Friday, 16 November 2018

Profound Devotion: The Festival of Thaipusam in Malaysia

This article from my first visit to Malaysia appeared in The West Australian newspaper in 2009, but never went online: so here it is. I was hosted on that trip by Tourism Malaysia.

The sensual immersion is incredible.

Sight: thousands of devotees walking in procession toward the Batu Caves north of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Sound: Insistent drumming, mixed with amplified Tamil-language music.

Smell: Smoke from incense and tobacco drifting through the air.

The Batu Caves sit within a rocky outcrop that rises dramatically from the flat land surrounding it. It’s an impressive craggy mass, but more impressive yet is the crowd heading toward it to commemorate the annual Hindu festival of Thaipusam.

I’ve arrived here before dawn to avoid the heavy traffic that will envelop the site once the sun rises; but even at 6am the road that leads to the caves is thronging with people.

Weaving my way slowly through the crowd, I find myself on the path of the pilgrims walking to the shrine located high up within the caves. Past me trickle lines of men and women in orange robes, carrying pots of milk on their heads.

Then men appear bearing huge decorated frames resting on their shoulders - colourful canopies decked out with feathers, tassels and statues of the Hindu god Murugan.

These kavadi are extraordinarily elaborate; one even has a mobile generator connected to lights upon its exterior, being pushed along by a friend of the devotee beneath it.

And Murugan is the focus of this spiritual event, a god particularly revered by Malaysia’s Tamil community. Every year during Thaipusam, they carry milk to his shrine, or bear a decorated kavadi as a greater offering. Some devotees are thanking the god for a past prayer that has been answered; others are hoping for help in the year ahead.

Although Thaipusam originated in India and is still celebrated there, the Batu Caves celebration is one of the most spectacular, with up to a million devotees making the journey up the stairs set into the spectacular mountain that houses the deity’s shrine.

The devotees are watched by tens of thousands of spectators, and there’s a carnival atmosphere among the diverse stalls and tents lining the route, selling everything from spiritual memorabilia to mobile phone plans.

The generosity of the day is also called upon by charities, including a mobile blood donation centre among the stalls.

The most striking act of devotion is the piercing of the skin by skewers, inserted through the tongue or cheeks. Some even have hooks inserted through the skin on their backs, held taut by supporters walking behind them.

The degree of pain represents the worshipper’s devotion to the god, though those with spikes through their flesh are often coaxed into a trance state which lessens the impact of the pain.

It’s intriguing to watch the faces of those in a trance - one man with hooks in his back is rolling his eyes and tongue dreamily as a holy man speaks to him, walking backwards ahead of the devotee. For someone from a completely different cultural background, immersed within the crowd, the sight is overwhelming and fascinating at the same time.

As I’m moving along with the masses, following the generator-lit kavadi and taking photos, I pause next to a group of young men who are dancing to the incessant beat of the music which accompanies the procession. One of them peels away to shake my hand and ask me where I’m from.

“What do you think of all this?” he asks, eyes sparkling, as he bounces on the ground with enthusiasm.

“It’s amazing!” I reply, quite truthfully - I’m feeling unexpectedly awed by the sensory overload. Satisfied, he shakes my hand again and rejoins his friends.

The loud music keeps playing, and as I wait to reinsert myself within the procession, my left foot starts tapping out an involuntary little dance.

My new acquaintance notices this and points it out to a friend, and they both laugh. It’s a good-natured chuckle, in keeping with the joyous mood of the occasion.

Along the way I chat with several more onlookers, and supporters of the devotees. The supporters accompany their friends and family members, and ensure their safety if they should be overcome by their burdens on their way to the shrine.

It’s an inclusive, energetic event, completely lacking the solemnity I associate with Western religions, and people are enthused by the all-encompassing sounds, sights and crowds. There’s something intensely stimulating about the controlled chaos of the procession, a ritualised abandonment of daily routines and inhibitions.

By the time we reach the foot of the 272 steps which lead up to the shrine, dawn is breaking. I peel off, walking past a vast mound of coconuts to find a seat at a refreshment stall.

Sitting with an iced tea, I watch the growing stream of pilgrims move onward and upwards, past the enormous statue of Murugan that towers alongside the steps.

Music is playing loudly, smoke is billowing from a nearby shrine, and a flock of birds is flying across the sky above the crowd.

It’s an invigorating atmosphere: a potent blend of aroma, sound, colour, motion and human vibrancy that reaches deeper than the rational mind, intensely moving in both its passion and the good humour of the crowds which have come to share in it.

Thaipusam takes place upon the full moon in the Tamil month of Thai (January or February each year). Thaipusam will provisionally fall on 21 January in 2019.

Friday, 9 November 2018

Užupis: The Improbable Republic Within Lithuania

This article from my 2008 visit to Lithuania appeared in Sydney's Sunday Telegraph newspaper, but is no longer online: so here it is, lightly revised for your enjoyment. Užupis forever!

A dog has the right to be a dog.

I’m standing on a quiet side street in Vilnius, Lithuania, looking at this point on a 41-point document displayed on a large mirrored sign. Other unlikely sentences assert that “Everyone has the right to make mistakes”, “Everyone has the right to be idle”, and “Everyone has the right to die, but this is not an obligation.”

It’s an unconventional list; but nothing is conventional in the district of Užupis. The document is the self-proclaimed constitution of this bohemian enclave, whose resident artists declared independence from Lithuania in 1997.

The prequel to this artistic revolt happened in the early 1990s, after Lithuania had achieved independence from the Soviet Union. A group of artists declared that the time for political statues was over - and commissioned a statue of musician Frank Zappa as a quirky symbol of freedom.

The dynamic bust, bearing Zappa’s distinctive features and flowing long hair, still stands atop a pillar on the western side of Vilnius’ historic Old Town.

Fresh from this triumph, it didn’t take the artistic community long to declare Užupis independent. But this isn’t a Russia versus Ukraine situation. The Republic has an honorary president, no standing armed forces, and a commitment only to art.

When you learn that its national day is April 1st, you can see why the Lithuanian government casts an indulgently amused eye over Užupis, seeing its “independence” as a great tourist attraction.

Not far from the constitution wall is the Angel of Užupis, another impressive statue. It’s the most well-known symbol of Užupis, and it’s easy to see why. As I turn the corner and catch my first sight of the angel, I can’t help but smile. He’s perfect.

Not too big, not too small, he stands on a column high above the pedestrians, emphasising his lofty detachment. Facing toward the downhill slope, trumpet raised high, hair swept back as if blown by the wind, the Angel seems to embody the pride of this reborn district, and is frankly inspiring.

Stepping across the street, I enter Prie Angelo, a cafe facing the plaza. Its name and decor seem a tribute to the Angel - or, in fact, all angels. The pale, old-fashioned interior with its bare floorboards and deep-set windows is decorated with a variety of heavenly spirits in the shape of candleholders, vases, and busts poking straight out of the walls.

As angels watch over me and sunlight softly illuminates the space, I struggle to believe Užupis was once a dangerous, dilapidated district of the USSR.

However, proof is at hand. Following small side streets off the plaza, occasionally ducking through arches into residential buildings’ courtyards, It becomes clear that Užupis is still a work in progress. Some of the courtyards are in a terrible state - crumbling stonework, rusted railings, rubbish strewn around. In another, I see an old car up on blocks, missing its tyres.

Then I stick my head into the gallery of the Vilnius Potters’ Guild. I’m not sure it’s somewhere I should be - piles of newspaper-wrapped objects are being packed into boxes, and it looks like I’d be underfoot.

But a woman ushers me in, explaining that they’re preparing for a medieval fair, and encourages me to look at their work. The pieces I can view have a rustic simplicity, a smooth but organic look that’s very appealing.

I head uphill away from the Angel, into the heart of Užupis. It’s only when I reach the restaurant Tores, and step through to its backyard terrace, that I realise how high I’ve risen above the city. Lunch is a pizza and a stein of Švyturys, a pale golden beer which packs a fair punch.

Beneath the terrace, the hill drops away dramatically toward the river, and across the valley is a fine view of Vilnius’ Old Town: a beautiful collection of red-tiled roofs and baroque church spires.

Walking back down to the river, I spot yet another statue down an alley to my right. At least, I think it’s a statue. On closer inspection, it turns out to be a indeterminate shape on a pedestal, wrapped and taped within black plastic. Very arty.

Passing the object, I arrive at a gallery called the Užupis Art Incubator. It’s the essence of a bohemian artists’ community, housed in decaying riverside buildings covered in a jumble of colourful paintings of outlandish figures.

Beyond it is a fantasy land of painted trees and more open-air artwork. Overlooking the water are a young couple, funkily dressed and talking quietly - either discussing postmodern art trends, or slowly shaking off the effects of a late night.

Approaching the attractive small iron bridge that crosses the river, I find myself unable to finish my Užupis adventure just yet; I’ve become attached to its quirky charm.

So I seat myself at an outside bench at Užupio Kavine, a pub overlooking the shallow, swift-flowing water, and nurse another beer.

Within the stone retaining wall which forms the opposite riverbank, there’s a statue of a mermaid seated inside an alcove, gazing longingly across to Užupis. I meet her gaze, then glance up to the busy roadway in the “real world” beyond the artistic republic.

I have to go back there, but... not yet. As the green-and-white Užupis flag flutters gently from the pub’s wall, I sip my beer and smile at the light-hearted absurdity of the place.

Friday, 2 November 2018

Review: Ibis Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun, South Korea

On this trip I was hosted by the Korea Tourism Organisation and Accor Hotels.

It's no secret that I'm a fan of the Ibis brand of hotels. Pitched at a budget level, their rooms are generally compact but utterly familiar. They're simple and perfectly functional for someone on a business trip, as I usually am when I travel.

On my recent Seoul trip I checked into the Ibis at Dongdaemun. It's a neighbourhood peppered with tourist hotels, and would be fairly nondescript if not for the marvellous Dongdaemun Design Plaza at its heart:

This spectacular complex, centred on a silver spaceship-like building designed by Zaha Hadid, is a hub of the design arts. It contains everything from large-scale exhibitions to the work of individual local designers, and is a worthy flagship of Seoul's identity as a UNESCO City of Design.

The Ibis is a short walk from the DDP, and also close to an underground station of the very useful Seoul Metro.

As for the hotel itself, it was much what I expected. My room on the 20th storey had the familiar Ibis beds and desk...

... as well as a functional open-plan bathroom nook and a shower. I'm always happy when I don't have to deal with a shower that's slung over a bathtub with a clammy billowing shower curtain, so this set-up suited me fine.

Even better, the windows could be opened! Unopenable windows are one of my pet peeves at hotels. As the weather in Seoul was pleasant by night, I enjoyed being able to get some fresh air rather than having to sleep in dry air-conditioned chill. Decent view, too.

There was a simple bar on the ground floor which was unappealing, but downstairs below street level was a pleasant restaurant. The breakfast buffet was simpler than the average hotel - boiled eggs instead of scrambled, for example - though filling enough and attractively laid out:

An Ibis hotel usually has a entertainment area with a distinctive character that belies its chain identity. A London Ibis I stayed in had a funky ground floor bar for example, while another Seoul Ibis had a cool cafe.

Where was it here? On the roof. I took the lift up to the 21st floor with the draft beer which was my complimentary welcome drink, and found a relaxed space with tables, chairs... and a kitchen herb garden:

On my last night in Seoul, I sipped my beer and enjoyed the view.

Just the Facts:
Ibis Ambassador Seoul Dongdaemun
359 Dongho ro, Jung gu, Seoul, South Korea
Phone: +82 2 2160 8888
Rates: Rooms from A$79 per night.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Smallest Room: The Toilet Museum of Delhi, India

This article from my visit to Delhi, India appeared in The Sunday Age newspaper in 2012, but never went online: so here it is for your amusement. I was hosted on that trip by Thai Airways.

The suburbs of Delhi, India seem like a strange place to find the throne of King Louis XIII of France. Though it’s not a throne in the strict legal sense.

It’s actually a replica of a grand combination of chair and toilet, which the monarch had constructed for him in the 17th century.

Ever a busy man, the monarch used it to attend to his courtiers and, er, other royal business at the same time.

So I’ve learnt something new about the excesses of the French aristocracy today, and in an unlikely setting - the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets, located in a less salubrious sector of the Indian capital.

As my taxi driver Sharwan wove his taxi down ever more crowded roads, past increasingly more dilapidated dwellings, I started to wonder whether visiting this institution was such a good idea.

However, the Sulabh Museum turns out to be a refreshing pit stop between visits to the tombs and monuments of India’s capital.

Not only does it display an array of toilets from across the ages, it’s also a showcase for the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation’s worthy work providing low-cost, environmentally friendly latrines to communities across the subcontinent.

I’ve entered the Sulabh complex in the company of Sharwan, who had never heard of the museum before, and wants to check it out as well.

Inside the walls, we find a neatly maintained collection of low buildings around a central courtyard. To one side is the museum, with a sign bearing “Thoughts that matter”, including “Sanitation is our religion”.

A worthy notion, but is the museum interesting? Well, yes. Its contents are a mix of informative fact and colourful exhibits, including replicas of highly decorated historic ceramic loos from the houses of European gentry.

Among the collection, there’s a timeline of the great toilet developments of history, a model of a two-storey outhouse from the USA, a portable loo for noblemen’s hunting trips, a leather armchair convenience and a model of a Korean house in the shape of a toilet.

There’s also a complex Japanese model with a bank of control buttons controlling heating and other high-tech features. The organisation has even built an award-winning toilet complex at the Taj Mahal, I discover.

It’s all very amusing, even illuminating, but there’s a more serious side to the museum. Its curator, Bageshwar Jha, tells me that one of the Sulabh organisation’s founding aims was to free dalits - India’s “untouchable” caste - from their traditional latrine cleaning tasks.

Outside in the courtyard, there’s a statue of a dalit woman bearing a waste can upon her head. It’s near a series of demonstration models of the loos that Sulabh sells to villages, underlining its serious health and environmental work.

The non-profit organisation even makes a virtue of necessity, helping to operate its compound by using bio-gas and fertiliser harvested from its bank of public toilets along the main street.

It’s an intriguing institution, with an unconventional collection which has... shall we say... universal interest. But is its focus too indelicate for many tourists?

“A toilet museum is not everybody’s cup of tea,” admits Mr Jha, but then mentions visitors’ reliably amused reactions to Louis XIII’s special throne. “It provokes people’s laughter, and anything that makes you laugh is valuable.”

The Sulabh International Museum of Toilets is located at Sulabh Bhawan, Mahavir Enclave, Palam Dabri Marg, New Delhi, India. Free entry, see its website for opening hours and directions.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Red Relics: The Statues of Memento Park, Hungary

This article from my second visit to Budapest appeared in The Age newspaper in 2010, but is no longer online: so please enjoy. There's nothing I like more than an artfully arranged set of communist-era relics.

Winston Churchill famously described the Soviet Union as a “riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. He might as well have said the same thing about its art.

At the height of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin’s rule in the 1930s, an attempt was made to tame the untameable. A new art movement, sanctioned by the state, would promote the goals of socialism.

The result was Socialist Realism, the genesis of a long line of dreary statues scattered across Europe and Asia, depicting sturdy grain-fed peasants and robust factory workers gesturing heroically toward the communist future.

Curiously, it’s simultaneously both a bland and intimidating style, as I see for myself first-hand at Memento Park on the outskirts of Budapest, the Hungarian capital.

It’s a striking place, with high red brick walls bounding three large oval-shaped grounds, a central garden with a big red star picked out by red blooms, and an impressive collection of the massive Socialist Realist statues which once stood throughout Budapest.

It suggests an immense parade ground into which a detachment of Red Guards might suddenly march, scattering the handful of dawdling onlookers on this wet spring day.

Stepping into the grounds, I at once encounter an immense statue of a Soviet soldier standing with chin tilted arrogantly, a rifle strapped across his greatcoat. His right arm is held high, grasping a staff from which a carved flag hangs.

My first impression is of the sheer brute force manifested in this intimidating figure. The second is of what a bad piece of art it is. The flag is particularly awful, a clumpy solid mass rather than the intended depiction of cloth ruffled by the wind.

This gem once decorated the 19th-century Austrian-built Citadella on a hill overlooking the Danube. In the company of other stone soldiers, he played support act to a giant female figure bearing a palm frond, representing liberty. The woman with the palm remains in place; her Soviet entourage does not.

Clearly this grim art style was in the service of ideology and oppression, seeking to overpower the individualism of the viewer.

However, as I walk around the grounds in the company of Orsolya Madary, the park’s enthusiastic communications manager who has a precise knowledge of each piece’s history, I begin to realise that the statues have an another, unexpected aspect.

In a nutshell, they’re funny. Though designed to inspire fear, they also inspire humour. In fact, with their absurdly oversized limbs, stiff expressions and ungainly depictions of movement, the figures are nothing less than a po-faced set of posers who are begging to have the piss taken out of them.

And it’s not only we inhabitants of the safe and comfortable present who see the joke. As we progress, Orsolya relates how Hungarians used to give the solemn statues unflattering nicknames.

Pointing at a clumpy composition of a worker with hands outstretched in front of a Soviet soldier with upraised arms, she says “That was known as The Fishermen. You see, one is gathering his nets while the other is describing the length of the one that got away.”

Further on we meet The Basketballer, a chunky plasticine-like figure with one arm outstretched to the sky as if trying for a basket; and The Linesmen, two figures with small flags who could just about serve at an AFL fixture.

There are also the newly-nicknamed Mobile Phone Marketers, three abstract figures wearing ammunition belts, each with a hand raised to their right ears as if simultaneously saying: “I’m on a tram. A tram!”.

My favourite, however, is a vast muscular figure striding forth with an upraised hand trailing a long piece of cloth. He’s presumably bearing the banner of socialism toward the enemies of the state, but locals snidely referred to him as The Cloakroom Attendant, vigorously returning a scarf you’d just dropped.

Hungary’s communist regime was no laughing matter, obviously, but such everyday humour was a small, regular protest that stole puffs of wind from its sails and turned it into an object of quiet ridicule.

Back at the entrance, I browse the shop’s array of humorous communist-themed items that further take the mickey out of the totalitarian past.

Then, as I pocket my Best of Communism music CD and step past the rusting main gates toward the bus stop, I encounter the last exhibit - a mighty plinth bearing a gigantic pair of boots. No figure above, just boots.

It’s a replica of the remains of an eight metre high statue of Stalin which once stood above a grandstand in the centre of Budapest. When the revolt against communist rule broke out in October 1956, the citizens took to it with saws.

Only the boots remained, and they’ve endured as a comical symbol of communism’s eventual impotence and overthrow. It’s less a case of the emperor having no clothes, than of the boots having no emperor.

Find Memento Park's opening hours and entry fees at its website.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Walking the Seoullo in Seoul, South Korea

I was hosted on this visit by the Korea Tourism Organisation.

On my last day in Seoul I made my way by bus to the western entrance of Seoullo 7017.

This cool-sounding name denotes the city's answer to New York's High Line... in this case though, it's a former freeway flyover which has been given the beauty treatment.

Walking east, the ramp slopes upward above the streets, and here I discovered a wealth of plant life in circular pots. There were also small structures that acted as shops and stages.

Here and there I also found art, and recreational equipment. The first image below is of the interior of a tiny gallery, the second of a small enclosed trampoline.

There was also plenty of evidence of the railway which the flyover was originally built to avoid. Below I could see rails, and the occasional train passing.

Just a short distance to the south was the attractive facade of the original Seoul railway station. It was built in 1925 during the period of Japanese occupation, and is now a cultural centre.

Further west there was more greenery, and shady spots to sit and rest. As it was a public holiday it was quieter than usual, and surprisingly tranquil there in the heart of the city.

I sat and reflected that Seoul, having built up its big modern commercial heart in the late 20th century, is now taking time to add human touches to the steel and concrete - such as the newly uncovered and beautified Chonggyecheon stream which I wrote about in 2014.

Eventually the walkway terminated, conveniently right above Hoehyeon station on the Seoul Metro.

I'd been impressed by Seoul's new linear park, and by the number of residents who used it the day I took my stroll. It's a great asset to the city.

And if you're wondering about the name 'Seoullo 7017', I later found out that curious number refers both to 1970, when the flyover was opened, and to 2017 when it reopened as a walkway.

There are also, as it happens, 17 entrances to the path, and it crosses the railway tracks at a height of 17 metres. It may be just another prime number, but 17 gets star billing in Seoul.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Review: Madiba the Musical, Melbourne

It's not often that a stage production has a disappointing first act, then redeems itself in the second. But Madiba the Musical is that production.

The clue to its flaws lies in its misleading name. We expect it to be a biographical treatment of Nelson Mandela's life, and it starts in that vein, with a set featuring Mandela (played by Perci Moeketsi) ministering to clients mistreated by South Africa's apartheid regime in his early career as a lawyer.

It looks like we're going to get a cherry-picked tale of the great man's life, which is a little daunting; Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the biopic starring Idris Elba, was faithful but laboured in telling that tale.

But Madiba immediately informs us that it's impossible to show us his whole life. This message is relayed by the Narrator (David Denis), a chorus-like character who raps his way through a great deal of exposition in jaunty style.

Given this admission, it's a pity the first act becomes a mish-mash of moments from Mandela's early years, a kind of 'greatest hits' of his fight against the regime and his eventual imprisonment.

The first law of storytelling is "Show, don't tell," but there's a lot of telling here.

Even crucial moments of violence such as the Sharpeville massacre are reduced to a single death, which mutes the emotional impact of such iconic incidents of state violence. And Winnie Mandela (Ruva Ngwenya) is so toned down that she's hardly recognisable as the forceful personality she was in real life.

Thankfully, the second act finally provides us an emotional entry point into this tumultuous era. A young black man named Will (Barry Conrad) has fallen in love with a young white woman, Helena (Madeline Perrone), whose policeman father Peter Van Leden (Blake Erickson) is a brutal enforcer of the status quo.

This star-crossed relationship provides the hook we need to feel the personal impact of apartheid, as the duo struggle to realise their love and are forced apart by the cruel reality of the regime's discriminatory laws.

When they finally reunite, in the post-apartheid era, we feel the surge of hope that must have accompanied the sweeping away of that unjust system.

Through their personal struggles, Mandela appears as an inspirational background character, whose own fate slowly evolves from prisoner to negotiator to free man... and then president.

Narrative flaws aside, the show's songs and dance are impressive throughout, with much co-opting of traditional African music and its rhythms.

For all the lively glory of the group numbers, the standout for me is Mandela's solo recitation of William Henley's poem Invictus, from which he's known to have drawn great strength.

In this year, the centenary of his birth, there are many celebrations of Nelson Mandela and his achievements. Despite a slow start, Madiba the Musical is a worthy addition to their number.

Madiba the Musical continues at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne to 28 October 2018, then tours Australia and New Zealand. Make bookings at Ticketmaster.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Reviews: Melbourne Fringe Festival 2018

It's time again for Melbourne Fringe, the annual festival of performing arts which tests boundaries. I've been in South Korea and Japan for most of September, but have managed to catch a few shows in its final week. Here's what Narrelle Harris and I have seen...

1. Narrelle's Fringe Diary.

Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

Attendees of Rowena Hutson's show Broke are offered cake on arrival at Studio 2 by 'Rosie', dressed in blue dungarees, a red bandana (a la Rosie the Riveter), and a pair of Princess Leia-like ear muffs.

The last item is no coincidence, as Carrie Fisher is cited as an inspiration for Rosie's stories of her experiences with anxiety, panic disorder and gaslighting: 'It's a show about toxic masculinity and baking.'

Rosie's passion for DIY and baking are intertwined with her history of crippling anxiety, and tempered by her optimism and gentle support of the audience. She explores ways of demonstrating what a panic attack feels like, infused with humour and energy (and mindfulness about not triggering anyone in the audience).

Given a significant percentage of the population is likely to have had experience of anxiety and panic, the show has a strong dramatic effect. Hutson balances the emotional impact of the experiences she describes with an adorable, slightly goofy energy.

The show is in turns sweet and affecting, but is clearly a work in progress as some sections drag, detracting from the impact. Once issues of pacing and flow are addressed, this strong narrative about the seeds of anxiety will have more impact.

In the same venue, just over an hour later, Joanne Ryan undergoes a 35th birthday crisis in Eggsistentialism. Waking with a hangover, her terrifying question is not 'What did I do last night?' but 'What am I doing with my life?'

There follows an hour of wit, warmth and critique as she tries to work out whether or not she ought to have children.

This personal quandary is interwoven with Ireland's history of women's reproductive rights; her own mother's story as a single parent; social attitudes to parenting based on gender; and the pros and cons (she makes a list!) of becoming a mother.

This show is a mix of philosophy and social critique, along with personal history and the exploration of what is a good life. It's interspersed with amusing interjections from her mother, and enhanced with superb audiovisual content. The conclusion is satisfying, and full of wisdom.

2. Tim's Fringe Diary.

Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux
Until 30 September 2018, Courthouse Hotel

Until 29 September 2018, Arts House

In a room above the Courthouse Hotel’s busy bar, a man sits on a stage playing a video game involving soldiers fighting in monochrome streets.

Before long this opening scene of Echoes of Villers-Bretonneux shifts to an actual war, the Great War, as the young man discovers his great-grandfather’s war diary in an old chest and transitions to the character of that soldier.

Actor Shane Palmer maintains the energy onstage as he takes us through the horrors of the Western Front, leading through recruitment and training to the carnage of the frontline. It culminates in the battle for Villers-Bretonneux, famously linked with the valour of Australian troops who helped recapture the town from the Germans.

The material is well paced, but feels similar to other stories we’ve been offered about World War One; I’m not sure what this tale brings to the voluminous canon of work about that conflict that’s new.

Also, there’s something forced about some of the lines - as the character suggests, for example, that this battle might the first ever example of a tank-on-tank skirmish (it was). If more was revealed of the soldier’s feelings and personality, and he stood out more strongly as an individual, we might be more moved.

Having said that, Echoes is a snappy piece, and Palmer neatly projects the mix of wide-eyed naïveté and determination that keeps his character focused. As the 100th anniversary of the Armistice approaches later this year, and the four-year centenary of that appalling conflict draws to a close, this isn’t an unworthy example of First World War remembrance.

Across the road and behind the North Melbourne Town Hall (aka Arts House), something far edgier is hitting the stage. Cockroach is billed as "an amoral revenge tale for the #MeToo generation", and involves a woman who finds she's been transformed into a cockroach.

"Ah, Kafka's Metamorphosis," you think, but you'd be wrong. Performer Melita Rowston has reached back into the pre-Kafka past to riff on the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, a set of tales in which women are raped and/or turned into objects such as trees.

The twist here is that C, our heroine, uses the power of the cockroach to twist these tales of men's domination the other way around. One by one, she punishes abusive men in the style in which they have abused - from the sleazy movie producer to the malpractising doctor.

This revenge fantasy is delivered in raucous style to the backing of high-voltage electric guitar music, and via Rowston's energetic, confident physicality and acid-sharp delivery. Cockroach is not at all polite, but it is darkly funny and utterly timely.

The Melbourne Fringe Festival continues to 30 September 2018. Find program details and buy tickets at its website.