Friday 28 October 2016

Review: My Fair Lady, Sydney

The rain in Spain
falls mainly
in the plain

The test of a good musical (or perhaps an effective musical) is whether its tunes and lyrics stick in your head after the final curtain.

In the case of My Fair Lady, that's a given. Hours after Narrelle and I filed out of the Sydney Opera House after being hosted by Destination New South Wales, the above number was still on loop in my brain.

This musical is not short of memorable songs. In addition to the one about weather conditions in the Iberian peninsula, other famous numbers include Wouldn't It be Loverly, I Could Have Danced All Night, and Get Me to the Church on Time.

They're performed with skill and confidence by the ensemble of this revival of the 1956 hit musical, which was based on George Bernard Shaw's play about a professor of linguistics attempting to mould a Cockney flower girl into a lady of refinement.

Interestingly, this version directed by Julie Andrews has the feel of a Hollywood movie of the postwar era.

Costume colours brighter and more stylised than anything seen on an Edwardian London street give the production a hint of vivid Technicolor. The the fine performance of Alex Jennings as Professor Higgins also has a hint of Rex Harrison's portrayal in the 1964 film of the musical.

Australian actor Anna O'Byrne plays the feisty Eliza, giving 'Enry 'Iggins as good as she gets with a bold performance full of personality.

The sense of artifice - the reminder that we're watching a story - is reinforced by the set design, with the entire stage enclosed within a giant golden frame that suggests a portrait.

Added to the stylised colour scheme and the distinctive sets, it suggests a production that doesn't want us to take it too seriously.

Is this distancing born of insecurity about whether the story would hold up in the 21st century? If so, the producers needn't have worried.

There's plenty here that contemporary audiences can relate to: Higgins' overwhelming sense of entitlement, the class prejudices symbolised by accents, the objectification of a young woman without regard to her actual needs, and the use of money to justify anything.

This production of My Fair Lady is sharp and snappy, with strong performances by both its stars and supporting actors. It won't change your life, but it has a lot of catchy numbers - and more food for thought than you first expect.

My Fair Lady continues to 5 November 2016 at the Sydney Opera House, then travels to Brisbane (March 2017) and Melbourne (May 2017). For more information and bookings, visit the production's website.

Friday 21 October 2016

Review: The Art of Banksy

I was hosted by The Art of Banksy exhibition.

As provocative as this exhibition's art might be, what's proven equally provocative is its context.

The Art of Banksy is an exhibition set up by Steve Lazarides, the first art dealer associated with anonymous street artist Banksy.

The artist is said to disapprove of this exhibition, so there's been some controversy upon its arrival in the street art mecca of Melbourne.

In fact one local artist hired to add a mural to the exterior of the exhibition venue has painted Lazarides as Judas to Banksy's messiah. You can see it on the right hand wall here, off the funky bar and food truck area at the end of the exhibition:

So much for the controversy. What of the exhibition itself?

The nature of Banksy's work means you're unlikely to ever see much of it in one place (eg I've seen a single Banksy rat in a Melbourne alleyway). So it seems worthwhile, if a little artificial, to have it on show in a single venue.

As patrons pass through the temporary tent-like building which serves as a gallery, they find Banksy art presented in various media.

The earliest examples, pre-dating the digital photography age, are photographs of street scenes which include Banksy's work. I liked these very much. Street art by its very nature engages with its surroundings, so it was great to see how some of it originally appeared in situ.

Further on there are framed screen prints, which the explanatory text says were produced by Banksy in order to both provide affordable art and earn some money. It's ironic, of course, that these are now worth thousands of dollars of which the artist sees nothing. But such is the secondary art market.

There's also Banksy art in a room of T-shirts dangling on wire hangers, in documentary video clips about the artist, and in much larger pieces such as a huge painting of an urban scene which mimics the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima. 

It's all great work, and seeing it in one place does highlight Banksy's themes.

As notation on the exhibition walls explains, there's the consistent presence of politics, humour and animals in the art, often together in a single piece.

So in Banksy's creative universe, masked demonstrators lob bouquets of flowers; armed soldiers have heads eerily replaced by smiley faces; the Queen's head is replaced with that of a monkey; characters from Pulp Fiction brandish bananas instead of guns; and Christ languishes on the cross while holding shopping bags.

The artist clearly has no love for authority and capitalism (again, an irony presented by this ticketed exhibition and its pricey gift shop), but is extraordinarily engaging rather than hectoring in the way he criticises them.

The humour of strange juxtapositions provokes awkward laughter and a dose of illumination; it's a classic case of the storyteller's "Show, don't tell."

The Art of Banksy is an intriguing exhibition, and I learned a lot from seeing his work in one place.

Whether it's worth the $30 entry fee is perhaps up to you, but it certainly provides an insight into the mind of the world's most famous street artist.

The Art of Banksy continues to 22 January 2017 at The Paddock, Federation Square, Melbourne. Make bookings and find more details here. The photos of artwork above were provided by the exhibition.

Friday 14 October 2016

Why I Travel (With Thanks to Ned Kelly)

This piece about my motivations for travel was commissioned by a magazine in 2014, but never published for space reasons. Here it is at last, for your enjoyment...

I travel to connect the dots.

I’ve always been fascinated by history – I even gained a degree in it from the University of Western Australia – but I don’t want to only learn about it through books.

There’s nothing I like more than actually visiting the place where a great historic event took place, something that people still talk about today.

Even better is to link together a number of places connected to a famous person or happening, and step in the footprints of those who were there at the time.

One of my favourite journeys was a retracing of the life of Ned Kelly, the notorious bushranger whose gang robbed banks and fought police in northeastern Victoria in the late 19th century.

Whether they think he’s a hero or a villain, everyone knows about Ned’s famous showdown at Glenrowan, when he confronted police in the dawn light in a home-made suit of armour.

But not many know about the green sash he was awarded at the age of 11 when he saved a drowning child from a river in Avenel. Exploits from his short but eventful life are scattered all along the signposted Ned Kelly Touring Route.

I went one better in 2011 when I visited the tiny town of Moyglass, two hours from Dublin, Ireland in County Tipperary. Nowadays the village is basically just a cemetery and a pub, but what a pub.

The Ned Kelly Village Inn is festooned with Kelly memorabilia, and for a very good reason. In 1840 Ned Kelly’s dad, John Kelly, was working as a farm labourer here and stole two pigs.

Caught, he was sentenced to transportation to Australia, thus starting the journey that would lead to Ned and his dramatic fate. I felt pleased and privileged to have been to both ends of the tale.

On other trips I’ve linked together such major events as the sinking of the SS Titanic, visiting the Belfast shipyards where it was built, and later the cemetery in Halifax, Canada where many of its tragic victims lie.

I’ve visited Roman ruins stretching from England to Egypt, via Italy and Hungary and, of course, Rome. I’ve wondered at strange architectural relics of Eastern Europe’s communist era, from Poland to Slovenia.

And I’ve been to all three corners of the so-called Polynesian Triangle, Hawaii, New Zealand and Easter Island, amazed at the ancient Polynesians' navigational skills.

Once I’ve been there, it’s not just dusty old history to me. It’s a story, of real people and their lives.

Why do you travel? Feel free to comment below.

Friday 7 October 2016

Laughter at LA's Comedy Store

My admission to The Comedy Store was arranged by Visit West Hollywood.

“There’s a Highway to Hell, but only a Stairway to Heaven,” says comedian Argus Hamilton, riffing on the two song titles. “That tells you a lot about the expected traffic.”

It’s an observation that resonates here inside The Comedy Store, a long-lived comedy club on LA’s infamous Sunset Strip.

Because this short stretch of Sunset Boulevard fell outside the jurisdiction of the neighbouring Los Angeles and Beverly Hills city councils, it became a racy nightlife hub in the 1920s.

Over the decades the Strip has waxed and waned in its entertainment offer, hosting nightclubs, restaurants, bars and live music, in addition to vice.

It’s also been a hub of live comedy.

Co-founded in 1972 by Mitzi Shore, the Comedy Store has hosted an array of well-known comedians, including Jim Carrey, Amy Schumer, Roseanne Barr, Billy Crystal and Chris Rock.

The only name I recognise on the bill tonight is Pauly Shore, son of the venue’s co-founder. “My whole life was a two-drink minimum,” he says, referring to the compulsory minimum drinks order that applies to every patron.

Mind you, Narrelle and I get value for our drinks, sitting amid cabaret-style seating just a few metres from the stage. Around the walls are neon portraits of legendary comedians such as the Marx Brothers, and the stage is flanked by neon swirls resembling Greek columns.

On a Friday night the space is filling with a lively crowd, with a surprisingly broad age range and the usual LA multi-ethnic mix.

There are thirteen comedians on the program, each performing a snappy set before giving way to the next.

Highlights tonight are Sarah Tiana from Georgia (she’s 38 and “not thinking of kids, thinking of cake”); veteran comedian Yakov Smirnoff with plenty to say about the US presidential election; Iliza Shlesinger with incisive material about body image; and Anthony Jeselnik, who plays with edgier themes of death and race.

To our surprise, comedian Rick Ingraham outs a guy sitting next to us as an Australian ‘snow-maker’, then riffs entertainingly on how Aussies in Los Angeles “never have proper jobs.”

After 11pm it gets tougher on the less experienced end of the bill, battling a growing restlessness among the audience. Hey, it’s LA, we all want to head to the next big thing!

We embrace the vibe and slip out before midnight, to catch an Uber to Hollywood. It’s been a fun evening though, and reflective of today’s Sunset Strip – less vice, but still a certain edgy charm.

The Comedy Store is located at 8433 Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, USA. See for program details.