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It's been a busy month or so. In lieu of a proper blog post, you're getting subheadings.

I was on four panels at Continuum 9. They all went really well, I think, including the one on cultural appropriation that I was most nervous about. I don't really remember much about what was said in my panels. The Plot 101 panel  started in one room, but it was too small, so we moved to a bigger room, then got kicked out of that one when the organisers needed it to set up for a speech, so we moved out and finished in the foyer. "It's a character journey," I quipped. "Beginning, middle and end."

I also won a free ticket to next year's Continuum, and am plotting panels.

Another production as part of MTC's Neon festival. 'By Their Own Hands' was a retelling of the Oedipus myth. Or more accurately: three retellings. Act one, the two actors invited the audience on to the stage, and told the myth as straight story-telling. Act two was a silent, visual retelling. Act three was just dialogue, the two actors standing at microphones and talking. It was fascinating to see the same story stripped down and retold different ways. But after embracing the audience in the first act, it felt distancing to be told to go sit back down in our seats.

Splendid Chaps is a podcast about Doctor Who by Ben McKenzie and John Richards. There were meant to be eleven episodes, one for each Doctor. But then they did all these side episodes, and then John Hurt happened, and now that plan has been abandoned. What's lovely about this podcast is that they record them in front of a live studio audience. I've been to several of them now, and hearing them talk so passionately about classic Who has finally inspired me to go back and watch some old episodes.

Some of the old episode are great. Some of them remind me why I decided not to rewatch them.

Joss Whedon's low budget indie version of the Shakespeare play. He shot it in two weeks while on a break from directing The Avengers, which has led to some peculiar cross-marketing: "Like superheroes and explosions! You've love a five hundred year old romantic comedy!"

It's fun, but slight. Oddly for Whedon, he never quite nails the emotional swerves. And the modern-dress, Californian bungalow setting is at odds with the play's obsession with maidenly virtue. Amy Acker is great, though.

My friend Alex Hammond has had his debut novel published by Penguin. It's called Blood Witness, and it's a crime/legal thriller set in Melbourne. There was a book launch last Tuesday at Readings, with Alan Brough interviewing Alex. I'm really excited for Alex: he's the hardest working writer I know, and it's fantastic to see his dedication pay off.

We've also been to Women of Letters, Melbourne Literary Salon, and I saw the Afghanistan: Hidden Treasures exhibition with my sister. I'm also way behind on blogging about my Project Read All the YA.

Right. Update over. Back to work, you lot.

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Neck-deep in Continuum. Going well so far. You should all go read N. K. Jemisin's inspiring Guest of Honour speech, calling for a Reconciliation in SFF. It gave me goosebumps.

Last night, A. and I went to the theatre.

The play was On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, part of Melbourne Theatre Company's NEON programme of independent theatre.

It opens with a young ballerina entering a darkened stage, stretching, then playing a sad melody on a piano. The lights come up. Other young ballet students enter, dressed in white, going through their exercises. A new pupil arrives. The other girls surround her, comb her hair, dress her. She starts to copy their exercises. Two teachers watch them, but remain aloof. After a game of tag, the young girls dress up in historical costumes and act out bloody pantomimes of execution, amputation, and mass murder. The pantomimes are packed away. The girls retreat. An old woman who has been watching from the sidelines steps forward and performs a fluid dance as the lights fade away.

All of this performed without dialogue.

The play was dreamlike, cryptic. Stripped of dialogue and plot, the play leaves a vast space for the audience to create their own interpretations.

It was based on the 1908 novella Mine-Haha or On The Bodily Education of Young Girls, by the German playwright Frank Wedekind. The novella is a parable about a hermetic school where the girls study ballet and biology during the day, and at night perform in gory pantomimes for paying audiences.

It's tempting, therefore, to think this play is about looking at young women: about the way they are viewed, and the contortions and roles they are forced to perform to make themselves pleasing to look at.

But there's more to it than that. The silence of the actors and their minimal facial expressions pose the question: who are these young women? What are their thoughts and feelings?

Director Adena Jacobs said in an interview: "I think there is an erotic undercurrent, but it's not one that I'm personally interested in [...] I think the erotic is something we assume about young girls, and it's sort of unfair and deprives them of the depth that they have."

On Twitter, I commented that this play starts out David Hamilton and ends up Marat/Sade.

It was a fairly flippant comment: true, perhaps, but only on the surface level. It's taken some more reading and some thinking overnight for me to appreciate the depths underneath.

(I also commented on Twitter that I really enjoyed the play, but teenaged me would have been obsessed with it: Surrealism. Death. Sad girls in white. And one of the actresses looks like Nastassja Kinski.

I was far too shy and awkward to talk to actual girls at that age, and so my fantasises ended up not unlike my surface reading of this play, where overly pretentious romanticisation substituted for lack of understanding.)

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Monsters and Morality...

That sounds like a Dungeons and Dragons supplement, doesn't it?

On Saturday night we saw the final performance of Robert Reid's new play "On the Production of Monsters." On Sunday, we saw the encore screening of the National Theatre's production of Frankenstein, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.

I've been thinking about monsters ever since.

"On the Production of Monsters" is the story of a hipster-ish Northcote couple, Ben and Shari. Ben's supervisor at work emails him a image of a naked underage girl in a clumsy attempt at seduction. Through a series of mishaps, the image is forwarded on the press, and Ben finds himself hounded as a monstrous paedophile.

The play received glowing reviews from Crikey, The Herald Sun and Allison Croggan. And it deserves it: the dialogue is witty, the Melbourne setting lovingly evoked, Virginia Gay was fantastic as Shari, and the set was amazing: starting out as a bare catwalk, the actors pulled props up from the floor like a giant fold-out book.

And yet... Something didn't quite gel for me.

Halfway through the play, a PR agent decides to take on Ben's case and argue that the image is artistic, not pornographic. A judge eventually agrees, and Ben is, if not vindicated, at least forgotten by the press.

A lot of reviews of the play point out the similarities to the Bill Henson case from 2009. But to me those similarities are superficial.

Bill Henson took his photos of a nude adolescent. He was directly morally responsible for them, and so the question of art versus child porn is a direct judgement on his actions.

But in the play, Ben is innocent. He didn't create the image. He didn't even download it. He had no control over whether the image is art or child porn, and so it feels like deus ex machina when he is saved by a judge's decision.

Perhaps that is Reid's point: that sometimes our fates are tangential to our actions, that our comfortable little lives can be battered around by forces beyond our control. Perhaps. I still feel that the play raised a deep and important issue that it just wasn't built to discuss.

Frankenstein, on the other hand, is all about moral responsibility for one's actions. This post is already far too long, though. I'll cover that in part two.

But I want to point out two thing before I finish here:

First: I am 100% on the side of Bill Henson's work being art, and I was appalled at the time by both the media beat-up, and the philistine comments of our then-Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd.

Second: I know the playwright Robert Reid socially, and I feel a bit weird being so critical of work by someone I'm kinda-sorta friends with. Add to that, none of the reviews I've read have raised concerns similar to mine. Not even the unflattering Cameron Woodhead review in The Age.

Perhaps the reason this itches at me like a mosquito bite is that the child porn debate felt like a sidetrack from Reid's portrayal of Ben and Shari's relationship. Warm, flawed, full of personal in-jokes and little arguments, it was a beautiful piece of writing.

I'm looking forward to more work from Reid.

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I almost didn't make it to see MOTH at the Malthouse Theatre last night.

I caught the Number 1 tram from work. The rear door on the tram stopped working outside the Town Hall. Rather than drive on with the defective door closed, the tram driver spent 15 minutes first yelling at passengers to clear the doorway (it was clear), then flipping switches to try and make the door work. Which meant not only was everyone on my tram late, so was everyone on the trams behind us.

In the end, I ran all the way down St Kilda Road. ! made it to the Malthouse at literally the last minute before the show started.

I was sweaty, tired, busting for a pee, and pissed off at the tram driver's stupidity.

So it's a testament to MOTH that I forgot all of that within the first five minutes of the play starting.

Because I was hooked.

Here's the description of the play on the Malthouse website:

Sebastian is a terminally unpopular fifteen-year-old suburban kid, with an overactive imagination and an obsession with anime and death. His only friend, Claryssa, is an emo Wiccan art-freak barely one rung higher than Sebastian on the social ladder.

What starts as just another night drinking down at the cricket nets soon gives way to an ecstatic vision that leaves Sebastian unconscious, their friendship left in ruin. The next morning, he wakes up with a mysterious moth in a jar by his bed, and a calling to save the souls of all humankind. And so begins the Passion of Sebastian…

I loved this play. Absolutely loved it.

It was raw and dark and intense, but cut with humour and a fragile sweetness. It reminded me of Donnie Darko, and anime series FLCL. It had that same equation of adolescent angst with the end of the world. Which sounds pretentious, but is exactly how I felt as a teenager.

The set design is minimal: just three ripped grey carpets hung from the roof and draped across the stage. (Picture here.) The minimalism focused attention on the two actors, Dylan Young as Sebastian and Sarah Ogden as Claryssa.

I'll admit I was worried by the acting in the opening scene. It felt broad and forced.

But within five or ten minutes, the actors found a groove and I was drawn in. The characters they play are prickly and sarcastic, and it's a testament to both the writing and the acting that the vulnerability and the hesitant affection between these two outcasts shone through.

It's a harrowing play. It goes to some dark places, and it doesn't necessarily guide you back out.

But I'm so glad I made it on time to see it..


MOTH is produced by Arena Theatre, a company that specialises in live theatre for audiences aged 5 to 25. It finishes its run at the Malthouse this Saturday.



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February 2019

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