Month: August, 2014

The Penis Elegies: The Second Elegy

I saw you struggle to contain it
Within the seams of your dirty jeans. 
This was the charming of the snake.

I saw you struggle to tame it
My ass was both carrot and stick.
This was the breeding of the horse.

I saw you struggle to explain it
As your seed exploded past my face.
This was the flapping of the dove.

Film Reviews: Wild Tales, The Reunion


My reviews for Wild Tales and The Reunion can be read here at The Lumière Reader.

Film Review: Two Days, One Night



My review for the Dardenne’s latest film can be found here at The Lumière Reader.

The Penis Elegies: The First Elegy

Your phallus, 
So stout in its erectness,
A statue of greatness,
Plants a warmth inside my lower depths.

Your shaft,
A willing member of our union,
Free of scruples and neurosis,
Acts on the purest animal lust, not love.

Your meat,
Too proud in its prime, 
Stands free, above all other meagre offerings,
Takes what it wants without hesitation.

Phaedra x3

2014-07-30 17.09.44

“I tried to suppress my mad feelings. That didn’t work. You can’t suppress Aphrodite.”
—Euripides (trans. Anne Carson), Hippolytus

“The first sight of him ripped my wounds open. No longer a fever in my veins, Venus had fastened on me like a trigger.”
—Racine, Phèdre

“Can’t switch this off. Can’t crush it. Can’t. Wake up with it, burning me. Think I’ll crack open I want him so much.”
—Sarah Kane, Phaedra’s Love

There are few figures in Greek mythology as tragic as Phaedra. And, if we accept Greek mythology as the benchmark of tragedy (rivalled only by the works of Shakespeare), then we must accept Phaedra as one of the most tragic figures in all of literature.

Though married to Theseus, Phaedra is in love with his son Hippolytus, her stepson. She cannot bear it. It literally makes her sick, killing her slowly. Her nurse, Oenone, tries to save Phaedra by telling Hippolytus of her symptom and the cause. Hippolytus is disgusted and threatens to tell his father. Phaedra, ashamed, kills herself, but not before leaving a note accusing Hippolytus of her crime. Theseus ends up cursing his son with the aid of Poseidon. Eventually he learns of the truth.

There are many iterations of this story in theatre. I have read three. There is the original Hippolytus by Euripides, which closely follows the above synopsis. The cause of Phaedra’s love is directly attributed to the goddess Aphrodite in this version, punishing Hippolytus for spurning love and women. Love is a tool of the gods, something humans cannot overcome. There’s a fatalism and inevitability in the premise.

The second version I am familiar with is Racine’s Phèdre. In this version the gods, while blamed, are never directly attributed to the cause of Phaedra’s sickness. So, while acknowledging the Greek setting and the relevance of the Gods at the time, Racine is more concerned with the psychological ramifications of the story. In his version, Hippolytus is no longer represented as a sort of asexual figure. This is used to add an element of jealousy to Phaedra’s love for him. Overall it’s a pretty faithful retelling of the story with subtle additions that ground it in a more modern perspective.

The last version I’ve read is Sarah Kane’s tragicomic bastardisation Phaedra’s Love. Her main contribution to the story is an intense nihilism mixed with sex and profanity. With no regard for the original setting, she makes the language contemporary. It works though. It’s a fucked up play. In this version Hippolytus doesn’t rebuff Phaedra’s affections, but he doesn’t quite return them either. He just uses her for (oral) sex and rejects her. The rest of the play follows somewhat closely to the original, though filtered through grand guignol.

It’s interesting to note that the naming of the later plays is indicative of an understanding (on the playwright’s part) that the heart of the story is Phaedra rather than Hippolytus. She is the driving force behind the narrative, both her love and shame.

I love this whole fashion of taking classic stories are remodelling them to suit your own needs and intentions. And I don’t just mean in a dramaturgical sense. I don’t mean changing Macbeth to a corporate setting and cutting a couple of scenes and you’ve got a new play. That’s not a new play. That’s looking at an old play from a fresh perspective.

I’m talking about building upon the ideas of our predecessors. That to me is the crux of all writing. Firstly, we must accept no thought or idea can be truly original. Secondly, we must accept nothing is sacred. Thirdly, we must to what we can to be, above all else, honest. Forget about originality. What matters is sincerity.

Bastardise. Steal. Adapt. Translate.. Recreate. Deconstruct. Rebuild. Abridge. Expand. Mutate. Invert. These are just a few our tools as writers. We’d be foolish not to use them.

Let’s Talk About Brecht…


Other than William Shakespeare, is there any playwright who has shaped modern theatre more than Brecht?

I had the great pleasure of seeing the Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Brecht’s The Good Soul of Szechuan last Friday night. It wasn’t a flawless production (it’s certainly not a flawless play). The first scene of the play fumbled awkwardly to keep the audience’s attention. But the second half, after intermission, was a truly evocative piece of social critique, and went down like a warm glass of milk. The story of a hooker with a heart of gold who struggles to stay good under the stress of economic pressure, but can’t find stability without creating a male alter-ego, is not something from an understated drama. In fact, it’s incredibly didactic, bludgeoning you with its “ideas” and “themes” and “messages”. But it works because that’s Brecht’s intention. He asks us difficult questions but is smart (honest?) enough to know he doesn’t have any answers. Despite the fact The Good Soul of Szechuan isn’t much more than a parable, it manages to be heartfelt and humanistic, much to the credit of Robyn Malcom’s performance in the central role.

For all the “distancing effects” and ideas of “epic theatre” Brecht and his practitioners apply, there is an undeniable empathy in his works. They might be political works that attempt to make us think. But the personal is political, as it is often said. We cannot separate the two. And if we dare to turn theatre into pure spectacle and mere entertainment we do a great disservice to the medium.

If you had told me I would one day consider Brecht to be one of my favourite writers just a couple of years ago I’d have laughed and rolled my eyes at you, sarcastically retorting, “Yeah, right, mate,” in an intensely dismissive and glib fashion.

But Brecht will never be out of fashion. His messages are as pertinent as ever.

I’d like to wrap up this little tribute with a quote from the man himself. I feel Brecht’s fingers pointed directly at me as I read these words. No doubt they will only mean more to me as I grow older, echoing in my mind:

“The worst illiterate is the political illiterate, he doesn’t hear, doesn’t speak, nor participates in the political events. He doesn’t know the cost of life, the price of the bean, of the fish, of the flour, of the rent, of the shoes and of the medicine, all depends on political decisions. The political illiterate is so stupid that he is proud and swells his chest saying that he hates politics. The imbecile doesn’t know that, from his political ignorance is born the prostitute, the abandoned child, and the worst thieves of all, the bad politician, corrupted and flunky of the national and multinational companies.”

Theatre of Colour

“In my twenties I thought that I would write hundreds of plays. I had so many stories to tell. In my thirties I began to suspect that maybe I wouldn’t get to tell them all and by my forties I knew that that was true. I simply wouldn’t get to write them all.

And I feel a sense of grief about those stories I won’t tell. I mourn them. As it is I write and have produced a play about every five years. Two a decade. Some writers are more prolific but I’m not. Though there are films in between those plays so it’s not like I’m not working. But theatre is my first love and so I know the number of plays left is finite. I can probably count them on one hand.

And so I have resolved to make each one count.”

For the opening of the 2014 National Play Festival in Australia, Andrew Bovell delivered a powerful keynote speech, pleading for playwrights to write the stories they NEED to tell.

I’m often concerned that what I right lacks accessibility or that there is no desire to produce it, so I attempt to write what I think others will want to see. I find myself afraid of what I really want to write. This fear prevents me from expressing myself with any clarity. This has to stop. I don’t want to end up having written maybe two or three plays I barely like because I never pushed myself towards truth.

Bovell also talked about the whiteness of theatre, which is something prevalent not just in Australia. I see it in the theatre scene in New Zealand too. And, of course, a predominately European country is going to shaped heavily by the western canon of great theatre.

At this moment in our history I find myself hungry for content…. For plays that are saying something. I want meat on the bone. I want to think. I want to be upset. I want to be shocked and shaken. I sense a rise of conservatism in this country. A narrowing of opportunity. A widening of the gap between rich and poor. Between black and white. A meanness of spirit has crept in to the social discourse. I want to challenge it. I want to get in its way. And I don’t know if we can do that with Chekhov anymore.

Now, I for one, love Chekhov. Love Brecht. Love Shakespeare. But when Bovell said, “Australia is not a white nation. Australia is not an Anglo-Celtic nation. Australia is not a Christian nation. We are much more than that,” I couldn’t help but nod my head in agreement. Agreement in a universal sense, rather than at Australia specifically. Where is the colour in our theatre?

The Auckland theatre scene, for example, is predominately white, despite the fact that 23.1% of the population identified themselves as Asian in the 2013 census. This year I have only seen one “Asian” play, Lantern put on by PAT, and a compilation of scenes from various plays, to form ASIAN INVASION, performed by Ensemble Impact. It’s a noticeable absence that leaves one wondering WHY? Does it not perpetuate the false idea of Asians as being purely academic types? Is there really not much room for ethnic or coloured theatre?

I refuse to believe that.

And that’s why I write. Not because I’m necessarily any good. Not because I know what I’m doing. Not because I’m saying anything that unique. But because of a lack of visibility. Because it is too easy to say it’s not our job to tell those overlooked and unknown stories. Because if I don’t do it then why should anyone else?

So, I will strive. I’ll do what I can to write stories that shed some light on aspects of our culture others would rather ignore. The stories I want to see that haven’t been written. That’s my promise to myself. Let’s just see if I can keep it.