Here and there – A Dream, the Storm and a Swan
The Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Mid Summer Night’s Dream in Melbourne in about 1971 caused quite a stir. We were coming to the end of the time when we stood in awe of older foreign productions – and the RSC had rolled gold éclat. Bright young things in the colonies could bank some cultural respectability by seeing Shakespeare performed by the people who invented him. A little bit of snootiness in the night.
The snootiness went the other way when the Storm, a rugby league, team hit Melbourne in 1998. ‘My dear boy. You don’t understand. Rugby, as played at School, is de rigeur. But League is there for the diversion of thugs.’ Mining types in the north west of England, and working class Micks in the western suburbs of Sydney. The snobbery was a wonder to behold. ‘Wouldn’t do to mention it at the Club, old boy.’ In truth, there were some in Melbourne who wondered if anything warranting snobbery could come out of Sydney.
Well, I enjoyed it and I took to it – in part provoked by the snootiness of others. The game had a simplicity and shortness that the AFL was losing. And people outside Victoria don’t realise how many players were lost to interstate to help new AFL clubs open up. I was at most home games of the Storm, and was rewarded with a flag in only our second year. Since then there have been others, although officialdom did not appreciate our version of double entry accounting.
The club has been very well managed. Its recruiting is such that we now act as a kind of feeder to rugby clubs. But, among other things, I have had the benefit of watching three of the best footballers this country has produced – Cameron Smith, Billy Slater, and Greg Inglis. And a Greek restaurant on Swan Street was perfect for before or after – or, as happened on one very long day, both.
You may need to make certain adjustments to meet the terms of the new milieu. I once committed the faux pas of appearing on the terrace with a glass of wine in my hand. The abuse was sufficient to get me to reverse course after a few steps. At a mediation once, I was discussing matters of etiquette with John Brumby when he was Leader of the Opposition. He said that he was going to the game and in a few hours’ time, he would have a glass of chardonnay in his hand. I cautioned him. ‘Don’t drink plonk, drink beer; if you have to drink plonk, get red; if you have to drink white, don’t in the name of Heaven call it chardonnay – you might start a bloody riot’.
It does you good to seek new outlets. At about the time I started following the Storm, I got interested, vitally interested, in Formula One. One reason was that I could see that Michael Schumacher was one of those once in a generation sportsmen who just tower over the rest.
But let me go back the Dream. This RSC production helped me to slough off that resentment to texts that can be left over from having them forced down your neck at school. The process began in the sixties when I sat up for two consecutive Sunday nights starting at 11 pm listening to Richard Burton as Hamlet have a Broadway crowd eating out of his hand. For that and other reasons Richard Burton came to mean as much to me as Ronald Barassi – which is no small praise. And as I had bought Bradley to consider Macbeth, I now did so for Hamlet. And I have maintained my interest in that kind of scholarship – only Tony Tanner in my view matches Bradley.
It was at about the time I was starting to load up on Shakespeare that I came into contact with ballet. For some reason, I went to see a small Russian company (from Novosibirsk) put on Swan Lake. I fell for the theatre of it all, although there is a lot that could make a bloke very mawkish. Then I saw a Russian group perform at the Palais de Danse in St Kilda. Moisieva did The Dying Swan. But people were there to see the man touted as the next Nureyev. Mikael Baryshnikov came out. And he ascended – and for a moment Newton’s laws of gravity were suspended. The gasp of the whole audience was remarkable. (I heard an echo of it last year for Anne-Sophie Mutter and, later, Jonas Kaufman – each a super nova.)
We used to take the girls to rehearsals of the Australian Ballet. Then my interest was dampened by trips to Essendon each Saturday for ballet school. I wrote many decisions in tax cases sitting in a Commodore, with Essendon supporters drifting by, while trying to juggle a dictaphone and a sausage roll. When that all ended, so did my regular attendance at the theatre to see ballet. Its place was taken by opera, but if I had to name my ten best nights at the theatre, I would want to include the ballets of Hunchback of Notre Dame that I saw in Paris and the Anna Karenin that I saw in Budapest.
A lot of this came back to me the other night in what has sometimes felt like a desolate isolation. I watched a full Storm game for the first time in a while. It was against the Rabbitohs – than whom it would hard to envisage a more NRL side. Slater and Inglis are long gone, but Smith is still there, and there is a guy called Cameron Munster, who is up there with the best. He is wiry and incredibly strong and resilient. He was, according to the press, a rough nut who had a problem with the bottle. The Storm does not put up with that kind of stuff, and Munster looks now to be the complete package. If I had to nominate an AFL equivalent, it would be Diesel Williams. Munster was involved in two tries each of which was worth the price of admission. He is very, very hard to stop.
The game fell between two sides of the CD set of Benjamin Britten’s Dream. The CDs had just arrived. I could recall seeing it in rehearsal at the AO with my older daughter when she was still at school. We had thought that the music was a bit strong – modern – for us, but we had nearly had a seizure laughing at the mechanicals doing their play. This was a time when the Australian Opera was taking risks and putting on great shows. The play was set in the Raj and the orchestra was on stage in a rotunda. This was one of the best shows I have seen.
Since then I have become very at home with Britten’s music and I have seen and listened to Peter Grimes and Billy Budd on many occasions. I had rung the OA artistic director, Moffatt Oxenbould, to ask him which opera I should see on a trip to London, and he had recommended Billy Budd. He said it was a good idea to hear an opera in my own language for a change. That was very good advice, and Billy Budd is now among my favourite operas. So is Peter Grimes. So, on this hearing, I had no trouble adjusting to the style of music. It is a very engaging opera to listen to. After all, the guy who wrote the original script did know how to put on a show.
A musical starring fairies may not be every Storm supporter’s go, but there you are. (And the countertenor may be a bit much for the boys on the terraces. Especially those who saw Farinelli. And heard the crowd shout ‘Long live the blade!’) As it happened, a DVD of Swan Lake starring Natalia Makarova had arrived at my home on the same day. I just played Act II, and that part of Act III where she does the fouettés. There must be something in the make-up or training of Russian ballerinas that enables them to radiate that supple sinuousness from the midpoint of their shoulder blades to the tips of their fingers. It is as if they are taking flight. It is very eerie theatre. It is now nearly fifty years since I saw and marvelled at Moisieva, but that magic still hangs in the air. (Although I did incline to the view that the second cygnet on the left did look to be verging on the plump.)
Well, there may seem to be worlds of difference between Munster, Bottom and Makarova – but I am entertained by all of them, and they have at least one thing in common – after all the bluster, puffing, money and hype – someone has to get out there and lay it all on the line. It’s then that you get the alchemy of live drama and established ritual. And community – or, if you prefer, communion.
While putting this note together, two boxes finally arrived after I had ordered them at the start of the lock-down. One was a box of ten instalments of Ken Burns on Jazz. The other was the complete Arkangel set of Shakespeare’s thirty-eight plays. When I was living in South Yarra, and working at 101 Collins Street, the half hour walk each way would let me get through all the plays in about four months. The process was edifying.
It’s sad that so many people are cowed by their ignorance or by the felt shadow of hierarchy or, God help us, blokiness, into not at least trying to come to terms with so much that is on offer and available at home for next to nothing and with a level of performance and reproduction that our parents could barely have dreamed of. Without Shakespeare or football, cricket or opera, golf or theatre, the Olympics or the novel, I cannot think what my life may have been like. And that’s before we get to wine and food.
It’s as if we all lived in a house that had rear windows with their blinds down behind which you could see Everest, Iguazzu Falls, the Grand Canyon and the Bungle Bungles – and people are too frightened to step outside. They are even too scared just to lift up the bloody blinds. If I might use an epithet that is comfortably within the spelling range of the President of the United States, that is SAD. Downright bloody sad.