Features Australia

Let thespians tremble

24 August 2019

9:00 AM

24 August 2019

9:00 AM

If you have tears, prepare to shed them now,’ exhorts Mark Antony in Julius Caesar, whipping up the crowd against Caesar’s assassins. But for all his eloquence you wonder whether the tears on that occasion were but (as Shakespeare also wrote) the gentle rain from heaven compared with the present Niagara of thespian wailing from small theatre companies across the nation at being told that they’ve lost their taxpayer-funded subsidies.

About time too. Anyone with critical sense knows that arts grants are a waste of money. For any talent they encourage they keep a hundred times as much mediocrity inflicting its talentless efforts on the public. State patronage is not the way to good art. (Think of the excruciatingly bad ‘comedians’ the ABC foists on its shrinking audiences.) It doesn’t matter whether the art is theatrical or cinematic, visual or musical. History and experience show that public taste, whether ‘serious’ or popular, is the filter that separates enduring artistic achievement from transitory self-indulgence.

This month around 250 smaller ‘arts organisations’ across the country got a ‘Dear John’ by email to say they’d missed out on ‘long-term’ funding from the Australia Council. Mind you, another 162 will still be receiving grants, so there’s some distance to go before the drain on public money is entirely staunched. This year’s ‘cuts’ derive from the $105 million reduction in arts funding decreed by George Brandis in 2016. That was a sensible decision, aesthetically and economically, though to the ‘arts’ establishment, which is almost wholly in the clutches of the Left, it was a typical act of Coalition philistinism. The ‘arts community’, according to the Melbourne Age, still refers to the day the funding was cut as Black Friday, a day that will no doubt live in the same infamy in leftist eyes as 11 November 1975, when the arch-funder himself, Whitlam, was shown the door.

Naturally the Age was quick to find a supposedly treasured local arts enterprise whose creativity would suffer without the grants it had become used to. ‘A Melbourne theatre company about to celebrate its 40th year fears it will become the first public casualty of a nationwide arts funding squeeze,’ it intoned. The company, Theatre Works, which according to its own modish blurb, ‘plays a vital role in the independent theatre ecology of Melbourne’, inhabits a former church hall (wear an overcoat in winter) in right-on St. Kilda.

There it offers a diet of, as we shall see, basically left-wing drivel, with plenty of vulgarity mixed in. For this it has received $471,000 from the taxpayer over the last six years. That’s the ‘sniff of an oily rag’ to Theatre Works ‘chair’ Ros Willett, speaking from her lofty position as partner in an ‘experiential marketing’ firm. Describing public funding as a means of giving Theatre Works productions ‘a place to live’, she told the Age, ‘We’re looking down the barrel at whether we can remain viable.’

Well boohoo. A place to live is something a rising number of people in St. Kilda – forget about plays – do not have. It would be nice to think that money saved on arts tossery might go to help them. On the other hand, there are plenty of wealthy citizens in the district living in gentrified mansions which used to be cheap rooming houses for the poor. Surely Ros and her board can recruit patronage from some of these plutocats, assuming they’re the kind of people who would enjoy the Theatre Works repertoire.

Would enjoy, for example – no, not Julius Caesar, there’s nothing as weighty as that in the repertoire, not even a version with deaf lesbians – but there is Let Men Tremble, ‘a cuttingly-contemporary’ work that ‘throws colonial concepts of sin, sex and the role of women in society into a modern day crucible.’ Messy as that sounds, it’s not as messy as the Theatre Works publicist’s notion of English prose. Let Men Tremble, we read, ‘is a battle cry against the patriarchy, the church and theatre itself. It is a liturgical slut drop (sic) dripping with song, dance and theatrical madness. Get whet,’ the writer enjoins, mysteriously (a dictionary definition of ‘whet’ is helpfully provided, which doesn’t indicate a high expectation of literacy among the theatre’s patrons).

Then there’s The Other Place, a ‘genre-defying work performed by an all-female-identifying cast (which presumably means a penis or two in the actresses’ dressing room). The work of ‘Queer writer Christopher Bryant’, it’s partly about the late Betty Burstall, an old Melbourne arty who founded that city’s La Mama Theatre, the name ‘inspired by’ (i.e. pinched from) a similar establishment in New York.

People Suck, scheduled for later this year, could be seen as representing Ros and the Theatre Works management’s opinion of the grant-withholding Australia Council. ‘Jerks, morons, flakes – let’s face it: PEOPLE SUCK.’ This ‘irreverent, hilarious and all-too-relatable musical comedy’ won the ‘Best of Toronto Fringe’. The heart quails. Surely only Auckland and Johannesburg could be relied on to produce pseudier rubbish.

For light relief there’s Mad as a Cute Snake, ‘a riotous and joyful theatrical adventure about having the courage to be yourself – whatever that may be!’ The local municipality is throwing some ratepayer cash at this one, so perhaps it will see the light of the day when the rest of this year’s programme has to be junked, so to speak, for want of funds.

Productions of this sort can be found in any subsidised theatre in the land; in fact, they’re often the same productions doing the rounds. If audiences don’t flock to them it’s hardly surprising given that they appeal only to the artistes themselves, convinced of their own genius, and a few leftist hangers-on who attend principally to be reinforced in their opinions of how dreadful and racist and ‘homophobic’ and so on their fellow citizens are. Could this avalanche of thespian self-regard be what Tony Burke, shadow minister for the arts, has in mind when he describes ‘independent and small-to-medium-sized arts companies’ as the ‘powerhouse for telling Australian stories’?

Tony looks a rugged man’s man sort of chap. Has he ever actually sat through any of these ‘Australian stories’ at his local community theatre? Or was he just playing politics when he told the Age that if ‘anyone is wondering in years to come why so few stories, images and shows are Australian, the answer will date back to when this government slashed funding to the Australia Council.’

Still, that leads to an idea. Defund the Council itself. Put art back into the market place where it belongs.

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