Australian Arts

Maggie Smith

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

16 October 2021

9:00 AM

And so we look like being able to see live performance again in the two biggest cities in Australia: Sydney (which produced Patrick White and Christina Stead) and Melbourne (the birthplace of Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer.) Not only has this been the consequence of the somewhat astonishing rise to the New South Wales premiership of Dominic Perrottet a conservative Catholic who moves like a hurricane, but he has appointed as the head of the Premier’s department that old Riverview boy Michael Coutts-Trotter.

And Dan Andrews’ Melbourne seems moving to catch up with voices in the government saying it’s elected representatives who should be calling the tune about ending the lockdown and opening the pubs and theatres.

The Micks have always had their moments in the great Southland of exile that was forcibly settled by a lot of turbulent Irish as Robert Hughes delineated with the power of genius in The Fatal Shore and which served as the background to Tom Keneally’s finest novel, very much in the Patrick White tradition, Bring Larks and Heroes.

The earliest representative of the Catholic church in the Botany Bay settlement was a man called William Ullathorne, no Irishman but a descendant of Thomas More who wrote Utopia, defied Henry VIII over the marriage to Anne Boleyn and the break with Rome and who was depicted in A Man for All Seasons. Robert Speaight, the actor who created the role of Thomas Becket in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral, played him in the JC Williamson’s production at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre in 1962.

Ullathorne, in his Sydney days, was known somewhat unflatteringly as ‘ego solus’ but he went on to become the first Catholic Bishop of Birmingham.

Back in the days when the English used to amuse themselves talking like Dickens characters he once said to Cardinal Manning – a convert from Anglicanism of such grandeur that he was attacked by Lytton Strachey in Eminent Victorians – ‘I sir was preachin’ the Gospel with a mitre on me `ead when you, sir, was an `eretic.’

Barry Jones, a Christian though not a Catholic, turned 89 last week and this was the occasion for a Zoom celebration which drew bipartisan support with Malcolm Turnbull among others reading poems in honour of the man who went from being a Pick a Box quiz show champion to being a minister in the Hawke/Keating government. A Liberal warlord at the time remarked of him, ‘I’ve always had a lot of time for the Minister of Scientology.’ He was as easy to send up because he was such an enthusiast and such an idealist. Who but Barry Jones could, on retiring, quote John Adams, ‘I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.’ Sometime during the Keating years he presented John Howard with a copy of War & Peace and when Howard said, ‘What are you giving me this for, Barry?’ he replied, ‘Because if you ever become Prime Minister you’ll be a better one for having read it.’ His memory can seem older than anyone’s because as a nine-year-old 80 years ago he would go up to Sir Isaac Isaacs, Australia’s first native-born Governor-General, on the tram and ask him about the travails of Federation forty years earlier.

And he was open to a contemporary avant garde novel like Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual as he was to Homer and Tolstoy. His Dictionary of World Biography is still a more economical guide to its subject than Wikipedia.

But the unlocking of Australia, if it works, will mean people are not confined to reading War & Peace as some fraction of people have done during the virus (and George Pell did during his bizarre incarceration): it’s a book to sustain the soul during a time of boredom and separation and threat.

But it’s like a resurrection to think that come New Year’s Eve Sydneysiders will be watching the last outing of Gale Edwards’ Nazi Germany La Boheme or to dream and fancy that Melbourne will see the production by one of its greatest dramatic products, Elijah Moshinsky, of La Traviata with Stacey Alleaume as Violetta and the Australian Premier of Olivier Py’s Lohengrin with that immensely distinguished bass Ferruccio Furlanetto in the cast.

So much can be done virtually. It’s a noble thing that Alan Joyce of Qantas (not an Irishman who elicits automatic assertions of magnanimity) should be bringing audiences ballet for nothing, most recently Maina Gielgud’s Giselle. But think of the actual thrill for a thousand Melburnians of seeing the real thing, the miracle of what the feet can do on stage.

Miracles are promised from House of the Dragon – returning to the magic of the streamers – which is the prequel of Game of Thrones. It’s hard to forget the towering displeasure a few years ago at some small alternative theatre event – of that very distinguished Game of Throner Charles Dance when a fan of the series who was also a theatre critic referred to the show, innocuously enough as ‘trash’, meaning amiable entertainment. ‘Trash?’ boomed that imperious voice. ‘It’s not trash. It’s drama, it’s literature, it’s art.’

Well, each to his poison.

If you want the celebration of an unambiguous literary masterpiece bear in mind that 5 October marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, such a masterpiece of fiction that the New Yorker devoted a whole issue to it. Vanessa Redgrave did it on stage and that Melbourne girl Zoe Caldwell won a Tony for her portrayal. It brought Maggie Smith an Oscar for her incarnation of the Edinburgh school marm devoted so tragically to her ‘gels.’

If you would like to listen to this flawless work by a Catholic convert, Miriam Margoyles has recorded every word of it in deadly accurate Scots. It’s also a role that would repay the particular histrionic skills of that Sydney girl with a Catholic background Nicole Kidman.

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