Australian Arts

A peculiar backwards mutation

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

It’s not hard to sympathise with Christopher Allen’s recent column in the Review section of the Australian decrying the juxtaposition of great or very good paintings in the London National Portrait Gallery exhibition now in Canberra with the merest examples of celebrity pics. The complex moral grandeur of the John Singer Sargent portrait of Henry James, the vitality of the self-portrait of Joshua Reynolds, the complex interactive energy of Nelson and Lady Hamilton and Sir William Hamilton bathed in the drama of their triangle. The late great Susan Sontag wrote a novel about Hamilton, The Volcano Lover, and she wept when her psych told her there was nothing wrong with getting pleasure from writing or indeed from anything. Christopher Allen is a fine critic and a morally acute one alive to the exalted grandeur of a William Wilberforce brought to life in this exhibition and tireless in the sense of the amazing grace (and faith) necessary to root out slavery captured in Thomas Lawrence’s portrait. But the world of the populaire encircles the world of art as Andy Warhol perceived with some wit and some wickedness. And there can be something exhilarating about the curator who can go from the Greeks, (those pathfinders of every nifty artistic idea or intellectual brilliance that ever occurred to anyone later  – it was Whitehead, the co-author with Bertrand Russell of Principia Mathematica who said, ‘Wherever I go in my mind I see Plato on the way back’) – to Grace Kelly or Elvis Presley. Les Murray’s new – posthumous – book of poems has one that rehearses the alternate versions of what Nelson said as he died in the arms of his lieutenant Hardy. Was it ‘Kiss me, Hardy?’ or ‘Kismet, Hardy’? Clearly it was fate and somehow it was all tied up with love.

A long-ago childhood yields the memory of Vivien Leigh in Lady Hamilton and the man she married Laurence Olivier as the admiral who turned a blind eye to the oncoming enemy. When the Oliviers visited this country after the war, the photographer Athol Shmith – not a Rembrandt but maybe someone who could give Cecil Beaton a run for his money – said, on meeting and photographing them, that they looked like the most beautiful couple you could lay eyes on.

And the Greeks also have their exhibition at the National Gallery in Canberra at the moment and they were the people who had the deepest possible feeling for beauty and the glamour that precedes it and is so entangled with the power of attractiveness.

The laughter of the world and its sheer sense of fun can sometimes seem incommensurate with the necessary gravity though perhaps not the grace.


Richard Sheridan, that feckless Irishman, wrote, as his countryman tended to do, one of the greatest comedies in the English language, The School for Scandal and as he lay in the gutter in his cups and a kindly officer of the law asked, ‘Sir, what is your name?’ Sheridan replied, ‘Wilberforce!’

Sometime later when Sir Robert Peel had established a proper police force he was asked who he would have defend him if he was accused of a capital crime and replied like a shot, thinking of the man who plagued him with his endless talk of greater liberty for Ireland, ‘That blackguard, Dan O’Connell.’

What does this indicate? Maybe nothing more than the intricacies and sidelong jokes that shadow our culture at its mightiest. On one of the streamers at the moment you can see an Eighties film of The Scarlet Pimpernel with Anthony Andrews as Sir Percy Blakeney the pretend fop who rescues beleaguered French aristocrats from the Terror of the French Revolution and the guillotine. Jane Seymour as his love interest and Ian McKellen as the villain Chauvelin. Baroness Orczy’s ripping yarn was the drivelling trash of the turn of the century dished up as superior entertainment for the anklebiters of the postwar period. Leslie Howard made a Thirties movie and there was a TV series of it in the Fifties with Marius Goring but if what we want is more or less elegant writing, plenty of swash and buckle, it will do the trick just as The Prisoner of Zenda will, filmed in the Thirties with Ronald Coleman, Douglas Fairbanks and Raymond Massey. We forget these things at our peril even if they don’t equal Kipling’s Kim which is a book of wisdom as well as a yarn of wonders.

What we are not likely to forget at the moment is Philip Pullman’s ongoing fantasy saga about the girl Lyra, the daemons everyone has as their personal soulful animal companion and the repressive faces of an established Church which could crush all. Pullman’s His Dark Materials is the literary masterpiece of the Harry Potter period, the work which rivals C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the spellbinding tall tale that also has moral depth and spiritual truth. You can listen to the whole box and dice on Audible, read by Pullman leading an ensemble cast of variegated voices. The Golden Compass with Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel is not wholly successful but there is a TV version with Ruth Wilson who is marvellous and Hamilton’s Lin Manuel Miranda as the aviator. Now the latest Pullman The Book of Dust is being shown as a National Theatre Live screening directed by Nicholas Hytner which opens on 30 April.

It’s easy to forget that popular fiction of literary quality adapts to the stage surprisingly well, sometimes in very long form, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child-length i.e. all day.

Before the pandemic this was done in Britain not only with His Dark Materials but with Wolf Hall and with Robert Harris’s Cicero crime stories. It’s a peculiar backwards mutation that just as famous plays which would have been shown on British television are now dished up – transcriptively – as special event cinema so books which could naturally make good TV serials are being presented first on stage. It’ll be interesting to see when Sharmill show the NT Live version of Henry V with Kit Harington from Game of Thrones in July how he stands up against the likes of Olivier and Branagh and Burton.

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