‘They shall be themselves’

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21.

THE Tempest starts in tumult and ends in calm. Prospero, ejected from his dukedom of Milan 12 years before, is going home. His daughter, Miranda, is to marry the heir to the throne of Naples, ending the enmity between two great houses. Ariel and Caliban, the light and dark creatures enslaved by Prospero on his strange island of exile are set free. Virtue has won over vengeance.

John Bell’s reading of Shakespeare’s late romance shimmers with light, fills the air with music and reaches into the heart with the most wonderful simplicity. Unburdened by contemporary social and political theory, it is concerned with self-discovery. Prospero has paid the price for putting his head in his books and letting his ambitious brother, Antonio, do all the heavy lifting in Milan. In the course of one afternoon – the timeframe is highly explicit – the key players in the story come together and harmony is restored.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson in The Tempest. Photo: Prudence Upton

“My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore and they shall be themselves,” says Prospero near the end. They shall be themselves: it is the most profound of all outcomes.

The Tempest opens with a cracking storm and shipwreck as Prospero’s enemies, handily passing by, are tossed on to the island. Alan Johns’s operatic score, designer Julie Lynch’s wildly billowing curtains and Damien Cooper’s expressive lighting immediately conjure a world of theatrical magic in which anything might happen.

We see two young people fall in love at first sight, regicide attempted, buffoons ape their betters and insanely plot a coup, sorrows endured and wonders beheld. Lipson’s Prospero, orchestrating these events, is less a tyrant than mercurial, slightly distracted professor. For all his powers he is intensely human, admitting “some vanity of my art”, hugging Miranda (Eloise Winestock) fiercely and keeping Ariel (Matthew Backer) captive with something that feels very like an ageing man’s neediness. When Backer stands beside Lipson, looking very much a younger version of him, there is a sense of what Prospero wanted to be – a free spirit unburdened by the cares of office. But that is not possible in the real world.

Ariel is very much at the centre of things, watching gravely and intently as the tasks he has been assigned bring the pieces of the story together. Backer is transcendent, a seamless amalgam of intelligence, other-worldliness, understanding and yearning. And he is given some delicious pieces of business too, making spirit-world light of lifting a log the young Ferdinand finds so heavy and clutching his ears in pain as a badly sung song assaults his senses.

There’s much joy and laughter too in the Stephano-Trinculo subplot, in which Hazem Shammas and Arky Michael come up a treat in commedia dell’arte antics and fantastical clothing and are howlingly funny. In this fine cast Winestock is at present too skittish but has one of the evening’s most delicious moments, Felix Gentle is a sweet-mannered Ferdinand, Damien Strouthos powerfully conveys Caliban’s hurt and Robert Alexander has effortless nobility as Prospero’s old friend Gonzalo. Maeliosa Stafford’s bluff King Alonso and Shammas and Michael doubling as Antonio and Sebastian complete the company.

This Tempest would delight on any occasion but has particular poignancy as Bell farewells the company he founded 25 years ago. In the epilogue Prospero speaks directly to the audience and asks for its good will. He has wanted only to please and needs the audience’s approbation before he can leave his enchanted island. “Let your indulgence set me free,” he says as the lights go out.

On opening night the audience rightly stood as one and turned to Bell, giving him a sustained ovation. It should be noted, however, that next year he directs for Opera Australia and next month appears in Belvoir’s Ivanov. Bell’s revels are not ended, not by a long shot.

The Tempest plays in Sydney only and ends on September 18.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on August 24.

Matilda the Musical and memories of childhood

Matilda the Musical, Lyric Theatre, Sydney

I’M sorry. I make no apology for the following revelation because it’s relevant. I was the intellectual of the Kindergarten class at St Columba’s, Ballarat North. I could read before I started school and thus, when the teacher – not a sympathetic one, I fear – took us endlessly through a huge alphabet chart on the wall (A apple, B bat, C cat and so on) I thought I would go mad. I can still see it, and shall we say this was some small time ago, when we all sat in rows at wooden desks with inkwells. I also had a lazy eye and zero coordination. Being chosen last for rounders was a given, and in the foot races we were forced to take part in I always came last. Unless Helen Sherry was in my group, and then I came second last.

What balm, then, Matilda the Musical is for little girls and boys like me, and for me too these many decades later. Those memories are forever green, unfortunately.

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Tim Minchin so gets that. Take one of his early songs in Matilda, School Song, in which the alphabet is trawled to build up to a climactic: “Just you wait for Phys Ed”. That not only gets Z done and dusted in sensational style, it speaks to the monumental terror so many of us felt when forced to get our heads out of a book and our puny bodies on to the sports field. The humiliation was intense and complete.

The staging of this song piles Pelion on Ossa (classical reference!) by having the senior students played by adults. Remember how big the big kids looked when you started school. It’s that, magnified. All this happens shortly after a rousing opening number in which Matilda’s youngsters boast of just how marvelous their parents’ think they are. They are in for a shock.

Minchin, Dennis Kelly (book), Peter Darling (choreography), Rob Howell (sets and costumes) and Matthew Warchus (original direction of this Royal Shakespeare Company production) create wonders from Roald Dahl’s story. Matilda is exhilarating fun while being very, very brainy. Books, language, courage, resilience and imagination are celebrated as weapons of rebellion against the philistine and the mean-spirited. There’s an inescapable darkness in Matilda but a beautiful spirit of optimism prevails. It’s magical and it has something to say to everyone.

Molly Barwich as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Molly Barwick as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Given the subject matter, Matilda the Musical has to rest its case on small shoulders. There are superb performances from James Millar (silken-voice, despotic headmistsress Miss Trunchbull), Elise McCann (divine Miss Honey) and Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen (Matilda’s ghastly parents, the Wormwoods). The kids are all a delight too, but Matilda has to be the shining centre.

There are four girls playing our heroine in rotation, obviously not five-year-olds but several years short of teenagehood. I have seen two of them, Molly Barwick (10) at a preview and Bella Thomas (11) at last week’s opening night. They were very different and both enchanting. I very much want to see Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin, obviously out of professional interest, and also because it means I get to see Matilda again.

Sylvie Guillem: Life in Progress

Sydney Opera House, August 19.

LET’S not talk in the past tense about Sylvie Guillem. She may be on her farewell tour but she is still one of the greatest of the greats. Until December, when she calls it quits, she is still a dancer and still a superstar.

At 50 she leaves the stage on her own terms with an intensely personal program that shows her as she is now, a peerless exponent of works by some of contemporary ballet’s biggest names. Not for Guillem a nostalgic look back to her storied classical career. That was then. It’s enough that she is known as the most daring, searching and original ballerina of her generation, one whose astounding physical gifts and ferocious individuality were a game-changer in the art.

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan's techne. Photo: Bill Cooper Choreographer; Akram Khan, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Compose;r Alies Sluiter published by Mushroom Music Publishing/BMG Chrysalis Lighting Designer; Lucy Carter, Costume Designer; Kimie Nakano, Dancer; Sylvie Guillem, Musician;s Prathap Ramachandra, Grace Savage, Alies Sluiter,

Sylvie Guillem in Akram Khan’s techne. Photo: Bill Cooper

Not many dancers would announce their retirement by appearing in premieres but Guillem is exploring possibilities to the end. There are two new works and one favourite for her on the Life in Progress bill, which opens with the solo technê by Akram Khan. The title refers to skill or art and Guillem is seen in all her mysterious majesty, whether scuttling insect-like, pawing the ground with those magnificent legs and feet or circumnavigating a circle of light as her body twists around itself: wheels within wheels. There is thunder in the air, a gauzy tree in the centre to which she is inexorably drawn and a strong sense of the numinous. It’s a wonderful work, performed with the luxury of three musicians on stage with Guillem.

Russell Maliphant’s Here & After, also new, sees Guillem for the first time in a duo for two women. It presents Guillem’s qualities of thoroughbred line, whipping and slicing legs and elegant wit so no complaints, even if it’s one of Maliphant’s less substantial works. La Scala soloist Emanuela Montanari is Guillem’s partner, inevitably outshone.

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts in William Forsythe’s Duo2015. Photo: Bill Cooper

William Forsythe’s Duo2015 (originally from 1996) gives Guillem a break while giving a nod to the choreographer’s place in her legend. In 1987 he made In the middle, somewhat elevated for Paris Opera Ballet and exploited Guillem’s explosive strength, awe-inspiring elasticity and supreme elegance. It made a sensation. Duo2015 is a riveting, sinewy pas de deux for two men (Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts, both thrilling) who don’t touch but can’t seem to part. It has something of the eternal quality of Waiting for Godot. Nothing and everything happens.

Guillem returns to Mats Ek’s Bye (2011) as her finale (it was part of her 6000 Miles Away program, seen in Sydney in 2013). In this context Bye feels weightier than before as ordinary life, seen through a doorway, exerts its pull. Guillem is seen at her least glamorous and most vulnerable in this wry, unsentimental exit.

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek's Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

Sylvie Guillem in Mats Ek’s Bye. Photo: Bill Cooper

But then Guillem has never done things like anyone else, including signing off. Life in Progress ends in Tokyo on December 20 but during that month Guillem also joins her beloved Tokyo Ballet for a touring program that includes Maurice Béjart’s popular Boléro. Guillem’s website lists Hiroshima on December 28 as her last performance but I am told – thank you Naomi from Tokyo! – that there will also be a performance on December 30 in Yokohama.

And a further update. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to see Guillem in conversation today at the Sydney Opera House but I am reliably told she said she will exit with Boléro in Tokyo just before the stroke of midnight. That, I have to assume, will be on December 31, seconds before her final year in dance ends. Spectacular.

What a way to go, the dancer on a table – in the middle, somewhat elevated we might say – responding to Ravel’s increasingly ecstatic music as a circle of adoring men pays homage.

What a woman.

Life in Progress ends at the Sydney Opera House on Tuesday. It then travels to Birmingham, Paris, Taipei, Beijing, Singapore, Shanghai, New York, St Pölten (Austria) and Tokyo.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on August 21.

Robert Curran attracts $US1 million gift for Louisville Ballet

IN his first year as artistic director of Louisville Ballet, in the US state of Kentucky, former Australian Ballet principal dancer Robert Curran has attracted a donation of $US1 million to the company. It is believed to be the largest gift received from an individual donor in the company’s 63-year history, says Louisville Ballet director of marketing Natalie Harris. The donor, who is based in New York, wishes to remain anonymous.

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

Robert Curran. Photo: Quentin Jones

The gift was made public on August 14, just days before the anniversary of Curran’s appointment, announced on August 19 last year. To put the impact of the donation into perspective, the annual budget of Louisville Ballet is $US3.5 million. Curran would say only about the donor that the giver “has a clarity of purpose that is as inspiring as the generosity. Our donor insists on anonymity to ensure that the story is about what Louisville Ballet is doing and achieving and nothing else. I can’t tell you how humbling that is.”

The gift will help support a key aspect of his vision for the company, that of connecting art forms, says Curran. “I, we, believe that when you come to a ballet performance you see dance (of course!) but you can also experience live music, visual art, design, technology, literature, dramatic art, and so on,” he said via email. “No other art form can deliver this multiplicity the way a ballet company can.”

The provision of live music is a priority. It has not been a given that all Louisville Ballet performances are presented with an orchestra but that will now be possible (the gift is intended to support artistic activity for two years) and Curran also wants to commission new music for the company. He says details of collaborations will be released shortly.

When I visited Louisville in April this year (read my report here) Curran was staging his first program for the company’s 24 dancers and 15 trainees. Earlier works in the 2014-2015 season had been programmed by his predecessor, Bruce Simpson. Curran’s Director’s Choice mixed bill contained a classical favourite, Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc, Balanchine’s Square Dance and a new work from Australian choreographer Lucas Jervies, What Light Is to Our Eyes. It was made to the first symphony of young American composer Sebastian Chang, which had been commissioned and was given its world premiere by Louisville Orchestra earlier in the year. Jervies’s use of it was a demonstration that Curran meant what he said about wanting to connect with other Louisville arts organisations: even in these early days the intent was clear. And more than intent – Curran had also managed to get permission from the Balanchine Trust to use new designs for Square Dance and commissioned Louisville artist Leticia Quesenberry for the scenic element.

The 2015-2016 season, Curran’s first full year of programming, opens in October with a new production of Coppélia, set in Louisville’s Germantown area in 1917. Curran is choreographing the ballet after the original by Arthur Saint-Léon and it is being designed by local artist Jacob Heustis in what Curran calls “a perfect example of what we are trying to achieve”. Louisville Ballet’s costume master Dan Fedie is creating new costume designs and the score will be played by Louisville Orchestra. (R)evolution, a March 2016 co-production with Louisville Orchestra, will feature works by Adam Hougland (the company’s principal choreographer) and include a world premiere score by Louisville Orchestra’s music director Teddy Abrams, a vibrant young conductor who is still in his 20s.

In April Curran told me how happy he was to be in Louisville. He was “in the right place”, he said. That doesn’t mean, however, he has left home and old friends behind. When we exchanged emails about his exciting news he ended on this note: “Australia is so important to me. I hope I’m doing them proud,” he wrote.

Love and Information, twice

Minetta Lane Theatre, New York, February 9, 2014

Sydney Theatre Company, July 15, 2015

The script for Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information gives little away at first glance. There are many scenes and no stage directions. Characters are not named and only very occasionally is it clear that lines or actions must be assigned to a man or a woman. There are rarely instructions about whether you need one, two or more people to enact the scene. Every now and again a certain setting is implied but mostly the characters could be anywhere. Most scenes can be achieved with only two speakers or even one but potentially there can be more. Sometimes. The choices open to the director, in other words, are multitudinous.

Sydney Theatre Company-Malthouse Theatre's Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre’s production of Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

But there are also strict parameters. Churchill allows some flexibility about scene order but only within individual “acts” (Love and Information runs without a break for something under two hours). There are seven of these sections, each of which has seven scenes, and the play ends with an immovable final extra scene. Every scene in the main body of the text must be played, plus at least one “Depression”, a fragment of thought (there are 10 or so available) that can be placed anywhere. That means the minimum number of scenes is 51, although there can be more than 70 if a director chooses several Depressions and some or all of more than a dozen optional scenes.

It’s a fascinating combination of freedom and precision, and a structure that brilliantly illuminates one of Churchill’s central ideas. In Love and Information there is almost constant tension between certainty and uncertainty – what we think and what may be the truth; between feeling and fact. Not that we can necessarily trust everything that’s presented as gospel, or have complete faith in everything we are sure we know. In scene after scene there are secrets, deflections, illusions, evasions, misconceptions and revelations. In Wedding Video, for instance, a person can recall only the things that were recorded on that day and nothing else. In Affair, a person struggles to reveal to a friend an infidelity she knows about, one that closely affects the friend. As if happens, the friend has known for ages. Years. More chillingly, in Torture there is the following exchange: “He’ll get to where he’ll say anything.” “We’re not paid extra for it to be true.”

Churchill’s vignettes whizz by like tickertape news flashes, some as short as a few seconds, touching on information and the reception and exchange of it in many guises: scientific data, official reports, personal records, conversation, flirting, arguing, religious belief, gossip, memories and – most potently – memory itself. The accumulation of ideas is exhilarating and if some scenes fall a little flat, well, there’s another along in just a moment. For the most part, though, Love and Information zings along with the kind of wit and economy most writers can only dream of. Here, in its entirety, is the scene titled Sex:

What sex evolved to do is get information from two sets of genes so you get offspring that’s not identical to you. Otherwise you just keep getting the same thing over and over again like hydra or starfish. So sex essentially is information.

You don’t think that while we’re doing it do you?

It doesn’t hurt to know it. Information and also love.

If you’re lucky.

 

What, though, to do with all this stuff?

Love and Information premiered at London’s Royal Court in 2012 in a dazzling production directed by James Macdonald with a set by Miriam Buether. That production was restaged in New York at the Minetta Lane Theatre, which is where I saw it early last year. This year Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre joined forces for a co-production, a significantly different one directed by Kip Williams and designed by David Fleischer.

The play is hugely demanding on cast and crew. Not only are there dozens of short scenes, Churchill instructs that each involves new characters, about 100 in all. Every scene is written as a discrete entity and Macdonald’s production emphasised this disconnection. Beuther’s set, a stark white cube with lines suggesting graph paper, was rendered utterly invisible after each scene. As if by magic (a super-speedy shutter apparently) the bright light was gone and darkness engulfed the space. There was not a flicker of movement to be seen on stage. Seconds later the shutter opened in an instant – more magic – and a new scene appeared. The swiftness of changes, often reasonably elaborate, was extraordinary; almost hallucinatory. (The effect has been likened to a series of snapshots.) First you saw it; then you didn’t; then you saw something completely different.

There was a strong sense of the laboratory, with the gleaming white, the tightly circumscribed space and the implacable, impersonal blackout. The characters were pitilessly under the microscope as they tried to connect with one another in this highly controlled environment.

Williams’s production needed a different solution for the open spaces of the Malthouse and STC’s Wharf 1. Fleischer’s fluid set of large white blocks is lightly suggestive of a maze, although the elements are moved so frequently (and vividly – that swimming pool!) to create other environments that the notion of an experiment is much less strong than with Beuther’s design. The lights might be lowered as the actors move the blocks but they could be seen going about the business of altering the landscape. This flow between spaces, and between actor as character and actor as stagehand, is inescapably part of the piece.

And – this is important I think – there are only eight actors in Williams’s production where there were 16 in Macdonald’s. Williams’s men and women become very familiar and interesting to us as the play progresses. We see them a lot as they come and go, sometimes very swiftly indeed on their way to their next costume change, and Williams also chooses to populate some scenes with more than just the required speakers. Even though the actors are always playing a new part, this is very definitely a group rather than a random set of individuals. I was also very struck by one of Williams’s choices near the end of the production where he lets several scenes flow into one another in complete contrast to Macdonald’s total observation of demarcation between scenes. In the STC-Malthouse production a natural history museum amusingly complete with specimens of early ancestors and a sombre graveyard add associations and atmospherics to scenes written with no suggestion of them.

Ursula Yovich and Harry Greenwood in STC-Malthouse's Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Ursula Yovich and Harry Greenwood in STC-Malthouse’s Love and Information. Photo: Pia Johnson

Perhaps the easiest way to define the key difference between the productions is to say that Macdonald made one observe how difficult it is to achieve true communication despite the many tools at our disposal, and how fascinating that is to study, and that Williams made one aware of how deeply people need to communicate, no matter how imperfectly they do it. Macdonald’s production looked elegant, sophisticated, cool, distancing. It was a technical tour de force. Williams’s is warmer and more touching. Macdonald leaned towards the information side of the ledger, Williams is drawn to love. There is great value in both and each gave me different insights into the play.

E.M.Forster’s famous lines from Howards End come to mind: “Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest. Live in fragments no longer.”

Love and Information continues at Sydney Theatre Company until August 15.

On View: Live Portraits

Performance Space at Carriageworks, Sydney, July 17

HOW can we know the dancer from the dance, asked W.B. Yeats. It’s a question embedded in Sue Healey’s absorbing On View: Live Portraits, a piece that incorporates the moving image, live performance and, for 10 minutes at the beginning, the dancer as museum object.

When the doors to Bay 20 at Carriageworks are opened the audience, free to wander at will, discovers five dancers placed separately around the dimly lit space. They perform some dance actions but there’s a remote quality about the movement. It’s as if the performers need to wrap themselves in an invisible protective shield.

Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock and Shona Erskine

Raghav Handa, Martin del Amo, Nalina Wait, Benjamin Hancock and Shona Erskine

The audience is then seated for the main event, a 60-minute dance work that invites one to contemplate character, personality, differences between the mediums of film and live performance in creating portraiture and to assess the combination. Or, to be honest, you can skip the theorising and just luxuriate in the company of Martin del Amo, Shona Erskine, Benjamin Hancock, Raghav Handa and Nalina Wait, in the flesh and up on five large screens, your enjoyment doubled. (The piece has been seen in a different version, with these performers, in Melbourne at Dance Massive, as On View: Quintet.)

Healey knows how to pick a dancer. These are wonderfully mature, individual artists. As we see on screen and in life, Wait is a strong and voluptuous mover with a highly expressive face; Erskine is elegant and enigmatic; you will likely never really know what del Amo is thinking but whatever it is, he intrigues; Handa is sensuous and full of juice; and Hancock is fabulously other-worldly, exotic and surprising. Or are these performances not to be confused with intrinsic nature? The dance or the dancer?

The screen imagery is arresting and gorgeously captured – Judd Overton is director of photography – and may be seen at various art galleries around Australia later this year and next. There is, however, nothing to match the presence of the performers. Each makes an impression as an individual but Healey doesn’t leave it there. At the end the five come together, dressed alike and moving as one in a gently ecstatic whirl. The affirmation of community is extremely beautiful.

On View: Live Portraits would be welcome at any time but is particularly good programming at Carriageworks right now. It sits brilliantly alongside 24 Frames per Second, the wonderful large-scale exhibition devoted to dance and the moving image (which I wrote about here). But while 24 Frames per Second runs until early August, On View has a run of just a week. It deserves more.

Ends July 25.

A version of this review first appeared in The Australian on July 21.

On reading the draft guidelines for The National Program for Excellence in the Arts

I DO hope I’ve got this right. Senator George Brandis is appropriating about $100 million, give or take, from the Australia Council for the Arts so he can give it to applicants approved directly and personally by himself. It’s what the guidelines say, kind of. The language is not always as direct as one would wish, but the implications are there: “The final amount of any funding and length of funding term will be assessed by the Ministry for the Arts and independent assessors, subject to Program budgetary limits. Recommendations will then be made to the Minister for the Arts.”

The independent assessors will, of course, be selected by the Ministry for the Arts, which doesn’t sound incredibly independent, but perhaps that’s just me. The killer is that final sentence, classically expressed in the passive voice. After the assessments, who exactly makes the recommendations? Can’t tell, although presumably you’re supposed to take it on trust that it’s those members of Senator Brandis’s own ministry and the assessors chosen by that ministry. And then after those recommendations are received by the minister, who makes the final call? One must assume it’s the minister, even though a definite statement on that is delicately omitted.

It’s not a good look. What qualifications does Senator Brandis have, I might ask, to carry out such an important task? What are his arts credentials? What has he seen (when not carrying out his undoubtedly heavy duties as Commonwealth Attorney-General), where has he gone, what has he studied, what are his tastes? What, in short, does George Brandis find excellent? (Or, if he happened to get bored or promoted or rolled or whatever else can happen in politics, his successor?)

It’s possible to find some clues in what is an often vaguely expressed document. (“ … applicants should keep in mind that the program seeks to support projects that deliver national outcomes and deliver a diverse range of quality projects in each of the program streams.” Empty bureaucratic-speak at its finest.) It would appear the Senator thinks the Australia Council has been funding too much arty-farty navel-gazing stuff for his liking. One of the program’s objectives is to “strengthen Australia’s reputation as a sophisticated and artistic nation with a confident, outward-focused arts sector’’. It goes without saying the italics are mine.

Individuals need not apply. (Even if they are really excellent?) They are specifically excluded from the process, those mad experimental teat-sucking wierdos, and so, one assumes, must seek funds from the depleted Australia Council coffers, from whatever is left after all the major organisations have received their untouchable grants.

I particularly like the dot point in the Assessment Criteria under the Quality heading: Relevance and likely appeal to audiences and communities. Who the hell knows what will “likely appeal”? As William Goldman so famously and sagely wrote in his Adventures in the Screen Trade: “Nobody knows anything.” That was in 1983, and it remains true.

I give you The New York Times, May 26, 2015, in which Michael Paulson wrote that while sales and attendance records were set in a bumper season, the resulting bounty was by no means divided equally. Indeed, “about three-quarters of shows fail financially”, and that’s not just in the season just gone. That’s every year. Let’s just say that again. In the most audience-aware, audience-friendly market in the universe, 75 per cent of all shows lose their entire investment. Does an investor set out to lose all that dough? Not likely. No, it’s just that no one knows anything. A musical about Mormons going to spread the word in Africa? A play about an autistic boy? A musical about a lesbian whose father was secretly gay? Who knew that The Book of Mormon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Fun Home would be so excellent? (I can say this definitively because I have seen all three.)

I fear that this likely audience appeal – a criterion repeated under Access as “audience appeal and demand” – means that work that has already proved itself popular will be favoured. But surely something that already possesses audience appeal and demand isn’t so much in need of public funding? Just thinking out loud here.

And on we go. The guidelines make fascinating – if dolorous – reading from the heading onwards. What is this excellence? I go to the theatre constantly and have done so for more than three decades, and see good and often great work at all levels and in many different and often surprising places. Under Senator Brandis’s plan many of the companies responsible for this work will be forced to vie for funds from the reduced Australia Council budget or apply to the NPEA and put themselves at the mercy of one man. This, before any work has had a chance of proving itself in the one place it counts: before an audience.

Culture isn’t neat and tidy, nor should it be. Things will fail. Work will enrage. It will also teach, enlarge, embolden, inspire and alter thinking. It’s just that we can’t tell before the event which things will do what. We have to take the plunge.

In her recent Platform Paper The Arts and the Common Good, published in May, Katharine Brisbane wrote: “No amount of calculation or modelling can guarantee success and it is arrogant of us to claim it.” Senator Brandis proposes to take $100 million-plus of our money – not his money, our money – and dole it out at his sole discretion in the name of some untested vision of excellence, whatever that word means to the minister. Arrogant. Yes, that’s the appropriate word. Arrogant beyond belief.

Submissions to the Senate inquiry into the NPEA closed on Friday but feedback is invited by the Ministry for the Arts until 5pm (AEST) on July 31. You might want to let Senator Brandis know what you think.

nationalexcellenceprogram@arts.gov.au