Lethal Indifference (Wharf 1, Sydney)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 23 February 2018

A woman steps off her balcony into her bedroom and starts listing the kinds of things women living in fear of violence routinely do to stay safe. What is your escape plan? Have you hidden a knife in the cake tin? Has he put a tracking device in my child’s teddy bear?

The Woman (Emily Barclay) has drawn the audience into a mindset where constant vigilance and safety checklists are an everyday part of life. All women do it to varying degrees to guard against randomly violent men all the time, but it’s magnified for the clients at the family violence legal service where the Woman works.

Lethal Indifference (a Sydney Theatre Company production at the Wharf 1 Theatre directed by Jessica Arthur) unfolds as the unnamed Woman delivers a one-and-a-half hour monologue as she moves around the bedroom. The claustrophobic domestic scene initially seems a perplexing choice, then you realise it only emphasises the way violence infiltrates every nook and cranny of women’s lives. There is no safe place.

Barclay, the actor, is unmistakably heavily pregnant, and she changes clothes, cools herself in front of a fan and checks her phone as if she’s readying herself for bed. But she tells the audience a bedtime tale that’s a horror story rather than the kind of fairytale she might want to read to her soon-to-be-born child. Bit by bit, she recounts the fate of Reema, an Indian woman brought to Australia by her taxi-driver husband. He locked her up, raped her and, when she fled, hunted her down and brutally murdered her.

Barclay performs engagingly and intimately, making the most of every moment, taking us effortlessly here and there, from the Coroner’s Court to the office where she works in communications pitching cases to journalists and tweeting hashtag violence against women, to the final death scene in another bedroom. The play, by the much awarded playwright Anna Barnes, is written in the kind of stream of consciousness, loosely structured, personal essay style that is popular now.

Small details – buying a snack in a servo station, witnessing a couple fight over a phone, a day handing out leaflets for the Greens where she details her outfit of frilly socks and shirt and heels – are offset with statistics about family violence and the unfolding story of Reema’s efforts to escape. It’s the sort of style that many people love – and Barclay honours every moment and detail – but, when it is not done with great skill, it’s a style that (for this reviewer at least) can feel overly mannered, even when it is pretending not to be.

The layering of small detail after detail, the purposeful mixing of the consequential and deadly with the frivolous and banal, the insertion of the narrator into the centre of the story, all these things are meant to convey a sensitive, ethical and feeling witness. It attempts immediacy and verisimilitude but in the process,  the craft – the deliberate and careful sifting and choosing of which detail and why – can seem buried.

Barnes’ play makes the good point that male entitlement and the need to control exists on a spectrum. From the Labor boys who shove her off ‘their’ handing out spot, to the private detective and Ajay’s squad of friends who hunt Reema down. The problem is that if it’s every man and every women, if it’s all of us, how do you make that #yesallmenandwomen story dramatic? How do you make us care about this one woman’s story? How can we understand this one particular monster?

We’ve been talking about male violence for a while now, and this play is a significant part of the conversation. It’s a systemic problem and it’s a structural problem, as Barnes points out. Barclay gives it everything, but making a riveting drama out of a systemic problem takes enormous skill.

Photo: Prudence Upton


Mamma Mia! (Capitol Theatre, Sydney)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 16 February 2018

ABBA are too often dismissed as those comely Nordic popstars who defined Eurovision camp while singing of heterosexual love and heartache. To do so forgets the group’s music has only been outsold by those other four megastars of pop, The Beatles. And ABBA arguably left an even greater imprint on pop. Madonna, Kylie, Taylor – ABBA is all over all of them. Like the Swedish seasons, they could do darkly melancholic as well as they could do light (What’s The Name Of The Game? The Winner Takes It All), particularly after ABBA’s married pairs consciously uncoupled.

The reasons for ABBA’s success are not unlike that other famous Swedish brand of four upper case letters. Walking into an IKEA display room is like being in an ABBA song: everything is beautiful, clean, perfectly placed and infused with dashes of Swedish folk notes. But the effect of pared back simplicity is painstakingly achieved with the carefully layered placement of hundreds of elements. ABBA made not so much a wall of sound, as a room of sound that, like an IKEA showroom, could sometimes seem to contain the whole world.

But that’s where the analogy ends. For while about five percent of the IKEA catalogue is built solidly and beautifully enough to stand up in twenty or thirty years, the ratio is reversed for ABBA’s back catalogue. The word ‘perfect’ is carelessly tossed around these days, a mostly meaningless phrase that seems to function as an antidote to a world of petty meanness. But ABBA really did do perfect pop songs. Lots of them. And ones that aren’t easily recreated at home, which is really the best reason to see this latest production of Mamma Mia! (touring Australia and now playing in Sydney).

This latest Australian production has Natalie O’Donnell as Donna, mother of the bride-to-be Sophie – the character O’Donnell played in the original Australian production in 2001. Donna was left heartbroken and washed up on a Greek Island 20 years ago by Sam (Ian Stenlake). When he returned and found out she’d gone off with another other man, he went home, married and became an architect more successful at building homes than keeping his own home together.

He’s back on the island with the two men Donna consoled herself with all those years ago – London banker Harry (Phillip Lowe) and wandering commitment-phobic writer Bill (Josef Ber) – because Sophie read her mother’s old diary and wants to find out just who her father is. Anybody could be that guuuuy… (See what I mean? You can’t spend a few hours lost in the ABBA oeuvre without picking up a gorgeous thing you didn’t know you wanted or even needed: before you know it it’s in your trolley and you’re at the checkout making it yours).

It’s the older cast members who really inhabit ABBA’s songs. Jayde Westaby as Tanya, Donna’s four-time married friend and uber cougar, is phenomenal. Her take on Does Your Mother Know? is a masterclass for the cast’s younger members. The production’s gender flipping of the song (the original has an older man singing ‘you’re so hot/teasing me’ to an underage girl) pulls it back from the wrong side of awfulness. Here, Westaby is well matched by beach bum Pepper (Sam Hooper).

Alicia Gardiner (Offspring’s nurse Kim Akerholt) plays Rosie, the third member of the Donna and the Dynamos trio. When Sam’s arrival sends Donna into a spin, her two friends console her with a gorgeously funny take on Chiquitita. In fact the best numbers of the night – Dancing QueenSuper Trouper – are so good because, like ABBA, they make the most of beautiful female harmonies overlaid with that room full of sound.

Sarah Morrison, as bride-to-be Sophie, makes Honey Honey as sweet as can be, but her musical theatre delivery style often seems to be from another production. There’s an old-fashioned trill to her voice that – on the best interpretation – is matched by Sophie’s old-fashioned fantasy of a white wedding.

Mamma Mia! is all about the wedding and love matches – the Bechdel test has never been failed so badly. While the three older women all suggest there’s more than one way of being in that demographic – single parent, serially married and defiantly unhitched – the unhappily unmarried must eventually marry. But not before Donna wards off some slut shaming: ‘I haven’t slept with hundreds of men’. Or before ‘headbanger Harry’, the original weed fiend who spent his middle years as an investment banker, finds love with another man. Sophie, as seems her birthright, is left free from matrimonial chains, for the time being.

The costumes stay on the right side of lurid – a little bit Priscilla, a little bit Ibiza. The band brings out the big sound for the big tunes – Dancing QueenWaterloo – but at times if felt as though it was holding back, like it was the house band for the gambling cruise ship Sophie’s beau, Sky, wants to circle the island. ABBA’s power was that their music was so forcefully seductive it could compel millions of people to move with a few opening bars. With a bit of rock music, everything is fine/You’re in the mood for a dance That’s why we come.

Weddings aside, Mamma Mia! is also, in the end, a story about mothers and daughters. At the hens’ night Donna turns the love song Super Trouper into a love song for her daughter ‘cause somewhere in the crowd there’s you’. If you have one in your life, take your own Chiquitita (see what ABBA does to you?).


Tribunal (Carriageworks, Sydney)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 18 January 2018


A didgeridoo plays, a dark ceiling is lit with starry effects, a simple Afghan mat is laid out, a few chairs sit either side. Tall stacks of brown filing boxes are neatly lined up backstage. Aunty Rhonda Dixon Grovenor, a Darug/Yuin elder, walks on stage and maps out the peoples of the Sydney region. She has just established her authority to welcome us to her country. And she tells us she’s ashamed of the way we treat people who come here looking for refuge: “It’s not our culture to treat people this way”.

Tribunal, conceived and produced by Fairfield-based theatre company PYT 1, asks us to imagine what a truth and reconciliation commission presided over by an Aboriginal elder would look like. As Aunty Rhonda welcomes charismatic Afghani performer Mahdi Mohammadi to the stage, there’s a touching coming together of two cultures as he drapes an Afghani scarf over her resplendent possum coat. Their conversation is interrupted when a Department of Immigration functionary (actor and academic Paul Dwyer) takes over to re-enact the bloodless real-life interrogation Mahdi faced when he first arrived in Australia by boat.

The Department’s tick-a-box questions – a format that already assumes criminality, and is embedded with limited presumptions that can’t possibly capture the complexity of a globally-lived life – come from the actual transcript of the long interview Mahdi underwent. Aunty Rhonda takes over again, drawing out the Mahdi’s much more interesting story. A member of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, his family of 15 fled to Russia when he was a child. After watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre on television, his father brings the family home, believing the US would defeat the Taliban and that they might finally be safe.

Life in an Afghanistan Mahdi has no real memory of turns out to be a fettered one, where male and female university students aren’t supposed to mix. The boys risk punishment anyway when they drop their phone numbers on the desk of girls they like. Mahdi forms a theatre group whose shows are based around Hazara women. He realises now it was a ‘feminist’ theatre group. His performers are charged with crimes against sharia law and Mahdi flees in fear of his life.

Other stories are told. PYT’s artistic director, Karen Therese, performs a verbatim monologue – full of unaffected ums, ahs and long pauses – that is the real-life testimony of her friend, an Australian human rights lawyer. He tried but failed to help another family whose boy was sexually abused in detention. As he calls them “my family”, the lawyer’s emotionally porous borders reveal the source of his own post-traumatic stress and regret.

A former Red Cross worker Katie Green performs strongly, detailing the hardest job she ever has had – working as a Melbourne-based refugee caseworker. She starts by giving voice to words of Afghan asylum seeker Khodayar Amini, who set fire to himself as his bridging visa was about to revoked. She then relays the tragi-comedy of going through a carwash on her way to the airport with an Aldi bag stuffed with $30,000 worth of notes, divided into envelopes for the 70 asylum seekers whose arrival in Melbourne the department had just given Red Cross notice of.

It’s an emotional and, at times, difficult show to watch. It’s also hard to imagine a more important topic for theatre to tackle right now. It might seem churlish to take issue with the dramatic structure of the play – one where Mahdi the human being, for all his energy and likeability, is squeezed somewhere between the Immigration Department’s criminal narrative, and the heroic halo refugee advocates want to place on his head. Green recounts an awkwardly didactic story of Mahdi’s visit to Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, where he is horrified to see local men pretending to eat out of a vagina sculpture. In this sense, Mahdi’s character on stage seems unable to live as he may want to as a human being: as a complex, ordinarily flawed individual, someone with the sort of freedom that he – and we – might really want to fight for.

These critisims aside though, this play is at least beginning to tell stories we are otherwise oblivious to. In a world where millions are glued to reality television shows depicting faux detentions, sadistic big brothers, made-up survival games and confected deprivations on glossy islands, this show gives us the real thing.


My Name is Jimi (Sydney Festival)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 16 January 2018

“No. No, they still remain in Europe.” They are seven of the most powerful words spoken in My Name is Jimi, and they are spoken quietly by the grandmother of the show’s star, Jimi Bani. You might know Bani from characters he plays in Redfern Now, The Straits or Mabo (where he played the title role of Eddie Mabo). This time he is playing himself, the man in line to become the ninth chief of the tribe of Wagadagum, from Mabuiag Island in Torres Strait. Along with his grandmother and mother, he has brought two of his brothers and eldest son along to tell stories of their home.

His grandmother Petharie Bani’s words come after the tale Jimi tells about her adventures with his grandfather, chief Ephraim Bani. His grandfather was something of a polymath – a painter, filmmaker, composer, dramatist and pearl diver – and he also wrote down the island’s language and went to Canada where became a master of linguistics. Petharie and Ephraim also went to Europe, where they saw the tools and masks that had been taken from the Island by anthropologists such as Alfred Court Haddon. They were told the objects would be returned if Ephraim built a safe place to keep them, and so he came home and built a cultural arts centre on the island. They are still waiting.

It would be wrong from this description to imagine the show (a Queensland Theatre production) is weighty and earnest; this story, which takes up much of the play’s middle, is offset with constant humour and lightness. The evening opens when Jimi and his besuited brothers walk on carrying super 8 cameras – his father would make films of the family when Jimi was a kid, splicing their pictures with pictures of the same scene without them in it, making them disappear. Jimi quickly has the audience’s guard down by doing the same trick with us – making us appear on the screen at the back of the stage before being replaced with a scene of empty seats.

Jimi and his brothers then break out dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band’s Shake your Booty – Jimi, while not a small man, glides so smoothly he would make Hugh Jackman look like a klutz. When he comes to the story of the stolen artefacts, Jimi does a very funny imitation of the Cambridge-educated Haddon wearing a funny academic gown and hat while dissecting the islander’s own costume. Haddon’s lecture on the island culture, prattling on about “cheerful friendly folk” and claiming the island teenagers are using MySpace in 2018, show his insights are no better – and perhaps worse – than a holidaying newspaper travel writer.

The show is visually stunning. Small dioramas of the island are placed at the back of the stage, and Bani and the cast use the cameras to project scenes and stories from them onto the stage’s screen. There is a bedtime story about the island girl who cried too loudly and was taken by a tall skinny monster with diamond-shaped legs (another story about something precious being stolen). When Jimi introduces a song about how the clouds tell them what day fish will be plentiful in a certain spot, the family sing while his brothers tell the story with the cameras and diorama, and we are brought into the island world of long white clouds and fish underwater.

Jimi’s grandfather and father are now gone – the stories of their loss that are dealt with briefly and might have been more powerful being confronted with more directly. Jimi explains it’s his job to keep the island’s fire – its culture – burning. When Jimi’s son starts taking phone calls on stage and becomes increasingly lost in a digital world, Jimi’s brothers tell a story about an island boy who looked across the horizon and daydreamed about land across the water. Jimi’s grandfather warned him that technology was about to take over, and that they must learn to use it wisely. Jimi listened to his grandfather and his show does just that. We are lucky that Jimi has asked us to listen to him too.


Whist (Carriageworks, Sydney)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 15 January 2018

Enter the Whist performance space at Carriageworks and guides invite you to move around and inspect the sculptures placed around the room. You walk around touching black and cream, marble-like material shaped into cubes and strangely curved objects. Some appear partially submerged under the floor.

The show is created by the UK-based experimental dance company AΦE in consultation with a psychoanalyst from the Freud Museum, so perhaps they are supposed to be visual representations of the unconscious, the ego, and superego. Who’s to say? It doesn’t particularly matter, because they really only take on a meaning when the next part of the show begins.

The guides return and fit you with goggles and headphones and you move around again looking for the real-life counterparts to the objects that pop up on your screen. Find a match and a 360-degree film starts, each one based on stories from Freud’s real life case studies. As you look around the scenes, the eye set monitors your eye movements.

I was reminded of the eye tracking technology used by online sites, as well as the scenario imagined in Veronica Roth’sDivergent novels, where teenagers are put through a virtual reality test that gauges their responses to determine the tribe they will belong to. You’ll be relieved to know the stakes aren’t as high here, but if like me you tend to an anxious disposition you might feel unnerved that the usual voyeurism of theatre is now heading in both directions. As you look around the Whist artists and analysts are, apparently, looking into your mind.

What you don’t look at is apparently as important as what you do look at. In a decayed room, a picture on the wall shows a reclining nude: if I look too long at the triangle of pubic hair will I be diagnosed as a weirdo? If I don’t look, will I come out as a repressed prude? What if I linger too long on that blood? Will they think I’m a serial killer in the making? The immersive scenes are curious and low level disturbing, and they also pass swiftly – I could easily have stayed longer in this strange world. At the end a number pops up on your screen. You return your headphones and goggles to guides, who have now become fortune tellers standing behind a bench laid out with cards. You pick one, write your number on the back so you can later follow the directions to a website to find your reading.

As it turns out I have some issues around … triangles and square frames. I wasn’t too surprised, but I wished the psychoanalysts could have followed me after the show to diagnose further deep disturbances. Visiting the bathroom I promptly lost my card and my cloakroom pass. I briefly panicked until I realised it was just really really dark and I found them again.

Outside, I immersed myself in the Saturday morning markets. I was so busy focussing on the goats milk halloumi stand and the bunches of dahlias for sale, I didn’t see the hole in the ground. I tripped and fell face down, traumatising every member of inner city Sydney’s aging hipster population with a flash of Saturday morning underpants.

At the train station I realised I’d left my travel pass locked in the car, now parked at home. Even without a professional diagnosis I’m clearly currently performing well above average in the human mess competition. But don’t let that deter you: this show is a treat for the voyeur in all of us. And it will happily feed the narcissist that – if we’re being honest – lurks somewhere in most all of us too.


Circus Oz Model Citizens (Prince Alfred Square Parramatta)

This review was first published on Daily Review on 14 January 2018

The opening scenes of Circus Oz’s Model Citizens poke fun at suburban conformity. The cast dresses in a uniform hospital blue colour, three members return as ballet-dancing sheep, and it wraps up with a satirical song by Freyja Edney about buying into organic food and tolerating diversity but not wanting it in ‘my backyard’. Entering the scene early on is the pink haired, tattooed non-conformist Mitch Jones, who is stripped of his colourful outfit by the rest of the cast and dragged into the blue team, where the life of a citizen means being tied in literal and metaphorical knots and straight jackets.

The cast play childlike adults, leaping from and playing with giant domestic objects full of sinister danger – irons, matchboxes, knives and scissors. This act belongs to Jones, with beautiful set pieces by Annalise Moore and Jarred Dewey, who play a gorgeous alpha couple who dance and loop around each other on a pair of giant steaming irons. The first act’s climax comes from Jones, who is forced by Jake Silvestro to build a stack of giant credit cards – a visual play on the endless credit chain that holds some individual’s lives together. But when the cards come tumbling down, it equally reminded me of the credit crisis that led to the housing collapse in the US.

Musician Jeremy Hopkins steps out from behind the screen at the back of the stage to play a suburban dad at the barbecue, singing a very funny ode (set to the turn of Waltzing Matilda) to his Weber. He pats himself on the back for cooking once a week and asks who’s going to “come a negative gearing with me”. It’s all visually clever and witty, but playing in multicultural and suburban Parramatta, I wondered about the choice of satirical target. Wouldn’t the satire have had more bite if it was turned on the corporate behemoths or ethically drained political class? Or even on the politically right-on cultural class that Circus Oz comes from? That might be walking a real tightrope.

During the second act lights are turned down, as is the symbolism, and the pure circus comes out. All the performers are extraordinary but, as seems appropriate in the present moment, it is the women who really shine, individually and collectively. Tara Silcock’s routine in a Martini glass, spent mostly on her back as her feet spin and twirl umbrellas, is a highlight. She beams charismatically throughout the show and acts genuinely and endearingly surprised with herself as she acknowledges the audience at the end of this scene.

The women are also responsible for the night’s most impressive show of strength. In a prop-less scene, the five female cast members elegantly walk over and down each other’s heads and shoulders and hands; the act ends with Edney singlehandedly suspending the four other cast members.


A good hula hoop routine never fails to awe, and it is also Edney’s turn holding up ten or so silver bangles that is hard to forget and one of the biggest crowd pleasers. Other scenes that aren’t easily forgotten are Alexander Weibel Weibel beautifully playing the violin while his feet play with more strings below and he walks between loose tightropes. His scene ends when he puts down the violin, turns into a human star and does 360 degree turns on the ropes.

In the show’s final scene the greasy competitive corporate ladder has been turned horizontal and become co-operative, and the entire cast works effortlessly together to swing and move each other through the steps in a heart-in-throat scene. When the cast and crew come out for a bow, it’s astonishing to discover that the show’s beautiful score has been provided by just the musical director Ania Reynolds and Hopkins, with intermittent support from Weibel Weibel. In a show that rejects spreading conformity and the mass-produced, it’s a demonstration of the big things can be achieved by a small team working closely together.

Photos: Jamie Williams



Hefner didn’t invent the sexual revolution, he took credit from women

On the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, the ABC asked me to consider his legacy. I wrote that it was second wave feminism that drove sexual liberation for women, while Hefner was more interested in controlling women. This article was first published online by the ABC on 29 September here.

On a warm weekday afternoon in Sydney recently, I rested on rocks by a Sydney ocean pool and noticed a young girl, perhaps 20, maybe 22, dancing topless at the pool’s edge, under the clock for swimmers tracking lap speeds.

She was striking poses for the three or four boys and one girl she was with. One of the boys was capturing her on a camera at her direction.

She was glorious: an athletic Miley Cyrus-lookalike. Every now and then she dived into the water, emerging to pointedly shake water from her hair and legs. She prowled the pool deck, the centre of her group’s attention. I kept stealing glances at her, as did the smartly-dressed patrons drinking on the hotel balcony above, and the handful of swimmers and sunbathers around me.

It was, in a way, a classic Playboy scene: water, beautiful girls, men dressed in smart casual, alcohol. And it was this scene I thought of when I heard of Hugh Hefners’ death. Superficially, my poolside Miley looked like a Hefner woman: minimally dressed, playful and libidinous. But unlike Hefner’s bunnies, she didn’t seem to be in anyone’s employ.

I didn’t know anything else about her, but it was easy to invent back stories for her: she had an Instagram account with tens of thousands of followers and dozens of sponsors; she was a businesswoman making soft core porn for regular grateful clients.

At the very least, she reminded how many young women like her are not just comfortable in their sexuality, but revelling in it and acutely aware of deploying their power. But despite the superficial links with Hugh Hefner, there’s little else connecting the world he created and Sydney’s Miley.

In many ways, she has much more to do with the legacy of second-wave feminism than Playboy. Even if the initial radical aims of women’s liberation — that women’s sexual liberation would lead to widespread social and political liberation — have, as it turns out, morphed into a much more modest aim: women taking back the control and production of their sexual images from men.

Feminism wasn’t anti-sex

When Hefner passed away this week, journalists credited him for practically singlehandedly starting the sexual revolution: “As much as anyone, Hugh Hefner turned the world on to sex” the Washington Post’s Matt Schudel wrote on his passing yesterday.

On the ABC, Hefner was given credit for “revving up the sexual revolution” and helping “to slip sex out of the confines of plain brown wrappers and into mainstream conversation”.

This story we’re asked to believe is that Hefner lifted the lid on a repressed 1950s culture and, later, fought against a censorious, anti-sex feminism. But the idea that sex and nudity was a dormant thing Hefner “discovered” would be news to the libertines, pornographers, writers and painters of erotica and, well, lovers throughout history.

And the notion that the women’s liberation movement — which, from its inception, was linked to sexual liberation — was actually a primly puritanical force against Hefner’s Dionysian utopia is a powerful, but equally erroneous one.

It’s true that a not insignificant strand of women’s liberation argued heterosexuality (at least under patriarchy) was an incurably oppressive condition, and a separatist approach was the only true route to liberation. But for many second-wave feminists — buoyed by the pill, liberalising attitudes to abortion, and the belief that communal living might free them from stultifying nuclear units — sexual liberation and women’s liberation were inseparable.

Some of the most-read pamphlets of the early women liberation era dealt with sexual pleasure, such as Anne Koedt’s The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm. Germaine Greer was against censorship, and posed nude for the underground magazine Suck, legs above her shoulders to allow the best view of her pubic hair and vulva (although she was betrayed by the men on the editorial board, who failed to live up to an agreement to pose nude themselves).

The undercover bunny

Perhaps the notion that Hefner was a pro-sex champion against the stuffy feminists stems from Gloria Steinem’s now famous 11-day undercover stint as a playboy bunny in 1963. Though just 28 when she wrote the expose, Steinem’s essay bristles with intelligence and humour and sass.

She doesn’t moralise about the bunnies’ trade — selling sex — rather she forensically exposes the appalling industrial and OHS conditions bunnies are working under. They are charged for make-up and $2.50 a day for costume “upkeep”, she wrote. They received demerit points for dirty tails or tights with runs. The club and busboys would keep half (and sometimes all) of their tips.

She writes scenes that might have inspired Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale. She visits an arrogant male doctor for internal examinations, blood tests and an X-ray before the club would hire her. She is taught the bunny bible rules; a ban on fraternising with regular customers, while being obliged, on pain of being fired, to give full names to, and attend private parties with, Number One keyholders.

Private detectives were hired to trap bunnies by offering payment for services off site, and they had to meet husbands and boyfriends at least two blocks from the club. To sell more drinks, bunnies were encouraged to be personal with customers and make eye contact, but they were left to fend off the sexual harassment that resulted.

A sexual revolution with men at the centre

Hugh Hefner did do much to mainstream sex, and to make it something unashamedly associated with pure pleasure. But he did so, first and foremost, for men. For women there were regimes of control — from regulation three-inch shoes and suits made a rib-crushingly two inches smaller than a bunny’s measurements.

Bunnies weren’t supposed to have histories, or sexual desires that weren’t directed towards selling more drinks for the club and pleasing top customers.

Second-wave feminists extended the claim for sexual liberation to women. And they made the much more radical argument that sexual liberation could be the basis of social and political liberation. Women’s liberationists wanted sex to blow the system apart. They didn’t succeed, of course, in finding the kind of sexual liberation that would lead to liberation from alienating work or from the nuclear family. How to care for children in the libidinal chaos that might ensue, however desirable, was a particular problem.

But Hugh Hefner, dying amid all the wealth and glamour of Playboy Mansion, didn’t, in the end, succeed in controlling sex either. Sex, as Freud taught us, contains contradictions and excess. It contains both revolutionary and oppressive potential. Feminists are still trying to reconcile these two. We probably never will.


Friday essay: The personal is now commercial – popular feminism online

Notes from the second year

Extract: ‘As I listened to Elaine Welteroth, the editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue, speak to the Sydney Writers’ Festival in June this year, it occurred to me that today’s popular feminism would be unrecognisable to many of the Miss America protesters half a century ago.

For Welteroth, an African-American former beauty editor at Teen Vogue, women’s magazines and beauty products are feminism now. “Beauty and style are just really great platforms to open up important conversations,” she said.’

My essay about the feminism of Teen Vogue and sites such as Mamamia is now online on The Conversation, the ABC and Daily Review.


Don’t try this at home: from Duchamp’s urinal to Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca

This Daily Review essay on Duchamp’s urinal, contemporary art & buying artworks from friends was inspired by a new show of works by the talented artist Paloma White.

I was sitting on a toilet when I looked up and saw it. There, hanging on the wall, was a Picasso. Just a black and white drawing, but an original Picasso. The couple whose inner-city apartment I was in owned the gallery downstairs. Their home was filled with art. But a Picasso? In the toilet? While I was having a piss, I couldn’t help wondering: were they taking the piss?

One hundred years ago Marcel Duchamp (or someone close to him, this story has more than one version) purchased a urinal and anonymously submitted it to a New York art show. Although the avant-garde group behind the April 1917 exhibition was supposed to accept submissions from anyone who paid the $5 entry fee, the show’s board rejected the work and Fountain was left behind a gallery screen unexhibited. But the ideas Duchamp suggested with his work – art is whatever the artist says it is, an artist does not need to ‘make’ an artwork, a toilet can have a place in an art gallery – changed the art world forever.

Were the Redfern gallery owners making a witty comment on Duchamp’s century old move? If a urinal could be exhibited in an art gallery (copies of Fountain are now in major galleries around the world) then surely the exhibition could come to the toilet? I was impressed by the cool nonchalance they applied to hanging art. And I envied the wealth that allowed them to own such art.

I covet beautiful artworks. In the Norman Lindsay Gallery in the Blue Mountains I’ve loitered over original prints for sale, repeatedly turning back to a beguiling nude, ownership fever gripping me. Recently in Central Australia my head kept turning to an artwork of emu footprints, in the same way you can find yourself turning repeatedly towards someone in a crowded room, a knot in your stomach building – something about the way their features are arranged (the lines and shapes on the canvas) feels right. “You know you are in trouble when you keep looking,” an artist tells me.

I’d like to say I don’t buy because, as the late John Berger argued, when a price is attached to art, its commodification is also a process of alienation from the physical thing that is the artwork. Art dealers have “faces like silk purses” he said, adding: “If you could fuck works of art as well as buy them, they would be pimps.”

So I’d like to say my failure to buy beautiful works of art has something to do with the rejection of ownership, but the less flattering reason is that I simply don’t have the money. Instead, I buy beautiful but modestly priced artworks from friends. When my friend Paloma held an exhibition of paintings in Melbourne last year I sat at my desk in Sydney scrolling through paintings she had posted online. Studies of flowers and still lifes, reminiscent, everyone said, of Margaret Preston. They were also like painterly translations of my artist friend. We met when we were 20 or so. She arrived at the flat I was living in, flowers in her hair like a Carlton Carmen, carrying a cake she’d made that morning, like a cloud floating ahead of her arrival that she was holding onto with a string. Carmen and Mary Poppins.

I spent an hour or so gazing at her latest creations. Enlarging the petals. Looking at the refracted light passing through the glass and water of the vases. I settled on one. A personal purchase resisting commodification, I told myself. But my modest friend’s talent far exceeds her fame: I tweeted a picture of the painting. She deserves more recognition, and the brutal fact is that more recognition leads to more sales, more funds to make more work.

I’ve always been fascinated with artists and their craft. There was a moment when I was 15 when I thought I might become an artist. I had a basic technical ability; I could make things look like the things in the world they represented. But I never had a feel for it. Others do. The ability to take the way things look in the world and mix themselves into it.

I once interviewed the painter Nicholas Harding. Paints and brushes and canvasses filled every surface of his studio. It was as if he was conjoined to the artworks, rather than creating them with any kind of distance between the artist and the work. The physicality was intoxicating. Something to do with the artist who has a hand on the object. It’s why we like cards handmade by the giver. And thank you notes in someone’s handwriting.

One of my first housemates was an art school student who would come home with canvases where he re-imagined the Russian icon form. They were heavy with golds, reds, and a bronze colour that seemed to have dripped from his rusty-hued hair onto the canvas. A few years later he’d moved on to other styles and held a show. I stood besotted in front of a large six-foot black canvas of two ghostly white nude outlines embracing, a mother and a child.

The equivalent of two Austudy cheques later, the work was mine. The painting followed me through countless house moves: too large for most loungerooms it’s mostly leaned against my bedroom wall. Recently my mother contacted me to say she’d met my old housemate but he was no longer painting – he had moved on to other mediums – and she wanted me to send her a picture of the painting so he could show his own wife and child.

‘Untitled’, Ben Sibley, 1991

Still lifes of flowers and nudes. I know this is a conservative view of art, a long way from the abstractions and theoretical turn that much contemporary art has taken since Duchamp. I’m not dismissing the value of that work, but I am saying that the cleavage in art, between work based in ideas and work that you can hang on walls, now seems almost irrevocably permanent.

In 1967 Berger wrote that “soon a dealer will mount an exhibition of shit and collectors will buy it”. He was already prophesising Wim Delvoye’s Cloaca Professional (pictured below), a shit-making machine commissioned by David Walsh in 2010 and installed deep in the bowels of the billionaire’s Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. (And Berger was also forgetting, it seems, the 90 cans of ‘Artist’s Shit’ produced by the Italian artist Piero Manzoni in 1961). In audience surveys visitors say Delvoye’s crapping machine is their most disliked exhibit at MONA. It’s also the one they spend the most time with. When I visited with my children they looked up at it wide-eyed for a long moment, before driven from the room by the stench. Towards a wall covered entirely with moulded vulvas in the adjacent gallery.

We’re wedged between the compulsion to stare and a feeling that the gimmick has gone too far. That someone’s taking the piss. In the background is a feeling that we’re being conned when the most subversive, the most cutting-edge art is owned by billionaire collectors who can dig deep into sandstone river banks to create the capacious spaces that house them.

We can find ourselves almost giving up on contemporary art, as I was tempted to do when I stood in front of a blank canvas at a Sydney Biennale at the end of the last century. The captions on the works in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s show that year were either irritatingly droll or annoyingly obscure. One caption, accompanying a blank canvas, tested my credulity more than any other: “This artist stops where other artist begins,” it read. I felt like I was being had.

Artists have always quoted and referenced and critiqued each other in their artwork. But now the gap between works of art and works of criticism and theory can be indistinguishable. Artists now speak of “investigations”, “experiments” and “interventions”, borrowing from the language of science and research. It’s the language of the higher education system where art training now mostly takes place, the language of theory, of publications, of grant proposals.

I understand the imperative, but as someone who has made a living composing words, I bristle at prose that is often nonsensical, full of hyperbole or just impenetrable. Most of the time I still want art, no matter how conceptual or theoretical – to have some art, some craft, to it. An idea – as a rule – doesn’t arouse our senses, our passions, our imaginations: an idea could just as well be left to a book.

This isn’t a traditional essay of art criticism. It’s not a manifesto. If anything it’s simply a statement of my own personal taste and preference rather than any attempt to define what is “good” or “bad” art. Apart from anything else, it’s impossible to say that any one thing unites contemporary art – except perhaps that it is whatever is made by artists now. But I am suggesting that it is difficult to know now what’s a gimmick, what’s crap, and what’s gold. Perhaps it just comes down to what you like.

Wandering around a park in Bondi at The Sculpture by the Sea I see a portaloo in the middle of dozens of carefully conceived and executed sculptures and installations. Then I hear voices, trapped and trying desperately to reach someone on their mobile phone who will help them get out. What first looks like a much-needed amenity in a site crushed with crowds but desperately lacking loos was actually another artwork. It’s funny and strangely compelling. Maybe the voice really belongs to someone trapped in the toilet? I forgive the work for not being beautiful. For not being something you can take home. In a place where the surfaces work hard to impress, where human waste is reduced to faecal counts of the water in the beaches below, here is the least impressive surface you can imagine, but also an interesting Duchampian idea that makes me laugh and think.

Contemporary art has cleaved into two – art you can take home and put on walls, look at in private, and art you go and see publicly – sometimes it’s just an idea you go to see. In the former, it’s still the object itself that matters. I’ve often wondered how artists must feel giving up this object. Unlike other artforms – music, writing, or ideas-based artworks – it’s the thing that is important. Wanting to own it, though, that’s easy. For me, there’s appreciation of beauty and technique, but it also has something to do with a desire for a narrative.

I look now at my old housemate’s picture of mother and child, and I can finally see what must have first drawn me to the painting: when I bought it, my immediate family had recently separated in four directions. I’d purchased, without realising it, a representation of the thing I no longer had. When I look at my friend’s picture of flowers, I’m reminded of another time, half a lifetime ago: Paloma and her two brothers and a circle of friends that still comes together now and then and moves through subtly changing iterations.

After buying Paloma’s flowers I dreamed about taking a road trip down the Hume alone to collect it. I started composing music tracks for the trip. I’d return to Sydney on a sunny day, my cargo carefully placed in the back. Nothing happens how you picture it. On the way to Melbourne I had two children in the car with me, and I had one of those shameful moments of parenting when I lost control. I yelled, I blamed my kids when we got lost. I ran out of petrol half way. My country cousin, calm and competent, bundled her own kids in the car and rescued us.

On the day we left to come home it didn’t stop raining. I drove to my mother’s workplace to collect bags of bubble wrap. A couple of suburbs away I picked up the painting, waiting patiently for us on the porch of a friend’s bungalow. I dashed out of the car and bundled it in wrap. Back in Sydney the painting lay in its plastic bubble armour, until the gloomy mood that had descended on me and gathered momentum as I made my way down the Hume finally lifted. I could look at the bright and cheerful vase of flowers with a feeling that wasn’t totally at odds with what I was seeing. I hung it on my loungeroom wall.

Main image: Coburg Lake, oil on canvas, Paloma White, 2017. Mono/Chroma, New works by Paloma White and Brendan Lakin, opens at Steps Gallery, 62 Lygon Street, Carlton on Friday September 1.


The only way is up (via anxiety and endless self-promotion)

This story about LinkedIn, self-promotion, anxiety and Derek Zoolander, first appeared in Overland on 3 March 2017.

The folded sheet of paper, one of those fundraising notes that regularly turn up in kids’ school bags, asked me to buy a photoshoot that would furnish me with an image for my LinkedIn profile. The parents behind the note are talented and lovely, but the missive still managed, in a few short lines, to tap into the river of anxieties modern parents and workers flail about in. The niggling worry that your school just might not have all the resources your child needs to thrive. The expectation that you are involved daily in all aspects of your child’s life. And the reminder that we are always at work now: even if it’s just our online avatar promoting the work we are doing, or sending out round-the-clock signals we’re looking for new work.

Read the rest of the story online here.



The Gifts of John Forbes (Meanjin)

Two decades ago my friend, the late great poet John Forbes, would leave poems behind for me when he visited Sydney. Now I’ve finally written a tribute to him, out now in the Summer issue of Meanjin.

You can subscribe to Meanjin here.



Daniels trump the world’s Donalds

First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 9 November 2016

Their first names start with D, they’re both ginger-haired, and they both have interests in real estate empires, but otherwise Rosehaven’s Daniel McCallum and Republican Donald Trump couldn’t be more different.

A large part of the pleasure of watching Luke McGregor (Daniel) in the new ABC drama is, surely, that our hero plays the anti-Donald. When you spend your days trying to duck from near hourly clips of Trump boasting about grabbing pussy, or his tearful victims’ testimonies, tuning in to watch Daniel – a man so terrified of hurting himself or anyone else you imagine his first word was “sorry” – functions as a form of “cultural crack“. The show screens out the world’s awful blighted reality, replacing it with a nicer, lighter high.

Trump is all unrestrained and aggressive id – Freud would have had a field day with his split attraction/aggression towards women, his obsession with breasts, and his disgust for women’s bodily fluids (who would have thought menstrual blood and toilet trips would become a presidential campaign talking point). Anxious, striving Daniel, meanwhile, suffers from an excess of superego. And unlike Donald his respect for women is clear: his best friend is Emma (Celia Pacquola), a benignly bossy woman who pushes him to stand up to bullies and chase the girl he still loves.

While shows such as Seinfeld, FriendsThe Secret Life of Us, and more recently Please Like Me and Girls, have long portrayed friendships between men and women as a standard feature of modern life, it’s still rare to find a show where a platonic friendship between a man and a woman is the central – and completely unremarkable – premise. There’s no backstory of a past relationship, and no sense of a love affair in the air. And it avoids the sweet but now terribly tired and easy trope of the straight woman/gay man best friends.

It’s been more than a decade since Ethan Watters’ book Urban Tribes dissected the way friendship groups are the new family for a generation that is delaying marriage, prolonging studying and sharing group houses well into their 30s. The post-1970s generations didn’t invent friendships between men and women, but they are a defining feature of young adult life now. Stories that portray how such friendships work, and are central to many people’s lives, are long overdue.

I’m not suggesting there aren’t any Donalds in the post-1970s generations, or that there aren’t 70-year-old Daniels in the world. But when you’re  raised with the belief that the differences between men and women, if they exist, are wildly exaggerated and overly prescribed, withholding empathy from the other sex simply becomes that much harder.

Not that differences don’t remain and aren’t sometimes useful. Daniel doesn’t force Emma to talk about her marriage breakdown, and you suspect that had Emma turned to an over-empathetic female friend she might have fallen into a self-pitying hole. As Graham Little, writing in his book, Friendship, says about our need for friends who aren’t mirrors of us, “Friends dread the tedium of being merely echoed in a conversation, their attitudes not enhanced or contradicted but Xeroxed”.

It’s time we recognised and celebrated our opposite-sex friends. Those people we’ve known for decades, who offered us friendship when we started work in a politically-charged workplace. Who helped us move out of an old home or decorate a new one. Friends who have been there for births, funerals and every bad joke or career screw-up.

Now that significant friendships between men and women often outlast romantic relationships, a show that acknowledges this friendship is a welcome breath of sexual tension-free air. The audience for the early episodes of Rosehaven, a fictional, though truthful story about a platonic friendship between a man and a woman, was similar in size to the final episodes of the Bachelorette, a real but totally fantastical story about finding true love on national TV. Viewers, it seems, agree.

Rosehaven screens on ABC TV Wednesdays at 9pm.

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