Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Firebrands and double-edged flaming (s)words: the wheeler centre gala 2018 review

Wednesday 28 February 2018

Monday’s eighth annual Wheeler Centre Gala saw eleven intellectual incendiaries light up Melbourne’s Athenaeum theatre with variations on the likely theme—for an institution dedicated to the holy trinity of books, writing and ideas—of ‘words on fire.’ The characteristically malleable topic incited diverse interpretations from an estimable ensemble of writers, performers and activists, ranging from personal parables to political polemic, performance and poetry.

And diversity truly was the word of the night. Excepting the transitory appearance of Centre director Michael Williams, who seized the stage long enough only to make his obligatory thanks, gracious self-deprecation and inevitable lefty in-jokes about African gangs and the definition of ‘partner,’ the lineup was a veritable straight white male–free zone. Indeed, holding forth as the speakers did on such progressive subjects du jour as environmentalism, disability rights, Indigenous oppression, the trans experience, class politics and even a content warning or two, the roster could well have emerged wholesale from the very nightmares of Miranda Devine.

Any outnumbered conservatives in the crowd might have snatched hungrily at Aunty Carolyn Briggs’ portents of overzealous offence-taking and language-policing as a slippery slope toward censorship, but the Boon Wurrung Elder’s discussion of privilege and disadvantage in language use revealed a position far removed from the typical PC-bashing proponents of Brandis’ ‘right to be bigots.’

Briggs’ extended Welcome to Country offered a sedate start to the evening, with reflections on the history of words as weapons used both by and against Indigenous Australians, pointing to the subversive meanings said to hide in Aboriginal names such as Coonabarabran (putatively ‘white man’s shit’) and the Moomba festival (folk-etymologised not as ‘let’s get together and have fun’ but rather ‘up your bum’). 

Briggs concluded by inviting the audience to use the language of the land—wominjika for ‘welcome’—and to fulfill the obligations traditionally attendant on that welcome: ‘not to harm the lands and waters and not to harm the children.’ It was an exhortation later taken up by Indigenous author Tony Birch in his address, an admiring paean to Wangan and Jagalingou spokesperson Murrawah Johnson and her incendiary words to author–activist Naomi Klein on Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine: ‘We have seen the end of the world and we refuse to accept it.’ Birch traced the violence enacted upon Johnson’s ‘personal and genealogical history’ through the language of Terra Nullius and the Acts of Parliament that have governed Indigenous lives to illustrate the heroism, the injustice, and the irony of her leadership in the fight against the mine.

My view of the stage through the perfectly curled wave of another spectators hair.

Before thirteen asymmetrical bars of light flaring and fading between performances like the still-glowing trunks of bushfire-blackened trees, each speaker took to the stage in succession, without the intrusive inelegance of any master of ceremonies offering aggrandising introductions. This lent the night the dreamlike intimacy of yarns around a transfixing campfire, each one free to roll into the next and build upon it without any break in the spell.

Commencing the official program was writer, actor and director Leah Purcell’s lively autobiographical narrative, a touching and comic recount of the words and phrases that marked her lifetime journey from poor rural daughter and young caretaker of an alcoholic single mother to the acting career she had always dreamed of. Replete with a reenactment of the dance she performed impromptu down the main street of Bergen after a compliment from a stranger, the tale at moments challenged even Purcell’s polished performance skills with tears. Malaysian-Australian poet and rapper Omar Musa likewise gave a stirring personal account of his lived experience, counterbalancing the poetic drama of the oration to come with a casual ‘’S’goin’ on?’ as he arrived onstage. He spoke of his lifelong battles with a father fervently devoted to the Word of God, and the secret words of inspiration imparted by his mother in stolen eight-minute car rides on the way to school. And in the night’s penultimate speech, blogger and activist Carly Findlay drew on her (ever-political) personal experiences to question whether social justice movements actually live up to the buzzwords of inclusivity, diversity and intersectionality when it comes to disability.

A persistent motif, of course, was the power of words. The power of a politician’s well-crafted speech to inspire a lifetime of loyalty in the case of writer and anthropologist Sally Warhaft’s Republican niece, or Warhaft’s own affection for the rhetoric of Paul Keating, which preceded a writer’s lament for the declining communicative power of today’s politicians at home and abroad. Or the power of writing to give a child control and escape from an unstable upbringing that a garlanded and needlessly bashful Rosie Waterland—she of the famed Bachelor recaps—conveyed. Veteran of the Melbourne Workers Theatre Patricia Cornelius too demonstrated the potency of words forcefully in the opening of her crowd-pleasing ode to profanity, with a rapidfire fuck-and-cunt-laden tract from her play SHIT (a linguistic challenge to which the Auslan interpreter rose admirably). In the comedic highlight of the evening, Cornelius delivered an insightful interrogation of the class politics of snobbery about swearing, railing against the bourgeois insistence that the theatre remain a polite, expletive-free middle-class space and the notion that the underclasses should never express legitimate rage through swearing. 

Other presenters built on Briggs’ earlier meditation on the nature of words as double-edged (flaming) swords – their ability, in Williams’ terms, to burn and to heal. From honey, darling and sweetheart to dude, bro, mate and man, queer nonbinary activist and writer Nevo Zisin reflected on the usefulness and limitations of words and labels in defining and limiting their identity pre- and post-transition, while actor Rachael Maza powerfully contrasted narratives of her grandfather from biased official records against family memory and empathetic deduction, lingering over the difference between the concept of history and the past itself.

The crescendo of the pyrotechnic spell which the speakers had been steadily constructing over the course of the night came in the final empyreal performance by Moira Finucane, who fully earned her description as a ‘writer, director, performer and creator of volcanic and magic realist worlds … and intimate theatrical spectacles, internationally renowned for her arresting mix of provocation and entertainment.’ Bedecked in a shimmering black gown and headdress somewhere between the Statue of Liberty’s aureolic diadem and Westeros’ Iron Throne, she emerged onstage swaying and arm-waving in time to cosmic strains. ‘Kingdom Animalia,’ she intoned in the commanding resonant boom of an elven queen. ‘Phylum Chordata, just like us. Not like us, Class Aves,’ she continued as if reciting words of power. ‘Family Alcidae, Genus Pinguinnis, Species Impennis.’ This scientific classification of the now-extinct great auk launched an abstracted traipse through humanity’s relationship with the planet as viewed through writings both dramatic and innocuous, from Proverbs 26:11, to the cruel 1794 words of sailor Aaron Thomas on the ill-fated penguins, to Charles William Beebe on extinction in 1906, to Rachel Carson in 1962, to 2018 personal correspondence from another Indigenous environmental firebrand, Eleanor Dixon (‘a genius with 60,000 years of understanding of her land’) to Stan Grant in 2016 and Desmond Tutu in 1999.

Though her declamatory style courted the absurd and at times dipped into the ridiculous, Finucane performed with such ardor and conviction that a possibly skeptical audience stayed with her, tittering only, perhaps, as intended, when the monologue descended abruptly from the grand themes of environmental destruction to supplying the tangible details of how to contact the Northern Territory Chief Minister’s Office to express concern over the impact of fracking on the tourism industry, all while maintaining its grandiose delivery.

Paraphrasing Tutu as she slowly departed (perhaps significantly to stage left), she encouraged her viewers to keep ‘trending, trending, trending towards the good,’ and left the audience in the lingering strings and darkness to awaken with the lights as if from a dream.

If the gala is a sign of what we are to expect from the Wheeler Centre in 2018, it will be an impassioned, diverse, provocative, progressive year indeed.

Thanks for reading


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