Tag Archives: LGBT equality

Magda’s (not so) funny bits

A writer’s review of Magda Szubanksi’s ‘Reckoning’.

WHEN they say that all great comedy emerges from tragedy, they’re talking about books like Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning.

Audiences are often perplexed when commentators explore the comic-tragic paradox, a place where there are no easy absolutes. But it’s something Australian creators do particularly well. Think of the suicide of Muriel’s mother in Muriel’s Wedding, one of Australia’s greatest laugh-out-loud screen experiences, in which a near-silent housewife, whose name nobody can remember, kills herself at the turning point of the tragic B-story in the plot.

25875588It’s this layer of dysfunction that Szubanski courageously mines.

The narrative of Reckoning pivots around her success in show-business and her fascination for the scars etched into her family by European wars.

Szubanski’s exploration is driven by the very energy that fuels performers – seeking responses written on the face. The little girl who couldn’t interpret Holocaust images in a taboo book in her Father’s collection begins a lifetime journey of bearing witness to the facial reactions of those around her.

And no-one gets off the hook, not living relatives or the long dead in photographic records of ancestors, or the family legends about personalities that Szubanski brings to vivid life through her powerful imagination. The little Jewish boy given sanctuary in her grandparent’s Warsaw home during Nazi occupation is perhaps the best example of this evocative, pain-filled cauterising of deep emotional wounds.

Recounting her rise to stardom, the author learns to read the faces of her show-business contemporaries and the characters she created. Even the primates she starred alongside in Babe: Pig in the City are scanned for responses to human frailty, for understanding and forgiveness.

“Like the best memoirists, she avoids painting herself as a saint surrounded by sinners.”

Actors require a response in order to re-act, something that is especially critical for screen actors where nothing can be hidden from the camera. It’s this record of Szubanksi’s journey from the inner reactions of a deeply closeted child, to the outer courage it took for a beloved celebrity to come out – regardless of the world’s response – which I found the most telling.

Yet by the time Magda knew what she wanted to read in her Father’s face, after finally construing what she’d always needed to ask him, he was long gone.

Reckoning is, then, as simple and as complex as the glance between performers: Father and daughter, channelling the echoes of war, failure, culture, desperation and survival.

As an LGBTI icon who came out publicly in mid-life, Szubanski has fast-tracked her way from second-wave feminist to courageous marriage equality campaigner, and Reckoning also charts her journey to understanding how championing marriage can sit comfortably within the same vessel as female self-determination.

Like the best memoirists, she avoids painting herself as a saint surrounded by sinners, because not all wars are external, and not all courage is written on the face.

Szubanski’s account of the experience of being same-sex attracted and closeted, and the unravelling of the veneer, are some of the most well-placed for Australian audiences to finally come to terms with what our culture does to LGBTI. They have already created a legacy for Szubanski that stands to become as courageous as that of her father.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article also appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

Shake-up on the small screen

THIS week I’ve been back in the cutting room bringing readers the trailer for my new book Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters.

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With his near-universal appeal, William Shakespeare was the start of Merely Players, but he’s by no means the finish.

I started writing this story in 2003, and it’s been a labour of love in the true sense of the word. I’ve even delved into the photo album to dig out some old shots of me playing Petruchio in an Acting Factory production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and thereby hangs a tale…

Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters is the story of two unconventional players whose lives are linked by the works of the world’s greatest playwright, in a story about acting, ageing, fame and forgetting… just in time for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in April. Enjoy!

 

 

Ban the Bard if Safe Schools scares you

WESTERNERS have lived through many periods in which extreme Christians distributed anti-gay propaganda and thereby got the ear of authorities, and this month’s spat from Australia’s hard, religious right shows not much has changed in four hundred years.

It’s an old war, that between conservatives wanting to put the brakes on equality, and progressives trying to touch the accelerator.

During the reign of James I (1603-1625) in England, the fires of Puritanism were well on their way to blazing a lasting wound through societies in many continents, burning until well after the Salem Witch Trials in New England at the end of the century.

The Puritans were antsy about anything showy. They railed against the Elizabethan and Jacobean playhouses as much as they did the Roman Catholic church, with its theatre-like ceremonies and costumes.

One of their main bugbears was gender. At its very core, Puritanism called for men to be men and women to be women. Any variation was seen as a threat to stable society.

So it’s fascinating, and a little alarming, to see modern-day politicians using similar fear-mongering language.

When Senator Cory Bernardi complains about the very idea that children role-play in an attempt to teach them empathy for same sex-attracted teenagers in the Safe Schools program, he could be accused of overreacting.

When columnists like News Corp’s Angela Shanahan labels Safe Schools a “radical form of sex education that promotes a fluid gender ideology,” she’s probably venting her spleen a bit much.

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PURITAN POLEMIC Cover of William Prynne’s Histrio-Mastix (1633).

But when these and others, like MP George Christensen and Lyle Shelton (MD of the Australian Christian Lobby) deliberately obfuscate the program, muddying its concepts with pornography and what they label “disturbing” behaviours like penis tucking and breast-binding, the pack invective calls to mind one of the great forefathers of postmodern gender panic, William Prynne (1600-1669).

Prynne encapsulated every Puritan complaint of the millennium in his polemic Histrio-mastix: The Player’s Scourge, published in 1633 as an argument to close the playhouses of Britain.

“…sundry common Actors do usually once a day, at leastwise twice or thrice a week, attire themselves in women’s array to act their female parts; yea, they make a daily practice of it to put on women’s attire, it being inseparably incident to their lewd profession,” is just one mild quote from this extremist manifesto.

And it worked. By the English Civil War, the Puritans got their way and Britain’s playhouses were closed in 1642.

But one popular publication survived this century of censorship. First printed in 1623, and hated by the Puritans, the complete works of William Shakespeare was firmly entrenched in the Australian school syllabus decades ago.

So if the Safe Schools program is questionable to neo-Puritans like Bernardi et al., let’s put Shakespeare to the test and see if he should stay on the curriculum.

Well, on gender fluidity, Shakespeare gets knocked out straight away. Cross-dressing takes place in one-fifth of his works. Enduring crowd pleasers such as Twelfth Night, As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice see the playwright’s heroines in male attire for the bulk of the play, masquerading as young men who find themselves in comic sticky situations with heroes who are fooled into homoerotic attractions to them.

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GIRL ON GIRL Lady Olivia wooing Viola in ‘Twelfth Night’.

Viola, the protagonist of Twelfth Night, even goes so far as to ask a sailor to secretly loan her clothes and present her to the local Duke as a eunuch.

Presumably this entails binding any breasts that might give her disguise away once Viola discards her “women’s weeds”.

When learning about the early production of Shakespeare’s plays, students will invariably come across a great reality: all the female roles were originally played by men.

But the end of that tradition in the 1660s didn’t end the fun. For centuries, whenever women played Viola, and these actresses dressed as a young man and encountered Lady Olivia who falls for ‘him’, endless girl-on-girl innuendo has entertained many a theatre and classroom.

Yet we do not hear the neo-Puritans within government crowing about these ‘gender-bending’ Shakespeare texts on the school curriculum, and no complaints about the 80,000 school students a year exposed to Shakespeare at the hands of the Bell Shakespeare Company, in receipt of $1.28 million in federal funding announced by George Brandis in the 2015 budget.

The neo-Puritans had their chance to rid Australian schools of Shakespeare, as part of a searching and robust review into the national curriculum by the Abbott government, reported under Turnbull in January, 2016.

But the Bard survived: “…drama, its different varieties, in tragedy, comedy, romance and historical plays, from Shakespeare (as a recurring presence) to the present will be represented,” the report confirmed.

I found one submission that called for more Shakespeare, but none that alerted the inquiry to the possibility that students might encounter all manner of sexual references in Shakespeare’s plays.

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SEXY SCENE Mel Gibson and Glenn Close in ‘Hamlet’ (1991)

“To live in the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed, stewed in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty,” says Hamlet to his mother, accusing her of adultery and not washing the sheets.

“Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty,” prays Lady Macbeth to deities that are not the Christian God, explicitly requesting gender reassignment and a nasty streak.

Like most of my generation, I studied Hamlet and Macbeth at school and was taken to many productions. We read and role-played scenes from Shakespeare, but we were left to interpret the diversity for ourselves, probably out of prudishness more than any Puritanism.

“All Australian students deserve access to a world-class curriculum that encourages diversity and which allows schools flexibility over how it is taught,” the curriculum inquiry website leads off with, like an over-arching mission statement.

With Safe Schools now under serious attack, it seems the very meaning of ‘diversity’ and ‘flexibility’ is also up for grabs.

But William Shakespeare, creator of more than 1700 words in the English language, and many a figure of speech, left us with a saying that can be used when answering over-zealous critics of sexual diversity.

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It’s a line from Hamlet, perfect for when someone vehemently attempts to convince about something where the opposite is true.

About your trashing of LGBTI dignity, Cory, George, Lyle and your chums, I say: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

Michael’s literary non-fiction debut Merely Players: Acting like Shakespeare really matters is available in paperback and as an eBook. 

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved. 

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.