Monday, April 30, 2018

Blanc de Blanc - Spiegeltent

Review by John Lombard

Strut & Fret's champagne-inspired cabaret circus "Blanc de Blanc" achieves a perfect blend of class and crass.

The cabaret evoked a stay in a luxurious French hotel, with the snide but likeable concierge Monsieur Romeo offering "full service", a nimble bellhop clambering on a luggage rank, and the night finishing with champagne in an inviting spa.

Monsieur Romeo charmed the audience as the supremely self-confident host, while his dorky and weird lieutenant Spencer won their sympathy.  Their perfectly pitched sleaziness invited to audience to be equally shameless.

Director Scott Maidment has assembled world-class performers for this cabaret.  The thrilling and sexy acts drew gasps as much as leers from the audience, with highlights including the freaky clown Spencer Novich, athletic contortionist Shun Sugimoto, and breathtaking aerials from Milena Straczynski.

The "champagne" theme of the night was well-developed, with French music, bubbles, and of course many glasses of bubbly tying the disparate acts together.

The Spiegeltent was the perfect venue for this performance, fusing the intimacy and excitement of the big top with the comfort of a theatre.

The hot tub brought out for the second half proved too inviting for some audience members, who were justly scolded for dipping in an investigative hand.

Blanc de Blanc is a night of world's best circus and cabaret, packaged with skill and judgement - a satisfying blend with a mellow finish, and corks aren't the only thing that will pop.

Platform Papers No 55

Art, Politics, Money: Revisiting Australia’s Cultural Policy by David Throsby.  Currency House: Platform Papers No 55,  May, 2018.

Commentary by Frank McKone

In 2006 David Throsby wrote Platform Papers No 7: Does Australia Need a Cultural Policy?  After 12 years of a terrifying but fascinating political history, he concludes we should begin again. 

He suggests our starting point should be the ‘definitional proposition’ from the Labour policy document Creative Australia which came to nought in 2013 when the Liberal/Nationals Coalition under Tony Abbott defeated Labour’s Kevin Rudd.  The proposition reads:

 Australian culture is the embodiment of the distinctive values, traditions and beliefs that make being Australian in the 21st Century unique – democratic, diverse, adaptive and grounded in one of the world’s oldest living civilisations.

Throsby believes that this ‘can be seen to rise above Party politics’, and ‘is likely to be generally accepted, regardless of political leaning.”  He is concerned as probably we all are that ‘a wide-ranging rumination on our culture and its values at this present time is most unlikely to appeal to the Prime Minister or his Cabinet, given the cultural conflicts that keep re-surfacing within the Coalition’s own ranks, the Government’s apparent lack of interest in the area, and its preoccupation with issues they would see as having higher priority’.

But he does put up some practical suggestions for immediate application by a Labour Minister for the Arts after the next election, which must take place by May 2019.  I suggest his ideas should be taken up by The Arts Party, which has recently established a new formal structure with the objective of sending at least one member to the Senate next year.  We need a voice in the Parliament whichever party forms Government.

As Throsby puts it: The Minister for the Arts “will have his own ideas of
what might be included, but here are some suggestions for components for a new arts policy package, derived from discussion in this paper:

• A recalibration and expansion of the
artist-in-residence programs in schools;

• A forum or series of forums on arts funding,
perhaps including a broad discussion of the
role of peer assessment in evaluating grant

• In conjunction with the Cultural Ministers’
Statistics Working Group, persuade the ABS to
re-establish the National Centre for Culture and
Recreation Statistics;

• A program to increase funding for art centres
in remote communities to enable expansion in
their support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait
Islander arts in all areas of art practice;

• Re-establishment of the Cultural Industries
Innovation Centre;

• Set up a feasibility study to consider the
establishment of a Heritage Lottery Fund.”

A little explanation, in reverse order:

The “Heritage Lottery Fund” is based on the UK National Lottery, funding to which – as an example – the Royal Shakespeare Company has access through Arts Council England.  Throsby recalls, in support of this idea, the success of the Opera House Lottery which helped fund the construction of the Sydney Opera House back in the day.

“The Australian Government’s Creative Industries Innovation Centre (CIIC) was a wonderful organisation that worked with over 1,500 creative enterprises from 2009 to 2014. They provided one-on-one support, and facilitated research reports including Valuing Australia’s Creative Industries, which showed that the creative industries made a direct contribution to GDP of $32.8 billion in 2011/12, more than the contribution made by many traditional industries.”

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander arts centres are now a feature of many communities across Australia. They are already supported to some extent by the Federal Government but need more money and more security of funding to develop fully.  The rationale is that art is central to those communities’ social cohesion and ongoing stability, to the benefit of the whole Australian society.

Throsby writes: “Progress in implementing any policy needs to be tracked over time, and this requires data. In the cultural arena, the axing by the Federal Government of the National Centre for Culture and Recreation Statistics (NCCRS) of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in 2014 dealt a blow to the steady supply of data about arts and culture from the Centre that had contributed so strongly to supporting policy-making in the field.” (Page 57)

Throsby notes that the Australia Council has thankfully survived through all the political exigencies, including some shenanigans, since its inception as an independent statutory authority through the Australia Council Act 1975.  There are other models internationally for the evaluation of grant applications which he believes we should examine, especially because of confusions over the years about concepts like ‘quality’, ‘excellence’, ‘diversity’, and issues like inclusion, small to medium organisations, heritage, individual practitioners, ‘major’ performing companies.

An expansion of the artists-in-residence program in schools is a straightforward action a new minister could take immediately, as part of much broader policy development about the central role of arts in education. 

“There are many lessons to be drawn from the sad meandering tale that represents the progress, if it can be called that, of Australian cultural policy over the last ten years that we have charted in these pages.  Some of these lessons are encouraging – for example, as Australians we have shown that we can indeed countenance a coherent national cultural policy if the mood so takes us.  Some of the lessons are profoundly discouraging, such as the sense that good policy is fragile, it can be replaced by bad policy, and in the end does anyone really care?”, writes David Throsby.

Throsby’s paper is a clarion call for political action, and maybe there are signs of hope.  The Arts Party did remarkably well in the last election while it was still in a very early fledgling state.  It is now ready for a major campaign for 2019.

And equally remarkably, “Gonski’s radical review” was the front page Fairfax headline as I write (Canberra Times, Monday April 30, 2018). 

“Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will push for a radical overhaul of the Australian curriculum after endorsing a blueprint by his businessman friend David Gonski to fix the lagging school system.  The Gonski 2.0 plan will transform the school system to assess and reward personal progress, not just standard academic benchmarks.  It challenges the Commonwealth, states and territories to ditch their ‘industrial model of schooling’ in favour of a more modern and individual approach.” (by Michael Koziol)

This raises the possibility of applying the very model of student centred learning and personal development which arose from Currency House’s Platform Papers No 54 Young People and the Arts: An Agenda for Change by Sue Giles, which I reviewed on this blog in March 2018, and developed with a detailed article on my blog at

It’s time to take action, I believe.

SYDNEY: Launch of Art, Politics, Money: Revisiting Australia’s Cultural Policy
David Throsby in conversation with MUP publisher and commentator Louise Adler

When: 6pm – 8pm, Tuesday 1 May 2018

Where: Dentons Seminar Room
Level 16, 77 Castlereagh Street, Sydney (between King/Market Streets)

All welcome. Book or

Currency House’s Platform Paper No.55 is available for media on request and for
purchase on

Media enquiries to Martin Portus at or 0401 360 806.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Canberra International Music Festival Concert 4: Four Seasons, Fitter’s Workshop, Saturday April 28th, 8pm

Music Review: Jennifer Gall

No-one left the Fitter’s Workshop on Saturday night unmoved after the performance of Max Richter’s Recomposed-The Four Seasons by Vivaldi. Written in Winter 2011, Richter set out to find a new vision for Vivaldi’s original journey through the seasons. In an interview for ABC Classic FM, Richter explained his motivation and his process for writing the work:

When I was a young child I fell in love with Vivaldi's original, but over the years, hearing it principally in shopping centres, advertising jingles, on telephone hold systems and similar places, I stopped being able to hear it as music; it had become an irritant - much to my dismay! So I set out to try to find a new way to engage with this wonderful material, by writing through it anew - similarly to how scribes once illuminated manuscripts - and thus rediscovering it for myself. I deliberately didn't want to give it a modernist imprint but to remain in sympathy and in keeping with Vivaldi's own musical language.

What we heard in the concert at the Fitter’s Workshop was an intensified view of the universal seasonal landscape, in which nature and human emotion are powerfully enmeshed. The opening Spring movement was a joyous cacophony of birdsong, growing in complexity till it filled the ears and imagination. By stripping back Vivaldi’s original score and distilling the absolute musical essence into looped thematic motifs Richter follows in Vivaldi’s footsteps, but he records his observations in a way that shakes the listener out of complacency with new music that moves us deeply.

The Festival Strings did a magnificent job, navigating the tempo variations; never faltering as they recreated Spring birdsong, a Summer storm, a wild Autumn dance party, and shivering crashing Winter icicles, all with the intensity of Richter's demanding minimalist score. Tim Fain grasped the challenging soloist role and led the musical exploration deftly while Roland Peelman kept a steady hand on the harpsichord directing the ensemble with his trademark precision.

Alice Giles and the Seven Harp Ensemble  - (SHE)

In comparison, the first half of the evening was a gentler more introspective program. The prestigious Seven Harp Ensemble (SHE) led by Alice Giles performed two atmospheric new compositions by Ross Edwards – Harp Mantras and Mary Finsterer’s Four Interludes. While these works exploited the textural possibilities of an ensemble of 7 harps, it was interesting that neither composer capitalized on the potential to empower the voice of each instrument in the consort, displaying the many technical possibilities of these marvelous instruments. Peemoeller’s arrangement of Saint-Saens Danse Macabre, in comparison, demonstrated how each harp could use its voice to create a dramatic whole.

These quibbles aside, the more meditative repertoire played by SHE created an ethereal introduction to the concert, leading us forward for Max Richter’s dazzling re-awakening of the Four Seasons in the second half of the concert - a truly transformative experience.
(Images Courtesy of Peter Hislop)

Tim Fain and the Festival Strings play Richter's Re-composed
Vivaldi's Four Seasons


Review by © Jane Freebury

The Party brings a bunch of people together in the comfortable middle-class environs of London, at the home of Janet, Kristin Scott Thomas in the role, and her husband Bill, a more than usually lugubrious Timothy Spall. Everyone has a secret to divulge.

Each character represents a segment of the influential elite. There’s someone from financial services, there’s a politician, there are two academics, and there’s a wellness coach and on-trend chef.

Bill has a droll routine as he puts records on the turntable, then announces that he has a terminal illness. That is bad enough, but hey, there is more in store yet for Janet.

The posh environs in London today may be more polite than Hornsby, Sydney, in the late 1960s when the notorious election night classic, Don’s Party, is set. But it isn’t the restraint that makes The Party fall short. It simply doesn’t gel.

Although not about to celebrate a change of government, it still looks ahead to the prospect of political change. Sometime down the track when the newly created shadow minister for health, (Scott Thomas), and her colleagues are voted into government.

Some cross-cutting between scenes looks great in the trailer, but deft promotional editing has elided the gaps and awkward pauses. The party goers, supposed to get really mad at each other, barely connect. Instead, they lounge around or stand stiffly stating their positions, firing their lines off into the undergrowth.

Someone gets slapped, another brandishes a gun, but it doesn’t for engagement make, and prospects for good argument turn in a damp squib. Talk about atomised.

There is every reason why the ‘polite party to skewer the middle classes’ formula has held up well over time, but hard as the actors try, it doesn’t work here. Given too little to do, they are defeated at every turn, even the mouthy Patricia Clarkson character, Janet’s old friend April. Cillian Murphy as a disturbed banker, Emily Mortimer as a pregnant chef in a same-sex marriage, and Bruno Ganz spouting new age banalities fare no better.

Mercifully short at 71 minutes, and filmed in artful black and white, The Party could have been a deliciously cynical demolition job on the types it portrays but Bill as DJ produces one of its few pleasures—a great playlist includes tracks from Bo Diddley and John Coltrane.

Writer-director Sally Potter has had a knack for surprising us. She teamed up with Tilda Swinton to wow us all with time travel and gender switching in Orlando in the early 1990s, then followed up with a romantic Tango Lesson in which she herself starred as student of the dance.

The Party, on the other hand, needed more work, not by the actors on set but by the writer before they got the call. It seems dashed off, an addendum to the 2015 British election during which it was written, and why it earned four stars in so many reviews is a mystery to me.

It’s clear what Potter had in mind, but when top actors can’t make it work, our gaze shifts to the filmmaker.

MA15+, 71 minutes

2 Stars 

Also published at Jane's blog

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Blanc de Blanc

Blanc de BlancStrut & Fret at The Spiegeltent, Civic Square, Canberra, April 26 (preview), April 27 – May 20, 2018.

Director – Scott Maidment; Musical Director – Steve Toulmin; Costume Designer – James Browne; Choreographer & Co-Creative Director – Kevin Maher; Lighting & Set Designer – Philip Gladwell

Performers: Tuedon Ariri; Hampus Jansson; J’aiMime; Jess Mews; Laura New; Milena Straczynski; Monsieur Romeo; Spencer Novich; Shun Sugimoto.

Program illustration - The cast of Blanc de Blanc in action

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 27

New circus is now old, if not old hat – becoming established as it did in Australia with Circus Oz in 1978.  But perhaps the better comparison for Strut and Fret’s Blanc de Blanc might be the work of the French James Thierée, brought up in Le Cirque Imaginaire and Le Cirque Invisible and reviewed on this blog for his work Bright Abyss presented in the Sydney Festival, 19 January 2006.

Quoting myself, “Thierrée's directing made what might have been a series of circus-style acts into a work of strong dramatic structure which drew the audience into the lives of those on stage and reflected on our own experience - and gave hope that, working together, we may survive the abyss and find our way in some kind of harmony.”

There will be people in the audience last night who will object, saying but we only came for a fun night!  But I reply, in my curmudgeonly way (to steal a favourite word from the famous Canberra Times columnist, Ian Warden), that I wanted more.  The performers – especially Jess Mews whose hoop swinging was certainly the most amazingly complicated and skilful I have ever seen – were all terrific acrobats, dancers, mimes and contortionists, but the basic idea of turning the largest Spiegeltent in Australia into nothing but a bawdy champagne party was a bit limited dramatically, I thought.

Of course, I appreciated what was often a spoof of the up-itself French-Canadian Cirque du Soleil, but what does Blanc de Blanc really mean?

I can’t do better, I suggest, than quote wine merchants Berry Bros. & Rudd:

A classic Blanc de Blancs is restrained and elegant when young, yet with ageing it develops a mouth-coating brioche richness that overlays an intense expression of fruitiness.   Their Champagne by Le Mesnil, Grand Cru is described in this way: Le Mesnil is a cooperative located in one of Côte des Blancs’s greatest villages, Le Mesnil-sur-Oger. It produces Champagnes that are smooth and rich with fine acidity at the basic level; while the vintage wines offer a significant step up, with crisper, richer and fuller fruit that will develop a toasty finesse.

How could you seriously make fun of that, hey? The term Blanc de Blancs designates Champagnes made only from Chardonnay grapes.  If that had been explained in the show, I would have understood.  Surely middle-class Canberrans only ever drink chardonnay – never those awfully pretentious NZ sauvignons.  Though I notice that there’s a backsliding trend recently to the terrible Rhine rieslings, would you believe!

Well, the brioche richness certainly came in a highly original approach to the aerial work, in solo and duet, in and out of the water, but, while the ending inside and outside very surprising balloons and soap bubbles lightened the tone, the crowd taking selfies with the performers was not quite the ‘significant step up’ I would have preferred – certainly not ‘crisper, richer and fuller fruit that will develop a toasty finesse’.

On the other hand, perhaps this is not what the traditional Famous Spiegeltent is about – except that my first experience (of the then much smaller original ‘tent’) was at the Sydney Festival in 2007.  The show was La Clique, compered by Canberra’s very own Mikelangelo, backed live by his Black Sea Gentlemen band.  The episodes followed much the same format as Blanc de Blanc, the nudity of magician Ursula Martinez was much more sexually stimulating, the humour was not based on old-style stereotyping (including isn’t it great to just get drunk), the pure circus skills were nearly as good – and finally, the satire was funnier because it was better written and more biting.

But don’t let this curmudgeon put you off going along for the party, party, party atmosphere.  It was just fun, and after all – maybe – all you need is fun!

Post Partum

All I didn’t need was to stand in a very long queue for a very long time in what was an unusually merely cool evening, instead of Canberra’s usual freezing temperature by this time of year.  I suggest the 6.30 pm hour-long shows should start at 6 pm or even 5.30 pm, since we found ourselves waiting until the previous crowd departed and the venue was set up for the 8 pm show, which actually got under way maybe by about 8.20 pm.  This really wasn’t fun, and helped make the opening of the action a less effective audience warm-up than it could have been.

A small fraction of the queue at The Spiegeltent Canberra
waiting in the cool for Blanc de Blanc, April 27, 2018
Photo: Frank McKone