No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

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Crack Theatre Festival 2014

Three wishes

Between speaking at National Young Writers Festival events in beautiful Newcastle, I spent some time running around the Crack Theatre Festival, and wrote about it for Guardian Australia:

Then there was the work that was silly and messy and fun, which thrives in an environment like this: the ghost doing stand-up; a drunk artist at the microphone begging for a place to spend the night; audience members forced to trawl through a thousand matches to find a hidden toothpick.

Three hours by train from Sydney, Crack can feel removed from the rest of the Australian theatre scene. For one weekend a year it pops up, consuming the lives of those who attend; perhaps overlooked by those who don’t. But its artists will return to their home cities, regroup, and send their art out into the world again.

Upcoming Events

National Young Writers’ Festival Adelaide Launch
6pm Thursday 28 August 2014
Hello, Yes, Adelaide

The National Young Writers’ Festival team are proud to present our very first Adelaide program launch.

The evening will feature readings from local festival artists Raelke Grimmer, Grace Bellavue and Jane Howard as well as a comic workshop from Georgina Chadderton (AKA George Rex) and Owen Heitmann.

Come and enjoy a local slice of the NYWF and support our Adelaide writers!

FREE entry.

With thanks to the SA Writers’ Centre and literary supporters/nice guys Hello, Yes.

Emerging Writers’ Festival Adelaide Roadshow: The Writers’ Masterclass
10:30am Saturday 6 September 2014
Fifth Quarter, Bowden


What does it mean to write for the stage or screen, crafting words for others to enact and characters for others to inhabit? Has new media made playwriting obsolete, or is the ‘undownloadable’ aspect of theatre precisely what makes it so special and exciting? Professional playwrights and critics discuss what ‘performative writing’ means to them, and how we can all build notions of performativity into our own repertoire as writers.

Jane Howard (Chair), Phillip Kavanagh, Michèle Saint-Yves, Ben Brooker

Sign Up! The Importance of Seeing Earnest

Jane is a theatre critic. Last Tuesday, she saw The Importance of Being Earnest for the fourth time. The script is the last script on her bookshelf, as the last script in the Collected Plays of Oscar Wilde. Not many playwrights come after Wilde in the alphabet.

Simon is her editor. Last Tuesday, he saw The Importance of Being Earnest for the first time. While his bookshelves are vast, they don’t contain the Collected Plays of Oscar Wilde.

After they left the theatre, Jane and Simon stole wine and oysters from opening night drinks. After opening night drinks, they spent five days emailing each other about the production. They discussed all the things you’d expect in a theatre review, took a few tangents besides—translation! Monty Python! linguistics! 19th century probate law!—and collectively developed a sense of Earnest, and what it means to see it for the first time, and the fourth.

The Lifted Brow is inviting you to eavesdrop on this conversation. Go on. Subscribe. One review, two critics; five emails, five days. The conversation starts this Saturday 9 August.

Subscribe here.

Sydney Writers’ Festival

I just spent a delightful four days in Sydney with Guardian Australia for the writers’ festival around the wharfs on the Harbour – surely the most impossibly beautiful place to put a festival, and we had the most unseasonably warm weather to boot. I’ve left feeling exhausted and inspired, and with a reading list that has increased ten-fold. 

Here’s what I wrote while I was there:

David Malouf: my life as a reader

Growing up in Brisbane, he was eight when he first read Charles and Mary Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, before his father bought him the complete works at aged ten. Since then, he says, he must have read each play “hundreds of times,” and yet, especially when watching Shakespeare in performance, Malouf continues to find lines he has never heard before. “There is nothing more extraordinary to finding your way into the mind of Shakespeare,” he says, still filled with awe. Shakespeare is, in Malouf’s estimation, the greatest writer the world has ever seen.

My Valentine, Sandi Toksvig review – a love letter to the world

The show is at its most touching when a homage to her friends and their adventures, and particularly the bond they often shared over the English language – and the puns that can be made with a language which is much more complex than Danish.

Thomas Keneally: ‘Joan of Arc was a stroppy sheila’

Watching Thomas Keneally in discussion with his biographer, Peter Pierce, you wonder if this is what their hours of interviews in preparation for Pierce’s Australian Melodramas: The Fiction of Thomas Keneally were like, or is this just a particular domain that rises between the pair when you place them in front of several hundred people, and tell them they only have an hour to look at Keneally’s 50 years as a writer?

Irvine Welsh, Sandi Toksvig and Gary Shteyngart on debauchery

Because of this, the most interesting things we hear are the anecdotes about life, rather than about writing: Shteyngart on his ex-girlfriend, who moved to Florida to date Shteyngart’s doppelganger, before she took his ear off with a hammer (“Maybe she just wanted to tell you apart,” suggests Welsh); one of Toksvig’s “few” drug stories, where she ate half a cannabis biscuit and went to bed; Welsh on discovering “let’s have a couple of beers” in America means two beers, “in the UK they mean two days”.

Culture: what is it, what’s it worth and who’s shut out?

Even as these panelists speak about listening to others, to observing how we all interact with the world, and about wanting to provide people with a voice, they are still finding they must question their own interaction with the culture. Speaking about how our society makes invisible thousands of seafarers who allow for global shipping, Rankin reflects on how he, too has made voices invisible. Recently reading Clare Wright’s The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, he was forced to question theatre he had previously made about Eureka. “How dare I exclude women from the culture?”

Tara Moss, Irvine Welsh and Damon Young on writing about bodies

Moss has been writing fictional characters for years in her crime novels, but here she discusses the analysis of the ways women’s bodies are perceived – and fictionalised – in society. Reading a section from her book, she relays quotes about women’s aptitudes and physiology from 1873 (Edward Clarke saying an education will steal blood away from women’s reproductive system), 1888 (Friedrich Nietzsche on women scholars having problems with their sexual organs), and 1915 (Charles L Dana and the impracticality of women’s spines for politics). Through this, the audience laughs – how archaic!

Amy Tan, Gary Shteyngart and Benjamin Law on being the children of immigrants

When Tan’s mother lived in Shanghai, she was a socialite. Moving to America for love to marry a poor minister, she struggled not only with the change in cultures, but perhaps even more so with the shift in status. Tan says it was in returning to China with her mother that she began to realise the complexities of her life. “I used to think she got into a lot of arguments [in America] because no-one could understand her English,” says Tan. “When I went to Shanghai with her she got into even more arguments, and I realised English only held her back.”

Emma Donoghue: ‘I didn’t need to take drugs – I had books’

The speech was written as she spent time in Australia this week at “the most fabulous of festivals. I’ve been to many festivals, and this is without peer.” She couldn’t have written it before arriving, she says, as “you should be a bit changed at the end of the Sydney writers’ festival.” And that change comes through: she references talks she heard and discussions she had with many writers over the week. She talks of Andrew Solomon’s opening speech, Sandi Toksvig’s Peas and Queues, Kate Ceberano discussing her daughter, and Nakkiah Lui on who gets to tell whose stories.

And do check-out all of our coverage from the four days at our live-blog, with many more articles about many more writers. There I have notes on Irvine Welsh being asked if people can skip his books and just watch the films; a short interview with Nakkiah Lui; a look at what festival goers are reading; thoughts on erotic fan fiction; and a short note of love to a brief glance at a first edition Enid Blyton. 


Jane Has A Newsletter

Jane Has A Newsletter is an experiment and a challenge I’ve given myself for the 2014 Next Wave Festival, exploring a new way to respond to art by highlighting things the work reminds me of: perhaps that takes the shape of essays, or podcasts, or films. These responses will only exist as a newsletter and won’t be publicly archived. You can find out more and subscribe here; the first email will be sent April 30.

Melbourne Fringe winners in Adelaide

While I’ve rolled out of town to cover the festivals in Perth, artists from across the country have rolled on into Adelaide. But with a program so big, how do you know where to look? For the Adelaide Review, I look at the productions coming to Adelaide that took home awards from last year’s Melbourne Fringe. Sure to be some gems.

They Saw A Thylacine took home awards for Best Performance and the New Zealand Fringe’s Tiki Tour Ready Award. The show, describes creator and performer Justine Campbell, is a verse performance that tells two stories:

“One of a female zookeeper struggling with the prejudices surrounding the last Tasmanian tiger in captivity at Hobart Zoo, the other of a female tracker hot on the tail of wild thylacine.”

Performing with fellow creator Sarah Hamilton, the pair is looking forward to remounting the show in Adelaide. Melbourne Fringe, Hamilton says, is “like a cocoon. A ground to test new work,” where Adelaide is “a hive of creativity of culture. A melting pot in a hot and beautiful city.”

You can read the whole piece here.


On accents, place, specificity, and Dennis Kelly’s Orphans

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about accents on stages. On what is it that makes a play, a piece of art, “Australian”? What is it in us that craves for recognition of a world we are told is ours; or what voyeurism do we seek in a world that isn’t ours?

These most recent thoughts have come off a local production of Dennis Kelly’s The Orphans, directed by Shona Benson for Blue Fruit Theatre.

Originally set in London and making its debut at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe, for this season Benson chose to set the production in Adelaide. In this change, though, rather than bringing the world of Orphans closer our own, rather than creating recognisable ties and providing us with something familiar to connect with, Benson ends up un-anchoring the play: she sets it adrift.

But first, some divergence.

Months ago I argued – much to the chagrin of some – that Belvoir’s Angels in America felt incredibly Australian, despite it’s American accents and American setting. In the past few years adaptations and relocations of classical work to an Australian setting has become a huge and defining part of Australian theatre. Like all theatre, sometimes this work is celebrated and sometimes it is derided.

Playing with accents and location is nothing new for Australian theatre, though. Historically, perhaps our most famous example is John Bell and the work he did with Nimrod, then later and continuing with the Bell Shakespeare Company.

In her 1977 review of Bell’s Much Ado About Nothing at Nimrod, Katharine Brisbane comments the “point of controversy in this production [is] the greengrocer accents”:

The reason I liked the accent was a simple one: that it provided a communal reality with which the actors could work and a bridge over which the audience might approach the play without timidity or reverence. The problems involved in trying to find something in common between Shakespeare and the modern Australian are, of course, legion. Aristocracy, in particular, is something that makes us uneasy. We have no sense of hierarchy and the intrigues of the nobility would seem remote to our experience of life. That is why the study of Shakespeare so often becomes an effort of will, instead of an enlightening experience. John Bell’s production of Much Ado About Nothing knocks the stuffing out of such uncomprehending reverence and focuses the audience’s attention and affection directly on the people and events on stage.

Read the rest of this entry »

Off the blog

Recent writing at Guardian Australia

Sydney theatre 2014: highlights of the new season

For those who like their theatre queer, feminist or to explore gender, something exciting seems to be happening on Sydney stages in 2014. On the main stages alone, Belvoir, Griffin and the Sydney Theatre Company will be producing plays that touch on these themes.

Belvoir has three shows I’m looking out for including Cain and Abel, a collaboration with The Rabble, one of the most exciting theatre companies in the country.

Melbourne theatre 2014: highlights of the new season

It was the independent theatre in Melbourne that really excited people this year, and at the epicentre was the Neon season at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Five of Melbourne’s leading independent companies were given support and complete creative control to create work for the company’s Lawler theatre. The results were urgent and provocative: writing for the ABC, Alison Croggon called it “some of the most challenging and exciting new work made in this city”.

Melbourne festival 2013: top 10 picks

This ambitious project from New York theatre company The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma is the life story of one of the company members. The production is still a work in progress (they hope to have it completed by 2017) and at the festival they’re showcasing the first four “episodes”. The production can be seen over three nights or in one marathon, 10-hour session that includes a barbecue dinner. Ten hours is sure to be confronting, perhaps occasionally dull, and challenging for the audience as well as the performers. Not only is this must-see theatre, the must-see way to watch it is to go for the marathon.

Charlie’s Country: Adelaide film festival 2013 – first-look review

De Heer’s film is a slow indictment of the colonialist relationship between white law and Indigenous people. It is a film you need to settle back into and experience rather than try and get ahead of the story. Through a slow burn, de Heer asks his audience to experience and reflect on Charlie’s life and this complex clash of cultures. When Charlie is indicted it is for a crime he did indeed commit, but we also see the endlessly complex, unsupportive and disparaging circumstances that lead him to that point.

The Darkside: Adelaide film festival 2013 – first-look review

The strong performances are captured with Thornton’s crisp cinematography in charming and simple snapshots of Australia – an open verandah, a campfire, a marina – and yet the series of monologues fail to come together as a compelling feature film. With the stories tied together only thematically, there is no drive to the film and you wonder if linking the stories together in this form was the strongest way to present them.

Vere (Faith) – review

Under the direction of Sarah Goodes we always return to Blackwell’s performance: the great sadness in the struggle of his failing brain, his aimless meander around the room. She finds private and quiet moments with the supporting cast, and it’s in the tender moments that Doyle’s script is strongest – a man deeply passionate about the world and the universe and the secrets it keeps, his son facing a long battle as his father’s mind shuts in on itself.


Fairfax Festival Wrap Up Blog

It’s been a few weeks now since I returned to Adelaide from Swan Hill and the Fairfax Festival. A few weeks late, then, in getting you this final blog post but that’s the way life often happens: back on the ground, the real world catches up with you. And I think I rather needed those few weeks to process the experience.

It truly was a brilliant week, and I am so thankful to the team at the festival for inviting me up to cover the week, to talk to the kids, to try my hand at the workshops and the theatre sports. The week managed to remind me of things in theatre and the arts that I’d forgotten; to remind me of things about being a teenager I’d forgotten, too.

Primarily: how diverse your life is when you’re that age. There were kids at Fairfax for whom theatre is their number one goal in the world: who, when you ask who their inspiration is, they say their cousin who is currently at drama school. But then there are others for whom theatre is just an exciting thing amongst many other things: be that dance, or cricket, or football, or the army cadets, or knowing every fact there is to know about Doctor Who.

The most joyous thing about the week was just how kind everyone was, how you could really see the friendships forming. There was a lot of diversity in the students that participated in the week, but I never heard anything to suggest there was a problem: with race, with gender, with disabilities. Were there things I missed? Undoubtedly. Did I see the occasionally snotty look when a group of three friends had to break off to become partners? Yes. But, by and large, these moments seemed small, fleeting.


After their first performance, I go up to the kids from Shepparton, who had created a piece of live and pre-recorded sound art.

I tell them how much I liked their performance. How different it was from everything else. What a great job they’d done embracing that.

“When we were told we were doing sound,” they tell me, “we didn’t want to. We thought ‘why would we want to do that? We can do that at home.’”

“But it was so cool!” they excitedly go on to say. They tell me how they’re going to keep on playing around with it at home, how Tristan actually gave them much more than simply showing them a computer program.


I stand in front of the dry fountain, where the kids from Barham are sitting performing a chant and a rhythmic cup-song game that I used to play on high-school camps a decade ago. They start to tell a story of two characters: of Ruby and Brodie, and all about their current lives, and their future hopes and dreams. These characters dance, and are cricket players, they travel the world and become vets for the New York City Zoo, they stay in Barham and have dogs, and a partner, and kids.

One girl says, “She didn’t have any kids. She achieved all of her goals. And she was happy.”

Tears prick in my eyes.


One teenage girl, her character’s name Tim Tam, focuses her phone’s camera at Braydon, lying down in the front seat of the car. He is wearing a dress and a blonde wig, and his character gives birth to a doodle-bear.

The man behind me says “I have no idea what is going on.”

The artists who worked with the students tell me they’re planning on performing it back home in Manangatang, a community of under 500 people.


A giant pelican takes its characterisation a little too seriously, almost taking out a mother with a baby in her arms.


After rehearsal one day, I start talking to Imparja from the Marruk Project.

“I’m amazed at how you can make your voice sound like the didgeridoo when you’re beat boxing,” I say. “Where did you learn to beat box?”

“Oh you know, youtube,” he says.

In performance, Parj puts down his didgeridoo and starts to beatbox. Just as he is about to start his rap, he pauses. He’s forgotten the words, and looks to the girls standing behind him.

“Just breathe,” one tells him. “You wrote it, you know it.”

He breathes. And he confidently raps every word.


I go to the Bureau of Misinformation several times.

I ask the girl all in black with heavy black make-up “What should I wear to the film festival opening?”

“Rosary beads.”

“Just rosary beads? Should I wear something else?”

“Of course you should wear something else! But you should also always wear rosary beads. So you can pray. And ask for forgiveness.”

I return to this same booth later, and ask “What is the best way to get to Adelaide from here?”

“You should drive. It’s a long way. The road can be very windy. You might die. But if you do, it’s god’s plan.”

I step back and watch other people having questions answered. Niko steps out from behind his both, and demonstrates a short dance into a standing back-tuck.

“Now you try it,” he says.

The person he is instructing looks on wearily.

“Go on!”

And he does. With a significant amount of rotation provide by Niko. And me wishing there was perhaps a safety mat or two.

At another booth, I’m faced with two girls playing twins, and a plethora of women’s magazines.

“What should I be when I grow up?” I ask.

“You should be a model,” one tells me.

“No! She’s not pretty enough to be a model! You should be a nurse,” the other fights.

They argue.

In the end they decide I can be both.


A young woman is crying in the corner of Swan Hill Town Hall, surrounded by friends.

“It’s just that it’s all over. This huge huge thing in my life, and now it’s over. Gone.”


One night, earlier in the week, I’m working on a blog.

From the hotel room next door I hear “Chunga chunga chunga chunga, bunny bunny bunny bunny, talky talky talky talky.”

I step out to see a bunch of artists, including the festival director Claire, playing theatre games.

“Jane!” they say. “Come and play!”

“You’re all crazy,” I say.

“I’ll be there in a minute.”

It’s not only the kids who get a kick out of this week.