Sarah McLachlan at the Opera House

This is the third time I have seen Sarah McLachlan live. Last year, when she was at the State Theatre, we went twice – mainly because our seats for the first show were in the second back row, so when a second show was announced I was first in line at Ticketek and got in the second front row. We had originally planned to then sell off the other tickets, but in the end it seemed like too much hard work, so we went twice and loved it both times. Probably it was excessive to go a third time, but who knows how long it will be before she comes to Australia again – if ever. Also, we thought it would be a buzz to see her at the Opera House.

Normally when we go to the Opera House we’re seeing something in the Drama Theatre, or the Playhouse, which are off to the side. But this was in the Concert Hall, so we got to go in properly through the front door. (And I have to say that the Ladies’ Toilets are much nicer there than at the Drama Theatre/Playhouse. Obviously music lovers rate higher quality conveniences than theatregoers.)

It was more or less the same playlist as her concerts last year, but the order was shuffled around a bit, and some of the presentations were different. There may also have been some songs added or removed – I don’t have 100% recall of each and every song she did.

She described it as her favourite songs from her last three albums. Sadly, this meant no “I Will Not Forget You”, no “Lost” and no “Back Door Man” – three of my favourites, but all from her second album, Solace. She obviously also rates “Full of Grace”, from Surfacing, lower than I do (or maybe she just feels its been a bit overplayed). And while it was to be expected that she would have most of the tracks from her most recent album, Afterglow, I was disappointed that “Time” was missing, since it’s one of my top 3 from this album.

On the plus side, though, the performances of “Push” and “Answer” (my other two Afterglow favourites) were wonderful. I’m pretty sure that at the State Theatre she had “Angel” as her final encore – here it was much earlier in the playlist. It’s one of those songs that when you know and love it from the album, you (or, at least, I) can’t quite accept it being sung even slightly differently, so while it was beautiful, it just wasn’t quite right. OTOH, “Fear” was pretty incredible, as was “Hold On” and “World on Fire”.

The absolute highlight, though, was “Possession”. I have always loved the piano version, and been a bit ho-hum about other versions. At the State Theatre she did a totally full-on version of it, which you could feel right in your stomach, and which, somewhat to my own surprise, I absolutely loved. This time it was different – she started out with the beautiful piano version, and segued into the dramatic style. Taken as a whole, it just blew me away.

Shakespeare’s Villains at the Seymour Centre

Another good night at the theatre, though again I didn’t get quite what I was expecting. The concept is that Steven Berkoff chats to the audience about a number of Shakespeare’s villains, interspersed with acting significant scenes from each. The villains include most of the usual suspects – Iago, the Macbeths, Shylock and Richard III – along with some more controversial selections such as Hamlet, Coriolanus and Oberon.

The talk (which I gather is unscripted, but probably covers the same general areas each night) was partly psychological analysis of the characters, partly an actor’s perspective of playing them, partly theatrical traditions surrounding the plays and a bit of general “actor’s life” chit-chat (and bitchiness). This was more or less what I had expected (well, maybe not the chit-chat/bitchiness) and it was interesting, enjoyable and amusing.

I was a bit surprised, though, that when he was actually giving excerpts from the parts he did a lot of them over the top for laughs. This was particularly apparent with the Macbeth bit (where he did both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) and with Hamlet (Hamlet, Gertrude and Polonius). I guess he has been doing this for a lot of years, and knows what will work for the audience. And it was undeniably funny. But I was glad he chose to do Coriolanus straight.

The Permanent Way (David Hare) – Sydney Theatre Company production at the Sydney Theatre

This was the first play in our Sydney Theatre Company subscription for this year. I didn’t know anything about it, aside from the fact that it was by David Hare and was about British Rail. If I thought about it at all, I probably expected something along the same lines of last year’s Harbour - a fictional story, with a bit of an agenda, about a group of fictional people in a real situation.

I certainly didn’t expect what we got – something a lot like a documentary, consisting entirely of interviews, but with actors playing the parts of the interviewees. From the program, it appears that the actors (this was the original cast, not an Australian production) had been involved in the interview process.

Initially, I wasn’t quite sure how to take this. The beginning was about the actual privatisation of British Rail, and I didn’t think the approach would be sustainable for an entire play.

However, it turned out that the main focus was on four different rail disasters, which were, arguably, a result of the privatisation. So the people talking included survivors and bereaved (people who had lost relatives in the crash), as well as some of the decision makers in the companies involved. It was absolutely riveting stuff. In particular, an interesting dichotomy came through in the different attitudes of the survivors and the bereaved – the survivors having a desire to ensure that a similar accident never happened again, but mainly just wanting to get on with their lives; and the bereaved wanting someone to blame for the loss of their loved ones.

Not a happy play, but a very powerful one.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

The only Diana Wynne Jones I read as a child was The Ogre Downstairs. I enjoyed it, but not enough to go chasing up any of her other books. Over the last couple of years, having discovered that a lot of people are very enthusiastic about her, I have been reading her books on and off. Howl’s Moving Castle has been the most recent, inspired by the fact that Hayao Miyazaki has made a film version of it (and I just loved his Spirited Away) and this had lead to a certain amount of discussion about the book on both Girlsown and Child_Lit.

With the exception of Fire and Hemlock, I’m just not seeing the magic a lot of people find in DWJ. For me, most of her books are enjoyable enough, but nothing extraordinary – and there have been one or two (e.g. A Tale of Time City) that I found all but unreadable.

Howl’s Moving Castle fell into the “pleasant enough” category. The story had some interesting ideas, but I wasn’t particularly grabbed by any of the characters. I didn’t dislike them, but I found them rather on the bland side – which surprised me a little, since I gather some people list Howl as one of their all-time favourite heroes. Obviously DWJ is just one of those authors I’m somehow missing the point of.

The Goodies at the State Theatre

Like most Australians of my generation, I grew up on The Goodies, watching them every afternoon after school as the ABC ran the episodes again and again and again. So when I heard that they performing live in Sydney, there was absolutely no way I wasn’t going. No matter that they are all in their 60s, and there was a real possibility that the show would be quite dull – it was just one of those things I had to do.

As it turned out, the show was far from dull. It had its ups and downs, but basically they are still very funny. They did a sketch from I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again which went on a bit too long (and I didn’t think was very funny in ISIRTA anyway). Showing excerpts from the shows didn’t do too much for me either, since I’ve seen most of them relatively recently anyway, but I realise not everyone in the audience has cable TV, so for some it would be their first viewing in years.

Most of the show was structured around the three of them telling anecdotes, and reading out and answering questions. I think this probably worked a lot better than trying to turn the TV program into a stage show. However, there were a few brief sketches, such as Bill’s and Graeme’s Cambridge Circus auditions (plus the aforementioned ISIRTA bit) to add variety. And it was funny. And interesting. And I had a good time.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood (plus a rant about punctuation)

This was the first Margaret Attwood I ever read, and it’s the only one I tend to re-read. I find the society she envisages fascinating, and I love the way the story unfolds. I simultaneously enjoy and am frustrated by the open ending. However, I do find it a bit hard to believe that the society could undergo such a radical change in a relatively short period of time.

I have to admit, though, one of the things that annoys me about Attwood (and a number of other “serious” modern writers) is the attitude of “I can make up my own rules of punctuation”. This particularly applies to dialogue. What’s wrong with the generally accepted standards of opened and closed quote marks? I’m not a big fan of writing in the present tense, or idiosyncratic grammar, but I can see how these can have a real impact on how the story is being told, and the effect it has on the reader. But changing punctuation?

Some authors choose to replace quote marks with other dialogue signifiers: for example, in Everything Will Be All Right, Tessa Hadley puts a dash at the beginning of the paragraph, and immediately after (though not before) the “he said/she said” tag (if there is one). Attwood, however, dispenses with signifiers altogether – as in the following example:

I’ve learned to do without a lot of things. If you have a lot of things, said Aunt Lydia, you get too attached to this material world and you forget about spiritual values. You must cultivate poverty of spirit. Blessed are the meek. She didn’t go on to say anything about inheriting the earth. (The Handmaid’s Tale, 1996 Vintage edition, p. 74)

These authors may find quote marks aesthetically displeasing. However, standard punctuation, understood by readers, does actually make the reading process easier – particularly when it comes to separating the actual dialogue from the “he said/she said” tags. Of course, it’s not actually difficult to read these authors, but a higher level of concentration is required, and occasionally one needs to re-read a sentence after misinterpreting a tag as dialogue (or vice versa) the first time through. And personally, I’d prefer to be putting my cognitive processing power into dealing with the intricacies of plot, the subtleties of character or the beauties of language, rather than into coping with unfamiliar punctuation.

Maybe there is some subtle effect that is passing me by. But to be honest, what it actually feels like is that these authors are just looking for a gimmick that will set them apart from “ordinary” authors. I think Attwood’s writing is good enough to do this on its own, and I find that messing around with punctuation detracts from her book, rather than adds to it.