Bugs, Birds and Bees

Recently I was talking to my mother. My phone call interrupted her in the shed where she was wrestling with the pesticide pump. She was removing the original hose and replacing it with a longer one. By way of making conversation I stupidly asked why. Her plan, she told me, was to climb up into the roof cavity and spray the pesticide throughout the ceiling. At this point I should mention that my mother is in her seventies. She’d obviously just been told that’s the new thirty.

I almost said, “Haven’t you heard that the European parliament has banned pesticides because the honey bee has lost its dance?” But I caught myself in time. My mother’s Italian. Italy has very few songbirds, hardly any bees and virtually no insects. Anything that crawls, flies, or moves on four legs must be stomped out, or eaten, as quickly as possible, including the European parliament. So what I said instead was, “Can’t you call the pest control man to do that?” I’ve found that delaying tactics sometimes work better than outright obstruction.

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“No. No. No. I did that last time.  He just stands on the ladder and does ‘puff’, ‘puff’, two times in the air. He doesn’t even go inside. And two weeks later the ants are marching across my kitchen again. He is a waste of money. I will do it myself. And I use three times what they say on the bottle. I make sure that it works.”

The problem had now escalated from simple pesticide use to toxic chemical warfare. I attempted a bus analogy, “I don’t think you need three times as much to kill the pests. If you get hit by a bus and die, it doesn’t matter if two more buses run you over. You’re not going to be more dead.”

It didn’t work.

So I switched to an occupational health and safety angle. “You know that it’s really poisonous to breathe in those chemicals?” As I listened to her answer, I watched a drunken cockroach stagger across the carpet of my living room.

Leaf cutting ant at the London Butterfly House in Syon Park

“I”m not stupid. I wear a mask.” She said. And just as I was about to mention that the chemicals seep through your skin, “And gloves. I wear your father’s old boiler suit. The white one. I look like I am going into space,” she chuckled.

“How do you get up into the roof?” I asked.

“I climb up on the ladder.” Her tone was one of wonder at the enormous stupidity of her own daughter.

“You go all the way into the roof?” I persisted.

“To every corner. That’s where they hide. But don’t worry; I take the telephone with me. If anything happens I will call you.”

And with that she hung up. She had things to do, places to be, a whole roof cavity to napalm.

Later that day as I sat down with a cup of tea I saw the cockroach under the coffee table. The poor thing was lying on its back. That’s when I remembered the baits I’d put out a few weeks ago. The first bug of the season had succumbed to my need to euthanize these living creatures.

“Oh!” said the pot to the kettle……

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Images via Wikimedia Commons – attributions: Bumble bee on a flower by Christian Bauer ; Leaf cutting ant by William Warby; Still Life: Turkey and Songbirds in a Landscape by North Italian School.

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Songlines, Starmaps and Ubiquitous Suburban Roads

A friend recently flew back into Sydney. It was after sunset and she had the window seat. As the plane banked lower and lower across the north west of the city she began to recognise some of the main roads that she was used to driving on. Seen from the air they looked a little different. But it was when she saw Parramatta Road, beautifully lit up at night, that she realised that Sydney from the sky looks like a huge Aboriginal dot painting. And like the paint lines on those canvases, none of the roads are straight, rather they snake slowly north, south, east and west. It was then that she wondered if our main roads followed the ancient dreaming tracks of the original inhabitants.

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I’ve always been fascinated by old roads. On long road trips along modern highways playing ‘spot the old road’ is a favourite pastime. Sometimes they run parallel for a few kilometres, then disappear over a cumbersome hill, now conveniently bypassed by the billion dollar ribbon of concrete that we are speeding along. Highways are fast, modern places but most of them still trace the old routes, the Aboriginal people’s roads along which they traveled for trade. From these came the songlines or dreaming tracks, “effectively oral maps of the landscape, enabling the transmission of oral navigational skills in cultures that do not have a written language.” 1   Songlines are part of a complex Indigenous belief system connecting knowledge of the land with spirituality and culture.

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I’ve also discovered the old roads during my walks across the city. I’ve done a lot of walking since ditching my car three years ago. Walking connects you intimately to the landscape. Sydney, when you walk, is a very hilly city. These hills, when we lived close to the harbour became my constant companions. I came to know their ridges and the valleys below. I got over those hills, literally, and found myself choosing paths that avoided going up and down them. I would find a road along the ridge of a hill and stick to it, even though this might be a more circuitous route, rather than dip into a valley only to climb back out again. Now that we have moved to the western side of the city we are blessed with flatness, or at least softer, smaller hills, mere slopes. I wonder how many of the roads laid along these ridges are songlines masquerading as the ubiquitous suburban streets of this unplanned, lopsided city.

Shannon Foster, D’harawal Educator and Saltwater Knowledge Keeper at Sydney University, in his article, The Aboriginal Science Behind Sydney’s Nightmare Traffic, talks about the local Aboriginal people using fire to create and maintain these paths. “When the Europeans landed on the sandy shores of our sparkling harbour, not only did they comment on the highly manicured appearance of the landscape, but they naturally decided to explore the well-trodden paths of the local Aboriginal people who had been maintaining these walking paths with the use of fire for thousands of years. One of the first paths wandered down by white men led directly west to Parramatta and is now known as George Street. Not far from there, a path led to a fresh water supply and is now known as Pitt Street. There was a path running south connecting Sydney’s two main waterways War-ran (Sydney Cove) and Gamay (Botany Bay), known to us now as the peak hour debacle that is Botany Road.”2

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One of the most famous of these paths is the Great Western Highway over the Blue Mountains. In, The Significance of the Route across the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, Ian Jack tells us that prior to 1789 these mountains were, ‘a meeting-place on the periphery of several language groups. For the Wiradjuri, the Gundungurra, the Darug people, the Mountains were a natural point of contact. One result was that there was widespread knowledge of how to attain the table-top from the plains and valleys and how to cross the climactic landscape of the table-top without abruptly terminating one’s journey. Aboriginal people knew that the single track from the Sydney basin to the Bathurst plains, and vice versa, held to one narrow ridge on top. They knew also that there were only a few viable options for attaining that ridge from the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley at the east and from the Hartley Valley at the west. This knowledge was passed to Europeans whether directly in the form of Aboriginal guides or indirectly through discussions with Aboriginal people.’3

This would have been the case, not only for Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth, but for many of the other colonial explorers of this country. Robert S. Fuller in his article, How ancient Aboriginal star maps have shaped Australia’s highway network reflects on the star maps, or songlines in the sky, used by the  Kamilaroi people of northwest New South Wales as a mnemonic aid. ‘In the winter camp, when the summer travel was being planned in August or September, a person who had traveled the intended route was tasked with teaching others, who had not made this journey, how to navigate to the intended destination. The pattern of stars (the “star map”) was used as a memory aid in teaching the route and the waypoints to the destination. After more research I asked Michael if the method of teaching and memorising was by song, as I was aware that songs are known to be an effective way of memorising a sequence in the oral transmission of knowledge. Michael said, “you got it!”, and I then understood that the very process of creating, then teaching, such a route resulted in what is known as a songline.’4  Fuller’s discovery of the proliferation of songlines across the Australian landscape and their uncanny mimicry of the routes of major roads, or vice versa, as the songlines were there first, makes for a great read.

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It is a beautiful privilege to live on a continent with such an ancient history and wonderfully inspiring to be able to read about the culture and practice of this country’s First Peoples. I now have an enduring image of a starlit winter astronomy lesson to carry with me on my summer road trip. And on my next walk I’ll keep Shannon Foster’s image of the ‘D’harawal tackling prickly tea tree bush, thick undergrowth and enduring the face scratching torture that is Australia’s drought resistant, dry sclerophyll (hard leaved) forest’1 in mind as I venture those same, now sealed, virtually treeless, but still hilly roads that encircle our city.

  1. http://www.atnf.csiro.au/people/Ray.Norris/papers/n315.pdf
  2. http://sydney.edu.au/news/science/397.html?newsstoryid=15394
  3. http://www.aicomos.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Significance-of-the-Route-across-the-Blue-Mountains-in-New-South-Wales.pdf
  4. http://theconversation.com/how-ancient-aboriginal-star-maps-have-shaped-australias-highway-network-55952

Image attributions: Vivid Sydney 2016, James Horan/Destination NSW via Wikimedia Commons; Canning Stock Route by Peter WH via Wikimedia Commons

 

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A Conversation

The USA will soon have a President elected by people who voted for simplicity over complexity. The kind of simplicity that harks back to 20th Century Germany and Italy, Spain and Japan, Austria, Chile and Brazil. The list unfortunately goes on. Those years of fascism created neither happy times nor happy nations but they began as a response; a call from those that believed they weren’t being heard. Sadly it is this belief that brutally propels democracy towards despotism. And fascism is just one of its forms.

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Fascism discourages engagement suggesting that you leave democracy to the experts. But they cannot give the consent that democracy requires. That’s what politics is, the process of elected representatives gaining consent to make decisions on our behalf.  These decisions are made in the public arena of parliament not behind closed doors. That is why it’s noisy and messy. If the polis does not engage then that consent has not been given. But that doesn’t mean that decisions won’t be made. Engagement is essential if the widest variety of voices are to be heard. There’s little point in lamenting a decision after it’s been made (as in the case of Brexit and the US election), particularly if you reveal that you didn’t participate in the making of it, didn’t fight it with everything you had.

Fascism beguiles us with simplistic, easy solutions. ‘Build A Wall’, Keep Them Out’. Slogans targeted at our simple fears, our childish selves.  They are designed to stop us stepping up to the plate as adults and taking the responsibility that differentiates us from children. Voting for someone that promises to solve all your problems without you having to roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty is at best a fantasy and at worst a con that makes us all worse off.  Believing that democracy is what you do once every few years at the ballot box and not every day, is a sure fire way to gain the status of a child. But children don’t vote and they don’t pay taxes. Adults do. And what is politics, parliament, government but the activation of our taxes – the decisions about what to do with our money. Why wouldn’t you want a say in that? As Thomas Jefferson once said, “eternal vigilance is the price of democracy.” That’s the job of adults who are allowed to stay up late.

Fascism uses terms such as the ‘political elite’ to deny that we live in a democracy, deny that there is anything we have to do to keep it vibrant and alive. Believing that there is an us and them, and that the us is powerless, simply gives consent to the people who’ll do whatever it takes to get what they want. It also give us an excuse to do nothing. But that’s the fundamental problem with life, and democracy. It’s impossible to do nothing. Those people in Britain and the USA recently who decided that the best decision was to do nothing, to not make a decision by not voting, still ended up doing something. Something rather big. We have to be informed. We have to be active. We can’t bury our heads in the sand as much as we may want to. And it’s not enough to just have an opinion. Anyone can have an opinion. It’s what you do that matters.

Let’s all pledge to reject fascism.  In my own case I need to be better informed and braver about putting that information out there. And I need to make sure I don’t run away when bullies with loud opinions disagree with me. I need to not be afraid to say something different to what many around me may be saying. Democracy is a conversation. A conversation that doesn’t need a perfect solution. A conversation that has room for compromise. A conversation that isn’t just about winning an argument. Being an adult is not our opportunity to make up for not getting into the high school debating team. Being an adult, who is lucky enough to live in a democracy, is about taking the opportunity to make a satisfying dent in inequality across the planet. It’s about breaking down the simplicity that harbours fear, and celebrating the complexity that opens up the world.

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Image 1: Guernica by Picasso (Photographed by Papamanila) via Wikimedia Commons

Image 2: By Auguste Migette (Reproduction de tableau) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 

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The Art of Grace

What does the word grace conjure in your mind? For some it’s divine assistance, particularly when unmerited. For others it’s a gentle disposition and an elegance of movement. For me it’s the sublime beauty of a sunset at the end of a hard day.

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Sarah L Kaufman is the dance critic for the New York Times. She knows grace when she sees it and in this delightful book, The Art of Grace, she examines this elusive quality. Humorous, inspiring and beautifully written, the book delves into all aspects of this virtue, from the flair and charm of Cary Grant both on film and in real life, to examples of grace under pressure in athletes, performers, and people who live challenging lives.

Subtitled, On Moving Well Through Life, the aim of the book is to highlight moments of grace and to give us hope that we might be able to emulate them. One example is the wise advice Ptahhotep, an Ancient Egyptian vizier, writes for his son, “…honour the people around you by being bright faced, generous and humble, and by helping them feel comfortable and appreciated.” (pxxi)  This beautifully encompasses that joyous quality of caring for others that is the hallmark of a graceful person. It is possibly the epitome of grace; and unfortunately a quality light years away from our modern habits of self obsession.

Kaufman suggests three steps to leading a more graceful life. “Being aware of grace in others allows us to feel some of their ease ourselves.….The next step is practice: cultivate ease of movement, self control, and warmth, and the Greta Garbo walk may very well follow. The third step is to learn to face the world willingly (or at least without obvious panic) and with regard for those around you.” (pxxv)  I very much related to the third step, at least the part in brackets.

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Combining elements of spirituality and DIY with heartening stories and enchanting images, this book is like a satisfying wander through a well curated modern art museum. It ends with a lovely list guaranteed to make even the most slothful and clumsy amongst us more at ease in the world. My favourites from this list? All of them! But I will list only two as I encourage you to buy the book and read the rest:

“Make room for others – on the sidewalk, at the bus stop, in a coffee shop, at a business meeting, and in your life.”  (p278) So simple. So obvious. But so easy to forget.

And, “Enjoy. Raise a glass, as Lionel Barrymore did in the movie Grand Hotel, ‘to our magnificent, brief, dangerous life – and the courage to live it!’ ”(p278)

And now in an attempt to live more gracefully, or just watch others do so, I’m off to download some dashing, debonair Cary Grant and buy  a good bottle of red with which to raise  a fine glass.

 

Images: Grace Darling rowing out to sea, to save sailors from a shipwreck, in a furious storm. Colour wood engraving by E. Evans after C.J. Staniland. via Wikimedia Commons and John William Waterhouse, The Soul of the Rose, via Wikimedia Commons

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Rosemary that’s for Remembrance

“She ain’t got no money
Her clothes are kinda funny
Her hair is kinda wild and free
Oh, but Love grows where my Rosemary goes
And nobody knows like me.”

I remember when Edison Lighthouse’s Love Grows was my favourite song. And rosemary, with its sharp silver grey foliage, was my favourite plant.  Actually it was the only plant that grew in the scraggy brown allotment of dirt we called a front yard. Several of these hardy little plants lined the driveway like staunch little soldiers. I loved them because they were always green no matter how little attention they got and when you brushed against a rosemary plant as you got out of the car, it released a pungent woody fragrance. That scent still reminds me of the night time of childhood.

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My parents were  vivacious. They loved to dance. And the only cool place on a Saturday night in seventies Sydney for Italian migrants to enjoy their version of a three step waltz was the Fogolar Furlan Club. It was (and still is) in Lansvale, a suburb in the south west of Sydney situated on the flood prone banks of the George’s River. After a week of back breaking work in the factory or on the building site my parents, like all the other adults, were there to eat, drink and dance. Us children were simply expected to run off and play. There were no introductions, no activities and no playground, except for a rough set of old swings in the paddock next to the car park.  It was like childhood was a foreign land for these adults. And in most cases it probably was; having grown up in the poverty of post World War II Italy, most of them had never experienced it. Eventually when we got tired of chasing each other through the fields we’d return to the dance hall and play noughts and crosses on paper napkins, until we fell into exhausted sleep along rows of chairs pushed under the long tables. The adults danced on. At midnight we’d be woken and carried floppily to cars to resume our slumber on the back seat. I always remember the horrible nausea that accompanied being woken in full sleep. Perhaps that’s why I loved the rosemary. It’s soothing aroma declared that we were finally home and would soon be in our own beds.

Recently I decided to try my hand at gardening. Not being much of a green thumb I remembered rosemary. Apparently a very easy herb to grow; it’s highly recommended for the time poor and stupid alike.  There’s one simple rule for its survival: never over water. In fact it likes to be a little on the dry side. If you plant it in a warm, sunny spot with good soil drainage, preferably in a terracotta pot, nothing can go wrong. And don’t forget that rosemary likes at least six to eight hours of sunlight a day and abhors windy conditions. Unfortunately I didn’t have any terracotta pots. Just the self watering plastic pots I’d sourced from my mother’s garden when she wasn’t looking.  But surely they would work just fine. And although my balcony was prone to the odd Southerly and only got two hours of sunlight in winter I was confident that my rosemary would survive. I’d read that it was an adaptable herb; able to grow just about anywhere and thriving best when forgotten.

Which is exactly what I did through the three coldest months of the year. O.K. Winter in Sydney isn’t that cold but it’s a great excuse to retreat indoors. I borrowed several gardening books from the library and settled in. One of them, called Guerilla Gardening turned out to be a delightful volume.  It was about people with obviously too much time on their hands, who establish gardens on land they don’t own, in an attempt to green the urban environment. They might throw seed bombs into the rubble of a fenced off building site or plant a shrub in an abandoned corner of a parking lot. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the adventures of these trowel wielding civic pirates. I read all the way through June and July and right through a very rainy August.

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Finally September arrived and I popped outside to see how my rosemary had fared through winter. Although growing conditions had not been ideal, it seemed to be surviving quite well. And at least I hadn’t had to worry about watering. My rosemary was lovely and green. Very green. Not just her leaves. They were the usual olive green but her normally woody trunk was also green. When I looked a little more closely I saw that it was covered in a delicate green fur. Was that moss? I pushed my index finger into the soil close to the roots of the plant. That’s not anything perverted it’s just how you check moisture levels.  I was expecting the soil to be wet. But this soil was slimy. That’s when I realised that I was growing mushrooms. Hundreds of tall, stringy, silver-grey fungi had sprouted in the same pot as my rosemary. I retreated indoors. I was beginning to understand why guerrilla gardeners propagated plants on land they didn’t own.

Through spring the mushrooms and moss disappeared and so I tentatively began to garden again. The experience with rosemary had taught me caution. I restricted myself to only a few plants: thyme and parsley, marigolds and mint, tomatoes and nasturtiums, eggplants and lemon balm, blueberries and a small gardenia bush. I watered and fertilised them librally but I had learnt my lesson and took great care to not to let any water get on the rosemary. And so I was deeply troubled when a few days ago I noticed that the rosemary did not look well. Its leaves were lack lustre and limp. And by yesterday it had become a spiritless and exhausted coppery brown shadow of its former self.

So as the sun set I decided it was time for some guerrilla gardening of my own. The book I’d read described guerrilla gardeners as suburban ecowarriors going forth in the dead of night to secretly sow vegetable patches on street verges or plant flower beds along railway tracks.  And although there was nothing in the index under brown thumb I was sure that I could learn on the job. I used my trusty digging tool to gently ease the rosemary from its pot and placed it kindly in my bucket. Then I walked down the back lane and along the railway line. I had failed to love this plant as it deserved but now I was determined to find it a new home. It would be the perfect spot with the rough conditions that this dry little soul thrives on.

“Because Love grows where my Rosemary goes
And nobody knows like me…”

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Healthy Rosemary image: David R. Tribble   (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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Walking The Goods Line

I like walking. Now. As an adult it has led me through lush woodland and native forest, along rugged cliff tops that overlook the wild blue ocean and into cosmopolitan quarters of our rich city that I didn’t even know existed. Walking takes me out of myself and into a meditative, imaginative place of inspiration and delight. What’s not to like?

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When I was a child however walking was agony. Each day I walked to school, itself a place of torture.  To get there I had to tramp up an enormous hill and whilst climbing this hill I had to scrape my shoes on the concrete footpath. My parents, having grown up in Fascist Italy had been too afraid to ignore the uniform instructions for Year 7 students, despite my protests. So on my first day of high school, I was the only student wearing shiny, black, patent leather school shoes. Everybody else was wearing desert boots. You may wonder why they wore desert boots in Moorebank. Add the word cultural in front of it and it will all make sense. And so every afternoon I walked home by myself, scraping my school shoes for the whole three kilometres, in an attempt to turn them into desert boots.

But now after many years as an adult that childhood horror has faded and I have discovered the satisfaction of walking. I’m not alone in this. The Aboriginal people who first inhabited this land not only walked it but mapped its landmarks in song, story, dance, and art. Aristotle walked as he talked to his students in his academy in downtown Ancient Athens. The medieval pilgrims traversed whole continents to arrive at their sacred places. Before the industrial revolution farmers sometimes walked several hours a day simply to till their fields and then take their goods to market. And nineteenth century philosophers, a more leisured class, walked as a way to rediscover the joy of existence.

Recently I found myself at Railway Square with time to spare and decided to take myself on a little walking adventure into Sydney’s smoke stack past. The Goods Line, an old rail corridor that runs parallel to Harris Street between UTS and the Powerhouse Museum is a wonderful example of re-imagining industrial space for public use.

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This was the site of a busy freight rail system that ran from Dulwich Hill to Central Station, via Rozelle and Darling Harbour in the days before cars and trucks when goods were carted  by rail. Much of the line around Darling Harbour has been re-used for the Sydney Light Railway.

At the beginning of the walk you emerge from the darkness of the Devonshire Street tunnel, having crossed under George Street, and into the high, bright light of The Goods Line which then crosses above Ultimo Street, via the oldest iron bridge in Australia, built in 1879. At this end you will find trees and shrubs amongst the remnants of signal boxes and abandoned interlocking rail tracks. There are also table tennis tables and picnic benches, and a children’s water play area with a sand pit shaded by fig trees. It is a peaceful pocket populated by pedestrians and memories of a very different past.

Walking is an urban meditation; a riff through the soul of this made thing we call a city. Both we and it are a work in progress and walking helps us to capture the spirit of these wild new places we find ourselves in.  But be warned encountering such wonder in the ordinary can be quite dangerous for your health. Luckily The Goods Line is only about 500 metres long. You’ll know you’ve come to the end of it when you arrive at the Powerhouse Museum Shop & Café where they will serve you a much needed coffee and you can choose from their lovely selection of pastries. And what better place than a coffee house to ruminate on your next ramble.
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Little Black Box

Howard Barker, in Arguments for a Theatre, once said, “theatre should be over-ambitious … the stage should swarm with life… it should be a relentless space and never a room.” Or something like that.

I see a lot of theatre. Most of it is independent theatre. That is, theatre produced with little or no government funding; often profit share, where payment is reliant on box office return. I also see some of the productions at the better accommodated, more prestigious theatres.

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What I don’t see much of are the really big shows, the block buster musicals that come to town. They’ve got big numbers, big sets, big names and big ticket prices. For the price of one of these big shows I can see maybe five ‘indie’ shows. And although the big shows can be a sensual delight if you get a seat close enough to the stage to see and hear the performances, they can also seem overly slick, a strange and not as good version of a film.

Is this what Barker meant by relentless? Was he urging theatre makers to not be happy to simply seduce an audience with beautiful pictures; to not imitate film? Was he calling for a theatre of meaning, of response, a theatre where souls torn out of both the audience and the actors hang breathless in the air?

I see a lot of theatre. I have made a lot of theatre. And I agree with Barker that “theatre should be over-ambitious.” It is only when a piece of theatre is not ambitious, when it doesn’t want to change the world, that I am disappointed. Sometimes I see a production that is simply an excuse for the actors to be on the stage. There seems very little thought about the impact they will have on the audience. That is when I am saddened by the emptiness of the ambition and the wasted opportunity.

I also agree with Barker that theatre should be “a relentless space and never a room.” The kind of theatre I like and the theatre I hope I have made is a powerful political tool. It is unyielding in its ambition to impact the world, to make us think and act for good. Perhaps for some people this clarion call to act is offensive, particularly if it is clothed in sharp satire that tickles at your insecurities with the edge of a knife blade. Or if it’s performed in a little black box by people you know.

But perhaps relentless is a harsh word. I prefer irrepressible. I want the stage to explode with energy; the uncontainable energy of artists that have something to say.

 

Image: The Main House Theatre, The Maltings Theatre, Berwick-upon-Tweed (Wikipedia Commons)

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