The Art of War (Stephen Jeffreys): Sydney Theatre Company at the Wharf Theatre

I saw The Art of War back in June, so it has only taken me two months to get around to blogging it!

I was a bit concerned when I heard that it ran for three hours. And when I got the program and saw that most of the actors played multiple parts, and there were sevaral different plot threads and a Chorus, I thought I was in for another pretentious evening, with underwhelming storylines, and characters I didn’t care about. I could not have been more wrong!

The opening (Chorus reciting from Sun Tzu) was rather stagey and pretentious. But once the main part started, I got caught up in it: even though there were multiple completely separate stories (on one hand, the soldier, the journalist and the Iraq war, and on the other, the Australian company trying to break into the Chinese market – with both forming the backdrops to various tales of love and/or obsession) I found them all interesting and fulfilling rather than short and superficial. And I did like the conceit of applying The Art of War to actual war, to corporate infighting, and to personal relationships. Also, I became really interested in what was happening to the characters, and I genuinely cared about them. As the play progressed, I even came to enjoy the Chorus (particularly in moments such as the one in which they stopped reciting to argue amongst themselves about different translations of the text).

The play was specifically written for the STC Actors Company – the playwright claimed he had only seen a photo of them, but he must surely have also been given some background on their performance styles. As usual, amongst the younger members of the cast, the women (Hayley McElhinney and Amber McMahon) were good and the men a little less so. Of course, Pamela Rabe filled the stage with personality – the way her part was written (tough, idealistic, vulnerable, and uncompromising) was one of the strongest signs that the playwright must have had more to go on than just a photograph. As expected, John Gaden turned in solid performances for his roles, as did Peter Carroll. But for me, the real surprise was Colin Moody. I have seem him in other Actors Company productions, and have generally found him quite forgettable – not bad, but not outstandingly good either. But I thought he was fantastic as the career soldier who knows exactly what is going on – and what will happen – and is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation (both professionally and – with less confidence and competence – in his personal life).

This was the first play in ages that I came out of and thought that I would really love to see it again. (I didn’t, unfortunately. But I wish I could have.)

Becoming Jane Austen by Jon Spence and Becoming Jane at Roseville Cinema

I first read Becoming Jane Austen after Penny Gay recommended it during a talk to the Jane Austen Society of Australia. I found it an engaging biography, particularly in the picture it painted of how Jane the young scribbler evolved into Austen the professional author. (One of the points Penny had made was that Spence looks at how Austen began referring to her writing as her “work”). I also enjoyed thinking about the idea that Elizabeth and Darcy could have been inspired by Tom Lefroy and Jane herself – but with Tom’s traits going into Elizabeth, and Jane’s into Darcy. On reflection, I decided I wasn’t totally convinced, but it was still a fascinating line of thought.

I also found his suggestion that Jane and Tom may have met again in London interesting – the evidence he presented was certainly suggestive, if not absolutely convincing.

However, I was emphatically not convinced by the suggestion that every one of Austen’s novels references a Tom Jones character, and this is a link to Tom Lefroy. After all, Tom Jones has a large cast of characters, and there is such a thing as coincidence. I was left with a sneaking suspicion that if one tried, one could also find links to character names from – to randomly select another long 18th century novel – Tristram Shandy. And towards the end of the book, I started to be bothered by the fact that Spence presented assupmtions and suppositions, but using language that implied they were proven fact.

In spite of this, though, I enjoyed the book enough to put in a Christmas present request for it, and I re-read it with pleasure.

The film of Becoming Jane, though …

Well, I suppose it was pleasant enough, and the actors did a nice job, but it really didn’t have anything much to do with the book. At times I felt that Spence was stretching in his assumptions, but at least he did start from – and remain basically consistent with – known facts. The film just made stuff up. It took a few character types from Jane Austen’s novels, trimmed off most of the things that makes them good and interesting, and presented a fairly bland and conventional romance (except without a happy ending). And the storyline, which had started off with a vague connection to (one chapter of) Spence’s book, suddenly took a radical divergence into complete fiction. I tend to think they should have either stuck vaguely with the known facts – or reasonable extrapolations from them – or else done a film in the style of Shakespeare in Love, which is clearly unrealistic. Or – if they really found Jane Austen’s life so boring that it had to be spiced up with an elopement – maybe they should have considered not making the film at all?

But I am glad I got Spence’s book in hardcover, before the film came out – otherwise I would have had to face the dilemma of deciding whether I wanted to own it enough to put up with the film-inspired cover of the paperback.