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Like a Writing Desk (Radio National play review)


Aden Rolfe’s Like A Writing Desk hovers somewhere between mockumentary and a straight radio play. The title alludes to Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical riddle, “why is a raven like a writing desk?”  put by The Mad Hatter, in Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. The production features Marcus Graham, Zoe Carides and Mitchell Butel and provides an excellent vehicle for the depth and breadth of all three’s talents.

The play begins with a haunting biblical invocation from Genesis (8:6-7, if you want to be pedantic about it): “at the end of forty days, Noah opened the window of the ark and sent forth a raven”. Out of the mouths of relative babes (well, children), the utterance distorted so as to be redolent of The Omen or The Exorcist or something, it leads one down the garden path in expectation of something chilling.

Certainly noone can really deny the slightly unnerving cry of the raven or the crow. For as long as I can remember I’ve identified their cries as being the tormented please of lost, trapped souls relegated to an avian purgatory.

Noah’s raven didn’t waste any time in feeding on carcasses, the teeming remains of the great flood, opportunistic bird that it was. We’re led to believe the raven  is like “the carnal heart” which “takes up with the world and feeds on the carrion it finds there”. It’s all so very Wall Street.

Being somewhat credulous I don’t know if the riddle posed at the beginning of the play (in which a test-tube fixed in an upright position, as well as a few crude tools, including a ruler, spoon and length of wire, are proposed and the challenge set to remove a portion of food at the bottom) is a real-life scenario, but if it is it’s truly amazing in the way of something Jane Goodall might reveal about the aptitudes of naked apes. A crow despite having a beak inadequate to the task of reaching into the tube fashions the piece of wire into a purpose-made implement. That’s astonishing enough but it does this in 30 seconds.

But this intellectual divinity is negated with all the superstitions of medieval proportions of ignorance that persist in relation to these big, black birds. Are they gods, or demons? Why, we even call a collection of crows a murder for heaven’s sake.

The crow is a powerfully mysterious motif and Rolfe uses it to maximum effect to ridicule our over-eager propensity for credulity. At its most harmless  this might merely entail a residual concession to believing crows are really lost souls. At it’s most pernicious we might choose to subscribe to right-wing ratbaggery, of the kind Jones, Bolt, or Bernardi, peddle. Myth, when subverted into ideology, whether to drown witches, perpetrate a blood libel against Jews, murder young Indian women, or whatever other heinous crimes, can be a dangerous thing.

But even in hinting at this Rolfe pursues his subject parodically. Myth can also be fashioned into a pretentious, emperor’s new clothes, pseudo-intellectual kind of diatribe, written or spoken in double-Dutch or Greek. We all know it from curatorial notes; artists’ statements and the like. In Writing Desk, Rolfe takes careful, merciless (but not bitter, or twisted) aim at this.

Carides’ accent (is she going for Canadian?) is a little shakey as she sets up the test-tube riddle which is followed by a ‘montage’ of voices extolling various old wives’ tales about crows and ravens. The soundtrack is a mesmeric, tinkling, tick-tocking soundtrack (composed by Russell Stapleton) and is the haunting prelude to the main action.

Bella (Carides, Australian now), we quickly gather is director of the City Art Gallery. She’s waiting on Derek, the exhibiting artist who’s on his way from the airport. Preparations are being made for the opening of ‘True Crow’. Meanwhile she undertakes an interview about it. With her is David (Mitchell Butel), ‘one of the key artists’, a’ real auteur’, ‘crucial to this exhibition’, according to Bella. The exhibition seeks, as the name implies, to lift the lid on the ‘guises’ and ‘masks’ of the crow to reveal his essential identity. The solemnity with which Bella extols these objectives of artistic interrogation will likely have you laughing in recognition right away.

To reveal just how far awry the impending opening goes would be to indulge in the worst kind of spoilerism. But amidst the uproarious humour Rolfe never quite relinquishes the dark potential of his subject. Rolfe, Jane Ulman and  Russell Stapleton direct and the last two produce this impeccable and evocative 40-odd minutes of audio theatre.

Carides and Butel seem to have a particular affinity with and empathy for the medium, but, by the same token, I’d be hard-pressed to fault the many and various other performative contributions, from Graham, Caroline Brazier, Olivia Stambouliah, Christa Hughes, et al. Even Rolfe gets in on the acting.

My advice? Download now.

Main image: Like a Writing Desk director/producer Russell Stapleton with actors Mitchell Butel and Marcus Graham.

One response to “Like a Writing Desk (Radio National play review)

  1. CORRECTION, IN WHICH THE CRITIC ADMITS, ‘I WAS A BLOODY IDIOT!’ Tastemakers, above, you will find, I adversely commented on Zoe Carides’ ‘Canadian’ accent. I still maintain it was poor. But I wrongly assumed, on the basis of the timbre of the voice, that it was Carides, but, ’twas not! No wonder this seemed out of character. Zoe Carides, thus, was, is and remains a fine actor. I, a humbled reviewer.

    Sincere apologies, Zoe.


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