Last night, something pretty amazing happened: the ABC’s high-rating panel/current affairs show Q&A devoted an entire hour-long episode to the arts. A central function of the ABC, under its charter, is to “encourage and promote the musical, dramatic and other performing arts in Australia”, so it makes sense that one of its most popular programs might turn its focus to the arts once in a while.
Unfortunately, the show restricted its discussion to the works of just one artist: the most discussed and dissected playwright of all time, Shakespeare.
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised the focus was so narrow; this is a show which once gave former Arts Minister George Brandis a full-hour, solo episode, in the midst of a funding crisis, and failed to put a single question about arts funding to him.
Q&A now tends to go for the dramatic potential of a debate, rather than having one that might actually be somehow informative or constructive. You don’t invite Lyle Shelton — a man who has compared the Safe Schools program and same sex marriage to “unthinkable” Nazi atrocities — for anything but controversy. He’s an intellectual nobody whose so-called Australian Christian Lobby has been rejected by Christians he claims to represent all across the country.
By contrast, last night’s episode was a collegiate affair, with a strong panel of thinkers who know their subject — John Bell, Kylie Farmer, A.C. Grayling, Germaine Greer, and Kate Mulvany.
But there’s no escaping the fact that their love-in for the Bard, who died 400 years ago this year, was a wasted opportunity.
Just a few hours before the episode, Sydney’s Griffin Theatre for Australian writing (Mulvany is a board member) announced its 2017 season, which includes just four plays instead of its regular five. Griffin is a company which punches well above its weight and is as responsible for the development and promotion of Australian voices as much as any theatre company, but its ability to do so has been seriously hampered by funding cuts. Its artistic director Lee Lewis said, just last year, that the company’s future could be under threat if it suffered any further cuts.
This is happening to companies across the country right now.
We can discuss Shakespeare whenever and wherever we want. But unless the arts community continues to make noise, let the broader community know exactly what’s at stake when it talks about funding cuts, and is given the platform to do so, this country’s cultural life is under serious threat.
If we continue down this path, we will not see the works of the next great Australian playwrights — there simply won’t be the avenues for them to develop and have their work produced.
Kate Mulvany — a strong, engaged and engaging advocate for the arts in Australia, who will hopefully continue to be given this kind of mainstream platform — touched on these issues when given the opportunity.
She pointed out that Australia had 60,000 years of culture and storytelling that’s often neglected, and there was a wonderful moment later on in which Kylie Farmer performed Sonnet 127 in Noongar, the indigenous language of her family in WA.
This Q&A could have been a great opportunity to bring the works of our great artists and storytellers to the attention of a broader audience, using our familiarity with Shakespeare as an in-road.
Instead, much of the program was spent debating the content and possible interpretations of his plays. While it might be fascinating for many of us to hear John Bell and Germaine Greer debate the degree of power and agency Lady Macbeth has over her husband’s fate, how much does that really matter? We’re talking about the works of a writer who has been more analysed and discussed than any other for the last 400 years — not exactly shining a light on a pertinent but neglected subject.
One audience member even asked the panel what Shakespeare’s plays The Merchant of Venice and Othello tell us about persecution and the asylum seeker experience.
That question just feels like a diversion when there are asylum seekers and persecuted minorities fighting for the right to tell their stories and making excellent works about these very experiences, right now.
Shakespeare might be a useful way into discussing these issues, but his work is only instructive and illuminating in the most general sense. Greer might say that 400 years is just a “blink” in our history, but we can’t possibly accept that somebody dead for more than 400 years could have any great insight into the specific experiences of people who have lived through these horrors. The world is a wildly different place.
If you do want to understand that experience, you’d be much better talking about Griffin Theatre and Powerhouse Youth Theatre’s recent production of Tribunal. This extraordinary collaboration between refugee and indigenous artists tells us at least as much about who we are as Shakespeare ever can. But it does so with a degree of specificity that’s essential, confronting and constantly evolving.
We’re deluded if we think Shakespeare’s apparent “universality” could make up for the loss of works like Tribunal.
Shakespeare’s prominence and very existence isn’t under the kind of threat currently faced by Australian work. But you’ll never see a play like Tribunal discussed on Q&A.