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Q&A’s Shakespeare love-fest was a waste of time

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.

READ MORE: RICHARD FLANAGAN PRAISES NAURU FILES AS GREAT WRITING

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 TribunalThis 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.

42 responses to “Q&A’s Shakespeare love-fest was a waste of time

  1. Ben Neutze’s piece wasn’t challenging, it was just plain silly. Put more time into your reviews generally Ben; they need to be way more incisive than they currently are.

  2. So pleased that there are so many comments that echo my feelings about the reviewer’s comments about this Q&A being ‘a waste of time’. Says more about him that the program. Not only did I find the best Q&A ever but one of the best TV experiences ever. I watched it on iview and immediately called my partner (who is Dutch and didn’t grow up with Shakespeare) to watch it again with me. She was completely involved in it. So nice to see Germaine Greer at her best as a dazzling scholar and John Bell’s reading was memorable television and proved how relevant the bard is today. And I have been involved in theatre for decades and decry the situation of arts funding today!

  3. Little wonder that the media suffers from such disrespect when such an article sees the light of day, and from a deputy editor no less. Heaven help us!

  4. Dear Ben, don’t agree with you this time, I could watch and listen to this panel talk about Shakespeare every week. We have to watch 10 minutes given to sport every day on the news – I say replace it with Shakespeare!!

  5. Best episode of QandA I’ve seen in a long, long time. I can hardly bear to watch it when it’s merely an opportunity for politicians to spout today’s talking points and take pot shots at one another.
    The intelligence and experience gathered around the table on Monday night was a delight for the ears and the mind. John Bell’s monologue at the end was a rousing call to arms for anyone with a conscience and a heart.
    That there are other topics worth discussing doesn’t mean Monday’s wasn’t a topic worthy of the time spent.
    I for one would like to hear more people with expertise – such as Sir Michael Marmot from the week before – and fewer politicians with little to add to the debate. Politicians have enough opportunities to fill our ears with their shallow, half-baked messages.

    More thinking, less spruiking.

    1. Who would have thought that the Bard penned an harangue, in the person of Sir Thomas More, which was directed to a crowd which critiqued the brutalized domestic population to the extent that they did not support refugees. Read, or play, and weep, Australia. And John Bell did what John Bell can, he delivered it straight. I found it fascinating, Ben, I ain’t no academic, but I found myself intrigued to challenge characterisation and social criticism in Shakespeare. 4 members of the panel supported the notion of going to smaller theatres.

  6. Oh Ben Neutze! Let’s have aNOTHER Session on the sad state of the arts in OZ.
    But what a huge relief to NOT have polls from however many sides churning out the same old cliches and primary schoolyard knockabout. Where is the value in THAT???
    It’s so depressing. I went to bed really happy and mentally provoked by this one

  7. Complaining about the ABC’s meagre arts coverage and even smaller coverage of theatre would make much more of an impact if it wasnt’ for the fact that the ABC was running a half hour discussion between two of Australia’s leading playwrights, Andrew Bovell and Nakila Lui, the next goddamn night.

    Ben failed to mention it at all. Perhaps he forgot it existed, or didn’t bother to do any research. Why research when you can be a commentator and bitch about things, ignoring all the hard stuff in favour of having an opinion instead.

  8. I agree with Ben Neutze´s basic point that it seemed a missed opportunity for the ABC and QandA to look more specifically at the state of the arts in Australia today. While the show itself was entertaining and the panel wonderfully knowledgeable on their subject, it felt like a topic that could have been made as a stand alone program for the ABC arts department, instead of taking up a week of QandA. The question of whether Shakespeare is still relevant today, also felt a little like a lame excuse/ shoehorn for it to be on QandA, which I had always understood to be concerned with more current questions in Australian society.

  9. Neutze makes relevant points about a missed opportunity, but Kate Mulvaney did get a plug in, asking audiences to support the arts. Basically increased public interest in the arts is essential for drama, music, art and writing to flourish in Australia. And if an entertaining as well as stimulating program on Shakespeare helps to achieve a better appreciation of the arts, let there be more!

  10. Ben appears to be annoyed that the original Q and A topic was not one he would have chosen. Tough. That’s how I feel most weeks when the political parrots are permitted to duck and weave their way around the topic. And did he notice that after the first five minutes the rolling Twitter feed abandoned the usual smarty arse stuff and evolved into intelligent and thoughtful commentary? Proof that there are still people with a brain left in this country.

  11. I think many of these comments miss the point of Ben’s article. The wider context he describes is that the arts – especially those producing new, immediate, relevant work – are under threat. It’s rare that an hour of prime time TV is devoted to the topic and it was an opportunity missed because its focus was so narrow. Nothing wrong with Will – there’s just a lot else out there. It’s safe and easy to look at current issues through the frame of a familiar 400 year old English wordsmith associated with a dominant language and culture, as an audience member pointed out. For my part the most engrossing bit of the show was Kylie Farmer’s delicate (and sometimes uncomfortable) toggle between showing due respect to her Indigenous culture and understanding the need for cultural bridge-building. The rest of that Q and A just reinforced generalisations about people who went to uni when I did and studied the same texts.

    1. I agree with Stefan. Ben is a talented and passionate young writer about the arts and makes some good points in his well-written story. In a perfect world we would have Q&As about the arts every month – let’s hope that this is the start of a trend! – but if this was a one-off it would have been great to discuss the state of contemporary Australian theatre a bit more. (And for the record – I am a Shakespeare tragic.) Like young actors and directors we need voices like Ben to be supported and nurtured to continue a healthy and vibrant cultural life in our society. Disagree with Ben’s article sure, but don’t question his abilities, passion and insight into the performing arts. Like we need more Q&As like last night, we need more Bens as well!

    2. I agree. It was encouraging and refreshing to dedicate an hour of prime time discussion to a serious Arts topic…but I was disappointed that the discussion itself became somewhat bland, and intellectual in a literary sense but not in a political sense. For the most part Bell, Greer and Grayling spoke in academic terms, discussing the literary relevance but barely addressing the opening question of the night, which was a political one: Is Shakespeare relevant in Australia today? Only Kate Mulvany came close to exploring that question, drawing comparative reference to the current state of theatre and play writing in Australia. And Farmer’s awkward but endearing inability to dissect the cultural conflict was the most interesting aspect, along with the concept of translating Shakespeare into Nyoongar…yet the deeper implications were somehow avoided, not really touched upon. A question from the audience about stereotyping and gender roles was somewhat deflected by Bell, although Greer and Mulvany later made interesting points about female roles. Bell’s final speech referring to refugees was left hanging, with no opportunity to discuss…again, a missed opportunity.

  12. One link between last night’s Q&A and Australian theatre is that Shakespeare’s plays were funded principally by the paying audience, and occasional command performances. I enjoy the work of Griffin, STC, etc., but it’s noteworthy that many of these enterprises depend largely on government funding. Belvoir and some others seem to get by on paying audiences and private patronage, but generally, if the Griffins et al are not attracting paying audiences, then maybe admit their mendicant status, and fund them like museums and other important institutions that preserve the past but can’t survive on commercial appeal. Then, those theatres engaging a contemporary audience will be revealed as the most culturally relevant for today’s audiences, and houses favored by Ben N et al can be cosseted appropriately.

    1. As a gratuitous aside, I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s Q&A. We got a robust, thoughtful discussion of an eternally interesting topic (the best writer who ever lived, by a country mile), by people well read in the subject, and capable of talking succinctly and intelligently. Greer’s comments on Othello and Macbeth were fascinating and fresh, and she resoundingly defended the comedies for their philosophically intense revelations about life. I’d love to take one of her Shakespeare courses. Normally, Q&A is a program I bypass. It generally seems a fest for those wanting the latest in PC fashions (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but my interests are elsewhere). But last night’s effort was enthralling and entertaining, presenting what TV does best: expert panel discussions. I had thought this type of program was now only to be found on footy panel shows, but last night proved it is done best by intelligent experts taking on a profound subject.

    2. Correction. Belvoir gets just as much funding as STC and Griffin gets a lost less. To compare Shakespeare’s funding model to current Australian theatre is absurd in the extreme. It was a very different world four hundred years ago. I doubt Shakespeare’s actors were paying off mortgages, putting kids through school or had Medical Insurance. No theatre company gets more than around 20% of their total operating budget from Government subsidies – but it is an important base line for their daily running of the company (planning, cash flow etc. ) I guess it seems a lot more because so much noise is made about funding cuts but the small contribution by the Government is vital for the creation of new work, taking a few artistic risks and in the end, presenting better work. Theatres receive no more than sporting organisations or businesses receive in terms of government support.

  13. Hard to believe that the author actually bothered to watch this highly engaging show! I’m not normally a great fan of Q&A, but this episode was quite special.

  14. If we can’t afford an hour of air-space to celebrate the man who actually civilised us, we’re in a pretty bad way. But of course, I can see that EastEnders and Neighbours are much more significant in terms of the beautiful twenty-first century.

  15. All Neutze wants is to placate musical theatre. Check out his Twitter feed he only gossips about musicals and snipes theatre… He is biased and dull. Waste of time was reading this waste of a review

  16. A refreshing and riveting episode! If we’re going to talk about a waste of time I’ll be honest- I was happier spending my time watching this fascinating discussion on an incredibly relevant part of our culture, than the current Q&A model of pandering to politicians and their lies without really doing much but waffle the same nonsense each week without holding any of them truly accountable for their actions.

  17. I normally don’t watch Q&A as I cannot abide politicians of any stripe, but last night’s discussion was riveting TV. Well done!

  18. Absolutely absorbing Q&A, demonstrating hos important the ABC and cultural topics are. I was also interested in how many running comments were coming from intrigued students studying Shakespeare. Hope Turnbull was watching and pondering on his cuts!

  19. Not only do I not agree with Ben Neutze, but his piece calls into question his worth as a contributor (let alone Dep. Ed.) of Daily Review. How could he stuff-up so badly with this review? I barely watch Q&A (usually Polly Waffle) and have little interest in Shakespeare but I found myself riveted to this program. Not only was it very interesting but it’s grace, goodwill and eloquence from all concerned was a joy to behold.

    1. Of course Australian Arts are underfunded and we would like to see more Australian works performed – but how is Shakespeare to blame? Yes I regret the time I wasted reading this. Thoroughly enjoyed this Q and A. – Ben Neutze you are no Helen Razer!!

    2. Not much point adding to the prevailing response to a bizarrely misguided article.

      Only to suggest that perhaps a better angle to have taken was to stress how much a dedicated Arts show like CRITICAL MASS hosted by Jonathan Biggins is sorely missed. Now that was stimulating TV !

      1. Is not the point – THE PROBLEM -that whilst Shakespeare might have his ‘generalized universal relevance’ – John Bell, Germaine Greer and ye olde Shakey himself are SAFE tired conventions themselves that even the likes of Lieberal dilettantes and sycophants such as George Brandis might advocate. This is evidenced further with a second rate sub-standard dedicated Arts show and host James Valentine’s The Mix whose precedence might be Michael Veitch. Question is what is at stake when Tony Jones hosts John Bell et al for a Shakeyfest – NOTHING – tis just merely more art as entertainment prattle for the high art ender baby boomer demographics…

  20. Agree, it was a very enjoyable QandA, and showed how VERY relevant arts and culture are over time.
    There is a case for many more QandA episodes that focus on an aspect of the arts.
    Refreshing absence of politicians too.

    1. I agree with Fi, thoroughly interesting show. Surely we can have one on Shakespeare AND another looking at the state of the arts/ theatre in Australia?

  21. I am not a fan of Shakespeare but I still found last nights program really interesting and informative. The reason, I realized, that we are still talking about his plays and performing them is that they are so well written. To say we should have devoted the program to Australian Authors surely misses the point. As Germaine said Shakespeare is the reason we speak like we do, and his topics are still relevant today as shown by the refugee question. Australian playwrights will survive and prosper if their works are good enough, not by having their works discussed on Q&A

    1. Australian playwrights will not prosper on talent alone – to say that misunderstands both Kate Mulvany’s point and the way Shakespeare honed his craft. If there are no opportunities for creating work and no incentives for practicing craft, playwrights simply won’t write good plays. They can’t afford to do so. Part of Shakespeare’s genius comes from his commercial intentions – his work was to be sold, so he had plenty of chances to work at it. The arts industry is currently being eviscerated in this country and Q&A is very much a platform that can change that. But if we don’t believe in our current playwrights, we won’t give them the recognition or opportunities they need to prosper and we will keep displaying the terrible attitude you just have and we will not have any playwrights in the future.

  22. Did you not listen to John Bell’s recitation from Sir Thomas More about the refugees? How more pertinent can that be to what is happening across the world at present?

  23. I tried to watch last night but the thought of Greer and Bell carping on with their 1960s “upper class twat” accents (i had to explain to my 20 somethings why Australians ever talked like that) showed just how out of touch these people are with contemporary Australia. What a waste of space – 10 minutes of it and even the mindless news repetition of 24 seemed an escape.

    1. Can’t understand how you think that Bell and Greer speak with a 1960’s upper class twat and why the need to explain to a 20yo why Australians ever spoke like that! Most people try to aspire to do better and speaking well is one of them.

    2. John bell is one of few Australian actors who can be understood by us at the back in the cheap seats. Others are John Gaden and Geoffrey Rush.

  24. I agree with Peacey (see above). There is much to learn from the Bard and how good to have civilised discussion between articulate and learned experts. Thank you participants and the ABC.

  25. Actually, I found last night’s Q&A enormously enjoyable and informative. So refreshing to give the combative and solipsistic politicians a rest and instead have a cultural discussion with civilised, learned and articulate people instead of the usual political dross. And, pace this review, I was taken with how much a discussion of Shakespeare informed discussion of wider topics and expanded into conversations about other dramatic forms. I guess you see what you want to see and hear what you want to hear.

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