Monday, January 01, 2024

No, you can’t remove politics from theatre – that’s what makes it so good

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” Brought to Life in a Spanish Flashmob of 100 Musicians

Ex-ASIO chief called in after 11th hour discovery of missing Iraq War secret papers By Shane Wright 

The mis-placement of highly sensitive documents containing advice from the nation’s spy agencies used by John Howard’s government to go to war in Iraq in 2003 has prompted a high-level inquiry so they can be made public.
The National Archives on Monday released the cabinet papers of Howard’s government but this did not include the submissions relied upon by the national security committee (NSC) to justify the decision to join the “coalition of the willing” in a war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and destabilised the Middle East for years.
But in a rare public statement hours before the 2003 cabinet papers were due to be released, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet revealed that the key security committee documents had not been handed over to the national archives in 2020 when other records were transferred.
While the statement described the missing papers as “administrative oversights... likely as a result of COVID-19 disruptions”, department secretary Glyn Davis has called in former ASIO director-general Dennis Richardson to conduct an independent review of the transfer and to ensure all documents have been moved to the archives.
The National Archives have previously released submissions created for the national security committee and its predecessors. It is also today releasing some of the committee’s records that were submitted to the Howard cabinet of 2003.
That year’s cabinet papers release was of particular interest as it covered the decision taken on March 18 by the Howard government to officially commit troops to Iraq. Australian troops entered the country less than 40 hours after the decision.
In mid-December, the archives said that the national security committee documents were not yet held by the institution.
“National Archives does not hold records for 2003 documenting NSC decisions relating directly to the conduct of the Iraq War,” it said in a statement to this masthead.
“As a result, they were not considered for public release along with other selected cabinet records from 2003 that have been released proactively.”
According to the department, the missing records were discovered on December 19. Archives staff jointly inspected the records three days later and they have now been transferred to the agency.
The Archives will review the documents in consultation with security agencies before they become available for release.
The missing papers have already prompted calls for the detailed notes taken of the inner workings of the security committee and cabinet from 2003 to be immediately released so the public can better understand one of the Howard government’s most important and contentious decisions.
Every year, the Archives releases the cabinet documents of previous governments 20 years after their creation. They are mined by historians and the general public to gain an insight of the issues debated around the cabinet table as they contain official submissions from departments and agencies.
Key players including Howard and Peter Costello have discussed the major issues around the decision in interviews and in their memoirs and referenced some of the confidential information. But the full picture of the advice from security agencies has been kept secret. 

The six-page note

The official documents reveal the full cabinet met on the morning of March 18 where Howard — who had earlier that day talked to US President George W Bush — delivered a verbal briefing on the possible war.
The six-page note, which records 18 separate cabinet decisions, noted that Howard had received a formal request from Bush that “Australia participate in military action by a coalition to disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and advice that it was the intention of the President to issue an ultimatum to Iraq very shortly”.
Noting that Iraq’s weapons represented a “real and unacceptable threat to international peace and security”, the cabinet agreed they posed a direct risk to Australia’s own security.
The note confirmed Howard talked to the then governor-general, Peter Hollingworth, about sending troops to Iraq. Hollingworth would resign his post two months later after an inquiry found that while he was the Anglican archbishop of Brisbane in the early 1990s he had allowed a known paedophile to continue working as a priest.
Just hours after the cabinet meeting, Howard went into the House of Representatives with a motion to support going to war that had already prompted protests from opponents.
The prime minister made clear that one of his greatest concerns was the possibility of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists who could then use them on Australians.
“This is the ultimate nightmare which the world must take decisive and effective steps to prevent,” he said.
“Possession of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons by terrorists would constitute a direct, undeniable and lethal threat to Australia and its people.”
While the government argued the war was about preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction, Howard used the same speech to acknowledge Saddam Hussein’s reign would come to an end.
“This is the ultimate nightmare which the world must take decisive and effective steps to prevent.”
John Howard, March 18, 2003
“The government’s principal objective is the disarmament of Iraq; however, should military action be required to achieve this, it is axiomatic that such action will result in the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime,” he said.
Throughout Howard’s address to parliament, he was interrupted by Anthony Albanese who alleged the government’s decision to go to war had been made six months earlier. Albanese was ejected from the House, along with other members of the Labor Party which was opposed to the decision.
Within weeks of the ground invasion of Iraq, it became apparent that Saddam Hussein’s regime did not have weapons of mass destruction…

No, you can’t remove politics from theatre – that’s what makes it so good By Cameron Woodhead

All the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare reminded us. It has been 400 years since the First Folio was published – without it, that line from As You Like It would’ve been lost to us – and our theatres still wrestle with the politics of the world outside them.
Conflict lies at the heart of drama, and you can no more divorce politics from theatre than you can banish stagecraft from the political realm. Still, it is worth remembering when the world goes mad that it’s in the art itself – rather than behind-the-scenes divisions in the art world – where the vital work is done.
Reflecting on the 2023 stage year, I was reminded of this right away, not least because two of the most outstanding plays to appear in Melbourne would not have been possible without the #MeToo movement.
I’ve seen a great deal of worthy but dull theatre about sexual assault in my time. The perfect alignment of artistry and progressive politics can be a game-changer, though, and was surely the reason Suzie Miller’s acclaimed Prima Facie conquered the international stage.
The one-woman show demanded and received a tour de force, from Sheridan Harbridge at the Melbourne Theatre Company and no less than Jodie Comer on the West End and Broadway. Harbridge stepped fearlessly into the shoes of a criminal defence barrister who becomes a key witness at a rape trial, in an intimate, furious, heartbroken performance, doubling as a remorseless cross-examination of how the law treats sexual assault complainants.
It was unforgettable theatre, and an odd thing to encounter it in virtually the same breath as Trophy Boys, Emmanuelle Mattana’s unmistakably brilliant drag satire, exposing misogyny lurking within a debating team at an all-boys school. The two shows were exemplary instances of activism undergirded by artistic achievement; both showcased theatre’s power to build empathy, to inspire sophisticated critical thought and argument, to deepen a social conversation.
Speaking of conversations, here’s a barbecue stopper for you. The Voice referendum. Right. So. Um. Look, if there’s anything the debate delivered for us, let it be a renewed focus on the importance of First Nations artists. They produce a huge variety of work in which activism and art are often inextricably entwined.
Backing up that Yes vote with a ticket to a First Nations theatre show should be the most natural thing in the world. The selection is vast – from vibrant children’s theatre to anarchic political satire, from the radical experimentation of A Daylight Connection’s residency at Malthouse Theatre to the deftly crafted main-stage debut Jacky from Declan Furber Gillick – an elegant and provocative four-hander featuring an Aboriginal sex worker and his brother navigating the dislocations of life in Sydney.
Diversity in representation isn’t only socially desirable, it can be a mainstream selling point. The post-Hamiltonmusical theatre landscape handed a decisive victory to & Juliet – a pop Shakespeare parody that rewrote the tragedy of star-crossed lovers to be more socially inclusive (with lashings of Britney and a feelgood feminist ending for good measure). It seemed to meet a more upbeat reception than the revival of Miss Saigon, impeccably performed though that production was.

Racial equity and the problem of structural racism continue to inspire works of dramatic brilliance and ferocity, from the rebellious young black women causing a twitterstorm in Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jennerto the brash mash-up of Spaghetti Western and Greek tragedy in Is God Is, the first entirely black production for the Melbourne Theatre Company.
And what to say about Zahra Newman’s star turn as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill? Newman possesses an uncanny ability to channel the jazz legend, voice (remarkable in itself) and soul. She undergoes a breathtaking stage transformation, note perfect, alive to the severe racial injustice Holiday suffered, and attuned to the undimmed brilliance of her music.
It was a highlight for the MTC – other notable shows included a Caryl Churchill double bill and the irreverent A Very Jewish Christmas Carol – in a year that established a confident approach to programming from artistic director Anne-Louise Sarks.
The Malthouse seems less sure of itself, or perhaps more particular in its projects. You can find niches of formidable theatre – Made in China 2.0, a powerful collaboration between Emma Valente and avant-garde Chinese director Wang Chong, or the adrenaline-charged stage premiere of Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded – although immersive theatre seems to have become a hobbyhorse for the company.

This year’s Hour of the Wolf doubled down on the success of 2021’s Because the Night, trading a Hamlet labyrinth for a gothic small-town mystery. Will immersive performance mazes turn out to be a theatrical fad? Probably. Is the engagement with younger and more adventurous audiences worthwhile? Absolutely.
Meanwhile, Melbourne’s indie scene is in transition. It’s always in transition, of course. Poverty is the only constant. Still, 2023 marks the end of a significant chapter at both La Mama Theatre, with legendary artistic director Liz Jones stepping down, and at fortyfivedownstairs, with the departure of Mary Lou Jelbart. Both venues are crucial to independent theatre in Melbourne, and we can only hope they are steered with the energy and commitment to community-building that Dianne Toulson has brought lately to Theatre Works in St Kilda.
Our theatre ecosystem relies on these companies and venues creating a pipeline of new work, even if Melbourne’s directionless Rising Festival has you asking where the pipeline’s supposed to go. Clearly, Rising must do more to platform our most talented theatre makers alongside international contemporaries, if it’s to be a festival worth celebrating.
Big-ticket commercial fare is back in action – if Melbourne audiences can see Anthony LaPaglia starring in Death of a Salesman, it’s a good year. And yet, theatre is at heart the most local of art forms. It is the indefatigable spirit, the curiosity and imagination of Melbourne’s theatre artists that sustains the whole shebang, and we might have to risk another barbecue-stopper – the politics of arts funding, anyone? – to ensure the show goes on.