Hotel Sorrento

21 Jan

Australia Day is controversial, especially because of the date we choose to celebrate it.  Are we being patriotic, or just parochial?

It’s curious that the people most keen on Australia Day are often the very people most cynical about the only thing that actually makes us Australians. And that is? The fact we vote, pay taxes and are under the legal jurisdiction of the federal government. Australia is a political entity.

Hannie Rayson’s play is not about Australia Day, but it is about being Australian.

Rayson’s characters argue about Australians; their attitudes to art and artists, and their supposed inability for emotional sophistication.

Meg is the Booker nominated expat. On one level, she has little time for what she sees as Australian smallness. Dick, a leftist journalist, argues passionately against her. How would you know? he says. You haven’t been here for 10 years!

Of course, the play itself is 24 years old. Are Meg and Dick both wrong? Have we changed as a nation?

Or are Meg and Dick both guilty of a simple category error? Is ‘Australia’, as a cultural entity, merely a generalization? How useful is the word ‘Australian’ at all?

This is far from a criticism of the production. It’s what the play made me think about. And if I’d paid for a ticket I would’ve said it was money well spent.

Photo by Mark Banks

Photo by Mark Banks

It’s a funny, moving and very thought-provoking night of theatre. Director Shane Bates has elicited some good performances from her cast. I especially enjoyed Melanie Robinson as Meg, Martin Bell as Edwin, her husband, and Rob White as Dick.

The play also made me think about representational art. Marge paints ‘still life’. At one point, she praises the ability of good art to capture the essence of things. Meg’s novel does this, we are told. As does the work of Helen Garner; it showed Marge something she had always been aware of, but had been unable to articulate or even acknowledge.  In the words of T S Eliot (quoted in the play):  “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. And, in the middle of this paean to representational art, Dick grabs an apple and bites into it, unaware that it’s part of the ‘still life’ Marge is trying to paint. It’s a cheeky symbol from Rayson.

Is representation what art should attain to? It would be churlish to suggest it wouldn’t be a magnificent achievement. I’m just not sure art can show us the Truth.

A vision of art as Truth is conservative, an always looking backwards, an approach that can inadvertently deny Life, and its possibilities.

Art might be a microscope or a telescope, but it’s also a kaleidoscope. Representational art takes elements of what previously existed and plays with them. Like the Uncertainty Principle in nuclear physics, when we describe the world, we affect it. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s empowering.

There is not an Australia to represent. Australia is not a thing, it’s a happening.*

Let’s see what we can make happen.

Veronica Kaye

*Apologies to E P Thompson, a writer Dick would be quite familiar with.

Hotel Sorrento

til 22nd Febuary at the Genesian Theatre

http://www.genesiantheatre.com.au/

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