The Ishmael Club – Arts funding and the question of excellence. (Theatre Review)

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The Ishmael Club

The Old Fitz theatre from July 7 to 18

You can grab your tickets here

Can I just say first up, how wonderfully appealing it was to see an Australian play that had an equal number of female performers to males? I get tired of bleating on about it as I write my reviews, but it has to be said that one of the most beautiful aspects of The Ishmael Club is the inclusion of the female voice – not only as perspective (which is important) or in adherence to some PC dictum, but as fully functioning contributor to a narrative. Women don’t have to be strong, they don’t have to be good, they don’t have to be mothers, saints or whores, but they do actually exist and when I see a play that has one or few women in it, I can’t help feeling fifty percent of the story is missing. I remember watching the first season of The Wire; policemen would walk around an impoverished quadrangle filled with starving mothers, sigh and say, “no witnesses.” It’s a bit like that watching all these plays with no women, you can’t help wondering about the story that missing as the narrative trajectory ploughs on in its assumption that it’s presenting character as a universe to whom all can relate. It’s not that these plays aren’t beautiful, it’s just that they come off as half-baked and I am always left wondering what their mother thought, or sister, or daughter, or female neighbor so that I can get a full picture of who this person really is.

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Well, none of that in The Ishmael Club. This is the story of three great Australian artists and the woman who watched and loved them from close proximity. They are Norman Lindsay, his sister Ruby Lindsay and William Dyson each of whom declared an allegiance to what they titled The Ishmael Club, while the woman who watched them, at times from a distance and at times at their table is Mrs Maggia, local patronne, tells us their story. The antics and particularly conversations of these great Australian’s are detailed for us by writers Bill Garner and Sue Gore, but despite the location in the early 1900’s the play in question is only historical through the time specific locale and the careful respect of facts paid by the authors. In fact, The Ishmael Club has something profound to say about contemporary politics, and it is no doubt this reason the play is currently on as the late show at The Old Fitz. While The Ishmael Club might have been an important play due to its informative take on Australian artistic history, this Suzanne Millar directed manifestation actually makes a journey through time to our door, inviting us to recognise its historicity as a philosophical category rather than a nationalistic anecdote.

As the writers declare in their program notes, the argument between Norman Lindsay and William Dyson perfectly exemplifies the contemporary crises experienced by the Australian Arts Council, which tells us a great deal about George Brandis’ desire to fix something he sees as newly broken. The Melbourne bohemians were discussing the question of artistic excellence a hundred years ago and found, as has any philosopher who concerned themselves with the question of the point and purpose of art, that art is an ephemeral, elusive topic for debate, even though it’s manifestation has the remarkable ability to powerfully move its witness. As we watch Norman Lindsay (Jasper garner-Gore), Ruby Lind (Amy Scott-Smith) and Will Dyson (Richard Hilliar) battle on about the nature of arts place in the world, we realise part of arts very nature is to be elusive and therefore not accessible nor “excellent” to everyone.

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It all comes back to the word “excellence” and what that actually means. While George Brandis might state that the newly appointed NPEA (National Programme for Excellence in the Arts) harbours an intention to “bring back” the scholarly devotion to artistic endeavor that he sees eroded by the PC overtones of anti-bourgeois essentialism and the watered down version of deconstruction practised by contemporary university creative hot houses  – as if their inquiries were not in themselves a form of “excellence” – he falsely pretends that this means something other than a conservative taste-maker eliminating anything that might angry up the blood of the masses. As this article reveals, George Brandis has declared his arts degree his greatest (He has three degrees. The other two are law degrees – talk about forgoing excellence) and he is also well read. He’s no slouch in the appreciation of art, and he insists he will not be arbiter in chief over where funding is allocated. But it’s that word – Excellence – that places doubt in the mind of artists. It’s a little like “war on terror” “collateral damage” and “enhanced interrogation techniques.” What if the office of George Brandis can’t find any art projects he deems “excellent?” Will we discover in five years time that this cut to the Australia Arts council Budget was actually a fifty percent reduction in arts funding? Or worse, will we find the only projects NPEA funded are an annual manifestation of Figaro’s Wedding, Joseph and his Technicolor Dreamcoat and Les Mis just to remind us what becomes of passionate leftist rebellious youth?

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The primary problem with arts funding residing in the arms of the elite is  that the wealthy have bad taste. This declaration is perfectly manifest in Norman Lindsay’s “The Four Continents” (You can see the painting here). Bohemians have always made this claim, as politically the monied have to distance themselves from everything that makes and recognises good art. We see examples of this all the time from the gaudy renaming of theatre – “The Roslyn Packer theatre” – through the beige paint being splattered over Kings Cross as monied residents who need everything to be exposed wood and chalk board menus “clean up” the area. Art can’t be bought. Oh sure, you can hang a bunch of paintings your broker says are going to increase in value in the house your decorator styled for you, but in the end art requires a level of self-reflection that tolls a death knell for those devoted to the accumulation and retention of wealth. The wealthy can’t engage with art in any way beyond a bourgeoise “appreciation” – or they simply won’t be wealthy anymore. This is partly Will Dyson’s point, one he argues passionately with Lindsay, as budding artist Ruby Lind struggles simply for the right to vote.

This is why this beautifully written Australian play has been brought to life on the late night stage at The Old Fitz Theatre. This team asks that we engage and think about the issues the play calls forth and that we  – in very real terms – fight for what we may be losing at this time. The play itself is a joy to behold with the four familiar faces of the leads beautifully vibrant and alive on the stage. Katrina Rautenberg, Jasper Garner-Gore, Richard Hilliar and Amy Scott-Smith shine under the direction of Suzanne Millar. The play is an exuberant one, filled with passion and joy, vibrant and alive with Australian bohemian culture. But the real message for our day is the question of art v’s artists and exactly what we might consider valuable enough that to it we dedicate our lives.

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