Monday, October 16, 2017

A fleeting visit to Sydney

As the year rushes relentlessly forward, this is the first of several catchup posts, hurriedly slipped in before the rest of 2017 runs away from me. (Daylight saving commenced at the beginning of the month, a sure-fire way of telling that the finish line is in sight).

At the end of last month (from Thursday 28 September - Friday 29 September, to be exact) Shane and I flew to Sydney for an all too brief visit. Just up the road from our hotel in Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, was the iconic El Alamein Fountain, which in my mind is far more closely associated with Sydney than the Opera House.

Photo credit: Shane Jones

We were also taken with several splendid examples of art deco architecture that are dotted around the area, including the following examples, neither of which would be out of place in an episode of the long running television series, Poirot.

The primary reason for our trip was a new production of Stephen Sondheim's Assassins at the Hayes Theatre in Potts Point. It was our first visit to the Hayes, but I sincerely hope it won't be our last.

The theatre is named after Australian theatre legend, Nancye Hayes, who I've seen in many fine productions over the years, including her breakthrough title role as Sweet Charity in 1967 and in more recent years, in one or two by the great Sondheim. Coincidentally, we spotted her in the street the night before the performance we attended. Directly below is the photographic portrait of her that hangs in the theatre lobby.

In my opinion, Assassins is one of Sondheim's finest works. If I were forced to pick a favourite, this would be it. (I understand it's the composer/lyricist's own favourite, in that it is closer than any of his other works to his original conception).

The entire season, which garnered a string of rave reviews, was sold out. Fortunately I'd booked our front row seats well in advance.

Assassins poster featuring David Campbell as John Wilkes Booth

Too many people sweepingly dismiss all musicals as vapid and vacuous (to quote a line from the show). Since Assassins debuted in 1991, its dazzling score and the deliciously dark wit of the book by John Weidman, with its diamond-sharp insights into the crazed minds of the protagonists, remain undiminished. Sadly, so too does its relevance. Here is the last verse of the Ballad of Booth, which refers, of course, to the actor John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln.

Johnny Booth was a headstrong fellow,
Even he believed the things he said.
Some called him noble, some said yellow.
What he was was off his head.
How could you do it, Johnny,
Calling it a cause?
You left a legacy
Of butchery 
And treason we
Took eagerly,
And thought you'd get applause.
But traitors just get jeers and boos,
Not visits to their graves,
While Lincoln, who got mixed reviews,
Because of you, John, now gets only raves.
Damn, you Johnny,
You paved the way
For other madmen
To make us pay.
Lots of madmen
Have had their say -
But only for a day.
Listen to the stories. 
Hear it in the songs.
Angry men
Don't write the rules
And guns don't right the wrongs.
Hurts a while,
But soon the country's
Back where it belongs,
And that's the truth.
Still and all, 
Damn you Booth!

The non-linear story of Assassins unfolds in the shooting gallery of a fairground. Aside from the Proprietor (see photo directly below) and the activist and anarchist, Emma Goldman (Laura Bunting) its characters comprise every person who has either assassinated or attempted to assassinate an American president, beginning with Booth. (As the Proprietor tells the other would-be assassins: Hey, gang, look who's here/ Here's our pioneer...)

Ballad of Booth
was introduced by Patrick Cassidy (as the Balladeer) and Victor Garber (as John Wilkes Booth) in the original off-Broadway production of Assassins. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, you can see them perform it HERE. (If possible, skip the ad first. If you can't, at least it's mercifully brief).

Pictured above: Rob McDougall as the Proprietor

Still elated after the performance, Shane and I had a drink in the theatre bar and watched the actors gradually emerging in their street clothes, appearing remarkably calmer and saner than the unhinged characters they'd just inhabited so unnervingly.

Left: Maxwell Simon (the Balladeer and Lee Harvey Oswald) Laura Bunting (Emma
Goldman) and Connor Crawford (John Hinkley Jnr)

Centre: Hannah Friedricksen, who played Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme.
Centre right: David Campbell, who was an unforgettable Booth

We were delighted to discover that another Sydney icon, a favourite haunt on many previous visits, Harry's Cafe de Wheels, was also walking distance from the hotel where we stayed. It's been famous for its meat pies since it was founded in 1938. Fortunately for me, they've moved with the times. A vegetarian option is available and it's quite delicious.

Shane Jones tucking into his pie

Above: detail of the mural that wraps around part of Harry's Cafe de Wheels.
On far right are two bona fide comedy geniuses: English born comedian Stan Laurel
and Australian comedy legend Roy Rene as Mo McCackie).

Saving every bite of my Cafe de Wheels vegetarian pie. Photo credit: Shane Jones

Along with Assassins, the highlight of our trip was our first time visit to historic Elizabeth Bay House in Onslow Avenue, Elizabeth Bay. It was built in 1835 - 1839 by Alexander Macleay, the Colonial Secretary of NSW from 1826 - 1837. Macleay was also a prodigious collector. I first became aware of the house several years ago when researching his extensive insect collection, now housed in the Macleay Museum, University of Sydney. Unfortunately, the museum is currently closed for refurbishment and is not due to reopen until 2019.

The majority of Elizabeth Bay House is Greek Revival. One of the most striking features is its graceful elliptical dome:

Directly below: one of the fine bedrooms in Elizabeth Bay House. The furniture is not original, but dates from the same period.

A contre-jour portrait of Shane Jones looking out onto Sydney Harbour:

Further along Onslow Avenue, directly after our visit to Elizabeth Bay House, we happened upon this poignant tribute to a much-loved cat: