Walks on the wild side, Lynn Freeman

Grooves of Glory
Alan Brunton
Bumper Books, $30, ISBN 095822255X

Cherish
Ken Duncum
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 084673493X

“This whole trip is like reading a cartoon strip, pictures you can’t understand without a caption.” Alan Brunton’s poetry is a bit like this for the uninitiated. His words are not only pure stream of consciousness; they also try to take you to some deeply weird places. His poetry is inextricably linked with the stage shows of Red Mole, and Grooves of Glory will most satisfy devotees of this almost uncategorisable group. I was no diehard fan myself, although I respected Red Mole’s bold theatricality and uncompromising approach to their productions. Brunton’s partner and co-creator, Sally Rodwell, has released this work three years after Brunton’s unexpected death during a festival tour overseas.

By far the most accessible of the three very different sections in this collection, is the first, “Compostela – A Walk”. It’s a vivid and truly charming piece of poetic travel writing. Brunton uses as his starting point a 1987 family adventure along the France-to-Santiago trail travelled by millions of pilgrims including St Francis of Assisi, kings, monks and criminals. He begins with playscript rather than verse, describing the Milky Way (as the trail was known), the road of stars leading to the end of the earth – Finisterre. The medieval world, Brunton points out, was absurd and nasty where people were brainwashed into striving to purify their souls.

In Burgos, Brunton’s blood runs cold at the sight of posters with swastikas mourning the recent death of the last Nazi, Rudolf Hess, alongside other posters imploring the townsfolk to be nice to tourists. The family meets hardworking shepherds, an impatient monk, a Ducato smoking priest, pert young nuns wearing milk bottle glasses, and many other wonderfully curious creatures along the way. Things get very, very weird from here on and only hard core Brunton fans are likely to hang on for this particular walk on the wild side. I must confess to finding myself helplessly lost at times, frustrated, bored and occasionally enchanted.

The book’s title, Grooves of Glory, is taken from the middle composition. Brunton calls it “an intimate opera, words with noise”. Three travellers are stranded in Dreamville. To fill in time as they wait for their ship to come in, they each recall moments in their lives when they felt most alive. The Dancer enters:

2 drops of nectar fall from her mouth
as she oh Crikey sails from Moon City into my psyche
like a filing cabinet filled with bad publicity….

she sprays her divine antioxidant into the
bughouse of my brain
and I am lost already in the hard rain of a sub-atomic
catastrophe …

That’s just from the opening monologue. It gets stranger.

“Zarathustra Said”, the third section, was the last work Alan Brunton performed, offering it in Norway at the Porsgrunn International Theatre Festival. Rodwell describes that performance as brilliant and fiery, a strong ending to an intriguing and charismatic career. In the narrative, Zarathustra is a man who has spent 10 mainly happy years in the mountains, thinking about things. He decides to share his wisdom with the masses “so that wise people can see how stupid they really are and poor people how powerful they can be.” Zarathustra comes across as something of a Christlike figure, with some James K Baxter thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the force of Brunton’s delivery gave the script a certain coherence on stage, allowing the audience to relax into it; but, simply reading the words on the page, my brain after a while tired of trying to make sense of it all.

In total contrast, Ken Duncum is a clear, concise craftsman of a playwright. His script is so richly written, and the characters so well defined, that it almost reads like a novel. Unfortunately I missed the 2003 Circa season but knowing the actors and having the script puts me right in the opening night audience.

The story opens with Tom lying with his ear pressed against the pregnant stomach of Jess. A scene of ordinary domesticity you might think, except for the fact that Tom’s partner is Michael and Jess’s is Maeve, and that Tom is already the father to both Jess’s and Maeve’s daughters. Baby number three threatens to destroy the balance in this unusual but harmonious family structure.

William is a successful lawyer, 20 years older than his partner, so desperately in love and afraid of being alone that he supports Tom’s equally desperate need to father children. At the same time William is keenly aware of his tenuous position, despite his acute love for the children:

“You’re in their blood – nothing can change that. But what am I? Some favourite Uncle – tolerated as long as I don’t step too far out of line. And as long as I’m still the partner of their father. But the nose than runs in my family – well, it dries up here.”

 

Tom, meanwhile, has the best of both worlds. He can be gay and a father, taking what William describes as a “sushi approach to life”. It’s all laid out for him, he can pick out what he wants – but he can’t have love and children on the same plate. This neat compartmentalisation of his life also frustrates one of the mothers of his children.

Maeve accepted rather than chose Tom to father her own increasingly erratic daughter, Eliza, so that she would be a sister to Jess’s child. The resentment is palpable. She accuses Tom of being “a McDonald’s father”:

“You’ve got a Daddy – then you come and play daddy over here. Take the girls out for treats, buy them clothes and play dress-ups, exciting sleepovers at your house. But then you’re gone again.”

 

Jess and Tom are parallel characters, both demanding and inherently selfish. She craves security for her growing family and when her financial lifeline (in the form of William) is severed, she looks elsewhere. While Tom matures during the course of the play, Jess becomes less sympathetic, even though they both make decisions they believe to be in the best interests of their children.

Cherish is engrossing, moving, thought-provoking and topical. What more could you ask?

 

Lynn Freeman presents National Radio’s arts show What’s Going On? and is a theatre critic for Capital Times.

 

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