March 2007

The Nation Reviewed

Off the rails

By Edward Scheer
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

There is a crowd spilling onto the streets, looking up at a man high above them on a window ledge. Bathed in spotlights, he stands ramrod straight with his back to the window. He shivers rhythmically. Is he a would-be suicide?

Eventually, the police come and take the man down. He is a member of the Gravity Feed company, which works with architectural sites for the design of their performances: startling actions within surreal fabricated landscapes or even on the façades of old industrial buildings. The occasion was the twenty-first birthday of Sydney's Performance Space, a centre for new and experimental art and performance, in 2004.

Performance Space has recently moved to a new home: the CarriageWorks, the redevelopment of the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops. The metalworkers, blacksmiths and boilermakers who kept trains on tracks worked at this massive site for a century, beginning in the late 1880s. By 1879, Sydney's first rail yards at Devonshire Street (now Central Station) were already becoming congested, so the government purchased ten hectares at Eveleigh Street. The following year, work commenced on the Eveleigh Railway Workshops, which were completed around 1887. They operated, using predominantly migrant labour, until 1988; the huge buildings were vacant thereafter.

Some years later, in preparation for the 2000 Olympics, a number of the artists involved in the opening ceremony - including Nigel Jamieson, who recently won the 2006 Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award for his production of Honour Bound - began using the site as a workshop for building sets and creating costumes. Company B, which usually operates from the tiny Belvoir St Theatre, took a ten-year lease on some of the southern bays to establish the short-lived Wilson Street Theatre, which was forced to close after seating collapsed during the Festival of the Dreaming in 1997. Company B kept the space for rehearsal rooms, set construction and wardrobe storage until the lease expired.

For some time, a number of these artists and companies had been lobbying the NSW Ministry of the Arts to adapt the Eveleigh rail yards for use as rehearsal spaces. But it was going to cost a fortune and Sydney - despite, or perhaps because of, its glittering Opera House - has not been kind to its experimental artists. Who was going to make it happen?

In one of those legendary conversations that everyone seems to know something about but no one remembers in detail, Bob Carr, then the state's premier and arts minister, was chatting with the great French theatre director Ariane Mnouchkine. It was January 2002, and bushfires were blazing on the north coast of New South Wales. Carr was flying up to check out the fire-fighting effort, and invited Mnouchkine into the chopper for the flight. As they flew along the coastline, they talked about the Tampa crisis. Mnouchkine expressed her outrage at the federal government's military assault on the asylum seekers. She told Carr that her next work would be an homage to refugees throughout history (it became Le Dernier Caravanserai - The Last Caravan - in 2005). They spoke of the fires, and finally they talked about the state of Sydney's theatre spaces.

Mnouchkine was in town with her celebrated production of The Flood Drummers, for Brett Sheehy's first Sydney Festival as director. It was a spectacular piece featuring 27 performers and a variety of styles: from Japanese Bunraku, with its enormous puppets, to Chinese opera. It needed a very specific sort of theatre space which Sydney, well ... didn't exactly have. The Royal Hall of Industries, historically the venue for Best Pumpkin at the Royal Easter Show, was used. It wasn't exactly ideal for Mnouchkine's company: Théâtre de Soleil is based at the Cartoucherie, an old munitions factory on a sprawling site outside Paris, where work on a massive scale can be developed and presented with relative ease.

The technical manager for the Sydney production was Richard Montgomery, from the Opera House staff. He knew better than anyone that large-scale theatre would never work in Sydney without a dedicated venue. Montgomery arranged for Mnouchkine to meet with Fiona Winning, the artistic director of Performance Space. Winning encouraged Mnouchkine to raise the issue with Carr, a fan. Carr had already been lobbied to turn the Eveleigh site into a railway museum, but had resisted, arguing that there was "no market testing" for this use of the venue, which he described as a "sterile, one-visit" concept. He preferred to see things happening. Mnouchkine left him in no doubt as to what sort of things should be happening at Eveleigh. The fate of the old rail workshops was decided there, in a helicopter.

After the chopper returned to Sydney, things moved quickly. In June 2002, the NSW Ministry for the Arts purchased the site from the State Rail Authority. The local architecture firm Tonkin Zulaikha Greer (TZG) was commissioned to create a performing-arts centre, and in January this year, the CarriageWorks opened for business as a Sydney Festival venue, with two theatres - an 800-seater and a 300-seater - as well as three rehearsal spaces, training rooms, offices and large workshop spaces.

TZG's challenge was to deliver a suitable environment for contemporary performance which nevertheless maintained the site's sense of history. The firm has succeeded: the workshops' enormous red-brick façade still stands as a memorial to a century of hard labour; the use of original walls and metal constructions in the interior design merges an industrial aesthetic with cathedral-like space and light. Queen Anne described Sir Christopher Wren's rebuilding work on St Paul's Cathedral, after the 1666 Great Fire of London, as "awful, artificial and amusing". She meant that it inspired awe, that it was beautifully ornamental and that it was pleasing to the eye. What TZG has produced in the CarriageWorks, a gigantic complex covering nearly 20,000 square metres, provokes a similar reaction.

The CarriageWorks now houses Performance Space, which presents and produces the works of hundreds of artists and experimental-performance companies each year, and it will soon be home to companies such as Stalker, which does most of its work on stilts; Erth, which uses huge puppets and concocts spectacular events, much in the style of Mnouchkine's Théâtre de Soleil; and yes, Gravity Feed - if the cops don't stop them, of course.

From the front page

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese during Question Time earlier this week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Go figure

How did Labor end up with an emissions-reduction target of just 43 per cent?

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Declaration of independents

The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

In This Issue

The host with the most

Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘The Host’

Read all about it

Fred Hilmer’s ‘The Fairfax Experience’

Winter in Afghanistan

Travels through a hibernating war

Being there

The strange history of Manning Clark

More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Declaration of independents

The success of Indi MP Helen Haines points to more non-aligned voices in parliament

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Echidna poo has changed our understanding of human evolution

Citizen science is not only helping echidna conservation, but changing how we think about evolution

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Suspended from the rock

Rock-climbers at Arapiles/Dyurrite say the parks department has misled traditional owners over climb closures

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pride of place

Why the Bondi Memorial honouring victims of Sydney’s LGBTIQ hate-crime epidemic matters for victims and their families

Online exclusives

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout

Image of Clint Eastwood in Cry Macho. Image © Claire Folger / Warner Bros.

Slow motions: Clint Eastwood’s ‘Cry Macho’

Despite patient filmmaking, the 91-year-old director’s elegiac feature is unable to escape the legend of the man

Image of Anthony Bourdain in Roadrunner. © Focus Features

End of the road: The Anthony Bourdain documentary ‘Roadrunner’

Morgan Neville’s posthumous examination of the celebrity chef hews close to the familiar narrative