September 2011

Arts & Letters

Shakespeare in Australia

By Peter Conrad

Fred Schepisi’s ‘The Eye of the Storm’

It’s fortunate that Australia’s new capital was called Canberra not Shakespeare, as a few Empire loyalists proposed at the time of Federation. The bourgeois bard of Avon hardly qualified as a founding father; even so, Shakespeare has haunted Australian culture, daring our writers to assert their independence. CJ Dennis’ Sentimental Bloke barracked the actors in Romeo and Juliet, and Henry Lawson cited the alliance between “Brutus and his old mate, Cassius” in Julius Caesar as a model of republican fraternity to set against the monarchical swank of Britain.

Eventually the Australian novel challenged the eminence of Shakespeare’s most exhausting tragedy, King Lear. Randolph Stow in To the Islands reinvented Lear as a missionary gone “troppo” in the desert. Patrick White in The Eye of the Storm even more ambitiously imagined a female Lear, the matriarch Elizabeth Hunter who on her deathbed relives her randy past and controls the future by tantalising her offspring with an inheritance she seems determined to spend before it can be passed on. White’s characters almost share the exalted rank of those in Shakespeare’s play. Elizabeth’s daughter, Dorothy, has become a French princess; her knighted son, Basil, is a Shakespearean actor, who like many others falls short when attempting to play Lear.

The Eye of the Storm earned White the Nobel Prize after its publication in 1973 but it also made him insuperable, a daunting ancestor who, like Mrs Hunter, diminished his successors. Now Fred Schepisi – more than 20 years after his last Australian film, Evil Angels – has returned home to attempt to film White’s tragical-comical-satirical-mystical masterpiece. When the project was suggested by the producer Antony Waddington, Schepisi’s response, appropriately, was “Oh my God.” It was a brave and reckless undertaking: the result is inevitably a failure – like Basil Hunter’s performance as Lear – but in many ways a noble folly.

Any cinematic adaptation of White has to eliminate or minimise his rich, raucous language. Schepisi’s decor accurately recreates the Sydney settings – a mansion in Centennial Park, a nouveau-riche villa on the North Shore – but no camera could photograph the “splintered sapphires” of Mrs Hunter’s eyes or the air “thick as flannel” in her sickroom or the gilded mirror that threatens to gobble up anyone who looks in it. Dorothy, unhappily repatriated, flinches from her fellow Australians: the men are “mattresses from which the hair was bursting out” and “the women looked as though they would expect to die in hats”. These verbal sallies exactly catch a certain physiological type and the dated manners of a particular class. None of the men in the film is so repellently bristly, and a few of the women wear actual hats, not White’s aspirational, abstract, pitifully funereal headgear. Schepisi includes some of the novel’s most florid images – a wormy peach, a seabird skewered by a branch after the eponymous storm blows over – but makes these hallucinatory emblems of corruption or crucifixion look banal. You can’t photograph a metaphor.

King Lear begins with a petty and mercenary family dispute about inheritance. Then, when Lear rushes out onto the blasted heath and rants at the storm, it expands to confront a cosmic upheaval. White’s novel accentuates this imbalance between the domestic and the apocalyptic, sending the delirious Mrs Hunter on a remembered visit to an island off the Queensland coast where long ago she was left alone in a tropical cyclone. Lear’s storm represents the violence of a godless universe and a convulsed society, which the king defies. The storm in the novel, however, is fomented by Mrs Hunter herself, and she is its unruffled, implacable eye. The cyclone unleashes the hysteria of Mother Nature: the wind inflates Mrs Hunter’s lungs “like windsocks”, and the jagged arrows of blue lightning play around her harmlessly. Afterwards she is “no longer a body” but simply “a being”, absorbed into the resurrected light of dawn.

There is no way Schepisi could possibly show us this transfiguration. Instead we have Charlotte Rampling’s eye staring through the boards of her underground shelter at a storm that is mere sound and fury. Next morning she paddles through clear water on a pristine beach, with a flock of white birds fluttering like spirits above her. The novel, here and when Mrs Hunter re-enacts the storm as she dies, imaginatively edges across the border between life and whatever comes next. The filmed sequence on the beach might be selling holidays on Hamilton Island or some other supposedly unspoiled resort, rather than poetically exploring Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country”, the destination from which no traveller has yet returned.

Schepisi omits the novel’s conclusion, in which one of Mrs Hunter’s nurses performs an act of sanctification as she ceremonially feeds the birds in her dead patient’s garden and chooses a rose that she will cut when it has grown to full bloom. Perhaps wisely, the film doesn’t attempt the rapturous sublimation that uplifts White’s acrid satire. Schepisi and his scriptwriter, Judy Morris – a specialist in cute animals, whose previous work includes Babe: Pig in the City and Happy Feet – make their own literary affinities clear by including as props two specimens of the stolidly middlebrow fiction that White despised: John Galsworthy’s The Man of Property and Irving Stone’s The Agony and the Ecstasy.

Despite the medium’s inbuilt limitations, films do one thing that is beyond the reach of the other arts. They can conduct a microscopic examination of faces, watching the way that our tics and quirks and our wayward eyes expose the thoughts and feelings we assume we have hidden behind the masks we wear. Schepisi is lucky in having Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush as the infantilised middle-aged Hunter children, because they know how to let the camera X-ray their faces.

Davis’ Dorothy is a suburban Lady Macbeth, whose foot kicks furniture as if drilling into it with a woodpecker’s beak, registering an impatient anger she is unable to control. Her gait is angular, and her elbows seem to be shoving the empty air aside; every crease in her skin holds its store of disappointment. Rush bestows on Basil the face of a lugubrious clown: he might be simultaneously playing the anguished Lear and his skittish Fool. Understandably enough, Schepisi invents detours as excuses to watch Rush performing. In a brief tour of Sydney he paces to and fro outside the Opera House, using the tiled shells of its roof to project his voice, and travels around Milsons Point on the ferry to align his rubbery countenance with that of the leering painted woman whose mouth is the entrance to Luna Park.

At one point, the film does improve on the novel. On a return trip to the country house where he and Dorothy grew up, Basil wades into a murky dam in which he used to fish for yabbies and tries out some Shakespeare in “the Australian daylight”. White gives him a nocturnal speech from The Merchant of Venice; Schepisi and Morris cleverly choose to have Rush declaim one of Lear’s threatening addresses to “Ye heavens”. The excerpt concludes with an un-Shakespearean screech of “Oh, shit shit shit” as Basil treads on broken glass or rusty tin beneath the water and gashes his foot. A long shot reduces Rush to a flailing insect in the hot brown waste, while magpies chorally disparage the blank verse that he booms into the void. The scene sums up the magnitude and the incongruity of White’s achievement: he brought Shakespeare to Australia, but couldn’t make him stay.


The Eye of the Storm is in general national release from 15 September. 

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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