THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL

I haven’t had a really decent beard since last appearing in The Seagull by Anton Chekhov in 2010, but I nonetheless maintain a great admiration for pogontrophy and those who practice it.

So it was with great pleasure that I unwrapped THE GIGANTIC BEARD THAT WAS EVIL, a parting gift from my brother who was visiting from Sydney last week. Theatre makers are great scavengers and ideas can come from many sources. A great graphic novel can be richly rewarding, having a huge amount in common with a great play. Both forms are a delicate blend of word and image and when the balance is right, the whole becomes so much more than its elements. For a theatre director, its worth noting how a graphic novel achieves its effects: how it combines imagery and poetry to make something both moving and memorable.

Beneath the skin
of everything
is something nobody can know
The job of the skin
is to keep it all in
and never let anything show

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So begins Stephen Collins’ delightfully original tale, set on the island of Here, an impossibly neat, clipped, trim and ordered place surrounded by a terrifying and chaotic sea, beyond which is There, a place that no one dares to visit.  The protagonist Dave, an all-but-hairless man, loves tidiness, sketching things he sees out of his window and listening to Eternal Flame by The Bangles on endless repeat. His life is ordered, regular and unspectacular. But one day the single hair that grows on Dave’s face transforms into a swiftly sprouting, chaotic and uncontrollable beard.

As if
something
had escaped
from the depths of his dreams
to crawl up into the day

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Collins’ elegant pencil drawings, beautifully-textured and constantly shifting in scale and perspective, plunge us into a surreal world that we nonetheless immediately recognise as a shadow of our own. This is a world is of order, conventionality and conformity – a Here in desperate need of a There. The unruly beard becomes a playful metaphor for the eternal tussle between order and chaos.

Like many great artists, Collins takes a simple idea and explores it in rich imaginative detail, filling every page with new variations on the theme. The book maintains its strong dramatic action, surprising visuals and and finely calibrated ambiguity until the end. It is a masterclass in visual storytelling. The work is a darkly comic fable, a beautifully observed social satire, a celebration of all things hairy and a bloody good read.

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If you’re lucky enough to be in Perth at the moment, you can see more of Stephen Collins’ original artwork, including sketches from this book, as part of Comic Tragics. The exhibition showcases nine leading international comic artists and is showing at The Art Gallery of WA until July 25. The book is published by Picador and is available at the gallery’s bookshop or online.

The post is dedicated to the memory of Rashas Moustaches.

Gwen’s mouse

The children caper
Round a sprung moustrap where a mouse lies dead
When the soft corpse won’t move they seem afraid

I found a collection of Gwen Harwood’s poems in a bookshop in Fremantle yesterday and was struck again by her wonderful ability to pay attention to tiny details. Harwood’s Suburban Sonnet is a masterclass in everyday tragedy, depicting children confronting death, perhaps for the first time, and a woman whose veins ache as musical longings and family obligations collide inside her. It is heartbreaking. Each small detail in the poem builds an image of flawed humans, big and small, struggling against time and the awareness of their own mortality.

So I was fascinated to find a poem buried in the volume dedicated to another great poet, titled I.M. Philip Larkin. Harwood, one of the finest anatomisers of humanity, writes in her brief and heartfelt euology to Larkin: Sorrow will keep its hour/Surpassing all belief. Her poem betrays a deep pain at the loss of this fellow poet. Like all great artists, Harwood is conscious of death and its inevitability, and yet its ability to blindside us with its vastness and obscenity, surpassing all belief.

Of course, Larkin himself wrote one of the most unique and striking depictions of our awareness of death, refracting our fears through the prism of ambulances. Larkin’s ambulances menace us as they thread loud noons of cities/Giving back none of the glances they absorb. Their presence makes us:

…sense the solving emptiness
That lies just under all we do,
And for a second get it whole,
So permanent and blank and true.

The poem takes an ordinary moment in any of our lives, the passing of an ambulance, and through it lets us glimpse the extraordinary: the solving emptiness of death.

And so we come to Shakespeare: the great poet of life, death and everything in between (and sometimes after). And in a post about death and poetry, how could we not? Last week was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death and birth (both on the 23 April). Shakespeare’s birthday is the day after mine, so I often find myself reflecting on the great writer’s words as another year passes – his life and death ever present as my own years slip by.

Time is Shakespeare’s great, recurring theme. The inevitability of decay, death and rebirth is a thread shot through every play and poem he wrote. The most iconic image in his work, indeed in all of dramatic literature, needs no words to be immediately understood: a healthy young man in a graveyard, holding a human skull. Even the most passionate lives in Shakespeare are ultimately brought to heel by Hamlet’s seargant death who is strict in his arrest. In one of the most beloved passages, Jaques tells us all the world’s a stage, an image of life brimming with energetic performances, passion and possibility. Yet in the exact same speech he reminds us that by definition each performance, each life, has an entrance and an exit. Death is always with us.

But it is Prospero’s speech to Ferdinand in The Tempest, viewed by many as Shakespeare’s own farewell to the theatre, that speaks most powerfully of the fleeting nature of life. The illusion of our own permanence is just that:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. 

In his response to the play, The Sea and the Mirror, WH Auden describes the all-consuming ocean in The Tempest as one which misuses nothing because it values nothing. In one sense, the play confronts us with a bleak universe that will swallow everything. All that we think of as permanent, including our own consciousness, will ultimately dissolve.

And yet, the wonderful paradox of life is that an awareness of its briefness can make us more fully, vibrantly alive. All great art is in some way a response to a consciousness of mortality: the artist attempts to observe and to make sense of this world before it passes them by. The result may be tragic, whimsical, confronting, meditative or hilarious, but it is all an act of curiosity, of paying attention, of presence. We are all the children poking the dead mouse in Gwen Harwood’s poem, or Hamlet staring at the skull. And this need not be depressing or macabre. Contrary to popular misconception, Hamlet is one of the funniest characters in all dramatic literature. An awareness of life’s briefness is also an awareness of its specialness, which can be liberating, animating, even joyful. It is only by paying attention that we become fully alive. For an artist the awareness of death makes the expression of life in all its wonderful complexity all the more precious.

And, despite the inevitable death of its creators, great art need not die. The words of Harwood, Larkin and Shakespeare have the ability to go on – to outlive each artist. And with the death of David Bowie, Prince and many other extraordinary artists this year we see vivid examples of how the work of great artists can continue to have a life of its own. Each artist may be only paying attention to their small corner of the world, but by expressing what they see and sharing it with others, their work has the power to endure.

Ben Jonson’s eulogy for Shakespeare contains one of the finest expressions of this idea. Four hundred years later, Jonson’s words are testament to the extraordinary ability of art to transcend death.

Thou art a monument without a tomb, 
And art alive still while thy book doth live 
And we have wits to read and praise to give.