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Unity [FILM] Human Nature By Adam Norris


ost entertainment is going to market itself as something unique; something distinct from the glut of film, music and literature dribbling from marquees and shopfront windows. Most entertainment is also going to fall short of that innovation (I’m looking at you, Jonathan Liebesman), but with Unity we have a remarkable exception. It’s a documentary charting a kind of spirituality without religion, but instead the prevalence of compassion and community in spite of humanity’s long history of warfare and prejudice, and is narrated by over 100 celebrities. Helen Mirren, Jessica Chastain, Geoffrey Rush, Kevin Spacey, Dr. Dre; the contributors stretch on. “When we asked everyone if they were interested in being part of a chorus of narrators for the film,” director Shaun Monson recalls, “well, I approached some people who we already knew at first. I’d worked with Joaquin Phoenix before [on Earthlings]. Once we had a couple of names, we could get a couple more, and we took it from there. I’d do research and see what sort of philanthropic interests each person may have, any altruistic work in the past. I’d try and then select dialogue that was in that area. “Fortunately, my instincts were pretty good with that – I don’t think there was ever a time someone came and said they didn’t want to say a certain part, to give their lines to someone else. I would just tell them what would be happening on screen, what people would be seeing, and that would help give them a context. Then they’d come in to read, and

start in whatever way they wanted. After a while I might say, ‘OK, now I want you to try it deeper, slower, sort of contemplative. Not like a book report, not like you’re standing up in front of class.’ And that’s what they all did – this slow, deep reading that just works so well with the music and images.” The film itself is an engrossing overview of humankind’s dissonance with itself. It looks to elaborate commonalities and empathies not only within the human world, but in our relationships to animals and to vegetation. The narration goes a long way to easing us into what is at heart a stirring, if subjective philosophical treatise on mortality, but the images themselves are quite powerful. From the opening scene of two terrified bulls corralled in a slaughterhouse, you know you’re in for an affecting experience. Curiously, though, preceding this is a disclaimer recognising that the performers’ opinions may be at odds with Monson’s own ethics and sensibilities. “The documentary genre has a different criteria to it to the fictional film,” he explains. “You can play a rapist or a serial killer in a hit movie and not have to put any kind of disclaimer out front, nothing that says, ‘This is all pretend, none of this is real,’ even though they make it look as real and as terrifying as possible. If in a documentary you’re saying, ‘Hey, let’s not hurt animals, let’s stop having war,’ it somehow becomes the opposite. You need to have this disclaimer. I find that really interesting.

“Films that are very violent or brutal, which is quite common in reality, are fine and no disclaimers are required. But that’s OK. It’s still worth including because people have strong feelings about these things, so let’s protect the talent. Let everyone know that they’ve agreed to be a part of it because they may intellectually believe in the message of Unity, but there may be a point or two that doesn’t quite work. They may be a carnivore, for instance. So that was the reason.” The success of the film rests in large measure on how willing the audience is to question basic assumptions about its daily lives, and its place in a near inappreciable cosmic order. Celebrating our connectedness is central to Monson’s premise, though his film also attempts to establish why humankind can’t seem to leave

behind war and suffering – something so barbaric and wasteful and undignified and cruel, yet as historically fundamental to who we are as the very air we breathe. The vast majority of world history has borne witness to war, and one wonders if it is not a natural, inescapable part of being human. “It’s a component of it, yes,” says Monson. “The primitive, competitive, brutal aspect of humanity is there, but so also is the enlightened, uplifting, loving and tender side of us. I think of it like this: the primary function of any biological organism is survival. Why then, if that is true, if we are merely biological organisms, does a mother dash into the street to save her child from an oncoming truck? Compassion has no room in biological survival. It violates the laws of the universe.

“A soldier who goes to face certain death to protect a fellow soldier is also violating that universal law if we are merely biological organisms. This tells us that there is something about compassion that runs deeper within us. That is beyond biology. And I am not a religious person at all, but this to me seems to be a valid, scientifically proven, yet spiritual question about what we are. Something that suggests we are deeper than mere biological organisms. And if that’s the case, we can certainly go beyond war. We can surpass all needless brutality. The capacity is there.” What: Unity (dir. Shaun Monson) Where: Palace Norton Street, Chauvel Cinema Paddington and Event Cinemas George Street When: Wednesday August 12

The Tempest Xxx

[THEATRE] The Final Chime By Adam Norris optimistic, pessimistic, aggressive, whatever. You tend to take on those characteristics yourself, if only to a degree. It’s a bit like testing yourself against the character. “In directing, it’s always working out strategies. How to keep everyone at the same pace, keep them enthusiastic, and looking out for any trouble spots. If people are at all disgruntled, is it because they’re insecure about themselves, about someone else, what’s going on? It’s like trying to read minds all the time. One is objective, one is subjective. It’s really as simple as that.” There is, of course, a certain poetry to Bell’s decision to exit his career as artistic director with The Tempest. A story of transformation and illusion, of legacy and generations, love and bewitchment, you would struggle to find a more appropriate fit. Yet the circumstances of choosing the text were much more fateful than they were planned.


o anyone even remotely connected with the national theatre scene, John Bell is something of a living legend. Indeed, he has been confirmed as such by the National Trust of Australia, and throughout his 40-year career has amassed so many accolades they had to build an entire Opera House to store them. Arguably best known for the staggering success of the Bell Shakespeare Company, now, 25 years after founding the troupe, he is stepping down, sailing off to stranger waters with a final production of The Tempest. “It’s week three of rehearsals now,” Bell chuckles. His voice, unsurprisingly, is rich, velveteen

– one can only imagine the conversational delights were he ever to have held court with Richard Burton or John Gielgud. “It’s a little like chopping our way through the jungle, but it’s all starting to become clearer. Gaps of light are starting to shine through the canopy.” Bell has performed the coveted role of the betrayed magician, Prospero, thrice in the past, and so his insight into what is regarded as Shakespeare’s final play is significant. But rather than don the cloak one last time, Bell decided instead to take the mantle as director, and leave the creation of the character – the idiosyncrasies, the speech, the meat beneath the

words – to another. Under Bell’s watch, such creation is very much an act of collaboration and, to a point, anthropology. “One half of me would love to take the part, of course, because it’s such a great play and a great role. But I’ve done it three times now. It would have been greedy to do it again – it was time to give somebody else a go. I was pretty altruistic, I would say,” he laughs. “It’s a very different experience, directing as opposed to acting. Acting, you think about the character, you tend to try and live with them, to see life through the character’s eyes all the time, to find a certain rhythm. You try to adapt their perspective, be it

“We were just looking around for what were the best shows to do for our 25th anniversary, and Hamlet was our first choice. We hadn’t done Hamlet for a while, and never on a national tour. The Tempest we hadn’t done for some years, As You Like It we hadn’t done in ages. It was a matter of figuring out what had been silent for six, eight years, and construct a really popular season. That was really all there was to it, to ensure it was going to be a season that would really keep people entertained. Only after we programmed it did I realise there was a certain synchronicity between a guy giving up his magic and retiring into private life. It was definitely an afterthought more so than any motivation.” The show has already begun selling out, bolstered by the fact that this

is to be Bell’s company swansong, of course, but also because after a quarter of a century, audiences have developed sincere faith in Bell Shakespeare. This is a cadre of performers and creators like no other, and though the show will go on for years to come, Bell has left a significant shadow to fill. His instincts for theatre are unsurpassed, a talent he credits to ensuring each production starts out as an undiscovered country. “I think that’s essential. I think when you’re a younger actor you think, ‘I need to find the method, I need to find that key,’ just try to establish some kind of game plan you can fall back to. And that’s fine when you’re starting out. I think with the older you get and the more you trust yourself, you are more comfortable with a group of people in a room, you’re more willing to just see what happens. “What I sometimes do is say, ‘Let’s play it like De Niro,’ or ‘Try and play it like Downey, Jr.’ That’s a somewhat lazy way of doing it, however. I far prefer modelling on real-life people and just take certain characteristics. But rather than just take one person, I guess what I would do is try and take, say, 12 different people or personalities, and take a bit from this one, a bit from that one, take somebody else’s body language, somebody else’s sense of humour. It should rarely be just mimicking one person, but drawing from a whole realm of different role models. You must try and approach every show very differently.” What: The Tempest Where: Playhouse, Sydney Opera House When: Wednesday August 19 – Friday September 18

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