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January 29, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Spell it out – David Crystal

Published by the Society of Editors newsletter, 2012

Spell it out - David Crystal

Spell It Out

David Crystal

Profile Books

Given the intricate and highly convoluted nature of the history of spelling, one gets the impression that calling an etymological historian a pedant is something of a compliment. Following the trail of spelling variations through English history is a monumental task, even more so if the explorer in question is foolhardy enough to translate this history for the masses. But here, in David Crystal’s Spell It Out, is a largely intelligible plain-English resource that is perfect for anyone willing to spend their reading time verbally enunciating letter sounds as they go. This is something worth avoiding on trains if you don’t favour looking like a monkey.

Typically, it’s easy for any editor to appreciate what must have been some serious structural editing for this particular project. The thirty-seven chapters are split primarily into three main sections: the history of spelling; famous spelling ‘rules’ and supposed misdemeanours of spelling; and a sort of miscellaneous section towards the end that deals with exotic spellings, unspellable noises and the now-mandatory final chapter discussing the ‘future’ of English spelling.

One of the most distinctive elements of this book is its illustration of the truly inconsistent and chameleon-like state of English spelling since the time of sixth-century monks in Anglo-Saxon England. Indeed, envisioning spelling as anything with a ‘fixed’ state has been largely a concoction of the post-Gutenberg era, when mass-produced books made it necessary to settle on agreed forms of spelling.

Spell It Out also highlights several ironies. For one, Crystal argues that people who are efficient at writing abbreviated text messages are actually displaying a fairly developed capacity for understanding the rules of legibility. Ostensibly, people who are good texters are generally good spellers, since abbreviation requires an understanding of which letters can be omitted and which cannot in order for a text message to be understood. And there is plenty of room in Crystal’s work for a general, light-hearted scolding of English spelling curriculums throughout history. Crystal argues, for example, that English classes past and present are guilty of enforcing ‘rules’ that, when the history or spelling evolution is explained, do little to aid new spellers. Instead, Crystal suggests classrooms would be better off replacing these ‘rules’ with a lesson on how to recognise words of Latin or French origin (the logic being that words with similar origins follow similar spelling practices).

Indeed, for any teacher or editor responsible for dictating useful tips on spelling practice to young learners, this is a useful (if highly detailed) tool. Spell It Out is a beginner’s manual on why English spelling has become so bloody complicated and why it has so many relatively unfathomable and exception-filled rules. What is perhaps most fascinating about Spell It Out is Crystal’s ability to make even dry subject matter a relatively interesting read—as long as you’ve had your morning coffee.

This isn’t really a book around which you can curl your exhausted body in bed after a hard day at the office. It’s a book for those interested in grasping the foundations of what is an intricate topic. Thankfully, Crystal’s style is clear-cut enough (and firmly edited enough) for readers who might be overwhelmed by the breadth of the subject matter covered by this book. Crystal allows the reader to grasp how easily the history of English spelling could easily fill several volumes before it reaches the current era, a time in which spelling pedants write passionate blog posts lambasting the increasing use of the greengrocer’s apostrophe or nosediving spelling skills amongst teens.

If anything, Crystal gives us hope that the internet, and indeed the future of spelling, need not be as dire as some editors fear. We may work at the very nucleus of the spelling atom, spending our days with our noses buried in dictionaries and prizing (or despising) the spelling consistency with which we must align our projects. But like any human invention, Crystal’s Spell It Out illustrates just how susceptible—and beneficial—spelling evolution can be to a language that has survived the centuries to become one of the predominant languages on the planet.

January 25, 2013 / Siobhan Argent

Cirque du Soleil – Ovo

Published by Beat January 2013


Cirque du Soleil is well-known for certain elements of its act, not all of them universally liked. This includes hyperactive performers, garish costuming and props, and a certain element of grating childishness.

To be fair, the nature of their new show Ovo does make the performers look like somersaulting Teletubbies. And the ‘plot’ is annoyingly nonsensical. There’s an egg. A clownish mosquito wants it but other insects want it more. Perhaps if you watch them all perform their seriously dorky Hi-5 dance routines, you may be able to discern some interpretive-dance-related explanation for why insects want to simply have a giant egg. Still, it’s difficult to see why they bother with all of this, since the acrobatics themselves are so stunning that everything else just seems like unnecessary fluff.

It’s an injustice trying to squeeze in all the performances here. Suffice it to say that if there’s one particular type of circus act you prefer, you’ll find it in this show. Worthy mentions go to the foot-juggling Ants, who were stunningly adept at throwing things—including each other—into the air using their feet. Spiderman Julaiti Ailati deserves kudos for a sore head, since it took all of his weight during a handstand…on a slackwire. Graceful butterflies Svitlana Kashevarova and Dmytro Orel made us swoon with their romantic interpretation of the straps, while the circus clowns consistently proved their worth. The trio (Simon Bradbury, Barthelemy Glumineau and Michelle Matlock) were caricatures magnified, adept at being cartoonish but not overly garish.

In terms of logistics, there were some elements that seemed ill-conceived. There appeared to be only two small toilet blocks—for a sold-out crowd of around 2600 people—and the strategy for mass exiting was so strangely engineered that cars in the VIP parking area left more quickly than hundreds of people lining up to use a tiny pedestrian exit. But since Cirque du Soleil has successfully weaved its own brand of circus magic for years, I have no doubt that such logistical anomalies will not stop the masses coming to see what is a consistent and professional circus show.

October 31, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

The Stairs Are Moving – La Mama Courthouse

Published October 2012 in Beat

Melbourne Writers’ Theatre’s production The Stairs Are Moving is an ambitious play that aims to make a new space within the realm of melodrama. It is, however, let down by uneven pacing, a difficult structure and a slow opening third.

The plot of this production is straightforward—two siblings, Marjory (Sarah Plummer) and Dmitri (Maurice Mammoliti) go to the funeral of a hated Aunt (Carolyn Masson) to exact post-mortem revenge on their cruel relative. Marjory does, anyway; Dmitri is too busy drinking away his past to be capable of anything more than sullen distrust of everyone he encounters. Meanwhile, the hyperactive and super-organised Tulip (Charlotte Nicdao), Aunt Petunia’s servant, buzzes around like an unswattable fly, adding a thin layer of lightness to the proceedings throughout this dark and depressing production.

One of the more interesting aspects of this play is the surrealist touch. It’s small but significant, revolving primarily around the titular stairs and the way in which their activities lead directly to the ‘downfall’ in the play’s climactic ending. Still, it’s not enough of a quirk to change the overall tone of the play or detract from some pretty depressing proceedings. When you spend that much time covering abuse, depression, alcoholism and pent-up rage, it’s easy to miss the surrealist woods for the melodramatic trees.

There are other elements, too, which make this play a difficult one in terms of audience engagement. Characters, for example, very rarely interact with each other in real time, speaking instead mostly to the audience. And after 90 minutes, it’s difficult for an audience to maintain interest in how characters might relate to each other when it’s indirectly shown.

The Stairs Are Moving makes bold attempts on several levels, including a different approach to character interaction and surrealist sub-elements that leap to the fore just when required. But it’s always difficult for audiences to become engaged when characters rarely speak directly to each other while treading a well-worn path to emotional deliverance.

The Stairs Are Moving  is playing at La Mama Courthouse from 24 October to 3 November.

Australian Stage’s review of The Stairs Are Moving

October 21, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

First Dog on the Moon in ‘How to Draw Cartoobs and Other Typos’ – Melbourne Fringe Festival

Published October 2012 in Crikey

First Dog will always hold a special place in my heart, most noticeably because my heart is full of other cartoon animals who appreciate interpretive dance. He’s in good company.

Still, my appreciation of his show has a lot to do with the fact that First Dog employs Smart Humour for Intelligent People, and these people have been out in abundance recently, if his sold-out show How to Draw Cartoobs and Other Typos is anything to go by.

The premise of the show is simple but effective, if precariously close to uninventive. It’s just a slideshow, a guy in a suit and a script, and it could quite easily go pear-shaped. In general, it doesn’t, even if the show drags on a tad too long.

Most people will appreciate the thoughtful drawings, multitude of cute cat pictures and yes, real-life interpretive dancing. You don’t need to know First Dog’s cartoons, but it helps.

It suits those with relatively short attention spans because it’s a show with a wandering heart. First Dog demonstrates his broad emotional range, leaping from critical, amusing discourse on climate change to feminism and the many ways in which a bandicoot can enchant the public with his stunning bodily interpretations of the machinations of Australian politics.

October 15, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

Damian Callinan in ‘The Merger’ – Melbourne Fringe Festival

Published October 2012 in Crikey

Damian Callinan proves in this show that he’s capable of baring more skin, bum included, than we see at the average Brownlow awards ceremony.

His well-meaning but somewhat bland The Merger pokes fun at good old ‘Straya in a familiar, non-aggressive way.

The Merger is a relatively family friendly show if you’re acquainted with the standard level of swearing covered in pretty much any Australian comedy show. But where there’s safety in a wide audience, there’s also little effect; The Merger doesn’t really succeed in pulling the comedic rabbit out of the hat.

This is a one-man show in which Callinan does a solid job of playing both a young child, a gruff football-club owner, and an Afghani. The plot revolves around a daydreamer’s modern-day football team, threatened by financial ruin but accepting of all races, religions and humane interests. The boys go off to arts festivals as part of their regular footy trips and various individuals within the team ponder or buy ‘Szechuan porterhouse’ from their local multicultural pub.

It’s a show that’s relatively uncategorised and that in itself is frustrating. It’s not purely comedy nor purely theatre. If you’re going to see a comedy show, it’s certainly not a laugh a minute, but neither are you driven to emotional peaks and troughs by the bitterly realistic depiction of the trials endured by people who do achieve refugee status in Australia.

October 13, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

The Trial and Death of Socrates (No Relation) – Melbourne Fringe Festival 2012

Published October 2012 in Crikey

There are some comedy shows that aim to dazzle an audience with wit and brilliance. Then there are others that slap you in the face with the same resounding smack a wet turkey might make when it’s swung against your tender, well-defined cheekbone—it injures your dignity, but you laugh hard anyway. The Life and Death of Socrates (No Relation) sits firmly within the latter group.

Joel Tito (of the Vigilantelope comedy group) plays Socrates, a regular sadsack with a famous namesake. It’s the perfect vehicle to showcase the next hour of absurdist comedy, which shows promise from a comedian unafraid to go wherever imaginative humour dictates.

The plot, where there is one, is thin on the ground but supplies enough fuel to keep the performance moving along. Basically, Socrates will die. Rather than defend him, the show spends most of the time explaining exactly why this poor sod needs to be wiped off the face of the Earth.

This is a story that has been done before; it’s the perennial one-man-show concept of a loner who lives alone and acts as a metaphorical punching bag for any comedian able to milk the desperate, pathetic look. I’m not sure whether he’ll take it as a compliment, but Tito does this well.

The mute Socrates is also your standard comedy-character weirdo. For instance, he instigates an uncomfortably sexual relationship with an oscillating fan during a house party at which he is the only guest. He also organises an auction of his completely plagiarised manuscript, during which he can only mash the keypad of his phone in response to the queries the auctioneer calls him to discuss.

By the end of the second half, the character has been well and truly wrung dry of all comedic possibility, with the final scene of this section illustrative of a refreshing attempt to perhaps turn the whole story of pre-destined death on its head (even if the twist is not altogether that shocking). What is confusing is the  strange Japanese chatterbox who bookends the show. He’s completely unrelated to the main story and not an altogether convincing crowd warmer.

Without getting too eager, The Trial and Death of Socrates (No Relation) reminds me of the kind of closeted comedic universes championed by Tony Martin in his radio show Get This. Where Martin has donkeys parading as judges and recurring sound-based slapstick gags, Tito has angry priests battling soundboard technicians, sexy fans and flagellation by slap-band.

There’s no doubt that Tito has stage presence and an excellent knack for improvisation, which makes awkward silences rather the reverse. With his current hirsute look, he also vaguely resembles Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords fame, which is a nice connection to draw if you’re looking for comedy of a similar, silly vein. Still, there are weaknesses to the show; the relatively strong structure that shapes the show from the outset slips when the comedy descends further into fantastical anarchy in the second half.

Fortunately, Socrates is redeemed by a veritable pile-on of clever, recurring gags that emphasise the ridiculous nature of the comedy on display. But if none of these things sound appealing to you, it would be best to avoid wet turkeys at all cost.

October 10, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

How to Get Rich – Melbourne Fringe Festival 2012

Published October 2012 by Crikey

This strong, intelligent one-woman show is like a warm hug from a friendly acquaintance. It’s a little unexpected at first, but something to which you’ll eventually succumb with an easy acquiescence. How to Get Rich carefully balances on the see-saw of a strange dichotomy; it’s inventive but still manages to sit firmly within the safety of a specific genre. It’s very woman-friendly in the half-panicked, desperate, slightly-stereotyped style so favoured by the Bridget Jones films (and championed here by performer Aleisha McCormack), yet it almost never tips the scales in terms of sentimentality. In this manner, How to Get Rich turns a possible weakness into one of its strengths. It’s also directed and co-written by Julia Zemiro, making it a little easier to gauge the likely quality and strength of the piece itself before the lights dim.

Some of the most entertaining comedy shows of late revolve around a narrative that’s simple but effective. This is something that How to Get Rich achieves beautifully. In short, it relates the story of how McCormack travelled halfway around the world to meet a fellow Australian (living in England) that she’d met on Facebook four months beforehand. Her journey is a leap of faith, certainly, but it’s also a boon for anyone looking for a story full of satirical potential, however familiar the concept may feel to an audience saturated by romantic-comedy films.

Part of what makes this show interesting is how tactfully this familiar theme is utilised. For one, McCormack plays panicky without seeming stupid. She also proves adroit at exploiting certain stereotypes without getting overly hammy. There is the odd whiff of Kath & Kim as the script floats the odd ‘vejazzling’ joke (if you’re thinking diamantes and vaginas, you’re on the right track). But for the most part, this show is much smarter than that.

McCormack has arguments with a cheeky, video-taped Deborah Hutton, who invades her traveller’s psyche mid-flight. Various peripheral characters also make tautly scripted appearances, including McCormack’s mother, a beautician and a cigarette-smoking flight-attendant from the eighties. And while the show is entertaining, there’s a trade-off for presenting a respectable but please-all affair: it doesn’t push any boundaries. It’s certainly very good, but there’s nothing in it to shock. You’d be safe taking your mum to this one, as long as she’s never heard of vejazzling.

This is the type of Fringe show that gives comedy a respectable name, even if it may not be the type of experience that sticks in your memory long after the Fringe has moved on. McCormack has great fun messing around with the props on set, which includes a twin-set, economy-class pair of plane seats that look as though they were ripped from an extinct Virgin jet. The structure is excellent and the idea is sound. In short it’s a cosy, ultimately very good-hearted venture that is the perfect vehicle to showcase the potential possessed by both McCormack as a performer, and Zemiro and McCormack as crowd-friendly comedy writers.