Writers Festival winds up in a whirlwind of words

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THE 2016 CANBERRA Writers Festival wound up yesterday in a whirlwind of words from keynote speaker Bob Brown, leaving behind it a general feeling of satisfaction with the three-day event.

Naturally the festival director Vickii Cotter was pleased by ACT Chief Mistier Andrew Barr’s pre-election promise of funding for three years.

And “CityNews” bumped into the Director General of the National Library of Australia, Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, thrilled to see the venerable institution packed to the rafters for three days solid.

Indeed when this writer turned up yesterday to a conversation between Meredith McKinney and Humphrey McQueen, accompanied by readings of Judith Wright’s poetry by Lexi Sekuless, it was hard to make it to the lift. In the corner of the foyer, Canberra novelist Karen Viggers was spotted conducting a conversation, the cafe was full and there was a long line at the information table, as people queued for the back to back and simultaneous sessions involving writers as varied as Melinda Tankard Reist, Linda Wells, David W. Cameron, Charlotte Wood and Eimear McBride.

Up the road at the National Portrait Gallery it was the same story, with back to back and overlapping conversations involving Nick Earls, Marion Halligan, Kim Mahood, Richard Glover and Tom Dusevic.

At the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House, which also provided the festival’s offices, eager punters vied for tickets to 666 ABC Canberra’s Big Book club with Alex Sloan and newest edition of “The Hansard Monologues”, subtitled “Age of Entitlement” and promising “3 years. 2 PMs. 1 Helicopter.”

Scripted as before by political writer and author Paul Daley with playwright Katie Pollock, this show is the sequel to “The Hansard Monologues: A Matter of Public Importance” was co-commissioned by The Seymour Centre and MoAD and  had already been seen two theatres in Sydney and in Wollongong.

This was Verbatim Theatre at its very best and the two writers expertly plundered the words of politicians in the 44th Australian parliament to provide a snapshot of our country in the past three years.

Set against a visual backdrop of projections telling us which politician said what, the Clarke & Dawe style of non-representation and the technique of allocating speeches randomly among the actors irrespective of gender allowed the audience to focus on the words themselves rather than the personalities. It must be said, though, that the grin on the face of actor John Gaden as Malcolm Turnbull the morning after he rolled Tony Abbott was an acting moment to die for.

Although the subjects were deep and broad, ranging from pensions to refugees and the Toxic Tax, it was missing the high drama of Julia Gillard’s  misogyny speech, the highpoint of the 2013 “Hansard Monologues.”

This edition struggled to find a climax, so that when interval came seem to time to go home. But there was more to come. An unexpectedly poignant moment came in the valedictory speech of Bronwyn  Bishop spoken by Heather Mitchell, clear proof that allowing the words to ‘speak for themselves’ can offer a new perspective, even to a partisan audience.

Now it is time for the Canberra Writers Festival director and committee to assess the detail of this event to ensure that it can be sustained. The appearance of celebrities was notable, but one question to be canvassed  will be local ownership. Political centre Canberra may be, but it also has literary writers of substance who should be brought to the centre. As well, the lamentable  dearth of poetry and drama needs to be addressed.

Nonetheless, the enthusiasm  with which volunteers and public like embraced the 2016 festival bodes well for  the future. As one  visiting from interstate remarked to “CityNews”, “Canberra looks like  the ideal place for a book festival.”

Watch canberrawritersfestival.com for details of the 2017 event.

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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