ONE of the biggest disappointments in the local arts scene recently was the postponement of David Atfield’s new play “Chiaroscuro”.
Atfield was selected to be in residence at Canberra Theatre Centre from August 2-29, as part of its inaugural “New Works” program.
Following the story of the notorious Italian painter, Caravaggio, as he paints a masterpiece from his studio in late-renaissance Italy, the play was inspired when Atfield saw his “The Raising of Lazarus” in Sicily and got interested in the idea of the model forming a romantic collaboration with Caravaggio, noting that many art historians try to deny the artist’s sexuality, “as if that diminished his work”.
Atfield eschewed the joys of rehearsing by Zoom and because of covid, the project was put off until November, during Canberra’s SpringOut festival.
Meanwhile, Atfield’s other new play, which touches on the lockdown, has just undergone a “First Seen” development at The Street via Zoom.
In “Just Wrong”, 50-year-old Gus, a former pop star married to a supermodel, is enjoying the COVID-19 lockdown as it gives him an excuse to wallow in his glorious failure.
A sort of comedy, it explores artistic creation in a world full of rejection – and it gives Atfield an excuse to celebrate all things Eurovision through the music. He’s never used original songs before, but is looking to work with a composer.
One of the things that we can expect to see in any Atfield play these days is full-frontal male nudity, something of a trademark with his productions, beginning with the 2014 “Scandalous Boy”, about the Emperor Hadrian’s boy-lover Antinous, and continuing in the 2018 play “Exclusion”, written in the time of the marriage-equality debate about a bisexual prime minister. Atfield is quick to point out that in those plays the nudity was shared evenly across the sexes.
The winner of three Canberra Critics’ Circle Awards, he is one of Canberra’s most respected directors and playwrights. He originally came to the ACT as director of Company Skylark puppet theatre soon after graduating in 1991 from NIDA, but preferring human actors to puppets, soon turned to “straight” theatre.
After Skylark he formed his own independent theatre company, BITS Theatre, directing everything from Michael Gow’s “Furious” to Tennessee Williams’ last play “Something Cloudy, Something Clear” and his own play “Pink Triangles” about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals.
An ongoing love affair with movies resulted in his 1998 script, “Louise Lovely,” about the silent-screen idol Louise Lovely, which led to an introduction to the National Film and Sound Archive, who offered him a day job, which he still holds.
Then he stopped.
“I went underground for nine years, stopped being an artist,” he says. “I cover that in Act II of ‘Just Wrong’, where my passion for ’90s dance music is also covered.”
In the fallow period, he did a bit of DJ-ing for private functions while concentrating on his job at the NFSA.
But it’s usually impossible to keep an artist down and Atfield was soon at it again, this time turning his hand to playwriting and directing, as he has done for the past decade.
Apart from a strange sidestep into directing the Disney musical “The Little Mermaid” for Free Rain in 2016, Atfield has resolutely focused on queer issues in his plays.
First identifying as a gay director during the ’90s, Atfield was well aware of the peculiar attitude to sexuality in the industry that saw Tom Hanks getting an Oscar for being “brave” performing a gay man and Rupert Everett stopped from being a romantic lead after he came out – “as if he wasn’t a fully-fledged human being,” he says.
He describes the taboo against displaying the male sexual organ onstage as “very paranoid… I find it annoying, using women as a sex object but not men.”
“Sexuality and nakedness are something to celebrate, not something to hide.”
But Atfield admits that the question of nudity on stage has been somewhat muddied with the advent of the Me Too movement, so nowadays productions need to have an “intimacy coach” to make everybody feel safe with nudity. That will be happening with “Chiaroscuro.”
Performance dates for “Chiaroscuro” will be available soon at canberratheatrecentre.com.au
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