Quick question: What are you doing Sunday night?
Stay in or, at the very least, make sure you record The Eternity Man on the ABC. You’re not likely to see anything like this on television again all year – or probably a very long time. Sitting down for this preview, I expected to see a couple of divas and tenors swanning around a theatre. How wrong I was. Frankly, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. Those of us who privately yearn for Aussie TV to aspire beyond soaps and crime dramas should look no further.
This musical dramatisation of the life of Arthur Stace is a brilliantly bold, exuberant journey, shot on the streets of Sydney by director Julien Temple (The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle, Absolute Beginners). Devised by Australian composer Jonathan Mills, who now heads the Edinburgh Festival, and with a story by local poet Dorothy Porter, this is an ambitious art musical.
It opens at Luna Park circa 1930, where brothel madam Myrtle Stace (Christa Hughes, pictured) invites us Greek chorus-like, to a tale of redemption. She is brash, charismatic and utterly colloquial. With a puff of smoke and the wielding back of a red curtain, we are slammed into a lavish, sideshow scene with whores, midgets, leering customers and a grotesque carnival. The attention to detail, production design and theatricality are visual dynamite. Baz Luhrmann, you have competition.
Baritone Grant Smith personifies Stace, a drunkard who had an epiphany one day during a preacher’s fire and brimstone sermon. It became Stace’s calling to anonymously chalk the word ‘Eternity’ in script on Sydney’s streets nearly 500,000 times, until he died in 1967. This production defiantly uses familiar locations including King’s Cross, Museum Station, The Rocks and The Gap.
Its finest achievement is its sheer daring and risk-taking, recording the vocals live on location and fusing archival footage into live action scenes. Marvel at scenes with Smith shuffling down Sydney streetscapes with old film clips flickering onto the sides of houses. It is all so wonderfully inventive.
Resplendent with a 25-piece orchestral score, this ABC and Channel 4 co-production builds to a poignant, joyous final scene.
In style it may not be to everybody’s liking, but as television, Temple has triumphed in defying genre conventions and bringing to life a unique chapter in our folklore. Sadly, librettist Dorothy Porter died in December, now gone to Eternity herself. But with Mills, she leaves a final, sumptuous treasure.
Don’t miss it.
The Eternity Man screens 9:45pm Sunday on ABC1.