Heroic acting in the stalls

The bullingly brilliant Kenneth Tynan published his first book of theatre criticism aged twenty-three. Proving that he was not only younger but also smarter than the competition, he disposed of “well-behaved half-way criticism” with a shot-between-the-eyes pastiche of an amateur theatre production as reviewed in the provincial press: “As Ruby, Mrs E. Dowling impressed. Joan Hegge put up a good show as Clarissa, while Alice Ferrers offered a clever cameo of the housemaid. The well-balanced cast included Roger Topping who took the old Colonel, and Nelly Hobbs, who reaped well-merited laughs as the helpmeet (?). In the part of the young man, popular Mr E. Dowling impressed. Well done, Sydney Theatre Company!”—sorry, sorry, that last sentence should read “Well done, Fosdyke and Grantley Wood Associated Metal-Tool (and String) Co. Dramatic Group!”

That was then. Now, amateur theatre can be enjoyed as a provocative counter-cultural outing. Cultural dropouts fleeing the ghastly politicised, subsidised theatres, bleeding with Barrie Kosky productions that make traffic accidents look tasteful, will find amateur theatre has charms, cheap wine and pleasures unknown to accept-anything metropolitan audiences. Amateur theatre is an indictment of the subsidised theatres and subsidised play publishing houses for, wanting good parts and paying customers, they seldom choose new Australian plays from the deadlands. In amateur theatre there is no rush to present plays that have just been on in Sydney or Melbourne, especially those that have elicited rave reviews wherein the smell of bullshit is unmistakable. Audience hatred does not play well in amateur theatre.

For those who could, and want to write entertaining popular plays the scene is bleak. Subsidised theatres, and university drama courses, play conferences and all the rest of the elitist construction have driven out with both financial firepower and cultural artillery a popular middlebrow theatre that might have drawn widespread audience support. But for the want of suitable translations, performances of plays from the Currency Press catalogue could have been profitably used in the muscular treatment of recalcitrant terrorists in certain foreign prisons. The threat of being forced to watch a season of Daniel Keene plays would have no doubt bought good behaviour and promises to be good in the future, from even the most explosively charged Islamist militant. The middle-aged ladies attending and applauding subsidised theatres showing raging plays of intense political boredom are one of the cultural highlights of our age.

Amateur groups use plays which could have been retired long ago but which are still earning royalties and still bringing in customers. Elitists revile amateur theatre’s tireless recycling of audience-pleasing Christies, Ayckbourns and Cowards but cultural refugees may find them refreshing, and not too far from home.

What would you choose? Would you go, as I did, to the Hobart Rep’s production of The Accused by Jeffrey Archer, an old-fashioned courtroom drama, or would you have gone to this treat from the 2009 National Play Festival?

Marcel Dorney’s Hypatia takes us on a historical journey to Alexandria when the greatest repository of knowledge in the West, the Library of Alexandria, was run by Hypatia. Her defence of the library and her subsequent death at the hands of a fanatical Christian mob in 415 AD provides the crux of this ancient story.

Or this one:

Author Elise Hearst describes Dirtyland as a stark portrait of human frailty, resilience and treachery. It is also about massacre and its lingering impact. But despite these daunting themes the play has an element of playfulness and innocence.

Or this forthcoming musical (!!) in Perth:

Alan is suffering from depression following a few ups & downs in his life. He meets a number of other people at a “therapy group” and together, they chart a course through pain, death, life, love and healing. Just so you know, the show is not “Rent-y”—I wanted it to be positive and upbeat—It’s more classic musical genre, boy gets girl, big show numbers, a duet with the devil, that kind of thing …!! It’s supposed to be a fun show—however considering the subject matter, there are by necessity a few dark moments. Proceeds from the production will be channelled back into the mental health community.

Choosing a chestnut over what sounds like desperately dismal theatre can make you feel wonderfully subversive—like cheering for Andrew Bolt over Phillip Adams.

On stage in the halls that house amateur theatre groups, supposed brick walls may flutter as Antarctic winds blow in from backstage; the paint might still be wet on windows and shelves; slammed doors, the ones that don’t stick, may set walls a-wobbling; telephones don’t always ping on cue; stars might tumble over lines and drop in vaguely remembered bits from last month’s production instead of this. At the box office there may be consternation and confusion, ushers may plonk you in wrong seats—but it is all rather friendly and oozing with good will. The people who sell you a program or fill your glass of dry white may have been in a play you saw a month or two ago, and the house manager for the evening may be locally famous for starring in a television milk ad with a kitten.

For The Accused, at the Hobart Playhouse, every seat came provided with a double-sided flash card with the words Guilty or Not Guilty on either side. The audience was to be the jury and at the end of the play would vote on whether the accused (James Casey) had really killed his wife—he looked a bit shifty to me. This also meant that we had to stand and sit on cue at the beginning of each act as the court assembled. We were addressed by the Judge (John Andrews) and the Jury Bailiff (Nicholas King). The play has two endings and the one that is used depends on whether we believe the testimony of the accused’s ex-nurse and perhaps ex-lover (Sara Brown) and flash “Guilty”, or, not trusting her, “Not Guilty”.

In the London premiere season in 2000 Archer himself played the part of the accused man and for almost all of the three acts was required to sit mutely on one side of the stage as the audience stared at him. Strange man. Back then the audience knew that he himself had a real trial pending in just a few months.

The two leading barristers, played by Gillian Hunt and Robin Rheinberger, threw into conflict a crusty conservative and a nagging lefty, or should have done. The parts had been changed from male to female roles. Political correctness or just giving several well-known local actresses an opportunity to sparkle? Or a combination of both? Who knows. Changing sexes didn’t really come off. Archer’s characters are not great writing. They are male stereotypes battling it out on stage. Instantly recognisable when male, it doesn’t work in cross-dressing and simply changing the sex of the performer.

The performance of the play I saw had a dramatic sub-plot.

I had a feeling it was going to be a good bit of theatre when the director (Peter McIntosh), sitting almost in front of me, stretched his head back and put drops in his eyes before the play began. Most plays I have seen recently would have been a good chance for the director to catch up with his snoozes, not for bright-eyed observation.

It began and the Jury Bailiff got us all standing for the entry of the Judge. We were formally called to order by the Court Usher (Brian Andrews) with an announcement ending with a virile “God save the Queen”. A member of the audience responded. “But nothing will save the Governor-General,” squeaked an elderly female voice. Unfortunately, her witty remark woke up The Platitude of Unintended Consequences who had been dozing in a seat next to the emergency exit. He awoke, looked about and—perhaps he had maintained the rage—burbled something noisily. The audience turned as one woman and stared, cuttingly though briefly.

Interval number one lives in our collective memories as the beginning of Round One. Actually the interval was ended. The house lights had dimmed, the stage lights had come on and the actors had taken their places. The Jury Bailiff moved forward to address us—the Jury. At this point The Platitude of Unintended Consequences rose, shakily, to his feet. In reality he was less like a Platitude than like Robert Newton playing Long John Silver in the Disney Treasure Island—a Long John Silver on antidepressants and dry red. He was stockily built with tousled hair. His shabbiness suited him. He was sort of on his foot with a crutch in one hand and a glass of red in the other. “I have been elected chairman of the jury,” he began—though none of us could remember even nominating him. “I think there is a lack of evidence.” Perhaps he really had more practical knowledge of real courts than most of us in the audience or on stage.

“Oh shut up and get down,” or something like that, came from a male member of the audience seated near our self-elected soviet foreman. A flashing scene change seemed to instantly transport us from the Hobart Rep’s Old Bailey to a local ALP branch meeting as Long John lurched towards his opponent brandishing his metal crutch and glass. “Come on then, big man,” and his opponent did look like a big man even though he was sitting down. “Come and have a go at me then.” Wife of Big Man held him back as audience made horrified collective clucking noises. Play’s director watched on. It was all very exciting. Play, on stage, somehow resumed. We all checked our programs in the gloom to see if there would be a second interval. There was. We all waited breathlessly for Round Two.

All this for only $23. Makes the Melbourne and Sydney Theatre Companies look dull, and overpriced.

Round Two. Dramatic denouement on stage. Blackout. House lights up, and the drama resumed. Long John, who surely knew his Stevenson, scanned the audience with baleful glare—have I mentioned that he looked like Robert Newton? I have? He did. We all looked in other directions. Wife kept protagonist occupied in unnaturally intense conversation. More loud noises from Long John about taking on Big Man. Studious ignoral by threatened party. Long John headed for the bar. Flurries of communications and rapid movements between audience and bar staff to stop them selling him another red, or white. After much animated conversation he got a glass of water instead—in a wine glass. We all thought of the damage he could do holding it in his hand.

Back in his seat there were now subdued and serious conversations between Long John and theatre volunteers. The magic word police was heard, whispered loudly and passed rapidly around the audience.

After conversations Long John was alone and reprised his scanning of the audience with baleful glare. The embarrassed interval went on and on for an eternity or two. Finally a public address voice informed us that the interval would be further delayed and invited us to have tea or coffee (the announcer was very clear on the nouns) at the bar.

Finally the climax. Two nonchalant police officers and a cool front-of-house manager swept in. Manager smoothly opened emergency exit, police smoothly swept Long John through it, door smoothly closed. Audience smoothly applauded.

We had forgotten about the actors on the stage until the Jury Bailiff reminded us of the penalties for contempt of court, and we contentedly returned to Archer’s drama. Even the Judge allowed himself a happy reference to our absent colleague.

Near play’s end we all used the flash cards that had been left on our seats and voted either “Guilty” or “Not Guilty”. The Not Guilties won and the play resumed with a final twist. Sound familiar? Scratch Archer’s The Accused and you will find Agatha Christie’s Witness for the Prosecution.

The review of the performance wrote itself:

“As The Platitude of Unintended Consequences, Long John Silver impressed. Anonymous Man in audience put up a good show as Antagonist, while Unknown Woman offered a clever cameo of the Wife. The well-balanced cast included The Man Who Owns A Dinner Suit who took the Front of House Manager, and Two Unknowns, who reaped well-merited applause as the helpmeets (?) behind the Bar. In the parts of Policeman and Policewoman, two popular local constables impressed. Well done, Hobart Rep!”

Theatre doesn’t get any better than this.

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