Election Dramas

It’s the night before the election. There was a short, heavy downpour about five o’clock and now on the dark and damp pavement a foursome of paused theatregoers are loudly braying for Tony Abbott’s blood.

The fashionable Melbourne theatre, fortyfivedownstairs, is downstairs. On the first level below ground there is a gallery and a table which serves as a box office. The theatre is deeper down. The staircase is narrow and quickly blocks up as the audience head for their seats. A fire would barbecue some of the most powerful wimmin of the city.

The theatre is a large room with rows of seats facing a polished wood floor playing area. At the back of this stage is a wall broken by barred windows. When it had a real working life it was probably an old fabric warehouse and, if that’s what it was, the lively Jewish rag trade voices have left no echoes. Now the space seats an audience of about 200. In a far corner the ceiling plaster has been unpeeled, like an old can top, and perversely hangs down touching the floor. This may be senseless but is deliberate. It is a stage setting by designer Marg Horwell which is not used, has no bearing on the play, and is utterly trivial decoration.

To get to the play, Do not go gentle… by Patricia Cornelius, you not only need to descend that narrow staircase but also to trudge through an undergrowth of affectation, as interview comments by director Dr Julian Meyrick indicate:

This is the front line of Australian stage playwriting today, the struggle to articulate the contours of a new public drama. It is unstable, imaginative, risky work and currently has no natural place in the mainstage repertoire, which is divided between traditional narrative drama on the one hand and cross art-form meta-theatricality on the other.

Yawn. Can no one give us an Australian drama that does connect with an audience? A drama not limply drowning in scholastic boredom implying cultural duty:

So drama’s public function is more important in Australia now than ever before, given how weak and sullen its political culture has become, how crippled by lowbrow conservatism and cynicism. When it isn’t avoiding things, it’s tearing them down: that’s the country at the moment, God help us.

Which may explain why this particular example of highbrow drama was so lame.

Do not go gentle… is a much-puffed Melbourne play which has been praised by Melbourne theatre critics in the Age, the Australian and on ABC radio. Tonight appears to be a full house—though given how small the place is, that is not saying very much at all.

About 7.30 p.m. it begins and I realise with horror that I’ve seen it before. It’s the Australian play that’s been on our stages, under a multitude of different titles, since the 1960s—turning generations of innocent audiences into rabid theatrephobes who relent from the distaste they feel for theatre only for popular musicals.

At the back a woman, Jan Friedl, is seen through the windows. Five actors come on stage in single file in brightly coloured polar fleece tops. Robert Scott and his expedition to the South Pole have made a detour through Flinders Lane. They are also inmates of an institution for the elderly and deranged and the play, the program informs us, deals with old age and death and a group of “characters on the last leg of their own journey”. I don’t quite get this and I don’t think the author, director or players do either. Dramatically it’s all a bit confusing and not worth worrying about, for the play’s originality comes out of a very small handbag. In choosing the title of a poem by Dylan Thomas for her play, Cornelius has already given us more than is to be found in her own work. One reviewer brightly suggested that because it deals with old age it will appeal to an older audience. I guess she meant in the same way Death of a Salesman plays to Myer executives and Mrs Warren’s Profession to working girls with management aspirations.

Friedl comes onto and across the playing area singing. At one point the director has her stand in front of me, behind a pillar. For a while I have a totally delightful view of a singing, animated pillar. Her moving arms appear on either side exactly as though they grow from the interesting metal pile. It’s my best view of the evening and perhaps the play’s second most interesting performance. The drama will eventually end with more singing by Friedl. Imposing classical songs at either end of the play is a trick meant to impress the audience with the phony idea that “This is serious drama”. It isn’t true. The Verdi and Grieg are sung well by Friedl but they are only decorations on what is essentially a radio play. They are as unnecessary and irrelevant as the peeled-back ceiling plaster.

The performance wanders unsteadily from Antarctic exploration bits to geriatric bits, throwing together classical songs, music, extracts from Scott’s diary, uncomfortable conversations or fragments of conversations, and New Class sermons. The latter, fundamentally, is the problem with this sort of theatre. No sooner do its activists get us into an auditorium than they want to harangue us.

To aid the sermonising, five stylised sleeping bags which hang in a row from the ceiling are introduced. The cast enter them in a blackout and then sterilise what remains of the audience’s brains with New Class platitudes. This happens twice. For a variation the director has folding camp stools brought on and the cast seat themselves and again sermonise us.

There was a soundtrack to the play, but it didn’t come from the theatre speakers. It wasn’t music but it was something else which is common in these days but which I don’t remember ever being commented on. It’s a funny noise. The word “snuffle” barely indicates the sort of sound I have in mind. It emerges from damp males, in an audience like this, at a performance like this. It is a slight sound, pitched to be audible, intended by the damps to let those near them know that they get the joke or approve the sentiment being expressed. It often breaks out when a feminist thrust at males is made, or something unpleasantly similar. The sharper the feminist thrusts, the surer you are to hear responding approving damp snuffles. To other males it communicates impotence, and lord knows what it says to their female companions and partners. The damps’ act of subservience is as much part of New Class theatre ritual as the usual poverty of the writing being performed.

On stage, on secondment from retirement, were some old and well-known troupers. It would have been more interesting to present this piece with unknowns. The performances were in monochrome; there was nothing new here.

Pamela Rabe played Wilson (a man), coldly, and a character with Alzheimer’s (a woman), frigidly—she also had too much to say, dully. Terry Norris, whether as Evans or a working-class Marxist, was angry. Malcolm Robertson as Oates finally went outside. Paul English climbed, howled and barked, confusingly. Rhys McConnochie spoke lines from Scott’s diary. Jan Friedl sang. Anne Phelan uncovered (more presently), quivered and giggled.

Rhys McConnochie’s Scott was intended to bring both parts of the play together but it failed to happen. Neither in McConnochie’s performance nor in the writing did the two elements of the author’s metaphoric play-making (the tragedy of Scott’s expedition or the tragedies of old age) convincingly mesh and hold together to make a satisfying and dramatic whole.

Strange how old-fashioned and conformist the writing and casting of tonight’s production is. The refugee woman (Jan Friedl) uncomfortable in Australian society is central European, possibly Jewish. An old woman from China, Iraq, Afghanistan would have been more interesting but that would have deprived the director of his Euro-snob songs. In the context of an obviously PC theatre the cast was un-modern Australia and all pure white, not at all like people in our suburbs. Instead of making Pamela Rabe’s inmate character, the one with Alzheimer’s, a dribbling geriatric, generations are jumped to make her younger and so allow the playwright to pit feminist platitudes of tonight’s audience contra imagined suburban platitudes. Nothing to do with truth.

Anne Phelan had wandered in from a very old Carry On movie with a performance completely at odds with the playing tone of the other actors. She did a stand-up act of cheeky sexuality which outclassed even my pillar’s memorable performance by flinging off all her clothes except XXL panties and bra to reveal a well-kneaded and very large blob of over-risen bread dough—think cheerful Hattie Jacques. The immensity of yeasty flesh was blinding and awesome—lust, which had never really risen, was punched down as the audience longed her not to reveal any more. The point of all this was that the character was old but just getting started on a shopping list of sexual requirements before her final curtain. Rhys McConnochie deserved an Oscar for offering to provide what was needed—here The Method proved its worth. His performance was well above his duty to Equity. If (which thankfully she didn’t) Phelan had removed one item more, it would have been controversial. If she had removed a second item, it really would have shocked us—though it may have been truer of the realities of nursing home life.

What trivial ideas. The elderly woman (Phelan) is commended for getting randy—though the director tactfully provided more bounce than grind and the scene is quickly snipped with the arrival of her intruding husband (Paul English) who unglues her from McConnochie. Is hope, if that is what it is, really only to be found in geriatric sex with strangers? A woman so confused that she had no idea who she was bonking? The drama of a marriage of many years betrayed on the verge of dotage is played for laughs. The sexual revolution still rolls on, in Melbourne. Simply screw, teaches Cornelius.

What the director describes as “front line” theatre is a remnant of 1960s and 1970s nights which one recalls with yawning derision. It is part of a tide that should have long ago receded. Back then it was youthful enthusiasm, and arrogance. Now, it’s narcissism. In this tired play even the war (the Vietnam War) made an appearance when a soldier, Paul English looking uncomfortable in an ill-fitting uniform, berates his father, Malcolm Robertson. Though here was a break with Left tradition. The soldier was not abused, as he would have been circa 1968, but had become a war victim. He suffers from war stress and Dad, Second World War vintage, is to blame for sending him to fight. Cornelius’s gamut of platitudes stretches from matricide to patricide with a pause in the middle for eroticide.

Do not go gentle won the Patrick White Playwright’s Award in 2006 and despite being as splattered with prizes as a Soviet-era general with chest-blooming decorations has not until now been able to find a theatre prepared to put it on. The Sydney Theatre Company and the Sydney Morning Herald, who administer White’s award, were willing to give his money away but not to do anything practical to get the winning play staged. To give twenty thousand dollars to a playwright and not lock in a performance is cruelty—and it would be interesting for audiences to gauge just how good these professional judges are in selecting watchable plays. It took years for fortyfivedownstairs to get funding to put it on. This “independent” theatre has never heard of the separation of Arts and State.

This play, performed on a bare stage with a wheelbarrow full of polar fleece jackets, sleeping bags and a few camping stools, could only be performed here because the Australia Council put up the money. This fashionable Melbourne CBD theatre, whose Chair is Julian Burnside, could not do what other small groups in the rest of Australia do and put in their own money to fund a production. When interviewed, director Julian Meyrick explained how the theatre obtained the money from the Australia Council. It is a revelation of how the funding system really works. When the theatre’s 2008 application was unsuccessful, Meyrick said he did some “research” and found that the members of the decision-making committee had not read past the first eleven pages. He applied again and was successful. To an outsider this hints at insider trading, for not all unsuccessful applicants for funding have such access to such confidential “research”.

After 100 minutes it ended, and the ladies applauded. As the director said, “God help us.”

Then it’s election day. There are long queues around the polling booth at the Melbourne Town Hall. Nearby, in Swanston Street, someone has put up home-made signs, in big capital letters: “I ask you from the bottom of my heart please don’t vote for Tony Abbott.” In the street the conversations are about that day’s football.

The theatre is sold out—though unlike last night this time we are talking in thousands. This is the audience the “independent” theatre disdains. The piece being performed is twelve years old, and it’s Australian. The Production Company have brought Todd McKenney to the State Theatre for a concert version of The Boy from Oz. This isn’t a museum piece and, unlike last night’s disaster, presents an Australia that is more recognisable, more truthful.

These concert versions are ideal for musicals. They strip back the decors and do great things with lights and very basic props. The minimalism gives them a freshness and liveliness. Directed by Nancy Hayes, choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth, the show makes the audience cry (really) and laugh.

Last night I was imprisoned and lectured. Today’s matinee is the theatre we are warned against for its vacuity of ideas, its “lowbrow conservatism and cynicism”. Some of the elements this musical touches on are families, death, marriage and divorce, suicide, homosexuality (in the vein of Smiley Gets a Boyfriend), fame, patriotism (we all clapped when a giant Australian flag was lowered from the flies), AIDS, nostalgia.

A number from Peter Allen’s disastrous musical Legs Diamond gets an airing after his agent gloomily predicts disaster for the show because there’s no story. He was right, and what has turned The Boy from Oz into our leading musical is story. Todd McKenney gives a great performance, even though he’s not the greatest at dealing with the one-liners which sometimes end up on the floor, but the strength is in the writing and Nick Enright’s book tells a very strong story. Then also the stories are in the songs. Enjoyable performances are plentiful and Robyn Arthur is touching as the mother.

There’s something else at work too. This is a work by people who like audiences. It’s made by people who have stood at the back of the theatre and watched the paying customers.

Election night and I’m at Theatre Works in St Kilda. Small theatre, freezing foyer, and gas heaters in the auditorium. The play has been written by its director, who also stars in it. It’s a professional performance, it says so in the program, but with amateur production values. Its writer, director, star has also formed her own company to put it on. It is very boring; a modern version of Orpheus and Eurydice. After 100 long minutes there is an interval which leads me directly down the hill to wait in the cold for a tram.

It could be passed over in silence but it does point up how the dreary theatre of an older generation, as exemplified by the play by Patricia Cornelius, is being passed on through the wretched theatre training courses to a new generation. The young author is a Bachelor in Performing Arts from a Melbourne university and a three-time winner of the Dean’s Award. Though the thing was dismal, the appearance of a young actor, Daniel McBurnie, brought life onto the stage.

Back in the city the Greens are holding their election night party at the hotel where I’m staying. That’s showbiz.

Do not go gentle… by Patricia Cornelius played at fortyfivedownstairs from August 6 to 29.

The Boy from Oz played at Melbourne’s State Theatre from August 18 to 22. A return season is planned for January. 

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