A Visit to Hotel Sorrento A Must For Writers

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Last Thursday night I had the pleasurable experience of catching up with an ex-student and a current student at a performance of Hotel Sorrento at the Shirley Burke Theatre in Parkdale.

It was a dark and chilly night (notice I didn’t say stormy!) as I walked from Mordialloc to meet my fellow writers. With the portent of heavy rain in the air I admit thoughts of the sensibility of hibernation during winter crossed my mind – perhaps the bears have got it right!

However, the warmth of friendship and Scottish canniness won (supporting live theatre comes at a price, albeit a reasonable one)… and I just walked more briskly towards the golden opportunity to experience a form of creativity and writing I love, and the promise of meaningful dissections afterwards over coffee.

(One of my students, Lena –  actor/singer/writer/entertainer knew a cast member – and it was wonderful to have insights from the actor’s point of view, plus learn a little about ‘life on the road’ from a performer’s perspective.)

Hotel Sorrento returned to Shirley Burke Theatre as part of HIT Productions twenty-year anniversary tour to suburban and regional venues.  A thank you to the City of Kingston for upgrading and maintaining this great venue!

A classic and much-loved Australian story, Hotel Sorrento won several awards and strongly resonated with audiences:

  • Winner 1990 AWGIE Award – Stage Award
  • Winner 1990 NSW Premier’s Literary Award – Drama
  • Winner 1990 Green Room Award – Best Play

Richard Franklin even turned it into a film in 1995 and it has been chosen for school curriculums.

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Lena took a selfie and included yours truly.

What makes this drama so popular?

The play tells the story of the reunion of three sisters who grew up in the seaside town of Sorrento, Victoria. The “hotel” is the nickname for the family home where the verandah was a popular gathering spot for the father and his mates to drink after fishing trips.

Hilary still lives in the family home with her father, Wal and 16-year-old son, Troy. Her husband died when Troy was only six years old and she stayed in the family home, subsequently nursing her mother through cancer and now looking after her father who has a history of heart trouble.

Another sister, Pippa, an independent businesswoman, is visiting from New York and the third sister, Meg, is a successful writer, whose novel Melancholy is short-listed for the prestigious Booker Prize. She returns from England with her English husband, after a ten-year absence.

When the three sisters are reunited they face the expectations and constraints of family life, not helped by the sudden death of their father, Wal. Meg’s semi-autobiographical book triggers underlying familial tensions, miscommunications and ‘unfinished business’. 

Although a play about family, the ties that bind, the strength and weakness of collective and individual memory and the importance of communicating, Hotel Sorrento is also distinctly Australian.  There are words and phrases, humour, cultural references and the exploration of the age-old rivalry with England and the perceived influence and pull of the UK regarding art and artistic endeavours. And considering the majority of Australia’s population live within 100 kilometres of the coastline, the setting is one easily identifiable to Australians and a setting we are renowned for internationally.

The play premiered on stage, almost three decades and another world away from the Australia of 2018, yet as the playwright, Hannah Rayson reflected in 2015:

Hotel Sorrento was a play I wrote very early in my writing life. I think it is structurally flawed and expresses much of my inexperience as a dramatist. I have written a lot of plays since then and got better at the craft.

But there is something about this play. I wrote it with utter love and tenderness. I had a baby during the writing process and that added to a sense of dreaminess and perfect serenity. It was a journey of the soul, and even though I now think it’s clunky in part, it’s strange because actors, directors and audiences love it. It is my most produced play. It has had hundreds of productions. And the royalty cheques from it have saved my bacon on more than one occasion. It has a certain magic that I like to think comes from the happiness in which it was written.

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

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Taking our seats

The audience at Parkdale agreed the play has a ‘certain magic,’ everyone laughed and applauded in the right places with interval abuzz with conversations. As is usual at these events the women outnumbered the men and I can imagine many of us were like actor/writer Kate Mulvaney who wondered what sister they identified with most!

I’m a writer from a small Australian country town who took off as far away as possible – to as many places as possible – to live and work. And one of my pieces just happened to be a (semi) ‘autobiographical’ piece. And the characters just happened to be based on my family members – their names changed. And I had also just happened to contend with a prodding press on how my family responded, and I found myself sitting at dinner tables as those very family members discussed ‘what was true and what wasn’t’.

I, like Meg, also got asked to partake in countless forums on ‘women in autobiography’ and deal with people assuming, as a female writer, that my play (legitimate, in my mind) was some form of extended ‘diary entry’, and would I ‘ever consider writing something fictional?’

And so I am Meg.

Who are you?

Are you Hilary – the broken but coping carer?

Are you Pippa – the feisty but sentimental younger sister?

Are you Wal – representing the old Australia that gets away with its violent past through its infective jingoism, embracing your own cultural stereotype?

Or Edwin – blindly intelligent and culturally bewildered?

Are you Troy – the truth-seeker and heartbreaking hope-giver?

Or maybe Dick – the belligerent, topsy-turvy patriot?

Or perhaps you are Marge – keenly entertaining them all, just trying to enjoy the art?

First published in 2014 by Currency Press as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’.

How Do You Write  “Australian”? Is There Individual versus Cultural Identity…?

“Hotel Sorrento is a powerful new Australian play that begins as a comedy about national identity and develops into a familial drama of great poignancy and reverberation.” 

Peter Craven, The Australian

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It is important to retain and represent whatever language and customs we have that is different from American or British productions, and not always succumb to please their audiences.

It was refreshing to hear a familiar place or lifestyle described. This pleasure captured in the opening scene as the character Marge Morrisey reads from the novel Melancholy and excitedly points out the landmarks mentioned and makes the connection that she lives where the novel is set and is seeing what the author describes…

This triggered a memory for me of taking my teenage daughters to see Candy (2006), a Heath Ledger movie set in Australia, and they commented afterwards it was wonderful to hear Aussie accents, see familiar cars and street names, and even Aussie dollars! 

There is an undeniable Australian flavour about Rayson’s play, which is part of its appeal – even if some of the cliches in the dialogue are a bit outdated and inserted for the comedy value.

It doesn’t matter that many Australians have indeed moved on from the ‘cultural cringe’ every second academic talked about in the 80s (the period span of the play) because some people still participate in cutting ‘tall poppies’ to size, and other references to feminism and sexism are sadly still very much in the news.

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Note the ironing board on the left!

Something that Rayson has mastered throughout her writing canon is exploring truth – personal, familial, social, sexual, cultural. And nothing tells us the truth more than a mirror. Rayson uses metaphorical mirroring throughout the text of Hotel Sorrento… she layers and layers and layers each truth until it warps dizzyingly and shifts our search as a reader and a viewer. On a glassy sea, the Moynihan family gather. They argue whether to keep a sentimental painting of their town on the wall or take it down.

The three sisters – Hil, Meg and Pippa, see mirrors of themselves and images of their potential – good and bad – in the faces of each other. They see their mother in an iron – a steaming ghost still working away in the corner of the room. A brilliant representation of a female in the shadow of the 1950s Australian landscape – smoothing out the family creases whilst ageing slowly, dying relatively young, unhappy, ‘outlived by the iron’. The sisters lament their mother strangely, almost flippantly:

‘Life sucks’, says Pippa.

‘We loved him more than we ever loved her’, says Hil, referring to their father Wal, who she also said was ‘a bastard to our mother’.

‘She’d be here night after night on her own’, says Pippa. ‘Always got the rough end of the stick, our Mum…’

And this is where I shudder. I mourn for this dead woman. I’m aware of her world – I see her type amongst my own family.

Essay, by Kate Mulvany, first published as ‘What Goes Around Comes Around’ Currency Press 2014

This early scene in the kitchen (the only room of the family home shown and obviously the hub – how true is that for most families!?) connected with me.

I’m sure others in the audience remembered Julia Gillard’s famous speech pointing out Tony Abbott’s sexism and misogyny, ( his reference to women of Australia doing the ironing!) yet the Australian people chose him as Prime Minister – Rayson spot on with her observation about gender inequality.

Hotel Sorrento offers contemplation and reflection on more than just feminist talking points as well as the strong leading roles for women.

‘Who has power, how do they wield it and who suffers at the hand of it, are questions [that] always interest me,’ Rayson began. ‘So I go to the family to explore them. I understand it in a family context. I can take the audience with me on that and make the links between what we understand in our known worlds with how the tensions might express themselves politically, in a bigger national canvas.’

quoted from an Essay by Cate Kennedy 2015

The Writer’s Craft

There is so much to learn from a well-written and performed play, especially one like Hotel Sorrento, which seems to be a perennial favourite.

I’ve written before about the importance of Australian plays and their value.

Writers continually mine their life and experiences and “turn” it into a novel. Memoir and life writing are popular genres. Scripts for stage or screen adapt stories, novels, and real-life events all the time.

Hotel Sorrento poses interesting discussion points and challenges the notion of ‘truth’ in writing a story. Who owns a story if you are including family history or biographical content? What are the writer’s responsibilities? Should authenticity be compromised?

Some writers, like the character Meg, insist they have written fiction because they have changed names or tinkered with “the truth” and like Meg, may be shocked that instead of accolades they are accused of a lack of integrity because they used family memories for personal gain.

Family or friends may be resentful of the use of their history, or they may be interested in delving into the past, some may accept the author’s interpretation or perspective, others may be angry or resentful.

  • How accurate is your memory – is all memoir really creative non-fiction?
  • Do women write differently to men?

Dialogue is crucial to a play and how the story is ‘told,’ as well as the actions of characters. If a writer can master the art of dialogue, short stories and novels will be much more interesting and memorable.

Pacing and building tension important to keep the audience engaged, just as it is important in the written word to keep pages turning.

In most scenes of this play, there are only two characters talking and we gradually not only learn their backstory, the current position but begin to consider different viewpoints and piece together ‘the big picture’. The structure works well.

Character is important to story – a character must be believable, we have to be invested in their welfare or at least care what they do or say. We can love or hate them but they must engage us.

Hotel Sorrento has an interesting cast of characters and as mentioned before it is easy to identify with one of them, especially if you have siblings. The three sisters all come from the same working-class Australian background but their lives have moved in different directions with Pippa and Meg creating a life outside Australia.

The character Dick is a journalist – a different kind of writer to novelist Meg – and his strong patriotic views place him at loggerheads with Meg regarding Australian culture.

Marge, an artist and resident of Sorrento identifies with the character in the novel who represents Hilary and the novel reawakens her passion for Sorrento and her art, giving her confidence to move from ‘watercolours to oils’.

She is an observer and functions like the Greek chorus, providing an outsider’s perspective. It is fitting she explains to Dick how appropriate the novel’s title is considering the subject matter and that melancholy is not depression. She understands and empathises with the author’s sad yearning for the Sorrento of her childhood.

The father of the sisters, Wal and Meg’s English husband, Edwin provide most of the comedy and are almost caricatures of the quintessential larrikin Aussie and refined Englishman but are more nuanced especially with their interaction with the sea (which acts as a character).

A ‘cliff-hanger’ just before the interval comes as a shock and throughout the play, there is intrigue regarding the death of Troy’s father and his relationship with Pippa and Meg as well as Hilary.

The scenes with family members explore their relationship ‘issues’ and these are evenly juxtaposed with scenes exploring cultural identity through the characters of artist Marge and journalist Dick.

The tension palpable when they all come together for lunch in a scene that brings conflicting views to an explosive head.

There is no neat resolution to the drama, which leaves us wanting more and with plenty to discuss after the play ends.

Stagecraft

I thoroughly enjoyed Hotel Sorrento but (sorry there is a but!) the production was let down by a couple of glitches with the lighting that distracted from what was happening on stage.

After the interval, I’m not sure if the lighting was supposed to mimic evening or a sunset glow, but two huge red streaks appeared as a backdrop, at first making a V and then like two spotlights.

Later there was a blue background with a white pattern which may have been designed to represent clouds, seagulls, impending storm – who knows?

Dimming and increasing the lighting to change and highlight various scenes was often mistimed too. It’s to the actors’ credit they carried on magnificently.

When we were discussing these glitches with Lena’s friend we learned of the hazards and difficulties of producing a play when you are continually on the move, arriving at different theatres with limited resources and rehearsal times.

It is a miracle there are no major stuff ups!! Well done the consummate professionalism of dedicated actors who learn to adapt and shine.

Each theatre is different, the lighting console may have been strange to the operator, or faulty – the tight schedule and limited time at each theatre means no long rehearsals.

There are four major scene locations in Hotel Sorrento, which can be contained on one stage and controlled by the lights spotlighting whatever part of the stage is hosting the scene: the kitchen of the family home, the pier, the seashore, and Meg’s living room in England.

At Shirley Burke Theatre the stage was smaller than expected and some of the props wouldn’t fit – instead of a lounge suite for Meg and Edwin’s house – an armchair and a standard lamp had to suffice!

The other props closer than the actors were used to… and because the actors double as stagehands removing or rearranging props, it was an added burden to remember who picks up because of the last minute alterations.

The cast is going to be on the road for 77 performances – they’ve done Frankston, Dandenong et al… one night and one matinee in Parkdale, and then onto Moonee Ponds before heading to country Victoria.

So many community theatres, each one presenting their own challenges, hard work and dedication.

Look up the schedule, whether you are a writer, a lover of theatre or have dreams of writing or acting – if you can catch a performance of this anniversary tour of Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento please do – you won’t regret it!

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Revisiting 1968 through a Playwright’s Eyes

The purpose of a writer is to keep civilisation from destroying itself.

Albert Camus

Yesterday, I attended The Script Club, the final meeting for the year – our purpose, under the guidance of John McCallum (author, academic, theatre reviewer/critic) to examine classic plays by Australian playwrights with the view of reawakening interest to restage them.

We examined three plays:  Brumby Innes, by Katharine Susannah Prichard,  A Stretch Of The Imagination by Jack Hibberd and yesterday’s Chicago Chicago by John Romeril.

The attendance at the events has been beneficial to me as a writer, historian and teacher of creative writing. John’s vast knowledge of Australian plays awe-inspiring because of his research, plus he speaks from personal experience with many iconic names in Australian theatre. His passion for the stage revealed when he shares knowledge that’s a boon to the eclectic group in The Script Club: writers, actors, producers, set designers, students,  play enthusiasts and employees in the art industry.

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John was genuinely interested in hearing a range of opinions and ideas about the plays he’d chosen to discuss, their relevance to a modern audience and how they could be revived to give the maximum satisfaction to an audience.

Everyone agreed that Romeril’s play, Chicago Chicago was the most difficult play to categorise so far and as usual there were those who disliked it and others who preferred it to the previous plays. The life experience, prejudices,  preferences, reactions and opinions of the participants are always valuable in a roundtable discussion.

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Chicago Chicago placed in the One Act genre with its 20 scenes in two parts, described as “a surreal attack on political exploration set against the 1968 Chicago Democrat Convention.” First produced in Melbourne 1970 by the Australian Performing Group, the play was written in 1969. This group grew out of the Pram Factory, a place that nurtured “many gifted writers and actors, directors of film, theatre and TV, artists, musicians and singers, circus performers, arts administrators and community artists.

John asked those of us at The Script Club  for our initial reaction:

An unusual play… very different… it would be interesting to stage but not yet there for understanding the story… liked it, my favourite so far… each scene grew out of the previous like baboushka dolls… loved the cardboard cut-out characters of George & Lillian, they’re used in a way to explain the play… they were the only ones that made sense… gave me a perspective on USA… rapid fire change of scenes kept me engaged… I couldn’t get an emotional connection… depressing view of humanity… a savage attack laying bare the worst side of human nature… nihilistic… an amazing play for its time… need to read it more than once to understand it all… intriguing… some parts confusing, not sure what he meant…

John realised that for younger audiences (and many attendees of The Script Club), the play had to be put into historical context for its full brilliance (or otherwise) to be appreciated. 1968 was astounding for the USA and the rest of the world. Billed as the year that changed history:

1968…  a year of seismic social and political change across the globe. From the burgeoning anti-Vietnam war and civil rights movements in the United States, protests and revolutions in Europe and the first comprehensive coverage of war and resultant famine in Africa. The world would never be the same again.

The Guardian (here a photograph is worth a 1000 words)

Horrific scenes from Vietnam on every newspaper front page and beamed nightly into our lounge rooms. Vietnam the first televised war interspersed with advertisements, of course! Civil Rights marchers in America clashed with National Guardsmen, the tanks rolled down the streets of Memphis. The assassination of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy stunned the world. Workers and students rioted in Paris. The Biafran-Nigerian War and mass starvation in Biafra also played out on our TVs. Russian tanks invaded Prague, Czechoslovakia. Two African American Olympians gave the black power salute after winning gold at the Mexican Olympics. All this counterbalanced by the Californian ‘summer of love’ – the rise of the hippies and yippies.

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are a-Changin released in 1964, re-released by Burl Ives in 1968 and sung by others. The constant airplay showed its relevance to the youth of the day, along with Barry McGuire’s, Eve of Destruction. 

The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention is the setting for Chicago Chicago.  LBJ (President Johnston) announced he would not recontest the presidency and Eugene McCarthy, and Hubert Humphrey fought for Democrat preselection. America’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War a major issue dividing the two candidates.

Thousands of protesters from various groups hoped to influence the delegates and get their countercultural views heard. Met by thousands of police ordered on duty by Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley; the demonstrators chanted ‘the whole world is watching’ as street battles raged for eight days.

This photograph from a blog Culture Through Politics. Propaganda. Art.

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All of this background detail is necessary to make sense of some of the references in the play and certainly to get the full impact of the setting of some of the scenes.

Chicago Chicago one of several Australian plays produced in the 60s treating Australian involvement in Vietnam allegorically, as a symbol of military invasion and destruction of power operating for its own preservation. Romeril’s play surveyed the American context of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago and became significant by raising consciousness around Australia’s participation in Vietnam. It evoked the uncertainty and confusion of that era.

Romeril had this to say about his work in a Double Dialogues Conference with John McCallum, the full transcript available online.

“drama exists in a state of contention – the kind of contention…that is the tension between naturalism, on the one hand, and a much more formalised or stylised drive to theatre. That’s always fascinated me and it always, I think, gives theatre its density of attack.

He quotes the influence of Japanese playwright Monzaemon Chikamatsu, who wrote more than a 100 plays between 1683 and the 1720s.

“He said the theatre is neither fully fanciful nor yet wholly realistic but it lives in the gap between the two, in the slender margin between the real and the unreal. So the audience will still be flashing between something that is luminescently beautiful, so beautiful, it can’t be the real and behaviour that is so well observed that it does have a naturalistic aura, even though it is being produced by actors, night after night after night. And so that tension is something that audiences are constantly going through. And a script ought to, and the players ought to, be aspiring to put an audience in that state and they themselves should be operating in that state. It’s why the theatre can achieve or get close to a real existentiality. It can matter and that’s when it hits us and works on us.”

John Romeril has been a prolific writer, a dramaturge and a constant supporter of theatre practice of all types and all levels throughout Australia for many, many years. If, like Romeril, we believe theatre to be part of life, keeping up with all political and social events, perhaps Chicago Chicago can be set in a different era, perhaps updated. Everyone agreed that so many of the points/issues/themes of the script still relevant today.

History as art and entertainment serves a real purpose, on aesthetic grounds but also on the level of human understanding. Stories well done are stories that reveal how people and societies have actually functioned, and they prompt thoughts about the human experience in other times and places.

History also provides a terrain for moral contemplation. Studying the stories of individuals and situations in the past allows a student of history to test his or her own moral sense, to hone it against some of the real complexities individuals have faced in difficult settings. People who have weathered adversity not just in some work of fiction, but in real, historical circumstances can provide inspiration.

And of course nations use identity history as well—and sometimes abuse it. Histories that tell the national story, emphasizing distinctive features of the national experience, are meant to drive home an understanding of national values and a commitment to national loyalty.

Peter N. Stearns, American Historical Association

Romeril’s cutting edge play incorporates the technology of 1968: overhead projector, slides, public address system for voiceovers, tape recordings. It may be interesting to use old technology – a media library would have images from the 60s, nostalgia is “in”. Lighting always critical to set the mood and create the changes necessary for the stage to become: hotel room, hospital ward, cell, home, party at the convention… street scenes, Game Show, park…

Or perhaps use the full force of new technology – sound vital for a sense of place. Environmental sounds (old or new) will evoke setting and mood. Would we show the capacity modern technology has for surveillance nowadays by streaming live feed video on stage? Stick with the cardboard cut-outs or have puppets? Or just use screen projections?

Does the dialogue between The Psychiatrist and The Man in one scene have to change to reflect modern approaches to mental health? Do some of the “speeches” have to be shortened? They are long but insightful.

The play has opportunities for comedy (the cliched speeches of the President) as well as tragedy (the vicious beating of the man giving away his wealth).

We discussed so many aspects of the play: the meaning of certain scenes, what we thought Romeril intended, how an audience may interpret the play. Although he did say in his playwright’s note:

The present version, Chicago, Chicago, differs from the past two quite substantially, so much so that the old title seemed inappropriate. The changes have all been made to make it less obscure and more entertaining. The play is still a protest against the American way of life, but is now, I trust, more effective for being more obvious and more theatrical.

I have not gone to any great lengths to ‘over-direct’ the script. I leave that to the reader and to those people interested in performing the play. However, it would be wise to suggest that despite the naturalism of some of the dialogue, the play will succeed only with a good deal of stylized acting. Voices should be experimented with, as should styles of physical action. The set, indeed the total effect should be spare and quite formal. The slides I regard simply as a device for informing the audience and for clarifying the stage action.

At first glance the large number of characters might seem formidable. However it is technically possible for eight people to stage the play, and the list of characters has been broken down accordingly.

One thing all of us at The Script Club yesterday had in common (apart from facilitator John McCallum) was confessing we would never have read Chicago Chicago if not part of such a great activity. The new world and ideas and detailed discussion enjoyable and worthwhile leaving plenty of food for thought. (And the refreshments provided by The Script Club always yummy!)

John laughed at how intense and excited our discussions became and suggested we’d all go home and write our version of the play – and maybe some of us will! I know most of us hope The Script Club will continue in 2016, and we’ll be reminded to enrol.

The last word is from the playwright explaining where he got ideas for the play. It is from the transcript of the Double Dialogue Conference quoted above:

One of the jobs I got finally was at the Department of Agriculture Library. My job was to send out the magazines to various agronomists and herb testers who needed them for their work. I would distribute these journals and so on as they arrived and hunt up books that they wanted and so on and so forth. I ended up reading a lot of it. InChicago Chicago, for example, there was a whole lot of rip offs that I took holus bolus – ‘found’ language. It was the whole thing, yeah, I know Kurt Zwigers and I know William Burroughs and I know this and I know that; I’ll do cover versions and see how they go down. I’m quite proud of Chicago Chicago first performed in 1969. It’s one of the densest things I’ve ever written and it does manage with student casts to mop up a lot of energy and the more people you have the wilder and weirder it can seem, because it’s sort of like symphonic in its treatment, rather than the usual small quartet, sextet or octet that we’re used to in the theatre. Of course the engine of all that stuff was very much Brecht and Meyerhold and Biomechanics and a little bit of Artaud and you’d stumble into Brecht’s output on aesthetics, very interesting challenges to the head…

I sort of worked up Chicago – following the 1968 Democratic Convention and so on. The wisdom of Brecht is – those key remarks – like how do you capture the sense of the twentieth century? You’ve got to bust out of the drawing room drama. You’ve got to have a large social canvass of some sort – the impact on our lives of the stock exchange, the meatworks, the giant shifting of chattels, from corn-fed cattle up to Chicago to the stockyards. Modernism is what? How do you get the sneers of the world you actually inhabit and its impact on you onto the stage?

you drag the new on to that very old arena that the theatre is. But that always was so. So there was a modernist project that I was fulfilling in some ways or drawn to.

All the plays discussed at The Script Club have been ‘interesting challenges to the head’ and for me have been emotionally engaging. That’s what you expect from good writing and good theatre.

I walked out into Melbourne’s nurturing sunshine and a beautiful world of ferries and canoes on the Yarra River, a busker, creative craft market, people shopping, tourists, parents and children hurrying into a performance of the Australian Girls Choir – and even a wedding!

Real-life drama to keep me entertained on the walk to Flinders Street station and homeward bound with my writer’s notebook handy – just in case I do decide to write my play.

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Plays from the Past still relevant for the Present

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In the 70s, when I attended university in Canberra, the memories I cherish are the hours solving the world’s problems while sitting with friends in the campus bar at the Australian National University. At night, we’d have a beer; during the day, a coffee. The intellectual discussions and debates stimulating and meaningful, adding value to the lectures and tutorials provided at one of Australia’s most prestigious universities. I was lucky many of the staff wrote the text books for their particular subjects. My teachers included: Manning Clark, Humphrey McQueen, Daphne Gollan, and Dorothy Shineberg.

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At university, I was continuing a tradition started at home by my father and mother. The family would sit for hours after dinner, listening to family anecdotes, sharing stories of our day, discussing current affairs, politics, religion, exploring philosophical questions and ideas thrown up by books, films, TV shows or the daily newspapers.

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I miss the conversations my husband, John and I had about so many  subjects and events. I appreciate writer friends, other members of the Union of Australian Women, my two daughters and my writing students, filling the gap left by John’s untimely death in 2002, because I  crave intellectual stimulation.

Life gets busy, people are short of time; we can all be distracted or self-absorbed. Conversations can be minimal, repetitive and shallow, only touching the surface of a topic, ignoring the philosophical to concentrate on the popular, avoiding the controversial and challenging issues. We  live in the digital age, the 24 hour news cycle, the era where investigative journalism is almost non-existent. Important issues often ignored or underreported.

However, on Saturday, I relived university days courtesy of my dear friend Lisa Hill who told me about a wonderful new project at Arts Centre Melbourne, in The Channel, the Centre’s newest venue.

The Script Club is an invitation to rediscover classic Australian plays, and share your opinion ‘in a robust round-table discussion led by John McCallum – Theatre Critic for The Australian and Senior Lecturer in Theatre at UNSW.’

Copies of the plays provided beforehand, plus a copy of John’s book Belonging, Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century. The website advertising blurb promises, ‘This is an open discussion, not a lecture – you bring your own opinions and we’ll bring afternoon tea!’

John McCallum explained the motivation behind Script Club, which was first presented by Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney

“There are many great plays in the Australian repertoire that have, mysteriously, been more or less forgotten. They still have a lot in them to excite us and to say to us, and they ought to be revived. Script Club highlights three of these. It is like a tasting menu (there are many more). When you read an old play you should always ask, ‘What’s in it for us, now?’ That is what we will be asking.”

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The first of the three classic plays to be considered was Brumby Innes by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and considering the current controversy over Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes and the subject matter of the play, there’s an easy answer to John’s first question. A definite yes for relevance!

The preface in the Currency Press 1974 edition we were given, states:

…The one guiding principle will be to make the play as accessible as possible in the imaginative sense. Whatever the format adopted to meet individual circumstances, the editor will include a discussion of the play and of its place with the work of its author. Where appropriate, comment will be made on the stage history and staging of the play…

In one summary Brumby Innes “begins with a corroboree and, like Coonardoo, attempts to engage with a portrayal of Aboriginal life. Its central character, Brumby Innes, is a swaggering drunk who exploits the black workers on his station and abuses the women; he bears a close resemblance to Sam Geary in Coonardoo. Yet, Brumby Innes provides the central energy of the drama, and the celebration of that energy in the play conflicts with the dramatic critique of his sexism and racism. Brumby Innes’s character exemplifies the ambivalent attitude in Prichard’s work toward this type of male hero. Portrayed as stereotypically masculine, such characters are admired for their energetic, vital sexuality; yet, the extreme limitations of such maleness are also acknowledged.”

The prize-winning play, although written in 1927, wasn’t performed until 1940. A press cutting from Western Mail  Thursday 26 December 1940 can be found on Trove:

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Here’s a link to a review and reasonable summary under the title Realism, racism and seduction in Brumby Innes when the play was performed again in the 70s.

Lisa and I read the play before the Script Club and as I sat at the table with the others, I mentioned the controversy over Adam Goodes, and suggested Australian society needs to, in the buzz word of the moment ‘have a conversation‘ about our attitudes, in the past, present and our future relationships with indigenous Australians. The racial inequality and power structure the play highlights (between Aboriginal and White Australia, between men and women, between those who own land and those who have nothing) remains, as this article by Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant illustrates.

John McCallum led the discussion with the question: – Reading this old play, what’s in it for us in 2015?

The 9 of us around the table at the inaugural session offered plenty of reasons of why the play should be performed with suggestions on how it can be staged using modern technology and stagecraft.

The group comprised John, Joshua (a producer at Arts Centre Melbourne), two other men (one a theatre actor, the other a West Australian with personal experience of the setting of the play), five women (a translator and university educator, two theatre actors, a project officer with Arts Centre Melbourne, and myself). Unfortunately, Lisa couldn’t attend,but when she does we’ll have her wealth of experience as a blogger specialising in Australian literature.

There because we loved various aspects of Australian theatre, whether it was writing, acting, stagecraft, historical setting and background, topics and themes explored, or just the whole appeal of drama, we discovered that apart from John, none of us had heard of Brumby Innes.

John said each play chosen for Script Club will be looked at in view of modern day performance.

  • Can we recapture original script?
  • Do we want to? ( If the subject matter and the way it is written is controversial, or deemed inappropriate/irrelevant.)
  • Can we do something new?  A reinterpretation perhaps, capturing the spirit of the original, or perhaps a mash-up and revision.

Although performed rarely, Brumby Innes (along with a great body of the author’s work), is studied in drama courses and at universities. It was written when the Australian dramatic theatre tradition was yet to be born and Prichard confesses many times that she didn’t consider herself a playwright. However, John McCallum’s mission is to see Brumby Innes performed again and considered a classic among Australian plays.

Under his guidance, we explored the characters and themes and agreed how wonderful this play could be if staged. Perhaps become a ‘game changer’ if performed today in collaboration with indigenous artists and dancers. The need for authenticity demands discussion with indigenous actors.

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The importance of reading the script twice became obvious as we shared what we remembered, forgot or misunderstood as the discussion progressed. John advised the first time you read a script you pick up some clues, but the second time is when you begin to appreciate the nuances of the plot and characters. (Memo to self, before Script Club in October read the selected play twice, and then again just before the session!)

Brumby Innes was written in the early part of the twentieth century and some of the language used when referring to Aboriginal people is not used today. (for example: reference to women as ‘gins’) However, the play does challenge the conventions of the time – the Aboriginal cast outnumbering the whites, the opening scene being of a corroboree and much of the action from the perspective of the ‘black’s camp’ as opposed the settler’s homestead. Aboriginal words are used throughout the play; the Aboriginal characters often speaking at length in their own language.

Prichard notes:

“The corroboree in this play is used to give something of the dignity, beauty and mystery of a primitive people in their natural surroundings: against their appearance under the conditions of a vanquished race…

Words sung to the corroboree are treasure really. The Aboriginals seem reluctant to tell them, superstitious of unravelling their mystery, perhaps. Often the words they sing are not words of their everyday language. Many of the corroboree songs, or tabee, are in a dead language, I think… hereditary legends and sag, drifted down from remote ages; others are inspirational, sung by the yinerrie, inventor of corroborees, or poet of the tribe, and director of ceremonies, as the spirit moves him.

Only folk reared on isolated stations, who have had lifelong associations with the blacks, or a native who has broken with his people and traditions, are able to gather some of these songs and to tell us their meaning.”

The opening scene lets you see the Aboriginal world, the community that is being destroyed by the white ‘invaders’ when a drunken Brumby Innes arrives demanding Wylba, a young Aboriginal girl goes with him to the homestead. When Wylba and her boyfriend Mickina protest, Brumby pulls out a gun and fires it. Peace shattered just as Aboriginal culture is shattered by arrogant men like Brumby wielding their power.

The link between land and power a strong message in the play. The Aboriginals are vanquished, but not vanished despite the loss of their land, the oppression and indignities they suffer. There are instances in the play, and certainly the ending shows they understand Brumby Innes and know how to survive.

Prichard sees the white invasion of Australia as having the same dimensions as the Trojan War. Aboriginal Polly (Brumby’s discarded lover) ‘a Hecuba in bronze‘ representing all the raped and abused Aboriginal women, abducted and taken by men like Brumby Innes. She is given a powerful line in the play  when she challenges Brumby in front of his white peers and says, ‘Liar.’ Her quiet dignity showing she may be defeated, but is a survivor.

It is said about Euripides play Hecuba that it ‘is one of the few tragedies that evoke a sense of utter desolation and destruction in the audience, and there is almost no let up in the mood of suffering and anguish, and no sign of any silver lining. Few ancient tragedies culminate in such unmitigated hopelessness for all the principle characters concerned, and even fewer imply that their terrible fates were quite so richly deserved.’

This sums up how I felt after the first reading of Prichard’s play – difficult to find any likeable character and feeling immense anger at the accurate depiction of the dispossession and abuse of indigenous Australians and all women, whether white or black.

However, listening to other opinions at the Script Club and  John’s persuasive and knowledgeable guidance as he coaxed responses and ideas for staging Brumby Innes, I confess to being excited that the play may be revived. If performed today, the emotional controversy and meaningful discussions generated should engage a huge number of people – force us to have much needed awkward conversations about human rights, equality and social justice.

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How the roles are interpreted by the actors will make a huge difference and we spent some time dissecting the character of Brumby, May and Polly. Prichard was a progressive thinker and her play considered radical, the probable reason of why it wasn’t performed for nearly two decades. She reveals the plight of Aboriginal and white women. Brumby marries May after raping ‘the struggling, but yielding‘ young woman. Brumby pushes her towards his bunk, ‘I like ’em thoroughbred and bucking’ a bit at first.’

It is revealed that Wylbie is only thirteen years old, little more than a child, but Brumby has no shame or remorse when taken to court for abusing her. Another land owner (May’s uncle) lies for him. Brumby is not punished, but two Aboriginal men are sentenced to jail for assault (they challenged Brumby) and stealing supplies (their rations are meagre). Injustice piled upon injustice, but an accurate depiction of the era.

Prichard’s anti-romantic approach and attitude to sex challenges the idea you could or should marry for love. Brumby and May’s marriage happens because Brumby is ready to have children and they must be ‘purebred’. May has come up from the city seeking excitement, with her eye on marrying someone with land and wealth. There is a shortage of white women in the bush, it’s not unusual for landowners like her uncle and Brumby to make arrangements for marriage to carry on the dynasties they want to establish. May is attracted to Brumby’s arrogance and macho behaviour. He has a charisma women find attractive apparently – like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the participants at Script Club suggests.

John compares the machinations of cattle station owners to the popular Game of Thrones – the play is full of personal and political power struggles. One of the women agreed, confessing she had to stop herself from being trapped in a TV mentality and applying those expectations when reading the play.

The two hours flew and the refreshments provided much appreciated, especially a scrumptious selection of scones, jam and cream. Brains and vocal chords received a good workout and when I left to catch a train home I thought the lovely surrounds of Southbank an ideal setting for The Channel – the Yarra River a metaphor for the flow of ideas and opinions in Script Club, the backdrop of old and new buildings like the revival of old plays in a modern setting!

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I studied playwriting many years ago under John Powers who wrote The Last of The Knucklemen, which was later turned into a film by Tim Burstall. He liked a play I wrote about domestic violence and encouraged me to keep writing plays. The Bitter End was performed at a women’s forum in Melbourne 2002; a ten-minute play I wrote was short-listed at Kingston’s Write Up Festival in 2013 .

The Script Club has stirred my creative juices and although like Prichard, I don’t consider playwriting my forte, perhaps I’ll have another go at this genre!

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