Do We Still Want To Stretch Our Imagination?

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This paver in the Art Walk outside Melbourne’s Art Centre an apt quote as I attended The Script Club today to discuss yet another Australian play in the three-part series facilitated by theatre critic, John McCallum. The inaugural meeting covered in my post in August.

Today, ten of us discussed Jack Hibberd’s,  A Stretch Of The Imagination, using text courtesy of Currency Press (published 2000, reprinted 2014):

Monk O’Neill, the lonely misanthropist has become an archetype of the Australian character since he first appeared on our stages in 1971.

The book has two other perhaps better-known plays By Hibberd – Dimboola and White With Wire Wheels, but today we focused on  A Stretch Of The Imagination.  The blurb saying:

A Stretch Of The Imagination(1972) introduces us to the painfully lonely world of Monk O’Neill, one of the great comic creations of Australian dramatic literature. Monk’s colourful, rambling monologue cuts to the quick of what Australia once was and what one day it could become. The resilient ironies of the play will not be lost on today’s generation.

John quoted from his edition of the play where the one-man play was immediately recognised as a memorable piece of Australian theatre by drama critic Dr Margaret Williams. She nominated it as “the contemporary play, which future generations may accept as a classic”. A play with an appeal to each generation to explore and perform.

John reiterated his vision for The Script Club to examine classic scripts with the view to performance and explained his lifelong ambition to promote an Australian repertoire for production on stage. Apart from Joshua, the Producer at The Channel, myself and one other, there were seven new participants in the club. We had a discussion to put the play in context.

Most of us were baby boomers and remembered the heady days of the 60s and 70s: young people politically active with women’s liberation, the sexual revolution, anti-war and anti-conscription rallies, and Aboriginal land rights. Commonwealth Scholarships enabled people to continue their education. Writers and artists explored where we stood in the world; they discussed Australian identity. Barry Humphries’ characters like “Bazza McKenzie” appeared on the screen.

Hibberd’s play, produced by the Australian Performing Group at the Pram Factory in Melbourne was part of this ‘New Wave’, some of the characteristics being:

  • Expressions of male ritual (e.g., social habits of males in bar rooms, at football clubs, the deification of mateship and cars and general misogyny)
  • Confrontation in social relations (many plays explore confrontational situations and relationships with friends, families, co-workers and strangers)
  • The use of the vernacular, including swearing and abusive language
  • Introduced or centred a new dominant stereotype (the larrikin, hard drinking, tough talking ocker.)

Characteristics that some participants felt we could do without seeing again, even if mocked with satire and irony.  The challenge to the revolting ocker stereotype and the exploration of Australian identity could be performed without Hibberd’s ‘old, abusive, misogynistic, white male’. Is there even such a stereotype existing now? Haven’t we moved beyond that? Do we need to see more misogyny or this enduring archetype of the Australian male?

Paul McGillick introduces all the plays in the Currency Press edition and has this to say about Monk:

Monk is a distinctly unpleasant man. But he is also, at the end of the day, a very honest one and there is a strong impression that he has gone into this voluntary exile, living in a humpy on One Tree Hill (he has actually chopped down the tree in a fit of pique), in order to confront his past and through this confrontation to explore his own creativity – in effect, to create himself all over again using the raw materials of the life he has already lived.

Beneath Monk’s aggression, crudity and callous rejection of other human beings, there is despair. He has lacked the courage to commit to intimacy… and is now on a quest to find his Self. But his quest is paradoxical: he must learn to be alone, but literal aloneness is both solipsistic and narcissistic and can only result in a distorted view of the Self.

Put a group of creative people together to discuss art and like witnesses to an accident, you will get a variety of opinions and interpretations. Our group was no different. Not only did we differ on theme and relevance to the current generation but questioned whether Monk’s ramblings were fictional like the unreliable narrator in a novel. Perhaps he wasn’t ‘performing’ his life at all  – just fantasising about his overseas travel, sporting prowess, name-dropping and wishful thinking.

Several of us felt Monk’s life was believable, even if he was prone to exaggeration. John explained the New Wave celebration of Australian identity could be offensive and vulgar and the mockery nasty. Two agendas seemed to operate – a radical casting off of the past dominated by “imperial theatre” and a new nationalism proud of being “Orstralian”.

Apart from John, no one had seen the play performed and despite reading the play twice to develop sympathy for Monk, some had no sympathy at all, the character failing to resonate emotionally. Joshua went as far as to say, ‘Why write a play like this?’ He considered Monk a repellent, disgusting character who shoots his dog, kills a stranger albeit accidentally, and describes relationships with women purely in terms of sexual escapades, some extremely abusive.

I saw Monk as callous and arrogant but in his brutally honest descriptions and mockery there was a hint he knew his behaviour was unacceptable. I love Hibberd’s clever use of words, the puns and bald statements of profound or comic significance. I could see many metaphors that enriched the lines.

Was Monk just a horrible old man or an existentialist hero? Stereotypes are constructed and produced for a reason. Did the play represent the death of civilisation – the world destroyed like Monk destroyed ever relationship he had?

He had been educated (Xavier College – private school no less) had travelled to Europe and met Proust, yet he’d abused, misused, abandoned every woman he had relationships with in his life.

We all agreed that how the play is performed and interpreted by the actor is crucial to the audience’s understanding and reaction. John favours Max Gillies (someone who has acted in the role already) or Michael Caton.

We discussed universal themes and how/why the play appealed to international audiences. Is the play about ageing, about death and dying? It was likened to Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman, equating Monk to Willy Loman.

There was a suggestion the play was about failure. A man coming from a position of privilege (Monk had attended Xavier College) but the choices made has left him isolated, old, ill and facing death.

Or was the play about a character washed up from the Bush? Embodied with all the mythical qualities and prejudices of the ‘blokes’ written about so often in that typical Australian setting, but cut down to size. ‘Our landscape large enough to cut anyone down to size.’

Monk is isolated and exposed, amusing himself, mocking the niceties of society while coping with the reality of his body’s disintegration. His reminiscing illustrates his resilience, his honest assessment of his behaviour and clarity regarding the country’s history. He writes his will bequeathing ‘all my lands and property, goods and chattels, to the Aboriginal peoples of Australia. In the advent of extinction of the Aboriginal at the time of my decease, I would then bequeath my estate to the populous Oriental nations of the north… I am very favourably disposed towards the Chinaman. On no account must my domain fall into the clutches of the predatory and upstart albino. I believe that the tides of history will swamp and wash aside this small pink tribe of mistletoe men, like insects…Change insects to dead leaves…’

Monk then apologises for cutting down the one tall tree on his hillock!

When John asked us to discuss how the play could be performed today – Naturalism V Stylisation… I suggested the play could be set in an urban wilderness exposing the natural world we’ve destroyed, the isolation some people experience with ageing and also being at odds with ‘the norm’.

Someone else suggested a homeless person under a railway bridge. The question was asked  – could the part be played by a woman? Are there ‘ugly’ stereotypical females similar to Monk?

We stretched our own and each other’s imagination!

Researching for this post I found what the playwright, Jack Hibberd has to say  about this “monodrama about an outback philosopher, Monk O’Neill, who interlards his daily surviving chores with theatrical re-enactments of important segments from his long past.”

The play lasts nearly two hours, and requires a virtuosos actor and an interpretative director. The actor is required to physically transform into younger versions of himself, and as well to transform into other characters. Stretch, among other things, dramatizes, place, time, the strange workings of memory, history, a care for the environment, remorse, and death.

This comico-tragic work has been performed in China (Sanghai, Beijing, 1987) in Mandarin, and was the first Australian play produced in that country. It has also been produced in London (twice), the USA, Germany and NZ.

Whether John’s wish for revival happens, I’m glad I ‘stretched’ not only my ‘imagination’ but moved outside my comfort zone to ponder bigger issues in The Script Club’s lively discussion.

As usual a lovely afternoon tea was provided. The two hours flew – even going over time – a good indicator the subject matter engrossing. No one slipped out early or even looked at a watch!

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It was a glorious day to be in Melbourne and Southbank and I look forward to November and our next Script Club get-together.

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A Sunburnt History, Savages – a Review

Nick Waxman and ukulele
Nick Waxman and his ukulele!

In June, I clicked on a link and discovered the Anywhere Festival has been making arts a bigger part of everyday lives since 2011 with performances anywhere but a theatre and for the second year there would be events in Frankston.

The festival will run from 21 August to 6 September with “100 comedy, music and drama acts – and a few hard to describe – in the nooks and crannies of Frankston.” The organisers, Paul Osuch and Alex McTavish asked for photographers and reviewers and yours truly obliged.

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Lord & Master Barber Shop 116 Nepean Hwy Seaford

Last night, I sat in a Barber Shop in Seaford and an hour disappeared as Nick Waxman entertained the audience with a fast-paced history lesson; the facts explained with rhyming wordplay, songs, mini sketches, mimicry, and a non-stop energy that must be seen to be believed.

With an ever-present smile, Nick put his show Savages in context. From day one of the European colonisation of our ‘Sunburnt Country’ we must question who were/are the primitive and uncivilised people in Australia’s history!

As historical truths are revealed, occasionally like all good satirical comedy, the laughter becomes a little uncomfortable because yes, the truth can hurt. However, when delivered by Nick, in a convivial atmosphere and a drink in hand, the ‘inconvenient truths’ of social commentary can be noted to mull over later.  Even if some of the information is shocking, Nick doesn’t let anything spoil this thoroughly entertaining evening.

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The sheer breadth of his knowledge is stunning. A self-confessed ‘drama teacher with a passion for history‘ his memory and flawless delivery mesmerising as  he weaves  Australia’s history from the time of mega fauna and arrival of the first people, into modern day facts, encompassing big philosophical and political issues such as racism, democracy, the rights of indigenous people, women, and homosexuals, along with the myths around war and peace. Along the way we learn of the importance of community’s knowing and understanding their history …

Anywhere Festival provides a way for independent artists to present work that removes the burden of theatre expenses and allows for the creation of works in amazing spaces anywhere but a theatre.

The relaxed and cosy venue suited the show. It’s amazing how a rearranging of barber chairs and an old comfortable leather lounge suite with some plastic chairs sandwiched between, creates a mini theatre. A portable projector screen with laptop controlled slideshow completed the ‘props’ along with Nick’s ukulele, of course. A makeshift bar in the back of the shop ensured a convivial atmosphere indeed as patrons chose champagne, wine or Gippsland Gold beer!

Malcolm Blair from Lord & Master Barber our host and just as he promotes his traditional business during the day, ‘a relaxed welcoming environment’ greeted each guest on arrival. For a business that started only a year ago Malcolm and his staff have built a loyal local following.

They offer a range of services not seen for many years, including Face and Head Shaves, Beard Design, which includes shaving and shaping the outline of the beard and also traditional and modern cuts. Their client base varies from kids through to seniors with servicing the 20 – 40 age group the majority of their work.

Malcolm’s mantra is to keep the prices as low as possible so clients return more regularly to keep their style sharp, but also build personal relationships with a local business. Community is very important  – shopping and buying local keeps places alive, encourages community spirit. He offers the Lords Exceptional Cut, which includes a complimentary beer – the same Gippsland Gold on offer last night. I can testify this is a tasty drink!

The Anywhere Festival promises “performances right where people live, work and play to make stronger, more vibrant communities.”


Nick Waxman’s show Savages at Malcolm Blair’s Lord & Master Barber Shop a fantastic fulfilment of these expectations. The venue easily accessible by public transport with Seaford Station an easy 4 minute walk away.

You can see Nick’s show on the following dates – it would be a shame to miss it:

  • Saturday, 29 Aug  at 7.30pm
    Thursday, sept 3 at 7.30pm
    Friday Sept 4, at 7.30pm
    Saturday  Sept 5 at 7.30pm

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it! Savages chronicles the all-too-many moments in our shared history that seem very much like a broken record. The foolish, fool hearty and fooled fill this fast-paced fifty five minute frenzy of facts, figures and forget-me-nots (fingers crossed)! Savages can be found everywhere… after all, it was such a primitive time.”

Presented by Flak Productions

Me as an unashamed groupie congratulating Nick after the show
Me as an unashamed groupie congratulating Nick after the show