Jasna Novaković is an award winning arts journalist, with particular interest in investigative journalism, as the documentary ‘Yugoslav Theatre Today’, with which she represented Radio Yugoslavia on Radio Cyprus, demonstrates. In parallel, Jasna wrote theatre reviews for RY and feature articles for print media, including the specialized theatre gazette Ludus. After migrating to Australia, Jasna completed her MA in Communications (1996) and her PhD Thesis on the dialectic of myth and reality in Dorothy Hewett’s plays (2006). The greater part of her teaching experience at Monash and Curtin Universities is, however, in the areas of journalism and new media. Jasna’s articles, reviews and translations are published in Overland, Southerly, Australasian Drama Studies, the Australian Studies journal, Hecate’s AWBR and in Mostovi (Engl. Bridges), among others. Brian Friel’s Translations played in Jasna’s translation at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre from 2009 to 2011.
One word was always at the back of Aubrey Mellor’s mind when planning a new season—diversity. He wanted people to come to Playbox not once a year, but every month, even every week if possible.
‘Most people go to the theatre once or twice a year. They spend on an expensive ticket to a big musical and that’s it,’ he says.
‘But going once a month to the theatre is for most people possible and so I wanted to offer them plays that they would come to every month.’
‘I think my biggest offer was eleven plays in the season and I wanted people to come to everything, so I looked for something different all the time.’
On the average, Mellor programmed nine new plays in a calendar year, every now and then prefaced by a return season of the last year’s hit. At the dawn of the new millennium, it was Secret Bridesmaid’s Business, Elizabeth Coleman’s play written in the style of soap opera which Mellor discovered while searching ‘for a commercial product’.
‘I thought, “Oh, this is going to sell like hotcakes.” And it did. It was actually quite good, and it played everywhere; there’s been non-stop production somewhere ever since.’
‘But then people got quite annoyed when I tried to do another slightly commercial play. You get criticism for that.’
‘But, I thought, “No, we should be encouraging commercial writers. Why don’t we have writers that are commercial? Why do we have writers that just depend on funding?” David Williamson is an exception, of course. But then he gets knocked for being “too commercial”.’
‘Generally, that’s another fault we have. Commercial writers guarantee box office success.’
The magic word here is ‘balance’, Mellor admits. Finding it is the problem that was ‘certainly in the forefront of my mind,’ he says.
Face to Face, David Williamson’s play first produced by Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, in March 1999, fitted that brief in more ways than one. It was consistent with the idea of ‘swapping productions’ with other theatres, making the need for diversity easier to implement in the context of new Australian plays only. At the same time, it had a commercial value not only because of Williamson’s popularity but also because of the novelty of theme.
The play had its genesis in an article Williamson had written for the Australian newspaper’s monthly Review of Books in the form of ‘an overview of key debates about emotionality’. Two directors of Transformative Justice Australia read it and the line of argument struck a chord with them, so they wrote a letter to the playwright.
‘It seemed only a matter of months before a draft of Face to Face was in the (e-)mail. Even in first draft, Face to Face powerfully portrayed the essence of a workplace conference in a heavy industrial setting,’ David B. Moore and John M. McDonald, directors of TJA wrote in the 2000 edition of the playtext-cum-programme co-published by Playbox and Currency Press.
Such deep understanding did not come out of nowhere. Decades earlier, Williamson had written an honours psychology thesis and was no stranger to the problem of individual psychology challenged by the complexity of relationships in communities. Researching Face to Face, he actively participated in a TJA workshop structured as ‘a conversation in a community of people affected by conflict’ for the purpose of transforming ‘the negative emotions associated with conflict into the positive emotions associated with cooperation’. He observed Moore and McDonald facilitating workplace conferences, and ‘talked through at length’ some of their case studies.
‘My aim has been to dramatize the process so that the play might alert more people to the fact that there is an alternative to simplistic law and order measures focusing on more jails and more punitive sentences,’ Williamson wrote in the Playwright’s Note.
Face to Face was directed by Sandra Bates, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre all until 2015, who sought to make the company a theatre for everyone, as Mellor did with Playbox.
‘If anything was relevant, I sought to programme it, which is not easy, because most playwrights are always behind the time,’ Mellor says. ‘Very rarely do they write about something that’s not like newspaper theatre, which I once used to do myself.’
‘So, I reached for anything hot or politically interesting, for the topical play, which was always David Williamson’s skill. Every year he would take a really popular topic that the audience wanted to talk about.’
Yet, despite his unmistakable ability to spot a corroded value and build a compelling social drama around it, Williamson kept attracting pure vitriol from the ‘connoisseurs’ of theatre, a live example of the enduring tall poppy syndrome in Australia.
‘Everybody attacked David Williamson claiming that he was “shallow, shallow”, he “never explored anything in depth”.’
‘But I discovered working on his plays, if you do one that touched on a controversial subject, you go into the foyer and the audience are all talking about it. And I thought, “Oh my God, he has liberated the people and they are all talking about this subject”.’
Ron Elisha’s play The Goldberg Variations introduced the audience to the vocabulary and practices embedded in Jewish tradition, liberating people to laugh rather than tiptoe around the subject. It was a comedy that kindled warm feelings, blended the quotidian with wisdom and added a poetic touch to experience.
First produced by Playbox Theatre Centre at The CUB Malthouse, the play opened on 24 May 2000 in Max Gillies’ direction. It had a cast of five actors and two animals present by name only, a dog called Trotsky and a turtle called Goethe. And that was just the beginning.
The characters were all members of one family, the Goldbergs, but the speech writer they went to for eighteen years was also a Goldberg. He was an accomplished pianist, blind. Each speech written by Sol Goldberg evoked intimate moments in family history, each folding with a few bars from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a reminder of the everlasting gifts of Jewish people to human civilizations.
The premise Elisha built his play on was that a speech writer had transformative power. S/he could persuade people to believe or do anything.
SOL: The task of the writer is to match the craziness of the speech to the craziness of the speaker. No mean feat but, if you do it right, you can get sixty million Germans to change their taste in shirts.
Witty retorts eliciting laughter that hardly allows the spectator/reader time to breath alternate in the dialogue with words of wisdom that go straight to the heart. Take, for example this one:
SOL: I myself have no home, save for that which exists in the hearts of those who hold me dear.
Then this one:
MENDEL: Name one thing that gets better with age.
SOL: Memories of youth.
Even in Jewish tradition, time has forced incremental change to age-old rituals and the agent of change is predictably the youth.
NINA: Friends, relatives, Rabbi Gershon: Being Jewish is about tradition. It’s about what our parents did, and their parents before them. And, whilst we are all perfectly happy to dispense with the tradition of being raped by the Cossacks, many of us still cling to the security of gefillte fish. Well, ladies and gentlemen, hold onto your skull caps, because bar-mitzvahs are never going to be the same again...!
While Ron Elisha conceived of change in terms of culture steeped in religion, Michael Gurr thought of change in terms of politics. His play Crazy Brave, first produced by Playbox on 28 June 2000, had at its centre a group of young people intent on subverting the status quo in a society still largely driven by imperial pretention, snobbery and greed. As usual, the director was Bruce Myles, but this time Myles also played one of six roles, a once prominent radical lawyer, now disbarred and pushed into poverty. A sympathetic journalist and an undercover agent completed the circle. The play began as a voice of protest but morphed in the end into an ironic comment. The one true believer in the inevitability of change fell victim of her idealism and ended up in prison. Everybody else continued with their lives as before.
At the time Gurr wrote Crazy Brave, he was drifting away from Labor. He had been speech writer for John Brumby and then Steve Bracks, he had written Bracks’ Ballarat speech that ‘set the stage for Labor’s reclamation of the regions,’ the Age recalled ahead of the launch of Gurr’s memoir Days Like These. Also to enter ‘Labor folklore’ were three speeches written ahead of the election night in 1996, one for each eventuality (the prospect of winning seemed so remote that Gurr scribbled a single ‘unprintable word’ on a sheet of paper). Bracks won not only that election, but Labor went on to win a 30-seat majority in the Senate. Gurr helped provide the Premier with some of his memorable lines for every victory-claiming speech.
When Mellor joined Playbox as artistic director in 1994, Gurr was Artistic Counsel for the company’s Theatre in the Raw programme. Running on two parallel tracks could not continue for ever.
‘When Michael's career took off, on top of his playwriting he also became a speech writer for the Labor Party and was keen to hand over the Raw work,’ Mellor says.
Theatre in the Raw started as a weekly play-reading, rarely staged. It was established by Malcolm Robertson under Carrillo Gantner and Gurr worked with the tireless literary manager to find scripts, ‘though he did all the casting and directing’, Mellor says.
The word ‘directing’ is a reference to the later stage in series development. Initially, it was kept quite simple.
‘The actors got together in the day and read the chosen play and in early evening would read the play (before an audience), usually seated on chairs, though later, standing with script on music stands.’
‘There were no programmes, no special lights, just actors on daily pay reading in the large rehearsal room, followed by a discussion.’
Not before long did the space where they ‘bagged the playtexts off’ become colloquially known as the Bagging Room.
‘When I arrived, I started to put more resources into Raw work and used it as a step towards developing plays we wanted to programme. But it also included unusual works that would never sell to big audiences,’ Mellor says.
The plays were subsequently slightly moved; sometimes it was a slightly experimental event with some visuals and the audience moving around the room.
‘The novelty of a playwright hearing his or her play for the first time and witnessing audience reaction was a big event for them. You can’t get such a special experience just from sitting in the rehearsal room,’ Mellor says wrapping up his recollections of the Theatre in the Raw series.
Tom Healey, Artistic Associate at Playbox in 2000, has more details.
‘Theatre in the Raw was a programme where people would come in for just one day, occasionally three,’ he says.
‘The one-day version was pretty scary because the actors would come in at 10am, we’d do a very quick reading and have a chat and then we’d show it (the play) at 6pm, or was it 6.30pm?’
With the three-day event more could be done, obviously.
‘Sometimes we would work one day and then have a week off and then a two-day workshop to sort of give it a bit more (scope for development), depending on where in our judgment the writer was up to and the text was up to,’ Healey says.
Despite its unquestionable merit to emerging playwrights, Theatre in the Raw heightened Mellor’s awareness of a limited use of readings, more so as the plays grew increasingly physical and/or visual. He wanted more time for preparing performances.
‘I also saw that one never knows the full potential of a play until one sees it in performance,’ he says.
As a step up from Theatre in the Raw, he developed the Inside programme, which meant productions. It was sandwiched between the new plays by the writers familiar to both the Playbox subscribers and a wider circle of theatre aficionados.
‘The actors had to have scripts down and they had to have some visuals and lighting. And that’s a very different event when you put something under lights. The event gets magnified.’
Mellor sees it as nothing less than ‘magic’. ‘It’s a thrill that a writer remembers all their life,’ he says.
More importantly, in that unforgettable moment a play is put to the test and, as its weak points are revealed, the way forward or, rather, how to develop it further becomes much clearer than on paper.
The above is, however, predicated on one condition—that a play gets from the page to the stage.
‘The Inside season was also a way of getting rid of something that could form a “constipation”,’ Mellor says.
‘One of the problems with playwrights is that until their play is produced, it’s like an unborn child. They’ve got this pregnancy that they can’t give birth to and how on earth can you conceive your next child until you’ve given birth?’
‘So I wanted them (playwrights) to have an outcome where they could actually have a play produced and then go, “Phew, that’s good. I can kick off with my next work”.’
Tom Healey remembers that the Inside series came about because Mellor was ‘very frustrated by all this work coming through the building and lots of it never really getting anywhere’.
‘It was sort of felt that a three-week stand-alone season for that play was not going to work or that audiences were perhaps not there for it or whatever, and we were losing a lot of plays and a lot of good writers for that reason. Plus we had a lot of very young writers who were very interesting, people like Angus Cerini who’d gone on to being incredibly successful and who we really loved and we felt were really important for the industry.’
One more factor had to be taken into consideration to prevent the loss of audience interest.
‘Aubrey was always very aware that the company needed to bring writers through unless it was to risk getting stale,’ Healey says.
Achieving the balance was a tricky problem, as the Board tended to follow the safe path. Still, nobody ever objected to new topics regardless of the controversy raised nor to the plays by writers who experimented with form. Rather, the conversation that went back and forth in the company was centred on the question of identity.
‘We were supposed to be a cutting-edge contemporary theatre company, but we needed to retain an audience, we needed to some degree deliver what it was felt we had promised,’ Healey says.
Another sign of discordant expectations, receptions and visions was the disaffiliation of Playbox and Monash University that took effect at the end of 1999. Victoria University affiliation began almost immediately afterwards and was to prove fruitful, in a creative sense, to both affiliates.
The Inside programme formed a bridge between the recognizable and the new landscapes of imagination providing a clear outlook on the freedoms enjoyed within the company.
‘Once the basic parameters of it were tied off, which were essentially financial—X number of actors, X number of directors, designers, etcetera—Aubrey in a very generous way just handed it straight across and said sort of, “Do whatever you want”, which was lovely,’ Healey recalls.
The play to open the first Inside season on 5 April 2000 was Elegy by Jodi Gallagher, the playwright whose potential Mellor had recognised while observing closely the progress of Theatre in the Raw programme. Mellor introduced Gallagher to Healey and, of the five plays grouped in the series, Healey chose Elegy to direct.
The playtext went through several drafts for Gallagher to be able to distance herself enough from her theme and develop the only male role beyond the ephemeral.
It was an autobiographical play that had ‘a great density and a great delicacy at the same time,’ Healey recalls.
‘It was about the processing of grief, the rage of it as well as the sorrow of it.’
The presence of a much-loved person in one’s mind long after the passing informed the play’s structural composition. The scenes shifted backwards and forwards, from memory to the present (of the play) and back, and to grasp which was which was left to the logic of reason to decode. With the assistance of one device, though. Lighting designer Phil Lethlean used ‘naturalistic lighting’ to connote physical reality, while the memory scenes were much more back-lit and side-lit thus helping the audience to orient themselves in time.
‘By today’s standards the lighting was incredibly basic,’ Healey says, ‘but we were certainly experimenting with the colour palette.’
Nonetheless, the choice of palette was also limited, since the sets for all four programmes within Inside 2000 were fundamentally the same. Elegy had the following storyline:
Two sisters, the younger one totally subordinated to the other, are the central figures. One is immersed in books of fiction and hardly ever leaves her flat and the other, who is a drug addict, gets bone cancer. Their mother and the sisters’ mutual lover are caught in the web of interrogation that leads nowhere, for the resolution rests in the domain of psychology and can only be found within the Self.
‘It was one of my favourite shows that I did at Playbox, at least in the first Inside series,’ Healey says.
‘I had Mandy McElhinney in the central role (as Alice, the grieving sister) and Margaret Mills as Mel (the deceased sister), Sue Jones played the mother and Ken Radley played the boyfriend, lover. So, it was a terrific cast, very intelligent and strong and passionate.’
Programme two that followed a week later consisted of two plays even more experimental than Gallagher’s Elegy in terms of form. Samantha Bews wrote So Wet in response to the spirit of the times using multimedia, cultural icons and music to capture its main thrust. ‘I will not be satisfied with little things,’ says Silv, who shows a distinct tendency towards self-mythologisation recalling Roland Barthes’ theory of mythmaking in the contemporary western world.1
The play unfolds in a sequence of opposites: Silv’s interior monologue runs in fragmented sentences occasionally given the form of blank verse and the punctuation is used ‘rhythmically rather than grammatically’. Alternating with it is Silv’s dialogue with the outside world: her friend—a young and vulnerable lesbian of ethnic background, the males in her social circle and the internalised cultural icons of the day. Indicatively, the ‘I’ perspective changes only in a brief scene inserted in the denouement of the play to reveal the reason for Silv’s anxiety. In it, she becomes the object of gossip, rather than the subject who does the thinking, feeling and talking.
The emotions Silv goes through in the span of one night are colour-coded and it was Phil Lethlean’s task to design them in performance.
‘Projected images, video footage and recorded music are used to enforce a sense of image saturation,’ Bews explained in the Playwright’s Note.
‘In addition to this, the written images from the stories themselves can be used in the creation of a technological landscape of modern mythology.’
The language of myth surrounds luxury brands, role models like Madonna taken to validate the practice of image creation, and above all the ideal of liberation with its effect on workplace culture, behaviour and, ultimately, the state of being. Sylv’s accidental descent from the corporate world into the ‘real world’, where she is confronted by a homeless figure Rattie, leads to the following exchange:
R: all glamour and no substance
S: I was looking so much at the pictures I lost sight of the ground
R: you and the Pepsi generation
The delusions shaping the perception of reality originate, Bews showed, in the misappropriation of cultural icons and Madonna’s song ‘Geisha’ served as an apt example. In a versified Geisha Girl Number (a scene), Sylv addresses the mannequin displayed in the Geisha Bar:
S: are you a Geisha Girl
G: I am a geisha
S: are you a prostitute
G: no. Geisha means beauty person.
S: I thought you were all prostitutes
Unsurprisingly, Sylv is dismissive of her friend Anna who anxiously argues, ‘I want love. it’s not stupid. I am allowed. It is allowed.’ At last standing firm, Anna leaves the scene to Sylv who, in the final act of defiance, washes off her weaknesses like dirt and, empowered by an extreme act of cruelty (she has killed Rattie), binges on ‘the early morning episodes of Bonanza’.
The dramaturg and director of So Wet was Nancy Black, Mandy McElhinney played Sylv, Fiona Todd was Anna and Geisha Mannequin, Ken Radley played three roles (Tom/The Man/Geisha Bar Guy 1) as did James Wardlaw (Tim/Geisha Bar Guy 2/Rattie). The composer was David Franzke.
Paired up with So Wet in Programme 2 was Gabrielle MacDonald’s play Like a Metaphor, a short meditation on vagina, old age and hardly anything else. Written in the style that bore close resemblance to Jenny Kemp’s as in The Black Sequin Dress (see Part 2 of this story), it was basically a fragment not least because of the sentences cut short after the two or three opening words that carried no signification whatsoever. The philosophical and psychological implications of such writing may be a counterpoint to the equation of maleness with the penis, but the loss of the sense of Self inhering in a woman’s inability to reconcile herself with the scars of time on her aging body is deeper than that. For, the irreconcilability with impotence in old age is the irreconcilability with the proximity of death. The play closed with the following declaration:
I have a body but I am not my body.
I have a body but I am not my body.
I have a body but I am not
Like a Metaphor was workshopped for Playbox Theatre in the Raw in July 1999 and was produced within the Inside programme nine months later. On both occasions, the playtext was spoken/performed by Margaret Mills. The performance within Inside 2000 was directed by three women: Gabrielle Macdonald herself in collaboration with Margaret Cameron and Margaret Mills, a testament to the challenges of transposing the broken sentences of an interior monologue onto the stage.
The rationale for including highly experimental work in the main season was explained in the note From the Artistic Director at the end of the Inside 2000 collection co-published by Playbox and Currency Press.
‘With our Inside season we can bring you bold choices, and genuinely dangerous and surprising theatre—all at prices that encourage audiences to participate and support risk and innovation,’ Mellor wrote.
‘Another prime reason for bringing this exciting and diverse range of works together with the same company, was the lack of opportunities for actors. We are most aware that the demands of Inside 2000 are heaviest upon the actors.’
Tom Healey captured the excitement of dealing with heavy demands on actors in the message From the Co-ordinating Director.
‘As I write, it’s the end of the third week of rehearsal (out of seven). At any given time we have two rehearsal rooms running at once, often three and sometimes four.’
‘There are actors pelting from one room to the next, out of one world and into another. This is work that has to be done fast, with primary instinct and great courage, without the (relative) security of the standard four-week rehearsal period.’
Baby X by Campion Decent presented in Programme 3 offered a welcome relief from heavy experimentation. It was a comedy involving a lesbian couple who wanted a baby and chose their gay friend for a sperm donor. In the process leading up to birth, all the standard questions were asked, from deeply personal to those related to social acceptance. And all were resolved, as comedy has it.
This is not to say that Decent failed to experiment with form. He successfully interpolated excerpts from The Encyclopedia of Pregnancy and Birth by Janet Balaskas and Yehudi Gordon in the dialogue, the cast of four played seventeen roles, sound and imagery were used to connote a change of locale as did a ‘fast and furious’ mime. On top of it, images like the LONE SPERM conquers its shyness and steps into the light displaced naturalistic representation and by translating biology into humour heightened the play’s inherent theatricality.
Baby X was first produced by Christine Dunstan Productions in association with the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras at Belvoir Street Theatre, on 24 February 2000. Its Playbox Inside season started on 19 April 2000, and the director and choreographer was Noel Jordan.
The play to close the series examined the practice of biographical writing and the motivation behind it. Titled Violet Inc., it was split in two parts (not acts) conceived as integral wholes and given different headings, both folding with ‘The End’. In ‘Seeing Violet’ (Part One), the author Pam Leversha traced the process by which an outsider infiltrated the private lives of prominent artists. In ‘Tunnel Vision’ (Part Two), the go-getter assumed the role of biographer. Her take on the life of Violet, the deceased member of the artists’ circle, was informed by gender politics and eventually proved to be completely subjective and fundamentally false. Leversha’s was a bold critique of the biographer’s pursuit of self-interest, the reading public’s gullibility and the exploitative manipulation of truth.
All four programmes played in the Beckett Theatre, a week apart. For Healey, such an intensive process contained multiple incentives.
‘It is exciting, exhilarating, frustrating, terrifying, stimulating, rich, exhausting, upsetting, demanding, stupid, joyous, uplifting,’ he wrote at the time.
‘The whole notion of working on a project bigger than a single play is uncharted territory to most of us. … It’s all about a collision of styles and creative process and thus the potential for one world to inform another, for a rich creative language to emerge.’
The main season of 2000 continued with Debra Oswald’s play Sweet Road in the larger of the two theatres, the Merlyn. First produced by Playbox Theatre Centre on 2 August 2000, it was directed by Aubrey Mellor.
The title suggested a pleasant night at the theatre and, indeed, it was another one of Oswald’s works with a happy ending. But here is the rub. Along with mature protagonists, there were two children and a dog in it, which was not the only reason why directing the play was a challenge.
‘The difficulty about that one again was the problem with writers who think that they’re writing a movie when they write a play,’ Mellor says.
‘She (Oswald) wrote most of the scenes in the cars, so I thought, “Heavens! How’re we going to show all these cars?”’
When produced by Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre a few weeks after the Playbox season, Sweet Road was set in different locations, but such a solution held little appeal to Mellor. He had the characters in ‘sort of model cars’.
‘We were pushing cars around the stage; it was all on wheels. It was the most amazing thing and fun,’ he recalls.
The season closed with Meat Party by Duong Le Quy, which belonged to the group of plays Playbox produced in a bid to spark interest in Asian cultures. Two years earlier, the play had been workshopped at the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference in Canberra, in the Vietnamese-English translation by Lien Yeomans. Le Quy dedicated it to ‘the souls of those who died in all the wars on this earth with the hope that they will be reborn into a peaceful world’. Michael Kantor transposed this powerful call for peace from the page to the stage in October 2000.
‘I think it was one of the best productions ever seen in the Merlyn,’ Mellor recalls.
‘Michael filled the auditorium with small speakers amongst the audience and the constant sounds of whisperings and Viet-Cong music as would be heard by the Vietnamese people during the war.’
‘The production featured Umi the Butoh dancer and a famous Vietnamese actor who was a refugee living in Sydney. Unfortunately, his accent was very heavy and his English not clear, but images were shocking and powerful. I well remember the full cast staggering towards the audience each carrying a coffin.’
Le Quy’s play was set in the white sand dunes of Mui Ne, Vietnam, years after a Viet-Cong attack on an American military compound. Quashed by napalm bombs, it left an army tank half buried in the sand. Living in the tank was a crone who kept uncovering, cleaning, caressing and collecting human bones for years. She and a retired army officer, with one half of his face badly scarred from burns, were the physical reminders of the horrors of war. Its full extent was, however, fully revealed only in the denouement of the play. All until then, the tension built in the coming together of two worlds a generation after the war. Rigid ideological blinkers had begun to fall off and a critical view of communist ideals subjected to the test of time also brought back the memories of war victims portrayed as inherent forces of good. The sound of a flute played by an American soldier on the eve of the attack recalled one of them. The bones which were, for the crone, those of her children and a beautiful Vietnamese girl, who fought for her country’s freedom as a nurse but fell victim of fanaticism, symbolized those on the Vietnamese side. The massacre that took their lives is Le Quy’s ‘meat party’.
‘The play won some humanitarian award and this helped Duong get a Fulbright to study in America,’ Mellor says.
Playbox produced Meat Party after it had won the AsiaLink Competition in 1999. Rising Fish Prayer by Adam May had won it two years earlier (see Part 2 of this story). The prize was established because ‘it was very difficult to get any work from Asian Australians,’ Mellor says.
‘I had searched to find any Asian material at all, so we created The Playbox Asialink Competition for the best play with an Asian-Australian theme to encourage Australians with connections to Asia to write for theatre, and we programmed that as much as we could.’
The prize was ‘kicked off with money from the Myer Foundation, so it was basically Carrillo’s (Gantner’s) idea pushing it in the reach in the first place,’ Mellor says.
The competition was held every second year, as there were very few submissions.
‘It’s one of the huge nightmares about living in Australia,’ Mellor says.
‘We are geographically right here in the middle of Asia, but we all think about going to Florence and London next week.’ The remark was obviously made before the Covid-19 pandemic, but Mellor’s point is clear.
‘It’s so odd, for me, to feel very consciously part of Asia while most people don’t, and so audiences won’t necessarily support anything Asian at all,’ he says.
The sense of opposition from the public triggers the memory of an associated issue. A letter Mellor once sent out to all the playwrights he could identify, asking if they wanted to submit an idea for a play for young people, returned next to nothing.
‘Amazingly, out of about 200 letters out, I got only two responses,’ he says.
‘So almost all Australian playwrights are not interested in Asia or in the next generation.’
‘There is much to learn about Australian theatre’s obsession with middle-class and middle of the road.’
Another award the company dealt with a lot was the Malcolm Robertson New Playwright Award established in 2000. It was to honour all the work that Robertson did with playwrights when he was Literary Manager at Playbox.
‘I thought of the award concept after talks with Ray Lawler who told me that he believed playwrighting prizes were essentially given to make writers go away,’ Mellor says.
‘Ray's ideal prize was an actual production—not money to go away with, not a reading or a workshop (though they automatically also occurred), but an actual fully staged production of the new work and so also a world premiere.’
‘We were not only looking for an interesting new play, but following Malcolm’s lead, we were also looking for an interesting new playwright. So, it became policy not only to name the best new play by the best new local playwright (a new writer previously not produced at Playbox), but also to produce that play.’
The one to win the Inaugural Malcolm Robertson New Playwrights Award was Ben Ellis’ play Post Felicity on the lost ideals of the 1968 generation, its complicity in the increasing dehumanisation of society and implicit refusal of the young to live in such a world. The script had a long developmental path. It started with a reading in Playbox’s Theatre in the Raw under the original ‘moniker’ Who Are You Mr James?, continued in the Bagging Room and, after co-winning the 2000 Patrick White Playwrights Award (with Small Mercies by Ailsa Piper), was presented in a reading in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Wharf 1 Theatre on 22 April 2001. Playbox paid the young writer full credit for Post Felicity with a production in the Beckett Theatre a year later. It was paired up with Svetlana in Slingbacks by Valentina Levkowicz, the play considered for the VCE drama curriculum upon persistent advocacy of the Playbox Education team and restaged for a return season. But that was yet to come (see Part 4).
The 2001 Inside season launched with Public Dancing by Peter Webb on 6 June. It was a four-hander that opened with an insight into the young drug users’ way of life. Not before long, however, the dialogue turned into a confrontation of ideas about love, freedom and the Self. Some of the thinking was an unequivocal throwback to Nietzsche, who also inspired David Hayhow, the writer of Ancient Enmity with which the 2001 Inside season was to close. Take, for instance, the following:
SEBASTION: … The presence of rules creates an atmosphere which allows the possibility of other rules not known about or agreed upon. The result is tension … I want to make love to life instinctually, without rules, I want a beautiful poetic union.
And in response to his lover’s rebuttal, ‘You don’t have a clue what you want, you’re a paranoid little city fuck!’, Sebastion says,
Balancing paranoia is an art, an exercise in sensory awareness. Separating the relevant from the irrelevant, everyone’s using bare minimum brain power, well I’m sick of the bare minimum, that’s easy. I wanna mutate, I might be scoring every day but at least I know what I want. And I want you Coral, it’s not enough to talk philosophy, you have to practice philosophy.
While Public Dancing was first produced by Playbox Theatre at The CUB Malthouse in David Symons’ direction, bang! a critical fiction by Margaret Cameron had a creative development workshop at La Mama first. It was a long poem spoken by Cameron as Cowboy, metaphorical and meditative, with a chest of three drawers that could be lit in various ways, a Cowboy’s shadow (either as a man or a woman) and a Light (the Lone Ranger—in rear projection) featuring as play figures too. It took Cameron nearly a page and a half to describe the setting and how it should work. The subject of illumination was again ‘a secret psychological life’ and the slips from the mind to the body, from the Self to the Other and vice versa. Cameron wrote, ‘The characters are me and you—me and you the chest, me and you the shadow and the light, me and you the audience, then me and you in orbit, in relationship with … the unknown.’
‘It was a beautiful piece by Margaret who was very important to me when I was a student at VCA,’ Healey says.
‘She did a series of solo shows at La Mama, including one called Things Calipso Wanted to Say! which anyone attending La Mama in the late 1980s would remember, because it had about ten seasons.’
‘I always really wanted to work with Margaret Cameron and was able not only to get her to come in as an actor in the ensemble, but we also commissioned a new solo work from her. That was one of our early collaborations, with digital projection that was an incredible headache, but wonderful.’
One more short play by Cameron rendered in a poetic form, but more transparent despite the depth of thought and emotion voiced in it, followed in Programme 3 of Inside 2001. It was Knowledge & Melancholy characteristically composed in the first-person perspective, and in the Playbox production performed by Cameron herself.
The work had, however, developed in stages. It was initially workshopped at La Mama Theatre, Carlton, in March 1997 and then at Dancehouse, Melbourne, in June 1998. The first production of the full playtext was produced by the Deborah Hay Dance Company at the Zachary Scott Theatre, Austin, Texas, on 4 May 1999, as a duet.
Reworked into an interior monologue, the play watched by the audience of Inside 2001 unfolded as a dying woman’s song that only a couple of citations, brief as they are, can do justice:
Is the recognition that we have loved.
But the roots of woman’s angst are deeper than that.
Perhaps I am arrogant
but I suffer this status quo
this expectation of the ‘normal’
and I do not find it so.
It neglects truth. It neglects beauty.
Knowledge & Melancholy was paired up with Seven Days of Silence by Angus Cerini, written in the absurdist mode and yet turning out to be anything but absurd in the end. The events took place over the period of seven days in allusion to the seven days in which God created the world, except that in this case it was the old man harassed by a young stranger who rose to the challenge, forcing the ‘boy’ to become a man—a creation no less significant in the real world of today than the Biblical one.
None of the above plays achieved the success of Svetlana in Slingbacks, though. Valentina Levkowicz’s play began taking shape in a workshop way back in 1990, with the assistance of an Australia Council Grant. It took ten years for Vitalstatistix to stage its first production at Theatre 62, Adelaide. At Playbox, it was presented as a stand-alone play in Programme 2 of Inside 01, 13-19 June 2001.
Svetlana in Slingbacks was a contemporary tragedy written in the style of realism, with occasional flights into the realm of fantasy justified by either mental illness or contemporary education that guided the imagination towards sci-fi. The protagonists were members of a dysfunctional family, first-generation migrants whose Russian-Jewish background had a major impact on their and their children’s well-being in the process of acculturation. Tom Healey played a minor role in it.
‘I played this hideous businessman who was very lecherous towards the older sister Sonya. There were lots of nazdarovya! (Eng. Cheers), lots of vodka shots and talking with my mouthful (He laughs). That was wonderful.’
The play to close the Inside 01 programme was Ancient Enmity by David Hayhow. Its protagonists were historical art figures at the turn of the 20th century immersed in the discussion of classical ideas of form and beauty that were increasingly subverted under the influence of Cézanne in France and Nietzsche in Germany. Enmeshed with the questions about art was the interrogation of ideas embedded in the foundations of Christian religion and patriarchal society. The Playbox audience watched this mammoth play that lasted for three hours in Programme 4 of the Inside 2001. The director was Tom Healey.
‘Hayhow had an enormous dream about the world,’ he says.
The dream revolved around the question, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ and it had for a scene ‘the eternal battleground between the sexes. And between the call of art, and the call of life,’ the Author’s Note informed the audience. What prompted the battle could be deduced from the Prologue already, with the opening bars of ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ by Richard Strauss streaming against the image of the index finger of God and Adam from ‘The Creation of Adam’ by Michelangelo projected on screen. As the music died, Rainer Maria Rilke appeared naked except for a large Russian Orthodox cross.
‘Ancient Enmity is set on the cusp of a huge change in the art world from the 19th to the 20th century, but it is also centred around Germany marching towards WW1 and then WW2,’ Healey says.
That is why the Harlequin figure he substituted in the Prologue with the Monkey (an actor in a monkey-suit), ‘this very Nietzschesque image that very much set the tone for what was to follow’.
The intended meaning transpired clearly later in the dialogue but catching other references to some key moments in art and literature history required background knowledge.
Ancient Enmity centres around the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker and the competition of values between the ‘parochial’ Germany and the ‘cosmopolitan’ Paris. Paula and her soul mate Clara Westhoff, who began as a painter but then turned to sculpture, started their artistic journey at Worpswede, a village north-east of Bremen that remains an artists’ colony to this day. Founded by a somewhat older painter Otto Modersohn and his friend Fritz Mackensen in 1889, the Worpswede group began to attract plaudits by 1895, especially Mackensen who gave instructions to Paula and whose ‘sombre realism of both landscape and figure subjects, severe and simplified,’ was in sympathy with Otto’s ‘dark, almost brooding landscapes’. While she eventually married Modersohn, Paula reached her full artistic potential during her visits to Paris. There she met up with Clara by then married to Rilke and studying under Rodin, who suppressed Clara’s artistic individuality. In contrast, Paula’s style of painting, while initially heavily influenced by her teacher and later by Cézanne, showed over time a growing affinity with Expressionist art. Even though she was not part of the Die Brücke [The Bridge] group—by common consent the earliest ‘Expressionists’ in Germany2—Paula Modersohn-Becker received an invitation to take part in their exhibition shortly before dying from postnatal embolism at the age of 31.
Clues to important moments in art history abound in Ancient Enmity. One of the very few that can be deciphered by a key provided in the dialogue is precisely ‘the bridge’, a reference to Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra read by four architecture students at their weekly meetings in Dresden. The decision to name their group Die Brücke is widely considered as a sign of the profound influence of Nietzsche’s ideas of art, God, morality and the Self on their own thinking and their art. For instance, Nietzsche’s rejection of the idea of afterlife that inspires over-earthly hope and of the separation of body and soul by ‘Despisers of the Body’ is essential for understanding the full import of the naked body in Ancient Enmity. The overarching paradigm is, however, the bridge which invokes the central proposition of Thus Spoke Zarathustra: ‘Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman [later translated as Superior Man and still more recently as Overhuman]—a rope over an abyss,’ reworded a couple of lines later, ‘What is great in Man is that he is a bridge [to the condition of Overhuman], and not a goal’ (as in Christianity)3. Paula Modersohn-Becker strove to overcome the condition of Woman she was trapped in, not only the academic style of painting.
The dialogue also provided enough clues for grasping the signification of the Harlequin figure that popped up every now and then, either in frequent invocations of Cézanne or in a direct reference to his ‘Mardi Gras’ paintings (‘Pierrot and Harlequin, Mardi Gras’) shown in performance using a slide projection on the white set. These and other visual images complemented verbal arguments all along, contributing to a fuller understanding of the concepts and artistic principles discussed. The French Master embodied the point in time when the past and future met, ideas collided and art embarked on a new trajectory, further and further away from the principle of representation.
As Paula visits Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in Paris, she sees a Cézanne for the first time and ‘just goes into this rhapsodic crazy trance,’ Healey recalls.
‘We showed that painting in production—she had a white costume, and we had the painting on a slide projector and it was moving all over her dress; she was sort of swimming in this painting. It was amazing.’
But to spot a reference to romanticism from two allusions to ‘a blue flower’ (the symbol of beauty used by Novalis in Henry von Ofterdingen) or ‘a urinal wall’ (in reference to Duchamp) and other allusions to the key moments in art history provided in the dialogue, the spectator had nothing to draw on but personal education. This particularly goes for references to Lou Andreas-Salomé featured as a ‘Russian femme fatale’ and Muse, not as the world’s first female psychoanalyst who treated Nietzsche. Nietzsche’s desire to marry her, as a symptom of transference, is implicitly attributed to physical attraction alone, with no suggestion of an intellectual bond.
Rilke too was smitten by this delicate beauty with diverse intellectual interests. For him, she personified the Russia he visited in his twenties and its spirituality that moved him deeply, leading him to believe that the widespread stigmatisation of the poor and ‘modern inability to love’ can be attributed to the ‘constant construction of identities imposed on an individual by others’4. Rilke dedicated his first through-composed cycle The Book of Hours to Lou Andreas-Salomé.
‘There is this incredibly passionate argument in the play about art and politics, women particularly,’ Healey says, ‘so that the audiences watched the play from two angles, from its own timeframe but also from ours.’
‘The play finishes with a beautiful requiem for Paula Modersohn-Becker. Some 35 or 36 of her paintings just came up on the white set, very slowly, and then the actor, James Brennan who played Rilke, began speaking this beautiful elegy poem that Rilke wrote for her (Requiem Für Eine Freunde), so you have Rilke and Modersohn-Becker together at the end. It was epic!’
‘We had a great cast, Sarah Norris who played Paula and Miria Kostiuk who played Clara and Brian Lipson who played Otto Modersohn. David Francke did the sound, beautiful sound, and Christina Smith did the set. It was a very fancy production.’
And yet some people didn’t like it at all. Healey, however, remains very fond of that production. He enjoyed the challenge of it, and he liked that an Australian writer was thinking about art and politics as being the underlying forces of society.
By the time he joined Playbox, Healey was working much more as a director than as actor, but he accepted a couple of roles within the Inside programme when the company ‘just could not afford another actor,’ he says.
‘I also got to play a very gay arts curator in the second part of Violet Inc. who was assisting in making this exhibition happen (of Violet’s letters, edited by the biographer of course), which I had enjoyed enormously.’
The memory segues into the perennial argument of what comes first, ‘chicken or the egg’.
‘Aubrey would always argue that the writer is at the centre of theatre, and I don’t disagree with that necessarily,’ Healey says.
‘But Aubrey was also historically very interested in actors and acting, as I was and remain so, and we were very conscious that this kind of European model of repertoire theatre—where actors are doing more than one project at a time—there was an audience for that as well.’
Mellor attributes it to the company’s perseverance in honouring Australian talent.
‘We had built up a loyal subscriber base of audiences who were genuinely interested in new work, people who took pride in being at the first production of premieres, so we conceived the Inside seasons as in-house seasons, experimental and try-outs,’ he says.
‘We did not seek to develop new profitable plays, though sometimes an Inside play would prove popular enough to warrant a tour, for example, Svetlana in Slingbacks.’
What the Inside programme made also possible was to compare the shows, directly. For, at the end of weeks three and four a marathon performance was held in the courtyard.
‘We would do programmes 1, 2, 3 and 4 in one day. So, the audience turned up at midday—I think it was—and got out of Ancient Enmity, which in Inside 2001 played last, at 11.45 pm or something like that,’ Healey says laughing.
‘People turned up for the day, everybody brought blankets, we got it catered. It was absolutely remarkable.’
‘I would love to do it again. I mean, I love theatre when it turns into an event.’
Work with emerging playwrights is inherently driven by the idea of excellence. It was years before, while he was at Nimrod, that Mellor became aware of the lack of interest in the ‘old’ Australian plays. Everybody wanted the new and ‘better’ Australian play, but ‘nobody knew how to make it better,’ he says.
The directors, Mellor included, ‘made it up as they went’ and playwrighting courses were scarce.
‘So the writers didn’t know how to do it and we had no dramaturgs who knew how to help the writer,’ he says.
‘That was something I was aware of, but I couldn’t do anything about it until I got to Playbox.’
One of the key decisions Mellor made at Playbox was to bring Oskar Eustis, the dramaturg for Angels in America, out to Australia.
To explain why he still considers it important, Mellor returns to the process of play reading.
‘We had a set of people, mostly young directors, whom we paid to read the plays and give comments. We had a whole network of readers,’ Mellor says.
‘And then, we had a literary manager who would be coordinating where the scripts went to, what script went to whom, and every script was read, I think, three or four times, never just once. And then, they (literary managers) would coordinate the feedback.’
Mellor would not ‘allow just any old reader’ to talk directly to a writer. If the reader was finding ‘really interesting things’ to say, he was introduced to the writer and the two would form a relationship that was valuable ‘for the next hour’. More often than not, however, the writer was protected from ‘just another opinion’. The literary manager would extract all relevant comments from the reports and then send them to the writer. When the work sparked sufficient interest, the literary manager would alert the artistic director to it.
‘I had several different types of literary managers, and I would then have short lists, first from my own hunting but also from the literary managers,’ Mellor says.
‘When we brought Oskar Eustis out, I invited all literary managers from other companies and from our company and all our readers. Oskar just did sessions with them, and we asked him questions and he gave us input.’
One of the topics discussed was ‘the second act syndrome’. What happens in Act Two, after you come back from the interval, is often the problem with Australian plays, Mellor says.
‘The second act has to do a lot of different things. It is not a continuation of the first act, but most playwrights think that the story just goes on. The second act should do all sorts of other things.’
More precisely, Act One charts out the story that contains hidden clues and then in Act Two something unexpected happens and the audience goes, ‘Oh, I see. This is awesome,’ Mellor says.
‘If you go, “Oh, my God! I knew it, I knew it” with excitement deep down inside you, the seed had been planted and suddenly something happens on stage and the idea blossoms into something marvellous. It’s something that everybody should know.’
John Romeril was certainly aware of it. A young and beautiful girl of his play Miss Tanaka, with which the main 2001 season was launched, appeared apparently for the first time in Scene Nine, even though she had been there, in front of the spectator’s eyes, from Scene One. Like Love Suicides (1997), the play was based on an old story but no less relevant today than in 1930, when Xavier Herbert wrote it. The spotlight in it was on pearl trade ‘in a pre-plastic era’, when Australia was supplying ‘80 percent of the world’s pearlshell needs’, Romeril writes in the Playwright’s Note.
I knew Herbert had been a life-long opponent of white Australian racism. He’d bravely criticized the treatment of Aboriginal people, and the way hard-working, law-abiding “foreigners” were discriminated against. Because I shared his vision of a “multi-cultural” Australia, back home I read the stories I’d first heard of in Japan.
‘Miss Tanaka’ enthralled me. It had the virtues and technique of an Australian yarn, a form I admire enormously. But there was something very Japanese about it too: he (Herbert) had written a role for a female impersonator, shades of the onagatta roles in Kabuki!’
The play was set in Broome at the dawn of WW2 and the pearl divers’ ethnicities were painted with vibrant colours, putting a stamp on local customs and the way of life during the lay-up. The boundary between the real and the imaginary was again blurred and the language of performance a hybrid of realism and Bunraku puppet theatre, highly poetic and awash with imagery. The cast of five actors, two puppeteers5—one of whom (Heather Monk) was also Puppetry Director—and two musicians, Junko Sakamoto and Toshi Sakamoto, recreated the realities that put the diver’s endurance to the test, revealed their camaraderie and a longing for going back to the place of origin, for going home. The view was the young company owner’s, conceived by Romeril as a British Jew who knew a lot about pearl evaluation but nothing about the business thrust upon him. His ‘education’ began on the job and stretched well into the night when gambling, drinking, opium smoking and brothels were in full swing. Reverie and romance balanced it all.
Romeril dedicated the play to Noriko Noshimoto, then Artistic Director of Spare Parts, ‘who first ran with the idea’. It was jointly produced by Handspan Visual Theatre and Playbox Theatre at The CUB Malthouse, with David Bell as director and script collaborator.
The Sign of the Seahorse, the illustrated children’s book by Graeme Base adapted into an opera, followed on 1 March 2001. It was coproduced with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and played at the Concert Hall, Victorian Arts Centre, testimony to how far the Playbox team was prepared to go in challenging the conventional idea of dramatic theatre and its boundaries.
One more work played at the Victorian Arts Centre that season, Your Dreaming by Guy Rundle, a commercial production which went on to tour Australia for several years. But the play Mellor chose to direct and scheduled for a regional tour just after its premiere season was Salt: A Play in Five Helpings by Peta Murray. It opened on 16 March in the Beckett and the choice of a smaller of the two original theatres at Playbox was deliberate. For, Salt was an intimate play, it required an intimate atmosphere for the main thread of the narrative to reach the audience with full force.
To some extent, Salt recalled Emma Celebrazione! produced by Playbox in 1996, for it had food preparation in it, the recipes were provided in the dialogue and the theme was family. In Murray’s case, however, the focus was on mother-daughter relationship, fraught as it often is, veiling a deep bond under the surface. Mellor’s first memory goes to the cast.
‘I had the joy of working with Julia Blake and Paul English and Victoria Eagger, again an ex-student of mine who has turned into a nurse and is now looking after COVID patients in Melbourne!’
Mellor wanted the ‘magic’ in performance, so they built a black velvet wall which had openings in it for the food to completely disappear.
‘Most things you can’t do in Australian theatres because they’ve always got the exit lights on, which is a disaster,’ he says.
‘Anyway, we designed the set to be a black box with only the wooden kitchen table present. The back wall had windows in it that could be opened from the front; and within the openings, like a cupboard, were shelves that could be stocked from behind.’
‘I used a magician’s trick of my father’s covering the entire wall with thick black velvet. Unlike woollen black drapes which catch light and turn grey, velvet does not catch light. Thus, the actors could reach into the darkness and magically bring out an eggplant or lemons or the humble potato, whatever was needed for the next chapter.
‘Stage management continually cleared the shelves and reset new props—all unseen—from behind the wall. The wall was solid, as the velvet was smoothly glued onto the plyboard surface.’
The objects would thus appear as if out of nowhere and the table was all lit.
‘I’ve never seen that in the theatre again, so I felt it was quite an innovation. I wish I had a video of it,’ Mellor says noting, almost as an afterthought, that Peta Murray has stopped writing. ‘I wish she would write another play,’ he says.
Each one of the five scenes in Salt unfolded in the sign of a particular vegetable and a recipe received from a dear granny or a mysterious person who, as it eventually turned out, had a lasting impact on the mother’s psychological well-being and, by projection, on the daughter’s as well. Yet this alone would not have been enough to make Salt a significant work. Rather, it was the third figure simply called THE MAN, abstract and with no fixed identity that took the play to a level beyond entertainment. He was a constant presence, an eponymous male haunting a female mind, an anchor. The skill with which Murray built this figure, extending her exploration into the province of the unconscious, gave Salt the depth it needed to transcend the familiar peppered with triviality and enter the sphere of reflection.
Leafing through the playscript published by Playbox and Currency Press reveals that, beside the programme in centre pages, inserted in it was also a list of six art centres Salt toured to in 2001:
I Don’t Wanna Play House by Tammy Anderson, the play that the Playbox audiences watched at The CUB Malthouse next, had a return season within the Blak Inside series, which is why we will defer shining a light on it and turn attention instead to the double bill featuring the work of Australian playwrights who had begun their respective careers at the Australian Performing Group and had close ties with La Mama, Carlton. One is Jack Hibberd whose play Three Old Friends launched La Mama in 1967, and the other is Barry Dickins who had more work produced at La Mama than anywhere else.
Their plays viewed by Playbox audiences in the winter of 2001 were Insouciance by Dickins and The Prodigal Son by Hibberd, and they bore remarkable similarities. Both were three-handers, both had ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’ (Freud’s paper Hibberd cites in the dialogue) for a theme, and both featured monstrous women and their male victims within the nuclear family. Daniel Schlusser, who had directed several premiers of plays by Hibberd, also directed The Prodigal Son, while Tom Healey directed Insouciance.
Rather than analysing the artistic means used by the doyens of Australian theatre as a reminder that women are perpetrators of abuse too, an angle possibly assumed in response to feminist literature and so pertaining to gender studies, there is another contention to raise in the context of theatre. It concerns a firmly entrenched view of the hierarchy of Melbourne theatre companies that both Healey and Mellor refer to when reflecting on the Theatre in the Raw and Inside programmes.
‘There was—as there still is—La Mama, which could take people to a certain level and then, if you were a playwright, you would either go onto independent work or to Playbox and from Playbox to MTC and, in the case of people like Joanna Murray-Smith, to television and film. So, we (Playbox Theatre) were an important part of that “food chain”,’ Healey says.
Mellor says pretty much the same thing. He kept an eye on La Mama, because there he would spot the new writers that he could ‘use’. ‘So we were one step up from them,’ he says.
‘If you were a playwright, you would get a Theatre in the Raw event, then you might get a La Mama production and then you would get a Playbox production, and then—like what happened with Joanna Murray-Smith and Michael Gurr and Hannie Rayson—you get a Melbourne Theatre Company production, and you arrive at the state theatre level. So that was the structure that we were very aware of and it gave them (the writers) a career path and something to work their way through and towards.’
While necessary and fruitful to a certain degree, such a hierarchy also allows some remarkable talents to fall by the wayside. For, value has historically been associated with the familiar, especially in an art form that entirely depends on audience patronage. Yet break throughs in art are made by artists who break the rules, and contemporary iconoclasts would arguably have a greater chance of survival in an environment in which La Mama, The Playbox (now The Malthouse) and MTC had the same ranking. An acknowledgment of difference free of ranking would, by extension, raise public awareness of the companies’ respective roles in creating taste often mistaken for value, and fresh, bold ideas would have a greater chance of infiltrating dominant trend(s) and destabilising safe choices. How to avoid championing experimentation for experimentation’s sake that often results in work of little or no intrinsic value is another question.
Three plays Playbox included in the main season of 2001 exemplify the full range of possibilities open to artistic directors. St Kilda Tales by Raimondo Cortese, a co-production with Ranters Theatre, St Kilda, was commissioned by the then Melbourne Festival director Jonathan Mills. The play does not have ‘a conventional plot’, the audience is forewarned in the Writer’s Notes, and ‘[a]s in real life, there are no real beginnings and ends. Things happen sometimes with consequences, sometimes not.’
What Cortese found exciting was ‘the anarchic complexity that underlies everyday existence’ which led to the composition of a play as unstructured as existence itself outside the daily routine. But unlike in life lived, the lack of structure in a play and the mishmash of idioms spoken by St Kilda’s diverse community produced the impression of rambling that went on and on. One issue followed another—parochial Australia, a fractured father-son relationship, obsession with money and much more—simply came up and went. Listening to 81 pages of such dialogue called for a virtuoso director, Adriano Cortese, to make St Kilda Tales intelligible to the audience. ‘[T]he “live” dynamic between actors’ that the writer put much faith into made a dubious contribution to it.
‘The script has been stripped of literary excesses in order to provide a very simple flow of dramatic action,’ R. Cortese wrote.
‘The disordered and anarchic energy of the actor is embraced and welcomed as the essential ingredient of what moves us when we experience theatre.’
Whether anarchy equals a ‘simple flow of dramatic action’ was the question left to the audience to answer.
This Way Up by Elizabeth Coleman, first produced by Playbox Theatre at The CUB Malthouse on 21 November, was written in the style of naturalism, a polar opposite to St Kilda Tales. Coleman’s new play could serve as a textbook example of a superbly crafted work that draws on an age-old theme of inter-personal relationships spiced with romance and contemporary journalism practice, with suspense building into a climax before the happy end. Coleman had Catherine Hill, the dramaturg and play’s director, to thank for reaching if not exceeding the success of Secret Bridesmaid’s Business (1999) and the cast comprising Mandy McElhinney, Luke Elliot, Marian Haddrick, Stewart Morritt and Lynda Gibson did play a large part in it.
Holy Day by Andrew Bovell was, by contrast, a very dark play. It opened a hole in the wall of silence erected in the common belief that ‘what is not spoken will eventually fade,’ to cite a line from the dialogue. And what was to remain enveloped in silence was white Australia’s treatment of its First Nations. Composed in five acts like a Shakespearean or, rather, a Jacobean tragedy, it featured no less cruelty than Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and, while set in mid-19th century, had ‘resonant implications for our present and future position as a nation,’ director Rosalba Clemente wrote, position ‘not only to the truth of the holocaust that occurred in this nation, but to the ongoing hierarchy of abuse and racism we encounter today in so many shapes and forms.’
Holy Day was first produced by the State Theatre Company of South Australia on 21 August 2001, and it opened at the Merlyn Theatre, Playbox less than a month later. It was a ‘fit year’ for the play theme.
Clemente was appointed Artistic Director of the State Theatre Company of South Australia the year before and one of her first steps was to reposition the company as ‘a parent body to innovation and the development of new Australian work’. In the Director’s Note she wrote that she found the money by foregoing an associate director, investing it in three projects: an adaptation of Robert Dessaix’s novel Night Letters by Chris Drummond and Susan Rodgers, Drowning in My Ocean of You by Fiona Spott, and Holy Day by Andrew Bovell.
‘This is how the establishment of the Theatre Laboratory came to be,’ Clemente wrote.
Among the stated goals, one stands out in particular. It points to an attempt to accept risk as an unavoidable aspect of art practice, the view pursued by Playbox too.
‘On a company level we aim to bring these new works to full production level, extending our commitment, stretching the margins between low-risk and high-risk artistic endeavour.’
In its developmental stage, Holy Day was workshopped at the Australian National Playwright’s Centre and indigenous consultants were brought in. It comes as no surprise, then, that on the opening night in The Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, indigenous actors Rachael Maza and Melodie Reynolds played indigenous roles. Both were tragic heroes. Kerry Walker, for whom Patrick White had written several roles, played Nora, a white woman left to her own devices in her fight for survival, who expects absolute obedience from a stolen aboriginal girl. Mandy McElhinney played a complex role of a missionary’s wife forced to admit the indigenous people’s indifference to her faith and moving on after losing everything, even her baby. Dino Marnika was the murderer/abuser and Cameron Goodall the mutilated/abused youth, while Peter Docker and Frank Gallagher played more level-headed white men, one unable to prevent the massacre and the other unwilling to get involved. The designer was Cath Cantlon, Mark Shelton renowned for his work in theatres across Australia did lighting design, and Bernie Lynch, who was the song writer and producer for Eurogliders, composed the soundtrack for Holy Day.
But the play which forever remains close to Mellor’s heart is Nowhere by Dorothy Hewett. And for a good reason. For, were it not for Mellor, Hewett would never have written it. The story she often told is recorded in Notes from the Playwright, in the Playbox and Currency Press edition of the play:
‘Two years before I had vowed to an audience of three hundred at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival that I would never write another play again, but then Aubrey was on the phone reminding me that Playbox was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and would I write a play for it. I was ill and in pain and unable to write, but afterwards guilt and pride took over and I rang back: “I can’t promise anything, but I’ll give it a go,” I said.
That night I picked up a notebook and biro and began Nowhere. It took me three days and nights to finish the first draft.’
Hewett had not written a new play since The Jarrabin Trilogy (1995). Despite being a commission from MTC and Black Swan Theatre, it was never produced. What is more, she received no feedback whatsoever, she said in an interview with the author of these lines back in March 2000.
‘Dorothy (Hewett) was of course ahead of her time, she really belonged to the later wave of more complexities,’ Mellor says.
‘I had a long history with Dorothy, and I was aware that her big plays weren’t being performed. People say, “stop doing certain playwrights” after a while. They are not a novelty anymore.’
‘I was also aware that she had big visions and she always wrote for large casts. So I said to her, “if ever you can think of a small cast play, I’ll do it”.’
With that proviso in mind, Hewett composed a play for five actors, assigning two parts to one of them. The role of an 80-year-old pensioner Josh, ‘once a Communist, [who] jumped rattlers all over the country in the Depression’ she wrote specifically for Peter Cummins, a septuagenarian like her with whom she shared ‘political views, historical time and theatre influences’. And she managed to ‘entice’ Cummins from retirement.
Mellor says it was he who suggested that a ‘homeless girl’ who runs away from Bull, a skinhead and drug dealer, be profiled as Aboriginal. Hewett called her Vonnie and the role was assigned to Leah Purcell whose background was indeed Aboriginal.
‘We went to the Varuna Writers’ Centre at Katoomba arranged by Jill (Smith); all the actors stayed there,’ Mellor says.
‘I got them all from three different states because I wanted the premiere to feel a bit national, rather than just Melbourne.’
‘We stayed there two or three nights with the wonderful Louise Gough as dramaturg, and we went to Dorothy’s house, and we rehearsed the play in her big living room and Dorothy lay on a Chesterfield taking notes.’
Nowhere is set on the edge of a showground in a small town once called The Torrent, but after the completion of the Snowy River Scheme the river it was named for turned into a trickle and the town became Dry Torrent. Josh lives in a ‘flimsy shack’, while a Vietnam veteran reliving the horrors of war in his dreams uses an old Holden for a home. Into their lives walks Vonnie, her feet in blisters from running away from her abuser in the big city. She is going nowhere and that statement, going nowhere, becomes a refrain that keeps recurring until the end.
‘With Dorothy Hewett’s Nowhere, the idea of putting a Vietnamese veteran on stage and the audience actually sitting there and watching it without fleeing, was another big step forward,’ Mellor says.
The first step was made with Burning Time, Nicholas Flanagan’s play Mellor directed in 1996. In Nowhere, the memories, public protests and personal traumas the Veterans lived with, not infrequently ending up homeless, was a much more confronting experience to watch.
The opening night on 17 October 2001 was a big event. Nowhere was included in the Melbourne Festival programme and Hewett was brought down for the occasion, which was a no-mean-feat given her reduced mobility. But with the support of her husband of forty years, Merv Lilley, she made it and Mellor arranged for the first row of seats in the Beckett to be taken out and a chaise lounge be placed there for Hewett to be able to recline during the performance. The chaise lounge was red velvet.
‘She sat in the front row, on red velvet as a princess, which is how I wanted to treat her,’ Mellor says.
‘They treated me like a Queen of Sheba’, Hewett used to say later.
This was not only because she was a preeminent playwright and a brave soldier of the Australian avant-garde. Hoopla Productions, as the company was called before becoming Playbox Theatre, opened with Alma de Groen’s play Chidley followed by Hewett’s The Golden Oldies on 19 January 1977. It too had ‘the quality of a dream’, Graham Blundell who directed The Golden Oldies wrote in an essay published by Currency Press, as an introduction to the playtext. Together with John Romeril and David Williamson, Hewett was also the patron of Playbox at The CUB Malthouse for more than a decade.
In her late years, Hewett could only observe the world from her house, confined to her bed and her chaise lounge by arthritis in her lower spine. And yet engaging with the world was a must for her. The three main protagonists in Nowhere were representative of three generations, allowing Hewett to take a historical perspective on past events, political visions and the unrealised potential of Australia. Memory was also a bond shared with Aboriginal cultures, with the dreaming. Part of the dream of Australia that belonged to its entire population was also Mrs Mac (played by Jan Friedl), the social worker who came onto the scene in Act Two in the company of the Sargeant (played by Damien Richardson doubling as Bull). It drew a terse comment.
JOSH: Always been a country of lags and screws.
Music and poetry played a large part in the stream of memory as in most of Hewett’s plays. She was a poet, after all, and the once popular song ‘The Rustle of Spring’, played on an old ‘player pianner’ Vonnie had dragged from a rundown School of Arts, fed into nostalgia that permeated most of the play. It was nostalgia for the times when people believed in the power of art to help change the world.
JOSH: School o’ Arts. They was all over Australia once, built to educate the workers. We ‘ad political discussions, music, plays, poetry readings and lectures. They did a bloody good job. Made us less like a country of ‘illbillies.
While Josh, Snow and Vonnie sing ‘The Rustle of Spring’ several times in the play, it is not on the note of nostalgia that it closes with. Rather, the metaphorical nowhere turns into a promise and Josh alone stays put, forecasting triumphantly: ‘The floods are comin’.
JOSH: What did I tell youse? She’s comin’! The Torrent’s comin’! She is comin’ to sweep us all away, sweeten the waters and green the land agen.
As Josh sings ‘I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night’, the song about the death of a labour activist who ‘Goes on to organise’, the sound of church bells mingles with the sound of rain and the river in a closure characteristic of fertility myth that follows the exemplary pattern of cyclical regeneration/renewal of nature and of humankind. Echoed in the closure is also Nietzsche who maintained that the humans must go ‘under’ (or down like the sun), that is, they must abandon old systems of value for the ‘Overhuman’ to emerge. Hewett’s final direction in her manuscript reads:
Blackout, only the sound of the rain and the river. Then very softly “The Rite of Spring” and the sound of church bells play faintly, as if under water.’
The sound of Stravinsky’s famous work which celebrates the renewal of nature, while rejecting the law of harmony that ruled supreme in music and art in general, accompanied by church bells is the moment in which the fortune of Dry Torrent turns. For, floods peak and recede, leaving the fertile soil behind. It follows that Hewett wanted the eponymous small town (also the setting of The Man from Mukinupin and The Jarrabin Trilogy) to have a future.
And yet, in the printed version of the playtext the music with which the play closes is ‘The Rustle of Spring’. Small town is bogged down in nostalgia and so in the past!
Whether this misinterpretation of Hewett’s intention warrants a new edition of Nowhere is an open question.
Playbox and Currency Press have co-published a huge number of Australian plays. The deal was clinched by Jill Smith, Mellor says.
‘Carrillo published a few plays with staples in them, rather like Yackandandah Press, but Jill and I wanted Currency quality with quality binding.’
The ‘deal’ was an extension to the Current Theatre Series that had begun with Patrick White’s Signal Driver produced in 1983 by the South Australian Theatre Company under the directorship of Jim Sharman, Katharine Brisbane recalls. Despite being a Nobel Laureate, White was still considered as a risk and the publication of his new play ‘unlikely to cover its costs’.
‘We had been seeking a way round this problem and came up with the idea of supplying the text as the theatre programme and charging the theatre company for a basic thousand programmes,’ Brisbane writes in an email.
‘In this way we covered the first printing cost of the programme and gained publishing rights for the future.’
But there was a catch: the playwrights would hand over their text while still in a draft form, that is, before it went into production.
‘So, while we were editing and formatting for the printer, the writer, director and actors were making changes for the stage. Thus the published version was not the final one, nor was the second likely to be, or even the third,’ Brisbane says.
‘The changes were not large, but they were important and inconvenient, especially when it came to school study (which was well entrenched in our system by 1983). We tried to avoid trouble by leaving the second edition as long as possible.’
‘Another drawback was that publishing rights to the plays were not always available to us, so we quickly confined the territory to Australian works that were available.’
St Kilda Tales by Raimondo Cortese and Your Dreaming by Guy Rundle were not among the available.
‘In my time the scheme was useful to us in that audiences gained familiarity with the reading of playscripts, but it did not have a major impact on the cashflow,’ Brisbane says.
Brisbane retired from Currency Press on her 70th birthday in early 2002 and Nick Parsons took over as Chair. While he was too young to be involved in the creation of the CTS, Parsons’ memory is that ‘the inspiration came from a similar series that Methuen did in the UK. We simply copied the idea,’ he says in an email.
More details emerge thus creating a full picture.
‘It was possible because we were able to receive the manuscript six weeks before opening night, make amendments up to two weeks before, and still deliver the books to the theatre by opening night—which at the time was quite a feat when most publishers took six months or more to bring out a book,’ he says.
‘We were aware that new writers deserved to get their work in print, but it was hard to justify the publication costs unless a title had already had several productions and perhaps stood a chance of making it onto the HSC curriculum. But the CTS model was different.’
‘We could do what was then a short run—2000 copies—and half of those would be taken on firm sale by the theatre company for sale in their foyer. The other half we would sell through normal outlets. The firm sale to the theatre meant that the book broke even regardless of other sales, so essentially we could publish as many as we could manage in a year without affecting our profit and loss. These days with print-on-demand the runs can be shorter, but the idea is still the same.’
Parsons admits that the main issue in the early days was getting the plays to the theatre on time and without major errors. ‘These days our margin for error has increased a lot, as plays can be printed and delivered within 24 hours,’ he says.
New technology has had small effect on one editorial policy, though. If a CTS title goes into reprint, a standard edition is often brought out, as was done for instance for Leah Purcell’s The Drover’s Wife.’ Recall, Purcell played Vonni in Hewett’s Nowhere.
‘The CTS remains a key strategy for discovering and encouraging new writers and new writing,’ Parsons says.
‘As far as Playbox goes specifically—their policy of producing only Australian work sets them apart, with Griffin in Sydney—as a key partner for us in supporting Australian playwrights.’
‘They did the hard work of developing these plays, honing them into texts that could be performed again and again. Our role was to fix that work in the public imagination as it were, make it available over time, so that its life and therefore its impact on our culture could be preserved and extended.’
The Current Theatre Series was not restricted to Playbox, however. ‘We have done editions for Griffin, STC, Belvoir, MTC and a few other companies,’ Parsons says.
He winds up with a tribute to Mellor.
‘Aubrey has made a unique contribution to Australian theatre, from his early work for NIDA as a young graduate to his numerous productions for Playbox and other companies, and later as Director of NIDA. He is a brilliant director, and we owe him a great deal.’
Katharine Brisbane says that Currency Press ‘never thought of the CTS publishing programme as being international’. Jill Smith and Aubrey Mellor saw the potential. When Oskar Eustis was shown all the published plays Playbox kept in its collection, he said he had no idea there was ‘all this Australian literature’ available in print.
‘So from that moment Jill and I began consciously to push Australian plays overseas,’ Mellor says.
‘And then, we could send those scripts off to major libraries in the world, so we spent a lot of money doing just that to help promote us. Some of the embassies also had huge and wonderful Australian collections, all Playbox and Currency Press publications.’
‘We promoted all Australian plays, not just those produced by Playbox,’ Mellor says emphatically.
‘There is now a fund at the Australia Council thanks to all our work and we did get Australian plays produced overseas.’
Stolen by Jane Harrison and Nightfall by Joanna Murray-Smith were among the most frequently performed internationally. The two plays opened within days of each other in Tokyo, in December 2002. Nightfall was getting its second production in Japan’s capital and Mellor thinks ‘it is still the most translated Australian play’. Stolen was Playbox’s second production at Tokyo International Festival.
‘It was an extremely important trip in terms of our relations with Japan. A double event in Tokyo for any international company is unheard of,’ he says.
‘Honour was having its second production in the same year (much commented upon in Japanese media)—this time by Bungakuza, the oldest and largest contemporary theatre company in Japan.’
‘And Stolen was given a prestigious position in Tokyo International Festival; it was Playbox’s second Tokyo Festival production.’
The first one was Romeril’s The Floating World in 1995.
All four plays were translated by Keiji Sawada as were Romeril’s Miss Tanaka, Keene’s Silent Partner, Nowra’s Radiance, Williamson’s The Removalists and many more. Dr Sawada obtained his PhD Degree from Macquarie University, Sydney and is Professor of Australian Studies and Theatre Studies at Waseda University, Tokyo.
Jill Smith recalls an event she witnessed during the London tour of Stolen. The then Prime Minister John Howard was there with State Premiers and some Federal Ministers for ‘some Australian anniversary’ and there was a function at Australia House. Outside, the protesters with ‘Say Sorry Howard’ banners were making their presence felt.
‘I was handing out flyers to the protesters and then went to the reception,’ Smith says.
‘Steve and Terry Bracks and Federal Minister Peter McGauran came to see the show in London and were very teary at the end.’
‘As a result of this sold-out season, they (the ensemble) went back for a regional UK tour.’
Stolen had another return season at Playbox in 2002, but it was not the only play to shed light on indigenous people’s experience. Six more plays were performed at the beginning of the season and all six were published by Currency Press in a collection titled Blak Inside.
To be continued
1. Roland Barthes, Mythologies (Translated by Annette Lavers), Hill and Wang, New York,  1995
2. For more, see Peter Lasko, The Expressionist Roots of Modernism, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2003
3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Translation by Graham Parkes), Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York,  2005, p.13
4. Peter U. Beicken and Victoria Finney, ‘Rilke’s Russian Encounter and the Transformative Impact on the Poet’, University Libraries: Drum, digital repository at the University of Maryland. https://drum.lib.umd.edu/handle/1903/15682?show=full Accessed on 23 August 2021
5. Bradley Byquar played Kazuhiko (Mr Tanaka’s son whose late mother was Aboriginal) and Miss Kitso, Tam Phan was Mr Tanaka (a prematurely aged and crippled diver), Jeremy Stanford was Mott (the owner of a pearlshell company), Tony Yap was Hanif (a diver) and Yumi Umimare was Sakamoto (another diver). The puppeteers were Megan Cameron and Heather Monk.
The plays Aubrey Mellor programmed after accepting the position of artistic director at the Playbox Theatre Centre of Monash University may seem to reflect his view of theatre. It turns out this is not entirely the case. “My view on theatre? It’s an interesting question because it’s what I do with my life really,” he says.
The choices available and the choices desired can, however, be quite dissimilar. This is especially true of life in theatre, an art platform so heavily dependent on audience patronage. The mainstream culture creates strong expectations and expectations impose barriers.
“I can’t really achieve what is in my head, particularly in the way theatre is today,” Mellor says. “It is dominated by naturalism, which is a big problem. Naturalistic theatre does not work unless you can really see the actor’s eyes, the actual facial expression.”
“That is why the 300-seat theatres dominate today and you cannot make any money out of a 300-seat theatre, as we found out at Nimrod. Nor can you have large casts, which is another real problem.
“Now, this is something that Europe and Asia never bothered about, but it (naturalism) does afflict the western theatre as we know it. Most of Australian, British and American writings is dominated by naturalism. Given that, you can’t really do the strange and wonderful things that theatre history has proven to be ‘correct’.”
To explain what he means Mellor goes to Shakespeare, citing the Chorus in the prologue to Henry V:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
A summary takes him to the point. “The chorus is about how on earth can we show the battle of Agincourt on this little wooden stage. Shakespeare’s great direction to us all (is):”
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hooves i’ th’ receiving earth;
For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there, jumping o’er times,
Turning th’ accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass;
Most theatre makers “ignore it”, but this principle “is what guides me totally,” Mellor says. “The act of imagination from the audience inputting into the event is what theatre is really about.”
For Mellor, the big problem with contemporary theatre is that playwrights all too often write under the influence of moving pictures.
“There is the big argument between film and theatre which few people understand: film shows you everything; you imagine nothing. You are shown all the historical detail, then have all the sets ready.”
Watching plays composed in the style of naturalism is “in a funny way like watching films all the time,” he says.
Mellor is not alone in his belief that watching naturalistic cinema is bad for the imagination. Constant insistence on the clarity of meaning has produced, in some corners of the western world including Australia, an expectation of unambiguity, forbidding ambivalence or abstraction in any form and to any degree. With freedom of expressing the ineffable denied, the impulse to imagine is thwarted too. There is, however, a solution.
“What is really best for your imagination is to read,” he says. “When you read something, you have to imagine everything. (That is why) reading a play is for most people rather difficult.”
They are conditioned to use the logic of reason alone when watching a theatre performance.
“With most modern theatre, the audience doesn’t have to imagine much,” Mellor says emphasizing how little he needs, as director, to do “the wonderful things” theatre permits:
“My big thing is the bare boards, which Peter Brook wrote about, but failed to do much about when making theatre himself.”
This is, of course, a reference to The Empty Space, Brook’s 1968 book in which he famously identified four modes of performance: Deadly; Holy; Rough; and Immediate, with the aim of motivating theatre makers to rethink their values.
Mellor is of the view that Brook’s own productions lacked an important dimension. “He did fill the stage with some interesting acteurs and action, but he didn’t really use the language very well at all in his productions,” he says.
“So, the bare stage with just lighting effects, rather than big sets—you can even get rid of your workshop just by good lighting equipment—and the language in a script that evokes everything, that is my ideal.”
“Now, you can’t do that unless you’ve got the plays, and you can’t do that unless you’ve got a theatre company. I couldn’t do that at Playbox, most of all Playbox.
“I might have been able to do it if I’d founded my own theatre company and followed that philosophy, which I possibly would have done had I not been attracted to Playbox. At Playbox, what I wanted to do was to serve Australian playwrighting which was in crisis.”
For the opening of the 1996 Playbox season, Mellor selected a play by Graham Pitts, co-founder of Sidetrack Theatre in Sydney, who had written extensively for theatre, radio, film and magazines and was living in Melbourne. Emma was a migrant story of a feel-good kind and a proven success. It was first produced in 1991 by Deckchair Theatre at Old Customs House, Fremantle, and had at its centre a migrant Italian woman whose memories of love and inexperience and the adversities that followed—all recounted without a trace of bitterness—were peppered with song. Widely popular in the region of Emma’s origin, they were sung “live by the choir of volunteer women trained ahead of time by Kavisha Mazzella to sing in both English and Italian,” Mellor recalls. In the Playbox production, the play was billed as Emma, Celebrazione!.
“Emma is essentially biographical and based upon a book,” Mellor says. “It’s a true story of a real woman and it is cheap to produce—four actors can play all the roles—and it has food. I always say, you are in big danger if you separate theatre from food and drink.” As I laugh approvingly, he continues.
“We got a lot of income from our café and bar; a lot of income came from the bar in Nimrod. There’s a lot of money there and always has been and always should be.”
“If you look at people like Ariane Mnouchkine in Paris—I think she is the greatest woman director alive, if not the greatest director (of all time)—she ordered the food from the country of the play that she was producing as well as other things.”
“We did something similar,” Mellor says, recalling Laura Lattuada, who played Emma, cook spaghetti on stage and talk to the audience, giving them a recipe not only for spaghetti but for stuffed eggplant as well.
“So I said, how about if we feed the audience the same food at the interval that she has just cooked?”
It took a lot of work to arrange, but a sense of inclusion in the performance gave “enormous, wonderful value to the audience; they loved it,” Mellor says. “To watch Emma do the recipe and then go in the interval and eat the spaghetti, with a little coupon attached to your ticket, was a wonderful event.”
The director of Emma, Celebrazione! was also a woman—Rosalba Clemente, who knew all about Italian culture, Italian canzone and Italian food.
Despite its entertainment value, opening the season with a play that celebrates migrant experience was a calculated risk.
“The thing about migrant stories is that they are very popular for a while, but they are all the same, really,” Mellor says. “No matter what country you come from, you have the same problems when you come to Australia, and we had many of them so we could make a study of the migrant plays.”
What tipped the scales in favour of Emma, apart from being the work of a Melbourne writer, was that it viewed life from a female perspective.
“As an artistic director, you must remember that it is women who buy the tickets. They sit down and work out the subscription, not men.”
Mellor illustrates his point with an anecdote.
“The man comes home from work and the wife says, ‘Oh, we are going to the theatre tonight,’ and he says, ‘Are we, darling? Oh, good. What are we going to see?’ And if the wife says, ‘Oh, we are going to see The Darkness at Noon, then the husband’s going to say, ‘No, we are not, are we? Oh, God, I can’t bear it.’ But if she says, ‘Oh, we’re going to see Emma, Celebrazione! and there’s singing in it too, the man will say, ‘Fine, great!’”
“So how to get men to the theatre is often tightly bound up with the problem of getting women to the theatre.”
“If you study the subscription brochures, you’ll see that they are all aimed at women. I never expected men to subscribe and so few ever did under their own name, and that’s an interesting by-product.”
While written and directed by a woman, Jenny Kemp’s play The Black Sequin Dress could not have been more different in style. Commissioned by Adelaide Festival, it premiered at the Festival before opening in the larger of the two Playbox theatres, The Merlyn, ten days after the closing performance of Emma, Celebrazione! It was an explorative work for all those involved in the creative process.
The play takes place in the interface between inner and outer realities, between a woman’s internal world and the external world where actuality, fantasy, memory, dream and myth intersect.
“I was looking to explore non-naturalistic plays and you don’t get them often,” Mellor says.
“Jenny Kemp was a Melbourne director who had developed her own writing style, which is what I was interested in.”
The daughter of painter Roger Kemp, who did away with figurative representation finding his anchor in abstraction, Jenny Kemp went a step further. She gave visibility to the invisible. Raised from the darkness of the unconscious, the invisible intervenes in physical reality, structuring the train of thought and its manifestation—language into fragmentary utterances. Lacan calls it the “discourse of the Other”. Jenny Kemp, however, draws on James Hillman who maintains that “we gain breadth of soul and wider horizons through vertical descent, through the inwardness of the image.” A longer excerpt from Hillman’s book Falling Apart/Re-Visioning Psychology is cited in both the seasonal brochure and the Currency Press and Playbox edition of the play.
“Black Sequin Dress is an investigation into the psyche and its ability to function creatively,” Jenny Kemp says in the writer/director’s notes. Her method evolved from the writing exercises of Cuban American playwright Maria Irene Fornes, conducted in Melbourne in the early 1990s.
“For me, the workshop (with Fornes) was deeply catalytic,” Kemp says in an email.
“It was essentially a generative workshop, rather than a 'How to write/edit a play workshop’. Since then, for over 40 years I have been giving writing workshops—inspired by her method—all over Australia.”1
Kemp’s association with leading theatre groups in Victoria and New South Wales began with the Australian Performing Group and continued at Anthill Theatre, Gasworks, Belvoir Street Theatre and many more companies, in search of fresh perspectives on life and the methods of conveying them.
The entire creative team as well as the actors “key to the development of The Black Sequin Dress, especially the form,” she says, were open to exploration.
The qualities Kemp sought in the actor were intuition, openness and kinaesthetic awareness.
“They (actors) need to be prepared to move outside familiar approaches, that is, to be both fearless and vulnerable,” she says.
In The Black Sequin Dress was Margaret Mills and Natasha Herbert, who went on to perform in most of Kemp’s works. Mark Minchinton, Ruth Schoenheimer and Ian Scott were also in several of her key works. And composer Elizabeth Drake, the late designer Jacqueline Everitt and choreographer Helen Herbertson all worked with Kemp on many Black Sequin productions.
Each of the collaborating artists worked together, both autonomously and collaboratively, inspiring and challenging each other to explore new territory, but the verbal text the actors worked with was pre-written rather than improvised. If the sound track had already been completed, the composer Elizabeth Drake would adjust the length of the track itself. Other signs of the collaborative process included the mis-en-scène and Jacqueline Everitt’s design concept. Both were inspired by the paintings of the Belgian artist Paul Delvaux whom Kemp admired.
“She (Kemp) is a very good visual artist, so it looked fantastic,” Mellor says. “It was visually engaging, and she always chooses wonderful artists as collaborators.”
Gary’s House by Debra Oswald programmed next had a strong visual quality as well, but its dramatic composition unfolded in the tradition of poetic realism. It was a story. The house built single-handedly by a man desperate to start a family was the central symbol of hope, enveloped in painful memory and dream of salvation. The house rose in the bush like a Phoenix and it did fulfil its purpose in the end, but for somebody else. In the direction of Kim Durban, founding member of the Australian Women Directors Association, the play’s poetic resonance had a far-reaching effect, true to Oswald’s writing.
Gary’s House was co-produced with Q Theatre, Penrith, and was in every way flawless. Beautifully written, skilfully structured and with no punctuation mistakes in the playtext, it was the work of an experienced dramatist, unlike Burning Time, Nicholas Flanagan’s first play that Aubrey Mellor took upon himself to direct.
“Nick was one of my students at NIDA, a brilliant boy,” Mellor says.
“I remember what a great pianist he was. He was always practicing the piano when he should have been practicing his acting.”
When years later Flanagan approached him with an idea for a play, Mellor was taken aback by its subject matter.
“Now paedophilia is such a well-known theme, but in those days, you didn’t dare talk about it,” he says.
“Nick’s play showed some things that were indeed quite shocking and caused the lasting damage, I suppose, and I thought the subject was the most important thing about it.”
The question of relevancy diverts Mellor’s stream of thought to the related issues.
“There are several subjects that are difficult to talk about on stage. The audience won’t buy tickets to them.”
“For many years, of course, they wouldn’t buy anything to do with the Vietnam war. We were so ashamed of the Vietnam war, we wouldn’t go near it.”
“I mean, David Williamson wrote one, Third World Blues, and people stayed away in droves.”
Among the taboo themes were also incest and suicide. The latter draws a personal response.
“I wouldn’t let young people come to see a suicide play,” Mellor says.
“Often, if you’re an unhappy teenager, it’s a very attractive option and it’s a bit contagious. The more people suicide around you, the more people suicide. It’s a big one and the numbers are still kept a bit secret.”
“No one talks about that for a very good reason,” Mellor contends before summing up:
“These areas were very touchy, and you had to approach incest, paedophilia, suicide and the Vietnam war very carefully, as a programmer, because you were in danger of nothing selling at all.”
With Burning Time, Playbox Theatre Centre removed some of the stigma, liberating people to talk about taboo subjects like paedophilia and Vietnam. “We noticed that people would actually discuss in the foyer these themes that were previously forbidden,” Mellor says.
And yet, Mellor is of the impression that the audience “did not respond to Nick’s play”. Nor did the critics.
Helen Thomson wrote one of the more balanced reviews in the Age, noting in the opening that “Burning Time was a collaborative production by Melbourne’s Playbox and Perth’s Black Swan Theatre.” In introducing Flanagan as a writer “better known” in Western Australia, she puts emphasis on his “directing particularly with the Aboriginal Training Program, a division of the Western Australian Academy for the Performing Arts”.
Much of the review is devoted to retelling the story of a self-interest driven complicity in child abuse.
“At the centre of this family is a shocking secret. Flanagan convincingly charts the family’s decay as the result of a squalid ‘bargain’ with a paedophile friend who is given the youngest male child in return for financial help.”
Thomson notes in passing that the boy’s “psychiatrist father, a likeable character, is haunted by the Vietnam War”, with a reminder that both topics had by 1996 gained prominence in the media. “You will recognize these issues, of course, because they are all widely canvassed in newspaper and magazines.”
Thomson, however, finds it “frustrating to discern a play and a playwright of real promise beneath the flaws of Burning Time.”
A companion piece written by Greg Burchall and based on an interview with Mellor shows that the Age recognized the play’s relevance. It informs the reader: “Two years, seven drafts and five weeks of rehearsal later, Flanagan’s Burning Time has its premiere.”
Mellor is quoted as saying: “It’s better that it (the play) fails along the lines of the playwright’s intention than fails because of the director doing his thing with it—or succeeds because the director patched it up—at least the writer will learn something from it.”
Twenty-five years on, Mellor argues: “It’s quite interesting about new work. I maintain, if it’s the world premiere, you’ve got to be kind to it, you’ve got to look for its possibilities and you’ve got to say what could happen with it, and if you know something please try to get certain ideas for the forward direction that the next draft might go in.”
Burning Time was, however, no more a draft. It was a showcased work and as such considered a finished “product”. The issue raised by Mellor invites further discussion but not here and now, as the aim of this article is to document rather than critique posited ideas. It can only bring up questions for the theatre community to ponder.
Mellor feels so strongly about the issue that he reiterates: “I think flawed work needs a lot of kindness, but you can’t find a theatre critic who will be kind to a flawed work. And that’s a big subject, isn’t it? Burning Time deserves another production.”
If Underwear, Perfume & Crash Helmet premiered by Playbox in 1994 was “not one of Michael Gurr’s best plays” either, as Mellor said reflecting on the first season he had programmed for the company, Jerusalem premiered in 1996 was a gem. It was again contemporary, it threw some awkward questions to the audience on the role of politics and religion in shaping social consciousness—especially the notion of Good Samaritan and personal ethics—and it invited the audience to consider the answers in the context of a new Jerusalem. Rather than being prescriptive, it was metaphoric, subtle and thought provoking. Bruce Myles subsequently won the Green Room Award for Best Ensemble.
Three more plays were first produced by the Playbox Theatre Centre at The CUB Malthouse in the 1996 season. Strangers in the Night by Abe Pogos, playwright whose drama Intruders “received an AWGIE nomination in 1991”, bore all the hallmarks of a psychological thriller. While evocative of Frank Sinatra’s famous song, Pogos’ play was anything but a memory of “unexpected romance”, as Aarne Neeme warned in the Director’s Note. Rather, it questioned the possibility of being a mere observer of life by three test cases: one’s Jewish family history inextricably bound up with the Holocaust, violence in times of peace, and temptations of pornography. Strangers in the Night exposed the limits of self-control leaving, even in print, the reader with a sick feeling in her stomach.
The Mourning After by Verity Laughton drew the audience into a completely different world, the mental space of an actress. It was distinctly a woman’s story of career sacrifice made for love and family. At the same time, it was the story of eventual liberation from the constraints of patriarchy.
This was the last show Robert Taylor worked on for Playbox as a lighting designer.
Despite having already taken up the position of General Manager at The National Theatre in St Kilda, Melbourne, Taylor could not turn down the invitation to design the lighting for a monodrama that uncovered the inner struggle of a retired actress torn between her desire to return to the stage and her loyalty to her late husband resentful of her talent. Remember, Taylor was the lighting designer for Deidre Rubinstein’s one woman show What’s a Girl to Do? that had received accolades from critics and audiences alike at the Edinburgh Fringe the year before.
A flood of memories pours out at the mention of The Mourning After.
“Belle Doyle was not a real character, but it (the play) was set in a real period,” Taylor says.
“Being something of an amateur historian I researched the play’s historical points and references to Belle’s private life to create a timeline because initially some dates/events didn’t quite work. Verity (Laughton) thanked me, and my opening night card reads, ‘I hope you realise that you have now gone into theatre history as the first lighting designer to provide a playwright with a clear chronology of the events in her play!’”
“That said, I think there were echoes of several wonderful Australian performers in Belle—including Jill Perryman, Toni Lamond and Nancye Hayes herself. The difference being that these women have never really stopped working. I’ve been lucky enough to work with them all.”
Laughton called Nancye Hayes, who played Belle, “a dream come true”.
For the theatre of life played out in Belle’s mind to have its full effect the lighting was key.
“The Mourning After is a memory play and on the face of it could be easy to light—it’s a woman sitting on a beach talking,” Taylor says.
“However, there are mood shifts, moments of refection, pauses and contemplation that the director (Tony Sheldon) and I wanted to reinforce. We did this by using shifts of light by passing clouds and changes in the actual reflections from the sea. We hoped this would reinforce her (Belle’s) final decision and the change to very theatrical lighting as she returned to the stage.”
The play theme and its setting familiar to musical theatre and soap opera afficionados made The Mourning After an ideal choice for a tour. It was performed in sixteen regional centres in Victoria and three venues interstate: Glen Street Theatre in Frenchs Forest, NSW; The Space in Adelaide, SA; and Theatre Royal in Hobart, Tas.
“I checked in on the tour a couple of times and my one note to the touring technician was to pull the focus in to Belle and lose any extraneous lighting outside of her area of perception,” Taylor says.
“Funny story. I was at the final performance in 1997 in Wonthaggi after a very extensive tour. There was nothing planned after the showing and very little open in Wonthaggi late at night, so the cast party was Nancye, me, Peter Hannah, Tanya Bennett and Baird McKenna—several pizzas and wine—at Wonthaggi Motel. Possibly the best cast party ever!!”
The 1996 season at The CUB Malthouse closed with a new play from a woman writer, by that stage a household name at Playbox.
“Competitive Tenderness was an unusual Hannie Rayson play,” Mellor says.
“Hannie wanted to write a comedy, she wanted to write a farce, and you need a lot of practice to write a farce.”
For Mellor, “it wasn’t Hannie’s best play” and it is easy to tell why. Competitive Tenderness satirizes the work of local councils, both the old and the new practices designed according to the business model that calls for privatisation and outsourcing of services. While the targets of satire are chosen judiciously, the plot needs tightening and its naturalistic treatment brings about a familiar set of problems.
“They (playwrights) want to jump from a bedroom to a reception area to a boardroom and so on. How do you do this?” Mellor asks, returning to the question of bare boards and the imagination.
“If you look at settings, it’s all designed, you’ve got decoration everywhere.”
“There is a big difference between getting an interesting metaphor on stage and a lot of decoration. Now, most of Australian set designers are actually decorators. They decorate the set as we always have, you know. And that’s been the British tradition, too.”
“I know, in (continental) Europe they don’t do so much of that and it’s more bare boards, and I am a great lover of Brecht (among the moderns) because of it.”
All of the above points to one conclusion: there was a play for everyone to enjoy that season. Diversity continued to be Mellor’s guiding principle of programming and yet some common threads also began to show. Waking Eve by Robert Hewett, for example, was a memory play like Emma, Celebrazione!—with the return season of which the 1997 season was launched. Like Competitive Tenderness, it was a farce. Fast paced, laced with humour and every other trick of the trade including the mistaken identity type of situations, it held a promise of fabulous entertainment. At the same time, it was a clever study of human psychology that peeled off layers of experience of a woman unsuspecting of her husband’s infidelity and then naively believing that he has reformed all until he dies of a heart attack—at another address and “on the job”.
All those moments before and after his death played out in Eve’s memory, but they felt real because they were real. They mirrored the experience of just about every woman—and every man for that matter—who finds her/himself single at a certain age. It was a witty, funny and utterly delightful play.
Robert Hewett had learnt his craft at Flinders University where Wal Cherry was the Foundation Chair of Drama, and by 1997 had impressive credits under his belt. His play Gulls received the Green Room Award for Best Play and was watched by audiences throughout Australia, it toured South Africa for three years and was produced in Great Britain, New Zealand, United States, Singapore, Malta, Canada and Shri Lanka. More success was to follow, and the Australian Plays Transform website lists a select few.
Alana Valentine’s play The Conjurers also delved into the turbulent waters of memory, but it was fun to watch for a completely different reason. It transported the audience into the world of magic recalling Mellor’s story of watching his father do a magic act from behind the stage when he was a child. Valentine’s magic acts were also performed live, but they served as a metaphor rather than as pure entertainment. They were a device for lifting the burden of the past and relieving the psyche of haunting memories. The key for deciphering the underlying meaning of magic was provided, however, only in the denouement of Valentine’s play.
To ensure that the conjurer’s acts performed live worked in 1997 as they did in Mellor’s childhood, the director Kim Durban had on her team Ross Skiffington, Magic Consultant “recognised as Australia’s finest illusionist” and Gordon Arney, Illusion Technician. Skiffington had himself used in his work “music, dance and characterisation that places magic and illusion into performances of a highly theatrical nature,” while Arney came with seventeen years of experience of building the sets, props and illusions for The Ross Skiffington Grand Magic Company and a string of commissions from Barry Humphries, Robyn Archer and all Australian television stations for special events. On 30 April 1997, the night of the premiere of The Conjurers at Playbox, it was already public knowledge that he would be a design consultant for opening night celebrations for the then forthcoming 1997 Melbourne International Arts Festival.
The onus of performance success rested above all on the actors, of course. Three of them doubled as ghosts haunting the present. Maya Stange who played the young apprentice Gala and Margaret Mills who was the skilful magician both doubled as Hannah, a young mother on a ship which sank after hitting the Twelve Apostles rocks, an actual landmark on Australia’s southern coast. The Sea Captain, an authority figure played by David Wicks doubled as Jay, Beth’s old heart throb and a catalyst for bringing her own repressed emotions into the conscious mind.
“Maya Stange’s Gala is a delicate sprite, and there is an otherworldliness about her that suits the role well. She is the perfect foil for Margaret Mills, who plays Beth as strong, sexy, brittle and independent. The dawning of her love for Gala, and the pain of her past loss, are touchingly conveyed,” Dina Ross wrote in the Herald Sun.
Smooth transitions from reality to fantasy and back were facilitated by Hugh Colman’s design concept. Colman had worked for Playbox before and his sets for the Australian Ballet’s Sleeping Beauty had been seen at Covent Garden, in China and Japan. In The Conjurers, those transitions were all the more important given that the real took place in the present moment in time (of the play) and fantasy in the days of Australia’s early settlement, when the “boat people” arrived from the UK risking their lives as the present-day “boat people” have done in recent times.
“The Conjurers is a play that immediately appealed to me because it had a female focus, and it was poetic,” Durban says. “I loved the cross-generational story and felt that the story of redemption and letting go was important.”
“The year before, when we workshopped the play at the National Playwright’s Conference in Canberra, many of the plays were about the living talking with the dead. This was also relevant.”
“Alana’s writing voice is strong and personal, whilst the script contains so many challenges: the landscape of Victoria; a ship that capsizes; magical illusions, music and an epic setting, all contained within a so-called realistic situation in the small Beckett Theatre.”
“A new play is like a birth, with all the mess and ecstasy that goes with it. Can one quickly understand what the first audience should see and hear, and can the director and writer make adjustments in a timely way? It was tough and fast and fun.”
Today, it is the creative impulses received that Durban values above everything else.
“I cherish the collaboration with Alana and the designers. And all of us learning magic from the great Ross Skiffington. We had to take the pledge!”
Mellor took it upon himself to direct Jungfrau adapted by Jonathan Hardy from Dymphna Cusack’s novel first published in 1936. It was an unusual decision as he “rarely presented adaptations, preferring original works”.
“The theme of this book was important (and it was) from an almost-forgotten woman author. I wanted to approach the period tragedy in a modern way,” he says.
Hardy, whose extensive credits included an Academy Award for his work on Breaker Morant and a range of acting roles for The National Theatre Company, The Royal Shakespeare Company and The Bristol Old Vic, saw his take on Jungfrau as “a play of sensitivity, sensibility, full emotion, commitment, great love and poetic passion”. In his short biography inserted in the program he further posits:
“It (the play) is not about victims or predators. It is about complex humanity and wishes to continue and enhance the insight of Dymphna Cusack.”
Jungfrau, the novel, is about all those things as well. Three types of woman feature prominent in it: Thea, a 25-year-old teacher of literature, who follows the call of her emotions alone and is in love with a university professor, a married man; Marc(hesa), a psychologist, who seeks to protect young delinquents from further self-harm and is at the same time a liberated woman of substance who treats her for-everybody-else-desirable suitors with utmost disdain, while expecting to meet at long last a man who values self-fulfilment above the trappings of materialism; and Eve, an obstetrician, the rational one and a latent lesbian who extolls the scientific mind and yet firmly believes in the teachings of Catholic religion, rejecting the possibility of abortion no matter what.
In Hardy’s adaptation, however, Marc is a pale figure, all her character traits that make her an epitome of modern woman are erased; instead, that modern woman is Mabel “rumoured to be a madam” and characterised by Hardy as such. The play opens with a discussion of the notion of reality between Thea and professor Glover in the form of citations from poetry rather obscure to the modern theatre goer. The Author’s Note, however, clarifies the intention.
It was to bring to the fore “the intellectual conflict between the romantic classicism” (championed by professor Glover) and “the ‘imagist’ movement embraced by Thea”. Imagists—it must be remembered—sought to isolate a single image to reveal the work’s essence and they rejected the sentiment central to the romantic system of values, which is where the controversy begins. For, Thea “has a great feeling” and, while pure as the white peaks of Jungfrau before the construction of the funicular, she is anything but cold. Professor Glover, who can theorize but not embody romantic ideas, is cold. In the poetic context as presented by Hardy, the metaphor of a modern vehicle (funicular) that carries tourists who pollute the snow got paradoxically lost.
Mellor’s “modern way” of directing the play was to include “a stylized suicide”. Hardy had a different treatment of the playtext in mind. The casualty of such a clash of creative minds in theatre is always the work itself.
“I loved my cast and the importance of the theme. I think both the design and the performances were excellent,” Mellor says.
While the idea of a woman figure such as Marc, who finds fulfilment outside marriage and is in control of her body, had attracted considerable following by the mid-1990s, gay-themed writing was only beginning to lose its social stigma. Two one-act plays by Timothy Conigrave first produced by Playbox Theatre Centre at The CUB Malthouse on 22 July 1997 fed into the tidal wave of change.
A committed AIDS activist, Conigrave died in 1994. He left behind a novel Holding the Man and two short plays, Thieving Boy and Like Stars in my Hands. The novel published posthumously remained on best seller lists for most of 1995. Two years later, it was time for the plays to have a posthumous production. Tony Ayers, Conigrave’s friend who was at the time adapting Holding the Man for the screen, was best suited for the job. Indeed, Ayers did something that is rarely done in the world of theatre: he left a permanent record of all the changes made to the original playtexts in the Editor’s Note printed in the Currency Press and Playbox edition of the plays.
Conigrave requested that the setting for Thieving Boy be “as plain as possible, containing elements of sand” and just a few props, specifying that the timeframe of the play was the present. The setting for Like Stars in my Hands was also to be “simple, spare”. An unspecified space Conigrave defined as “somewhere in time” was, furthermore, “an abstract space”.
Both came as close to Mellor’s aesthetic of bare boards as possible without being taken literally.
Wild Sargasso Sea by Brian Howard, a Chamber Made Opera production, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the interpretation of Horned Moon Productions were guest performances. Small Mercies by Ailsa Piper was presented within the Theatre in the Raw program (for more, see Part 3 of the Playbox story). Joanna Murray-Smith’s then new play Redemption followed in The Beckett on August 19. Being a two-hander, it was another one of those plays that cost little to produce.
Murray-Smith wrote the opening scene using the same technique as the one employed in Honour (1995), her internationally acclaimed play. This time, however, unfinished sentences—their opening words left hanging in the air—failed to have the same effect as before due to one basic principle: novelty the first time, déjà vu the second (next) time. The sense of an evolving mannerism was compounded by an apparently calculated excitation of emotions. As the conflict deepened and the twist in the plot uncovered its roots, the justification for what at first seemed contrived pulled the lid over the critical eye and the performance in Sarah Ducker’s direction took off. Yet the lingering memory of the recycled writing technique came back as soon as the lights in the theatre faded out and the rational processing recommenced.
The John Wayne Principle by Tony McNamara played at Playbox after the original production by Sydney Theatre Company’s New Stages in 1996. On both occasions the director was David Berthold, who had first worked at Playbox on the world premiere of Hotel Sorrento (1990), as Assistant Director. McNamara’s “dark comic look” into ruthless corporate mentality, however, placed a rather different set of demands on the cast and the production team. All until the very last scene, this compact and dynamic play shows what it takes to qualify for a leadership role in the corporate world that identifies idealism with inaptitude and vulgarity, deceit and unscrupulousness with standard business practice.
McNamara was at the time still quite young. He hailed from Melbourne where he studied writing at RMIT, but he had also “worked in the money market in Sydney and London” before changing gear and graduating from the Australian Film Television and Radio School, the theatre program informed the audience. His imagination drew on experience.
“Tony had this amazing ability to use a contemporary politics situation, satirize current affairs and make an audience really have a good time. So, it’s a very enjoyable play and it offers great roles for actors,” Mellor says.
“I’m so glad to see he is currently a huge success in the world. Two big major films out and a television series, too,” he adds.
McNamara’s rise to stardom comes as no surprise. By 1997, he had already received several accolades: his first play The Cafe Latte Kid also produced by STC’s New Stages was nominated for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 1995 and that same year he won the Philip Parson’s Award for Young Playwrights. The short film The Bean Manifesto won him an AFI Award for Best Screenplay.
In a series of flashbacks, other details emerge. “It (The John Wayne Principle) played a full season in The Merlyn (and) had Melbourne actor Alison Whyte in the co-lead,” Mellor says.
“It was an exchange with STC. They took productions of Hannie's plays.”
For Mellor, “swapping productions” was part and parcel of what he calls “telling each other stories”.
“That’s terribly important and doesn’t happen anymore. I mean, one theatre company cannot bring enough income for any writer, so to have income from two cities and two seasons is a big plus.”
“Now, if people would only think more about that, we could all swap, because we can’t all develop everything, and if you’re spending all this time developing one work like STC did with The John Wayne Principle, then I can benefit from that.
“Wayne Harrison2 was terribly astute about all that. And we did (swap).”
One more example involving a famous figure springs to Mellor’s mind. The Playbox Theatre Centre brought in Sweet Phoebe by Michael Gow in 1995, produced by STC the season before. It was the first time Cate Blanchett came back to Melbourne and performed in her hometown.
“And what happened, the critics savaged her; she was fantastic in it, but she got really bad reviews,” Mellor recalls.
“I’ll never forget Cate Blanchett being so upset, coming back to her hometown and getting bad reviews in what was really a wonderful play. It went better in Sydney than it did in Melbourne.”
With this, he returns to his main argument. “As I always say, we’re working in a communal art form and the more we support each other, the better.”
“The more we try to compete with each other, the more will we all fail, and the situation we’ve currently got is a whole lot of artistic directors all trying to do their own thing.”
For an exchange program to benefit both companies, each needs to be able to offer a unique value as, for example, The Head of Mary by Tanaka Chikao did to Playbox and The Floating World by John Romeril did to the Japanese in 1995. Indicatively, the dramaturg for Chikao’s play was also John Romeril.
It is with Romeril’s then new play Love Suicides directed by Bruce Myles that the 1997 Playbox season closed. The play had its world premiere, however, at the Street Theatre, Canberra, the home of Company Skylark just a few weeks before.
Romeril has never adhered to naturalism. Even his early play originally performed under the title The Man from Chicago and then revised to make it “more effective for being more obvious and more theatrical” could only succeed “with a good deal of stylized acting,” Romeril wrote in the Penguin Books edition of four Australian plays republished three times in the 1970s.3
Love Suicides, however, pulled a long thread across time from The Floating World (1974) with which Romeril’s continuing interest in Japan and its theatre began; it was his only play to enter major companies’ repertories by the mid-1990s. Entwined in both works were the Australian and Japanese cultures not only at the level of story but also at the level of performance style.
Despite the naturalism of much of the dialogue and the action set in “several locales in and around a Perth luxury hotel”, juxtaposed in Love Suicides were a Stanislavsky-influenced style of acting and the traditional puppet theatre of Japan—Bunraku, with four actors including the narrator and a “ghost figure”(primarily a dance role), two masked puppet operators and three musicians playing the piano, guitar, shamisen and koto (a plucked half-tubed zither, the national instrument of Japan).
The set changed with the shifting of panels that, in combination with lighting effects, permitted an unlimited reconfiguration of the performance space. The images were mostly created by language or by weaving the puppet show in and out of the dialogue thus merging two realities—physical and psychic, a song from the play informs the audience.
The real—the imagined/will either ever do,
Is that the story/is drama/is karma a never done sum,
A one plus one —that never gets to two?
Reality’s bedrock has a headlock over dream,
Is the battle fought there?
The reality of a young Japanese girl called Ohatsu unfolds in a fusion of contemporary life practice and cultural tradition maintained through performative speech acts that “serve to define and maintain identities,” to borrow from Judith Butler.
Romeril makes the phenomenon of identity construction visible by appropriating the framework of an early 18th century Bunraku play Sonezaki Shinju that pioneered the double-suicide genre in Japan and had Ohatsu for a feminine protagonist too. Into this framework he inserts the Tanabata story, “a Chinese legend that somehow washed up in Japan. And Vietnam and Kampuchea,” Ohatsu says in the dialogue, explaining that it is a story of two lovers, Vega and Altair, the stars in the Milky Way only allowed to meet once a year and only if the skies are clear. In her imaginary, Ohatsu—the rebel against family tradition and its tenets: duty and honour—identifies herself with Vega. A disgraced Australian businessman is her Altair.
Sonezaki Shinju and the Tanabata story merge into a romantic allegory imprinted on Ohatsu’s mind, but they are also embedded in Japanese collective imagination. The Narrator, however, compares Ohatsu and the disgraced businessman she hangs onto to Adam and Eve and later in the play to “lovers on a Grecian urn”. The dialogue between traditions involves the disgraced businessman whose “real” name is Paris. In western civilization heavily influenced by classical Greek heritage, it is necessary to remember, Paris is also a mythical figure. His abduction of Helen, Queen of Sparta, precipitated the siege of Troy and its eventual fall.
Romeril explicitly states through the dialogue that Paris embodies “Western Australian civilization” and what it means transpires from the speech acts spaced out over the three acts of Love Suicide. They are all value statements based on the tenets of Australian culture like, for instance, “Amazing, you scrimp, you save, you sweat your guts out to buy ‘the dream home’” and then … Bankrupt, deserted by family and alone, Paris is directly associated in the closure of the play with real-life corrupt businessmen Alan Bond and Christopher Skase. And yet, Paris also explains the world by recounting an Aboriginal dream story of how magpie got her white feathers. His experience of reality is, like Ohatsu’s, traversed by the imaginary and is, in Romeril’s play, an allegory too.
The mythical only makes sense in the modern world if understood in terms of contemporary experience. To meet the production demands of such a complex play, its densely layered meaning and its visual splendour Romeril teamed up with Peter J. Wilson, artistic director of Skylark, the Canberra-based puppetry company. Love Suicides is dedicated to him and two designers, Richard Jeziorny and Noriko Nishimoto of Spare Parts in Perth.
While efforts at bridging Australian and Asian cultures were gaining momentum in the 1990s, the play by John Harding titled Up the Road opened a new chapter in Mellor’s season programming. In concert with Emma, Celebrazione!, it foreshadowed a stronger representation of the marginalized, the other, and this time the other was Australia’s indigenous peoples.
Mellor’s interest in indigenous theatre predates Playbox, which “had very little history of anything to do with indigenous people. So, I suppose, it was my initiative,” he says.
“I was in a different position to most people who grew up in cities. My dad worked on the film Jedda (1955) and I grew up with and had Aboriginal friends. (Years later) I worked with Bob Maza in the foundation of Black Theatre in Sydney.”
The first “formal production” of the National Black Theatre was put on at Nimrod Theatre in King’s Cross, Sydney, in 1972. It was a revue of comedic sketches satirising political “solutions” to indigenous issues titled Basically Black and the cast included “trailblazers in the emerging black activist arts scene such as Bob Maza, Aileen Corpus, Bindi Williams, Zac Martin and Gary Foley,” a simple Google search uncovers.
A play Mellor “desperately wanted” to do in those days was The Cherry Pickers by Kevin Gilbert, but Gilbert “would not give us the rights—I wanted to do it at Jane Street,” he says.
As Artistic Director of the Royal Queensland Theatre Company, he was however in the position to include a work he loved in the 1993 season. It was Peta Murray’s musical play One Woman’s Song inspired by the life and works of the Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo, remembered also as a North Stradbroke Aboriginal activist. The role of director was entrusted to Janet Robertson.
Up the Road, first produced in 1991 in the direction of Kylie Belling, was nearly six years old when Company B Belvoir showcased it at The CUB Malthouse. Its director Neil Armfield “was fantastic with aboriginal work,” Mellor says. The play watched in 1997 by the Playbox audiences indeed bore the stamp of Armfield’s vision.
At the time he wrote Up the Road, Harding had a better in-depth knowledge of the complexities of indigenous Australians’ relations with white Australia than most people, irrespective of the colour of their skin. Not only was he of Aboriginal background but he was also a former ministerial Adviser for the Victorian Department of Aboriginal Affairs, he was Senior Project Officer for the Aboriginal Education Department and National Aboriginal Employment Co-ordinator for the Australian Film Commission. As a theatre artist, he was Assistant Director for the 1989 National Black Playwrights’ Conference, Artistic Director of the 1996 Nambundah Festival and, importantly, a founding member of the Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative in Melbourne. He wrote Up the Road for them.
By the time Armfield developed an interest in the play, Hardy’s script “had been through many transformations,” Armfield writes in the Author’s Note inserted (along with the program) in the centre pages of the playtext published by Currency Press and Playbox Theatre Centre. The fact that the director saw himself as the author speaks volumes. Interventions into Hardy’s original script, Armfield states, began two years earlier at the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference hosted by the Australian National University in Canberra.
“The greatest transformation however has occurred over the past few months and in particular since we started rehearsal,” he writes.
“This potentially nerve-wracking process has actually been quite pleasurable and for this I must thank John Harding for his willingness to experiment, the cast and all those involved for their good ideas and sense of collaboration; and Nick Enright for his perceptions about structure at a number of critical moments.”
The result was a muffled voice of protest raised against the issues that keep dogging Aboriginal peoples to this day. Up The Road thus reads as an appeal for reconciliation, rather than as a cry against social injustices. Reminders of progress alleviate almost every line of criticism and the following excerpt is one of many examples:
LIDDY: Uncle Kenny used to say when whitefellas came, we had the land and they had the Bible. Now we got the Bible and they’ve got the land. But we got a bit of ours back, eh.
The play takes place following the death of Uncle Kenny, an Aboriginal elder who was in the front line of the struggle for Aboriginal human rights. “He founded that Land Council and then you go and bring this whitefella in to run it,” a young Aboriginal man called Charlie says.
But that “whitefella” is portrayed as “a saint”. He has “done more for the people of this community than all you black men together,” Sue, a young Aboriginal woman profiled as the force of empowerment, says. What is more, Charlie, “the first Koori in the district to get their HSC”, is to succeed the white advisor (characterised by Hardy as “unintentionally patronising”) on the Land Council in the closure of the play.
This rosy picture has also led to the dramaturgical weaknesses. There is no real conflict in the play and the feel-good resolution overwrites all the issues raised. Indicatively, Up The Road has two alternative closures.
The one added in the original production at Belvoir and cited in the Appendix advocated conformism or, more specifically, letting go of the sense of attachment to country, the mob and culture for the sake of personal advancement. Uncle Kenny, the voice of the old generation, “used to say that Aboriginal Affairs would cave in on itself ‘cause it had no soul where it counted,” Ian, whose career in ATSIC is on the rise, says. To this Sue replies: “Let’s worry about that up the road.” This scene was edited out in the version performed at Playbox. The closure was open ended then.
Stolen, the play produced the following season shows a bleak side of what lies up the road.
“Harding was a Melbourne man who was married at the time to Kylie Belling, a very good actress. It was they who alerted me to the existence of this work,” Mellor says.
“It was a collection of speeches from different (indigenous) people. So I thought, why don’t we just program it and see what we can do with it.”
The developmental history of Stolen, as recorded in the centre pages of the playtext published by Currency Press and Playbox Theatre Centre, paints a slightly different picture. It begins with the establishment of Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative in 1990, with the aim to provide “a performing arts base for the Victorian Indigenous arts community” and “a forum through which issues of importance to our community can be reflected, aired and debated from an Indigenous community perspective for the benefit of the total community”. Like Harding, Belling was the founding member of Ilbijerri, but she also performed the role of artistic director.
Ilbijerri is a Wurundjeri word meaning “coming together for celebration”.
“In 1991, following the success of Ilbijerri’s inaugural production of John Harding’s play Up the Road directed by Belling,” the Committee reached the decision to initiate work on a second play. “Because the ‘Lost Children’ (as the issue was known then) had just started to emerge as one of the most important and painful issues in our community, it was decided to select this as the theme for our next production,” they write.
After obtaining funds in 1992, Jane Harrison was contracted as writer and Antoinette Braybrook as researcher. Involved in script development workshops was also “Fiona McHugh, an experienced dramaturg”. Four public readings at the 1993 Melbourne Fringe Festival ensued, with Wesley Enoch as director.
Just a couple of months later, a three-week workshop followed by a “Show and Tell” was held at the Aboriginies Advancement League in Thornbury, Victoria. By then, Ilbijerri had changed the play title, realising that the children were not “lost” but “stolen”. The workshop director was Maryanne Sam, the History of Stolen informs the reader, and the full cast lists for both events are provided in it. The development continued for two more years.
“A reading was held at the Napier Street Theatre, South Melbourne, in November 1996 following a three-week script development. The director was Andrea James, Designer Robyne Latham, Composer Glen Millen, Dramaturg Patricia Cornelius, Actors Tammy Anderson, Trevor Geary, Linda Rowlands, Glenn Shea and Rachel Tregonning.”
Playbox Theatre Centre at The CUB Malthouse first included Stolen “in a joint Playbox Theatre and Ilbijerri ‘Indigenous Theatre-in-the-Raw’ series, which was directed by Noel Tovey (in early March 1997). There were five plays presented in this series and the actors involved in Stolen were Tammy Anderson, Tony Briggs, Melodie-Jan Gibson, Glenn Shea, Rachel Tregonning.”
Stolen by Jane Harrison finally opened on 21 October 1998 in the smaller of the two Playbox theatres, The Beckett. Presented in association with the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts, it was once more directed by Wesley Enoch, while the “dramatic setting” was by Andrea James and Jane Harrison. Kylie Belling played the arguably most difficult role in the play—that of Ruby, a child forcibly removed from her family and driven mad by abuse, exploitation and humiliation throughout her adolescence and early adulthood.
What had begun as a series of interviews with indigenous families and individuals became an Australian classic. Stolen remains a poignant account of experiences that the children and their parents, patronised and sometimes even dehumanised by their white “protectors”, went through as late as the 1960s. Composed as a mosaic, it has a highly sophisticated structure that permits stories to intersect and timelines to follow the trajectories of memory, and yet to present a cohesive narrative of the people pushed to the margins of society and kept there by the preconception of intellectual and cultural inferiority.
One of Ilbijerri’s aims was to raise awareness of the wider community to indigenous Australians’ culture and society, “targeting non-traditional theatre-going audiences”. Stolen achieved much more than that.
“If I think about my years at Playbox, Stolen was probably the most important event,” Mellor says.
“It was put on the study list in schools for many years, it was produced everywhere. I’ve got Japanese translations of it, and I’ve seen it performed in Japanese.”
“The whole story of the stolen generation hadn’t really … I mean, I knew about it terribly well, but oddly enough the public did not. So, here it was!”
The need to tell the stories of the stolen generation led Mellor to remount the play for a return season in July 1999, taking it subsequently on an extensive tour of regional Victoria. Kylie Belling played Ruby all along, reprising the role in 2000 in several performances across Australia and internationally. The following year the play toured in the UK, in 2002 it played the Merlyn Theatre and in Tokyo, and the audiences just kept coming. The attendance warranted yet another return season at Playbox and in Tokyo in 2003, with more productions to follow. In those early years, readings of Stolen were performed in Canada and New York City, but the play’s theme touched the people’s raw nerve there and the will to expose it was apparently still lacking, as Harrison’s work failed to win a full production.
Another story that needed to be told far and wide presented itself with Adam May winning the Playbox Asialink Playwriting Competition4 for Rising Fish Prayer in 1997.
“Oh, my God! I love Rising Fish Prayer,” Mellor exclaims, and it soon transpires why.
Not only was its theme topical and told in an imaginative form but Rising Fish Prayer also opened the door for yet another collaborative project, this time with the National Theatre Company of Papua New Guinea, “which no longer exists, sadly,” Mellor says. Its director was for a time William Takaku.
“The great William Takaku was one of my ex-students actually. He played Man Friday alongside Pierce Brosnan in the film Robinson Crusoe (1997).”
Takaku had travelled in the late 1980s and early 1990s in the island of Bougainville spreading the story of how his people expelled a copper mining company that had been polluting the river they depended upon. May’s play contains some elements of that story, but it begins and ends in Australia. Mellor took it upon himself to direct the play and his work on it began with a trip to PNG.
“Trina Parker and I went to Papua New Guinea together and we auditioned people all over.”
“We had the most extraordinary time up in the highlands, we made all these connections.”
“It was the last thing Trina designed. She died soon afterwards,” Mellor recalls, his mood changing momentarily.
For the most part Rising Fish Prayer takes place in the highlands of PNG. Its story is full of twists and turns that expose the vulnerability of the local population at the hands of their own government and multinational companies. At the same time, it is deeply humane and the two settings, one in the vicinity of an open-cut gold mine and the other on a beach esplanade in Australia, provide a glimpse into cultural practices characteristic of both nations. What makes May’s morality play atypical is the resolution in which the winner is none of the protagonists but the invisible hand of big business.
“I always think that the Australian connection with PNG is so shameful; I mean, our neglect of them is so shameful.” Mellor says.
“Gough Whitlam was so embarrassed about having a colony at all that he wanted to give them independence as quick as he could, but of course they were not ready for independence which is why they have had all these problems ever since.”
The issue of colonisation was put under the spotlight once again in The Language of the Gods by Louis Nowra, directed by Mellor in the second half of the 1999 season. Like May’s play, it was set close to home—in the 1946 Celebes (South Sulawesi), providing a vibrant insight into the local customs still part of Indonesian tradition at the time of the play. By the 1970s, the decade in which the closing scene takes place, a centuries-old ritual became little more than a tourist attraction.
The imaginative landscape of Nowra’s play represented a colonial society, with love and passion, mundane pursuits and official duties of the white administrators reflecting the social order in which the indigenous population, with their fertility rite deemed crucial for their survival, their superstition and the contradictory sense of pride and enforced subservience drove the social process towards political restructuring. The Language of the Gods laid bare the issue at the core of colonial society: the attitudes, beliefs and values built into the foundations of colonial power, even the most idealistic of them, were compromised by racial prejudice. In the process of power subversion, no amount of violence was going to stop the change. The old had to go on both sides of the colonial divide.
Six more plays were on the subscription list in 1998 and seven in 1999. Two of those were adaptations and as such evocative of Jungfrau. Natural Life was Humphrey Bower’s dramatization of the novel by Marcus Clarke, based on the shared concept with Michael Kantor who directed the play. Co-produced with State Theatre Company of South Australia, it had a showing at the 1998 Adelaide Festival of Arts as well as a season at Playbox.
Cloudstreet adapted by Nick Enright from Tim Winton’s novel of the same title was produced by the Black Swan Theatre in 1998, with Neil Armfield as director. It came to Melbourne “hailed by the public and critics alike at the 1998 Perth and Sydney Festivals (as) a magical, five-hour epic”. Staged in the Merlyn Theatre, the play described by Playbox as a “story of love and bonds that tie us to our sense of place” opened on 30 June 1999 and the sell-out season reflected the measure of its success.
Tobsha Learner worked with the notion of magic too in Miracles, the play she called “an urban fable”. First produced by Vitalstatistix at Waterside Hall, Port Adelaide in August 1992 under the direction of Christina Totos, it saw a revival six years later at Playbox, this time in the direction of Kate Cherry.
While strictly speaking an absurdist drama, Tear from a Glass Eye, which opened in The Beckett on 27 May 1998, could also be seen as an urban fable. It offered a new take on the theme of happy days (Samuel Beckett) this time partly set in a desert, winning Matt Cameron the 1996 Wal Cherry Play of the Year Award. And yet, the play’s episodic structure and the alienation effect that the lack of emotion of any kind helped produce bore a distinct mark of Brecht’s theatre, not Beckett’s. Indeed, each episode was “signposted” and, rather than following the principle of unity of space, the setting changed from one episode to the next, an airplane serving as the central metaphor for life. The director of this imaginative and clever play, which drew on the legacy of western avant-garde theatre, was Simon Phillips.
Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell won the 1997 AWGIE for Best New Play and was first produced by Griffin Theatre Company at The Stables, Sydney that same year. It came to Playbox at the beginning of the 3-month-long national tour courtesy of Performing Lines. The director was Ros Horin, Artistic Director of Griffin, a theatre dedicated, like Playbox, “to developing and producing bold, new, contemporary Australian plays”.
Surprisingly, a collection of monologues Diedre Rubinstein asked her “most admired playwrights” to write for her, performed and published under the title Confidentially Yours, contained a scene from Speaking in Tongues. In a narrative form and minimally revised, it had a companion “piece”—the same event viewed in the perspective of another play figure. A confession of a middle-aged woman written by Debra Oswald opened and closed this compilation. Nick Enright contributed two stories, the one on a famous actress whose identity was left to the spectator/reader to guess being arguably the most original of all. Janis Balodis was more explicit as he named the famous actor and playwright, the object of a young woman’s desire in his piece that was more of an idea than an episode, while Daniel Keene stayed true to his broader theme contributing a disturbing statement of a woman living in the margins of society. Joanna Murray-Smith returned the spotlight on an actress, a middle-aged woman whose ego opens the doors of her bedroom wide open. The monologues were interspersed by songs composed by Alan John on Alison Croggon’s lyrics, but years later and on paper, the verse without music lost its cohesive function and most of its impact.
The 1998 season closed with Ray Lawler’s play that had been awaiting a revival for thirty-nine years. The Piccadilly Bushman was first produced by J.C. Williamson Theatres Ltd. at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, on 12 September 1959, with John McCallum as director. It dealt with the issue of expatriation Lawler for a time grappled with himself.
“The Piccadilly Bushman was the play I wrote following Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. It was written while I was living, for various reasons, in Denmark. This isolation from both Australia and Britain was helpful, inasmuch as (sic.) it enabled me to examine at leisure various aspects of the British-Australian relationship that had gladdened, saddened, inspired and infuriated me, all at much the same time,” Lawler wrote in the Playwright’s Note, closing with an acknowledgment,
“I am grateful to Aubrey Mellor for his faith in the play—Aubrey has long urged its revival—and to Playbox for the fine cast and creative team that has been assembled for this production.”
Reflecting on the support Playbox gave to playwrights, Mellor says: “Everybody thinks The Doll just came from nowhere. Well, it didn’t. Ray said it was his 10th play.”
The revised edition of The Piccadilly Bushman was first produced by Playbox Theatre Centre at The CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, on 17 November 1998. Mellor took on the role of director even though it went against his principle never to do revivals.
“I did one, The Piccadilly Bushman by Ray Lawler, for two reasons: it hadn’t been done for so long and, accidentally, it hadn’t been done in Melbourne before.”
It is time to remember the legacy of the man who has raised the mainstream theatre curtains in Australia for new Australian plays, as Ray Lawler has turned one hundred this year.
The 1999 season opened with another Griffin Theatre Company production—Aidan Fennessy’s play Chilling and Killing My Anabel Lee which had won the 1997 Wal Cherry Play of the Year Award. Directed by Fennessy himself, it was advertised in the Playbox ’99 brochure as an “ingenious play of mystery and murder … inspired by classic film noir and the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe”. The play has some similarities with Strangers in the Night by Abe Pogos, as confirmed by the following excerpt from the Sydney Morning Herald review:
“… a very clever play—framed in the style of a pulp detective thriller, shot through with film noir allusions and buoyed by cheerful humour … exquisite fusions and mercurial concepts …”
There followed The Sick Room by Stephen Sewell on 10 March, directed by Kate Cherry; Secret Bridesmaid’s Business by Elizabeth Coleman, co-directed by Mellor and Catherine Hill, which opened on 14 April; and The Dog’s Play and a Few Roos Loose in the Top Paddock by Tee O’Neil premiered in the direction of David Bell on 26 May.
The season closed with Rodney Hall’s historical play A Return to the Brink focusing the white-settlers’ concerns at the time of the Myall Creek and Waterloo Creek massacres and the termination of the convict (labour) system; followed by a new play by Joanna Murray-Smith Nightfall, directed by Jenny Kemp.
Hall saw his work as “a play about Australia right now,” thus setting the framework for Bruce Myles’ directorial concept watched in late October and early November of 1999 by the Melbourne International Festival audience as well as the Playbox subscribers.
Murray-Smith did not write a Playwright’s Note. But she sent a report from New York to the Age’s Sunday Forum column in 2001.
“I am in New York for the rehearsals of my play Nightfall. It is about a missing daughter. Thus I take it as a good, if poignant, sign that, on the expressway into Manhattan from the airport, a huge billboard advertises a reward for someone’s missing daughter …
“At rehearsals, we sit around sorting out the common cultural threads of the play and the linguistic differences. Everyone wants to know what the hell a whipper-snipper is. ‘You mean you don’t have whipper-snippers?’ I ask incredulously. What do outer-suburban couples do on weekends, for God’s sake? The American equivalent is a leaf-blower, one of those enormous machines that blow the autumn leaves from the paths; but this doesn’t work as an alternative since upper middle-class couples in the affluent suburbs don’t blow their own leaves—they have Mexicans to do that.”
Playbox was a launching pad for Joanna Murray-Smith as it was for so many other playwrights whose career took off thanks to Playbox and its exchange program with like-minded theatre companies across Australia.
“But finding, producing and touring Stolen was probably the most important thing we did,” Mellor says.
This as well as all the other plays produced following the all-Australian policy led to the development of a distinct company profile.
“One of the things I am most proud of, that Jill and I managed to do, was to turn Playbox from an idea into a niche company in Australia.”
“We were specifically funded as a niche company to do Australian plays. So, there was them (Australia Council) recognising our importance to the nation.”
When Mellor came to the helm of Playbox, he was already a Member of the Order of Australia, an honour he received while Artistic Director of QTC. Jill Smith began her managerial career at Playbox, but she shunned the limelight despite being the company’s bedrock and its driving engine all along. She was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia “for significant service to performing arts and cultural development” earlier this year.
“I hesitated to accept the award for many reasons but in the end did so to honour all the amazing artists, board members and audiences I worked with,” she says.
“I always felt incredibly privileged to have the job and felt the importance of leaving a legacy—which we did with so many artists finding their way into theatre through our programs and focus.”
Those programs and their aims are the subject matter of Playbox story, Part 3.
1. My own workshop has developed along my own lines over the years. It is designed to help trigger the energy source or hot spot in you from which to write. It emphasizes the importance of allowing an intuitive, free flow and suspension of judgment when writing.
Some differences with Fornes are as follows: Irene used yoga to start the sessions, whereas I use a kinaesthetic framework within which I embed some of the exercises. I also use visual stimuli and spend time on intuitive approaches to developing concept. For more, see https://www.blacksequin.com/jenny-kemp.html
2. In 1981 after meeting Richard Wherrett, then Artistic Director of the recently formed Sydney Theatre Company (STC) in Sydney, Wayne Harrison was appointed the company's Literary Manager/Resident Dramaturg. He took over from Wherrett as Director of the STC in 1990 and served as Director/CEO until 1999.
3. Penguin Plays: Four Australian Plays: The Front Room Boys by Alexander Buzo, Who by Jack Hibberd, White With Wire Wheels by Jack Hibberd, and Chicago, Chicago by John Romeril. Penguin Books Ltd, 1973, 1974, 1977.
4. For more on competitions initiated by the Playbox Theatre Centre of Monash University see Part 3 of this article.
BEFORE I CAN ASK HIM ANY QUESTIONS, Aubrey Mellor is keen to stress: the credit for the achievements of the Playbox Theatre Centre of Monash University, collective and individual, goes to one person above all. He is in the Blue Mountains and I in Melbourne, locked down for the second time in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Nothing would have been possible without Jill Smith”, he says. “I have worked with several great general managers in my life and Jill Smith is by far ahead of everybody. She is unique in Australia.” As if this accolade were not convincing enough, he continues.
“She is greatly respected and loved, and I dare say nothing would have happened for either Carrillo or me without Jill Smith. She did everything: she managed those books, she got the money, she supported the artistic vision no matter what.
“I found that people did everything for Jill, I mean, they did what I asked them to do, but their heart was in supporting Jill and I think she was the machine that kept Playbox running.”
Mellor took over from Carrillo Gantner as the company’s artistic director after a spectacular 1993 season of Australian plays, save Shakespeare’s King Lear in which the outgoing executive-cum-actor played the title role. Gantner had programmed a Barrie Kosky and Yoni Prior new work directed by Kosky himself, plays by Patrick White, Stephen Sewell, Michael Gurr and Louis Nowra. Fourteen plays by Who’s Who in the contemporary Australian theatre scene raised the artistic bar to the challenging height for someone new to Melbourne. But Mellor had tons of experience and a new test was a welcome incentive.
Mellor came on stage at the age of four, performing in his parent’s variety show all his child life. “I became interested in directing when I started to tell my father what to do.” He chuckles fondly at the memory and then draws another colourful piece from it. “But my great love was film.”
The allure grew slowly, while he and his sister were performing in their father’s “nature films”—documentaries shot in the Australian bush and tailored to the imagination of an international audience. Themes like “a day in the life of an Australian schoolgirl” showed, for instance, his sister riding a horse, putting a snake into her lunch box, “all that sort of thing that does not really happen, but made for very good films,” Mellor says. “Many people later said they saw us on European television.”
With growing experience, Mellor realised two things: he did not like “cheating” the audience the way his father did when performing his magic acts and he got “very interested” in putting the films together. More than anything, Mellor loved editing. Such was his curiosity about the interdependence of skill and creative freedom in moving pictures that he set up his own company, Sunset Studios, writing, designing and directing four 16mm films. Hands of Horror put to the test his editing skills required to keep the spectator in suspense until the end, but in his second and third films Mellor went a step further. An Australian Hansel and Gretel and The Crystal Goddess were surreal flights of fantasy. “I wanted to be anywhere except in Oz,” he says. The Seven Visions of Johanna, the last film released by Sunset Studios, was “based on the poems of Lloyd Noble.” And then just as he was about to go to Europe to start working with Samuel Bronston in Spain, his mother fell ill. When she died, he went to NIDA instead, which spelt the end of his cinematic dream. For, it was at NIDA that he discovered dramatic literature.
European drama appealed to Mellor much more than British plays. He studied Shakespeare at school of course, but on stage he had only been in vaudeville and variety. “I didn’t know there was this huge wealth out there, because we’d never had European plays,” he says.
He also wanted to learn more about the actor. The sort of acting he did and the sort of acting he liked were two different things. “I loved putting on the makeup, I loved developing a particular way to walk and talk, in other words, I loved characterisation as taught by Michael Chekhov,” Mellor says. “Characterisation has become one of my big subjects as a teacher.
“What I could not do as an actor and what I admire was to bare my soul. So, I began to seriously study acting and the great playwrights that I knew nothing about. That became much more interesting to me than making films.”
Two years after graduating from the Producers Course and into his contract with NIDA as a resident director, Mellor saw an opportunity to study a style of theatre that was fundamentally different from anything he had come across before. The first Australian awarded a Churchill Fellowship to focus on an Asian subject, he travelled to Japan to train with a Noh Master certified as the Living Cultural Treasure (who was head of the Komparu school) and then with his son Yoshio Honda. That excursion into the foreign theatre tradition bore one immediate fruit. Mellor developed a whole new approach to actor training “based on polar opposites and studies of form and structure” of movement in performance.
The fertile tension between traditions, even between west and east European currents of thought as reflected in dramatic literature of the 20th century, has held an intrinsic value for Mellor. When in 1981 he became co-artistic director, with John Bell, of the Nimrod Theatre Company, he set out to direct not only the standard works by Chekhov, Strindberg and Shakespeare, but also the plays by Vaclav Havel and Caryl Churchill that were to become modern classics, adding to the mix the then young Australians Stephen Sewell, Michael Gow, Louise Page and Robyn Archer. A basic search in Wikipedia today informs the user that the Nimrod enjoys “a reputation for producing more ‘good new Australian drama’ from 1970 to 1985 than any other Australian theatre company”. That was indeed so before the implementation of all-Australian policy at Playbox.
The next three years saw Mellor back at NIDA, this time in the role of deputy director. It was a career move prompted largely by the training philosophy congenial to his ideas. Along with developing the skills needed in the professional arena, the fledgling theatre makers were learning to appreciate the value of their own culture which, for Mellor, meant more than the vernacular, behavioural patterns and experience. It also meant depth of meaning, subtext, feelings, all those hidden currents of life that the best of drama brings out for the audience to see. As an apt example, he produced Louis Nowra’s The Golden Age, with Neil Armfield as director, besides six other training productions in 1986 alone. The following year he oversaw the establishment of the Access and Educational Arm of NIDA later renamed the Open Program and, stepping outside the educational framework, directed Michael Hastings’ Tom and Viv for the Sydney Theatre Company.
In hindsight, Mellor takes great pride in directing Louis Esson's plays at NIDA. “Some I consider crucial to my development and contributing to my skill with Chekhov. Esson is still considered the father of Australian playwriting and I am proud of my research into every manuscript and my correspondence with his son Hugh.”
Yet working with a living author was what Mellor gradually came to love the most. It was while at the helm of the Queensland Theatre Company that he received an invitation to direct a Hannie Rayson play at Playbox. Hotel Sorrento had all the qualities he sought in a drama. “Many of the world’s greatest plays, from King Lear to Three Sisters, have a family at their centre, but few in Australia have ever managed to weave universal themes out of what could be called the basics of ‘kitchen sink’ drama,” he wrote in a piece prefacing the Currency Press edition of the play.
The episodic structure of Rayson’s work lends itself ideally to the exposition of parallel realities and contradictory viewpoints, one minute presented as truth, the next refuted as cultural constructs, the tension between them underpinning the structural arrangement of themes. Mellor compares it to the Rondo form in music.
As he revisits the memory of working on Hotel Sorrento, his choice of metaphor becomes more visual. It was a huge play that had “sand and rubies mixed together,” he says but then goes back to the question of form. “It was a series of short scenes and every time we did a run, we’d always try a different order of scenes, because there was no chronology to the story as such.”
“So everybody said, ‘Oh, just cut all that, cut all that,’ but I thought: ‘No, no, no. The greatness of what Hannie is trying to do here is, she is trying to do everything at once, and what I’ve got to do is try to cut everything down enough to fit into a one night’s event.’ That was a really wonderful experience.”
Mellor’s sense of fulfilment comes not only from the enormous success of Hotel Sorrento and the role he played in it, but also from the affirmation of his dramaturgical skills which once drove him to film editing. This innate ability, he is convinced, was honed by his study of the classics. “If you want to be a dramaturg, you should study the classics and then you know about structure,” he says.
Throughout his years at NIDA and Nimrod, and later as artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company, Mellor kept directing old and modern classics, returning to Chekhov and Brecht when possible. His list of credits, while extensive, reflects the principles upon which the standard theatre repertoire is still formed in Australia. The entire output of the so-called “historical avant-garde” is persistently left out, from the Expressionists and Symbolists to the experimental writing stylistically so diverse that it could only be classified as “new”. Insistence on the new became the artistic norm in the first half of the 20th-century Europe and so did disjointed structure, especially in the domain of dramaturgy. Hannie Rayson follows in the footsteps of these dissenters from the Western classical tradition and Mellor recognized it, legitimating her method in production.
“I didn’t really begin to like Australian plays until the fifth wave which included Hannie Rayson, Michael Gurr, Michael Gow and Louis Nowra, a whole lot of playwrights that were writing much more interesting stuff than that created in the late 1960s and 1970s,” he says. Esson, who sought to raise a wave of support for the representation of Australian cultural identity in theatre long before that, was inspired by Yeats and J.M. Synge, he explored the themes of “working class urban and bush life” and was an exception.
Mellor admits that the Pioneer Players were “part of his attraction to Playbox”. Both were Melbourne theatre companies and “you could not say that you were a theatre person in Australia unless you’ve actually had a career in Melbourne. Melbourne was the toughest,” he says. But he was also “sick of doing the classics, Shakespeare, Ibsen and all those playwrights”.
“I knew that we would never mature as a nation unless we had our own plays on our own stages, and I still argue this. Every country in the world is dominated by its own culture. That is a fact. Except in Australia. That is shocking. We are a shocking nation!”
The invitation from Carrillo Gantner to take up the position of artistic director of a Melbourne theatre that had just turned to all-Australian policy was not to be passed by. Playbox was thriving in the redeveloped CUB Malthouse, its new home in Melbourne’s Southbank, and Mellor had known Gantner for a long time. They co-produced plays at Nimrod and they had “this mutual love of Asia”. They agreed “philosophically” and they trusted each other.
The transition went on smoothly, without any policy change. Mellor had previously directed Michael Gow’s play The Kid at Playbox and not only Hotel Sorrento, but he did not really know the company “from the inside” nor did he know Melbourne “from the inside”. Diversity remained the key principle of season programming, only the range of themes was to expand with time. Season 1994, Mellor’s first, opened in March with another Michael Gow play, Furious, originally produced by the Sydney Theatre Company.
A man walks into a nursing home to collect a dead woman’s possessions. They all fit into a shoe box and they are all about him. He is a playwright and, as it transpires, gay but closeted. To a sixteen-year-old schoolboy he says: “Nothing stands for anything. Everything is.” Pedophilia is, loneliness is, a sense of loss is and so much more. Timelines converge. Experience.
Disturbing the Dust by Ariette Taylor and Luke Devenish, directed by Taylor herself and coproduced by the Adelaide Festival of Arts, opened in the Merlyn Theatre four days later. The play was an “experiment” calling again for an innovative treatment of dramatic form, as it delves into the mind of a retired dancer haunted by her past. Fragmented scenes populated by emblematic images follow the drift of memory and the dialogue interspersed with balletic movement has personal references demystified gradually, but still harder to grasp in performance than in writing which allows the reader to pause, go back and check.
Mellor chose to direct Sanctuary, David Williamson’s play which started as “an experiment” too, he says. “It was going to be a much darker, much nastier play, much more political.” With the cast of only two actors, it did not “belong” with a state theatre company and Mellor snatched the opportunity. But his rationale went beyond the circumstantial. He had already produced several of Williamson’s plays during his five-year-long stint with the Queensland Theatre Company, so he knew that they “got along dramaturgically”. Besides, each play had toured nationally and earned the company a fortune.
This is not to say that Mellor wanted to compete with the state theatre companies. “I wanted Playbox to be different, to be an alternative to the Melbourne Theatre Company,” he says. But he also knew that the established writers needed exposure if they were to keep writing and that the box office sales were going to be good on their new plays.
“I’ve always said that David Williamson has allowed the big companies to do the smaller, riskier work and the new work,” he says, promptly adding, “David understands that now.” Sanctuary, in Mellor’s direction, had a national tour and an international tour of four countries in Asia. “I think it was our first overseas tour from Playbox because of David Williamson,” he says.
The inclusion of Hannie Rayson’s new play Falling from Grace in the 1994 season comes as no surprise. Playbox held the door open for Rayson ever since the favourable reception of Mary in 1982 and Room to Move in 1985. Her new play, issue-based but with a narrower focus than Hotel Sorrento, shined the light on mateship among women rather than men, examining the question of equality, loyalty and friendship in the context of workplace: a women’s magazine. Professional ethics inextricable from medical research drives the conflict dramatized in a way that bears close resemblance to the journalist’s strategy in feature writing. The play was again a huge success for Rayson and the Playbox, ensuing in another national tour. “Hannie was important to me and I think I’d always do a Hannie Rayson play if I could,” Mellor says.
Another playwright “terribly important” to him was Michael Gurr. “Michael’s writing was always political, it was always contemporary, and it was always experimental.” The position of artistic counsel Gurr held in the company is testament to a high reputation he enjoyed in the wider theatre community. But his play Underwear, Perfume and Crash Helmet, which opened in the Beckett Theatre on July 12, “was not one of Michael’s best,” Mellor admits. It had an election campaign of the opposition for the main theme and was directed, like all Gurr’s plays, by Bruce Myles, who worked with many other renowned writers, including Louis Nowra, John Romeril and Rodney Hall.
“Nothing is more important than the relationship between the playwright and the director,” Mellor says. “I never shoved a director on them (playwrights). Rather, I always suggested things and I wanted them to choose their directors … to a degree.”
The play Remember Ronald Ryan, which looks behind the legend spun around the last man to be executed on Australian soil, stands out for Mellor among Barry Dickins’ body of work. Rather than explaining why, he muses on Malcolm Robertson’s direction of it, calling the production “an extraordinary highlight”. Robertson was also “part of Playbox and was like an institution: he was the literary manager for many years, before he got sick of reading new plays”.
As the fond memory continues to unfold, one more artist who collaborated on the production of Dickins’s play emerges from the mist of time. “It is the most exciting set that John Beckett did in my entire time at Playbox,” Mellor says.
“So, it’s a very interesting season. I am looking at the list of plays now and I did not realise what an extraordinary year it really was.” Indeed, Remember Ronald Ryan won the 1995 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, testimony to its power to inspire theatre makers, move audiences and impress the panel of judges. John Beckett received the Victorian Green Room Award for best drama design.
That first season programmed by Mellor deserves the appellation “extraordinary” for a few more reasons. First, it marks the beginning of a policy geared towards gender balance among the playwrights.
Disturbing the Dust, co-written by Ariette Taylor and Luke Devenish, opened in the Merlyn Theatre on March 15, heralding the policy. Joanna Murray-Smith’s Love Child, produced by Playbox the year before, toured to The Stables in Sydney roughly a month later. It had begun as an “experiment”, but of a new kind. “We helped Joanna Murray-Smith develop,” Mellor says. “At first she was more in the language, I mean, she was very non-visual which, in theatre, is a big fault.” Then her ability to express emotion through language and at the same time treat the perennial themes of love, family and commitment as philosophical questions approached from a female perspective, proved to have an extraordinary power of audience engagement, so “we had one of Joanna’s plays quite often,” Mellor says.
Before becoming caught in an ever-faster whirlpool of activities, Mellor could still find time to direct more than one play within a season. His next pick in 1994 was Tobsha Learner’s Glass Mermaid which again dealt with memory and trauma, except that now one of its causes was a war extensively covered by the media, which gave the play its political edge. “We had a national tour there,” Mellor says unsurprisingly.
Then there were co-productions with other theatre companies across Australia. Picasso at the Lapin Agile was an odd choice given that neither the theme nor the playwright Steve Martin was Australian. Yet it was an instant hit on Broadway and the Belvoir Street Company had obtained only a season later the rights to showcase this gem of a play that brings together the young Picasso and the young Einstein in a famous Parisian café. Why it was “originally workshopped at Playbox” is unclear, as Mellor only says, “and then we brought that (production) in”.
Martin’s play opened at Playbox in the second half of October 1994. Only the day before, another Playbox coproduction played the Victorian Arts Centre before the festival crowd. It was Tony Perez’ drama On the North Diversion Road later to be adapted for the film screen, but at that point in time the Filipino playwright was primarily known in Melbourne for his projects and workshops at TheatreWorks, a small community theatre in the coastal suburb of St Kilda that had its own faithful patrons. The concept of Perez’s play recalls indeed a project that was TheatreWorks’ signature piece. Titled “Storming Mont Albert by Tram”, it was developed around the concept called by its devisors “location theatre”, Hannie Rayson writes in her autobiography Hello, Beautiful! 1 But the performance of On the North Diversion Road was a Playbox initiative and it led to a whole new program.
“We sent Malcolm (Robertson) off to the Philippines and he directed Away by Michael Gow there. And I programmed On the North Diversion Road and we brought Tony Perez out as well as the director also from the Philippines, which was an interesting thing to do,” Mellor says and then explains why.
“It is important for the playwright to see his or her play performed or interpreted by another culture, terribly important, and I saw that happen with Joanna Murray-Smith and others who we managed to get produced overseas. We called this “telling each other stories”.
“It is an easy concept and now other artistic directors have picked it up. All you have to do is say ‘No’ to all the money that bleeds Australia by paying your rights to another British play. You have to say, well, I’ll do one of your plays, if you do one of my plays.”
This is how The Head of Mary by Tanaka Chikao got to be shown in Melbourne the following season. Mellor remembers reading a lot of Japanese plays sent to him and mailing a lot of Australian plays to Tokyo around the time Japan was commemorating the heavy bombardment of Kobe in WW2. He was looking for something that would appeal to Australian audience, as “there is no point having something that’s totally Japanese and the audience wouldn’t understand it,” he says.
“Traditional Japanese theatre, like Kabuki and Noh, can be very alienating and rather foreign and tends not to work terribly well overseas, but contemporary plays will work in other countries because we have more things in common these days. So, I found this play The Head of Mary and they chose The Floating World by John Romeril.”
Both plays demonstrated the horrors of war, but from opposite perspectives. And yet, the intention was the same.
“The Head of Mary is about the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, the second bomb, the unnecessary bomb,” Mellor says. “The big irony is that the Americans never seemed to realise that Nagasaki was a Christian city because of its early opening to the Portuguese influence.”
Mellor is referring to the period between 1562 and 1580 when foreign ships began to dock at Yokoseura after its lord Omura Sumitada converted to Christianity, adopting the name Dom Bartolomeu. In 1571, Dom Bartolomeu granted some land to the Jesuits in the small fishermen’s village of Nagasaki where Christians exiled from other territories and the Portuguese traders were to live.
Tanaka Chikao’s play is about Catholicism in the ruins of Nagasaki, says Mellor. “The characters are dying of nuclear poisoning and burns, and a group of survivors that is just hanging onto life goes to the head of Mary that has fallen off the statue from the cathedral, trying to solve their problems through their religion.”
“So, we had two plays that were strongly anti-war, The Floating World and The Head of Mary, and both were performed at festivals, at the Tokyo Festival and at the Melbourne International Arts Festival. We alternated nightly, we would do one play and then the other, and we did the same in Melbourne. I think it was an extraordinary event.”
Mellor recalls with incredulity how they worked out “all that design” in the days when electronic transfer of documents was still unavailable. This was by no means the only hurdle, John Beckett, set and lighting designer for The Head of Mary, explains in an email. “Two Head of Mary sets and two Floating World sets were built as it was uneconomic at the time to transport original sets. One of each was built both in Tokyo and in Melbourne.”
“My involvement with The Floating World was to transpose the original Japanese design for staging in the Merlyn Theatre at Malthouse and to produce the technical drawings required for construction of their set in the Malthouse workshops.”
The director and designer of Romeril's play was Sato Makoto; the director of Chikao’s play was Aubrey Mellor. But for the Japanese critics, the Australian concept for The Head of Mary was the novelty that pulled at their heartstrings. “It was this production which won for Playbox the distinguished Ichimura Prize for best foreign production of a Japanese theme,” Mellor says.
“It was judged in the same Tokyo International Festival against Seven Streams of the River Ota, the great work of Robert Lepage.”
Audience response, however, came to everyone as a total surprise. “Our production of The Head of Mary was a huge success in Tokyo and a big failure in Melbourne, and The Floating World was a huge success in Melbourne and a bit of a failure in Tokyo,” Mellor says.
He ascribes it to people’s love of seeing their own history or their own literature interpreted by another culture. “So, the way the Japanese saw The Floating World, using the puppets, was fascinating for the Melbourne people. While the Japanese were fascinated by how the Australians did one of their famous plays.”
What neither side liked was a reminder of their respective acts of cruelty. For, Romeril’s play shows the horrors of what the Japanese actually did during WW2, while The Head of Mary shows how the US, our close ally, forced the Japanese into capitulation, turning a blind eye to the bomb’s grisly effect on the civilians.
The credits for ingenious production design have gone to John Beckett twice already in Mellor’s evocation of the plays he programmed at the Playbox Theatre Centre of Monash University. Beckett came to Australia from the UK upon the invitation of Peter Oyston “to be the Technical Director of the Victorian College of the Arts,” the late founding Dean (Drama) says in his 2009 interview with James Waites.2 Oyston was for a brief period of 18 months himself artistic director of the Playbox Theatre.3 In contrast, Beckett’s ties with Playbox got stronger and stronger over the years and the monograph Playbox at The CUB Malthouse records how extensive they were.
“As Designer and Theatre Consultant to the Malthouse redevelopment project, John Beckett has been primarily responsible both for the broad layout of the entire complex and for the brilliant design and detailed technical specifications of both playspaces, the more intimate of which has been named The Beckett in his honour.”
Published for the opening of the repurposed CUB Malthouse in 1990, this “pictorial history” contains the complete list of productions in a string of venues used by the company since its inception in 1976, showing that the first plays John Beckett designed for Playbox were Bullsh by Bill Read (co-designed with Gerry Nixon) and Innocent Bystanders by Gordon Graham way back in 1978, with Malcolm Robertson as director of both.
Beckett is also the designer of a 1995 performance permanently etched in this author’s memory, All Souls by Daniel Keene. Commissioned by the Red Shed Company, Adelaide, it was originally produced in 1993, with Rhonda Wilson in the role of an old vagrant woman Phillipa. Two years later Wilson directed the play for Playbox, casting Beverley Dunn as Phillipa.
I can still see in my mind’s eye this marvellous actress sitting in a pool of light, her hands talking in unison with her voice.
PHILLIPA: See ‘em? These are my hands. I’ve ‘erd them singing like birds. They won’t sing for thee. See how they are? The bones are still growing inside. When they’re finished I’ll be dead. They won’t be hands. Be wings. To carry the rest of me away. Rest of me’ll be dead. I won’t know.
Interspersed with verse, Phillipa’s evocative speech sets the context for what is yet to come:
Listen. It’s night. Of All Souls. Here live those not yet in heaven nor sent to Hell. All Souls they are. And this night’s named for them.
I’ll tell thee.
With each scene the pair of figures and the settings they respectively inhabit change until finally the spaces converge. Yet the atmosphere of misery, of being let down by life, of unfulfilled dreams pervades the play throughout and the lighting, also Beckett’s creation, heightened the feeling of helplessness in performance.
“John was the designer that made things happen with the theatre spaces,” Mellor says. “But he wasn’t that interested in doing a lot of stage design or lighting design any more. He had been there, done that. He was onto his next set of ideas.”
Mellor considers himself “lucky to have worked with John”. His thoughts then turn to Keene.
“Daniel is the master of the short play and All Souls somehow successfully puts three short plays together to make a longer play,” Mellor says.
“I think Daniel is very important to us and yet he hasn’t become a national name—he is certainly a big name in Europe—because Australian audiences do not particularly like short plays and never have. Short plays have always belonged with amateur theatre, so the one-act play never really took off professionally in Australia.
“But when you put a series of short plays together with, you know, artistic pause between them and with the artistic vision that Daniel often had with them, all is well.”
For Mellor, another performance event stands out among Keene’s body of work. “I’ll never forget when Daniel did a series of short plays in St Vincent de Paul, with real poor people outside. It was about street dwellers,” he says.
He also recalls the “big success” of Cho Cho San based on Belasco’s one-act play that Puccini saw in London and, captivated by its romantic take on love, chose for the libretto of Madama Butterfly. Playbox toured Keene’s dramatization of the story across Australia in the late 1980s, which was later reworked and “did a big China tour only a few years ago,” Mellor says.
In memory, time flies. Carrillo Gantner resets it to the pace of history.
“The 2013 production was a new bilingual version (the Chinese based on Daniel Keene’s script) set in Shanghai, with an entirely new music score by a Chinese composer. It was initiated and produced by Playking Productions in association with Arts Centre Melbourne and the National Theatre of China.”
“The cast came from China and Australia, with Peter Wilson as director and Ziyin Gantner as producer. It played in Beijing and the Shenzhen Festival in China, and then Arts Centre Melbourne and Sydney in Australia.”
All that burst of creativity shows how fruitful the bridging of cultures can be, but it also reflects the changing spirit of the times. For, there was a new twist to the familiar story. The Chinese were unhappy with the heroine’s tragic end and wanted her to live on, Keene told the journalists after a performance of Cho Cho San at the Arts Centre, in Melbourne.
The poetic idiom used spontaneously by Keene to connote emotions cannot be more different from the language of Sweet Phoebe, Michael Gow’s play first performed by the Sydney Theatre Company in 1994 and brought to the Playbox Theatre Centre of Monash University a year later. Gow wrote his playtext “without punctuation, not even capitalisation”, inspired by his work on two classical plays at the Sydney Theatre Company. In his foreword to the Currency Press edition of Sweet Phoebe, he explains how the experiment worked.
“All the actors were given were the words they had to say to each other. Learning lines was memorising only the sounds without subtle, often unconscious patterns already dictated by commas, full stops and so on.”
For the reader of Sweet Phoebe, where the punctuation should go is easy to tell. For experienced actors, it could hardly have been any different. How the speech without intonation, which partly determines the meaning, could be convincing rather than mechanistic, is hard to imagine. Gow’s language is dry and factual, it drives the action, while the characters’ emotions remain implicit in the moves taken. Yet Sweet Phoebe is about love, love of a dog. All the rest is collateral damage. Gow directed the play, so the task of solving this inherent contradiction in performance was his.
Showcasing the diversity of Australian works for theatre was a Playbox policy. Earlier in the 1995 season, Mellor had directed a Louis Nowra play whose language reflected experience in all its richness. “I was attracted to the play springing from the idea of Joh Bjelke Petersen, the Premier of Queensland, who dominated much of my teen years,” he says.
“The idea of a politician who thinks he has God in his pocket is perhaps more relevant to today, both in Australia and in (the wake of) Trump years. I also like the idea of principles and integrity which can't be bought or budged.”
The Incorruptible exposes the deceptive promise of perfection in life and in politics. It contrasts mythical vision with political pragmatism and vulgar hedonism, showing that perfection is unattainable and, when pursued blindly, deadly. Each attitude is reflected in the idiom spoken, composing a polyphony of voices authentic as life itself.
“There was always a mix of something new to try out and a trusted playwright like Nowra,” Mellor says.
Another “trusted playwright” was Nick Enright, whose now famous drama Good Works 4 played in the Beckett Theatre alongside The Incorruptible in the Merlyn. Written the year before, it won Enright the Green Room Award for Best New Play in 1995,5 a positive sign that the departure from the notion of a “well-made play” was no longer considered a fault, but the new norm. “Nick tried many different chronologies until abandoning logic,” Mellor says.
“He wrote scene numbers on a set of cards, shuffled them, threw them up in the air, gathered them up and neatened the pack. The order of the numbers became the new order of the play—leaping forward and back through time.”
The third “trusted playwright” was Alex Buzo, whose play Pacific Union opened after the season break.
Unlike Buzo’s earlier work which conveyed a sense of immediacy, Pacific Union came across as a lesson in history. It sought to portray H.V. Evatt as a man and politician, shining a light on the role he played in the drawing up of the UN Charter, against the last gasps of WW2. The play was directed by Malcolm Robertson who had a mammoth task of bringing out the key moments in the negotiating process clouded in the playtext by superfluous detail. Robertson won the Green Room Award for Best Director for his solution to the challenge. A look at the play decades later reinforces the memory. It is as comprehensive as a dissertation and its Currency Press edition even contains a Select Bibliography.
“What I was doing there was programming a Melbourne writer and an Australian writer, a national writer,” Mellor says obviously struggling to find the right term for a writer whose identity is not tied to Melbourne. “That was rather conscious, I think, in my programming.”
Two productions mounted towards the end of the 1995 season attest to Mellor’s effort “to get a balance between men and women writers” right from the start. Honour, Joanna Murray-Smith’s next play on family issues that calls for a re-examination of cultural values embedded in female psyche, was an instant hit. Katharine Brisbane, theatre reviewer and publisher of Currency Press until her retirement in 2001, saw it as “an immaculately orchestrated study of what articulate, educated Australians value in their private lives, in a way no other Australian author has yet mastered.”6
The impact achieved with a deft choice of words, pauses and incomplete sentences from an otherwise highly eloquent woman had a long reach, beyond national boundaries. The play received a public reading with Meryl Streep on Broadway only three years after the Playbox premiere, it played the National Theatre, London in 2003 and in the West End in 2006, not to mention foreign language productions.
Deidre Rubinstein’s solo show What’s a Girl to Do?, the only devised work to be showcased at Playbox that season, was another highlight. A co-production of Back Row Productions and Playbox, it featured a compilation of poems written by contemporary Australian women and originally performed as part of a four-play series programmed by Gantner in 1993. The following year Rubinstein recited it at the Stables Theatre in Sydney, returning to Playbox in 1995, after winning spectators’ hearts at the Edinburgh Fringe.
“Deidre’s show was something of a unique piece in the 1995 Festival,” Robert Taylor, lighting designer for the show, says.
“Combining songs and poetry it was touching, moving, sad and funny, while all the other shows were comedies or comedians. As a result, it garnered quite a bit of interest including BBC Radio interviews and a programme called Usual Suspects, three reviews in the print press (including Michael Billington’s) and an invitation for Deidre to appear in the Festival closing performance with the headliners (live to London).
“Several celebrities including Ronnie Corbett dropped in to see the show. Audiences loved it and—in a Fringe Festival where I saw several shows with less than five in the audience—Deidre’s audience built on word-of-mouth from 18 to 66 in a few days. As the Supper Room only sat a maximum of 90, we were playing to about 75 percent capacity.”
Women often chose to interpret their own work at Playbox, in the spirit of confessional writing. While The Passion and its Deep Connection with Lemon Delicious Pudding by Sue Ingleton was written for the cast of seven, the dramatist played the main role herself. The play followed a woman on her voyage of self-discovery and was the work of untrammelled imagination, its sensuous quality permeating the real enmeshed with the mythical. Mellor found it “highly theatrical and innovative” but the mind’s meandering between memories of suburban life and the images imported from legends led to “a series of disasters with designers”. Frequent change of setting resisted naturalistic representation and that could still be a problem.
The proportion of female writers was to increase in the seasons to come. “And there’s a very interesting reason, because men are quite selfish, as you know,” Mellor says anecdotally. “Men will make time to write, because they all have the support of a partner who helps them with their lives while they create. Now, most women will not do this. Women don’t naturally take the time to write a play. They have to be commissioned, so I began to commission.”
The results of that policy, along with other initiatives that earned the Playbox Theatre Centre of Monash University the status of ‘a niche company’ in Australia, will be explored in Part Two.
1. Hello, Beautiful! Scenes from a Life by Hannie Rayson, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 2015
2. James Waites, Interview with Peter John Oyston for the Oral History and Folklore Collection at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, 9 October 2009, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-219135347/listen (accessed 18 March 2019)
3. For more, see ‘Remembering Peter Oyston: Champion of Community Theatre, Director, Educator’ (Parts 1 & 2), On Stage magazine, THA, https://theatreheritage.org.au/on-stage-magazine/general-articles/item/577-remembering-peter-oyston-champion-of-community-theatre-director-educator-part-1
4. Interesting story about Nick writing Good Works. He tried many different chronologies until abandoning logic he wrote scene numbers on a set of cards, shuffled them, threw them up in the air, gathered them up and neatened the pack. The order of the numbers because the new order of the play—leaping forward and back through time. Aubrey Mellor in an email, 21 February 2021.
5. Source: The Green Room Awards website
6. Katharine Brisbane, ‘Middle-Class Morality’ in Joanna Murray-Smith, Honour, Currency Press, Sydney, 2006