Aubrey Mellor: I was serving the playwright (Part 1)

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The Malthouse TheatrePhoto: The home of Malthouse Theatre, formerly the home of Playbox Theatre Centre of Monash University. Courtesy of Zoran Novaković.

An extensive telephone interview with Aubrey Mellor, artistic director of the Playbox Theatre Centre at the Malthouse, 1994-2004, forms the basis for JASNA NOVAKOVIĆ’s exploration of the work and achievements of this Melbourne company dedicated for more than ten years to nurturing Australian playwrights and to affirming Australian cultural identities.

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.

Endnotes

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

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Jasna Novaković

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.