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.
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