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Features Published 4 January 2016

Tom Holloway: “There’s this weight of history in British theatre.”

The playwright talks to William Drew about the differences between the British and Australian theatre scenes, and about the heartbreaking history of child transportation behind his play, Forget Me Not.
William Drew
Credit: Helen Murray

Credit: Helen Murray

I first met Tom Holloway in 2004 on the Young Writers’ Programme at the Royal Court. For most of us, it’s fair to say we were excited about the opportunity that programme presented: a prestigious theatre, Simon Stephens as our tutor, etc. Tom, though, had flown to the other side of the world to be the programme, which took the form, at that time, of 10 weekly meetings on Monday evenings in the little shed in the alleyway near Sloane Square tube station, known as The Site.

I remember him as wanting to know everything about British theatre. He already knew a huge amount but now was his time to experience it first hand. He was wide-eyed and with a purpose, drinking everything in. He would tell us how much the Australian theatre looked towards the British and particularly the Royal Court, when it came to new plays. He was even interviewed before coming out there.

In the years that have passed, Tom has established himself as one of the leading Australian playwrights of his generation. His plays have had a number of successful productions in the UK, most notably No More Shall We Part, at Hampstead Theatre Downstairs and the Traverse, directed by James Macdonald.

It’s been these productions as well as various residencies that have brought Tom back over to the UK and given me the opportunity to hang out with him. He is still one of the people I enjoy talking about theatre with most. He has remained dedicated to writing “straight plays” but like Mike Bartlett and Duncan Macmillan, our contemporaries from the same 2004 YWP group, he has frequently investigated the limits and possibilities of that form. He is keenly aware of other kinds of work, sees and reads everything.

He is no longer wide eyed though. Being as plugged in as he is to the British theatre scene gives him a particular insight as a semi-outsider. When he talks about the British and Australian theatre scenes now, it’s almost with a certain distance from both and the clarity that distance provides:

“I think Australian theatre now sits somewhere between London and Berlin, as far as its influences. There’s a longer tradition which is very much connected to the UK and the US, looking to big successful plays in London and New York, theatres like the Royal Court and the National particularly. What I notice when I work here is that there’s this weight of history in British theatre and sometimes that’s amazing because it can mean a greater level of sophistication. Other times though, that can be too much and not having the weight of that tradition is freeing. And that’s the case in Australia.”

One of the aspects of British theatre that Tom has been confronted with is one that is particular to the “new writing” industry and that’s the idea that the first production of a play should “serve the playwright”. Curiously, it’s something most playwrights I know have little interest in:

I do think that, from the playwright’s perspective, what you want a first production of a play to do is to check if the play is robust, if it will stand up other interpretations. But that’s it. If you wanted to have an iron grip on the material, then the theatre isn’t for you. It’s collaborative.

This looking towards other places that Tom describes in the Australian theatre is one aspect of the national psyche that has deep roots. At the beginning of the 20th Century, a variety of acts were passed by the Australian government that togethere became known as the White Australia Policy. It was an attempt by the newly independent nation to forge its own national identity along ethnic lines. Tom explains that it’s something of a misnomer:

It wasn’t just the white Australia policy. It was the English Australia policy. They favoured the white English and white people from English speaking countries. There were a lot of Italians and Greeks after World War II and it was partly a way of keeping them out. As well as China. A lot of Chinese were forced out. As a nation, we were pretty terrified of becoming Chinese. It was known as the Yellow Peril. We know what we’re not, or what we don’t want to be, but we don’t know what we are. That’s how we define ourselves. What we’re not.

These racist policies in Australia combined with an aspect of British colonialism – the practice of moving people around the Empire to plug labour shortages – to create the great injustice of Child Migration. In this case, the shortages were not just in Australia but Canada and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and the people were children: poor children frequently with parents on the breadline. In some cases, the children volunteered. In others, their parents let it happen because they believed their child would have a better life on the other side of the world. In some, there was deceit involved. The official line was that all the children were orphans and that the scheme was about giving British orphans a better life elsewhere.

Tom’s play on the subject, Forget Me Not, is his first commission from a British theatre. Liverpool Everyman co-commissioned it with the Belvoir in Sydney. It is currently getting his first British production at the Bush, two years after the Sydney debut. In it, he focuses this large scale tragedy on one individual called Gerry in his 60s, his family and his attempt to reconnect with the mother he was separated from as a toddler.

Through the character of Gerry’s daughter, the play opens up space to examine an aspect of the tragedy that became very apparent in Tom’s research: that trauma doesn’t remain locked into one individual. It is passed on to the next generation. These children were ripped away from their families, from their parents and from their community. They were sent to work on huge farms in the middle of nowhere and sexual and physical abuse was common. What this means is they were never taught to love. They didn’t have the tools and many have serious trust issues.

I am shocked at the scale of this: government-sanctioned people trafficing and slavery. Child migrants were not given Australian citizenship and their British citizenship was no longer recognised so they were stateless. I ask Tom if this is a well known issue in Australia, as I’m appalled that I hadn’t heard of it before coming across his play: “It’s not well known, no. I knew very little about it before Suzanne Bell [from Liverpool Everyman] approached me about it as a subject.”

In his research, what hit home to Tom was how recent it all is. Something that seems so barbaric. The last child migrants were sent out in the 1960s (the White Australia policy was essentially abandoned after the Migration Act in 1966). Having said that, there is a real practical difference that can be made to those who are still living with the consequences of this policy. The work that the Child Migrants Trust does in reuniting families is urgent. Many are in their 60s now. So their parents are likely to be in their 90s. There isn’t that much time left

It’s difficult to know what’s harder to imagine: realising that you have a mother when you’ve lived your whole life thinking you’re an orphan, or being so desperately poor that you’re willing to give your own child away so that it can have a better life. As Tom emerges from a preview, he is visibly shaken but forces a smile. In the time between first writing the play and this production, Tom and his partner had a baby boy: Harry. It’s harder to watch now, he says.

“When you have a child, you just want the best for them. You’d do anything”.

Forget Me Not is on at the Bush Theatre until the 16th January. You can book tickets here, or read Sally Hales’s review of the play for Exeunt here

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William Drew

William Drew is a writer and games designer based in London. He makes work at the intersection between live performance and gaming as Venice as a Dolphin and an associate of Coney. As well as Exeunt, he has written for Wired UK, Rock Paper Shotgun and Unwinnable. In the past, he worked at the Royal Court Theatre and the Young Vic and he's been a script reader for the National Theatre, Hampstead and Traverse Theatres. You can find out more about his work here: http://www.veniceasadolphin.com

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