When I first started reading Australian plays as part of the research for my current directing project, it got me thinking about how little we see of Australian writing on the British stage. In fact, one of the only productions I could think of was the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert. Could it be that in the UK, raised on a diet of Neighbours, we’re convinced that’s all Australian drama has to offer? You could counter that there have been films, but where are the plays?
Knowing my interest, a friend passed me the script of Captain Swift by the 19th Century Australian dramatist Charles Haddon Chambers. He was a huge success in his day, with over 30 shows on in the West End and Broadway, yet is virtually unknown today in the UK, America or Australia.
Captain Swift, a comedy in four parts, was staged at the Haymarket Theatre in London and tells the story of a Queensland Bushranger, Captain Swift, who comes to London wanting to change his dangerous lifestyle. He is taken in by a British family and falls in love with one of their daughters, only for his wayward past to be uncovered.
Although Captain Swift did well, it was the last of Chambers’ plays to feature an Australian character. Although he continued to write works that focused on outsiders upsetting polite British society, in later plays the protagonists became American. Eventually, he moved away from referencing his home country at all, in a striking example of ‘cultural cringe’, the phrase coined by Australian social commentator A.A Phillips in 1950 to describe the perceived inferiority felt by local thinkers and artists about their own achievements when compared to European works.
It may well be the case that the ‘cultural cringe’ prevented Australian work from being taken seriously in the past, but it would be a shame if these outdated attitudes prevented audiences from getting to know some of the gems of contemporary Australian drama.
Australian theatre has come a long way since Haddon Chambers, and yet we still haven’t seen a huge amount of Australian plays on the British stage. Notable exceptions include David Williamson’s Up for Grabs, which came to London in 2002 with Madonna in one of the lead roles (which was neither a commercial or critical success) and Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling at the Almeida in 2009. Yet the Australian theatre scene continues to grow, both in terms of the diversity of work on offer, and in popularity. Melbourne now has more theatre attenders per capita than either London or New York, yet stagings of Australian theatre works in the UK remain few and far between.
It’s simply not the case that Australian plays are culturally specific and don’t speak to audiences in other countries. Lally Katz, one of Australia’s most popular and widely produced playwrights, has won awards for her work in New York, but is barely known in the UK. It was through Katz, whose play The Eisteddfod I’m directing at the moment, that I first began to discover the treasures that contemporary Australian theatre has to offer.
Katz writes with enormous heart and playfulness. Her writing is wild, beautifully theatrical and human. The Eisteddfod is about grief, co-dependence, longing and how an agoraphobic brother and sister use fantasy to survive. But it is so much more than that because of Katz’s extraordinary courage as a writer. Scenes take place inside the characters’ minds, inside Katz’s mind; it is never clear what dimension the action is in. It is all cheeky, funny, a kind of lovesong to the eighties; shellsuits and Bryan Adams. And ultimately heartbreaking.
While I’m nervous of making sweeping cultural generalisations, The Eisteddfod doesn’t feel like an English play to me because it embraces chaos and is not afraid of being childish – and I think it is that childish connection with the audience that makes it fun and joyful to watch, and heartbreaking too. The Eisteddfod feels to me to be written with a complete lack of self-consciousness, really uses theatre and is free from convention – and as a director I have found it liberating to work on for that reason.
The other play in the double bill is Holiday by Raimondo Cortese, another brilliant Australian writer whose work isn’t well known here. It’s a play full of wonder; two men sit and talk by a paddling pool and occasionally burst into a capella duets about longing and the divine nature of love. There is a gently absurd poetry to their conversation. Like two detectives, they perch on bar stools in their speedos, sifting through life’s oddities. The writing is highly orchestrated, and often hilarious. Demonstrating a kind of minimalism I haven’t seen before, Holiday is theatre of the moment. I am so proud to be presenting it in London because I really don’t think audiences will have seen anything like it – in previews many people commented on how utterly unique it is.
It has been such a thrill working on these two plays by such incredible playwrights. I feel that what they have to offer is genuinely new, and I hope that by presenting them, it will encourage others to consider reading and staging contemporary Australian plays, so that British audiences can discover more gems from down under.
The double bill of Holiday and The Eisteddfod is at the CLF Art CafÃ© (aka the Bussey Building) until 4 June. For more info visit www.clfartcafe.org.
Photo: Robert Workman.