A State of Play essay by Jane Bodie
In May this year, I telephoned my mum in London from my home in Melbourne. These calls are tough, and I do them less than I should, because my mother’s suffering from dementia and each time I call, her decline is startlingly evident and sad and I’ve made my life far away. On this day, the call’s worse than usual – mum is clearly confused – my voice at the end of the phone convincing her I am downstairs at her front door in London. When I try to explain that I’m calling from Australia, she stops, falls quiet and then says, her voice terrifyingly small, Oh, of course, you live in Australia, I forgot and after a long pause, she asks, When are you coming to visit? By the end of the call, it’s transpired that she’s no longer letting in the carers that I organised two years ago for her, and she states defiantly that she’s getting on with her life. I (or perhaps both of us) sense the inevitable axe falling on life as it has been. I get off the phone and book a flight to London the next week.
Before I fly out, Tom at AustralianPlays.org asks if I’d be interested in writing an essay for them. I tell him I’m going to London for a month. We discuss me writing about the differences between the new writing scene here and there, what it might mean to be a playwright who has existed in both places. I say yes, though I’m slightly worried by how I’ll frame the essay and what I might discover if I go looking. I’m currently feeling unsure about being a playwright in Australia, or maybe just being a playwright, but I know that having something to distract me from the sadness of my mum’s situation will be good. I also know writing has always been the thing that saved me from everything else in my life. And I do have a play to write, that’s due in two months, and perhaps writing about writing, and my relationship with the two countries that have been my home, will help me bloody write it.
I arrive in London at the end of May; it’s uncharacteristically warm and sunny. Brexit is the looming debate on everybody’s lips. Everyone I know is sure England will make the right, the only choice, and remain part of Europe. I breathe a sigh of relief at that fact and at being here for a rare English summer. The play, People, Places and Things by Duncan Macmillan is the hit of London. I try to get a ticket and am told it’d be easier to get front row seats at Wimbledon, or to Yerma, in a new version by Simon Stone, which is also very sold out. I marvel at how a new play and a retelling of a classic are the talk of the town. It’s good to be home. But I’m here for my mum, and from the moment I arrive it’s clear she’s no longer coping in the house she has lived and worked in for 50 years, but that she has no intention of leaving. It’s also the house I was conceived and raised in, so I get where she’s coming from.
I grew up in London, but became a playwright in Australia. I wrote my first play at seven (it was terrible) and my slightly improved second at thirteen, after seeing Théâtre de Complicite‘s early play, A Minute Too Late. I was immediately convinced I was going to be a playwright, and my mum encouraged this decision. My mother, Sue Dunkley, was a painter who brought us up on sales of her work, so in truth I was simply following her lead. I moved to Australia in my twenties, I worked in pubs, then in casting in Melbourne until I audaciously formed a new theatre company with the best actors that had walked through Channel 7’s doors. I’m not sure what convinced me I had the skills or the right to form a company, other than a voracious love of plays and theatre, but living on the other side of the world seemed to have made me imaginative and fearless. I wrote my first play (well, my third) on a snowboarding trip; I hate all sports and stayed indoors for the entire weekend, chain smoking and writing on the blank pages in my diary. Two days before, I’d also seen Who’s Afraid of The Working Class? at the Melbourne Workers Theatre. It had made my heart stop and stayed in my mind like a vivid, urgent dream. At the end of the weekend, I’d written Fourplay, a play about love and obsession, and within two weeks, a series of scenes and monologues that became Face 2 Face and Still. It was a prolific month. I left my job in casting (I’m pretty sure I got sacked for being shit at admin) and got a job washing dishes. All I knew was that I wanted to write, for actors, I needed to write; people with stories were pouring out of me. I wasn’t sure if I was any good, but had a feeling that the burning urge I had would somehow translate to something compelling, or if not, human and true. Serendipitously, I’d managed to gather a brilliant group of actors together. Fiona Macleod, Casey Bennetto, Mike Mcleish, Ben Grant, Laura Sheedy and I formed a company over the next year. We put on my plays Face to Face, Still and Fourplay. All three plays were picked up for Edinburgh Fringe and also had successful seasons at the Trades Hall in Melbourne. The actors and I got good reviews, even ending up with a small wage. We drove to Aireys Inlet for a holiday together. It seemed I was becoming a playwright after all.
I had this feeling that my plays were more easily understood in England, hence the success in Edinburgh, that I was writing an Australian vernacular and landscape with an English sensibility and wit. But I was happy and growing more fearless by the second. It’s only now I realise what a gift moving to Australia was. The courage caused by being a stranger in a new world, amongst new language and customs, drew me in and forced me to understand and think in a new way about the words we use to speak to each other and what they mean, crystallising what I’d always wanted to write about – relationships, communication, silence and being human.
Things were starting to go well for me as a playwright, I’d made friends with writers I admired, Ben Ellis and Ross Mueller. Hannie Rayson had bought me coffee and given me sound advice, I’d even written it in my passport. Simon Phillips and Julian Meyrick read Fourplay and left messages on my answer machine telling me to come and talk to them about writing a play for the MTC. Instead, I took my latest play to Edinburgh, Ride, which I directed, with actors Fiona Macleod and Todd Macdonald. The play was a hit, and on the trip I met and fell in love with a rising playwright. It sealed my fate. After a year of us both emailing frantically from internet cafes, I came home, or rather, back to England. The relationship was a car crash as those long distances loves can be, but I got myself a job teaching playwriting at The Royal Court Theatre, and another stage of my life began.
My mother was also a teacher. For years stupidly handsome art students followed us on holiday. I realise now they were infatuated with my beautiful, elusive mum, but she had enough on her plate. Since being back here, many of her students have got in touch, written to me of how inspiring mum’s lessons were. One wrote of how she made him stare out the window for an hour, until he had found more than ten different colours in the falling snow.
It’s mid June in London. I am supposed to fly back to Australia in a week, to teach at Monash. It’s clear I can’t leave my mother; her confusion is escalating and the house, once an elegant chaos of creativity and art, is now a danger zone. Mum will no longer let carers in at all and has stopped eating. Her doctor, who initially shared my view that mum was deriving pleasure from her house and the remains of a life, now agrees. She needs to go into care. It is the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make – it feels violent and final. When my mum’s boiler dies, her brother Jim takes her in a taxi to the nicest care home we have found, as I can’t do it. The house stands silent, like a deserted ship. Two nights before Britain puts us to shame and votes to leave Europe. For a week I’m in shock, filled with a looming dread at both events, knowing life will never be the same. I stand in my mother’s house, lined from wall to wall with her handwritten notes, photos, sketches, debris filling all gaps on the floor. I know I have to clear it, but don’t know how to begin. I also know that a first draft of my play is due in 4 weeks and that I have lost its thread. I have forgotten what it was that I wanted it to say.
|I stand in my mother’s house, lined from wall to wall with her handwritten notes, photos, sketches, debris filling all gaps on the floor. I know I have to clear it, but don’t know how to begin. I also know that a first draft of my play is due in 4 weeks and that I have lost its thread. I have forgotten what it was that I wanted it to say.|
Friends bring soup, dustbin bags and wine. We clear the house, and I begin to uncover my mother’s art from the last fifty years. I’d always known it was here; I’d grown up around it being made, hanging in the house. I was banned from entering her studio, the largest room in the house. But as we begin to stand the work up, lining the walls, it starts to shout of its history. Everyone who enters the house is overwhelmed by it. I’d planned to put the art into storage, but standing in front of it, knowing mum was no longer able to organise a show, and will now never be, I decide I am going to hold a retrospective for mum and her work, in the house. It’s the only thing to do. On the first day of sorting, I find a book of poems by Simon Armitage. I’m not sure anymore if the book is mine or mum’s. But, inside on the first page, it’s inscribed to me by the playwright Simon Stephens. The book falls open on a page –
Mother any distance
Mother, any distance greater than a single span
requires a second pair of hands.
You come to help me measure windows, pelmets, doors,
the acres of the walls, the prairies of the floors.
You at the zero-end, me with the spool of tape, recording
length, reporting metres, centimetres back to base, then leaving
up the stairs, the line still feeding out, unreeling
years between us. Anchor. Kite.
I space-walk through the empty bedrooms, climb
the ladder to the loft, to breaking point, where something
has to give;
two floors below your fingertips still pinch
the last one-hundredth of an inch…I reach
towards a hatch that opens on an endless sky
to fall or fly.
I learned to teach playwriting at The Royal Court. I worked alongside Simon Stephens. I remember the mission statement written by George Devine (the theatre’s first artistic director), from 1956 being read out in our first session. He talked of taking trouble with the promising dramatist and the air of anticipation and power amongst the new writers was palpable. Over two years I watched as incredibly experienced directors got down on the floor with 17 year-old new writers to ask, with genuine respect, intrigue, tell me what this means, so I can make it work. I learned there that plays were living things; were wrought, not just written, hence the title ‘playwright’. I learned that if playwrights could imagine worlds (as John Osborne, Sarah Kane, Edward Bond, Mark Ravenhill had done here), then the director’s job was to make that world possible, in the most powerful way. I learned an immense respect for playwrights’ craft – that if a play works, in saying something about who we are and how we live, then that is something to be prized. I learned from playwrights old and new, I drank them in – Caryl Churchill, Beckett, Pinter, Joe Penhall, Debbie Tucker Green, David Harrower, Leo Butler – and also those of my students, Nick Paine and Evan Placey. I learned that Devine backed his playwrights however the critics savaged them, and that it paid off. I had no doubt about what a job it was to write a play, but I now knew it was the only job for me.
Some years later, I moved back to Australia to be Head of Playwriting at NIDA. I taught playwriting the way I would have liked to be taught, the invaluable lessons I’d learned made simple and clear. I wanted to celebrate and demystify the craft needed to write a dramatic text, whatever form it took. I wanted my playwrights to be angry, curious, articulate, humble and bulletproof: to know when they were good or bad, to stand by their work and ideas. I got experienced directors in to direct my students’ first plays. Many of the students are still out there being playwrights, including Dan Giavononni, Jess Bellamy, Maree Freeman, Philip Kavanagh, Chris Summers and Julian Larnach. Later, when I worked at Griffin and Playwriting Australia, my respect for writers grew. I felt lucky to work in significant new writing venues and organisations that cared – though felt some of the job, our job, was still fighting for writers’ rights, the rights of their plays, rights they should have had from the start.
In London, it’s August, I’ve been here two months. Mum is not settling in the home, but she’s safe and on some visits she tells me that the staff are kind and the food is good. I now face the overwhelming job of finishing the house and curating her life’s work. My boyfriend flies in from Melbourne, like an angel. We hang fifty pieces of work and three days before the show opens, an arts writer from The Guardian arrives and is silenced by the art. He buys three paintings, tells me he thinks the work is going to go off, and that it’s under-priced. The show opens, 300 people turn up to the opening, a third of the work sells in an hour. The next morning The Guardian article comes out, calling mum a significant overlooked gem and talks of her importance as an artist. We’re slammed with visitors and have to buy more wine. I decide to extend the exhibition for a week. I’m overwhelmed and exhausted.
Tragically, mum can’t be brought out of the care home while she’s still settling, and she would be confused by the transformation of the house. So me and my boyfriend show her pictures of the art and tell her everybody thinks she’s a genius. She seems happy for a moment – though her bag’s still packed at the door. We officially close the doors a week later, with 90 percent of the work sold, except for the large Pop paintings of my childhood, which I’ve put on reserve. Everyone who visited asks, How did we not know about this work, where has it and your mother been? I answer with the truth – that she has been living in this house, working like a locomotive for fifty years; it’s just that people stopped looking. I ponder the parallels of being a female painter and writer in the 60’s and 70’s, and the undiscovered female Pop artists being discovered now. I remember I have my own play to write, and realise I’ve lost sight of myself. Cleaning the kitchen, I find a piece of paper shoved down the back of the fridge. I pull it out. It’s a photocopied quote from my mother’s own first teacher:
There is no method and no intention to speak of; there is only imagination and the facts learned so far from working. A completed work is not made, it emerges as a survivor out of a phase of action, struggling through the infinity of possibilities to reach the challenge of impossibility. (George Fullard, from The Painter and Sculptor)
|There is no method and no intention to speak of; there is only imagination and the facts learned so far from working. A completed work is not made, it emerges as a survivor out of a phase of action, struggling through the infinity of possibilities to reach the challenge of impossibility. (George Fullard, from The Painter and Sculptor)|
When I wrote A Single Act in 2003 for Sydney Theatre Company, as part of their Blueprints programme, I began to understand that my own plays emerged out of a struggle between two themes, subjects. One, a thing I knew intimately and could write from deep experience; the other was something I was curious about, a human question I had a burning urge to tackle -a thing urgent in my mind, but not fully discovered. These two subjects battled to occupy the narrative, as I searched for the characters and structure to tell both. Only when I had found the place within which both these subjects could unfold, would the play emerge. A Single Act is about two couples, both victims of violence. The play asks whether violence in our world affects intimacy and leads to violence in our relationships and also why someone might stay. I developed the play at STC, but the Hampstead Theatre in London programmed it first, alongside Dennis Kelly’s Osama The Hero. It was only after a successful season in the UK that Melbourne Theatre Company picked it up, after serious championing by Julian Meyrick, who went on to direct it. The play received a mixed response. It was very well reviewed; and a young audience and my artistic peers flocked to it, and seemed to find it powerful, moving and compelling. But some found it bleak, which it unapologetically was. The play won The NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 2006 and has since had productions in New York, Brazil and London again, but it’s yet to be done in Australia again.
My new play (the one I haven’t finished…) is about a young woman returning home to the place of her childhood, to a mother who has died. It’s about coming home and the anger, the damage of the siblings left behind, the guilt of leaving. It’s set in a world as far from my own childhood as possible, but is deeply rooted in my adopted country. Set on a remote country sheep farm, where the farm is failing, it’s a place and way of life I’ve always been fascinated by – the way the work and landscape shape its people. I know many of the important things about it already. I know its people, what they look and sound like. I know its rooms, the feel of its dust-filled heat, skyline. I know what its characters want and what’s making them suffer. I know the things they’re going to reveal, but I still don’t know when, or more importantly how these things will be revealed, not yet.
What seems to set playwrights and their plays apart to me is the release of information, the method and form. Though what’s revealed is often the same – people have done terrible, or good things, fallen in love, perhaps killed or had some wrong done to them in their past; on some level we must forgive them, or at least believe this has happened. Dramatic information needs be drip-fed at such a rate that it keeps us engaged, but also at a rate that we believe it when it happens and it affects what we already know and what we are about to learn – with a sense both surprise and inevitability.
Here in my mother’s house, I am constantly reminded of the role memory plays in a life, in the revealing of who people are as a result of what’s happened to them, and what they’ve held onto. I think of the plays I love, of how the device of memory is used to reveal crucial human truths – that Brick loved his best friend, a man, and not his beautiful wife in Cat On a Hot Tin Roof; that a father, Joe, whose son is missing, lives with the internal crippling knowledge that his actions caused the death of young servicemen, resulting in his own son’s suicide in All My Sons. That a seven year-old child has witnessed and stepped barefoot in the blood spilled on the floor of her own uncle’s brutalised captives, and now can’t sleep, in Churchill’s Far Away.
A journalist friend has scored two tickets to Yerma. We go to the beautiful Old Vic, push past the people queuing up around the building, for scarce-as-hens’-teeth returns. Simon Stone’s production is undoubtedly powerful and we are both moved. The performances, particularly Brendan Cowell’s, are breathtaking and visceral. But I can’t help thinking that Lorca didn’t envisage a ten-minute comic conversation about Deliveroo, an online food delivery service, when writing about a woman’s agonising and self-destructive desire to bear a child. What the play is essentially about at its core is still there. I would argue it’s that, the original themes, that make it still moving – that the desire in the play is still so rooted in what it reveals about womanhood, yearning and pain. When it’s revealed that Yerma had an abortion in her past, we realise she’s grieving for what she could have had, but chose to give away, a life lost. But on some level it’s been reduced to mediocrity, a play of easily accessible pop detail. Perhaps that’s why it’s a smash hit. And whilst the dialogue is sharp and slickly clever, I feel something is lost. I get home late, and am desperate to read the original text by Lorca – no doubt mum has it here, somewhere, but it’s been packed away now.
I’m now sleeping in the room at the top of the house, the room I was conceived in. I wake in the middle of the night. Mark Seymour (who is writing the songs for my new play) has responded to some early scenes I sent and has sent me a song via email. The song is sparse and full of longing, country, set amongst the sheep and sky. I play it over and over, like a lullaby. There’s an email with the song, calling me ‘mate’ and it makes me miss Australia. He tells me he watched his own mother die from dementia and of the things he knows, still feels. He describes fly blight, dust and remote distance, long car journeys as a child. It’s a beautifully written email, full of sensitivity and music, like an email from, well, a writer. And I suddenly realise, see, that I am still looking for the metaphor for my play. I still need to discover the thing I can write about, that without overtly stating it, tells of the things I want to say.
It’s September, two weeks after the exhibition has closed. Mum’s work is still on the walls. I get an email from Australia informing me I’m being let go from a project that I have been working on as a writer for two years. I know it’s partially because I haven’t been there for four months, during its last two developments, haven’t been able to fight my corner as the process has changed, but it’s also they tell me, because they have decided to go in another direction. I think about what this means, about the notion of playwrights being dispensable; that our intellectual input, craft, our connection to themes and our own words, worlds, our first generous step into the depths of our imagination, can be overlooked, forgotten, as if we were never there. That what we have brought to the process can be cherry-picked to serve someone else’s vision, as if separated from the brain, and heart which conceived them. Or that, after being under commission, someone can decide on a whim that the play is not happening. And I know that as playwrights, we are not paid enough for that. I feel angry and let down. I don’t know how much of this is to do with losing my mother, and how much it is to do with my job as a playwright. I remember the incredulous silence in the room when playwright Joe Penhall told a room full of writers at MTC that we should only work with people that we trust and admire. I wonder if this silence would fall in England. And I think about the fact that people still go and see plays in London because of who has written them, while in Australia the directors, or lead actor are currently the star, the ‘pull’.
|I remember the incredulous silence in the room when playwright Joe Penhall told a room full of writers at MTC that we should only work with people that we trust and admire. I wonder if this silence would fall in England. And I think about the fact that people still go and see plays in London because of who has written them, while in Australia the directors, or lead actor are currently the star, the ‘pull’.|
And I’m beginning to miss my boyfriend, who has gone back to Australia to work on a piece of musical theatre, the only theatre I don’t really like. He calls and says we will only survive this period if I learn how to Skype. I visit mum. I tell her I am writing a play; she squeezes my hand, hard.
I go to the play Girls at the Soho Theatre, with Ola Animashawun, who led the Young Writers programme at The Royal Court. It’s an astounding first play by a young, black writer, about three teenage girls in Africa. As they talk about Beyoncé and fashion, it’s revealed with startling poignancy they’ve been kidnapped, and may be raped or killed tonight. The masterful placing of the reveal forces us to think about the title of the play – of the role of women and rape in warfare, of the young girls taken by Boko Haram on their way to school, still not home. I think about the fundamental differences between plays in Australia and England, whether this play would be done in Australia. I don’t want to whinge, or not just to do that. I want to engage with the differences in both countries, to ask which one is more successful. Where are the better plays being made? Where are the plays and playwrights thriving?
Like a gift, Andrew Bovell turns up at my mum’s house and buys one of her drawings. I manage to steal him for dinner. We eat pub grub on a sudden chilly evening. We talk about his play, Things I know To Be True, a co-production with Frantic Assembly and State Theatre Company, that’s just closed in London and that I sadly missed. We talk about art and the role of the writer in the rehearsal room. He tells me he’s had a good experience here, that he’s always found this to be the case in England. I tell him I’ve had good experience in both countries, but it’s been less positive of late in Australia, for myself and other playwrights. The conversation, as conversations with playwrights often are, is invigorating. I tell him that, when I first started teaching at NIDA, I didn’t know much about the history of Australian plays. I tell of how I discovered Oriel Gray, Dorothy Hewett, Janis Balodis, Michael Gow, among many others, of how thrilled I was to read their plays, learn from them, to have writers like Patricia Cornelius, and Angus Cerini, scholars like John McCallum come and talk to my students. We discuss whether Australia’s relative newness and a sense of the theatre world still seeming small, makes us less willing to acknowledge what has come before us –perhaps more interested in making or being the next new thing, as a way of making our mark. I tell him I’m thinking of giving up being a playwright, that it’s too hard. He says with warmth and optimism that he thinks Australia is entering a phase where the writer will be empowered again, that it has to, and that I would be missed. I want to believe him. I get back to mum’s house, roused by the conversation (and the wine). I can’t help thinking about his powerful address at the 2014 Play Festival, where he talked of the urgent need for cultural diversity in our plays, and of the role of the playwright to tell the truth. And I ask myself, what is the truth about the current state of Australian playwriting? What am I trying to say? What needs to be said?
The Royal Court 2016 season brochure states that The programme encompasses the very best in writing for theatre, with a new play by Caryl Churchill, a new piece by Anthony Neilson, a new play by Alistair McDowall and a return to the Royal Court from Suzan-Lori Parks as well as new writers debuting at the Royal Court for the first time – among them David Ireland and Anna Jordan. Responding as ever to the writers, our work is challenging and ambitious and looks to our collective futures.
Still one of the leading new writing theatres in Europe, The Royal Court unapologetically puts the writer at its heart, both new and established. I suggest it is responding to writers, rather than an idea of what subscribers want, or what its most recent stars see as a vehicle for their own career, or what sells tickets. I’m loathe to single out The Royal Court, because there are many other theatres here in London that align themselves with the playwright as their starting point – 503, The Bush, Arcola, The Soho, Tricycle, all doing swimmingly.
In Australia, I’m heartened by PWA’S ongoing support of writers. And by Griffin Theatre and work it is doing, Sam Strong’s visionary lead in programming revivals of Speaking in Tongues and The Boys and Lee Lewis’s continuing support of these classics, programmed alongside new, unheard voices and works. I’m genuinely excited by its 2017 season, to see new plays by my peers, Lachlan Philpott and Ross Mueller, alongside a revival of Katherine Thomson’s Diving For Pearls and relative newcomer Michelle Lee’s, Rice. Because surely this is what makes a season great, makes a theatre worth going to – the opportunity to see these new plays, voices, alongside writers we know and wish to see again, to revisit the classics, or just to know we are in the safe hands and worlds of those who have shown they can imagine them for us. I will never forget the brutal power of John Romeril’s The Floating World, on the intimate diamond of the Griffin stage in 2013, how fresh and urgent the language and themes still seem. Sadly, this scope of writers from a range of stages of their careers, this celebration of the old and new, is rare. It’s as rare as a Writer’s Theatre in Australia – a theatre that genuinely responds to playwrights, or talks of our collective futures, a theatre that supports and welcomes us: our imagination and ideas, conversation. I’m wondering what will become of our playwrights, of our plays, of us?
In my first lesson with students, I ask them to talk of the plays they’ve loved, that came before us, to talk of the role of a playwright. What responsibilities do we have if we are to be one? And I can’t help thinking about the fact I am a playwright who has dedicated some of my life to the development of my craft and art, but also a large part of it to the development and support of other new writers and their work. I feel a responsibility to do this, for the future of theatre. But isn’t this the role of theatre companies? Shouldn’t they be the ones supporting writers, those who have successfully imagined the worlds they get to make? After all, without the worlds we’ve been making, we’ve made, they wouldn’t have a job.
Simon Stephens’ early play Country Music at the Royal Court, received mixed reviews and attendance. Sarah Kane’s Blasted was initially slammed and caused a public outcry. Pinter’s The Birthday Party closed after eight performances. All of these writers, these plays, stood the test of time and were supported by the theatres they wrote for and with. I imagine the loss if we were to have missed out on these plays, and yet I’m not sure we currently have this kind of support, this freedom to fail, or even this conversation with theatres in Australia.
|Simon Stephens’ early play Country Music at the Royal Court, received mixed reviews and attendance. Sarah Kane’s Blasted was initially slammed and caused a public outcry. Pinter’s The Birthday Party closed after eight performances. All of these writers, these plays, stood the test of time and were supported by the theatres they wrote for and with. I imagine the loss if we were to have missed out on these plays, and yet I’m not sure we currently have this kind of support, this freedom to fail, or even this conversation with theatres in Australia.|
Rumours abound that one of Australia’s largest mainstage theatres uses a computer generated algorithm to decide whether to programme a play or not. It feels as if theatre, that surely was supposed to save us from reality TV, is itself becoming a parody of reality TV. In reality, I am an established female mid career playwright, with many critically acclaimed successful plays under my belt, who was shortlisted for both the Patrick White and the Griffin Award this year, for two new plays, but I have no upcoming work as a playwright. I have work as a dramaturg, and whilst this work is often a joy, sometimes the job is me being called in to fix a play that isn’t working, because neither the play nor the playwright is ready yet, for it to be programmed.
So what is the role and responsibility of our theatres? Where are our artistic directors and literary managers who genuinely read and love plays, playwrights? Where are our directors who seek to form relationships with writers and their work for a collective future? How are we to have our Caryl Churchills, our Martin Crimps, our Simon Stephens and Nick Paines if we do not nurture the playwrights who have made good work, who have shown they have a conscience and something to say, and know how to say it? We need to acknowledge and be proud of the playwrights who came before us, who have fought and paved the way, who saw this world, and allow us to now speak in our own tongue. Otherwise, we will be left with a theatre industry with no craft, imagination or soul, no stories that reflect who we are here and now, and no-one left to write of the things that matter, with force and impact. And our audiences, and perhaps our lives, our history and our future will reflect that.
It’s mid October. My brother, who has mental health issues, goes missing then turns up in hospital. He too it seems is grieving my mother’s sudden absence, and my family seem determined to keep me here. My dear friend, the director Anthony Skuse arrives in London to direct a play. We eat Indian takeaway and discuss art until the small hours, and if ever there was a man to help with finding a metaphor, then he is it. He leaves and I sit in mum’s kitchen and finish a first rough draft of my new play and send it off. It’s called Lamb.
I’ve now been here nearly six months and mum’s art is still up. The Tate are coming to visit and a prominent West End Gallery is taking on the work for a bigger show. It’s more than I could have dreamt of for my mum, but winter is finally showing its face. On my most recent visit mum’s better than usual. Though she still asks when she will going back to the big house, she no longer remembers where it is. We play Billie Holiday on a small new stereo that friends brought, look through photos; she even makes a joke. Some of the old sparkle, once fierce, still there in her eyes. I thank her for allowing and helping me to be a playwright. She grins. As I’m leaving, before the lift door closes, mum looks at me, quizzical, and says apparently I used to be a painter.
|We play Billie Holiday on a small new stereo that friends brought, look through photos; she even makes a joke, some of the old sparkle, once fierce, still there in her eyes. I thank her for allowing and helping me to be a playwright. She grins. As I’m leaving, before the lift door closes, mum looks at me, quizzical, and says apparently I used to be a painter.|
The doors close and I crumble and weep as I hurtle towards the ground floor and rush out into the air. I cry quietly on my walk back to her empty house, wondering what it will be like when the work is finally gone. Whilst it is almost unbearably tragic that my mother no longer remembers what a great artist she was, the truth is, she still is one and will be forever. I realise that, if I were to give up playwriting and become something different (though what, I can’t imagine), I will always be a playwright and would be deeply unhappy were I to be anything else. And there suddenly is the metaphor I’ve been seeking. Because it seems to me that Australian theatre is currently suffering from a kind of dementia, a forgetting of what came before; our short, rich past. As a result, it’s failing to prize and nurture the playwrights we have. Because those writers and the plays are there; it’s just we’ve forgotten to look, to see and treasure what they are offering.
Standing in my mother’s studio, I feel tremendously tired all of a sudden, and old, and yet I feel like a child, afraid of where my future is, and what it holds. I rummage and find amongst a box of precious things the George Devine statement from 1956. I pin it up, defiantly, on the now almost blank studio wall. I open the window of my mother’s studio, to the surprisingly bright clear autumn chill.
|George Devine’s Statement (abridged) “Although the major classics are now well catered for by the Old Vic, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Sir John Gielgud’s productions, there is no theatre in England, which consistently presents the whole range of contemporary drama. Modern movements in music, sculpture, painting, literature, cinema and ballet all have reasonable circulation, but the comparable body of work in the theatre has no outlet. This is bound, in turn, to affect the quality of original work produced, and is probably largely responsible for the lack of interesting new plays in this country. The commercial theatre cannot be blamed for this state of affairs. If there is any chance of an interesting play becoming a possible commercial proposition, it is given a production, either in the west End, on tour or at a try-out theatre. But there is a point of risk below which a commercial management cannot afford to go. There are however many contemporary plays of great interest, which by their nature, can never command a large public, and others which are at pronounced “not commercial” because they are in advance of normal public taste, as much modern music and art is. But the whole international range of these plays should be available to English audiences, and they might well have a stimulating affect on dramatic development here. For dramatic development, the urgent need of our time is to discover a truly contemporary style wherein dramatic action, dialogue, acting and method of presentation are all combined to make a modern theatre spectacle, as definite in style as it has been in all the great periods of theatre…writers, and their works are stimulating, provocative and exciting: they belong in a vital modern theatre of experiment where the intention will often be as important as the achievement. A theatre of this sort cannot be created overnight, nor can immediate results be expected. But it must be able to keep going, and to do this it must collect a public, which will come finally to support its policy. By associating with similar ventures in the other arts, by taking trouble with the promising dramatic, and by providing an instrument for all kinds of modern theatre experiment, it could become an essential part of London theatre life.|
Jane Bodie is a writer, mentor and director. Her plays, including Music, This Year’s Ashes, Hinterland, Ride, Fourplay, Still, Hilt and A Single Act have been performed worldwide.
Jane was short-listed for The Ewa Czajor Memorial Award in 2000, nominated for the Patrick White Playwrights’ Award in 2002 and won a Green Room Award for Outstanding Writing on the Melbourne Fringe in 2003 for Still. In 2007 she won the prestigious Louis Esson Prize for Drama awarded by Australia’s Premier’s Literary Awards for her play A Single Act, which was produced to critical acclaim at Hampstead Theatre in 2005 and at Melbourne Theatre Company in 2006.
Jane worked at the Royal Court Theatre on the Young Writers Programme and was on attachment at The National Theatre Studio as a writer in the UK. She has also written extensively for TV and Radio, including The Secret Life Of Us, No Angels, Nearly Famous and Moving Wallpaper/Echo Beach and Well, for Radio 4 as well as several plays for ABC National. She is currently working on a feature screenplay adaptation of This Year’s Ashes for Screen Australia.
Jane was Head of Playwriting at NIDA from 2010 – 2012, Associate Artist at the Griffin Theatre in 2013 and was Artistic Associate at Playwriting Australia.