Talks by Suzanne Chaundy and Aubrey Mellor followed by panel discussion with Jasna Novakovic, Suzanne Chaundy, Aubrey Mellor and Jane Bayly, Carmelina di Guglielmo and Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, three actors who performed excerpts from Suzanne’s production of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous (production at La Mama, August 5-19, 2007). Chair: Paul Monaghan
[There was an excerpt from The Chapel Perilous to start off this session]
I want to start by saying that this session was generated by the convenors seeing Suzanne Chaundy’s production of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous at La Mama recently, and the performance was so good that we had to beg them to come and do something for us. And it generated this whole session on Dorothy Hewett.
So the way this will work is that I will introduce each of the three speakers and Suzanne will say something about her production, then Jasna Novakovic will give her talk, then there’ll be a bit more of the performance. Aubrey Mellor will talk, there will be more performance, and then there’ll be time for questions.
And by way of introducing Suzanne, we were sitting in The Clyde the other night after the opening of WWWW. And it was really interesting because at the first table there was Lally Katz and a generation of those who have come through this university a few years ago; at the next table there was Suzanne and me and some other people who came through here in the eighties, and then just around the corner were all the WWWW and New Wave people. And it really highlighted the process of, not just coming through this place of course, but through various places, and which continues to happen all the time. It was a very nice picture of that.
So Suzanne Chaundy and I actually met here in the eighties and I have to say thank you very much to her, because she directed a production of Midsummer Nights Dreamthat I played a very small part in and it was the first time I’d played a role in something and not have to worry about everything else, and it was so much fun, so it’s probably your fault, Suzanne, that I went on and did some other things in theatre. Suzanne came through this place and went on to do a lot of things, and I won’t read them all out because you’ve got them in your program, but she went to NIDA and did the directing course after leaving here, worked in many places including Anthill and more recently directed a number of Strange Fruit productions that toured all over the world. Jasna will then give her paper and briefly I’ll just say that Jasna is currently a lecturer and tutor at Monash University and in fact she offered a different paper altogether for this symposium, but when we decided we really had to have the Dorothy Hewett session and I noticed on her biog that she had done her PhD on Dorothy, we then asked her to change and come and speak on this panel. And most people will know Aubrey Mellor of course, but it’s very interesting that Aubrey’s career covers at least three of the places we’ve already spoken about in this New Wave Symposium. He started in Sydney and went through NIDA as a student and graduated there, was very involved with and was a founding member of Nimrod and worked with the Jane Street Theatre and is currently the Director of NIDA so he’s back there again. He worked at QTC as the director for some years and then in Melbourne at Playbox as the AD for quite some years. So that’s a very interesting perspective on the questions that we’re looking at. That’s all I’ll say. Suzanne.
I wanted to do a production of Dorothy Hewett’s Chapel Perilous for an awfully long time. I was touting it around in the nineties and there was a lot of uncertainty whether audiences would still flock to such a work and also concerns about the size of the cast. And I thought there must be some way to do this on a smaller scale and went away for quite a long time directing outdoor theatre with Strange Fruit and when I left a year or so ago, I thought I’m going to do a play again and get back to text. And the one that came back to me first that I still hadn’t got out of my system was Chapel Perilous. I felt so strongly that it needed an airing and I felt so sad when Dorothy died in 2002 that there hadn’t been another production of this, which is really the most autobiographical of all of her works aside from Wild Card obviously, but her plays in particular. So having decided that I really wanted to get a production of it up, I approached Hilary Linstead, who owns the rights for it and I was astounded to find that there hadn’t officially been a professional production of Chapel Perilous in Melbourne, which I was totally flawed by.
There was a very famous student production directed by George Whaley in 1972 and this was where the script was finally set, but there hadn’t actually been a professional production, and I thought this was insane, we’ve got to make it happen and I was immediately drawn to putting it on at La Mama. And I’d seen Liz [Jones] who said it was La Mama’s 40th, can you believe that, and I said how are you celebrating and she said wouldn’t it be great to get Dorothy in there, and what a fantastic setting, and even though the play she wrote envisaged a bigger stage and a cast of twenty or thirty, we kind of took this massive epic of the Australian stage and squished it down to create its epic proportions in the tiniest space you possibly could. So we went for the full theatricality and production values, we updated some of the music and we had a live musician. The musical director was Caroline Connors and she played most of the shows, swinging with another musician with something like forty-two songs in it, which I think is extraordinary. It adds a whole other dimension and unfortunately both musicians who were involved in the production are overseas so we weren’t able to include any of the music in today’s presentation. And only the girls were available, which is very symbolic I’m sure! [laughter] So the performers who are here today are Zoe Ellerton-Ashley, who plays Sally Banner, Jane Bayly, who doubles the roles of the headmistress and Sally’s mother, and Carmelina Di Guglielmo, who in that situation there [in the performance just seen] played Judith, Sally’s first great love, and Sister Rosa, and they all played a multitude of other roles, and as you can imagine, taking this play and dividing it up among six actors was a feat. And a lot of fun and a lot of backstage and costume chaos, having virtually no backstage at La Mama.
And the production got some support from Arts Victoria. They became aware it was to a degree a professional premiere and got behind the production as a neglected classic in Australian theatre. The show was also put on the VCE syllabus and Theatre Studies and had a very large student audience. It was fascinating to see the reaction particularly of young girls to the play now. One of the things when I did come back to it and I did that interrogation that I usually do of myself of why do a play, why do it now, has it still, you know, got current value, and we are in such a climate of ‘it girls’ and to me Sally Banner was one of the ultimate ‘it girls’ and the whole issue of promiscuity and the issues of girls like Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and how fascinated and appalled people are by their behaviour, and I thought well how interesting would it be to put up somebody like Sally Banner now and see how she sits in society. And honestly, the audiences went on such an emotional rollercoaster with it, and there were girls crying during the abortion scene and people were practically hissing the mother at times. It was really a strong connection that people had with Sally and the journey she goes through. And what interested me was where it fits in New Wave writing and Dorothy was a real female larrikin writer and there are not a lot of female larrikinettes! And I think that’s strongly where she can be identified in that verb. And also the current interest in the theatre of the vulgar, I suppose, because she also really delved into that in this production. There was a lot of challenge in there for me about how you deal with the deep naturalism and the strong emotional content of some of the scenes, versus the almost cartoon length of the scenes and the quick jumps from section to section. Some things about the play are rhythmically very difficult to deal with and I realise that’s probably why it hasn’t had a bucket load of productions because there are all these false ends at the end. It goes on and on but you can see that she so wants to tie up every element and so on.
I won’t pretend to be a PhD writer but I’m really happy to talk about any aspects to do with the direction of the play and interpretation of the play. And I’ll be coming back from time to time. An interesting quote that Christian Williamson wrote in the excellent introduction to the collected works of Dorothy Hewett, that to her, and to me and to many women, Sally Banner was the first liberated woman seen on the Australian stage. And just in those terms I had a really fascinating question from one of the girls in the Q&A’s we had frequently after the show. She said how did you go with dealing with all the controversial topics in the show like abortion and communism? And I thought oh my God, she’s still asking me this and I found those aspects of the play so much less controversial to deal with than the neediness of the character. That’s one of the things that’s really difficult to find, how Sally has to constantly define herself in terms of the relationships she’s in and that she can only see herself reflected by the man or woman that she was with at the time. And personally as a post-feminist feminist I found that more difficult to deal with. And the other thing that really affected people about the production was that it was a fantastic chronicle of Australian history at the time, going through all the music and looking at that period of World War Two going into the Cold War and the communist period in Australia. So it was a timely revisit to the show and I hope it really reignites interest in Dorothy Hewitt and her extraordinary writing and poetic skills and her strong connection with Australia and that perpetual need to define who we are and why we are and I think Dorothy is one of the writers who really explores that on many levels. I’ll be back to talk more later [applause].
Well I almost feel as if I have to apologise for taking her place.
[Here Jasna presented her paper, available here]
One of the other things that has been mentioned is Dorothy’s autobiography Wild Card, which I have to admit I came to a long time after I’d read Chapel Perilous. And a lot of the things I had hesitated about in Chapel Perilous suddenly crystallised because I couldn’t believe some of the things that that character did, and then I thought, oh my God, Dorothy did that and a whole lot more actually that wasn’t included in the script. And one of the things that makes it quite a challenge is when you make the decision that she has chosen herself as a work of art in the way that Frida Kahlo represents herself in her own paintings but even more recent writers like Lally Katz who explores her own life as an artform, and that was something that I realise I am quite drawn to, particularly in female artists. And by way of illustrating the next extract of the play we are going to show today, which happens after Sally has had an abortion to the boy who embodied her physical ideal, I guess she had cerebral relationships with one character, David, and there is this character called Michael who is the embodiment of a lot of different lovers that she had in her own life and mostly famously with Les Flood who she lived with in Sydney and had children for many years. And I thought by way of introduction to show how Dorothy has crystallised in dramatic and poetic form an aspect of her life. I’ll just read very briefly the section of the play that talks about the abortion and also how the poetry that Dorothy has written is used throughout the play. The poem we are going to hear is on the death of an aviator.
Is it Amelia Earhart?
No, it’s not Amelia. It’s a poem that exists by itself which she has used partially in the play because it is so simple, and because Sally Banner is a poet, poetry is often used as a device through the play:
When I walked into that hot little kitchen that summer evening after the war, and saw my secret lover of three years ago sitting there at the end of the table in his air force uniform and the light on his hair, it was as if those lost years had never happened. We left together and spent the rest of summer walking hand in hand through the city streets making love wherever and whenever we could in the Elhorn’s flat, on the beach at Cottlesloe and once, secretly in his parent’s house, naked in the front room in darkness. I told him about everything. My promiscuity, my attempted suicide, my marriage. For the first time it all seemed to fall into place and I could see the pattern. I could see where it had begun. I had loved him all the time. I had never stopped loving him. My marriage, even the Communist Party, they were all part of a gigantic trick I had played against myself, yet we never talked about any future. As I lay in his arms in the sandhills listening to the surf heaving on the beach he told me how shocked he had been when his mother wrote and told him I was married. How could you marry anyone else he said when you belong to me? I sat up, staring at the sea. No letters, not a word in all those years, what did you expect? That I’d still be here waiting for you to come back to me? Yes, he said simply. On the night I told him I was pregnant he pulled away. I wanted him to say let’s run away together, nothing else matters. But he said, huh, we thought we were so smart, we thought we could get away with anything. Well, you can’t break the rules. When I found out the name of a famous Perth abortionist I sent him a telegram and we met late at night in the empty streets walking side by side, not touching. Under the streetlights his face turned away. My mother said what are you doing getting telegrams from a married woman, he told me. He borrowed his father’s ute and drove me to the abortionist. There were two chipped marble cubits by a stone urn in the garden. The abortionist had a soft Irish brogue. In the darkness I never saw his face. Relax he said masturbating my clitoris and inserting the thin rubber tubing until I felt violated. Remove it in three days, he told me. And I came out into the sunlight already bleeding. Joan Thomas had offered to put me up until it was all over, so I kissed him goodbye and watched the ute disappear in the dust down the highway. I felt as if my life had ended. For three days I lay in the little back bedroom with a raging temperature. There was no word from him but my mother kept ringing up suspiciously to ask why I hadn’t come home. I’d stagger to the phone and make some lag excuse. What’s the matter with you, she said, you sound very strange.
[Here there was another section of performance from Chapel Perilous. Applause]
Okay, I was going to talk about what happened really between writers and directors and the fact that we don’t know what to do with all this new stuff that is happening, and I am going to use Dorothy as an example. Because I witnessed her being sent out of rehearsal. I was used to doing asm work around all that time. And I saw a director tell her to shut up. I did watch and observe you see. And it was amazing because we all grew up with writers from overseas who never liked to come to Australia, or they were long dead. And the directors could say anything and the actors would sort of believe it all. And Dorothy who was the nicest person in the rehearsal room, she was just entertained by anything, she just loved playing theatre. And when the director pontificated and said, well obviously this means that, she said excuse me, I thought I would be doing that with it rather than this, and there was this explosion, rather volatile actually, from a director who was know for his explosions, and he said I cannot work with that person in the room and Dorothy was told to leave the rehearsal room, she was sent out [laughter]. And I thought if you love the play enough you must obviously respect the author of that play. I was always interested in who created these things and what was in their minds, and then keep picking at them. And I kept thinking how wonderful to have her there as a resource to draw from, but many people just couldn’t cope with it. I think that’s one of the things, certainly in the Sydney times, that should be talked about because interestingly there weren’t any great pairings from that period. People tried each other on and rarely went back. Williamson was very clever because he would stay with somebody for one or two productions and then, four was the maximum, I did four with him and then he moved on. And I thought that’s quite clever because he learns a lot from a new director and then he goes to someone else. He charted that, I think he charted that himself, he’s very shrewd. But with others it was quite accidental, and as I’ve always said to writers, first find the director who loves your play and get them to fight for you, to pitch for you to artistic directors and say this is the play I want to do. Artistic Directors well never listen to playwrights, but they will listen to directors who they admire and might want to take their place, so they’re more intimidated by them. So to get someone to bat for you was really important.
So writers finding their directors seemed to be a big issue and could be the subject of a whole session. There was some really good work. It’s fascinating that Jim Sharman, and his Terror Australis [a Jane St revue in March 1968, co-written by Richard Walsh, Richard Raper, Clem Gorman and Dean Letcher], which was a very very early work, came up this morning. And Sharman’s influence on everybody, and the way his improvisation classes led into Rex’s [Cramphorn] Stuff, and Hair [which Sharman directed] was really crucial. But fascinatingly he had never really worked with Buzo, yet did so very well on Norm and Ahmed [Sharman directed the first Sydney production in 1969 – ed.], but he never really connected with anyone. And interestingly enough, only when he got to Three Furies [by Steven Sewell] just a few years ago [at the Sydney Opera House, in January 2005], and worked with Sewell, he said this is the best experience of my life, and he found [a connection]. And now they’ve commissioned another with Sewell and him to do together. So that’s a good thing.
So it is interesting that it took so long to find the right [person], and I think the thing about Dorothy is that she never really found her director. I think it’s interesting – why the women never supported her was that she was such a man’s woman. You would see her in rooms and the men would all – she was an absolute magnet. We would just be around her. She really needed that and it was so interesting what she [Suzanne] was saying about that, the need for that to be reflected in a way is quite tragic because she was so original and so extraordinary. In 1971 someone observing her said they can’t bear that much individuality, and that became the problem with her entire career. And she states it so early in one of her earliest plays. But essentiality that’s it in a nutshell – no one knew quite how to cope with so much individuality. And so she was the daunting factor, and even though we could probably have all done them [the plays], we thought we couldn’t. I certainly thought I couldn’t do a Hewett play, that I wasn’t capable. And I think the big lesson also that I would mention to any young people, is that I spent a lot of my time thinking surely someone else can do that better than I can, but I found out no, that’s actually not the case. If somebody equally incompetent does it then you may as well have been the one who put your hand up [laughter]. And I feel sorry sometimes.
I was there and saw – I mean all credit should go to Robin Lovejoy. The Jane St season was set up before John Clarke, it was a [Cecil] Quentin initiative, and Quentin should have the credit for that. John Clarke was directing at the Old Tote and always picked who the winners were, he knew exactly what he was doing, Virginia Wolfe and so on, and he was the box office success, everything he did was a box office success. And Robin Lovejoy was all freshly coming across from the Elizabeth Theatre Trust and Robin took over the Old Tote, and John was a history of theatre lecturer – well, Quentin came to that with Tom Brown and then John started there, but when Tom Brown resigned, and Tom Brown was responsible for many a terrible theatre space in this country [laughter], he was always the theatre advisor. His only claim to fame really was that he worked with Tyrone Guthrie. But when John took over NIDA, Brisbane benefited from that because there was a massive resignation and virtually all the NIDA staff virtually went up to Queensland. But the Jane Street Theatre was very much happening when the O’Malley thing came [in 1970] and it was really because of [Michael] Boddy coming up from down here [in Melbourne] with his experiences, and from John Bell arriving back from Britain and taking on the Head of Acting there, and I was on staff the same year, having just graduated and was put on as a resident director. And I was there with Boddy and Bell. Then that same year, we had that all Australian season – was it in ’69 at the Old Tote or ’68 – 1968, and it was a Robyn Lovejoy initiative.
And it wasn’t long before the miracle of O’Malley happened, but then we followed up and I saw Dorothy when she came across from Perth and we just knew that this famous poet was coming. She was well known as a West Australian poet. And then she arrived, a real caravanserai with this entourage, and it was extraordinary. I hadn’t actually seen anything like that before in Australia. And I’ve always sort of treated her like that. So when we did her last play, we had a chaise lounge out the front, pulled out three rows of seats and sort of did it for her. And it seemed like the right thing to do.
Suzanne can you read out that list on page 2 of those extracts, those women, because I think these are really crucial for Dorothy.
Queen Elizabeth, Madam Curie, Florence Nightingale, Jane Austin, Emily Bronte, Joan of Arc, Boadicea, Grace Darling, Queen Victoria, Elizabeth Frye, Helen Keller, Daisy Bates, Sally Banner [laughter].
And that’s really interesting, and I found out, it was something to do with the WA and Queensland education at that time, I once discovered … I was reading the Queensland Reader, does anyone know the Queensland Reader? – and my great aunt who would have gone to school in the 1890s, she said give me that, she said, I know this, and she went through the whole Queensland Reader and it was the same book she’d studied with. I was in shock! I thought I’d had a Victorian education [laughter], that Dorothy had as well. So Grace Darling – all that came very naturally to her. It is amazing how Victorian she [Dorothy] is and romantic. But I was so grateful – don’t you think the organisers of this are fantastic? It’s just so wonderful this event, and how these extracts just speak for themselves. There’s almost nothing more to be said having seen those extracts, so very well done actors, wherever you are! [applause].
And I’ve often said we did some great theatre but did we leave some great plays behind from that period, and I think yes we did. And it’s probably time for us to look back at them again, as Max has said, they are good plays! Because I think we dismissed them for a while and then we go back to them – that’s magnificent, isn’t it. I know she [Dorothy] read Wedekind, and she was really interested in that, and you can see theLulu stuff coming through. But I was offered, she offered me, in fact she got a grant, and she said would you direct this [Chapel Perilous] … and I really loved it and said you need to get someone better than me for this, you need a really great director for this. And she couldn’t get one. What she did was to find great and loyal supporters, Arnie [Neeme] was one and Alex Hay was another who really battled for her. Alex directedBon Bons and Roses for Dolly at the Jane St Theatre, not long after that.
And in a way that was the beginning of the end, in the way that fully embracing feminism and really putting our necks on the line really in a way brought about the end of Nimrod. The way that Dorothy’s Bon Bons was received somehow condemned her to never being accepted, as everybody was suddenly aware – and I think this is the problem in Australia. I think artistically we are all too frightened of public opinion and being considered naïve. I mean Steven Sewell isn’t and wears his heart on his sleeve – but we should all wear our hearts on our sleeve and maybe that would make a big difference. We’re terrified of being considered naive and laughed at and I think there’s something terribly sick about that part of our society. But Dorothy could do nothing but be honest. And to be herself, whatever that was, and I’m sure she was following lots of different impulses as far as form was concerned, but essentially it was the form that people had trouble with and it was the female form.
And in a way when I looked back after a few years of not being involved, I wanted to get back to Dorothy and women writers and it was not because I was shrewd enough to know that women buy the tickets, but because I thought she was the only one really playing around with form. I was so sick of the well-made play. If there’s anything I hated it’s when you’re watching all this stuff and there’s withheld information, and finally somebody gives you a speech and you think, oh, is that what it was all about. It was about VD! [laughter]. That sort of structure, it’s so masculine, and when I teach naturalism to the students, well you say there’s that sort of naturalism which means you can only do what’s natural to the play and what the playwright’s themes are, which means you do this very particular kind of artificial naturalism. And then there’s Chekhov, where you actually have fully dimensional human beings, and you can do almost anything. And they’re so utterly different as acting styles.
But when it is so loose – and I call it the female fluid, and in Bon Bons, this is a very famous story to those people who know it, there’s a sequence where there’s a character description, whatever the character’s name is, and in brackets it says ‘(menopausal in a hat)’ [laughter] and she has a husband who is played by a dummy. In the middle of it – it’s an extraordinary scene, she is having a flooding, it’s an extraordinary moment, they’re in a public zoo or somewhere, and her husband is probably gaga or dead beside her. And I thought this is one of the most extraordinary things that could ever happen to a human being. And Harry Kippax got up, and he left. He was furious – that this female fluid literally came on stage. And he led a real vendetta. And when it got to the Paris company [the Paris Theatre Performance Group, founded in 1978 in Sydney], and she did the very ill-fated Pandora’s Cross which was structurally something again. And I think that where we all failed our writers was that all the directors knew nothing about dramaturgy. Asking the writers ‘did you or did you not study what you were doing’, well the directors knew even less than the writers did. And so we knew no way to help people. Was it Jim Sharman? Did Jim direct Pandora’s Cross?
Yes, it was Jim.
That was horrifically not a good night [laughter], but in a funny way it was all these lives going on at Kings Cross, it had wonderful things, and historical characters mixed with fictional, but they did this terrible set which was all on scaffolding…
It didn’t have the budget to have a different set-up for every number…
It just had no atmosphere whatsoever, and she’s large, so you can hardly put her on just bare scaffolding – that armchair stuck in space just looked absolutely hideous. Anyway, people hated it. And there were specific things that Dorothy remembered later because she really hated it, because she was actually booed and hissed that show. And she went out into the foyer and somebody spat at her, at the end as we were leaving. She was quite devastated. And she tells the story about someone who said, ‘here darling, you need this’, and shoving a coffee mug with whisky in it, and it was Patrick White and she acknowledged a huge influence by Patrick White.
I was going to talk about a lot of things, but it’s great that we talk about Dorothy and I’m really grateful for Suzanne and I’m really sorry I missed that production. She wrote a lot of wonderful plays but this is one that really cannot be categorised, and will continue to be a mystery, if we fulfil this wonderful thing that Jack [Hibberd] said [see the transcript for Day 1, Session 1-ed.], if there’s something missing in it, therefore we want to find out what it is. It wasn’t driven by self-knowledge and ego, it was driven by her genuine love of the theatre and she loved music. She would sing all those old songs and she knew them all. I think of her as a poet writing in the epic style.
And I was going to tell you about what I call the killer-commission and there are so many stories about it, but the MTC and Black Swan got together and commissioned Dorothy to write a trilogy. And somehow they didn’t learn that, you know, you’ve writtenSumer of the Seventeenth Doll so why don’t you write the one before and the one after, or the two before or whatever. You’d think they would say, why don’t you build on what you’ve done before. But no, they commissioned three. So she started from scratch and essentially she had one story and the other two were really the same story. No-one really ever gave her anything back. So she went up, I think it was a $20 000 commission at the time, and Merv and Roger [Hodgeman] arrived up there in the Blue Mountains. And Merv tells a wonderful story about the look on Roger Hodgeman’s face when he served him up a mixed grill which was about a foot high – a mixed grill for Roger! They thought it was wonderful. Dorothy and Merv did that story for a while. Except that as they worked on it, it really defeated her. She was battling cancer and she just couldn’t get it, and she had no help whatsoever. There’s got to be a process in commissioning. Ray Lawler once said this, the prize is for the playwright, it’s for the playwriting, and the Patrick White award for a while looked like being exactly that. But Ray said, they pay you the money so you go away [laughter]. Whereas at Playbox the prize was, we’ll do your play, let’s do your play, that’s the biggest prize, that’s all any playwright ever wants. It’s enough to keep the money so you go away and come back next year and put in your play again until you have this fully formed magical thing that’s going to scream out of somebody’s thigh.
So this commission dragged on, and the worse thing was there was no feedback on the material and no discussion during the writing time and she got really depressed and bogged down in it. And it became a thing where Arnie and I, we got a group of actors together, and we sort of read it and helped her research it and hear some of it, but nothing from the commissioning companies at all. But worst of all was that she finally finished it and to her dying day she never got a letter from them. So she sent them a massive work, more than five year’s work, and she didn’t write anything else, it was so constipated – this is why playwrights need to be performed. Otherwise you’ve gestated and you’re pregnant, and you’ve got to give birth because otherwise you can’t conceive again. It’s something that has to happen. And people criticise it and said the play isn’t ready to be done. Fuck, it’s gotta be done, get it on. And that was the tragedy. And she really was so in shock, she knew there was something terrible, she knew that her play was unloved. That her baby was ugly and they were going to kill it. It’s an Australian syndrome I think, I don’t know what’s wrong with us. But the fact that they didn’t say well actually, it doesn’t suit our programming – in fact the first play could have been done, it’s the most finished of them, but it’s not as good as Mukinupin. So instead of saying,Mukinupin, okay now write number two when we turn to the Second World War and then write number three when we turn to the Vietnam War. Now Dorothy would have gone through it, and you just have to read it, and I said this to her, and she said I can’t do that now I’m stuck. All that was needed was a good sensible dramaturge, and if they’d looked at what had happened at end of every one of our major wars, it could have been a massive wonderful thing that could have happened, and we could have really all celebrated that at Federation. But it didn’t happen and it’s terribly, terribly sad that her life was met with such disrespect [applause].
Dorothy will have the last word. And I’ll just say that this next excerpt from the play [Chapel Perilous], we selected this passage from right towards the end
of the play as she is revisiting old relationships, tying up loose ends, trying to rekindle some passions along the way. This final speech that Sally makes towards the end of the play is a strange premonition of how Dorothy felt before she died.
[Here a short excerpt from The Chapel Perilous was performed]
Could I ask Aubrey to say something about Nowhere which you commissioned and it was the last play anyway.
Well I used to say I couldn’t really afford to do the big stuff, little did I know that you could do it with six! And it took a while, but she did have this idea and she wanted to write about this returned veteran, she wanted to write about her father and she managed to put them together. And it’s interesting that the people who criticised her writing of the Aborigines, primarily in the Jarrabin Trilogy, and there was this character who was very very vague which was this woman who was abused and wanted to run away from the city, passing through. And I said well why don’t you think about this character as an Aboriginal woman, and she loved that idea and we, me and Leah Purcell would go up into the mountains and would read stuff and sit and talk and I found it fascinating that she couldn’t take her eyes off of Leah. She was absolutely mesmerised and she took on all Leah’s terminology, she wanted to get all that right. But she just sat there absolutely fascinated. And I thought that curious to come from the land, you would just expect – I mean I had a lot of contact with Aboriginal people when I was young, but she obviously didn’t at all, and I found that so interesting.
I’ve got a question for Jasna. I went to a lot of forums where I heard Dorothy speak in Sydney and she always used the metaphor of landscape as a playwright. Did you ever find that she made any reference to Gertrude Stein, the famous landscape reference back in the thirties, I think in an essay on ‘How she wrote plays’. It’s one of her theatrical essays and I just wondered whether Dorothy had ever read Gertrude Stein on that or whether it was just something she had come up with herself?
I think it came from her experience with the land. And her childhood life on the farm and all her imaginings because she and her sister, her sister was her only playmate. So to cut a long story short, I think the landscape comes from within. But she later on, having read extensively on modernism and modernist playwrights, and being greatly influenced by the Symbolists, appropriating a lot of Surrealist techniques and ideas. They believed in the sacred places and they wanted to create modern mythology. Remember that they believed in the possibility of manufacturing chance. And that these chance events which were irrelevant in the means/ends kind of rationality. They wanted to go beyond this materialist rationality, the means/ends rationality. And they believed by creating those sacred places and chance events which are irrelevant to the majority of people and yet making them relevant in their works of art that they could create this new modern mythology. So the importance of place was emphasised by this.
She certainly had a certain kind of love/hate relationship. She was a great mentor to John Kinsella and they wrote one book together. And the Kinsellas’ work similarly, she loved it, and it horrified and frightened her. I also thank you [to one of the actors] for the silver glitter red shoes [referring to one of the actor’s costume]. You have to remember that, growing up and having a movie with yourself in it is pretty good – andAlice in Wormland, I mean, that book of poetry and the way that titles informs Dorothy. A great title with the great great poems in it, Rapunzel in Suburbia. All of those are important to remember her by.
I’d just like to ask the actors a question. Suzanne spoke before about what she found really challenging, Sally’s neediness, and I’d like to ask you three about your sense of Sally, and through that maybe of Dorothy, for informing younger women?
For me to have the autobiography as such a strong reference point made it quite an easy transition, because I guess as an actor – her writing is so beautiful and for actors all work plays strongly with form. It’s something we all enjoy and I especially enjoy it. Having a very strong structure makes it very easy to just indulge in the language that she has given to you. Which is such a direct correlation with her life. So it’s just understanding that and then taking it, she just gives you the liberty to go to extremities, to climb on things, to play and to work with that absolute paradigm of complete cartoonism, to going to abortion, to that being very real so you’ve got that extremity. And then somehow doing it at La Mama and in the small space and the whole way we worked, it became very accessible. I found that as a gift she gave the play a very easy accessibility, because she’s so honest and the writing is honest and it’s clear once you access whatever you need to.
As actors did you think you were doing a modern play or respectfully doing a Dorothy play. Did you feel it was a really modern play with a lot of interesting challenges?
Some of us thought it was incredibly modern. We had a lot of discussion about these things and it was still so incredibly relevant to the kids in the audience after the performances, and you could feel it from a lot of the young girls in the forum.
Are some of those expressions, do you think they are old-fashioned or do you think they are really modern theatre?
Carmelina di Guglielmo
I didn’t have a sense of old-fashioned, not at all. And the thing that Suzanne mentioned about the historical, the journey, the time, the music, was really strong.
Yes, and our musical structure was quite strong, it went from that quite vaudevillian feel, there was a strong musical underscore because of our choices in that regard. And with these very strange masks behind us [referring to three gigantic mask heads used as a set in the production], that gives you the whole sense of the colours and the period costumes we were wearing. And two of Sally’s poems had the influence by Nick Cave’s songs and this extraordinary contemporary piece that brought it into a very modern context. It’s sort of timeless and we didn’t have to place it, which is really lovely.
It’s a transcending time kind of piece, it feels very current and you can also see how it belonged to that time.
I just wanted to make one comment. The performance and the production was just so marvellous. It was a really wonderful piece of theatrical work. And what struck me is that somehow the tightness of the La Mama space captured the hugeness of the text. That sprawling, wild and sometimes rabid text was somehow controlled in that tiny space and with so few performers, which allowed us to see the play in its entirety. And it was not so much the case in this larger space here today.
I’m surprised you think La Mama is too small. I remember Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola had the whole cast and the audience in a space of 21 by 21 feet square, excluding the stairwell [laughter].
We’re going to have to continue this in the foyer. Could you please give our speakers, the actors and Dorothy Hewett a resounding applause!