From Friday, 6 August, Melbourne’s fortyfivedownstairs will present the world premier of Do Not Go Gentle… , written by Patricia Cornelius and directed by Julian Meyrick. It’s an award-winning script using Robert Falcon Scott’s final — and fatal — Antarctic expedition of 1910-13 as an allegory for life in an aged care facility and the final journey that five of its residents take through dotage into death.
Cornelius employs Scott’s tragic end to amplify the struggle of her five geranauts against the dying of the light. In Antarctica, twilight lasts for weeks, the colours are spectacular and the views infinite: the terrible sublime of an endless sunset. On reaching the pole, Scott wrote in his diary: “Great God! This is an awful place.”
The script won the 2006 Patrick White Award and was also short listed for the Griffin Award. Despite critical acclaim, it has waited four years for its first production.
Dr Julian Meyrick is and has been a passionate contributor to Australian theatre for more than 20 years, as a practitioner, historian and theorist, critic, administrator and occasional polemicist-cum-pamphleteer. He is currently a Research Fellow at La Trobe University and has previously been Associate Director and Literary Advisor at the MTC, directing many productions in Melbourne and around Australia. As an historian, he has written histories of Nimrod Theatre and the MTC, as well as Trapped by the Past: Why Our Theatre Is Facing Paralysis, a bracing 2005 Platform Paper written as part of Currency Press’s quarterly essays on the performing arts.
We interview’d the engaged and engaging Meyrick during rehearsals for Do Not Go Gentle.
Is this your first time working with Patricia Cornelius since Fever (2002), the production that reunited the team behind the 1998 landmark Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?
Yes and no. It’s the first time since Fever I’ve directed one of Patricia’s plays, but not working with her. While I was at MTC running the Hard Lines play development program, we saw a fair bit of each other. She dramaturged The Sapphires, and was both an affiliate and a commissioned writer with the company. We started on Do Not Go Gentle in 2005, so our working relationship feels unbroken.
Do Not Go Gentle won the PWA back in 2006 but this is its first production. Tell us about your role in finally getting this play off the ground.
I was involved in a creative development of the play, and three public readings. I door knocked a number of theatre companies, in Melbourne and in Sydney, and together with 45 and Patricia approached the Australia Council for project funding in 2008. When we were rejected I did some research on the reasons given. I discovered the theatre board had only read the first 11 pages of the script it was notionally assessing so I wrote a letter pointing this, and other relevant facts, out. We were successful the second time round.
What draws you to Patricia Cornelius’s work?
Together with the other writers I got to know when directing Who’s Afraid of the Working Class and Fever — Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas — Patricia’s work represents a compelling blend of realist and theatricalist (surrealist, expressionist) aesthetics. This is the front line of Australian stage playwriting today, the struggle to articulate the contours of a new public drama. It is unstable, imaginative, risky work and currently has no natural place in the mainstage repertoire, which is divided between traditional narrative drama on the one hand and cross art-form meta-theatricality on the other.
It’s an amazing cast with an intimidating bank of experience. You’ve been quoted as saying that together they bring “over 300 years of professional experience in live theatre”. There’s Malcolm Robertson, Jan Friedl, Rhys McConnochie, Terry Norris and Anne Phelan, not to mention Paul English and Pamela Rabe as well. Some very familiar faces there for Australian audiences. Could you talk us through how the cast came together? And about working with this group?
Casting is agony, absolute agony. The struggle is not only to find the right people, but to engage with the profession — the available actors — in a way that isn’t cheap and self-serving. Actors are not objects, to be picked up and discarded for superficial reasons. So bringing the right team together takes time. In this case, Terry and Malcolm were involved in earlier readings, as was Annie. Pam and Paul read the play and said yes to the project based on their response to the script. Jan was an incredibly fortunate find — a character actor of the right age who was also an opera singer. Amazing. Rhys was the last to come on board. I wracked by brains for someone right for the lead role. The thing was: they had to be from Melbourne, given our limited budget. I didn’t know where to turn. Then Rhys tapped me on the shoulder in a foyer one day and said ‘I hear you’re looking for one more actor’. I was so excited. I rang Patricia and said ‘I think we’ve found our Scott’. The relief of being fully cast after six months of searching was intense.
The show also features music from Irine Vela. She has worked several times with Patricia and yourself at the Melbourne Workers Theatre. What aesthetic does Vela bring, through her compositions and through her presence as a live performer? What are your thoughts about live musical accompaniment?
Irine and Patricia go way back — to the very start of the Melbourne Workers Theatre at the Jolimont railyards in the early 1980s. Their understanding of each other’s work is detailed and comprehensive. I can’t think of two artists I so instinctively trust. Irine is very versatile. She can do anything, compose anything. Best of all, she has a mind for how drama works. At the moment, the fashion is to score theatre shows as if they’re films — to flag everything, pour accompaniment into every nook and cranny like liquid concrete. With Irine you don’t just get sounds; you get dramatic intelligence in musical form.
Robert Falcon Scott’s life is crowded with dramatic potential, his exploits and ambitions, his private life, his multiple rivalries, his success and failure, his passionate loyalty to an Empire whose dominance was, only one year later, to be utterly lost with the outbreak of total war in Europe. From what angle does this play treat Scott’s life? What is the play about? What is in the foreground?
The play is about loss and old age, in that order. It tells a story through a metaphor, which is not that unusual (think of Ionesco’s work or Caryl Churchill’s). To appreciate the way Patricia has combined the Scott story with the ‘real’ story of her characters, you have to see the play. It defies abbreviation, though it is simple enough to follow on stage.
As for what the play is about, I wrote the other day “any play with something to say has at its heart something that cannot be said”, so I don’t think it’s easy to sum up Do Not Go Gentle… from that perspective either. If pushed I’d say it was about the importance of valuing life in the face of certain death (and death is always certain). If I also say that the play is profoundly affirmative and yet utterly unsentimental I articulate its most important feature: its clear-eyed humanity.
I see that the promotional material bills this piece as “sublime and mysterious”. In her previous work, Patricia has seemed to me to aim deliberately shy of sublimity, preferring to spell-out and make explicit the sometimes-institutionalised-but-almost-always-cultural influences of coercion and persuasion that limit human potential. She seems to me, in works such as Daily Grind and Dusting Our Knees, and even most recently in The Call, to evince a desire for debate, dialogue and, above all, real thought. She has not, that is, previously I think, sought to inspire line-of-beauty-type spiritual experiences in her audience, preferring a direct articulation, through her typically tight plotting, the frustration of characters who struggle to achieve this articulation themselves. Does this current work then mark a significant departure, or extension, of Patricia’s writing?
No, it was always there, both as a subdued trait in her more political-critical plays (Love, The Call) and more directly, in [say] her playlet Comfort for Who’s Afraid…, the monologue that closes that cycle of plays. In Patricia unflinching, sometimes harsh judgement, sits side by side with an immense capacity for empathy and forgiveness. If these qualities aren’t foregrounded in all her work she has good reason: we’re all leery of the superficial emotionalism theatre so easily entrains. With Do Not Go Gentle…, however, Patricia has characters who have reached the end of their lives, one way or another. They need understanding, not judgement, and so she is able to pour her considerable reserves of sympathy into illuminating their plight without feeling she’s going to cheapen it.
The use of space in your work with the MTC was very interesting, really open, broad, almost democratic spaces, spaces such as that which you opened out in Cruel and Tender, but also in Dinner with the revolving table out on a pinnacle, or in The Memory of Water with the family home sort of sprawling and splayed, and even most recently in The Birthday Party with that wide expanse of warm-orange linoleum. Now you have in the endless space of Antarctica. Could you talk a little about your approach to space in directing this production? In tackling the fortyfivedownstair basement?
Space — empty space — is one of the great fundamentals of theatrical production. A single figure, or group of figures, in a wide, clean, open space — it doesn’t get any more profound. Absolutely, it’s a democratic statement. Theatre is a public art. It announces. We’ve filled out theatres with so much junk we can hardly move because of the visual clutter. I used to worry because not only were my stages sparse, they were getting sparser. Now I have accepted my aesthetic position and look to more fully explore it. In this respect, Fortyfive is a marvellous venue, brimming with poise and interest. It’s long stage area, when used in ‘landscape’, allows for a marvellous isolation of figure and long, clean traverses of empty space. Perfect for Antarctica, really.
How do you ‘find the form’ as a director? What is the logic that dictates how it, the script, should happen in real space and real time? Back when you were directing Clarke in Sarajevo you wrote that directing was “right balance between offering believable human characters and delivering a message”. Do you still find that a useful principal?
It’s not a bad thought. Theatre’s usually a balance between something, and the elements are usually opposed. My response to a play is instinctive in the first instance, intellectual in the second, and human in the third. I get a feel for it, work out what it is trying to say, and then make a judgement about whether it’s worth articulating. The last part is very important. Theatre is a principled affair, a way of thinking about the world. ‘Finding the form’ isn’t a search for the right set of decorative expressions. It’s an intense journey into your own soul to find out what you believe and to locate an artwork — in this case a play script — in terms of that terrain. It’s hard, fraught work and there are no guarantees one is on the right path.
Tell us about the ‘public agenda’? What does it mean to you as an artist? A director in Australia?
Brecht said the most important thing a person can possess is a set of opinions. I say that this is true only if one has the courage to change one’s mind. The theatre, as a public art form, is a place we go to learn about the world. This is not a matter of information — the hard data in most plays wouldn’t fill an egg-cup. It’s a matter of empathy and insight, or making new connections between things held in the mind but long denied or kept out of sight. If theatre isn’t a place to challenge beliefs, it’s worthless. So drama’s public function is more important in Australia now than ever before, given how weak and sullen its political culture has become, how crippled by low brow conservatism and cynicism. When it isn’t avoiding things, it’s tearing them down: that’s the country at the moment, God help us.
What is a ‘literary’ director? Are they rare in Australia?
Not that rare. It’s a director who has an interest and belief in the ultimate connection between stage and page, between authorial voice and actorly presence. I was doing some work on Goldoni a few years ago and it hit me: 200 years of commedia delle arte had produced skilled professionals with little ability to transcend their craft concerns. By getting rid of constricting masks and injecting a visionary loquacity into play scripts, Goldoni opened a new universe of theatrical possibility. He turned a craft into an art. Right now, we’re busy undoing that legacy: turning the theatre back into some kind of boutique and arcane specialism.
How important is it to your directing that you are also an academic historian? How important to you as a historian is your work as an director? In 2003, you wrote for New Theatre Quarterly about the gulf that threatens between academic treatments and the more experiential problem-solving work of practitioners. Does your ongoing work as a director ground your research? Or is directing only an incurable passion?
To direct is to be vulnerable and unless I’m sharing the life of my fellow artists I can’t pronounce authoritatively on its significant features. It’s as simple as that. If I wasn’t a director, if I didn’t know what it is to work up to midnight, five days in a row, to open a show that sinks like a stone, how would I know what went through the minds of Nimrod’s directors when they were opening what is now Belvoir Street Theatre? My work as a practitioner informs my work as a historian and visa-versa. There’s so much I could say on this score, it would bore everyone to tears. Let’s summarise: if you want to understand where Australia theatre is headed, you’ve got to understand where it’s been. The past is the key to the future.
Further to that, you “let go” of directing in 2008, after putting together The Vertical Hour — does this, your second production since then, signal a return to more regular directing work?
I don’t know. I don’t think it’s entirely up to me. I represent a certain kind of director, I guess — a serious intellectual, someone who writes and thinks about the art form from a number of perspectives. My stage work is austere and doesn’t make many, if any, concessions, to fashion. There are so many things that don’t interest me about today’s theatre. Technology bores me. The blaring insistence of contemporary production is depressing. That the stage could be a place of thought, that it could show us something truthful, in a general and not an actorly sense, seems alien. Theatre has grown monstrous — puffed up on star power and new forms that are old ones and the need to believe it is important even when it has nothing to say.
Obviously I don’t fit into this picture. Neither my faults nor my strengths are intelligible in this kind of context. It would need to change somewhat, to make a renewed link possible. Otherwise I’ll remain what I am at the moment: an anomaly drifting through a variety of different institutional settings, someone who, by rights, shouldn’t exist.
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne 3000
Dates: Friday, 6 August – Sunday, 29 August 2010
Prices: $45 Full / $40 Seniors Card / $37.50 Concession
Booking: Book online here
Photos by Jeff Busby