Tag Archives: play

184: Squatter

15 Nov

With Squatter, Stuart Hoar has written a heightened, theatrical depiction of the New Zealand revolutionary land acts of the 1890s. I use the word ‘revolutionary’ deliberately, not as lazy hyperbole.


In New Zealand in 1890, vast tracts of land were owned by a rich minority, called squatters. The land acts forced them firstly to pay taxes on the land they owned, and then bought up the huge estates and broke them into small settlement farms. In his introduction, Hoar describes it as the rise to power of a new middle class.

You don’t need to know the history before you read Squatter: the play gives you all the information you need without ever condescending or preaching. It’s an untamed, larrikin sort of a play and was Hoar’s first play (published in 1988).

I loved the absurd beginning, which could easily have signalled a Beckett or Ionesco drama: two travellers appear on stage, one carrying the other on his shoulders along with many cases. This immediately sets up the conflict between servant and master and class constraints, without needing to say a word. (In a lovely reversal, when the same two characters leave at the end of the play, they have swapped positions and, probably, classes.)

Squatter is a historical play and a political one, but it is full of humour and energy. Characters flag their intents with each other before launching into monologues or asides to the audience, like the following:

ELISABETH: Listen to me. I’m going to make a stirring speech.

WADE: I’m not certain it will help.

ELISABETH: (To the audience) My name – for the purposes of this exercise – is Elisabeth McGravity. I’m a nobody. I’m a cook. A small speck of lumpen-proletariat. Uncared for and uncaring. […]

There is murder and intrigue as the land owners scheme to keep their property and the workers plot to get it off them. There are radicals in both groups and also conciliatory souls who’d be happy to find a compromise but are caught in relationships that require big gestures and empty words.

Publisher: Victoria University Press (1988)

Cast: 8M, 3F

175: Shimada

17 Oct

Jill Shearer‘s Shimada is a play which will have painful overtones for some while enlightening many others with its take on prisoner trauma and economic rationalism.

Chindit column in Burma

A Chindit column crossing a river in Burma, 1943.

Eric, the central character, is a survivor of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. But the war is long gone, he’s outlived his mates and the company he helped found is now looking at selling out to a Japanese business.

Shimada takes place in Northern Queensland in the office of the bicycle company that’s on the rocks and also in a Prisoner of War camp in an unspecified jungle in World War Two. The flashbacks are Eric’s and the reader/audience gets a strong sense of the constant battle in his head as the past and the present vie for prominence.

Eric becomes convinced that Toshio, the Japanese businessman who has come to buy the company, is actually Shimada, the officer who tortured he and his friends in the PoW camp. Shearer leaves us guessing whether this is in fact the case or whether it’s a trick Eric’s memory is playing on him.

TOSHIO: I too have memory, Mr Dawson. My wife. Akiko. First wife. First … [He stops.] I leave her with parents. Yes, I was in service. We were all in service. Millions. [He stops again.] First wife. Young. Very young. Small. [softly] Like lotus. So many years ago, but like lotus. Like blossom. I leave her with parents. [Pause] I leave her in city of Hiroshima.

ERIC: Blood will have blood, Shimada.

TOSHIO: But people of Japan do not live with those memories, Mr Dawson. People of Japan live … in future!

For a while, the play seems as if it will be an Aussie battler drama: old digger fights off takeover and resurrects family company against all odds, but Shearer has something more sombre in mind. She threads trade unionism, multinational takeovers, protectionism and racism alongside the flashbacks to the war years.

SHARYN: Can’t you see? You’re reinforcing every single thing the Japanese hear about us. Unreliability. Lack of unity.


DENNY: ‘Made in Australia.’

SHARYN: I promise you’ll be looked after.

DENNY: Looked after like my sister’s niece in Brisbane? Her place used to make office stuff. Switched over to imports. Cuttin’ costs they said. Sharks. No shortage of money when it comes to the big ones makin’ it. Just shortage of caring. Carin’ about people who’ve trusted them, worked for them for years. Doesn’t matter if it’s the Japs or our lot. Ends up the same most times. She’s on the dole now.

I came away from reading Shimada thinking about forgiveness. How long do we hold onto the past? Should we revenge our friends’ murders or mourn and let go? If blood will have blood then the cycle will never end.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 4M, 3F (includes some doubling)

174: Never For Ever

16 Oct

Daniel Evan’s Never For Ever is a coming-of-age tale with many twists. It’s a funny, crude, sweet and poignant story about Peter and Wendy in a supermarket.

Peter Pan rescues Wendy

Peter Pan rescuing Wendy. Illustration by Mabel Lucie Atwell.

Never For Ever was commissioned by Griffith University’s Applied Theatre Department for their student production I Will Kiss You in Four Places. Four Brisbane writers were each given the challenge of writing a 20-minute play with at least six characters and only a month to submit the first draft. Clearly this was enough time for Evans to create a rich and fantastical world peopled with the bizarre, the bruised and some seriously OTT characters.

It’s the middle of the night in some suburban supermarket and the night team are restocking the shelves, knowing that when they turn 21 they’ll get the yellow slip out of there. Their days are numbered and for those, like Peter, who don’t want to get older it’s a clock that ticks as loudly as the one the crocodile swallowed.

Peter is a lost boy on the cusp of turning 21. He’s suffering amnesia and can only remember when Wendy tells him the story of the things they’ve experienced together since he fell to earth (into the freezer). They work with a strange bunch of people, including Charmaine who continuously mouths off in graphic detail about her sordid sex life.

WENDY: Harriet’s right. You tell us everything, Charmaine.
AUGUSTUS: No detail is spared.
HARRIET: It’s like you forgot to switch on your privacy settings.
CHARMAINE: Yeah. Well. I’ll tell you one other thing: You can all go get stuffed. I put the extra– in extraordinary, which means I finish five letters in front of you boring nobody numbskulls.

But, while the others eat, chat, steal and occasionally work, Peter is seeing and interacting with Neverland’s lost boys, Indians, mermaids and fairies.

PETER: Thinking’s for grown-ups—
WENDY: Lying’s for grown-ups. It’s their native language.
PETER: Pirates lie all the time—
WENDY: Grown-ups are pirates—
PETER: Really?
WENDY: Duh. Think about it. It’s just the sort of lie they’d tell you to make everything—
WENDY: Exactly. Like Santa Claus.
PETER: Crusts.
WENDY: The Easter Bunny.
PETER: Vegetables.
WENDY: God. Do you believe in God?
PETER: I believe in fairies.
WENDY: Close enough.

Never For Ever starts off absurd and crass and slowly morphs into something astonishingly sweet and tender.

WENDY: It doesn’t get better, Peter. It gets the same. Sometimes it gets worse. What changes is here: this heals, and then maybe it breaks again. But if you’re lucky, if you hold on long enough—you find the person who can glue it back together, who’ll hold it for you if it gets too heavy, trap it if it tries to slip away. You’re that person. You have this. You have me. Always. We have to make something of our lives now. We have to grow up. We have to pretend to be responsible.

Publisher: Playlab Press in I Will Kiss You in Four Places (published in CD format rather than on paper)

Cast: 6M, 5F plus lots of Neverland characters

173: The Glass Mermaid

14 Oct

Tobsha Learner’s The Glass Mermaid is a domestic drama with paranormal threads. Sara has come back to the island home she used to live in with her husband Karl. It’s a year since Karl walked into the ocean in an apparent suicide, searching for the “song behind all songs”.

John W Waterhouse: Mermaid

John William Waterhouse: Mermaid

Sara has come back to her home to try to find her husband, to enact a ritual whereby he might return from the dead and let her know why he died or point out the murderer if there was one. She is frequently interrupted by two neighbours Julian and Kristin, who were friends of hers and Karl’s as well as acting as caretakers of the island.

Karl was a scientist and philosopher, fascinated by phenomenology and loved and envied in equal measures by Julian. What lifts The Glass Mermaid out of the ordinary is the entrance of a Bosnian escort named Janko. He visits Sara by mistake and she decides to pay him to wear her husband’s clothes and smoke his pipe so that she can talk to, caress and make love to her husband again. As you might expect, they fall in love with each other and what began as a service becomes a relationship.

JANKO: I am tired of not dreaming. Of sleeping with pain behind the eyes. And tonight I come here because I want you to know me. Janko Kavoic.

SARA: That’s not what I hired you for.

JANKO: I am not here for the money, Sara.

The last character to arrive on the scene is Cassandra, Sara’s 17-year-old daughter. All the characters have secrets that are slowly uncovered in the course of the play. Some of the resolutions (like Kristin’s) come abruptly and without enough character development, others feel inexorable.

The Glass Mermaid reads a little like a paranormal whodunnit with a romantic heart. I loved seeing a strong central character in her late 40s but it’s Janko, the war-damaged, bereaved emigre who captured my allegiance. There are moments of heightened prose, like when Janko describes almost drowning in the Sava river when the ice breaks beneath the soldiers crossing.

JANKO: We are sliding, our fingers clutching at the surface, no one is screaming, it is too quick, we are sliding into the river, the freezing river. And the ice, she closes up above our heads. As if we had never been there … I see the others floating down, struggling with their packs. Like crazy ballet dancers. I am dying I think. My cousins’ faces like ghosts in the green water.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 3F, 2M

172: Voyage

10 Oct

A big thank you to Chris Mead at PlayWriting Australia for recommending I read this one. Tom Stoppard’s Voyage is the first part of his The Coast of Utopia trilogy.

Michael Bakunin as a young man

Michael Bakunin as a young man

It’s a biographical suite of plays focusing on three Russian philosophers/writers/activists in the heady days before the Russian revolution. As a trilogy the plays cover the 1830s to the 1870s, with Voyage, the first one, focusing on 1833-1844 and Michael Bakunin, the man who would become one of Russia’s most famous anarchists.

When Stoppard introduces Bakunin to us, he is a dissolute aristocrat, meddling in his sisters’ lives, borrowing money from even the most impoverished of his friends, expecting to be provided for without ever having to lift a finger. The play focuses more on his sisters than it does on him and, in many ways, it reminded me of Chekhov and the longing of his Three Sisters. I say this because there’s a lot of talking about things, rather than seeing them happen on stage. I don’t mind this in a play about philosophy, politics and Russia – it seems quite fitting in many ways.

A gorgeous example of the philosophical debate is made when one of Bakunin’s friends, Belinsky, gets heated up and alienates Bakunin’s aristocratic family.

BELINSKY: […] as a nation we have no literature because what we have isn’t ours, it’s like a party where everyone has to come dressed up as somebody else – Byron, Voltaire, Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare and the rest […] Look at us! – A gigantic child with a tiny head stuffed full of idolatry for everything foreign … and a huge inert body abandoned to its own muck, a continent of vassalage and superstition – that’s your Russia, held together by police informers and fourteen ranks of uniformed flunkeys.

I was fascinated by Bakunin’s sisters, who were prepared to give up marriages, love and dreams at their impetuous brother’s behest. They clearly adored him and the love seemed to perhaps be a bit more than familial at times.

Voyage jumps about in time and place, with the action looping backwards and forwards in time to fill in the gaps of our knowledge and maintain tension. The non-linear story telling is perhaps the most dramatic element of this thoroughly researched and imaginatively recreated play.

I’ll leave the last word with Belinsky who appears to be the only real philosopher in this play.

BELINKSY: […] When philosophers start talking like architects, get out while you can, chaos is coming. When they start laying down rules for beauty, blood in the streets is from that moment inevitable.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Cast: 16M, 10F

171: The Grace of Mary Traverse

9 Oct

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Grace of Mary Traverse is a political period piece. Set in the 18th century it’s about the journey a spoilt young woman takes to learn to be human.

Timberlake Wertenbaker

Timberlake Wertenbaker

Mary Traverse (most of the names in the play say a lot about the characters) is a young woman being groomed by her father to make a good marriage. She is practiced in conversation and thought, but protected from any knowledge of the outside world or anything that might sully her innocence. Mary attempts to walk without leaving an imprint on the carpet, trying to make herself ethereal and ghostly, as befits a woman.

MARY: I’m trying not to breathe.
MRS TEMPTWELL: Your mother was good at that.
MARY: Was she?
MRS TEMPTWELL: Said it thickened the waist. She died of not breathing in the end, poor thing, may she rest in peace, I’m sure she does, she always did.
MARY: Could she walk on a carpet and leave no imprint?
MRS TEMPTWELL: She went in and out of rooms with no one knowing she’d been there. She was so quiet, your mother, it took the master a week to notice she was dead. But she looked ever so beautiful in her coffin and he couldn’t stop looking at her. Death suits women. You’d look lovely in a coffin, Miss Mary.

Mrs Temptwell, Mary’s diabolical servant, lives up to her name and offers to take Mary out of the house to experience the real world. She sets her up for disgrace to fulfill the vendetta she has against Mary’s father, but she doesn’t take into account Mary’s appetite for the seamier side of life.

Mary lacks compassion or empathy and searches for ways to give herself the power she witnesses in men.

MARY: I’ve seen them walk the street without fear, stuff food into their mouths with no concern for their waists. I’ve seen them tear into skin without hesitation and litter the streets with their discarded actions. But I have no map to this world. I walk it as a foreigner and sense only danger.

Mrs Temptwell offers Mary the key to this male world and Mary leaps at the chance to ‘run the world through her fingers as men do’. She revels in depravity, uses and abuses other women and glories in her power to command and destroy lives.

Wertenbaker’s play is a strong feminist piece filled with humour and lust. The lust is for life, not just for fleshy delights, and in its larger than life grotesqueries it holds a mirror to our paler power plays.

Publisher: Faber and Faber (published along with The Love of the Nightingale)

Cast: 5M, 4F (with lots of doubling)

170: Walsh

4 Oct

Today’s play had me sobbing on my way to work on the bus. It’s rare for a playscript to have this effect on me. Books do it regularly. (Whatever You Love by Louise Doughty was a shocking example of public tears while reading a novel. I cried in three different public places but still couldn’t put it down.)

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

This morning on the bus I was reading Walsh by Sharon Pollock. Her second full length play premiered in 1973 and is an amazing work. It’s a biographical play about Major Walsh and his relationship with Sitting Bull of the Sioux Nation and it’s a heartbreaking historical work about a shameful period in America, Canada and Britain’s history.

I finished the play with a loathing of General Custer (whom we never see in the play) and the cruelness and brutality of the American soldiers, under orders from Washington and aided by Queen Victoria. In an opening address to the audience, Harry (a wagon master) relates the bloodbath at Little Big Horn and explains how Custer used to attack the “friendly natives” (those who had moved close to the soldiers and settlers and camped under an American flag to show their allegiance). His attacks were cowardly in the extreme but one time he chose the wrong group of Indians.

HARRY: And the Injuns at the Little Big Horn weren’t friendly. They were hostile as hell. Sittin’ Bull and the Sioux had listened to the ‘merican government say, “The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians, and their land and property shall never be taken from them without their consent.” They had taken the government at its word – bein’ savages they weren’t too familiar with governments and all, so it was an understandable mistake.

The attack ends in the death of Custer and his soldiers and the American government sets out to bring Sitting Bull and the Sioux to ‘justice’ (despite the fact that they had acted in self defence). Sitting Bull and his people make it to Canada where they take refuge and Sitting Bull makes friends with Major Walsh. Their friendship is the key part of Walsh: a friendship based on mutual respect and trust. But neither of these attributes mean a thing in a period of America’s history where the white man was setting out to exterminate the ‘Injun’.

The fate of the Sioux and of Sitting Bull is enough to make a tough person cry. No wonder I sobbed on the bus and found myself tearing up whenever I thought of the play.

SITTING BULL: In the beginning … was given … to everyone a cup. … A cup of clay. And from this cup we drink our life. We all dip in the water, but the cups are different … My cup is broken. It has passed away.

Walsh is a beautiful, moving play. Despite the lump in my throat, I am still glad I read it.

Publisher: Talonbooks

Cast: 11M, 2F

169: The Love of the Nightingale

3 Oct

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale is a classic tale for contemporary audiences. (Read Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the classical inspiration.)

Painting of Philomela and Procne

Philomele and Procne, by Elizabeth Gardener Bouguereau

Philomele is a young Athenian princess, desperate for knowledge, feeling and passion. She has an older sister, Procne, who is married to Tereus, the conquering King of Thrace. Before she leaves for the far away kingdom, Procne makes Philomele promise that she will come to her if she asks.

When Procne wants her sister with her, she sends her husband to fetch her, not caring that it is a long voyage and that he will be gone for months.

The Love of the Nightingale is set up like a Greek tragedy, with a chorus and the prophesied doom so common in Greek verse. But it has contemporary resonance made all the more palpable by the moment when the chorus goes from commenting on the action to questioning outside the world of the play.

IRIS: To some questions there are no answers. We might ask you now: why does the Vulture eat Prometheus’s liver? He brought men intelligence.
ECHO: Why did God want them stupid?
IRIS: We can ask: why did Medea kill her children?
JUNE: Why do countries make war?
HELEN: Why are races exterminated?
HERO: Why do white people cut off the words of blacks?
IRIS: Why do people disappear? The ultimate silence.
ECHO: Not even death recorded.
HELEN: Why are little girls raped and murdered in the car parks of dark cities?
IRIS: What makes the torturer smile?
HERO: We can ask. Words will grope and probably not find.

Wertenbaker has written a beautiful play, which is much more than a simple retelling of a myth. She even plays with the word ‘myth’: the male chorus ponder its origins and reveal that the original Greek meaning of myth is “simply what is delivered by word of mouth”: that a myth is both speech and the “content of the speech”.

As with Our Country’s Good, there is a play within the play, this time the story of Phaedra, which Philomele’s father uses to try to decipher whether or not he should let his young daughter travel to her sister.

KING PANDION: I find plays help me think. You catch a phrase, recognize a character. Perhaps this play will help us come to a decision.

Later, his wife remarks: “Listen to the chorus. The playwright always speaks through the chorus.” And so we listen closely to the chorus and know for certain that if Philomele goes with Tereus things will end in tragedy, as they do and as they must.

Tereus becomes blinded by lust for his wife’s sister on the voyage back to Thrace and has her escort murdered. He tells Philomele that her sister is dead and then demands to have her.

PHILOMELE: I have to consent.
TEREUS: It would be better, but no, you do not have to. Does the god ask permission?
PHILOMELE: Help. Help me. Someone. Niobe!
TEREUS: So, you are afraid. I know fear well. Fear is consent. You see the god and you accept.
TEREUS: I will have you in your fear. Trembling limbs to my fire.

He rapes her and when she threatens to tell, he cuts out her tongue. But women without voices can still make themselves heard and Philomele gets to take her revenge before turning into a nightingale.

Publisher: Faber and Faber

Cast: 8F, 7M, 1 boy (contains some doubling)

168: The Gate Crasher

2 Oct

Stephen Carleton was commissioned to write The Gate Crasher by Griffith University’s Applied Theatre Department for their student production I Will Kiss You in Four Places. Four Brisbane writers were each given the challenge of writing a 20-minute play with at least six characters and only a month to submit the first draft.

I Will Kiss You in Four Places

The Gate Crasher is a play about five friends meeting after the wake of a school friend they’d all admired and lusted over. Jett was the guy everyone wanted to be like or date but he died young in a motorbike accident. The gate crasher of the play’s title is Larissa, who appears to be another girl from school but whom none of them remember although she seems to know everything about them.

MISHA: I still can’t place you, Larissa. It’s crazy, isn’t it? You think you remember everyone from high school, but I look at the photos and I swear—a good third of the faces are strangers to me. All those days—years—of being stuck together. Those hours of torture that drag by during classes you don’t give a shit about. I’ve forgotten it already. Or repressed it. I couldn’t tell you what rooms half of my classes were in. I only barely remember the architecture of the building. I don’t remember what was on the walls. Which rooms were carpeted and which were tiled. Which ones the air conditioning worked in. What was I doing? Walking around in a fucking fog for five years?

At first it seems a relatively innocent reunion at a sad time, but as the play progresses the events become more and more sinister and Larissa’s knowledge of intimate details of their lives goes from being unsettling to downright creepy.

LARISSA: She was always going to marry a rescuer.
KEL: Excuse me?
LARISSA: She used to burn herself with cigarettes. Down behind the bike sheds. She hated herself.
KEL: Can you please stop being an expert on my friends’ lives? We don’t even know who you are.

Stephen Carleton is a master of witty, clever dialogue and has also made a name for himself for gothic tales (Constance Drinkwater and the Final Days of Somerset) and this piece is a nice mixture of the two. Given the time constraints for writing it, it’s obviously not as deep or detailed as his other plays, but it’s a fun read and lets us discover the dark side of the old school yard … and prawn trawlers.

RYAN I’m sick of prawns. […] Sick of pulling off the shells and rippin’ out the guts. Sick of the cuts and bits of shell under my fingernails. Sick of stinkin’ like prawns even after I’ve scrubbed off six layers of skin trying to get the fuckin’—
KEL Can we leave the fisherman’s vocabulary on the boats, please?

Publisher: Playlab Press in I Will Kiss You in Four Places (published in CD format rather than on paper)
Cast: 4F, 2M

167: Our Country’s Good

24 Sep

I’ve loved this play by Timberlake Wertenbaker. Our Country’s Good is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker. Set in Sydney in 1788, it shows a lowly officer setting out to put on a play with a group of convicts as the actors. Wertenbaker says in her introduction that she was inspired and moved by seeing a performance by prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs. It reinforced for her the importance of theatre, something which comes through loud and clear in Our Country’s Good.

Sidney Nolan painting

Sidney Nolan: Convict, Mrs Fraser and Bird

This is a play about putting on a play, about power and class systems, about whether criminals are born or made and whether they can be redeemed, and also about the importance of education, art and learning.

Ralph Clark is the shy second lieutenant who decides to put on George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Most of his superiors think he’s crazy.

MAJOR ROBBIE ROSS: Filthy, thieving, lying whores and now we have to watch them flout their flitty wares on the stage!


CAPTAIN WATKIN TENCH: We are talking about criminals, often hardened criminals. They have a habit of vice and crime. Many criminals seem to have been born that way. It is in their nature.

As they start rehearsing, Clark begins to fall for one of the convicts, Mary Brenham. It could be a fine romance if Clark didn’t already have a wife back in England. Mary can read, a skill rare in the convicts, and Clark gives her the starring role. She is also in charge of copying the script and reading the lines to the others so that they can memorise them.

There are jealousies, rivalries and the constant threat of hanging, seemingly at the whim of the officers, but even the despised hangman, Ketch Freeman, wants to be in the play:

KETCH: Some players came into our village once. They were loved like the angels, Lieutenant, like the angels. And the way the women watched them – the light of a spring dawn in their eyes.
Lieutenant –
I want to be an actor.

Our Country’s Good is full of laughs as the convicts defy the director, refusing to say certain lines, questioning everything and wanting to rewrite the play to make it more relevant to them. This is a play that argues for and establishes the need for theatre. It’s a glorious affirmation of the art form and also has plenty to say about the prison system and the way we used to (and some people still do) think of prisoners.

RALPH: We must get at the truth.
ROSS: Truth! We have 800 thieves, perjurers, forgers, murderers, liars, escapers, rapists, whores, coiners in this scrub-ridden, dust-driven, thunder-bolted, savage-run, cretinous colony.
CAPTAIN ARTHUR PHILLIP: Truth is indeed a luxury, but its absence brings about the most abject poverty in a civilisation. That is the paradox.
ROSS: This is a profligate prison for us all, it’s a hellish hole we soldiers have been hauled to because they blame us for losing the war in America. This is a hateful, hary-scary, topsy-turvy outpost, this is not a civilisation. I hate this possumy place.

Publisher: Methuen

Cast: 16M, 5F (can be doubled and tripled)