“What else should our lives be but a series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become.”
This sentence by David Malouf caught the eye of Patrick White who used it to introduce his novel The Tyborn Affair. That’s where I first saw it and, being a going-backwards kinda guy, I have returned to this sentence many times over the years. Of the goodness knows how many sentences my eyes have traversed, this is one that I find I can turn over and over like a pebble, or is it a jewel – as I hold it up to catch the light. Note to self: the point, I guess, is to move forward – or at least with the times.
Anyways that’s where we are the-smorning. I drew a line in the sand with my last post, and I knew then that on my return to this site I would have to get out the little boat that is me and give it a shove – out into the waters called today and tomorrow. I haven’t been writing because there has been so much to tell you, or at least for me to think about; and not knowing how to find the words. How do you spell cosmic shrug when staring into the sometimes mess of life?
Let’s get down to business. Like a pair of lighthouses up the coast, I could see between the bobbing waves, two theatre events that were destined to bring me, momentarily at least, back to shore. Landfall. In reverse order, last night the premiere of Loot at the STC. Joe Orton was just 32 when this, his second play, premiered in I February 1965. Two-and-a-half years later he was dead. The end of career as promising as that of Heath Ledger. Both died in bed – at the very beginning of their careers. To say ‘cut short’ in either instance is an understatement verging on the absurd. Orton’s demise, bludgeoned to death by his jealous boyfriend, more obviously shocking (though not more shocking – pace Heath Ledger).
If you don’t know anything or very much about Joe Orton, go Google, enough is easily there. He grew up a working-class kid at a time and in a country where class division was formidably enshrined. And gay to boot. So when he discovered he had a writer’s voice, boy did he sing out. We are all so cool and evolved now, but no better as human beings. Which is testimony to Orton’s gift: that, life conditions of his own time aside, a play like Loot can still speak to us now. We won’t we outraged by its specific disrespect for the Church or the police or family values. But, those digs aside, we are freed up to admire the principle of disrespect for authority more openly – in an age when we are all but totally bowed to the psychological, financial, spiritual and social hegemony of systems that even run the daily lives of our ruling elites.
What we have here is a superb production, faultlessly realised by a gifted cast in the knowing care of director Richard Cottrell. English-born Cottrell has made Sydney his home for many years now, and he is one of those special theatre beings both loved and admired. A kind soul with a cheeky laugh, Cottrell knows the art of comic stagecraft probably better than anyone in this country today. All very well that kids have taken over the asylums here and he is their senior; but Cottrell would be a star any firmament of professional theatremakers, whatever their vintage. A combination of brain power and devotion, and the years of practice – no one in this county was better placed to take on this production than Cottrell. And it leads, as if inevitably, on from his superb production of Travesties.
We live in a time of slacker ethos – unshaven men in cardigans rule, artistic directors who can’t be bothered to prepare a speech, jobs are flung to mates like the spoils of a raid on a school canteen. And disrespect – for audiences, staff, playwrights, actors – ad infinitum – knows no bounds. In this context, Cottrell’s achievement with Loot is particularly poignant. Clearly proving the point that you don’t have to be under 35 to be at the top of your game.
Craft is a keyword today. Looking at Loot, and listening to it, you might be forgiven for thinking it flew off the pen – just so. Not at all, it went through many revisions to emerge the polished gem it is. In the version that played prior to first transferring to the West End, the lynch-pin character of Inspector Truscott had only eight lines in the first act. Prior to the 1966 revival, Orton cut around 600 lines. In the way that two other ‘over-35s’ directors, George Ogilvie and Aubrey Mellor, carved out high reputations in this country for their fine realisations of Chekhov, Cottrell handles laughter like Adriano Zumbo whoops up pastry. Technique – and then some. Cottrell happens to also know a lot about staging Shakespeare, but there is no one in this country who can put a cast through the canine-like training hoops of high comedy a play like this requires. Precision is everything. Also tone. Okay, I mean style. Who knows, maybe Cottrell sometime soon can show how to present a farce Feydeau.
Of course you need actors up to the task, and this Loot is impeccably cast. Most notably Darren Gilshenan as Truscott. If we didn’t know this actor had worked so hard to get this good, we would simply say he was born for the role. This is a stand-out performance that’s so well-drawn it overshadows neither the other fine performances nor the shared business of getting out a story. I talk often of our many gifted actors, this cornucopia of talent we so undeservedly enjoy. And here are some of them. William Zappa as elderly, if the newly widowed, McLeavy. Some will remember Zappa working with Gilshenan previously in Bell Shakespeare’s glorious two-hand version of The Government Inspector (actually that was directed with consummate comic craft skills also – by John Bell. Meanwhile Zappa is heaven in this – always alive and fresh but never straying.
And then to the kids: Caroline Craig as the scheming nurse Fay, Robin Goldsworthy as the naughty son Hal, and Josh McColville as his bad-assed side-kick, Dennis. All three hilarious, separately and together. In a cute supporting role, Lee Jones as Constable Meadows. All, I have no doubt would have stories of not only the fun (this show shines with good-will) but also the hard-work that went into this production. ‘Repetition, repetition, repetition’ said Cottrell after the show when describing the means by which one brings a play like this to life. Plus ‘truthfulness’ – never playing a line for laughs.
It’s a cute set from Victoria Lamb – deliciously unrealistic realistic. Lamb also designs the costumes: I especially liked Hal’s braided ‘Sergeant Peppers’ jacket – that’s a bulls-eye. Comparably apt support from everyone else involved in design and technicalities.
To pull the lens back and put this production in context. The qualities I said were missing from recent STC production in my missive (missile) on the company’s output this year (‘Wotever Happened to STC Acting’) – they’re here. A wonderful play, artful directing, quality acting front and centre. Once again everything is right with the world. Thankyou very much STC.
Yes, I mentioned another lighthouse sailed by this week. I will describe that different, but equally luminous travel encounter next time. Clue – my family favourites: Big hArt (and their Canberra season of Namatjira).