One of the paradoxes of art is the uneasy legacy of success. As soon as a work is labelled a "classic", it becomes curiously invisible: it transforms into a monument, cobwebbed by all the extraneous things its success now symbolises, and the energies that made it a success in the first place are polished away by the pieties that must now attend it. Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is a good example: a fixity in the Australian theatrical universe, a symbol of nationalistic pride, it too easily becomes a thing instead of an act. It even has a nickname: The Doll.
|L-R: Travis, McMahon, Alison Whyte and Steve Le Marquand in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Picture: Jeff Busby.|
Sometimes it seems to me that a good half of the job of artists, especially in a temporal art like the theatre, is to reignite the life of earlier work, to rediscover the energy still sleeping under the dulling detritus of cultural regard. It's this drive that leads to work such as Hayloft's Thyestes, Benedict Andrews's The War of the Roses, or Daniel Schlusser's The Dollhouse, explorations which explode the classic and rebuild it in contemporary form. But the desire to see afresh is equally at work in Neil Armfield's production of The Doll, now on at the Melbourne Theatre Company after its premiere last year at Belvoir St. Respectful in the best sense, it taps into the raw power of Lawler's play, and shows us what tragic realism can be.
Lawler's story of itinerant cane cutters who migrate to Melbourne every summer for the lay off is a parable of fantasy coming into brutal collision with reality and, like all tragedies, a meditation on mortality. For sixteen years, Roo (Steve Le Marquand) and Barney (Travis McMahon) have returned to their lovers Olive (Alison Whyte) and Nancy, for a white-hot summer of love in the boarding house run by Olive's mother Emma (Robyn Nevin). But now Nancy is gone: she has married a bookshop owner and settled down. Olive, refusing to face the implications of Nancy's betrayal, has roped in her barmaid friend, Pearl (Helen Thomson) to take Nancy's place.
When the boys arrive, it's clear that all is not well: Roo is broke, and his and Barney's relationship simmers with unsaid hostilities. These are catalysed by the arrival of a virile young ganger, Johnnie O'Dowd (TJ Power), who exposes that Roo isn't the man he once was. Under the sceptical eyes of Pearl the fantasy crumbles, to be exposed as a tawdry illusion. Only Bubba (Eloise Winestock), the girl next door who burns with youthful desire, refuses to reject its reality: although the dream is broken, she knows that it was real, and she wants it for herself.
There's an energy in this play that belongs to the 1950s, and perhaps it's no accident that Ralph Myers's spare, romantic design - a sash window through which light blooms lyrically back stage, shabby floorboards, a sense of space that echoes the emptiness in the characters - recalls something of the post-war films of Elia Kazan, such as East of Eden or On The Waterfront. There's no attempt to update the action: it employs an Australian idiom that has largely vanished from our cities, with the broad vowels and supple, ironic wit that later became caricatured as the "larrikin" or the ocker. In Lawler's hands it's plain and unexaggerated, the speech of working class people.
Likewise, the play's three act structure is unadorned and muscular: its characters are vivid and distinct and its emotional peaks earned, so you're gripped from the beginning. As with all good theatre, time suspends itself in your involuntary attention, so there's no sense of duration: it seems to fly by. The Doll remains what it always has been: a startlingly well-written text, of its time and place, but resonating beyond them. It reminds you what a pleasure it is to watch an impeccably crafted play.
The real resonance is in Lawler's critique of gender: he puts masculinity and femininity under the burning glass, so the roles evaporate and reveal desperate people seeing through a glass darkly, aware of how they are trapped, but unable to do anything about it. None of them are socially conventional characters, but for all their refusal of their allotted roles - as dutiful working husband or suburban wife - they remain trapped: Roo and Barney in their limited ideals of manhood, Olive and Pearl (although Pearl is, paradoxically, the freest of them) in differing ideas of womanhood. Their tragedy is that there is no escape for them: the only alternative to accepting the deathly conventions they have abjured all their lives is absolute loss.
That these qualities are so compellingly clear is a tribute to Neil Armfield's production, which focuses squarely on the text and performances. There were some cast changes (notably Whyte in the demanding role of Olive) for the Melbourne production, and you can see where some performances are more finely nuanced than others; but all the actors expose with an uncompromising clarity the passions at work in the action.
The emphasis in this play is on the women. Whyte is one of those rare actors who can summon extremity on stage, playing Olive's brittle aggression as a growing, overwhelming panic, and is a brilliant foil against Thomson's Pearl, whose matter-of-fact insensitivity covers an unexpressed loneliness. Pearl's pretensions towards respectability offer, along with Nevin's impeccably performed Emma, much of the play's comedy, but transform into an authentic and moving dignity. As the cane-cutters Roo and Barney, Le Marquand and McMahon play their masculinity with an old-fashioned swagger and bombast, pretensions which becomes poignant as they crumble under the pressures of reality.
When The Doll premiered in London in 1957, it prompted a memorable effusion from Kenneth Tynan. Winding up his excitability spring, he declared that this play was a harbinger of things to come: a working class tragedy that signalled perhaps the first drops of a seminal outpouring of drama from the Antipodes. As it turned out, the energy that The Doll heralded mostly happened in Britain. The late 50s saw the premiere of some notable plays - for example, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Arnold Wesker's Chicken Soup with Barley and Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey - which, like Lawler's, brought a new realism to tragedy, and different kinds of characters and settings to the stage: reacting against the drawing room dramas symbolised by Terence Rattigan, they were gritty, powerful, and aggressively contemporary. Lawler was in the zeitgeist.
In Australia, the gushing forth Tynan prophesied was more of a trickle: it didn't really occur until the 1970s, with the establishment of the Pram Factory and Nimrod Theatre. It wasn't as if the promise wasn't there: the late 50s and early 60s saw, for example, the premieres of Richard Beynon's The Shifting Heart or Peter Kenna's The Slaughter of St. Teresa’s Day. Australia simply didn't have the cultural and institutional support that permitted the explosion of talent that Britain saw in the 1960s, which witnessed the emergence of so many astounding playwrights, from Trevor Griffiths to Harold Pinter to John Arden.
It's hard not to wonder what happened to Australian main stage drama: on this same stage, almost exactly a year ago, I saw Don Parties On, a play which lacks everything - craft, insight, wit, passion, emotional truthfulness - that The Doll has in such abundance. Maybe, as much as with the lack of nurturing institutions, it had something to do with those cultural cobwebs, which are so good at muffling protean energies and have so often stifled them at birth. A prominent critic, who would have had no argument with placing The Doll at the top of the tree of cultural prestige, commented in one of his books that Australians have no taste for tragedy. That's only possible to maintain if you erase the fact that The Doll, one of our most iconic plays, is a searing tragedy, powerful and raw and uncompromising still, as Armfield's production so amply demonstrates. Not to be missed.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler, directed by Neil Armfield. Set design Ralph Myers, costumes by Dale Ferguson, lighting by Damien Cooper, composer Alan John. With Eloise Winestock, Helen Thomson, Alison Whyte, Robyn Nevin, Steve Le Marquand, Travis McMahon and TJ Power. Belvoir and Melbourne Theatre Company, Arts Centre Playhouse, until February 18.