Contemporary Australian Drama ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Contemporary Australian Drama

Reviewed for The Book Show, ABC Radio National - you can listen to me here or read on...

Contemporary Australian Drama by Leonard Radic. Brandl and Schlesinger 2006.

You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Leonard Radic's new book on Australian drama it's irresistible. The book is grey. Tombstone grey. It gives you fair warning of the quality of the prose inside.

The cover's greyness is marginally relieved by a black and white photograph of the first production of Ray Lawler's Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in 1955. Yes, that's 51 years ago. And this is a book entitled 'Contemporary Australian Drama'? Those of us who believe theatre is one of the most exciting artforms around and wonder at its fusty, old-fashioned image need look for explanation no further than this volume.

Leonard Radic was the theatre reviewer for the Age for two decades and, in the tradition of reviewers such as James Agate, Kenneth Tynan or Michael Billington, now seeks the more permanent legacy of a book to immortalise his critical insights. Or, as the case may be, insight. Radic seems to have had one idea in his entire critical life, and he hangs onto it with the tenacity of a slightly dim bull terrier.

Contemporary Australian Drama follows his equally dull 1991 survey of Australian theatre, The State of Play. The narrative in both books is basically the same: Australian theatre was a colonial franchise until, in the late 60s and early 70s, a bunch of young turks – including David Williamson, John Romeril, Jack Hibberd, Alex Buzo and Dorothy Hewett – began to articulate a new, uniquely Australian perspective.

This thesis is fine as far as it goes. In Radic's hands, that's not very far at all. There's no doubt that the founding of the Nimrod, Pram Factory and La Mama theatres, the formation of the Australian Performing Group, and the tremendous surge of political and artistic energy this released, was a crucial period in our theatre history. Radic's special genius is to make this colourful history more boring than cutting your own toenails.

As I plodded through this book, I saved myself from the insanity of tedium by rereading One Night Stands, Michael Billington's collected theatre reviews for the Guardian. Radic is, in some ways, the Australian equivalent of Billington. They are roughly contemporaneous, both young reviewers of the theatre that expressed the social and political upheavals of the 1970s. Billington, like Radic, was in particular an advocate for a theatre of social and political commitment – a theatre epitomised in Britain by writers like David Hare or Howard Brenton, or directors like Max Stafford-Clarke.

Billington has his limitations: his subscription to a notion of theatre as a branch of sociology meant, for instance, that he initally missed the significance of radical talents like Sarah Kane (although he was man enough to admit it later). But a read through his collected reviews will give you a fair idea of the ferment of ideas that ran through British theatre in the 70s and 80s – the variety of its aesthetic, its political concerns – filtered through a fascinated, mobile intellect. More importantly, it leaves you with the feeling that the theatre is an exciting, vital place to be. 'He loves the theatre,' Peter Hall said of Billington. 'So I always want to read him.'

This sense of excitement is palpably missing from Radic's book. In part, it's a function of his style: where Billington is witty, literate and engaged, Radic is earnest and pedestrian. He has the unstoppable, unvarying stolidity of a cyberman, and about as much intellectual suppleness. The book's single virtue is as an archive: it records the titles, plots and premiere productions of many significant Australian plays, and there is a useful chapter on the beginnings of a national theatre. Considered as a critical history, however, it has crippling shortcomings.

Radic is very clear that his book is about the writers of the theatre and not the directors, designers, actors and other artists who create it. This is, of course, a perfectly legitimate and worthy exercise. His aim, as he explains in the introduction, inspired by the only decent piece of prose in the book – a quote from David Hare – is to track the social history of Australia through the writings of our playwrights over the past 40 years.

This is Radic's Grand Idea, and he grimly sets about applying it to every playwright in sight. It fits neatly over David Williamson and his heirs like Hannie Rayson, those who devote themselves to a formally conventional theatre inspired by 'issues', but less easily categorised writers like Patrick White or Dorothy Hewett, let alone avant garde artists like Jenny Kemp, have to be violently jemmied into his thesis. To this end, the hapless reader is taken through the plot of each play, treated to a series of homilies on its success or failure, and then moved on to the next illustration of Australia's social history.

The champion of this story is David Williamson, who according to Radic 'remains unchallenged as Australia's leading playwright'. Why? Radic says, as if it trumps all argument, 'the box office figures are there on the board for all to see'. This equation between commercial viability and quality is, as Michael Billington observes in other circumstances, 'deeply Thatcherite', and points towards the basic philistinism underlying this book.

While any critic has the right to her individual viewpoint, Radic's Melbourne-centrism seriously compromises his claim to comprehensiveness. To take one example: a chapter is devoted to the oeuvre of Daniel Keene. Anybody familiar with Keene's work will notice that Radic only discusses the plays that have been produced in Melbourne. There is no mention at all, for instance, of Keene's long and fruitful collaboration with Tim Maddock, director of the Red Shed Company in Adelaide. Yet this company commissioned five of Keene's most important plays, all of which have subsequently had major productions in Europe.

Radic also studiously avoids any discussion of the arguments against his nationalistic narrative, such as Julian Meyrick's controversial essay Trapped by the Past, a swingeing attack on the so-called new wave theatre and its suppression of younger artists through the 1990s. And although he discusses plays produced as recently as 2005, Radic fails to engage with of any of the new theatre writers who have emerged since 2000. Despite an epilogue that attempts to sketch out the challenges facing Australian theatre now, this is a book which looks resolutely backwards.

Here is little sense of a critical mind distilling his wide experience into a useful intellectual map, or even researching very far past his personal experience. Compare it to something like David Bradby's excellent Mise en Scene: French Theatre Now, a crisp, intelligent overview of the the major movements in the development of modern French theatre, and its inadequacies become very clear.

The shame is that this is such a missed opportunity. Sure, theatre's failures can make you squirm like nothing else can. But when the art takes flight, when that indefinable magic occurs and the stage is transformed into an arena for our released imaginations, nothing is more exhilarating. It's something that happens now, here, in the same space where you are breathing, and it will never happen again. As Malcolm Muggeridge said of journalism, its glory is its transience. If any art is to inspire lively writing, it surely ought to be the theatre.

1 comment:

Mark Friend said...

As a H.S. Drama teacher who is about to embark again on another unit of study on Contemporary Australian Theatre with cast of young year 12 students, I craved for the support of an excellent text that offers us (teachers and students) a meaningful account that charts our theatre's journey to the present making connections with our history, politics, art, cultural identity etc.

Whilst I also unfortunately found Leonard Radic's "Contemporary Australian Drama" a disappointing and dry archival plod through significantnames and dates, I found your review managed to nail the shortcomings on the head. Thanks. It is always nice to be validated by another review

If only you could either write the next account of Aust Drama. or can you recommend any other books that does capture a sense of theatre as a live event, with movement, life, the designer, the actors, their cultural context and influences.