Review: Nightshift ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 17, 2008

Review: Nightshift

Nightshift, by Phil Motherwell, directed by Phil Motherwell and Shiralee Hood. Lighting by Gabriel Townsend, projections by Ian De Grucy, photography by Rodney Manning, music by Joe Dolce. With Gary Carter, Jack Charles, Isaac Drandich, Shiralee Hood and Bill Tisdall. La Mama until March 23. Bookings: 9347 6142.

Watching the news on television last week, I caught a glimpse of a devastated and frail Lou Richards at the funeral of his wife Edna. And it prompted a sudden vivid memory of when I moved to Melbourne from Ballarat and began work as a copygirl on the afternoon daily newspaper, The Herald. Edna Richards ran the Phoenix, the pokey pub across the road from The Herald's Flinders Street offices where the journalists hung out after (and often during) work. Like all Herald journalists, I spent a bit of quality time at the Phoenix, though the details remain rather blurred. It had very steep steps, and it's a wonder that I never broke my neck.

That was in 1979. My memories have the glazed feel of sepia photographs: there is nothing so remote, as Barry Humphries once said, as the recent past. I was 18 when I came to Melbourne, and I didn't have a clue that everything was about to change. I was among the last intake of cadets to run copy on The Herald, taking the slim slips of coloured paper from the journalists as they banged out their stories on deadline on those huge green Remingtons, and running them to the subs. I was one of the last generation who worked with the hot metal presses, admiring the typesetters with their spatulate fingers and amazing ability to read text upside down and back to front, and who felt the whole building thunder and shake as the afternoon editions were printed downstairs.

I came in at the end of a lot of things. A couple of years later, I saw one of the last shows at the Pram Factory, before it was demolished to make way for a supermarket and car park: a play about Oscar Wilde's last days by the poet Evan Jones, called The Real Life of Sebastian Melmoth. That was the only time I ever went to the Pram. It was only later, when I began to review theatre in the late 1980s, that I wanted to know what had happened there. And believe me, it was hard to find out. Back then, very little was written down, and what was available to a tyro critic was worse than inadequate. The critical histories are only now beginning to be written. If you wanted to know what it was like, you had to talk to people.

One name that cropped up a lot was that of Lindzee Smith, who inspired a generation of theatre makers, and whose legacy is a living, if largely unremarked, subtext in Melbourne theatre. It's there, for instance, in the drama graduates that have emerged in the past decade from the VCA, under Richard Murphet (a member of Smith's group Nightshift) and Lindy Davies - the raw, intelligent energies of companies like Uncle Semolina & Friends or A Poor Theatre. It's there in the writing of Daniel Keene, whose early work Smith championed, and who says that Smith was the person who showed him how exciting theatre could be.

And if you get along to La Mama this week, you can see Nightshift, an evening of plays written and directed by Phil Motherwell, which are mounted as a tribute to Smith on the anniversary of his death last year. It's as rough as guts, a theatre that is unapologetically about the performer, the text and the audience, and it depends on a current of energy that isn't always present in the actors. But this is theatre that was never about perfection; and when it hits the sweet spot, it's the real thing.

As Motherwell's poetic narratives themselves do, it reminds you that much of Melbourne's history remains obscure. When you look at the work Smith directed in Melbourne in the '70s, it seems extraordinary that he is not a household name: it includes not only familiar local names like Jack Hibberd (White with Wire Wheels) or John Romeril (The Floating World), but Rainer Fassbinder, Franz Xavier Kroetz, Sam Shepard, James Purdy, Peter Handke, Heathcote Williams, Maria Irene Fornes and Arrabal.

These achievements, along with those of the other APG sub-groups, have been largely sidelined in favour of the Williamsonian mythos, in which the most conservative theatre of the '70s became the dominant theatrical force in '80s and '90s Melbourne. Nightshift was regarded as an outlaw offshoot of the Australian Performing Group, a bunch of junkies and outsiders. Which wasn't entirely inaccurate, and perhaps explains a little of the obscurity, but is certainly reductive.

Age critic Leonard Radic characterised this work (when he noticed it at all) as "Internationalist", which he opposed to the nationalistic narrative of "Australian stories" that triumphed over the cultural cringe of the 1950s. But the truth is, as Richard Murphet suggests in his memoir of the APG, that the seeds of a mature and confident Australian theatre were sewn here. The "Internationalists", as Motherwell's plays remind you, were as intensely parochial as Lou Richards. But they were parochial in the sense that, say, Rimbaud was parochial: absolutely and specifically of their time and place.

Motherwell, who collaborated closely with Smith, deserves to be much more than a footnote in Australian playwriting. I once described Stephen Sewell as "the leftist firebrand we had to have". Where Sewell is the acceptable face of radical playwriting, Motherwell is a much more uncomfortable and anarchic spirit. He is also a far superior writer, eschewing the political lecturing that bedevils Sewell's work and with a poetic discipline Sewell signally lacks. To my knowledge, Motherwell's plays have not been performed beyond a small band of companies, and yet these are texts of deep theatrical and literary intelligence, among the hidden gems of Australian theatre.

Nightshift consists of three plays, woven together into a single shifting performance, interspersed with songs: The Fitzroy Yank, The Native Rose and Steal Away Home. The plays are introduced by the recitation of a poem by Motherwell himself, that literally sets the scene: urban, inner-city, working class Melbourne. All of them are memory plays, excavating histories and people that mostly remain on the verges of our national consciousness.

The first two are monologues. Fitzroy Yank, performed with a raw, irresistible energy by Isaac Drandich, is a jagged, vivid text that describes the violent inner landscape of a young man. The Native Rose, performed by Shiralee Hood, is the story of a war-time prostitute and junkie. Steal Away Home, a full-length play, is about a young thief who is a member of the Stolen Generation. It was first performed at Playbox in 1988, a decade before the Bringing Them Home report brought the issue of stolen children into the spotlight of public discussion.

In none of these plays is the outsider portrayed as a victim; these are stories - romances, even - of bright rebellion in the face of obdurate, wounding reality. Jack, the thief in Steal Away Home, is unrepentant - "stealing was fun", he says - and simply doesn't care at all about those he robs. At no point does he move to an integration with the society that rejects him, and nor is there any likely redemption. Motherwell gives his characters a self-sufficiency that looks to itself for validation, and the audience can decide what it thinks for itself. The closest he gets to a moral is at the end of Steal Away Home, when Jack's Aunty Pat says: "We want something different for [our children]. We want them to share with each other, look out for each other. We sing charms to make them generous."

Motherwell writes in the tradition of outsider poets such as François Villon and Jean Genet, bringing to a diction and landscape that is purely Melburnian an authentic lyric radicalism. Anyone who has struggled through Sartre's huge and often deeply irritating volume Saint Genet will understand the perils of a bourgeois fascination with the trangressions of criminality, which in Sartre's case, for all his philosophical vocabulary, often seems like a teenager's awestruck hero worship of the bad boy in a leather jacket. Motherwell escapes that trap and a possible attendent sentimentality by, well, not being bourgeois, but this also means that his writings remain largely unknown and unpublished.

The shows are directed using Smith's spare production style, which Murphet describes as "a naked, raw mise en scene (eg a spotlight or slide projector light against a brick wall) that highlighted the individual on the edge, surviving through sheer force of presence". Images - trees, windows, Collingwood Town Hall, the Melways - are projected on the walls and floor of La Mama, and lighting is confined to simple spot lights on performers. The focus is directed entirely onto the performers and the text. This works well for the monologues, but considerably flattens out the theatricality of the longer play. There are longueurs, but equally there are moments - notably from Shiralee Hood, Isaac Drandich and Jack Charles - when Nightshift is simply brilliant theatre.


Anonymous said...

Tim Robertson's excellent book "The Pram Factory : The Australian Performing Group Recollected" has been around at least ten years

Alison Croggon said...

It was published in 2001. Way after I was looking for something like that, in 1989...

Alison Croggon said...

...and also, although it's a history, it's not a critical history.

Anonymous said...

When a friend of mine and I were looking into the history of MIAF, Alison, we came up against the same problem: a history was readily available, but it wasn't a critical history. A crying shame, really, though the other type of history also has its place.

I need to return some books to you. A trip to Big W (Williamstown) is in order. I'll bring the cheese.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Matt - cheese welcome!

You need that other type of history first, actually, so the critical histories (I use the plural advisedly, if a tad optimistically, perhaps) can be written. To my knowledge - and anyone correct me if I'm mistaken on this - but the recently released Currency Press book, Make It Australian, is actually the first. And I do intend to get it. Maybe write about it here. Time, time...

Anonymous said...


The critical histories are being written - but not many have made it into book form yet - a usrprising number have, considering the market for such books to our quite small community. The recent symposium at the University Of Melbourne - Enter the New Wave - was framed as a celebration of the New Wave but included a fair amount of dissent and alternative histories - and rather uncofortable disagreements on the legacy of the period. The alternative histories are to be found in studies of the contemporary movements of the time - women's theatre in the work of Peta Tait, Rachel Fensham and Denise Varney, the history of New Theatre in the work of Angela O'Brien, indigenous theatre in the work of Maryrose Casey, Nimrod in Julian Meyrick's work, Ian Maxwell is studying and writing about the contribution of Rex Cramphorn - and the list goes on. Papers on all this work will be found published in journals like Australasian Drama Studies. It's not hard to find the alternative voices that break down the Williamson myth - only a small amount of digging will reveal huge amounts of activity on this front. And yes, Motherwell is very important. Very, very important. As was Mona Brand, in terms of political theatre...

I'll stop now.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Jodi - do go on! I just couldn't make it to that symposium, and I wish now I had been able to. It sounds, well, lively... It's a conversation that's at least a decade overdue, at least in terms of public discussion - it certainly has never been difficult to find dissenting voices elsewhere, from all sorts of perspectives. It's heartening that this discussion is beginning to happen at last. And who is Mona Brand?! Tell me more!

Anonymous said...


'Twas a bunfight to be sure. I left out Michelle Arrow in that list - and both Casey and Arrow directly address the overshadowing myth of the New Wave and the way it has erased the histories of indigenous and women practitioners - Casey's book, Creating Frames - UQP 2004 covers indigenous theatre between 1967 and 1997 - and gives us the history of Jack Charles, for example - whose presence in this Motherwell production if fantastic to see. Michelle Arrow's book Upstaged - and I can't remember the publisher - covers Mona Brand extensively. As does Angela O'Brien's work on the New Theatre - at that symposium we were treated to an impromptu reading of Brand's Onstage Vietnam - and it read as fresh and biting as the day it first appeared. And remarkably relevant last October to the situation in Iraq on the relationship between Australia and the United States...

Brand died recently. A huge loss, and one that should have brought curtains (or metaphorical curtains) down in theatres across the country. There's so much to be done on theatre history in this country - and I feel vaguely illegitimate being the one to point out the work that is being done - but I can't stress enough how important it is for practitioners to be aware of what's being written about Australian theatre history - there's an implicit divide between the academy and the theatre community in general that has to break down if we are going to have the theatre culture we need to survive.

You should have been at that symposium, Ms Alison. It was kinda fun. Tears and drama - and that was just in the foyer. The organisers are in the midst of refereeing the papers that were given with a view to publication. Did I mention the work on Jane Street? On La Boite? Julian's plea for a 'disinterested' theatre history that was flouted at every turn by extremely partisan and sometimes downright rude remarks?

Hopefully the organisers will publish. And it will give a good overview of the work that's being done on the 60s and 70s...

Sorry about the typos, by the way. I'm running this morning...


Alison Croggon said...

There was talk at some point of my publishing a symposium paper on TN. Not sure what happened there... But you're correct Jodi to point out the gap between theatre and academia. I think partly it's a question of time: practitioners are too busy trying to get their work on. Someone like me ought to be more aware too, but what time I have is generally spent going to the theatre. No excuse tho if I'm interested. (Btw, I'm intrigued by this Mona Brand: any chance of sending me any of her work? I've never heard of her until now).

But it's very good to hear that stuff is being written about the feminist and Indigenous theatre of the time. That was again something I could find out very little about, and I know knew it existed because people told me. It's seems kind of incredible that it's taken 30 years for these kinds of discussions to emerge - only in Australia - on such an important period of our theatre history, but I guess it was such a passionate and complex and sometimes bitter period that it takes that distance.

Anonymous said...


A google search leads me to Currency, who then inform me that they have nothing in print for Mona Brand - and why am I not surprised? A lot of interviews come up, and an obituary - she died in August last year. I know of her work because of my searching, searching for models for female playwrights - and I found so many of them, too, rarely produced, hardly ever mentioned, from Katharine Susannah Pritchard, all the way to now...I've seen some readings of Brand's work - but the best bet would be to peruse the Michelle Arrow book - or talk to Angela O'Brien - who knows so much more about Mona Brand and New Theatre than me that I visibly shrink to the size of a unworthy flea. The google search also brings up an entertaining piece about Brand reading her own ASIO file...

Time gets us all...I am doing this while my supervisor waits in vain for more work (it's coming). And the effort to get your work on can lead to tunnel vision. And for you, seeing all the theatre that you do is a full time occupation in itself. But - and I'm sure you agree - we can't know where we stand until we know who stood there before us. At that symposium, Williamson hovered like Voldemort over Hogwarts - or perhaps it was more don't mention the war...for anyone who feels like they speak from a position outside that mainstream - with whatever politics or aesthetic - remembering the history of those who went before is crucial.

And I'm putting away my soapbox now...


Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

Me again.

I was so glad to read your comments on Motherwell. I have long considered him a most under-rated and neglected talent. I was in Melbourne late last year doing some interviews for the National Library's Oral History Unit: and I was delighted that Motherwell agreed to speak with me. He has been substantially left out of the Grand Narrative now shaping around the Pram's 'history'.

There may be some access conditions attached to that interview, but it should be processed within a few months.

Motherwell has a brilliant mind, and a brilliant theatrical mind. I first came across his work in a collection of one-act plays edited by Rodney Fisher for Currency Press - quite a long time back. That work is called The Surgeon's Arms, and it's so unusual as to make you sit up and take notice.

I so wished to be down in Melbourne for the Nightshift homage, but I have been unwell of late (including some time in hospital). I am so glad, Alison, you saw the work and identified its idiosyncratic brilliance.

I thought I was the only one among the commentariat who cared for Motherwell's the work.

Anyway, Alison, you have done the job that needed to be done. You have a big and respecting readership: Motherwell flag has now been raised! It's up to others now!!!!!

Not much of Motherwell's work is published. But I found in your State Library a volume of two short novels, and a copy of his major work or the theatre - Dreamers of the Absolute. It parallels goings on in revolutionary Russia, hints of Bader-Meinhoff/Red Brigade (current at time of writing)and stuff happening at Pram at the time. Very multi-layered.

It went down like a lead balloon, I am told, at the Pram premiere, largely because there was much ill-will directed at that time towards the 'Internationalist' sub-group.

Suzanne Ingleton saw it in a different light however. It blew her away. That is an interview well worth accessing from the Nat Library collection whenever it becomes available. Five hours non-stop of Sue Ingleton - it's a beauty! Laughter, ideas, opnions, memories - and even tears!

I have a strong feeling that Dreamers of the Absolute is a work that should be reconsidered, possibly for a major new incarnation. Hint hint!!

Cheers again - from my sick bed - lol

James Waites

Alison Croggon said...

I hope you're on the road to recovery, James. No, it seems there is a right little Motherwell fan club. Which goes to prove my thesis that good writing will out. Eventually.

We've got some short plays here at home, in manuscript form, and a copy of Dreamers in the garage, which I can't find. I suspect that there are such documents dotted around Melbourne, but one hopes that there are better means of archiving Motherwell's work and that some saintly people are doing so. I think you're right that it's time for a re-evaluation of this body of work. Or maybe just an evaluation!

Unknown said...

Vale Phìl. Even my missus thought you were cool and those who know her will see that for the compliment it is.