Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Chalk Pit by Peter Wilkins

The Chalk Pit by Peter Wilkins.  The Acting Company directed by Tom O’Neill at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, March 15-16 and 20-23, 2013.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Based upon Wilkins’ research into the history of the Hon Thomas John Ley,  Parliamentarian and Minister in NSW and Commonwealth governments in the 1920s and 1930s, this play is a lengthy narrative displaying the personality of a charismatic murderer – a psychopath.  To this end, I must give credit where it is due: to Craig Higgs, who successfully presented this worst kind of politician.  His carefully managed charm covering up his megalomania, his corrupt dealings, gradually releasing more of his essential violence as life deals its inevitable disappointments, was well done.

Otherwise, what has been a long term project for Wilkins, which began in 1986 with a chance discovery of Ley’s papers at the National Library of Australia, to cover this quite extraordinary story from the 1890s to Ley’s death in Broadmoor Prison in 1947, still needs a great deal of work – to trim and focus the drama, and to establish a consistent style.

In the first half I was strongly reminded of the 1953 folk musical by Dick Diamond, Reedy River.  There were the rambunctious bush characters, fighting for their various political causes (in Reedy River’s case around the 1890s Depression and the Shearers’ Strike), the political speeches, the softer and sometimes grim tones of Henry Lawson’s poetry (such as The Faces in the Street), and a propensity to burst into song.  Though I came to Australia a couple of years after the New Theatre staged Reedy River, I quickly absorbed this traditional culture through songs like The Ballad of ’91 from the 10” Diaphon LP which I still have, and was grateful to see the whole play performed at the National Folk Festival a few years ago.

But even in the first half, the writing in The Chalk Pit could not match Reedy River.  Dee Sheville, the singer, and Sabrina Tesfouxis on piano, had an unenviable task.  Only once, as Miss Collins, did Sheville’s singing have a role to play in the action – when invited by Ley to sing to the crowd to follow his rousing electioneering speech.  After that, songs – usually only snatches of song – were interspersed among the dialogue, sometimes with some relevant words but often with no apparent purpose beyond filling in a gap.  In Reedy River all the traditional songs are integral to the action and mood of the play, and in fact drive the drama along.

The Lawson poems might have had a better impact if they had been given much more stage prominence, rather than coming from spaces outside the central acting area.  Though Martin Hoggart and Kristy Richardson tried hard, their skills as performers were not good enough to overcome the staging.  Lawson’s poems are powerful enough to have been used as deliberate action-stoppers which reflect critically at each point in the life of John Ley.  Perhaps this was the intention, but it was lost in this production.

By interval, the first apparent ‘suicide’ by one of Ley’s opponents, but probably a murder, has taken place.   If we were to pick up the folk drama tradition, we could expect the second half to expose Ley as he becomes step by step more paranoid, more aggressive, more violent, and literally more murderous.  The style for this development might use a melodrama form, or of course move into something Brechtian as in Mother Courage and her Children, the climax of which is devastating.

But it seems that Wilkins became tied up in the minutiae of the truth of Ley’s story, which moves to England and becomes almost a comic Cockney cop story with a detective who says things like “I can feel it in my bones” that Ley is guilty of murdering John McBain Mudie, with a representation of the Old Bailey trial full of cliché lawyers and seeming to belong to some early 19th Century court rather than anything like one which would have taken place in 1946.

Along the way, the genre shifted dramatically towards artifices like having Ley arguing with both his wife – in Australia – and his mistress – in London – as if they were in the same time zone.  And, finally, we see the device where characters from his past throw up at him remembered words, I suppose reinforcing his paranoia, while he declines and dies isolated in the insane section of Broadmoor Prison, ironically escaping being murdered by the State after all.

Were we supposed at this point to feel empathy and sympathy for this psychopath?  Hardly, especially after a tedious, far too long, second half.  We had been spoken to, during the court scene, as if we were the jury, but on the evidence in this script, I was certainly somewhere beyond reasonable doubt, not about Ley, but about the play.

It’s a shame, since the virtually unknown story of this figure, elected to both the NSW and the Federal Parliaments – and therefore a warning to us all for the need to be very, very careful about those who would claim to represent us – should be made into a drama for our times.  This will be a demanding task - as the effort that Wilkins has already put in shows.  It needs, perhaps, an Andrew Bovell.

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