Friday, May 16, 2014
The Retreat of our National Drama by Julian Meyrick
Currency House with Theatre Network Victoria will also stage a public debate with Julian Meyrick, playwright Lally Katz, and Katharine Brisbane at the Auspicious Arts Incubator, Upstairs, 228 Bank Street, South Melbourne, Tuesday May 20, 2014, 5.30pm. Free, but must book on http://www.trybooking.com/ESOJ .
Enquiries about obtaining a PDF or paperback copy of the paper: Martin Portus firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 0401 360 806.
Reviewed by Frank McKone
Meyrick is incisive in documenting the ‘retreat’ of original Australian plays in the production schedules of Australian theatre companies.
I should begin, then, by inspecting my own schedule of theatre criticism. My critical writing is in no way comprehensive, of course, but may reveal biases that would interest Meyrick, and perhaps the rest of us – including me.
Meyrick looks at five categories of plays: Australian New; Australian Recent; Australian Classic (productions of established playwright’s work); and Overseas Classics (essentially presentations or adaptations of British, European and American plays or novels); Overseas Recent.
Here’s my record since I began regularly reviewing in 1996. I’ve included Overseas Popular (often musicals or light comedies), while local bands (such as Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, or Monica Trapaga) go into New Australian, and children’s shows may go into New Australian (The Jigsaw Company, for example) or Overseas Popular (like Dora the Explorer) as appropriate. I also include ‘Recently New’ in New Australian, because Meyrick writes about first and second tier theatre companies in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, while most of our local Canberra groups presenting theatre would have to be classed third tier, picking up scripts from other Australian small companies as well as writing their own. My Overseas Classics includes more serious recent work.
New Australian Australian Classics Overseas Classics Overseas Popular
199 26 158 43
47% 6% 37% 10%
Meyrick’s numbers are put together in graph form on Page 27, with breakdowns for Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Belvoir Theatre, and Playbox/Malthouse, all from 1987 to 2013.
Over my period from 1996 the major difference in our numbers, though, is in the split between productions of new and established Australian work. In the first and second tier companies Meyrick has recorded an average close to 20% of new work, and rather more than 20% of Australian classics, while my figures show 47% and 6% respectively.
This comes about from the fact that I am based in Canberra, with occasional excursions mainly to Sydney, and Canberra / Queanbeyan has a history of growing seedlings (like Elbow Theatre where STC director Iain Sinclair began, Canberra Youth Theatre where Tommy Murphy’s first play For God, Queen and Country was staged, Bohemians (or Boho), Everyman Theatre, Freshly Ground Theatre and many others over the years) often staging original works.
What Meyrick is concerned about is not just these numbers – showing how we have gone from an almost complete dominance of overseas theatre before the 1930s – but that in this last decade or two, a culture has developed in the main state theatre companies of making blockbuster adaptations of overseas classics with highly visible top quality actors, and emphasising directors who seem almost like the old-style actor-managers of the Nineteenth Century. He fears that we are losing our grip on an independent Australian theatre culture which began with the Pioneer Players (Katharine Susannah Pritchard, Vance Palmer and Louis Esson) in a Melbourne season in 1923 (which was totally ignored by reviewers); began to blossom with Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll as the bookmark point in the 1950s; and came on to a fair flowering with the New Wave from the 1960s.
His paper says to me that even despite a colourful display through the second half of the last century, we are now in danger of reviving the cultural cringe of the past just when we are at the point where we have new writers bursting out all over – but not getting first productions in the major theatres, nor continuing productions which can establish a good writers’ body of work.
Meyrick specifically criticises the treatment of Hannie Rayson as an example.
The value of Meyrick’s paper, to my mind, shows in his analysis of why adapting classical dramas is attractive to directors and audiences (their dramatic structure is proven, requiring less work than developing new plays); in his factual information about our theatre history; and in his conclusion that, if we are to grow our culture up to full maturity – flowering and fruiting – we need a “national theatre along the lines of the National Theatre of Scotland, one that is non-building-based and focussed on the commissioning, development and production of new stage work through the existing theatre company network.”
Significantly for us, the Canberra Critics, he suggests “An NTA [National Theatre of Australia] could base itself in Canberra and be federally funded, thereby avoiding the perception of Sydney/Melbourne bias and the fractious politicking that comes with variable state support. It would unite three specialisms represented by three kinds of organisation. It would be partly a playwright development agency, like Playwriting Australia or Playworks. It would be partly a producing entity, like the state theatres and second-tier companies. And it would be partly a touring intelligence, like Performing Lines and Playing Australia. Again it would not supplant these bodies but add capacity as a partner organisation drawing on their separate spheres of operation.”
Remember the good old days when the annual National Playwrights’ Conference took place at ANU? (I do because I managed to get a script workshopped there – in 1981!)
It is not parochial on my part to support this idea – and I encourage you to read Meyrick’s paper in full to see why. My records show that new writing is, and has long been, a key element in Canberra’s theatre culture, all the way from Ickle Pickle children’s theatre to The Jigsaw Company, from the work of Carol Woodrow to The Hive at The Street Theatre. There have been several attempts to establish a permanent professional theatre company in Canberra – Woodrow’s Canberra Theatre Company was a high point – but as The Street shows us under Carolyn Stacey’s direction, we are very good at coordinating the development of new work.
We already have the basis for Meyrick’s concept of a National Theatre of Australia, especially as we have strong local government support in ArtsACT.
Let’s do it!
A useful more detailed summary of the paper is by Deborah Stone in ArtsHub at