Sunday, December 26, 2021



If This Is The Highway (I’ll Take the Dirt Road).The Formidable Encounters of David Branson Esqu by Joel Swadling.

 Published by Xlibris. Copyright 2021

Book review by Peter Wilkins

I have a confession to make. I have not read every word of Joel Swadling’s extraordinary biography of the late, great theatre auteur, David Branson. After thirteen years of intensive and dedicated research, biographer Swadling has revealed a life, colossal in its influence, prodigious in its creativity and highly innovative in its practice. How can one capture the sheer enormity of Branson’s impact on the theatre, his co-conspirators, his colleagues, his family and the community who were enriched by knowing him, working with him and loving him for all his virtues and a good many of his vices? For Swadling has written a warts and all biography. In thirteen years he has scoured family papers and letters including the writings of Branson himself, delved deeply into the documents held by the ACT Heritage Library, interviewed countless members of the community who were  both a private and public part of Branson’s life, described productions in detail, while tracing  a complete and complex man of the theatre, whom one could truly call larger than life.

Swadling’s three act drama is intriguing, tantalizing and revealing. It is a portrait of a man obsessed, driven by Dionysus, almost Bacchanalian in his extravagance. When I say that I did not read every word, rather I have not yet. I keep being drawn back to the index, to ferret out certain interviews, to learn about productions that I was not fortunate enough to see, to discover the passions of a private life I did not know or a public life that I knew only cursorily during the Nineties, when Branson’s influence was most prolific, startling and courageous. And so, even now I keep returning to the index, my faithful guide to secrets, mysteries and remarkable achievements by a man who inspired all who shared his passion and his journeys and who died far too soon.

If This Is The Highway (I’ll Take the Dirt Road). The formidable encounters of David Branson Esqu. begins with that dreadful day in December 2001 when Branson, hurrying back to a rehearsal, collided with an off duty police officer’s van and was flung onto the road because in his haste he had omitted to do up his seat belt. It is a harrowing , engrossing opening which sets the reader on an inevitable search for meaning, and leaves the reader at the end of the book with Reverend Paul Cameron ‘s eulogy at St. Margaret's Anglican Church in Hackett where mourners spilled out into the yard around the church and Hal Judge’s   poetic tribute to the Godfather of the Fringe.

Biographer  Joel Swadling

Swadling’s labour of love and devoted admiration is more than a mere biography with facts and figures interspersed with anecdotes to entertain and inform. As people come forward to recollect and reminisce I feel as though I am at an extended episode of This Is Your Life. I feel Branson’s presence in the room.  His many admirers and loyal followers speak as if they are in his presence. They speak of a man whose creative output is still alive in their memory. They describe a man whose inspiration still resonates through their lives, their careers, their hopes and dreams. The interviews appear unedited , and I tend to skim some although there is not a one that is not spoken from the heart. Collaborators and lovers, family and friends are faithfully recorded and transcribed. Through it all Branson appears before the reader, alive, energetic, passionate and irrepressible..Swadling’s Acts meticulously trace Branson’s incandescent career from the spectacular community event Splinters with its daring, confronting and anarchic display of fire and steel and  performance, which he co-founded with Patrick Troy and Stuart Vaskess to his virtuosic violin playing with Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. He then co-founded with his partner Libby Morris  CIA (culturally Innovative Arts) and a more familiar world of theatre, travelling between Melbourne’s La Mama to Canberra’s Street Theatre to the Adelaide Fringe and to the Sydney Festival. However, his theatre was never safe or predictable. He would stage an all female Waiting For Godot and introduce audiences to new theatre with Heinrich Heine –Fool of Fortune. All this is carefully described by Swadling, eager that not one aspect of Branson’s inventive talent should be overlooked. Thirteen years of exhaustive research have not only drawn a vivid portrait of an artist who challenged  artistic notions and confronted us with new ideas and a different way of looking at theatre and its role in our society. If This is The Highway (I’ll take the dirst road) is a rare insight into the life and career of David Branson, whom some may regard as man and myth. Swadling’s vast and telescopic biography presents no myth. Branson was and remains real. His friends attest to his belief in people and the force behind his vision.

Swadling dedicates his book to the Mothers of Invention -David’s mother, Margaret Hunt and Swadling’s mother Robyn Swadling – Rope and to their families.

Those who knew Branson will relish the nostalgia and the gift of a theatre maker who changed their lives. Those who never knew the part that Branson played in changing the way that people thought about and participated in theatre will learn that one man in his time plays many parts. Swadling describes each part with unerring accuracy, leaving nothing out and ensuring that the reader remains engrossed in Branson’s life, character and achievements. And Branson is always there, in the words of all who knew loved and admired and respected him. Founding Artistic Director of La Mama, Liz Jones, best sums this up when she tells Swadling:

David was a very empowering person in the sense that he always believed he could do what he set out to do. And he did it on the smell of an oily rag and often less…His generosity really impressed people, the time he would spend with people, the time he would spend on work, the way he brought people in. There was nothing trendy about David. He  respected  people.  He had this great generosity of spirit

If This Is The Highway (I’ll Take the Dirt Road) The Formidable Encounters of David Branson Esqu. Is a book for every theatre lover and theatre maker. The myriad of names in the index will attest to his far reaching influence as will the accounts of the multitude of productions, and those who knew David will delight in Swadling’s in-depth account of this amazing man of the theatre. Like me, it is not necessary to read through from cover to cover, although this is also a good way of tracing Swadling’s chronological account of Branson’s life as a flashback from the tragic occasion of his death on that fateful day in 2001. But one may also treat the book as a delicious literary degustation of one man’s fascinating theatrical and personal journey. Will you know David better by the end? Maybe. Or maybe not. He is his own enigma, charismatic to the end. Swadling, in unravelling Branson’s life and art has done the man and Australian theatre an inestimable service. And, as with many who are gone too soon, we are left with what might have been. Whatever it may have been, Swadling has shown us through his biography that it would have been  more of David Branson’s gifts to Australian  theatre and the community.

Research for this book was made possible through a grant from ArtsACT