27
Apr
15

Brisbane

 

Brisbane

Queensland Theatre Company

QPAC Playhouse

April 11 – May 2 2015

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

I am absolutely sure – 100% sure – that it (the break down in the development of new Australian works) cannot be solved by just trying to pick winners. I don’t think that that is a viable strategy for horse racing let alone for playwriting. You need some deeper philosophical, political, social and artistic sense of what drama is if you’re going to encourage and develop Australian drama into its next diverse and myriad-formed existence.

Julian Meyrick

 


brisbane_dashkruck

 

 

Drama is like the minute hand of the clock.

Julian Meyrick

 

 

I’ve been thinking about who you are, reading this blog, with pieces that are sometimes so sporadically posted I wonder that you come back at all, and I wonder what you’re seeing in between visiting here. And what does it matter, and what should become of it… I’ve been thinking about not writing but I have to, even when the process of writing something about a show sometimes takes longer than the run of a show. I love the process. I love considering what might be worth mentioning and what might be better left unsaid. I love living through the productions and reliving that journey after the curtain comes down. I love the theatre, the people involved, and this place, where I can share my experience with you, whoever you are, whatever it is you’re here for. I’m not sure what else to do with it – perhaps you have some ideas – and I keep deferring developing this site, and further study and a second blog purely for writing because I’m not sure what to do with all of THAT, what shape everything needs to take, or what any of it will do for me, or for you, but I keep coming back here, as you do, to keep some sort of quiet conversation going, perhaps just so it doesn’t stop.

 

 

{What happens when you have authority speaking about what happens in the theatre?}

We must have a cultural memory.

Alison Croggon

 

 

Over a week ago I saw Matthew Ryan’s Brisbane. Since opening night, I’ve been thinking about how we teach our children about war. It was always the part of studying ancient and modern history that I couldn’t understand. I still don’t understand it. I try to convey the respect and gratitude I feel for those who went to war to protect our right to live in a country of freedom and privilege. I have mixed feelings about teaching the pride part. I’m not even sure how I feel about my grandfather’s role in the war. This week I joined the family at his funeral, which included a full soldier’s farewell, and then I joined the local community at a traditional ANZAC Day commemorative service, sans Welcome to Country and frustratingly prayer fuelled. Okay. I know. We’re still a nation commanded by God. I should get over it. But WAR. LEARNED HATRED. FORCED, RELENTLESS, USELESS KILLING. WTF?

 

Over 30 000 Australian servicemen were taken prisoner in the Second World War. Two-thirds of those taken prisoner were captured by the Japanese during their advance through south-east Asia within the first weeks of 1942. While those who became prisoners of the Germans had a strong chance of returning home at the end of the war, 36 per cent of prisoners of the Japanese died in captivity.

 

mervhenrygrulke

 

My grandfather, Merv Henry Grulke, was a Sparrow Force guerilla soldier and a (POW) Changi survivor. He was three years off receiving his telegram from the queen when he died last week, just six months after my grandma left us. It’s a well-deserved rest for someone who, like so many, endured years of physical and mental anguish during and after the Second World War. During, after any war…

 

Brisbane, 1942: a big country town jumping at shadows, never knowing if that buzz in the air is a cicada or a squadron of merciless Japanese Zeroes. World War II took the city’s innocence, and that of 14-year-old Danny Fisher.


Danny’s dashing pilot brother has been killed in the Bombing of Darwin. As Danny’s devastated family unravels, the teen finds a surrogate sibling in Andy, one of the Americans stationed in Brisbane. The American pilot takes Danny under his wing, and as the tension begins to rise between the Yank and Aussie servicemen, Danny hatches a reckless revenge plan against those who took his brother.

 

Until I was four years old I lived in an old Queenslander just like fourteen-year-old Danny’s. (And then again during uni days, with actors, actually in Brisbane, but that’s another story). I don’t know if my memories of that first house in Emerald are from being there, or from the photos and stories stashed away in albums and minds since. I think I remember the smell of the dust, and spider webs and shadows and cricket balls and suitcases and appliances, and piles of things that didn’t belong anywhere else.

 

brisbane_ladder

 

Designer, Stephen Curtis has perfectly realised the freedom, the playful sense of growing up in an old Queenslander, recreating the immense space of the high ceilinged house and its nether regions beneath. The same space becomes the famous, much loved Brisbane dance hall, Cloudland, and later across the river, the Trocadero. Lit bewitchingly by David Walters, the house itself is full of potential and/or missed opportunity, an undercurrent of the play, and underneath exists a magical space where anything is possible. No missed opportunities here, the set is in synch with every aspect of the story. There are not too many main stage productions that get it THIS right.

 

There is a good side to not being crushed by culture… there’s a tremendous freedom in Australian performance and a huge intelligence, and a kind of disrespect that’s really healthy.

 

The air is thick and wet and the sun burns your skin like it hates your guts. January’s got it in for everyone. It has a temper that builds and builds, until it’s had enough of you and dumps a mountain of water and electricity on your head to end it quick. Then it starts over again. The smell of the dirt road mixes with the pong of dead fruit that falls from the trees. Houses sit on stilts, breathing the cool air beneath them. Street after street. Streets that make up suburbs. Suburbs that make up Brisbane…

 

I’m sure the haters will say, “Oh, C’MON!” but for me this is magnificent, evocative, poetic writing. I love it. I love the feeeeel of it, the energy of it, the cheeky pointers and the gentle, quiet gaps, which Matthew Ryan is confident to leave for director, designer, actors and audiences to fill. I loved Kelly (currently enjoying a national tour), and Brisbane now puts Ryan in a unique position as a writer in this country, sharing our cultural and historical stories in a way we haven’t yet heard. We’ve read something like it – there are similar insightful voices on the page – but his is a theatrical narrative voice that’s refreshing and magically real on stage (and it’s so suited to Australian film; I hope we see something on screen soon). It’s a more personal, more poignant, more cleverly critical style, supporting our fondest memories and challenging notions of what’s already been recorded. The balance of light and dark is just about perfect, and except for the thank-god-bless-us-and-bathe-us-in-light moment at the end, it strikes all the right chords. (Oh dear, but that major chord! That golden light through what might as well be stained glass windows! An eye roll moment indeed!).

 

The text highlights the national state of mind at the time, which reflected our notions of “mateship”, machismo, fearful and unforgiving parenting, and our attitudes towards war, women and foreigners.

 

brisbane

 

A comical “cringe” moment in the play (as in, “We probs shouldn’t be laughing at this”) serves to challenge our current notions too, and it reminds me of that terrible episode of Popeye, you know, The Sailor Man, which never aired but had been included in a DVD box set, which I innocently put on for Poppy one day. In Brisbane, the kids of the neighbourhood play at shooting down the Japanese, as kids were wont to do at the time. In the black & white classic series, Popeye defeats the entire Japanese army, referring to the enemy as “slant-eyed, buck-toothed, yellow-skinned Japansies”. By making light of the ugly truth about human nature it’s even more disturbing to recognise it! Still! Art is a mirror. Or a hammer… Yes. You’ve got to be carefully taught.

 

artisnotamirror_mayakovsky

 

 

There musn’t be one single discourse.

 

 

These characters are so familiar yet we are able to stay safely, emotionally, distant from them. It’s the comedy and the abstractness of the storytelling, switching between real events and what Danny sees is his world that challenges us to consider another point of view. It’s magic realism at play, and it’s not to say we don’t care about them – far from it – we feel deeply for Danny (Dash Kruck), who loses his older brother, Frank (Conrad Coleby perfectly double cast as the American ex-pilot, Andy), and for Frank’s father (Hayden Spencer at his most brutal best), who essentially loses both sons when Frank dies. As for the broken mother, Annie (Veronica Neave), we recognise her deeply personal grief and the embodiment of the women of the era; their ability to pick up the pieces, step into traditionally male roles and “get on with it” while their men either crumble around them or don’t return home. It’s not entirely surprising that it’s she who finally finishes a mini reno on Frank’s room. We see similar resilience in the “big sister”, Rose (Lucy Goleby, luminescent in this role).

 

brisbane_harrietdyeranddashkruck

 

Kruck has been gifted the role of a lifetime in this production. Because Ryan has made the most of his knowledge of Kruck’s physicality and natural vocal cadence during the rehearsal process, the character, as it’s written, is a perfect fit. Under Iain Sinclair’s bold direction, Kruck clearly relishes the opportunity to stretch his wings. He is perfectly matched by the fierce and very funny Harriet Dyer as the best friend, the “cripple”, Patty. I adore Patty, in a way that I would never dare to in real life because I’d be terrified of her! Of course there have always been women learning on their own to be THAT strong (and THAT feared! Ha!). Kruck and Dyer and Goleby develop close connections that are highly entertaining and deeply moving. The moments of sexual awakening are hilarious and the unrequited love, treated so sensitively and tenderly, is actually heartbreaking.

 

brisbane_bullies

 

Our history has such dark moments but there is good, gorgeous, wicked humour here too; the comedy is intelligently written and unashamedly playfully delivered. So much of it comes from the familiar colloquialisms and the childish behaviour of the school bullies and the country’s politicians. We enjoy razor sharp parodies of the leaders at the time, like grotesque tongue-in-cheek comic strips brought to life. This comical theatrical style, thrown casually in amongst the rest, won’t please everybody but it’s a deliberate device; it highlights the propaganda of war and lightens the heavy mood. Matthew Backer, Daniel Murphy and Hugh Parker play these multiple roles (to the hilt!), alerting us to the similarities between the bullies in government and in the street.

 

cloudland_thesundaymail

 

Nothing is lost on the opening night audience. The first reference to Cloudland is a sentence completed in an anticipatory whisper by the audience before the actor can do so and there is an awesome moment of collective pride, the nodding and smiling of people in The Playhouse as they remember… It’s a magical moment – the magic of live theatre – and it’s not lost on those who weren’t there to see the real thing. We get it.

 

The mere presence of new Australian work is no guarantee of cultural health; it has to be Australian work that matters.

 

Dramaturg, Louise Gough, has obviously had a hand in making this work one that matters. It’s one thing to be making and staging new Australian work; it’s another thing entirely to be contributing to the canon of work that informs our history. These stories have come from the truth told by so many. We must keep hearing these stories, seeing them, sharing them. We must try to learn from them. History repeats itself because we don’t learn from it! I hope this is a version of our history you’ll get to experience before it finishes here. I’ll experience it again this week with our students, and I look forward to hearing (reading, marking…) their take on it.

 

What is not being said, what is not being written down, what is not recorded, what is not even noticed?

 

Slouch hats off to QTC’s World Premiere production of Matthew Ryan’s Brisbane; it’s set to become a true blue Australian classic. You must see it.

 

 

Additional quotes taken from AUDIO | STAGE Episode 2 Alison Croggon / Writing History

Advertisements

0 Responses to “Brisbane”



  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: