new ways to hear australian plays

keith gallasch: playing the 20th century, radio national

Frank Moorhouse (archival)

Frank Moorhouse (archival)

HERE’S AN INSPIRED IDEA: NOT ONLY PLAY A SERIES OF EIGHT CLASSIC AUSTRALIAN STAGE AND RADIO PLAYS PRODUCED BY THE ABC OVER THE DECADES BUT ALSO INTRODUCE EACH WITH CAREFULLY AND INVENTIVELY CRAFTED 30-MINUTE INTRODUCTIONS FROM WRITERS (WHERE AVAILABLE), PRODUCERS, ACTORS AND SPECIALIST COMMENTATORS FLESHING OUT THE SOCIAL, POLITICAL AND AESTHETIC WORLDS AND CREATIVE IMPULSES FROM WHICH THE WORKS EMERGED. PLAYING THE 20TH CENTURY REALISES THE VISION WITH VERVE.

The series is a collaboration between ABC Radio National’s Hindsight and Airplay programs aiming to “chart a century of Australian theatre” from Louis Esson’s The Time Is Not Yet Ripe (1912) to Katherine Thompson’s Diving for Pearls (which won the Louis Esson Prize for Drama in 1991!). The other plays are Betty Roland’s The Touch of Silk, Douglas Stewart’s radio verse play Fire on the Snow, Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Alex Buzo’s Norm and Ahmed, David Williamson’s The Removalists and Frank Moorhouse’s experimental radio drama Loss of a Friend by Cablegram.

Of the three introductions I’ve listened to so far, it was the world conjured by the reflections of Moorhouse, McLennan and actor Arthur Dignam on Loss of a Friend by Cablegram that I found the most engrossing. The commentaries on The Time Is Not Yet Ripe from academics John McCallum and PJ Matthews were richly informative but the voice given Esson (from his letters) was not engaging and the documentary’s structure is the least inventive of the three. The introduction to Diving for Pearls however is full of the sounds of its Port Kembla steelworks and coastal setting and there is clever segueing from playwright Thompson’s voice into those of her characters along with astute observations from the play’s first stage director Ros Horin and Di Kelly from the University of Wollongong on the political context.

The appeal of the introduction to Loss of a Friend by Cablegram for me lies in its embodiment of a period of transition in radio drama production in the early 1980s from the imitation of the live theatre experience on air to more intimate approaches, from single take recordings on tape (often subsequently destroyed) to intensively edited productions, from crude FX to field recordings (the right acoustic) and from predictable structures to experiments in form. McLennan, who produced the play, details these transitions with amusement against the sounds of tapes running and creaky old FX. Again there’s a brisk alternation between the documentary voices and the original recording which was made with Dignam and Robyn Nevin in a room in the Sebel Town House in Kings Cross with verite intimacy and a lovely depth of field. Typical of the period of transition the sense of experiment that comes with Moorhouse’s writing is undercut by stilted, hyper-articulated stage delivery. Even so there’s much to amuse and even disturb in the production as a man and his estranged wife deal with his bisexuality, not least when she asks, “Did you think you were a woman when you lived with me, when we were married?”

There’s much to enjoy from Moorhouse about writing, about notebooks (which provide the play’s structure), about bisexuality, and from Dignam about working in radio (“When I started to learn how to drink”—as the actors headed off to a Push pub after recording for, as Moorhouse puts it, “critical drinking”) and the pleasant experience of being involved in a new way of working. Even so McLennan is surprised that most of Loss of a Friend by Cablegram was largely recorded in real time, in the traditional manner, even Dignam’s character’s inner thoughts—achieved by the actor simply turning to another microphone. Producer Catherine Gough-Brady’s introduction to the play offers insights about the writer, the work and an era of transition—sexual and aesthetic—telling us much about radio as well as the Australian play.

ABC Radio National, Airplay and Hindsight, Playing the 20th Century, producers Catherine Gough-Brady, Regina Botros, presenter Andrew McLennan, broadcast Dec 19, 2010-Feb 6, 2011; the series can be heard at www.abc.net.au/rn/playingthe20thcentury/

RealTime issue #101 Feb-March 2011 pg. 47

1 February 2011
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