Hannie Rayson is one of Australia’s best known playwrights whose many plays include the celebrated Hotel Sorrento and Life After George. In 2015 she published a memoir, Hello, Beautiful!. As she promoted the book around the country she came up with the idea of turning it into a 6o minute one-woman stage show starring herself, telling her own life stories. (The show is now touring Victoria (see details below) and a national tour is planned for 2018).
Below is an extract from Hello Beautiful, Scenes from a life by Hannie Rayson (Text Publishing) in which she travels to Paris in 1995 with fellow playwrights Daniel Keene, Ron Elisha and Karin Mainwaring for public readings of their plays.
Let Me Eat Cake
AT 5 A.M. one summer’s day, I was met at Charles de Gaulle airport by Jean-Marie Retby, the man who had translated my play Hotel Sorrento into French. Poor Jean-Marie couldn’t remember where he’d parked his Citroën. He was awash with apologies as we roamed the car park: it was his first experience of being out in the world before sunrise. I understood perfectly. He was a nocturnal theatre animal. One of us.
It was June 1995, and I was one of six young Australian playwrights who had come to Paris to see our work showcased by the Comédie-Française. For a week, we reeled from one four-course meal to the next. Garden parties were followed by cocktail parties, dinners at fabulous restaurants and nightcaps at sidewalk cafés.
We were taken to dinner by the writer Jean-Noël Fenwick, whose award-winning play about Pierre and Marie Curie had been running in Paris for six years. Concerned that we wouldn’t understand the finer points of the script, he performed the entire play for us at the restaurant, in English. Then the whole fifteen-member entourage had to run about two kilometres down the street to the theatre to see his show. And there was burly Jean-Noël, urging us through the streets of Paris like a flock of Australian sheep.
We got to know each other quite well. The doctor and playwright Ron Elisha became my particular buddy. He spoke of his wife, Bertha, so lovingly and rang her every day. Karin Mainwaring had intense encounters with the homeless clochards and sought existential truth on the night-time banks of the Seine. (Her play The Rain Dancers became the first Australian work staged as a full production by the Comédie-Française.) And Daniel Keene impressed the French audiences so much with his play The Hour Before My Brother Dies that his dark existential plays have continued to be produced in France ever since.
Our plays were performed at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, a rather handsome three-hundred-seat theatre in the centre of Paris. These were simple readings, staged on six successive nights by some of the finest performers in France. We played to full houses. And if the thunderous clapping and stamping feet were any indication, the audience liked what they heard. We took curtain calls with the performers, clutched flowers, had our photos taken and swanned in the foyers.
I’d been to Paris only once before. Five years earlier, I had crossed the Channel with my friend Wendy Harmer, who spent the entire ferry crossing practising the phrase Garçon! Apportez-moi plus de navets! (‘Waiter! Bring me more turnips!’)
My most abiding memory of that trip, apart from the ubiquitous dog shit, was my humiliating attempt to have a facial. After all, wasn’t that what you did in Paris? Apparently not. Having traipsed from one beauty parlour to another, I finally ditched the mission when a woman in the last salon stared at me with impeccable disdain, which she seemed to draw up from her ankles. She said, incredulously, ‘You want me to clean your face?’
This time, things were different. I was a person of standing. An artiste.
In fact, I became so ebullient about the whole business that I felt confident enough to establish a marvellous ritual for the opening nights of all Australian plays. The afternoon before the reading of Hotel Sorrento, I mentioned casually to one of our hosts, a professor of French literature, that I had been in Paris a week and hadn’t had a cake. It was just a casual remark, making small talk in a car, as you do.
Five minutes before the play began, I was standing in the foyer beaming away in my party dress. My new-found Parisian friends were milling around and wishing me merde (shit)—the French equivalent of ‘break a leg’. Just as the theatre bells began to ring, the professor appeared. The dear man presented me with a box with a big ribbon on it. ‘Madame asked for cake,’ he said, gallantly. I opened the box: it was groaning with delectable petits fours pumped full of cream. A wiser playwright would have said, ‘Merci, I will enjoy them later.’ But pas moi. I said, ‘Merci,’ and selected a cake. As the doors to the auditorium opened, there I was with my mouth full of chocolate éclair.
What was I thinking?
I rushed to explain. ‘It’s an Australian tradition. The playwright always eats cake before the curtain goes up.’
‘Ah,’ said the French. ‘Merde, merde.’ They seemed delighted that such colourful traditions were so well established in the new world. They filed into the international debut of my play, happier than ever.
Cake, a pretty frock and an opening night in Paris.
You can buy Hello Beautiful, Scenes from a life by Hannie Rayson here
You can see Rayson perform Hello, Beautiful! in Victoria this week at:
The Phee Broadway Theatre, Castlemaine (May 24), Williamstown Mechanics Institute (May 25), The Potato Shed, Drysdale (May 26), and The Bowery Theatre, St Albans (May 27)