“…Because we are un-dramatic, too boring. The average Australian can’t tell one anything without making it sound pointless. Such a chronic shapelessness can build novels, but the drama will hardly flourish in it”.
Thus spake Patrick White — in 1957. And the two plays from MKA Theatre of New Writing which kick off the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon Festival of Independent Theatre both suffer from this same disease of shapelessness. Both have a certain gothic charm and feature first-rate performances, but neither play has found its proper form: the thing it needs to say and the point at which it needs to stop saying it.
First on the double bill is Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s Lucky (pictured above), an historical romp set in colony called New Albion. This is our own history seen through a warped glass, magnifying some truths and distorting others. It’s the story of three convicts — an outlaw priest, an indigenous man driven off the land and a woman transported for stealing lace or slitting throats or both. They break their chains and head north in a small boat, hugging the coastline, optimistically aiming for England.
They call the priest Lucky because he took a bullet in the chest during the escape and lived, saved by the Bible which he carries next to his heart. But is this really luck, or has the Bible only prolonged his suffering?
According to the program, Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country is the inspiration for the play’s title. Precisely how Horne’s ironic critique applies to these dispossessed boatpeople remains mysterious. Indeed, as far as clichés of public rhetoric go, this play might better have been called “Tyranny”. The escapees drift aimlessly, without any means of navigation or propulsion, bickering among themselves, miles from the shore, miles from anything except sharks and salt water, no less prisoners in their small tub than they were in the convict ship.
This narrative is broken up with incongruous but politically pointed vignettes depicting everyday scenes in the colony of New Albion. We get a press conference with members of the team of New Albion Aboriginal cricketers that toured England in 1868, a speech by the New Albion Minister for Digging Holes about the importance of uranium exports and a suicide-bomber writing a farewell letter to his parents.
Some of these are very good, resembling the best of Will Eno’s short monologues. Early on there’s a bravura performance by Johnny Carr (who also plays Lucky the Priest) as a New Albion piano mover, passionate about his profession — or is it a vocation? Others are not so wonderful. Devon Lang Wilton, otherwise excellent as a foul-mouthed, knife-happy convict moll, is lumped with a very badly built bit about a high school principal opening a reconciliation garden.
Designer Matthew Adey gives us a boat broken in its middle, done in a few simple, rust-coloured planes, with a clutch of five crooked shafts behind it, like rocks or dead trees or fingers disappearing beneath the waves. This striking, sculptural ensemble sits on an inky, shiny surface that suggest a calm, black sea. Adey has exquisite taste, and the set for Lucky is one of the more impressive designs seen all year.
The play intrigues, but is too long adrift. Despite initial flashes of brilliance, the writing feels pretty sloppy by the end. Indeed, the conclusion is indicated by a complete breakdown of meaning, as Matthew Cooper’s final monologue devolves into a nonsense word-salad. If the play has a form it is the form of a shipwreck, as the main narrative is broken up and eventually destroyed by the jagged shifts. By the end, there’s nothing but foam and seawrack.
Manderson-Galvin is a founding member of MKA, and while a lot has changed since 2010 he’s still the company’s attendant spirit. Its tutelary genius, if you will. His political satires are rapid and outrageous, unruly, disconnecting processions and morbid charades that point up hypocrisy and false piety. They’re full of gusto and provocation and self-reflexive ambivalence. And that’s what you get with so much of the work that MKA produces. There’s something restless in the company; they’re always eager to put the work on stage and in front of an audience, whether or not it’s perfect, whether or not it’s ready. It something to be admired, and occasionally deplored.
I’m not sure that Rose Morgan’s Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise (a scene is pictured below) is any more ready for the stage than Lucky.
Just like Lucky, however, it does start promisingly. Jan Friedl stumbles on, a redneck, a geriatric and an alcoholic with a gammy leg. First she tells us where we are: “Picture an old, old place. A city. And it’s a wreck. The roads need work. They’ll eat your tires. The people are drunks. The people are racists”. Then she pauses a moment before adding, as if by way of explanation: “I’m a racist”. Then another pause: “And a drunk”.
Friedl’s comic timing is perfect, and her supporting role as a permanently soused pensioner is one of the evening highlights.
The city has been wiped out by a flood. Only a few residents remain. Everything is covered in a layer of mud. The trees are all dead or dying and the local economy has collapsed. The shops are closed or closing and it seems like only the deadbeats with nothing better to do have stuck around. Earl is just such a deadbeat, and so is his girlfriend, Suzy. With the town in ruins, the two of them spend their time knocking about, eating pork chops and buying lotto tickets.
Kevin Kiernan-Molloy is super convincing as Earl, hiding confusedly behind a scruffy beard and long, stringy hair, slack jawed and easily confused. He’s a busted unit, is Earl, worn-out but surviving nonetheless: a fine example of Australian gothic caricature. Morgan Maguire is fierce but sympathetic as Suzy. These characters are believably drawn, with masses of accurately observed detail, and the town, abandoned, left to sink, is stinking-ripe for drama.
But the play gets bogged. It goes nowhere. Or rather, it goes nowhere for a long time, then abruptly goes somewhere implausible. In the program, Morgan Rose says that Lord Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise was inspired by a grisly true-crime story from New Orleans, one year after the city was smashed by a hurricane. A young man called Zackery Bowen killed himself after murdering his partner and preparing her dismembered corpse as a meal.
This gruesome morsel is stuck on as the play’s finale. There are, of course, indications that something is not quite right. Earl suffers from seizures which become more frequent as the play progresses. Eventually he begins hallucinating, losing all touch with reality. But do epilepsy and a miserable childhood satisfactorily explain the homicidal episode? Or is it inexplicable?
It’s all very clumsily done: Earl just isn’t a murderer, let alone a cannibal. Even suicide seems like a stretch. For a start, he’s too lazy, too forgetful, too lackadaisical; but more than that, it’s only at the very last moment that we’re shown anything even remotely sinister in his character.
The problem is clear. Morgan Rose has conjured these characters, all brimming with the authentic feeling life, and they have escaped her. Earl may have been inspired by a murderer, but by the time Kiernan-Molloy gets hold of him, he’s something else. It’s the same with Maguire’s Suzy — she is not the victim that Morgan Rose describes in the play’s final moments. And so, because the playwright won’t allow them find their own problems to wrestle with, their own motives, they plouter about pointlessly in the mud and the scum for an hour and twenty minutes, saying authentic-sounding things but never doing anything. Then they’re abruptly crushed under heel.
Director Kat Henry does well to evoke the shadows and mists of a transfigured Australia which might also be New Orleans. She has an easy, fluid, directorial style dreamily moving us through the derelict streets. But altogether it’s a long night, with two shows caught halfway between short plays and full productions: too darkly ambitious to be brief, but without sufficient drama to to really flourish.