Remembering playwright Michael Gurr (1961-2017)

A best friend for more than 30 years, Michael Gurr came to live in my street in the regional Victorian town of Castlemaine three years ago. He loved the place. Occasionally I would protest its arty-folksy-smallness and he would just look at me, proffer another piece of onion tart or tea cake or some such other Moroccan or Mediterranean thing he had just made, and say something like: ‘El, negative is easy; try positive, it’s harder.’ Or, ‘I hope you are not on some bloody nonsense diet again, because I have made French custard poached pears.’

He loved to cook, to garden and, most recently, to walk home from town carrying big-ish new things for the house: an olde-worlde record player so that he could revisit his millions of Dylan albums. A large framed drawing/collage by some local artist: ’Take a closer look’, he said. ‘There’s more to it, the closer you get.’

Once I arrived at his place – a daily or double-daily visit, generally – and he announced that he had bought three quail. ‘Yuk. I can’t eat quail,’ I said. ‘They are far too small and delicate and it just feels wrong somehow.’ ‘Not to eat,’ he said. ‘To admire. They are magnificent.’ And there they were outside the back screen door, all set up in their new little double-storey hutch replete with straw matting, tiny pot-plants and an ensuite bathing area.

He was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful.

His little weatherboard cottage opposite the footy oval was a comfort and joy to him, poised as it was in perfect perving distance from the parade of locals on the way to the pub or train station or Botanic Gardens or pool. He relished the crispy night footy training and Saturday matches. ‘I love the sound of it,’ he said. ‘It’s the sound of place and belonging.’

He always had something or other to give to my mother or to me every time I left – The Guardian Weekly, usually. My 85-year-old mother was always grateful. She loved him like a son – and got cross with him like a son, too – but she never was able to read those papers for the tiny print. She never had the heart to tell him, though.

Michael also gave her the latest political biography he had just devoured, and once insisted she read one of his beloved Elizabeth David cookbooks. Mum was not interested in the cookbooks but took the other stuff happily. Last week it was a jar of pickled lemons. ‘They are not ready yet so don’t open them, just let them be for a while. Some things do get better in time, you know.’

The pickled lemon philosopher sometimes gave me the shits. He could be opinionated, and obstinate too. But kindness and largesse… Mate, he invented those words.

From the moment I met him, when we were 21 and 22 respectively, I knew he was something out of the box: so smart, so funny, so generous, so wicked, so old-young, so singular, so confident without swagger, so unwittingly beautiful. The first time I saw one of his plays I experienced a sort of dwarfing awe. The second time I saw one of plays, I forgot it was a play, I was so immersed in his writing’s signature rhythms; the ideas layered and demanding; the wit, rude and shocking; the characters flawed and magnificently conflicted; and the politics searing and prescient.


We lived together for five years in our 20s and they were… (really, no nostalgia here, because, ‘Nostalgia is a conservative impulse. A retreat into what seems knowable is dangerous,’ he reckoned.) They were five of the most creative, instructive, hilarious, vital, delicious, domestically secure and exciting years of my life.

In recent months, Michael became ill. He never complained, he never asked much of me or others; only for me to be kind-of around and to sometimes drive him places, because he had always refused, perversely, to ever get a bloody licence and walking even short distances had become difficult for him. Our time together began to change, the balance to shift, as his fiercely resistant yet increasing dependence began to take centre stage.

A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died.

I have loved this extraordinarily gifted (yes, an unfashionable word I know) man. His loyalty to his ‘tribe’, as he would say, was breathtaking, if not sometimes intractable and stubborn.

A true autodidact, Michael was learning up until nine days before he died. ‘Did you know,’ he said to me, while we sat in his favourite cafe in the old gaol atop the hill at the back of his house, drinking black tea and eating apple slices. ‘I dreamt a new play last night. First time in ages. It’s called Karaoke. Did you know that I have been spelling the word karaoke wrong for years?’ And then I asked, as I have asked every single time over the past 35 years, even though I always get the same answer: ‘What’s it about?’ To which he says: ‘I never talk about what I’m writing. Why would I? Once I speak it, then it no longer demands to be written.’

Michael’s work was his life, his life his work, his family his theatre, his friends his family; his sisters and brothers, his nieces and nephews, my son, his god children, his students, his former partner of 23 years, his comrades, his colleagues, his actors, his pollies, his barber, his fish monger, his books, his newspapers, his quail and his cat… these were his life. His death feels like an amputation.

Who is going to call out my whingeing now? Who in hell do I give my miserable first drafts to for a brutal but fair edit? Who do I now visit most days and wish to god he would stop smoking inside the house like it’s still the 1980s? Who do I care about and for, because he has always, always cared about and for me? Who has my back now?

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A memorial service for Michael Gurr will be held at the Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank in Melbourne on Monday, May 15. Gather at 6.30pm for a 7pm start.

Image: Michael Gurr and Elly Varrenti at Varrenti’s birthday celebration on May 5, 1985

10 responses to “Remembering playwright Michael Gurr (1961-2017)

  1. Michael and Elly, along with another friend, came to see me in my office in Radio Drama & Features shortly after I’d transferred to Melbourne from Sydney. They brought in a performance piece which they had together compiled. It was probably in the late seventies or early eighties when we met. I was struck by their originality and creative drive; whether or not the script ever got to air I can’t exactly recall, though I seem to remember working with them in the old ABC studio in Lonsdale St. At a later date, Michael brought in his play, “A Pair of Claws” It was such a mature work that I had some trouble reconciling its authorative insights with so youthful a playwright. The play was produced, starring the late Michael Duffield and the more recently deceased, Patricia Kennedy.
    I am saddened to learn of Michael Gurr’s untimely death.

  2. Michael was a masterful writer, astonishing creative and wonderful human being.
    So driven, so fearless – to be near him was to be instantly radicalised, activated.
    A deeply funny and lovely man. Bless him.

  3. Condolences Elly – We’ve lost a few of the best lately, he was special, & I know he was an irreplaceable friend to you.


  4. Wonderful man, I have fond memories from the National days many years ago. Have intermittently followed his journey. Vale.
    Fiona Kennan

  5. Thanks Elly, such a beautiful tribute. I remember him from the 80’s the national theatre days and still have an edition of poems. A life well lived. best wishes Sherridan Green

  6. Thank you. My fleeting connection to Michael was via his creation and editing of a roneoed school publication entitled The Eunuch. I think it was suppressed by the Principal, but its freedom of speech and courage had an indelible effect upon me. Vale.


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