Unlike the other play that won first prize in the 1955 Playwright Advisory Board Competition — Oriel Gray’s The Torrents — Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (just as often known simply as the Doll) has never been permitted to fade into obscurity. The question of which play was more deserving of production (the Board felt that The Torrents was the more complete of the two) was quickly subsumed by the Doll’s unprecedented success: ‘They clapped the house curtain when it went up, and they clapped the set,’ wrote Union Theatre manager Niall Brennan of the Doll’s opening night, 28 November 1955 in Melbourne. ‘They clapped every actor who came on and the roars which greeted Ray’s own entrance were tremendous. When the curtain came down at the end, the theatre almost shook… It was the first Union Theatre Repertory play ever to play to an extended season. They took it to Sydney, then on Australian tour, then booked it into London’. The Doll’s naturalism, its colloquial idiom and emotionally charged though respectful evocation of working class life, formed the crucible in which Australian drama was forged.
This year marks the play’s 60th anniversary, this production the 125th since its premiere. The ‘shock of recognition’ that wowed Australian audiences in 1955 has long since died away, but the play’s universal qualities — most especially its textual discipline, intensity of feeling, and fully formed tragic effects — remain potent. The Doll has weathered many interpretations that have projected it beyond its naturalistic aesthetic and emphasised its tragic nature (Australian Nouveau Theatre in Melbourne’s 1983 version saw Olive and Bubba dressed in classical Greek draperies and a set design inspired by surrealist painter Paul Delvaux).
Here, director Geordie Brookman and designer Pip Runciman have arrived at a sort of halfway house, the play’s naturalism sawn off at the edges rather than hollowed out. Only the bare minimum of Lawler’s detailed stage directions have been adhered to. There is no sign of the French windows, of the ‘tangle of plant life’ that enshrouds the house.
The kewpie dolls, jutting incongruously from vases scattered around the room, are of course present but there is little else in the way of clutter. The worn period furniture — an upright piano, a dining table, a chaise longue, a buffet — look marooned against the vast translucent curtains that seem to rise up from rather than descend onto the stage, disappearing into an ominous, Greek column-like cornice.
The effect, in concert with Nigel Levings’ lighting, is both homely and oppressive, Lawler’s ‘glowing interior luminosity’ contrasted by the set’s vertiginousness rather than a perceivable exterior world. All that is visible through the curtains are the actors awaiting their cues, an anti-naturalistic touch that keeps the production’s interior landscapes — both physical and psychological — close, and hermetic.
That Olive is the play’s tragic hero has never been clearer. In a lightning-like flash that leaves a vivid impression on the retina, we see Olive (Elena Carapetis, in an unusually but revealingly manic performance) before we see Bubba (Annabel Matheson) and Pearl (Lizzy Falkland). Alone, her back turned towards us as she surveys a void-like space, the moment, however briefly, is charged with a profound sense of impending loss. The image is that of a woman — contrary to traditional critiques of the character that have viewed her as immature and delusional — who would, in full, visceral comprehension, sooner lose all that is dear to her than conform to what is expected of her.
If anything, it is the male characters — most especially Barney (Rory Walker) and Roo — who fail to act in a ‘grown up’ way. Roo’s smashing of the kewpie doll, the violent symbol of the end of the seventeenth and final lay-off season, is pathetic, a child’s desperate tantrum punctuated by almost comical squeaks.
Following the play’s climax, Olive conscientiously takes herself off to work at the pub, Roo and Barney remain motionless, trapped like bugs in amber. In Lawler’s stage directions they ultimately move out onto the verandah and leave the house too, but here they cannot even do that. Olive has symbolically broken away from them, and, by extension, their suffocating values.
In the hands of a fine cast that also includes Jacqy Phillips — a funny and formidable Emma who, in another sign of Brookman’s subtle displacement of the play’s naturalism, recalls the grotesques of Patrick White — and Tim Overton — a suitably oily Johnnie Dowd — Lawler’s famous ‘larrikin’ wit sparkles. Quentin Grant’s score, combining romantic cello and piano with an unnerving industrial whine, straddles the play’s country/city dichotomy and effectively rends important moments melodramatic, such as when Dowd offers his hand for Roo to shake.
The key with classics, thought Jean-Pierre Mignon, director of the ANT’s 1983 production of the Doll, is to approach them as though they are a new work. There are few, if any, Australian plays that have accrued so much historical and interpretive clutter as the Doll, a play that can feel no less cramped and airless than the Carlton terrace house in which it is set.
‘I took ‘em down to dust,’ says Olive after Roo has smashed the vase containing the kewpie dolls, ‘and those birds and butterflies, they just fell to pieces’. In a similar fashion, Brookman has removed a familiar relic, omnipresent yet curiously unseen, and allowed the parts, riven by entropy, to fall away.
What remains, freshly exposed, is an affirmation of critic Kenneth Tynan’s belief that Lawler had ‘out of unremarkable gaieties and regrets, out of everyday challenges and defeats… composed a story as gripping in the theatre as it would be in life’. To that we may add, as gripping in 2015 as it would have been in 1955.