Too close to home
A play about our anarchic culture continues to thrill nearly 40 years on, writes Graeme Blundell
T’S awful,’’ says Maureen Delaney, the just- married bride, in tears at the chaos around her. ‘‘ No worries,’’ says Morrie McAdam, her husband. Their fractious reception is under way in a tiny Mechanics’ Institute hall in Dimboola, 334km northwest of Melbourne in the Wimmera wheat belt. Relatives are throwing punches, the priest is drunkenly reciting dirty limericks. Astrid, the bridesmaid, has wet her pants and Uncle Horrie thinks the wedding is as funny as a fart.
It’s 1969 and we are watching Dimboola , the soon to be famous wedding reception play in the soon to be famous La Mama Theatre, in innercity Melbourne, opposite a bloodhouse of a pub and behind a traditional Italian tailor. The theatre and play quickly came to define an era of experimentation, when local culture was celebrated without apology.
I know; I was there on the night that Dimboola began a run that never ended.
Fast forward to this month, when the same play is being rehearsed in the same theatre and in a similar style for the Fly- on- the- Wall Theatre’s production, which opens on Wednesday.
The appeal of the play is timeless. More Australians have seen Dimboola than any other stage musical, comedy or straight play. But the theatre culture that created it is largely forgotten. So is Jack Hibberd, the man who wrote it.
But Hibberd is important to our cultural archive, maintains David Williamson, who directed the second Dimboola production.
‘‘ Jack’s boisterous attack on British good taste and a desire to celebrate and satirise the reality of Australian life was long overdue; I was happy to join him in this enterprise,’’ Williamson says. ‘‘ His enduring love of word play and verbal excess displayed prodigious linguistic invention; his brilliance and vulgarity helped Australian theatre to break free from imitations of English and US models of drama.’’
But despite hundreds of productions of Dimboola across the world, Hibberd, once an important figure in local theatre, is ignored. Although he set the movement’s iconoclastic style, with his pungent language being compared with that of Samuel Beckett, 40 years later Australia’s leading theatre companies shun his work.
‘‘ I do not exist as far as subsidised theatres are concerned,’’ says Hibberd, a medical specialist who practices and publishes as an allergist. ‘‘ I have now written nearly 40 plays, and several ( the most recent) remain unproduced; I never get an inquiry from any of these theatres and have given up visiting them, as I feel like a supplicant.’’
Whether or not this new production changes this, it will certainly show audiences the anarchic energy of Hibberd’s most famous play.
Director Robert Chuter says he wants to re- create the rowdy show, with all its impromptu audience participation. He thinks the process will be as interesting as the final performance. ‘‘ How do we re- create an original piece, in its original venue, yet still give it a contemporary edge?’’ he asks.
Even though I directed and acted in that first production, I have little concrete memory of it. But Hibberd clearly remembers writing Dimboola in London, where it grew out of a reading that he attended of Chekhov’s The Wedding and a short farce by Bertolt Brecht about a wedding breakfast where all the furniture is demolished.
‘‘ Around that time I saw a lot of experimental theatre involving audience participation. The bulk of it entailed embarrassing or bullying the audience,’’ he says. ‘‘ I thought this could only prosper theatrically if the audience was enfranchised, and in no time at all I came up with the idea of a wedding breakfast.’’
I was part of a small group of actors centred at La Mama, as well as a director in an era that didn’t like authority much. When Hibberd’s play arrived I presented it to the La Mama actors — there were 21 roles including a band called Lionel Driftwood and his Pile- Drivers — almost enough parts for everyone.
Dimboola took its actors right into the audience, which in turn experienced the tension between being spectators and part of a real event, however farcical. I made the production a kind of in- house carnival, turning La Mama into a wedding reception centre for Dimboola ’ s premiere.
The recently created Australian Council for the Arts contributed $ 1250 to the season. We were fortunate to receive anything at all, as subsidising theatre was not particularly popular politics.
Dimboola started with audience members being met by the smiling father of the bride, shaking hands and making announcements that echoed through the building as to the identity of
Ithe new arrivals. There were glasses of sherry and, once the relationship of the guests to the wedding couple and the various families was established, everyone was ushered into the theatre by the actors. With what little budget we had, we turned the interior of La Mama into a satire of a country wedding: cafe- style tables with white cloths and generous helpings of party food and booze, balloons and streamers hanging from the ceiling, and a small band playing quietly in the corner.
My family attended: ‘‘ It’s all too real to be funny,’’ my mother said afterwards. Audience members were assigned characters as they arrived and the actors ad- libbed with them through the disastrous wedding as the fights and arguments broke out, the priest drank himself under the table and Bruce Spence, as the groom, surveyed the chaos and kept announcing: ‘‘ No worries.’’ The first- night audience included players from the Carlton Football Club, friends of some of the cast who, of course, were included in the ad- libbing. Although not a word of Hibberd’s text was altered.
Dimboola was a slagging, slogging physical piece of theatre, often ragged, sometimes hysterical. I played a man called Mutton, ‘‘ a local wit and drunk’’, who was part of a two- man chorus on the shenanigans. I had to drink about a dozen cans of beer a night. The audience was too close to fake it.
It was hard to disagree with Leonard Radic, The Age critic, that ‘‘ one is never quite sure where the script leaves off and improvisation begins’’.
Radic, lampooned himself in the play as Leonardo Radish, a reporter from the local Mildura Trumpet, found Dimboola crude, lacking development and dramatic confrontation, its characters too readily resorting to violence, both physical and verbal. ‘‘ If any statement is being made about Australians it is that they are an ugly, aggressive, ungentle people: easily inflamed and not easily put down.’’ Hibberd had anticipated Radic’s review in Dimboola on the basis of the critic’s reviews of his early work. ‘‘ Never in my life have I been subjected to such a display of vulgarity, crude language, obscene innuendo and immoral, adolescent behaviour,’’ Radish tells the rowdy wedding guests. Despite this, Radic did have the sound judgment to point out in his review that the ‘‘ basic format is original. In director Graeme Blundell’s hands, it made for a very funny evening.’’
Melbourne director Malcolm Robertson was there, too. ‘‘ There was a refreshingly rare sense of true community among both performers and audience,’’ he recalls.
Dimboola has been produced more than 1000 times, including a pirated version in Zurich and another in London that did at least have the benefit of a contract. In Sydney the play ran for more than 21/ years, closing only when its venue,
2 Whisky au Go Go, burned down.
Hibberd believes the play is still performed because of the participation, the physicality, the diversity of characters, the sex and sectarian warfare, and the larrikin comedy. ‘‘ Every wedding breakfast, regardless of culture, involves a meeting and a contest between two clans,’’ he says. ‘‘ The contest can range from conspicuous consumption to egregious violence, and deep down, I think, audiences feel this and relish it.’’
Williamson sees the play as a wonderful piece of ritual debunking and the concept of the audience being the wedding guests is inspired. ‘‘ Like Don’s Party , it’s a vision of a society a lot of Australians would like to forget, but like Don’s Party it was painfully accurate for those times,’’ he says.
Will it still be so painfully and accurately funny this time? Director Daniel Schlusser, a recent Hibberd champion in Melbourne’s alternative theatre circles, thinks so.
He believes a reading of Dimboola at the Malthouse Theatre not so long ago confirmed the play’s standing in popular theatre. ‘‘ This reminder comes in the current cycle in which theatre makers are desperately mining the populist forms of the musical and the panto in the ongoing struggle to lure people back into the theatre,’’ he says. He has produced recent Hibberd plays such as Slam Dunk, and revivals of The Overcoat and Odyssey of a Prostitute .
‘‘ They are formally stunning pieces, populated by characters that owe more to Strindberg than Ibsen: emotional vampires all, in a style I call misanthropic baroque,’’ Schlusser says. ‘‘ The plays are inherently theatrical, unremittingly savage and sometimes pornographic.’’
Schlusser suggests these are the reasons Hibberd is out of favour with the leading subsidised theatres but that they are also the qualities that will ensure his work is excavated by future generations.
‘‘ I’m not sure Jack is more forgotten than other playwrights of his generation,’’ veteran critic Katharine Brisbane says. ‘‘ Work like Hibberd’s, intimate in style and variable in length, does not easily slip into main stage planning. And few of the independents today would choose to look backwards for their inspiration. Without prompting, that is.’’
As Brisbane points out, productions of Hibberd’s work depend on the determination of individual directors because his writing comes from another age. ‘‘ His writing remains a paradoxical mixture of macho manners and European sensibility that emerged from a time of extraordinary change, and an anger that does not survive today,’’ she says.
‘‘ Tastes have changed: Australia is not the monocultural place it was in the 1970s and Jack’s plays deserve to be rethought.
Chris Mead from Playwriting Australia, which supports script development, agrees.
‘‘ We are talking about the Australian repertoire and how we must work to see more regular productions of some of our canon, whatever that might be,’’ he says. ‘‘ Jack’s work is a perfect example of this, plays that remain vital and sinuous and more than just museum pieces.’’
This may comfort Hibberd. Though maybe not. While hardly disillusioned, he says his situation is best summed up by his playwright colleague Daniel Keene who, when Hibberd’s name was mentioned by Melbourne’s Jon Faine in an ABC radio interview several years ago, said: ‘‘ He’s still alive, is he?’’ We’ll know for sure after Wednesday night. No worries.
Return to Dimboola : Playwright Jack Hibberd, above, returns to La Mama where the play was first staged; top, the original 1969 production