Too close to home

A play about our an­ar­chic cul­ture con­tin­ues to thrill nearly 40 years on, writes Graeme Blun­dell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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.

Pic­ture: Norm Oorloff

Re­turn to Dim­boola : Play­wright Jack Hib­berd, above, re­turns to La Mama where the play was first staged; top, the orig­i­nal 1969 pro­duc­tion

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.