Nowhere to hide
There’s no escape from the theatre for John Doyle, writes Rosalie Higson
HEN it comes to gently mocking Australian speech, humorist, writer and broadcaster John Doyle knows how to put the jumbuck in the tuckerbag. ‘‘ I’ve always loved colourful language,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s a great source of amusement. It’s like a wardrobe, really. You select the clothes to wear on a particular occasion and you select the language you will wear on a particular occasion. I just love to see language as clothing, and I love it when people are inappropriately dressed.’’
The serious side of Doyle — best known as sports commentator Rampaging Roy Slaven, cohort of HG Nelson ( Greig Pickhaver) — will be foremost when The Pig Iron People, his first script for the stage, opens in November at the Sydney Theatre Company.
It’s a return to the theatre for Doyle, 55, after a prolonged absence. In the late 1970s he ran away from his job as a high school teacher in Newcastle. ‘‘ Theatre, I thought, was the vocation, the calling,’’ he says, sitting in the STC cafe,
Wlooking out at a glittering harbour on a bright spring morning. He spent a couple of years full time with the Hunter Valley Theatre Company, under Aarne Neeme, then came to Sydney in the early ’ 80s and ‘‘ bummed around, as jobbing actors do’’. He appeared at the STC and the Stables in Sydney, and with John Gaden at the State Theatre Company of South Australia, taking any roles that were going. ‘‘ That was the great luxury of working in Aarne Neeme’s company. He’s now directing Home and Away,’’ Doyle says. ‘‘ It was a small ensemble of six and we would do roughly 10 productions a year, anything from Shakespeare to ( Georges) Feydeau farces; we just had a stab at anything. You would be rehearsing one while doing the next. It was the most intensive work I’ve ever done in my life.’’
Everything changed when he met Pickhaver during filming of the SBS children’s mini- series Five Times Dizzy. They are both tall men with a wicked sense of humour and a knack for the vernacular: ‘‘ We didn’t have an enormous amount to do but we had to be there every day for three months. The adults were background action as much as anything else. So, as one does, over a long hot summer we amused ourselves in the caravan; we amused ourselves mightily.’’
They invented and developed the opinionated motormouths HG and Roy, began doing short segments on the Triple J breakfast show, and when they called the rugby league grand final in 1986 a new era began. Their annual Festival of the Boot ( AFL and rugby league grand finals) became enshrined at the end of the football season.
In their commentary they invented cheeky nicknames and drew on a long tradition of local sporting cliches.
In 2000, they raised the bar with The Dream, their television show that gave a round- up of the Sydney Olympics each evening. They did much to promote the obscure sport of greco- roman wrestling and put a new twist on gymnastics with their inspired descriptions of moves such as the battered sav, the party date, the dutch wink and, everyone’s favourite, the hello boys.
Since then they’ve called major sporting events across the world, from Wimbledon to the Rugby World Cup. To the great disappointment of their fans, the dream died and the pair were not invited to cover the Beijing Olympics.
That was a small blip in the mighty career of Roy and HG. We still do every Sunday on the radio,’’ says Doyle. ‘‘ We’ve never stopped; this is our 22nd year of continual commitment on the youth network. It’s a great joy. Oh my word.’’
Doyle continues to be surprised at the turn his life took. I thought the life of a jobbing actor was going to be the one,’’ he says. ‘‘ The work with Greig came as a massive interruption. It was one of those happenstances; one of those accidental things where the route taken changed enormously.’’ Chance played a part, too, in the creation of the The Pig Iron People, when Doyle sat next to then STC head Robyn Nevin in the theatre a couple of years ago.
‘‘ Robyn casually said, ‘ Have you ever thought of writing something for the stage?’ and indeed up to that time I hadn’t. But as I sat enjoying the revue, part of me was already formulating, thinking back to these characters I’d had parked for all this time,’’ he says. ‘‘ These particular characters had been in my mind for the best part of 20 years, just waiting.’’
The characters seized the day, and Doyle was consumed with ‘‘ tremendous energy’’ day and night for months until he produced a rough draft.
‘‘ Rather than the overarching themes bearing down on the play, it was built in the opposite direction,’’ he says. ‘‘ I had the characters first, pastiches, bits of language, speeches that I wanted to use, and I built the play in that way. There are speeches that haven’t changed since day one when I sat down.’’
While Doyle welcomed the chance to reengage with the theatre, he has found the experience ‘‘ threatening and difficult’’.
‘‘ Writing for theatre, there’s nowhere to hide,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s the finest wire of the finest tightrope. With writing for television, some judi-
cious skill in editing and direction can cover flaws in the writing, but theatre doesn’t allow that at all. It’s tremendously exciting at the same time.’’
Set on a quiet suburban street with not quite enough parking for the residents, The Pig Iron People examines two generations and the way the politics of their time has shaped them.
A young would- be writer, ( Glenn Hazeldine) moves to a house on Liberal Street. It is 1996, the day of John Howard’s first election victory. Although he wants to be alone, he falls in love with a young actor ( Caroline Craig) and strikes up a bumpy relationship with his nosy old neighbours: Doyle’s pig iron people, the generation who grew up under conservative prime minister Robert Menzies ( known as Pig Iron Bob after a dispute with waterside workers who refused to load a ship with scrap iron for Japan in 1938).
The play will be directed by Craig Ilott ( Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Pillowman) with a cast including theatre veterans Max Cullen, Judi Farr, Bruce Venables, Jacki Weaver and Danny Adcock.
These are characters, with a style of language I don’t think is very often seen on stage. Really, if anything, it’s a play written for actors,’’ says Doyle. ‘‘ I know that sounds a silly thing, but it’s the performance of the actors that drives the thing, and it’s specifically about acting and the mirror that theatre holds on society.’’
Attitudes and opinions that were formed in the 1950s are echoed in the ’ 90s. ‘‘ It’s these repetitions that I’m interested in. There was a lot about Howardism that echoed Menzies- ism, and quite consciously. That’s not to make judgements about it, that’s just an observation. I’m more inclined to allow an audience to decide. Anything too polemic or didactic is a turn- off: the principal thing is to entertain people, and provoke them at the same time.’’
Doyle has an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Newcastle and an enviable swag of awards, including a Logie, a couple of AWGIES and comedy awards with Pickhaver. His outstanding miniseries Changi won a Logie and an AWGIE, and his next miniseries, Marking Time, picked up an AFI, a NSW Premier’s Literary Award and an AWGIE for its screenplay.
Changi and Marking Time were written as companion pieces that examine the Australian character: the sweet and sour journey towards the hardening of its heart’’. Changi celebrated the defiant attitude of Australians imprisoned by the Japanese during World War II; Marking Time is the love story of a young Australian boy and Muslim asylum- seeker, set at the time of the Tampa crisis when asylum- seekers became queue jumpers. The Pig Iron People is another examination of the state of the nation: Doyle is obviously concerned about the direction Australia is going, politically, environmentally and socially.
The play is to do with history repeating itself, the cycles of history, how the choices people make are determined by where they appear in the historical period, and it is also about language. Working class language, that is uniformed but extremely confident,’’ he says.
That may sound like a cue for verbal pyrotechnics a la Roy Slaven, but Doyle is more interested in reflecting the real language of an older generation of Australians.
HG and Roy invent language, they put language on an anvil and smash the buggery out of it, really, through being longwinded and eccentric,’’ he says.
Here, I’m far more interested in verisimilitude, in the way people actually speak. That’s far more interesting to me, as a listening witness to a style of language that is fused with the times, and a style of language, an aspect of Australian vernacular that is disappearing.’’
Lest he sound too nostalgic, Doyle reiterates that people are products of their time, flawed in their own way. We are different now, not better or worse. One thing that hasn’t changed all that much is our sense of humour. We still laugh at tragedy.’’ Doyle himself has a rather oldfashioned way of speaking: ‘‘ Oh yes, yes, yes, yes, yes’’ he says. ‘‘ No, no, no, no.’’
His voice is quietly modulated and he occasionally harks back to teacher mode, invoking the definite article and Venn diagrams. He also has a way of observing his interlocutor, exactly as a teacher eyes a student making excuses for not having done her homework — that tolerant yet perceptive gaze.
He puts this persona to good use in partnership with his old friend, scientist Tim Flannery, for a new series on ABC1: Two in the Top End is the follow- up to Two Men in a Tinnie , their journey along the endangered Darling River. This new show has Doyle and Flannery driving from Cooktown to Broome, examining the ecology and economic viability of the deep north: mineral rich, ancient and mysterious, and where the abundant rainfall gives the illusion it could become a bread basket for the rest of the drought- ridden country, even the world. They look at some of the loony development schemes — rice growing, dams and so on — as well as the creeping plague of cane toads. ‘‘ It all beggars belief. But it was a lovely trip to see the savannah which stretches forever, and the geology of the Kimberley is extraordinary, so I’d recommend anyone go there — and just leave it alone.’’
Following Doyle’s success with comedy, drama and documentary on radio and television, the obvious question is when can we expect his first film. ‘‘ Well. Hmm. There are a lot of issues here,’’ he says with a grin. ‘‘ Rightly or wrongly we decided to go down the track of the auteur, where the writer of the film directs the film. The jury is out whether it works or not, but the opportunities for writers are very restricted.’’
Of course he’s had a go, but even someone with Doyle’s track record struggles to get scripts read. ‘‘ But as we speak, I am working my way through the first draft of a film about role models, about how important the relationship is between young boys and role models. So after opening night here, that will be the next thing.’’
Radio ragers: Greig Pickhaver ( HG Nelson), left, and John Doyle ( Roy Slaven) in the Triple J studios
Cycles of history: Actor Max Cullen harks back to the Menzies era in The Pig Iron People