John Doyle’s deeply per­sonal new play

His fa­ther’s de­men­tia in­flu­enced John Doyle’s lat­est play about the forces that shape who we are, writes Paul Cleary

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

JOHN Doyle’s first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence of car­ing for his fa­ther while he was dy­ing of de­men­tia, and an ex­tra­or­di­nary chance en­counter with the ge­nius of Charles Dar­win and an arche­ol­o­gist named Vere, come to­gether to cre­ate an in­cred­i­ble ‘‘ col­li­sion’’ of events in his new play, a work about the mys­tery of hu­man ex­is­tence.

Vere (Faith) deals with a sit­u­a­tion faced by grow­ing num­bers of age­ing peo­ple and the fam­ily and friends who will share their jour­ney to the end. It comes from a very dark place, but Doyle says the play is black com­edy and he hopes au­di­ences will be see the lighter side of his gloomy sub­ject.

‘‘ I hope the play is pretty funny. It comes out of a bleak space, a very bleak space,’’ he says. ‘‘ It will be a tri­umph’’ if it suc­ceeds in mak­ing peo­ple laugh, he adds.

While Doyle is best known as part of the duo Roy Slaven and HG Nel­son, the play marks his re­turn to his first and great­est love in a cre­ative ca­reer span­ning 35 years. ‘‘ I sup­pose my first foray into find­ing out what I wanted to do was in the the­atre,’’ he says.

This is Doyle’s sec­ond play af­ter his 2008 de­but with The Pig Iron Peo­ple, which re­ceived some favourable re­views and some crit­i­cism about lack of char­ac­ter de­vel­op­ment. Doyle says au­di­ences re­sponded favourably and the play proved to be ‘‘ a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence’’, which en­cour­aged him to have another go.

The fol­low­ing year, Doyle was work­ing on the ABC TV pro­duc­tion of Two on the Great Di­vide in NSW’s Blue Moun­tains when he went for a walk dur­ing a lunch break and came across a very large house where a gar­dener was work­ing. He asked the gar­dener who owned the house and he was told it had be­longed to Vere Gor­don Childe, a fa­mous early 20th­cen­tury arche­ol­o­gist and po­lit­i­cal the­o­rist. For­tu­itously for Doyle’s cre­ative con­struct, Vere is a Slavic name that means faith.

Doyle’s crew was film­ing at Govetts Leap, a look­out that of­fers com­mand­ing views of the val­leys and cliffs of the moun­tains, where he found a plaque ded­i­cated to the Jan­uary 1836 visit by Charles Dar­win. This is the place where Dar­win first spec­u­lated that the Earth had evolved over mil­lions of years.

‘‘ It was at that point he re­alised the cre­ation of the Earth. When he looked at the Grose Val­ley and th­ese tiny streams and the vast gorges they’d cre­ated, he re­alised it was a lot older than he’d imag­ined. The penny dropped there,’’ Doyle ex­plains.

(Dar­win ini­tially spec­u­lated, cor­rectly, that the Blue Moun­tains val­leys had been formed by ero­sion but then dis­missed this idea as ‘‘ pre­pos­ter­ous’’. Decades later he re­verted to his ini­tial be­lief, ac­cord­ing to the State Li­brary of NSW.)

When Doyle did some fur­ther re­search about Childe, he learned that in 1957 he died aged 65 when he fell from Govetts Leap about 10m from the Dar­win plaque. The coroner found Childe had died ac­ci­den­tally, al­though the Aus­tralian Dic­tionary of Bi­og­ra­phy’s en­try on Childe says ‘‘ it seems pos­si­ble that he took his own life’’. Doyle sides with the lat­ter view, adding that Childe wrote a let­ter to a friend that read like a sui­cide note.

‘‘ So you had this col­li­sion, a fu­sion of those things, of two events. So I stewed on this for a while,’’ Doyle says.

He was still mulling over th­ese events when he be­gan look­ing af­ter his fa­ther in 2011 af­ter the lat­ter was di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia. For more than five months, Doyle spent three or four days at a time at his fa­ther’s house on NSW’s cen­tral coast, be­fore hand­ing over to his brother, who would then hand over to two sis­ters. The sib­lings car­ried on in this way for more than five months, be­fore their fa­ther was trans­ferred to a high-care fa­cil­ity. He died 12 months ago at age 94.

‘‘ I wrote the play while I looked af­ter him,’’ Doyle says. He sat at the kitchen ta­ble and wrote in long­hand in ex­er­cise books while his fa­ther watched tele­vi­sion or moved around the house.

‘‘ I wrote it while he was watch­ing telly. He’d go to the kitchen, make some­thing and sit down, go back again. It went on. He’d put the blinds up when he went to bed, put them down when he got up. His world was turned up­side down,’’ Doyle says.

The cen­tral nar­ra­tive deals with what hap­pens to a man with a bril­liant mind when told he will soon lose his mind, and the ef­fect it has on his loved ones.

In life, Doyle fa­ther’s down­ward spi­ral be­gan with con­fu­sion. At first, ‘‘ for a while’’ he thought Doyle was his brother Ray.

‘‘ And then that mo­ment of clar­ity dis­ap­peared and I was a stranger. Ev­ery­one was then a stranger to him. The frus­tra­tion. He could see him­self shut­ting down, at the end of the line. At the end of the road, he just wanted it to end, and it went on and on and on,’’ Doyle says.

In the play, the main char­ac­ter is a physics pro­fes­sor named Vere who is about to take up a job at CERN — the Euro­pean Cen­tre for Nu­clear Re­search — in Switzer­land just be­fore re­searchers there find the ele­men­tary par­ti­cle known as the Higgs bo­son. Vere is di­ag­nosed with a form of de­men­tia that has Lewy bod­ies. He knows his demise will be rapid and that his bril­liant ca­reer is al­ready over.

De­spite the over­whelm­ingly bleak prog­no­sis, Vere is de­ter­mined to hang on un­til the Higgs bo­son is dis­cov­ered. In this way, the play con­nects ever so obliquely with Dar­win.

Asked what the play re­ally is all about, Doyle says it ‘‘ sets out to ex­am­ine what are the qual­i­ties that make us hu­man’’ — which, he adds, are ‘‘ the forces that shape us and the con­text in which we live’’.

The co-pro­duc­tion with the Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany and the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val Cen­tre stars Paul Black­well in the epony­mous role. The choice of Black­well brings a large dose of re­al­ity to the pro­duc­tion be­cause he has re­turned to the stage af­ter bat­tling a form of blood can­cer. Black­well had to re­tire from a 2010 pro­duc­tion as a re­sult of the ill­ness and says the can­cer is in ‘‘ par­tial re­mis­sion’’.

Di­rect­ing the pro­duc­tion is one of the STC’s new res­i­dent co-di­rec­tors, Sarah Goodes, whose re­cent cred­its in­clude Ed­ward Gant’s Amaz­ing Feats of Lone­li­ness and The Splin­ter.

While Doyle says he has been ‘‘ pretty much’’ an athi­est since the age of 14, the Catholic faith was a tow­er­ing part of his up­bring­ing, both through his fam­ily and the De La Salle re­li­gious or­der that taught him.

‘‘ The whole fam­ily is still very ded­i­cated. All of them. But they are very kind, they never raise the is­sue, we never go there. I don’t chal­lenge them or them me,’’ he says.

In com­ments that are un­fash­ion­able th­ese days, Doyle says he looks back at his Catholic up­bring­ing and ed­u­ca­tion by the brothers ‘‘ through rose-coloured glasses’’.

When in 1994 the brothers left Lith­gow, the town west of the Blue Moun­tains where Doyle grew up,, he was asked to speak on the oc­ca­sion. In part, he said: ‘‘ I’m grate­ful for a time, a for­ma­tive time, I was privy to see­ing the world through the de­pend­able dis­ci­plined com­fort of their prism. For my re­la­tion­ship with knowl­edge and how I view the world was de­ter­mined ei­ther be­cause of them or in spite of them, but cer­tainly by them ... I am au­to­mat­i­cally re­minded of that small group of gi­ant men who, dressed in stark black, sat in the front row on the right-hand side of St Pa­trick’s Church, who made us all stand up to an­swer ques­tions.’’

Af­ter leav­ing Lith­gow, Doyle stud­ied to be a teacher and worked in Hunter Val­ley schools for seven years, un­til he could teach no more. He went back to univer­sity and stud­ied drama, which led to a poorly paid job with a New­cas­tle the­atre com­pany that was prodi­giously pro­duc­tive. ‘‘ We worked our ar­ses off turn­ing over a new play ev­ery month. It was a tremen­dous learn­ing curve. One of the great ex­pe­ri­ences was work­ing on new plays by lo­cals,’’ he says.

One of the best pro­duc­tions for Doyle was Ess­ing­ton Lewis: I am Work, by lo­cal play­wright John O’Donoghue who, like Doyle, had worked as a school­teacher be­fore em­bark­ing on a ca­reer in the the­atre.

‘‘ We worked on it for seven weeks, did 100 pro­duc­tions. That was great see­ing a play built from the ground floor up,’’ Doyle says.

The the­atre was the source of much in­spi­ra­tion for his 22 years of ra­dio and TV work with Greig Pick­haver as part of the Roy and HG duo. Pick­haver also has a the­atre back­ground and the two got talk­ing while they were work­ing on an SBS pro­duc­tion.

‘‘ The well­spring of all this work has come from the the­atre,’’ Doyle says.

Doyle hasn’t had any in­volve­ment in Vere since hand­ing over the script to Goodes. He re­alises the­atre can some­times be a knife edge.

‘‘ I very much en­joy writ­ing screen­plays, but there is some­thing about the raw­ness of the stage. When it works, there is noth­ing more won­der­ful; of course, when it dies there’s noth­ing worse,’’ he says.

While death is an over­whelm­ing part of this play, Doyle is con­fi­dent it won’t die.

Vere (Faith) is at the Ade­laide Fes­ti­val Cen­tre from Oc­to­ber 12 to Novem­ber 2 and the Syd­ney Opera House from Novem­ber 6 to De­cem­ber 7.

John Doyle, top, has a new play, Vere

(Faith), in­spired in part by noted Aus­tralian arche­ol­o­gist Vere Gor­don Childe, above

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