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
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