IN HIS ELEMENT
Playwright Justin Fleming quit a successful legal career to pursue his first love — theatre — and he’s never looked back, writes Jane Albert
There aren’t many Australian playwrights who can cite Robert Helpmann as the person who gave them their first break in the industry. But Justin Fleming is one of them. It was the late 1980s and Fleming, an up-andcoming Sydney barrister, was dabbling in writing for the stage. Despite the theatre being his first love, reason and experience taught him that law would give him a much more secure — albeit mundane — existence than struggling to make a name for himself in the arts. Then he received a phone call that would change the course of his life, after Helpmann seized on Fleming’s second play and declared it to be “exquisitely written”. Harold Pinter would later describe him as “a writer of authority and distinction”. Little wonder that today he is renowned for his original works from Burnt Piano to Shellshock and his clever adaptations of Moliere’s Tartuffe and The School for Wives; and as librettist on The Ninth Wonder and Satango, among other works. Yet it all nearly played out so differently.
Fleming spent all but the first year of his childhood in North Sydney, where his parents moved to be closer to the hospitals where his father worked as a vascular surgeon (his mother was a thoracic physician). Home was within walking distance of The Independent Theatre and Fleming spent many weekends kicking around there, watching plays and soaking up the atmosphere of this wondrous world he had discovered.
Fleming can pinpoint pivotal moments in his life that have led to where he is today, and the first dates back to when he was only eight. “One Saturday afternoon I saw Eleanor Witcombe’s play Pirates at the Barn performed for schoolkids. At the end of the play the actors would invite the kids up on stage to meet them. And I loved it, I really felt it was in my blood, the whole experience,” he recalls. “But of course [back then] there was no such thing as an Australian playwright.”
There was Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year and Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll but the industry had yet to take off. By the time Fleming left school in 1970 the Sydney Opera House still hadn’t been completed, the Nimrod was just getting going thanks to agitators such as John Bell and Ken Horler, and the Australian Performing Group was beginning to gain traction at the Pram Factory in Melbourne. Fleming weighed up his options — accomplished in English, French and Latin, woeful in maths and science — and signed up for a bachelor of arts-law.
But the pull of the theatre remained strong. Fleming studied by night and worked as a judge’s associate in the district court by day, which afforded him enough time to see as much theatre and read as many plays as he could lay his hands on. He built on his schoolboy knowledge of Samuel Beckett and Arthur Miller, adding Pinter, Simon Gray and Tom Stoppard to the mix, scouring the scripts for hints on what to do, and taking Sunday classes in acting under Hayes Gordon at the Ensemble Theatre.
“Suddenly I saw David Williamson’s The Removalists and I thought, ‘My god, this is written by an Australian and has Australian voices on the stage!’ ” he recalls, the delight still evident in his voice. “Then there was a play by Errol Bray, The Choir, which I saw at Nimrod and absolutely loved. So more and more I started to see there was such a thing as an Australian playwright, as a career. I’d started law in 1973 but gradually I began to wonder if I was going the wrong way.”
He began writing plays. His first attempt, Hammer, did well and was picked up by Richard Wherrett for the Festival of Sydney in 1981 as a co-production with the Ensemble, later receiving a return season. The all-important Helpmann moment had come a couple of years earlier when the highly influential actor, dancer and choreographer was shown a copy of Fleming’s play The Cobra.
“The phone rang one day and it was Robert Helpmann and he said words which I can never, ever forget: ‘It’s a beautiful play, exquisitely written and I’m going to do it.’ It’s a bit self-serving of me to say that, but those were his words. I had to pinch myself.” It premiered four years later at the Sydney Opera House to great acclaim.
But it would be some time before he had the confidence to turn his back on life as a barrister and call himself a playwright. That moment came in 1989 as he was walking across the Sydney Harbour Bridge. “I got to the first pylon and I said to my flatmate, ‘That’s it. I’m not going to do this any more. I’m just going to write.’ We went and had a glass of champagne and I’ve never looked back on that decision. Poorer but happier, as they say.”
Since then Fleming has added more strings to his bow: award-winning plays, libretti, adaptations and television drama. Today he divides his time between Sydney, Paris and London, where his wife, academic and author Fay Brauer is professor of art and visual culture at the University of East London.
In person Fleming is a warm and engaging presence, an entertaining raconteur whose achievements are belied by self-deprecating wit. He is in Sydney running through the script of his latest Moliere translation, The Literati (Les Femmes Savantes), which will be performed by Bell Shakespeare in collaboration with Griffin Theatre, directed by Lee Lewis.
Fleming’s adaptation of the 1672 classic updates the action to 21st-century Australia and tells the story of a mother (Caroline Brazier) determined to marry her daughter (Miranda Tapsell) to elitist poet Tristan Tosser (Gareth Davies) despite the fact she loves someone else (Jamie Oxenbould), whom certain members of the family, including her sister (Kate Mulvany), consider beneath them. Like Tartuffe, it is a merciless send-up of literary pretension and social snobbery, and Fleming has had great fun working on it. “It’s that clash of wills in the house, which is what happens in life,” Fleming says. “I think Moliere would approve of [the adaptation and local vernacular] because he did love the plays to get out to the masses, not just the court of the king.”
His translating, like his scriptwriting, is largely self-taught, with Fleming striving to maintain the broad appeal and cheeky humour that popularised Moliere’s texts. Fleming creates his own rhyming patterns — AABB for pretentiousness, ABAB when true love is being proclaimed or ABBA to reflect true scholarship — the mixture keeps the audience guessing and the actors on their toes.
This is his fourth adaptation, including The Misanthrope for Sydney Theatre Company; The School for Wives, also directed by Lewis, which toured 30 cities and towns; and Tartuffe for Melbourne Theatre Company then Bell, with upcoming seasons with Black Swan and Queensland Theatre Company.
“This very nice thing happened where Bell and MTC and now Griffin said, ‘If we buy the wool will you make us one?’ ” Fleming laughs. “So that’s turned into a very nice industry for me. I just wish there were more Moliere plays!”
But Fleming is not so prolific he can afford to rest on his laurels. Instead he balances the mainstage productions he so enjoys with smaller independent works such as His Mother’s Voice for ATYP and Bakehouse and the upcoming Dresden for Kings X Theatre, the true story of Hitler’s desire to write an opera. He is also working on a two-part TV series (as yet unassigned), The Dunstan Years, with writer-director Scott Hicks; and a six-part drama series for BBC Worldwide and Sprout Pictures, Morrison of Peking, about Australian journalist George Morrison who became caught up in the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.
If it all seems to be going rather well for Fleming, there is one regret he will carry forever. “My father thought it was dreadful when I said I was going to do law. He said, ‘ Lawyers just stand around in a courtroom being rude to each other. Why don’t you do theatre?’ He loved the theatre. He died before my first play went on, which was terribly heartbreaking because I know that I rejected what he said, and yet he was right.”
Fleming may still not be entirely convinced of his title as writer and translator, but he is blissfully happy doing all that both involve. “Of course you keep thinking men in white coats will come and arrest you and take you away for being a fraud,” he says, laughing uproariously. “But I’ve got away with it. And I’m really enjoying doing it.”
and co-production of The Literati runs from Wednesday to July 16 at SBW Stables before touring Riverside Parramatta, July 27-30. and
co-production of Tartuffe runs October 22-November 6 (Black Swan) and November 12- December 4 (QTC).
Justin Fleming says childhood exposure to the theatre piqued his interest