Play­wright Justin Flem­ing quit a suc­cess­ful le­gal ca­reer to pur­sue his first love — theatre — and he’s never looked back, writes Jane Al­bert

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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

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