BARRY DICKINS PLAYWRIGHT
IW O R D S : f there’s one thing almost everyone can relate to, it’s the stress and angst that surfaces during a Christmas spent with family.
Award-winning Australian playwright Barry Dickins has capitalised on that common experience with his latest work, Gert and Bess, which has its world premiere in Townsville next week.
“Everyone’s had a bad Christmas Day, I’m sure,” Dickins says.
“Families sometimes don’t love, and they don’t kiss you when you come in the door. It can be cold and austere as opposed to crying with delight from seeing you again.”
Set in the Melbourne suburbs in 1954, Gert and Bess is part comedy part tragedy exploring the often tense relationship of two sisters.
It was written specifically for local theatre company Theatre iNQ after a chance meeting with artistic director Terri Brabon and production manager Brendan O’Connor in his home city of Melbourne.
“I had a one-man show running in Carlton about Ronald Ryan, who was the last man hanged in Australia,” he said.
“Terri and Brendan were coming to see my play. They knew me by reputation, but we had never met.
“We ran into each other in Lygon St. I was with the actor in my play who was a friend of Terri’s so he introduced us and we got on immediately.
“Afterwards, Terri asked if she could commission me to write something for their theatre company, and I said yes.
“I was already thinking of this story about Gert and Bess.”
The inspiration for the story came from Dickins’ experience as a child spending lots of time with his grandmother Gertrude and her favourite sister Bess.
He says their rollercoaster, lovehate relationship was something that had always fascinated him as a child, and he relished the chance to bring it to life into something that everyone could relate to.
“They were so sweet and intelligent and funny. But sometimes, even though I was six or seven, I could feel there was some sort of tension between them,” he said.
“They didn’t outright argue with each other but they’d sort of niggle.
“They would swing from that to extreme friendship. On a cold winter’s night they’d sleep together to keep each other warm. “But you’d still hear them arguing. “A lot of sisters are like that, where they torment each other and then the next minute they’re brushing each other’s hair and peeling apples together or something. I wanted to capture that sort of unreasonableness.”
The story took on some extra gravitas for Dickins during the writing process. After the death of their mother, Barry’s brother was going through her old sheet music and stumbled upon a photo of the real Bess’s son, who died when he was two years old – an event that had a lasting effect on her.
For a play that’s so personal, Dickins says he’s had no problems handing it over to Brabon and the cast to bring it to life. He says the story is in exceptionally good hands.
“I came up to Townsville in August for a week of rewriting with Terri and the actors. Terri was making lots of suggestions and I liked her ideas. I really liked the way she was thinking,” he said.
“Although we didn’t know each other very well, we were on the same wavelength. She was also laughing a lot during the readings and that meant a lot to me because I want the audience to laugh.”