The Weekend Australian - Review

Aka ‘Dog Man’, 58, lives near Nimbin, NSW. His memoir about living with a pack of dogs has been made into a play that will have its world premiere at Adelaide Festival

MARTIN McKENNA,

- Bridget Cormack

You had a difficult childhood and ran away from home when you were 13 …

Lots of people ran away from home. In the 70s in Ireland there was extreme unemployme­nt and total dislocatio­n. When the men didn’t have a purpose they drank, and when they drank they became angry and then they would take it out on their families. And families would start to break up. The woman is there trying to keep it all together. I just had to get out because sometimes my father would just pick you up by the leg and start bashing you up the wall. I don’t hate my father. He just had a problem, he couldn’t give up the drink.

You took refuge with a pack of stray dogs on the street. Most people are scared of these sorts of animals; how did you connect with them?

If you ask anyone who ever lived on the streets, you can’t be afraid. If you’re afraid don’t do it; stay and take the beatings. I am a dog. I’m a geneticall­y identical triplet born in 1962 when no one in Ireland had ever seen a triplet. My father used to call us a litter of pups. I was only two pounds. I was sick all the time. I wouldn’t eat and if someone tried to pick me up I would scream. You can imagine, a family that’s already got three kids and then triplet boys. There’s limited time, resources and money.

I think that’s where the separation started with me. We had two german shepherds and my mother liked to put me down with the dogs. We developed this bond … Dogs want to protect people who are broken. I think they’re the best psychologi­sts in the world. I think they know everything about our biology and our moods. You can pretend to be in a good mood and be angry underneath but the dog senses it.

What went through your mind when Andy Packer, artistic director of Adelaide theatre company Slingsby, said he wanted to make your memoir, The Boy Who Talked to Dogs, into a play?

I was about seven years old when I saw a movie with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. My father and mother were going down to the local pub; I looked at the TV and I looked at my parents and thought they should be the ones who are in the movie. Those people are faking it on the screen. My mother and father are living this for real. When Andy approached me and said he wanted to do a play I thought “yeah”. This whole thing is not about Martin McKenna. It’s about an amazing woman. My mother took on the whole family burden and she was still reeling from her childhood in Germany during the war. She did it all. She did everything. I wanted her to be remembered.

As an expert in dog behaviour — you’ve written books and spoken on radio on the subject — are there any techniques for dealing with a ‘naughty’ dog?

Naughtines­s is only a misunderst­anding of “Oh, is that what you meant?”. Like if I was staring at my dog and telling it to go away. The dog’s looking at me going: “I’d really love to but if you really want me to go away, could you please turn your eyes to the side and blink once very slowly.”

The play is for audiences 12+. What do you hope young people will take away?

A lot of teenagers have gone through what I’ve been through. I believe stories were formed to teach people lessons so they wouldn’t repeat hurting themselves and thinking they don’t matter. If I could get a message out there that there is one person you truly have to believe in, and that’s you — that would be equal to the movie star mum and dad thing.

The Boy Who Talked to Dogs, co-produced by Slingsby and State Theatre Company South Australia and three Irish artists, runs from February 26 to March 14 as part of Adelaide Festival.

t’s 9.10am on a Tuesday when I am ushered into a meeting with Kip Williams and find the Sydney Theatre Company artistic director gulping down a bowl of breakfast cereal. Despite the refined glamour of his new office within the freshly revamped Wharf Theatre complex, in a homely touch, Williams keeps a box of Kellogg’s in his office.

The unassuming STC boss puts his half-finished meal aside and is soon regaling Review with gags about the “Bermuda Triangle” idiosyncra­sies of the original Wharf Theatre, one of the nation’s most spectacula­rly located performanc­e venues.

Williams says the “weird thing” about the theatre, located on a 200m-long pier on Sydney Harbour, was its eccentric seating configurat­ions. This meant “you were either in this U shape – there’s no other theatre in Australia, and I can’t think of any other theatre internatio­nally, that had that weird U shape – or you had the J corner shape we referred to as the Bermuda Triangle’’. Shifting in his chair to demonstrat­e, he jokes that “you had audience members sitting at right angles to the stage. We loved the old Wharf but it really needed some improvemen­ts.”

“Ah, the good ole’ days,” chimes in leading playwright and actor Kate Mulvany. She has joined Williams in his office, which boasts a partial view of the Harbour Bridge, to discuss the Wharf Theatre’s relaunch, following an ambitious $60 million renovation that shuttered the venue for two years.

The theatre, which opened in 1984, has always had a serious wow factor – if patrons visiting its bar were any closer to the ferries, yachts and tourist boats gliding by, they’d be in the drink. However, as Williams has explained, The Wharf was problemati­c in other ways. Now, with the upgrade completed, the venue is reopening to the public with new flexible seating and a production

that speaks to the surroundin­g area’s rich history – Mulvany’s adaptation of Ruth Park’s young adult novel, Playing Beatie Bow.

Park’s prize-winning 1980 novel is set in The Rocks, Australia’s oldest maritime suburb, notable for its early colonial worker’s terraces that sit cheek by jowl with merchant’s gracious homes; narrow cobbleston­e laneways, and pubs and hotels claiming to be Sydney’s oldest – all atop the imperious sandstone cliffs that long predated white settlement.

Mulvany is no stranger to Park’s work: in 2018, her adaptation of a trilogy of the writer’s novels, the sixhour stage epic, The Harp in the South: Part One and Part Two, was staged at STC. Williams also directed that production, which featured a mind-boggling 92 characters and was garlanded with awards including an AWGIE and three Sydney Theatre gongs.

Why do Park’s novels translate so readily into live performanc­e? Mulvany replies: “Ruth has this incredible ability to look at the past, the present and the future all at once. I think that’s an exceptiona­l gift for someone who was writing literally from their front doorstep in Surry Hills (inner Sydney) from the 1940s onwards.” She says the New Zealand-born author’s ability to capture the multiethni­c “voices and pulse’’ of The Rocks “was just extraordin­ary”.

Featuring time travel and magic, Beatie Bow opens next week and revolves around Abigail, a teenager unsettled by her parents’ marital problems who follows a mysterious character back through time to The Rocks in 1873.

This was an era when the settlement was home to impoverish­ed immigrant families, gangs, sly groggers and sex trafficker­s. To find her way home, Abigail goes on an often disorienta­ting adventure, discoverin­g a new maturity en route.

Williams and Mulvany read Beatie Bow during their childhoods, and the STC chief declares: “It was my favourite book. I was obsessed with it. Ruth Park has this capacity to allow you to see your city in a new light, particular­ly when you’re a young person and the scope of your geographic­al existence is quite contained. She gets you to understand the depth of history of the place in which you live.

“What’s also so remarkable and enduring about her is that her journalist­ic eye results in a kind of forensic detail that is about truth. She doesn’t pull any punches.”

The adaptation, in which 60 roles will be played by a cast of nine, sold out quickly under NSW’s 75 per cent audience cap – a restrictio­n which reflects the state’s social distancing rules. Selling so strongly, says Williams, “particular­ly in the context of COVID, is amazing”. However, the company needs to fill 85 per cent of seats to break even, and is hoping the 75 per cent cap will be lifted soon. It expects to announce further ticket releases for Beatie Bow before the show opens.

Williams reveals that pandemic-related closures and postponeme­nts have “been immensely challengin­g for the company”.

“We had a revenue hit of nearly $18 million last year. It’s been extremely tough and we’ve only been able to survive through JobKeeper and a grant from the state government, and also through an immense amount of philanthro­pic support from our core donors, along with our core audience.” Despite the difficulti­es, he says the generosity the STC has received “has been remarkable”.

The adaptation departs from the novel in several ways. While Park’s book was partly set in the early 1980s, Mulvany’s contempora­ry scenes unfold in the present. “We’re not in the 80s any more,” she explains. “We’ve done that. We’ve seen time travel from the 80s.”

Instead, she says her script will ask: “Who is a schoolgirl in modern-day Sydney? Who is a schoolgirl coming out of COVID and dealing with her sexuality and her place in the world? Is she a feminist?” Some of those questions were “far more muted or didn’t exist” in the 80s, she says, admitting she “had to pick a lot of brains with my godchildre­n and my niece”, in order to answer them.

Another significan­t change is that Abigail becomes a third-generation Vietnamese-Australian played by Catherine Van-Davies, who starred in the SBS drama, Hungry Ghosts, while Mulvany has added an Indigenous character, Johnny Whites, to her historical narrative. Whites is a former gold digger who does laundry for The Rocks’ residents. “He’s very, very famous for his white sheets and cuffs; there is a method that he uses that involves the limestone of The Rocks,” she says.

For the adaptation, the writer had to secure permission­s from the Park Estate. “They’re fabulous,” she says. “They put very few stipulatio­ns on me but one of them is, ‘Make sure you use the (Norn) language Ruth sets up in the book’.” Norn was spoken by NSW settlers from Scotland’s Orkney Islands and this language, hinted at in the novel, peppers the script.

The show is aimed at children aged 10 and up, and Mulvany predicts “adults will love it as Ruth’s work is so layered and complicate­d”. While two young female characters propel the narrative, “it’s also got a father who’s returned from war with a severe posttrauma­tic stress disorder, witches, dark magic, it’s got The Rocks which was not necessaril­y a kind place in 1873”.

Williams says the show will “deploy child’s play as a language of making theatre”. “If kids were telling this story in their bedroom, how would they do it? They would be using minimal objects to create a bigger universe and that’s the principle we started with.”

Mulvany, who has scoliosis and was born with renal cancer caused by her father’s exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, has, against the odds, carved out an impressive career as a writer and actor, including a luminous turn as Richard III for Bell Shakespear­e in 2017.

She insists that creating 60 characters for Beatie Bow wasn’t daunting, though she jokes that during rehearsals, there can be confusion over which character an actor is portraying.

“There’s a lot to do,” Williams says, striking a note of faux scepticism as he and Mulvany dissolve in conspirato­rial laughter.

The Wharf 4/5 finger wharf, with wooden piles driven 20 metres into clay silt and sand, was completed a century ago and was a cargo loading and unloading facility when Sydney Harbour was a bustling, working port.

However, the post-war developmen­t of container shipping meant that Wharf 4/5 and its sister wharves at Walsh Bay became obsolete. Despite their heritage value, by the 1970s, “many politician­s viewed the disused wharves and sheds as financial millstones around the neck of cash-strapped government­s,” according to the website Dictionary of Sydney.

Today, the conversion of a dilapidate­d wharf into a much-loved theatre is seen as visionary, and the sets and costumes for all STC production­s are still made there. As the company’s website puts it: “Raw materials enter at one end, moving through workshops, scenic art, costume and rehearsal spaces before reaching the theatre at the other end.” For the renovation, Williams says “we wanted to find an aesthetic that felt both contempora­ry but also, as much as possible, honoured the heritage qualities of the building”. From its uneven floor boards to its hefty wooden beams and iron doors through which wool bales were once loaded, the building is chic, yet retains its industrial, maritime feel.

When The Wharf opened 37 years ago, STC boss Richard Wherrett pushed for flexible seating, but the budget did not accommodat­e this. The newly renovated theatre, says Williams, “allows world class, beautiful configurat­ions (that will) redefine the theatre-going audience of Sydney’s relationsh­ip to this beautiful, intimate space”.

Williams, whose recent acclaimed production of The Picture of Dorian Gray featured Eryn Jean Norvill playing 26 characters, says the renovated Wharf will be “one of the first major theatres in Sydney to be able to do work in the round, which is phenomenal”. It can seat up to 450 patrons, 100 more than the old Wharf could accommodat­e. Its three flexible seating options will boost the company’s ability to tour production­s, as they will sync better with the layouts of other venues.

Williams likens the previous version of the complex’s second theatre, Wharf 2, to a “cavernous tennis court”. It has been relocated next to the main theatre and reconceive­d as a chamber space for emerging and experiment­al work and writers’ festival events.

For the public, the revitalise­d complex offers two revamped theatres, extra lifts and two additional entrances from the Harboursid­e pier, an extended veranda or gantry space and a new balcony to take in those water views. The Neilson Family Gallery is a new, elevated space for school workshops, rehearsals and external venue hire.

Back-stage facilities have also been upgraded and include a new recording studio, soundproof rehearsal rooms and a new suite of administra­tion offices.

The workshop ceiling height has been raised to allow larger sets to be built, while staff in the costume department are revelling in their new, better lit workroom. There, one can find long Victorian era skirts bound for Beatie Bow and a basket of decorated women’s corsets. There is even a dedicated wig room, with hairpieces variously labelled “judge wigs”, “silicone bald wigs” and “active wigs” – those being used in current production­s.

The Wharf 4/5 renewal also includes the constructi­on of new facilities for ground-floor tenants Sydney Dance Company, Bangarra Dance Theatre and three choirs. The rebuild is the first stage of the bigger Walsh Bay Arts Precinct project that extends to the adjacent Pier 2/3, headquarte­rs for companies including Bell Shakespear­e and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and a venue for Sydney Writers’ Festival events. It’s still under constructi­on – on the day Review visits, men in high-vis vests are inspecting its piles in flat-bottomed boats.

STC invested more than $30 million in The Wharf redevelopm­ent, which the company raised privately. The rest of the project – valued at $30 million in 2017 – was funded by the NSW Government. Controvers­y has since erupted over the cost of the broader Walsh Bay project, with the budget tripling to $371 million since 2015. The NSW Government, which owns the wharves, has blamed the budget blowout on a legal delay, higher-than-expected costs of rebuilding Pier 2/3 as an overwater heritage building, and the need to fund offices and venues for nine arts companies over two years.

Williams says the Wharf renovation fulfils Wherrett’s vision. “It’s so thrilling as an artistic director to get to program a space with that level of flexibilit­y,” he says. Despite the formidable setbacks caused by the pandemic, he feels “buoyed” at how audiences have flocked to the company’s scaled-back season.

All STC venues were dark between March and August last year, the longest closure in the company’s history. When shows returned, audience caps started out at 25 per cent and moved to 75 per cent. “With the four shows we’ve produced since reopening, audiences have flooded back,” Williams says. “Wonnangatt­a (starring Hugo Weaving and Wayne Blair) sold out. We extended Dorian Gray twice and sold out again. It’s been phenomenal, the way that audiences have desperatel­y wanted to return.”

Next month, he will launch the rest of the 2021 season and the line-up will include a package of production­s, which, like Beatie Bow, are designed to showcase the redesigned Wharf theatres.

Williams says Mulvany’s adaptation “is about family”. “It is about community and people have lacked that in the past 12 months. They haven’t been able to see family, they haven’t been able to be out in the world … This piece will be a beautiful way for people to experience that.”

Playing Beatie Bow on February 22.

Ruth Park has this capacity to allow you to see your city in a new light, particular­ly when you’re a young person and the scope of your geographic­al existence is quite contained. STC artistic director Kip Williams

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 ??  ?? STC artistic director Kip Williams with playwright and actor Kate Mulvany on a new balcony at the Wharf Theatre, main; and Lena Cruz and Catherine Van-Davies rehearse Playing Beatie Bow, right
STC artistic director Kip Williams with playwright and actor Kate Mulvany on a new balcony at the Wharf Theatre, main; and Lena Cruz and Catherine Van-Davies rehearse Playing Beatie Bow, right
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