Tag Archives: Katharine Brisbane

Esme the critic

My mother, Esme, left school at 14 or 15 in the mid 1920s. She married my father when she was 19 and lived on a sugar-cane farm outside Innisfail in North Queensland for the next five decades. As her five children went off to boarding school and then spread out over Queensland and beyond, she wrote letters to each of us, weekly to start with and then less frequently but still with a shaming regularity. Mostly she kept us informed on one another’s doings and home-front developments. Occasionally she would comment on literary matters.

Here are some of her passing comments on the literary scene, which I find interesting in all sorts of ways:

17 December 1971: I’ve just finished reading Thomas Keneally’s The Fear & enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read for ages. So nice & clean & sort of old-fashioned.

7 March 1972: I’ve just read [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s] Cancer Ward. It’s really absorbing but very frightening really. I’m sorry I’ve finished it really. … You’ll be pleased to hear A was reading [Germaine Greer’s] The Female Eunuch. I have to own that I burnt my copy. M & N said, ‘At least you could have passed it on to us.’ Perhaps I should have saved their money as curiosity will get the better of them I’m sure.

25 July 1972: I am reading a book of yours that MA found in her box. I’m not liking it as much as The Fear. It is [Thomas Keneally’s] Bring Larks & Heroes.

28 November 1972: Thank you so much for remembering my Birthday. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the books. I’ve started [the first book I worked on in my editing job with Currency Press, David Williamson’s] The Removalists. It’s nice & easy to read. [Later in the same letter:] Having read The Removalists I’m glad it was a gift from you Jon because from you it is meant as a shocker. [It wasn’t.] From anyone else I would have a sneaky feeling that he/she might imagine I liked that sort of talk. If he’d made it a story of police brutality without the four letter words I feel sure it would have been just as big a success or even bigger.  Anyhow now I’ve started the [Gerald] Durrell one [probably Catch Me a Colobus] & it is really my pick. I’ll be able to lend it around.

25 December 1972: It was only today I learned that it was you who gave [my nieces and nephews Maurice Sendak’s] Where the wild things are. I had made a note of it to buy for [another grandchild]. It is the most read & the most cherished book in their house & yet it looks ghastly really.

24 February 1973: Of course I have not burnt The Removalists, Jon. As a matter of fact I have a waiting list of about a dozen women, as ignorant as myself, wanting to learn all about life!! seeing that M & N & E & V think that I have no ears to hear with. ‘Surely you’ve heard such talk,’ even in the street. Well I haven’t. Actually I think [youngest daughter] Liza knows more than I do but I certainly don’t feel underprivileged because of my ignorance.

28 March 1973: We have watched some of Certain Women on your recommendation Jon. I missed the name of the writer last night (not being in the habit of reading all those names, though I do notice that the writer, who should be the most important, is never so). It was the ‘model’ girl & I think it could have been Keneally as he is sort of old fashioned. I thought the Williamson one was the most – real is the word I suppose. He certainly understands today’s youth, don’t you think?

8 April 1973: Our Repertory Group put on [Richard Beynon’s ] The Shifting Heart last week. Roslyn Watt played the Italian mother & she was perfect. Seniors must have to study it this year because the night Dad & I went there was a bus load from Tully & the night E & V went there were 2 bus loads from Cairns.

9 July 1973: Last week there was a play on TV, The Cherry Orchard Chekhov [an MTC production with Frank Thring, Googie Withers, Irene Inescort] & knowing how interested [oldest son] Michael is in plays (He was in a Chekhov once) & feeling it would give me some culture, we watched it right up to the end of the first act then turned the TV off. It was played to packed houses in Melbourne for ages so the ad said. I wonder if you watched it & don’t say you enjoyed it. To me it could have been Innisfail repertory doing it for the first time. Dad stayed home from Poker to see it too which made it worse.

1 August 1973: I see [Peter Bogdanovich’s] What’s Up Doc advertised at the pictures somewhere in Sydney. Do go & see it if you can. [I did.] It’s really a scream, Makes you laugh till it really hurts – just absolutely stupid but I’m sure you couldn’t help enjoying it.

23rd October 1973 (after a visit to Sydney): I managed to get a Sat Aust(ralian) with Katharine Brisbane [my boss at the time] write up of the play [probably Rex Cramphorn’s cutting-edge production The Marsh King’s Daughter, which she mentions in a later letter] & I agree with her and the more I think back on it the more I like it really. Then today I found Jock Veitch’s write up which is downright lousy – even saying he couldn’t hear. I feel like writing & telling him to go again & wear his glasses & take along his hearing aid.

4 February 1974: Poor Mr Solzhenitsyn is having a rough time. Have you read Cancer Ward, Jon? [I had.] It is the best I’ve read. It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like him, so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

March 1974: Innisfail had Godspell during the week,  packed the Shire Hall. We didn’t go, we left it to the young. The [Marist] Bros all went & raved on about it – more an experience than a show etc. They took 45 boys along so deserved a free ticket.

31 July 1974 (reporting on a time in Brisbane): We went to see [my cousin G’s] production Fetch Me a Figleaf. There were 10 of us … G sat with us so we had to say all the right things. It was rather naughty but really entertaining all about gods & goddesses on Mt Olympus.

13 October 1974: Well! we were trapped into a bit of culture last night. If we’d been at home we’d have turned it off but we were babysitting so left it on & were really sorry it had to end. It was The Misanthrope, Moliere’s play. The man who did the translation [not named on IMDB] must be a marvel & all the players were lovely. It says ABC production but I can’t believe it was. It was too good.

7 March 1975: Have you seen a book Watership Down? It’s about rabbits, all about rabbits. I’ve just read it & loved it. [I still haven’t read it.]

22 June 1975: We’re all reading The Towering Inferno, actually it’s called The Tower. Dad’s on it at the moment and doesn’t even answer when spoken to. It’s really suspenseful.

Late September 1975, from Launceston: We went to see [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown & thought it pretty ordinary. Being overheated didn’t help. I’d put on woollen sox & extra cardigan & shed everything except the sox as the theatre was heated.

And that – when she was 61 and I was 28 – is where I stopped carefully hoarding her letters.

The Brothers Size at the Stables

On Friday night we went to Imara Savage’s production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size at the Stables Theatre. Let me say up front that I’ve known Imara since she was a baby, and it’s fair to say I’ve been a fan of her theatrical productions since she was two years old. But I’m perfectly capable of a tactful silence, and this production made me want to shout from the rooftops.

Close to forty years ago, theatre critic Katharine Brisbane observed that drama being produced by African Americans at the time was in some ways strikingly similar to contemporary Australian drama – something to do with coming out from under racism and the legacy of slavery in their case, and a colonial past and the cultural cringe in ours. If she was right the almost complete absence of African American writing from our stages in recent years is our great loss. And even if she was wrong, if this play is any indication it’s been our great loss anyhow.

The play was first performed in 2007 in New York and London. It’s a three-hander: Ogun Size (played by African American Marcus Johnson) has a small car repair company, his younger brother Oshoosi (played by Indigenous Australian Meyne Wyatt) is recently released from gaol, and Elegba (played by Tongan-heritage Anthony Taufa) who befriended Oshoosi in prison, became a brother to him, turns up. The Stables’ tiny stage is completely bare, the walls painted black, with a lighting design that seems to accentuate the darkness. A woman (Marian Lieberman) plays a drum – I don’t know anything about African drumming, but it felt to me that drum’s function was to summon up the action rather than merely to accompany or punctuate it. Once you know who the characters are, you more or less have the plot: Oshoosi is pulled in opposite directions by his two ‘brothers’, with tragic results. But that’s a framework for a wonderful 75 minutes in the theatre. For one thing, the dialogue is richly poetic, rising at times to operatic intensity, and the performances are absolutely up to the challenge. It seems to me that in some Australian productions of US plays, a focus on getting the accents right results in wooden performances – at least that’s my guess at what made Philip Seymour Hoffman’s production of True West at the STC last year so deadly dull in spite of the great talents at work in it. That wasn’t a problem here. As in the Nimrod’s legendary Tooth of Crime in this same theatre in 1972, the accent-work generated a stylistic rhythm, a music that was completely engaging. The bare stage allowed the language to fill the space.

But I’m making it sound like the equivalent of a concert performance of an opera. It wasn’t like that at all. One of the things that made it so powerful was its intense physicality. The director’s note says someone has described the play as a choreo-poem, which might sound wanky to anyone who hadn’t seen it, but isn’t a bad description at all. One of my companions said she couldn’t help wondering who this young woman was, to be able to direct such a testosterone-charged show, yet with such a nuanced take on possibilities for tenderness.

Sometimes, though rarely, shows transfer from the Stables to larger venues, and it seems a shame that the size of the space limits the number of people who see this. On the other hand, it gives a great sense of privilege to see such excellence at such close quarters.

If you can get to it, do. If not, make a note of the names I’ve mentioned. If there’s any justice you’ll be seeing a lot more of all of them.

Wasted launch at Gleebooks

Tonight we went to hear Bob Ellis launch Ross Honeywill’s Wasted, the true story of Jim McNeil, violent criminal and brilliant playwright. There wasn’t a huge crowd – after all it’s nearly 30 years since Jim McNeil died,and his four plays haven’t had a production on a main stage for a long time. But it was a great launch, and looks like a very interesting book

1wastedJim McNeil (1935–1982), according to the Gleebooks web site, quit school at thirteen. Despite his love of reading and philosophy, as a teenager he lived among thugs and thieves. (When we showed him a draft biographical note for one of his Currency Press books in the 1970s, he crossed out the word ‘criminal’ referring to his early milieu and replaced it with ‘knockabout’.)  In 1967,  shot a policeman during an armed robbery. He was convicted and began a seventeen-year prison sentence. In Parramatta maximum-security prison he joined a debating group known as the Resurgents. Though he’d never seen the inside of a  theatre he wrote one-act plays for the group to perform: The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice. These plays were given productions at the Nimrod Theatre in Sydney, were a big success, and were published by The Currency Press (the first book I ever copy-edited). He wrote another, full-length play, How Does Your Garden Grow, and part of a fourth, Jack, while still in prison, and then was released ten years early thanks at least in part to lobbying by members of Sydney’s theatre scene. As Ellis said tonight, people were imagining him as being like other badly behaved writers like Brendan Behan, but he was something else altogether. Once he was released he never wrote anything decent again, and his life was a slow descent into violence, alcohol-related illness, and eventually death.

I hesitate to say I knew Jim, but I did visit him in Goulburn Gaol with my then boss, Managing Editor of Currency Press Katharine Brisbane, and he came to  our office more than once after his release. I remember one memorable lunch when he and Peter Kenna, author of A Hard God, told anecdote after anecdote in fierce competition, to our great entertainment. I wasn’t there when, in response to some imagined insult, he broke a bottle on the edge of the kitchen table and threatened to use it on Philip Parsons, Katharine’s husband – but I heard the story from the horse’s mouth the next day. Katharine said she laughed and said, ‘Oh Jim, put it down,’ and he did.

Katharine was there tonight. So were a number of others who knew Jim, including David Marr, who gave him a roof on his release from prison. Ellis also shared a flat with him for some time. Bob Ellis read a piece that sounded as if he had written it soon after McNeil’s death, conveying his charm, his brilliant use of language (‘Dustbin of the Yard here. How are ya, Bobby?’), the ever hovering possibility of violence, and his chaotic alcoholism. Then he read from Wasted, and there was no doubt we were talking about the same man. I’d rate it just about the most moving launch I’ve ever been to. It didn’t turn away from Jim’s truly ugly qualities (Honeywill said that the thing that most surprised him in researching the book was how very violent Jim had been – a far cry from the charming ratbag one would wish him to have been). But there were people who loved him, and still hold a tender place for him. A number of people from the audience told anecdotes, both about his charm and his dangerousness. His story was one of redemption through discovering the life of the mind in prison, then returning to the damned space, almost by an act of will. It made me think – and someone may have said this – that the damage inflicted by the prison system runs very deep: he had lost the ability to make the kind of quotidian decisions necessary to a decent life. Ellis did say that imprisonment has been an experiment in dealing with criminal behaviour, and it has failed.