From ‘Enter the New Wave’ Conference Transcription.
Original Article: http://www.doubledialogues.com/article/jack-hibberds-white-with-wire-wheels-then-and-now/
Welcome to Enter the New Wave: 1967 to 1970 which celebrates the emergence of a dynamic Australian theatre movement. This is a very special theatre that we’re sitting in: The Open Stage. It was built in 1973 as part of the Arts Centre on Swanston Street, purpose built to house all creative arts education at the former State College of Victoria at Melbourne. The Open Stage was envisaged as a state of the art fully adaptable theatre space, intended to support a wide variety of audience-performer configurations. The name of the theatre was transferred from the theatre space in the former Bouverie Street Drama Resource Centre.
I was very touched by Max [Gillies] in interview on the ABC local a few days ago when he said that the best director he’d worked with was Ron Danielson. Ron was the foundation Head of the Speech and Drama Department at the State College from 1961 until 1979 when he resigned to become Director of the new Performing Arts Museum at the Victorian Arts centre. He was instrumental in educating and supporting many of the performers and writers associated with the ‘New Wave’ in Victoria. It’s very fitting that we are in this space, which symbolises both the heritage of the theatrical period that you were all involved in, and part of the heritage of student theatre in the greater University of Melbourne.
But we’re here to specifically talk about White with Wire Wheels, which was originally titled The New Girl. White with Wire Wheels premiered in September 1967 in the Architecture Theatre and was written by Jack Hibberd and directed by David Kendall, with Sue Ingleton in the role of the ‘new girl’. Jack, David and Sue are all with us today, but unfortunately we do not have any of the performers who played the male roles in the original production here today. In 1967 Mal was played by Ric Thorpe, Simon was played by Tony Styant-Brown and Rod was played by Peter Burleigh.
The current production of White with Wire Wheels is directed by Susie Dee, Artistic Director of Union House Theatre at the University of Melbourne. This production opened last night at the Union Theatre: the ‘new girl’ is played by Sophie Kelly; Mal is played by Jono Burns, Simon is played by Mike McEvoy and Rod is played by Angus Cerini. The show is designed by Dayna Morrissey, with a lighting design by Richard Vabre. Sophie, Jono and Mike are all here with us today.
The author, Jack Hibberd, and the directors of the first production of White With Wire Wheels, David Kendall and last night’s production, Susie Dee, will now speak to us about the play.
Thank you, Angela. First of all I’d like to publicly congratulate Susie and the whole team of actors through to designers. I thought it was very fresh, very modern, but true to the period, so congratulations again.
I’ll just give some background to White With Wire Wheels and how it evolved. I didn’t write it until 1967 and well after I graduated from the Medical Faculty in 1964. At university my major interest was cinema and I wrote a lot of articles for the university film magazine. I was besotted by the likes of Pasolini, Bertolucci, Fellini, Antonioni etcetera. They were my major intellectual and artistic interests in those days but I dabbled away at writing. I started off doing some short stories and then I moved across to poetry; there were a few terrace houses around Carlton where one was able to stand up and recite one’s verse or doggerel. I was quite prolific at that. In retrospect, a lot of my stuff was in monologue form and there was an evident voice, a character, a personality and an episode; they were highly individual pieces of poetry.
Kendall will tell you this story. He came up to me one night and said ‘Has it ever occurred to you to write a play’? The most striking piece of theatre I’d seen was Salad Days, an English musical. I turned my mind to this proposal and I wrote Wellington Boot, which was not well received in textual form. So I wrote White With Wire Wheels. I don’t want to talk a lot about White With Wire Wheels, but the point is that I came very fresh to the theatre as a writer. I think that most playwrights started off in the theatre and particularly my contemporaries of the time like David Williamson, Alex Buzo and John Romeril. I didn’t and that enabled me, in a way, to be disrespectful, to break out of the form. You can see in White With Wire Wheels that it’s naturalistic with a kind of stylised edge, which we saw beautifully in the production last night. But two-thirds of the way through the play they went from the external world into the internal world. One of the reasons why I did that was that I was bored with naturalism and also I wanted to enter into the psyches of these chaps and create a nightmare world without their personalities.
And there are other moments in the play where the fourth wall is broken. The obvious one is where two of the males moved downstage and they are actually breaking the fourth wall and that was breaking out of naturalism again. I think I was able to do that because I hadn’t been brought up with any convention. One of my next plays was calledWho? which was about mateship again and there were two characters on stage who were the best of mates, in inverted commas, and there was a third character called Dinger who was sitting on stage all the time and after a while he just merges into the action. And that again is breaking all the conventions. So in some ways I think I was fortunate in not being raised on a diet of naturalism immediately. And I don’t think any of us have ever broken out of it. None of us have. Anyway, that’s all I have to say, thank you very much.
I think we’ll now move to the directors, starting with you David [Kendall]. Can we have your comments about the interpretations of White With Wire Wheels?
To understand the significance of White With Wire Wheels is to get this in mind. There was no Australian drama of any consequence before that time apart from The Doll andOne Day of the Year and The Shifting Heart. I met Jack at Naughton’s Hotel with a friend of mine, Jonathan Dawson. We’d been at a birthday party with a number of us, and Jonathan brought in A: this man and B: this manuscript of poems. I looked at them and I looked at him and I said I’ll show them to Vin Bickley. Vin came back and said ‘too early to be published yet’ and I said okay, and then I gave the news to Jack because I was in publishing, and I said but you really can write, and what we need right now in this country is a writer. And I painted gross pictures of champagne and limousines and everything and he didn’t believe a word of it but he came back with this play Wellington Boot and I read it and said it’s ‘Look Back in Carlton’, come on Jack, it’s serious. Then within five weeks he brought me back White With Wire Wheels and again went bang! on the counter at Naughton’s and I read the first page, ‘Root my boot..’ and I said, we’ll do this, this one I’m gonna do. And Graeme Blundell and Bluey Knappett were in the middle of doing Three Old Friends which was rehearsed in our front room, Susie would remember that. And none of us directed it but we knew that Jack was on to something. I got all the details right and so forth but then we had to audition for it. I knew I was going to get Ingles [Sue Ingleton] to do Helen and I was lucky. I said would you, and she said yes, I will, because we’d worked together at university. Now that year in 1967 I had directed The Hostage and Singular Man and I’d written a lot of what appeared in university revue theatre. So we plastered up around the university ‘Auditions-New Australian Play’. We held three auditions and nobody, nobody came to the auditions! And we just looked at each other and thought what the fuck is this? The only guy that did, Pete Steedman, just came along for a bit of a laugh. Anyway we didn’t have anybody and that was the state of Australian drama then. Nobody took it seriously and nobody knew there weren’t any Australian plays being written and Jack came out of nowhere. At the same time things were happening in Canberra and Sydney but Jack came out of nowhere.
I hadn’t seen these three blokes (who came to audition) but they were all in the Architects’ Revue together and I knew they were mates because Ingles said. They couldn’t act so the whole matter was a tutorial in progress where I would say, you don’t have to shout all the time because we can hear! To draw the audience in you don’t have to shout. But because they had this tremendous relationship between the three of them I didn’t have to worry about how they were going to get on and they didn’t have to worry about the language because they knew it exactly – it was their world. We had a lighting man and a design man. My design man I always worked with was Corrigan, but he had just gone to Yale and he recommended John Funston and he did the design and a good one too. Even though there were four architects in the cast, and I can’t tell red from black, you know. We had sound and I made a deal with Melbourne University student theatre. I forget what the deal was but I know we all did it for nothing, which you did then.
The first night, I often don’t go to my first nights because I get so nervous, but this one I went to quite confident that something was going to happen. And up came Mal – Ric Thorpe and ‘Root my boot, what a night’ and the audience almost gave a yelp of recognition. Christ, it’s the metropolitan urban voice of our age and they [the audience] got it immediately. Rather than our outback bush types, suddenly there were these metropolitan yuppies before the term had been invented. And Jack had got all three of them and there was the rock in the middle of them-Ingles-just sort of moving them around as she felt like it. And the thing was – with that yelp of recognition I knew we’d tapped into something. We were in the Prince Phillip Theatre (PPT) in the architecture building because the Union Theatre was being renovated, so we started with seating in the PPT for about 200 I would guess, and we might have had 70 on the first night. But by a miraculous piece of good luck, Patrick McCaughey was then the art critic of The Age, and he was there and so knocked over by it that he managed to get a bloody glowing review in the next morning into The Age. And after that we were packed out. We had to put on extra shows and there were queues from the Prince Phillip Theatre up to Swanston Street to get in. And still Jack didn’t get paid. I mean Jack was furious, but as you were.
We realised then that there was an audience in and around Carlton for a new kind of theatre. One that spoke to the young Carltonians. And eventually it flowed on to La Mama and the APG [Australian Performing Group]. But White With Wire Wheels was epoch breaking because I cannot tell you what the landscape was like before it. I mean there was Rodney Milgate doing ancient Greek stuff and the Melbourne Theatre Company were doing one-act plays that they had to do and that was lip service. I was part of the Melbourne Theatre Company and Blundell came after me. Within a year ofWhite With Wire Wheels Williamson had come along and Buzo did the Melbourne Theatre Company and Floating World was down there, yes. You directed it, right? You know what has never been done at the Melbourne Theatre Company? This one [White With Wire Wheels]! And guess which playwright has never been produced at the Victorian College of the Arts? This one [Jack Hibberd] and if that isn’t a bloody scandal, I don’t know what is. This man almost single-handed started almost everything we’ve had since. He has never been recognised by the locals and yet he’s the greatest playwright this country has produced. And I feel very proud to be lucky enough to have been right there in the beginning.
The thing that attracted me apart from the language of the play was that Jack experimented with the styles. In White With Wire Wheels, and I confess to cowardice here, he had this milk bar scene I never had the guts to put that on, I didn’t get it because I was still stuck in naturalism so I cut it. Seeing it last night I now get the point. I didn’t get the dream sequence right in the first production. I didn’t understand. But then we went through Three Old Friends, I understood he was breaking conventions which he did in every subsequent play. Look at Who which I directed later on, there is Dinger, totally unacknowledged by the other characters. I mean the Dinger thing, it’s just amazing the way Jack kept breaking the bloody rules. And then came the most popular play along with One Day of the Year, I suppose, Big Men Fly, and Dimboola came along. I mean who is going to set a play in a wedding reception? Who’s going to do that? How can you mix an audience with a cast? We did. And then came Stretch of the Imagination and again think of the risks, are you playing to your audience or to yourself? Who knows? I didn’t know. I was in my deep naturalism phase at the time and I wouldn’t do it that way again. And Jack continued on. Then he went on to do Melba and you had to see Melba to see the mixing of the music and the words and the language and the tremendous kaleidoscope of characters that he creates with seven people. I know I carry on but just to finish, I think it’s an absolute scandal that the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Victorian College of the Arts and people in this city haven’t produced his plays; it’s irony. In Melbourne if you have an idea you start a journal, in Sydney you have a party! It’s quite true. The thing is it’s a scandal that Jack has never been properly recognised in his own town, his own city, because he’s Melbourne metropolitan to the back teeth and even though his most recent plays, which have been done, are literary masterpieces, there are so many depths. It’s a damn great shame that he’s not afforded the honour, which is his due. Thank you.
Before I introduce the director of the current performance of White With Wire Wheels, I want to say to David that we didn’t need the Melbourne Theatre Company for this show because Susie Dee has done such a great job on behalf of the University of Melbourne including the alumni of the University and the Victorian College of the Arts. Can I introduce Susie Dee.
Hello. I’m just going to speak briefly and I want to thank Jack for writing a great play and Angela for passing this play over to me and that’s how the whole production came about. It’s been a really great idea to embrace ex-students and really make it a celebration of Melbourne University. In casting we actually looked at many past students who’ve come through the ranks and who have been active in student theatre, so it was really great for me to look at past students and realise there are some really fabulous actors out there. Some of them have gone on to VCA, to Opera or to NIDA, but a lot have done really vibrant independent theatre productions. I think it’s a really great culture here at Melbourne University that really engages students and really encourages new work. So there were a lot of exciting possibilities in selecting the cast.
So taking White With Wire Wheels, you know it’s 1967, so I had to think quite hard about how we were going to approach this in terms of interpretation and style. I had a chat with Jack and at one stage he was saying that we should make it contemporary for now. But I really felt that the language, the style and themes were inherent in the sixties, but we didn’t want to do a quaint production. We wanted to give it a new lease of life. Who says that in the play? Mal. Give it a new lease of life. I read it a few times and I realised that it was very stylised. Sure it could have been done naturalistically and I’m sure it has had wonderful productions at La Mama and in all sorts of venues. I haven’t actually seen a production but I’ve heard lots of stories about past productions with milk crates, checked shirts and very poor theatre in terms of production values. But I felt like we wanted to be true to what the piece was saying and look at the class of the piece. Where do these characters sit now and where are they? Are they working class or middle class or on the corporate ladder? And Jack actually said it would be great if we could bring that out in terms of their ambition and career because that’s very valid today, what’s happening now.
So I thought let’s stylise this, but not heighten it or make it larger than life. It was a really delicate balance how to pitch the play. I didn’t want to embed it in domestic naturalism but you don’t want to make it too cartoonist or caricature. And I really wanted it to work on the Union stage. I wanted to give it really great production values and let it breathe in a new space with a bit of physicality. We all worked very hard on the language and the timing and rhythm and camaraderie. One of the most important things in production, and I always say this to any actor who I work with, is about pleasure. Finding the pleasure and it was so pleasurable to work on. We really laughed a lot. I think I became one of the boys at one point. I was really focusing on the men at first. I had to get those characters and the camaraderie right. I wanted them to go from men to adolescents and I really wanted them to be children at the end. And about halfway through the rehearsal period I realised I was neglecting the female character and her importance. It was about two weeks into rehearsal when I began thinking about how important the female character was and the female force in the play. So we had to track that very carefully and I think she comes out on top really.
I also wanted to embrace music and so I had a composer from the University. We looked at a lot of sixties music, especially all the Australian music from the Easybeats to Masters Apprentices to Lynne Randell. So we looked at that and we also wanted to give it a contemporary feel. So we actually took some of those compositions and twisted them. If you were there last night you would have heard some of them but we actually contemporised some of the drum beats and keyboard to give it a contemporary feel, so it sort of lifts it out of the sixties and takes it to now. I hope I served the play well and I really enjoyed doing it. Thanks.
Before I turn to some of the performers I just want to make a little note that in an interview with Jack in 1971 in Farrago that was sent to us the interviewer Libby Booth. He says:
In plays like White With Wire Wheels I think there is a central critique of society, an attack on rather obsessive materialism in Australia at the expense of inner or spiritual things. This, again, is married to the mateship myth. The play deals with a certain inadequacy in the Australian male, which makes them unable to have a mature relationship with a woman. The materialism blends with heavy drinking, latent homosexuality. [laughter from the audience] These are all related to very early things in the history of Australia: convicts and the predominance of males, the need to forge new frontiers, mutual dependence on males, the exigency of the countries (sic) and the almost neurotic obsession for material comfort. The play doesn’t trace that back, it analyses to a certain depth the state of a certain archetype of the Australian male.
When the journalist said to you, ‘Jack, can you identify the Australian female?’ you said ‘No, I wouldn’t like to’. So let’s turn to Sue Ingleton to see how she responded to this play as the first ‘new woman’.
I just want to pick up on what Susie said about the play and for the first bit of the play last night I was sitting there going oh god, oh god, and then all of a sudden something just sort of shifted and its 2007 and it’s a miracle what you’ve [Susie Dee] done in this production. If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss it. It’s magical and Jack, it flies. I also want to reiterate what’s been said about Jack. The two great Australian plays are Dimboolaand at the opposite end of Dimboola is Stretch of the Imagination. And whenever I go overseas there are only two plays that I talk about and they blow me away. Now to get back to me, when I saw the play last night I had no memory of the play. I remembered the boys and they drank cartons of cans of beer every night. So David came up and he asked me to be the woman and I was so desperate that I was ready for anything. I had graduated as an art teacher and I was about to go overseas and I was going to take England by storm. I had signed up to do a course in speech and drama and I chose a monologue from White With Wire Wheels for my audition and I failed my audition at the Central School for Speech and Drama but then I came back to Australia and proceeded to walk into the Pram Factory. When we did this play they (the three male actors) were who they were and they couldn’t act, they didn’t know how to act, they just behaved with words that were written down for them. The first rehearsal we had with the boys, Jack came in, maybe it was the first reading we had, anyway, Jack arrived in a white shirt with no tie and we read the play and you [Jack Hibberd] pissed yourself and we laughed and laughed. So we did the play but first I just want to contextualise this briefly.
In 1967 I was not the person I am today thank God. I was a product of my age and my era. Now in 1967 the top tune was ‘All You Need is Love’, Ronald Ryan was hanged by Henry Bolte and the RAAF hit Vietnam. There was a new hard hitting current affairs program on television called This Day Tonight. That was a real wow. John Newcombe won Wimbledon. Harold Holt drowned and book censorship was established. The Aboriginal question-the referendum-a ninety per cent vote for ‘Yes’. Six months later in 1968 Joh Bjelke-Petersen became the premier in Queensland. But what is more interesting is this little ad in The Herald, on Wednesday September 22nd 1967: ‘the new exciting cluster curl, cut and perm only $4.20 including trim, shampoo and cut’. Now here comes the best part: ‘… now under new progressive male management’. So you get the idea of the world in which we all lived. I was 23 when I did White With Wire Wheels. Before the age of 21 I had to have two abortions and I went to a doctor’s surgery feeling desperate and was told that if a policeman arrests you when you leave this building you don’t have to say anything. This was the world we lived in and it was terrifying because we had no power. I wasn’t a feminist then. It was a very painful time for women. I graduated as an architect and while I was a student the first work experience job I got in an architect’s office was doing the dyeline and I was sent up to a room where I was virtually locked away to do dyelines and there was a student there who hadn’t started architecture and I was teaching him how to do things and the office manager came in and said, ‘don’t you interrupt this boy, he’s going to be an architect one day’. I had already done two years of study and I was not allowed into the design office because I was a woman. It’s weird isn’t it and this is what it was like.
So for me last night this play was fantastic because something happened to me and I understood the play and something else happened to me last night, which was that when I saw Helen, when she came out, she’s like this avenging angel, she’s independent, but she’s passive, she’s yin and she works her way through like water and she has this extraordinary power where she never once has to yell or scream or sink her teeth in. She actually (has control), we don’t see it, but the play is so clever. The killer action happens off stage. You see the result of it and you don’t know what the fuck she’s done. It’s for everyone to work out themselves and that’s just genius, Jack. So what happened to me last night was that I suddenly realised that Helen rescued me and honestly Helen has been inside of me my whole life. From that point on she has been in me. And she has been the avenging angel. I never realised it until last night so thank you Susie Dee for that wonderful production. And thank you Jack.
When you’re living your life and you’re doing what you want to do and I had the passion and the fire – I was a lousy actor then – you don’t know where you are. I’m a good actor now! I’ve done the hard yards and I’ve stripped back and I’ve stripped back and I walked through fire to get to where I am today. But I didn’t walk through fire then. I’m quite happy to acknowledge it, it’s true, okay I had a passion you know and that would shine through, but honestly it loaded me down in the end, and I had to get rid of it. What I’m trying to say is that at the time you don’t know you’re making history, we didn’t film it or document it. We didn’t even take photos of the production. When Patrick did that review it was the first review that had ever gone into The Age newspaper of a student theatre production. And that just totally blew us away. That’s all.
Thank you to the beautiful Sue Ingleton who played Helen in 1967 and now to Sophie who played the role in the production last night. What is your interpretation of the ‘new girl’?
Where do I start? When I first read the play and the offer to audition came completely out of the blue and then I was sent the script and I actually had to call a friend and say I need you to read this script, I’m not quite sure what’s going on. I saw these four different women and the first thing that strikes you is wow, I could have the opportunity to play four separate women and that doesn’t happen. And the second thing was in reading it from a 2007 perspective was that I couldn’t quite grasp or find the strength in the women when I first read the play. With Helen I understood what she was doing and literally how she was playing with the men but that made her strong. I remember saying to Mike [McEvoy] actually why should it take stupid men to make a strong woman? That’s the gag isn’t it and it took me awhile to find my way. I had a lot of difficulty at the beginning of rehearsals. First of all finding differences in each of the three women to begin with-Sue, Cath and Anne- finding some truth for each of them that was different from the other. And struggling with the notion that silence and stillness and not actually saying a lot was where Helen’s strength came from. So somehow consciously you think that for a women to be strong at some point she should be given this monologue where she’s allowed to speak and I’m curious to know whether Helen actually did have a monologue.
I suppose it was coming to that place where you realise that okay, I don’t have a lot of words. You have to find the strength somewhere else. Susie kept encouraging me to be goddess-like, so I’m trying to channel my inner goddess and it was quite hard. One of the first questions I asked Jack was what does she do to them and Jack’s metaphoric response was ‘She exposes their paper-thin masculinity’. I thought, great, how do I do that? I did a lot of thinking and asking the boys what it means to them to be men. What is masculinity for you and what is it to be a male? And it was really interesting to hear their responses. I’m actually intrigued by masculinity and what it means and in this day and age there’s a lot of talk about men being used and about who they are and how they exist in a contemporary world. So it was really interesting to step inside the male psyche for a while and work out what it was that Helen could actually do to these men to completely strip them of everything. I actually took a moment to tell Simon or Mike and Rod just before they go on what I actually do to them.
That was the best scene when you whispered in my ear just before I went on.
So that’s all I really wanted to say.
So now let’s hear from the guys. I guess that Simon is the ‘woosiest’ of the guys. It’s a shame that Angus who played Rod, the most ‘out there’ character, isn’t here this morning. Mike, let’s hear what you’ve got to say about playing Simon.
Well firstly it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And (we enjoyed) the gift of Jack’s work and the rhythms in the language. It was really interesting during the rehearsal process, just actually having three men in the room and a female director too. There was a mateship that started there in the rehearsal room and a real boisterous kind of ra ra ra. I actually felt a little bit uncomfortable through that process, when things would get vulgar and I was starting to see the terrible parallels. You know, this obsession with breasts and cars and that masculinity thing. There’s a reality in there and a truth to those characters and it feels like an incredibly important piece just hearing Sue and Sophie talk about it. Last night I sensed that in front of an audience and having to cheer Helen in that scene towards the end, you know. It feels fantastic. Fuck masculinity because a lot of it is shit really. It’s great fun to play and make fun of these three characters. And for me playing Simon to really show him up for all he is, you know, and to get to that beautiful dream segment scene where that inner world is revealed. That’s the payoff. It’s been fun.
Actually I love Mal! I think he was so much fun to play; the quality of his personality and ego driven and all that stuff. I went to Melbourne Uni and I went to a private high school and I had new mates in my arts degree through plays and things and all my old school friends were doing commerce degrees and engineering degrees and playing footy. They were my mates from school so they weren’t so bad, but their mates! [laughter from the audience] All drinking and things like that, so I really identified with the characters in this play. We had a lot of arguments and discussion at the beginning and I said, ‘I know these people, they go to college, they’re perfectly fine during the afternoon but late at night they actually come out of themselves’. You know we’re in our own little cocoon so we can just act like this and we egg each other on and it’s so strong. The first play I identified with was Slamdunk at La Mama, which was a Jack Hibberd play, when I was about fourteen, and apart from Midsummer Night’s Dream, that was the first play that fired me up about theatre. So this has been an honour.
Actually I’d just like to say in respect of the three male characters, how distinct they were as characters and that was especially evident in their idiosyncratic body language.
There’s nothing wrong with masculinity. It’s just the intricacy of it and the inadequacy that comes with it sometimes.
I want to correct myself. There is another real masculinity and that exists behind that kind of façade of the characters but there’s something wrong with that façade.
What you get with White With Wire Wheels is a certain tired masculinity. It’s the herd instinct so it’s a more bovine masculinity.
Jack, I think that White With Wire Wheels gets re-interpreted and re-interpreted. Can you expand on some of the interpretations you’ve seen?
No not really (laughs).
There’s been an all-Greek one and an all-Italian one and an all-Vietnamese one. This play has withstood those forty years, as did Stretch of the Imagination and Dimboola. That’s what impressed me-forty years on and they still make sense. By God they haven’t changed much and they still carry on with their cars. That central images of the cars and the milk and I know the play backwards but every time I see the milk coming and, of course, it’s all to do with mum. Like the men and the cars don’t listen to women at all. They don’t listen, that’s the point. I didn’t ever manage to work out what you did to them.
I think we stood in the wings and…
Well I think we should throw it open to the audience.
Watching that scene where Helen is about to give them some fantastic information about a new car, or about a fantastic pub that she knows about, that is so common and why didn’t we ever listen to what they wanted to say?
Sophie was really worried about that scene when she enters as Helen with the three boys drinking because she doesn’t say a lot. I kept saying, trust me. You know, your presence and your force and little things we work out, you know, the audience will focus and they won’t be listening to the boy’s banter.
That was the thing I realised last night that Helen actually needs an audience to come alive. Last night she made sense for the first time.
There was a double irony in the play in that, it was first done by Chekhov, I think, the audience are in charge of some of the knowledge whereas some of the characters on stage are not. And that gives you extra power coming from the audience.
Male audience member
It’s wonderful that Patrick McCaughey gave such a supportive review of student work and of that play but in theatre studies at Griffith University we used to hand out a review of an anthology of plays by Buzo, Romeril and Jack Hibberd where the critic said basically this was trash and to be thrown out with all the other garbage never to be remembered because it won’t stand the test of time. Ironically I’ve forgotten the critic’s name. (Hibberd interjects, ‘Leonardo.’) So how do you survive that sort of vitriol and damage that can be done to emerging writers in Australian drama when the critic uses those words?
How I dealt with Len Radic was that I put him in a play. Leonardo Radish he was called. All the words aren’t his (Radic’s) because you can’t repeat what he says. Some of it is taken from an even more vitriolic review in The Herald Sun, I’ve forgotten the chap’s name. It is pure moralising bile, and that’s what Leonardo Radish does in the play.
And in Leonardo’s (Len Radic, the critic’s) latest book he sums up White With Wire Wheels and says well here are the characters, but there’s no change in them. He’s incredible. To paraphrase and he just doesn’t get it.
Unknown audience member
Can I just say I got the chance to review one of Len Radic’s books State of Play and his account of the Carlton years and I got the chance to say that Len was the only person we knew from that period who would remain aloof during a prostate examination [laughter]. That’s how you get back [at them]!
Was anybody there for the first production in 1967 as a member of the audience? Kate (Donelan) – I think you were there.
It was my first year at university and it was very much like my friend and I wore pearls and twin-sets and nice skirts – just for first year. I was an arts student and I found it so rude but the thing I remember was the triumph of the woman. I was so interested in what you said Sue (Ingleton) about playing a woman in those times and how the reality sort of changed you. For us it was quite an emblematic experience. My girlfriend and I (experienced that)… it’s really quite true, the problems you talked about [for women] and this just rang true for me. I think it’s about the physical strength of Helen and something you did physically Sophie, because I found that scene last night, and the strength of Helen, quite mesmerising. We (the women) were all colluding.
But also it influenced the way we communicated. I was doing my first tertiary teaching job in the early seventies at Townsville Teacher’s College which eventually became James Cook University. I can remember teaching students about Australian theatre. I used to start off the lecture with a can of beer and I would to shake it up and flick it and say ‘root my boot’ and the beer would go everywhere and the kids would go ‘whoa!’ we’ve never seen this before! Of course we couldn’t do that today; we’d have to have it on a power point presentation. At Melbourne University if you did that these days they’d probably wheel you out in a white coat.
It gave us a sense of how we could say things, you know, about how we performed ourselves and how we identified as a generation.
I was at ANU (Australian National University) later and we were very influenced from a distance by what was happening in Melbourne. The student theatre at ANU did a number of APG plays including several of Jack’s. I remember the ANU production ofWhite With Wire Wheels. This is a different point of view. I remained troubled because it seemed to me that that was a production in which Helen continued not to be present. You said (David) thank heavens we had a woman director and again I want to thank you Susie Dee for the extraordinary insightful way that you have developed the play and brought out the nuances that are there, but I guess I have to say that my memory of the ANU production was different. My very best friend played the collection of female roles and then, possibly because of that, later joined the Trotskyists. It wasn’t an experience where you went away [from White With Wire Wheels] convinced of the power of the woman, in fact the opposite.
I saw that production and I agree. It was dominated by the men too much.
Angela invites Chris Hoepper (in the audience) to speak.
I remember the 1973 production by the Queensland Theatre Company when they did a season of Australian plays in La Boite’s space. They did White With Wire Wheels andPresident Wilson in Paris and they also did two plays by Jim McNeil. I was with my husband at the time and we took his brother who had a white Valiant with wire wheels [audience laughter]. But when I saw the production last night and when Helen walked in, I had one of those moments that Sue was talking about where I went straight back, I can’t remember all that much about the production, but I remember the thought at that time in 1973 of Helen of Troy. When that Helen walked in and it was just one of those moments when I thought that’s what I remember from that character. I don’t know whether Jack saw that production at all?
I don’t think that I did.
It was directed by Don Batchelor, but I don’t remember the actors.
Bill (Garner) and I performed it at La Mama (1969) and we took it to the Perth Festival when the La Mama company decided to become the Australian Performing Group and it caused quite a ruckus and I’ll never forget the West Australian critic writing with great venom the next morning, ‘This sort of thing may happen in real life but we do not have to see it on the stage!’
David Kendall’s ex-wife
That’s why some of us who were at the first production didn’t think oh my god! because that was our lives. That was what was happening in our sitting rooms for some of us. I mean that was what was happening in our homes. People talked like that all the time.
But isn’t it interesting, coming back to Susie, when I was listening last night, the language is so stylised, you were so right with some of those characters, it’s like sitting in a bell jar with a bubble around you, you know? And each one of you was completely unique and the stylisation of the language really hit me. And that’s when I suddenly got it and thought okay, I hear it now. The fight scene was just brilliant. Whereas our fight scene was completely real! And I do remember those guys, it was like being down at the Mayfair, you know, and it has this incredible hilarity, it was very funny. They were very funny. It was the Archi [tecture] revue style. But last night it told me that the play had moved into 2007. That was the shock of it because I really expected it to be back in the 1960s.
I was fascinated by the way in which last night’s production captured the various sexual politics between the three guys and Cath and Sue and Anne, all very different ways of seduction and all very different ways of rejecting or accepting. I thought that was very fresh but very real. Cath, for example, was wriggling and quite clearly physically uncomfortable. We all remember that, don’t we?! Does anyone have any further comments?
I came here first [to Australia] in the 1990s and then migrated in 2000 therefore I was seeing the play for the first time on stage last night, but when I first read it what I absolutely loved, apart from the reality of the masculine characters, was this idea of having this generic female who was the sexual object and was one and the same character for all the males in the play. And you could show it by actually having one actress and I thought gosh, that was so new in Australian drama at the time. This was the one thing that nobody else had ever done before. And you know that’s pretty much true, but that’s my reading and that’s why one actress plays all the female characters. In the eyes of the men she is one and the same sexual paragon – to have fun with.
Simon, you actually say that don’t you? ‘Women are all the same.’
And he was really brilliant last night, he was really brilliant. And Helen who is four different characters, she is the presence throughout this play for the length of her presence. She dominated the stage for me and there were the males and their antics, but her sense of self assurance despite her vulnerability was something that was very powerful for me.
I can give you a slightly more prosaic explanation. Jack even at this stage, as David said, had already seen the vast riches in commercial theatre was completely predicated even then on no cast being more than four! [laughter]
Can I just say something that when I did read that first page at that front bar in Naughton’s, I had a cast in mind already. Two of them are here. I wanted Graeme Blundell and I wanted Bill Garner and I wanted Bluey Knappett, that makes three, to go with Ingles [Sue Ingleton] but Graeme was at the MTC and Bill was overseas and Bluey had returned to law. That might have been very interesting. I’m not going to say which of you would have played Rod.
A couple of months ago, I met Jon Hawkes who was in the second production with Bill (Garner) and Graeme (Blundell) and a couple of months ago I was talking about White With Wire Wheels and he said ‘I was in it’, and I said really? Yes, 40 years ago and I said, which character did you play and Jon said, shit, I don’t know! [laughter]
The boys were so different last night. Were your three men as different?
Yeah they were. And they were so easily cast, the minute I saw the three of them. And they got the relationships between the three of them brilliantly. They didn’t get a lot of the detail. But heavens above, it was enough to get them up there remembering lines, you know. But they were definitely different.
Audience member (Steve)
I’ll put a question to the floor and the panel. Is it more likely then that poet playwrights can be reinterpreted for new times much more readily than historical documentary playwrights?
What do you mean, ‘documentary’, Steve?
People who just get slice of life characters and lump them on stage and contain them in a fourth wall. I’m not going to name names because of defamation laws. You may say the truth but you can still be litigated for defamation.
I think that each age and each generation will create a different production. This is again what impressed me about last night. I mean you’ve only got to look at Stretch [of the Imagination] to see how many of us have played in it and how different they’ve all been. We all take a different line. And what you also do with White With Wire Wheels. What came through for me most clearly last night was the delineation of the blokes. I think you can reinterpret the writer rather than the collector of all the anecdotes, which is why the Melbourne Theatre Company keeps getting it wrong. What was that one they did this year? View from the Bridge.
But is it the writer who is holding the interpretation?
If you are going to get purely into naturalism you’re bound to be restricted by those parameters. When you’re doing a Chekhov play, say The Three Sisters, you’re not doing one play you’re doing thirteen. And I reckon Romeril certainly takes reinterpretation after reinterpretation and I know Jack [Hibberd] does. With regard to others and I’m not going to name them, it’s a bit more difficult.
I’d just like to say that I think that plays that invite reinterpretation have some kind of core of mystery in them. And that’s why Hamlet is eternally fascinating. You could never quite nail Hamlet down. Who or what he is. And I think plays that can be reinterpreted must have that dimension and in White With Wire Wheels what is Helen? A strictly naturalistic play can only be reinterpreted by dress ups.
I think you’re quite right and just remembering the production that we were in I think the fights were real, which was true, the acting was very naturalistic and I think we were aping people we knew in the performance. Now I have no doubts whatsoever that those performances would not survive today. If we did that on stage now it would be ludicrous. So in fact it has to be the language in the play that enables it to carry through in that period. The only difference was that when we did it at La Mama, it was a discipline that cut through the naturalistic style but the style of the performance wouldn’t have survived.
You don’t think so?
No. We were obsessed in that little company with ritual and theatre games so my suspicion is that the work we were doing around the place would have been highlighted by that text anyway.
I just want to say one more thing that really gripped me last night was when each of these women who really don’t have a life or a personality that was explored, when she is asked about the colour of the car she says, Is it red? To me that says that each of them have got this passion inside them that isn’t being released and recognised – and each one has a scarlet woman inside that hasn’t been unlocked.
Helen is inside all of them. It’s the sheer force of what’s going on inside that informs her presence.
And that’s why it is so wonderful to see the evolution of the woman on stage through each of those characters.
We’ve heard a lot from the women of your generation about how this play speaks to you. I’m interested in two things: how the men of that generation and today read this play and also how the women of this generation, now, our generation, read this play now.
Young male audience member
Well I saw it with my girlfriend and I was actually surprised by the play last night. I was expecting a bit of a nostalgia piece. And it did surprise me that it was a lot more relevant than I thought it would be and I did really enjoy the performances as well. I especially enjoyed Helen’s performance and I thought the silences and the strength from that really spoke to the audience. We’re pretty indoctrinated with the philosophy of feminism today.
Are you saying that the things that Jack was writing about are now taken for granted?
Young male audience member
Maybe in the city where people study theatre, I would say it’s not too new, but unfortunately we live in a very different world.
Well when this play came out nobody was putting this kind of stuff on stage. And now I hope there’s some more sensitivity and beauty about it.
Female audience member
So I think it’s a great celebration of our culture but also I think we can be scathing about the men in this but I think it’s certainly a wonderful celebration of our laconic Australianism as men and as women. And I think that the way the woman travels in that piece is brilliant. But I also think it’s a wonderful celebration of how we are as people. I just think it’s an amazing piece of work.
Female audience member (Carly)
I think the thing the female character did for me was recognising things we’ve rejected. And kind of thinking about them and having not thought about them before. And realising how what we are now or what I am in comparison to that, and realising really that there is so much strength in that. So it’s recognising some of the weaknesses, even though the characters were very powerful, that recognising those weaknesses was seeing the strength in myself. I think that’s what those female characters did.
I actually sat down at the pub last night with five students who had seen it and asked them what did you think guys? And there were three young male students and they went well, the first ten minutes, we didn’t get it, why was everyone laughing at this, you know, why was the audience laughing at this sexist, racist stuff; how could an audience laugh and enjoy this! But the female [student], she said she laughed straight away. But gradually they after about twenty minutes they said, ooh and understood it. So these politically correct young men eventually got it and thought it was really cool.
Actually I’ve never seen it before but on the poster there’s that little crowd pleaser and in a way this play represents the start of a very short-lived attempt in our culture to create a thing that pleases crowds.
Now I’m going to call these proceedings to a halt because we’ve run out of time. Thank you speakers and audience for a wonderful conversation.