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Photo by Brett Boardman

The Pig Iron People

Sydney Theatre Company and UBS present THE PIG IRON PEOPLE by John Doyle.

The most important note in the program is from the writer John Doyle “This is my first play.” This is this very experienced writer’s, first play.

Mr Doyle has being “honoured by the Australian Writing Guild for comedy eight times and for both of his mini-series, CHANGI and MARKING TIME. CLUB BUGGERY won a Logie Award for Most Outstanding Comedy; THE DREAM a Logie for Most Popular Comedy and CHANGI, the Logie for Most Outstanding Drama. MARKING TIME received a 2004 Logie nomination for Most Outstanding Mini-series/Telemovie, a 2004 AFI award for Best Screenplay in Television and the NSW Premier’s Award for Script Writing. John also received a 2004 Logie nomination for THE CREAM for Most Popular Sport’s program and a 2005 LOGIE Nomination for Most Popular Sport’s Program for THE DREAM IN ATHENS. In 2006 John joined Tim Flannery for the documentary TWO MEN IN A TINNIE… which “won the 2006 SPAA Award for best documentary.”

The first act of this first play by John Doyle introduces us to a writer, Nick (Glenn Hazeldine), who after the end of a marriage is moving into a new address in Liberal Street on the night of John Howard’s first election victory in 1996. In this street live a collection of “cantankerous older neighbours”: Janette and Jack Howard, hmmm, (Judi Farr and Danny Adcock), Claude and Rosie, (Bruce Venables and Jacki Weaver) and Kurt (Max Cullen). These are The Pig Iron People, the people who grew up under the government of Robert Menzies. We also meet an actress, an ex-soapie childhood star April, (Caroline Craig) now finding it difficult to get a new role, who becomes the object of our writer/hero’s affections over the duration of the play. Mr Doyle introduces them to us with all of the affectionate “ratbaggery” of his television and radio observations, wonderfully satiric and powerfully crass. (Certainly one of our favourite ways to be entertained as a nation.) One pair of the couples have a terribly corrosive relationship and in contrast the other couple have an idyllic loving relationship! Kurt, just for extra comic good measure, is a German refugee with all the bile and prejudice of another country and era (maybe) which he is not backward in airing to the occupants of Liberal Street. That is the first act. It has the unusual dramatic tension of the possible flowering of a relationship between an actor and a writer and while we fondly watch that develop, aided/hindered sometimes by the neighbours, we are served a whole series of episodes of broadly satiric observations of these Menzies’ children. My gosh, they are gauche and naive. And hilarious!

The second act continues with the unbearable tension of the developing relationship of the two youngsters (writer and actress) and we, as a distraction from this painful dilemma, have a series of scenes where each of the residents of the street, that we have met and laughed at in sometimes affectionate/shock/breathless astonishment, reveal in a “monologue” of mostly unconscious self justification, the possible reasons for their entrenched behavioural patterns. Janette explains how her loveless marriage happened. Claude reveals the hardships of being a “Truckie” The lovely Rosie explains her family life and its origins of rescue by Claude. And the permanently angry Jack gets the opportunity to justify his vile self. Wonderfully sentimental and deliriously cliched. Kurt simply piles on his “ugliness”, which Mr Doyle has written with a cauterising and withering eye, that connects us to the much honoured writing of his comedy for television and radio. Hilarious once again. (Kurt’s second act speech is breathtaking for its accurateness and cruelty.) We even get another piece of accurate but sentimental exposition, explicating the life of a child star of television and the horrible industry that “kills” her off when she is no longer a child: poor April, discovering gradually that her “childhood age” may have been her only talent. Our hero, Nick, the writer, lovingly inspired by her story and that of his irascible but endearing neighbours, collects, by attentive listening, a text that may end up in a PLAY. Just like Mr Doyle tells us in his program notes “In some ways I have stolen from life. For a time my whole neighbourhood was privy to intimate conversations from a bedroom across the street from ours. The ferocious bitterness spilled out into the night as a constant stream of sadness.”

The dramaturgical complications of this play are so rudimentary that as a first draft this might be just acceptable in a first-term class in playwriting. The blatancy of the constructions in this work need much more writing to bring it to some sophistication for the theatre. For a situation comedy for television (maybe MY NAME’S MCGOOLEY, WHAT’S YOURS?) this may be enough, but for the theatre, in my estimation, probably not. No, let me be daring: IS NOT!! Where is the subtlety of say, Patrick White’s satire THE SEASON OF SARSPARILLA? Or where, even, is the accurate satire but loving observations of Australia’s great comic writer/actor, Barry Humphries, who has spent a life time mining these particular goldfields? To be just, I have to report it is “horses for courses” because on the night I attended, this play and production were received with noisy guffawing and sometimes rounds of applause (and that was when just some of our “neighbours” were sitting around a card table, on milk crates, reading the lame writing of cantankerous Jack in an effort to show just how easy it is to write. The play about the “pork and the admiral” was truly hilarious.[??!!!]) This play about the pig iron people of the Menzies era is just as hilarious, it seems. But is this spill of bitterness, that Mr Doyle tell us about in his program note, sadness (sorrowful or mournful) or is it just sentimental (mawkishly susceptible or tender.)

The Sydney Theatre Company, in its subscription season have given us THE GREAT by Tony McNamara, a well written play, but diffidently directed; THE NARCISSIST, by Stephen Carleton, scabrously vacuous; THE CONVICT’S OPERA, by Stephen Jeffreys (under commission) a baffling trifle; all new Australian writing. And now THE PIG IRON PEOPLE. If these texts represent the best of Contemporary Australian Playwriting, then as a creative nation we are in a parlous state. (I exclude The Great from this diatribe). Now I understand that writing in the comic genre, whatever the kind: Farce, Comedy of Manners, Satire etc is notoriously difficult, but to rush these plays into production seems to me a great disservice to the writer and the art form, (let alone the audience.) And worse, (here I will example what could be called “a cultural cringe”on my part) to then schedule these unformed plays ie. THE NARCISSIST and THE PIG IRON PEOPLE, in the Drama Theatre at the international architectural wonder, the Sydney Opera House, a mecca for international tourists which may include some “informed culture vultures” looking for some Australian entertainment seems to me opportunistic and shameless in its commercial intimations. If you don’t have the writing ready, then don’t do it and don’t expose it in such an important venue. Considering the availability of the world’s dramatic literature that is accessible to this company, Why, oh, Why has Mr Doyle’s play being produced, at what I feel is at a pre-emptory state of development. This playwriting needs more workshopping to bring its potential to the fore. The history of Australian Playwriting and the need of the major company’s for new Australian work is littered with very promising drafts of work that have only seen the light of the stage once. Great ideas still immaturely developed. Almost still born.

On top of the writing problem, is then the direction by Craig Ilott. This is the third production of his I have seen this year: THE PILLOWMAN by Martin McDonagh at Belvoir and SHAKESPEARE’S R&J by Joe Calarco, out at Riverside Theatre. The PILLOWMAN, an International prizewinning text was under the direction of Mr Ilott was underdeveloped in its textual insight (and was saved by a marvellous performance of Marton Csolkas who brought the writing to some real focus of McDonagh’s intentions and style.) SHAKESPEARE’S R & J similarly suffered, in my opinion, by a cursory approach to the text. (This production only rehearsed Romeo and Juliet and not the sub textual life of the young schoolboys creating the production which was the concern of Mr Calarco.) My carp is that Mr Illott does not seem to rigorously deal with his writer’s text. In this case, the insight of a really concerned artist as to the quality of the writing may have been more confrontational and demanding of Mr Doyle. Mr Doyle thanks both Mr Ilott for his “sensitivity”and Polly Rowe, the STC’s Literary Manager, “For her due diligence”.

Mr Ilott is a prize winning director. Spectacularly, for his direction of the musical HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH. When you examine Mr Ilott’s repertoire, there is a lot of musical theatre background and considering the interpolation of songs in this text and an oddly interesting, but underdeveloped reminisce about the Music Hall in Australia by Mr Doyle, one might see the marrying of these two talents. Mr Ilott’s love of the Musical genre is present in his design choices with Stephen Curtis with the use of tracked trucks for the entrance of set pieces. The costumes are interestingly and humorously solved. The rest of the design, the false, receding proscenium, is very dull in its manifestation. There however are some design and lighting treats in the projections used to create the fronts of the street houses, and the animation of the red curtain of the music hall theatre and the entrance of poor Kurt’s Alsatian dog. (Once again these thrills are not developed. They promised, momentarily, a possibly inventive night. It was not to be.)

The acting by this company is affectionate and accurate but no-one in the company has any of their gifts stretched. Mr Cullen, in a cameo role as Kurt, is galvanising and revoltingly brilliant. Judi Farr, Jackie Weaver, Bruce Venables and Caroline Craig are giving committed and flawless performances, as far as their cliched characters permit them. Glenn Hazeldine is hampered by a character that is barely alive. The function of the writing more important than any real human insight into the man. The tiresome love story, a bit, like a lead weight around this actor’s creatives ankles (odd this, as he is playing the writer, [Mr Doyle?!])There is a tendency by Mr Hazeldine to use volume instead of the exploration of range to remain in focus. Unfortunately, there is a truly misjudged performance been given by the permission of this director. Mr Adcock as Jack Howard, bellows his way, the entire evening, through what could have been the most interesting and conflicted character in the play. When given moments of reflection and self revelation for Jack, Mr Adcock’s choices are shallow and reach for affect instead of revealing truths. This is a truly “barnstorming” music hall performance. Vocal bombast. It needs attention.

Good plays and good productions (they are different things) deserve good notices. Bad plays and bad productions deserve bad notices. Then, everyone who goes, cannot complain because they knew what they were spending their money on. ($70 odd dollars plus dinner, parking etc multiplied by two or more, sometimes!!!) Good notices of bad plays or productions does nobody any good. The audience feeling duped and may never go to the theatre again and the company suffers irrevocably in almost every way. A lose, lose situation.

The choice of the Text is almost everything. The proper nurturing and workshopping of new work and writers is probably the most crucial dilemma in the Australian Theatre today.

The guidance and nurturing of our young director’s is the next.

2 replies to “The Pig Iron People”

  1. Kevin,
    Good points to end your review.

    Do we need to have a course for dramaturgy at NIDA? What would it include?

    And, more importantly, what should dramaturgy be attempting to do?

    I have three playwright friends who have described dramaturgical experiences [often more than one] that sound not so much like an attempt by the dramaturg to facilitate the development of the writers vision but more the dramaturg using an opportunity to criticise the writer into writing the play the dramaturg wants written. [Go write your own play if that’s what you want.]

    Phrases like: “I don’t really like you as a writer.” and “The problem with this scene is your limits as a writer.” are examples of feedback from two different dramaturgs [working with two major companies] that I would argue reflect incompetance on the part of the dramaturg. Surely the art of dramaturgy isn’t about the dramaturg’s personal taste but is about serving the writer by discovering the writers intentions and then suggesting alternative avenues of exploration to help the writer realise their vision.

    It seems to me that the relationship should be questioning and developmental rather than judgemental and proscriptive [as seems to be the majority experience
    amongst my contemporaries]. Dramaturgy should be more about asking questions and clarifying the response than giving answers and instructions.

    What is your vision for dramaturgy and how to raise its standards in Australia?

  2. I saw PIP last night.

    I had a number of issues with it but my major issue was the premise that the PIP were “born in the 30’s and grew up under Menzies.” Er, perhaps I’m missing something, but wasn’t there a war in there somewhere? Oh, and a bit of a Depression? That to my mind is what informed the Menzies generation and created the desire/need for the aching conservatism (aka security blanket) that marked the Menzies era. I think Mr Doyle has been very un-generous to this generation.

    I also thought that Kurt/”Fritz” was a base racial sterotype who contributed nothing at all to the play. Thankfully Max Cullen resisted the temptation to stick his finger under his nose and goose-step across the stage (but he came close).

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