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Summer of the Seventeenth Doll


Belvoir presents SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL by Ray Lawler at the Belvoir St Theatre.

Dear Diary,

This may be a bit of a ramble as my disappointment with the Belvoir production of the “DOLL” mixed with my nostalgic hagiolatry about that play, has caused me some confusion on how to respond. And what I am about to write may cast me further into the shadows, as a relic from the old days, a Troglodyte of the Naturalism School of Play Writing, but my biography gives me some justification.

My three favourite Australian plays are: THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL by Ray Lawler (1955); A HARD GOD by Peter Kenna (1971); and AWAY by Michael Gow (1986). The significance of “the Doll” in 1955 I could not experience first hand but the wallop of the theatrical, cultural and personal impact of the other two plays, I did have, as I watched then in their premiere performances, firstly, as a young Australian and, secondly, as a young Australian artist in the fledgling days of my career. All three plays sit deeply in my emotional psyche. All three plays present a world and characters that I had real life access too. All three plays really reflected my own life to me, through extended family histories, that were nearly mirror perfect in details. It was both shocking and thrilling to sit in a theatre and see it. They have always brought tears from me when sitting in the dark watching these plays, because they did record for me family histories and memories, and was like sharing moments of family stories and photo albums around the heat of Christmas tables at the annual lunch and dinner gathering at my granny’s home, years and years ago.

NOSTALGIA: longing and desire for home, family and friends, or the past. From the Greek nostos – a return to home.

THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL I have seen many, many times both in amateur and professional productions (I myself have directed it twice). It has never failed to elate me. My uncles were not cane cutters but they were shearers on seasonal call, with families stranded in the suburbs of Sydney, as a result of the Great Depression. My uncles were not called ‘Barney’ or ‘Roo’ but they were called ‘Bonza’ and ‘Red’. My aunts were not called Olive or Pearl but were called Bernice and Beryl, although, there was a Nancy – she too was a bit of a book-worm “widgie'” like Lawler’s Nance. My gran was not Emma but Cassie. Like Cathy, us kids had nick names like “Bubba”, mine was, depending on the time of day, “Spic an’ Span” or “Spike” (I won’t tell you why).

The house was not a terrace with an overgrown garden in Carlton, Melbourne, but a dingy flat in Brook Street, Coogee, Sydney, and the Brown Nurses’ vacant lot next door was enough of a jungle greenery for our adventures. We sometimes sang around the piano (pianola) but it was, mostly, a house of weekend card games broken only by the races, that is the Trots, the Dogs or the Horses, and meal times. It was the house from which us kids had to go down to the Coogee Bay Hotel and call out into the tiled bars that dinner was ready and Mum said that they had better come now, and then help, dad and our uncles up the hill after the six o’clock swill. Otherwise, they might have just lolled at the beach til the re-opening (“Those bloody barmaids.”) at seven. None of us family kids liked it when that happened – the ladies of the family were pretty tough about such stuff. They had slaved over the hot stove and dinner would go cold and the language would become sinful, for nothing could be wasted – there would be a family brawl and lots of ugly teasing until the kitchen table was cleared away and the card table set up, so that the magic of the 52 card deck and euchre became the family pacifier, and the relatives and friends settled down and played for money, good humouredly, but deadly, seriously – there were griefs to settle in this card playing as well as winning of money.

This Belvoir production by Neil Armfield did not move me. Did not elate me. And what I may have gained from Belvoir’s production did not adequately compensate me with a redolent experience of the play as new and or as a transcendent memory to treasure. And if I was struck positively by a few moments in the production, they had more to do with the power of Mr Lawler’s textual architecture than in any of the visual obfuscations of this use of the “dear old Belvoir corner” by Mr Myers and Armfield.

The characters appeared lost on a ‘paddock’ – open space, summoning vast distances for the characters, with echoing hollow noises, to cross, to even attempt to connect with each other (“a wide brown land”?) physically, let alone emotionally intelligently. The space lacked ordered, familiar, environmental anchors of furnished details of props and other things to give comfortable context, and, so, not provided with the necessary physical intimacy of a lived in space, with history of the sixteen years surrounding it, the space looked like a clearing of the room before eviction – pre-empting the course of the story-drama.

It looked like, felt like, the fourth act room of Chekhov’s THE CHERRY ORCHARD, where the old nursery room has been packed up before demolition. And this might have rung true for the last minutes of Mr Lawler’s play, but the “DOLL” actually begins, as in Act One of THE CHERRY ORCHARD, where everything is in tact, barely, I grant it, but the orchard has not yet been sold and possibilities of sustaining a way of life are tantalisingly within reach, and certainly as act one of the “DOLL” begins, the seasons of the dolls are not ended either and there is a hope from Olive that they may sustain for longer as well, different with Pearl, but essentially, hopefully, the same. (NB the echo of the Chekhovian broken string moment from THE CHERRY ORCHARD, again, in the dying moments of Mr Allan Johns’ discordant music score at the crash of the piano. This text is more Ibsen (agenda melodrama) than Chekhov (subtextual inner life drama). THE CHERRY ORCHARD became an overdrawn reference for me.)

This design had visually concluded the journey of the play on our arrival in the theatre, before the action had began and, consequently, had little suspenseful place to go because of its pre-empting of the narrative. The comfort of the house, the rooms, the time had been de-constructured, already. The Doll seasons were at an end and a new world was centrifugally throwing it all away. The dining room table and chairs became a symbol of family and humanity,glowing nostalgical, but, forlornly, in the warmth of Damien Cooper’s lighting, in the centre of the space, registering the past.

The design pushed me into a place of puzzlement. The design offers, offered me, from my first entrance into the theatre, a pre-occupying interpretative dilemma. I was objectively engaged, for I was not sure, am still not sure, what the intentions were. This new reading of this classic play, this historically, Subsequent Performance (1), was already on shaky ground for me. My brain not my heart to the fore.

In the Director’s notes, Neil Armfield says:

…With any classic, the audience brings a set of expectations, perhaps born of memory, of familiarity, which sits with them in the theatre. What distinguished those Belvoir productions was the intention to reveal the work as if it was the first time. To make it feel like a new play. Hot off the page. To make the audience forget their expectations and receive the work afresh.

Apart from (hopefully) clarity of interpretation and the power and detail of the performances, the space, the dear old Belvoir corner, has so much to do with that.There was a time when the company had so little money and resources, that the essential question any set designer had to answer was: ‘ What colour will we paint the walls?’ The asymmetrical energy of the theatre is a strong frame for any story, a stage for any character to command.

With Shakespeare and Sewell and White perhaps, writing as they did in a more self-consciously poetic or expressionistic mode, the abstraction of our amphitheatre provides a natural platform. But with the detailed rooms in which Ibsen and Chekhov and Lawler have set their stories, a balance must be found between the architectural force of the Belvoir corner and the structural demands of the text. As always, the golden rule is, you can do anything as long as the audience understands.

I could not “understand” the design.

I could not “understand” the design solutions for the telling of this story in 2011, and it seemed to me that the revealed architectural force of the Belvoir corner did not serve the structural demands of Mr Lawler’s text. Those walls and floor, albeit swathed in carpet and behind glass, though they were, may have, with the Simon Stone configuration of the Ibsen text of THE WILD DUCK, earlier this year done this. But, it was virtually a new text, a glancing plundering of the original, and so had new textual structural demands and hence the possibility of re-conceived new design offers of a supportive kind for the 2011 production,in contrast to the necessities of the actual Ibsen world. (certainly the design’s “architectural solution” (Ralph Myers) to an intact text by Benedict Andrews of Chekhov’s THE SEAGULL, failed. Even at the possibility to see all the play production for a lot of the audience. The basic artistic responsibility).

Whereas, the presently presented text of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL, is not a radical appropriation of the original, (Good Heavens the writer is present – 90 odd, by the way, need to respect the writer, (if only Mr Albee had caught a plane for his Belvoir WHO”S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? what architectural changes would we have had to undo,I wonder). This “DOLL” has had a few minor amendments by the living and present writer and, so still seems structurally to demand for interpretative clarity, a faithfulness to the original concept, its naturalistic world, to work fully.

Ralph Myers has designed a huge open factory/loft space a space that the present generation might find the ideal space to live in (in 2011). It is broad and spacious. Really, cavernous (see the ABC ‘7:30 Report’ footage of it here). In the centre of the floor an old solid dining room/kitchen table sits with some utensils in preparation for the scene upcoming, on it, with four practical kitchen chairs surrounding it, on a rough untreated wooden floor, with gleaming dark varnished edges, where, imaginatively, I surmise, once upon a time, carpeting had not reached (we had it in our house, as well.) The immensely high walls of the actual theatre space are doubling for the living room of Lawler’s imagination, and are a stained, discoloured pink / tangerine. The decoration of sixteen seasons of dolls and other presents are sparsely hung around. It looks sparse because of the scale of the open room walls. One had to look hard to find this famous accretion demanded by the writer’s direction and a necessary ‘naturalistic’ source of dramatic action and symbol in the play. There are two long staircases ascending, one to the upper stories of this loft apartment with iron railings, the other, the actual theatre stairs on the western wall, apparently leading us next door, incongruously, upstairs.

As if the table and kitchen chairs had been the centre point, all the other furniture feels as if, that the room, when spun on that axis, has all, perforce of the centrifugal force, slid to the walls: the heavy three seated deco – lounge couch, little table, the piano with shell and other decorations on top and in the famous “dear old Belvoir corner” a working tapped sink basin and set of drawers and cupboard are stacked.

Above this sink is one of the fascinations of this production: a window has been punched into the actual theatre wall and behind beautifully lit and naturally wafting curtains, one can see the real world: depending on where you are seated, the terrace houses descending down Belvoir Street to Elizabeth Street or the contemporary traffic coming up Clisdell Street, beside the Housing Commission Towers. On the Sunday afternoon I saw it the daylight time setting sun giving a natural aura to this portal to 2011.

The deconstructed room, its empty scale and echo, and oddly placed furnishings and decorations, the architectural aberrations of the stair cases, the window onto the actual street and present time, the curiosity of the placement, even presence, of the working kitchen sink, the physical geography location of the “Bubba” house, the strange placement of the kitchen from which the cooking of breakfast bacon, wafted naturalistically into the auditorium, all, were strange clues to assimilate into an easy understanding of the intentions for this production.

Add the beautiful design, construction and immaculate condition of the COSTUMES (Dale Ferguson) these characters wear, note, not CLOTHES but COSTUMES, (question: How much money does Bubba earn behind the perfume counter at Woolworths? Her costumes, especially the New Year Eve’s frock, wreak of money and fashion and hardly the income of Bubba or of Aunty Maureen and Aunty Dee, her maiden aunt carer’s) and further conundrums of design intention accumulate from this team. It is as if all these characters are in a retrospective design exercise for a fashion study, at the National Art School Fashion School or the design course at NIDA or UTS, than real live working class people in the summer of 1953.

Add the focused warmth of the lighting by Mr Cooper, Edward Hopper memories flitted in and out of my consciousness, and of the expressionistic shadows of the characters thrown, regularly up on the walls and what, I pondered, am I asked to unconsciously absorb or add to the play?

Hmm. Intellectual objectification leading to emotional detachment. Bewildering visual contextualisations distracting the sensitive (the pedantic) from the detail of the story narrative and emotional connections of the characters of the house. Images rather than textual content become the memory of this production. The prevailing contemporary supremacy of the visual over the aural culture in Sydney Theatre, trumping the art of the playwright, once again.What we have is a visual Art Installation work animated with text. Here the artist, unlike in a museum, has his viewers trapped in a space under the pretext that we are watching a contemporary storytelling of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL. This installation is observed for nearly three hours, with interval. In a museum or gallery the average is, what, two minutes?

It occurs to me, as well, that this design is a very useful solution, perhaps for the stylised adaptation of the opera version of this play, (the Australian Opera, next door, should view), a famous platform of Mr Armfield’s and Myer’s career, but as for a telling of the play in the theatre, even a self-regarded avant-garde theatre platform, that Belvoir as taken on as a signifier of its mantle in the Sydney Theatre scape of late, it failed for me.

I was, Dear Diary, vastly disappointed. It was lucky that this was not a new play for, if I were seeing it for the first time, as some of my young friends were, I might wonder why, other than the important historical context of its writing in Australian Dramatic literature terms, why this play holds such a classic, iconic power for past audiences. The textual import was reduced by the visual designs.

I felt that the interpretation of the characters offered by Mr Armfield and “the power and detail of performances’ given by the actors were all, too often, too broad and of an inconsistent mixture of style and truthfulness. Helen Thompson, as Pearl Cunningham, provides a very comically observed characterisation and has mined the opportunities for gags wherever possible. It is a comic delight, and as always totally seductive as a revelation of the performer (see IN THE NEXT ROOM, OR THE VIBRATOR PLAY) but it is essentially in the gentle mode of a Barry Humphries barb with little of his compassion for the circumstances of the life and times of the woman. It is an externalised comic caricature of the woman – an unfair rendering, in my remembered context, of a woman of her time, of that time, and so in 2011 has become a suitable target for a condescending period value judgement and satire. No. Out of respect to the Pearl’s I know, knew, NO, NO, NO. There were in the final moments of this performance, interacting with Olive, an attempt to reveal an emotional centre to this Pearl by Ms Thompson, but it was too late to signify with truthful meaning what had been ridiculed, and it was not sufficient to retrieve a creation of Pearl that I could not engage or believe in.

This is true of the over drawn characterisation of Bubba by Yael Stone who seemed in an effort to overcome the function of the character by the writer, that is the representative of the future, perhaps, as well, in an attempt to match the overblown costumes she was given to wear, expanded her physical expression to a set of tensions of observable excess, instead of simplifying and revealing the inner life of the girl who transforms from infantalised toy to seen person by Dowd in a beautiful simple piece of writing by Mr Lawler in the second act and re-iterates thematically, for us, in the third act: “He asked me. … Asked me. Sent you out of the room and asked me. And he didn’t call me Bub or – kid. He wanted to know my real name, and that is what he called me.” A moment that all of us can, similarly, reference, recall, as a major turning point in our own emotional developments.

Robyn Nevin, as Emma Leech, (take note of the surname) gives another power house performance but for my taste outside the presence of the other actors. It seemed to move through all the gestures and demands of the role like clock work, and it was a performance, for me, that could have been transposed to any other production around the country, the world, without it been affected by the input of any of the other actors. It is gleaming with the precision of a seasoned professional but it is also weighed down with a formulaic and contrived emotional moment to moment rendition, it has a brittleness about all the emotional moments that appeals to the head, in admiring the actor’s craft, but does not enter the subjective embrace of one’s heart. It is brusque. Playing the old bag with a heart of gold a little too literally, for there was no real heart, here, pumping with a lived life of struggle and perhaps guilt, just ‘gold’.Grandma in Ruth Park’s’trilogy beginning with THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948) registers strongly with my construction of Emma Leech.

I, in 2011, long for an Emma to register clearly for the audience that EMMA is Olive’s mother. They belong by birthright to the family of Leech. This mother has grown this child in the womb and nurtured her all of her life: Olive Leech, this woman in her late thirties, and has provided and condoned, infantalised this off-spring actively over all this time in this one place. Olive lives this lifestyle with the active collusion of her mother.This is not just Olive’s tragedy alone, but, deeply, also, Emma’s bequeathed inheritance. This sense of the human ruthlessness, fragility or guile of Emma as the mother succour/guide, has never been truly explicated for me. We prefer, still, the historic reading of this character,it seems, of say Ethel Gabriel, immortalised in the Hollywood film or that other favourite, Ruth Cracknell. It needs to be interrogated anew. The sense of this character’s true self as a conniving survivor is best registered in the last moments of the second of the Doll Trilogy, OTHER TIMES, where after a failed furore into the black market of ill gotten profit: Emma struggles in a move out of the chair but lapses back and sits staring ahead into the fading light. Just what does she see at the end of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL and how culpable might she be?

Steve Le Marquand, as Roo (Reuben) Webber, has all the physical heft of the character and all the surface bravado of this faded roustabout. What we don’t have is the cane cutter who has had his life intruded upon by the long campaigning of the Second World war. A campaign that amazingly covers “Service in the Middle East, Palestine to Alamein -…. service in Pacific areas, New Guniea through to Tarakan (the battle of Borneo -1945).”- campaign zones of major trauma. Some of Roo’s behaviour, in a contemporary reading of this play must surely register a combat-stress disorder.

The devoted relationship of Roo (the held infantalising of his real name Reuben) with his friend Barney, where he has denied his own advancement in the army to stay ‘wedded’ to the fortunes of his mate so that they can remain together. The last moments of the play where Roo after the rejection of his wedding proposal to Olive, feels his “strength ebbing from him, and slowly subsides to sag down on the piano stool. (For) something breaks deep within him, but there is no outward sign, he is too inarticulate for the release of tears.” and with the comfort of his mate’s hand on his shoulder and a signal to go,”lurches, swaying, to his feet, and with Barney as a sheperding companion, they leave the house.” reveals a bond that has been forged through hardship and a mutual dependency. Together. At the last, together, as they have always been through peace and war. ‘Wedded’ in life, still. In this, for me, there is a powerful homo-erotic tension of the legendary Australian mateship echoing in this last moment. An undeveloped issue from this 1955 play, that has gathered with references to the Homeric/Roman gladiator gathering of the eagle in the dust, which in my mind is worth underlining in a production in 2011.

Mr Le Marquand with his suitably Aussie growl and swagger touches all of the key external outlining of Roo, but, for my money fudges the great “breaking” moment in the true climax of the play. A great actor will recognise and courageously release the personalisation from his own life to reveal the truth of the character. Roo and Mr Le Maquand need to be one in this moment for it to hit home for the audience. This actor, on the day I saw it, did not, he went through a surface calibration but took no risk of exposure of his self for his art. It was a moment lost and diminished the possible impact of the play.

This emotional denial by Mr Le Marquand was relatively true throughout most of this performance of the play. Even the emotional content between Olive was relatively squibbed. There is no real sexual chemistry or even loving respect emanating from most of the exchanges that Roo has with Olive (an unspoken misogny?) The closest this Roo comes to loving is with Emma in the offer of the loan of fifty quid.

Thus Susie Porter, as Olive, who would have seemed a natural to succeed in revealing all of the capacities of this sad life, has a very difficult task. Ms Porter does it by herself. There is no authentic support coming from Ms Thompason, Ms Nevin or Mr Le Marquand and so in the towering moments when Olive begs for her life to be given back to her at the end of the play, none of the actors have had the emotional life to equal or support her and, in desperation, Ms Porter pushes herself against the back wall of the set and stares tearfully at the floor and seems to create from her own imaginative life all that she needs to give us the full sense of the tragic crisis in Olive’s experience. Ms Porter against great odds attempts to give a full reading of the role, but it is difficult for it to be great by one self. Good, yes, great no. Ms Porter is admirable against many odds, that includes the cavernous set.

The best performance in this production, for me, comes from Dan Wylie as Barney Ibbot. There is in this actor an accessible range to the open experience of the human condition in almost everything I have seen him give. Film as well. Going as far back as his charismatic work in CLOUDSTREET, Mr Wylie does not baulk or seem inhibited in identifying himself with his characters. He shapes and adapts his own self to reveal the container of the character that the writer has given him to bring to life. Of course, some of his work is better than other. But the life of Barney is wholly within his grasp and there is a delicious relish of the comedy, tragedy and melodrama of this man. Barney’s sense of his own worth measured up against his mate Roo is modest and fully realised without petty envy or jealousy. He accepts his role as Roo’s clown. Mr Wylie knows the Barney in himself and appears effortlessly to share him with us. He does not miss any opportunity to give us and the other actor’s a fully formed three dimensional creation.

TJ Power in the small but vital role of the new man of the moment, Johnnie Dowd, gives a convincing and arresting performance.

This production fails for me. Why? The acting ensemble is not in useful sync. The interpretations sometimes vulgar and superficial. Each respectably good, craftwise, but not of a whole. All the deign elements seem to provide more obstacles to my entry to this production than accommodation. I believe that the jettisoning of the naturalistic form that the writing and its period demands creates flaws in its storytelling ability, even for a hip 2011 audience. The impact of the play is stunted and tends to be cerebral rather than emotional. And the emotional content is where the play still maintains its grasp on the audience. And it does, still, at Belvoir, despite the packaging of this production, for its greatness lies in its human identification of the human quest for the secret to eternal youth, which we all contemplate.And in a culture where the ‘baby boomers’ seek an “amortalist” life style through mastery of their aging bodies, this play should have a lesson that all should heed.

Or, maybe my own quest for times nostalgic, my seeking for home, family and friends, the past, prevents me from gaining from this production of THE SUMMER OF THE SEVENTEENTH DOLL. For me, it became an interesting cogitation of intention of the artistic team but not a great event in my theatre going life.

1 replies to “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll”

  1. Kevin,
    Thank you so much for your evocation of the Jackson family past-
    a world with such rich connections to the world of THE DOLL. The lyrical opening paragraphs of your review suggest a terrific short story or memoir in the making ; we read about the people who were the bricks and the mortar of your youth, and who also – to us – sound like they could be characters in a Lawler play ; reading of the parallels, we begin to understand why there is almost a sense of betrayal for you in the current Belvoir production.
    Like you , I felt puzzled by the design choices. But maybe I shouldn't have been …we have seen in productions such as "Neighbourhood Watch" and "The Wild Duck" that there is a trend at Belvoir towards a kind of minimalism ; I found it particularly disappointing in "N.W.", as the wide open dark spaces between the places where people 'lived' cried out to be filled with some suggestion – not necessarily realistic – of inner city life.
    For you the design choices in this "DOLL" took a severe toll on the possibility for enjoyment. I didn't have the same problem , because whatever 'difficulty' in the stage design, I was quickly swept up in a delight with the text. It was like meeting up with an old friend , and feeling some sort of wonder at how much more there IS to that friend than one had ever bothered to note. Act I whirled into gear, the stage became busier , and I thought: 'of course this play is called a classic …the writing transports us so effortlessly ; there is so much yearning and hope and affection here'.
    Most of the performances disappointed you , Kevin, in some significant way. And there is also this matter of the modern understanding of things , some signs of which you felt ought to have been there. A sense of post-traumatic stress disorder in Roo; a stronger suggestion of the compromises or a darkness that lie in Emma's past.How would these things manifest? In a more brooding , nervy Roo? I can't help feeling you are asking Ms Nevin to play something that isn't there . Not in THIS play by Lawler , anyway.
    I hope that in the months and years to come Robyn Nevin will not only play crotchety cranky old dames. But whether in a comic moment – such as the scene at the piano – or a tougher one – as when she confronts Roo – for me she supplies everything that is required , and her intonations ring in the memory. I admired many aspects of the other actors' work…as you say , Helen Thomson knows how to capitalize on the comic potential in a scene , and this is a gift we have seen recently in both "In the Next Room" and "God of Carnage", plays set in very different social milieus. I think back and I know why you cavil about Yael Stone here; I guess her torrent of energy swept me away.Surely anyone who sees this production will take away memories of Dan Wyllie's face in its different moods …and I think 'attention must be paid' to the passion that he and Steve le Marquand bring to their desperate brawling as the summer idyll finally falls apart. It looks that for you , Kevin , it was a case of sound and fury signifying not much. Makes me wish I could see it a second time , to test out my own reaction – the pity I felt for these floundering legends of the summer blow-in….
    For so much of the play Susie Porter is a little dynamo – bustling in preparation ,dancing with delight, bursting with the will to make the most of this returning 'best of times'. Perhaps this is why the ultimate image of Olive staggering from the scene – stunned , slowed right down and utterly alone on the boulevard of broken dreams – will surely live with us all. Ms Porter yet again shows the tremendous depth of her talent.

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