Saturday, 9 November 2013

On Louis Nowra winning Patrick White

When Louis Nowra's Inside the Island received a savage review in the Sydney Morning Herald, Patrick White hand-delivered an outraged letter to the editor in support of the play and its author. When it was not published, White paid for it to run as an advertisement in the newspaper for two weeks. White later cooled to Nowra, as he did with so many others, and would sometimes refer to the playwright as 'Louis Kiama'.   

White was probably unaware that Nowra left his degree at La Trobe University over a dispute with his professor concerning his dislike of White's novel The Tree of Man.  

Louis Nowra in Kings Cross with his very clever chihuahua, Coco
Louis Nowra was yesterday presented with the Patrick White Literary Award, this year worth $23,000, for his ‘prolific, passionate, principled contribution to Australian literature across many fields’. The annual Award was established by White who used the money from his 1973 Nobel Prize in Literature to establish a trust. It’s given to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period. Nowra is only the third playwright to win in 40 years, after Alma de Groen in 1998 and John Romeril in 2008.

I’ve known Louis for over 25 years. We first met in the rehearsal room of Rex Cramphorn’s premiere production of Louis' The Golden Age for Playbox in 1985. Patrick White greatly admired Rex, one of Australia’s great directing talents, and of course also championed Louis.

Later, in 1995, I directed the premiere production of The Jungle for Sydney Theatre Company, with a fabulous Kate Fitzpatrick, whom Patrick White adored. He wrote his 1977 play Big Toys for her. I soon learned why both Patrick and Louis, and indeed Rex, had been so fond of Kate.

During rehearsals of The Jungle, she was in the throws of an infamous case in the NSW Supreme Court: Kate Fitzpatrick v Charles Waterstreet. She was suing her former lover, the famed barrister who would later become the model for the central character in the TV series Rake. She was claiming about half the value of an Elizabeth Bay flat. There was more: ‘I'll have the Brett Whiteleys, you can have the Tupperware and the Brescia beanbag,’ she offered in court. One of the Whiteleys was the portrait of Patrick White that served as the cover of David Marr’s great biography of White. It was Kate, incidentally, who had organised a lunch so that Whiteley and White could meet. On her return from court, our rehearsal room was fabulously full of Kate’s regaling – sensational stories of her many former lovers including Sam Neill, Jeremy Irons, Timothy Dalton, Eric Clapton, Tom Hughes QC and several famous cricketers, and of her close friendships with Kerry Packer, Sam Shepard, a smitten Jack Nicholson, several High Court judges and, of course, Patrick White.

Louis’ brilliant play gave Kate about five different roles, including one based on Marianne Faithfull. Naturally enough, Kate had met Faithfull at a 1982 New York dinner party in a sumptuous Park Avenue apartment hosted by Claus von B├╝low, then on US$1 million bail for the attempted murder of his wife. Norman Mailer rearranged the place cards so that he could sit next to Kate. A few days later, Mailer, infatuated, sent her a play he had written, Strawhead, about Marilyn Monroe. He wanted Fitzpatrick to play the lead. She declined.

The Jungle is as fabulously multifarious as Kate’s life. Made up of a dozen or more ‘playlets’, it’s set over one 24-hour period in Louis’ beloved Kings Cross and traces a dazzling array of characters and intersecting stories. Unlike Kate’s life, though, it’s impeccably structured.

One of the first things I did when I was appointed Artistic Director of Griffin Theatre Company in 2003 was to call Louis. I knew that even though he lived just around the corner from Griffin’s home at the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross, and even though he was one of the Cross’s most well-known and active literary identities, he had never had one of his plays performed at his local theatre.

Louis pitched a play called The Woman with Dog’s Eyes. I liked the title. Its Homeric origins were playful and its suggestion of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying was evocative. Louis was, I must say, somewhat sketchy on the detail, but the story seemed intriguing and right for the space. I programmed the play even though Louis hadn’t written a word. Every Artistic Director takes that kind of calculated risk at some point, though few admit it. But I wanted to make a splash in my first season, and risk and reward are close friends.

Louis was considering a trilogy at this point, but kept that to himself. After all, Dog’s Eyes might not take off. He needn’t have worried: the production sold almost every ticket. The Marvellous Boy (2005) and The Emperor of Sydney (2006) followed successfully and together these three plays, now known as The Boyce Trilogy, formed one of the main dishes of my three seasons as Artistic Director.

The project gave us all a great deal of pleasure. Nicholas Dare (set and costumes) and Matthew Marshall (lighting) designed all three productions, and the actors remained committed to their characters throughout, with Toby Schmitz playing Luke Boyce in all three plays and Alex Dimitriades, Jack Finsterer and Danny Adcock reprising their roles too. This continuity is a rare thing in theatre, and I’m sure it contributed greatly to the trilogy’s considerable success at the box office.

Like The Jungle, The Boyce Trilogy is made up independent components that create something more than the sum of the parts. Similarly, it also draws from the very life of Sydney. Louis has a remarkable ability to take significant elements of true events and to transform them into something indisputably his fiction, so that they become ghosts in the dramaturgical machine. It went unremarked upon in the media, though not in the foyer, that The Woman with Dog’s Eyes was inspired by events that traumatised Sydney’s Moran family, details of which were aired in a $1m court case. I remember being at a performance at which a lawyer’s jaw dropped as the production unfolded. She was personally involved with the Moran case and saw in the play a corollary that shocked her in its insight and audacity. She claimed to know exactly how the trilogy would end. She was wrong.

The second play, The Marvellous Boy, draws on different real-life Sydney stories. The disappearance and presumed murder of Juanita Nielson is one of Australia’s great unsolved crimes, a stand-out badge of 1970s Sydney, and an iconic Kings Cross story. It sits as an influence on the play. Jim Anderson, the ‘Iago of Kings Cross’ and business partner of the late Abe Saffron, is reflected in the character of Ray. Like Ray, Anderson was closely linked with suspicious fires, and he did die of bird flu. Frank Theeman, property developer and founder of the Osti fashion empire, similarly inhabits parts of the patriarch Malcolm Boyce. It is testament to Louis’ ability to transform and own his sources that Malcolm Boyce, over the first two plays, can suggest identities as distinct in time and place as Doug Moran and Frank Theeman, yet be completely himself.

The trilogy, I think, asks a lot of difficult questions that remind me of Louis’ preoccupations as a writer. Is it possible to escape the genetic influence of our parents? How does ‘madness’ operate within families, marriages and society? How do the weak win? What is the value and cost of empire? How does one move from emotional detachment to irresistible and redefining love? These are very familiar, Nowraesque concerns. Madness, the displaced and the dysfunctional all operate in the texture of these plays just as they have from the very beginnings of this writer’s journey. In the deaf Victor, for example, we see a figure that forms part of a genetic strand stretching back to Louis’ first play, Albert Names Edward (1975), and through probably a dozen or more since. Dynastic families, with their attendant illnesses, are also familiar terrain, as is the desire for empire.

Louis’ latest work is Kings Cross: A Biography, a 600-page and completely engrossing love letter to the streets where he lives with his wonderful wife, Mandy Sayer, and to the people and histories housed (or not housed) there. Published just last month, it’s an indispensable expression of the most densely populated and paradoxical patch in Australia.

The book's publication highlights the extraordinary variety and scale of Louis’ creative output, something that clearly caught the eye of the Patrick White Award judges. He is the writer of plays, novels, libretti, screenplays and two memoirs. But that's not all. Like many playwrights (Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Brendan Cowell), Louis is a cricket fanatic, which helps to make his 2002 book Warne's World: A Personal Appreciation of Shane Warne full of insight. In 2007, he contributed Bad Dreaming, a controversial book on violence in Aboriginal communities. He was one of the principal writers of the landmark, multi award-winning 2008 SBS TV documentary series First Australians. He created the TV series The Straits. He is a sometimes provocative cultural commentator, with essays appearing regularly in The Monthly and the Australian Literary Review as well as major newspapers. I really don’t know how he fits it all in.

But then again, his life was always sensationally and strangely full, as kaleidoscopic as Kate Fitzpatrick's. Both his grandmothers ended up in asylums. His mother, who had married into the Indonesian royal family, murdered her father, who had served at Gallipoli. She would later marry a truck-obsessed, working class Australian Catholic of Irish descent – Louis' much-absent father. When Louis had done something wrong, his mother would put him in a dress and make him walk up and down the street. At other times, she would dress him as a Dutch dyke worker, Aborigine or cowboy. While playing in a drain pipe as a child, his clothes caught fire and, after running in terror towards the pipe's opening and standing up just a little too soon, he emerged into sunlight with his scalp hanging down the back of his neck. He still has a massive scar from ear to ear. For years, his brain was dysfunctional and he sat at the bottom of the class, barely able to spell. Later, suddenly, his mind opened and he soared to the top of the class, devouring literature, especially Nabokov. He would have an insatiably sexual relationship with a transvestite and become obsessed with mushrooms.  

I remember Louis telling me, during rehearsals for The Golden Age, that he wanted to write a great play about love. He didn't know whether The Golden Age was that. The desire is apparent, still, in The Boyce Trilogy. Finally, and most movingly, it lays bare a young man’s fight for the right to be himself, and the right to love. It argues for the weak over the strong, empathy over detachment and love over vanity. In its closing moment, the marvellous boy at the centre of all three plays speaks gently to his monstrous but now dead father, and forgives. I sense much of Louis is this character. As the Award judges remarked yesterday, ‘from the outset his writing has shown an uncompromising, passionate, but also comic or satirical engagement with issues of oppression, injustice, alienation and corruption’. It’s a good summary, I think, and testament to a writer and man who has always wanted to leave the world a more just, more creative and more loving place.

Brett Whiteley's portrait of Patrick White  

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