Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Personal reflections on Alan Seymour, 1927-2015

Alan Seymour loved life like no one I have ever known, so I was particularly saddened to learn of his passing, aged 87.

I directed Sydney Theatre Company’s 2003 revival of Alan’s groundbreaking play The One Day of the Year. The play, written in 1958 when Alan was 31, was famously rejected in 1960 by the very first Adelaide Festival as being too controversial. An amateur company produced the work in that city in the same year, and in Sydney the following year the first professional production earned Alan death threats.

It is now one of the great cornerstones of the Australian theatre. Its nominal subject is ANZAC Day and the limits of Australian mateship and masculinity, but it’s a play, I think, that ranks with the best family dramas the world has. The war in Iraq was intensifying as we rehearsed, lending fresh frisson, but finally it was the human drama of father and son that affected people the most. To see Max Cullen as Alf and Nathaniel Dean as son Hughie, with Kris McQuade as the mother in between and Ron Haddrick (Alf in the 1961 Sydney production) and Eloise Oxer intervening from the sides, was to witness ruptures known to families everywhere. It was a privilege to be with Alan during that revival.

Alan, born in Fremantle in 1927, left Australia in 1961 and returned to live in Sydney in 1995. This meant that his fame in Australia was muted. I first met him at a dinner at the Newtown home of Nick Enright not long after Alan returned. Nick, ever the generous host and theatre historian, was keen to introduce Alan to Sydney’s theatre world. I learned then of Alan’s substantial career in London. He was a television writer, producer and commissioning editor with the BBC. His work included Frost in May, House of Eliott, the hugely popular adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia series, and an adaptation of John Masefield's novel The Box of Delights, which won Alan a BAFTA award in 1984. He also worked as a theatre critic for The Observer. He made a rare foray into Australia when he wrote the screenplay for the 1988 TV movie Tudawali about the life and times of Aboriginal actor Robert Tudawali, who had starred in the 1955 Charles Chauvel film Jedda. Frustratingly for him, Alan found that he was defined in Australia by The One Day of the Year. He wrote at least ten other plays, mostly unproduced. At least his facility with television led him to the screenplay for the 2000 TV adaptation of Bryce Courtenay’s The Potato Factory. His dramatisation was thought by some to be an improvement on the novel. In 2007 he was awarded the Order of Australia Medal for his services to the arts. That was something. 

Nick Enright died on the day of the first technical rehearsal of the STC production. My final conversation with Nick was about many things, but included Nick’s desire that Alan’s old play be a new success. Nick knew that it was important to Alan for many reasons. Mostly, I think, it was because Alan knew that his partner of 54 years, Ron Baddeley, was close to death and that this would be their final chance to share the play on stage. Ron, a quiet psychologist, was there on opening night, frail and wheelchair bound due to an amputated leg, and full of love and pride. He died, aged 80, a few months later.

Alan and Ron shared a rich and resonant life. They even lived in Turkey, home of the Gallipoli Peninsula, for five years between 1966 and 1971 – a book almost came of the experience. I didn’t know Ron well – he was mostly too frail for company – but I did get to know Alan. His passion for life privately shamed me. He bounced around his Darlinghurst kitchen like a flourishing youth, preparing sumptuous salmon and savouring champagne. He told stories of Turkey and of London, of landscapes, lives and loves. He railed against Murdoch and rallied for fresh talent. He admired the young men I introduced him to, and was keen for gossip. I don’t think I have ever met someone so embracing of a sensual and accentuated life. He gave up religion at aged 15 and took up the song of experience.    

When Alzheimer’s gripped him, robbing him of story and safety, Alan was moved to care in Lulworth House in Elizabeth Bay. His death in the centenary of ANZAC, a somehow cruel joke, also brings with it a sense of comforting continuity. A new production of The One Day of the Year, directed by Denis Moore, will tour regional centres this year, and another, directed by former STC Artistic Director Wayne Harrison, will open at London’s Finborough Theatre in May.     

Goodbye, and welcome, dear Alan.

[Relatives and friends of Alan are invited to his funeral, to take place in the chapel of Walter Carter, 302 Oxford Street (opposite Denison Street), Bondi Junction on Thursday 26th March commencing at 2:30 pm. In lieu of flowers, donations to the Australian Writers Guild Donations Fund would be appreciated.]

1 comment:

  1. Vincent O'Donnell27 March 2015 at 11:11


    Robert Tudawali starred as Marbuckin, Rosalie Kunoth-Monks starred a s Jedda.