How did you get into directing?
It probably started by doing bad acting in high school! I was pretty interested in all things arts related at school and used to (very egotistically!) write my own plays and direct them and act in them. But it was pretty clear that not only was I a terrible actor, but also it was far more the role of sitting outside and the whole creation of a world that fuelled me the most.
Once I left school I did some training at the West Australian Academy of Performing Acts, which was a really amazing three years. I also started my own company when I left school called “Thin Ice” which I ran for 10 years in Perth. This really was my training ground. Directing is not really something you can learn in a classroom. Like a trade or a craft, you learn by doing. So by starting a small company and putting on shows was my way of learning how to do it.
I have been the Artistic Director for Malthouse for a year and a half, and was the Associate Director for three years prior to that. I think it is an incredible place to be leading.
Why did you want to direct “Away”?
Many reasons! The first reason was I have quite an interest in taking on Australian classics and stories that are familiar. I think they grow more in their status as a classic by being reinterpreted and re-explored. I don’t think we tell our stories enough.
So I was looking at plays that people already knew from the Australian canon and how we could see them fresh and I re-read Away and it made my weep, which was the thing really caught me. The way that the three mothers in the piece are portrayed, three mothers who essentially have their children taken away from them too early, I found that deeply moving.
Why do you think “Away” has become an iconic Australian classic?
I think it is because we see ourselves in it. I think because Michael (writer Michael Gow) has rendered those characters to do that extraordinary thing where you read them or see them and go, “I know that person. They are members of my family.” So I think he has managed to create something that is deeply recognisable and that means flawed as well.
As a play it is incredibly sad, it has a lot of loss in it. But that is countered with a lot of love, so in essence it is a tragedy but I think Michael has found a way to make a play that is very warm and entertaining to watch. It is also quite a surprising piece of theatre and is not a very conventional work, despite its reputation of perhaps being one.
I think a great strength of it is that the concept of the story sounds quite simple, but the realisation of it is actually quite complex. You have three families going through a very turbulent experience, but at the same time, they are painting an incredible portrait of Australia. That portrait is not completely flattering either, as it touches on uncomfortable issues like class, a burgeoning theme of xenophobia, and ultimately people who struggle to talk to each other. Issues audiences can still relate to today! But we see these families struggle through these issues, so ultimately the play offers grace when you watch it.
What are the challenges with directing such a well-known play?
I think the challenge is to make sure that the play is surprising, while also making sure people recognise they are familiar with it. The audience will come to the play with assumptions and I want to, from the very beginning, make sure that we show the audience that this is going to be entertaining, but that they will see the characters through a different lens. So we don’t want to stray too far from what you hope the work would be, but at the same time, reveal new layers to it.
What do you hope the audience gets out of Away?
I hope they get to see and feel their own anxieties played out on stage. I think there is a sense of coming together to celebrate in many ways what it means when people are able to unite and share their anxieties and share their sadness, and I think this is something to be celebrated. This play is a chance for people to come and experience something where you feel a lot, which is an amazing experience to share with an audience in the dark. The play offers sadness, but also offers a lot of joy.
What do you think is in store for Australian theatre?
I think we are going to see more and more in our theatre about the joys and complexities about Australian society. I think we are at a time when the Australian identity and all its multitudes of identities want to be seen on our stages. I think we are going to see Australian stages that are not so white and are not so patriarchal anymore, because that is the new Australia. And that is exciting.
“Away” is showing at the Sydney Theatre Company from 18 Feb to 25 March, before travelling to the Malthouse Theatre in May. Tickets are on-sale now
Sydney – sydneytheatre.com.au
Malthouse – malthousetheatre.com.au