Company B presents a Company B & Melbourne Theatre Company production THE MAN FROM MUKINUPIN written by Dorothy Hewitt and Music by Jim Cotter, at the Belvoir St Theatre.
The production by Rodney Fisher of The Man From Mukinupin by Dorothy Hewitt at the Drama Theatre in the early eighties is one of those theatrical memories that has stayed with me. It was a magical and translating experience. This new production at Belvoir confirms for me, my belief, that this play is one of the great heritages of the Australian repertoire.
Dorothy Hewitt’s work had always been controversial, not only because she “strongly established her career as a stylistically unpredictable and experimental playwright” and often bemused and befuddled her audiences of the time, who were used to more direct methods of story telling, but because her subject matter was often concerning areas of everyday living and culture that were not so publicly spotlighted. And not only was it the sheer audacity of writing about such things for the theatre that outraged or shocked her audiences but the evidence that it was so often so humanly raw and politically “out there” – “in yer face” for its time.
The menstrual blood of BON-BONS AND ROSES FOR DOLLY, the communistic socialism fervour of THE CHAPEL PERILOUS, the sad alcoholism and violence of THIS OLD MAN COMES ROLLING HOME , which shocked the audiences of the time, were all examined with passion and compassion by Dorothy Hewitt, and the facts of real life as she lived and knew were not diluted in her writing to fit the tastes of a society that she felt were often hypocritical and blindsighted. A kind of social realism. It was the fact that she was so consciously observant of the reality of some people’s ordinary lives mixed with a great gift for poetic expression, that flummoxed some of us even further. Dorothy was a poet of some note. It is this fairly naive contemplation, of mine, at the time, of the compartmentalising of the rightness, correctness of form, style and content, that created unease and puzzlement of what to make of her work for the theatre. Then Mr Fisher’s production appeared and I had a “Road to Damascus “enlightenment.”
Ms Hewitt had her feet firmly in a real world and a poetic gift of expression that was reaching for the heavenly parts of our natures. Zeek in Muckinupin, one of the eccentric outcasts of this town speaks: “Sun, moon, and stars, all sweet things…. The stars are above, wherever we are. We walk the earth and gaze into eternity, we ride the Andromeda, see the holes in heaven…” This, last night, struck me as the essence of my experience of this play, now.
Wesley Enoch directs this play with a conscious enveloping of his indigenous origins and his own activist and artistic bent to bring us a production that is brisk and brusque, real and romantic, nostalgic and socially responsible and critical, and rich in its demonstration of not only Dorothy Hewitt’s imaginative enquiry but also rich in his love of the material: its content and form. With his Designers, Set and Costume, Richard Roberts; lighting Rachel Burke, he has created a pleasantly magical environment for us to observe and absorb the world of Mukinupin. Then, using the original music of Jim Cotter, with the arrangements of Alan Johns, who along with Wayne Freer, play infectiously robustly, live, throughout the performance, the aural support is just as persuasive.
I understand that there is illness among the cast which may account for sometimes unevenness in the quality of the work of the actors – sometimes the singing which is obviously quantifiable or the acting which may be a matter of taste. But last night I enjoyed especially Roxanne McDonald as Clarry Hummer and her duet act with a sublime reading of Clemmy Hummer by Valentina Levkkowicz. The two of them sitting in the downstage corner, after the musical and mysterious wanderings of disembodied voices of the opening of the play, pounce onto the choral conceit of the writer’s invention for them with such delighted love and virtuosity that the launching of the audience into the whimsical cultural elemental memories of the play is assured. The compassionate drawing of the severe and hypocritical, (a woman of her times) of Edie Perkins by Kerry Walker is the rudder and guiding force of artistic shape throughout the play. The serious portrait of a maybe unconsciously guilt ridden woman, washing her hands and sleep walking to the verse of Lady Macbeth through the landscape of Mukinupin is exquisitely and painfully drawn. Amanda Muggleton as the benign and affectionately drawn portrait of the thespian, Mercy Montebello, is gorgeous for its sexual equivocations and bewildered motivations, that plump down to pragmatic survival skills. David Page in three portraits of characters in the play’s landscape is delightfully impish in all and in the defining of the characteristics of each. (Sometimes clarity of utterance is a problem in appreciating the inventions fully. This, by the way, is my major problem, sometimes the muffled articulation of the speeches and songs prevented me from comfortingly, knowingly continuing my journey in the play. My comprehension was interrupted.) Max Gillies is especially loving as Zeek, a water diviner and star gazer. The problem of sometimes the acting or singing of the two juvenile leads affects the ultimate soaring of the production but it never prevents the material from impressing or for the characters from registering.
This play was “published in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Western Australia”. It must have been viewed as a Trojan Horse by some. The examination of the rape and genocide of the indigenous peoples, the violence of alcohol, the hypocrisy of the religious beliefs of the community, the lack of comprehension of blighted lives through marriage, war and disenfranchisement must have caused pain in 1979. For it, shatteringly, still does reverberate throughout this new rendering of the play. But the affectionate whimsical balances to these realities, the theatrical references, the Shakespearean quotations, the simple demonstrations of ordinary and simple but deep love amongst the human species keeps the play from being too caustic a confrontation. It is written with such balanced appreciation of life with all of its history, secrets and lies and honoured by this company with such commitment and admiration that I felt that I was watching one of the masterpieces of Australian playwriting. Is this also Australia’s Best Musical?
Playing now until 17 May. Book online or call 02 9699 3444.