A confession: As a child I was profoundly influenced by a production I saw of ‘Happy Days’. Sadly, not the Beckett version but the one with the Fonz. Although both were patently existential masterpieces.
The fact that ‘Happy Days’ could be a seminal absurdist play and also a popular TV sitcom was a revelation to me in my confused youth and I have since pursued a career founded on a similar co-existence of high and low art.
Over the years I have heard many actors confess to a recurring dream/ nightmare where they are standing up on stage on opening night only to find that they have completely forgotten their lines.
I have a playwright’s version where it is opening night, there’s a full house brimming with breathless anticipation (which is my first clue that it’s a dream) and a hush descends over the theatre as a spotlight falls on the actor poised to utter the first line… but nothing comes out.
Meanwhile I’m sitting in the middle of this now uneasy audience with everyone staring at me – including the director and the actors – and I suddenly realise that I’ve forgotten to write the play.
They’ve been rehearsing, designing, printing posters and selling tickets whilst I’ve entirely overlooked sitting down at my computer. Yet the dream invariably ends with a call the next day from my agent who says that the reviews are positively glowing and by far the best I’ve ever had.
And so the dream is once again on REM sleep’s high rotation as another (real) opening night looms…
hinterland n.1 the remote areas of a country. 2. an area lying beyond what is visible or known. ORIGIN C19: from Ger., hinter ‘behind’.
Perusing the dictionary aimlessly one day, as I often do, I alighted on the above word as the title of my new play. It immediately conjured a certain nation ruled by a certain regime (can’t say too much, ASIO is monitoring).
Hinterland is intended as a scathing satire of a government led by a very small man. Now I’m not sure if anyone comes to mind… One of the rare joys of being ludicrously tall (not that you can tell from off-the-page) is that I can pillory short people and Hinterland is about a very small leader of a very small state.
The play was commissioned by Melbourne Theatre Company several years ago and, I’m ashamed to confess, I have been secretly hoping that a certain Prime Minister would still be in power when the play was staged. Yes, I would rather untold numbers of people suffer under heartless rule just so I can garner a few extra laughs in the second act. Who says artists are selfish?
And yet selfishness dovetails imperceptibly with these oppressive and morally bankrupt times. Selective humanity prevails, underpinned by misguided patriotism, as evidenced in myopic news reports heralding the “death of a hundred people” in far flung parts of the world and made relevant to us by the grave addition of “including one Australian.” The implication being that what was previously ‘a shame’ has become ‘a tragedy’ courtesy only of a countryman’s mortal involvement.
No doubt there is a tacit sliding scale of human worth in the minds of our news editors where one Australian life equals say ten American/British lives and then you just simply add zeros as necessary for third world countries.
We live in a nation more unified in concern for a boatful of distressed sheep than people. And it seems the medieval ‘Ship of Fools’ practice will continue to hold policy appeal for time immemorial. Have we become the hinterland of the world? A land behind? Receding into the shadows of our better nature?
These were some of the questions percolating in the mind during the writing process, fuelled by a current day government whose vision for the future is best described as 1950. Not to mention an opposition still trying to work out what a vision is.
However, Hinterland is not even remotely an exercise in Australian party politics. The play is universal and Kafkaesque and hopefully speaks to the absurdity of our times. It centres on an ordinary citizen, Henry Quealy, who has become a shadow of his former self. Literally. He is a man who, if not losing the human race, is certainly bringing up the rear. As a result he is bureaucratically replaced by a superior version of himself, thereby relegating him to the shadows. The play was written as a cry for help. A waving arm for a drowning soul. But is there even a lifeguard on the beach?
The first reading occurred early in what has ultimately been a two year odyssey from conception to production. A first reading of a new play is always an anxiety-riddled exercise, akin to witnessing a small, mangy dog limp across a six lane highway during peak hour traffic. The situation seems hopeless but you can’t help barracking for it to safely reach the other side.
It is at this point with every new play that I ask myself: Why did I become a writer? The easy answer is I was terrible at maths. The truth is I blame my parents.
I had a desperate upbringing for a playwright. Not even a hint of abuse let alone a divorce. Instead, and with unmitigated cruelty, my parents provided an unrelentingly secure and blissful childhood to someone whose career clearly required painful memories for storylines. It was this absolute absence of a troubled background that precipitated a vivid imagination.
What has always drawn me to the theatre is that the absurd, the abstract and the surreal seem to make sense there. To me the theatre is as much about the surrounding darkness as it is about the light. A spotlight on an actor on an otherwise dark stage draws our eye to the character within that light but it also prompts us to wonder about the darkness being pierced. What do we imagine exists in that darkness?
My writing style for the theatre derives from an early lesson at school about the metaphor and the simile. I remember the teacher saying that a simile is where one thing is said to be ‘like’ another whereas a metaphor is where one thing is said to ‘be’ another. My imagination was instantly piqued by the metaphor. It seemed braver, less equivocal. It demanded a greater leap to make the connection but the rewards seemed greater.
I first encountered the theatre as a boy when a friend’s mother took us to see her amateur theatre show. Immediately I was seduced by the artifice, the dilapidated grandeur and the deception. To discover backstage that what I had imagined to be a whole world was in fact a few flimsy flats and a door leading nowhere made me feel complicit in what seemed like a beautiful lie.
Unlike the lies emanating from our glorious leader, strutting the world’s stage like a colossus and hugging already-damaged citizens at random. Hinterland mines the unease of our times, the dis-ease that lurks and hovers and gnaws away at us. And all overseen by a government purporting to ease our fear whilst nurturing it and feeding it with labyrinthine spin and fridge magnets. It has long been the ploy of corrupt power to convince the people they are in peril and then offer themselves as the only protection. After all, it won the last election.
Happy days indeed… And every time I wake up it seems to me that my recurring dream is not actually about attending the opening night of my play only to realise that I have forgotten to write it. It is the fear that I might have written a play without something worthwhile to say at a time when we most need to hear it.
Hinterland by Matt Cameron, produced by Melbourne Theatre Company, opens January 14 at The Victorian Arts Centre, directed by Peter Houghton and featuring Tom Long and Kim Gyngell.