|Written by Paul Andrew|
|Thursday, 08 October 2009 00:00|
Andrew Bovell is one of Australia's most acclaimed playwrights. His award winning play Speaking In Tongues was adapted for the screen, becoming the smash hit Australian movie Lantana, while his work with the Melbourne Workers Theatre Who's Afraid of the Working Class? (co-written with Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irene Vela), also adapted for the screen, was recently released as the Ana Kokkinos movie, Blessed.
His latest play, When The Rain Stops Falling, was heralded in its Premiere Season as part of the 2008 Adelaide Festival and after a sell-out season in Sydney, comes to Melbourne as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Andrew Bovell spoke to Australian Stage's Paul Andrew.
What inspired you to become a playwright?
It feels like a long time ago. I was drifting toward the end of a Bachelor of Arts at UWA in Perth when I first became involved in theatre. I wrote a short play, entered a competition, it won. The prize was a week's workshop with actors. And that week made a lot of sense to me - the whole process of working with a director, with actors, together uncovering the meaning of a play. I just loved it, I knew it's what I wanted to do. It just took that little bit of recognition and support for me to begin, to make a commitment to becoming a playwright.
I was then accepted into the VCA. It was the early 1980's in Melbourne when a lot of independent work was being made. Coming from Perth, Melbourne was an exciting, wonderful city to be in. The city itself was a huge influence on me - an inspiration. I felt like I had escaped my childhood and was growing up. The VCA - and later being a part of the Melbourne Workers Theatre - were formative, influential experiences for me.
What keeps you enthusiastic about Theatre?
I feel like there is unmapped terrain in theatre. There are still things to be discovered - ways of shaping and creating work - new modes of expression to be unlocked, boundaries to be pushed. It has the potential to be a radical form of art in that can continually question the status quo. On the other hand, if it fails to do this, it becomes deeply conservative and staid. It's an interesting time for me - as audiences beyond Australia have become interested in my work. So I guess there is a sense of possibility too.
Tell me about this play' s early beginnings?
Chris Drummond - see his introduction in the Currency Press edition of the play - wanted to bring together a number of people who he was interested in working with, myself, the visual artist Hossein Valamanesh and composer Quentin Grant. The four of us began a conversation around some big ideas about humanity's relationship to the planet. We took this conversation into a workshop in Adelaide where the first ideas about form, narrative and character began to emerge. Eventually there was a writing phase in which the actual play took shape.
I understand the work's original working title was The Extinction Project - that you took a lead from Tim Flannery's book, The Future Eater's ?
Tim's book was a starting point and encouraged us to think about big ideas. Particularly, we were interested in how man could impact upon his environment and exhaust it's resources.
The pattern of human movement that Flannery identified was really interesting to us. Once a group exhausted the particular resources of a place, it moved on, to another place. But what if there was no where else to go. What then?
Well that's the question we face as a race now. There is no where else to go. There is no other island. Therefore we must adapt or face extinction. So the idea of change - the human capacity to change - is central to this play.
This lead me to thinking about the period of Enlightenment in the late 18th century and thinking about the possibility that we are not entering a dark phase of human development, that instead, we are entering a new period of enlightenment.
Whilst in Paris I discovered a painting by Goya - Saturn Devouring His Children - this strangely brought me back to Flannery's book - the idea of consuming our future. When you look at the play you might wonder where all these ideas lead but the inter-generational saga that the play became had its origins in one question - What is the relationship between the past, the present, the future?
Tell me briefly about the play's beginning, a fish falling from heaven?
It's 2039. Gabriel York lives alone in Alice Springs when he receives a phone call from his son who he has not seen for twenty years. He wants to see him very much, however, he feels guilty for having abandoned him as a child. He panics - realizing he has nothing to give him for lunch - that this lack, is a symbol of his inability to look after, to nurture his own child. He goes out hoping to find something for lunch, in the midst of a storm a fish falls out of the sky. It lands at his feet. The odd thing is that he is in the middle of a desert and, in this fictional 2039, fish are almost extinct. So a kind of miracle begins the play. During the play, another character, Henry Law, Gabriel York's grandfather predicts that fish will fall from the sky, it will be a sign that the world is ending. So, the question - Is the fish a symbol of the earth's bounty and renewal or is it a sign that nature is turning against us - a forewarning of the end.?
While writing the play did you have a favourite character?
I was genuinely interested in all nine characters equally. A common element to my work is that there is no hierarchy or importance. The plays usually look at a group of people at a certain time or place, not an individual. Characters in my work aren't there simply to support another character's story. In other words there are no spear-throwers. Every body gets their turn, their moment of revelation or discovery. And a common criticism of my work has been that there is always a long set up while I'm establishing a number of character and narrative lines that will run through the play. Lantana was criticized for this as well. But this idea, how each member of the group impacts differently on other members, is also one of the work's strengths I think.
Set between England and Australia tracing four generations of family between 1959 and 2039 - is this ultimately a play about inheritance - perhaps helping us to gain a deeper sense of social and cultural inheritance than we are now accustomed to?
Yes. It's about the legacy we inherit from our parents and the legacy we then pass on to our children. It's about the damage that is passed on down through the generations, the courage it takes to overcome the patterns of mis-communication and the secrets that can mark a family. Hopefully, this idea of inheritance, of legacy, as seen within the generations of this family acts, as a metaphor, for broader questions of social and cultural responsibility the play raises.
How, if it all, do you feel that Rain follows on from your earlier works - like Speaking in Tongues - for example?
The links between the plays are difficult for me to identify. But both plays work like a puzzle, asking the audience to piece together a narrative to discover the whole picture. Maybe this is a distinguishing characteristic of my work. I am interested in structure, how narrative can be shaped to engage audiences. So time - the temporal plain of narrative - is important to me as a writer. That said, the next play may just happen in one room at one time.
What quality in your play do you feel resonates most with audiences?
Family. There are a couple of things expressed in the play - that we stop talking to one another because we have nothing left to say - but having nothing to say to one another is just another way of having so much to say, that we dare not even begin.
Estrangement between parents and children - that we drift slowly away from one another - is very strong in the play too. This has really caught people's attention - how people seem to relate to this estrangement. I have learned that after seeing the play, people make conscious efforts to reconcile with estranged family members, to say these things that have gone unsaid for too long. There is also another powerful idea being conveyed - no matter how bad the damage of the past there is the possibility it can be left behind in the future.
When The Rain Stops Falling opens October 12 at the Sumner Theatre, MTC, as part of the 2009 Melbourne International Arts Festival.