La Mama is a Melbourne institution. For forty years it has provided a space where Australian artists, be they poets, playwrights, filmmakers, musicians or technicians, are encouraged try their work. It is always an experience to walk into the tiny theatre space on the ground floor of a building in the inner suburb of Carlton that has been a workshop, a boot and shoe factory, an electrical engineering workshop and a silk underwear factory. You never know how the small space will be configured or how you will be affected by what you see, whether there will be a cast of one or many, but you always know that it will be an innovative and challenging experience. And you also know that some of Australia's leading playwrights were first introduced to audiences in this very space. This is hallowed ground. It has seen early works by the likes of Jack Hibberd, John Romeril and David Williamson, each of whom was involved in the early days of Cafe La Mama, created in 1967 by Betty Burstall following a visit to the La Mama Experimental Theatre in New York's lower east side. Cafe La Mama helped to nurture the formation of the Australian Performing Group (APG) who opened their own space, The Pram Factory, in 1969. The latter closed its doors in September 1982, following the sale of the building two years earlier, but La Mama continues to thrive and has succeeded in nurturing another generation of playwrights amongst them Tess Lysiotis and Richard Frankland.
In this birthday year La Mama is treating audiences to a taste of Australian theatre history. Dorothy Hewitt's The Chapel Perilous (1971) has just opened at La Mama and a season of works by Jack Hibberd, medical doctor, playwright and founding member of of the APG, has just finished. The season included three short plays - Three Old Friends (which launched La Mama in 1967), Just Before the Honeymoon and This Great Gap of Time - and two versions of A Stretch of the Imagination, one created as episodes from a recreation in progress featuring John Flaus, a significant part of Australian theatre and film history in his own right, the other a faithful interpretation of the original play.
Stretch is directed by Greg Carroll and performed by Peter Hosking, both of whom have a long association with the works of Hibberd and this play in particular and Hosking is looking to introduce his character, Monk O'Neill, to Europe in 2008. I wonder how they'll respond to this quintessential ocker male?
Monk O'Neill is, to put it bluntly, an embarrassment. He is yet another realisation of the iconic Aussie male so well known, and dare I say loved, in comedy, theatre, film and literature. He is lewd, crude, and boisterous; a hard drinking womaniser but ultimately a bit of a loner, and he has an archetypically ocker way with words - think of Barry McKenzie. There are curses a plenty, there is rhyming slang (plates of meat, feet) and examples of the anti-authoritarianism and dislike of pretension that have long been a cherished hallmark of the Australian male.
At one point Monk regales us with the story of a visit to Paris and of how he rode his bike into the city and propped his Malvern Star against a flying buttress. It is references like these that place the play firmly in the 1970s and may well create difficulties for younger contemporary audiences, let alone non Australians. You need to have grown up when to own an Australian made, Malvern Star bicycle was the dream of every red-blooded boy, and girl. The next step, for the guys that is, was to own a Holden. But there is much, much more to the script than these specific cultural references and the work as a whole is demanding, engaging, and thought provoking. Having seen the performance you are left with the desire to go back to written word and savour it, knowing that you are being given a perceptive, warts and all, insight into a slice of Australian culture.
Peter Hosking's performance is superb; Monk O'Neill is a part to die for. The role is demanding, covering as it does the full gamut of emotions, often in rapid succession. The script is dense, wordy, travelling from dunny humour to Plato, from destruction of the environment to lyrical evocation of its beauty and, as one audience member was heard to say, a real challenge to learn let alone perform. Hosking seems to manage his role with ease, taking the audience on an emotional and frequently exuberant ride from the physical challenges and realities of a decaying body, back to the joys and sorrows of a life lived with a disarming relish. The mateships, the sexual conquests, the losses (never dwelt on) and finally some acceptance and resolution – writing his will Monk refuses to leave his land to those Albinos; it to go to those who really know and care for it, the Aborigines. We may of course, wisely, take much of what Monk tells us with a generous grain of salt, but this is storytelling at its most engaging.
Hosking's physicality is impressive. As Monk relates episodes from the past, as well as regaling us with the realities of the present (his arthritic joints refuse him the mobility he desires and once possessed), we meet many of the characters from his life – the mates, the women, his dog and his beloved Clydesdale. Everything, from the lovemaking to the fights is brought vividly to life and Hosking's mobile face beautifully registers changes in mood from puzzlement, to sorrow, to wicked joy. Monk O'Neill may encapsulate everything that the modern day feminist despises in the Aussie male, but whilst you are cringing at his lewd carry on, you also find yourself laughing with him, being moved close to tears, and being seduced by his sheer energy and enthusiasm, as he does what he believes every man should do: hurdle(s) and pole volt(s) to death.
Greg Carroll's direction works well with Peter Corrigan's design and Joe Dolce's musical direction (yes he is the composer and performer of Shaddup Your Face!) to complement Hosking's performance and ensure that the pace never flags and this mono drama is always engaging.
If this review leaves you disappointed that you missed the performance then you will at least have a chance to revisit Hibberd's first full length play White With Wire Wheels when it is produced in September this year at Melbourne University where it first saw the light of day.
La Mama presents
by Jack Hibberd
Venue: La Mama at the Carlton Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton
Dates: Wed July 25 - Sat August 4
Times: Weds and Suns @ 6.30pm, Thurs to Sats @ 8pm
Bookings: 9347 6142