Significant men in the public eye of their times, and important figures in Australian civic and cultural history. For those of you unfamiliar with these men, Barry was a prodigious figure in the early history of Victoria, and although best known as the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to hang, his true legacy was as the founder of a great many of Victoria’s public institutions, including Melbourne University and the State Library of Victoria (then the Melbourne Public Library), as well as serving as the president of sundry cultural societies too numerous to list. Clarke, more than a generation younger, was one of our early bohemian public intellectuals, a journalist and satiric writer who contributed prolifically to a wide array of periodicals but is best remembered for writing the famous convict novel For The Term of His Natural Life. In 1872 Barry gave Clarke a job at the Library and over the years groomed him for advancement within the ranks of the librarians. It is this relationship, between these two great figures of early Australian intellectual life that took place in this library that is the subject of the new play The Future Australian Race.
It is charmingly appropriate then, that the choice of venue for this new piece is the State Library itself. That the very institution which Barry himself founded and where he employed Clarke should host a play concerning their relationship over a century later has a tremendously appealing sense of poetic symmetry.
The production’s advertising contains some slightly misleading notions, in particular, the prominent tagline “Redmond Barry vs. Marcus Clarke”, suggesting an ardent clash of egos, a diametric opposition of opinions, whereas the play actually explores a far more subtle dynamic. Furthermore, the titular notion of Barry and Clarke contemplating the nature of Australia’s future peoples and their cultural life as part of this conceptual battleground is also a trifle overstated.
Granted, these things are discussed, but they are amongst many topics. The clash of perspectives stems from the men’s differences in life. Barry was a powerful and respected public figure, an Anglophile social conservative obsessed with establishing proper British institutions and promoting social growth and cohesion, while Clarke was a perpetually bankrupt drinker, an irreverent satirist who preferred Australians to carve out their own unique identity and wasn’t adverse to putting the noses of the establishment out of joint. Furthermore, Barry did not see fiction as worthy of inclusion in the Library’s holdings!
However, it was not all cut and dried. As observed in a speech at the after-show drinks, Barry was perhaps a “radical conservative” while Clarke a “conservative radical”. While these differences of perspective contributed to their many intellectual discussions, a somber and impassioned central debate over the soul of the blossoming nation was hardly the key focus of the play as presented.
The piece is predominantly about these two historical figures themselves as characters and how they relate to each other as individuals from rather different sides of the street, over the course of almost a decade. It is also something of an examination of the pitfalls of a patronage relationship, the fundamental difficulty of maintaining a friendship with one’s benefactor (and vice versa) when being groomed for advancement in a job one doesn’t necessarily care all that deeply about. We see the way differing expectations and agendas can lie just beneath the surface of seemingly egalitarian discourse. We are shown nepotism at work, and how turning a blind eye to an underling’s indiscretions or, conversely, biting one’s tongue in front of a superior, can have difficult consequences in the long term. In particular we see that giving self-destructive people too many second chances is not always in their best interests, let alone one’s own.
The play doesn’t have much of a traditional plot, but the personalities, topics and setting are so engrossing that one hardly notices. Praise for this of course goes to Sue Gore and Bill Garner’s highly engaging script, as well as the fine duo of actors. Jim Daly as Barry is superb, in a performance that effortlessly weaves between totally convincing deadpan and some slightly more arch theatricality, all the while embodying the character utterly. Luke Ryan is also very good as Clarke, although at times his performance style edges a little closer to caricature than seems warranted. Nevertheless, the two make an excellent team, ably directed by Peter Houghton. Staged inventively over a simple setup (you couldn’t even call it a set – just a long table and chairs covered in books) in the Library’s opulent Queen’s Hall, the skilful balance of the predominantly naturalistic dialogue and more representational blocking is both well-conceived and successfully executed.
It is a delight to see a new play of this quality on so fascinating a topic as this, concerning some of our intellectual heritage and rich history in the period of our transition from colony to nationhood. Definitely recommended.
THE FUTURE AUSTRALIAN RACE
Written by Sue Gore & Bill Garner
Venue: Queen’s Hall, State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston St
Dates: May 7 – 24
Times: Mon-Tues @ 6.30pm; Wed-Sat @ 7.30pm
Matinees: Thurs @ 1pm & Sat @ 2pm
Tickets: Previews $20/$15 Season $30/$25