Robert ReidRobert Reid is an award winning playwright from Melbourne, and the Artistic Director and co-founder of Theatre in Decay. He’s a prolific writer, writing between seven and fifteen plays a year, and has written all but one of the plays for Theatre in Decay. Reid has also had work produced by other companies throughout Australia, and is currently in Perth for the world premier of Portraits of Modern Evil - the second draft of which was commissioned by the Black Swan Theatre Company - and which is currently being performed by the Hotbed Ensemble.

I caught Reid not long after he landed in Perth, before attending the opening night of Portraits, and asked him if he was excited about the world premier. “No, not particularly,” he chuckled, “this is like my 60th opening night, the edge wears off after a while.” Not bad for a writer under 35. I asked him what he put his fruitfulness down to. “My stock response used to be – well, I don’t sleep – and that was certainly true back then. Now I just say that it’s what I do.”

Reid is no shrinking violet when it comes to voicing his opinion about where theatre in Australia is headed. In his original manifesto for Theatre in Decay, he writes: “[We] are sick to death of new companies claiming to have revolutionised theatre while recycling the same tired old movement exercises. We are not impressed. We say the answer is not to place a few TV screens onstage in a vein attempt to become Multimedia…Now that acting has become about the actor's internal struggle, audiences feel left out. Really, who wants to pay good money to watch someone else masturbate? If theatre claims the moral ground of high art, then we take the brutal and scatological low ground. Real art comes from the gutter. From the sewer.”

Considering one of the central characters of Portraits of Modern Evil is based on Australia’s first serial killer, Eddie Leonski, it would seem that Reid is adhering to his manifesto. The idea for the play came about when Reid was working on a project that saw him researching the history of Melbourne; he came across Eddie Leonski and found out that Albert Tucker, the famous Australian painter, had painted a portrait inspired by him. Reid discovered that the two men had a similar background in many ways, and, ever the artist, he imaged what their conversation might have been had Leonski actually sat for Tucker.

The play is set in Melbourne during the Second World War. A recently repatriated Tucker is engaged by a homesick Leonski to paint his portrait so he can send it home to America. Tucker, who is struggling to keep private the psychological damage he incurred during the war, starts to recognise elements of Leonski in himself; a chilling realisation for Tucker. For Leonski however - who has had no-one with whom to share the violence that lurks within him – the identification is liberating and bloody. And for both there are brutal consequences.
{xtypo_quote_right}There are interesting parallels between Tucker and Leonski in their violent approach to women; one through his painting, and one with his hands{/xtypo_quote_right}
Tucker is well known for the ‘Images of Modern Evil’ series of paintings he produced during and after the war, and their merciless portrayal of women. I asked Reid if he addressed this and he said that this comprises one of the main themes of the play. “There are interesting parallels between Tucker and Leonski in their violent approach to women; one through his painting, and one with his hands.” Reid went on to comment that although he hasn’t delved deep into all of Tucker’s work, he particularly likes the ‘Images of Modern Evil’ series because of Tucker’s use of colour.

Portraits of Modern Evil is a play about the universality of war and the brutal impact it can have. It explores the frailty of human nature, a subject not unknown to Reid himself. His 2005 award winning play A Mile in Her Shadow is based on Reid’s own experience with Dissociation Disorder (a term describing a range of conditions that disrupt the typical integration of self-perception and behaviour; an extreme expression of the disorder was formerly known as multiple personality disorder). I asked Reid if, since writing A Mile in Her Shadow, he felt a greater sense of freedom in exploring this aspect of human nature and he replied, “Not since I wrote it, as I do look at it with a lot of my work. A Mile in Her Shadow is about breaking it apart, where Portraits is targeted more at a mainstream audience.” And it’s in this direction that Reid has developed his writing style after A Mile in Her Shadow: “My rhythmical approach to language is still the same, but I learnt how to write for a bigger audience while achieving the same effect - but in a less confronting way so there’s less work for the audience to do, but they can still engage with the ideas.”

Robert Reid Being both a writer and a visual artist (with a background in art history), Reid is keen for an audience to be engaged on several levels and uses multimedia images in the play. When I asked him how much he thinks in visuals when he’s writing, he replied, “I do and I don’t. I don’t write a lot of stage direction… it’s like opening up a window in your head and seeing what’s there, but I don’t like to restrict a director.” Despite the fact that Reid has directed many of his own plays, he has no qualms about handing over a script to another director, enjoying instead what comes from collaborative processes, such as this one with The Hotbed Ensemble. “The more people that are involved in a project opens up the scope of interpretations of the work.”


Portraits of Modern Evil is now playing at PICA. Further information»

Read our review»

Top Right - Robert Reid
Bottom Right: Opening Night - Adam Mitchell, Amanda Woodhams, Jo Morris and Robert Reid. Photo - Madolyn Grove

Most read reviews

Ethiopian & Still Not Hungry | Joe White

White’s ingenuous charm held the audience spellbound for a set lasting just over an hour.

A Very, Very Good Variety Show | Perth Cabaret Collective

The capacity audience at Downstairs at the Maj certainly got their money’s worth on Thursday night.