Henry Lawson’s legacy is not an easy one to identify. It is wrapped up in the mystery of the Australian identity, which is now, as it was in Lawson’s day, straddled across the divides between urban and rural, between civilised and free, and of course between global and local. Max Cullen’s play, Faces in the Street, somehow manages to explore these weighty notions while remaining firmly grounded in the story of Lawson’s life.
Cullen, who wrote and performs the single character in Faces in the Street, magnificently manoeuvres from one stage of Lawson’s life to the next, depicting his deference to the bush, his initial excitement about Sydney, and his developing disdain for the city. The play explores the early development of that divide between city and country that has been such a driving force in the development of the Australian identity, and it will probably surprise some to come to a deeper understanding of Lawson’s love-hate relationship with the bush.
Cullen’s depiction of Australia’s bard would be almost sardonic, were it not so empathetic. The character is extremely well-developed, while also being well-balanced. I was concerned before going that the play could turn out to be one of those plays that are little more than a thinly veiled series of recitals, but this was nothing of the sort. Cullen’s focus was on Lawson’s life and the development of his writing career and love life.
It is impressive how, in the course of telling this story, Cullen also manages to explore the nature of Lawson’s nationalism, beginning, perhaps predictably, from the publication of Lawson’s first poem, and his most unsubtle work of republican propaganda, 'A Song of the Republic'.
Lawson’s work is replete with this uncomfortable nationalism that simultaneously laments and embraces progress. As the gold rushes ended, Lawson observed in his poem ‘The Roaring Days’ that
“The flaunting flag of progress
Is in the West unfurled
The mighty bush with iron rails
Is tethered to the world”
which is a passage that captures both the unstoppable nature of progress and a sense of lament that the wildness of the Australian bush might be tamed and put into the service of the world beyond our shores. This paradox is used to great effect throughout Cullen’s play, often derived from the bard’s own words.
And words, especially their pronunciation, are the heart of this beautiful work. It is heartwarming to hear the Australian language so eloquently used. Cullen’s speech does not merely portray a historical figure; it evinces a respect and admiration for the cadence and rhythm of Australian English that is rarely heard on our stages. Too often we feel that to be ‘correct’ we must speak English as English people do, but Cullen’s recital elevates the language of Lawson to the same formality and exactitude as that of the Queen of England, without losing its distinctive Australian flavour. I have never heard my own language so eloquently and respectfully spoken.
Cullen’s play masterfully demonstrates just how little has changed since Henry Lawson began to explore Australian nationalism in the late nineteenth century, but far more than that; it tells the moving story of one of Australia’s favourite sons. This is not the story of a nationalist or a republican, but the story of a man who had an inexplicable, and at times inconvenient, attraction to the land of his birth.
Faces In The Street: A Salute To Henry Lawson
by Max Cullen
Venue: Street 2 | Childers Street & University Avenue, City West Canberra
Dates/Times: April 10 – 24 @ 8pm
Tickets: $29 / $25 / $19