HANGING MAN by Andrew Upton

6 Mar 2015

Tom Healey on the latest release from Red Door


Red Door: Open to bold Australian plays.
click here to find out more Andrew Upton

I should start with a disclaimer: Andrew and I have known each other – on and off – for more than thirty years. We met as theatre-struck teenagers at the (then) Australian National Playwrights Conference, studied at Sydney University and then the Victorian College of the Arts together, where he trained as a director. I view him, then and now, as one of the most intriguing artists working in Australian theatre; he runs the biggest state theatre company in the country and yet, outside the inner circle of the profession the only widely-known fact about him is that he is the husband of Cate Blanchett.

Somehow, this is typical of Andrew – both that he works in such a high-octane job and that his public profile is so modest. My initial and overwhelming impression of him when we first met was of someone passionate, intense, hilarious and highly-strung. It was clear to me that he was going to ‘do something’ even then and, over a now thirty-year career in the theatre as a playwright, dramaturg, adaptor, director and artistic director, he is a living example of the great Stanislavskian axiom, “Love art in yourself, not yourself in art.”

Hanging Man was commissioned by Robyn Nevin during her time as Artistic Director of Sydney Theatre Company. It is a play about family, in which three brothers are faced with the future of the estate of their father, an esteemed (fictional) Australian painter. Its text is sharply rhythmic with lots of broken thoughts and overlaps, a writing style which, as Rosemary Neill pointed out in her article covering the opening of Upton’s adaption of Uncle Vanya (also for STC), “has come to be something of a signature … His characters talk over each other in the struggle to express themselves. What’s left unsaid is as important as what is voiced.”

Threaded through the family dynamic are larger and more haunting resonances of contemporary Australia. A painting of Governor Davey’s 1816 speech to the Aborigines is at the core of the father’s legacy and its potential sale drives the action. The painting incorporates (or, depending on the viewpoint, appropriates) Indigenous techniques and has been the centre of controversy in the past. Hidden from sight by the family, it now becomes publicly available. The fallout from this is intense and deeply nuanced. Who stands to make what? What political and/or cultural damage might it  perpetrate? What right has the present to ‘whitewash’ the past?

But the real fascination and, at least in my view, originality of Hanging Man lies in its examination of the relationship between the brothers. Australian playwriting is chock full of plays about men but most often they either valourise or satirise the mateship myth. I am talking about plays I really like – Don’s Party, The Club, The Boys et al – but Hanging Man tackles the material in a thoroughly different way.  It examines how men relate intimately within a family context – father to son, brother to brother. These are not wise-cracking, sexist chauvinists denigrating women and drinking hard. Nor are they disaffected and violent. They are middle class men trying to face the legacy of a powerful father, in whose shadow they feel variously humiliated and resentful.

As a collection, Red Door is unashamedly partisan and its stated purpose is to highlight some plays in our collection that I admire enormously. I admire Hanging Man because it tackles what I feel is one of the most challenging issues that will face white Australia in the next generation, namely this sense of patriarchy and privilege which is our colonial legacy. The question of how to cope with it gracefully, sensitively and, above all, collectively, is the great challenge facing us in this generation. These themes are intricately sewn through the text, sitting quietly under every exchange and shaping everyone who appears on stage. Other plays are being, and will continue to be written around our troubled colonial legacy (Bovell’s Secret River, Christian’s The Governor’s Family) but Upton's response of planting it into the present as subtext, as the ontological experience of twenty-first century white Australia, is provocative, fascinating and, I hope, inspiring for the plays yet to be written around this most feared and fundamental theme. Is Hanging Man the last word on the subject? I profoundly hope not, but it is an intelligent and passionate early shot in the debate.


Tom Healey, March 2015
AustralianPlays.org Literary Manager and curator of its Red Door imprint 


 Tom Healey in conversation with Andrew Upton


Red Door: Open to bold Australian plays.

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