Our June picks for community theatre
Tom Healey - AustralianPlays.org Literary Manager
Both the playwrights I have chosen this month wrote these plays quite some time ago. Neil Cole is a Melbourne identity as both a playwright and (perhaps more widely) as a politician, and his beautiful play, Alive at Williamstown Pier is a poetic account of his real-life experience of being diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder whilst dealing with the maelstrom of a public life in politics . A Toast to Melba is a love letter from one Melbourne ratbag artist – Jack Hibberd – to another, more than a generation earlier, Dame Nellie Melba.
Dame Nellie Melba has the singular distinction – amongst many others – of being the first truly internationally famous Australian artist. She was the operatic Cate Blanchett of her day, an Aussie girl (with famously Aussie manners) who conquered the opera houses of Europe at the peak of opera as a form. She was Europe’s prima donna while the great Italian verismo composer Puccini was writing his great masterpieces, one of which (La Boheme) became a staple of her repertoire. She commanded Covent Garden for over a quarter of a century and she sent the great poets, playwrights, composers and novelists of the fin de siècle period into fits of ecstatic fever. It was Jack Hibberd, in 1975, who saw her as the perfect vehicle for an Australian play and the result is a colourful and exotic text that celebrates both the fine mastery of her artistry and the flat-out ‘Aussieness’ of her approach to life. This is a text that incorporates music, but doesn’t require an opera singer to play the role of Melba, and it is jam-packed with wonderful and juicy roles for all of the actors. Here is Hibberd at his best – free-wheeling, iconoclastic, joyfully irreverent and yet, somehow, strangely humble at the feet of this most intriguing star who, for many Europeans, defined the parameters of what it means to be Australian.
Neil Cole was for many years a politician in the Victorian State Labor Party. He began his professional life as a lawyer and moved into politics fairly early on. He was part of Joan Kirner’s shadow cabinet, as Shadow Minister for Consumer Affairs and Shadow Attorney-General. Following some early mental breakdowns, Cole was diagnosed with Manic-Depressive Disorder in 1993, which was made public in 1995. After standing down as a result and seeking treatment, he was re-elected in 1996. Alive at Williamstown Pier is an astonishing and gentle account of this period, including the treatment. It is a gentle, whimsical and funny look at a world that we get too little of in our theatrical climate. Cole is a brilliant and gentle playwright and the generosity that flows out of this remarkable play (which one the Griffin Award for New Australian Playwriting in 1999) is moving and illuminating. This is full of terrific roles for actors and is a delightful, sweet and intensely moving journey for the audience.
Tom Healey, Literary Manager