31 Jul 2017

  

 

  

Debra Oswald is one of Australia’s most popular and most successful writers. As the playwright of Gary’s House, Dags, Peach Season and of course the exquisite Sweet Road she has captured the hearts and minds of theatre-goers for the last thirty years. As a television writer, most recently as head-writer and co-creator of the award-winning series Offspring her words and her amazing, vivid and unforgettable characters have crept into our houses, lingered around our dining tables and drifted in and out of our dreams.

 

Tom Healey in conversation with Debra Oswald

It feels strange – perhaps almost creepy – to write about a playwright’s work in those terms, but this is Oswald’s gift. Her work gets into you somehow (or at least it certainly does me, and many of my colleagues). ‘What is it?’ we ask… ‘How does she do that? – Get inside you like that?’

 

I think it’s probably fair to describe Oswald as, above everything else, a humanist. All of her plays, screen-plays and novels are focused through the lens of character, rather than epic political and social themes, although the beautiful and lyrical worlds she creates are very articulate about living in Australia here and now. Whenever I am asked about writers who I would say express a sense of ‘Australianness’ (an awkward question), Oswald is at the top of my list because she has a knack of creating in a single word, phrase or image a sense of recognition. Her writing expresses the larger social condition by pinpointing the individuals who lie at the heart of it, whose dilemmas, dreams and ambitions seem to be somehow emblematic of what it is we collectively desire, fear or dream of in this country, this land that we are still trying to work out how to share.

       

Her writing expresses the larger social condition by pinpointing the individuals who lie at the heart of it, whose dilemmas, dreams and ambitions seem to be somehow emblematic of what it is we collectively desire, fear or dream of in this country

Where Oswald really comes into her own in this regard is her extraordinary knack for conjuring the everyday awkwardness and hilarity in our attempts to connect. The high-urban cool of, for example, Sewell’s character Rose Draper from The Blind Giant is Dancing is nowhere to be found in Oswald’s oeuvre. Here are mechanics, farmers, teachers, kids, service workers, retirees – people from all walks of life, but Oswald’s concern is not what they do with their lives, rather how they are living. Are they happy, fulfilled, in love, desperate, ecstatic?? Oswald’s worlds are worlds of feeling rather than thinking, of sensing rather than analysing, getting on with it rather than strategizing.

 

Nowhere is this more apparent than in her writing about the workings of love and sexual attraction. She loves to write scenes and encounters that are in one breath horrifically awkward and piss-funny – those moments we’ve all experienced in our lives, which we hope no one will ever witness (or retell…) The great generosity in Oswald’s writing is that, in revealing these moments she empowers us by saying ‘don’t worry, it’s not just you…’

 

For Oswald, this exposes our sense of being human in a "very essential way". 

"It says a lot about our desperate need to be taken seriously and loved," she says. "I worry sometimes that there is this idea out there that if something has joy in it or playfulness in it that it somehow reduces the thoughtfulness or intelligence of it, and I don't believe that is true. If possible as writers we should use as broad an emotional palette as possible."

 

In some ways, Sweet Road is a deceptive text in the sense that it seems incredibly simple. At first sight, it’s a road movie on stage, a group of characters who, for various reasons, are thrown onto the outback highways of this enormous country and whose stories sometimes connect and overlap. Its construction is wide-open and very simple – a chunk here, a chunk there. But on a closer reading, Oswald’s sophistication starts to reveal itself. Despite the apparent random quality of them all on the road, they form a disparate community. We are invited as an audience to combine them into a whole, a representation of our world – the old, the very young, the lost, the hard-up, the misbegotten and the dispossessed. It’s subtle and under-stated but this is the secret to the heart of this play. Somehow, the combination of experiences in this play and the harsh environment in which it is set says something profound about our connection to this country, and to the strange fear that post-colonial Australia has of its heart.

       

Somehow, the combination of experiences in this play and the harsh environment in which it is set says something profound about our connection to this country, and to the strange fear that post colonial Australia has of its heart.

It is also stylistically very adventurous. One moment, we feel as an audience that we are being addressed directly, the next we are in a fourth-wall scene. There are characters that never appear, that are conjured invisibly in front of us, and everywhere there is the extreme of the environment – heat, dazzling light, desert darkness, drought and flood.

 

And amongst these extremes, a bunch of people who are mostly lost within themselves (or at least deeply disoriented) who need to find, in a symbolic sense, a compass to guide themselves to safety. 

 

I will never forget my first reading of this play. It seemed to me to have a physical power within it. A tangible sense of the vastness of this continent and the nagging fear that I have - as a post-colonial, urban white guy - that it could destroy me. There is great hope within this play, a marvelous and redemptive sense of humour and optimism, but for me, most critically, a deep reflection on the power of all of us to seek – and hopefully find - survival, safety and a true sense of home.

 

  

Tom Healey,
Literary Manager

 

  

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