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Interview with John McCallum


My first theatre experience was... probably Wirth’s Circus in the local park, in the days when circuses still toured the suburbs of Sydney. The first moment of theatrical epiphany that I remember was, at the risk of sounding like a nerd, a production of Othello at the Old Tote Theatre when it was still in an old converted tin shed on the campus of UNSW. I was 13. I staggered out astonished and devastated that he’d actually got to the point of killing her! I still remember the staging of that scene.

Not the first but the most memorable experience of trying to do it myself was at the Independent Theatre in North Sydney. I was pushed out of bed by Jacki Weaver. I was playing John Darling, she was playing Peter Pan. Peter Pan wanted us all to fly. We didn’t.

If I was a character in a play I’d be... very alarmed. In the other sense of the question, I do, with good plays, identify with all the characters. That is the point of great drama – being torn.

I love theatre because... the actors turn up in person. I love being in the same room with them.

I hate theatre when... it is dishonest. That is perhaps an odd word to use about a medium based on pretending. But sometimes you sit there thinking ‘they’re not doing this for us.’

Playwrights who inspire me? I’ve written about many of them in the book. If I had to pick Australian ones I’d say Patrick White, Dorothy Hewett and Daniel Keene. Also Mona Brand, who worked her arse off for decades and is now more or less forgotten. For me the three greatest playwrights in the Western repertoire are Aeschylus, Shakespeare and Beckett.

The best Australian production I’ve seen was Barrie Kosky’s 2006 The Lost Echo. Or maybe Neil Armfield’s 1994 Hamlet, with Richard Roxburgh, and Geoffrey Rush as an extraordinary Horatio. Or maybe Armfield’s 1982 Nimrod production of Sewell’s Welcome the Bright World, which left me drained but exhilarated. Or maybe the Stasis Group’s 1977 The Young Peer Gynt, with Sue Ingleton, Robert Meldrum and Ros de Winter. Or maybe John Bell’s 1973 A Hard God, with Gloria Dawn as Aggie. (I can still see her and hear her voice: ‘Don’t let me ever catch you crying like that again. A big boy like you!’). Or maybe Rex Cramphorne’s legendary Tempest in 1972. Or maybe that old 1965 Othello, which I’ve since been told was generally thought to be terrible. A production can be burned into your memory for all sorts of personal and social reasons.

My favourite Australian plays are... all in the book.

Heroes or villains - Whose side are you on? In the theatre you don’t have to decide. In melodrama who doesn’t love the villain? And who doesn’t want the hero to win? As Patrick White said, ‘I’m for magic.’

My last big laugh was... at Ben Goldacre’s comment – in his wonderfully funny book Bad Science - about the chemicals in expensive cosmetic creams that you vainly hope might get through your skin into your body: ‘When you sit in a bath of baked beans for charity you do not get fat, nor do you start farting.’

My last big whinge was... about bad science.

The role of theatre in 21st century Australia is... to keep allowing the actors to turn up. To continue tell individual stories in their social and political contexts. To be exciting, in the moment etc. But also to incorporate the new cultures of new media. I long to go to a show where they don’t ask you to turn off your phone. I want to be rung up from the stage. And I want to call them back.

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