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Interview with Tom Holloway

Tom Holloway is a Tasmanian playwright. His previous plays have been seen across the country, including Love Me Tender, And No More Shall We Part, Red Sky Morning,  Beyond The Neck, Snapshot, Revelator, The Bus and Stones In My Passway.

He says his play Don’t Say the Words was inspired by Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, and so w e asked Tom what interested him about the ancient Greek story, how it translates for modern day Australia, and how love and hate can be closely related.

You have said that Don’t Say the Words was inspired by Aeschylus’ Agamemnon – when did you first read the story and when did you decide to base a modern play on it?

I first read The Oresteia when I was at university in Tasmania. I must point out though that I didn’t exactly do well at university. No I certainly wouldn’t say I did very well. Hmm. I spent most of my time falling asleep actually. Well, not quite, but close. Snoozing at least. Definitely snoozing. Too many nights spent thinking I was the world’s best actor on the stages of Hobart. And in the pubs too I must admit.

The first scene of this play actually began as a short play I wrote. When I saw the play performed I felt there was more to it and that’s when I went back, found Agamemnon and decided to use it as a basis for further exploring the characters. It was the actions and motivations of the original that interested me. Not the words. Some of those words are too long for me.

In three sentences: What happens in the original story of Agamemnon?

Agamemnon arrives home with a mistress. He has a bath. His wife kills him so she can be with her ‘mantress’. Oh, and because Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter. That’s four sentences. Sorry.

For those who don’t know the play, how far have you deviated from the original? And what would you say have been your other sources of inspiration and influence?

This is not an adaptation of the original. It’s just inspired by it. Like I said, mainly by the actions and the motivations of the original. There’s a phrase that has been used to describe the emotional state of the original, ‘hate in love’. That sums it up for me.

Other influences were the work of Pinter and Crimp. Although that is there with everything I write. I can name half a dozen other contemporary writers too. Also, the ideas, often false, of contemporary Australian man, plus the music used in the play. In terms of inspiration, I’d also have to say a desire to share the experience of theatre. The ‘liveness’ of it. What it can do to your gut as well as your head. Sorry to use ‘liveness’. I know it isn’t really a word. But liveliness isn’t what I mean.

You’ve said that Don’t Say the Words is a play about love. Yet the characters commit acts of sheer brutality against each other. How is love connected to violence?

This goes to that phrase ‘hate in love’. How do we react when the people we love the most hurt us the most? What do we do with those feelings? Betrayal, anger, passion, love, hatred, understanding, desire, compassion… all at the same time. That is what love is. It’s everything. It’s something I think you experience everything else through and so sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes it can be very bad, no matter how strong the love is. In fact the stronger the love, the larger the scope of what you experience through it.

What is driving C into murdering her husband? And what is the relationship between the two men in C’s life?

I know what drives C for me. I know how I think she feels about the two men. But theatre doesn’t work by me telling what it is. That’s up to the audience. Whatever they think it is, that’s it. Their view is equally as valid as mine. For me I think C is desperate for love and understanding, but someone watching might not agree. That’s what can be so wonderful about theatre.

There is often a sense of an ominous silence in the play. How important is what is not said, or not known or understood, to the audience’s reaction of the play, do you think?

The play is called Don’t Say The Words so what is or isn’t said is very important. But that’s how we act with each other. Half sentences, silences, jumbled words, repetitions. This is how humans communicate. Some times what we don’t say, what we hold back, speaks immense volumes about the truth of something. In the script people will see that silences are attributed to a character. I have not written ‘pause’. Silences are more active than the word ‘pause’. It is, as I just said, someone choosing not to say something. It belongs to that character. This is something I learnt from reading the plays of Suzan-Lori Parks. I love it so I stole it and use it myself.

The layout of the published play is unusual. How important is the look of the play on the page to your vision of the play as performed?

The layout is incredibly important. I don’t think plays should be seen as literature. They are not written for a direct relationship between an author and an audience. They are more like a musical score that is written for musicians to interpret and share with a larger audience. This is what makes theatre so wonderful. So communal. What is on the page is what I am sharing with a director, designers and actors in order to share my vision of the work. All the playwright has is the words on the page. All they get to do is decide what words are on the page and how they are put on. These are both very important.

The season at Griffin Theatre has just started – what has the audience reaction been like so far?

The audiences’ reaction has been wonderful. Sometimes heated. One woman came down the stairs, not knowing I was the playwright and asked my friend and I what we thought. My friend said he liked he. She looked shocked and said ‘were we just in the same theatre?!’ and stormed off. She never got round to asking me what I thought. What a shame.

In saying that the vast majority of responses have been incredibly positive and fantastically engaged. A number of times I was there, I got swamped with people who knew I was the writer wanting to ask me if what they thought had happened, had in fact happened. As I said earlier, that’s entirely up to them but what was very encouraging is that it was almost always what I thought too.

Other people have stayed sitting in the theatre with their companions, either silent or talking incessantly, absorbing what they have just experienced. Whether they have enjoyed it or not, that is the ultimate response I could hope for. They have been engaged. They have experienced ‘something’ and they want, they really want to sit with it. That is wonderful.

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