‘It’s awkward, it’s rough, it’s messy, it’s hit-and-miss; but there are glints of something really great here’: Robert Reid on Po Po Mo Co’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll at Midsumma
It probably goes without saying, but this is not your average production of Ray Lawler’s Australian classic, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll. Po Po Mo Co (and Friends) present a kind of cabaret dissection of the play, each act being given to different performers to interpret.
Unavoidably, some of these are more successful than others. It makes the experience patchy, although it makes for a very fully packed hour.
Before the show, on a sweltering 43 degree day, the audience gathers outside Hares and Hyenas Bookshop waiting to be let in. I sit and talk with – well, am talked at by – a total stranger who (to my untrained eye) is presenting the disconnected thought patters of schizophrenia. They have been talking to other audience members outside the venue too, I noticed when I arrived, and so I wonder if this is an actor.
They approach me to ask me if I know Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker. I do, as it happens, though it’s been a long time since I’ve read it. This provokes what promises to be an interesting conversation with a stranger as they talk rapidly about the invented language in the book.
I don’t have the best hearing, so I don’t quite catch it all . Before I can apologise and ask her to repeat, she springboards into a diatribe about the names of local streets and how unknown assailants are trying to poison her with arsenic in her clothes. I ask if she’s seeing the show – we’re starting to go in and I don’t want to be rude and just abandon her mid-sentence. She asks what the show is and I tell her. She knows it. This precipitates a new string of thoughts about how inter-connected the Australian theatre community is, The Club, David Williamson, Barry and Miranda Otto. I catch only a little of it before I have to interrupt and say goodbye.
It’s a weirdly appropriate precursor to the show…
Lawler’s play, for anyone who doesn’t know, has for decades been considered the only canonical Australian play. Presented by John Sumner’s Melbourne Theatre Company (then the Union Theatre Repertory Company) at the beginning of a new generation of Australian dramatists in 1953, it’s thought of as a watershed moment in Australian theatre history, although there was at least a hundred years of Australian theatre, including Australian playwriting, that had come before.
‘It’s been a source of a lot of academic and critical interpretation which first lauded the play as a depiction of Australian identity, masculinity and mateship and later criticised it for the same thing.‘
It tells the story of the end of the nearly 20 year-long on again/off again relationship between Roo and Olive. There’s a full-ish recounting of the history and impact of The Doll in our video series, but it’s worth noting that it’s been a source of a lot of academic and critical interpretation (much of it biased by its era), which first lauded the play as a depiction of Australian identity, masculinity and mateship and later criticised it for the same thing. It’s one of those plays that most of the time (with the exception of Anthill’s modernist staging in 1983) is performed reverently, preserved intact like a relic of a bygone age.
Reverent PO PO MO CO’s adaption is not. Perhaps it’s an intervention more than an adaptation. Or a fancy dress party where everyone comes dressed as The Doll or their favourite Australian neurosis. It’s structured like a comedy review or a vaudeville variety evening, only without the Master of Ceremonies, as a series of monologues, songs and sketches, each based on an act of The Doll. Not all of them are very connected.
Artistic Director Kimberley Twiner welcomes us on behalf of the company and gives an Acknowledgement of Country which rambles into an introduction of the project – “a lovingly butchered version of…” Here she gestures for the audience to call out the show’s title. We call back its name. “By?” she asks. The crowd intones PO PO MO CO. Not Ray Lawler, I notice, but most of this crowd is here for the company, not the playwright. Twiner has to go back to this question a second time to get a lone voice calling out “Ray Lawler” (and it wasn’t even me). She talks briefly about the play and makes the point that “it’s not easy to be any kind of Australian these days”. That much is certain.
Act 1, Scene 1 (in which Roo and Barney return to Melbourne from the cane fields of Queensland) is presented by Freya Pragt and Kerith Manderson-Galvin. Between long pauses they make staccato conversation while Manderson-Galvin deflates and reinflates a plastic blow-up jumping castle.(I think. It’s hard to see really, if you’re not in the first few rows, as there’s no rake.) They address the “Australian Dream” of home ownership, the nuclear family, a white Australia: things that The Doll for so long represented to critics, despite the text itself – for its day – being fairly critical of these things (especially if we take into account the two prequels, Kid Stakes and Other Times).
The conversation is sparse and emotionally uninflected, a stereotypical Australian stoicism. Pragt introduces herself as living next door (I guess she’s Bubba, the next door neighbour, then?) and Manderson-Galvin describes the flat, its decor and the wildness of the garden. I think it’s a tense scene. The audience disagrees. The long pauses broken by the curt, sometimes monosyllabic, statements, get laughs. Either I’m missing something or the audience, prepped to see something funny and parodic, takes the unexpectedly short answers that follow the weighty pauses as cues for laughter. It’s the discrepancy between the lengthy pauses and the constrained text that, to me, gives it gravitas. To be fair, the insanely high pitched scream of the fan blowing the jumping castle back up, and the repetitive poppy soundtrack that plays under for the whole thing, maybe undercuts that. They only amplified the tension to me. Maybe people were laughing to try and break that tension.
ACT 1 Scene 2, (in which they all try to pretend things haven’t changed since Nancy left to get married) is a solo by trans performer Nikki Vivica. Dressed entirely in pink with a 1950s starlet look, Vivica tells us about her childhood desire for a doll, despite only ever receiving model kits, cars and planes from parents who struggled to understand her as a trans child, so she never got the childhood she wanted and deserved.
It starts out with fairly common tacky Australian culture stuff, celebrating and lionising the Gold Cost as the height of Australian glamour, and seems only very loosely associated with the play. But the longer she talks, the closer it gets to the truth of both her truncated childhood and the endless childhood Olive retreats into in the play.
‘The Kewpie-spilling kewpie doll is joined onstage by three women with wild hair, smeared makeup and white silken slips. Post Coital Furies? Dishevelled Harpies? They crow and cat call and screech like the repressed id of the play, the sublimated sexualities of the 1950s.‘
If you can hold something in your hand, Vivica tells us, you can’t be told it’s imaginary. If you dream of something long enough it can’t be take away from you, no matter how many times you’re told it’s unreal. The situations are different, but Olive and Vivica have both been denied their realities by the social constraints of their worlds. The tragic childhood Vivica describes reflects Olive’s own tragic ending.
Act 2 Scene 1 (in which they stay home from the Morris’s New Year’s Eve party for fear of running into Nancy) is a sing-a-long of sorts with Christian Gillet and Teddy Dunn. Dunn as Roo sets the scene, but there’s nothing of the tension that is growing between everyone in the flat. This act is a slow grind through an awkward party where none of them are getting on and the cracks in their relationships are beginning to show the strain of being kept in suspended animation for nearly 20 years.
Dunn and Gillett skip over all of this and go straight to the final moments of the act in which Roo demands that Emma, Olive’s long-suffering mother, come out and play piano. Gillett enters as Emma and, after some catty (but not very funny) banter, together lead the audience in a rendition of Natalie Imbruglia’s 1997 one hit wonder, Torn. After this, the pretence at connection to the text is largely dropped as “Emma” becomes a kind of Cher parody, in black knickers and leather jacket, belting out a full throated version of I Found Someone. It certainly got the crowd on-side, with much dancing and wooting from the audience, but I think it short-changes the play and does a disservice to Emma, who has been regularly depicted in most productions as a shrewish old woman, rather than the tower of strength and heartbreak that she really is (although, again, maybe you need to be familiar with the prequels to really see that side of her.)
Act 2 Scene 2 (in which Roo’s rival, Dowd, appears and Barney and Roo come to blows) is given over to The Botticelli Angels (Adeline Esther, Angela Fouhy, Holly Hudson and Caito Zacharias). Here, the kewpie doll itself makes an appearance as a character, talking baby talk and dripping Kewpie brand mayonnaise (the kind you‘ll find in nearly every sushi shop) onto the front row, demanding they eat it. It’s not the subtlest image, and I wonder if it’s meant to mean anything more than the name association. There are associations with cum, I suppose, which speaks to the underlying homo-eroticism of Australian mateship, and also mother’s milk – the bottle reappears in the final act as Roo suckles from it in his turmoil, suggesting a return to infancy – but at this moment it feels more like a lucky happenstance rather than a deep deliberate connection.
It feels like an undergraduate grasp of the text, but the audience respond to it readily. It’s a very easy-to-please audience, I think. They laugh loudly at immature innuendo and banal jokes. Maybe that’s the aesthetic they’re here for. The couple behind me, who I suspect were on a date from the way they were sitting on top of each other and making out by the end of the show, loudly chuckle throughout… I wonder how they hear the jokes, they’re so busy demonstrating their own amusement.
The Kewpie-spilling kewpie doll is joined onstage by three women with wild hair, smeared makeup and white silken slips. Post Coital Furies? Dishevelled Harpies? They crow and cat call and screech like the repressed id of the play, the sublimated sexualities of the 1950s. The baby talking kewpie doll, an uncomfortable symbol for innocence and at the same time of Baby Doll fetishism, is disturbed by the cat calls of the other three. “Can’t fuck it,” they cry at the Doll (who confusingly refers to herself as Bubba, though Bubba is 18 by now, according to the play, and isn’t really involved in this act). There’s not a clear conclusion here, either. This act seems to just sort of stop as the three make their way off stage, leaving the kewpie doll stranded, waiting for a black out.
Before the final act there is a solo by drag diva and stand up, Charity Werk. She emerges in a stunning sparkly green dress to a soundscape that includes selected samples from the 1959 film of The Doll. Werk uses text from Olive’s monologues towards the end, and weaves them through an original song that captures the brokenness of Olive in devastatingly understated detail.
Without doubt, Werk’s solo is the best and truest moment of the play. No need for parody, no need for contrivance: just the simple painful expression through song of the terrible yearning emptiness at the heart of Olive and the play itself. For all the years of talk that tries to pigeonhole the play into pre-existing notions of Masculinity, Patriarchy or Colonialism, The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is ultimately what is a portrayal of the simultaneous denial of and surrender to desire, identity and the self. Werk’s still, clear and measured performance and sensitive, thoughtful song capture this perfectly. It might have been the only few moments in the hour that someone in the audience wasn’t snorting, chuckling or chatting.
‘Werk uses text from the play, from Olive’s monologues towards the end, and weaves them through an original song that captures the brokenness of Olive in devastatingly understated detail. Without doubt Werk’s solo is the best and truest moment of the play.‘
Finally PO PO MO CO present their take own on the play, a lengthy (by comparison) performance of the final act. Act 3 Scene 1 (in which Olive and Roo break up and Roo leaves, a broken man, with Barney at his side) is performed by Hallie Goodman as Roo, Rebecca Church as Barney, Kimberley Twiner as Emma and Bubba and Lily Fish as Olive. Neither parody or satire, it’s more of a pantomime performance with soap opera-style overacting and melodramatic hand gestures.
As has been repeatedly demonstrated, the original play can be viewed as a pantomime of masculinity. But this is a distortion of the actual text by years of interpretation by reviewers and academics who want it to represent the marker point for the beginning of a new kind of Australian drama, rather than what it actually is, the culmination of all the Australian drama that had come before it.
The company’s interpretation is, I guess superficially funny, but it does rather rob the play, and especially Olive, of the dignity and strength it does possess. This is a shame, because there’s really a lot already in the original text that is queer. Obviously, there’s the homoerotic nature of the mateship of Australian “hard men”, which PO PO MO CO zero in on, with Barney and Roo almost kissing during high stress moments; but there are also Bubba’s “Aunts” ,who never make an appearance on stage in the original or this version, but live a secluded existence that is viewed with suspicion by Emma.
After the variety of interpretations we’ve been raced through over the hour, this just feels too easy, too cursory, seeming to make a grotesquery of the most obvious details of the script. Maybe this is stylistic and it certainly pays off with the audience, but short changes us on a deeper engagement with the text and its themes.
‘If you don’t know the play you certainly won’t find it here, and it’s no surprise that the best, most touching moments come from a close connection to, or direct use of, the Lawler text.‘
This is Olive’s moment. In her devastation and loss, she still finds the courage to refuse Roo’s (far too late) offer of marriage, and even picks herself up and goes off to work. Olive chooses herself in the end which, like Hedda Gabler – whom she’s so often compared to – this is the real, hard-earned triumph of the play. I feel that there’s a slightly sneering quality to PO PO MO CO’s interpretation: Olive is reduced to an over-the-top drama queen, Roo and Barney to goofy caricatures of men and Emma to a crusty old lady in a dressing gown who doesn’t know the difference between being married and being dead. It also goes on much longer than the other pieces, which perhaps allows time to expect and demand more of it.
I had a lot to say about this one, hey? Did I like it? I’m not sure. I liked a lot of it, some of it very much. PO PO MO CO and Friends production is a queering of an (the) Australian classic, certainly, and it shatters the text into lots of different and interesting queer facets – some more successfully than others. If you don’t know the play you certainly won’t find it here, and it’s no surprise that the best, most touching moments come from a close connection to, or direct use of, the Lawler text.
The whole evening reminds me of the post-2000s SpArt Nights that performance artist Dario Vacirca organised at the little Gold Street Warehouse: ad hoc collections of fringey experimental performance in a casual atmosphere. It’s awkward, it’s rough, it’s messy, it’s hit-and-miss; but there are glints of something really great here.
A short note for the sake of accuracy: although the program thanks Lawler, they credit him as HRH Sir Ray Lawler. For the record, he was given an OBE in 1980, but I’m not sure he’s ever been knighted…. though, if it comes to that, he’s still around so I suppose there’s still time.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, by Ray Lawler. Performed by Kerith Manderson-Galvin, Freya Pragt, Nikki Vivica, Christian Gillett, Teddy Dunn, Adeline Esther, Angela Fouhy, Holly Hudson, Caito Zacharias, Charity Werk, Rebecca Church, Lily Fish, Hallie Goodman and Kimberly Twiner. Presented at Hares and Hyenas as part of Midsumma on January 31 and February 1. Closed.